Monday, April 24, 2006

Dos semanas en Argentina

Every trip has it’s memories . . .

Casa Palermo – Finally, we were able to spend time in our house without the pressure of construction, furnishing and marketing. Casa Palermo is finally completed and we were able to relax. We spent countless hours sitting in cafes, talking, people watching and sipping espresso. We had time to see the friends that we have made and to meet a few new ones as well. Particularly memorable was an asado (that's a barbeque) at Silvia's house that included Balbina and her husband, Leo. Silvia and Balbina, both artists, share a studio a block from our house (see links to their websites in the sidebar). Silvia's husband, also named Leo, in addition to being an architect, is an artist and a collector of antique toy soldiers. He has learned how to repair these old cast, lead figures and meticulously paints them so they look like new. I noticed that keeps the special ones locked in a glass display case that is mounted prominently in the dining room. After dinner, I asked if he could open the case so I could take some close-up photos. He was glad to oblige me and I immediately set the lens on the macro setting and began taking the photos. The photos were hand-held and it was evening, so I placed my pinky on a shelf to stablize the camera. Instantly, the shelf flipped and about two hundred 3-1/2" tall soldiers flew out of the case. My heart stopped. I'm sure Leo's did too. After a pregnant moment, he quietly leaned down and pick up a few, reverently, to examine them. I was speechless and mortified. He pronounced, "they are okay." Exhale. Inhale. Exhale. Close call. (I wonder if I'll be invited back for an asado any time soon.)

We wanted to visit Uruguay this time, but I caught some sort of flu and was in no shape. Perhaps next time.

Our weekend at La Esperanza – Our friends, Camila and Roberto, invited us to a weekend at their ranch, La Esperanza, near the town of Azul, about three hours south of Buenos Aires. This was our first trip outside of Buenos Aires. The first thing we noticed was that the demarcation between the city and the country is quite abrupt, compared to that between Chicago and rural areas, such as they are. Another thing we noticed was that there are few roads that intersect the road leading away from Buenos Aires. We traveled, for example, for about an hour without encountering any cross roads.

The country, in this part of Argentina is quite flat, consisting of endless plains dotted with trees that, I am told, were planted by Europeans. Azul, a town of 63,000, is pretty and fairly well maintained. We ate at La Fonda, where the waiter brought bread, cheese and various meats, moments after seating us. Afterwards we toured the downtown on foot and eventually shopped for provisions for the evening meal and breakfast. In the late afternoon we headed for La Esperanza down an unpaved road. It took about 30 minutes before we arrived at the ranch, which consists of two houses and several out-buildings. The main house was ready for our arrival, with a fire already burning the fireplace. Only one of the five dogs bothered to wander over to greet us. The smaller house is where the guacho lives with his wife. He takes care of the cattle (about 1,000 of them), sheep, geese, and other animals, as well as the five dogs and assorted cats. The day before, he had slaughtered a lamb for our feast.

Preparing an asado (i.e. grill) is different that in the U.S. That is, different than in urban U.S. Roberto began by putting wood into a metal box that has two compartments. The upper compartment is where the wood burns; the lower one is where chunks of charcoal fall. These pieces of charcoal are scooped up and placed into the grill, under the grate. Once there was enough charcoal, Roberto’s brother, Tomas, and friend Ezikiel, placed the lamb on the grill. The cooking is done slowly. We started with a bottle of champagne, two bottles of wine, and several large bottles of beer, but we had nearly finished it all by the time the lamb was ready to eat. It was a perfect full moon evening, quiet and still, punctuated by the occasional sounds of animals in the distance.

For breakfast, Carolyn and I prepared French toast. Lacking maple syrup, which is not produced in Argentina, we smothered the toast with butter and powdered sugar. Hmm hmm good. The ride back to Buenos Aires gave us a taste of Argentine driving habits, which are suicidal. About half of the population pays rigid attention to lane markings and speed limits, which incites the other half of the drivers to ignore these entirely.

Taxes – Roberto introduced us to his attorney, who speaks flawless English, because we were concerned about taxes and estate matters. Belisario, in turn, introduced us to both an escribano (sort of like a real estate attorney) and to an accountant, both of whom spoke excellent English as well. Thank God! These issues are difficult enough to understand in the U.S. in English, let alone in Argentina, in Spanish. Property taxes are a strange matter here. There are two taxes here. The first is simple. You get a bill in the mail and you send them the money. The second tax is a mystery. Many people here don’t pay it and some people aren’t even aware it's due. It's a tax that we had read about on the internet, which our attorney confirmed, for which the government does not send out any notice. One must hire an accountant to compute the tax, complete the form and personally pay it at the AFIP office (AFIP = IRS). You can't just mail it in.

Café Bonaparte – Late in our trip we stumbled across a new restaurant in Palermo Soho called Café Bonaparte (Honduras 4690). The owners, Marceau and Pierre, conveyed an interesting story. About eight years ago, they moved from Paris to San Francisco to open an antique store. After seven years they decided they needed a change of pace. They pack everything, put Louie (the dog) into a crate, and moved to Rio, hoping to open a restaurant. Neither speaking any Portuguese nor having any formal training as chefs, they found Rio daunting. Moreover, it seems that getting anything accomplished was a Herculean effort and the city felt dangerous. So, they picked up and moved to Buenos Aires last August. Marceau took two months of intensive Spanish lessons and three months ago they open Café Bonaparte. The restaurant, decidedly French, is aesthetically elegant and food wonderful. The menu is written out by hand on stiff paper. Somehow, while Marcaeau handles the front of the house as maitre d’, waiter, sommelier and busboy, Pierre cooks like a madman in the back. Alone. For a restaurant that seats about 40 or 50. I can’t imagine how he does it, although having met him, I know that he has the energy of three people. They concede they need to hire someone to help on the weekends. I can’t imagine the schedule these two keep. They are open for lunch and dinner six days a week! And dinner in BA can mean they don’t close until two. We witnessed people arriving for dessert at 1:30 a.m. on a Thursday night. Marceau spent several minutes at our table, speaking both English and Spanish. We had to listen intently because his French accent is pronounced. A moment after he departed to attend to other guests, our friend Roberto put down his fork and commented, with great enthusiasm, “I don’t know anything he said, but I love this place!”


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