[My writing teacher advised me to try to sell this piece to a magazine, but I can’t find the right one, and the freshness is fading. Also, my horrible cold has drained all the energy and creativity out of me, so this is the post for today. I think this is not the way to become a successful freelance writer….]
In the fall of 2012, Loraine and I planned our long weekend to Buenos Aires in December in about the same amount of time it took us to plan our trip to the Willamette Valley: ten minutes. It started out as a mileage run, of course, a trip that each of us needed to maintain our respective statuses with United Airlines. Originally, we were considering flying to an airport in Asia and turning around, but our friends shamed us into a trip that involved fresh air.
As the months went by, Buenos Aires transformed into a lifeline because we each needed a break, and “Buenos Aires” was a talisman that made the stress of work and personal obligations bearable. We were so buried under these obligations that we didn’t actually plan much beyond a thorough wine-tasting. We weren’t worried about it because our hotel had a pool, and sometimes a pool is all you need to come back to life. A friend once said in a moment of drunken clarity, “Water’s life, man. It purifies the soul.”
It turns out that two women can go to Buenos Aires only knowing about twenty words of Spanish between them and still have an excellent time. We tried to get our friend Dave to go with us because he speaks five languages, including Spanish. Here’s why we thought we needed him: (1) all the guidebooks are clear that petty crime is rampant in Buenos Aires; (2) I have a friend who married an Argentine, and she said, “There’s a high probability that you’ll get robbed;” (3) another friend who went there for her honeymoon said, “I preferred Buenos Aires to Mendoza because it’s more urban. It’s gritty and dirty, but I liked it better;” and (4) not many people in Buenos Aires speak English. We thought having a companion who spoke Spanish would offer some protection from the ruffians. Regrettably, he turned us down in favor of date night with his husband at the Andrea Bocelli concert.
We took precautions: we got money out of the ATM during the day, we didn’t go to any of the colorful (i.e., dangerous) neighborhoods, and we took taxis everywhere, ensuring that they were radio taxis (which we were advised to do by every guidebook and every local who spoke English). We stayed at a hotel in the Microcentro, which is more business than residential, and despite our stellar plan of staying on U.S. Central time while in Buenos Aires, we were back at the hotel, sleepy, by 11pm local time each night. None of this would have changed if Dave had been with us, and we discovered that we probably ended up having a better time as a result of not having a translator.
When you don’t have a translator, you’re forced to try to make yourself understood, which means that we worked our twenty words of Spanish hard. We had a great conversation with the taxi driver who took us from Recoleta Cemetery to the Eva Peron Museum. He was chatting with another driver, and we had no idea how to say we needed a taxi. We waited for one to drop off some other tourists, but none of the taxis that arrived were radio taxis. Then an American couple walked up and shouted, “Taxi?” to the other driver, who said yes and drove off with them in the cab. Ingenious. We did the same thing to our driver, who asked where we were going. I said “Museo de Eva Peron,” twice before he understood me. We pulled into traffic, and he corrected me saying, “Al Museo de Eva Peron.” I repeated it and made a self-deprecating, frustrated noise with a smile, which made him laugh.
The route that he took went down a beautiful, wide avenue, and I wish I could remember the name. It was a main thoroughfare, lined with trees and parks and monuments. So I said, “L’avenida es bonita,” – the avenue is pretty.
He said, “Argentina es bonita!”
Loraine and I said, “Si! Si!”
Then he said something else, which we think meant that Argentines are pretty, and we agreed with that too. A few minutes later, I said, “Muchos arbols,” – lots of trees.
He agreed and then added, “Muy verde,” – very green. I repeated what he said, and Loraine and I said, “Si!” again a couple more times.
A little later, I said, “Muchas parcas,” – lots of parks. He agreed and hit us with a long sentence, which we took to mean that we were passing the Japanese Botanical Gardens (we were). As he dropped us at the museum, I said, “Muchas gracias, senor, y perdon por mal espanol,” – thank you very much, mister, and sorry for bad Spanish. Horrible. He said, “No, no – no problema.”
In between the light sightseeing, we maximized consumption of Argentine beef. All the guidebooks and all your friends who have been to Buenos Aires will tell you how cheap and delicious the beef is, but until you get there, you will not be able to process or comprehend either concept. We’re talking a chateaubriand-size piece of filet mignon for $35 (U.S.). They will cut it in half for you to share and cook it to perfection, and even though you are eating what seems like a side of beef twice a day, you will not develop a meat hangover or get tired of it. I don’t know what magic causes that, but I suspect it’s because the beef is grass-fed.
We never paid more than $50 (U.S.) per person for any of our meals, which included some sort of vegetable or side and a bottle of Argentine malbec. I know that this was driven in large part by the exchange rate, but still. The expats will tell you to bring a ton of cash in U.S. dollars because you can get 6.2 pesos to $1 (U.S.) on the street, much better than the government-sanctioned exchange rate of 4.8 pesos that you’ll get from the ATMs. This seems like a great idea leading to even more value for your money, until you realize that to get this deal, you have to patronize a cueva, which is Spanish for “cave.”
People told us that there are cuevas all over Buenos Aires, but they are, as you might imagine, illegal and secret. Gaining entrance to one sounded to us like gaining entrance to a speakeasy. Once you have been inspected on the closed-circuit television, you get buzzed in past the gun-toting guard, who is sometimes a Buenos Aires policeman, earning some extra money. Then you hand over your U.S. dollars to the clerk sitting behind bulletproof glass, and he or she counts out your pesos. Then you hide that pile of cash on your person somewhere and walk out onto the mean streets of Buenos Aires.
The next time we go to Buenos Aires, we will be using the ATMs again, unless we have a Spanish-speaking strongman with us. Twenty words of Spanish don’t seem like enough to get two foreigners out of trouble in a discussion with hooligans or the authorities.
The best conversation we had was with the taxi driver who took us to our wine tasting. Loraine loves wine, so much so that she studied for and passed the Court of Master Sommeliers Level I sommelier exam and the Certified Specialist of Wine exam. Her route out of the corporate rat race is to become a wine consultant. We arranged for a special wine tasting with Nigel Tollerman, who was one of the top sommeliers in Buenos Aires at the time, consulting with luminaries like Francis Ford Coppola.
Despite being a top sommelier, Nigel’s shop, 0800-VINO, ended up being in a less well-kept part of town. The neighborhood wasn’t rough, but the stores looked like they were lower-end, and many of them were closed.
The driver slowed down for what he thought was the address, “Seis ocho cinco,” – six eight five.
I corrected him: “No, nueve,” – nine.
He said, “Ah, nueve, nueve, si,” – ah, nine, nine, yes – and sped up. He tried to drop us off at a bustling coffee shop at a larger intersection several blocks down from where we needed to be.
I said, “No, no – seis nueve cinco.” He responded with a worried look and lots of Spanish, the only word of which I understood was, “Cerrado,” – closed. (Thank you, Sesame Street.)
I said, “Ahora cerrado, pero en diece minutos abierto,” – now closed, but in ten minutes open – and mimed making a telephone call. He seemed doubtful but circled around.
We arrived at the deserted corner at a series of shuttered storefronts. Most did not have names. The one store that did have a name looked like some sort of telephone service store. We thanked the driver, but he still didn’t want to let us out of his taxi. We reassured him in English and broken Spanish (neither of which he understood) and wild gestures (which he may have understood) that we would be ok, paid him, and disembarked. He drove away, watching us in the rearview mirror until we couldn’t see each other anymore. A minute later after hearing the “foreign voices outside,” Nigel Tollerman opened the door and led us in through the half- door of his metal gate.
For someone considered by many to be the best sommelier in Argentina, Nigel was younger than we expected him to be – he’s our age. It was one of the most fun times we’ve had tasting wines, which is saying something considering how much fun we’ve had in Napa, Mendocino, the Willamette Valley, and Tuscany. The three of us tasted eight bottles of wine, and the pours were generous. It was an afternoon tasting, and Loraine and I had each drunk a glass of Torrontes with lunch, which is where I think I went wrong. In Nigel’s cellar, I compounded that mistake by drinking what Loraine drank. Loraine is six feet tall and of Scandinavian descent. I am not.
After tasting all eight wines, Nigel directed us back to the second to try it again. Then this happened:
Nigel: Close your eyes so you can taste it better.
Loraine: Oooohh – that’s really opened up! Even more than with the double aeration.
Charlotte: Yes, it’s lovely, but I can’t swirl with my eyes closed, plus, closing my eyes is giving me the spins.
Loraine: Charlotte. Why do you have the spins???
Charlotte: Look. I keep telling you – I’m not of European descent. I’m of Asian descent. I’m a 5’4” tall woman of Asian descent trying to drink with a –
Nigel: – Viking!
And this is why Loraine is “the Viking.” She attracts nicknames; at Italian cooking school, we call her “Sangiovese” because she always has a glass of red wine in her hand that she only puts down when she has to chop things. She is my favorite friend to travel with of all time, despite the attempts to keep up with her in wine consumption. I’m proud and relieved to report that I didn’t throw up in South America.
I didn’t want to come back home from Argentina. In a Facebook update, I told people to forward my mail there, and in an e-mail to my business partners at the time, I told them I wasn’t returning. I didn’t expect to love it there as much as I did. What we learned from our taxi drivers and many of our waiters and fellow restaurant-goers is that porteños (Buenos Aires natives) can be charmed by an honest attempt at speaking Spanish, a willingness to learn, and big smiles.
We went to Buenos Aires solely as a mileage run, and we picked it because we knew the jet lag would be negligible and because we wanted to drink lots of malbec and eat lots of beef. When we return, it will be for the friendliness and patience of the porteños, for the affordability and the deliciousness of the food and wine, and for the beauty and grit and history of the city.
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