15 July 2008

All good things...

We woke up Sunday morning and acknowledged something we'd been denying for days: I was sick. I had a deep, dry cough, and I was very tired. I adopted a don't ask, don't tell attitude about my temperature, which was probably two or three degrees higher than it should have been. See, we have a nasty habit of getting sick on vacation. My sister-in-law Laurie has a theory that you power through life, but the day you leave for vacation, you relax and inadvertently let down your defenses. We'd planned to spend our last morning at the Jardín Japonés, but instead we spent most of it relaxing at the hotel. We spent some time chatting with our B&B's other guests, and then went to our room to finish packing. Our flight from Buenos Aires to Santiago didn't leave until 9PM, but Lorena advised us to get to Ezeiza three hours earlier. We decided that our last meal in South America should be at a classic old Buenos Aires establishment-- not at the airport. We took a taxi to Talcahuano 937 to try El Cuartito, a pizza place that's been a favorite among locals for nearly 75 years.

Argentina has deep ties to Italy, and those ties are reflected in the cuisine. Pasta and pizza are very popular here, and even the ubiquitous empanadas look a whole lot like calzoni. We'd had neapolitan pizza at Piola and Filo, but real Argentine-style pizza is different. For starters, it's thicker. As we discovered at El Cuartito, it's also cheesier.

El Cuartito is a classic old pizza place. The waiters are terse, and the walls are covered by sports posters and old magazine covers.
We ordered a small muzzarella pie, and another with jamon (it's under the cheese!) and sweet peppers. Unless you specify otherwise, all pizzas in Argentina seem to be topped with aceitunas even if olives aren't in the description. We also ordered a single slice of fainá. Fainá is a flatbread that's made with chickpea flour, and it's a traditional accompaniment to Argentine pizza. It's got a crisp crust, but the texture is a little like polenta. I'm not exactly sure what purpose it serves; we nibbled at it and then abandoned it to focus on our pizzas. El Cuartito's pizza is thicker and cheesier than the Neapolitan-style pizzas we generally prefer, but we enjoyed our lunch. More than the food, we just loved the old world vibe.

El Cuartito is in the center of town, a very short walk from Avenida 9 de Julio. Moments after we left the restaurant, and for the very first time on a street in Buenos Aires, I was concerned that we were about to be robbed. Buenos Aires is pretty quiet on Sundays, and the only other people walking along Paraguay toward 9 de Julio were a couple who were ripping open garbage bags on the street and searching the contents for... anything worth anything. Mostly, they found shreds of paper, and they didn't seem happy about that. We didn't speak, we just walked confidently past them. As we did, I noticed the woman's face-- she was completely strung out on something. She looked crazed. Several months ago, I read an article in the NY Times about paco, a cheap, highly addictive form of cocaine. Despite the scourge, we'd never seen any indication of drug activity in Buenos Aires before that moment. The couple moved on to the next set of garbage bags, and we reached the corner of 9 de Julio.

9 de Julio is a wildly wide avenue, with six lanes of traffic in each direction. We'd passed the Obelisco dozens of times during our stay in Buenos Aires, but we'd never bothered to take a picture of it before. Generally speaking, we prefer to take pictures of things that we can't easily find in Google-- ourselves, a certain old tree that caught our eye, maybe, or the label on a bottle of Uruguayan rosado that we'll never see again. We rarely take pictures of prominent landmarks because, well, someone else has already done it far better than we would. This wasn't so much a picture of the Obelisk as it was a picture of our last view of downtown Buenos Aires before we hopped in a cab to check out of Casa Palermitano and then leave for the airport.

Back at the hotel, we popped in to have one last chat with Lorena and Lucas. I'm really not a bird person. I've never been creeped out by anything more than the giant aviary at the San Diego Zoo. Lucas was different. He was like a cat with feathers. I enjoyed watching him eat peanuts, corn, and pickles, and I started to get a sense for his moods. One day I said to Steve "Lucas looks tired." As if on cue, he yawned ten seconds later and we both cracked up. On Sunday, Lucas was kind of moody. Just look at that cold shoulder! We said our goodbyes to Lorena and Andrea, who gave us a bottle of one of their favorite Argentine Malbecs and a pair of embroidered Casa Palermitano washcloths to remember our stay with them. We hugged them goodbye, and took one last look at the urban casa that had been our home for the past twelve nights.

When we got to Ezeiza, we were grateful for Lorena's suggestion that we get there early. The line to check in was very long, but we had entertainment. They guy in front of us boogied to whatever was on his iPod for a solid hour, occasionally singing audibly or doing a full turn. There was a dark side: every time the line moved, he bent his lithe frame in half to pick up his luggage and showed us a shocking amount of butt crack.

Within five minutes of boarding the plan, the passenger in front of us pooped himself.
We paid our exit tax, passed through security, and made it to the gate with half an hour to spare. Our flight to Santiago was packed, but it was on time. When we got to Santiago, though, we were stunned to see our flight to LAX was already boarding. We hurried to the gate only to find that our 11 hour flight was populated by a huge group of pajama-clad, giggly teenage girls returning to LA, and a large group of good looking male Uruguayan soccer players. When we boarded, the reality of our seat assignment was far worse than we imagined: the teenagers were scattered about and keeping to themselves. We had a functionally deaf older couple behind us who had to scream to hear each other, and a sick, screaming toddler and his clueless dad in front of us. We grasped hands, took a deep breath, and prepared ourselves for the worst. Within 5 minutes of boarding, dad was changing the world's stinkiest diaper right there in the seat. A flight attendant pleaded with him to use the bathroom, but when he didn't budge, she brought all the wet wipes she could muster. My thoughts immediately turned to the next occupant of that seat.

Then, shortly after take-off, we learned that LAN's amazing in-flight entertainment system was malfunctioning, and the countless movies, TV shows, documentaries, streaming music, and video games that had kept us and everyone else so happy on our LAX-SCL flight two weeks earlier would be unavailable. The flight crew rebooted the system a few times, but it never worked perfectly. In some seats, such as Steve's, it never worked at all.

The flight got off to a bad start, but shortly after the dinner service, the lights dimmed. Like Lucas does when Lorena puts a towel over his cage, Steve and I-- along with the toddler, his dad, the almost-deaf couple behind us, and nearly two hundred teenagers-- fell asleep. We hit some wild turbulence over the Pacific, but when I finally pulled out my ear plugs at 5AM, almost everyone was still asleep. With insistent button-pushing, I convinced the TV screen in front of me to play a movie. The flight attendants served breakfast-- an omelette floating in some sort of liquid. It was so unappealing that even Steve, who ate thymus glands in Argentina, wouldn't taste it. We landed on time, and although we expected a long, tedious trip through customs at LAX, we were out in the sunlight with our luggage an hour after we landed.

South Americans have a curious custom that we noticed on each of our seven LAN flights. As soon as the plane stops, the passengers applaud. Are they just grateful to be alive? Or is it a way of thanking the pilot for a job well done? We have no idea why they do it, but it's endearing. And on that final flight, we gave in and clapped too.

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