Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Celebrating 200 years of celebrating

For those of you living in Argentina, I don't need to explain what this past weekend was all about. But for those of you living in other countries, we just celebrated Argentina's bicentennial. I don't think I have ever seen so many flags in my life - it's been nothing but blue and white here for the past week.
May 25 is a public holiday celebrating the May revolution of 1810, which led to Argentina's independence. This year, because the country was celebrating it's 200th year anniversary, the holiday included the 24th as well. So, a four-day weekend and millions of Argentines can only mean one thing - one hell of a birthday bash.

The long weekend made for a tough decision - to take advantage of the holiday and go on a little trip, or to stay in Buenos Aires where countless activities took place. Fate made the decision for me, as hotel vacancies were a rarity. I forget sometimes, living here in Buenos Aires, that it is much like Japan in that you always have to think ahead. Getting a last minute movie ticket on a Saturday night or on a weekend afternoon when it is raining is wishful thinking. You just have to keep in mind that there are always a million other people with the same good idea that you have.

So with that decision made, Friday night was a quick trip to closing party for an art exhibition - Clarisa Grabowiecki at Appetite Gallery in San Telmo - and then dinner at a very cool little downtown restaurant called Dada. The food was great and the atmosphere sort of reminded me of Montreal. But it was a perfect night to be in the microcentro as they call it over here, as all the big celebrations were just getting underway, and it gave me just a taste of what it would be like trying to maneuver my way around in the crowds. The Casa Rosada was lit up extra pink, roads were cut, tents were set up and people were definitely in a party mood.

But then I got to thinking, minus the flags and the tents, how is this weekend much different from other weekends in Buenos Aires? I guess I have sort of become accustomed to returning at five in the morning on the weekends. I am sort of embarrassed to admit that while living in Calgary, Alberta, I can actually remember going to bed at 10 p.m. some Friday nights. You can blame it on the winter temperatures or the abundant fresh air, but whatever the reason, people just sleep more there than they do in Buenos Aires. I'm lucky if I've even started dinner at 10 on a Friday night. All this to say that from what I have seen, people really make the most of their weekends over here, bicentennial or no bicentennial.

Saturday was supposed to be the day to leave on a trip, but since I stayed, I went to a concert at the University of Buenos Aires Faculty of Law building in honour of the bicentennial. It's a beautiful building located in an amazing area, and it was really something ascending those grand steps with all the Argentine flags flying outside to attend a concert like that for free. It was one of those moments for me when I remind myself that despite all the chaos, Buenos Aires is a pretty incredible city. After a post-concert map (napping, I have discovered, is an absolute necessity if you want to keep up with the Argentines), I attended a birthday party, which started at 10:30 p.m. Birthday celebrations, from what I have seen, are non-stop feasting and drinking and talking and dancing, topped off by cake and champagne. The night never ends early, but that is sort of a rule in this city.

Sunday I headed out on a day trip to San Antonio de Areco, a small historic city northwest of Buenos Aires. It seemed fitting to go there, a place where gauchos supposedly used to roam, to celebrate Argentina's history. My Argy husband does a lot of scoffing about gauchos, claiming they don't really exist, or at least not anymore, and are totally a way of bringing in more tourism money. I suppose it's a lot like the whole cowboy thing in Canada - trying to create some sort of culture or identity that sort of sticks after a while. So while he scoffed, I admired overpriced ponchos and listened to a very enthusiastic gaucho painter, Luis Gasparini, talk about the good old days.

I had full intentions of eventually making my way over to 9 de Julio, where all the celebrations were taking place, but after Saturday's party, and a late return from Sunday's day trip, by the time I was up and rolling on Monday and finished with a few errands, it was almost time to make dinner plans, which was done with two friends from New York who had attended the Argentina-Canada football game and left early, claiming it was one of the most boring sporting events they had ever attended. Apparently Canada was slaughtered by the Argies 5-0. I was hardly surprised, and to tell you the truth, I didn't even know Canada had a soccer team.

After a late dinner of empanadas and drinking wine into the wee hours, Monday quickly turned into Tuesday, the infamous Veinticinco de Mayo, and when I finally woke up, I was greeted with a completely congested head and a very sore throat. So I missed the parade and all the hoopla on 9 de Julio, which apparently more than 2 million people attended, but I still don't feel like I missed out on any celebrations. Besides, from what I could tell, a lot of Argentines were not in a big hurry to attend all the festivities, happy to avoid the crazy traffic and celebrate in their own way I guess.

Today in my gruelling gym class, as we all slogged along after four days of feasting, my teacher stopped the music and demanded to know what was wrong with us, and what had we done all weekend anyway? Drink endless amounts of Malbec and champagne? he asked. Well, in a word, yes, but I don't see how that differs from any other birthday party here in Argentina, or any weekend for that matter.

And with that, I'd like to close by personally wishing Argentina a very Happy Birthday. It was an honour celebrating with you and here's to 200 more!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Carnal Desire

While it may seem odd for a vegetarian to be blogging about meat, I just couldn't resist.

Here in Argentina, carne is not only something you eat, but an entire culture. Not a day goes by where you walk along the street and are not engulfed by the smoke from a nearby asado (barbecue) or choripan being prepared at a street stand.

There are days when I take in my laundry, which has been drying on the balcony (it can take days due to the humidity), to find the fabric softener smell replaced by the smokey scent of sausage, or cow, or who knows what type of animal it is , but it's definitely not fleecy.

It is not unusual for me while out and about to think that a house fire has broken out before seeing my way through the smoke to find meat being cooked on the street. There are millions of things I could tell you about the kinds of meat, the different parts of the cow, the way they cook it, what they eat it with, but I'll leave that to the experts. Or better yet, I'll let you figure that out for yourselves if you ever visit Argentina, and unlike me and 0.00000001% of the population here, you eat meat.

I have become accustomed over the past months to the astonished expressions of the Argentines when they realize that I do not eat meat, as well as the conversation that ensues filled with questions about why not (when I can tell that ultimately, they think not many of my neurons are firing upstairs), and what exactly I do eat. But the most horrified expressions of all have come from fellow expats, for whom I would go so far as to say, meat may just be the country's biggest draw.

My sister was just here for a visit. It was her third time to Argentina, and when I asked her what she wanted to do on her first night here, she did not hesitate before firmly answering, "Eat steak." And so it was. Here she is at La Fonda del Polo with her bife de lomo, where until her last night here at Parrilla Don Julio, she claimed she had eaten the best steak of her life. Watching her facial expressions when she eats meat here is something...a pleasure I do not know, nor understand, but I take joy in it nonetheless.

And then there are my lovely friends from New York, Sharyn and Mike, and their infamous asados. The last one included not only the typical choripan (which I am told is a specialty at their asados) but pata de cordero, or leg of lamb. The moans of pleasure coming from the table as people bit into that meat were something to behold. Here they are biting into a leg of lamb with a joy that is best captured with a photo.

I'm not really sure how to describe the whole asado experience - it really can be kind of medieval. It is customary to eat on wooden plates with cutlery that has wooden handles. There is a lot of cutting and chewing, and is often accompanied by a lot of wine and toasting.

At parrilla restaurants, you can order this mixture of barbecued meats called parrillada that comes to your table kept warm on a mini grill. The waiters carry them out, piled high with steaks, sausages, and intestines, cracking and sizzling, and place them on the tables at which point people literally dive in. I have watched them chewing and cutting, cutting and is almost like a ritual.

Now while asados would seem like no fun at all for the vegetarian, there are treats to be had if you can find your way through the smoke to toss on a few vegetables, like grilled calabaza (squash - delicious here) or even better, provoleta. Provoleta, or grilled provolone cheese topped with olive oil and oregano, as far as I'm concerned, is food for the gods. That with a glass of malbec is one of my favourite things to dine on over here. But I'm digressing from the topic at hand - the incomparable lure of carne.

Parrillas, the grills used to prepare meat here, are gigantic. I remember my Argentine husband scoffing at the size of the grills in Canada. While I would be marvelling at the monstrosity of my parents' new stainless steel barbecue, he would be thinking it insufficient. Now I get it. In fact, I remember him scoffing in general at the meat, even when we lived in Alberta, where they take a lot of pride in their beef. I now understand why he would look so unenthusiastic at steaks in restaurants, as opposed to now. For the record, in this picture he's halfway through his steak, and this one was not even considered large.

Despite all the carnal desire in this country, and you can take that however you want to, because it will likely be applicable, I have to say that I've never been happier being vegetarian. While it may seem like a lastima (shame) to the Argentines, and a downright sin to foreigners, I'll take grilled squash over blood sausage any day. Besides, with everything else there is going on, I don't have the energy for all that cutting and chewing.