Movies and TV Shows for Spanish Learners | Winter/Spring 2017 Edition

I’ve been watching a lot of Netflix in between the classes I’ve been teaching, my conversation meet-ups, and my French class (not to mention trying to take a stab at a social life). As you’ll see below, I am not necessarily particularly discriminating in my tastes when it comes to watching television and movies in Spanish (same holds for French). If it is available in Spanish, it gives me a good excuse to indulge 🙂

Still, if I really didn’t enjoy something, I wouldn’t bother sharing it with you. Below is a list of some things I’ve enjoyed while watching Spanish and Latin American movies lately. Let me know if you have any other suggestions!

Velvet

It’s cheesy. It’s oh-so-cheesy. But it’s three seasons (four if you’re lucky enough to find free access to the fourth) of cheesy, sappy, romantic comedy goodness. And if you’re learning it to learn/practice some Spanish, you get to feel good about watching it. It’s guilt free! Think a light-hearted Mad Men in 50s Madrid subbing the fashion industry for the advertising industry.

Off Course

Another lighty here. Many young people are leaving Spain for job opportunities elsewhere. This movie focuses on the lives of a few young people who went to Berlin in search of economic opportunities. For the most part, it’s light-hearted, so don’t expect it to change your life or world concept per se. But still, it’s an easy watch.

Spanish Affair

I’m on a roll with cheesy here.  A young woman needs her father to believe she’s still getting married (although that relationship ended) and convinces a man she barely knows to pretend to be her fiance. The farce ends up going further than expected. What makes this more than a simple cheesy romantic comedy? She’s from Spain’s Basque region and he’s from Andalucia. If you’re interested in Basque culture at all, this is a light-hearted (albeit cliché) glimpse into it.

Retribution/El Desconocido

Oh, I’m a sucker for a good action movie. This is the kind of movie you’d imagine Denzel Washington in. A father/husband has forgotten what’s important to him until he suddenly finds himself in his car with his children and a bomb. Lots of action. Lots of screaming. It’s not a movie you’re going to discuss at dinner parties, but it’s a solid hour and a half of entertainment.

Amores Perros

Many years ago, back when I was a young, idealist college student, our Spanish teacher told us we should watch Amores Perros. I did. And I remembered it being well done, but didn’t remember much else, so I watched it again. It certainly is well done, but ooph, this certainly isn’t a movie for children. It’s hard to watch the dogs fight; it’s hard to watch the brothers fight; there’s violence; there are sex scenes. And it’s a long movie. But Iñárritu is a master.

Corazón de Lión

This movie was recommended to me by one of my students from Latin America. Again, there’s a love story (sorry, so much love in this post, but it is almost Valentine’s Day!), but this time the love story takes place between two people who are marginalized from mainstream culture in Colombia.

Julieta

A friend and I took a trip to Kendall Square Cinema to watch the latest Almodóvar movie. I say the latest, but truth be told, I haven’t seen anything else by him other than Volver, so I’ve got a lot of work to do in this department. The performances and the scenery in Julieta were wonderful, but this movie won’t exactly leave you in a happy-go-lucky mood.

Juana Inés

This series by Canal Once is amazing. I, sadly, hadn’t heard of Juana Inés de Esbajo before finding this series. Her story is amazing. There have been genius women all along. We just haven’t had the opportunity to hear their thoughts and their stories. The costumes are wonderful. The acting, for the most part, is great. There’s only one short season, which is sure to be the last since she dies at the end (they show her dying at the beginning so that is not a spoiler!).

All right, I’m going to have to stop there! Please, please do let me know in the comments what you thought about any of the above or especially if you have any other suggestions for what I should be watching!

¡Que tengan un buen día!

Una Settimana Italiana | My Italian Week at Home

1910390_507352755016_2662_nA full decade ago (ahh!), I was in Italy for a total of four full days, two in Rome and two in Venice. We saw the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican Museum, the Roman Forum, rode a gondola, and gazed at the mosaics in the Basilica of San Marco all in that amount of time. It was probably too much, but at the time I thought that I might not ever have another opportunity to travel back to Europe and I wanted to see all the sights that I could. And no matter how rushed you are, the moment you climb that hill and see the Roman Forum is a moment you aren’t likely to forget.

Food, on the other hand, wasn’t really anything that interested me at the time. This is lucky, actually, because I left Europe with -7USD to my name, plus an overdraft fee. We survived by eating only street pizza and gelato. Not that either of us were complaining about the quality of those, either.

Now, I’m, well, a more curious eater than I was during our university years, to put it lightly. I’m also happy to have found people who don’t see my food interests as out of the ordinary and instead encourage me to learn even more.

Last week, my social life, my work life, my book club life, and my own personal reading life all collided into this ball of Italian food and culture. Really, I didn’t plan it that way.

On my own, I’ve been listening to a few Coffee Break Italian podcasts to prep for our trip. I finally read My Brilliant Friend for book club; I indulged in the light read of Under the Tuscan Sun. Our book club cooked accordingly, making for a night of delicious Naples-themed food. Then, I got to tag along as a server/assistant for an Italian cooking class through work.

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spaghetti with chilis and garlic DSC_1056 DSC_1057 DSC_1064

oxtail with vegetable italian style

I had a serious amount of fun for it being “work”. I sipped some wines, all of which were new to me, ate provolone and anchovy crostini, artichokes, endives, spaghetti, oxtail, and chestnut ice cream. All in the same night. And all while hanging out with some of my favorite peeps.

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A couple days later, our friend hosted a dinner party (she also happens to be in my book club, woot!)–Italian themed as well. The weather was wonderful, and she has the perfect yard for al fresco dinner parties. As soon as I saw the tables in the backyard, I was thankful to have remembered my camera for the day. Even still, part way through meal, I failed as a photographer, simply eating my secondo (main), contorno (side), dolce (dessert), and digestivo without taking a single photo. That’s right, folks. You only see our starters and our first course below.

DSC_1081 DSC_1082 DSC_1083 DSC_1084 DSC_1086 DSC_1087 spaghetti outdoor dining DSC_1089 DSC_1091 DSC_1092

What a great week! All of the events, meals, books, and discussions made for a full, fun, and inspiring week. And it’s whet my intellectual and actual appetite for our upcoming actual Italian week.

I wish you all a happy week, Italian or otherwise 🙂

 

A Month of Chinese Food | Too Busy Eating to Take Those Pretty Photos

Chinese Braised Oxtail

At the beginning of this month, I imagined myself visiting countless (actually, okay, I estimated a very countable 4-5 places) Chinese restaurants, slurping down noodles, trying a few dim sum places, and ordering Dan Dan Mian in. This never happened. Not really. Once, I took Jordan to Chinatown’s New Town Bakery, since we needed to go to T&T Supermarket anyway.

I also nearly lost motivation mid-month. I was attacked by the North American palate cravings. All I wanted was a nice broccoli and potato soup with a grilled cheese sandwich on the side. We did break from Chinese food for a night of pesto pasta, but I attribute that to the fact that I found myself swimming in free basil on one occasion. A day later, I found the motivation I needed, thankfully.

kitchen.chineseWhat kept me motivated during this slump? This delightful read by Ann Mah: kitchen chinese. It’s like a food memoir mixed up into a rom com. It was fun to read and taught me a bit about Chinese food and culture.

Blogs, per usual, were another source of inspiration. Those that inspired me to try new recipes when I was feeling lazy and wanted to me reposer sur mes feuilles de lauriers* include Steamy Kitchen and the Woks of Life. Neither steered me wrong. Both provided way more recipes than I needed to fill my month and typically came with enough stories and explanations to make me excited enough to get off the couch, even after work, to cook a nice meal.

I didn’t make my way through all the recipes on my to-cook list, but we did much better on the cooking side of the project as compared to making our way to Chinese restaurants. I still need to make Chinese tea eggs and have some quality sweet and sour ribs. I have no doubt that sometime in my near future, these things will happen.

But I digress. Concentrating on what we didn’t eat is so not the point. Especially when we tried some very fun new things.

The month had some hits. It also had some misses.

I had two favorite nights. Night 1 was when we invited a friend over for supper (yep, I call it supper–that’s what we call it in my neck of the woods, and I simply won’t can’t break the habit). Jordan and I (heavy on the I this go round) had spent a good 2 hours braising our pork belly and prepping the spicy Ma Yi Shang Su, also called Ants Climbing a Tree. When the lovely guest of ours came over, we spent some time together making our dumpling filling and shaping dumplings to go into the bamboo steamer. We ate and sipped a nice Argentine red and ate and chatted and ate. Earlier in the day, Jordan and I had gone to New Town Bakery to stock up on some egg tarts, almond cookies, and sesame balls. I have since decided that if I one day have a child, he or she will be fed Chinese sweets from a young age so that he or she won’t have to learn to appreciate them as an adult. Still, a fun end to the evening, even if the desserts weren’t our taste.

Favorite Night 2 was Peking duck night. I picked my duck up at Jackson’s Poultry (the staff there is always so friendly!), bought a sackful of plums, and stocked up on five spice. For the most part, we followed recipes a la Jamie Oliver for our duck and our plum sauce, then spent some time rendering the fat and saving the legs for confit (the legs had a big less five spice, just for the record), and finally using all those randoms bits for a stock. It was really quite the production, but fun all the same. And technically, since those confit dug legs are still in waiting–and thus, some of the rendered fat as well–we’re still enjoying that duck. The bird that keeps on giving. As for the plum sauce, gruyère and plum sauce grilled cheese wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I was craving grilled cheese, but it’ll definitely do the trick.

Other notable experiences include the hot and sour soup, which I believe may have warded off a cold, braised oxtail, and all Schezuan-influenced dishes. I think we’d add the hot chili oil to anything if we’d only be able to find a way to claim that it was supposed to be a part of the dish. We had Mapo tofu and also a Schezuan fish stew which we definitely enjoyed.

My biggest disappointment of the month? The breakfast congee. I had the best of intentions to dry my own orange peels, never did it, and found myself using other ingredients around the pantry to flavor the rice porridge. It ended up being a far cry from anything traditional, and it certainly wasn’t anything that left the husband eager to eat ride porridge in the mornings. (He might have mixed peanut butter and honey into his). I had envisioned it as a much more comforting breakfasty morning, but it ended up being one of those Cassie-is-trying-something-and-it-is-not-great-but-I-won’t-complain sort of things. But when Thai food rolls around, I’ll give it another go, maybe try savory instead of sweet congee.

After a month of ginger, soy sauce, black vinegar, cloud ear mushrooms, dumplings, and Schezuan peppercorns, what do we have to show for ourselves? Other than our new bits of food knowledge, only one single photo. We were apparently too busy eating to snap any decent photos of our creations.

The photo of the oxtail above is the only one from the entire month’s worth of home cooking.

chinese new year granville island public market

So instead I’ll leave you (and my future self when I return to this page with a hankering for Chinese food) with a list of the recipes that we tried at home this month.

  • Dan Dan Main (noodles)
  • Ants Climbing a Tree
  • Chinese braised oxtail
  • Shanghai-style Pork Belly
  • Pork potstickers
  • Veggie potstickers
  • Hot and Sour Soup
  • Egg drop soup
  • Vegetable Lo Mein
  • Buddha’s Delight-Round 2
  • Peking Duck
  • Homemade Plum Sauce
  • Shanghai Noodle Bowls
  • Breakfast Congee
  • Egg Foo Yung
  • Kung Pao Veggies (Sweet Potatoes)
  • Vegetable Chow Mein
  • Mapo Tofu
  • Schezuan Fish Stew

The month of April? All about Mexican. We’ve already prepped our habañero hot sauce and revamped some of our favorites. Can’t wait!

Happy cooking and happy eating!

*There is a pun to be had here in English, too, I’m sure, but I just can’t seem to make it work. It works so much better in French since bay leaf is feuille de laurier and to rest on one’s laurels is se reposer sur ses lauriers. Since a bay leaf is often used in a type of cooking I am much more familiar with, using that bay leaf seems like resting on my laurels, not stretching my repertoire, etc. Does it work, does it work?!

 

Ramen, Soursop, and Steamed Pork Buns | February in Food

I can’t say that I’m actually hitting every one of my learning goals for the year. I’m doing pretty good on my reading list, and language learning is, well, relatively on course. Others are lagging. I haven’t even taken the guitar out of the case. Expanding my food repertoire and knowledge, on the other hand, has come naturally and enthusiastically. In Montreal, I learned about my breads, viennoiseries, and French cuisine, as well as some Quebecois staples. In Argentina, I learned about ice cream, the art of grilling, and wines. Vancouver? Vancouver is an amazing place to learn about Asian cuisines. We’ve barely begun to scratch the surface.

During the month of February, I focused on learning more about Japanese food. While I did my best, I did let myself get distracted. First, I was gifted a bag of paella rice and the chorizo from Oyama started calling to me. Then, with Mardi Gras and Valentine’s Day, I couldn’t resist making an andouille (Oyama could become a habit) gumbo and a king cake. And did you really expect me to not have something Chinese on Chinese New Year?

pork steamed bun

As for that Japanese food project, I like to think I held my own. No longer do I think Japanese food is only udon noodles and sashimi. Shiitake mushrooms were in and out of our kitchen like crazy. The tub of miso paste is nearly gone. I bought soy sauce at crazy rates, ate tons of rice, and learned plenty of Japanese words that I continue to mispronounce 🙂 I tried my best to go into every dish and ingredient with an open mind. Some pleasantly surprised me. Some, well, will probably never make their way into our normal shopping rotations. For better or worse, the list of the month’s Japanese foods (that I can remember at this moment) are the following.

  • Tempura: I just went veggie. Can you believe I hadn’t actually tried it before? I ordered out for this. Deep frying at home seemed like a mess to avoid.
  • Cured Brill: When I layered salt and raw fish between kelp sheets, the husband kept his qualms to himself. I think we were both unsure about how this would go, but it ended up being my favorite at-home dish. And it was super easy.
  • Udon Noodle Bowls: Dashi, quality noodles, and whatever we felt like.
  • Tonkatsu: Something we’ve actually made at home before. Was nice to know what we were doing for once.
  • Konnyaku: This is taro root powder gelatin. Or diet food. It’s got a strange smell, a weird texture, and frankly, while I believe better cooks can make it bearable, I do not believe they can make it taste good. But please, prove me wrong.
  • Yokan: Bean curd dessert jellies. Really, I came around to like these by the end of the month.
  • Mochi (with red adzuki bean soup): Nope, that hard white square you see in the Asian foods aisle is not soap. Those little rice cakes puff up like crazy and become stringy and chewy. I will not say that I loved this, but I didn’t dislike it. As for making red bean paste from scratch, it triggered my memories from last year’s self-poisoning incident.
  • Black Sesame Ice Cream: I’ve been working my way through the pint for a couple weeks. Some days I think this is the best ice cream flavor known to man. Some days, I feel the complete opposite.
  • Ramen: Oh, wow. After reading through Ivan Ramen, we ventured out to two of Vancouver’s ramen shops. I’ll recommend Kintaro Ramen in Vancouver. I now want to travel to Japan and simply spend days on end slurping noodles and avoiding eye contact while at baths.
  • At-home gyoza: Fun to make. Easy to make. And way cheaper this way!
  • Miso soup: A staple during the month. Add some tofu, wakame (seaweed), and shiitakes.
  • Miso-glazed salmon: We live in BC. Salmon had to be done.
  • Teriyaki Trout: Though my ferry operator told me not to, we marinated this for a good hour and a half. And I’m glad we did.
  • Daikon Radish: Grated, sliced, raw, cooked. Any other way possible.
  • Veggie Sushi Rolls: I am horrible at rolling these. We attempted twice. I think I actually got worse on the second night’s attempt.
  • Umeboshi: Holy pickled plum. So intense. This is another thing I just can’t figure out if I like.
  • Japadog: I did it. And I ate it on the side of the street while passersby wondered if I knew that QP Mayo was dripping down my face. I did.
  • Oyster Motoyaki: I think I’d like my oysters done a bit differently, really. Is hard to find the oyster meat under all of that jazz, but they did taste good.

homemade gyoza

Like I said, I didn’t eat Japanese food for every meal of every day. For the most part, breakfast consisted of the usual suspects (Jordan’s working on perfecting his curry omelette), plus a brunch at Cafe Medina. My food distractions really came when we wanted to make something special to celebrate a holiday, visitor, or event. Here are some of our other notable meals, snacks, or ingredients.

  • Soursop: It’s like that delicious cherimoya fruit, except it’s not so sweet that you can’t finish your portion. Good stuff. People often say it’s a mix between a pineapple and strawberry, if you can imagine that.
  • Sans Rival: I make this Filipino cashew meringue cake for special occasions. Leah visiting was just such an occasion.
  • Sesame Ball with red bean paste and Steamed Pork Buns: Stopped in at New Town Bakery in Chinatown to celebrate the Lunar New Year.
  • Buddha’s Delight with Cloud Ears and Dried Lily Buds: Continuing on that Lunar New Year streak, I had a couple friends over for some Buddha’s Delight and Chinese almond cookies.
  • Chorizo and Scallop Paella: Because when you have saffron and paella rice, it’s hard to say no to this.
  • Fresh green peppercorns: What a refreshing little mouthful of peppery flavor.
  • Mardi Gras King Cake: My third year making this ring cake. Too festive with the colored sugars.
  • Andouille and Chicken Gumbo: Roux, file powder, and delicious andouille sausage. I think I need to start making this more than once a year.

veggie tempura spicy tuna roll

pork steam bun

sour sop

mardi gras king cake

 

paelaa

 

oyster motoyaki

Speaking only for myself (because I know how much the mister hated the umeboshi and the konnyaku), I will say that I had a lot of fun trying new foods in February. Even when things are, uh, less-than-my-favorite, I still have fun trying. Up until now, March has been of the same ilk: some things delicious, some things awkward, but all of it interesting. We’re already started on our lo meins and chow meins, and I’ve got a little something braising as I type this. Any time I think I’m starting to learn a good deal about cooking, baking, or even eating, I learn of something else. That’s just the way I like it.

Happy cooking. Happy learning.

Yerba Mate 101 | An intro for those of us not from Argentina

firstmateI first met yerba mate in 2008 when I first traveled to Uruguay and Argentina. I’d read about it online before going–I wondered if I’d get a chance to try it. Then, midway through a short hike, our guide told us to climb up into the bird watching tower. There in the jungle of Misiones Province, I shared my first mate with Jordan and our hiking guide. What was I thinking as I first tasted that mate? It just tastes like green tea to me. I didn’t understand what the big deal was.

Throughout the rest of our trip, we were stunned to see how serious this mate business was for people. There we were, marveling at the amazing Iguazú Falls from the slippery viewpoints. And everyone around us had seemed to have packed in their mate. On their hips. To a national park. Into nature. I couldn’t even imagine folks from the US doing such a thing with their Starbucks (well, at least not so many of them at one time).

We never did try it again on that trip, but before returning home, we got lost, needed to ask for directions, and wandered into a gift shop. Feeling as though we should buy something to thank the shop-owner for her hospitality we bought a mate (the cup) and a bombilla as souvenirs. Never once have we used them.

After three months in Argentina, I’m finally starting to understand it’s place within the culture a bit more. I say a bit because there is still some mystery involved as far as I’m concerned. Argentinos have a sixth sense for when the cup should be passed, when the mate should be replaced, etc.

While here, I asked someone how long it had been since they’d gone a week without a mate. He told me probably over ten years ago. It’s an everyday thing, a habit. He’d only not had mate while traveling outside of the country or when he was having some health issues. It’s so ingrained in the culture that they seldom stop to think about it unless there is someone like you or I there to ask questions.

But when they do stop to think about it, it’s serious–as demonstrated by this long poem outlining the love for and place of mate in society. The poem goes on to say that someone becomes an adult when they have put that kettle on the burner and made their first mate when no one else was around. Funny, people usually tell me they started drinking it around the age of 12-14. That probably fits in with the timeline, huh?

Okay, so we know it’s serious, but what is it?

What Is It?

Here’s what mate is going to look like when someone hands you a steaming cup of it. It is the dried leaves of the mate plant steeped in hot water. There is some caffeine in it, but not much compared to your cup of joe.

aluminum mate cup in the car

Here’s what mate looks like growing as an actual plant. It’s member of the holly family.

mate plants

Where and When to Drink It

IMG_2479 (2)I recently read an article in which a Spaniard admitted to trying to order a mate in the bar while visiting Argentina. Although I can’t swear that I haven’t committed a bigger faux pas, this is one I have avoided. Because I shamelessly ask questions like these before doing it.

So, why can’t you order mate in a bar or at a restaurant? Mostly, because it’s a pretty communal thing. That mate gets passed from person to person if you’re in a group, and it might be a bit strange in a restaurant or bar setting.

Other than that, though, it seems like it’s pretty fair game. People drink it at home–alone or with their friends and family. I’ve seen people drink it work often (and of course offer it around the office). I’ve seen people sharing a mate in the park. I’ve seen people stop for a mid-hike mate at the peak of the mountain. I’ve seen couples passing that mate back and forth on our bus trips and in the bus terminal. And, it seems, no road trip would be successful if there is not enough mate to last the whole trip. Drink it in the car if you want to, but please, have someone else prepare it. I don’t want any accidents. Don’t worry if you don’t think you have enough hot water for the trip. Some roadside stops have thermos-filling stations for your mate needs, and if they don’t, you’ll probably be able to convince someone to fill it up with hot water. They’ll understand.*

Early on, I was under the mistaken impression that if I wasn’t thirsty, it was normal to say “no, thanks” to mate. But mate is not drunk because one is thirsty. If you’re in a small group/meeting someone for the first time/visiting their home, have at least the first cup offered to you. (Stop listening to the voice in your head that says sharing a straw is germy). I can’t tell you how happy I made a traveling companion when I started joining in on the mate rounds. That is, until we realized that with everyone on board drinking mate, we might not have enough yerba to last for the trip. Eek!

What You Need

At the very least, you need hot water, the mate itself (yerba mate), a mate (the name for the cup) and a bombilla (the metal straw and filter). Optional items include a thermos so you can make that mate on the go, sugar, some colder water to temper the hot, and a mate kit to store all that in. More often than not, you’ll also need some company.

The best place to buy the actual mate? Your local grocery store or convenience store (in Argentina or Uruguay, that is) is sure to have some. More and more often, you’ll also be able to find it in your local North American grocery stores. Otherwise, you could head to a specialty tea shop or even online.

I’ve asked a couple people about what I need to look for when choosing my mate (the cup). There are sooooo many variations that I feel overwhelmed even looking at them. Traditionally, they are made with gourds, but you can find them in nearly every shape, size, material, or color. The verdict? If you plan on using it in the car, look for a smaller opening (so as not to spill much). Beyond that, it’s just a matter of personal taste. Think that one looks cool? That’s the best one for you.

buenos aires mate cups and bombillos

Bombillas aren’t any easier to choose as they seem to come in nearly as many variations. If you’re really averse to sucking up a piece of mate, look for smaller openings at the end. Oh, yeah, and if you’re going to drink a lot, think of buying a little cleaning brush for it. 🙂

bombillos (metal straws) for mate, buenos aires, argentina

Like the other items, mate kits come in various shapes and sizes. It’s all about preferences.

As for a thermos, any one seems to do the trick. Just make sure you get one. As I type this, every single desk in the office has a thermos on it. Indispensable if you plan to drink mate non-stop throughout the day, I suppose.

mate break thermos chaco argentina

How to Prepare It

I only know the basics here folks. But I’ll give it a shot.

  1. Put bombilla in the mate (cup). Fill the mate with the yerba. Don’t pack too tight, but fill pretty close to the top.
  2. Add sugar if using. Just about a teaspoon or so near the bombilla. (I prefer my mate bitter, so skip this)
  3. Pour in your hot water. If it’s too hot (boiling) it’ll make it too bitter (my opinion, I suppose).
  4. Pass to person one. They sip through the bombilla until the infused water is gone.
  5. Repeat steps three and four, giving to the next person, until everyone but you has had it. Add more sugar if/when necessary.
  6. Finally take your turn. Then start 3 (2 if desired) through 6 again.
  7. If you see that it’s all been wet, and it starts “floating,” you know you’ve got to toss that yerba and refill.

People can drop out if they want. It’s allowed. In fact, here in Tucumán, if you don’t want any more, just say gracias when you had the mate back after your turn. That’s the cue that you’re finished. This, however, isn’t true in all regions, so if you follow this guideline elsewhere, people might think you’re not gracious enough. No idea.

For me, mate boils down (oh, no, pun not intended, because remember, if you boiled your water, it’d be too bitter) to this:

In Argentina, drinking mate is part of the culture. It’s something special here. When I return home, I’ll look favorably upon the mate moments I’ve had. Not much beats a mate and cookie stop in Calchaquí Valley.

Still, at home, mate won’t mean the same thing. Stripped of the culture and the community, mate, (to me) is, well, just something to have when I have a craving for, you know, green tea.

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*These few sentences may only apply (and probably do only apply) in specific parts of Latin America…and maybe Syria, where it’s supposedly quite popular.

Argentina | A Crash Course for the Armchair Geographer

mate break thermos chaco argentinaFull Confession: This post isn’t strictly an “armchair” geographer post. At least not on the writing side. Why not? Well, because some of what I’m writing or sharing is based on my experience actually being in the country. Still, I followed a very similar format as I have for my other armchair geo posts, so it still provides us non-academic, casual geographers with a good base.

I’ve learned so much about the incredible country of Argentina in the last couple months and I’m still trying to wrap my head around it all. Any time I learn anything, I find myself realizing how much more is left to learn. In this case, mostly I end up researching down a rabbit hole of recipes, political figures, or musicians. Naturally, it’s hard to fit it all in one post. The odds of you seeing another post (or three!) featuring Argentina in the near future are high. I think that’s a good thing. Let’s get started!

Save Face Facts

So that we don’t feel super silly in conversations with real geographers or  people from Argentina, we’re covering a few of the basics that we really ought to remember.

Save Face Fact #1: Where It Is

Argentina is found in southwestern South America. It’s big. So big that it has penguins in the south and caimans in the north.

argentina.map

Alright, now that we can find it, let’s learn a bit more.

Save Face Fact #2: What Language They Speak

In short, Argentina speaks Spanish. But no one from here would really say that. They’ll tell you they speak Castellano. And if you know a bit about the language, you know that Spanish varies greatly from one country to the next. Even within the country, accents and expressions vary immensely. Buenos Aires, for example, has its own slang called Lunfardo (but that doesn’t mean everyone uses it).

 This article does a really good job of explaining ten of the most common Argentine Spanish expressions and idiosyncrasies. 

There are, of course, other languages spoken within the country. Many immigrant languages are still spoken (Italian, German, etc.). The most widely spoken indigenous language is Quechua.

Save Face Fact #3: Buenos Aires is the Capital

plaza san martin buenos aires night

Buenos Aires is the principal city, and the Greater Buenos Aires metropolitan area is home to approximately 30 percent of the entire country’s population. Its cultural and political scene influence much of the rest of the country. You know how it feels that in the US all the movies are filmed in New York City or California? In Argentina, all the movies are set in Buenos Aires. It’s the London, the Paris. You get the picture.

Bonus fact: It’s better if you pronounce Aires as eye-race instead of air-ace.

Save Face Fact #4: The Population is a diverse mix of ethnicities and cultures.

Like all of Latin America, there is a mix of races, a combination of indigenous culture and European influence. That said, Argentina saw waves and waves of immigration from European countries, including Italy, Germany, and England. It’s not at all uncommon for us to be mistaken as being from here. Until we open our mouths or give the Holy-crap-are-they-speaking-to-us?! faces.

el ateneo cafe buenos aires

Sparkling Dinner Conversation Points

Moving on from the basics, here are some talking points to keep a conversation rolling when you meet someone from Argentina or a geographer who happens to be talking about it.

Top Attractions

Like I said, it’s a really big country and there’s a lot to see. Still, even being able to mention a few points will give you a bit of material for discussion. Here are the four biggest tourist stops that I’m usually held accountable for knowing about.

Buenos Aires | The Cultural Hotspot

We’re lucky, right? We already knew about this from above. Think restaurants, museums, cafes, markets, and dancing. To see posts from our time visiting Buenos Aires, check out this post and this post.

buenos aires

Mendoza | The Most Well-Known Wine Producing Region in the Country

We’re going here in November because it’s sort of on our way to the airport. We’ve heard many good things and are excited to slowly sip this place off of our bucket lists. It’s found in western Argentina, toward the border with Chile.

simon creek vineyards

Iguazú Falls | One of the World’s Largest Waterfalls

As little tykes (all right, only about six and a half years ago), we came ventured here on our honeymoon. The waterfalls are located on the border between Argentina and Brazil.

iguazu falls

Patagonia | The Stellar Glacier and Hiking Region of Argentina

I haven’t been. And I won’t make it on this trip. But someday (I’m looking dreamily off into the distance as I type this).

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Photo credit: Bariloche- Argentina» por ChipppyTrabajo propio. Disponible bajo la licencia CC BY-SA 3.0 vía Wikimedia Commons.

Literary Figures and Contributions

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The amount of poetry and prose to come out of Argentina–Buenos Aires in particular–is astounding. An extensive list of influential Argentine writers is clearly beyond my scope and the scope of this post (many to choose from!). So, I’m going to leave you with a short list of some of Argentina’s heavyweights.

  • Jorge Louis Borges | If you know one Argentine author, make it this guy. His most popular work was Ficciones, but he wrote hordes of other things, including essays, poetry, and other books.
  • Julio Córtazar | Also a novelist, short story writer, and essayist. His name is also all over street signs in Argentina.
  • José Hernandez | Hernandez is most well-known for writing Martin Fierro. Think of Martín Fierro as the Don Quixote of Argentina. It’s the romanticized story of the guacho figure. It’s widely available for free on the internet, in PDF form if you’d like. English translations are also available via Google search.
  • Cafe Tortoni | You got me. This isn’t a person. It is, however, a place where many of Buenos Aires’ literary greats gathered or work on what would become sort pretty dec (pronounced dees; short for decent; as slangy as I get) literature.

Music

This probably should have been made into its own post. Music in Argentina is varied and I’m just barely beginning to get a handle on it. It’s probably obvious based on the display below, but I tend to gravitate toward the folk music over the modern-day rock and pop. Without further ado…

Folk Music

Argentine folk music is made up of several types, but it is roughly grouped into Andean, Chacarera, and Chamamé.

Jaime Torres is one of the most well-known folk artists from northern Argentina. He plays the charango (something like an Andean ukulele), as you’ll see in the playlist below. I could listen to this all day.

As for the Chacarera, you’re already familiar with that from our Spanish-language playlist, right? This type of music originated in Santiago del Estero, a place a have an affinity for now 🙂

And finally, the Chamamé, the type which I’ve listened to the least out of the three, but consider it reason number one for me to learn to play the accordion. It comes from the provinces of Corrientes and Formosa, where there were many Polish, Austrian, and German immigrants. Yet another playlist for your listening pleasure:

One more note here, you’d better make sure you remember the lovely late Mercedes Sosa.

Tango

I’m supposing you’ve heard a bit about the tango before. If you’re looking for a good summary on how it came to be, this webpage has a great introduction. Tango comes to you straight from the brothels of Buenos Aires. Okay, okay, it used to. For a classic tango playlist, check out the following video. It should be said that modern tango, while clearly tango, is a bit different. And is reason number two for me to learn to play the accordion.

Rock/Pop/Modern Day

Honestly, I thought that at the end of our stay here, I would have a little more knowledge about Argentina pop and rock music. I guess we were more into the folk and older Latin music movements while here and simply didn’t take the time to get to know rock and pop. However, I’ve been told that the “greatest Argentine rock band of all time” was Sumo. I did some listening and can appreciate some songs, but frankly, haven’t gotten that into it. You have a listen and let me know what you think.

If you look at some Top 20/40 charts for Argentina, you’ll notice a lot of what you see mirrors the international charts.

Argentine Cuisine

Argentine food is often said to revolve around the three Ps: parrilla (grilled meat–lots of beef), pizza, and pasta. We’ve found this to pretty much ring true anywhere that we’ve been in the country so far. Asados (barbecues) are not only meals, but pastimes.

asado buenos aires

homemade pizza

But there’s a bit more to the cuisine than that, obviously. I plan to delve a little more into food a bit more separately, because there’s so much more I want to say about it, so here I’ll leave you with a quick overview.

argentina breakfast desayunoBreakfast is typically coffee, medialunas (mini croissants) with dulce de leche (yes, caramel for breakfast!) or butter, and a fruit cup. There are many variations and it clearly depends on personal choice as well.

Lunch or supper could consist of the three Ps (from above), but you’ll also see a lot about milanesas and/or lomito sandwiches, which are both beef sandwiches (usually). The main difference is that a milanesa is covered in bread crumbs before being cooked.

In the northern part of Argentina, things are a bit more Andean, and you’ll start to see humitas (a dish from corn), tamales, llama, and quinoa.

Let us not forget the king of street food: the empanada. This varies from province to province, but is usually a pretty safe bet. They come with beef, chicken, cheese, or a variety of other things tucked inside.

empanadasa san luis

Last, but not least there is dessert. I cannot tell you how many varieties of cookies there are in Argentina for I think no one could actually know. Cookies and cakes are everywhere. Often, they’re made with dulce de leche.

Also notable are the delicious flavors of ice cream that seem to be on every corner.

Sports

I was tempted to say that there was really only one sport here: fútbol. It’s true, soccer is by far the sport I’ve heard the most about. Argentina’s got a great national team, which made it to the World Cup Finals this year. The most important soccer player to know is Lionel Messi (often referred to as the world’s leading player). Diego Maradona, so the husband tells me, is the most important historical soccer player to know. In case you’re into soccer and needed another look at Messi’s skills:

Rugby is relatively popular in Argentina as well. We also hear and see a decent amount about equestrian sports. Speaking of equestrian sports, the official national sport of Argentina is pato (Spanish for duck), which is a bit like polo. I haven’t watched a match, but have seen games being played as we drove by.

Tread Lightly, Neo Geo

cactus chaco argentina santiago del estero Watch out for these thorny subjects!

You guessed it, things that are normally uncomfortable to talk about will be: politics and personal religious beliefs. But here are some more specific topics that may be controversial or sensitive depending on the person:

 

  1. Opinions on the Current Government: No surprise here. Many people in Argentina are either very pro-KA (the current government, headed by Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner) or very anti-KA. Obviously, if the subject is mentioned and someone is sharing, listen to what they have to say. Know that any opinions you might have on the issue could be taken in a different way if you aren’t expressing yourself correctly.
  2. The Falkland Islands/Malvinas: I’ll admit to you that a couple years ago, I had to learn this lesson the hard way. I was quietly listening in on a conversation between to Argentine classmates about the Malvinas. I didn’t offer any opinions, but was trying to ask some questions. One straight-out asked me my opinions. I prefaced my statement, saying I didn’t know the situation well enough to know, but…then I said something very Switzerland-like, wanting to not take a side. Already, not taking a side was bad enough. For many people, this is a subject about which they are very passionate. State an opinion if you must and want to, but be very mindful of the other person’s. (Not sure what I’m talking about? Here’s a Wikipedia link about the conflict for you).
  3. The Economy and the Default to the US: It’s not the best time for the Argentine economy. As this article outlines, the economy is facing issues with the value of the peso, defaulting on loans to the US, and recession in general. It’s true that the exchange rates are more favorable for us (making groceries and wines that we’d never be able to afford in Quebec very affordable). I can’t complain, personally, but definitely know that these economic woes are affecting many people here in real ways.
  4. Grass-fed Beef Controversy: Of course it’s a generalization (as there are some vegetarians even in Argentina :)), but Argentinos tend to love their beef, and traditionally, Argentina produces a lot of beef. This can be a great conversation starter, but the if you want to get into it about whether most animals are raised in feedlots or are still grass-fed or the export taxes and government policies surrounding the beef industry (see here and here), things could be a bit stickier. And if you plan on going into the how beef production contributes to deforestation, be prepared to calmly and thoroughly explain it.
  5. Controversial Political and Culture Figures: Last but not least, read up on some controversial historical figures (e.g. Ernesto ‘Che’ GuevaraEva Perón (a.k.a Evita) and Juan Perón). Be aware that although you might love the tee shirt, not everyone feels the same way about all the well-known folks in Argentina’s history.

Oof, that was a little heavy. How about a pretty plaza photo to lighten the mood?

san luis, argentina plaza

Alright, folks, I clearly didn’t cover all there is to know about Argentina, but I’m hope something in here taught you something new or peaked your interest to learn more.

Did anything surprise you? What else do you think could or should be added?

As always, thanks for reading. Thanks for learning. And thanks being an armchair geographer along with me.

salinas grandes jujuy, argentina

*All photos not otherwise credited are my own and are subject to copyright laws and all that jazz.

If you liked this post, you might be interested in reading: What is the Chaco? | 6 of Your Chaco Questions Answered, Hmong Culture | A Crash Course, or Somalia | A Crash Course

What Is the Chaco? | 6 of Your Questions Answered

This week is pretty much Chaco week on the blog. Unless you happen to live in South America or have a husband who constantly references the regions of South America, you might be wondering a bit about what this “Chaco” is. Here are 6 of your Chaco questions answered.

chaco cactus

What is the Chaco?

The Chaco, often called the Gran Chaco, is a geographical region in South America. It’s hot, semi-arid, and landlocked.

Where Is It?

The Chaco isn’t bound by political boundaries and borders. The region is spread throughout parts of Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil. (Sometimes people use the terms Bolivian Chaco, Paraguayan Chaco, etc. to distinguish what country a certain part of the Chaco is in). The husband threw together this map for you and me.

chaco.map humid and dry

What Does it Look Like?

Although the region is defined by its shared geography, it can be divided into separate sections: either the Northern, Central, and Southern, or the Dry and Humid Chaco.  It really is hot and it’s full of cacti that I would have thought were found in deserts, but there are also entire areas (though less and less….see below) of dry forests with thorny trees, which blew my mind. I’d never seen something like it before visiting.  There are also many pastures for livestock and fields for crops (often to feed the livestock).  The Humid Chaco is a bit swampier and comes complete with the occasional palm.

santiago del estero chaco argentina

dry chaco santiago del estero

cactus chaco argnetina

To get a better idea of what the dry parts look like, peruse this post, this post, or this post on the blog.

Who’s There?

People

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Relatively speaking, the Chaco is sparsely populated. Of course, there are cities and towns within it, varying greatly in size and every other measure.  Like good ol’ South Dakota (my second adopted home state), there may be more cows than people. That said, you might be surprised to learn about the diverse human population in the region. For starters, there are many indigenous groups still living within the Gran Chaco. At present, the omniscient Wikipedia lists 18 indigenous people groups who are living in the region. Beyond the indigenous people, there are many farmers and community members living in either the cities or throughout the countryside. Also notable, is the Mennonite population. Mennonites from Canada have been coming to the region since the 1920s to farm the land. With all this diversity, you can imagine how deep culture runs in the Chaco. There are local food dishes, Chaqueño folk music, and much more that I haven’t yet learned about.

Animals

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The non-human whos of the Gran Chaco are also noteworthy.

Though at first the Dry Chaco seemed like a harsh and stark environment for animals, we quickly discovered it to be teeming with fauna. There are deer, monkeys, hundreds of species of birds, tapir (did anyone else write reports about these in elementary school?!), snakes, spiders, crazy amounts of insects and with them anteaters and armadillos. And yes, there are even jaguars. I, personally, like the turtles and the hilarious/amazing locusts and grasshoppers.

What’s It Used For?

chaco agriculture

Some of the land within the Chaco has been declared national parks or government land, etc. and therefore some of those natural grasslands and forests are being maintained. Obviously, these habitats play host to the animals mentioned above.

Much of the land is cleared for pastures or fields, as mentioned above. If it isn’t cleared, the land is still often used for livestock grazing. Don’t be surprised if you bump into a cow on your nature walk. 🙂 We also bumped into a carob (algarrobo) plantation during our trip.

chaco mennonite agriculture

brahman cow chaco boliviacotton grown in chaco bolivia

carob algarrobo plantation chacochaco cattle livestock

Why Does It Matter?

The Chaco is South America’s second largest wilderness after the Amazon (source). It stores many, many treasures (more of our cool flora pics coming tomorrow!) and has so much potential, but as you might have guessed, conservation efforts are needed. Estimates say that the 2,300 football fields of Chaco forest are being cleared per day. Slash-and-burn practices, though illegal, are hard to curb. Fires even dotted the horizon while camping.

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Clearly, as farm-kids-turned-adults, we understand the need for agriculture and support farmers. We love them! And food! But we also understand that agriculture needs to be as sustainable as possible and somehow work in harmony with biodiversity (now how do we make that happen?). With low land prices and new agricultural advancements, land is being bought and changed at crazy rates. This “development” is threatening the region’s rich biodiversity.  Why do we care about biodiversity in the Chaco? Because people depend on biodiversity, even when they don’t know it. The livelihoods of many people, those same people that were so helpful to us when we visited, depend on it.

bolivia national park

To learn more about the Gran Chaco, changes in the region, and some conservation efforts, read and check out the following:

And many more. If you have an article or link to share, feel free to e-mail me (I can add to the post) or leave in the comments for others to see.