Lessons Learned – some pleasant, some not

Last night G-man and I were out walking when we decided to stop by our favorite produce place.  Why is it our fav?  Well, because it’s close to our apartment, the produce is beautiful, and, most importantly, the people who work there are WONDERFUL!

First off, for the unfamiliar, buying produce here is a different process from buying in the States.  At the little produce stores, the shopper does not touch the merchandise.  Tell the shopkeeper what you want and they pick it out.  For CASL (Castilian As a Second Language) speakers like ourselves, fruit and vegetable words were not at the top of our essential vocabulary list.  Our produce shopping involves pointing, saying a number and reenforcing the crappy pronunciation by holding up the appropriate number of fingers.  After about our fourth or fifth time in there, out of the blue, the young guy that normally helps us spoke to us in English.  Broken, heavily accented, beautiful English.  My head whipped around and my mouth hug open.  Seriously, I almost hugged him.  That simple, kind gesture sealed the deal.   We will forever buy our produce in that shop!  He simply asked, “where are you from?”  We chatted back and forth a bit, us with our horrid Castilian and he with his few words of English.  It was awesome!  Ever since that moment every time we stop in we get treated like friends and, the best part!, they teach us new words!  They’ve never spoken English to us again and we appreciate that as we need every opportunity to learn Castilian.  I think they get it.

Ok, so back to the story….   We’ve learned the words for celery (apio), asparagus (espárragos), sweet potatoes (patatas dulces) and onions (cebollas – say-BO-shas, not say-BO-yas).  But, tonight we needed none of those things. Time for a new lesson.  By now, all the clerks know we don’t habla well, so they all speak slowly and help teach us new words.  I love them!  Last night we bought bananas (yep, exact same word but with different pronunciation), péras (pears – and yes they are delicious, sister-in-law-love-of-my-life), and arándanos (blueberries).

bananas peras & arándanos
bananas peras & arándanos

And then for a less than pleasant lesson…  Ever since we got back from The Wedding, we’ve noticed an unpleasant smell in the apartment coming from somewhere in the laundry room area.  The putrid smell of stagnant water.  Like, sewer water.  Really gross sewer water.  I assumed that since the laundry room had been closed up for a week and the sun beats on that side of the apartment, maybe that’s what was causing the nasty aroma.  The smell seemed to dissipate after a day or two of the room being opened up and running a couple of loads of laundry.  But this morning when we walked into the kitchen, the smell was back.  With a vengeance.  Like, how many dead bodies that we can’t see are piled behind the washing machine?  Holy cow!

I’ll save you the details of the discovery process and cut right to the lessons learned.  We have five bathrooms in this apartment (yeah, the company did us right – more on that later).  We are two people.  We only use two of the bathrooms.  We keep the doors closed to the other three and forget about them.  We have NEVER used the bathroom right next to the laundry room.  What we discovered is when water is not been regularly run in the fixtures of said unused bathrooms then the water in the drain pipe in the floor stagnates giving off said horrific odor.  Once I figured that out, I went around to each of the unused bathrooms to run the water in the sinks, tubs, and, oh for good measure, why not include the bidet as well.  You don’t see too many bidets in the States.  For those of you unfamiliar, you’re meant to sit on the bidet, turn on the water spout that shoots water up at a surprisingly impressive rate from the spout in the center like a water fountain one might see in a park and give your nether regions a little refreshing splash.  YouTube it if you can’t visualize the process, then come back and continue reading.  To help set the stage for the next lesson, I’ve included the picture below.

the source of Three Stooges entertainment
the source of Three Stooges entertainment

That little floor drain off to the right is where the offensive odor emanates from.  The big white toilet looking thing is a bidet.  The little silver thing dead center of the bidet is where water shoots out at the rate equivalent to that of water coming from a fire hose putting out a fire at a fire works factory.  The nozzle at the top of the picture is what one uses to turn the water off and on AFTER one has placed one’s backside above the water spout.  Anyone want to know what happens when one unwittingly leans over the bidet and turns on the water full force?  One gets a thorough cleansing of one’s head and chest.  Lesson learned.

Random Observations on Our New Life in Buenos Aires

Here we are into our eighth week living in Buenos Aires.  Right up front I have to say we haven’t put much effort into truly becoming invested in and exploring our new home town.  When we arrived in mid-October, we knew we were going back to the States 1st December to see our son wed his beautiful bride.  (More on that later!)  Our focus has been elsewhere.  That being said, I do have a random collection of observations that I’ve made in the totally distracted short time we’ve been here.  In no particular order –

On speaking Castilian

Right off the bat – in BA, the language is referred to as Castellano, not Español.  Growing up in Florida and living in Atlanta for 15 years, we’ve been exposed to A LOT of Spanish.  None of it sounds like the language of the porteños, as the locals like to call themselves!  Double Ls are pronounced like “zha,” not like a y.  To a CASL (Castilian as a Second Language – I just made that up) speaker, that tiny difference creates an entirely new language!  Fortunately, every single local that we have met has been kind and sweet and gently helped us along.  Truly, every encounter we have had has been lovely.  And then there are somethings that don’t need translation….

Somethings don't need translation...
Somethings don’t need translation


On food

The produce available is exactly that which is in season.  Novel idea considering where we come from everything is available year round.  Friends and relatives who know our passion for coffee, brace yourselves.  The local coffee, at least at our neighborhood Cafe Martinez, is better than the local Starbucks.  It’s tastier and less expensive.  And another huge bonus to life in BA?  There’s nothing you can’t get delivered.  Food of all sorts, ice cream – yeah, read it and weep, and groceries, too!  That’s right.  When you finish your grocery shopping for an extra $5 or so, you can get it delivered to your house.

We haven't met a pastry we didn't like
We haven’t met a pastry we didn’t like

On architecture

We love the old stuff and our neighborhood is full of it.  Beautiful old houses.  Gorgeous old shops.

Drool worthy streetscape
Drool worthy streetscape

Sometimes there will be an entire block of old houses, but most times what we see is a gorgeous old belle squished between boring boxy high rises.

old & new
Old & New

I never stop trying to image what the streetscape looked liked before the neighboring old buildings were torn down to make way for the new.

On dogs

Before we arrived, we heard quite a bit about the copious amounts of dog poop on the sidewalks here.  However, much to our pleasant surprise, it really isn’t that bad.  Every now and then we’ll encounter an “obstacle,” but no more than we would in the States.  Buenos Aires is a city of dogs.  We see them everywhere, in singles, doubles, and variety packs.  Dog walking is a major business here.  And!  The vet will come to your house.  That’s right!  Our friend, Margarita Maria, has a vet who comes over for the regular check ups, shots, whatever.  Oh, that must be awfully pricey, you’re thinking.  Nope.  She pays less then we would in the States.  A lot less.  I had some great pictures of dog walkers walking their packs, but I can’t seem to find them.  So here’s a picture of a dog enjoying a little time at an outdoor cafe.

Who doesn't like a sidewalk table?
Who doesn’t like a sidewalk table?

On the Tango

If you know how to Tango, you can do it just about anywhere!

Day of Travel and…..Hello Firenze!

Disclaimer: Everything below this paragraph was written while under the influence of jetlag. It is probably going to be extremely detailed oriented, but devoid of flavor. Read on.

We have arrived in Florence. The trip over went pretty well. Flew Tampa to JFK, then JFK to Paris, then from Paris on to Florence. No biggie, but let’s talk about Air France. We flew Air France from JFK to Paris. This was our first experience with Air France and we were impressed. The flight crew was professional, courteous, helpful, and just all around sweet. Everything we could want was provided at no additional charge. I mean everything – pillows, blankets, sleeping masks, headsets, wine, brandy, and the best pear liquor ever on the planet. For dinner, we had our choice of chicken or goat cheese ravioli. G-man chose the chicken. I went with the ravioli. I’m a big fan of anything with goat cheese. The Air France meal was what food used to be like on airplanes back when people dressed to fly. We were quite pleased with the entire Air France experience. Hats off.

During our layover in Paris, we happened to meet Renee, an American woman, who was flying to Italy from Okinawa. We were on the same shuttle between terminals and struck up conversation to pass the time. As it turns out, Renee was on her way to Italy to take care of some restoration projects on the property she and her husband own in Bangi di Lucca. Renee was a wealth of information as far as buying and renovating a property. We exchanged email addresses and hope to hear from her soon with various real estate and banking references. What a moment of serendipity to meet someone well along in the process we are just beginning.

We had another odd meeting on the flight from Paris to Florence. Our seat mate turned out to be the very same man that we were seat mates with on the flight from Tampa to JFK. Even odder, it turns out that he lives in our neighborhood and we frequent many of the same places. He even works in the same field as G-man. He came to Italy on a last minute cycling vacation – a week of cycling in Tuscany, poor fellow. (After note – we ran into the very same guy in the Piazza de Santa Maria Novella as we were making our way toward the Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella – completely on the other side of town from our flat!)

At the airport in Florence, we snagged a cab to take us to our holiday flat in the city center. It just so happens this is the week of the 2013 World Cycling Tour in Florence and many of the streets are blocked off causing our cab driver to take a rather circuitous route to the flat. As a bonus, we got to watch a verbal altercation between a bus driver and a motorcyclists who stopped in an intersection to exchange words. There were cars backing up but no one touched their horn so as not to miss a word of the insults flying back and forth. According to our cab driver, there was much discussion about one another’s mother and he would not repeat the exact words in mixed company. We thought it was a great welcome to Italy to get to witness the exchange! And as if we needed to be convinced of what a small world we live in, the cab driver’s brother-in-law lives in Orlando. Amazing.

When we arrived at our Florence flat, we met with Signore Lombardi, the keeper of the key. Signore Lombardi speaks not one word of English, which is fine. We used all our Italian words on him which was apparently sufficient to convince him that we were fluent enough to be UN translators. Therefore, Signore Lombardi spoke at a rate incomprehensible to most humans and, coupled with his lack of teeth, made him impossible for us to understand. He didn’t care a lick. He was just happy to have us smile back, agree to everything, and repeat bene bene over and over.

Signore Lombardi’s apartment is on the first floor. He keeps his door open so that he can keep up with the comings and goings of everyone in the other four apartments. Every time he hears us pass by, he comes out to chat with us. Another opportunity for us to smile and nod and say bene a lot. He was quite excited to show us his Elvis poster last time we met him in the stairway. He not only has Elvis, but also Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart and Greta Garbo. He is so proud to show the pictures off which makes him truly endearing.

The flat MIGHT be 300 square feet total. The entrance from the stairs comes into a center hallway that connects the bedroom with the kitchen, living room, and bathroom. Picture a barbell with weights on it. The bedroom is one side of the bar and the kitchen, living room, and bathroom are on the other end. The living room is actually the spot where a very small loveseat and television are wedged into the kitchen. The kitchen is pretty impressive as far as Italian kitchens go. It has all the appliances we are accustomed to plus some counter space. The bedroom has two windows that overlook the street. The bathroom and kitchen each have a window that looks into a rear courtyard. It’s not a real courtyard in the sense that any actual yard exists, but more like a pocket about 6 feet by 6 feet where several buildings back up to each other. I think if G-man acted as a counter weight, I could reach out and touch the building behind us.

Once we got our luggage in the apartment, we took a quick trip out to grab a cup of coffee and get some bottles of water to bring back to the room. Signore Lombardi directed us to a coffee bar around the corner where we had the most delicious espresso on the planet for all of 1€ apiece! Then we went across the street to a little grocery store that had more wine than anything else. They also offered freshly made pastas and paninis. I grabbed a two liter bottle of water for 1€. There were locals there getting paninis and pastas to-go for their lunch. So cool to get to observe local life.

After a good nap, we wandered over to the Oltra Arno, the part of Florence on the other side of the river from the Duomo. We found a cool little place to eat with outdoor seating where we finally experienced firsthand the taste bud-dancing joy of fresh Italian food and wine. We had fresh tomatoes, sliced meats and cheese and Nobile wine from Montepulciano. I just do not have words to describe the flavor. All I can think of is huge. The flavor was huge. Our mouths were filled with flavor. The guys at the restaurant were so very kind. Between our words of Italian and their words of English, they were able to explain to us where we could find an ATM and a Vodophone store to get an Italian SIM card for my phone.

After lunch, we made our way to the Vodophone store which is just a few blocks from the Duomo. But first a word about the Duomo. As long as we have been planning this trip, I have been looking at pictures of the Duomo. Ok, it’s the Duomo. It’s impressive. But when we rounded a corner and unexpectedly came face to face with it, my eyes welled with tears. We were both caught off guard by the magnitude of the building. The size, the detail, the beauty is overwhelming. Stunning that people could create such a thing in a time without machines, namely computers. Obviously we had to pause in our journey to the Vodophone and spend some time experiencing the grandeur.

At Vodophone, I was able to get a SIM card to use my phone in Italy. For a cost of 25€, I get a whole bunch of talking, texting and 2G of data for a month with no contract. Perfect. The Vodophone lady, just like everyone else, was amazingly helpful. Everyone we meet addresses us in English even when we make first contact with them in Italian. It’s strange and a great relief at the same time. As much as we want to practice speaking Italian, it’s rather comforting knowing if push comes to shove we can make use of English.

After Vodofone, we wandered some more. We are both awed and overwhelmed by the age and beauty of everything. Absolutely everything we see is older than our own country. So much of what we are looking at was built when the world was flat. It’s just overwhelming. I find myself getting a bit edgy and finally realized that even at walking pace, we are moving too fast. I need to sit at every block and just look. Just take it all in. Every little thing holds beauty. A doorway. A window. Any and every cobblestone street. Every building with chipped stucco and fading paint. We frequently wonder aloud if the Florentines who have lived here all their lives even notice.

We were making our way through back streets trying to avoid the sea of people when we happened upon one of a million restaurants with outdoor seating. For some unknown reason, we paused to check out the menu and stayed. San Michele all’arco on a little alley way. This is where we had our first experience with Italian pasta. Again, I am frustrated by the limitations of my vocabulary as I try to convey the experience. The texture. The texture of the pasta was the thing that immediately captured my attention. It was dense, chewy and held center stage as the platform that carried the flavors of the potato and sausage to my tongue. Simple ingredients melded together to create a robust flavor. I suggested to G-man that it would be a wise investment on his part to send me to, oh say, maybe an extended cooking school in Italy so that I might learn to recreate the flavors that so delight our tongues. He is taking the suggestion under consideration. After dinner, we had dessert at the recommendation of our stunningly beautiful Greek waitress. Tiramisu. Boys and girls, I’m here to tell you that junk we’ve been eating in the States under the name Tiramisu is a sad imposter that should be illegal under the charge of false advertising. As the spoon delivered the goods to my tongue, the heavens parted and angels with trumpets came forth letting me know that I was in the midst of Tiramisu greatness. The substance in front of us did not even resemble the thing that we had been consuming in our home land. Sweet, sweet heaven on earth in a little bowl.

We returned to our flat with full bellies and went straight to bed. I think we made it to 10:00. With no air conditioning, we slept with the windows open. I do not have an exact time, but I think it was well into two or three o’clock before the merriment on the street below quieted down enough to actually achieve a deep sleep. As I told the G-man before we went to bed, there is not a thing I would add to our experience so far that would make it complete. It is perfect as is. Life is Italy is good.

Now, as soon as the Internet wants to cooperate, we will upload pictures.