MY PARENTS ARE COMING! MY PARENTS ARE COMING!
I kept yelling it, and whispering it, and thinking it, as we made our way on our very long, overnight bus from Mendoza, and as we checked into our gorgeous two bedroom luxury apartment in the Recoleta neighborhood of the European-like city. I was SUPER excited for all of the fun that was to come over the next week.
It is a huge deal that my parents came to see us on our trip. You may remember that, back in November 2014, when we told them our travel plans, Mom and Dad were less than thrilled. They were scared for our futures, they were scared for our safety, they were worried that we'd regret making this decision, that we'd fall behind and never be able to catch back up, that other goals that we want to achieve in life will be put in jeopardy by doing something so risky. The four of us yelled and cried and vented every fear and frustration. And soon they came to understand our motivation for taking this trip, and they saw how planned we were and how careful we were with our budget. They understood how we were doing it and what we wanted to get out of it. Soon they came to support us in our decision and it's been so amazing to watch them grow with us over the course of this journey. And now, in the ultimate show of support and love, they've decided to come meet us in Buenos Aires for my 31st birthday! We've come a long, long way in a year and Jake and I are so grateful and happy!
They've never been to South America before, so Argentina was definitely outside their traditional comfort zone. But since Buenos Aires is so European, it still seemed familiar. Together, the four of us chose the neighborhood we would stay in, the ritzy Recoleta, just one block away from the beautiful Alvear Palace Hotel. Our apartment was beautiful - wood floors throughout, great art on the walls, a wonderful kitchen, two very comfy bedrooms, two bathrooms, a balcony, laundry…it's the nicest place we've stayed at on our whole trip! And it was a steal - about $120 per night! That sure beats the hotel prices, by a long shot! And the owner, Alfredo, as wonderful to work with as well. When Jake and I arrived in the morning, we made ourselves comfy at our new home, went grocery shopping, and prepared for the arrival of my parents the next day!
I think I stood on the balcony all day watching for the black car that was driving my parents from the airport to the apartment. And then, at 2pm, it pulled up. I bolted downstairs and hugged my parents before ushering them up to the apartment to hear all about their journey south. "It was TRAUMATIZING," they told us. Oh shoot…"should I open a bottle of wine?" I asked. "YES!"
Well it's true, they did have an awful trip down. I'll let Mom tell it:
Executive Sedan Limousine Service picked us up from home at 1pm and off we went on our first big adventure in a long, long time! Departing LAX is usually uneventful, but not today. This was the first day since 1990 that Ric actually was leaving town on a vacation -- an international vacation. We were on our way to see Noelle and Jake on one of the final legs of their around-the-world expedition. We were actually going on an adventure not tied to work, the Jonatha Club, or a long weekend -- a real adventure in a part of the world totally new to us. We were on our way to Buenos Aires, Argentina to catch up with Noelle and Jake. A beautiful apartment in the Recoleta awaited us. All we had to do was endure the 17 hours it takes to get there from Los Angeles. First stop, Dallas. Crabby flight crew, and a late start due to "paperwork" associated with a sick passenger from the flight ahead of us caused a 1 hour delay intake-off, which meant that our connection to Buenos Aires was now in jeopardy.
We arrived in Dallas and had 7 minutes to run, yes run, to the gate departing for Buenos Aires (EZE). We ran, really ran and made it, but did our luggage? We wouldn't know until we landed in EZE if our luggage was to accompany us on our adventure. The 10 hour flight to Buenos Aires was actually very nice -- great flight crew -- good food (I have always liked airplane food), and decent entertainment on the little screen in front of us. Ric and I enjoyed the Minions new movie!
Two hours outside of our final destination, just after morning coffee, an air pocket, wind shear, or some kind of turbulence hit our plane and it fell 500+ feet – suddenly! Passengers were screaming (yes, I screamed), drinks flew, the luggage bins opened, passengers not seat belted were thrown. The pilot was injured and bloody, a baby was hurt, and a flight attendant was badly hurt in the back of the plane (near us) with broken bones and a huge loss of blood. It was the worst experience, nightmare, horror, whatever descriptive can be assigned to this situation, it was that and more. Finally, the shaking stopped and we all realized the plane was not blowing apart, that it was a weather related event. Everyone was quiet, the crew was working hard to help the injured. Finally we landed in Buenos Aires and everyone remained seated and quiet as paramedics came on board to remove the badly injured and check out those who were hurt, but not in need of emergency transport.
YIKES! I'd need some wine after that, too! So we sat and caught up for a while, enjoyed some ham sandwiches that I made and another bottle of wine, before heading off to dinner later that night. The restaurant, Ferver, was this adorable place just around the corner from our apartment. The reviews online were fantastic, and it was just so cute, we couldn't pass up that chance to kick off our culinary adventure in BA there. Unfortunately it didn't quite live up to our expectations. Don't get me wrong, it was good. But the food we had later in the week was way better and less expensive. Perhaps the most important lesson we all learned from our time in BA is that great steak and great wine does NOT have to cost a fortune! We capped off the night with drinks at the super ritzy Alvear Palace Hotel, just around the corner from our temporary home. While the bar in the Alvear is stunning - the old wood and sparkling chandeliers make it one of the most beautiful bars I've ever seen - we took our thirst to the art deco inspired Champagne Bar. This small room was adorned with geometric shapes, gold leaf, and oversized chairs, and the bartender served up some incredible and creative Champagne cocktails! I mean really, you can't go wrong with Champagne cocktails. We sipped and enjoyed chatting with the bartender, and munched on a lovely little tray of Pringles, French macarons, chocolates, and nuts. I'd say Night #1 was a success!
With a city as interesting as Buenos Aires, there was no shortage of things to do. Jake and I planned out a week of sightseeing and eating, trying to find a balance between seeing everything we want and cramming too much into each day. But before we got started, Jake needed to show Dad how to exchange cash like a mob boss! The day before, Jake and I asked the concierge at the Alvear where he recommended we exchange money at the Blue Dollar rate. "If there are any police around, we're going to have a problem!" he joked, before directing us to a little place on the street level of the gallery/shopping arcade next door. "Go down to the first floor and you'll see a glass wall with a cow printed on it. Ring the buzzer and they'll let you into a waiting room. Just wait in line until it's your turn and then go into another room to change the money." This sounded even more movie-like than when we changed cash in the diner in Salta! The whole situation was just as he described - we found the cow, went inside and waited. When it was Jake's turn, he went into the other room and I waited outside - based on the movies I'd seen, there shouldn't be to many people in the room, right? Besides, everyone else had gone in solo. When Jake returned, he was eager to tell me about it, "It's legit back there!" he said. "They have the money counting machines so it's all really official, they're like bank tellers sitting behind thick glass." When Jake took my dad, Dad came back saying the same thing we already felt, "It's like a mob movie!" He felt pretty cool having exchanged cash at the unofficial rate!
All set with our thick stacks of pesos, the four of us started off with a late morning stroll around the Sunday San Telmo Market. It reminded me of a street fair in San Francisco, in the Haight, maybe. Street vendors lined the cobblestoned streets of the San Telmo neighborhood around Plaza Dorrego, selling everything from old soda signs, leather bracelets, plant bulbs, feather dusters, carved wooden knickknacks, colorful cut glass stemware, antique seltzer bottles, marionettes, mate cups, and everything in between. The whole market seemed like what Urban Outfitters was 20 years ago. Street performers played music on the sidewalks, and women carrying around coolers filled with fresh, hot, empanadas sold the delicious hot pockets on the corners (and they really were delicious, we downed about 6 of them). It was Mom's first time trying street food! Go Mom!
When we needed a break from the hot sun, and a full meal, we ducked inside a random Italian place in the square. Since much of the population of Buenos Aires is comprised of Italians, Italian food in the city is incredible. At lunch we devoured what might be the best pizza I've ever had - perfect crust with the most beautiful tomatoes and basil. YUM. (Side note: have I mentioned yet how delicious the tomatoes in Argentina are? I don't know what they do to them down here but MAN, I could eat them plain all day long!) We even got some lunchtime entertainment from the tango dancers performing on the teeny tiny stage of the small restaurant. There! Now we don't need to go to a touristy tango show!
That night we relaxed in our apartment. I made dinner and lead everyone in a little bit of wine tasting and education. Hey, if we're going to be in a country that makes incredible wine with my wine loving family who doesn't know much about Argentine wine, I'm gonna make sure we do it right! We learned about the differences in high altitude and low altitude Malbecs, and how Torrontes is different from other aromatic whites that are more commonly found in the US. It was fun to teach my parents about something I love to learn about. Put my level 1 skills to the test! Three bottles later, we were ready for bed!
The next morning we were up bright and early (ok 9am isn't really THAT early) for a driving tour around the city with our driver, Pablo. A private driving tour is something Jake and I wouldn't typically do in the cities we visit because it's cost prohibitive - we usually hunt down the free tours that cover a small section of a city. The driving tour was, in a word, fantastic, and I'm so glad that my parents set it up (Thanks Mom and Dad!). In about four hours we saw tons of Buenos Aires, complete with explanations of each place.
Our first stop was the fairly remote yet trendy and beautiful Puerto Madero, where gorgeous high rise condos decorate the skyline and the docks line the waterways with walkable pathways. It has a very San Francisco Embarcadero feeling about it, except that Puerto Madero has an 80% vacancy rate. It truly felt like an upscale ghost town. There were pretty bars and restaurants lining the docks, but no one there to visit them. I think the neighborhood is trying to attract the mid-twenties to mid-thirties wealthy crowd, but that demographic either doesn't exist, or it doesn't want to be so far out of the way from the rest of the city.
While we had walked the San Telmo Market the day before, Pablo drove us through so we could see what the neighborhood is like on any other day - quiet and quaint. We got out of the car to explore one the famous Mercado de San Telmo, a covered, centralized market built in 1897 where local farmers would sell fruits, veggies, and meat. In addition to those staples, the market also houses a dozen other shops selling old dolls and leather coats, furniture repair, glassware, etc. And like most open air markets in South America, we were hit with the smell of meat the moment we stepped into the wrought-iron building. I love showing my parents this kind of stuff - these markets are so different from any farmers market in Italy or any grocery store we have at home, and this is where most locals pick up their kitchen staples!
Next up, the colorful corrugated-steel walls of La Boca, including a rare view of the soccer pitch. Years ago, the people of La Boca, "The Mouth" of the delta, who worked in the nearby ship yards, would build their homes with leftover ship building material, mostly corrugated steel, planks, and sheet metal. It was all nailed together in a patchwork of materials and painted with whatever colors were on hand, giving rise to an extremely colorful and interesting aesthetic for the neighborhood. Surrounded by poverty, on little pedestrian street in La Boca maintains it's "curb appeal" for tourists, and people wander down the street, checking out the art for sale by local artists, petting the stray kitties, and taking pictures of the rainbow colored buildings. Dad and Jake negotiated for some paintings from a street vendor for Mom - she loves to take home art souvenirs form the places she's been. It might have been Dad's first time negotiating with a street vendor! We got back in the car and drove around the rest of La Boca, where people live in shacks under the freeway, stray dogs (some no longer living) are everywhere, and trash lines the street. "Is this the poorest part of Buenos Aires?" Dad asked Pablo. "No, we won't go to the poorest neighborhood with the ladies in the car," he responded. This was one of the most impoverished places Mom and Dad had ever seen, and it definitely struck a chord with them. It reminded me and Jake of Ecuador, but with a much safer feeling. People in Buenos Aires, in Argentina in general, seem happier than other parts of South America we'd seen, despite their situation. Kids were playing in the mud outside, smiling. Dads washed their cars and sprayed their kids with the hose. It's life. Just a very different life than we live at home, or even the one we were living in our cushy, Rodeo Drive-like neighborhood of Recoleta.
We took some time to drive through Palermo Chico, home to many of the gorgeous embassies, and wandered around Microcentro, the downtown area including the famous Rose Palace where, days prior, President Macri danced on the balcony during his inauguration, and the Metropolitan Cathedral. The square was dotted with business people taking their lunch breaks, homeless people sleeping, and protestors demonstrating their dislike of both the outgoing president, Cristina Kirchner, and the incoming president, Mauricio Macri. To end the tour, we checked out the giant steel flower structure, Floralis Generica, and headed to our final destination, Don Juilo restaurant in Palermo Soho. Don Julio is one of the most famous, most talked about, most highly rated restaurant in Buenos Aires, and for GOOD reason! Our giant lunch of thick steaks, salad, fries, empanadas, and wine was simply perfect. Everything tasted so incredibly delicious, especially the humitas empanadas. We loved the casual atmosphere, with wine bottles hanging from the ceiling, the dark wood walls and floor, and the open grill visible to the whole place. If you're going to BA, be sure to catch a meal at Don Julio. Be advised, though, it was not the best steak we had - THAT was at Parrilla Pena for my birthday. But I'll get to that!
While we were pretty full from lunch for the rest of the day, we were still thirsty. So we headed back to the gorgeous bar at the Alvear Palace Hotel. As we enjoyed our drinks (they make the best old fashioned I've ever had), and chatted, we were approached by a well-dressed man, "Oh Americans! I just love your accent! Where are you from?" And so began our conversation with Dr. Mansour el-Kikhia, the Libyan Ambassador to Argentina. Dr. el- Kikhia introduced us to his friend, the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to Argentina who left shortly thereafter (I guess he wasn't as excited to talk to Americans). Over the next ten minutes we learned the Dr. el-Kikhia is also a professor at the University of Texas, San Antonio, and earned his PhD at UC Santa Barbara! He was delightful to chat! Before leaving he handed us his card with his cell phone number written on it and asked us to give him a call to meet up for drinks another night that week! The ambassador wanted to hang out with us! After he left the four of us just looked at each other for a minute - whatever just happened was pretty cool! And there's Dad, sitting with the ambassador's cell number in his hand, smiling. "Let’s invite him to birthday cocktails!" I said. Man, that would be so awesome! We made a fascinating friend!
We started the next morning with a free walking tour through the very interesting Recoleta Cemetery, Eva Peron's final resting place. A tour of a cemetery? That's weird. Well yeah, it is, I guess. But you should see this cemetery! It's unlike any I've ever seen - there are no grass dug graves. Each resting place is a concrete tomb, fancifully decorated to the exact specifications of the family who owns the plot, at incredible expense. Some crypts were ornately decorated with statues and plaques while others had fallen into disrepair. Regardless, each one told a story. The highlight, of course, was visiting the tomb of Evita, where she is buried in solid concrete 27 feet below ground to prevent another theft of her body. We loved our guide - she kept the tour moving at a good pace and had good stories to tell. I particularly loved the cemetery kitties that roamed the property. Apparently there is a group of women that visit twice a day to feed the 20+ cats that live there. Why are the cats there? To deal with the ever present mice problem in a typical cemetery! These kitties are well taken care of, as evidenced by their very shiny and very soft coats. By the time I was done petting my new friends, we were all hungry for lunch. But rather than stuff ourselves with another red meat meal (there was plenty of time for that), we opted for ice cream! Arkakao Ice Cream was rumored to be the best in BA, so we had to check it out. And indeed, it was delicious! Jake and I wouldn't say it's the best in the world (Eissalon Tuchlauben in Vienna still holds that distinction), but we can firmly recommend Arkakao.
Good thing we didn't have too heavy of a lunch, because that night we had cooking class to go to! If there's a chance to learn how to cook local cuisine, we're going to take it. So I signed the four of us up for a cooking class with the highly rated Tierra Negra, a husband and wife team who runs hands-on cooking classes from the living room of their apartment in Palermo Hollywood. Over the course of about three hours, we learned how to make beef empanadas, caprese empanadas, salsa, flan, and dulce de leche from Manuel, while his wife, Veronica, poured us three wines - two Malbecs and a late harvest chardonnay. Yum! We certainly enjoyed getting our hands dirty and took pride in our amateur empanada rolling skills. While I had some ideas on how Veronica and Manuel could improve their class (for example, have snacks for people to munch on while waiting for things to get cooking and throughout class, handing each person a glass of bubbles or wine or something as a welcome drink when they arrive, telling us more about the wine so we can learn something about it, too), the class was pretty darn fun and I'm so glad we did it! We've since made the beef empanadas at home, and they were just as tasty as that day! After class we headed to a little wine bar nearby for a nightcap before heading home.
Instead of getting up early and heading off on a day trip to Uruguay the next day, we decided to skip it. It would have been a pretty expensive excursion (the ferry boat tickets were about $80 per person), and we would have been on the boat's schedule. The very old, very small town of Colonia would have provided a few hours of entertainment, but then we would have been sitting at the docks, waiting for a few more hours for the ferry to retrieve us. They main point of going to Uruguay, anyway, would have been to get our hands on more US dollars - Uruguay ATMs dispense them. But, thanks to the change in government, it was possible that we wouldn't need US dollars or the Blue Rate for the rest of our time in Argentina - Macri declared that once of the first things he wanted to do once he took office was to release the clamp on the dollar, thus increasing the official exchange rate and eliminating the need for the Blue Rate. So if we were to go to Uruguay and get out more money and then have the advantageous exchange rate taken away, it would have been an expensive day trip for not much benefit. And guess what? While we were in BA, Macri DID do away with the Blue Rate! We counted the cash we had on hand and decided to run with it. We were too tired to trek all the way to Uruguay anyway. Instead, we slept in, skipped breakfast, and started the day with lunch - two carafes of wine (served in adorable penguin carafes!) and two dozen empanadas at a local favorite down the street, El Sanjuanino. We enjoyed the hilarious banter with our very flirtatious waiter and ended up chatting with another American couple seated nearby. It turns out that the woman grew up in South Pasadena, mere doors from our house in San Marino! I love these moments that show us just how small the world really is, just how connected we all really are!
We took the afternoon to experience some of the artistic culture of Buenos Aires. Mom was really excited about checking out the National Museum of Decorative Arts as, like The Huntington in San Marino and the Frick in New York, had once been a marvelous home. It is now a museum that contains the family's collection as well as other artifacts. We took our time wandering through the beautiful ballroom, the ornate sitting rooms, and the not-so-comfy looking bedrooms. The house itself was lovely (I wish I could have seen the wine cellar in the basement, but it wasn't open for tours), but the art was not well kept. The windows were open, allowing air, sunlight, humidity, and dirt to wreak havoc on the delicate paintings and tapestries that lined the walls. We actually caught an employee SMOKING in one of the bedrooms. It's really too bad that the trust doesn't do more to properly care for the items within the house.
The big surprise of the day was on our walk back home. We decided to pop into the free Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and were blown away by how much more care this museum, this free museum, puts into the preservation of the items in exhibition than the Decorative Arts museum. We spent another hour or so poking around the modern art exhibits, acting a little like Steve Martin in the opening sequence of LA Story (minus the skates), before walking back home. That night we had a lowkey dinner of incredibly delicious steak sandwiches from a little café called La Rambla. Trip Advisor reviews declared this the best steak sandwich ever, and I might have to agree!
While in Buenos Aires, I got to do something that I haven't done in many years - celebrate my birthday with my parents! What a super special treat for me! We spent my 31st birthday touring the remarkably beautiful Teatro Colon, the opera house. I know, it sounds weird - why would anyone take a tour of an opera house? I wondered the same thing when I read on Trip Advisor that it's ranked the number one activity to do in Buenos Aires. The reviews were right, the tour is fantastic! Our English speaking guide was wonderful - he had a great sense of humor and was able to tell us about the history of the architecture of the theater in such a captivating way. The first theater was built in a year, completed in 1857, and was used for just one year before it was closed for renovation. Twenty years later it opened again. The long construction process was made even longer due to the fact that all of the marble and mosaic tile was imported from Europe, and the financial crisis of 1890 brought everything to a temporary halt. The building the opened in 1908 is the same one that is standing today. During those 20 years of reconstruction, the original architect died and his vision had to be carried out by another, who also died. So eventually the building was completed, and included the artistic vision of three distinct architects.
While the outer gathering rooms were gorgeous, the horseshoe shaped theater took my breath away. The red velvet seats, the sparkling lights, the beautiful painted ceiling, the well placed boxes for the "important people" who went to the theater to be seen rather than to watch the show…it was all perfectly designed. Even Pavarotti stated, "The acoustics are perfect, every mistake can be heard!". We really lucked out on our tour in that we actually got to see the theater with the house lights on. When we purchased the tickets we were told that the house lights were off that day as the technical crew was doing lighting rehearsals for The Nutcracker which was due to open in just a few days. It was likely that we would not get to see the theater in its full splendor. We griped about it and bought the tickets anyway. And thankfully we arrived at just the right time, when the house lights were on and we could take it all in! What a birthday present!
It was my birthday, so I got to eat whatever I wanted that day. For lunch, I wanted to make ham sandwiches at our apartment and drink champagne. So that's what we did! There's something about the ham in this town - it's really, really good! Plus, I didn't want us to fill up too much on delicious food from another restaurant. We had a big dinner coming up that evening, and I wanted my stomach to be ready!
My birthday dinner was at Parrilla Peña, where we had the absolute best steak any of us have ever had. I can't even describe how tasty it was. And bonus - the whole meal was relatively inexpensive! The restaurant is a casual spot that attracts people of dress codes - there were business men, guys in gym clothes, couples dressed up for their night on the town, and us! The waiters moved around the very busy place like hummingbirds - very quickly and always doing multiple things at once. We devoured our steaks, fries, salad, and Malbec before heading back to the apartment for some tres leches birthday cake, followed by birthday cocktails back at our favorite place, the bar at the Alvear Palace Hotel. While we did invite our buddy, Ambassador Mansour el-Khikia, to have cocktails with us, he was not able to make it. From start to finish my birthday was a blast, and I'm so happy I got to celebrate with my parents!
Our last day together was a lazy one full of packing and organizing before Mom and Dad took off for the airport that evening. We slept in, enjoyed lunch at a local café, and indulged in more ice cream, this time from a place called Persicco. It was more of a gelato-style ice cream, but not nearly as delicious as Arkakao. As we tidied up the apartment and packed things in backpacks and suitcases, Mom noticed a little morning dove in the window box outside the dining room - beneath her were three tiny eggs! Within the week she had made herself a little nest beneath the leaves of the fake poinsettias and settled in. Spring has sprung in Argentina!
All week long I had been dying to visit the fancy chocolatier across the street from our apartment, Vasalissa. It was small, beautifully decorated for the holidays, and full of gorgeous truffles. So the four of us took about half an hour perusing the tables of delicately decorated chocolates (after being buzzed into the store! That's right, you can't just open the door from the sidewalk you must be buzzed in - now that's fancy!), and ended up buying a few boxes of delicious treats. We devoured them all with one final bottle of sparkling before saying farewell to my parents. I know they weren't looking forward to the long journey back, or the potential of another harrowing flight, but I think the bubbles helped calm their nerves! Jake and I stood on the sidewalk waving at their car as they drove away. We had such an awesome time exploring this fantastic city with them, and we are so happy and grateful that they flew all that way to share in this experience with us. It means so much to us that my parents joined us on our journey, and I know we will treasure the memories we made forever.
Our next stop after BA was Iguazu Falls up north, but since I already talked about that in the last post, we'll head way down south to Patagonia for our next story!