Archive: 2007 4th Quarter

Shopping

I say to Jean, "I need some new boxers. Mine are getting raggedy and the elastic is all loose."

Jean gets a gleam in her eye. The last time I bought underwear was five years ago. And that was under protest. Now she spots a shopping opportunity. Before I can reconsider my rash statement, she throws me into a cab and we're off to the Galleria.

Actually, I like to shop in big cities. Well, sort of anyway. Hick bergs like San Miguel de Allende offer slim pickings for a man of discerning taste, and not much more for one who used to wear pocket protectors.

The Cuidad Autónomo de Buenos Aires boasts several big malls situated in restored grand buildings. They're breathtaking.

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That is a working ferris wheel framed in the window.

Sadly, Paul (El Guapo) has not been present in these pages, on account of his computer was struck by lightning, and he doesn't have the patience to sit in a cybercafé. Too bad, because Paul has a shoe fetish, and has helped me develop an eye for them. He'd be proud to see me wearing my newly purchased red loafers, without socks.

I'm becoming such a free spirit.

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The red shoes inspired me. Riding a creative rush, I looked everywhere for boxers that weren't boring. After all, how one looks in one's underwear is sooo important.

I found some with a pattern of parrots drinking beer. Perfect!

Hungry after all that shopping (well, it was a lot for me) we looked for a snack. The Galleria offered lots of choices.

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(Somebody help me out here. Are there such things as Kosher McDonalds anyplace else?)

We went out onto Florida street. Nearly every shop had a barker out front. This nice young man invited me to come up to his second-floor emporium to check out his cashmere inventory.

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I dunno. With that grim expression, he just didn't strike me as someone I'd like to disappear up a darkened stairway with. In any event, it was too hot to even think about cashmere.

Jean manhandled me into a place that sells Argentinean-made leather goods, where I bought a couple of belts.

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The light one is rawhide. Jean asked the sales clerk about the other one.

"What kind of leather is it?"

"It's beaver."

—§—

One kind of shopping you readily can get me to do, besides going to an Apple store, is in bookstores. BsAs has a bunch of them on Avenida Corrientes, and nearby, there's El Ateneo, which claims to be the largest bookstore in South America.

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El Ateneo is housed in a spectacular restored old theater. The old stage contains a café; specialty books on medicine and engineering are stocked on the balconies.

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Most books are, of course, in Spanish, although a respectable selection of English-language books is available. I bought an anthology of Gaucho poetry. I find reading in Spanish laborious, but since poetry must be read closely, I don't mind frequently consulting a dictionary.

Like large general interest bookstores everywhere, overproduced lightweight titles are set out in special displays. For $30 US, you can read yet one more history of the life of Eva Perón, a figure who receives far too much attention in my opinion. Could it be that author Felipe Pigna, a historian at the University of Buenos Aires, is here pandering to popular tastes?

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Before I get too snotty about Evita, I have to remember that we all need mind candy once in a while. I bought Noah Gordon's The Physician which should put me to sleep every night until we fly home.

—§—

Flush with the success of getting me to shop for clothes, Jean pushed her luck and dragged me across town to a craft street fair.

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It turned out to be the same collection of aging hippies selling bad wallets you'll find at street fairs all over the world.

Tourists, mainly Americans, crowded among the kiosks. Several bought mates (MAH-tays) and bombillas (bome-BEE-schahs). Mates are used for drinking Argentina's national drink, also called mate. It's a sort of tea made by steeping leaves of a plant called yerba mate in hot water, properly drunk by sipping through a bombilla—a metal straw with an end designed to strain the liquid through all those leaves. Traditionally, everyone shares a single mate and bombilla, making mate-drinking an intimate social moment.

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This is one of those purchases travelers always regret. They get back to Grand Rapids, unpack their mate and bombilla and their slightly squashed box of Cruz de Malta teabags, only to realize mate-drinking has no place in their lives. So the whole kit gets put away until an emergency Christmas present is needed for Tiffani's latest loser boyfriend. Perhaps serving as a deterrent to a bad marriage.

Jean found a leather purse that she liked and I didn't, but then my opinion is neither here nor there in these matters. One of the 20 peso bills she gave the seller was counterfeit. Apparently there's a lot of that here, because I frequently see sales clerks holding bills up to the light. Jean's bill was so badly made that one of the 20s was wearing off. She replaced it with a good one, then promptly used the counterfeit to buy a bracelet.

I lasted ten minutes at the craft fair before retreating in the 95º heat to our air-conditioned apartment where I stripped down to my parrot boxers and wrote this post.

Feliz año a todos.

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La Frigata Presidente Sarmiento

You're looking at the screw frigate Presidente Sarmiento, an exquisite naval ship carefully preserved as a museum, moored here on the Buenos Aires waterfront. It is a prime example of something Argentineans do extremely well: restoring and maintaining old technology, and making it extremely accessible.

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The Sarmiento is perfectly suited for making a retired engineer happy. Visitors are allowed everywhere (except up in the rigging). The ship uses both wind and steam power (look for the stacks between the foremast and mainmast) so it offers a look at two types of propulsion technology. Does it get any better than this?

A group of smiling boys takes the helm. It has three ship's wheels. Why? Does it require several men to control the rudder in heavy seas? Down in the guts of the stern, there's a rudder servomotor, but maybe it can break down. Then you'd have to steer with sheer muscle power.

A gorgeous binnacle houses a gimbaled compass and a handsome brass ship's telegraph completes the helmsman's complement of controls and indicators.

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Wouldn't it be nice if this kind of design went into computers? I'd love to have a Mac made of brass and teak. With ivory keys.

Standing rigging is made from steel cable as would be expected in a late 19th-Century ship. Running rigging is of manila rope. Shown here at the mizzenmast, a bewildering array of sheaves and pinrails provides means for managing and securing halyards and downhauls.

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I spent an hour tracing the lines to see how the sails were controlled.

The Sarmiento is a warship, although it was used exclusively for training naval cadets and for goodwill expeditions and never saw any action. Nevertheless, it's armed with a couple of cannon and it can fire torpedoes.

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Steam power complements the sails, provided by a three-cylinder triple-expansion engine. (Writing that last sentence made me shiver with delight.)

Just look at those big cylinder heads. The brass thingys are pressure relief valves. They keep the ship from blowing up. An overhead crane visible at the upper right is used for removing the cylinder heads.

(I removed the cylinder heads on every car I owned from age 13 to age 23. I love removing cylinder heads. So of course I made a point of seeing how they did it on the Sarmiento. I wonder what the head bolt tightening pattern was?)

(Sorry about that. I sort of drifted off.)

I don't know what the red thing is. Part of the condenser?

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What triple-expansion means is that a small, high-pressure cylinder extracts as much energy from the steam as it can. Then, instead of wasting the exhaust steam, it is routed to a medium sized cylinder and then on to a huge, low pressure cylinder to wring every erg out of it.

Sounds efficient, doesn't it? But I doubt this engine achieved even 25% efficiency; one reason why piston engines were ultimately replaced by turbines.

The engine turns the drive shaft which runs through a long tunnel in the bottom of the ship.

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Note the absence of a handrail between the catwalk and the shaft. You wouldn't want to walk down here when the ship was pitching.

The drive shaft turns the propeller, or screw, which has been dismounted and placed onshore for viewing. This is a sophisticated design, with graceful hydrodynamic curves. Vernier markings where the blades attach to the hub assist in precise setting of pitch.

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The screw is eight feet from blade tip to blade tip. The blades themselves are pitted from gravel stirred up on shallow bottoms.

Even though it was built back in 1897, this vessel has electrical power. Here we see the dynamo room...

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... and the electrical control panel. The old knife switches are dangerous, but I love the completely exposed mechanisms. Their form and function exactly match.

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One of the most riveting scenes from that greatest of the Titanic movies, A night to Remember, is of circuit breakers blowing as seawater shorts out the electrical system. The control panel looks just like this one, and when the breakers start arcing, you know the end is not far off.

If I were a member of the Sarmiento's company, this would be my desk. The chief engineer's post is in the engine room, eyeballing his gages, shouting up a speaking tube: "Captain, I'm givin' her all she's got. She canna take much more o' this."

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As a senior officer, I would have my own cabin...

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... and for special occasions, I would wear my dress uniform, complete with sword. Of course, if I actually had to use my sword, I'd be completely lost. Unless I used it to cut out a spare gasket or something.

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I'd dress up on special occasions; like the time President Taft came on board the Sarmiento during a visit to Boston. I'd be one of those guys way in the back.

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Technologists have always been under-appreciated. One of these days, somebody's going to call me with a frozen computer, and I'm gonna say, "Why don't you call an English major? Oh! That's right! You are one."

"Say, can you give me some fries with that?"

The Presidente Sarmiento was one of the last of the beautiful ships. Within ten years, masts and sails were gone, and forms of ships descended into today's boxy cruise palaces. We are fortunate that the porteños preserved this one, so we can appreciate the elegant work of our great-grandfathers.

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Parks in Mendoza

You can judge a city by its parks. Mendoza has lots of them and they're wonderful. The greatest of them is Parque General San Martín, larger than New York's Central Park, and unlike the latter, every square inch is manicured.

One look at the front gate, and you think you're in France. Only the French do gilded ironwork like this.

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And so they did here. The park was designed by architect Charles Thays, who arrived in Argentina from France in 1889 at the age of 40, promptly changed his name to Carlos, and went on to create some of Argentina's greatest city parks.

That's an Andean Condor on top of the gate—Argentina's answer to the American Eagle. It's the largest land bird in the Americas, and is the pride of the Andean countries.

Argentineans may claim they're not Latins, but they use parks just like Mexicans do. Everywhere I saw families spread out on the grass enjoying picnics or just hanging out.

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For those left behind in Northern climes, I can't resist pointing out that the photo of the shirtless man kissing his baby girl was taken on December 24th.

A coltish young skater makes her way down miles of paved pathways.

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In a couple more years she is going to be devastating, her wake littered with broken-hearted boys.

Yeah, it's a French park all right. The original of this fountain, The Four Continents, is in Paris.

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Someone explained that it was so named because at the time, Australia was considered part of Asia. Lessee. Four plus one equals five. Aren't there, like, seven?

I'm guessing the French see the Americas as just one continent because we have no culture. And Antarctica doesn't count 'cause you can't get good pommes frites there.

A monument to Argentina's national hero, General José de San Martín, caps a hilltop in the eponymous park.

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A bronze of the General astride his horse, flanked by mounted soldiers, occupies the lower portion of the monument. His arms are folded over his chest in satisfaction over his accomplishments. At its peak, we see an allegorical winged Argentina, her arms raised, holding broken chains signifying freedom from Spain.

—§—

In the city center, a checkerboard of parks, each occupying an entire city block, were originally laid out as refuges in the event of another devastating earthquake. Today they are refuges from urban traffic and noise. This one is named Plaza Italia, in recognition of the heritage of nearly half of Mendoza's inhabitants.

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The centerpiece of Plaza Italia is a less-than-impressive fountain—it just kind of sits there and dribbles—backed by a spectacular wall of scenes composed of tiles.

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The tiles depict the discovery and occupation of the New World. Here we see Christopher Columbus and one of his lieutenants ordering the crew to turn right at the equator.

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Next, we have conquistadors bringing enlightenment to the savages. A priest, backed up by an officer with drawn sword and a fierce dog, is spreading the gospel. A worker is tapping a barrel of wine to make the lesson go down easier.

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A final scene shows the peaceful outcome of the meeting of the two cultures. The Spanish have built a mission and have finally managed to get some pants on the befeathered indian. The indigene's soul has been saved, and he has been broken of his idle habit of hunting and gathering, now better serving God by growing food for the priests.

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In the middle of the checkerboard of parks we have Plaza Independencia, a stately four-block park featuring broad stone plazas, flights of wide steps, and hundreds of elegant lamps.

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A wall flanking a reflecting pool features a bas-relief the subject of which I cannot fathom.

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I'm inclined to call it Rudolph Nureyev Discovers the Joys of Bondage.

Nighttime in Plaza Independencia, and a neon sculpture depicts the Arms of Argentina. Or of Mendoza. They're similar and I can't tell them apart.

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Christmas is over and our party is returning to Buenos Aires. I'd never even heard of Mendoza before this week. I would never have thought of coming here. The world is full of undiscovered gems: this is one of them.

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Ciudad Mendoza

If San Miguel de Allende continues its breakneck growth, I could easily see myself continuing my flight to the South—maybe to Mendoza, Argentina. It's a pleasant and livable city of around a million inhabitants, the center of a wine and olive oil producing region half the size of Italy.

The first impression visitors get is that the place is green. This is surprising considering that it is located in the rain shadow of the Andes. There's simply not enough rain to support all those trees and vines. The bulk of the region's water comes from the Andes via the Mendoza RIver.

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The city's trees are watered by an extensive series of channels. These sycamores can find water at astonishing depths, but they can't survive on only 8-10" of rain a year. So they need supplemental water. I don't think I've ever before seen street trees that are irrigated.

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In 1861, Mendoza was leveled by an earthquake. Ten thousand people were killed, a sizable fraction of the population at that time. Much of the way the city is laid out and built is informed by this tragedy. Parks, for example, have been placed every three blocks or so to provide sanctuaries.

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City planners note: this field may not be much help during an earthquake, but kids use it for pickup soccer games, and soccer moms don't have to load them into the SUV and drive them to their games. Less traffic, more soccer. Sounds good to me.

Once you have lots of public parks, you might as well install lots of benches. Benches encourage all kinds of healthy activities.

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I'd appreciate it if someone would tell me exactly what is going on here. Whatever it is, I think I'd rather like it.

Fabián told me these are called chorizo houses. I got it right away. Sausage houses. Long and narrow. In Louisiana they'd be called shotgun houses.

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They were built to standards developed after the earthquake. Single-story buildings are more survivable. Build deep, not up. They're set on wide streets so people can run outside to escape falling masonry. And then there's those carefully irrigated sycamores: two in front of each house, to keep walls from falling into the street where people are trying to escape.

Mendoza provides housing for the poor. Projects like this one are built to get people out of the shantytowns.

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Of course, the system doesn't work. The government builds new houses and sells them cheap to the poor, who promptly resell them at a profit or rent them out, moving back to the shantytowns. It's so very hard to do good works.

—§—

Juan Perón was here. When you see monumental public buildings like this presidencia, you're reminded of the regime.

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Massive, full of vertical lines, an oversize portico, lack of adornment; this building might have been designed by Albert Speer. I can't keep from speculating: Is there something systemic about how Italians and Germans and Spanish react to economic crises?

"Jeez, Giacomo, looks like the economy's going to hell. We better go elect a fascist."

That's of course what happened in Europe, and when the Great Depression hit here in Argentina, the Spanish, German and Italian expatriates did exactly the same thing. Mussolini, Hitler, Franco, Perón; is there a pattern here?

—§—

I see beauty in pre-war industrial design. Apparently, Argentineans do, too, because when the railway through town fell into disuse and was converted into a pedestrian walking path, they preserved the semaphores. Bless whoever came up with this idea.

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They preserved the old telephone lines, too. These poles bring back childhood memories in technicolor. They're not in use anymore, but they've been left up there to remind us what the urban landscape used to be like.

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More careful thinking has gone into the development of Mendoza than most cities, and the result is a jewel, a city that works. Wide streets limit congestion. Trees filter exhaust fumes out of the air. Wide sidewalks make walking a pleasure.

Civilization emerges in places where grapes and olives grow. It happened 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, and it happened because the agreeable climate produced abundant food, freeing time so people could do things like write the Bible. We live best in places like this. Places like Mendoza.

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The Archbishop's Christmas


First you get down on your knees,
Fiddle with your rosaries,
Bow your head with great respect,
And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect.

—Tom Lehrer, The Vatican Rag

—§—

I know I've offended someone, quoting those lyrics. Please forgive me. The sniggering teenager inside this 66-year-old body sneaks out at night sometimes, and I'm at my wits' end knowing what to do with him.

—§—

Some of the world's greatest art and music was inspired by the church. So how come it produces such bad images today?

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This is just pure treacle. Jan van Eyck would vomit. One of the world's greatest institutions, and this is the best they can come up with?

Here we got Charlton Heston and Elizabeth Taylor gazing at the Gerber baby. The composition misleads: Joseph, who can't even claim paternity, is the dominant figure. The Madonna has been reduced to a vacuous groupie, and the Son of God just looks cute.

Does the Archbishop of Mendoza actually believe he is spreading the Word with this kind of thing? Winning converts? Reassuring the faithful?

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The Andes

When I return to Argentina, it'll be to the outdoors, because essentially all of Argentina is out of doors. Only 36 million people live here, the same as in California. But Argentina is the eighth largest country in the world, eighteen times the size of California. The place is empty. And it's gorgeous.

Fabián picked us up in his van and drove us into the mountains west of Mendoza, along the route taken by José de San Martín as he led his Army of the North across the Andes into Chile and Peru to free all of South America from Spanish rule.

The passes San Martín used were carved by the Mendoza River, without water from which, there would be no city of Mendoza.

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All of its waters are collected and used to supplement the meager 8-10" of annual rainfall in the area. The river is fed by snowmelt from the glaciers and snowpacks of the Andes. Much of the gravelly riverbed was exposed as we drove by, great cliffs of alluvial soil marking the current path of the waters.

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This river—this scene—is so important to Mendoza that artists frequently paint images of the mountains fronted by the river that gives life to all those trees and grape vines.

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So this pass was important for the freedom of South America and the founding of Argentina. It is important today for the water it provides. And for many years, it was the site of a railway link between Argentina and Chile.

Built over a period of 35 years, the complete route from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso was completed in 1910—the first rail link to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It cut transit between the two ports from eleven days to a day and a half.

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Rusting track and ruined railway buildings are all that's left today. Fabián says that a border dispute between the two countries (in the 1980s?) in 1978 might have broken into hostilities but for the intervention of the Pope. During the ruckus, though, the Chileans blew up their side of the Transandine Railway.

The railway is scheduled to be refurbished and reopened in 2010. The center of the world has shifted from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean, and 1,500 semis a day winding over the mountain passes just aren't enough to handle increasing trade with China. Now that the generals no longer run either country, it's time to rebuild this important connection.

The road isn't particularly easy to drive. Tight curves, steep grades, tunnels and avalanches impede traffic.

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Our destination was not the Chilean border: Our van lacked permits to cross the border, and we didn't have visas anyway.

(Time was, Americans were welcomed almost anywhere in the world with a minimum of bureaucratic fuss. Today an application for a tourist visa to the USA costs $100, due to more than double next year. And odds are, if you have brown skin, you'll be turned down and lose your $100. So of course, other countries are retaliating. You're hassled at the Chilean border. I'm told it's tough to get into Brazil anymore.)

We stopped 35 KM from the border, to view the highest mountain in the New World, Aconcagua.

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I apologize for the photo above. I hate this kind of stuff. Looky everyone. We were really there! If there had been a restroom at the summit, I would have insisted we pose in front of it, like the Chinese gamblers day-tripping from Vegas do at the Grand Canyon.

For the record, we have left to right, Judy, Bill, Jean and a scruffy blogger.

This is what we drove the seven-hour round trip to see:

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I'll have to travel to Tibet to see one that's higher.

But many of you know that I'm more interested in small details than in monuments. Here I'm adjusting aperture to shoot some alpine wildflowers.

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It's like all those times I was in the Sierra Nevada in spring, just after the passes opened. The alpine meadows burst into flower. Few things thrill me more.

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These flowers were photographed on December 23rd, the first day of summer south of the equator.

Having successfully captured images of the elusive purple lupine, we drove home—another three and a half hours on the road. I set my shutter to 1/1000 second and took scores of images through the van window, too tired to ask Hugo, our driver, to stop to set up proper shots.

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Every turn produced another spectacular view. Whenever I tried to nod off, something like this would open up in front of me, and I'd have to line it up in my viewfinder.

Argentina has its sophisticated European city: Buenos Aires. It has its wine aficionado and foodie magnet: Mendoza. But for my money, the real Argentina is elsewhere, in some of the most beautiful and spectacular scenery imaginable.

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Bodega la Rural

For fifteen years Jean and I lived in the Sonoma Valley, one of California's premium winemaking regions. Some of our friends were vintners. We escorted our visitors to wineries for tastings. Wines were featured at dinner parties, hosts competing to discover obscure releases from undiscovered boutique wineries.

Our neighbors made homemade wine from small plantings of their own, or from grapes gleaned from the big commercial vineyards after the harvest. When a vineyard truck overturned on a mountain road, responding members of our Mayacamas Volunteer Fire Department scooped up the spilled grapes and made a limited-edition artesanal wine they called Roadkill Red—a cab I believe.

Mendoza is Argentina's winemaking center. Here we visited a famous winery: Don Felipe. It was founded by an Italian family in 1885, about the same time so many famous houses were founded in the Sonoma and Napa valleys, also by Italians.

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Don Felipe is a working winery producing a premium label, much of which is exported. But what makes it fun to visit is its museum, the finest wine museum Jean and I have ever visited.

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A great deal of equipment used by Don Felipe from the bodega's earliest days has been preserved and carefully restored. An old truck has new green paint and lovingly finished wooden components. Processing equipment borders rows of vines.

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A large selection of 19th-Century woodworking tools illustrates the art of barrel-making.

I wondered, what is the function of this large cowhide tub? And is the drain at the near end what I think it is?

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Why yes, the drain is in fact just what I thought it was: the cow's tail.

What did you think it was?

A sketch on some tiles shows a cowhide tub in use.

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A barefoot man tromps grapes, the juice running through the tail drain into a leather bucket. Do you think wine made this way tasted anywhere as good as today's vintages?

Wine presses reduced the labor of the crush while extracting more of the juice. Beat the hell out of grape-stomping. No longer in use today, old presses litter the grounds of wineries the way wooden wagon wheels flank the gates of ranches.

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The old gear is redolent of an age of authenticity, a time of pride of craftsmanship. But it can't handle today's volumes or price structures. Wine making today is accomplished with the latest in high-tech equipment: centrifugal crushers, stainless-steel fermenting vats and tanks.

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All that's left of the old ways are the wooden aging barrels, here imported from The U. S. or France. They make up a major portion of the cost of winemaking, because they cannot be re-used—maybe only once or twice if at all. A French barrel costs $1,000.

We toured the winery with perhaps 40 other tourists. I hate tours. When through some accident I wind up on one, I usually wander off by myself, one ear cocked in the rare event that the tour guide says something interesting.

The main reason I don't like tours is having to crowd through sites with other people. Our group consisted mainly of tourists who were there because a travel agent told them they should see the place, not because they had any real interest in it. Count me among these people.

But this guy intrigued me. He walked around for an hour with his eye glued to the camcorder viewfinder, panning down rows of barrels and equipment. He's gonna have to edit the hell out of that video to make it watchable.

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Factory tour over, it was time for Judy and Jean to shop—the high point of their morning.

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They lined up at the counter to buy a couple of bottles at low, low winery prices.

—§—

In the Bible stories I read as a kid, those early middle eastern people grew grapes. And apricots and figs and olives. Those crops seem to go together. I guess they flourish in the dry Mediterranean climate, just like the climate we enjoyed in the Sonoma Valley, just like the climate in Mendoza. Most places we've visited, where premium wine is made, so is olive oil. Not that tranny lube you buy in the supermarket, but spicy, fruity artisanal olive oil.

Don Felipe still has its old olive presses, although I didn't find out if they still make oil.

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The press on the left has a conventional pair of cylindrical millstones. But the reason I'm even bothering to write about olive oil is the press on the right. I've never seen anything like it. Three conical stones press the olives against a flat stone plate. Unlike the cylindrical press, the entire surface of the plate is engaged in the pressing work. So I imagine this design is more efficient. Cool, huh?

Stuff like this tickles my engineer side. But then again, engineers are like that. I remember as a teenager, picking up a camshaft and showing it to a similarly inclined friend. We both looked at it, and burst out laughing.

Not many people can see the humor in a radical camshaft grind. Or the beauty in a trio of conical millstones. Or the ingenuity of a cow tail drain. But for me, the opportunity to stumble on stuff like this is a benefit of traveling.

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Club Tapiz

Christmas is a difficult time to be at large in a strange city. Everything shuts down: museums, shows, shops, restaurants. Finding a meal can be difficult. I tend to get the lonelies.

What to do?

Well, Jean and I and Bill and Judy got on a plane and headed west to the wine country city of Mendoza, in the foothills of the Andes.

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At this point, I can't resist making a convoluted parenthetical remark before resuming my narrative. As they say nowadays, that's the way I roll.

Notice that the fields of grapevines as seen from the plane window are not laid out on a rectilinear compass grid, thus making the countryside look more like Europe than the USA. U. S. farmland looks orderly because during the early 19th Century, teams of surveyors were sent out from Washington to lay out townships and measure our new country. Since none of the land was occupied, they could place boundaries anywhere they wanted, so they set the standard township to be six miles square, or 23,040 acres. They aligned townships with the four compass points, and so divided the land into uniform squares as far as the eye could see. That's why the midwest looks so boring from the air.

Clearly, this kind of anal-retentive platting wasn't done near Mendoza. Full points to Argentina if you ask me.

The idea for our side trip was to hole up in a resort during Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Our travel agent, Melissa Vertiz, arranged for us to stay at Club Tapiz, to be cosseted through the holiday blues.

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Tapiz is a working winery. Here we have a vineyard making grapes, olive trees olivulating, and behind all that, the Andes, quietly glaciating in the summer sun.

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Our bedrooms are in a separate villa that's bigger than my house. We have our own swimming pool and we have a couple of big, ratty dogs who have adopted us. It's so quiet that Bill thinks something must be wrong.

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Club Tapiz has the best restaurant we've visited in Argentina. It's better than any in San Miguel de Allende for that matter. Dishes are imaginative: grilled Camembert with pine nuts and honey; exquisite lamb chops in "American mustard sauce" which turns out to be an artisanal mustard and basalmic vinegar reduction; apple pie with homemade ginger ice cream.

The kitchen is supplied from a fine vegetable garden. Sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers, green beans and squash are brought to the table minutes after picking. Some of our breakfast fruits come from peach, quince and pear trees growing alongside the vegetable plot.

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The saint who is responsible for this lovely place has constructed a wonderful compost pile, the hallmark of the true organic gardener. On the right, a chef snips fresh herbs for tonight's Christmas Eve dinner.

I'm writing this in a comfortable living room, wallowing in the luxury of a WiFi hot spot. A nice lady brings me a double espresso. I sit in soft, overstuffed furniture and gaze at paintings on the walls. Straight ahead is one called: Eva leaves her hometown of Junín.

Eva again! What's with you people?

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My eye wanders to a painting to my right. Hmmm. Now this is interesting.

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What is the artist trying to say here? That life can be insecure? That an errant breeze can put one into an unforeseen situation? What do you think?

Bill, Judy and Jean are all getting massages and facials. I'm getting fat. For me, this is a very, very different way of passing the holidays.

To all of you, my best wishes for a wonderful Christmas. As we say in Argentina, Fröhliche Weihnachten.

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Puerto Madero, Where Yuppies Dwell

Our White House has its equivalent in Argentina: La Casa Rosada—the Pink House. The Pink House indeed. You don't go starting a war with Margaret Thatcher if your presidential mansion is called the Pink House.

The President of Argentina doesn't live there. Apparently the chief executive has some ten residences from which she can select on any given day, depending on her mood and, I guess, on who she's entertaining.

Some might consider ten presidential houses as a sign of an aristocratic elite enriching itself at the expense of the governed. Like in any other Latin American country. But this of course cannot be true, because Argentineans aren't Latins.

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In front of Casa Rosada, we have a monument to Christopher Columbus. Veneration of the discoverer of the New World is less controversial in Argentina than elsewhere, given that Columbus began the chain of events that ultimately permitted all those Italians and Germans to migrate here.

Between Casa Rosada and Rio de la Plata lies Puerto Madero, the city's old dockyards. Displaced by modern shipping facilities located elsewhere, Puerto Madero fell into decay, until developers recognized an opportunity.

Puerto Madero has undergone urban renewal eerily similar to the renovation of San Francisco's SOMA. There, decaying factories have been transformed into the million dollar condominiums and office complexes that today house the center of the dot com universe. Here in Buenos Aires, old docks have been sandblasted, re-roofed and otherwise turned into prime retail and residential real estate.

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The dockyards still retain the old cranes, repainted to look like modern sculpture. They appear to be in working condition, but I can't see any actual work for them to do. No matter. They're a visual delight.

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A 21st-Century suspension bridge crosses one of the boat basins. Whoever designed this project has created an incredibly interesting space.

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At street level, the old dock buildings house hundreds of retail businesses. Most are chains or franchises. I didn't see a Starbucks, but we all know they're there. It was the restaurant below that caught my eye.

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Yes, brought direct to you from Mall of America, the pride of American culture.

The place is jammed. In a sophisticated, European city, everyone wants to eat at Hooters. Go figure.

One travel writer dismisses Puerto Madero as a yuppie wasteland. There's some truth to his observations, but these old dockyards are a pleasant place for strolling, for hanging out in a café. I spent several hours here, feeling sleepy and content, just like I do among San Francisco's über-yuppies inhabiting the renewed waterfront, down by the new Giant Stadium.

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Un-Latin America

South America, Central America, Mexico—it's all Latin America, right?

Argentineans don't think so. Argentineans don't think of themselves as Latins. When you ask, they'll tell you that Peruvians are Incas, Mexicans are Aztecs, and Guatemalans are nobodies. An Argentinean is, well, a kind of European. Or something.

Argentina escaped the iron grip of Sixteenth-century Spanish aristocracy because the place turned out not to be worth much, at least compared with Peru and Mexico with their precious metals. Like we did in the U. S. and Canada, Argentineans did a bang-up job of exterminating the indigenous population, opening up lots of temperate, fertile land for settlement and thus permitting Continental Europeans to participate in their own version of Manifest Destiny.

This means lots of white skin and a fair number of real blondes. Brown faces occur infrequently; the olive complexion of Italian descendants, of which there are many, is the closest you'll come to seeing people of color.

European influence is everywhere. Like in house design. There's nothing Latin about this... what... chalet? It looks like something out of the Black Forest.

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I've seen trains like this one in Amsterdam. It's neat and clean and runs quietly and precisely, tootling sweetly when it comes to crossings. We're looking at German precision, here. No broken down rust bucket being pushed down the track by a gang of campesinos.

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These public telephone call boxes are lifted straight out of England. You won't find them anymore in the U. K., but they're a fixture in Buenos Aires, along with public clocks with Roman numerals on their faces.

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Does this woman look Mexican or Brazilian or Chilean to you? Probably not.

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I'd guess French, although her sunglasses and red wristwatch band point to Italy. French women of a certain age have a propensity for adopting revealing, hyper-stylish appearances. No over-50 Mexican woman would wear an extreme push-up bra like hers, would she? Wouldn't want to be branded a puta by the neighbors. And I don't think many would go for a nose job either.

How about this old guy? I can hear the mandolins tinkling. If ever there were direct descendants of Romulus, this guy is one of them.

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His Spanish has an Italian accent. That's no Mexican sombrero on his head. Few Mexicans of his generation would unbutton their shirts two buttons . It's immodest. Unless they had handfuls of gold chains to show off. No, this guy would be perfectly at home sitting on a piazza in Palermo, sipping grappa.

Latin Americans these days have begun looking at their national identities as informed by their indigenous roots. In contrast with Argentineans, few Mexicans have pure European blood. There's a little Indio in all of them. Sometimes a lot. Mexico, after the revolution, turned away from Europe and began to explore what it was to be Mexican. An explosion in Mexican art and writing followed. Mexico has an identity.

Argentineans lack an native character to draw on, so they have to turn to Europe to find their cultural roots. How, then, do they visualize themselves? Are they descendants of Spanish conquistadors? How do you account for the half of the population whose ancestors come from Italy? Also, there's all those ethnic Germans whose grandparents were too low in the Nazi hierarchy to warrant prosecution but too high to escape the wrath of their neighbors. Argentina was, for them, a bolt hole. British? French? They're here. The French are growing fine wines in Mendoza. Recently the Japanese have been arriving, lured by low real estate prices.

We talked with our friend Fabian about his heritage. He's trilingual: Spanish from his father and his native country, Italian from his mother, and English from school so he could get ahead in the world. But even his English is European. His accent is like every Belgian or Norwegian I've ever spoken to, with that unmistakable British public school accent. You'll never hear "Ay, no es my chob, man" in Argentina.

Fabian says to define an Argentinean is complicated, but in one way it's simple: "We are not Latins."

I think he's right.

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Cementerio de La Recoleta

My purportedly exclusive barrio, where my apartment is situated, is called Recoleta, named after a famous cemetery.

What do you do when you move into a new neighborhood? You go visit the neighbors.

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Cementerio de La Recoleta is the final resting place for many of Argentina's rich, famous and powerful: presidents, authors, military officers and plutocrats among them.

The place is interesting because it is laid out like a small city—passages lined with mausoleums—small buildings, really. Like any city, it has its high-end neighborhoods...

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...and it has its slums. Like all real estate, it's about location.

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Some mausoleums are little more than ruins. This one contains coffins that have been broken open and is used to store garden tools. Rest in peace, indeed.

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Apparently, there's a recent trend for urban renewal; a ladder signals that renovation is underway.

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Restoring an angel's wings requires the services of experts.

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Statuary abounds. On the left, we see Christ descended from the cross; on the right, Father Time checks his hourglass.

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Former presidents and authors often get represented by statues of themselves. A frequent pose is one of enlightening the masses; amazing when you consider that most of these guys were robber barons or tyrants. Nice guys don't often make it into Recoleta.

Below we have the grave of General Juan Lavalle, a national hero and a direct descendant of Hernán Cortés. He is honored with a life-sized cast bronze statue. His sword is drawn but broken, not because of vandals, but because the statue was made that way, to indicate that he died in battle.

Most of Lavalle's body is not interred here. Dying in the northern wilds, his body decomposed. Finally, his soldiers boiled what was left of his remains, returning only his bones to Buenos Aires.

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A plaque beside the door of his mausoleum reads:

Grenadier! Sail among your dreams, and if you awaken, note that your native country admires you.

My eye was drawn to rotating vents atop some of the mausoleums. Why vent them,? I mean, it's not like the inhabitants are uncomfortable. The vents look to me like they were fabricated from old tin cans. Like they might be in Mexico. Surely I'm mistaken.

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There were plenty of visitors. Most intently studied maps of the cemetery, maps that locate the graves of particularly famous people.

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After much note taking and discussion, the crowds set out looking—for the grave of Eva Perón. Nobody else. They ask each other, "Where is Evita's grave?"

What is with people anyway? A third-rate actress presides over the final ruin of what was once the 14th richest country in the world, and she becomes a cult figure, an object of adoration.

We all had a shot at allowing her to sink into obscurity, and then that damn musical came out, and now a whole generation thinks she was some kind of Mother Teresa, caring for poor, downtrodden Argentineans, fighting for the welfare of the poor.

Andrew Lloyd Webber as history professor. Great.

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The Night Time Is the Right Time



I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes

Rolling Stones, Paint it Black

—§—

Nights in Buenos Aires are balmy. Young couples walk along streets strung with festive ropes of lights. The girls are so pretty; they make my teeth ache.

I'm remembering when I was a teenager in New Jersey, strolling hand-in hand down the midway at Lake Hopatcong Amusement Park with Alix Acheson. Alix with her long, long hair and pullover sweaters. It was a warm, humid night, filled with the mystery of new love.

I lived in a trouble-free world then. Well, except for my frustrations with Alix's coy reticence. Here in BsAs, evenings in my Recoleta neighborhood revive the old sense of mystery, of possibility.

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Cafés, theaters, and bookstores line broad sidewalks. People sit outside eating pizza and drinking coffee. Everything is in motion.

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Even the street performers are pretty good. This man is playing from his own hand-written arrangements—a serious musician. Neighborhoods feel safe and wholesome. Young women wear diaphanous dresses. They are catered to by intense young men. The night is for pairing up, for romance.

—§—

We're gonna come around at twelve
With some Puerto Rican girls that are just dyin' to meet you.

—Rolling Stones, Miss You

A ten-minute taxi ride across town, a different kind of love awaits.

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She doesn't look like she's actually hoping for a date, does she? She's tired and bored—just going through the motions. Whatever might come from your encounter with her, it'll bear little resemblance to those early dates at Lake Hopatcong. You and she are long past the days of young love. Honestly, you'll experience more intimacy with your barber.

Can you sink any lower? You can. A row of public telephones stretches along pedestrianized Florida Street. Each has a half-dozen business cards stuck to it.

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The cards bear the address and phone number of Rocio, who describes herself as a rubia infernal—a blonde hellcat. She doesn't specify the services she's offering, but lest you misunderstand, she includes her photograph, posed on hands and knees in her underwear, her butt facing the camera. Not her best side.

She devotes precious space on her card announcing that her facilities are air conditioned. "Air conditioned! Hey, that does it for me. What are we waiting for?"

I think maybe Rocio could use a marketing consultant.

—§—

It's 2 AM. Dinner is over. We're walking through a mall where a surprising number of businesses are still open, mostly fast food places.

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We encounter an old guy with a huge bushy beard. He has hundreds of pieces of silver jewelry spread out on a blanket on the sidewalk. Jean and Judy walk over. Bill and I look at each other. The night's not over yet.

Twenty minutes later, out two girls have made the jeweler's night for him. Those two can shop anywhere, anytime.

It's a sign of how priorities shift with age, that Bill and I patiently stand by while the ladies add to their burgeoning jewelry boxes. Long gone are thoughts of Rocio and the bar lady and the sweet little butterflies that inhabit the Recoleta cafes.

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Restaurante El Establo

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One steak down; 59 to go. At the official tourist rate of two steaks per day.

Actually. the guidebooks have it all wrong. Vegetarian food may not be easy to find in Buenos Aires, but it's here. We're in a cosmopolitan city with an international community. Good Italian restaurants are common. You can get a nice salad anywhere. Excellent (but fattening) desserts. Gelato. Exquisite crepes called panqueques. Better coffee than in Mexico. I found eight Japanese restaurants in the yellow pages. You don't have to pig out on rare beef.

But if you eat meat, you'll want to try the charcoal-grilled steaks. Judy took us to a parrilla restaurant she had discovered on a previous trip: El Establo.

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El Establo is one of those places that gives travelers a smug, insider feeling. It's for regulars. It makes no effort to cater to foreigners. The decor is utilitarian.

It reminds me of Original Joe's Restaurant in San Jose, CA, an institution for over 50 years, where most of the waiters have worked for almost that long and none of whom are impressed with you. At El Establo, you get a table for as long as you want it. A waiter of supernatural competence remains at hand for your entire meal, taking orders, making recommendations and serving you flawlessly, without fuss or attitude.

Well, unless you get in his way to take a picture or something. Then he shoos you off to the side. El Establo is for good food, good conversation and good company. It's not a place to bring Tiffani for her 27th birthday, guests posing around the table flashing party picture smiles.

We arrived at dinnertime: 11 PM. Bill and his Mom, familiar with the local cuisine, ordered starters: Riñones and provoleta.

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Riñones, the dish with the lemon wedges on top, are grilled kidneys. Now, I've never been a fan of them, owing to an unfortunate childhood incident involving my mother and a plate of kidneys she had failed to "boil the piss out of." But Judy ordered enthusiastically, and having myself consumed, not one month ago, a handful of deep-fried braided pig guts, I went along with the program. Of course, the kidneys were excellent: smoky, savory, lean.

Provoleta is a potato torta: layered potato slices with ham, cheese, roasted red bell peppers, fresh tomatoes and basil. I don't have to tell you how yummy that was.

Bill tried to place orders with the waiter for the entire meal when he ordered the riñones and provoleta. The waiter gently corrected him: No need for hurry here; the whole evening lies ahead; order when you're ready for it.

Argentineans have a refreshingly direct approach to preparing steak: Cow —> Fire —> Plate. No marinades. No sauces. No seasonings. You order it a punto—medium rare. Any other way marks you as a cretin.

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It isn't Kobe beef. It isn't corn-fed Kansas City beef. A few days ago it was a half-wild, muddy, burr-encrusted steer somewhere out on the Pampas. An animal of no pedigree, it munched wild grasses and drank silty water until some gaucho caught it. Wouldn't surprise me if he shot it. Apparently, to the gaucho's practiced eye, it wasn't good enough for his own dinner, so he sent it on to Buenos Aires for undiscerning city slickers.

It tasted divine.

At an adjacent table, four friends shared dinner. They were in the restaurant when we arrived at 11. This photo was taken at 1 AM. Still going strong.

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They were having a great time, telling jokes, arguing, enjoying the meal and each others' company. They ordered continuously and in no particular order whenever their appetites moved them: a little blood sausage, some arugula salad, a steak, maybe some ribs, coffee, crème caramel, a piece of grilled salmon, a plate of onion rings, some ice cream... where did they put it all? Only two bottles of wine for the four of them, but I've never seen a group enjoy themselves more.

We Americans are less prone to languid meal-taking. There's a school play to get to. We gotta get up at 6 to make it to the morning status meeting on time. Grab a tub of extra-crispy KFC on the way home and sit in front of the tube watching House.

Eat in a restaurant until 1 AM? On a Monday night? What, are you crazy?

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Following the Sun

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They tell you in tourist brochures that San Miguel de Allende "enjoys spring-like temperatures year round". No it doesn't. In December and January, it gets cold. Why, last night the low was 40º. And before you Minnesotans tee off on me like I'm some kind of wuss, you try living in uninsulated stone buildings with no central heating. I know a lot of Canadians who come down here and whine about our cold winters, so I'm not taking any guff.

Every year it's like this. There are days where the temperature barely breaks 70º. Mexican people, in particular, seem to be particularly affected by what they would call the bitter cold. You see them in down jackets, mufflers wrapped around their lower faces, hunched over against the icy wind.

I've been colder in San Francisco, but four years of living in Mexico has taken all of the starch out of me.

Jean and I look for some kind of relief around Christmastime. Usually we wind up at the beach: Akumal, Puerto Vallarta, small towns north of Banderas Bay. This year we decided to try something different.

We flew to Argentina.

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As we touched down at Buenos Aires' Ezeiza International Airport, we passed over terrain that looked like the Texas Hill Country in summer: shimmering sun, a little haze, green grass, leafy trees.

The Little Drummer Boy played softly on the aircraft PA system. Surreal.

Early in the last century, Argentina was one of the dozen or so richest countries in the world. Frequent economic collapse has relegated the country to the pack of also-rans, but driving through the countryside, I can see echos of the old wealth, and the huge promise of the country. Roads are good. Everyone has a car. Houses are built to European standards, some with ornately-laid high-fired brick. You can drink the water. Really.

Argentina is no banana republic.

Six months ago, along with some friends of ours, we reserved apartments in an upscale neighborhood. This is our building.

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Boring, no? We chose to live in an apartment because we'll be staying for a month, and because I want to experience living here, as opposed to touring.

Here is Jean in our living room, settling details with Cecilia, our rental agent. Cecilia looks like she belongs in middle school. Note that she is perfectly attired for late December in a white tank top.

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In addition to a living room, we have one bedroom, an office with a WiFi hot spot, a fully-equipped kitchen, and one and one-half baths, for around $65 per day. It's utilitarian, has little charm, is perfectly located, and very comfortable. It has a concierge.

Our neighborhood is called Recoleta, named after the cemetery where rich and powerful Argentineans are buried; among them, Evita Perón. She's somewhere out there in this view of the cemetery from our balcony.

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I read an article: Argentina on Two Steaks a Day. The national diet isn't quite that limited. But beef fed on the grasses of the pampas and grilled over charcoal is the culinary crown jewel. These animals never saw a feedlot, were given neither growth hormones nor antibiotics. It's said to be the best beef in the world.

I'm tired and cranky from the 24-hour journey, and I'm hungry. I intend to put one of these steaks inside of me as soon as I get done with this post, followed by a good night's sleep.

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