Not a Blog

This page does NOT contain any photos of domestic animals. Nor will you find excessive self-indulgence (other than the mere fact of writing about myself extensively). So it can't be a blog then.

Location: Sheffield

Being a well-written account of an English guy and his Argentinean girlfriend, as they adjust to life in the UK and try to construct some kind of meaningful existence. Hopefully full of humour and not just another source of woe.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The wedding episode

As Beatriz threw the bouquet, everyone decided to take a picture and the resulting flash could be seen from space. Consequently, nobody has any idea who actually caught it.

The wedding, I am pleased to report, was a tremendous success. Much alcohol was consumed, the Mariachi band went down a storm, and even my parents joined in with the dancing, which went on until the small hours.

In lieu of a honeymoon, we went on a day tour up north where we got to see just about every type of landscape imaginable.

These are the Salinas Grandes (Big Salt Flats) in Jujuy. 30cm of salt floats on a lake. On top of the salt, craftsmen produce salt artifacts to sell, and half-blinded tourists stagger around taking photos and getting sunburnt.

This is the Hill (or hills) of Seven Colours, near the town of Pumarcarna.

We're currently relaxing in BA, where we're waiting for Beatriz's visa to be processed. In the meantime we're having a lot of siestas and generally taking it easy after the stress and sleeplessness of last week!

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

I bet I don't look good on the dancefloor

The preparations continue...

The Waltz

Argentinean weddings don't have speeches. I guess they just kind of assume that everyone already knows the bride and groom and all the details of the relationship really well, so they don't need to bother.

Even though speeches are my favourite bit of wedding (if they're done well) I don't mind that we're not having any here. We're having a wedding party in Sheffield in April, so we'll do speeches aplenty then.

But what they do have is the waltz. I have to waltz with Beatriz, her mum and probably some other members of her family, and she has to do the same with mine. Only problem is, I haven't a clue how to waltz. And as it turns out, after she tried to teach me, Beatriz doesn't either.

Hopefully all will be saved by my mum and Auntie Gerry giving us a crash course tomorrow afternoon. Otherwise it will be a shambles and everyone will wish we'd done speeches instead.

El Mariachi

The wedding feast is to be partially accompanied by a mariachi band. One of them came to the house to arrange the details. I was disappointed that he had neither a moustache, nor a sombrero, nor even a comedy Mexican accent. He didn't look like Antonio Banderas either, but I wasn't so bothered about that. They'd better have all those things on the night though, or I'm calling the police.

The Greek Orthodox (?!)

Despite the Bible having much to say on the virtue of tolerance, as an atheist, the Catholic churches here won't touch me with a shitty stick. Not one to be deterred lightly however, Beatriz has been able to book us a ceremony at the Orthodox church. It's still Catholic enough for her, and tolerant enough for me. Beatriz's family aren't 100% behind us (wrong sort of God apparently) but never mind.

On Saturday we went to a pre-nuptial talk thingy where Beatriz warned me beforehand to be on my best behaviour and try not to say anything at all, for fear of getting us kicked out of the only church in town that will have us. She needn't have worried though - the Padre seems like a lovely chap and he explained that the ceremony basically involves us standing there and doing as we're told. We don't have to pretend to pray or anything. I asked some intelligent questions about icons and Russian crosses, and we got along just fine.

There is a part of the ceremony I'm a bit worried about, where they put crowns on our heads, and I might not be able to keep a straight face, but we'll just have to warn my parents beforehand not to laugh, and ban all photography so the folks back home can't laugh either.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Blood Test

Seven o'clock yesterday morning saw us wearily waiting in a queue in one of Salta's (crumbly) public hospitals.

"What do we have to have a blood test for anyway?"
"I don't know, but you can't get married here without one."
"What are they testing for, exactly?"
"I think it's to test whether we can have babies and stuff."
"I'm not a doctor, but I don't think they test blood for that. And they can get their filthy hands off my semen."
"Well they're probably testing for STIs then."
"So if someone's getting married, they wouldn't want them to pass an STI to just one other person."
"But they don't test single people, who would be more likely to pass STIs to lots of other people."
"Well this is supposedly a Catholic country, so in theory single people aren't having sex, so they don't need to test them."
"Well by that logic, as we're not married yet, we've never had sex, so they don't need to test us either."

It turned out the test was for syphilis and, happily, Beatriz and I are in the clear. It all seemed quite quaint to me, conjuring up an image of young mulleted Argentineans spending their youth frequenting the bordellos of Paris, drinking absinthe and reading a bit of Jean Paul Satre.

Monday, February 05, 2007

One of those dreams

It seems to be a pretty common thing amongst people staying for a long time in another country to occasionally dream that they've popped back home just for a few days, to meet up with their friends or whatever. I got them sometimes and always woke up once I realized that I couldn't remember anything of the journey back, which gave the game away, as it got me thinking "hang on, this probably isn't real..."

Being back in Salta is somewhat like that, only in reverse, and I can recall the journey here perfectly, so I reckon I really am here. Everything's exactly as it was six months ago, except it appears slightly more crumbly and smellier than I remember, probably because last time I came here from Mendoza, but this time I came here from England.

Beatriz's family's house is the same too, except now it's full of additional family members (her older sister and her neice) with more expected on Friday. As is often the case with wedding arrangements, everyone in the family seems to have found something to criticise, but without actually doing anything, which is driving Beatriz a bit mental. I'm staying well out of such discussions, and confining my role to giving Beatriz moral support and helping out where needed. This is partly because I get a bit lost in group conversations in Spanish, partly because the family would be very unlikely to listen to my input, but mostly because, with five days to go, the time for changes of plan has long since passed, so the whole debate is pointless anyway.

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Shins and the sudden summer in Buenos Aires

I was determined not to listen to my personal CD player on the way to Argentina, for fear that it would cause the plane to fall into the sea. But when the lady sitting next to me started listening to hers, and the aircraft resolutely failed to nosedive, I plucked up the courage and put the new Shins album on. And very soon I decided that there can be no better soundtrack to approach Buenos Aires by. It sounds great in England in winter, but by 'eck, in Buenos Aires in summer it's chuffin' marvellous.

Regular readers of this blog (if there still are any, given my erratic updates of the past few months) will have noticed that I have a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards Argentina in general. As much as anything else, for the last 6 months or so of my stay I didn't even really want to be here. I was pretty much just waiting for Beatriz to finish her project at work so we could head off to Blighty ASAP. Consequently, tinged as it is with negative associations, I'm not even looking forward to going back to Salta all that much - although of course I'm looking forward to seeing Beatriz and her family, and getting married next Saturday!

My parents and my aunt and uncle, exploring the rather wonderful indoor market in San Telmo

Buenos Aires, on the other hand, is a different kettle of fish. In my mind it's associated entirely with sitting in San Telmo cafes, drinking G&Ts with friends, and trying to discreetly ogle beautiful girls while avoiding getting run over and/or treading in dog mess. After spending a month here in December 2004, I'm pretty good at living the lifestyle. Plus, as I long ago saw pretty much all of the city, I don't feel any pressure to do touristy things. And that's why I'm in an internet cafe now. (Well, that and the fact it's got air-conditioning.)

More to follow soon...


Friday, January 19, 2007

Argentineans Don't Know What Cows Look Like

The above may seem an outrageous claim, yet it recently occured to me that during my entire year and nine months in Argentina, not once did I clap eyes on one of these delicious bovine quadropeds.

Now around half of all Argentineans live in Buenos Aires, with most of the rest of them living in Mendoza, Cordoba or Salta. But the cows all live in the vast fields of the Pampas, somewhere several hours south of Buenos Aires where nobody goes.

So despite the fact that the average Argentinean eats his/her own bodyweight in steak every couple of days (fact!) very few of them have actually met a cow at any point in their lives. I reckon if they had, they wouldn't eat so many of them.

And in case any Argentineans want to tell me "we bloody well do know what cows look like!" I shall say "of course you do now - there's a picture of one here."


Monday, January 15, 2007

"You will become like us."

At work this week we've got the cyber-inspectors in.

As my group of pathetic humans aren't being inspected, my job therefore is to keep them away from the cyber-inspectors at all costs, even if it means destroying them.

The last thing my colleagues need when delivering a reconditioning session under inspection, would be for two of my humans to press their faces up against the glass of the reconditioning chamber and/or pretend to rape each other. This has happened in the past. However it's not really the image of our organisation that we want to put across.

I'm honoured to be entrusted with such an important duty. I've been doing well at work, and the cyber-team-leader is pleased with my efforts.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Some kind of update

So, with Beatriz away I've been doing a lot more of an activity that I haven't done that much since I was single.

I'm talking of course about reading.

Currently I'm hugely enjoying Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell - not the guy from Peep Show, another David Mitchell. Part 19th Century seafaring yarn, part 70s detective story, part post-apocalyptic sci-fi, and doing all those parts rather well, it's much more fun than boring old sex.

Meanwhile in Salta, Beatriz has the wedding arrangements pretty much sorted out now. So with not much left to do, she's been stuck indoors while the torrential summer rain pounds down, and hundreds of frogs hop between puddles in the unmettled road outside her house.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Did you know the Pope really likes cats? Oh yes, he can't get enough of them - in fact he's a cat-holic!

Got this through the post from The Holiest Most Catholic Church of Argentina. So the test does exist!

Are You a Catholic?
Please answer the following multiple choice question.

Sex equals…
(a) Pleasure for all concerned when done properly
(b) Duty
(c) Shame
(d) Guilt
(e) Shame and guilt

Understanding your answer
If your answer was (e) then you are definitely a Catholic. Give yourself a pat on the back - you're going to Heaven my boy (or girl)!

(c) or (d) = Probably a Catholic, but best seek out your baptism certificate just to be sure.

(b) = You may be a stereotypical English person.

(a) = You are an dirty sinner and can look forward to spending all eternity in one of the worst hells when you die. Unless we can convert you first, in which case you'll be alright.

Edit: I've just noticed that this is my 100th post. Hurrah!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Not a Blog: Not a Catholic either

Over on the other side of the world, Beatriz has been running round like a mad thing trying to get our wedding organised. The churches over there, it seems, are not keen on marrying a Catholic to an atheist, no matter how much the Catholic may want to.

Argentineans for the most part are strong Catholics. They may not go to church, or confession, or do anything the Pope says, but nevertheless the vast majority of them are firm in their belief in God. So much so that the concept of atheism is altogether alien. They can't even get their heads round what it means, and tend to come out with things like "maybe he doesn't believe in God, but he does believe in the Virgin Mary, doesn't he?"

Consequently, when Beatriz went to one church, they told her that in order to marry her, I would have to go to a church in England (not a Catholic one, an Anglican one presumably) and obtain a certificate there to prove that I am not a Catholic.

This raised a number of questions...
  1. Could they not just take my word for it?
  2. Seeing as I'm not C of E either, how would a vicar/priest/minister who wouldn't know me from Adam (if you'll pardon the expression) possibly be able to attest to my religious beliefs, or lack thereof?
  3. Aren't certificates normally for things that you are, rather than things that you aren't?
  4. Does the Anglican church, or any other church, have a stack of "This is to Certify that ___________ is Not a Catholic" certificates ready to be filled in, or would they have to make one up for me specially?

Eventually Beatriz conceded that it was a wee bit silly.

Monday, December 11, 2006

And then what happened?

What with one thing and another (details to follow!) this blog entry is somewhat overdue, so I’ll start off with the big news as there’s not a moment more to waste: On the 10th of February Beatriz and I are getting married!

We’ll be tying the knot in Salta, on about the only day in the year when my parents andBeatriz’s widely-distributed family members can all be in the same place at the same time. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so soon.

One of the reasons that I’ve got time to blog a little now is that last week Beatriz went back to Argentina to buy a wedding dress, finalise the catering, send out the invitations, and all the other tasks that I understand are normally completed rather earlier than two months before the date of the wedding. She’s also got to find a church that’samenable to atheism. So she’s pretty busy.

Back in Sheffield, I’m busy buying a house. For the last four months we’ve been living with friends on a temporary basis, but it’s clearly time to get my own place. I’ve had an offer accepted on a very nice two-bedroom terraced house in Hillsborough, right near the tram-lines, so it’s got good access to the city centre. Now I’m busy trying to get solicitors and mortgage organised.

And the third stressful thing in my life at the moment is my new job. I've spent the past two months trying to coax (supposed) job-seekers into the world of work - with partial success. Despite having to spend a lot of time with people who have a fondness for sportswear and baseball caps, and who sometimes have an overly relaxed attitude towards personal hygiene, it’s a pretty good job. It’s stressful, but it’s good-stressful, and at least I’m never bored, which is the main thing.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

I'm B, L, O, double G, I N G, I´m blogging! Again.

A proper update on the last couple of months to follow soon, but for now just a thought...

Most days my job goes fine, but recently I've had to deal with a group of the most pain-in-the-arse clients you could ever hope to meet. I'm handing out warnings left right and centre, and some of them are perilously close to getting kicked out and having their benefits stopped (and a good thing too). But still it can be very stressful.

So this morning I hit on a solution.

I shall apply to become a Cyberman.

That way, instead of saying things like "I'm afraid I've got to give you a warning because you've repeatedly refused to get on with your work," I shall merely shout "DESTROY THEM! DESTROY THEM AT ONCE!" and then do so.

And they'll never come back.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

In which Gainful Employment finally beckons, to the relief of some.

So what do travelling (unqualified) English teachers do once they get back to the real world? Well, they teach English, if yesterday's informal-chat-followed-by-job-offer is anything to go by! Yep, from Monday I will be back in the world of The Employed - which in my case will be the world of The Unemployed, helping other people to become Employed, by teaching them basic English and Maths.

Consequently I will also be back in the world of Having Money (hurrah!) albeit not much of it, as I've still got Beatriz to support:-) She's doing well, generally enjoying the Sheffield life (curry, rock climbing, pub quiz on Tuesdays) although she's feeling frustrated that she hasn't found work for herself yet. If anybody out there wants to give a Work Permit to a highly skilled, experienced Computer Systems Engineer from Argentina, please let me know!

Coming soon: 99% Alien Monsters

Monday, October 09, 2006

Another guide (really definitely the last) to finding teaching work in Mendoza

Hi Alex I read a post on the forums and you said that you were happy to give info on Mendoza, so I thought I'd give it a go! Do you have any idea of the demand for English teachers at the moment? And also, more generally for Chile, is there really no work between December and March, because that could convince me to go to Madrid. Thanks a lot for any info, much appreciated, Dominic

I’ve cobbled this post together out of the many, many emails I’ve sent to people asking about Mendoza over the past few months. Hope it helps!

There are plenty of institutes in Mendoza, so it’s always possible to find work if you go there with your CV. They don’t seem to mind whether you’ve got a TEFL (or indeed a work visa), they just want you to be a native speaker. How much work you’ll actually get though depends on luck, persistence and also on how long you’re planning on staying for.

Although there are fewer institutes in Mendoza than in BA, there's much less competition too, so I think you'd be a lot more likely to find something. Plus, Mendoza is much smaller, so you'll be able to walk to all your classes, rather than always having to get the bus, train or Subte, like in BA. That way you'll save both time and money.

Mendoza's pretty similar to BA in that you'll have to piece various gigs together in order to get by. I've never heard of anyone employed by just one institute. The pay tends to be between 10 and 12 pesos an hour. If you want more, you should put up adverts in shop windows for private classes. I found this to be pretty successful, although I did get a large number of time-wasters who said they’d call back, then didn’t. I was charging 13 pesos an hour for private classes, though some teachers go as high as 15.

The institutes are closed between December and March – probably in Chile as well – so for your income during those months you’ll have to rely on your private classes.

As for accommodation, you could try the notice boards in the universities. Also there’s the institute Intercultural. Beware – the owner is, er, not the most pleasant lady you could meet, and they have a terrible record for paying you on time. However, people sometimes advertise accommodation with them, and if you’re a teacher there they won’t make you pay a hefty commission, so it’s probably worth getting a job with them if you can. That’s what I did and I ended up sharing a flat with a Mendocina teacher – great for practising Spanish! Rent tends to be 250-400 pesos a month. Some of my friends rented their own places.

Mendoza’s very nice and everyone I’ve met who’s been to Santiago says it’s much much better! You would get paid more in Santiago though:-)

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Interviews don't scare me.

At my job interview I was engaging, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and interesting. And what's more, they didn't make me do any psychometric profiling. Consequently they were impressed with me, yet uncertain how I would cope with a room full of unemployed 18-24 year olds. It's a justified concern, but the thought of it doesn't bother me after teaching English to a room full of Argentinean teenagers. :-) So hopefully next week they'll give me a second interview, which will be my chance to prove myself.

In the meantime, I've got some temporary office admin work for the next three weeks. It's not much, but my income will be almost quadruple the amount I currently get from Jobseekers' Allowance, so I'm all for it.

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Alex's Diary

Weight: 10st (holding steady for several weeks despite eating like a pig. Think it's a symptom of Reiter's Syndrome) Units of alcohol: 0 (can't afford it. Unemployed.) Cigarettes: 0 (although maybe a sneaky rolly later on once Beatriz has gone to bed.)

Have been reading Beatriz's copy of Bridget Jones's Diary. Worrying that this may make me a Gay, even though I am really a Manly Man (albeit a Manly Man currently wearing sky-blue t-shirt with butterflies and flowers on it).

Job interview tomorrow. Hurrah! With company that aims to get long-term unemployed back into work. Sounds v inspiring, but then remembered the character of Pauline from League of Gentlemen, and began to worry that I may turn into her. Still, pay's not bad, and is ideal match for my skills, so quite confident.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Positively my last ever guide to finding teaching work in Argentina!

After my last post I received a comment from Russ in BA, asking if I could give him any help finding work in Salta. So here it is:

Although there were a few native speakers in Salta while I was there, all of the others had full-time jobs, which meant I was the only one available to take on extra classes. Hurrah!

The best thing to do is get a copy of the phone book, find the English institutes and visit all of them in turn, with a copy of your CV, between the hours of 5pm and 8pm. Some of them are open in the mornings, but all of them are open in the evenings. I got work very easily with Good News (Rivadavia 350) and IEI (Pasaje Zorrilla 239) and they were both very professional and enjoyable to work for.

Of course you can also advertise for private students by putting up adverts around town. Just remember that people in Salta expect to pay rather less for their classes than people in BA do! I only charged $12 pesos an hour, and even then most people were put off. (Or at least, they said they'd get back to me, then didn't.) However, if they want classes with a native, and you're the only one in town who's available, you get to set the price!

Finally, check out the English conversation group I started on Wednesdays at 9.30pm in Funes Bar (Dean Funes, between Caseros and Espana). As far as I know it's still going, and you may well meet potential students there.

Good luck!

Monday, September 11, 2006

Sheffield: Sex City

As you may have gathered from the dearth of posts over the past few weeks, I've "gone dark" (as Jack Bauer would say).

I'm actually using the internet quite a lot, but at the moment it's for USEFUL stuff like job-hunting, so there's no time for blogging, much as I would like to!

But to fill you in before I disappear again, Beatriz and I are currently living with my mate Jim and his girlfriend up north in Sheffield, the home of Arctic Monkeys and Pulp. I'm averagely busy, applying for jobs in the public sector, hopefully in some kind of advising-members-of-the-public-of-helpful-things role. Beatriz meanwhile is settling into life in England with reasonable success.

From this morning's conversation on the subject of cultural differences:

"They're selling Christmas decorations?! But there's still four months to go."
"Don't worry. Although it's not uncommon around this time of year, it still seems as unfathomable to us as it does to you."

And that's all I've got time for this evening I'm afraid. Oh yes, and my elbow's a lot better, thanks for asking.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

night on the tiles

Not for us the trendy wine bars and chart music of Leicester city centre. Oh no, this evening my girlfriend and I caught the bus to the neighbouring village of Rothley, where I introduced her to fish and chips, on a bench in the village square, by the war memorial. Then we walked through quiet country lanes, past the green where they were playing cricket, to the railway station to look at the steam trains. And back home on the bus to arrive just before 8.30.

It was exactly the sort of date they used to go on in the 1920s, I imagine.

I cut quite a dash in my new pullover and woollen slacks,* while Beatriz looked as stunning as ever in her favourite shapeless coat/dress garment.

* That's right, I'm sexy again.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

How sexy am I?

Having arthritis, conjunctivitis, a wounded elbow and something that isn't herpes all at the same time, doesn't make me feel as good about my self-image as you might imagine. To give you some example of how bad the problem is, I can tell you that I'm a long way from feeling even as sexy as a single Nochero* - let alone all four of them.

I'd even say that I don't even feel as sexy as Argentinean telly's Susana Gimenez.

No. Today I feel about this sexy:

Only with slightly better clothes.

* According to my dictionary, "Nochero" translates as "bedside table". Bet you didn't expect that.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

elbow woe

Over the few days we spent travelling between Salta and Leicester, my left elbow enjoyed steadily less and less freedom of movement, until on Monday I could barely move it at all, and decided to take it to hospital to find out what was up.

After a couple of x-rays the answer came: “You’ve broken it.” Which was odd, as you’d think I’d at least remember doing something like that – even in the hectic last few days of preparing to leave. Nevertheless, there it was. The kindly nurse put my arm in a sling, gave me some painkillers and told me to bugger off.

The next morning I got a call from the hospital, asking me to come in for some more tests. This time I was seen by a doctor, who asked a lot of questions regarding my immediate medical history. I explained about the dodgy yoghurt, and also mentioned that a few days before I left, I’d been to see a doctor who had diagnosed me with what he said was herpes. Again, I thought this diagnosis highly improbable, as my girlfriend and I have been together, and with no-one else, for over a year.
“Why didn’t you mention that last night?”
“My mum was there, with my girlfriend! I’d rather not raise the spectre of STDs in front of her while they’re still getting to know each other. The finger of suspicion is going to point, if you know what I mean! Anyway it’s not herpes.”

So then, under x-ray, the doctor used a big fat syringe to suck a fair quantity of what looked like Mountain Dew out of my elbow. “Don’t worry,” he reassured me. “It’s supposed to be yellow, not green, and there’s not supposed to be that much of it, but it seems to be free of infection. And gout.”
“Well at least I won’t be going the same way Henry VIII did.”
“However, just to be on the safe side, we want to admit you. We may want to cut your elbow open and wash it out later.”
“So it’s not broken then?”

And on Wednesday morning they washed out my elbow. It was brilliant! I had my first ever surgical procedure and my first ever general anaesthetic. Everyone was happy to answer all my many questions, and I was so curious about everything that it didn’t even occur to me to be nervous. All in all it was a thoroughly interesting day.

In the afternoon another doctor came to see me. Although I was infection-free, I did have arthritis, which is an odd thing for a 28-year-old to have. And an elbow that wasn’t broken. And herpes that couldn’t be herpes. But this doctor could see the connection between all of these! I had, he informed me, a virtually textbook case of Reiter’s Syndrome. Reiter’s occurs when the body over-reacts to intestinal problems by giving itself the problems outlined above. The only thing I lacked was conjunctivitis, apparently.

And so when I woke up yesterday with the Eye of Sauron, I was thereby assured that the diagnosis had been the correct one.

Now all I need to know is what they’re going to do about it.

Next: Some thoughts on doctors and the NHS.

Friday, August 18, 2006

It's going to take a bit of getting used to.

This week we have mostly been experiencing culture shock (Beatriz), reverse culture shock (me), and spending three days in hospital where it was learned that in certain circumstances, eating a dodgy yoghurt can lead to fluid being drained out of the elbow (also me). So that explains why I haven’t been blogging a lot lately then.

The hospital story, which I think is worthy of an episode of Doctor House, will have to wait though. Until then, let’s get back to this blog’s primary stock in trade: cultural differences between England and Argentina.

To put it mildly, Beatriz and I were both completely blown away by England. Here are some of the things we’ve experienced this week.


With the (possibly mythical) 35 degree heatwave now well in the past, we were greeted with humid yet overcast conditions, which I found quite pleasant, and which Beatriz described as “crap” - a comment that she promptly followed up with: “Poor England. It doesn’t have a summer.” She has been forced to admit though, that all the rain does make the countryside a lovely shade of green. And also that hot, cold, rainy, sunny and cloudy all in the same day, and even all at the same time, is kind of exciting.


One of the more tiresome things that the Argentines couldn’t get enough of telling me, was “the English are much colder than we are.”An assertion that seems to rest entirely on the observation that Argentines kiss each other upon meeting, while English people don’t. And in truth, I did find myself wondering if I would return home to find that the English were in fact reserved and uptight, but that I just hadn’t noticed it before.

However, after taking careful note of how the people here have interacted with us over the past few days, ranging from my family, to shop staff, to people in the street, to the doctors and nurses in the hospital, Beatriz and I are in full agreement that the view that English people are cold is a fucking myth. Unless by “cold” you mean “very friendly and polite.”

Food and drink

“There are too many different sauces here! Why do you need so many?!” In Argentina there are three sauces: ketchup, mayonnaise and mustard. Not real mustard, mind. Only American hot-dog style mustard. So the sheer variety of sauces, dressings and pickles on offer here came as something as a surprise.

Without even making any particular effort I’ve managed to introduce Beatriz to cranberry juice, crystalised ginger, oyster sauce, pickled beetroot, plain unsweetened yoghurt, stilton cheese, cottage cheese, carrot cake, brie, brown bread, coleslaw, Danish pastries, baked beans, basmati rice, coffee and walnut cake, sparkling grape juice and many other fine delicacies that she’s never seen before. She’s also willingly embraced the concept of drinking about ten cups of tea a day. In short, we’ve been living the good life and it’s a good thing I lost all that weight after my dodgy yoghurt-drinking experience, because it means I can indulge with a clear conscience.

Next: The National Health Service Experience

Friday, August 11, 2006

The End

Oh alright, it's not The End. Which means I don't have to bore everyone by writing some kind of emotional summary of the past year and nine months spent in Argentina. Anyway, hopefully you'll already have a bit of an idea of what it's like here from reading my previous posts.

Although I quite like the idea of a blog with a definite End, hopefully I'll be able to continue blogging on the subject of cultural differences between England and Argentina once Beatriz and I are back in England. However I expect I'll have less time on my hands, so it'll probably be written on a less than daily basis.

Here is what the next few days contain:

This afternoon
Fly to Buenos Aires, where we'll meet Beatriz's other brother, and her sister.

Fly to Heathrow, via Sao Paulo and Frankfurt. There may be quite some time spent in airports with book and CD player. If the airport authorities try to part me from either of those, I'm not going to be in a good mood, as neither of them are liquid.
I, however, am over two-thirds liquid, so hopefully they'll let me on the flight.

Arrive in Heathrow (possibly). Meet parents. Beatriz met them when they came to Salta in March, so at least that's one thing she doesn't have to be stressed about. Drive to Leicester. Beatriz will be amazed at the careful and courteous nature of the British driver. Meet uncle and aunt at home. Eat. Sleep.

Yesterday's foiled terrorist plot made me think of the second part of this quote from everyone's favourite humourless ranting scientist, Richard Dawkins:

"Out of all of the religious sects in the world, we notice an uncanny coincidence: the overwhelming majority just happen to choose the one that their parents belong to. Not the sect that has the best evidence in its favour, the best miracles, the best moral code, the best cathedral, the best stained glass, the best music: when it comes to choosing from the smorgasbord of available religions, their potential virtues seem to count for nothing, compared to the matter of heredity.

This is an unmistakable fact; nobody could seriously deny it. Yet people with full knowledge of the arbitrary nature of this heredity, somehow manage to go on believing in their religion, often with such fanaticism that they are prepared to murder people who follow a different one."

I've travelled to lots of countries and met Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Atheists and people who thanked the Earth Mother before every meal. And (unsurprisingly) I discovered that people everywhere are all pretty much the same, and their religiosity, or lack of it, has nothing to do with how good a person they are.

But what if you needed to justify blowing up aeroplanes with the sole intention of killing your own countrymen? Nothing but religion could possibly be used to justify that one. And bearing in mind the purely arbitrary nature of religiosity, that's very weird indeed.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Worst-kept city

  1. Pride's an odd thing.
  2. Although "Best-Kept Village" competitions may be won mainly through the bullying tactics of psychopathic old biddies, I'm beginning to think they're not such a bad idea after all.
The other day I saw a poster from the government of Salta, which said "El orgullo de haber nacido en esta tierra!", or "The pride to have been born in this land!" These posters are fairly common. I used to see them in Mendoza as well.

Salteños are proud to call their city "Salta la Linda" ("Salta the Beautiful") and with good reason. The city boasts some fine colonial architecture, and nestles in the heart of some gorgeous countryside full of mountains and sub-tropical forests. However, correct me if I'm wrong, but normally if you're proud of something, don't you tend to want to keep it nice? So why do so many people here drop litter, fill the streets with traffic fumes and let the paint flake off their once-beautiful houses*?

Ah! But look more clearly at what it says on that poster. It doesn't say you're supposed to be proud of the city or the countryside, you're only supposed to proud to have been born there. Excellent! That way you get to feel proud of yourself without making any effort whatsoever. What a benevolent government Salta has.

So over the years, as the tourists come to see the increasingly traffic-clogged streets, and breathe the fumes while wading ankle-deep in rubbish, at least the people they meet will be proud to have been born there.

Wouldn't a poster that said "Let's take pride in keeping Salta beautiful! (Stop dropping litter, you bastards!)" have been a bit more constructive? Together with a few more litter bins and some traffic calming measures? But no, those things would require a small amount of effort.

*Perhaps it's because paint in Argentina is so expensive that even the President can't afford it. The Casa Rosada (Pink House) where he lives, is only pink on the front. Round the back and sides it's a grubby brown.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006


Over the past few weeks I've become engrossed in the online journal of Miss Cupcake, who blogs daily on one of my favourite subjects: food and Argentine culture.

Two. Two favourite subjects.

After I wrote about the flavour-free disaster that is the Great Argentinean Sandwich a few weeks ago I've been meaning to write more about food, but Miss Cupcake has not only gone and covered just about every Argentine food-related subject I could ever think of, she's done so in an entertaining in and well-informed manner as well, so I'm left with not a lot to say. But, dammit, I'm going to be intimidated by her excellent blog no longer! So here's what I have to say about the food in this country.

First the good. Happily, there's a comparatively small range of pre-prepared, pre-packaged food available in the supermarkets of Argentina. As a result, food here tends to be home-made and free of artificial ingredients. Plus the meat and vegetables themselves are cheap and of high quality, and dried pulses, lentils and so forth are freely available. All you need for a healthy and reasonably varied diet is here. And that's got to be a Good Thing, however you look at it.

Now the bad... oh no... the bad...

Argentine cookery has to be some of the blandest in the world. While the Italians enjoy fresh basil, sun-dried tomatoes and olive oil, and the Thais enjoy coconut milk, chilli and ginger... the Argentines enjoy sugar and salt.

Herbs and seasonings have no place in the repertoir of the Argentinean cook - and why should they? For flavour, you simply add salt, and when you start getting used to it and the food starts to seem bland again, put in some more!

As an example, in Cafayate at the weekend I ordered slow-cooked goat served on a bed of mashed potatoes, with a Torrontés (local wine) sauce. Sounds good - and highly imaginative by the standards of this country - but the problem was that I could taste neither goat, nor potato, and especially not the Torrontés. Only salt.

Meanwhile sugar consumption starts young, when parents put it in their children's milk, then progresses via Coca Cola in the baby's bottle, copious consumption of tooth-achingly sweet cakes and desserts, and fizzy drinks with every meal. Eventually the point is reached where nothing is complete without sugar. Despite my health warnings, my girlfriend can't enjoy her tea unless it's got four sugars in it.* Her mum, who's had more years to get used to it, has to put in so much that the spoon stands up on its own. Then there's her (30-something) brother, who feels that his orange juice isn't palatable unless it has three sugars in it.

So, given all that information, how is it that the Argentines aren't a race of fat toothless diabetics with high blood pressure?

Firstly there's vanity, which keeps girls thin through eating very little, and also leads to eating disorders aplenty. But most importantly there's exercise. As most people don't have a car, they tend to walk or cycle everywhere, which means that despite the terrible diet, they're still thinner on average than English people are.

* Four sugars! I'm with George Orwell on this one - if you have to put any sugar in your tea, you clearly don't like tea, and should drink something else.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Three things you may not know about llamas

1. Somebody in Cafayate clearly likes them rather a lot. Who wouldn't want to live in a house like this!

2. The incomparable Hilaire Belloc liked them enough to write a poem about them, which I'll take the opportunity to reproduce here, if I may.

The Llama

The Llama is a woolly sort of fleecy hairy goat,
With an indolent expression and an undulating throat
Like an unsuccessful literary man.

And I know the place he lives in (or at least I think I do)
It is Ecuador, Brazil or Chile - possibly Peru;
You must find it in the Atlas if you can.

The Llama of the Pampasses you never should confound
(In spite of a deceptive similarity of sound)
With the Lama who is Lord of Turkestan.

For the former is a beautiful and valuable beast,
But the latter is not lovable nor useful in the least;
And the Ruminant is preferable surely to the Priest
Who battens on the woeful superstitions of the East,
The Mongol of the Monastery of Shan.

3. The llama is the most religious of all animals, regularly attending mass in Catholic churches. Indeed, their religion is the chief means of distinguishing them from their cousins the Alpacas, who are new-age pagans, into crystals and so forth. They are also related to Guanacos, who are nihilists - that means they believe in NOTHING.

Friday, August 04, 2006

The Tour, part 3

To round off your tour, let's visit one of the most popular tourist attractions.

On the hillside overlooking the city is the monument built to comemorate General Güemes, Salta's most famous kicker of Spanish ass.

If you continue up the hill behind the monument, you'll find thousands of steps leading upwards...

And after half an hour or so (or 5 minutes in the cable car) you'll find yourself atop Cerro San Bernardo, looking down on the city. Those are the Sub-Andean Sierras, dimly visible in the background!

Cerro San Bernado translates as Saint Bernard Hill. There are two theories as to where the name comes from. The most popular is that it's named after Saint Bernard, the patron saint of injured skiers. However, there aren't any skiers in these parts (not even very severely lost ones) so the theory doesn't really hold water.

The hill is actually named after the actor Bernard Hill, who was canonised in 2004 after his sterling work in the second and third Lord of the Rings films.

Well I hope you enjoyed the tour. I'm off on a tour of my own this weekend to the nearby town of Cafayate, where they grow grapes and llamas. I'll return to these pages on Monday.

The Tour, part 2

Apart from the obvious tourist attractions of the cathedral that makes bingly-bongly noises and some very nice, slightly crumbly colonial architecture, what does Salta city centre have to offer?

This is the central plaza. Argentine culture is outdoorsy and social, and all cities have plazas sprinkled around liberally, where people sit and pass the time of day.

Salta also boasts a couple of pedestrian streets. And it could really do with more!

Salta's main distinguishing feature, which the tourist guides often neglect to mention, is that the city centre is visited by over three trillion cars a day - something the 16th century town planners completely failed to anticipate. Things are OK on Belgrano, which is a 5-lane one-way street where the traffic moves along nicely...

...but the situation on most of the streets is bordering on lunacy, particularly around 1pm, when everyone rushes home for lunch. Note also the narrow pavements, which ensure that the situation for pedestrians is pretty much the same as for the cars, but with fewer exhaust fumes.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Tour, part 1

Before I leave next week, I really should show you around the place...

This is my street. Relax! All the houses here have running water, electricity and cable TV. The streets are safe to walk at night and it's only 10 minutes by bus from the city centre.

One of my students told me that 20% of Argentineans are rich, 40% are poor and 40% are very poor, to the extent that they get by on $3 a day. The people who live in our barrio are definitely in the middle 40%.

As I took this photo on Monday when the weather was abysmal, the dogs that usually wander the streets are all indoors.

This is my girlfriend's family's house. The bars and railings motif is phenomenally popular in Argentina, and can be seen decorating houses of all sorts, all over the country. The family have got a shop, so they do alright for themselves. On the outside it's humble, but on the inside it's very nice, with all mod cons.

Only two blocks from the house and we've got mettled roads! Between the two carriageways is a large drainage channel. During the dry winter the locals use it to store carrier bags and empty Coke bottles, but in the summer it provides an outlet for the torrential rain.

This is a perfectly ordinary street in a residential area in the city centre.