Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Xeneize Connection

When you think of Italian immigrants, you typically think New York, Chicago, San Francisco, right? Well, as many of you know, my dad's side of the family is from Italy. More specifically, my dad was born in Genoa in 1952. A few years later, his family moved to the Pacific Northwest, where many cousins, uncles, etc... had already settled.

I don't know how many of those people were from Genoa precisely; I know my grandparents are from the smaller coastal towns like Varazze and Celle Ligure. But it's safe to say there's a decent-sized Ligurian population, consisting of at least my extended family, living in the Portland/Vancouver area.

Turns out the Genovese emigrated in sizeable numbers to other places too. And not just New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Back around the turn of the century, a good number of Genovese settled in the La Boca neighborhood in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It makes sense: Genoa is a port city, perhaps one of the most important port cities in the history of the world. Buenos Aires is a port city, perhaps the most important port city in South America. Residents here are nicknamed porteños, literally "people who live at the port."

So it must have been natural for the Genovese shipbuilders, fishermen, sailors, etc... to settle in a similar location.

Here's the funny thing: We didn't know anything about this history when we were planning the trip. I wanted to come to Buenos Aires for the cheap steak and wine; Liz was more excited about Tango dancing and practicing her Spanish. Pretty much completely by accident, we chose a city and even a neighborhood (San Telmo borders La Boca) that has an interesting historical connection.

And the Xeneizes (genovese dialect for "genovese," or so I'm told) have remained insulated in their culture more than you'd think after over a hundred years. At one point the collective population drafted a letter to the king of Italy proclaiming that they had founded an "independent republic of La Boca," and that they were no longer citizens of Italy. To this day, fans of the Boca Juniors soccer team refer to themselves as the "xeneizes."

There's also a culinary connection. Other than the wine and pizza, that is. In northern Italy we tried a dish called "farinata," which is basically a pizza made with chickpea flour and served without sauce. We had it topped with arugula and brie, and it was amazing.

Here they have something similar, called "faina," only they serve it sort of as a complement to regular pizza. And they don't top it with anything. We'll come back to this in the next update. First, a trip report from our first visit to La Boca, to see a Boca Juniors game.

Quick background on the Boca Juniors: At the previous game, one person was stabbed, several cars and trucks were overturned and lit on fire, and over 170 spectators were arrested. This wasn't the championship or anything; it was like the third game into the season.

So the fans have a little bit of a reputation for hooliganism. And the La Boca neighborhood is still incredibly poor and known for crime. All the guide books warn against going off the beaten path, especially at night.

Still, they recommend going to a Boca Juniors game as part of a tour group. Most hotels and hostels offer a package that includes a ride to the game and a chaperone in the "less crazy" section of the stadium. But it costs a ton... something like $80 bucks a person!

We figured we could show up at the stadium and purchase our own tickets in the "less crazy" section for a lot less. Like, 20 bucks or so. But when we arrived, the only seats available were 170 pesos each (over $50 US). If we wanted to sit in the "ultra crazy" section, we could get tickets for 24 pesos each. Ship the crazy section seats, I guess.

Luckily we met another American couple that were in the same predicament. They had planned on getting less crazy seats but were priced out. We made a pact to stick together and purchased 4 crazy tickets.

Going into the stadium is both reassuring and terrifying. You have to pass at least 4 security checkpoints at which you are frisked. You have to surrender any liquids, like you're at the airport. And finally, you have to march up a long concrete walkway already thrumming with the noise of unseen Boca supporters singing and stomping in anticipation of the match.

In reality, the game turned out to be fairly calm. My theory is that because there was a major riot the previous week, security had been beefed up and the fans knew they had to be on better behavior. Also, it was Easter, and they take Catholic holidays pretty seriously here. Finally, the Boca Juniors were playing a very poor opponent. They won the game 2-1, but it was never really close. The opponents scored a garbage goal in the last few moments when nobody cared.

So, we had a great time and felt safe throughout the match. Liz went to a soccer game in Ecuador where people were throwing bottles, lighting things on fire and at one point, the crowd was tear-gassed. So this was a walk in the park for her.

The only weird thing is right at the end of the game the Boca fans are literally blocked from leaving their section by a phalanx of riot police. This is riot-prevention 101: Give the opposing team's fans time to get away before letting the Xeniezes loose. So it was a little odd to be trapped with thousands of sweaty Boca supporters, all staring down the Police as we waited to be allowed our freedom.

In other news, our friend Kara just arrived today, so we'll spend the next couple days showing her around town and enjoying the awesome food and wine the city has to offer. We have tons more pictures, of La Boca, San Telmo and beyond, but they'll have to wait for the next update.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Home away from home

We've been in our apartment here in Buenos Aires for a little over two weeks now, and it's been a much-needed break from the rigors of traveling. For example, we don't have to live out of our backpacks, we don't have to move every other day and we have satisfied our cravings for the kind of foods we cook back home.

Actually, it's almost too cozy. It's like we are at home, except we can't hang out with our friends and family or our dog.

In a way, I think this one-month break from constant traveling is making me more homesick than traveling itself, but at the same time, it's allowing me to get excited about the idea of traveling again. When we take off again in 10 days or so, it will be novel to sleep in different beds every night, eat all of our meals out in restaurants and interact with other travelers.

Some travelers that you meet say things like, "Oh, man, the more you travel, the longer you want to keep going." Not me. I like traveling, but ultimately I want to go home. We're having phenomenal experiences everywhere we go, but home is home for a reason: All things considered, it's the best place in the world. Otherwise, you'd live somewhere else, right? I think real perpetual travelers must not have a lot to come home to.

Our friend Kara is coming down to visit us on Wednesday. We'll show her around Buenos Aires for a few days, then we'll all head down to Peninsula Valdes together, commencing our Patagonia adventures.

In the meantime we're loving the city life, recharging our batteries and eating and drinking extremely well.

Dipping sauces at Viejo Gomez. The restaurants here have a great understanding of how a meal should be paced. You almost always get a basket of bread with some kind of pate or spread as an appetizer. Then you get any actual appetizers that you have ordered. Then the main course and dessert, obviously, followed by coffee or the equivalent of a digestivo. In Asia, on the other hand, the order in which your food arrives is random. Fancier places understand that dessert comes after the meal, but they haven't quite got the hang of appetizers. In any case, here you often get two or three different sauces for your bread and/or steak. At Viejo Gomez we got the bread, two sauces, a spread and a hot, delicious empanada before we even ordered!

And the main course. This is bife de lomo, a leaner, tenderer cut than chorizo or vacio.

These aren't the best photos, but they can give you a sense of the San Telmo neighborhood. Liz promises better quality photos in the next update.

Pretty European, eh?

Another look at the neighborhood. A lot of people have compared the area's crumbling grandeur to Havana Viejo in Cuba.

Plaza de Mayo. This is in the microcentro, the heart of the city. About a 15 minute walk from our apartment. Not pictured is the , where Evita used to give her speeches and/or sing for the people of Buenos Aires.

Oh wait, there's the Casa Rosada. It's the "pink house" in the background.

Now this is a really boring picture. But just look at that sidewalk! As I understand it, previous Argentine governments were corrupt and would undertake massive public works projects in order to give fat contracts to their friends and also maybe to skim a little off the top for themselves. It may have been unsustainable economically, but hey, now Buenos Aires has really wide sidewalks and streets in a lot of areas, including the widest street in the world, Avenida 9 de Julio, about two blocks from our apartment.

In my ongoing quest to find a pickup basketball game, Liz and I headed to Palermo Viejo one afternoon in search of the Club de Amigos, a massive gym/park complex. And we stumbled across several street parillas (grills) like this one. A single Choripan (sausage and roll) costs 3.5 pesos. About $1.10 US.

Palermo Viejo has lots of green space, including a zoo. Apparently it all used to be part of some politician's estate. When he was deposed/executed/whatever, the city turned it into park land. Again, city planning at its finest! Hope you're taking notes, Seth.

One of the locals enjoying Yerba Mate. It's basically green tea that you typically brew in a hollowed out gourd and then drink through a filtered straw. You often see people walking around the street sipping on their gourds with a thermos of warm water handy for refills.

We picked up the gear, but we haven't fully acquired the taste yet.

Steak dinner at Des Nivel, a boisterous, colorful restaurant in the heart of San Telmo.

Here's what they had on tap.

Enjoying the cafe lifestyle. Wake up at 11am, head to the cafe for lunch at 2:30 or 3pm, nap, dinner at 11pm. It's a hard-knock life.

Yesterday was Good Friday and the city was pretty quiet. We were going to head over to La Boca, but decided that with the streets being fairly deserted it wasn't the safest day for it. So instead we walked down to the nature reserve that borders San Telmo. We'd both been down here before--Liz runs one of the trails practically every morning--but we'd never seen it so packed. We think that a lot of the families that can't afford to head out of town for the holiday weekend come down here instead.

The place was covered in pro-choice graffiti.

A dreaded street performance. At least there was little danger of involuntary crowd participation on my part... this guy was already trapped.

It's great to have a nature reserve so close. The trail we hiked reminds me of Leif Erickson, but not nearly as heavily forested.

As you can see, it's right next to the city.

When we finished hiking, we saw this storm roll in.

Hardly anybody seemed to be paying attention, but I knew it was going to be fierce.

I finally convinced Liz to stop taking pictures so we could get the hell out of there, but she managed one or two more as we fought through the winds to get back home.

That's all for now, but you can expect another solid update before we leave Buenos Aires. Liz, having practically become the official photographer for Viva Robusto at this point, has promised higher quality photos in particular.

If you're new to the blog, I finally got around to fixing the html so the navigation isn't squished all the way down at the bottom of the page. If you look to the right, you can now easily browse by date or label. And I will fix the RSS link asap, so you can get automagic notification every time we update.

Until then, ciao!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

15 time zones later, the view from Buenos Aires

Now that we're fairly settled in here in Buenos Aires, it's time for some photos.

Sunrise on one of our four flights. Let's see... I think this was the flight from LA to San Jose, Costa Rica. The whole thing feels like kind of a blur now. Did I mention it took us 49 hours to get here?

Still, nothing a hot shower, cafe con leche and some clean laundry can't fix.

Our second meal out, we familiarized ourselves with the local brew, Quilmes. Quilmes Cristal, to be precise. That's right, we're finally sipping Cristal.

Liz and I felt differently about this pizza, but we agreed on one thing: It's a lot closer to the pizza back home than the pizza in Asia. For the record, I didn't like it as much as her.

This was pretty good, though. Ravioli con pesto. The pesto wasn't as good as real Genovese pesto, but, again, compared to some of the pasta we saw in Asia, it was a treat.

Dulce de Leche. Not just a flavor of ice cream in Argentina. It's a caramel-flavored, Nutella-esque spread that the locals use on just about everything. These are just a couple little pastries slathered in the stuff that we picked up from a local bakery. They weren't as good as they looked.

This is an oversized novelty steak. Seriously, what the hell! I didn't know meat came this big. I orderd the vacio (flank steak). What I got was like the entire flank of a two-ton Angus. Even more impressive, this cut is boneless. I almost ate half.

Game face: On

Only tape. I'm guessing their business has been tapering off for a while. At least I was able to show some support for their dying business model with my T-shirt.

Poo brand cleaning supplies! I'm so glad we have a whole new country filled with Engrish to keep us amused.

This dog was hilarious. We were walking down the street in Palermo Viejo when we saw her resting her head on a stuffed animal outside a candle shop. It was cute, so Liz ran to get a shot. But before she could snap the photo, the dog was up and its owner was showing off her tricks. Like, play dead with a stuffed rabbit in her mouth.

Liz spoke to the guy for a few minutes in Spanish. Apparently foreigners always want to take pictures of his dog. The guy was so genuine and friendly... just like everyone else we've met in this country so far... from strangers on the bus helping with directions to our new landlord and his leasing agent.

This is where I'm currently writing the blog. And where I should be writing my novel. I'll get on it.

Ok, this photo sucks. But I had to post it, because it's the best meal I've had so far in Argentina. Bife de Chorizo con pure de papas y espinaca at a place called Los Loros in the San Telmo neighborhood. 30 pesos, aka $9.52 US. That's less than the BK value meal at LAX!

I could blow through a lot of adjectives trying to describe how good it was, but I'll just stick with one that should cover the entire meal: sublime.

Sunday in San Telmo. The neighborhood transforms itself... from sleepy and slightly worn around the edges to the most bustling barrio in BsAs. The cops block off Defensa street so tourists, street performers, tango dancers, vendors and, well, more cops can flood the cobblestoned corridor for more than a mile.

At the center of it all is Plaza Dorrego, legendary home of sexy outdoor Tango exhibitions. All right, someone needs to update the guide book.

Lomito... aka steak sandwich. 11 pesos ($3.49). Basically, two pieces of toast and a hunk of steak. No condiments in sight. My kind of meal.

Street performers aren't usually my bag, but some of the ensembles were actually pretty dang good. Liz almost bought their CD.

One downside to living in San Telmo is that most of the grocery stores within walking distance suck. It's especially lame as we are hoping to cook a decent percentage of our meals at home. But while these stores may not have, say, saffron, yeast, real olive oil, Saran Wrap or any of the other fancy-pants items we find ourselves wanting, one thing they have in spades is cheap booze.

When the most expensive liter of vodka available is $3.61 US (divide pesos by 3.15 to get the US price), you know you're bargain shopping.

One of our first homemade dinners: Butternut squash risotto with pancetta. It doesn't look great and, again, the photo is lacking, but this actually turned out really well.

Dog-walkers are a common sight here in Buenos Aires. As are the dogs' leavings; the dog walkers aren't required to pick up after their clients.

Things can get a little hairy when you're trying to walk eleven 50-pound dogs at once.

Cementerio de la Recoleta, filled with the decaying corpses of some of Buenos Aires' most prominent former citizens.

I had low expectations... it's a popular tourist site, and looking at a bunch of gravestones didn't sound all that appealing to me. But the place is actually really impressive.

Most of the tombs are huge, some have an upstairs, and almost all of them have catacombs. Many are bigger than hotel rooms I've stayed in.

With a prime location in the middle of Recoleta, the cemetary is reserved for the truly elite (aka rich). But the economic crisis of 2001 affected even some of the old-money families, who could no longer afford to maintain their family plots here.

So among the towering marble and granite tombs, you'll see a few that have fallen into total disrepair, with shattered glass, litter... even this!

Catacombs beneath one poorly maintained tomb.

The rest of the place is magnificent.

And here's Evita's final resting spot.

On a mission to find and purchase a pair of basketball shorts, Liz and I happened into a fancy movie theater complex in the Recoleta neighborhood, complete with arcade. I convinced her to play some air hockey and whack-a-mole.

El Ateneo, a bookstore rivaling Powell's in cool factor if not in selection.

Liz tries a "submarino," basically a cup of hot milk with a chocolate bar in it.

A view of our apartment from the patio.

One of the things I've been missing passionately: Homemade french bread with artisan salami. Yep, it's good to be in a place with a kitchen.

That wraps it up for now. This week we may begin volunteering at a program called L.I.F.E. in Recoleta, and I will definitely conclude my search for a venue in which to play basketball to offset the immense amount of steak, wine and salami I am consuming. Ciao!