Buenos Dias Buenos Aires
We are really here, living abroad in an apartment in a foreign-speaking country. It’s the morning of our third day, and I’m still getting used to the concept that this is not a vacation, this is not a transition in preparation for something else — this is it! Eight weeks after we left home, ten months after we committed to this outlandish odyssey, twenty-five years to the day after Morgan first reached out to touch my hand and pull me close, this trip felt as though it started for real when we left California on Monday morning and arrived in Buenos Aires nearly 24 hours later.
Since I’m still sorting it all out, I have notes rather than a coherent narrative to report.
The Flight: It was great. Since I have a deep and irrational fear of flying, I normally say that in hindsight about any flight (i.e. “We didn’t fall out of the sky, so it was great!”). But really, this was great, and I have my father-in-law, George, to thank for strongly suggesting we upgrade to Business Class. I set aside my guilt about splurging and fully enjoyed the fully reclinable seats (nicer than any First Class seats I’d ever seen) and our access to American Airlines’ Admiral Club Lounge during our four-hour layover in Miami (where the kids managed to settle down and do their daily “home”schooling).
Colly declared she never wanted to leave the plane because she was so happy in her tricked-out seat, and she proceeded to watch movies and indulge in the service the entire time, not sleeping a wink. Lying horizontal with a couple of beers in me, I felt as though the turbulence that normally makes me clutch the armrests was instead a hand rocking a cradle, and I slept like a baby.
To our relief and gratitude, the apartment management service got our last-minute voicemails and arranged a driver to pick us up, and also had someone meet us at the apartment at 9 a.m. to let us in (much earlier than regular check-in). We had screwed up and forgot to tell them ahead of time when exactly we were arriving, so we resigned ourselves to the likelihood we’d have to catch a cab and hang out for the morning until gaining access to the apartment at regular check-in time.
We were delighted to be welcomed to Buenos Aires so auspiciously — our luggage made it intact, we got through customs without a hitch, a driver with our name on a sign was waiting, and our apartment turned out to be everything and more that we hoped for. ¡Eso sí que es la vida! (This is the life!)
The Apartment: There are scores of Buenos Aires apartments to choose from on the vrbo.com (Vacation Rentals By Owner) site. We chose this one, on Pacheco de Melo in the Recoleta neighborhood, for its location, style, reasonable price and — this is what clinched it — what we could discern about the owner, Mila Caceras. She’s Californian and also runs a B&B in Point Reyes called One Mesa, which has received glowing reviews. She was exceedingly friendly and helpful via phone and email when we booked the place months ago.
The building dates from the mid or late 19th century and is not far from some of the most fashionable streets in the city. A cafe is on its first floor, and another cafe is across the street. We passed through a small entranceway with marble and wood trim, and were escorted into a tiny wrought-iron elevator that looks as old as the building. It holds three or four people max, so we took multiple trips to get ourselves and our baggage up. I suppressed a shriek as the elevator (which looks and rattles like a cage) lurched and shot upward five flights to the top. A marble spiral staircase winds up around the elevator shaft, and I prefer to take the stairs!
The first thing that struck me when we opened the door were the high ceilings — higher even than our home in Piedmont — and the decorative plaster molding that forms curlycues and rosettes in each corner and around each light fixture. And the light fixtures — what a wonderfully bizarre mix of old and modern: a pair of candelabra chandeliers drip oversize crystal baubles in the sitting area, while polished chrome and wavy glass flixtures over the table and in the entranceway look like they were taken from the MOMA.
The whole place has been remodeled in a design that I would never dream of doing — mixing old-world romantic furnishings with modern chic — but it really works. In the dining and sitting area, for example, the armchairs and dining room set look like French antiques, the sofa is 1950s modern, and the coffee table and countertops are polished concrete. The hallway wall is made of opaque glass that floods the space with natural light. The gorgeous wood floors and tiled entrance have been waxed and polished so that they gleam.
The overall effect is super cool yet elegant — more hip and luxurious than we’re used to — and I’m getting used to the cacophony of honking horns, revving engines and music from car windows that floats up from the street below.
The Language: Speaking Spanish has been challenging but a source of endless entertainment. After months of Morgan and the kids rolling their eyes at my attempts to teach them a bit, they’re suddenly all ears and eager to try. For example, when Morgan got in the shower and noticed there wasn’t any soap, he asked, “Sopa?” and I replied, “You wanna wash with soup?” He then carefully practiced “jabón” and learned not to confuse it with “jamón” (ham). Colly likes learning verbs such as “quiero” (I want) and “puedes darme?” (can you give me?). Only Kyle seems a bit resistant and intimidated by the strangeness of it all, and his obligatory “grassy-ass” for thank you comes out with a note of defiance.
After a couple of years of intermittently taking adult-ed Spanish classes and listening to a Spanish podcast, I can read fairly well in Spanish, but I struggle to understand speakers and can barely converse! Plus, here in Argentina, no one speaks the two styles I had developed an ear for, the rapid-fire Mexican staccato or lisping Castilian. Argentine Spanish lilts like Italian and seems to make constant reference to a guy named Joe, until you realize that all the double-L “y” sounds are pronounced like a “j,” so “yo” becomes “jo” and “pollo” is pronounced “poy-joe.”
On our first day at a minimart, where we all stood in the aisles jet-lagged and dazed by the panoply of new, strange brands and packaging (milk comes in small boxes, beer bottles are sold individually), I tried to ask the Korean-Argentine clerk where the peanut butter is (Tiene usted mantequilla de maní? — Do you have butter of peanut?). A string of Korean-Argentine-accented Spanish and quizzical looks followed. Another clerk came to help, and they proceeded to lead me around the store, showing me every type of peanut product they sold, and then taking me to the butter aisle to show me the mantequilla. I kept shaking my head, saying “para pan, con mermelada, para sandwiche!” (for bread, with jam, for sandwich!) and I mimed the action of spreading something on bread. Ah! they said, as if they finally got it, and took me to the jam aisle, proudly showing their wide selection of marmalade and jellies. “Con maní?” (with peanuts?) I ventured to ask, and they looked at me like I really was nuts for wanting a jam made out of peanuts. I thanked them and said I was sorry, “acabamos de llegar en Buenos Aires” (we have just arrived in BA) and they nodded sympathetically. Later, I googled “peanut butter in Argentina” and discovered other travelers wondering where to find it; apparently, it’s not a common item.
Later in the evening, I redeemed myself by placing my first phonecall in Spanish and ordering take-out. We didn’t want to go out for dinner because we were so tired, and the peanut butter incident left me too flustered at the store to buy enough ingredients for a proper dinner, so we got a menu from a nearby restaurant that delivers. I studied the menu and reviewed our order — dos ensaladas mixtas, 1/2 pollo, brochette de lomo (beef loin on a skewer), tortilla a la española (Spanish version of quiche). Then I took a deep breath and placed the call.
The halting conversation that followed was more heart-thumping and nerve-wracking than any phone interview I ever did as a journalist. A barely comprehensible and hurried man answered the phone. When he detected my accent he slowed down a bit, but when I chickened out and asked “habla inglés?” he ignored the question and kept speaking Spanish. We worked through the salad order, but then the order for half a chicken did me in. French came back to haunt me and I said “demi” instead of “medio.” “Huh?” he said in the universal language of “what the f—?” I tried dropping the “half” and repeating simply, “pollo,” to which he demanded, “muslo o pechuga? muslo o pechuga?” “Pechuga?” I guessed, and that satisfied him. (He was asking “thigh or breast?” and I ordered the breast meat.) Then I ordered the beef, but was so stressed I completely forgot to ask for the tortilla española. He asked me my address, and I realized I had not rehearsed how to say our street number, 2009. Do I say “two-zero-zero-nine” or “two thousand nine”? I tried both. Then there was confusion to sort about the floor and apartment number. The phrase “trial by fire” crossed my mind. I was desperate for the call to be over (and sensed he was, too). I repeated “thank you” numerous times and hung up.
Morgan congratulated me, poured me some wine and the minutes ticked by as we waited, unsure whether nuestra cena (our dinner) would ever show up. A half hour later, we both jumped and bolted for the door when the buzzer rang. It worked! A delivery guy was there with succulent grilled meats and salads at our doorstep, we paid him 70 pesos plus 10 for tip (less than 20 US bucks total), and I finally relaxed.
The dogs: I could go into detail about our impressions of the city itself — the sights and sounds we took in on long walks together, and when Morgan and I each ventured out on a solo run — but I’ll save that for another time, except to share here one of the biggest surprises: Buenos Aires is a city full of dogs. On nearly every block at any time of day, dog walkers can be seen escorting a pack of 10 or 12 dogs down a sidewalk. Not just little toy dogs that can be carried like a fashion accessory; rather, medium- and large-size dogs in all imaginable breeds. It astounds me how a single dog walker can handle so many dogs, and how well-behaved the dogs are (some walk without a leash, following the pack). Picture well-dressed office workers and shoppers nonchalantly stepping aside to let Labradors, boxers, retrievers and German shepherds through, as though dogs always have the right of way. Big dogs are parked and tethered to railings outside of cafes and stores like bikes filling up a bike rack. They all seem well acclimated to city life, and I’m getting used to the sound of barking mixed in with the background din.
Of course, seeing all these dogs makes me miss Teddy even more, but so far, that’s the only sharp pang of homesickness I feel.