Field Trip to Buenos Aires, Part 2

As soon as I confirmed that I was traveling to Buenos Aires, I emailed my friend Deby to see if she was available to get together. As it turned out, Deby was also celebrating her birthday last weekend, and she invited me to take part in the festivities.

I got to know Deby through her blog, which chronicles her life in Buenos Aires. Since Deby is a tanguera (tango dancer), many of her posts focus on the tango social scene in the milongas (tango dance halls), which I find fascinating since I'm completely unfamiliar with the world of tango. She is spunky and vivacious, and her personality really comes through in her writing.

When I arrived on Friday, I gave Deby a buzz and we got together for lunch. During the course of our conversation, I mentioned that I would like to go to Barrio Chino (Chinatown), and Deby kindly offered to accompany me there.

She led me to a store called Casa China, filled to the brim with spices, sauces, noodles, teas and various imported products like Dijon mustard, Heinz ketchup, and peanut butter that are difficult to find elsewhere. Though the place was heavenly, I somehow managed to keep my spending in check. I bought a few spices, soy sauce, and brown sugar, and I left Barrio Chino with a smile on my face.

On Saturday night, Deby invited me to have dinner with her and a few other friends at a Korean restaurant. I had not eaten Asian food in months, so I was very excited at the prospect of going to this restaurant.

Deby, her friend Deirdre, and I shared a cab to the restaurant, and the three of us were thoroughly entertained by our conversation with the taxi driver. He couldn't wrap his head around the fact that we were looking forward to eating at a Korean restaurant, where surely the main course would be a dish of dog or cat. He went on and on about Koreans and their cuisine for the entire cab ride, culminating his rant with the following statement: "There are only two things I fear in this world: gays and Koreans." At this point, Deby, Deirdre and I were roaring with laughter, but this guy was dead serious.

We hopped out of the cab, and upon entering the restaurant we found three more of Deby's friends waiting for us. I was pleasantly surprised to find Fred there, another American that I have gotten to know through my blog.

I had a great time trading stories with everyone, and the food—a fusion of Japanese and Korean—was fresh and delicious. All I can say is, if I ate cat at that restaurant, it was the best damn cat I ever ate.

Deby's Birthday Dinner by katiemetz, on Flickr

The next evening was Deby's birthday party at her apartment in Palermo. When I first arrived I did not know anyone there except for Deby, but I easily struck up conversation with the other guests, many of whom know Deby through tango. I was introduced to two Australian women, Sharon and Rosa, and they invited me to go to a milonga after Deby's party (more about that in my next post!).

Later in the evening, I did get a chance to meet Sammy, a chef, website designer, and writer who I'd come to know through his very helpful website called Good Morning Buenos Aires. I also got to know Gina, whose reputation as an amazing baker of all things yummy preceded her. The chocolate cake she brought with her was divine.

A huge thank you to Deby for showing me such a good time! I'll leave you all with a few photos from the party.

Alicia and Katie by katiemetz, on Flickr[Alicia and me on Deby's balcony]

The Birthday Girl by katiemetz, on Flickr[The birthday girl]

A Foggy Night in Buenos Aires | Una Noche de Niebla en Buenos Aires by katiemetz, on Flickr[The view from the balcony of Deby's apartment. I love the fog!]

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Field Trip to Buenos Aires, Part 1

Since Americans in these parts are few and far between, I have been cultivating friendships online, mostly with expats living in the capital. This past weekend I finally made good on my promise to head up to Buenos Aires to meet with some of the people I have come to know through blogging and Facebook. 

My friend Beatrice not only invited me to Buenos Aires to celebrate her birthday, but she also offered me a place to stay for the entire four-day weekend! 

The birthday party was hosted in a beautiful apartment in the barrio of San Telmo, and I had an excellent time meeting new people, chatting, and of course, enjoying all of the delicious food. I even got to meet Frank, another online acquaintance who runs his own bakery in Buenos Aires. I tasted some of his cookies, and now I know why is business is so successful!

Beatrice wrote all about the party here on her personal blog, and she posted party pics here. [By the way, she also has an informative blog about the Trees of Buenos Aires with lovely photos!]

Beatrice and her husband Kragen had also been invited to a going-away party for another Buenos Aires blogger, Layne, and I got to tag along. Layne writes an excellent food blog called Go Where the Taxista Takes You. She's moving from Buenos Aires to New York City to continue her taxi/culinary adventures there, but I'm glad I had an opportunity to meet her.

Since Beatrice and I share an interest in photography, we capped off my stay in Buenos Aires with a photo safari. Despite the clouds and a bit of rain, I did capture some nice shots.

[Please click here if you can't view the slideshow.]

Beatrice and Kragen were great hosts, and I can't thank them enough for their hospitality. I look forward to seeing them again the next time I'm in town. 

My weekend in Buenos Aires was jam-packed – stay tuned for my adventures with Deby and tales from my very first milonga!

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I Swear I Didn't Smile This Time

I was completely minding my own business this afternoon while standing in line at the Dirección de Migraciones in Mar del Plata to renew my visa.  No eye contact, no smiles – nuthin'.  In fact, I probably had a rather dour look on my face, as I'd been waiting quite a long time.

The man standing next to me struck up a conversation, which admittedly seemed innocent enough.  There were no phone numbers involved or lame introductions unlike my encounter with "El Capitán."  He genuinely seemed as though he just wanted to make some small talk.

Following the normal line of questioning, he asked me where I am from.  We'll pick up the conversation there.

Me: I'm from Philadelphia.
Colombian guy: Ah…did you have to cross the Golden Gate Bridge to get here?
Me: No, that's in San Francisco on the opposite side of the country.
Colombian guy: Oh, right!  Did you know there are sharks in San Francisco Bay?
Me: No, I hadn't heard that before.
Colombian guy: Well, I spent some time in jail, so I had lots of time to read about places like that.
Me: Oh, I see.

Cue the crickets.

I mean, really, where do you go with the conversation after that!?

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To Smile or Not to Smile…That is the Question

Happy fruit and veg... by Amanda *Bake It Pretty* on Flickr [used under Creative Commons license]

Research shows that a smile is one of those universal facial expressions that is recognized no matter where you go. Though I don't exercise nearly as much as I should, I do like to make sure my facial muscles get a daily workout. In the United States I always smiled at people that I passed on the street; I just considered it a friendly thing to do. Usually (though not always) people would smile back.

When I moved to Argentina, it never occurred to me that my habit of smiling at strangers on the street may not be as well-received as before. In fact, I've found that flashing my pearly whites at a desconocido usually garners one of the following responses:

1) A stone-faced look of indifference
2) That expression that shows the gears are turning as the person wonders, do I know her?
3) Very rarely, a smile (usually from an older woman)

One day I brought up the topic at lunch with Daniel's family. They confirmed that most people here will not smile at you on the street, and if you grin at a stranger, the person will likely think he or she knows you from somewhere. I received an additional warning from Daniel's grandmom: if you smile at a man, he may very well think you are interested in him. I decided that perhaps I should try to kick the habit (easier said than done!), but Daniel's aunt insisted that I stay true to myself and keep on smiling.

On Thursday I boarded an overnight bus bound for Buenos Aires (photos and more stories to come) to spend the long weekend there with friends. As I settled in for the six-hour ride, a soldier dressed in the uniform of the Argentine Army walked down the aisle searching for his seat. I happened to glance up, and of course, I smiled at him (though he didn't return the gesture).

He sat directly behind me, and as I looked out the window I saw a woman standing on the curb waving enthusiastically and blowing kisses in the soldier's direction. We had barely left the station when his cell phone rang, and I overheard a torrent of passionate "I love yous" just before the interior lights of the bus dimmed and I drifted off to sleep.

An hour or so into the trip I was awakened by the jostling of the bus, and I was startled to find that my face was only a few inches from the soldier's. He had not reclined his seat at all, while mine was so far back it was practically a bed (the long-distance buses here are first-rate with seats that go way back). I asked if he was uncomfortable, and I offered to adjust my seatback, but he told me not to worry.

As I curled up with my iPod and attempted to fall back asleep, the soldier reached over the back of my seat and passed me a slip of paper. In my sleep-induced stupor and the near-complete darkness of the bus, I couldn't tell what he had handed me. I cast the light of my iPod on the piece of paper to discover that he had given me his name and phone number.

Then, extending his arm over the back of my seat, he offered me his hand, and in the suavest voice he could muster, he introduced himself: "Soy el capitán." A bit stunned by the whole La Bamba moment (and unsure of whether to laugh in his face or be completely disgusted), I ignored his proffered hand and said matter-of-factly, "Nice to meet you, but I have a boyfriend." Unfazed, the captain pressed on, more or less asking if all was well in the relationship department. Apparently neither the captain's significant other nor my boyfriend was an obstacle for him. I mumbled a response, curled up in my seat, and shut my eyes.

Note to self: No more smiling at soldiers.

[Photo credit: Amanda *Bake It Pretty*]

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Under the Spell of Advertising

Advertising in Times Square, New York, New York

There's no doubt that advertising is a powerful tool used by companies. Legendary ad campaigns for products like Campbell's Soup, M&Ms and Nike have become part of the collective American psyche. While many of the brands I've grown to love are no longer an option now that I'm living in Argentina, I can vouch for the fact that it's no small feat to rid oneself of years of ingrained advertising mumbo jumbo.

Many brand preferences are developed in childhood and passed down from our parents. I'm often drawn to a specific product simply because it's what my mom always bought when I was a kid (if it passed muster with Mom it has to be good, right?). Now I'm acquiring new Argentine brand preferences from Daniel and his family as well as through my own trial and error.

Stores here typically carry two or three brands for most items, such that supermarkets in Necochea are easily half the size of their U.S. counterparts. Not only are there fewer convenience products, prepared foods, etc., but you just don't find the mind-boggling array of brands for each and every item. Of course, this statement does not apply to yerba mate, of which there are approximately one bajillion different types to choose from, even in the smallest corner market.

Brand recognition makes shopping easier in some ways. When the consumer is faced with many choices, having a go-to brand takes a lot of the guesswork out of shopping. Despite the fact that there are fewer options here, it often takes me a long time to make decisions in the store because I wonder if I am choosing the best product. [Although I must say that encounters with Argentine brands such as Barfy (hamburger patties) or Poo (spices) help solidify my choices of what not to buy.]

While American brands are relatively easy to come by for items such as personal care (Colgate toothpaste, Johnson & Johnson face wash, Dove deodorant), for many types of products – particularly food – you simply won't find brands from home and if you do they are often frightfully expensive because of import taxes.

Of course, before the price tag ever hits me, I am seduced by 30 years of advertising floating around in my subconscious. You don't know how I am drawn to the familiarity of American brands! When I spot a well-known American emblem on a package among a sea of unfamiliar products it's like a classroom full of students where most of the kids are staring at the floor hoping they won't be called upon while the class overachiever waves his hand, desperately hoping to be chosen with shouts of "Ooh, ooh, pick me! Pick me!" Even though you know you should give one of the others a chance, it's hard to ignore that one kid that you know has the answer. I have to admit though that price usually wins out in the end. I refuse to pay triple or quadruple the price for Scott toilet paper when other (much cheaper) brands do just fine.

As a final thought, it's my opinion that the majority of Argentine consumers are not as easily influenced by labels and name brands as Americans. This may not hold true in the more stylish and image-conscious capital, but out in the provinces I would say people are not so brand-focused in Argentina. I think above all they are cost-conscious. Perhaps we'd all be wise to adopt that mentality given the current economy.

Photo credit: Stuck in Customs

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Project 365: Happily Clicking Away

Project 365 Mosaic Project 365 Mosaic

It's time for a Project 365 update! If you have no idea what Project 365 is, click here to read all about it. Today marked Day 71 of my personal photographic challenge, and I'm happy to report that things are coming along swimmingly.

The mosaic above contains 70 images. Tack on today's photo of the day, and there you have your 71 photos:

71.365 Red Hot Chili Peppers by katiemetz, on Flickr

Gee, only 294 photos to go…. Well, at least 2009 isn't a leap year.

Visit my Project 365 set on Flickr any time you have a hankering to view my latest photographic triumphs. Enjoy the photos!

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Dulce de Leche: Gone But Not Forgotten

Aduana | Customs by exrorro on Flickr I recently read a funny post by Eileen over at Bearshapedsphere about some contraband garlic that caused a stir at the Argentina-Chile border. This spurred an exchange that led to a call for a group post about seized items. Click here to read about the travelers and their beloved snacks that were so wrongfully parted. Without further ado, I present my contribution to the group post.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Last week I discussed the many virtues of dulce de leche, and you may have gleaned from that post that I have a slight affinity for the sweet goo. In fact, I'd say it's probably one of the yummiest foodstuffs they have here in Argentina. Bearing this in mind, it should come as no surprise that as I neared the end of my first trip to Argentina, I decided I couldn't go back to the U.S. without some dulce de leche.

Dulce de leche is commonly sold in thin plastic containers, and I worried that this type of container wasn't up to the rigors of intercontinental travel. In the days before I was scheduled to return home, I searched several locations for dulce de leche in a glass jar or cardboard tub, but I came up empty-handed every time. 

As I awaited the hour of my departure from Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires, I lamented that my mission to purchase dulce de leche had gone unfulfilled. Realizing that it was now or never, I decided to spring for a severely overpriced jar of dulce de leche from one of the airport shops. As I nestled the jar ever-so-carefully among my socks, it never dawned on me that dulce de leche would be considered a member of the liquid/gel/aerosol category that is a no-no in carry-on luggage…

My hand luggage and I successfully cleared the airport security checkpoint, and I made my way toward the gate. Much to my dismay, there was a second security screening right there at the gate. The gate attendants were wanding passengers and rifling through carefully screening carry-on luggage.

I was instructed to place my suitcase on the table, and the gate attendant unzipped it and began poking around inside, investigating all the nooks and crannies. She unzipped a mesh pocket in my suitcase, and at that moment I felt a deep pang of regret at not having stashed my dulce de leche among my unmentionables (she glanced right over those!). 

She began digging around in the mesh pocket and all I could think was no, not there...not the socks! Having laid a latex glove-covered hand upon something that was obviously not a pair of balled up socks, she extricated the jar of dulce de leche from my suitcase as a smug look of satisfaction crept over her face. She set the jar on a table with an assortment of other confiscated items, and I silently mourned the loss of that little jar filled with creamy, caramel goodness.

Call us conspiracy theorists but Daniel thinks that the officials at Ezeiza have concocted some sort of conveyor belt system that transports the seized items from security right back to the airport shops. Ten people had probably bought that same jar of dulce de leche before me only to have it cruelly taken away. My gut feeling though is that later that night, the gate attendant quietly slipped into some storage closet with nothing more than my jar of dulce de leche and a spoon. Dulce de leche has that effect on people. 

Do you have any interesting customs or airport security stories? Tell me about them in the comments.

[Photo credit: exrorro]

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The Best Part of Waking Up…

…is not Cabrales in your cup. It's seeing this:

The Dawn Is Breaking by katiemetz, on Flickr[Dawn breaking over the coast as the seagulls circle overhead]

Gathering by katiemetz, on Flickr[The sun's first rays illuminating the clouds]

Here Comes the Sun by katiemetz, on Flickr[I got out of bed early...]

Morning Light by katiemetz, on Flickr[...to watch the world awaken from its slumber.]

Cotton Candy Reflections by katiemetz, on Flickr[Cotton candy cloud reflections on the sand]

Amanecer | Sunrise by katiemetz, on Flickr[Please click on the photo to view large.]

Saturday Morning Stillness by katiemetz, on Flickr[I think everyone else is still in bed…]

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16 Tons of Dinosaur Bones from Argentina Arrive in Philadelphia

Plaster-encased Fossils Unearthed in 2006 and 2007

A shipment of dinosaur fossils arrived today in Philadelphia after a three-week journey from Patagonia, Argentina. The bones were unearthed by paleontologists from Drexel University (kudos to my alma mater!) over a five-year period. The remains weigh in at a staggering 16 tons, and they belong to the second heaviest dino ever found.

Read more about the dig in this Drexel University press release.

[Photo credit: Drexel University]

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Recipe File: Dulce de Leche

Dulce de Leche by gillian's indigo blue on Flickr [used with photographer's permission] Just as no self-respecting American household would be without a jar of peanut butter floating around the pantry, you're almost guaranteed to find some dulce de leche stashed in the fridge of a typical Argentine kitchen. Dulce de leche is a thick, rich caramel spread that has a multitude of uses—all of them delicious.

  • Spread it on bread or toast
  • Drizzle it over ice cream
  • Use it as a dip for sliced apples, peaches or other fruit
  • Make dulce de leche brownies [these are incredible!]
  • Fill crepes with it aka panqueques de dulce de leche
  • Use it as a filling for cakes or pastries
  • Just eat it off of a spoon [come on, you know you want to]

Remember: if  food x tastes good with caramel, rest assured that it will taste even better with dulce de leche. You're only limited by your imagination.

In Argentina, few people make dulce de leche from scratch because it's so widely available, but in the U.S. it's much harder to find. Making your own dulce de leche is also a rather time-consuming process. If you're not feeling inspired to spend hours in the kitchen, go ahead and order it online or poke around a gourmet food shop; however, I promise you won't be disappointed with the results should you decide to make it yourself.

This recipe for dulce de leche comes from a lovely blog called La Majuluta. If you enjoy food blogs and you read Spanish, I highly recommend it. Here's the recipe, translated and converted to the English system for your cooking convenience.

Dulce de Leche Casero | Homemade Dulce de Leche

Ingredients

1 half gallon plus 2 1/2 c. [a total of 10 1/2 c.] whole milk
2 1/2 c. sugar
1/2 of a vanilla bean [cut lengthwise to expose the seeds]
a pinch of baking soda

Directions

Combine the milk, sugar and vanilla bean in a saucepan over medium heat. The most traditional and ideal method would be to use a copper pot. Stir the mixture occasionally with a wooden spoon.

Once the milk comes to boil, add the baking soda. Stir frequently.

After about an hour and a half, the mixture will begin to thicken—it reduces considerably and develops an almost cinnamon-brown color. You'll also note a caramelized aroma. Remove the vanilla bean. At this point you really have to pay attention and stir continuously.

When you begin to catch glimpses of the bottom of the pot while stirring, the dulce de leche is almost ready. Test the consistency of the mixture by placing a bit of the dulce de leche on a cold dish [it thickens as it cools]. Remove the pot from the stovetop once the dulce de leche has reached the consistency* you desire and allow it to cool. 

If the dulce de leche will not be consumed immediately, it can be preserved in sterilized jars just like jam. [Yeah, like that's going to happen! You'll be lucky if this stuff hangs around for more than two or three days.]

*Note that a thicker consistency is more desirable if you want to use the dulce de leche as a filling or dip. In this case, the cooking time could be considerably longer than two hours.

*          *          *          *          *

Ok…you're thinking that sounds delicious but I don't want to stand over the stove forever, stirring this stuff until my arm falls off.

Well, there is another way…but there is an element of risk involved. With this method you won't have to slave over the dulce de leche, but that doesn't mean you can leave the house to play tennis or take a nap.

Dulce de Leche (The Alternative Method with Sweetened Condensed Milk)

Ingredients

1 can of sweetened condensed milk

Directions

Remove the label from the can. Submerge the unopened can in a large pot filled with water—the water should completely cover the top of the can by several inches. Allow the water to come to a rolling boil on the stovetop, and then lower the flame a bit to a slow boil anywhere from 2 to 4 hours [the longer you boil it, the thicker and darker the resulting dulce de leche will be]. If need be, add more water during the process to keep the can covered. Allow the can to completely cool before attempting to open it. Open the can, and there you have your dulce de leche!

Warning: Do not let the water boil away or the can could explode. Not only will you have an absolute mess in your kitchen, but you or someone else could be injured. With that said, people have been successfully making dulce de leche with this method for years—you just have to be attentive. 

[Photo credit: gillian's indigo blue]


Are you looking for more Argentine recipes? Click here to browse the entire Recipe File, or try out the new visual recipe index

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