After a year’s respite, a new blog

Hola!

If you are subscribed to this blog and are still interested in my writing….

I started a new blog.

It’s almost been a year since my last post. I’m sorry for leaving you hanging. I hope this new blog makes up for lost time.

Argentina was fantastic, and it primed me for my new life in Chicago.

Please subscribe to my new blog, Belle de Jour to get a regular dose of Chicago loveliness.

Warmest,
Cassidy

The [real] city of love

I remember the first time a Porteño kissed me on the cheek — he was the security guard in my apartment building. I reached out for a handshake, and he pulled me forward for my first lesson in Buenos Aires culture.

The city sucked me in like that friendly, brisk peck on the cheek. Some experiences were shocking (or prickly) at first, but they have become fond and pathetic memories.

I like to imagine that moving here was a mutual decision between the city and me. Buenos Aires had what I craved in an adoptive home – immigrant diversity, incredible food, an edgy art scene, and a tireless, cosmopolitan pace – so we found each other. However, there is one reoccurring Buenos Aires theme that changed the way I think about life: passion.

Which brings me back to that kiss.

A kiss is at the core of every relationship here. Before or immediately after learning someone’s name, ready or not, you feel their facial hair on your cheek. I found this shocking at first, particularly with professional relationships, and even still, it’s a bit weird. At first, my feminist ego was slightly bruised when a male colleague, teacher, or trainer kissed me; it felt like an unwelcome invitation. With women, however, the hola-kiss combo made friendships feel instantly age-old. In a few days, I mastered the casual kiss — partially because there simply is no way to dodge it.

In the U.S., we typically don’t pucker up with our co-workers, but I have to give the kiss some credit. Naturally, when you touch first base with a stranger, dialogue is the essential next step. Immediately following the porteño greeting, conversations and friendships fall into place much quicker.

The awkwardness is especially amusing to observe between international students. Barriers melt instantly because of the awkward two–step, “shall we kiss or shake?” tango. The brief physical contact brings flushed cheeks and embarrassed smiles.

Now the kiss is endearing. On my return, readjusting to the handshake will be a bigger challenge.

I’m hesitant to draw conclusions about a city that I’ve only briefly called home, but I will confidently speculate that Porteños are some of the most passionate people in the world. They express passion in more than relationships — passion fuels their lifestyle and national identity. Without passion, Buenos Aires would be a blank canvas.

No expression of Argentine passion is more obvious than tango, but it truly is the primary image that Buenos Aires transmits to the rest of the world. Recognized as an UNESCO Intangible Heritage of Humanity, tango is used in foreign relations as an outreach tool abroad. My tango instructor and his partner dance around the world through a program sponsored by the Argentine embassy. For many people, tango is the first symbol they correlate to Buenos Aires.

Imagine a tango show performed for a conservative, religious culture where men and women are not permitted to make eye contact, let alone stroke legs together in a tango knot. The dance is a risky spectacle to broadcast, but since Europe’s embrace in the early 1900s, tango has been applauded in ballrooms around the world.

Buenos Aires’ passion, however, runs deeper than its mass-consumed, postcard dance. It’s as simple as the fourth meal of the day: merienda. Around four or five o’clock friends stop for coffee and toast in a collective city sigh. Merienda is the time to cool your heels, collect your thoughts, and enjoy a schmear of queso cremado on a crunchy slice of bread. For some Porteños, merienda means passing a steaming gourd of yerba mate and sipping through the same metal straw.

The streets reek of passion with couples young and old audaciously tangled together. Teenage couples in school uniforms feverishly make out on apartment steps before parting ways for their family dinners.  Park benches are occupied, and candle-lit dinners are plentiful. On my flight to Buenos Aires I sat sandwiched between two kissing couples — one in their mid 20s, the other in their late 60s.

The love is timeless and has few contextual boundaries. There are transitory hotels — which a friend of mine tells me is the secret to a successful marriage.

For some, passion is futbol, grilled meat, or drinking. The passion is manifested in the art in public spaces or belted out in subway stations. It’s so syrupy thick, you can feel it.

I wonder how this will affect my relationships back home. The Argentine stereotype for an American is “rigid and prude,” and after looking back on my time here, I can see why. When I return, I might step into a reverse “kiss or shake?” tango or have a hunger pang around four o’clock, but the bigger change will be my approach to relationships.

Unlike that kiss, there’s no need to physically pull someone in. However, if the love is there, make it known.

Cambios, changes

The first day of my last month. Wow, that was fast.

Buenos Aires never stops to catch her breath. In six months, I never had enough time to get to know the city, and she didn’t care. She bolted ahead of me without stopping. And here I am, sprinting down the sidewalk as usual, only catching a whiff of her blazing cigarette as she weaves ahead through pedestrian traffic.

When something outrageous makes the Buenos Aires headlines, it’s old news the next day. No matter the enormity, analytics and further investigation are irrelevant, for the sleepless porteños have already moved on to the next drama, the next catastrophe, la proxima locura

On Sunday, the throbbing Riverplate stadium braced itself for un quilombo, a massacre. More than 2,200 police officers monitored the stadium and neighboring street corners. Helicopters chopped overhead, and tanks with water cannons roamed the streets.

Seven blocks from the stadium, I watched a river of red fans flow through the streets. Only a true idiot, masochist, or literal die-hard fan would have joined this death march to the stadium. Riverplate was on a losing streak, and losing this game would send them into their first descent in their 100 years’ glory to the B league.

The last minute ticked, and River fans threw up their arms in fury. The stadium decayed before our eyes on the television screen. Spectators tore up the seats and threw whatever object they could find — metal barricades, cement, wooden posts…

Minutes after the game, an explosion of agony echoed through the Belgrano neighborhood. The same river of fans returned from the stadium defeated. They walked in a funereal silence — tears dripped down their painted faces and their flags were halfheartedly slung over their shoulders. A few blocks behind, bombs, breaking glass, and riot police sounded in a collective cacophony.

It looked like a war zone.

From inside of my friend’s apartment, I watched scenes of my neighborhood flicker on every news station. Angry fans smashed glass storefronts on Avenida Libertador — a street I walk down every day. Furniture from stores and apartment lobbies burned in the middle of the road, and looters flocked to the exposed kiosks and drugstores.

The next morning, I spread La Nacion out on the cafe table and read the headline “Conmoción y violencia por la caída de un grande: River” or “Commotion and violence from the fall of a great: River.” Also featured in the sports section: the results? 89 injuries. 50 arrests. It was as if the violence was another spectator sport.

I had trouble ingesting the brevity of it all, but for the most part, life moved on. Adrian brought my coffee, and said “que locura, eh?”

My porteño friends were prepared for the news, and told me to tweet, “Riverplate riots in Belgrano, but the bigger news is my friends don’t think it’s that extraordinary.”

It’s not that Argentines are complacent, on the contrary, they are some of the most passionate people I’ve met. Their politics and economy have let them down, and for some, futbol is an outlet; which is why the very next day, Riverplate fans pointed fingers at the club president for the failure of the team — as opposed to the mayor, the police, or President Kirchner for the threat to their security.

On Tuesday, it was old news. Buenos Aires moved on to the next page, the next cup of coffee, the next cigarette, and I was clamoring to catch up.

Juice of the Earth

I woke up from my city sleepwalking and flew to Mendoza.

Last week I traveled west to Argentine wine country, Mendoza. The small town is distinguished by its sprawling vineyards and paradisiacal produce. From above, the snow-capped Andes peer down on the Mendocinos (Mendozans) and their wine-soaked city.

last bunch

Malbec, the inky-red Argentine wine, flows through the veins of Mendocinos, their economy, and the inviting culture. Like the tingling sensation of malbec on the tongue, there’s a certain warmth to Mendoza — and it melted my city-hardened heart.

In Buenos Aires, I pace sidewalks with a shield of iron skin. I avoid eye-contact and block out passers-by who catcall and stare. In my first few hours in Mendoza, I woke up from my nearly six months’ spell of urban-sleepwalking. I was met by smiles, eye-contact, and numerous greetings on street corners. After watching the way other Mendocinos walk, talk, and interact, I quickly and comfortably adjusted to the hospitality of Mendoza.

During my five days’ stay, I biked through rows of grapevines, gawked at the Andes while on horseback, and merrily sipped on as many malbecs as I could muster.

While the things I saw, tasted, and felt were some of the best during my time in Argentina, my favorite stop in Mendoza was the Mercado Central.

To a tourist passing by, the building didn’t look like much. Inside, there were vibrant stalls of food — towers of golden cheese, garlands of artisan sausages, glimmering fish scales, and crates of fresh produce. From one stall to the next, my nose was tickled by the aromas of moldy cheese, the yeast in fresh bread, and the sour stench of meat. The market was a sensory euphoria — the smells, the colors, the work of the hands, and my favorite, the human interaction.

Not the Kroger deli

I stood by a meat counter and listened to a butcher converse with his client about the day’s best cuts of beef. I stopped to marvel at three women affectionately tending to a paella pan four feet wide. Like culinary ballerinas, the three ladies dressed in white aprons danced around the pan taking orders, gingerly sprinkling chopped parsley, and wrapping their product into neat paper packages.

The Mercado Central, needless to say, was nothing like the detached producer-to-market relationship in the US (see also Kroger, Publix, Schnuck’s, yourgroceryhere).

The bodegas (wineries) are no different. The smaller boutique wineries, and even the medium-large scale wineries, boast that their product was hecho a mano — hand-picked, hand-sorted, hand-stamped, and hand-delivered.

In addition to their pride in human-directed attention, wineries exude an utmost respect for la tierra, the earth.

Alta Vista, one of the wineries I visited, had clear plastic cylinders of dirt mounted on the walls of the foyer. Displayed proudly next to bottles of their Wine Spectator award-winning Malbecs, the rich brown soil was a testament to the fertility of the region and the river of wine it distributes to parts of the world.

In the US for example, shipments of Argentine malbecs have quintupled since 2005. And according to the NY Times article, the reasonably priced bottles are the ones driving the sales.

In Mendoza, I was fortunate to sample a few top shelf wines for about $10-20 US per bottle. The beauty of the vineyards and the incredible (or dangerous) drinkability of malbec made a trip to Sonoma or Province laughable, particularly at this price.

However, I began to wonder about the hands that pick the grapes, sort out the stems, and place the labels. Several months out of the year, they are out of work — employed temporarily by the harvest season. One boutique winery, Clos de Chacras, talked about the separation of labor by gender, with men doing heavy lifting and women doing tasks requiring nimble fingers. This image reminded me of the maquiladoras in Mexico, where women work for hours in assembly lines under the watch of foreign-owned corporations.

Most of the vineyards in Argentina are foreign-owned, and for some Mendocinos I spoke with, the companies are the conquistadors of this century. Corporations such as Chandon and Kendall Jackson have bought up plots of land to reap the profits from Mendoza’s rich soil. Most large-scale Argentina-based wineries were purchased and maintained by foreigners, such as Alta Vista or Norton.

Foreign ownership of land is a complicated and timely issue in Argentina, as President Kirchner signed an agreement to restrict foreign purchases this past April. Listening to Argentines express their feelings toward foreign “colonists” has opened my eyes to the complexity of the land. In the north, indigenous Mapuche communities protest for the rights to the terrain obtained by the government, in Patagonia nationalists lament the buying of land by American CEO’s, and in the Pampas, the rugged gaucho frontier is being tamed for more profitable soybean production.

Land ownership is a convoluted, economic tug-o-war pulling in several directions — conservation versus development, patriotism versus income, and rich versus poor.

On my horseback tour through the Mendoza frontier, I spoke with Cisar, a horse breeder. He told me about the pueblos in his town who are starving, meanwhile, millionaires buy up neighboring plots of land for their luxurious estancias (ranch homes). The disparity is unfathomable.

Our conversation slowed to a solemn silence, and I gazed ahead at the Andes and the rugged terrain. Aside from the rows of grapevines, the surroundings looked unobtainable. How could a person own a mountain or a rock bottom creek?

Mendoza brought me back to the land and invited me to explore these stories further. Because I visited in winter, I didn’t get to see the farmers and producers in action, but I hope to return someday when the oak barrels are rolling down assembly lines and the grapes are swollen and ready to be picked.

At the very least, I’ll never look at a glass of red wine with the same eyes again.

In an urban setting, drinking a glass of wine seems basic and familiar, but it’s disconnected from the context of its origins. There’s a chain of labor attached to the wine glass, and my short time in Mendoza reconnected me to the Earth and life near the campo.

Growing up in Kentucky blessed me with the activity of a large city with the proximity to the warmth of rural kindess. Todos somos hijos de los campesinos. We’re all sons and daughters of farmers.

Feed me.

The vanguard of foreign relations doesn’t lie in policy, but rather, in food.

I started this form of diplomacy when I was five. During the holidays, I pulled a stepladder over the stove and made armies of cookies with my mother. My flour-dusted fingers gingerly arranged them into tins and hand-delivered them to neighbors’ doors.

Abroad, sharing food opens a door into a person’s life. It’s a “taste this, it reminds me of home” conversation. Food is an extension of communication. It describes where words fail and touches in a way that the hand cannot (or should not!)

In Argentina I’ve tried many new culinary curiosities and shared many meals, but some of the most fun I’ve had is bringing my food to Argentina.

Last week I lugged home a bulging canvas grocery sack full of what would be dinner for my host-mom and me. Finding the ingredients was like a scavenger hunt — involving three different shopping locations. The hard-to-find ingredients made cooking that much more magical.

I had a pre-planned menu in my head, but after I failed to encounter canned black beans for black bean burgers, I had to think on my feet. In the middle of the canned legume aisle, I had a minor emotional breakdown. Luckily, a few cans of chickpeas caught my glance. My Tex-Mex/Cuban dinner was going to include a little Indian curry.

And maybe some Lebanese salad? Why not.

“Es…perfumada!,” she said after her first bite.

Perfumed. I’ve never used that word to describe a curried sweet potato and chickpea burger. Or any food, really.

Surprisingly, the Mexican guacamole, the Lebanese fattoush, and the Greek yogurt & tahini sauce complemented each other fairly well. More than the food, I was ecstatic to be feeding someone new things for the first time. It’s a thrill, really.

Before Argentina, I’d almost forgotten the sensation of newness — of looking at a piece of fruit and having NO idea what it is.

Often, I’ll be talking to Janet and she’ll mention a food to me, and I’ll have to interrupt.

“¿Qué?”

“You know… it’s green…shaped like this…” she gestures.  Then exasperated, she says, “FINE, I’ll go get one.”

And she runs out of the store and returns with a maracuya or a piece of pastry. I shake my head saying “sorry Janet, I still don’t know what that is.”

…But I’ll taste it!”

Whiskey works wonders too. Kentucky bourbon whiskey, specifically.

For the first few months of my trip, I kept one-shot bottles of Jim Beam in my purse, should I ever feel like making friends.

One rainy evening I took a cab to my tango class — about a 20 minute ride. It was nasty outside. The streets were overflowing and the sky was dark. Lodged in traffic, the cab driver and I talked non-stop about his grandkids, tango, and “this boludo in front of us who can’t drive!”

I was highly entertained, and to show my appreciation, I slipped a bottle of bourbon into his hand along with the wad of pesos.

“Te gusto el whiskey? This one’s from my state, Ken-took-ie,” I said. “Chau!”

Just before I closed the door I heard him yell, “wait! I want you to marry my grandson!”

I smiled and bolted into the freezing rain.

These simple interactions may not have made the most monumental changes in U.S. foreign policy, but I’m an optimist. I like to imagine that the next time an Argentine I’ve met reads a headline involving the U.S. that puts them in mal humor, they’ll pleasantly remember a perfumed burger. Or a tango dancing Kentucky girl. Maybe they’ll remember that the U.S. isn’t one exclusive prototype. Some Americans like curry and most absolutely can’t live without Mexican food.

Chefs just might be the next best ambassadors. Diplomacy is delicious.

Amiga mía

Autumn made a brutish appearance this month  — my street is littered with leaves, and my cheeks are perpetually pinched pink from the cold air.

I bought an “original” Argentine leather jacket to fight back, and I’ve picked up a few habits to get me through the chill.

My daily routine goes something like this:

7:30 Alarm.

7:45 Actually get out of bed. Look out the window, marvel at the sky. Possibly get back into bed.

7:50 Prepare breakfast. Usually oatmeal. Definitely coffee. Turn on NPR.

9:00 Leave for school. Walk for 30 minutes.

4:00 Go to gym. Swimming, cycling, or Pilates.

8:00 Return home. Eat dinner. Check e-mails. Sleep.

For the most part, my days follow this skeleton, but unlike any schedule I’ve ever had in my life, I have a lot more time to get to know myself.

My Pilates classes have blurred the border between my mind and body. My instructor Cecilia is a willowy ballerina, but she is tougher on me than my brawny Quantico drill sergeants. She makes their boot camp procedures look like a kindergartener’s playground.

Cecilia strides into class in loose yoga pants and her hair in an immaculate ballerina bun. She brings a wide, cigarrette-scented smile, Brazilian samba music, and dark, dry humor. She looks like a dancer. Her movements are fluid. But her words are razor-sharp and emotionless — yet she says them in a whisper.

Recojá la panza!” or “pull in your tummy!” she says as she makes a terrible sucking noise. She wraps her long, slender fingers around my abdomen and tries to close my ribcage. Meanwhile, I struggle to pull my weight in resistant springs and hold my legs 45 degrees in the air. Naturally, my panza puffs up for oxygen, but she forcefully pushes it back down and continues her liposuction imitation.

When she wants me to lengthen my legs, she yanks on my big toe toward the ceiling and makes a ripping noise with her throat — like she’s pulling my leg out of its socket. “Longer and farther, like you’re shooting your leg out of the room!”

As masochistic as it sounds, I like Cecilia’s torture. She stretches my legs like taffy and strengthens my arms with little resistance on the elastic bands.

Before Cecilia, exercise meant lifting as much weight as I could muster and running until my heart hit its maximum of 202 beats per minute. Through the eyes of a ballerina, however, the body’s own force is the best training mechanism.

And the next day, I wake up pain-free.

If I begin to squirm, I catch her sinister grin in the mirror. Cecilia makes me do another set, only pushing down on my leg and telling me to move “dedo a dedo” or “one toe at a time.” By the end, every tiny tendon and muscle in my feet, legs, wrists, and arms are spent. I feel stronger in places I didn’t know existed.

But one day, she caved — I must have been looking really pathetic.

“I have to tell you,” she said, before she took a petite, ballerina sip of her diet coke. “I’m only really hard on you because you’re good. I want you to get the most out of these exercises.”

As sweet as this was, it smashed my notion that all ballerinas were hellish perfectionists like Natalie Portman in Black Swan.

We continued on to the final exercise, where I placed my legs between the springs, forcing myself as far as possible into the splits. Cecilia came behind me and pushed down on my back, and I thought my adductor was going to tear. Before I could wince, she released the pressure, and I felt immediately longer, leaner, more ballerina-like.

For an instant, I didn’t recognize the barrier between my skin and my self.

Then she pulled on my toe, and I painfully remembered where I was.

*

At least once a week, I find a quiet corner in a cafe to read and write.

I feel the most at home in a cafe, it’s pretty much where I grew up. When I was 17, I started my life on the other side of the coffee bar. I spent the earliest part of the day grinding espresso beans and frothing milk. What began as a summer job grew into a passion. I learned to love the sound of the steam wand and the feeling of espresso grounds under my fingernails.

Four years later, in another country, the cafe is still where I feel most productive and relaxed. Fortunately, Buenos Aires has thousands of cafes to keep me caffeinated and content.

Downtown, there’s the 70 year-old Gato Negro. It used to be a grocery store, and its dark-wood shelves still hold jars of spices and Worschteshire sauce. I come here for an espresso with cardamom, and a chance to run away from modernity. In Belgrano, I go to MOOI, where Adrian serves a cafe con leche and a basket of tostadas and homemade marmelada for about  $5. It’s a bare-brick art haven, adorned with handmade details like yarn, gauze, ribbon, and canvas. In Palermo, I clandestinely sip behind rows of books at Boutique del Libro and lose myself in the sounds of electro tango.

Every place has a different feeling and an incredibly varied clientele. My favorite cafes are the no-frills, florescent-lit bars where men stop to smoke and nibble on medialunas (croissants)  or fried cow brain. Although, when I stop in here, I take an inconspicuous place in the corner and hide behind a newspaper — I’m usually the only woman, furthermore blonde, to take a seat.

Cafe culture is such a simple concept, but amazes me. Coffee is a luxury item, a nonessential, yet cafes here are always busy. Even my coffee shop back home felt little or no pinch after the recession. Aside from something warm to sip on, cafes are microcosms of their community and a temporary, unspoken agreement that we’re all on the same level — tired, contemplative, or just needing a pause.

While it may seem depressing that I spend quite a bit of time in my own company, I truly couldn’t be more thrilled. My days are full of activity, full of sensations, and full of speaking. Sometimes I just need to turn it off and check in with myself.

Here I am, alone with my cafe con leche, yet surrounded by porteños of all kinds, and I couldn’t be more content. I’m accompanied by a table of businessmen gesturing over their espresso. Six women chatting wildly and hovering over a few plates of dessert. An older man with the day’s newsprint unfolded in his face.

There’s not a thing more I could ask for — I know I have myself and my own force to make things happen.

Although, I wouldn’t mind asking Adrian for a plate of tostados.

San Miguel and back

There are other cities inside of Buenos Aires — the province that is.

Let me introduce you to San Miguel.

A 35 cent train ticket buys a 45 minute ride outside of Buenos Aires into a working-class town of less than 200,000 people. In the last decade, San Miguel’s identity hastily shifted from rural village to industrial suburbs. And you take note. In the first few minutes, Buenos Aires’ lights fade. The landscapes on the other side of the train window depict the shifting scenery — rugged Earth, gas stations, and apartment highrises. The lull of the engine, the flourescent lights, and the lack of stimulation submerge you into a daze.

The doors open and you hear the faint sound of cumbia. It’s a carnival-ish tune, with a repetitive “shh, shh” rhythm. You look around to find the source, and realize it’s playing from a cell phone in the pocket of someone’s Addidas sweatpants. Ahead, there is a stand selling grilled pancho and choripan. The platform smells like cigarettes, cheap perfume, and greasy meat.

A main road, a large Shell gas station, and palm trees are the landmarks on the other side of the station. There’s a billboard that says, “choose life, not drugs.” Down the main road there’s a billiards hall, a Rasta Bar, and a slew of boliches (clubs).

In the plaza, the youth of San Miguel gather in an unlit park under the gaze a bright white church. A man walks around selling marionettes. Stray dogs with sedate, disinterested faces weave through crowds and lazily claim their territories on church steps and under park benches.

Inside the church, the white walls anchor three-dimensional wood carvings of saints. Believers pass by the technicolor figures in a solemn procession — kissing painted feet and whispering prayers. Janet and I slowly follow behind. She names every saint and their  significance — “wealth. love. protection…” We stop at the icon of la Virgen Maria Embarazada. Sure enough, the Virgin Mary had a pregnancy bump, as plain and direct as the halo around her head.

We passed a line of people on their way to confession and stepped over  a stray dog on the way out.

Before catching the next train back, we walked back to the billiards hall and opted for a pool table in the back corner. Janet and I didn’t talk much. San Miguel is her childhood, and since moving to Buenos Aires, she tries not look back often.

We fell half-asleep on the train back to Buenos Aires. The doors opened, and the city we left waited patiently for our return.

Feast for the senses, barring one

I chewed on what I thought was a ball of mozzarella, but it very well could have been a soft provolone.  The darkness, however, didn’t discriminate. I didn’t know what kind of cheese I ate, let alone the label of wine that followed. Cheese was cheese and wine was wine, and they were both delicious.

Exquisite dining hall

For possibly the first time in my travels, I turned my vision off. Buenos Aires is a dizzying whirl of visual entertainment, and it’s easy to stifle the other four senses.

Buenos Aires surprises me every day with creativity and talent that make the city their home. Art pushes limits in naked tangos, crass graffiti, unassuming Subte performers, and edgy design. The art here feels less like a hierarchy and more like a public necessity or an addiction — it’s Buenos Aires’ serving of education or cocaine. So with little effort, I encountered  Teatro Ciego, or the Blind Theatre.

The theatre is nestled between several other small venues and tango cabarets on a cobblestone pedestrian street in the Abasto (or Balvanera) neighborhood. Every weekend, Teatro Ciego offers a dinner and performance — in complete darkness. Mammoth cave darkness. Center of Dante’s Inferno darkness. Bottom of Muammar Gaddafi’s heart darkness. Whichever you prefer.

The waiter gingerly guided three of my girlfriends and me into the dining room in a congo-line fashion, with hands on shoulders. A black curtain closed behind us, and we each stepped into separate worlds of our own creation.

Judging by the acoustics in the room, I imagined a high ceiling, perhaps a stone courtyard, and the sound of trickling water painted the image of a fountain in my mind. My eyes searched frantically into the darkness for a spark, a flash, a glimmer… but only blackness reflected on my retinas. I reached for my wine glass but grabbed my friend’s finger instead. This accidental touch, however, was reassuring. I could have been sitting next to the Diego Maradona or Cristina Kirchner, but the darkness rendered faces irrelevant.

Although I knew I was in a controlled environment and I could hear the voices of my friends, the darkness presented a deep sense of doubt that was difficult to confront in the beginning. Honestly, I felt alone.

As our nervous conversation progressed from “I found the bread!” to more profound topics and the nameless red wine absorbed into my bloodstream, I began to forget about my eyes.

I reached down for something mushy and crunchy on my plate and brought it to my mouth. I smelled fish, and chewed slowly onto a salty tuna bruschetta. But it could have been mackerel or salmon. I moved on to a tarta (quiche), skewered steak, and some mysterious fruit drenched in chocolate.

While I was enraptured in my culinary orgy, the performance ensued. The actors, dancers, and opera singers played around the dining hall — maneuvering between tables and resting hands on the “blinded” audience members. A woman with a robust opera voice sent a tune my way, and I could feel the changing vibrato tickle the hairs in my ears. Her voice was warm and dense, and it felt like an embrace in the darkness.

For each scene, actors sprinkled the room with different aromas. The dining room became a bathtub, a jungle, a cafe, and a busy street. I felt a motorcycle pass by, and a trail of exhaust pervaded the room. A mother bathed her child, and a spray of bathwater landed on my face. The performance forced me to use my imagination and to create my own reality.

On the closing melody, the opera singer lit a candle and brought it to her face. She was ghostly pale and very thin, much unlike the voice that represented her. She solemnly continued to sing and paced around the room.

Our waiter placed a candle on each table and opened the windows. The actors and musicians bowed and parted, leaving the diners alone in moonlit stupor.

And for a few moments, my eyes couldn’t believe the reality. The dining room was stark, and fairly small. Reality was somewhat disappointing — but my eyes graciously observed that my glass was still full, and I was still with my friends.

However, I didn’t need the light to see. I preferred the darkness, as it served as a canvas for the life and vibrancy of my imagination.  Lines of race and class didn’t exist, and cheese was just cheese.

Cornbread

I can’t lie, I’m a little bit homesick.

This is very uncharacteristically Cassie. The last time I remember feeling starved for home was when I was five and left a slumber party early. The following day, I remember feeling immature and embarrassed.

Homesickness in Argentina is different. It’s mild, and it comes and goes. When I was passing through the jungle on my way to Puerto Iguazu, for example, I looked at the lush, rolling greenery and thought about my drives from Louisville to Lexington, Kentucky. But my dreamcloud quickly dispersed when I saw palm trees, vines, or the tierra colorada (red earth).

The traffic, noise, and fumes of the city were an abrupt homecoming that irritated my senses after a weekend in the fresh greenery of the falls. I cursed the cracks on the sidewalks, the cat-calls, and the excessive consumerism.

But, I wouldn’t prefer any other city to experience homesickness. In my time of mild distress, Buenos Aires has offered me solace in profound friendships and thousands of sanctuaries (museums, cafes, & parks) to distract myself.

I’ve noticed, however, that homesickness makes small traces of home more obvious. Through these observations, I’ve concluded that humanity is so much more alike than we realize. My favorite story involves cornbread.

Janet invited me over to her family’s apartment to celebrate her birthday — on the condition that I make a quintessentially American Carrot Cake. No problemo!

While we set the table, Janet’s mother was preparing one of Janet’s favorite Paraguayan dishes. Janet enthusiastically described it and said, “there’s nothing else like it…so rich…so delicious!”

When we sat down to eat, I looked over at a platter of what looked like yellow Jiffy corn bread, fresh from the 1950′s iconic blue box. “That’s it?,” I asked.

Sure enough, it tasted exactly like my Mom’s Jiffy corn bread pudding — without the shame of consuming preservatives and lard (sorry Mom!). Delicious.

Janet couldn’t believe that I had tasted something like it before. We both concluded that Kentuckians and Guarani Paraguayans are related. I promised that next time, I’d bring a batch of chili to accompany the corn bread.

That was purely coincidental, but other signs of home aren’t as unique or pleasant. Advertising is the biggest and most obvious evidence of the U.S. On my daily walks, I pass billboards selling beauty products, electronics, and designer threads — all stamped with English words. It feels like colonialism. There’s nothing Argentine about it. The ads scream “We own this street corner, and you can be cool, elite and sophisticated like us if you speak our language and buy our logo.”

For those who don’t speak English, it’s oppressive. Something almost out of reach, or otherworldly. And English has slipped into conversation in a darkly humorous way. If someone or something is not authentic, they can be described as “light.” For example: “es un hincha de Boca light.” or “he’s a light Boca fan” — meaning he’s not a die-hard Boca Juniors fan (which I have yet to encounter).

Ex-pats, entrepreneurs, tourists, and study abroad students have left behind their footprints as well. A few black holes of cultural enlightenment include: American-owned sports bars (for NCAA and beer pong), ex-pat yoga meet-up groups, Hard Rock Cafe Buenos Aires, and study abroad bar crawls.

My favorite institute of globalization, however, is Pizzeria Kentucky. The bright orange restaurant is adorned with racehorses and photos of the Louisville skyline. The owner, an Argentine, friended a Kentuckian and consequentially named his restaurant after their meeting. The Pizzeria is a “classico espacio Porteno,” and I can’t help but smile when I pass its giant neon sign on the threshold of the Palermo neighborhood’s classic, elegant architecture.

Globalization and technology are changing the way we live and travel abroad. Although I have no desire to go near Hard Rock Cafe for a burger and Bon Jovi, I realize that globalization has made my life here easier. I am so thankful that I can connect with my family and friends, with the click of a mouse, whenever I pine for home.

I’m embarrassed by homesickness, but Rhinesmith’s 10 Stages of Cultural Adjustment reassurres me that it’s normal. I am fully conscious that I have three months left, and once it’s over, Buenos Aires will have passed quicker than a sip of yerba mate.

Life is too short to preoccupy myself with mild frustrations. Buenos Aires has too much to offer for me to be staring at the cracked sidewalk as manifestations of its rich history and culture pass by.

GOOAALLLL!!!

Sorry NCAA, NFL, and your team here sportsfans, there just isn’t a comparison.

Yesterday I went to my first Argentine futbol (soccer) game, and miraculously, I came back alive and unharmed.

The game was  a “classic” between two rivals, Racing and Independiente. I followed a group of three zealous Racing fans, donned in “celeste” blue, to the Juan Domingo Peron Stadium. Buenos Aires has two designated routes for this event, one for Racing fans and the other for the Independientes. This attempts to prevent a clash between blue and red.

Key word: attempts.

En route to the stadium, our Subte was filled with celeste-blue and beer-fisted fans. The car was rocking in sync to the many Racing “canciones” — team hymns loaded with new “bad words” to learn. Fans clanged onto walls, handrails, and anything metallic to inform the entire Subte network that a game was about to take place.

From the Subte, we took a train, and from the train, we had about another ten blocks. On the walk from the train, a car crammed with Independiente fans passed by, and everyone on the street threw up their arms, yelled, cussed, and flicked them off — it was really entertaining.

Aside from the people, it was apparent that we were in Racing territory. Graffiti marked the boundary for its fanatics, and celeste blue flags whipped ferociously in the wind on every corner. As we got closer to the stadium, I could hear the canciones I learned on the train, only this time, in one collective voice of about 40,000 people booming ahead. I was walking toward the belly of a monster.

Honestly, I was a bit terrified. “Do people die at these games?,” I asked Leo as I stepped over a puddle of red liquid (blood or paint?).

He just smiled.

We passed rows of police on horseback, police with crowd-control shields, and police with many weapons I had never seen before. At least they’re prepared.

At the security checkpoint in front of the stadium, a woman police officer “patted me down” (more like, affectionately groped). Upon looking in my purse, she was suspicious of my chapstick. Apparently it could be used as a weapon or thrown at a futbol player. One of her well-armed colleagues stopped her from seizing my felonious chapstick and said, “come on, she’s just an American.”

I’ll take that.

Walking into the stadium was shocking. I looked up at the giant light fixtures that were swaying under the balconies. The stadium was literally rocking from the flag-waving, stomping, and jumping multitude of über enthusiasts.

Chombi, one of the Racing Club fans I accompanied, stuck a flag into my hand and said, “Do you know how to wave a bandera? Good. Do it.”

An hour before the game, the crowd sang, danced, and shredded newspapers (to be thrown). I supposed this could be somewhat compared to tailgating, but they don’t have cars or beer. Alcohol isn’t allowed in the stadium, and with good reason. The testosterone and adrenaline are so high, I can’t imagine what it would be like with alcohol stirred in. However, I did catch a whiff of a few puffs of…

Smoke. Twenty minutes before the game, the stadium was one giant cloud. I could not see in front of my face, and everyone around me covered their eyes and mouth to breathe. I never saw where or how the smoke bomb started, but for 20 minutes, we stood in a dense cloud, cheering, and waiting for the game.

When the fog cleared, the players were on the field. The grass was covered with confetti, toilet paper, shredded newspaper, and possibly, chapstick. We waited another 20 minutes for a crew equipped with leaf blowers to clear the field.

The tiny red section reserved for Independiente fans looked pathetic in a sea of writhing blue. In any other circumstance, however, their cheers would have been quite impressive. Here, their screams and drums were reduced to a whisper.

I don’t have so much to say about the game itself, I was more preoccupied with the people around me. Little boys cussing with their dads. Vendors balancing trays of coke while trying not to fall down alarmingly vertical slopes of stairs. Thousands of people reciting the same words in unison. It was powerful, and a little intoxicating.

I thought, if only human beings could rally around a global crisis with the same vivacious fervor, the world’s problems would be much smaller, if not nonexistent.

Racing Club won 2-0, and the final goal ended with louder cheers and displays of affection. Fans hugged everyone in their row, and some leaped across the aisle to give bone-crushing hugs to their neighbors. Ecstatic is an understatement.

While I’m not an avid sportsfan, I am the dueña de una pasión (owner of a passion). Sandoval says in the Argentine film “Secretos de Sus Ojos” that a person can change their identity, their look, and their name — but they cannot change their passion. Racing Club taught me to pursue mine with great enthusiasm, even if it means losing my chapstick.