Friday, March 30, 2012

Digest This: Argentina Bans Foreign Books

Poor Borges must be rolling over his grave at the Argentine ban on imported books!

The official lie claims that Resolution 453 is not a ban on books, just a ban on toxic lead ink. This way President Cristina Kirchner, an Evita wannabe, can claim to be saving untold Argentinians from the epidemic of ink-lead poisoning in the more literate First World.  Of course there is no such peril, but that is irrelevant.

The Argentine book ban gives a new twist to the concept of digesting a book.  If you want to protect the national health, why not simply instruct Argentinians to consume more vegetables instead of books?  Then again, no official would  dare suggest that the national addiction to red meat poses a health risk.

Word from on high says this ill-considered ban is already being reversed after thousands of readers expressed their outrage in FaceBook and Twitter.  Readers who ordered books from Amazon, for example, are being forced to travel to the international airport outside Buenos Aires with written proof that these volumes do  not contain ink with lead over 5 or 6 parts per thousand.  

None of this has anything to do with promoting safety and health.  If that were the motive, they'd do better to invest in soap and toilet paper in public restrooms rather than attempt to create panic about an invasion of foreign books.  

The Argentinians can expect this kind of autocratic maneuver from President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who earned a master's in propaganda from studying idol Eva Peron.  As Argentinians know, the Queen Cristina the Benevolent steered millions of tax dollars to buy out the commercial soccer channel "because the people have a right to watch soccer on TV."  The former commercial ads have been replaced by spins about her noble and glorious reign. So naturally one has to suspect her administration's sudden tender concern about potential lead poisoning from turning pages with damp fingers in Harry Potter novels or scientific texts.  

Anyone with their blinders off can see that the latest autocratic maneuver is just the latest in a series ill-disguised attempt to to fix the disaster she has made of the economy, as measured in the downward spiral of the Argentina peso.  The foreign book ban is really about promoting Argentine publishers, reducing the trade balance, and stenching the flow of dollars from the country.  

This is obvious from the comments by a chief apologist for the government's move, Juan Carlos Sacco, board member of the Argentine Industrial Union, UIA, the leading industrial advocacy group:  "Argentina does not ban the import of books, the latest measures have been implemented to safeguard human health since handling books could entail dangers originated in the lead content of the inks with which they are published."  [see footnote]

He nevertheless admitted that the resolution does have the intention of promoting printing of books in Argentina, reported Montevideo's  MercoPress, which also added that the new regulation does not ban the use of high lead inks in domestically published books. (If you've ever seen the paint peeling from countless Argentinian walls, you would agree that a serious anti-lead project would start there, not with foreign educational materials!)

" 'In the last five years book imports totalled 140,00 tons equivalent to 550 million dollars. And in 2011 the misbalance was approximately 78% which represents a deficit of 125 million dollars,' ” said Sacco, according to MercoPress.

Personal note:  I'm back in the U.S. enjoying unlimited access to English-language books at last, and unfortunately with less time to post.  However any government attempts at limiting access to books or other information is something all of us should take seriously enough to stop and fight however we can.  For more on bizarre attempts to stop the flow of books into Argentina, see my prior post about the customs agent who threatened not to hand over my Amazon order a few years ago: "The Ministry of Culture does not allow books in English into the country--unless they were published in a Spanish-speaking country."  Thank goodness for my new Kindle!

Note:  Is there a secret school that trains Argentine leaders in the art of self-deception as well as propaganda?  How can anyone utter such ridiculous statements with a straight face?  Sacco's comments remind me of one of members in the three-man junta that terrorized Argentina during the "Dirty War" that disappeared 30,000 citizens while canceling human rights.  In response to President Carter's protest, one of them, perhaps General Videla, said, "How can anyone say there is no democracy here?  There are three of us, and we take votes--and majority rules!"  

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Argentina: Add Spice & Feel Your Oats!

Chili peppers and oatmeal may be the most notable "cultural markers" of my culinary life here.  Northern friends who visit are always surprised by the lack of hot and spicy Argentine dishes.  And if you  hated oatmeal as a child, don't worry, no one is going to offer it to you.


Oh sure, they add a teaspoon of dried mild chili pepper in a "chimichurri," a sauce for grilled meats, but when I add a little chopped jalapeno to rice or a teaspoon of powdered chipotle to a tomato soup or sauce, the locals decline with a fervor that borders on rudeness.  (Mind you, I had to grow my own or beg them from Bolivian immigrants until the French supermarket chain Carrefour came to town!)

A little trivia:  The really hot chili pepper here is called "aji puta pario," or politely, "aji de la mala palabra," since "puta" means "whore.  No matter what chili it is, it is generally considered unfit for consumption.

Why the aversion to chilies?  It seems they ascribe to the myth that chili peppers are bad for one's health, especially the stomach.  (However, health reasons not prevent them from gorging themselves on red meat and refined sugar and flour.) What a pity, I think, since the research shows that chili peppers actually can protect the stomach lining and reduce cardiovascular disease, among other good things, as noted:

Recent research tells us that hot chili peppers are an up-and-coming health power. A laboratory study in the United Kingdom, for instance, found that capsaicin, which is responsible for the burning sensation chilies provide, can kill lung and pancreatic cancer cells without

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Malos Aires? Volcanic Ash Reaches Buenos Aires and My Favorite Argentine Resort

Here's a Russian Television video, complete with lightning, of the spectacular ash plume spreading from the Puyehue volcano just over the border in Chile. In this next video you can see plows attacking the ash in the area of Villa La Angostura, my favorite Argentine resort, as if it were snow. . .but of course it is not going to attract any skiers this season, which starts in two weeks. Reminds me of all that lake snow I used to shovel in upstate New York, compliments of the cold air coming from Canada over Lake Ontario. Guess it shows that Nature knows no boundaries. Do you suppose there are some folks up in Oswego NY who might like to come down with their monster plows and lend a hand?

Flights were canceled at Buenos Aires airports earlier this week, though the latest news says the shifting winds will carry the ash to parts of Chile (where many residents are defying evacuation orders, alas). By the way, Chile has more volcanoes (500ish) than any country besides Indonesia. Makes me glad I'm a 10-hour drive away.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Surprising Benefits of a Two-Hour Lunch

One of the most dramatic changes in my lifestyle revolves around lunch.

Here in Argentina's interior, where life is slower, folks stop working by 1 pm and go home for a hot lunch.  No eating at one's desk.  No drive-thrus.  No ordering pizza for delivery.  Not even Campbell's soup or Ramen noodles.  Gone are my days of going out with colleagues for a quick bite in a trendy bakery or cafe.  (Sniff...)

The "two-hour lunch" has taken new meaning.  It takes about that much time total, I'd guess, when I figure the total prep, eating, and clean up time for lunch for me and Roberto.  Luckily I work in my home office, so when I take my 11 or 12 o'clock break, I can do a little prior prep, then go back to work, and just check on things periodically.  Beans can simmer, bread can bake, or chicken or pumpkin can roast away, filling the air with delicious aromas.

Sitting down to eat leisurely at the dining table with my dearly beloved is now one of our most entrenched rituals.  The place mats and cloth napkins come out of hiding, and today we even used candles as the sky is very overcast.  Much of the year we can transport all this outside and eat under flowering trees.  We conclude the meal with a small coffee followed by a quick clean up and back to work.

At first I adamantly resisted giving any importance to the midday meal, but over time I have come to appreciate its many benefits:

1)  Better Nutrition.  I am eating healthier food (chef salads, savory vegetable soups, well balanced overall meals).  We eat almost no processed foods, except canned tomatoes and jams.

2)  Quality Couple Time.  Roberto and I enjoy quality time with each other, sharing news, stories, and small pleasantries, while savoring the taste of each dish, and at times doing the preparation and clean up together.

3)  More Daily Grace and Beauty.  The beauty of the table and setting themselves put a smile on my face.  (What a treat having a partner whose sense of aesthetics extends to choosing complementary colors for linens and dishes!)

4)  Greater Perspective.  It puts work in perspective by giving me a solid break.  Interestingly, it allows for some incubation as well as input from my very well read out-of-the-box thinking husband.

5)  More Energy and Focus.  Given the good nutritious lunch, I'm seldom tempted to snack in the afternoon, except for a late day smoothie (okay, and the occasional brownie) and can work with good focus.  I have plenty of energy for the rest of the day.

Argentinians do know how to eat leisurely (if not always well).  As the menu of my favorite local restaurant, the Savelli, says, "Those who knows how to eat know how to wait."  And I'd add, "and they know how to savor a meal slowly."

And I'm really glad that my Argentine husband will eat anything I fix and has become quite the international breakfast and dinner chef himself.  Plus I never have to call him twice to come to the table!

Monday, April 25, 2011

U.S. Americans in Buenos Aires: the New Expat Mecca

Looking for an expat Mecca?  It looks like North Americans have found it in Buenos Aires.
La Nacion reports today that there are more immigrants to Buenos Aires from the USA than anywhere else, if you the exclude neighboring countries of Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru, Chile, Uruguay, and Brazil.  Over 26,000 U.S. citizens are documented as living in Argentina’s largest city, while it is guesstimated that more like 60,000 are actually calling the once Paris of South America home.
Documentation is actually a bit tricky since the U.S. census does not count expats.  Besides, many live here as either illegally or by renewing their tourist visa every three months by crossing the river into Uruguay to get their passport stamped anew.  
“They come as tourists, others as students, and even newly retired persons.  But they quickly fall in love with its city—its artistic activity, cuisine, nightlife, and devalued currency—and decide to grow roots in this land,” writes journalist Evangelina Himitian for the national newspaper.  (Click here for full article in Spanish.)  
Buenos Aires and Peking show up as the two new popular expat destinations for U.S. Americans, according to a study by University of Maryland anthropologist Judith Freidenberg, a native Argentinian.  Far and away, the largest U.S. expat communities however are in Mexico and Canada, with over two million each.  There are just 10,000 in Peking.  (Do you suppose the language has something to do with this?).
Freidenberg divides the immigrants into four classes: 
(1)  Students who come to learn, have a great time, and then decide to stay, living off their parents and/or by teaching English.  (This and the next group share tips and adventures a lot at, by the way.) 
(2)  The twenty-somethings who are taking an early sabbatical, many of whom end up working in call centers operated for clients in English-speaking countries.  They often choose to live in the hip barrios of San Telmo and Palermo. 
(3)  The young professionals, possibly affected by the recession, who figure they can live better here by working for a multinational or starting a small business.   
(4)  Retired middle-class persons who sell their U.S. home and get a nice apartment in Buenos Aires and live better than at home.
I'm going to add the class of “fools for love,” which describes me and my closest expat friends here!  And while no one in their right mind would move here for the politics, I've been intrigued by the older norteamericanas whose passion for the tango brought them here.  
In a country of 40 million Argentinians, can the new immigrants influence the culture?  Probably not yet, though over a century ago, political philosopher Juan Bautista Alberdi advocated increased immigration  from the U.S., England, and France in order to bolster a pathetic work ethic, which continues to this day, according to my own cultural informants here.  Will this modern-day wave from the North make a dent in the increasingly anti-capitalistic trajectory of the current dictatorial President?  Probably not, especially since most won't even be voting, but surely these folks will have a good time until inflation and joblessness end the party for everyone.  Meanwhile, I plan to enjoy the company.  
Welcome, compatriots!

Monday, February 28, 2011

Vive Los Oscars!

For a Southern Californian with  movie business kin, watching the annual Academy Awards on TV was as much a revered family ritual as eating Thanksgiving pumpkin pie or hanging Christmas stockings, along with watching all the film credits (and thus being the very last patrons to leave any theater salon).

So here it is Oscar night, and me without access to a real TV.  Ayyy!   After a desperate search for a live streaming Oscars site (after critiquing the actress’s dresses and hair during the Red Carpet show), I resigned myself to reading.  Justin TV had shut off the feed due to the copyright holder's demand, and all other searches led to either to a shoe ad or a direct streaming scam. . . until Roberto found a live stream from Spain of Tinsel Town’s biggest party.

The simultaneous interpreter lets me hear the first half of each utterance, and if the screen does not freeze, I can lip read the rest.  If there has been a good joke, I missed it, though what nostalgia to see the Bob Hope clips!  Gone are all the commercials--instead, the Spanish panel chats pleasantly until the broadcast resumes.  If they were disappointed that their countryman Javier Bardem did not win his second statuette, they diplomatically refrained from saying so. By the way, research shows that the winners live longer than the mere nominees, so we can look forward to decades more of Colin Firth's talent.  More Oscars are living the expat life, it seems!

It is really amazing to think that nearly the whole world wants to watch a U.S. guild (can you remember its real name?) give out awards in a rather boring stilted show.  Sure, they show some clips and singing, but much of the show is silly banter and long thank you's by and to people who otherwise would escape our notice.  After all, only a few minutes is dedicated to the major awards that most people recognize, e.g., Best Film, Best Actress, and Best Actor.  And they are almost all English-speaking if not entirely United States.

For whatever reason, it is a global community event.  And the show, as always, has run over, and Roberto is snoring softly. But I am determined to find out which film will make history by being this year’s “Best Film.”  The list of nominees was just read, though I confess that without a decent theater for 70 km, I haven’t seen a single one.  . . though it shouldn’t be too hard to rent any of them.   I’ve always used the Oscars as a way of picking films to see more than for affirming any I actually saw. 

And now for the winner. . . . Ta dum!   Yes!  My speech pathologist friend Audrey is not doubt cheering in Kingston, Ontario!  And no doubt pirated copies of “The King’s Speech” are already available and will now flood the Argentine video market.  Last year, when I complained to one proprietor of a “reputable” rental shop about getting a copy with that tell-tale notice that “this copy is for Academy Award members only” or some such thing, she insisted rather defensively that it was the only way she could stay in business. 

What can I say to that?  I suspect that the live streaming show that I just finished watching was not “official” either.  I feel like a kid sneaking in the “exit” door of the movie house.  Not that I ever did that of course, living on a military base.  (My dad would have let them throw me in the brig!)  Besides, it is free to watch in the U.S.

However, I promise to seek authentic DVDs to rent as my own gesture of thanks to those who bring us such cinematic pleasures.  I also offer my congrats to all the winners!  And gracias to the Spanish team that reminded me how movies can unite us despite differences in language and culture.  And I’d like to thank my husband, who made tonight possible, parents and my family for their steady love and support, and my dear friends. . . .

[Musical theme now to loud to continue; exit stage left.]

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Ten Things Argentines Won't Eat?

By and large, Argentinians are obsessed by food and eating. Social life centers on meals.

Frankly, that’s one of the things I like most about them. Folks here take time to cook and time to sit down and enjoy the food. Yet people do seem rather picky by my standards as a California foodie. The menus seem so limited in ingredients and cooking styles.  (One journalist estimated there are only about 25 ingredients commonly used here, in comparison to 80 or 100 in other cuisines.)

So this morning I jumped to the article, “The Ten Foods Argentinians Hate Most” in La Nacion, which reported the findings and commentaries from a recent local survey. Here are the most despised foods, according to what was a nonrandom and apparently only somewhat representative sample:

1. Tripe. Okay, raise your hands: Who wants parts of the cow’s stomach for lunch today? As the writer noted, eating tripe is about as appetizing as swallowing a hot towel. Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay revived this cheap staple a few years back for his menu. Did it catch on in the UK?

2. Liver. I’m with them on this one.  I haven't eaten it since my former husband forced it on me while pregnant (okay, the kids turned out fantastic!).  Slabs of glossy organs and coral looking blogs abound in the meat counters, but I'm not ready yet. If I need to raise my blood iron level, I head for chocolate.

3. Cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. Cruciferous veggies, so healthy for us, are pretty hard to find in good condition, especially Brussels sprouts. I adapted an old Martha Stewart recipe that calls for chopping the latter in a food processor and then sautéing with olive oil, onions, and spices. Not for Valentine’s Day dinner, but good! I still have not found the nerve to offer guests a dip with cauliflower and broccoli sprigs as folks here prefer meat and bread before their dinner of meat and potatoes. Actually, vegetables in general seem to be rather unpopular.

4. Roquefort cheese. The blue cheese here works great in salads and other dishes, and posted article comments suggest that the survey respondents were not typical. Alas there is no cheddar cheese, which in a mild form would no doubt be popular. Bland is more or less the order of the day for Argentine foods, including cheeses, of which there are sadly limited varieties.  (Please send me cheddar, jack, and feta for my birthday!  No customs or postal agent would touch them!)

5. Morcilla/Blood sausage/black pudding. This is a love it or hate it dish. My Scottish heritage must be at work here as I actually like this sausage made from pig’s blood, onions, and spices, if it is well grilled.  (Will this make up for skipping the liver?)

6. Polenta. Apparently this is kid food. I think it has potential in other forms, but experimentation with food is not common here. My Argentine husband and guests gobble up corn bread made with polenta meal and raisins. Fried or baked polenta specialties could be such a nice change from all the highly refined wheat flour bread served here when you want to feel “full.”

7. Chinchulines and kidneys. More strange things in the butcher case. Frankly, I have to admire the Argentinians for eating a lot more parts of the cow than I knew existed. Even so, I’ll pass on these and the “nervios” and leave the marinated tongue for my son, who craves it.  I once tried to make a version of the steak and kidney pie I ate in England, and even the dog wouldn't touch it.

8. Sushi. Real men don’t eat sushi, according to this poll. Since Argentines eschew fish in general, don’t even try to convince them. Sadly, the only restaurant in my town to add sushi to the menu skipped right over the traditional to embrace the cream cheese rolls. Ugh!  I've found some of the makings for sushi and will look for a good youtube instructional video when I get the urge.

9. Gnocchi. This surprised the pollsters as gnocchi has a popular image. I think it fits right in the same category as Kraft mac and cheese. Fast and fattening comfort food.

10. Fish in general. Unpopular in any form. “The truth is that here nobody cares that these marine creatures are high in Omega-3 fatty acids,” the article notes. Argentines scarf down an incredible 143 pounds of beef per person per year according to some reports. And while beef is sold in lots of markets, you have to go to a special fish store to buy fish (or a health food store to get those Omega 3 capsules).

Well…there you have a nonscientific report on what Argentines hate. Of course this only covers the foods that actually exist here.  It would be cool to see a report on the most popular.

My short list of disliked Argentine foods, by the way starts with those slimy “nervios” and any other white part of the cow and ending with the super sandwiches that have a fried egg and cheese piled on top. I also find the highly popular dulce de leche in any form sickeningly sweet.

Of course I know that what we Californians consider standard fare (including Mexican, Thai, and Indian food) would get two thumbs down here in the land of simple, bland fare. I've had several Argentine guests refuse (or say that they'd rather not have) anything spicy, iced coffee drinks, bittersweet chocolate, cranberries, pumpkin pie, among other things.

What we eat says a lot about what we are willing to “digest” from another culture. I can’t think of a better starting place than a great meal with local hosts.

So what’s for dinner?