Monday, December 15, 2014

Croissant v. Medialuna: A Franco-Argentine Faceoff?

More than once, I’ve expressed my distaste for the cliché that Buenos Aires is the “Paris of the South,” when it’s really a New World immigrant city that’s more closely analogous to New York. Admittedly, I’m no Francophile – on three quick trips through France, I’ve managed to avoid Paris every time – but I can still point out the superficiality of such comparisons.
Today I’ll do so with my own comparison – or rather contrast – between two typical food items, the French-style croissant (pictured above) and the Argentina medialuna (pictured below). The Spanish word medialuna literally means “half-moon,” but I’ve always thought that a misnomer – it looks more like crescent moon to me.
I’ve always liked croissants, with their light flaky dough; the ones at top come from the Compañía de Chocolates in our Palermo neighborhood, which produces the closest thing I’ve seen to its authentic French counterpart here. There are several other branches around town.

The smaller medialunas, by contrast, consist of heavier and breadier dough. There are two styles: I prefer de manteca (buttery and sweeter) to de grasa or salada (savory), but both are available at almost every bakery in Buenos Aires and the provinces, and form part of the buffet breakfast at almost every Argentine hotel. I would normally leave the house early every day to get the freshest possible (I try to limit myself to two with my morning tea).

While French-style croissants may be available in Buenos Aires, they’re not quite authentic – I like them buttery, but I could do without the sugary glaze that these come with. They’re also considerably more expensive than medialunas – my morning fix of the latter (also glazed) costs me nine pesos (US$1 at the official exchange rate, US$0.69 with the “blue market” advantage). The croissant and a pan de chocolate (pain au chocolat), meanwhile, cost me 44 pesos (US$5.15 at the official rate, US$3.38 with “blue pesos). That’s not a budget-buster but, on most mornings, I opt for medialunas. It’s fair to add that, back home in California, I can get better croissants (for a slightly lower price than the official rate), without the glaze.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Saved from Soccer? My Argentine Nephew Pitches and Hits

Baseball has always been my favorite spectator sport and, as an adult, my main recreational sports passion has been slow-pitch softball, though I’ve only played sporadically the past couple years. Even in Buenos Aires, I’ve played a bit of baseball and softball, though they are clearly niche sports here.
At present, a perplexing leg injury keeps me from swinging the bat, running the bases and chasing down fly balls even if the opportunity presented itself. This weekend, though, I experienced a pleasurable respite from the endless 24/7 of scoreless soccer games that’s Argentina’s usual sporting fare - on a visit to my wife’s hometown of Olavarría, in Buenos Aires province, I got my first opportunity to see my nephew Mariano Peruilh play fastpitch softball in a tournament that has drawn half a dozen teams from quite a distance away. It was rather like finding an Olympic-size swimming pool in the Atacama, as the photograph above suggests.
The six teams in the tournament include Mariano’s own Estudiantes Black Jack and their co-hosts the Koalas Racing (one of five teams in Olavarría’s local league; the next nearest teams are in the port city of Bahía Blanca, 302 km to the southwest). One of the tournament teams is the Indios de Bahía Blanca (which is also the hometown of NBA star Manu Ginóbili), but there are also Mayú of La Pampa province (431 km west of Olavarría), the Tigres of Pilar (368 km northeast) and Don Bosco of Paraná, Entre Ríos (723 km north). Surprisingly, there was no entrant from the Argentine capital.
Paraná is the traditional hotbed of Argentine softball, a city of 200,000 people that has at least eight fields, three of them lighted (in the photo above, a local player crosses the plaza in front of the city's cathedral). Mariano once moved there to finish high school in hopes of honing his softball skills to make the national team as a pitcher. That’s not yet happened, but he’s young enough (19) that it's still a possibility.

Olavarría’s Club de Estudiantes has two well-kept fields, one complete with a press box and concessions (with choripán instead of hot dogs). With temperatures above 90° F (about 34° C), we spectators were fortunate that dark netting shaded the stands. In these conditions, the catchers had it particularly tough but, in general, the quality of play was good to excellent.
On this particular day, Mariano (pictured above and below) started strong on the mound and at bat, establishing an early 3-0 lead with a pair of crisp run-scoring singles off a hard-throwing Tigres pitcher. At the same time, though, he cost his own team a potentially big inning with a base-running gaffe and then made a fielding error that led to a two-run double; an inning later, he surrendered a prodigious home run that tied the score. At that point, unfortunately, I had to leave because of another family commitment, but Estudiantes got him a couple runs to win by a 5-3 score. In the next game, against their local rivals the Koalas, he got the save in a 2-0 shutout.

I had to take the bus back to Buenos Aires very early Sunday morning, so I missed the second day (which included a home run derby). Mariano's team didn't fare so well on Sunday, and will have to beat Bahía Blanca early this morning in order to face the Paraná powerhouse in the afternoon semi-finals.

Dynamic Update, Tuesday, December 9: I read in this morning's El Popular, Olavarría's hometown paper, that Estudiantes lost their semi-final game to Mayú of La Pampa and then lost to Bahía Blanca in the third-place consolation game (in which Mariano hit a three-run homer). Mayú beat Don Bosco of Paraná for the championship.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Inside the Buenos Aires Bureaucracy

Last month, I posted a photograph on my Facebook page of homeless people sleeping in the alcove behind the Ministerio de Economía (Economy Ministry) in downtown Buenos Aires. I regret having to admit that I misidentified the building in question, as this alcove on the block of Moreno Street between Defensa and Balcarce is really part of the Administration Federal de Ingresos Públicos (AFIP, pictured below), Argentina’s counterpart to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
In fact, I was not completely wrong, as AFIP operates under the economy ministry, whose headquarters is one block east, across Balcarce. And I still won’t retract my criticism of the government’s economic hypocrisy - it has not made nearly the progress it claims in reducing poverty, and large numbers of individuals and families still survive outside any social safety net.
I’ve passed the Economía building countless times. It’s been the site of many historic events, most notably when military opponents of President Juan Domingo Perón (himself a general) bombarded the Plaza de Mayo in mid-1955; shrapnel marks remain on the building’s granite exterior (pictured above). I never considered, though, that I might some day take a tour of this bureaucratic monolith until last Tuesday, when my nephew Juan – who works there – invited his father Carlos, my wife María Laura (Carlos’s sister) and me to have lunch on the building’s 12th floor terrace.
The cafeteria food, apparently, is nothing to write home about, so we went to the nearby vegan café Vita, to get some takeaway. I wasn’t particularly hungry, so I only ordered a fresh-squeezed orange juice before we returned and, after passing through security, took the elevator to the 11th floor and walked the stairs to the 12th. En route, I photographed the poster below of one of Economy Minister Axel Kicillof’s proudest achievements: the “Precios Cuidados” program that relies on government intervention to subdue inflation on certain supermarket products . This "Price Watch" program has resulted in shortages of the products in question, though blaming the shortages on high demand sounds disingenuous.

On the inside, the building is unimpressive, but views from the terrace are interesting if not necessarily impressive – Buenos Aires has an unprepossessing skyline, though there are many individual buildings of architectural interest, especially the domes and mansards of early 20th-century buildings on and around the Plaza de Mayo.
From this vantage point, one particularly unimpressive structure is the Casa Rosada executive mansion (pictured below), which looks far less distinguished than it does from the Plaza itself.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Argentina's Malvinas Museum

Late last week, I returned to the ex-Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA), where just the week before I had seen my nephew and others finish up work on a mural with a human rights theme. The ex-ESMA, of course, is now the admirable Espacio Memoria y Derechos Humanos, dedicated to the memory of those who disappeared under Argentina’s most vicious dictatorship ever.
I had toured the ESMA before and, while I found it absorbing and instructive, it’s a harrowing experience that I don’t care to repeat. I did, however, want to visit the Museo Malvinas e Islas del Atlántico Sur (pictured above), a new construction on the ESMA grounds that expresses Argentina’s obsession with the Falkland Islands. I lived in the Islands for a year in 1986-7 while researching my doctoral dissertation in Geography at the University of California, Berkeley, and have returned there several times since.

I expected little from this museum and, in that sense, it did not disappoint me. In summary, it’s an anachronistic exercise in self-righteous anti-colonialism that tells us more about the people who created it than it does about the Islands themselves. The creators, clearly, were more interested in historical grudges toward what they perceive as perfidious Albion, the illegitimate occupier of a British Overseas Territory, than in understanding the Islands and their residents on their own terms.
Occupying three stories of a luminous new construction, the museum begins with a selective ground-floor timeline that paints a 19th-century gaucho as a revolutionary nationalist against the British. It also romanticizes a clueless collection of armed Peronist kids who commandeered a plane from the mainland to the Islands in 1966 (see below) – without realizing there was no airport. To the surprise (and subsequent amusement) of locals, the pilot crash-landed on the soggy Stanley hippodrome and, after an overnight standoff with the local defense force, the hijackers surrendered and were returned to Argentina (removing the plane was a more complex task, but the incident could easily serve as the basis for an Ealing comedy).
Ironically, on the grounds of a facility otherwise dedicated to exposing human rights violations, the museum gives Argentina’s military dictatorship a pass except for displaying the deceptive propaganda (illustrated below) that convinced many Argentines they were winning even as their final ignominious surrender approached. It euphemistically refers to the military’s desembarco (landing) - as opposed to invasion - and completely ignores the impact on the Islanders themselves. In just a few hours, a town with just a handful of police became a police state under Colonel Patricio Dowling, a sadistic Irish-Argentine with a special antipathy toward the British.
Likewise, the museum says nothing about the fisheries conservation zone that has brought the Islands their current prosperity; in the tidy, graffiti-free capital of Stanley, residents don’t bother to lock their doors and even leave their car keys in the ignition. It completely ignores last year’s referendum in which Islanders expressed their satisfaction with their current status as an overseas territory.
The museum has one redeeming exhibit, a video salon featuring a 30-minute film by Argentine documentarian Raymundo Gleyzer, who traveled to Stanley from Montevideo on the supply ship RMS Darwin in 1966. Gleyzer takes for granted that the Islands are Argentine, but his footage of the Islanders at work and play (as seen in the video above) is outstanding, though the sound quality is poor (the museum apparently couldn’t be bothered with closed captioning, much less English subtitles).

I also found it interesting to see individuals I got to know 20 years later, during my own time there. Some people, most notably kids, are shy around Gleyzer’s camera, in what at the time was a literally insular community. In his direct contact with the Islanders, Gleyzer – who himself disappeared under Argentina’s 1976-83 dictatorship - demonstrates an ethnographic professionalism that’s lacking elsewhere in the museum. Because his work is available online, the Museo Malvinas is, in the end, a costly but unworthy addition to the ex-ESMA.

There is another, more recent Argentine documentary that incorporates some of Gleyzer’s footage, plus additional archival footage and outsider interviews that parrot the official government position. There is a token Islander in Las Islas del Viento (trailer above), but Alec Betts left the Islands for Argentina after the 1982 war, partly at least for personal reasons that he does not discuss. As in Gleyzer’s film, there are no subtitles and, in fact, there is no English-language text anywhere in the museum. That’s arguably appropriate, in an institution whose main goal is preaching to the choir.
In fact, the museum's only other English-language item, behind glass, is the translation of a book (pictured above) by naval historian Laurio Destefani. When I met Destefani in his Buenos Aires office in the mid-1980s - I had intended to ask him about some Spanish colonial documents - he greeted me with the statement that "For us, the Malvinas are a pact sealed in blood." That didn't leave much room for dialogue, and neither does this museum.
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