La Dolce Vita

Buenos Aires is sweet, a wonderful city to live in and an epicure’s dream.

One of our favourite pastimes is to join local porteños and take an evening stroll along the avenues to have merienda. Argentinians eat very late at night, often as late as nine thirty or ten pm. So just like Spain or Italy, they often head to the streets for merienda, an extra meal to help them survive till dinner time.

Thanks to this Argentine afternoon tea, there is a thriving cafe culture in Buenos Aires where friends meet up to drink coffee or mate and nibble on facturas or pastries especially medialunas.  Some might opt for toast or a sandwich but it’s usually cake.

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Alfajores, dulce de leche sandwiched cookies, are particular favourites

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It’s a delight to step outside these warm, spring evenings and wander about picking produce as you go. Supermarkets haven`t sucked the life out of communities here so streets are crammed with small family -run food shops. Nearly every block has its own fruit and veg shop.

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Twelve million people live in greater Buenos Aires so there are plenty of mouths to feed and that means plenty of business for artisan food shops.

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On our block near Avenida Coronel Diaz,we also have bakeries, pastry shops, sweet kiosks, and pasta fabricas.

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Nearby a butcher and fishmonger.

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Of course when you don’t feel like cooking there are lots of restaurants, cafes and takeaways on every street. Eating out here is very reasonable and sometimes it seems cheaper to eat out then at home.

Many porteños seem to think so as restaurants are full of people who just pop in to refuel.There is a strong Italian influence in the city so there are many pizza and pasta restaurants.Parillas or steak grill restaurants are everywhere too but make sure you`re hungry before you go.

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Finally, porteños love ice-cream and buy it by the kilo in the many heladerias all around us. The ice-cream is really very good  especially the dulce de leche; a perfect snack to  keep  sugar levels high till the  midnight meal.

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Conversations with Argentinians

“Congratulations, the morning was lovely. It was an honour for us to be here and share it with you,” I said. 

“Oh! Thank You!” 

“My son was the boy who read the prayer in English.”

“Ah that explains it; my family was really impressed with his English. My sister said that boy must be English!’ 

“Irish. We`re visiting the school for six months.”

“Ah Ireland, nuestro tierra. When I went there I kissed the ground, like the pope. We feel Irish, it is our country.”  Juampi, surrounded by family and friends, laughed aloud.

“Your brother Felipe is very popular in Ireland,” I ventured, “even in Munster where I’m from.”

We moved away but he called us back.

“Now you have to say Felipe could’ve played for Munster, couldn`t he? He had the spirit, the heart of a Munster man, didn’t he?”

“Yeah, he did”

“You made a mistake though. He could have played for Munster, not Leinster.  You should have signed him, not O’ Gara.”

“O’ Gara`s a Corkman though!”

“Ah, you’re from Cork!!”

Juampi chuckled out loud and wanted to chat and joke, but we hadn’t time. We had to return to Recoleta. We couldn’t stay, but would have enjoyed his company. He was good craic.

Today, the school held a special mass to celebrate past pupil, Fr. Juampi Contepomi`s, twenty-five years as a priest. For nearly two hours, Juampi captivated, engaged and taught the assembled 540 primary pupils. The students sang, clapped and held hands high in the air showing esteem for the tall, bearded man on the altar.

To finish, staff showed heartwarming photos of Juampi`s life; his childhood, his school years and rugby career. They catalogued his work as a priest and his time with Mother Teresa.  It was a beautiful and emotional tribute, bringing many to tears. There was a striking image of him praying in the Andes at the site of the plane crash where twenty nine people died on the Uruguayan rugby tour in 1972. A story so well told in the books `Miracle in the Andes’ and ‘Alive’.

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One of our favourite things about Argentina is the people. Juampi is only one of many endearing Argentinians that we have laughed and joked with. In general, they are warm, fun-loving, friendly people who enjoy conversation and are good company.  Lunchtime in the school is particularly enjoyable. Our school is huge, like a city in itself, with so many people coming and going to the cafeteria throughout staggered lunch breaks .The food is excellent and staff and students lunch together. Everyone is welcoming. I don’t have a set routine so arrive at varying times and chat with different people, sometimes in Spanish but mostly in English. It’s a great way to get to know people, listen to their stories and learn about their lives and the country.

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It’s wonderful to be in a country for a long time and really get to know people and understand the culture. Like Juampi, the Argentinians we meet are enchanted by Ireland and are very curious about Irish history, traditions and customs. They love sport, were delighted this week when Ireland beat Germany in football and are cheering on Ireland in the Rugby World Cup. At least until, we meet the Pumas.

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The three of us have made friends here and receive regular invitations. Nan went for coffee yesterday with a parent from school. She had a great time and was joined in the café by her new pal`s mother and best friend. She returned home laden down with pastries she was given as gifts. Knowing that Nan has free time, the mothers in the school have included her in their charitable work. She helps them in the school to distribute recycled clothes to the needy every week. After school today, Darragh walked with nine buddies to a friend’s house to celebrate a birthday. Invitations to a classmate`s house on Friday afternoons seem to be an Argentinian institution and Darragh is having a great time.

We have received multiple warnings about taking care in the city to avoid being robbed. The students in the school tell me hair-raising stories about cell phones being snatched and being chased by thugs .We take care of course but find the city safe and the people-friendly. Strangers at bus stops will help you find your bus and if you`re stopped studying a map, smiling porteños will offer help with directions. There are twelve million people living in this sprawling metropolis and I`m not saying that all of them are friendly, just the ones we`ve met!!

Recollections in Recoleta.

We went for an early lunch in a Recoleta restaurant, a few blocks from the famous cemetery where Evita and Admiral Brown are buried. I wasn’t there long before the place played on my senses, transporting me to a different country, another time. I know I should be living in the now, enjoying the moment but I couldn’t. I was in two places at once.

Rodi Bar was bustling, noisy with conversation and laughter. Full of local porteños getting together, at the weekend, for a long lazy lunch. Large groups of friends and families sat at long tables, enjoying each other’s company. With bottles of Vasco Viejo on white table cloths, large salads of lettuce, tomato and tuna. Baskets of bread, shellfish and steaks. Fish first then meat.

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The food, the noise, the atmosphere brought me back twenty-four years to the Basque Country  where  friends and I enjoyed many summers teaching English. There, we deepened our life-long friendships while making many Basque friends. Euskadi influenced us in so many ways and bestowed on us an enduring epicurean education. In restaurants in Zornotza, Bilbao and Gernika the Basques taught us about food, encouraging us to try new tastes and develop our palates.  It was there that we learned to love olives and anchovies and langoustines fried in garlic. The Basques invited us for pintxoak and txakolina, bought us typical traditional dishes like txipiroiak bere tintan- baby squid in their own ink. They ordered our steaks. Blue or bloody we described them, `en su punto` they taught us.

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Darragh’s voice jolted me back to reality, he was ordering from the waiter with his Argentinian Spanish. It’s lovely to hear him with his porteño slang and its sing-song rhythm, using vos and ustedes like a local. The waiter smiled at his fluency, Flor his teacher would be proud. I imagined Darragh’s future, hoping that in twenty-four years’ time, he too would have happy memories and perhaps a set of skills from his travels in Latin America.

My day-dreaming distracted me. Realising that the waiter was looking at me, I hastily ordered the house speciality, opting for Argentinian costillas or ribs. When the waiter arrived later with a huge tray just for me I was gobsmacked. The rib cage, covering the entire tray, looked like a San Fermin carcass. Everyone nearby laughed at my obvious shock. It was delicious though and I didn’t regret my choice, except wished my friends were here to share it. They would have loved the prime Argentinian beef, tender and tasty. I finished it.

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Days later, I still walk about feeling like some old mythical creature. Half man,half cow. Yesterday, was Spring Day in Argentina and my new season resolution is to turn vegetarian for a while. At least until next weekend, when Flor has invited us to her house for an asado.

Piece of cake

It’s still winter in Argentina, not that you’d know it. The season doesn’t officially change until Spring Day on September 21st but the fresh, sunny weather would put a smile on anyone’s face. The three of us were happy when we awoke early last Sunday morning, Children’s Day, and I was dispatched to get medialunas for breakfast. Dulce de Leche ones, preferably.

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There are three pastry shops within a block of our front door. One is right next door but since the weather was beautiful, I decided to walk round the corner to soak up the Sunday morning vibe. One customer was ahead of me so I browsed the bulging display cabinets. Within minutes the tiny shop was crowded with grannies buying box-loads of pastries. Shelves emptied as trays and trays were handed across the counter. I stood, waiting to be served, taken aback by the frenzy and sheer quantity of pastries purchased. Waves of grannies entered, jostled and were served as I stood gaping, becoming more impatient by the minute. I then noticed that my adversaries were holding numbered tickets. I spotted my mistake, elbowed my way through the hurly-burly to the ticket dispenser and tore off my number, E00.

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I edged back up the flank and positioned myself at the counter, waited, watched and most importantly listened for the next few minutes for my number to be called. Three white-aproned servers shouted numbers seemingly at random: 86, 78, 97. I was confused by my number. Was it cero, cero cero or cien (100)? I tried to listen above the hullabaloo but couldn’t discern any pattern until I heard 11,3,22. I’d missed out again. No longer smiling, I decided to retreat and went to the Disco supermarket across the road. Pastry purchase is a serious business in Buenos Aires.

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Do the Math!

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Figuring out how much a cup of coffee costs in Buenos Aires is like reading the Third Policeman, the ground keeps shifting beneath you. Buenos Aires can be expensive; just how expensive, is difficult to say. On our first day, we lunched lavishly on rib-eyes and wine. Straightforward, till we went to pay for it. The restaurant refused both our credit and debit cards; cash is king.

Coffee in the café on Calle Jorge Luis Borges, Palermo costs $35 (Arg pesos). How much is that? Pick a number, it’s hard to know. Today, withdrawing pesos by ATM yields $10.64 for the euro. One can exchange euro notes in a bank at this official rate or more profitably swap on a street for $18.20-today’s blue rate. Yes, there is both an official and a thriving, parallel ‘blue rate’ for foreign notes which is legal, quoted daily in newspapers and easily obtained.

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Lost? Not yet? Well here’s more; both rates fluctuate. On arrival, three weeks ago, the blue rate was $16.20 to the euro but now it’s $18.20. Possibly, making everything now 12% cheaper for us, provided you’re happy to galumph around underground exchange houses with fistfuls of pesos. The largest note is $100 (do the math!!) But, whatever rate or calculations you use, BA can be very costly. Clothes, shoes and sportswear are dear using the blue rates, never mind officially. Confused? Me too, daily. A friend, hearing that I was visiting Argentina for 6 months, told me to bring cash, which I did. He then told me to watch for pick pockets, which I do.

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