More About Argentina

Food: Argentines know their beef. After about the third or fourth course at the family asado I wrote about last night, Katelin and Kenna were inquiring about an interesting looking piece of meat that was being offered. Nic’s uncle Rodo shrugged his shoulders and said “Un parte de la vaca.” A piece of the cow. What else do you really need to know? The next time the food was passed, we properly noted that it was “una otra parte de la vaca“. It sure tasted good, whatever part it was. In addition to straight up cuts of steak, we also ate many empanadas (little stuffed pastries, usually with flavored beef, although I also really liked the corn ones), morcilla (blood sausage), milanesas (sort of a thin-sliced chicken fried steak), and a delicious pastel de papa (potato pie, with meat and eggs). We also ate out one night at a great Spanish tapas restaurant and a parilla, an Argentine steak house, and a few little neighborhood restaurants, most of them serving traditional Argentine fare. On a non-carne front, deliciously fresh ravioli and ñochi (gnocchi) are common as well, given the strong Italian heritage and tradition in Argentina. Wine is plentiful and affordable, and the native Malbec grapes are used to produce some truly world-class vintages.

Tango: In most of the busier pedestrian shopping districts, at all times of the day, there would be dancers dancing with small bands egging them on with the romantic music that fires the dance. We also went to a formal evening performance at Tango Piazziolla, named after and featuring the works of famed composer Astor Piazziolla. The dance is amazing to watch, both in terms of the body chemistry between the two people spinning in such close, intimate proximity, and in terms of the physics of the performance, the way that legs and arms and body position are used to move between different elements of the dance, giving it an amazingly kinetic flavor. I’m probably a ñoño for noticing that, though. (See below for explanation of that term).

Travel impacts: Other than the physical toll of time in the airplane, jet lag issues are low since there’s only a hour difference time-wise between New York and Buenos Aires (though that may change plus or minus depending on which of us are on daily savings time). No special shots required. We ate and drank whatever we wanted to without worry. The quality of the accommodations and services was, frankly, generally higher than what you typically encounter in urban centers in the United States. The airports in Buenos Aires (both the international Aeropuerto and the domestic Aeroparque) and Mendoza were far more pleasant to spend time in than either O’Hare or Miami International were. While airfare to get to Argentina is pricey, once you get there, it is tremendously affordable right now. We felt comfortable walking the streets late at night in both cities, obviously being aware of our surroundings and taking the same common sense precautions you take any time you’re out late in public.

Cars: Argentines appear to have a nearly supernatural sense of their autos when they drive. I saw people split moving traffic gaps at high speed that I wouldn’t even attempt with both other cars in park and me crawling at 5 mph. Nic described the general approach as “you drive where you fit.” We used cabs a lot in Buenos Aires, and generally had a great time talking to the drivers, although we quickly learned that Americans drive B.A. cabbies crazy because of the way we slam car doors. We made a deliberate attempt to be suave in closing our doors after one driver explained to me that we needed to close our car doors the same way we close refrigerator doors, and that we should treat our cars with the same gentleness that we use on our fifteen-year old girlfriends. Well . . . that’s what he said!

Politics: I’m pretty politically interested and aware, so I at least knew who Argentina’s current and recent Presidents are and were, and have some sense of the nation’s political history, so don’t think I embarrassed myself with any stereotypical American ignorance abroad. Argentines seemed to have a deeper sense of our politics even than that, though, as we were routinely asked in Buenos Aires whether we liked Obama or Clinton (McCain doesn’t seem to be of much interest), and when we mentioned being from New York, were called on the explain Spitzergate. Much laughter then generally ensued. Argentina was (and remains) embroiled in a national farmers’ strike related to export quotas and food prices. The general consensus among the folks we spoke to was that President Kirchner’s administration wasn’t handling the situation at all well. One driver told us that the only thing she had done since taking office was to mess with the clocks, instituting daylight savings time. I didn’t bother to note that our government was fiddling with the same this year.

Language: It’s beautiful to listen to Argentines speak, as they pronounce both the “ll” and “y” sounds as “sh”. So “pollo” (chicken), which is pronounced “poy-o” in most Spanish speaking countries becomes “poesh-o” in Argentina. It gives everything a smoothness and sibilance similar to Portuguese, which I consider to be the most fetching of the Romance Languages. Think about how languorous and smooth and suave bossa nova sounds, then apply that to a conversation. That’s what speaking in Argentina is like.

Best word of the trip: Nic and I were being shushed by Marcia and Allison for being plane nerds at some point during the trip, and I asked him how to say “nerd” in Spanish. The correct answer is: ñoño. The “ñ” is pronounced “ny” in English, so the proper transliteration is “nyo-nyo.” Excellent.

Airplanes: So, for the Plane ñoños, our trip involved two Embraer Regional Jets (Albany to Chicago, Chicago to Albany), two Boeing 767’s (Chicago to Buenos Aires, Santiago de Chile to Miami), two Airbus A320’s (Buenos Aires to Mendoza, Mendoza to Santiago de Chile), and one beat-up old Boeing 757 (Miami to Chicago). I liked the cabin configuration of the LAN A320s better than I liked them the last time I flew on them with a domestic carrier. It was this point that got me shushed.

Stars: And for the Space ñoños, I saw the Southern Cross and Alpha Centauri, among the most prominent objects in the night-time sky in the antipodes. I hadn’t realized you could see Orion that far south, but he was there too.

Again, I can only conclude with a recommendation to visit Argentina if you are looking for something new and different to try. I’ve only seen two cities and relatively small part of the countryside, and I’m smitten, if that’s not already plainly obvious.

Return from Argentina

We’re back home from Argentina. The return trip was a long one: 24 hours from Mendoza to Latham, via Santiago De Chile, Miami, O’Hare and good ol’ Albany International. It was worth every minute that it took to get there and get back. Click here for a quick photo essay of our time there.

As you can see from the photos, Argentina is a beautiful country filled with beautiful people, in every sense of that word. We spent four days in Buenos Aires exploring from our hotel base in the Recoleta neighborhood. Each barrio in Buenos Aires has its own character and special attractions, and the best part of being there is just sort of walking into the neighborhoods and trying to figure out exactly what they are. It is a cosmopolitan city, a world-class center with beautiful architecture and more style and pizzaz than just about any place else we’ve been.

We then spent three days in Mendoza, being hosted by the extraordinarily wonderful family of our friend, Nicolas, a native Mendocino. arg31.jpgThe first night there, we joined about 30 members of his extended family for a traditional Argentine asado, which I guess can only be translated as “barbecue,” although it is a completely different order of magnitude than anything that you would do with hamburgers and hotdogs on your backyard gas grill here in the United States. The cuts, quality and preparation of the meat were unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The asado (grill) itself was a masterpiece of domestic functionality, a tremendous outdoor kitchen area, around which the party congregated and celebrated. Nic was the only truly bilingual person around the table, but it didn’t matter: his family were as generous and warm as anyone could be, and I felt truly blessed to have the chance to break bread with them.

Nic’s grandmother took us into her home for our time in Mendoza, serving us wonderful meal after wonderful meal, and being the most kind and patient hostess imaginable. I very much enjoyed watching the news with her in the morning (being the earliest riser among our traveling party), trying to make sense of the ongoing national farmers’ strike, and the government’s reactions thereto, with me not having quite enough Spanish to get into the deeper concepts behind the strike, nor Abuela having enough English to explain them to me. It didn’t matter. The company did.

Nic’s uncles and cousins went well beyond the call of duty to see that we had the chance to explore the Mendoza province, and we spent a day in wine country visiting the Bodega Salentein, and then took an excursion up into the Andes mountains, which thrilled me, since Aconcagua (highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere) was on my all-time short list of things to see and experience. (That’s it behind us in the photo). Rarely have we been able to pack so much into such a relatively short vacation time, and again, we are so grateful to Nicolas’ family for making that possible.

I hope I have the chance to return to Argentina, since we only saw a relatively small belt of the country, despite our expansive day travels, and I know that there are just as many wonders to be experienced in the North and South of this lovely nation. If you have the chance to go there, take it. If you can go with terrific friends and traveling companions, as we did (thank you, Nicolas, thank you, Allison, thank you, Kenna), then it will make it even better still.

What a trip.

¿Buenos Aires?

Si!

I´m in the Argentine capital as I type, enjoying the first days of autumn, which are a whole lot nicer than the first days of spring in Albany were. I will report more fully on our trip when I return and am not on the clock while online, but suffice to say that Buenos Aires lives up to its reputation as a beautiful, classy and cosmopolitan city. It´s worth the 11 hour red eye flight from Chicago, even if you don´t like flying. No kidding.

Personal One Hit Wonders

Everyone knows about “one hit wonders:” bands who have one great, popular song, and then vanish into cult obscurity as soon as it falls out of the charts. But what about “personal one hit wonders:” groups that may have a ton of popular or well-regarded songs, only one of which appeals to you or me or anyone else as a specific listener?

Some of my examples: I love the song “Ray of Light” by Madonna, but can’t think of another cut by her that I have the faintest, vaguest interest in hearing. I feel the same way about “Little Plastic Castle” by Ani DiFranco, and “Punkrocker” by The Teddybears (with Iggy Pop on vocals). Three great, great songs by artists who don’t interest me at all outside of those three well-played items in my iTunes queue.

Other Personal One Hit Wonders for me:

“SexyBack” by Justin Timberlake

“The Cutter” by Echo and the Bunnymen

“A Horse With No Name” by America

“Yeah!” by Usher

“Song 2” by Blur

“The Body Breaks” by Devendra Banhart

“Hero of the Day” by Metallica

“Ships in the Night” by BeBop Deluxe

“The Perfect Drug” by Nine Inch Nails

I love all of the aforementioned songs to pieces, but don’t much like anything else by the groups in question.

Is this just my own weirdness, or do other people have similarly one-sided, one-song reactions to certain artists?

Gridlock in the Family Jukebox

I wrote a few weeks back about how I was enjoying monitoring the Top 25 Most Played Songs on our collective family iTunes account, since it created mixes that I never would have crafted, ever ever, by combining the things that Marcia, Katelin and I liked and listened to separately, creating something that was somehow better than anything I would ever think to make on my own.

So I fired up our iTunes account tonight and got quite an interesting tidbit: there are 1,672 songs currently loaded, and within that list, there is a 10-way (!) tie for first place among the most played songs. That seems like a statistical aberration of a fairly large order, even if the playlist generation is supposed to be random. So the family’s favorites right now, before I push “play” and potentially crack the gridlock at the top of the list, are as follows:

1 (tie). “The Cutter,” by Echo and the Bunnymen

1 (tie). “We Are the Weeds of the World,” by Gay Tastee

1 (tie). “Dusk,” by Genesis

1 (tie). “Crazy,” by Gnarls Barkley

1 (tie). “Sexy Back,” by Justin Timberlake with Timbaland

1 (tie). “6’1″,” by Liz Phair

1 (tie). “Help Me, Mary,” by Liz Phair

1 (tie). “Goth Girls,” by MC Frontalot

1 (tie). “Killer Queen,” by Queen

1 (tie). “Punkrocker,” by The Teddybears with Iggy Pop

I’ll be interested to see which one of them pops up on the playlist first and emerges as the current family champ. As noted, I never would have put those 10 songs together on a mixtape (or CD), but if I played them here in the Chateau in that order, everyone in the family would be happy. I recommend them all. Go explore.

In the ‘haus

Way back in the early ’80s, before “goth” had become a societal punchline, and when “alternative music” actually meant something, I was a big, big fan of Bauhaus, whose 1979 single, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” was a masterpiece of dubby, ambient vampire rock, the cornerstone upon which countless bands have since built their careers. Back in those days, the stuff Bauhaus did actually felt scary to a lot of folks, what with the disturbing lyrics, portentous vocals, skritchy-skratchy instrumentation and creepy pictures on the singles and album covers. I had a dorm neighbor in college at the time who came in my room one night to sheepishly ask me to turn down my stereo as I cranked their dark and dismal In the Flat Field album. He didn’t have any idea who or what it was, but he knew it bothered him. After he left, I turned the stereo up louder. Because that’s the type of person I was then.

Bauhaus released their last studio album in 1983. They regrouped to play a couple of tours in 1999 and 2006, before deciding to craft one final document, a new studio album, Go Away White, which was released yesterday. I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I played it the first time. Would it sound like Peter Murphy (their singer) fronting Love and Rockets (the other three members of the band, who achieved some crossover success in the ’80s and ’90s)? Would it sound like 1983 Bauhaus gussied up with 21st Century production techniques? Would the songs be as memorable as those they crafted back in the early ’80s? Given how fond of the group I had been, I actually had a little bit of trepidation in my heart as I pushed the “play” button on the new disc for the first time.

Fortunately,  I wasn’t disappointed by what I heard. The album sounds not quite like 1983 Bauhaus, but more like the 1981 version: no acoustic guitars, more riff driven, Peter Murphy singing all the lead vocals with David J and Daniel Ash providing backup. The first half of the album is actually quite strong, with several quickly catchy, muscular songs. The second half slows things down some, making it a bit harder to engage, but I think it’s going to be worth the time it takes to see how these songs develop after repeated spins.

Bauhaus allegedly wrote and recorded this album over two weeks in a studio, having arrived with no material beforehand. If this is so, then it’s a fine example of the ways in which musical chemistry works, because the riffs, words and moods feel well-realized and complete, and certainly like more than Peter Murphy over-dubbing his voice onto some leftover Love and Rockets tracks. I recommend this album, either for old fans or new ones wondering what the fuss was all about. They’re calling it their “new and final album,” so I don’t think there will be any sequels.