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Sunday, December 9, 2012

Buenos Aires-More than just the "Paris" of South America

It was late in 2004 and early in 2005 that Annie and I first thought of living somewhere other than the United States.  Nothing against the land of the free and the home of the brave, we have just had a serious case of wanderlust for quite some time.  Our kids were just about to turn five, and we'd been living in Madeira for almost five years, so we hadn't met many other Madeira parents as is the case when your kids get involved in school and sports once they hit six or seven.  I did some research on the best places for ex-pats and at the top of the list:  Buenos Aires, Argentina.  It took us about eight years to get there but we finally did.

When planning our South American portion of our trip, Buenos Aires was pretty much the only definite destination we had on that continent.  The most common description of Buenos Aires is that it's the Paris of South America.  We definitely felt some of that almost immediately upon our arrival.

It didn't take us long to see evidence of the European influence in the architecture of Buenos Aires.  We were staying in the fairly well-known area of Recoleta, which supposedly has the best example of French architecture of any area of the city.
Buenos Aires street near our apartment
Buenos Aires is a large cosmopolitan city, with a strong European vibe thanks to the many wide boulevards and plazas shaded by sycamore trees and palm trees.  It's a great look that I highly recommend for more cities.  Like Cincinnati for example.  Let's take advantage of this opportunity and plant some palm trees around the Banks.  It would be like we were somewhere else, and isn't that what we all really want in Cincinnati?

Buenos Aires is a very walkable city, and we did plenty of that during our week there.  The weather was spectacular, with low humidity and comfortable temperatures as spring started to be nudged aside by summer.  It gave Annie the chance to take some beautiful photos.
Springtime in Buenos Aires
The beauty of Buenos Aires was in full bloom as we strolled along Avenida Presidente Figueroa Alcorta, close to where it intersects with Brigadier General Juan Facundo Quiroga.  You see a lot of streets in South America named after political figures, including their entire names, as well as military heroes, using their entire names as well.  There are also a lot of streets named after significant dates in South American history.  We saw that trend first in Cuenca Ecuador as we frequently walked down Avenida 3 de Noviembre, and it continued in Buenos Aires as we took a taxi along Avenida 9 de Julio.  

7/9 Avenue as it might be called in the States, is a magnificent, sprawling boulevard that is home to a giant obelisk in the heart of town.  The comparisons that have been made to the Champs Elysees in Paris are valid, as both are the carotid artery of the cities they call home.  I couldn't take a photo to do justice to the splendor of the avenue, so I borrowed one from the internet.  Thanks World Wide Web!  And of course, Al Gore!
Avenida 9 De Julio at dusk
It's really something to see, especially at night, which we did once by taxi.  As much as Buenos Aires definitely has a European feel at times, Annie and I both thought it also felt a lot like New York City.  The area where we stayed, Recoleta, definitely felt like one of the great residential areas of Manhattan, like those around Soho or Midtown.  Cafes and shops crowd the shady sidewalks, as pedestrians stroll by and occasionally duck into one of the establishments, freeing up much-needed space on the pavement for other peatones

Just to the right of the obelisk in the photo above are some pedestrian walkways, which are a pleasure to take in.  The Argentinians are well-known for their ravenous love of meat, and it was hard to walk very far without seeing a parilla. 
Parillas are basically steakhouses which served up all kinds of grilled meat, including lamb, pork and chicken.

One of the many Parrillas in Buenos Aires
The walkway definitely echoed some of the places we had visited earlier on the trip, especially some cities in Europe.  The atmosphere was very enjoyable and part of it was not feeling like outsiders, as we had in Cuenca, where it was clear that you were either a local or a Gringo. 
Strolling down Calle Lavalle
One of the major attractions that was within walking distance of our cozy apartment was the Recoleta Cemetery.  It covers 14 acres, with almost 4700 graves (all above ground), 94 of which are notable enough to be protected by the government.  Annie's a bit whacky for cemeteries and we've seen our share in the course of the past 11 months.  This one, however, was probably the most impressive we've visited.

The place is fascinating and overwhelming at the same time.  Row after row of crypts stretch out, seemingly without end, each carrying the story of the person or persons interred there.
Crypts at Recoleta Cemetery
It's extremely tempting to stop and study each of the thousands of monuments, many of which have elaborate carvings on them. Of course, if you actually did that, you would probably be there long enough to qualify for your own eye-catching crypt.
Too many to take in!
The most notable person interred there is the former Argentinian First Lady, Eva Peron, or Evita as she is known and celebrated among the locals.  It took us a while to find her gravesite, as there are no signs pointing it out.  A quick question of a security guard at the cemetery didn't provide much help, but we found some other people from the US who pointed us in the right direction.
The resting place of Evita
As graves of famous people go, it's a pretty humble presentation.  I personally had to fight back the urge to break out some mad dance moves and sing "Material Girl" or "Get Into the Groove" in honor of Madonna who of course starred in Evita and apparently did a pretty good job in the title role.  But we have always had a policy of not ticking off the dead, because that's one group you don't want angry at you.

Two events on the late November calendar would have us feeling a little homesick during our stay in Buenos Aires.  The Thursday we were there happened to be Thanksgiving.  A little research online showed a couple of places that served a traditional turkey dinner targeting ex-pats on Thanksgiving.  One was a pub within walking distance of our apartment that had gotten good reviews for its Turkey Day offerings over the past three or four years.  Another was a restaurant named Kansas that had three locations in Buenos Aires, all requiring a taxi cab ride, so I dialed up the pub first.

The woman who answered the phone at the pub didn't speak any English, and my Spanish was so pathetic she quickly handed the phone over to the owner.  He was a very friendly man from the States who explained that we were welcome to come by, but he was done with the Thanksgiving Dinner plan.  He said that inflation had gotten so out of hand that it just didn't make any financial sense to take a big loss, so after four years, he was keeping the turkey and gravy in the fridge and putting the green bean casserole away for good.

That pretty much made the decision for our plans for the day.  I called the closest of the three Kansas locations and asked if they were doing a Thanksgiving dinner, and the woman speaking in Spanish, assured me they were.  She also assured me that yes, they would be showing futbol Americano.

A cab ride of about 20 minutes had us in front of the Kansas restaurant, which was a sprawling, North American-looking establishment.  It was almost three pm local time, but we were able to be seated right away in one of the last remaining booths.  The only problem was that it was immediately clear we weren't going to be seeing any futbol Americano because there was only one TV in the place, and it was at the bar on the other side of the restaurant and it was showing futbol sud americano.  Goofy kickball!  Use your thumbs, pick it up already!
Thanksgiving menu at Kansas
The restaurant did live up to one of the two promises made to me on the phone as they were, indeed, serving up a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.  It was a little pricey and we could see from other diners' tables that the portions were pretty big, so among us only Annie ordered the turkey.  (The price you see at the bottom of the menu in the picture above is in Argentinian Pesos, not US Dollars, so it was about $25 US.)

Turkey dinner in Buenos Aires
I had a decent steak, Ben ordered the ribs and Marley of course had a plate of pasta.  It wasn't quite the experience we were looking for, but we still enjoyed it as a family.  And that's what Thanksgiving is all about, right?  We managed to do an on-camera Facebook chat later that day with Annie's family gathered for the holiday, so that helped douse some of the homesickness we felt.

Two days later, we searched out another ex-pat spot in Buenos Aires, a "resto-bar" called Shoeless Joe's Alamo.  It was one of two places in BA that advertised showing NFL football on Sundays, so we figured it was a pretty good bet they would be showing a fairly important NCAA college football game on a Saturday afternoon.  Not just any game mind you, but The Game.

I was raised a Buckeyes football fan by my parents, neither of whom went to Ohio State but lived in Ohio most of their lives.  My dad was a big Reds, Bengals and Buckeyes fan like I have become, and my mom liked the fact that Dad and I shared our love of sports together. ("Hey.....Dad....ya wanna have a catch?") When Dad and I  watched our favorite teams on TV togerther, Mom would usually be somewhere close by watching passively. Even with all those hours of televised sports, the only time I ever saw her get upset was when something bad happened to the Buckeyes football team.  A good example is when they lost to Jim Plunkett and Stanford in the Rose Bowl in 1971, costing them a chance at the national title.  Seeing my mom upset about the Buckeyes losing, after not having much emotion in reaction to the Bengals playoff loss to the Colts just a week earlier and the Reds loss to the Orioles in the World Series a couple of months before that had a big impact on me.  It embedded in me the distinct impression that would stay with me for the rest of my life:  According to my mom, there's Buckeyes football and there's EVERYTHING ELSE.

Allow me to digress for just one more paragraph, I promise!  Imagine how great that was for me as a 9-year old boy, my first year seriously following sports about 12 months after we had moved to Cincinnati from Youngstown.  My baseball team makes it to the World Series, my pro football team wins its' final seven games to make the playoffs in only their third year in existence, (at the time, the fastest any expansion team had made the post-season), and my college football team goes undefeated in the regular season and plays for the National Title.  What a horrid sports childhood I would have had if we hadn't moved from Youngstown, as I would have been rooting for the Indians (one of the worst teams in baseball in the 70s while the Reds had the best record in all of baseball for that decade) and the Browns.  Ugh.  At least we still would have had the Buckeyes.  O-H!!

So all those memories and electrical impulses are surging through and around my brain as we walk toward El Alamo.  As we get there, we see three or four guys standing outside smoking cigarettes, the majority of which are wearing that awful maize and blue color combination.  They seemed harmless enough, so I approached them and said, pointing toward their shirts and nodding toward the bar "Is everyone inside wearing this, or will I find some Scarlet and Gray in there?"  They laughed and a guy just emerging from El Alamo was wearing the OSU colors and said, "There's plenty more of this inside!"
Wolverine fans at El Alamo

It was pretty much a fifty/fifty split between UM and OSU fans inside and there was some good-natured ribbing going on as the game went back and forth.  The Game came down to the fourth quarter and the Bucks made enough key plays to hold on for a glorious 26-21 victory, completing a perfect 12-0 season, much to the delight of the Buckeye contingent at El Alamo.

You can argue until you're maize and blue in the face that the perfect season is diminished by the Buckeyes probationary status, but Urban Meyer and his players couldn't control any of that.  All they could do was line up and play every team on the schedule, which they did finishing each game with a win.  To complete a perfect season with a win over Michigan made it all the more special, and for my family of Buckeye fans, including my wife-an OSU grad, it was a result that would ensure that we would always remember El Alamo.  And Buenos Aires.


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