It’s raining leaves

The weather’s been unusual enough this year that fall colors and the actual fall of leaves from the trees is late. This morning, though, after last night’s hard frost, it was literally raining leaves, at least if you were standing under the ashes and walnuts and a gingko tree at the park.

[youtube]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZqodJme7QlE[/youtube]

 

Our visit to Tippecanoe Battlefield

We made a quick stop at Tippecanoe Battlefield near Lafayette, Indiana. There was a museum we didn’t have time for this visit, and the battlefield included an obelisk monument with a statue of William Henry Harrison. A wrought-iron fence enclosed the battlefield. The gate was unlocked, and we could go in and out. More mysterious were the steps that led up an over the fence. We had a good laugh at it, and even made a video.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBZdEu53qdU[/youtube]

My brother looked it up later, and the steps are called a “stile,” as in “turnstile”— something that allows passage while maintaining the barrier. It’s purpose at this battlefield is still a mystery, though.

Santiago

On our return trip from Argentina, we had a long layover in Santiago, Chile. We’ve connected through that airport several times before but I had never actually been into the city, leaving Chile out of my reach beyond the windows of the international departures terminal. On this trip Lorena suggested we visit the city.

We only had time for a quick jaunt into the city center. It’s probably not fair for me to compare it with Argentina. The only comparable city there is Buenos Aires, where I spent an equally brief layover nine years ago on my very first visit to South America. That being said, what I saw of Santiago was surprisingly orderly (and a bit militarized). I did not fear for my life or the lives of pedestrians while riding in the taxis. Perhaps the Chileans have a touch of laid-back Pacific Coast attitude.

Speaking of pedestrians, some of the downtown pedestrian signals are whimsically animated.

Animated crosswalk signal

So Santiago is not so mysterious to me anymore. Unfortunately we were really, really tired at the end of a long trip. We did see the Plaza de Armas, the Catedral Metropolitana de Santiago, the Palacio de la Moneda, and Cerro Santa Lucia.

Oh yeah, and the girls are prettier in Argentina. Sorry, chilenas.

In the Sierras de Córdoba

There was still ice on the ground in Iowa from December’s snowstorm but it was about 90 °F when I landed in Córdoba almost two weeks ago. Fortunately, Lore was staying with her parents in Villa Giardino up in the Sierras de Córdoba, rugged green hills filled with horses. The weather there was pleasant and dry with some cool nights, good for a walk along the Camino de los Artesanos (a country road with art galleries) or to the diquecito (a small dam), a dip in the pool, a horseback ride, or a cook-out in the quincho (an outdoor patio with an asador for grilling meat).

On Thursday, Lore’s parents drove us to Jesús María, a city in the farmlands down on the pampas for the Festival Nacional e Internacional de la Doma y Folklore (or La Doma), which is sort of national rodeo and folk music festival. It’s a big national event. People from all over the country come to it. It’s the sort of event where gauchos don’t just compete but are part of the audience, so there were gauchos everywhere with their hats and knives and silver-studded belts. In between rounds of doma there were musical performances. On the night we went the music was less folklore than domestic rock and roll. This video is an example of folklore:

Folklore dancers

Doma is a horse-breaking competition, like bronco-riding, where the jinetes, or horsemen, have to ride on a bucking horse for ten seconds, and are scored by a jury. The jineteadas (individual attempts at doma) are narrated by a relator and are accompanied by a live folklore band which plays along to the action. Between jineteadas, a payador entertains the crowd with an improvised rhyming song about what just happened. It is amazing. The following two videos might give you an idea of it.

Doma competitor hangs on

Doma competitor falls off

The next day Lore and I spent the day in La Cumbre, a cute little town higher up the Punilla Valley above Villa Giardino. We rented mountain bikes and pedaled up the dirt road into the hills to Estancia El Rosario, an alfajor (a type of cookie) factory in an old estancia or ranch. We also rode up to Dique San Geronimo, a reservoir with hiking trails and waterfalls. On the way back we stopped at a fruit orchard to see if they had some fresh berries, but it was too late in the season. Back down in the valley we visited a lavender plantation, where the flowers are distilled for perfumes.

La Falda, the larger town down valley from Villa Giardino, is home to the Hotel Edén, a partially restored grand hotel that, along with the railroad, got the Punilla Valley started as a resort area. The hotel has a really interesting history. It was built by Germans who had some unfortunate affinities for Adolf Hitler. The night we went only the ghost tour was available, which was more for amusement than education. They did a pretty good job of scaring the bejeezus out of everybody.

Hotel Edén
The front entrance to the Hotel Edén, lit up at night

Lore’s family— brothers, sisters, and cousins— converged on her parents’ home for the weekend. Her brother-in-law Emiliano is something of a master griller, so on Saturday evening he parked himself in the quincho and grilled up some pork and beef (and cheese, believe it or not). As someone who actually knows how to cook pork, he could be very popular in Iowa.

Sunday was the big get-together. There were no meats grilled on the quincho, but lots of homemade empanadas. The pool and the foosball table (called metegol) were popular, and were followed by a game of tejo, like lawn bowling played with wooden discs.

As if all that wasn’t enough local color, the Dakar Rally came to town on Monday. I don’t think we were along the actual route of the race but some cars, trucks, motorcycles, and ATVs were passing through on their way to the next stage. The rally is a big deal in the sierras (they already had their own major competition, the Rally de Argentina, before the Dakar relocated to South America) and the people gathered along Ruta 38 to wave to the competitors, who honk back.

Spectators cheer rally truck

I always enjoy my visits to Argentina but this trip was particularly pleasant. Maybe that’s because I was full of empanadas, or maybe because I got to conocer mejor las sierras, to better know the hills, of which my wife and her family are very fond.

Our fair fairgrounds

You might say that the county fair is a place to see, smell, and step in different kinds of shit. And I would agree with you but if you watch where you walk it’s a lot of fun.

A big brown cow in a stable.
The farmer showed us this large but friendly cow.

I’ve always found agricultural fairs to be educational because suburbanites like me can see what food looks like before it goes to the hot dog factory. This was the last night of the Johnson County Fair but there were still some animals in the exhibition buildings. The sheep were well-trimmed, the pigs stinky, and the cows huge. And I ate a chili dog so I had a real farm-to-table experience.

Two teenagers sprinkle penned pigs with water.
Two future farmers sprinkled the pigs with water.

While Iowa City sometimes seems far removed from Iowa’s rural base, the county fair, which is just on edge of town, is pretty rustic. Country music lives there in exile. In the swine building, some thoughtful farm kids sprinkled hot pigs with water. Later, a fast-talking auctioneer on a wagon sold off chainsaw-carved sculptures. Lore was afraid if I lifted my camera to take pictures I’d accidentally buy a giant wooden raccoon. I got my pictures though.

Spectators watch an auctioneer sell wood carvings from a wagon.
There is a lot of Iowa in this picture.
Colorful rides in a county fair midway.
Colorful carnival rides

To Lore the colorful fair midways are typically American (she says they are in a lot of movies and music videos; I’ll have to pay closer attention to that). So we got on the paratrooper ride (before the chili dog, wisely) and then played some skee-ball. Our low scores won us a couple of inflatable animals. I chose a shark, Lore chose a dolphin. I think mine would win in a battle, though thematically both animals were out of place there.

So here’s to some good old-fashioned wholesome fun: the county fair.

Christmas and New Year in Argentina

A colorful row of Christmas stockins hang from the edge of counter.
Lore found some colorful Christmas stockings to hang.

Christmas in Argentina is celebrated on December 24, but things don’t really get started until late at night. Christmas stockings are not traditional here, so for fun Lore and I brought some for her family. We hung them from the counter in the dining room.

At midnight the adults all brought the gifts to the tabletop tree. Then we brought Lore’s five-year old nephew in and told him that Papa Noel (Santa Claus) had come. Lore’s youngest sister even dressed up as Papa Noel and pretended to be caught leaving the house. Oddly, even in the subtropical summer heat he still dresses for the North Pole. For a nineteen year old girl my sister-in-law made a pretty good Papa Noel.

After midnight we exchanged gifts. Outside the entire city erupted in fireworks—another benefit of summertime Christmas. Argentina doesn’t bother with the exercise of outlawing or discouraging fireworks in the name of safety, and they are everywhere. Some people lit globos, paper hot-air balloons that sail glowing overhead.

Driving Lore’s grandmother and aunt home, we passed a club where some celebrating was to happen. It was still empty, as it was only around 2 a.m. and much too early to start partying. Lore’s younger siblings went out later but we took a pass on the all-night dancing this time.

Saturday, December 25 was more of a take-it-easy day. We actually swam in a backyard swimming pool on Christmas. It was a hot day, but the pool was pleasant in the late afternoon. We shared mate in the shade afterward. Taking mate is a nice, easy-going ritual of conversation and passing around tea that we sip from a common straw.

All this swimming and hanging out in the yard reminds me that Argentina is not “Chrismassy” from an American point of view. Of course the weather is not Christmas-like, but the decorations are pretty minimal and the gift-giving is modest. I think Argentina’s Christmas lacks the excess I’ve come to despise, and that is okay with me.

It was hot. The dryness made the heat tolerable, especially indoors, but the heat sort of crept up on us and wore us down. I think humidity, for all the discomfort it causes, is a gift in the sense that it alerts you to unpleasantly hot weather sooner rather than later.

A man and two women on a street stage beat drums with their hands.
A band of hippie drummers performed at the craft fair.

We’d wait for it to cool off before going downtown. On Sunday we went to the Paseo de los Artesanos—also known locally as “los hippies”—a popular weekly street fair. The vendors aren’t so much hippies as independent designers and crafters. In the U.S. these fairs are common enough that it’s hard to find the good stuff among all the junk, but this fair was pretty good. Lore says the same is happening with this fair, though; it has outgrown the plaza and many vendors have opened permanent shops on the adjacent streets.

Meat cooks over hot coals in a brick barbecue pit.
Meat cooks over hot coals in the asador.

The cool Sunday evening was also an occasion for asado (barbecue) with Lore’s friends. We brought bags of surplus Halloween candy to share. American candy goes down well here, though Lore’s friends didn’t quite know what to make of Tootsie Rolls.

The heat wave intensified on Monday to over 100 degrees Fahrenheir, and the local news announced a “heat alert”. I knew it got hot in Argentina but that was hottest I had experienced in my several trips there. The news announcer said to stay home and take a nap in the afternoon, and we obeyed.

After it cooled off, we walked across town to visit Lore’s grandmother and aunt. On the way we walked through the National University campus. In front of the business school there was a big mess, like an elephant had thrown up on the walk. Lore pointed and said, “That’s what happens when you get your degree.” As if that wasn’t enough of an eyebrow-raising thought, just then a young woman walked past wearing only her underwear, but covered from head to foot in multicolored mess. Lore explained that when you graduate, your friends cut off your clothes and douse you with food, paint, confetti, or whatever they can bring from home. “You have to make sure you wear nice underwear and bring something to sit on so your car doesn’t get dirty,” she said.

The next day the the heat wave broke. We went to a downtown bookstore to buy a Spanish dictionary. I mean a real one, with definitions in Spanish, not a Spanish to English dictionary. My Spanish was very, very rusty on this trip and the dictionary will help with that (and with Scrabble too).

Lore tried to explain peanut butter to her mother. Descriptions of peanut butter always get the same reaction from non-Americans and I could never understand why. It’s so simple and mundane that it hardly merits a mention, but some people find it as exotic as I might find fried grasshoppers. It also turns out our use of fruit as part of any meal (like breakfast) is a bit odd. Fruit, to Argentinians, is thought of as an after-lunch dessert. So my breakfast of fresh fruit and a cup of yogurt stood out as a little bizarre.

For all that, Argentina has never been very shocking to me. I’m always struck by how similar it is to the U.S. And there are I times I can’t tell the difference. We went shopping at Patio Olmos, a downtown shopping mall, and ate lunch in the food court. When I squinted and blurred out the Spanish menus I felt like I could have been anywhere. Lore related to her family my comment that I didn’t think Argentina was a Third World country (more like a Second World country, as I like to joke). That was worth a couple of days of discussion over tea.

At the end of the year the shops were open during the day, but waiters and cab drivers seemed grouchy and in a hurry to go home. We passed New Year’s Eve with a nice chicken dinner with Lore’s family on their patio. They don’t watch television—there is no ball drop like in Times Square—but as expected all hell broke loose at the appointed moment.

The fireworks in the neighborhood were even more intense than on Christmas. The most spectacular thing about these fireworks was their ubiquitousness. Since they go off in all directions you have to pay attention, so as not miss anything but also for your safety.

Pastures on rolling green hills under a stormy gray sky.
The sierras were stormy and a little chilly but still green and pretty.

On New Year’s Day Lore’s mom and stepfather took us up the scenic route to Villa Giardino. We went first through Córdoba’s suburban towns and then by a new highway over the sierras. The sierras were cool and covered in lush green pastures full of horses and cows. The paved highway isn’t complete, so we took a bumpy dirt road that wound its way down the other side of the hills to La Falda, where my mother-in-law grew up.  La Falda is a cute summer town but most of the cafes were closed for the holiday.

A tree of lights rises above two massive gift boxes.
Plaza España was somewhat improved by the cheerful Christmas decorations.

At night, back in Córdoba, we were looking for something to do. After the rain stopped, we went to Paseo del Buen Pastor for a lomito (like a Philly cheese steak but with much more cholesterol). We also strolled through the Plaza España to see the Christmas decorations. The concrete monuments were wrapped up like giant gift boxes and a tall tree of Christmas lights rose from its center of the plaza.

In our down time, Lore and I flipped through her mom’s old magazines. One biweekly, Caras, is a bit like an Argentinian version of People. I was struck by how many celebrities Argentina has for a country with a medium-sized population; the percentage of whom appear in this magazine seems extremely high. Pretty much anybody wealthy, prominent, or successful who wants their picture taken is a celebrity. My mother-in-law calls them figureti: those who stick their heads into other people’s photos. They are sort of like an volunteer army of Kim Kardashians and Paris Hiltons, who fill the gaps in the endless celebrity news cycle.

This was not much of a sight-seeing trip, so I don’t have many good photos to share. It was more of a visiting, celebrating, and shopping trip and I was glad to put the camera away for most of it.

Ohi Day

This was a morning of shopping. We got an early start and there was some sunshine. Fira was very quiet until the cruise ship passengers came ashore. From the hilltop we could see the shuttle boats ferrying them from the mooring the shore. Shortly after they came flooding down from the cable car station.

A cruise ship docked blue water between volcanic islands under white clouds.
With the sun out, we got to see the blueness of the sea.
Teenage girls parade in traditional European dress.
Some of the young women in the parade wore traditional Greek dresses.

After shopping we checked out of the hotel. We had some time to kill and watched a parade of island school children, some in national dress, marching along the main square, carrying flags. After marching the kids formed circles in the street and performed some dances. Turns out today is a national holiday: Ohi (“No”) Day, and so the locals were out enjoying themselves. After the very quiet early morning Fira seemed much busier than it did yesterday.

In the afternoon we rode the bus to Kamari for a short visit to the beach. It was much warmer and less windy down there, but still a bit too cold for bathing. “How can the sea be so blue?” Lore wondered. Our beach visit was more like a short snooze in the black sand. I had some baklava in a beachfront cafe, though.

Blue water washes up on a rocky black sand beach.
I don’t know how that tide pool managed to be so blue on the black sand.

The bus ride to and from Kamari, and our departure from the island showed the more mundane parts of Santorini and Greece. The villages in the lowlands are not obsessively painted. The departure area in the airport was somehow not as nice as the arrival area. Stray dogs wandered around in the terminal, a reminder that Greece is still a Second World country. The classy tourists must come by sea.

Back in the ancient capital, we’re becoming regular experts at getting from the airport to central Athens. Or maybe we just realize how easy it is. The buses and the subway are nice and clean.

We are that fulcrum point of vacation today: when the anticipation and excitement reaches an equilibrium with the realities of beginning the return trip. The memories are starting to outnumber the plans for the rest of the week.

This was a wasted night in Athens. There is not enough time—and we’re too tired—to do anything this evening or tomorrow morning before we fly back to Paris. This will be a day of transition and travel, time to take it easy and give the camera a rest.

Eiffel Tower

We had a good flight to Paris. Everything was exactly on time with a take-off and a landing so smooth we barely felt them. We did a passable job of transporting ourselves around the city.

A tower casts a long shadow over a large city.
The Eiffel Tower casts a long shadow over Paris.

We needed a nap at the hotel, so we got to our first order of business in the very late afternoon. The Eiffel Tower was crowded and had long lines. It was also very cold and windy. We got to the second level for sunset and to the top as the city lights blinked on in the dusk. The passengers who crammed into the lift car to the top rode in total silence. We heard only the clanking of the lift car cable. Perhaps we were all in awe of the legendary city dropping from the copper-colored steel beams.

When we descended the steps to leave the tower, we were greeted by the legion of immigrants who sell cheap tower souvenirs on the plaza; five for €1, which they could say in many tourist languages. They displayed their wares on cloth blankets with straps, and simply scooped them up in one move as they scattered at the sign of the police, who passed by often.

A man in front of the Eiffel Tower lit in gold at night.
The obligatory Eiffel Tower photo.

By the time we got down it was night and the tower was lit in gold. For a few minutes at 8 o’clock the tower sparkled with thousands of bright white lights like camera flashes. It was literally and figuratively brilliant, as if the tower was taking pictures of us taking pictures of it. An amusing bit of playful mockery, I thought, probably dreamed up by some Paris intellectual to make a statement about spectacle-gawking.

We wrapped up the night with crepes and coffee in Bastille. My crepe had Roquefort cheese and walnuts. The flavor was unbelievable. We didn’t see any strikes or protests, though there were some disruptions to train service. I did see more nudity in five minutes of late night French television than in my whole life on American television.