Friday, May 14, 2010

"Oh, The Things I'll Eat" - The Trip Back, part 3

Oh, The Things I Will Eat

It would be disingenuous to claim that food is not a huge part of the reason I’m looking forward to going back to Buenos Aires.. I’m curious as to whether my memories of how good the food is are really accurate or whether it’s a case of rose-colored glasses. In either case, here are the dishes I’m most looking forward to:

Steak: Argentina is known around the world for the quality of its beef, so of course I’ll have to see if my grown-up, more discerning palate really thinks it’s that much better.

Provoleta: Take a slab of provolone cheese and throw it on the grill just long enough for the outside to get a little crunchy and the inside to get soft. Then, pour some olive oil on top and sprinkle on some oregano. Serve with bread.

Milanesa: Sort of a pan-fried veal cutlet. I usually had it topped with ham and cheese and, on a good day, a fried egg.

Ice cream: The ice cream in Argentina is much creamier, more akin to what we’d call gelato.

Choripan: A combination of the words “chorizo” (sausage) and “pan” (bread). It’s basically a sausage sandwich, served with baguette style bread with a super-hard crust. It’s best when served with chimichurri, a sauce which is delicious and defies description.

Pasta: Seriously, they eat a LOT of pasta in Argentina. I’m hoping to have at least some ravioli and a little cannelloni.

Wine: For obvious reasons I didn’t get a lot of the local wine when we lived there before, but Mendoza wine is world-renowned. I frequently buy Malbecs here in the States and I’m excited to see what they serve locally.

Dulce de leche: Sort of like caramel, but Argentines use it like Americans use peanut butter. It’s spread on toast or breakfast pastries, and they even blend it in with ice cream. I’ve never found it here in the States.

Parrillada mixta: This is definitely the most exciting thing on this list. Every year on our birthdays, my dad and I would go out and treat each other to a parrillada mixta, an event we lovingly called our "Guts 'n' Grease Galore Gala." A tray is filled with hot coals and grilled meats are placed over the coals so that they stay hot at your table. The selection of meats varies depending on which restaurant you go to, but it usually had some ribs, sausage, a couple pieces of chicken, some small pieces of steak. The good parrilladas had some more exotics stuff as well: morcilla (blood sausage), molleja (some kind of cow gland; this was one of my favorites), chinchulines (small intestine), and tongue. I even got one once that had brain. Getting a parrillada mixta is an absolute must for at least one meal while we're there.

We should be arriving in about 24 hours, and I’m having a really hard time deciding which kind of food I’m gonna go after first. Also, I’m hungry now.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The trip back, part 2

When we go back to Buenos Aires in two weeks, it will have been almost exactly sixteen years since I left. I’ve been examining my own life and what has changed in those sixteen years and wondering how much Buenos Aires itself has changed since then.

My sister and I boarded the plane to leave Argentina on June 24th, 1994. I had just graduated from high school and this was my first time to travel without an adult - and I had my kid sister in tow, headed halfway around the planet while my parents stayed behind to pack up our stuff. I remember the date so specifically because we woke up on the plane on June 25th - my sister’s 13th birthday. I asked the flight attendant if there was something special she could do for my sister. I was hoping they might have a nice muffin or an extra dessert. She suggested I buy her something out of the SkyMall magazine. To this day I marvel at how that lady just didn’t “get it.”

When we left I was a kid, now I’m a grownup. I have a college degree and a nice house in the suburbs of Houston. I have a wonderful wife and two beautiful children (happy third birthday, Vanilla Bean!). I have agood job and pay my taxes. I am, by any measure, a bowl of vanilla ice cream - not necessarily very exciting, but nice and predictable.

Buenos Aires has always been a melting pot. I usually describe it as a European city that just happens to be located in South America. Many people assume that since Spanish is the primary language in Argentina, it must be at least somewhat similar to Mexico - nothing could be more untrue. The food, the architecture, even the racial ancestry of the people in Argentina is very Western European.

I don’t know how much it will have changed in the time I’ve been gone. Will there be a more unique, independently Argentine identity? Will there be a strong American influence? I suspect Buenos Aires will not have changed as much I have. I would never have described it as a particularly fluid society. When I lived there in the ’80 and ‘90s I think it was probably much the same is it’d been since the British were kicked out in the ‘40s and ‘50s. All that being said, I wonder how differently the 34-year old will respond to what the 18-year old left behind?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The trip back, part 1

My parents were missionaries and took our family to live in Argentina for a time when I was young. We lived there for eight years during my late childhood. Next month, my parents, sister, wife and I will be traveling to Buenos Aires for a visit. This will be my first time back since I left after high school on June 24th, 1994 - almost 16 years to the day - andI find myself evaluating what growing up in Argentina meant for me, and how returning as an adult might affect me.

Unlike some of my missionary cousins (friends whose parents were also missionaries), we got to Argentina when I was fairly old. I was ten when we arrived in April of 1986; my sister was about to turn five. Since I spent my early years in the United States, I don’t call Argentina my original home. In college I would say Buenos Aires was my hometown more for the sake of starting a conversation than because of any sense that it was my place of origin. I was born in North Dakota and when I was a child we lived in Texas, so I’ve always had a bit of a hard time identifying where I’m really “from.” I learned Spanish fluently but don’t speak it quite as effortlessly as some of my friends. I don’t get many opportunities to speak it now and sometimes feel as if it’s slowly leaking from my brain. I didn’t develop the standard Argentine’s unbridled passion for soccer. My friends were mostly other American kids, or any of a broad selection of international kids who attended my high school. I certainly had friends who were Argentine and there are some I still communicate with today, but it would be disingenuous to claim that I could ever identify myself as Argentine.

All that being said, I still believe that the eight years we lived in Buenos Aires has had a subtle but still significant effect on my worldview. As a teenager growing up in a foreign country and attending high school with people from (literally) all over the planet, it’s hard to believe my perspective is the same as it would’ve been had my parents kept us in the Houston area. And I would hardly argue that my perspective is unique or more relevant for having lived in a farflung corner of the world, but it’s been interesting to look at how that time has defined my view of the world. I also wonder what it will be like to go back as a middle-aged, relatively well-off, pampered American adult with two kids.

More than anything, growing up in Argentina taught me that not everyone has it as easy as we have it here. That’s not to say that Buenos Aires is poor - far from it. But people there just don’t have the “stuff” that people here do. I remember coming back to the United States after having been gone for four years. I was thirteen. Everything here seemed so clean and the malls just had so much STUFF. The streets in the US are nice, the electricity is on all the time, and everything here is air-conditioned. Again, it’s hard to say what exactly I’m talking about here: everyone I knew in Argentina had a television, a car, plenty of food. But it just seems to me like we have a lot MORE of that stuff here in the US.

Notice I said that people here have it easier, not better. I’m not going to get on a soapbox and claim that people who live in simpler cultures are inherently happier than Americans - that’s really not my point at all. But I do strongly resist the notion that Americans somehow have it better due to our Americanism, that we are particularly blessed by God by simply being Americans and everyone else would be better off if they just tried harder to be like us. The processes that we have in place here in the US may work well for us, but it’s foolish for us to think they would be easily copied to any other culture. What I saw in Argentina was people who are just as happy and well-adjusted as Americans are. They love their culture and their country and their families as deeply and strongly as we do.

Finally, I was greatly affected by being a true minority. For the first two years we lived there, when I was in fourth and sixth grades (yes, I skipped fifth - long story), I was the only white kid in my school. Anyone who thinks that racial struggles are unique to Americans is very misguided. The fact of the matter is that I was treated differently, in both positive and often negative ways, because I looked and spoke differently. In sixth grade, my nickname was Leche (“milk”) because I was a LOT whiter than any other kid around me. I won’t claim that I was victimized or scarred because of the way I was treated, but I will claim that it has given me a different perspective on race relations.

Enough for now - this has dragged on long enough. Over the next couple of weeks, before we leave for Buenos Aires, I’ll discuss some other thoughts I’ve had about returning. Don’t let me forget to mention the food…

Friday, February 19, 2010

We should have known better

For some reason, Vanilla Bean doesn't like Ann and me showing affection for each other. I think it's mostly jealousy - she thinks Mommy is all hers and doesn't like us holding hands or even necessarily talking to each other. We mostly deal with it by trying to ignore the screaming and protestations.

Last night, Vanilla Bean and the Monkey were in the tub. Ann and I were standing there, so I reached over and gave her a hug. Vanilla Bean looked up and very seriously said, "Stop doing that! Stop being so married!" We busted up laughing, and fortunately she realized she'd said something funny and laughed with us.

Friday, February 5, 2010

iPad vs. Kindle

Yesterday a friend asked how I thought the upcoming release of the Apple iPad would affect the Kindle market. Obviously, it’s too early to tell for sure. No one knows exactly which books will be available on the iPad or what the pricing scheme will look like. More importantly, no one knows how Amazon will respond to the release of the iPad. That being said, there are a few things that seem apparent to me.

First, based on my own personal experience, Amazon recognizes that it needs to get the Kindle into people’s hands so that they’ll spend the money on e-books. This is a well-rehearsed business scheme: drive down the cost of hardware so that people will spend money on software that runs on the hardware. Hardware is usually a one-time cost for the consumer, but they’ll continue to spend money on sofware for as long as they own the device. Apple itself is familiar with this model; I’m sure they’ve made FAR more money selling songs on iTunes than they ever made on sales of iPods. Recently I dropped and broke my Kindle. The incident was entirely my fault and was certainly not related to any problem with the device itself. I called Amazon and they claimed it was covered under warranty (I’d read the warranty, and “user droppage” is not covered). They overnighted me a new device free of charge. This was about a week before the announcement of the iPad. Amazon knew that if I had to buy another piece of hardware I might be inclined to buy an iPad and they’d lose a customer who’d bought literally dozens of e-books in the last year. Their concern was not so much in ensuring they made money off selling me a new Kindle, but in making sure that they could continue to profit from me buying books.

Second, comparing the Kindle to the iPad is very much an apples-to-oranges comparison. There are people who are willing and cash-enabled to purchase $50,000 overpowered muscle cars with every accessory imaginable. That doesn’t mean there’s not a market for $20,000 Hondas that most people use to drive to their jobs every day. Likewise, a high-powered, flashy handheld tablet will appeal to a certain market, but this doesn’t preclude a market for lower priced, dedicated e-book devices.

Similarly, the Kindle seems like a much more likely gifting option than the iPad. Amazon sold an enormous number of devices during the holiday shopping period. It seems feasible to buy a loved one a $250, one-time-cost device like an e-reader. It seems less feasible that someone would buy their mother-in-law a $600 device that requires a $15-a-month data plan. The Kindle is a relatively simple device to use, with no montly data plan costs. This relative simplicity can appeal to a large group of consumers.

Some industry watchers have stated that people will avoid buying the large-screened Kindle DX since it only costs 10 dollars less than a much more capable iPad ($489 versus $499). I agree, but I still think the comparison is moot. As I stated at the beginning, much depends on how Amazon chooses to respond to the release of the iPad. Instead of increasing the capabilities of the Kindle to try to compete with Apple’s tablet, they should focus on reducing the cost of the device to continue to appeal to a consumer market that wants something simple and cheap (with a battery life measured in weeks rather than hours). Here are a few ways Amazon can do that:

· Get the cost of the Kindle below $200 (from its current price point of $259). I suspect that many people will not even consider the comparison between a $200 e-reader and a $600 tablet. A three-fold cost difference puts these devices into completely different market brackets.
· Incorporate a color screen into the next generation of Kindles. In terms of reading, I don’t personally believe that having a black-and-white only screen is hugely important. However, the lack of a color screen is widely perceived to be a disadvantage, so removing this barrier will be an important way for the Kindle to remain relevant in a digital-media market.
· Most importantly, Amazon needs to focus on getting books onto their device. As I have stated in a previous post, the single most important factor in choosing an e-reader device is whether the books I read are available on the device. All the features in the world are meaningless if the books I want to read aren’t there. Amazon should be doing whatever it takes to get publishers to stay with the device, even if it means increasing the price point from their standard $10 scheme.

Amazon’s main job is to separate itself from the iPad as they are not likely to be able to compete with Apple on its own turf. Nor do they need to; if they play their cards well, there’s absolutely no reason the Kindle can’t continue to be successful in a post-iPad world.

PS: I recognize there are other very good e-book readers out there. I'm only discussing the Kindle because it's the one I have and the one whose business model I understand best.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Tourism in Haiti

CNN posted an article today about the controversy surrounding Royal Caribbean's decision to resume sending cruise ships to their private resort on Haiti. Many are criticizing the company for the move, saying tourists shouldn't be enjoying the high-life while people continue to die nearby. The company has defended its decision saying that bringing tourism to the island contributes to the health of the economy. They also argue that diverting the ship to another destination wouldn't actually help anyone on the island.

I must admit that at first glance the thought of enjoying a day on the beach just down from Port-au-Prince does seem tacky at best. But as I continued to explore the idea, it occurred to me that the discussion is really one of scale. Haiti has been and will continue to be one of the poorest countries in the world. People died of malnutrition and disease there long before the current disaster, and yet the cruise ships came. In ten years, people will still be dying of causes that the tourists could never comprehend, and yet the cruise ships will come. If I, as an individual, didn't care about or contribute to the solution before, cancelling my cruise now won't actually affect the outcome.

I must confess that I have struggled with my own response to the disaster in Haiti. It is a hugely catastrophic situation, to be sure, but again I contend that the scale of the situation is what disinguishes it, not the specific suffering involved. Every day, everywhere, people suffer just as miserably and I look away. Why do I feel more inclined to try to ease the suffering of Haitian earthquake victims but didn't feel so inclined two weeks ago to lighten the load of the Haitian poor?

Please let me clarify that I completely recognize the wealth that I live in. I have never known a single day of poverty in my life. I can think of twice that I have seen poverty, real poverty, personally. When I was 17, I attended a community service trip with my school to Chaco, an area in northern Argentina. I remember seeing the rural poor, people who lived in small, self-built shacks with no utilities. About a year later, I went on a mission trip to Paso de Aguila, a bordertown in Mexico. We worked in what I can only call a slum, and I still marvel at the conditions of the people there. But mostly, I have continued to live my upper middle-class life, happy to enjoy uninterrupted warm water, electricity, and air conditioning. For me, poverty is not being able to take a vacation this year or having to wait yet another year to upgrade to HD cable. I do not know what it means to actually wonder where my food will come from, or question if my child will catch a water-borne illness, or if that child will die if it gets sick.

So let me try to come back around to my point, if indeed there is one. I have always lived, still live, and will continue to live in a world where I am more privileged and wealthy than almost everyone else in the world. How am I to live globally, not focusing on the affluence of the people around me, but on the stark, endless poverty that so much of the world lives in? In two months, when the cameras have left Haiti and the cruise ships return guilt-free, will I still care about the people who live there?

Monday, January 18, 2010

This is why my friends are awesome...

I am posting here for your perusal a conversation that took place between me, my old friend M, and a co-worker/friend named G. It began with my claim to G that I had once pulled a knife on a guy and her disbelief at the awesomeness of this fact. To back up my claim, I sent the following note to M, who'd witnessed said knife-pulling:

M, I have a story that needs vouching. G (also on this e-mail) does not believe that I once pulled a knife on a dude in Buenos Aires. Do you remember, we’d gone to see a movie, and you had your camera and a bunch of CDs in your bag, and those two guys split us up and I pulled a box cutter on him? PLEASE tell me you remember so you can back me up here!

M, being the manly friend that he is, responded:

Dear G,

The tale C has spun is actually true. However I remember things a little differently. I was 17 so C was probably 18 and the night before this event I had spent the night at C's house. I'd brought a ton of CD's over because we were gonna make mixtapes (what kind of 12 year old girl sleep over party was this?). Anyway, the next day we decided to go see Schindler's List in Belgrano, a district in Buenos Aires that's kinda like Times Square. After this 4 hour behemoth of pure cinematic feel good sunshine, we walk into the heart of Belgrano a bit dazed. Remember I still have my bag filled with CD's with me at this time as I haven't gone home yet. This is where my memory differs somewhat from C's. C says he remembers two "dudes" trying to mug us. I remember two 13-14 year old boys trying to mug us. Since the street is crowded with people these two dudes split us up pretty easily, trying to engage us in a conversation. The one dude gets me behind a bus stop poster and tells me to give him my bag. I laughed and said no because I swear he had to have been 13 years old and I knew I could take him no problem. I walk from behind the bus stop poster AND I SEE C WHIP OUT A BOX CUTTER AND STICK IT RIGHT IN THIS DUDE'S FACE!!!!. Shock and awe Ginny. Shock and awe (this should be C's gmail handle). The dudes run off. I am standing there totally dumbstruck. As I recall I said, "That's the manliest thing I've ever seen..."

The End.

To this day I cannot watch or think of the movie Schindler's List without thinking of this event.

Shock and Awe,


At this point I feel the need to respond one last time:

I would like to point out this one awesome fact: When M thinks of Schindler’s List, he does not think of Liam Neeson saving children, or of the atrocities of war and holocaust. No, these are not the images that come to his mind. By his own admission, he thinks of me, standing proudly, waving my knife in a wanna-be mugger’s ugly face.