Saturday, September 27, 2008

Living Statues Contest

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A subset of photos from the living statue contest is here.

The entire afternoon's haul may be found on Flickr as well.

The Living Statues Contest was everything a person could hope for, and more.

Coins (redux)

As mentioned in an earlier post, monedas - or more precisely the scarcity thereof - are an ongoing preoccupation, not to say obsession, here in Buenos Aires.

************* Before 2000 ********** After 2000

Small coins .....................15.................................172

Large coins ....................138................................6

Above is the updated (and final - this investigation is now closed) version of the table presented in an earlier post (sorry for the ASCII graphics, Jerome!)

It is clear from the table that the hypothesis suggested by the earlier table, which had zeros on the left-right diagonal, did not pan out entirely. Some large coins were manufactured after 2000; all were one-peso coins, with a manufacture date of 2006 or later. In seven weeks, inspection of my own change, and that of classmates coerced into participation in my little investigation, found not a single 25- or 50-centavo piece manufactured after the year 1997. Similarly, older 5- and 10-centavo pieces are a distinct rarity.

Make of it what you will. When I get home, I will never take my penny jar for granted again.

Speaking of coins, if any readers of this blog could please explain to me exactly what is depicted on the Oklahoma state quarter, I'd greatly appreciate it. Is it a bird? Is it a man? Is it .. WHAT the hell is it?

living_statues 001

Still on the topic of coins, here's a little estimation puzzle, taken from the following delightful book*:

mathematics - are you there? episode 2.

Suppose you are on the pavement outside a 100-story building. The challenge is to erect a column of coins (they could be Argentine pesos, but as we know you'd never scrape together enough, so let's say they are U.S. quarters, which are roughly the same size). At your disposal are as many carts of quarters as you need; each cart contains a cubic meter of coins. How many carts should you ask for?

First take a guess, just based on your intuition. Then check your intuition, based on some reasonable approximations. A white-fonted hint is given below, to see it, just drag your mouse over it, while holding the left button down. Solution available on my return to the U.S. But give it a shot - it's kind of fun to figure it out.

Hint: The width of the coins is not a relevant consideration in this problem

*: Adrián Paenza is a former sports journalist, who went back to university to get his Ph.D. in math, and is now professor of mathematics at the University of Buenos Aires. Invited to write a weekly math column for the newspaper**, the first collection of those columns, "Mathematics: are you there?", became a runaway bestseller, as did the two followup volumes. (For instance, Nestor, the doorman in the school building, was a great fan, as was Ciro).

I was amused to note that volume 2 (pictured above) contains the classic "how do you measure out 4 liters, if all you have is a 3-liter and a 5-liter jug?" problem. Amused because the scarcity of coins virtually guarantees that any Buenos Aires resident will be adept in the kind of instinctive mental calculation needed to solve that particular problem. As an example, if I buy something for 9 pesos, and offer the merchant a 20-peso note, it's a virtual certainty that he will ask me if I have a single peso. If I acquiesce, he can then give me a 10-peso and 2-peso note in change, while upping his stock of peso coins by one; if I don't he is forced to give me at least one coin as part of my change, which might just ruin his entire day.

**: Yeah. It's a misplaced modifier. So sue me. You know exactly what the sentence means.

Logistical Issues (II) : at the DHL Office

As we know, this blogger has a definite problem when it comes to books. It's not enough to read them, I have to own them as well. And, as documented in previous posts, Buenos Aires has the potential to be any biblophile's downfall.

So it was that, yesterday morning, I made a trip to the DHL office on Avenida Córdoba to take care of the ritual pre-shipping of the books.* By now I have this routine pretty much down - for instance, my mental estimate of the weight of the package to be shipped was remarkably accurate - I guessed 15 kg, as against an actual weight of 14.6 kg. The charge for such a shipment is too outrageous to be specified here, but this is one specific luxury I allow myself when travelling - the peace of mind is well worth the exorbitant fees. There seems little point in fretting and risking some kind of cardiac event, and the Argentine economy needs my dollars.

Anyway, the inventory for yesterday's shipment was as follows:

49 books
30 CDs
27 decorative refrigerator magnets

If I recall correctly, my shipment from Mexico (also DHL) included 28 books, based on a 4-week stay. From which a tentative estimate emerges, that of a book acquisition rate of one per day. In my defense, I would just like to add that, in the first four months of the year, I believe my total number of books read (it's tallied on somewhere) was 110, which is pretty close to one a day. Of course, between Mexico and Argentina, my total for the year has stalled out somewhere around the 160 mark, something I fully intend to remedy in October.

The package is scheduled to arrive in San Francisco on Wednesday, one day after I get home on Tuesday evening.

It's always such a relief to get the books thing squared away that I was sitting in the DHL office feeling quite pleased with myself. I should know by now that even the slightest temptation to feel smug about any aspect of one's travel is generally a cue for a little life lesson of some kind. Yesterday's lesson arrived in the form of two French cyclists, both in their late 40s, at a guess. They strode in to the DHL office, calf muscles bulging, each with a racing bike, and proceeded to take out screwdrivers and start to dismantle the bikes, to ship them back to France.

Let's just say, gentle readers, that cycling around Argentina, only then to dismantle a racing bike for shipping home via DHL is not something that I am ever going to accomplish in this incarnation. My jaw dropped in frank amazement as I watched them - it obviously wasn't the first time they had done this either - and it hasn't really reattained its normal position since.

To the two unknown French cyclists in the DHL office - I take off my chapeau in respect and awe. Compared to you guys, I'm just a piker when it comes to travel.

*: An earlier reconnaissance mission to the official Argentine CORREO office proved fruitless and irritating; the privatization of the postal service during the YETA years obviously has had little effect on the demeanor of its employees, who treated me to a song-and-dance routine to the effect that packages up to 500 grams had to be handed in at one type of office, from 500 grams to 5 kilos at a different kind, and packages from 10 kilos upwards could only be received at the Retiro office, which had very restricted hours, and no they couldn't look up the rates for me, despite having a computer terminal right there, and have a nice day, and - in response to my remark that the only thing that was obvious here was that they had not the slightest interest in helping me and what kind of hijo de puta would sit at his terminal and deny the ability to look something up on the web and that this was the kind of behavior more fitting to a banana republic - that I hadn't understood correctly, that this was a post office, not somewhere from which one could send parcels, that I obviously didn't understand the meaning of the word CORREO, after which it is best to draw a veil over the conversation because this is a family blog, though I will note that my parting volley of abuse, begun in Spanish and continued in English, drew rousing applause from the other customers, and I'd better stop before this aside degenerates into a kind of ungrammatical tribute to DFW.

Logistical Issues (I)

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The problem: that carton doesn't look particularly sturdy, and a kilogram of dulce de leche has the potential to wreak a lot of havoc, luggage-wise.

Hmmm... will it fit?

A potential solution, with the added attraction that the solution itself may double as an attractive gift option. But will my wild guess in "El Gato Negro" (an officially designated "historical café") that the lata (tin) will be big enough pan out?

Yes! Yes it does!

Indeed it does! With room to spare. Oh frabjous day!! A little padding with socks and underwear and VAMONOS!

Problem solved!

(I hope Anna likes her puddy-tat tin)

Friday, September 26, 2008

Recuerdos (and a Milestone)

Here are some of the souvenirs I got at school today (my last day):

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A card with text from the blind master himself

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Signed by all the teachers and staff

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Ammunition for a future episode of Operation Baked Goods

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A kilogram of dulce de leche (with the accompanying logistical challenge)

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There were some certificates having to do with language competence as well

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The last one commends my "exceptional" participation in class. (Guess that presentation on why the dinosaurs went extinct really paid off).

It was a most extraordinary seven weeks. I can't remember when I've been as happy. My thanks go out to everyone at COINED for making me feel as at home as I did. Most of all to Ciro and to Carolina, two of the sweetest, most charming, extraordinarily capable teachers it's ever been my pleasure to study with.

el maestro with his beloved piazzolla CDs

Carolina has made MATE!!

The plain people of Ireland: Them biscuits look delicious. Aren't you going to open them to celebrate?
The management: They do indeed look delicious - it was a very thoughtful gift. But celebrate what, pray tell.
The plain people of Ireland: Yerra, go on, don't pretend you're not counting - this is your 400th post on this blog.
The management: Why, so it is! Champagne and alfajores all round!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Rancor in the Classroom

Over the past year and a half I've racked up close to a thousand classroom-hours of Spanish instruction. There are signs that it has paid off - for instance, when I was souvenir shopping today, the lady in the poster store kept rattling on about how Nadal would be coming to visit Buenos Aires in November. It was only when she mentioned that I could have artwork shipped to Spain that the penny dropped - she thought I was a Spanish tourist.

Which was gratifying, but that's not what this post is about. The remarkable thing is that, in all those hours in the classroom, I can think of only three occasions where the discussion degenerated into total meltdown - once in Spain, once in Mexico, and once here in Buenos Aires. When one thinks about this, it is a testament to the extraordinary professionalism of the teachers I've had along the way. All have been able to steer the conversational boat with skill and dedication, managing - with very few exceptions - to steer clear of the rocks of mutual antagonism and miscommunication that lurk whenever you get a group of strangers from different backgrounds, and of different ages, nationalities and social strata together and launch a conversation.

The Spanish disaster was so profoundly horrible I don't even like to think about it. What was remarkable was that it involved three students all of whom lived in the U.S. - myself, an amazing 22-year old from New York, Aaron (who was pre-med, due to start at Yale Medical School last fall, an absolute mensch, brilliant, and possibly my favorite classmate ever), and this ridiculous caricature of a woman whose name I don't even want to mention, but who had just graduated from law school in San Francisco. The vile lawyer-woman launched into this remarkably vicious attack on the medical profession, doctors in general, med students in particular, and things got remarkably ugly remarkably fast. The teacher was unable to stop things and ended up looking on, white-faced.

The meltdown in Guanajuato was provoked by the teacher's unfortunate choice of reading materials, specifically a bunch of hagiographic magazine articles about the phony Nobel Peace Laureate, Rigoberta Menchu. Those of us who were aware that this woman had faked her entire autobiography mentioned this fact, only to be met by stonefaced disbelief by the teacher and those students unaware of the controversy. Escalating google searches and countersearches, combined with stubbornness on both sides until - thankfully - class ended for the day.

The breakdown here in Buenos Aires occurred in one of the afternoon classes during my very first week. We were reading one of Borges's less interesting stories, "Emma Zunz". The basic plot is that the protagonist, Emma, wants to get revenge on the man she believes responsible for her father's death, so she plans to kill him in a manner that suggests that he first raped her and that she therefore acted in self-defense. (So she goes down to the docks first and offers herself up to the first sailor who comes along, making sure he uses her brutally etc etc - I told you it wasn't very interesting).

Before going down to the docks to be brutally manhandled, she meets her friends from work to go to the public swimming pool for a Saturday morning frolic. Etc etc. Daniel, the teacher, made a point of drawing our attention to this plot detail, asking us why. You figure the answer is so that her friends will notice her unblemished unbruised body in her bathing suit - nothing more. No, according to Daniel, it was to establish her virginity.

"Say what now?!", I hear you ask. Well, apparently, back in the early 1900's, for a woman to use a public swimming pool in Buenos Aires, it was a requirement that she undergo a comprehensive exam by a doctor, including certain gynecological details. Urban and I, the only two Europeans in the class, guffawed at this quaint Victorian custom. Only to be met by offended, uncomprehending reactions from Daniel and Camila, the Brazilian student. Because, apparently, even today - in the early 2000's, it is STILL a requirement for anyone using a public swimming pool in Argentina or Brazil to undergo a physical examination, with particular attention paid, to use a word designed to confound the internet censors, to the pudenda. To be clear, if you're female, a full gynecological exam.

Sputtering disbelief from myself and Urban, followed by a certain amount of questioning to ascertain the purpose, and putative utility, of such an exam. I'll be the first to admit that the tone of the questioning was - let's say - less than respectful. Which, of course, added to the international misunderstanding, because Daniel and Camila felt - not without reason - that we were mocking Latin American public health practices. Which in this case, they doggedly maintained, were incontrovertible evidence of more rigorous public health standards than those prevalent in the U.S. and Europe.

That class ended in a kind of huffy stalemate. Camila obviously hated my guts for the rest of her time in the school, on one occasion actually CROSSING THE STREET in order not to have to acknowledge my existence. Which, personally, I thought was taking things a little too seriously.

I should emphasize that the notable thing here is the relative infrequency of these various breakdowns in communication. I've been lucky to have had a bunch of excellent teachers; here in Buenos Aires, they are a truly exceptional group.

And, no, I don't know the Spanish word for "cooties".

Gastronomic Advice

Should you find yourself in a Buenos Aires restaurant, suffering from meat exhaustion, you may be tempted by menu entries such as "Ensalada César", "Caezer Salad", "Kaisersallat" (sic!).

DO NOT YIELD TO THIS TEMPTATION. Nothing good will come of it, I can assure you. No matter how many allowances you are willing to make, disappointment and disillusionment are the only possible outcomes. Trust me on this. There are certain expectations that the term "Caesar Salad" generates, unavoidably. NONE OF THESE WILL BE MET.

The exact manner of your disappointment will, of course, depend on the establishment. But, based on a sample size of three, I am willing to bet (apostar) that the following elements will be involved:

  1. A complete absence of anything resembling Romaine lettuce.
  2. The apparently prevalent local belief that the terms "Caesar salad dressing" and "the Argentine equivalent of Miracle Whip" are interchangeable.
  3. The presence of some kind of soggy item, nominally belonging to the bread group, evidently meant to be a crouton, but not actually recognizable as such.
  4. An inordinately high sog-factor, generally, resulting from some kind of diabolical synergy among the pond-greenery, canned mushrooms, brine-soaked croutons and Miracle Whip.
  5. No anchovies.
  6. Canned chicken parts.

Depending on your moral strength of character, the disillusionment induced by your faux C-S experience may or may not lead to a regrettable frenzy of compensatory Toblerone-gorging (availability of Toblerone is a factor here as well, obviously). You may end up just snarling at your travel companion(s) or engaging in acts of petty urban vandalism. But either way, it won't be pretty.

Maybe you'd like a nice cut of meat from the parrilla instead?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Puddy-tats of the Botanical Garden

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On Saturday afternoon I went to the Botanical Garden in Palermo. The foliage was a bit ratty, and it would be charitable to draw a veil over the entire disastrous choral "concert" in the little pavilion. But there were lots of puddy-tats - many of them looking remarkably well-fed. You can see them here -

Puddy-tats of the Botanical Garden


Today was a peach of a day. Bright and sunny, with the notable feature that, for the very first time since arriving here in Buenos Aires I slept like a log during the night, and woke up feeling completely relaxed and refreshed. It makes a difference, I tell you.

In the morning, from 9 to 11, I had my written exam; then, from 1:30 to 2:00 my oral test. None of it really matters, and I still don't know how I did on the written part (though it seemed pretty easy). But I was pleased with the oral part. The format was that I had to make a brief (10-15 minute) presentation to Ciro on a topic I had prepared beforehand ("el tigre céltico"), while a second teacher sat in the background, grading the presentation and making note of any errors. It was a nice ego-boost when, at the end, she said she had stopped taking notes at about the 5-minute mark because it was obvious I wasn't going to make any (serious) mistakes.

During the afternoon's class we went on an excursion to MALBA (Museum of Latino-American Art of Buenos Aires). MALBA is a private, and relatively new, museum, home to the personal collection of a rich businessman called Constantini*. According to their mission statement:

Our mission at Malba – Fundación Costantini / Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires- is to collect, conserve, study and disseminate Latin American art, dating from the early 20th Century to the present day.

Costing a relatively stiff 15 pesos on other days of the week, it is FREE on Wednesdays. Well worth a visit.

*The Buenos Aires equivalent to the Thyssen in Madrid, though nowhere near as large as the Thyssen. The whole place reeked of money and good taste.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


This little guy is called an axolotl.
If he doesn't make you grin like a Cheshire cat,
I don't know what'll.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The man in the labyrinth

apart from the fray

So, I've been reading Borges. An occupational hazard here in Buenos Aires. The interesting thing is that, the more I read, the better I like him. Before coming here, all I had read were his "Fictions", in translation. Not a bad introduction, but they definitely work better in Spanish.

Here in Buenos Aires, I've also tackled some of his poetry (e.g. the poems in "El oro de los tigres", pictured above), as well of some of his more accessible prose ("El Aleph", "Los conjurados").

It would be foolish to try to sum Borges up in a few tidy sentences, so I'm not about to try. A few observations, nonetheless.

Probably the most immediately striking feature of his work is the man's enormous erudition. At times you get the impression that here is a man who has read every book ever written. Here is the first line of one of his poems ("Espadas", that is, "Swords"):

Gram, Durendal, Joyeuse, Excalibur.

It takes a certain amount of cojones to launch a poem that way. It indicates an author who either assumes that the reader will get the references in question, or someone who doesn't care about the reader who doesn't.

Another obvious feature is the obsession with patterns, puzzles, mazes, the border of the finite and infinite. The library, the labyrinth, the infinitude of combinatorial possibilities available to the writer, the vicissitudes of chance -- these are themes that crop up again and again.

For me, it is this characteristic cerebral quality of Borges's work that ultimately prevents him from being one of the world's all-time great writers. Because I think it comes at a price. It is impossible to escape the impression that this is a writer who regards his characters as pieces to be moved around the chessboard of his (great) imagination, but never really as flesh-and-blood human beings. Borges is always on the outside looking in, or looking down from the vast Olympian heights of his tremendous erudition, but where's the heart? If it's love poetry you want, you're going to reach for Neruda, maybe. But never Borges.

Here in Argentina, a commonly expressed resentment is that Borges, despite living through the country's political turmoil of the 20th century, never addressed it directly in his literature, preferring to stay above, or at least out of, the fray. While this may be true, it is, I think, irrelevant when it comes to judging his work.

I'm definitely hooked. And I'll probably look back on this post at some later point and cringe with embarrassment. So be it.


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Thpring is thprung.
The grass is ris'.
I wonder where the flowers is.

The boyd is on the wing.
How absoyd!
The wing is on the boyd.