Archive for December, 2008

It’s beginning to sound a lot like Christmas

December 25th, 2008 10:14 am by ray from here

Christmas in Buenos Aires does not look like a Currier and Ives painting (or Thomas Kinkade, for those of you born since 1910).  That much you can derive from considerations of geography.  So the fact that the Rip Curl and Ronjon stores were having a Christmas Sale seemed predictable.  What I hadn’t imagined occurred at midnight, when the whole city lit up sonically with firecrackers.  We were at that moment walking home from the Only Restaurant Open On Christmas Eve via the Great Big Flower Which Is Only Left Open on Christmas Eve, and we were in the concrete canyons of stores and apartments.  A barrage of firecrackers echoes down the streets, but you see very little since most of the people are on the rooftops.  Some Roman candles arch overhead ten stories up, and florals explode in small patches of visible sky, but mostly it’s the cherry bomb in the culvert reverberation and the crackle of ladyfingers.  Children appeared on the balconies to call us Papa Noel.

The Ronjons of Buenos Aires advertise their Christmas sales in English.  Lots of Merry Christmas and Happy New Year signs in the downtown area, more even than Feliz Navidad or the faux-tolerant perversion of that, Felices Fiestas.  American culture is malignant.

One of the persistent myths of the guidebooks is that the people you meet are really flattered if you try to speak their language even a few words etc. etc.  If this was true ever, it’s gone out of style.  Like everyone in California, I know quite a few words of Spanish: Manteca, Merced, Coalinga…   I can understand a radio ad if I’ve heard the English version before, and I can string together a sentence if I have the time and patience of a Cerebral Palsy victim.  Well, nobody is interested in my internal struggles with multicultural self-image.  After three words, they ask if I speak English, the same as they would ask any Russian or Brazilian or Japanese, and the conversation goes from there.  Maybe this will change in the rural areas.

The television in the breakfast room of the Prince Hotel is showing a sequence of user submitted Christmas videos about twenty seconds long, of people from all over the viewing audience saying Feliz Navidad to the whole world.  It’s mostly children but every demographic is represented, by age, race, disability, anyone who has a friend with a video recorder, which is just about everybody.  I asked my friend Susan once if there was a cultural bias among photographic images in the mid-19th century, in favor of people who were wealthy enough to own cameras.  Susan said that there wasn’t.  Everybody had his picture taken, rich or poor.

Christmas in Buenos Aires

Speaking of pictures, here we are in front of the Obelisk Christmas Tree.  Merry Christmas to all!

(The picture above was edited in and posted from the Republica Salon, which is open and has free WiFi and they had a cheaper Christmas dinner last night but we didn’t know about it, with tango nonetheless.  It is the universal experience of traveling, finding out what you missed later.  Klaatu was no doubt kicking himself for having missed some epic Chess Records session that would have been the place to be, in 1951, on Earth.)

It’s the least com-pe-tent night … of the year

December 25th, 2008 9:39 am by ray from here

You can imagine the employment history of the wait staff who have to work Christmas Eve, and the business model of the restaurants that choose to stay open. I attempted to jigger the trip schedule, but given the desiderata of ProTools 8 shipping at an unknown date, and intending to drive from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia and arrive before January 6 — well, we had to be newly arrived here on Christmas Eve.

La Retirada, in Palermo SoHo, is part of a small chain of tourist establishments and has a Christmas Dinner for Tourists at Loose Ends, for $190 Argentine (about $60 US, per person). This includes wine and bottled water, with indefinite refills. We’ll be pretty lucky if it’s the worst meal we have this trip, but the Argentinians were better off staying home and I hope the waiters have better luck drawing straws next year. (There were only two of them.) The food was better than the Olive Garden, but not so good as a Monday Night Without Cyndi place, let alone Monday Night With Cyndi. I have a restaurant category in my mind, of places where they take a good deal of care with the main course, but the vegetables are the same no matter what you order. The pork and gravy, and sirloin steak both came with the same grilled eggplants, in the instant case. The eggplants weren’t done correctly, either. Eggplants are difficult and should be left off the menu if you’re short-handed and the world is full of summer squashes.

I’ve read in the guidebooks that the Argentinians don’t fetishize tender beef the way Americans do, or Japanese. A Japanese diner would not recognize this version of Argentinian Beef. A Japanese person would use it as building material.

But: there was no Christmas music. Rock !! The loudspeaker might not have played “Mr. Hankey” but it didn’t play Little Drummer Boy, either. (They did play a Spanish cover of Twist and Shout).

On reflection, I think this has been a Little Drummer Boy-free Holiday Season. I count my life truly well spent if I can go through the whole of Christmas without hearing Little Drummer Boy. You should make the effort, too.

Feliz Navidad

December 25th, 2008 9:33 am by ray from here

We flew from Denver to Atlanta on Sunday night to see Dave’s cousin Muriel, whom we hadn’t seen in ten years and three kids. I thought it would be disconcerting, to take off on a runway passing the half-burned shell of a Continental Airlines 737 that had gone off the runway the night before, but I think that runway is not in use. I wonder if they cover the plane with a sheet, as if it were a corpse?

Our flight arrived a few minutes ahead of schedule on Sunday night after a clear flight behind a cold front. We flew right over Wichita and Memphis, actually north of them so I had a good view out the right side of the plane, although the GPS didn’t have enough satellites to track after about Kansas. But nobody told me to put it away. I was sort of hiding the box. My flyer profiles on Travelocity and Expedia show I want a window seat.

Renting the car was an odd experience. The National guy said that we could go out to the lot and pick any car we wanted from the section marked “Compact”. The first car we picked, a blue fluid level warning light came on immediately so we switched to a Kia Rondo which is actually closer to a van but nobody said anything when we exited the airport. (They tried to charge us for an upgrade when we gave it back, but Dave said no.)

We drove directly to our Motel Studio 6 in Duluth, Georgia, which is a super place. $51, taxes included, gets you a room with a kitchenette.

The next day we met Muriel and her husband Carlos and their children Anthony, Johnny, and Andrew. They live in the New New South: the Korean grocery is called Supermercado La Fiesta. It’s Obama country all over, except for some conservative military families of Mexican origin. Muriel teaches Spanish reading and writing to native Spanish speakers who only know English orthography, and Spanish to native English speakers.

“After about two days, the students always ask me: ‘Who are you? Who are you? Where do you come from, how did you come to be here, white blonde Kansas girl teaching Spanish to African Americans and Vietnamese?'”

She sounds like a dream teacher. For her lesson on reflexive verbs, which largely relate to personal care, she darkened the classroom, entered in her pajamas, and when an alarm clock went off, she went through a whole routine of getting up in the morning, while reciting the whole litany of what she was doing. Even had her hair wet when she re-entered the room after a “shower” and used a hair dryer.

She told us how she could tell the difference between English speakers who had cheated by having native speakers do their homework, and those who had cheated by using Google Translate.

Muriel can’t teach using Lotería cards because “Negrito” is offensive. Even Obama’s Georgia is not quite over itself, yet.

Anthony is the coolest kid. He has been diagnosed borderline autistic, which is the diagnosis to have, in 2008. If Tycho Brahe or Évariste Galois were kids today, they would totally be on Risperdal. The whole family took a walk around the lake to feed stale bread to los gansos, the flock of aggressive geese who could profit from a pony hit of Ritalin themselves. We looked at the funny little vertical ice crystals which form under pebbles and sand on freezing nights. On the way back I remembered to turn on my GPS to plot my track home. After we had been in the house about five minutes, Anthony announced to Muriel that he was “going for a walk with Ray and the GPS”.

So we did that. Anthony held the GPS and made a waypoint called “Anthony”. Muriel probably will think that we bonded, but he bonded with the machine. He is no dummy.

That night, we all got in the car to go see the local instance of Christmas Tree Lane. When we got off the freeway, we were probably five miles from it and the traffic was simply not moving. It took 20 minutes to get across the freeway after turning left at the top of the diamond interchange. It was plainly not going to happen, so we got back on the freeway in the other direction and Anthony started crying and screaming it wasn’t fair. In 2008 this counts as a diagnostic element.  Of course Muriel would rather he not cry and scream, but it’s important to keep a sense of justice alive for as long as you can.

And so to Buenos Aires. We flew on Delta to Miami in the afternoon of December 23, and after a four hour layover, including a “meal” in a “hotel” “restaurant” at MIA (about like the Olive Garden at twice the price, i.e. frozen microwaved portion controlled TV dinners in decent surroundings), on to Buenos Aires on the red eye. Since it’s a LAN flight, i.e. Chilean, they can fly over Cuba. Also, I noticed on the departure screens that there are direct flights to Cuba on some Continental subsidiary. Who gets to do that? Is Obama going to put a halt to this madness, or was part of his deal for not having Florida stolen from him like it was stolen from Gore, that he continues this infantile national refusal to acknowledge the government of Cuba which is older than he is?

We arrived in summer.

Not Quite Christmas

December 25th, 2008 9:23 am by Dave from here

We have largely given up on the tradition of visiting with family at Christmastime. Instead, we’ve been having “Christmas in February”, where my sister and her family and Ray and I converge at my mother’s house sometime around her birthday in February. This year, since we have a trip which goes from December to February, we’re stopping in Denver coming and going. We passed through just before Christmas, and we’ll come back a few weeks after her birthday, but that’s how it happened to make the trip come out right. My mother has been having health problems recently, and we are trying to see her as often as we can.

It was also an opportunity to go to Boulder and see our friend Mike and his relatively new wife Cynthia, my high-school friend Dave, and Ray’s college friend Louis, who works in a book recycling operation and always finds some great gems that people have thrown away. This time he gave Ray a set of slang flash cards training vocabulary items like “aiight”, “beef”, “mad”.

Mostly we sat around the house with my mom, which in itself is quite enjoyable. It gave us an opportunity to rest up for the hard work that will undoubtedly occupy the rest of this trip.

Youth is wasted on the poor.

December 25th, 2008 9:03 am by ray from here

Winter arrived this morning before dawn and with it a great ominous sadness.  This whole trip seems like an anachronism, a ritzy Jazz Age speakeasy in a cold Depression night.  When we booked the Antarctica cruise it seemed like history might work out all right somehow, but everyone has always known that this could never be true.

I drove six and a half hours to see my friend David in prison in Texas on Saturday morning, and back on Saturday night.  He tells many stories, which saves me the trouble of watching TV shows involving buff guys who live and use swear words in cells the size of conference rooms.

My rental car and I were searched upon entering the Dalhart facility, which hadn’t happened the last time I visited, in June.  Apparently sometime during the summer, a cell phone was discovered on Death Row and someone alleged that threatening calls had been made from it.

“The guards came into the day room and said, ‘Statewide lockdown.  Everyone to your cells.’  Twelve days!  The guards hate it.  They actually have to work, doing everything the inmates usually do.  Making sandwiches,” said David.

David gets in trouble only for the things that prisoners constantly get in trouble for: fighting and name-calling and objecting.  The fighting doesn’t happen so much up in Dalhart, because it is a prison tending toward the nonviolent and old.  Lots of drug and sex offenders.  Before he came to Dalhart, he was getting jumped occasionally.    When he talks about the prisons near Houston and San Antonio he says “Down South”, just like somebody from Massachusetts talking about Texas.

“There’s a lot more fighting down south.”

When there is a fight, the participants get written up for the offense regardless of who started it.

He hasn’t had any major cases lately.  The distinction between a major and a minor appears to be, that a minor case can result in some loss of privilege such as commissary or recreation,  while a major case is all of that, plus it will show up on your record at your next parole hearing.  A “minor” does not affect your release date.  There can be a prison mock court to determine what happened, if the warden cares to hold one.

Even a Major is not visible to the criminal justice system from the outside.  He told the story of a guy who is 35 days from release, having served “all days” (I think that was the expression) and refused the order of a new guard, a woman just immigrated from Nigeria, to stop sitting on his coat.

Apparently there is a rule that you can’t sit on your coat.  I was told by the guard to place my hat on the chair when I went to the vending machines.  They are ungodly concerned about contraband going back and forth.

Anyway, the prisoner talked back to the guard, and she said that he assaulted her when he stood up, which the 30 other people in the day room denied.  My friend in telling this story implied that they would all deny it anyway; but the important thing was that they all told the same story when questioned.  The case was eventually dropped, but the illustrative point was that even if he’d had to serve his last thirty five days in solitary, there wasn’t anything the prison could do to delay his release even if it was a major, because it wasn’t a parole release, it was the end of his sentence.

We had just watched “Persepolis” on DVD in Denver Thursday night, the cartoon story of a girl growing up in revolutionary Iran.  The parallels were striking, between being a woman in Iran and a man in a minimum security prison camp in the far reaches of Texas: a life completely hemmed in and defined by the mood of mostly young and mostly inexperienced men who vary unpredictably in temperament from mean to intermittently sympathetic, and in intelligence from stupid to capable.

David is sad about growing old in prison but he recognizes that he has health care, such as it is, which nobody else in his family or in the families of the other inmates has, and realizes that if he were outside, his situation would be on the very edge of physical survival.

It’s incorrect to say that the people in Dalhart never had a chance,  but it would have taken more effort for them to rise above their destiny than most of us have put in.  It is possible in America to rise from the poor classes to the middle classes or higher, but it costs you your childhood.  All the years when the other kids are hanging and dating and playing football, a poor kid has to be striving by any means necessary, to have any real chance of not dying poor.  Everything you hear about the magic of Being Young is really the magic of being Young and Rich, or having at least some money, or not caring if you ever do, or having no hope of changing your situation.

It was pretty watching the sun rise and set in New Mexico.  The weather was clear and cold.  Freezing and windy in Texas, and well below freezing and still, in Denver.

An Economic Stimulus Package

December 11th, 2008 7:16 pm by Dave from here

Ray’s cousin Johnny announced his intention a couple years ago to go on a National Geographic cruise to Antarctica, and that seemed like a completely sufficient reason for us to go as well. We originally considered doing it last January, but it was already sold out by the time we got around to it. And we haven’t ever been to Argentina, which is a rather large country. We’ll drive from Buenos Aires (where we’ll be on Christmas) down the coast to Ushuaia, where we join the cruise. After the cruise, we’ll drive up along the Andes, taste Malbec wine in Mendoza, go see Iguazu Falls, and return to Buenos Aires. It’s kind of an expensive trip during these uncertain economic times — at least we’ll save on our heating bills (and Palo Alto restaurants). It’ll be summer down there, but in Antarctica, and the Andes, even though it will be light much of the day and night, it will still be cold — the cruise includes a souvenir parka.

This time we’ll be doing some camping as well as staying in hotels, since we’ll be in several national parks in Argentina (and a piece of the southern end of Chile). It remains to be seen what Internet connections there’ll be, but we’ll do our best to let you know how things go.