Sunday, April 27, 2008


The first time I met Hugh's fiery Texan grandmother (we'd been dating only a few months), she wasted no time in getting down to business. VinceLee stared at me hard across the table and barked "Do you like to cook?". It wasn't a question really. It was more a statement barely disguised as the sentiment "you better cook dearie". "well...I stammered, I do enjoy cooking when I have the time but I don't really have much time these days". She was just warming up. Next came "Do you have any hobbies?" aka what do you like to do? - again that implication in her voice that I'd better come up with a good list if I wanted to show my face around there again. I started to sweat. And then berate myself for having no actual hobbies other than work.

Couldn't she just smile sweetly and offer me some pecan pie? a long pause....."I like to spend time with friends.....and I run!". There, I had finally found something. But wait, is running really a hobby. I sensed immediately that I had failed her test and failed miserably. It was a sobering conversation not only because I received a less than glowing reception from a clearly important member of Hugh's family but also because I did not like the answers I had for the questions she posed. What were my hobbies and why didn't I have any? I needed hobbies. My life was pissing away with WORK as a HOBBY? it doesn't get sadder than that. VinceLee was brutal but right on and I guess in your nineties you don't worry about the delivery, you just get to tell it like it is all the time.

I think back to that conversation now with smile. My days are filled with hobbies and VinceLee was right. I needed to reprioritize if I wanted to make a life with her grandson and a new family of artists, cardplayers, writers, storytellers, athletes, interior designers and gourmands. My latest hobby is painting. I'm taking a class on Fridays from 3-6pm. My patient painting teacher Ada, is also our landlord and lives two floors below. She's an accomplished artist with more than 30 years of experience and many exhibitions. We started on the basics - mixing primary colors to form the secondary and so on. I am on to inventing landscapes of all warm tones or cool. Once I graduate to canvas, I'll make a call to VinceLee.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

apples and broccoli - only for the rich

Writer friend Amanda wrote the following piece recently for a Canadian newspaper interested in the rising price of global commodities. It definitely helped me understand why my grocery bill seems to double every month. It's not just because I'm a foreigner. They will translate it into French before publishing. Here's the English version...

Argentina's Efforts to Keep Food Prices Low Fall Short

Since recovering from a financial crisis that crippled
the country in 2001, high international commodity
prices have helped Argentina develop into one of the
world's fastest growing economies. Argentina is the
third largest exporter of soybeans, the sixth largest
exporter of wheat, and a leading producer of other
agricultural commodities. But not all news is good;
in spite of government policies to minimize price
increases at home, Argentines are paying the highest
prices for food in years.

"It's terrible", says Bernardo Velez, a building
maintenance worker. "We have to ration our food now."

Although still low by international standards, prices
for milk, rice, pasta and beef have almost doubled
over the last year in spite of extensive government
intervention. The government's food price controls,
farmer's subsidies, export bans, and taxes on
agricultural exports haven't had the desired effect.

"Argentina is a peculiar case", says Luciano Laspina,
of Macrovision, an independent economic advisory
group. "It's a large producer of food and has
agricultural independence, which allows the government
to minimize the impact of high international prices
locally. It uses export taxes, bans and other
interventions, but over the last year and a half,
these policies have become less effective, due to
inflation, increased demand, and higher costs of doing

Accurate figures on Argentine inflation are hard to
come by. The government reports an inflation rate of
8.8% for 2007, a figure largely contradicted by local
analysts. Macrovision's figures are closer to 19- 20%
for 2007, with even more inflation expected in 2008.

A nationwide farmer's strike that began in March in
response to higher export taxes on agricultural crops
hasn't helped. Large-scale protests, strike-related
inflation and food shortages were the result, boosting
food prices to new highs. The strike is considered by
local observers as the worst crisis of the Kirchner
era, and played a large part in the April 24
resignation of the Economy Minister Lousteau, the
third Minister in the last year. "I don't know if
it's inflation or the crisis with the farmers or what.
All I know is before, I paid 1.40 pesos for a liter
of milk, and now I pay 2.50", says Lucia Martínez, a
domestic employee.

"It's taking a lot longer for food prices to return to
pre-strike levels", says Miguel Bein, of Estudio Bein,
an economic consulting firm. A 30-day truce between
the government and the farmers was announced on April
2, but the conflict is far from over. "Why should the
crisis be resolved? The government will keep doing
everything it can to keep food prices low, and the
farmers will want to export as much as they can to
take advantage of high international commodity prices.
Different interests are at play."

Argentina remains one of the world's largest producers
of beef, an item locally considered a staple, not a
luxury. To minimize prices at home, the government
banned beef exports; Argentines still only pay 1/4 of
international beef prices. But prices keep rising,
threatening to make the once-sacred weekend barbeque,
or asado, a thing of the past.

"It used to be that you could have your entire Sunday
asado for just 50 pesos" (US $17), says Mrs. Martínez.
"Now just the meat costs 100 pesos. We can only
afford to have an asado once a month, if that."

Two-income families have taken to eating less
healthfully. "We used to eat a lot of vegetables",
says Miriam Ganado, a seamstress whose family income
is US $ 760 per month. "But now, because of the
prices, instead we eat pasta or rice."

"Although it's too early to get accurate data, I
imagine poverty levels are climbing", says Bein. The
Fundación Banco de Alimentos, a food bank founded in
the wake of the 2001 crisis, reports that demand for
its services is growing. The group distributes
donated food to 469 dining rooms throughout the city,
with a waiting list of 200 more. Jacqueline Vines of
the food bank says, "Every day, new institutions
contact us asking for our services. The needs here
are very high." Gladis Alanis, of the Juntos Somos
Más dining room, says that her clientele doubled over
the last year. "This last year was lethal. People
who have jobs don't make enough to eat. Imagine those
who don't?"

Amanda Fernández is an economic development consultant
and freelance writer for,
living in Buenos Aires.

Not a Pro at the Feria de Libros

Last night I made my debut at the annual Feria de Libros/largest book fair/event in the world. I read a short story at the US Embassy booth in the exhibit hall. They set up a presentation area to accomodate 15 cushion seats and a small table. I was nervous not knowing what to expect and also having to read out loud in spanish. Three of my writer friends attended for support and another 4 portenos stopped in, plus 3 of the embassy staffers. So, it was an intimate and manageable crowd. Unfortunately, the exhibit hall loudspeaker blared music and occasional announcements so I had to practically scream to be heard. I tried to be expressive, even theatrical in my reading so that the attendees would get something even if they couldn't hear it all. I read a piece called "Momentos de revelaciones divinas". The woman who translated my story must've done a good job because the portenos seem to appreciate it. At the end, I handed out copies of our recently published compilation of short stories. Tomorrow, I'm scheduled to read again in the afternoon and each of the writers in the Thursdays@Three group are scheduled for readings throughout the next two weeks. One of the embassy staffers emailed today that they purchased a mic and speaker which should improve things quite a bit and also lure in more people.

After the reading, my next door neighbor Lan read some of her Tango-themed poems (also translated into spanish) from one of her four published books. (a strange colliding of worlds that we both got involved with the embassy program at the Feria this year through different channels) She drew a larger crowd and I learned a lot about how to "put on" a reading from a real pro. Note to self for next time: wear candy-apple red tango dress slit up to the top of thigh and high heeled red shoes. Red lipstick to match - think Broadway musical. Also, stand and read using lots of movement. Turn from side to side, tap foot to mimic tango steps (if applicable) and look up every few seconds to make sure people are still with you. Make reference (at least 5x) to the book you are reading from - gives credibility. Bring prop such as 5x6ft blown up image of a crowded milonga (argentine dance hall) and hang it behind or next to speaking area.

Later, the writers group dined at a nearby fondue place. An apt way to acknowledge the work we've put into the book these past months and an excuse to socialize outside of our weekly afternoon setting. Halfway through the meal I had to unbutton and unzip my jeans (only my loosest ones fit now) all the way. Project uterine expansion advanced significantly this week. I've gained about 7 or 8 pounds so far. The distribution appears to be 3 in the boobs, and rest in the butt and hips - lucky me! I post this photo because everyone keeps asking to see "the bump". In the morning there's not much there but it gets progressively bigger throughout the day depending on my level of activity and what I'm eating (these days lots of pickles - the little vinegary ones and my homemade sauerkraut).

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Retreat to the beach

Last weekend Gaby emailed to say she was going to her parents beach shack at Las Toninnas for the weekend - "Did I want to come?" I packed my bags with a swimsuit, suncreen, two yoga mats and a hat. It was perfect timing to get away from the smokey city and get a final hit of summertime warm (the weather predicted low to mid 70s). We left Friday night, sipping mate all the 5 hour drive and stopped at a roadside parrilla for dinner. I feasted on the best grilled chicken I've ever had and Gaby ate "lechon" - a kind of pork that comes from baby pigs): I tried it and it was tender. She also told me about a cut of pork that comes from pigs that are still suckling their mothers milk - it's the ultimate delicacy. Poor baby piggies is all I can think.

Both nights I slept 10 1/2 hours. It was completely silent a the beach shack. Its off season now so the town of Las Toninnas was nearly deserted except for a few "viejos" (old people) that live there year round. We had the beach to ourselves and spent the days chatting and dozing in the warm sol. I finished rereading Joan Didion's The Year of Miracle Thinking and did a lot of writing too. Saturday night I took a power walk at sunset while Gaby ran. I filled my pockets with the most beautiful coral, plum, indigo and pumpkin stripped sea shells. I couldn't stop collecting them once I started though haven't had the urge to gather ocean trinkets since I was about 9 years old. That night we ate out at a nearby more populated town called Santa Teresita. I tried a local fish called "Lisa" and Gaby had octopus spagetti. My fish was prepared castellian style in a paella-like pan with sauteed tomatoes, potatoes, red peppers, onion, olive oil and lots of fresh herbs. Both days we did yoga on the sand just 10 feet from the water.

My son Chris

Hugh's friend Chris from SF came to visit this month for 10 days. He stayed with us and as its a small flat, we got to know each others habits and peeves pretty well. Hugh enjoyed the constant male company. I endured many a quip about women's body parts, sports and the consumption of macho cuisine. They were like ten year olds on a field trip with no school monitor looking. They went go cart racing (twice), played tennis, ate out every night (sometimes with other testosteroners) and giggled over youtube videos "dude, ya gotta ck this one out". We took Chris to estancia La Candelaria for the weekend. By now, the staff greet us by name and remember Utta of course. The weather turned icy cold for a few days so we got a taste of winter and enjoyed late afternoons by the fireplace sipping mate and nibbling on argentine pastries. Chris and Hugh played more tennis, rode horses and we all took long walks with the dog. It was kind of sad for me. None of the things I usually enjoy doing at the estancia were jibbing with the new pregnant bod - riding wildly on the fastest polo pony they have, taking runs in the morning out to greet the cows, riding bikes over the bumpy pasture and chasing the tennis ball in the soft clay courts in a pretend game with Hugh were all out. So, I did a lot of walking, practiced yoga in the room, got a massage, read and took naps.

One of the maids came in on the second day we were there (having observed us the day and evening prior) and asked with a straight face "Is he your son?" - glancing over at Chris. I dropped my jaw and then laughed a little too hard and told her no - we were only 7 years apart in age, though yes, he's obviously younger looking than the average. Chris and I grinned at each other. I didn't know who should be more embarrassed. It was the first time anyone assumed I could the mother of a near grown up person. The rest of Chris's trip, we took to calling him Son and he referred to us as Mom and Dad. It was good practice if and when we're saddled with a smart alecky teenage boy.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The air down there

Depending on your news consumption of the goings on in South America you may or may not know that for the past two weeks, BA has been swallowed in smoke (see view from our balcony above). Some days are so bad we avoid leaving the house and don't take Utta on walks. Its a real bummer to say the least. At first I didn't realize what was going on. I'd walk outside at night and smell burning and would think to myself "strange" is someone burning trash? Then not think about it again until the next day or two. See, depending on the wind, it blows in to town either a little or in full gusts at a time. Its now common knowledge that the fires running untethered in the countrysides are a result of arson. Some of the same angry farmers that protested the new taxes a month ago (negotiations are still underway) set fire to the country knowing full well that the smoke would wreak havoc on the nearby cities and also shut down major highways that transport food and other basic necessities. Nice way to deal with their frustration eh?

Meanwhile, people walk around (if they dare) with scarves over their faces and suffer. I was already supersensitive to toxic smells (thanks to the pregnancy hormones) so this for me is torture. Last week the government asked the public to avoid exercising outdoors and take caution if you have allergies or asthma but "not to worry as there are no real health risks!" The past two days thank god have been clear and smoke free - for us in BA at least. The winds shifted and sent the hellish blanket of smoke to Rosario and other unfortunate Argentine cities now under scourge. They say the only thing we can do is pray for rain to put it out as the fires are too extensive for firefighters to treat. Most Argentines I know give me a roll of the eyes, a kind of weary resignation and say "yeah, in this country its always one thing or another".

Wednesday, April 9, 2008


Yesterday I had my second visit with Dr. Heriberto Engel at Hospital Aleman where we are insured. I made the mistake of assuming that because he had a small office where he sees patients outside of the hospital (just one block away from the hospital), that he would be connected somehow to patient records etc via some computerized system. Hah! Yes, at times even I forget I am in South America.

So I arrived for my appointment and he stared at me glassy-eyed but welcoming. "What's the problem?"

"uh, there's no problem. I'm pregnant and you told me to come see you after the ultrasound...remember?"

Long pause....

"ah yes - the Americans!!! come, come. Yes, your husband is very funny. Tell me again why do you want to stay here?"

He did a short exam and measured my uterus. Tried to listen for the heartbeat with a stethascope apparatus attached to a microphone box that looked like a relic from the 1940's. "too early to hear anything".

He weighed me and wrote everything down on a small flashcard. "I'll call you tomorrow morning from my office at the hospital and look at your test results". Yeah right I thought. Get a phone call at home from a doctor?

But today at 11am, the phone rang and his cheery voice reported all good news - I don't have HIV, nor Hepatitus or anemia among other things. Just keep taking folic acid. "I know in the US everyone gets these prenatal vitamins but here in Argentina our diet supplies all the nutrition you need so don't worry about anything else". Fine by me.

Tenidor Libre = too much cow

Last Friday we helped my friend Gabriela celebrate her 34th birthday along with about 20 of her family members and a few other friends. She held the party at a popular "tenidor libre" aka "all you can eat" parrilla in Puerto Madero. It was a typical Argentine family celebration - lots of smiles and kisses, beef up the whahzoo and hours and hours of socializing. Gaby's family comes from a small town in southern Italy. Her parents are adorable, wrinkly and short. They greeted us like familiar cousins. Children were of course present and well behaved. Gaby's younger sister just had her first baby a month ago (named Bianca) and there were cousins with big eyes and eyelashes for miles in 4-13yr old range.

I tried to restrain myself but in the end came dangerously close to an all night heartburn attack. I started off fine but then opted to sample 4 different cuts of beef - really three too many. Hugh also gorged himself (I think he made it up to 7 variations of the cow) and we both vowed to steer clear of tenidor libres in the future.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

BA Bump Watch

It all started with the Evatest - Argentina's "EPT" pregnancy predictor. Ok, well it started before that but I've got to leave some things to the imagination. 3 days late I ran to the farmacia and the Evatest pee stick revealed two pink lines (one line means no, two lines is a definite yes). I was ecstatic and Hugh nonplussed. "those tests don't mean anything - don't you have to wait awhile and do at least a few more before you know for sure?" I didn't need to take another. Mother's intuition kicked in and I just "knew". I had actually known several days before when I felt the implantation cramp. Thanks to yoga I am in tune with my body's every slight movement and change. The cramp was nothing like the dull aching menstrual kind that also gets you in the low back. This was a sharp stab in the uterus that went away after just a second or two. For quick reference I consulted my Anatomy Coloring book and confirmed my suspicions. The zygote had made its way up the fallopian tubes and had burrowed into my uterine wall. Success!

My body started to change immediately. Of course, next was Googling "pregnancy symptoms". I checked them all off. Bigger swollen breasts (hello free boob job for the formerly flat chested!), bloating, moodiness (weepy weepy), extreme fatique (two naps a day and still tired), constipation, heightened sensitivity to smell (I am like the bionic woman - able to detect malodor from blocks away, yuck bus fumes, cigarette smoke and cat urine) nausea (though thank god no vomiting) and strange food cravings and aversions. Orange juice is my new best friend, also oranges, tomato sauce with or without pasta, grapefruit soda, plain rolls (helps the nausea), lemon popsicles. Pesto and too much garlic no likey. I miss my mercury laden cans of tuna fish and sadly passed on sashimi while visiting San Francisco although I partook in unagi rolls and miso soup.

There's nothing to really "see" just yet other than a slightly widening backside (not a good photo op). I did stop by a few maternity stores in SF just for fun and came across this cute black number that will do just fine for my sis's wedding in May. (hello crazy liquidation markdown to $20!) The store had one of those fake tie on preggo bellies - not exactly realistic looking but at least I know there's room to grow.

Yesterday we got our first peek at what's inside. Looks like a tadpole with a big head. 4 centimeters long and doing fine so far. As I am in my 12th week I can officially announce what I have known and accepted since the implantation cramp nearly 3 months ago....I'm going to be a mommy.