This is my third visit to Mendoza and the third time I haven’t gone to a bodega.
This is unacceptable for a variety of reasons. First of all, Mendoza isn’t just wine country, it’s MALBEC WINE COUNTRY. For anyone with a set of tastebuds and eyeballs, you’ll know that Malbec is lovely and that I prefer drinking this over almost anything else in the world. Furthermore, I’ve had three chances to get my ass to a vineyard and spend my day lazily tasting wines and gazing out over the grapes. Have I done this? No. Why not? I have no idea. Maybe next time.
This visit to Mendoza has been very pleasing and lovely for other reasons. We’re going to be here about a week in total and in this week I have tried more typical Argentine dishes than Chilean dishes in my whole year and a half in Chile.
Some of you may already know my thoughts on Chilean cuisine (see tag: Hey Chile, you could use a little more salt), but this isn’t just a personal palatte issue, or even a personal vendetta. It’s a fact: Chilean Cuisine is notably sparse.
Typical Chilean dishes are as follows: Completos (Hot dogs piled with avocado, mayonnaise, and tomato in what resembles a veritable condiment boat), Curanto (a big stew of meat, chicken, and seafood), Chorillana (French Fries, fried egg, hot dog, and caramelized onions, all mixed together. Great hangover food. Also great heart attack food), Empanadas (think of an overgrown hot pocket from scratch, with a variety of vegetable/meat/seafood and cheese fillings).
Also: seafood in general, because of the access to the sea.
That constitutes la cocina chilena. And it took me the full year and a half and plenty of interrogation to get the real scoop on Chilean cuisine. It’s just…not their strong suit.
But here in Argentina?
I get to Argentina and take a bite of bread and there is a shuddering wave of contentment. I think to myself, “Yes. This is what BREAD tastes like!” And the butter is tastier. And the asados….don’t get me started.
In this one week in Mendoza I’ve had two traditionally Argentinian homemade dishes.
The first one was pastel de papa (potato pie). Our friends Sergio and Sandra made this dish with Sandra’s 1st-generation Italian immigrant grandmother, and watching the process alone convinced me that this was already my favorite dish without even having tried it.
Thin layer of flimsy dough. Slather on a nice layer of mashed potatoes, add a layer of “picadillo”, which is essentially ground beef and onions and picante and tomato mixed together. Then a layer of cheese; another layer of mashed potatoes; and then final layer of thin flimsy dough. The dough is pinched shut at the perimeter, coated with a whisked egg glaze, and then it bakes for 30 minutes.
And then you put it in your mouth and the heavens open and angels shriek and things rain from the sky.
The next dish I had the extreme pleasure of trying for the first time this visit was locro de choclo. Hell if I know what this means in English, except that choclo means corn, and this was certainly a corn-based dish.
I was able to witness some of the cooking process and it seemed that corn boiled for three hours and then suddenly onions were cooking and it was ready. I think I missed part of this process.
At any rate, what ends up in front of your face at the lunch table is a steaming bowl of (let’s say) corn soup, with a nice variety of condiments, a dollop of homemade tomato sauce with caramelized onions, and a couple variety of squash or potatoes mixed in. Two or three cubes of a creamy cheese are added, you wait until it no longer scorches the top layer of skin from inside your mouth, and then you shovel that down your throat.
Sopped up at the end, of course, with homemade Argentinian bread.
*kicks leg in the air* YES!
The first time I came to Argentina, I was able to have a few first-timers then: if we’ll recall Jorge’s family greeting us with lamb, and then the crowd favorite milanesa, breaded meat fried to perfection. To be fair, milanesa exists in all countries to some degree (except in Chile). In Mexico, my mama used to make this for me almost on the daily, with a nice side of mashed potatoes. In the USA, it’s consumed under the name country fried steak, also with mashed potatoes.
I don’t know what it is about Chilean food. There are, of course, extremely tasty options available, but mostly in fine ass restaurants with a strong outside influence (as in, the owner studied cooking in France). Desserts in Chile were always pretty disappointing, as well. I don’t know what the problem is. Lack of sweet? Lack of salt? Or lack of full-bodied flavor in general in the ingredients?
We can probably boil the debate down to this: when I first got to Chile, it took me approximately one year to come to terms with the fact that the butter sucked.
I’m talking like, the regular supermarket nice brand. Not the cheap crappy supermarket brand.
After a year there, I found the artesenal butter, made in the countryside of Patagonia, and yeah, that butter was great, and distinct.
But there is something lacking in the majority of Chilean food. It has to go back to what the animals are eating, and any Argentinian will regale you for hours about the superior feeding process of their cows and pigs that allow that award-winning reputation to flourish. Chile doesn’t have bad meat by any means, but there is something under the surface that is missing, and I can’t put my finger on it.
If it doesn’t come from Patagonia/the general south, if it hasn’t had exposure to outside influences, or if you don’t make it yourself…it’s probably going to be bland.
I’m sorry, Chile. I love you, we’ve had great times.
But you could use a little more damn salt.
In April of this year, I went to Mendoza on my first official border run, which I wrote about in the original post, Between Here And There. I spent only two days there — a perfunctory visit as opposed to a sight-seeing, money-spending, OMG-I’m-visiting-vineyards-and-drunk-at-3pm trip like I typically like to have — so when my next border run came up at the end of October, my boyfriend and I decided to make a vacation of it.
(Did I mention Jorge yet? I apologize, blog-o-fiends — I have an Argentinian boyfriend. He is lovely, and darling, and sweet, and supportive, and talented, and a total delight in my life. This month we will celebrate 8 months together. This is his face:)
Jorge’s family is big. They hail from rural Argentina, a total born-n’-bred-on-the-farm type family. Jorge is the youngest of 6 children, and his eldest sibling is over 45 years old. He has 17 nieces and nephews.
I recently returned to civilization (I.E. regular internet use) after a week-and-a-half stint in Argentina, cavorting through countrysides as my boyfriend Jorge and I made the rounds to visit his extensive family. (More on this later!)
The first day of our voyage via bus through the rocky roads of the Andes led us through border control as we crossed in to Argentina. Once we were safely through customs, I paused to take a gander at my passport stamps, as these tend to excite the giddy traveler girl inside me (*ahem* all of them are Chile/Argentina) and I noticed something odd.
The entry stamp for my trip of October 24th, 2013 was right below another stamp into Chile, dated October 24th, 2012.
I unknowingly celebrated my one-year anniversary of Taking the Leap on the exact date itself, and my passport stamps are lovely evidence of this! I couldn’t have planned it better if I tried.
Here’s to one full year of living my dream! I raise my internet glass of Argentinian Malbec wine (which I consumed heartily during my trip in Argentina, being that we visited Malbec Country in Mendoza, and somebody remind me again why I didn’t know about Malbec before??) to this, as I had no idea on October 24th, 2012 where I might be a year later on Ocftober 24th, 2013, but as it turns out, I’m right where I’m supposed to be: happy, healthy, and having a crapton of fun and transformative life experiences.
A year ago, my best friend Leslie, her sister and now-my-friend Amanda and I started out on this adventure not knowing where life would take us, and our paths have all taken surprising and positive turns. There’s something to be said for not having a plan and allowing the wind to take you where it may. In my case, it floated me right into a dream house in a beautiful, artistic city where I spend my days writing, working, learning and loving.
I am so grateful for this year, and for this life, and for all of the things that came before it to lead me to this moment and to who I am today.
Thank you to all of you that have played a part in my journey. I appreciate it so much.
(I’m raising the internet glass of Malbec again — everybody, lift yours too and say “Salud”!)
Argentina and Chile are close neighbors: in the time it would take for me to travel by car between Sandusky and Cincinnati, I had moved from one country to another. Being such close neighbors I had assumed there would be small differences but not many. I also had assumed that, generally speaking, they would be friends. I was wrong on both accounts.
If my childhood, elementary school experiences and general politics of the world have been any indicators at all, I would have realized that those living in close proximity are usually the fiercest of enemies. Maybe enemies is a strong word here, but it’s safe to say that there exists a certain tension between Argentines and Chileans. As a matter of public opinion, both Chileans and Argentines have choice words regarding the other. Most of the things they say are the same on both ends. Both claim to have invented the asado and perfected it. Both regard themselves as slightly if not indisputably superior. I’m speaking in general terms here, the overarching stereotype of public opinion, and don’t mean to proclaim any of these things as facts or even my own opinion. However, it exists, just as unsavory opinions and undercurrents run rampant in the U.S. and every other country of the world. I’ve met as many Chileans who talk down on Argentines as Chileans who don’t give a crap and have tons of Argentine friends
Argentina, however, has a different feel. Like the Portokalos family house in My Big Fat Greek Wedding serving as a painfully obvious physical tribute to Greece, Argentina almost feels like the beacon of Europe within a continent dominated by energies more associated with “typical Latin America”. The people have lighter skin, are taller, trendier. The order and energy of the city here remind me more of Italy and Spain. Distance between countries may not be great down here, but the differences in culture, language and customs can be as different as if they were on opposite ends of the world. Chile’s neighbors alone are the perfect example: third-world Latin America to the north with Peru and Bolivia; trendy, upscale Argentina to the east; and then Chile itself, a blend of Latin America and Europe with a booming economy and first-world standards of living.
Some Notes about Argentina:
- They chill their red wine. I’m not kidding. Isn’t this the biggest no-no of wine connoisseurs everywhere? I had thought so, until I met Argentinians who put ice cubes in their red wine. And then I came to WINE COUNTRY in Argentina and am finding both regular and chilled red wine. My palate is appalled, but being the open-minded gal I am, I shall continue the wine-tasting until I acclimate.
- The Spanish is more musical. Being that this was a haven for Italian immigrants at some point in the past, the Argentinian accent is as melodic and enchanting as Italian. Get a group of Argentinians together and sit back and enjoy.
- Argentinian Spanish has its own set of frustrating peculiarities. “Si po” is replaced by “Si che”; “Weon” gives way to “voludo”. The most confounding part? Argentinians utilize the vosotros verb tense. Anyone from Perkins High School’s Spanish Club will recall that we specifically did not learn that part of speech because “it doesn’t get used that much anymore”. Sigh. Luckily I know enough Spanish to know what I’m being asked/told/shouted/repeated for the fifth time.
- Purchasing one, tiny item in a store does not require four different employees and four unnamed, unadvertised steps. Chile is famous for the Check-Out Hassle; most common stores (apart from the big name chain stores) utilize the four-step checkout, which entails the following: one employee to select your item from the wall of available items, another employee to hand you your ‘check-out ticket’ which you then take to the caja (register) where another employee will handle your money, who then gives you another receipt to take to a final counter where a fourth employee will re-find your items, package them, and hand them to you. The pattern of steps and shuffles this creates across the floor of the store would look like a drunk hectagon. Phew. Learning this was irritating and confusing, to say the least. Argentina’s system is less bureaucratic – I can just wak into a store and buy what I want from one employee – but then again, less checks and balances might be the reason why their economy is suffering at the moment. Who knows.
- Argentinians are physically unable to consume a meal without bread. Also, there exists a vaguely unhealthy obsession with mayonnaise.
There comes a time during every ex-pat’s trip when the “maximum date” allowed on the visa approaches scarily close to the actual date staring back at you on the calendar. If you’ve already approached the Foreigner’s Department and paid $100 for a 90-day extension, have no plans to leave, in fact have already signed a contract for an apartment in an uber-cool part of an even uber-er-cool city, what do you do?
Listen, it sounds shady and illegal and maybe it is in a 100% upstanding-law-abiding-citizen-of-the-world sort of way. But I’m not the only one who relies heavily on this legal loophole. The governments know that extranjeros (foreigners) frequently leave a country for a matter of days or weeks only to return to wherever it was they were staying just to get that extra 90 days. It can be done indefinitely, I suppose, until Immigration starts asking questions. Luckily, it can take years for that to happen. I don’t plan to raise any eyebrows down here, so once it gets suspicious I’ll apply for a different type of visa. Eventually.
This isn’t my first foray with the Border Run. My first experience was Guatemala-Belize when I had my internship with Cafe Yax-ha back in 2008. My friend Annie and I spent a glorious weekend among Mayan Ruins basking in the sun and the strange English of Belize, eating shrimp tacos and sleeping in hammocks outdoors. The Border Run is oftentimes a forced vacation. The level of enjoyment is determined by your attitude and your bank account. Luckily for me, the former is usually pretty good and the second one, well, I’ll make do.
Step One: Buy a ticket to the nearest foreign destination. In this case, it’s Mendoza, Argentina, right in the middle of wine country. It’s only a 6 or 7 (or 8…or 9?) hour bus ride. The only option they had was the overnight bus. Onward to wine country!
Step Two: Pack very little. Unless your Border Run is a multi-week adventure, this is a chance to experience lightweight travel. Which, for me, is a rarity akin to arriving anywhere at the time I said I’d be there, or spotting Bigfoot. I came to Mendoza with a backpack – a regular school backpack, mind you – and my purse. Here are some of the things I left behind: my towel, my yoga mat (EGADS!), all shoes except the ones on my feet, all pants except the ones on my legs, and the variety of clothing that normally accompanies me and fills up the backpack and ipso facto weighs me down. INCREDIBLE. Editor’s Note: I did bring underwear.
Step Three: Go through Customs and Immigrations without any eyebrows being raised or questions asked. If you take the night bus, this will occur precisely at 4am, right during the deepest part of your profoundly-uncomfortable semi-cama bus ride. The night air will feel like Ohio on one of the coldest nights you can remember and you will wait in line for an hour. You will repeatedly thank the heavens that you brought your winter parka and eventually consume the walnuts you had reserved for food for the next day. However, you will successfully smuggle in the apple you really wanted to eat for breakfast because nobody on the Argentinian side actually checked anyone’s luggage, leading you to formulate an extensive list of all the things you could have smuggled in but didn’t.
Step Four: Witness the sunrise on your winding Andean bus trip that all the other passengers the next day said was nauseating and terrifying but surprisingly was the best sleep of your life…despite the profoundly-uncomfortable semi-cama seat.
Step Five: Arrive to said destination at 8am, buy your return ticket for either the next day or the day after, and wander the city. Locate pink-water-spurting fountain. Drink a coffee and do some work long-distance.
Step Six: Meander aimlessly, revel in the hot sun and the new sights and the distinct European feel of the streets despite the fact that Argentina is so close to Chile. Eavesdrop on grisly old Argentinian men discussing business. Locate a yoga studio. Converse with hostelmates once you make it over there.
Step Seven: Remember why you reserved the hostel (money! It’s so cheap! How could you NOT?) and remind yourself of this strongly when you find your bed.
Mine is the middle bed of the three-tiered bunk system.
Step Eight: Repeat steps 6 and 7 as necessary until the departure date. Make sure the wine tour falls in there somewhere as well.
I think this is a fairly comprehensive border run guide. I will update as necessary if I discover any missing crucial bits to the Border Run Guide. For now, though, I hope this can aid some of you as you seek to cross borders, renew visas, and otherwise enjoy life on the fringe.