The Next Best Thing

5 02 2009

I keep harping on this Argentina thing, I know. But yesterday, as I braved 19 (feels like 2) degree weather, and bent forward to protect myself from crazy winds that slanted the heavily pouring snow, I couldn’t help but pretend it was last year and I was sweating away in sunny Buenos Aires. To make myself feel better, I read about the new up-and-coming Tango scene in Miami. Tango, it seems, is the new salsa in balmy Miami, where milongas are cropping up and folks are trading the swinging hips of salsa for the regimented, sensual steps of tango (lessons required: this is one dance where improvisation just doesn’t quite work).

While I do love salsa, I can understand why the folks in Miami have a new craze. Tango is intense, riveting, and out and out dificil, but oh so amazing to watch. Observe, for example, this intricate footwork from a milonga in BA.

However, Miami, though closer than BA, is currently  still tough to get to, so I figured I’d see if  there were places closer to home to heat up the cold winter nights with a little dancing. Sure enough, there are…

Those serious about learning the dance can check out Triangulo, where a month of classes is $70 ($55 for university and high school students). Those just looking for one hot night, check out Richard Lipkin’s Guide to Argentine Tango in New York, which has a calendar jam-packed with tango happenings all over the city and beyond, and more places for classes as well. Dance Tango lists milongas and classes as well as shows, for those who love the dance but may not be ready to strut their own stuff quite yet.

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A Little Bite of Heaven

8 05 2008

As I write this, I have retreated momentarily to the bliss that is the Havanna alfajor.

To explain: a few days ago I got an email from my friend and former EuroCheapo cohort Alex Robertson Textor, with whom I had coffee plans a few days later. All the email said was “What type of alfajor do you prefer, meringue or chocolcate? I will explain later.” Perplexed, but assuming he was writing something about the alfajor and needed my expert opinion, I quickly replied that the chocolate is best by far, because the meringue gets a little crumbly and takes away from the cookie.

Turns out, though, that Alex didn’t need my alfajor expertise, and actually doesn’t even agree with it (turns out he is a meringue fan). He was asking because his sister just returned from a trip to Buenos Aires. Bearing gifts. Alex showed up for coffee today and pulled two alfajores from his (new awesome recycled products) bag for me. Chocolate coated.

I simply couldn’t believe my luck (or Alex’s generosity, parting with two of them!), and didn’t wait more than 10 seconds before diving into the first. I gave the second a little time (an hour or so) but I couldn’t let it sit there on the table without wanting to eat it, so here I am, taking another bite of chocolate covered bliss. And I know it doesn’t seem possible, but it’s better than I remembered. The cookie has the perfect balance of a little bit of crunch and a little bit of flake, but it surely doesn’t overpower the star of the show: creamy, sweet dulce de leche. Ah happiness.

So a huge THANK YOU to Alex. And, since I surely haven’t blogged about the alfajor enough, a bit about Havanna, which might just as easily be called, simply, Heaven.

Havanna stores are all over Argentina. In Buenos Aires they are almost as ubiquitous as Starbucks is in New York. Almost. But they should be. While their main product is the amazing alfajor (covered with meringue, chocolate, or white chocolate), they also sell jars of dulce de leche, candies, and other scrumptious tidbits. Of note is the Havannet: a cone-shaped, chocolate-covered beauty that consists of a small cookie and massive amounts of dulce de leche. In both the Havannet cookie and the alfajor the cookie itself is just slightly infused with lemon, just enough of it.

Then there is the coffee, which comes in tiny cups and and, of course, a cookie. Havanna has the value meal to beat out anything McDonald’s might try. For just a few dollars you get a small coffee, a cookie, and sometimes even a tiny cup of juice, all on a pretty little tray. And did I mention that the coffee drinks are almost as deliciously rich as the cookies themselves? Cappuccino, mocha, white chocolate…

Maybe if I think about it long enough Havanna will come to me. (Oh wait. It already has.)





Short List: Forgotten Fourth Passion

26 03 2008

How on earth could I—with the completion of MA in literature and the madness of December’s paper writing (which, frazzled though I was, I must admit I oddly enjoyed) in my so recent past—forget a fourth, and oh-so-important passion in my About page?

I can’t really figure it out actually, but I neglected to note a lifetime obsession with books, which ranks (gasp!) even above my love of shoes. The bookshelves in my tiny apartment as well past the point of being overstuffed with books and that’s to say nothing of all those that were left behind at my parents’ house. And yet I still enjoy trips to the bookstore whenever possible. Bookstores are actually, in my opinion, a key aspect of travel. Many cities have famous or historic bookstores that are just as important as churches and more conventional landmarks.

So because I haven’t done a list in a while, a short one featuring my top three bookstores in great destinations. (And no, Barnes and Noble has not made the cut.)

  1. City Lights Booksellers in San Francisco is a North Beach mainstay and the icon of an era. Founded by Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953, the bookstore and publishing house earned notoriety in 1956 when Ferlinghetti was caught up in (and won!) an obscenity trial for printing Allen Ginsberg‘s Howl & Other Poems. Since then City Lights has been a San Francisco institution. It stands proudly on the corner of Columbus and Broadway as a memory of the tumultuous and controversial Beat writers and all the great literature that has followed.
  2. New York’s Strand is a booklover’s heaven. It takes up most of a the block of Broadway and 12th St. in the East Village (with another location downtown) and boasts 18 miles of books. As if this weren’t enough, the books are cheap. The Strand has a huge selection of used books, but even most of the new ones are discounted. I know I’m a nerd, but I could spend hours there.
  3. El Ateneo (the Santa Fe location) in Buenos Aires has retained the architecture it had in its former incarnation as the Grand Splendid Theater. Its four stories of books, music, and movies are as exciting and lovely as the ornate theater in which they reside. There is something remarkable about having a coffee where the stage once was (and Carlos Gardel once performed), but I may just prefer cozying up with Neruda in a box seat.

And last, since I’ve already established that my talents (and passion) don’t lie in counting, I’m throwing in a bonus, since I just happened upon it again the other day: McNally Robinson Booksellers in Nolita, a cheery independent bookstore that is as much about edifying as entertaining. It’s a friendly community space that alternates its front displays based on community and progressive statements, not bestsellers. I had the pleasure of wandering through again and didn’t want to leave, especially when I found a small table with a set of beautiful books I have never seen before. It seems Penguin has a series called Great Ideas, with reprints of books that have “changed the world,” from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, all in pocket-size with simple but lovely covers.

All this book thought gave me a great idea of my own. I hereby start a new Around the World in Gold Stilettos category: book reviews. For EuroCheapo’s blog I regularly posted reviews on books relating to Europe, books that gave a sense of culture or history, so I’m reinstating that on my own blog (starting tomorrow). 





Capital (with a capital C)

20 03 2008

New cultural capital.

A NY Times travel article called Argentine Nights caught my eye (not surprisingly) on Sunday and then I received a NY Times event email the following day, announcing a Zizek Urban Beats Club show that evening at SOB’s in the Lower East Side. Unfortunately after Ginobli’s eventful St. Patrick’s Day I didn’t make it to the show, but this sudden influx of Buenos Aires renewed my obsession with the city, an obsession that began when, a little over a year ago, I edited and rewrote (the original was too painful for words) the BsAs destination guide for Classic Travel’s newly launching website. Just writing about the sprawling cosmopolitan city had me fascinated and determined that the free ticket I earned with Classic Travel must be used to go there.

And the trip there met all expectations and more. And it occurred to me that I have never once written a blog entirely about the city in which I spent the most time. Perhaps because it would require so much more than just one post. That being the case, I will limit my thoughts for the day to a response to the Times article, which, by comparing BA to Prague in the 1990s, essentially positions it as the modern day version of Bohemian Paris. At once sophisticated and gritty Buenos Aires to the creative set today is what Paris was to Stein, Picasso, and the rest. Creative types from all around the world are taking advantage of the cheap prices in BA and setting up shop (often literally: the Times article talks of new galleries, leather shops, and hotels).

The Times article goes on to talk about a buzzing art scene, inspired filmmakers, and budding writers, all of whom have found a place in the sprawling metropolis. Buenos Aires, it seems, is not just the capital of Argentina any more; some may say it’s the creative capital of the world, at least today. And being there I saw this in action. In my travel writing class alone, six (out of 12) of us were Americans who had relocated to BsAs for some period of time, to learn Spanish, to teach English, but mainly, to write. Because there is something about the pulsing with life city that just inspires.

And I was not immune. In fact, it had me wishing I had thought of that, because, to me, BA is the (much cheaper) New York of the southern hemisphere. It’s just as vibrant, just as cosmopolitan, and just as full of interesting people, most of whom have taken some sort of risk and followed some sort of dream to get there. All the things I love about NYC in fewer letters (and for fewer dollars).

So for those creative types out there that need a new bohemian surge (whether contemplating a move to “the new Paris” or not), a few popular BA resources for expats:

  • What’s Up Buenos Aires: a site that describes itself as “connecting the emerging arts and culture scene in Buenos Aires to the rest of the world” and a source for BA events, culture, and incredible photography.
  • BA Insider: a hip, glossy, and highly portable (read: the size of a thin book and easy to throw in a purse or even pocket) bi-monthly English-language mag with informational and witty insights for the expat (or foreign traveler) in the new cultural capital.
  • The Argentimes: Need I point out the obvious? I will anyway: all my talk of BA being the NYC of South America and then their English paper goes and has the same (well, close enough) name. Way to be a prophet—or something like that—me (and modest too).

There is so much more to say about vibrant, amazing Buenos Aires, but I stop at saying it still has a hold on me.





Adios Zapatos

13 01 2008

One thing to note about the salsa scene in Buenos Aires: It’s not just about wanting to dance but about being able to. We arrived at the salsa club Azúcar an hour after it opened: 1:00 a.m. There were already several people on the dance floor, dancing with impeccable technique and astounding flare. It seems a new trend in salsa is the use of hidden hand lights which go off at key moments of the dance.

To the side of the dance floor, about 12 females sat alone at about 12 random tables waiting to be asked to dance. More ladies loomed mear the dance floor with the same hope. Capirinhas in hand, we joined this latter group and quickly discerned the conundrum: The men would not ask ladies to dance unless they had seen them dancing already (aka if they had seen skill). They took one look at us gringas and kept on going.

But finally some men took pity on us. As I whirled and spun on the floor I realized it was harder than I remembered—and that I wanted to lead. I quickly got over that, however, and was soon dancing with Manuel, a very good (and very patient) dancer, but next came my second problem: my feet.

It seems that those heels I so hurriedly purchased the night before my trip in case of just this scenario were not such a good idea after all. The backs kept sliding down my heel, which was not only uncomfortable but meant that my foot kept twisting and turning sideways, making it extremely painful and difficult to dance.

So I did what any real salsa dancer would do: I carried on. This meant stumbling far too often and exclaiming to Manuel, “Son mis zapatos” until, exasperated, I finally took the shoes off. Then I was holding my own on the floor (at least in my humble opinion, that is) and had a ball twirling and dancing the night away.

And now? Well, now I’m stuck with a pair of uncomfortable shoes that I most likely won’t wear again on this trip and that most certainly take up too much space in an already stuffed backpack. Stupid shoes.

Lesson learned: Don’t salsa in uncomfortable heels. Don’t pack them either. And while we’re at it, don’t even buy them the night before your trip in the first place. Perhaps next time I’ll go dancing in my hiking boots…





What Is Travel Writing?

10 01 2008

Thursday, 10 January, 2008.

Day four of an interesting but rather grueling traveling writing course. The day we spend entirely “in the field,” researching and writing a full “city guide” for one neighborhood of Buenos Aires.

I spent the morning becoming an expert on Retiro but could not find the Plaza de Embajaro Israel, all that remains after the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy. My intense thesis work not having satiated this obsession I seem to have developed with loss and memory, I was determined to see this monument to the lost and learn how Argentines remember their turbulent history.

I was looking at my map when I encountered Julio, a thin man in his sixties with thick coke bottle glasses. He bounded up and asked what I was looking for. Confident that I had already figured it out, but eager to practice my Spanish, I told him. Then he told me how to get there. I understood about half.

Julio walked four blocks with me, and we spoke (in Spanish) the whole way. Then he pointed out the Plaza and I realized (though I didn’t tell him) that I had been on this block earlier the same morning and had merely forgotten to look. Thank God for forgetfulness. After pointing out the Plaza Julio proceeded to tell me its history. And very patiently repeated it until I understood. I’d read the history in my guidebook, but it was much more poignant hearing it from Julio. This is the real key to memory I had been seeking.

Then we parted, Julio wishing me buena suerte (good luck) on the rest of my travels. I understood that part perfectly, and I walked on feeling a bit happier, and a bit giddy that my job (at least for this week) means not just seeing amazing places, but really seeing them, through the eyes of those who live there.





I’ll be the girl with the giant backpack…

5 01 2008

Ok, I’ve done it. I managed to wade my way through the swamp of clothes that has been my living room for the past week. And I managed to fit all (or most) of it. The Squirrel, as my beloved pack was christened (though I can’t really recall why) on her virgin trip through Europe long ago, is standing tall in my living room. And by tall I don’t mean just proud: the girl is huge. But I am happy to say that I can still lug her around with the best of them. That skill came back like riding a bike. The week of preparation, however, was not so easy…

What to bring for six weeks? In Europe (for four months) I had exactly 2 pairs of jeans, 1 pair of thermals, 3 shirts and a jacket. I’m not exaggerating. But now that I’m older (and slightly prissier) that just won’t do. Not to mention hiking gear. So my week of packing in brief went something like this:

  • Five (yes five) trips to Eastern Mountain Sports to pick up gear. Partly because I kept forgetting things, partly because I wanted to make use of coupons, and partly because I just really got to love the gang there. Hey, if I can’t find a job when I get back, perhaps I’ll go work there.
  • As many trips to the drugstore to stock a pharmacy that I will now carry on my back for the next six weeks. Always best to be prepared for anything…
  • Two trips to the Outdoor World with my oh-so-patient brother because the first pair of hiking boots didn’t work out.
  • Then comes the everyday clothes. A last minute trip to Nine West to buy shoes (on sale of course) I could take for going out and not care much if their heels broke off after being stuffed in the squirrel.

But I survived, though I’m exhausted reliving it all. And now, it’s time to go. I’ll be in Buenos Aires at noon tomorrow, the girl with the towering backpack that looks nothing whatsoever like a squirrel.