What Color is Your Underwear?

During Christmas week the lingerie store windows all over Buenos Aires were decked out in pink underwear. Pink underwear bodes good luck in the coming year in this part of the world.

In Mexico, we wait until New Year’s to change our Fruit of the Loom, and then we have to go through that ordeal of making decisions. Red for passion, yellow for money, or white for health. And then you’re supposed to wear it inside out or keep it on for 24 hours, or something like that.

But then you could always wash the red with the white, which eventually always seems to happen even to the most fastidious laundry-sorters, giving yourself a head start on next Christmas.

Working Grandmother

At the next table at my café in a small corner of Palermo are a grandmother and the child of her child. This is a neighborhood café, a relatively upscale place in an upper middle class neighborhood. The teenager, who appears to be about fifteen years old, has long dirty dishwater blonde hair and is dressed in nice jeans. The old lady’s clothing, linen pants, silk blouse and her Ferragamo Vara shoes, clearly weren’t bought in Buenos Aires. Miami, most likely.

The girl orders a pizza and a Coke, and her grandmother has a glass of wine and a salad. Both are carrying on polite conversations, but the girl shows a level of manners beyond simply good breeding. She’s working on her grandmother for something, and the crescendo slowly builds. They are speaking Castellano to one another in quiet, measured tones.

Finally, the girl bursts out with “So I can get a better job!” In English. It’s fairly clear that job prospects are not exactly the top priority in this kid’s agenda.

I start to eavesdrop more carefully. The reason behind the girl’s supper with her grandmother becomes more interesting.

‘But David and Pilar went,” she said. “And I can learn to speak better English.”

The grandmother remains very calm, in that deliberate way that only old ladies of a certain generation and style can pull off.

The girl pleaded her case about why she should go abroad, mixing her English with Castellano. The grandmother responds only in English to the girl, who is somewhat taken back by her response. She cannot believe what she is hearing. The grandmother tells her that if she is so desperate to improve her English-language skills, she can begin right now by continuing the conversation in English. And she could talk to her grandmother any time she wanted in English. The girl’s jaw drops, in the “I so totally cannot understand what I am hearing” way of teenage girls who’ve been caught up short. The grandmother just isn’t buying the story about the girl’s ardent desire to improve her language skills. She knew the kid just wanted to get out of Argentina.

The reunion did not end well as the girl stormed out of the restaurant ahead of her grandmother.

But there are unanswered questions. Where exactly did the girl want to go, and why did her grandmother deny her the money?


Are You Really What You Read?

At airports are the books Kinky Friedman once described as the “mandatory FAA-approved reading material.” Get on any plane, and you’re apt to see at least half of the passengers, at least the ones who can read, reading the latest Grisham. For some reason, hardly any are reading The Mile High Club. But for that matter, none of them are reading my book, even if it’s been a best-seller by some standards.

Bookstores are the pulse of any neighborhood. In Buenos Aires, if you’re around the law school, there are lots of books about law. In Villa Freud, lots of books about thinking about what we’re thinking about and trying to decide what it all means. Go to Boca Raton, and you’ll find Carl Hiaasen, Carolina Garcia Aguilera, Dave Barry, and Florida’s other finest writers. In Naples, the shelves are filled with romance novels. At San Francisco’s City Lights, you’ll find poetry. I should be concerned when I go to a bookstore that’s filled with true crime, but I’m usually too busy perusing the shelves there myself to care.

I can’t pass up a bookstore, even if it’s selling books I’m not particularly interested in reading. The culture and marketing are what count. It’s not what’s between the covers that counts, but how the book is positioned and sold. The most compelling prose means nothing if no one buys it.

So what have I seen on the front tables of almost every chain bookstore in Buenos Aires? Books about Nazis, Eva, Nestor Kirchner and his lovely bride Cristina, Evita, Che and Eva Perón, buttressed by stacks of The Secret and Victor Sueiro’s Cronica Loca.

Units of Value

There was a time when I valued everything in divorces. What I could spend was measured by the number of divorce clients. Some people think in terms of frozen orange juice and pork belly futures, barrels of oils, and dinars.

image And then I switched to measuring everything by the going rate for a pair of Ferragamo Vara. But then there are only so many shoes one can reasonably collect, and the price has nearly doubled in the past decade.

The unit of value today is the eskandar, well-designed and finely crafted pieces of clothing designed by Eskandar Nabavi, an Anglo-Iranian designer based in London. Each time I’m tempted to buy something, I think of the purchase as one-quarter of an eskandar, half an eskandar.

Sadly, neither Ferragamo nor eskandar is sold in Mexico. Or Argentina for that matter. That’s probably in my best interests. But you can always find both in New York.

Bovine Rush

Meat and magazines are benchmarks of a civilized culture, and Meatpaper, a new magazine calling itself “Your Journal of Meat Culture,” brings them both together. I’d love to get my hands on a copy. In fact, if you’re reading this, please buy me a year’s subscription for Christmas. It’s not only about content; surely this one’s got scratch-and-sniff advertising strip with beefy aroma and plenty of advertising for knives. And maybe shoes.

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Politics at the Fragata

It’s a clear and sunny morning, and I’m at the Buque Museo Fragata Presidente Sarmiento in Puerto Madero, considering whether to the descend the ladder-like stairs to view the cadets’ quarters. Seeing a well-dressed couple, perhaps a decade my senior, weighing the same decision, I decide to defer to them, figuring that if they can make it down the ladder, so could I. Instead the man asks me where I’m from, and before I can answer, he launches into his opinion of Argentine politics. Another unsolicited monologue:

You know about the new president? What do you think of her? Let met tell you what’s wrong with this country: it’s the politicians. They are ruining the place, driving it into the ground. Now the military was bad, but the politicians are even worse. It’s terrible, and there is no end. You know that no one decent voted for Cristina? No one with a brain would. You know that, right? It’s about more than the economy. The universities are bad. The only good one is the Universidad de San Andres. But we have more Nobel Prize winners than Brazil ever will. The politicians in this country are bad.

What brought that on? I have no idea. Maybe I’ve been wearing some kind of sign on the back of my Maria de Guadalajara which says “Tell me what you really think of Cristina.” Really, I’m not asking anyone.

You Never Really Leave Michoacán, Texas and Iowa

You’ve heard the adage that it takes no more than eighty random people to come up with someone who shares the same birth date. The numbers are even less for running into someone from Michoacán. A few weeks ago, the first Estadounidense I met had roots in my adopted state. Her grandmother was from some town which started with a z, but she didn’t remember whether it was Zitacuaro, Zacapu, Zamora, Zinapecuaro, Zurumbeneo, Tzintzunzan, or even Tzurumutaro. That part didn’t really matter; what mattered was the amazing, or maybe not so amazing, odds of running into someone with Michoacán ties so quickly.

“So, what is your Estadounidense connection?” she asked.

“I vote in Texas.”

The second person I met, of course, was a Texan.

My roots, from college through a decade ago, were in Iowa. And what did I receive the day after? An e-mail from someone with Roosevelt High School ties who went to school during the Bill Bryson era with my law school classmates who was now in Buenos Aires. Everyone who was anyone in Des Moines during a certain era went to Roosevelt.

Michoacános, Texans and expatriate Iowans are everywhere.




In Line at Disco

This afternoon I stopped at Disco, the neighborhood supermarket, to pick up a few things. As I stood in line, wondering whether Friday was really a smart time to buy anything, given that everyone else had the same idea, a lady behind me struck up a conversation. Actually, it was more a monologue than a conversation:

Can you believe the price of cheese? Cheese shouldn’t cost so much. How can cheese cost so much? This is the best grocery store in the city, and its prices are always reliable. Now, you can go to Carrefour, and they’ve got specials, but in the end, Carrefour always costs more than Disco. The damn government and the damn inflation. Cristina, she’s in bed with Chavez. The Antonini briefcase, why that’s just the beginning. You know, no one in this city voted for her, none of the decent people voted for her. But it’s no use. They just hand out stuff to the poor and the ignorant, and they buy votes. There’s nothing I can do about it. I was born in Buenos Aires, and I’ve lived in this same neighborhood for twenty years. It’s a good place. Now, look at these potatoes. These are just common potatoes. Can you believe what they’re charging for them? It’s robbery, I tell you, but it’s not the store’s fault. Yes, we have good potatoes in Argentina.

I guess she wasn’t impressed by what Cristina wore.

Call Me a Taxi

I am not one to take up conversations with cab drivers. All I really want is a clean taxi and a driver who knows where he’s going.

In Chicago, it’s rare to find a cab driver who speaks English. They all have names comprised entirely of consonants, drive filthy cabs, act like they’re doing the world a great favor by ferrying passengers from hither to yon, and are rude to boot. I’m not even going to mention how bad they smell. If playing the “no change” game isn’t enough, they’re arrogant enough to expect a tip.

A few months ago in Philadelphia, I encountered an incredibly rude cab driver. After he finished chattering away on his cell phone, I let on that I knew he was Turkish. That much I could tell from his conversation. Instantly his demeanor changed, and he became most gracious, telling me about what part of Istanbul he was from. The same thing had happened the year before in Miami.

In Morelia, I get two kinds of cab drivers: those who just moved to the city last month and those who know where I live. The former don’t know their way around the city, yet they have the gall to ask me what I’m doing living in Morelia. Why should I have to justify why I live where I do to them? It’s bad enough telling them how to get from Point A to Point B. The latter just want to complain about politics and the economy.

The Buenos Aires cab drivers are a different breed. They strike me as more educated than the average cab driver, initiating interesting conversation. They don’t ask me where I’m from or what I’m doing here. They simply want to know where I want to go, and then they might add some useful comment along the way. They know where they’re going and how to get there. Yesterday’s driver had a photo of a Doberman on his dashboard, so I mentioned something about his dog, which led to hearing all about how great the breed is and how sad he was that the dog only lived for eleven years. The next driver volunteered how Palermo Chico was so much better than Puerto Madero before launching into a comparison of the world’s religions. And the day before, I heard about how Buenos Aires gives free English lessons to cab drivers, which isn’t much help when they have to deal with a bunch of drunken Germans. When you take a taxi in this city, you get more than just transportation.

Sensible Shoes

tapa_chica Today Caras hit the newstands, and AR$8.30 (roughly $2.75 USD) bought me a better look at Cristina’s garb. The shoes were totally wrong; no president should ever be seen in public wearing those witch-like needle-toed heels, even if it is Argentine summer where the white after Labor Day rules don’t apply. Something from Taryn Rose would’ve looked a tad more well-heeled. But then I’m not in her shoes.

And yes, I’ve been known to buy Caras in Mexico, just to see what the people who’re invited to parties that I’m not are wearing. And to sit back and critique what they pulled out of the closet.

The Lady Wore White

U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao and I have a lot in common. We’re both in Buenos Aires for the inauguration of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Argentina’s new president. Now, I’m not too sure about her politics, but I like her a lot more than Hillary Cloneton. Cristina Fernández has so much more style than her Estadounidense counterparts.

What’s a president to wear? If you’re male, it’s easy: a suit. But for women, the decision is far more difficult. A dress for success suit just doesn’t cut it. And then there’s the matter of coming up with a color that doesn’t clash with the sash.

Cristina wore an off-white lace coat with a princess collar and three-quarter length sleeves over a plain sheath of the same color. It was an absolutely perfect mix, matching the formality of the occasion without heading over to the Mother of the Bride department.

At the moment she was being sworn in, I was at the atelier of Susi Hammer, trying on a coat of red and green Italian linen, finally finding a designer whose idea of style matched mine. I had absolutely no idea how moda light coats were.

Tonight as I watch the festivities on television from my apartment in Recoleta, I’d like to think that Argentina’s new president has set the standard for what women who’re president are supposed to wear.