Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Those first nights in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires is a funny city. It has that big-city vibe big-city dwellers always love, but it doesn’t have the mad crush of Mexico City or the ghosts of Paris or the constant hum of New York. It has beautiful old buildings with black filigreed balconies, the kind of balcony you can imagine a Edith Wharton character standing on, and then clunky modern buildings with uglier terraces right next door. Their Jardin Botanico is overrun with abandoned cats, who’ve gone feral by the looks in their eyes, despite the baggies of food and water that are put out for them. And most astonishing to me, their bus system is cheap, fast, and frequent, but it’s impossible to get on a bus because there are not enough coins or monedas to be had anywhere in the city, and they won't accept bills. People are literally hoarding them. A girl we met last night told us her friends gave her, as a birthday gift, a roll of ten 1 peso coins. The bank restricts its coins, giving only six pesos per person. There are rumors the bus company is selling the coins they collect on the black market, 100 pesos in coins for 105 pesos in bills.

As the graffiti declares, “¿Donde están las monedas?”

This is Buenos Aires’s way of being a big city. Even though it’s frustrating for porteños, from a tourist’s perspective, the city wears its problems well, with grace, good looks, and lots of very good steak. There has been no surprise there, only in that it has been even better than I expected, and so cheap from a New Yorker’s perspective, we’ve ended up in hysterics with the arrival of each check. We’ve been to two parillas, or grilled meat restaurants, so far with several more on our list.

La Dorita was our first happy surprise, a homey, comfortable place with two locations catty-corner from each other in Palermo Hollywood.

We got a tabla of meat for two, with a choice of three meats—vacio or sirloin, entraña or skirt steak, and asado or short ribs, and then we added half an order of “baby beef,” their funny English translation of “bife de chorizo,” a uniquely Argentine cut of rump and sirloin. I am not a meat connoisseur, able to describe the particular qualities of a supremely good piece of beef, but oh, it was so good! It didn’t matter that they hadn’t actually been cooked “al punto” or medium rare. It reminded me of the chicken in Mexico—only when your meat is crappy do you have to worry about drying it out. Its flavor was there, regardless of whether it was red and raw.

With a good and cheap bottle of Malbec; quite a decent salad with spinach, pumpkin, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms and parmesan; and two scoops of ice cream, we ate until we were quite satisfechas for something like $17 per person. I felt almost embarrassed.

The next night, we went slightly more high-end to La Cabrera, another place so popular that it has two locations across the street from each other. We ate at La Cabrera Norte, which looked a little cozier, and sat on the sidewalk on a perfect summer night. We had to wait awhile, though the restaurant provided everyone waiting with free glasses of champagne and bites of sausage or stuffed olives. (We’ve dealt with the late-night schedule of porteños by living on New York time—when you sit down to eat at midnight, BA time, it’s only 9 p.m. in New York!)

The meat here, of course, was also fantastic, with the ojo de bife or ribeye making their bife de chorizo seem almost tasteless in comparison. Their morcilla, or blood sausage, had a crackling crisp casing, a better snap than any hot dog I’ve ever had, and that smooth taste that’s so familiar to me from soondae, Korean blood sausage. They also have provoleta as an appetizer, a grilled skillet of cheese with herbs that is just a salty luxury. But the appetizers were almost superfluous compared to the dozen or more little ramekins they gave us filled with things like tapenade, apple sauce, roasted garlic, green beans, potatoes in aioli. There’s just something so happy-making about a whole array of side-dishes.

We topped off the night with glasses of champagne and lollipops from their lollipop tree. There's so much about this city I still don't understand, but champagne and lollipops, that was easy.

Friday, November 7, 2008

One nation, indivisible

In all the news coverage following the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, one small blip involved Oprah Winfrey talking on her show about the middle-aged white man she had been leaning on, literally crying on his shoulder, during the celebratory rally in Grant Park, Chicago. Everyone called her, asking, “Who was that man?” And she confessed she didn’t know who he was, that he was simply Mr. Man. But of course, because she is Oprah, Mr. Man was soon identified as Sam Perry, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and Obama campaign volunteer, and he appeared on her show.

It’s such a small thing, Oprah leaning on the shoulder of an unknown man while she cries listening to President Obama’s speech, but the more I think about it, the more it encapsulates what I saw in this campaign.

We won this together. We won, not just with friends and family we cajoled, but with complete strangers across the country. We won with Oprah, media mogul and superstar, and with my friend Mimi who had never volunteered for a campaign before. We won with Shaddai, a lawyer from Brooklyn, and with Joe, the union dry-wall finisher, who stood outside our polling site with me all day. We won with Chung, the woman my mother’s age who made phone calls to Korean-American voters for hours, and if you are not impressed, it’s because you don’t know what it takes for a Korean person to call strangers. We won with the stream of men and women who came into Childs Elementary School in South Philly to vote, African-American mainly but also white and Vietnamese-American and Chinese-American. I had never seen any of them before in my life and will probably never see any of them again. But like Oprah, we felt a connection to each other that moved us to hug each other, cry together, and celebrate together. Even three days after the election, as I walk around my Brooklyn neighborhood, I smile at strangers and they, miraculously, smile back.

Obama didn’t just declare that we are one nation, we are one people. He made us feel it and know it in our hearts as well as our minds. I thought I had always loved my country and the ideals on which it was founded, but now I know, this is love.

"So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other."