Thursday, December 18, 2014

Chile in 5 days

Our wanderlust will bankrupt us. Honestly, I think we spend more money traveling than eating (which is curious, given that I continue to gain weight – I think I manage to gain weight simply by looking and thinking about food, frankly). Our frequent travels also raise suspicions among our non-State Department friends and other colleagues from different sections about how much we really work. Rest assured, taxpayers of America – we work. We work plenty when we are at work. We have simply chosen to go places every time there is a 3 or 4-day weekend, to which we tack another 2 or 3 vacation days, depending on where we want to go, which results in a nice, quick getaway.

So, we recently went to Chile. For one, they are the 9th largest wine-producing country in the world; for another, it was a $240 4-hour round-trip; and for thirds – there was a 4-day weekend which we simply could not let go. This was my first time using AirBnB and honestly, apart from the annoying service fee it charges, I was impressed. I found a lovely and rather cheap apartment smack in the middle of the city, the owner was responsive to my endless inane inquires and the apartment was exactly what it said it would be. This time around we decided to take an early morning flight on Saturday, which worked out well as we slept most of the night. Well, sort of. The previous night we went to a fabulous private rooftop party in Ipanema, where the hosts had built two massive brick ovens – one for grilling meat and one – for pizza. Naturally – why would you bother having just ONE measly oven when you can have two! The rooftop also had a swimming pool (of course), and a chic bar from which even chic-er drinks were flowing. With tears in my eyes, we left at 10 pm, since we had to get up at 4 am to get to the airport.

It was a mere 4 hours flight but for some reason it seemed like forever! Son woke up briefly as I carried him from his bed into the taxi to the airport, then perked up unnecessarily inside the airport, and 3 minutes after he sat in the plane and serenely buckled himself up, he was snoring again to wake up 10 minutes before we landed, fresh as a cucumber. The child was BORN to travel!

Santiago is a nice, modern city with a couple of older neighborhoods. There are several areas with excellent restaurants where the cuisine is innovative and frankly, delicious, especially when washed down with copious amount of pisco sour and ruby Carmenere. Our favorite was Barrio Lastarria, which is literally stuffed with amazing restaurants. I especially recommend Mulato, which is in the middle of a tiny square favored by street musicians. Thus, you also get excellent entertainment. Close to it, there is the so-called Paseo Barrio Lastaria, which is literally a massive courtyard in the open air housing a whole bunch of fabulous eateries. Each one has something different to offer and features cuisine from all over Latin America. Patio Bellavista in Barrio Bellavista is yet another massive congregation of various restaurants with a bit more modern feel.

Santiago has a lovely park in the middle of the city, which has a funky old “funicular” – an old tram that goes virtually vertically up the slope into the Parque Metropolitano with fantastic views of the entire city. The parque is actually quite huge, and has even a wine-tasting panoramic restaurant, which however is about a 20 min hike up and down and there wasn’t enough wine in the world to entice us to do that in the heat of the day.

This was the first time in my life when I actually decided to take organized tours in and around the city using the hop-on, hop-off bus company, which in Chile is called the rather non-inventive Turistik. Since we were going to be there for such a short period of time, and city is a bit spread out, we decided to live it up for about $38 or so per person and see the city in style, on the top of a double decker. We bought our vouchers excitedly, and the next day, armbands in hand, cameras and water bottles ready, we went to one of the bus stops that was closest to our apartment and began to wait for the big red shiny bus. Except that right at that moment about 300 people ran like mad people through the street and we realized that it was the day of the Santiago marathon (can someone explain to me why people run marathons???). Which, of course, meant that the street on which we were standing haplessly awaiting the damn bus was dutifully closed. As buses pass every 30 mins or so, we did not want to wait too much to get on one, and so decided to run for the initial stop of the bus, which wasn’t that far away. We figured that at least Stop 1 should be in operation. Except that it wasn’t – in fact, it was the starting and looping point for the stupid marathon. The Turistik office was nearby and soon after, I flew inside, all touristic rage and indignation, demanding my rights to get on board of the so-far unseen bus. The Diplomat and Son dejectedly were dragging themselves behind me, Son particularly unimpressed and bored with the whole adventure. I irritably lectured the calm clerk who sold us the tickets the previous day, telling him the stops were closed off, which he surely must have known yesterday and yet somehow omitted telling us. He feigned total ignorance and suggested we make a run for stop #3 on the itinerary, which was supposedly a mere 10 min walk from there (but the bus should be reaching there in 5). We ran faster than the marathon people, leaving many of them ashamed in our dust. We finally caught the elusive bus and embarked on a lovely tour of the city. 

The one advantage of this bus is that it will take you to the farther district of Sanhattan – yup, the name is a mix of Santiago and Manhattan, and the housing is more like fancy Arlington, but nevertheless, rather fancy. Through its midst runs the wide Vitacura avenue, which is filled with lovely restaurants.

The next two days we went to three more of Turistik’s trips, all with mixed results. We split a day between the beautiful Undurraga winery, where we were introduced to the intricacies of making Carmenere (and treated to yet another winery tour) and a trip to a ski resort high up in the Andes, where we saw several condors, the largest flying birds in the world. Both the Carmenere and the condors were spectacular. Then the following day we set out to what promised to be an exciting tour of Vaparaiso, Chile’s famed seaside city. Built on the 45 hills surrounding the ocean, Valparaiso boasts also 15 functioning funiculars (well, actually only 5 after the recent massive earthquake of 2010) and fabulous colorful houses alongside it capriciously meandering cobble-stoned streets. I was super excited to spend a day there as I love this style of architecture.

Now, you must know that each bus of Turistik comes with a tour guide, who seems to think that a minute of silence on the bus is a minute lost in our lives. On a 45 min ride to the Andes, that is OK. On a 2 hour ride to the coast, with a piercing high pitched female voice speaking bad English, it is not. On top of this, each guide wants to speak Portanol (as the majority of tourists are Brazilian), which is a terrible mixture of both Spanish and Portuguese expressed in repeating everything in both languages in rapid succession. Since we understand Portuguese and Spanish (by virtue of Portuguese), hearing the same info twice, and then one more time in terrible yet patronizing English was excruciating. On top of this, it turned out that we were going to stop at Viño del Mar, another smaller coastal town where apparently we were also going to have lunch. The guide strongly suggested we eat at the buffet at the local casino, and pretty much for the next one hour all she could talk about was how we were going to eat till we drop dead at the casino (her words, not mine). Call me fastidious, but we seceded from the group and had lunch at a nice tapas place. Overall, Viño del Mar did not excite us too much and we were impatient to get to Valparaiso. Off we went finally.
The bus began to climb up to the top of the hills and did a big loop around the neighborhoods. Then he stopped and to my utter horror, it turned out that we were going to go around in a group with Ms. Piercing Bad English as our guide. I pointedly asked whether we could meet the bus in an hour and was dismissed immediately like a naughty student asking to pee too many times in class. Then she yelled at me for walking on the street (vs. the sidewalk) – I had sinned in my desire to take a better photo of the fabulous colorful buildings. Then she took us to a funicular and ordered us to all cram inside, go down and stay frozen and wait for her (her words again) as we had to go down in batches. God forbid she left us 2 mins to enjoy the scenery from above the city. Once down, she gave us generous 10 minutes to walk around and be back or else…Valparaiso is beautiful and reminded me a lot of Marseille but with more color. Too bad we did not have a chance to really explore it better.

Overall, Chile was a lovely experience. The country is modern and well organized, and has fantastic wine and food. Naturally, we bought again 24 bottles of rather inexpensive Carmenere to continue our expanding wine store collection.

In other news, I bought a bike! People, where have I been all these years??? Last time I rode a bike was when I was 12. It is amazing, I can’t get enough. If I could, I’d go to the bathroom using my bike. For now, I just invent various unnecessary tasks for myself in order to go by bike. Except that I don’t have a bell, so errr, I am a bit of a menace on the road. 

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Magic of Mendoza – Argentina Part II

Mendoza is not an easy place to taste wine. Extensive research revealed that there are 3 main wine regions around it, with wineries clustered in each of them – Valle de Uco, Luján de Cuyo and Maipû. The last two are about 45 min drive from Mendoza city, and Uco is more like 1.5 hrs, and most wineries are kind of spread out. You can’t just walk into a tasting room and demand to taste some of their delectable wines. You need to call at least 24 hrs in advance and book a tour – apparently, winemakers of Mendoza consider it a crime to want to just try wine and not take an extensive tour of their indisputably unique winery and cellar. Frankly, after you tour two of them, whether in Mendoza or elsewhere in the world, as we had, you get tired of looking at giant steel vats or admiring French oak barrels (medium toast!), and walking through old basements being told how wine is made pretty quickly. I know how it is made. I know because the three other wineries I visited this very day each explained it to me in minute detail in excruciating Portanõl. Not to mention the three I saw yesterday. Just give me the damned wine!

Extensive research also revealed that we should either hire an expensive cab driver to ferry us around, or book an organized tour (about $300 per day) but we should NOT, under ANY circumstances, rent a car and drive ourselves around as the roads are poorly marked and the wineries tricky to find. So, we went out and rented a car. In our defense, the other options were just so unnecessarily expensive and inflexible that we figured that renting a GPS will do the trick. Clearly, we also rented from the cheapest place possible, and as a result the Diplomat spent the next 4 days driving a tiny car with no power steering through some very, very dusty unpaved roads. But we had a GPS and got lost, like, six times only! It took some time to get the whole operation organized since we also were a little late to the whole “booking a visit” party. Finally, I figured that if we were going to stay in a nice hotel (the Sheraton), we might as well use their concierge to do our job. I dumped a list of my desired wineries to a very perky youngish thing at the desk and asked her to work her magic. Then the Diplomat, Son and I set out to the only winery in the whole region that would see us without an appointment – Familia Zuccardi

One hot wine tour later, and our Mendoza adventure had begun. On the way back, the Diplomat found the local golf course and much to my chagrin, went and hit the driving range with Son while I sat down and read a magazine on the grass. Well, in all honesty, it was mostly him trying to convince Son to hit the balls with the stick (did you know that a golf stick in Portuguese is called a "taco"??) instead of kicking them around like a football. But still golf was played. I watched for some time and I have to tell you – I just don’t get golf. It is literally a bunch of guys, all lined up in a row, whacking a ball with a stick and trying to see how far it can go, all the while wearing silly checkered pants and squatting like ducks with osteoporosis. Ball after ball after ball. Whack! After a while I got so bored I watched a couple of stones grow for a change.

Finally, we went back to the hotel and the whipper-snapper gal at concierge proudly handed me our wine-tasting schedule for the next two days, including a wine-tasting lunch at one of the wineries. She did good. The next day, a Thursday, I believe, was spent in blissful tastings in Cuyo. We started at Bodega Luigi Bosca (only the name is left of the original founder – after he started the winery, he sort of disappeared from the picture and 100 or years later, it still has the name but the Bosca family gets squat from the place). At Luigi Bosca, we stumbled upon a group of carousing neurosurgeons who apparently were in Mendoza for a conference, but the pull of the wineries proved to be stronger than the riveting presentations of their learned peers. Then we felt hungry and decided to find a place to eat. The nerve we had! You try finding a working restaurant in the dead of siesta hour, in the middle of nowhere, Mendoza valley. This is when one begins to appreciate little miracles in life. We did, in fact, stumble upon a most peculiar establishment, a working restaurant that resembled a farm house of sorts, with many little dining rooms and twisting and turning staircases up and down a largely misshapen house, that has been built on each side and on top so many times that the builders must have lost track of what made sense in the end. We were offered a sprawling old wooden table somewhere deep in the basement, laid with dozens of little salads, cured meats, cheeses, olives, vegetables, fruits, breads and a never ending supply of home-made Malbec. Friends and family! I have never experienced anything like this in my life. It was almost like out of a story of 1001 Nights – honestly, if suddenly a couple of odalisques had shown up, scantily clad, with large horns on wine on their heads, ready to pour us when needed, I would not have been that shocked. And all of that for the grand price of $20.

Mightily fortified, we soldiered on to Bodega Chandon – an old love affairs of ours, ever since the Diplomat and I “discovered” Chandon back in Napa Valley during our very first wine-tasting tour together when we were merely dating. I think Chandon was the very first winery I had ever visited in my entire life, and I fell in life forever in the enchanting surroundings and its crispy, delicious sparkling wines. Later on we learned that Chandon is indeed owned by the Evil Empire, also known as Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, and that they owned a sister winery in Mendoza valley. Well, it felt like going back home. I should add here that because Argentina and Brazil are in an economic commonwealth of sorts called Mercosur, one can bring alcohol from one country to another in much larger quantities than is usual between countries, namely 12 bottles per adult (or was it 12 liters?). Thusly, we were on a mission to purchase 24 exceptional wines and were acquiring bottles at each winery at an astonishing speed. At Chandon alone, we bought 6 bottles of fabulous sparkling wine, all methode champenoise, nothing less! and they are currently resting happily in our apartment. I don’t remember much after Domaine Chandon, to be honest. I do think we went back home and slept all the wine off. Including Son.

You might, indeed, wonder what the indomitable child did do during all this wine-related gallivanting around the countryside. He did what Son does best – run around uninhibited all over the vineyard, and then hide around the wine barrels (French Oak, heavy toast, 500 euros each), jumping out in the darkness at the unsuspecting neurosurgeons and scare the crap out of them. He also acquired an extensive collection of pebble stones, which I continue to find hidden in the various pockets of his shorts. Everyone noted how exceptionally well behaved he was. Um, ok, sure!

The next day, Firday, started SO well. We went to the farthest wine region of them all, Vale de Uco, with first stop the new and eclectic Atamsique winery. In fact, it was so now and eclectic, that we missed it a few times until we finally stumbled upon a dusty suggestion of a road, which we bravely took and finally found the famed place. We were taken on yet another SUPER interesting wine tour (“ooh, look, we have CONCRETE vats, we are such pioneers!”) which culminated in a rather substantial wine tasting. So substantial, in fact, that as we moved on towards the next winery and faced the necessity to gas up our antique vehicle, I generously offered to the Diplomat to stay back in the car while I get out and fill it up. Men around the world should know that if a woman offers such a sacrifice, then she must be either about to ask you for some money later on or that she is more or less drunk. Let’s say that I did not need money. Instead, I happily got out of the car and started pouring what I thought was the cheapest gas. At 20 liters I decided to cap it, which was lucky because, as the gas clerk (who had just arrived running from the office afraid that we were going to drive away without paying) pointed out to me, apparently I had just poured in 20 liters of diesel fuel into a car that only takes regular gasoline. I did not see what the big deal was. After all, I was born in a country where in the past people habitually stole gasoline late at night from other people’s cars by siphoning it out of their reservoirs using the simple but effective combination of a plastic tubing, their mouth and gravity. No one seemed to agree with me though, and, highly concerned about the gringa and her stranded family, four burly men from the gas station pushed the car gently 20 meters down to the mechanic’s garage. Yey, how lucky, no? No, because the damned mechanic did not show up until an hour later, thus causing us to miss our next appointment at the famed Salenstein winery. Finally, 2 hours later, after the mechanic and his 2 buddies meticulously wiped every last drop of diesel from the car, we were ready to move. Except that the mechanic now wanted to socialize. He took us into his office and for the next 30 minutes proceeded to show us his album of newspaper clippings about his fledgling career as an amateur race car driver, pictures of his four children, his military cap from the Falklands War (I still think he was a bit too young to have been in that war, but perhaps it was lost in translation or Malbec) and some other military and car paraphernalia. In the end, he ran out of things to show us and we were free to go. Just in time to catch our next appointment – a wine pairing lunch at the spectacular Andeluna Cellars.  

The lunch was the cherry on the top of our trip. The setting itself was amazing, in a large room with an open kitchen, overlooking the vast vineyard, cozy and elegant. The food was interesting and delicious and wines, of course, amazing. Except that they keep bringing in more wine and it all just sounded like SUCH a good idea at the time. The poor Diplomat, who was driving, just stood there watching me “taste” more and more wine, rolling his eyes. After we left, he apparently drove us to the golf course, where I rested gently under the deep shade of a tree and the two men went to hit some more aimless balls towards the nothingness in the driving range, along with a posse of similarly-minded, very interesting older men. Whack!

Mendoza overall is a lovely town with a bustling street life and about a zillion trillion cafes. We completed our wine purchases in the famed Vinoteca Sol y Vino, who packaged our precious cargo of 24 bottles of exquisite Malbec and 6 Chandons. We capped the trip with one last dinner of parilla (or Argentinean BBQ) at the elegant Ocho Cepas and went off to bed happy. The next day we successfully transported ourselves, a sleepy Son and our 24 bottles back to Brazil, and on Monday morning, all reported back to work and school. One thing is for sure – I love Malbec. Oh, and another is for sure – we are going back!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Buenos, Buenos, Buenos Aires!
We have just returned from a satiating 10 day trip to Argentina where we ate and drank our weight in steak and wine. The trip did not begin auspiciously at all. In fact, it started so badly that I thought for some time that it was a sign that we should not get on that plane to eat and drink and be merry in sunny Argentina.

Our flight was scheduled for 10 pm and I personally thought that we had all the time in the world to make it. It takes on average 45 mins from our apartment in Leblon to the Galeao international airport with a little traffic here and there. Since it was Friday night, I assumed a little heavier traffic. The website for the wonderful TAM airlines told me that boarding begins 2 hefty hours before the flight (?), so we had to be there in time to drop off luggage and clear security and passport control by 8 pm. Which meant we had to leave home by 7 sharp. We got home from work around 5.45 pm, then I had to finish packing, and the Diplomat for some reason made dinner. I kept thinking how much time we have. At 7, I was yelling at both men to put on their shoes. At 7.15pm, I was sweating that the cab wasn’t coming. At 7.22pm, we were finally on our way. 3 minutes later, and we dove into one of the thickest traffics I had ever seen in my life. Pure parking lot. I began to freak out gradually. The driver kept chattering in southern-Brazilian Portuguese to me, which meant I understood one in 25 words, and those were mostly connectors. He continued waving his arms around which I took to be a calming sign. The Diplomat also was going on and on about unimportant matters, ostensibly to keep my mind away from worrying. I just wanted to scream at everyone to start moving. Then the cabbie decided to take some crazy side road, which he claimed will help us move faster to the airport highway. Speechless and frankly, optionless, I agreed. I was following the route on my smartphone and I noticed that what he did was pretty much the equivalent of going from London to Dublin via Reykjavik. Thankfully, when I wasn’t fainting in the back seat, I was noticing through the cross streets that we were moving while the rest of the city was stuck, which was encouraging. At that moment I did not care anymore in which direction it was that we were moving. It was the fact of the motion that mattered mostly.

And then, miracle of miracles – we were on the highway to the airport, which was more or less smooth sailing.  By then it was already solid 8 pm and I kept telling myself that the 8 pm boarding time was excessive and perhaps a mistake. Plus, we were already checked in online so they should know we are coming. I could see the lights of the airport, I could practically smell the diesel fuel. Another 7 minutes according to the GPS and we would be there. Except that we weren’t - a mere one mile from the airport, traffic simply stopped. No one knew why. Taxis had pulled off the road, people were leaving their cars, meandering through the road. I was getting apoplectic. I had been waiting for this vacation for a long time and I was NOT going to miss it. The Diplomat was asking about the flight on the following day – if looks could burn, the man would have been incinerated by the deathly stare I gave him. It was pushing 8.30 pm. We were moving three inches an hour. And then, miracle of miracles, we slowly moved on and finally got deposited in front of the airport doors. I ran madly inside with Son while the Diplomat was unloading the luggage and fought with a smartly-looking printing machine to get the boarding passes. Then yelled at the line to drop your luggage that we were going to miss our plane, and were directed to an open desk, thus cutting the line. We were assured we had time – they were aware of the traffic and so were waiting a bit but we were cutting it very close. Breathing a nice sigh of relief, clutching the boarding passes, we ran for our lives towards the security area where we encountered a line with 4000 people waiting to pass their belongings through the X-ray machines. It was 9.15 by then and so both the Diplomat and I tried to tell some official looking people that we have a flight that we are about to miss. We got scolded for leaving the line. We decided to be patient and pray that all will be fine in the end.  Not that there was much else we could do anyway. Slowly but surely it was our turn, and we finally passed through the security check.
Then off to passport control, which is where we encountered another massive line. The time – 9.30 pm. I think it was at that point that my nerves gave up and I went into full hysterics/giddy mode – I found everything around me funny and went into maniacal laughter for no reason at all. It wasn’t helping that on the board showing departures our flight was alternatively showing as “Last Call” or “Ready to Board!” If you think there was anyone we could have told that we are currently in the process of missing our plane, you are a fool. The only option was to blatantly cut the line and hope not to get clubbed by a mob of irritated passengers. Which we did not, fearing aforementioned clubbing.

At some point, we noticed a tall, uniformed gay, who was calling any last people for a Delta flight (we were on TAM, the Brazilian airline). All he would do was go around an mutter, “delta? Delta? Delta?” I figured it was the line manager and several times eagerly tried to explain to him our predicament. And every time he would quizzically look back at me and say softly, “Delta??” It sounded like a Monthy Python movie, frankly. In the end, 15 mins before the damn flight, I went back to the guy in Delta trance and loudly explained what was going on. And then he responded, “Why are you telling ME this? I work for Delta!” Which made sense, especially given his massive Delta lanyard and his immense dedication to the Delta cause. Still, it proved to be useful, since he simply pointed out that we should get out of the line without paying attention to the rest of the people in it and get through passport control, and then run for the flight. Which we did. When we got to the gate with 5 minutes to departure, calm and happiness reigned. No one seemed to care that we were massively late. We boarded a bus to the plane, which then went in the wrong direction and for some time drove around the runways looking for the plane. Believe it or not, all was fine in the end and we landed in Buenos Aires around 1.30 am.

This is when Chapter 2 of the unnecessarily protracted trip occurred. You see, prior to leaving, we had procured diplomatic courtesy visas from the Argentinean consulate in Rio de Janeiro, which saved us a solid $160*3. The problem with that was that the courtesy visas are simply a stamp in your passport with handwritten info on them. Every time you show up to the border with those, the border officers gawk and stare at them and wonder what to do with them since they have never seen one like it. At 1.30 am, this exercise was not fun. It took 3 officers 20 minutes to figure out how to process us and let us in the lovely land of Argentina.  Finally, by 3 am, we were safely tucked in our beds in the lovely Sheraton Buenos Aires.

Stunning architecture
Friends! Let me tell you about Argentina! It is a wonderful land of beautiful architecture, nice people, fabulous food and unbelievable wine. All at minimal cost as the local peso is steadily devaluing against the dollar. Buenos Aires reminded me of old Europe. Intricate building facades, streetside cafes, eclectic neighborhoods, steak and Malbec. People – how did I live before (re)discovering Malbec? I know, I know, EVERYONE knows about Malbec but let me tell you – that wine has never tasted the way it does in Argentina. We drank a lot of wine during this trip.

The nuisance and Casa Rosada
Since we could not find a babysitter till our last night in Buenos Aires, we took Son with us to dinner everywhere and the honest child would watch a movie during dinner, and then announce he was sleepy and curl up on a chair next to me. I fondly remember doing the same as a child myself – babysitters did not exactly exist as a concept in 1980s Bulgaria. During the day, we would walk for hours exploring the beautiful city, with Son bored to tears and trying to find himself various entertainment along the way. After all, you can keep a child’s interest in ornate architecture only so much – rather, he’d run around the main square around said architecture, chasing the flocks of tame pigeons used to pottering around the hapless tourists. Or, try to block you from taking a picture by being a nuisance.

The Colors of El Caminito
Among the highlights of BA were Plaza de Mayo and Casa Rosada, or the Presidential Palace from whose balcony Juan Peron, Evita, Maradona and a smorgasbord of presidents have addressed the adoring crowds. The Palace is indeed pink, a color achieved by the intriguing method of mixing lime with ox blood. The second day we decided to visit the colorful La Boca since all online research said it was really pretty, fun and dangerous as it is full of robbers. It was logical then that we would choose to go. It was Sunday, and the streets of BA were filled with street fairs. La Boca, a small neighborhood in the farther south of BA, is a working class area, ostensibly avoided by middle-class porteños (porteño means Buenos-aireans, btw!).  The colorful El Caminito Lane runs through the beginning of La Boca and frankly, there is nothing scary or dangerous about it, especially on a sunny Sunday morning. El Caminito area is famous for its corrugated zinc walls and roofs, all painted in playful and loud blues, reds, yellows, greens, purples, pinks. Naturally, one needs to be smart about visiting La Boca and keep to the main tourist area because yes, just like Copacabana beach after dark, even the friendliest place turns into a heaven for robbers and the like.

From there, we crossed over to San Telmo, a delightful older neighborhood, home to the lively and elegant Plaza Dorrego, filled with cafes, restaurants, musicians, peddlers and everything else. Since it was Sunday, of course there was an antiques and leather fair. 
One of many bands in the San Telmo street fair

Plaza Dorrego and its crowded cafes
As a result, the streets were packed with people, but that still did not make it fill crowded or unpleasant. Even after we almost got pick pocketed. I carry my camera in sort of a special camera backpack, which is very convenient as it does not dangle from my side when I make pictures. I also use it to put my money and other interesting and useful things. In the throngs of San Telmo, hanging there from my back, it must have been an irresistible target. Imagine then my shock when, as we were walking slowly around the neighborhood, enjoying the colors and the noise, I turned back my head to take a look at something and noticed a pleasant-looking older lady with immaculately coiffed white hair and a cute plastic bag in her hand gently trying to unzip my backpack (little did she know that all my cash was in a secret pocket inside to which she wouldn't even know how to get). She immediately withdrew her hand, and, holding a nice elderly gentlemen under the arm, they quickly began devoting an excessive amount of time to what appeared to be a rather revolting collection of pink statues for sale while hastily moving further away from us in a side street. The Diplomat and I began pointed towards them as we wondered what to do, and noticed that they were frantically gesticulating to someone else. Soon, a group of about 5 younger people gathered around them, and all of them beat a hasty retreat in the side streets. So, if you think you are only going to be robbed at a knife or gunpoint by a group of young punks, think again – grandma had it DOWN and could run circles around Fagin and the Artful Dodger.

Undaunted, we continued our stroll in search of the elusive Parrilla de Freddy (parrilla basically means grill as well as a steakhouse), which was supposed to be a hole in the wall grill spot which amazing food. Problem was, I forgot exactly where it was located and had no ways to checking the internet to dig out the location. So, we just aimlessly roamed the streets until we literally passed by the place!
Bar El Federal - nuts and coffee cake on the house
 It was too early for lunch, so we sat down for coffee and wine at the classic Bar El Federal, which has been there since 1864 and still going strong. Slightly tipsy after a massive glass of Malbec, we went back to Freddy’s and consumed huge quantities of choripán (chorizo sausage sandwich), washed down with some home-made Malbec in a jar. It was time to go back to the hotel and sleep it all off.
Freddy himself at the grill
 The next couple of days were spent exploring Palermo and Palermo Soho, drinking more wine and eating our hearts out. Day 5, at the ungodly hour of 7 am, we boarded a plane to magical Mendoza.

Since this is turning into a kilometrical post, I will save Mendoza for my next post.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Tenure, a birthday and expat cravings

Yes, I am aware that it has been well over a month since I have last written here. I have not given up. There were several contributing factors, some of them good and some – not so much. To begin with, I recently learned that I did not receive tenure. Now, for those of you uninitiated folks, tenure in the Foreign Service means that, unless you manage to offend the local government to the point of destroying our diplomatic relations with your host country and they refuse to visit the U.S. even for cheap shopping and to visit Disney, you cannot be fired. Just like in an academic setting. One becomes eligible for tenure on the third anniversary of entering the Foreign Service. There are tenuring boards, comprised of senior FS folks, who convene a couple of times during the year in some deep secret place, armed with stacks of entry level officers’ annual evaluations, coffee and stale donuts, and a week or so later re-emerge with decisions who gets tenured that time around. An officer gets 3 bites at the apple – each on the consecutive anniversaries of her entry to the Foreign Service. If you do not get tenured on the 3rd time (i.e., your 6th year as a FSO), as Heidi Klum would say, “you are out!” and your blissful FS career is over. Rumor has it that only about 5% of tenure-hopefuls do not end up getting it and as a result are back on the hopeless, barren non-governmental job streets.  For more on that, read the State Department’s own missive about this wholesome process.

Public FS lore indicates that typically about 40-60% of a given A100 class will get tenure during their very first review. The Diplomat’s class was a glorious testament to that.  It became a complete mystery then as to what exactly happened to my class as we learned that only about 20% or so of us got tenured last month. Granted, the folks who did get it were stars and did some pretty amazing things as first-tour officers. I didn’t. I did some fantastic things. I came up with awesome innovations, made things more efficient, outreached to anyone who’d listen in Bangladesh, networked like a banshee and spread the good American word. But I did not save people from burning buildings or serve as the acting Ambassador in my second month or bust a drug ring or TDY (temporary duty) to Kamchatka. I guess that’s what it takes.  So, I have been busy being amazing these days.

Lovely life in Brazil continues. I must say that Cariocas are probably the most relaxed, casual people I have seen in my life. Everyone feels amazingly free in their own skin and clothes (or lack thereof). It is an enviable attitude to life, I admit. And speaking of clothing, animal print is all the rage in Rio right now. Cheetah print is especially cherished. I have seen cheetah pants, cheetah shorts, cheetah tanktops, cheetah dresses, cheetah running shorts, cheetah running leggings and cheetah compression socks for the gym, cheetah skinny shorts, cheetah bags, cheetah bathing suits, cheetah skirts, scarves, cheetah jewelry, all spiced up by a sprinkle of snake skin overalls and shirts! It is the jungle out here in Rio and people relate to it naturally! The day I see a man wearing animal print, I promise to give up and buy my own leopard skinny pants.

Last week we also celebrated Son’s 6th birthday! And to think that I started this blog when he was about 6 months old. That is a LOT of time spent writing rather than doing something more productive, say – play with Son. At any rate, I decided to defy the Brazilian way and to actually host his birthday party in our home. Celebrating kid birthdays is an industry in Brazil, and folks go out of their way to throw their precious prodigy lavish and entertaining birthday parties. They rent big kid party rooms with all kinds of cool entertainment, hire magicians, clowns, what have you. Ever the dissenter (and being cheap), I decided that we were going to have Son’s birthday “American style.” Which meant at home, with me cooking and decorating and preparing party favors. In lieu of a clown, I offered Fat Cat. Sadly, one of Son’s little lady friends was a bit scared of the portly and reluctant entertainment so we locked him to away to his immense relief. Fat Cat does NOT enjoy children very much. I decided to make cupcakes instead of a big cake, something I have never baked in my life before. The thing is, it is one thing to choose to make red velvet cupcakes according to Martha Stewart and actually having the ingredients to do so. Like, for example, red food dye. You’d think that food dye is all the rage in Brazil, but shockingly –no. So, I sent the Diplomat on a wild goose chase on his bike in the heat of a Saturday afternoon to procure the dye. And procure he did, in a small cake shop in Copacabana. Mission accomplished – and the birthday and the resplendent cupcakes were a resounding success.

Which brings me to another philosophical point about living this nomadic, international life – no matter what, one naturally leans towards things known and comfortable and this is particularly true about food and cooking. I am so used to just going to the store and getting ready-made pie crusts, food dye, pickles (why are there no pickles in Brazil??), sour cream, mascarpone cheese, an olive bar, peaches, feta cheese, to just name a few. Well, here (and in many places in the world) you can find some of these things only in specialty stores at exorbitant prices, or not at all, frankly. At the same time, you can buy mangos and lychees for pennies, drink fresh coconut juice every day, eat cheeses you have never even heard about before and wear string bikinis on the beach (or anywhere for that matter) without a care in the world about your personal cellulite. I guess the only way to survive the constant culture shocks and clashes is to embrace your new environment immediately, try to understand it, use it in everyday life and end up ordering a lot of things from (God bless the diplomatic pouch!).  

Sadly and inexplicably, I continue to gain weight in Rio. I have now began running alongside the beach once or twice a week (read – I ran twice last week for the first time, and almost passed out the second time when I increased my running path to a whooping 2 miles). I have also adopted other, non-traditional exercise methods at work to help me in my quest for a late modeling career. For example, at least once a day, I climb up and down (admittedly, at the pace of a snail) the stairs of the Consulate all the way up to the 12th floor in my 5-inch high heels. It serves a dual purpose really – besides working out, I also warm up since our Consulate maintains a comfortable -23C degrees inside and after sitting down for 15 minutes, I can’t feel my frozen fingers clanking on the keyboard of the computer and fear that if I type faster, they’ll just break like icicles. There are several structural reasons why the damned building is maintained so cold, but I don’t care. I am tired of walking around wrapped in massive colorful woolen scarves like an eccentric Buddhist monk. Climbing stairs warms me up and the people from the building across get a kick out of watching me stretch every 3 floors.

Another tough aspect of living overseas is not getting the TV channels you are used to and getting a bunch of new ones in a foreign language that you just learned. No matter how well you learned it in the past 6 months, and how strong your resolve to watching the news in the native language is, you are still barely understanding a small fraction of whatever the pretty lady is prattling about on TV or the gorgeous made-up creature is crying and hurling herself about in the soap opera. You will sit there, in your first days, still dedicated, straining your neck to hear better in the hopes of understanding better. You will not. You will give up. Unless you are the Press Officer at post, in which case you must.

And so you begin craving and missing your U.S. channels and all the good shows you were into and all the stupid ones you were REALLY into even though you never told anyone you watch them. The only channel that appears to be universally available anywhere in the world is actually CNN and so we end up watching a ton of it anywhere we go. At least we are always in the know.
But the world has moved much technologically in the last few years and now, thanks to a combination of wires, lack of wires, some pluggy thingamajigies, some random stuff that I honestly do not understand, some stuff that hides where my computer is and many more machinations, we are able to watch most U.S. TV shows. Yup, including the Real Housewives of New Jersey. Even the Kardashians show (did you know there was more than one??). Not that I do watch them. But I could if I felt the sudden urge to dumb myself down. So, life has definitely improved for the poor expat. And speaking of shows, I am hooked on a new one, called Married at First Sight, the premise of which is that a bunch of singles leave themselves in the hands of 4 experts with perfectly coiffed hair and eclectic tie choices to choose them a spouse and meet that spouse for the first time at the altar. Then they marry them sight unseen and get shipped off to a honeymoon and then back for a month of marital bliss. I freely admit to spending 4 straight hours on Saturday night and another 3 on Sunday and another 2 on Monday morning watching the whole shebang on It is a good show, people!

What else is going on? Ah, yes. I finally managed to attend a real reception with some fancy schmancy people hosted by our own Consul General where I met some really cool people. Then I got inspired and organized a reception for our own consular section and consular contacts in one of the swankiest hotels in Copacabana where I met even more cool people. Life is looking up, folks!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

To Bulgaria and Back

I have just returned to Rio after 12 days of binge eating, drinking and being merry back home in Sofia. As mentioned before, Son spent solid 6 weeks with Grandma and I went to collect him and bring him back to the rainy fold of Rio de Janeiro. In his absence, the Diplomat and I watched more soccer than ever necessary, and had entire weekend days to do whatever we wanted. The problem was that we badly missed Son who, at the same time, thought about us in passing while becoming increasingly popular with the kids in front of Grandma’s building in Sofia.

As I was facing a 11-hour flight from Rio to Paris, I tried my darned best to get myself upgraded to business class. I started asking with remarkable self-confidence about the price of the upgrade (a staggering $2000), pretended to think about it for a while, then asked about upgrade with miles (knowing fully well that all I had was 380 miles left) and was told no. Finally, with a huge pleasant smile and (what I thought was) irresistible charm and no small amount of gumption, I asked whether I could be given a complimentary upgrade. All I was given, instead, was a cold unblinking stare and an aisle seat deep into coach territory. C'est la vie. On the plane, for about an hour, the TV did not work but at least they were passing rather excellent Champagne to lessen the pain. Finally up in the air, pleasantly buzzed, we were given our tiny yet delicious dinner and the TVs finally began working. I watched the highly intellectually stimulating LEGO movie and, folded like an amateur contortionist, managed to sleep for an entire 4 hours. In Paris, I found myself a nice leather sleeper semi-couch facing the runway, and was asleep in 3 minutes. It was not a good sleep though, as I was clutching with one hand my phone whose alarm was set to wake me up to board the plane to Sofia, and with the other my obscenely expensive and rather large Louis Vuitton purse.

I woke up an hour later and decided to check out the cigar choices at the Duty Free shop. To my delight, they had a giant walk-in humidor, into which I immediately went. Now, you should know that in European airports, duty free shops have 2 prices for tobacco products – one for travelers within the EU (higher) and one for those traveling outside of it (palpably lower). I knew that but since I was technically traveling from Brazil to Bulgaria with a layover in France, I thought that maybe they make an exception in such cases. I decided to ask the haughty-looking young French salesman which price I would be paying given my situation. The conversation went on something like this:

Me: Hi! I was just wondering which of these prices I would be pay…
Haughty French salesman (interrupting me): Where you fly to?
Me: Bulgaria.
Haughty French salesman:  Ah, you pay European price.
Me: But I am coming from Brazil.
Stupid haughty salesman (with a VERY patronizing tone): You no’, Bougaria eez en Europe now!
Me (speechless for a second): Yes, I actually know but thank you for pointing it out. As a matter of fact, Bulgaria has been located in Europe ever since it was founded in 681 A.D.  Anyway, I was simply asking because I am here only as a layov..
Inane French salesman (interrupting again, yelling a bit): Eez Europe!!!! (exits with aplomb).
Me (seething; leaving without cigars)

Then, finally at Sofia airport, I looked and felt very much like something chewed, swallowed, then masticated on for some time and finally spit out by a particularly languid cow. I only wished to go through the passport lane quickly, collect my luggage, be met by Son and Grandma, and then be whisked home to the sumptuous feast that my mom had undoubtedly cooked for me. Instead, I had to go through the usual uncomfortable rigmarole at the passport control, where I would present my U.S. passport, be looked at with confusion or suspicion or some other negative microexpression by the border officer, be asked for my Bulgarian passport, having to explain why exactly I did not have one and then finally be free to go. Soon, suitcases in the cart, as I was about to bolt to freedom through the “Nothing to declare” lane, a pleasantly smiling unformed policeman stepped in front of my cart and brightly asked me where I was coming from. At the point of nervous breakdown from sleep deprivation and really bad airplane food, the effects of which I was already feeling, I replied that my immediate flight was from France. He insisted on knowing where my original departure city was – at the mention of Brazil, he visibly got excited and began asking me various questions about my luggage and who had packed it. Then he asked for my passport and spent 4 solid, quality minutes leafing through it with deep interest. Naturally, I grew anxious as this had never happened to me before. Since I have some old middle-school friends who work for border patrol, I began suspecting that this was some sort of a prank and in turn, started staring at the widely-smiling policeman very suspiciously. To which he responded with an even bigger smile and a new inspection of my passport. In the end, he ran out of things to ask me about, had looked through my passport 7 times and smiled wide and long enough to be cast in a toothpaste commercial. I was finally released in Bulgaria.

There, I was soon astonished to discover that Son had become a full-fledged member of the pack of kids living in my building, all of whom are kids of the people I went to primary school or grew up with in the same building. I grew up in those blessed times where we kids roamed the streets of our area until dark, without fear of kidnapping or perverts or whatever else credible fears we have nowadays for our kids, thus not letting them play outside until dark without supervision. Well, apparently this still exits to an extent where Grandma lives. Son would get up in the morning, have a huge breakfast, then head downstairs even if there were still no kid to play with. Or, while at home reading a book, the other kids would begin ringing the bell, asking him to come down to play. Extricating him from their fold at night to come home was more painful than pulling wisdom teeth by a brand new dental resident (I know from personal, very painful experience). The good news is that Son’s Bulgarian has improved considerably and now he can argue with me successfully in two languages.
While in Bulgaria, I had the usual hectic schedule of seeing as many family members and friends as possible. That entailed a lot of restaurant going, which naturally led to a lot of food and even more drinking. The situation got so bad that after five straight nights out, I simply could not go any further and had to cancel a dinner that I had been really looking forward to. My entire being simply went on strike and refused to move all evening.
I also managed to visit the U.S. Embassy in Sofia, which was indeed spectacular! Comparing it to the Consulate building here in Rio, it looks like a palace. Too bad I am not allowed to work there as I was recently informed by Diplomatic Security. Oh well. Overall, my stay was awesome as all such stays tend to be and I came back to Brazil weighing a solid 4 pounds heavier. I also managed to bring in my suitcases 4 lbs of dried salami, 3 kilos of feta cheese, a kilo of smoked ham, 4 packs of sunflower seeds, 3 bottles of Bulgarian grappa, one bottle of wine and a packet of dry kadaifi. Nothing tastes better than home food!

In my absence, the Diplomat was supposed to play tennis on a daily basis and golf at least every other day. Ironically, it rained almost daily so he sat home in immense frustration and called me at all hours to make sure I wasn’t having too much fun. Here I’d like to add as a side note just how amazing technology has become today. There are so many ways one can talk for free internationally, which is astonishing to me especially since I still remember vividly paying 93 cents a minute back in 1996 when I first went to the U.S. in order to talk to my family as I was struggling with severe and painful homesickness while trying to adapt to my new life. I remember writing letters almost every day to my parents, grandparents, my boyfriend and my friends as virtually no one had email back then in Bulgaria. Today, we are so easily and obsessively connected globally that we have absolutely no excuse falling out of touch with people who are important to us. So, call your mom today!!!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The World Cup and Americans Abroad

So, the World Cup befell Brazil and we were all enjoying it thoroughly. Honestly. Frankly, it has felt like I were back in the U.S. – there are so many Americans in the streets that one can mistake Rio for New York easily. It is kind of disorienting, really. But our compatriots are everywhere, drinking, getting lost, losing their passports, sleeping semi-naked on the beaches,watching the games and drinking some more on the metro. I am beginning to get the feeling that the majority of American tourists (whose median age appears to be about 22) have come here under the pretext of the World Cup in order to imbibe as much beer and caiprinhas as possible.

Few days ago as I was riding on the crazy bus to the consulate, all of a sudden at one of the stops the driver started yelling at someone in the back who had gotten on the bus using the back door (reserved only for getting off the bus – you get in from the front where you pay the bus fare). After the person did not register anything, the driver went in and personally tossed him off the bus – it turned out to be a 23 year old gringo who clearly could not hold his cachaça, was wearing long beach shorts and a tank top that hadn’t seen laundry in about a year. He sauntered off towards the beach, looking dazed and confused, and a second later threw himself on the sand and fell asleep immediately. American behavior during U.S. games became even more erratic. While I was watching happily the U.S. – Germany game at the aptly named Gringo Café among many of my fellow compatriots, there was a man in a semi-naked state who would habitually run through the street where the café is located, screaming, “U-S-A” from the top of his lungs and waving a giant U.S. flag energetically in the process. Looked heavy but the guy had a great deal of enthusiasm. Too bad we did not win that game. At least it seems that soccer is becoming a thing in the U.S.

I have been watching the games religiously and believe it or not, have managed to obtain a few coveted tickets to watch the games in Maracana, the legendary football stadium of Rio de Janeiro. What is even more amazing is that we bought those tickets on the official FIFA website rather than buying scalped ones. It came to my attention that people who are unable to attend the games habitually return tickets directly back to FIFA, which re-releases them at some ungodly morning hour on its website every day. So, armed with this information, the Diplomat decided to stay up all night once and wait for tickets to appear on the website. He gave up at 11.30 pm, which I thought was a little weak. However, apparently that same night he woke up with an odd premonition around 5 am, and quietly went to the computer to check the situation. To his utter astonishment, there were a few tickets available for the finals and with trembling fingers he began the convoluted process of buying them online. And then the amazingness of what was happening took over him and he could not get himself together to complete the transaction. As a result, I was woken up by his hysterical shrieks, informing me that we are getting tickets to the World Cup, accompanied by a few eloquent expletives, clearly aimed at expressing his delight. I was made to understand that he was too excited to figure out how to use a credit card to buy the reserved tickets and we had 8 minutes left to complete the transaction. I ran breathlessly to the living room, and cursing the blurry website images managed somehow to complete the process. Then I realized that I was actually not wearing my glasses and it was a small miracle I could see anything at all. After we danced the happy “we got World Cup finals tickets” dance for a while, I changed and went to work where we irritated everyone the entire day by telling them about our success, while simultaneously falling asleep at random places around the office. The next night, using the same strategy, the Diplomat managed to buy us also tickets to the round of 16 again at Maracana. That emboldened us and we began dreaming football tickets night and day. We figured out that FIFA was releasing them at 5 am, and so every night at 4.30 am, the Diplomat would get up (somewhat noisily, I might add) and park himself at the computer, trying to score us quarter final tickets. Sadly, however, our luck ran out and he gave up the hunt largely. Until one day our evil friends from work told us that there are several programs/applications developed by fans, which somehow manage to know how many tickets are being released at the moment of their release by FIFA. The application would make a sound and you will get right on the computer frantically trying to beat everyone else who is killing themselves doing the same. Except that the sound is a police siren and the Diplomat would leave it next to his bed. There is nothing more annoying than waking up to a fake police siren sound at 5.12 am, having a disoriented Diplomat make his way haphazardly in the darkness to the living room and then come back 20 minutes later with no tickets after all. We finally decided it was not worth it.

People though are desperate for tickets and would rather get arrested and spend a night in prison for buying scalped tickets rather than just sit tight in a nice little bar and watch the game surrounded by friends. Last week, again on the proverbial bus, I saw two middle-aged Frenchmen who both had pinned pieces of paper to their shirts with the following on it, “Looking for tickets for France-Ecuador game!” I started laughing (because it was funny), which they took to mean that I have tickets for them (which I did not).

So, I ended up going to three games overall – to a 16th round to see Colombia spank Uruguay (I was actually cheering for Uruguay because blue is my favorite color, but I was surrounded by so many feisty Colombians that I did not dare say a peep), to a quarter final to watch Germany beat very polite and tactically France, and finally to be treated to a model game at the final between Germany and Argentina. Folks, Maracana is AMAZING. Like, AMAZING! It was redone for the World Cup so now the seats are very comfy and spacious and no matter where you sit, you have a great view of the game. Unless you wear glasses with really crappy prescription, like I do, in which case you don’t really see very well and keep asking, “who is Messi, wait, where, where, wait, what just happened, who is that??” every two minutes. The final game at Maracana was clearly once in a lifetime experience. Unless Brazil hosts the World Cup again when I am 89 or something and Argentina happens to play Germany again, and I happen to have tickets, in which case it will be twice in a lifetime thing. Either way, it was spectacular. Even Gisele Bundchen showed up to unveil the FIFA trophy. The whole city was filled to the brim with Argentineans who had driven over the border for the game even though only a tiny fraction of them had tickets to the game.

As some of you might know, the Brazil-Argentina football rivalry is epic and legendary. It is indeed so bad that during the final, most Brazilians supported Germany even though they had just lost to them in a staggering 7-1 semi-final simply because they are passionately against Argentina winning. As one TV commentator said, Germany gained 250 million fans overnight. The stadium was packed with Brazilians dressed in German shirts, screaming every time Germany made a pass to the goal, and booing every Argentinean move. The rest of the stadium had 23 real Germans and a ton of Argentineans wearing Messi’s number 10 jersey (for those of you who have lived under a rock the past one month, Messi is from Argentina and is the best soccer player in the world right now as evidenced by him winning the World Cup 2014 Best Player after the game). The Diplomat suddenly had the epiphany that he had loved the Argentinean team all of his life, and bought a Messi shirt on the way to the stadium to add to the blue madness there.

After an emotional game with 2 overtimes (and no penalties, thank God, can’t take any more penalties!), we headed home to what promised to be a nice, peaceful Sunday night. We needed it, as we had had a crazy week leading up to it. We had had the pleasure of hosting our very first guests here in Rio – five of the most fabulous Bangladeshi ladies ever who came to enjoy the World Cup and party with us in Rio. After a few days of dinners, drinks and incessant shopping, they left a couple of days before the final. That following night, the Diplomat and I hosted a 12 people goodbye dinner for one of our colleagues, which meant a day and a half of intense cooking, and a morning of the final game with intense hangover. And so, with all that emotion and the World Cup over, we were looking forward to cleaning up the apartment and getting ready for the new work week. Well, it was not meant to be. As we were standing in the train, watching some feisty and rather inebriated Argentineans getting tossed out of the metro, we noticed a few familiar faces – another group of good Bangladeshi friends who were obviously also coming back from the game. Turns out, they had come to Rio a few days before that, and did not realize we were there already. Since it was their last night in the city, they were mulling over going to Lapa, the party district of Rio, to celebrate the end of the World Cup. A couple of caipirnhas later, and the Diplomat and I took the most logical decision ever – to go out with them. And so we all dragged ourselves to our apartment, continued drinking while we changed, and then around 11.30pm set out to check out the club scene in Lapa. The mood there was incredible! Crowded and loud, the craze overtook us and we started ordering passion fruit caiprinhas from street vendors (yup, street vendors) while waiting to get into the club. At 2 am, good times or not, I simply could not continue to overlook the fact that I had to get up at 6 am to go to work and we reluctantly left. I am proud to say that I made it work on time and was even coherent enough to interview over 120 visa applicants.

And so, the World Cup is over. The city is none the worse for it and I think we are all about to exhale a collective sigh of relief as the tourists promptly leave Copacabana and the prices of pretty much everything go down. At least for the next two years until the Summer Olympics hit this country again.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Tourism, Culture and Bars

The past four weeks have been busy. My Mom arrived to spend a precious month with us, babysitting and cooking for us while taking in the Marvelous City. We used the occasion of her arrival and ditched the boys to go to the incredible Iguacu Falls – one of the three most spectacular falls in the world. The falls span across the Brazilian and Argentinean borders (separated by the Iguazu river) and one gets a different view of the falls depending on the side one is. Usually, one spends a day exploring the views from the Brazilian side, and another hiking to see to falls from the Argentinean banks.

The trip started very well. It turned out that several of my colleagues from the Consulate would be going to Iguacu (it was a long weekend) and we planned and planned out awesome weekend together. I dreamed of bonding and fitting in. It was going to be glorious. Mom and I arrived on Friday night in Iguacu city in Brazil. Given the incredible popularity of this tourist attraction, I knew that the town would be cute and filled with many lovely little restaurants and could not wait to spend a night eating Brazilian BBQ and drinking caipirinhas with Mom. Folks, I have rarely seen a less lively place in my life. After walking for an hour in the desolate landscape of the sleepy little town of Iguacu we returned to have dinner in the overly priced cavernous and practically empty restaurant right next to our hotel. It was not cute. Or quaint. Or good food.

The next day we had a hearty breakfast at the hotel and headed over the falls on the Brazilian side. It was cold, so I put on pretty much all of the clothes I had brought with myself. Since the bulk of our luggage has yet to be delivered to us (welcome to Foreign Service life), I own a total of 2 light sweaters and a pair of jeans to for cold weather. So, I put them all on. We decided to do this trip on the cheap and so rather than renting an expensive car with a driver, or signing up for an organized tour or some other such capitalist contraption, we took the public bus 104 which took us directly to the park in no time (well, SOME time, like 30 mins) from downtown. Then I got a text from my colleagues that they had just set out to explore and so Mom and I hurried to catch up with them. At that point, my colleagues texted to say that the views from Argentina were gorgeous, which was all very nice except that we were on the exactly opposite side of the river. We resolved to wave to each other and continued on our merry ways. Soon we had our first sighting of the Iguacu Falls, which was unforgettable. Frankly, I cannot even begin to describe them, so let’s not go there. Let’s just call them stunning and their power breathtaking and leave it at that. As you draw closer to the biggest two falls in the middle of the others, you need to buy yourself a nice, plastic raincoat (or, in the case of Mom, prudently save and bring the one you bought in Niagara Falls) and don it as it practically rains as you stand close to the falling tons of water. The Brazilians have built a nice long terrace in the middle of the river, right under the falling waters, which allows the eager revelers to stand in rapture and be whipped by cascades of frothing waters while trying to take pictures with their overly expensive cameras. And if you happen to be wearing glasses (like me, for example) you pretty much see nothing as the glasses are completely covered with rain drops. Still, awesome!

We woke up the next day to a nice, steady rain. Determined to make this trip work, Mom and I ate another hearty breakfast at the hotel, put on our plastic raincoats and braved the naughty weather. We wanted to take another public bus, which would take us over the border to Argentina, and from there we would take yet another public Argentinean bus to the park itself. Given that it was Sunday (read, buses frequency goes to one per hour), and the crappy weather, it was a miracle we caught one in less than half an hour. It was filled with suspicious looking local characters and several bearded Euro backpackers. It got a bit dicey at the border as I presented proudly my courtesy Argentinean visa to the border officer. All Americans need a visa to visit Argentina, and I had just gotten mine a week before with the help of our consulate in Rio. I was very excited. The border patrol officer was not. He stared blankly at it for some time and then asked me something in a language that I can only guess was Spanish. I said in my best Portuguese that yes, this was a visa, yes, issued to me by the Argentinean consulate in Rio de Janeiro. He then said a lot more in incomprehensible Spanish (you’d think that I would understand at least SOMETHING using my Portuguese; I did not). What was more worrisome was that a) he seemed unhappy, and b) all the backpackers on the bus and Mom breezed through the border check with their EU passport and the bus did not appear to be where I had left it in front of the border patrol office. Mom gesticulated at me wildly that they are waiting for me but that I should hurry. By then, all seven border passport officers were gazing at my (clearly suspicious) visa. In all honesty, what the visa was in fact a poorly made blue stamp, on the lines of which someone had scribbled that it was valid for a year. Son could have made that visa with his toy stamp kit. I began to sweat. I now understand what my applicants go through. And then all of them began speaking to me, waving my passport around. I understood nothing. Finally, they gave up, stamped it and gave it back to me with an air of disgust. People, I have rarely been so relieved. I ran and caught the bus, which was waiting for me while all the crust backpackers kept giving me dirty looks.

While on the Argentinean side, we got steadily rained on, which for a long time did not dampen our spirits (yes, pun intended!). We walked about and stared for some time at the falls from that side and then ended up at the infamous Devil’s throat, the most impressive fall of the group. It was unimaginable. Thanks for a balcony built in by the Argentineans right next to the Throat, one could get as close as a few meters from the cascading tons of frothing, gurgling water falling the long distance to the bottom. Heavy mist bordering on torrential rain rises in waves in the air, making it foggy and very warm. The noise is deafening and the sheer power of nature forces you to forget everything else that could have possibly entered your mind thus subjugating your senses and your mind to the reigning wonder of nature. I was rendered speechless for a while, standing there, under the pouring combination of heavy mist and medium rain, tucked in my flimsy white raincoat. It was humbling.

Up to that point, all was going according to plan until we decided to explore the lower trail of the falls, which would take us to the bottom part of the falls where they break into the water. The rain, light and tolerable until then, all of a sudden woke up and decided that we should never see the lower trail and began pouring down on us full force. I gave up when my sneakers got so full of water that every time I made a step, some of it poured out happily from there. I was done with the damned falls. I was fall-ed out. It was nice while it lasted. And good thing too – turned out that by the time we got to the bus station to take the bus back to Brazil, there was only one last bus going there. If has stayed long enough to see the lower trail, we would have had to find a place to stay in Argentina. We jumped in that old creaky public bus, filled with yet more Euro backpackers with ginormous backpacks on their backs and smaller ones hanging on their fronts like some particularly ungainly kangaroos. Because of the rain, the inside of the bus smelled like wet socks and dirty dogs. I sat next to another thoroughly wet tourist who did not bat an eyelash when I took off each of my sneakers to line them with wads of paper towels which Mom had just stolen from the bathroom at the bus station. I felt better and warmer. Back in Brazil, on our way back to the hotel, I spotted a lively Lebanese joint which had two churning shawarma grills, glinting happily in the rainy night. It was exactly what we needed. A mere 20 minutes later, we were contentedly sitting in our hotel, eating smelly chicken kabobs and drying our clothes and shoes with a hairdryer. All in all, the trip was a success and one to remember.
At the same time, do you feel bad for the Diplomat for being sad and lonely back in Rio. While we were out admiring the nature, he went to a fancy party to which were had been invited the previous week. He was apparently having such a nice little time there, that he decided to text me around 12 am, saying, “This party is awesome, wish you were here with me!” Sweet, no? Except that he somehow managed to send the text message not to me, but to our 24 year old babysitter who was watching over Son in the meantime. Awkward…

Another highlight of the last month was out visit to the ballet. For those who do not know, I am big opera and ballet lover, and have spent the past ten years of my marriage torturing the Diplomat by dragging him to various such festive musical events. He once even endured a 5-hour grim production of the Queen of Spades, in Russian, with minimal décor and confusing plot, only because I wanted to hear Placido Domingo in the Metropolitan Opera in New York. That is why it took me by surprise that he decided to come with Mom and Son to see the ballet Bayadere at Theatro Muncipial in Rio as participation in this family event was purely voluntary (well, for him; not so much for Son whom I decided needed to learn about the ballet). It was a lovely production, with some beautiful work by talented Brazilian ballet dancers. The décor was opulent, which is not small praise for this production which depicts lavish Indian scenes. And most importantly, Son loved it. Which means more ballet for the Diplomat (you can just imagine his excitement)!
The Diplomat and I decided to utilize our free babysitting and started going out more these days. This past weekend, we went out on Friday night with some lovely colleagues from the Consulate to what turned out to be a great restaurant concept. It was a large restaurant complex, with seating on a large terrace where you can order food from several different restaurants. This concept happily avoids those typical spousal moments where one of you is decidedly in the mood for some good, solid steak, while the other would rather eat sushi, and in the end you end up going for sushi while the other spouse quietly resents you and forces you to go have steak the very next time you agree to go out with that pesky person again. At the Lagoon at Lagoa, all of you jokers can sit together, looking out to the beautiful lake vista, and order whatever your soul desires. No, it does not have Thai food. Or Chinese. Or Indian. You know what – you are damn picky! Go cook yourself at home!

When we were done, we decided that we had not drunk enough and transferred the party to the local drinking joint. I have to admit, there are several such joints dangerously close to our apartment, and we do tend to find excuses to frequent them. We made it home at 1.30 am. The next day, we went to a BBQ hosted by the Consul General, where we feasted on burgers and about 34 types of pasta salad courtesy of our colleagues (we were all asked to bring a side dish and what better one than a pasta salad).  That night, we were invited by some awesome Brazilian friends to a birthday party in the trendy part of town called Barra de Tijuca. This is a somewhat newer part of Rio, which has plenty of shopping U.S-style. To our utter astonishment, as we were driving past the large Barra Shopping mall on the way to the party, we spotted a giant and distressingly realistic Statue of Liberty adorning its doors. It was a good birthday party, with a live band and decent caipirinhas and an oversized cake, covered with red and blue stars (the birthday boy had lived in the U.S. for some time, a period of his life he remembers fondly). In other words, we felt quite at home.

We are about to careen into the organized chaos also known as World Cup 2014. We are already feeling the effects as the Dutch team has invaded our sports club to practice, which has in turn brought quite a few pesky journalists loitering outside and masses of police on each and every corner. The Dutch are staying in a hotel not far from our apartment and one can observe the daily circus of the footballers trying to leave the hotel and stopping to pose for pictures with beautiful Brazilian ladies, hug some babies and to generally look very important and celebrity-ish. The Cup opens on Thursday. The worst is yet to come.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Manicure, Tennis and Sungas – we have officially arrived

The last 2-3 weeks saw us finding the places to do things important to us – like, getting a manicure and playing tennis. As many of you now know, the Diplomat cannot function well if there is no tennis in his life. And as he was getting rather pale without whacking the addictive green ball back and forth, despite the gorgeous Rio weather and the alluring sights of the Rio beaches, we took the matter in our hands and signed up as members in a local sports club that offers 8 splendid red clay tennis courts. Balance in nature has been restored. As a result, we are also now officially fans of Flamengo, a boisterous and winning Rio soccer team. 

I also had to face the music that my nails were starting to rival those of Angelina Jolie in her latest, high caliber, intellectually stimulating movie about some evil lady with massive nails. The problem was that I was wearing a special kind of nail polish from the U.S., which was pretty much bullet proof and also rather unknown in Brazil. I had to spend 3 nights at home, slowly chipping and melting it away with nail polish remover in order to be ready to visit a local nail salon. In the process, I managed to knock the polish remover twice, which left some amusing spots on the night stand as well as caused my blackberry screen to look like a three-dimensional lava lamp for a while. Sadly, I must report, the polish remover has been drying off inside it so the effect is all but gone by now – it was giving my dull office emails a rather exciting new look.

Another exciting development in our lives is that both the Diplomat and Son acquired exotic new clothing pieces – a so-called sunga, the bathing suit that all Brazilian men wear on the beach. There is zero tolerance towards swimming shorts, the kind used by the vast majority of men in the U.S., and wearing them, we were warned, would quickly ensure that all hot Brazilians sunning themselves attractively at the beach would promptly identify the man wearing them as a foreigner and ridicule him among themselves for such tasteless display of excess fabric. We could not have that! The sunga comes in several forms and the variation is mostly in the level of shortness of the leg sleeves. The Diplomat opted on the more conservative side and he now officially owns Brazilian beach briefs. Due to Son’s extremely skinny body, his sunga mostly billows around him. Both of them were quite a vision at the beach this weekend and were immediately recognized as foreigners by a group of perceptive beachgoers who, however, were delighted to see them blending in so well.

I am happy to report that work has really picked up and I am truly enjoying myself. My day begins with a refreshing morning ride on a local bus, which takes about 30 mins to get to the consulate with a beautiful ride along the Rio beaches. I have reached the conclusion that Rio bus drivers have either a childhood dream to follow Ayrton Senna (I wonder I they are aware of how he died), have a death wish of some sort or are simply one mad bunch of people in a hurry. I have never, ever, in my life, seen such suicidal driving as I observe daily on the Rio bus network. Their speed is uncalled for in the twisting streets of this city and the turns are so abrupt and fast that last week I actually fell off my seat. I tried to be graceful, but there is nothing graceful about falling flat on your butt in public transportation at 7 am while wearing 5 inch heels and an A-line dress. They find stopping to let passengers on or off clearly distasteful and a waste of their time. As a result, I have missed my stop several times. Yes, my morning commute is a great start of the day and certainly helps to make feel alive. The truth is, I still find them fun and love reading during the mad careening.
The U.S. consulate here is terrific – my colleagues are a great team, everyone is lighthearted and quite collegial. I must admit though that I was a bit unprofessional this past week as I had another encounter with a fat, shiny, slick cockroach (remember this?). As I was interviewing a lovely family of 4 at the visa window, my peripheral vision registered quick neurotic motion on the floor below my high chair. Reluctantly, I looked down and was faced with the above-mentioned cockroach. Now, I admit that it was probably quite unnerving for the nice family on the other side of the interview window to see their calm, possessed and highly competent American officer suddenly jump a few feet up in the air (causing her pen and their passports to leap high into the air from her hands), while she shrieked with zero dignity and diplomacy and ran out of the area. Half a minute later, I returned and inspected the floor with suspicion but it appeared that the shiny beast had disappeared under the carpeting somewhere so I made back for the chair. At which point I saw the blasted animal again, heading straight for me! I yelped in horror, and ran away again. I must point out at this point that I was interviewing from a part of the consulate where there were no other officers so my antics were not observed by anyone. Well, except for the nice Brazilian family who noted every single move I made during this scarring ordeal in my line of duty. Given that they had no idea what was going on, I can safely assume that they deduced that I was a lunatic. When I finally returned and approved their visas, I did mention apologetically that there was a cockroach there, while smiling pleasantly at the wife. She gave me a very odd look back which I took to mean that she herself was a fearless woman and cockroaches are nothing to her.

And speaking of domestic pets, as I was getting, let’s say water, later last night from the kitchen, I saw a portly lizard running around on the ceiling. Upon seeing me, he freaked out and tried to sandwich himself between two high cabinets. He was stuck there for a while and every time I would go into the kitchen he would be wiggling around frantically trying to unstuck himself. Sadly, he was gone this morning – I have always wanted a gecko for a pet and had already named him! Come back, Jonathan!

Overall, life here is fantastic. We live in the poshest area of Rio called Leblon, two measly blocks from the beach, which we try to visit almost every day. I have a large terrace where we eat every single meal, even in pouring rain (we just close off the awnings and pretend not to notice all the drops on our heads). The apartment boasts 3 bedrooms, a large kitchen, and an inexplicably long entrance corridor. We have two bidets! Another delightful  contraption are the delightful little metal doors for the toilet paper, which is placed into recessed compartments in the wall and closed off with miniature doors. Albeit admittedly annoying, it does give me no small joy to open the little door and pull paper, and then close off the door again neatly. And the one in the guest bathroom? It is gold plated, along with the soap holder (also hidden behind a tiny door) and the water flush button. My guest bathroom, folks, is fancy!

Rio is a wonderfully noisy city, whose citizens happily live in cafes and bars all day long. Weekday lunches in the business district are often complimented by beer towards the end of the work week. People here scoff at food brought prudently from home and prefer to lunch in restaurants or the “per kilo” places where there is usually a vast array of great food, which you pile greedily on your plate. After work, the bars and street pubs swell with chattering cariocas, drinking “chopp”-es (draft beer) galore, eating excellent grilled meats and yelling at the big TV screens inevitably showing soccer from some part of the world if not from Brazil itself. The walkways are covered beautifully with small white uneven stones, a wonderful remnant from the Portuguese colonial times called, logically, Portuguese pavement. While aesthetically quite pleasing, the walkways are murder for my shoes whose stilettos happily wedge themselves between the small pavement stones and often trip me.

The beaches of Rio are lined up with beach shacks selling delicious and overpriced food, as well as various beverages and Son’s favorite coconuts. It is the most common sight to see friends sitting there, each one with a giant coconut with a straw in it, chatting the sunshine away. If you need a chair, there are numerous entrepreneurs on the beach renting out chairs and umbrellas, as well as fetching you drinks, food and coconuts at your whim. Trust me, there is nothing like sitting on Copacabana beach, on a chair right at the tip of the ocean, under a pleasant umbrella, sipping a caipirinha and reading a good book. Until, of course, Son drags you out to see the massive pile of sand he had compiled which is supposed to be a castle. You pat him on the head, saying, “very nice, darling, very nice” absentmindedly, and then sit back under the umbrella, take a sip from the caipirinha to make sure it hasn’t gone warm and then spend a few scientific moments observing the local lifeguards prance about in tiny red sungas (see above) and very emphasized pectoral and abdominal musculature. You then lean back assured that they are there for you lest anything happens in the water, take another pensive sip of the darn addictive beverage and go back to your book. Yes, life in Rio de Janeiro can be quite enviable… 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

There we go again – the end of a roadtrip and first impressions of Rio de Janeiro

After our fabulous roadtrip, we spent a week in California where I taught my nieces how to knit (I am a ball of secret talents), did a barbeque or two, and learned to drink fantastic boxed wine. People, boxed wine is the next sliced bread! It is fresh, it saves glass, it saves corks and most importantly – it is damn cheap! It will take over the world, I predict. A week of boxed wine, and we flew down to Fort Lauderdale where we climbed on a week-long cruise to a string of Caribbean islands whose names and sequence I promptly forgot.
Cruising! My goodness – have you done cruising? It is an outstanding way to vacation! I wish I lived the rest of my life on a cruise. Naturally, it does depend on which cruise line you do end up, so thankfully, with the expert help of our fabulous friends P&C, we sailed on the luxurious Celebrity Silhouette – an island of never-ending buffet, faucets of booze, a delightful British band called “The Smart Casuals” and hundreds of Serbian/Croatian/ Macedonian/Russian/Indian crew members, where you can see why we felt at home right away.  We were lucky to receive a free “classic alcohol package.” Yes, that means that we drank for free. That also means that we drank a lot. At times, indiscriminately even. There were says I thought I’d turn into a Mimosa myself. The last night, I simply could not have a night-cap. My body disagreed and my mind agreed with it. See, the problem was that 1. the booze was free, and 2. there was always someone to bring it to you. Anyway, the cruise was amazing, and no small of that was due to the awesome company of P&C, with whom we even played a couple of exquisite games of Taboo – a game both the Diplomat and P’s husband C particularly cherish. OK, I lied, they don’t. Good men.
Once we arrived back to the ever cultural Fort Lauderdale, we had a day to re-organize our two bulging suitcases and 3 pieces of hand luggage, which were so heavy one would think that we were smuggling led or gold bars. Now, I would like to run by you once again the logistics that was our month-long vacation. As you remember, we started out with 6 suitcases, packed for Brazil. As Brazilians adore shopping in the U.S., the airlines have allowed everyone going to Brazil from the U.S. two suitcases of 70lbs each per person to carry the loot back home. To capitalize on that, I had packed us accordingly. As we were going on a 3-week roadtrip though, we had to leave 4 gigantic suitcases in P&C’s house in Washington, DC, to be picked up after the cruise. We then took the remaining 2, limited them to 50 lbs each and overstuffed the hand-luggage. Once the cruise was over, we spent the night in Fort Lauderdale, and then the Diplomat took a 7 am flight to go back to Washington, DC to pick up the 4 70-lbs suitcases. Son and I then flew on a later, more human flight of 10.50 am to meet him in Washington, and to fly to Brazil.
Fat Cat, at the same time, also was about to board a plane of his own – since our connection to Rio in Houston was only 45 mins (apparently, insufficient for fat cats transfers), Fat Cat had to take an earlier flight and join us in Houston, so that we can arrive on the same flight in Rio. While we were gallivanting through the Motherland, Fat Cat was happily residing with a most amazing friend of ours in Washington. Thus, when the time came for him to fly, we engaged the expert services of an animal shipper, the lovely Action Pet Express. Contrary to my experience with other folks in the business, they were efficient and communicative, and apparently knew what they were doing – Fat Cat was unceremoniously collected from the house of my friend (after some running and hiding, apparently), and put on the plane to Houston. Thank you, Action Pet Express! Same day still, Son and I gracefully arrived at the Baltimore airport, where we soon met the Diplomat who had gotten a rental car and brought the luggage back from P&C’s place.
And there we were, 324 giant suitcases, one bored to tears child running up and down the airport, clutching a large plastic dinosaur, one bedraggled, grumpy and sleepy Diplomat and me – ready to burst into tears as I realized that in mere 6 hours I will be in international air space, leaving my beloved United States of America for two years AGAIN. Our terrific friends M&M came to the airport to see us off and give us one more last hug, which made me tear up even more. Going to Rio in business class helped though.
We landed in Rio on a beautiful Tuesday morning, when the sun was shining and no-one spoke English at the airport. We were picked up by our gracious social sponsor from the Consulate (new officers arriving at post generally are assigned a social sponsor who meets them at the airport, shows them where to buy salt and wine, how to sign up for internet, and is generally there to answer any kind of asinine questions you might have when arriving in a brand new country) and headed straight to the cargo area of the airport to pick up Fat Cat. That took 4.5 hours. For real. I don’t know why. It also took about 1234 pages of documentation, to handle which we hired an outrageously expensive local “broker.” This Fat Cat costs a LOT of cash for the paltry amount of affection I get from him. Just as I sit here and write this, he is lying next to me on his back, four legs high up in the air and his butt resolutely pointing in my direction, twitching in his sleep. Am I supposed to be endeared??
And there they are, my promised first impressions of Rio de Janeiro, the Marvelous City as they call themselves.
1.       Cariocas (people from Rio) are OBSESSED, POSSESSED, CRAZY about working out. Wherever you go, you’ll encounter hundreds of people running (men are always topless), bench pressing, squatting, stretching, lunging, lifting, pulling. There are contraptions every few meters on the beach that present opportunities to do all of the above. At times, I am afraid that as I am standing there talking to a Brazilian, he will burst into a spontaneous workout, or start doing push-ups as we talk not to waste of minute of the day without toning his already perfect body. Yesterday we passed by what appeared to be a public playground. It turned out to be a free gym for the retired. It was packed by 60-year old ladies, who were working out so hard as if they were being paid. It was 9 pm on a Friday…
2.       Every fourth person on the street wears clothes with the colors of the Brazilian flag – whether it is a t-shirt, a skirt, a microscopic bikini or bombastic shorts, the folks of Rio wear their Brazilian pride for everyone to see.
3.       Brazilian men largely consider shirts to be an inconvenience to life. Thusly, they have resolved to life without them. Many also scorn pants – it is warm, after all, isn’t it? Why bother? As a result, the streets of the city are filled with men walking around in absurdly small bathing suits (at least, I’d like to THINK they are bathing suits) and little else besides a watch. Some a pleasing to the eye. Some – well…
4.       Rio is gorgeous. It is busy, crowded, noisy, but it is also filled with trees and palms and flowers, the beach has powdery white sand, the ocean is inviting, and then when you look behind you, there are stark tall mountains, from the top of one of which looks down benevolently Christ the Redeemer. I feel calm and happy in Rio, and forge ahead with my somewhat forgotten Portuguese.
5.       I need to refresh my Portuguese or learn to carry a small dictionary. Today I purchased detergent, but to my dismay my whites’ laundry left a lot more to be desires. Cursing Whirlpool, I ran the laundry again. It was a tad better. Then I decided to read the label on the tub of liquid that I had bought. Not understanding what appeared to be a key word, I went to the dictionary. You see, it appears that I have been washing the clothes with fabric softener.

Summary: Rio is amazing and its people are wonderful. I feel very fat here. Rio is expensive. I need to be at work by 7.25!!!!!! Should I run on the beach?