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June 05, 2006

Not the Last Post...

Monday, June 5, 2006

Utila, Honduras:

This isn't the last post I will make here on the blog but it is probably THE LAST POST I WILL MAKE ON IT WHILE TRAVELLING. On Friday the 9th, four days from now, I will finally, after numerous postponements, fly back home and --- what is more --- stay there (at least until the work situation gels up, possible brief trips back to Buenos Aires notwithstanding (note my inclusion of out-clauses already)). I won't add much more to that for the time being. Reflections, thoughts, introspective commentary? Haven't really got any right now. "It's been great, pass me a beer," is about the best I could really sum it up with at this point.

In the last month I've wrapped up my PADI dive master course and then, without ever having considered doing it before, decided to complete an assistant instructor course as well. I finished a few days ago and have been diving for fun and hanging out ever since --- with all of the dives I've logged on Utila, I'll be leaving with more than 150 in total, since starting to dive here in late September, 2004. As for the time in between diving and studying diving, most of that has been spent between bars and beaches. Utila is tiny but the nightlife is good. The problem is that you need to be up at 6 AM the next day if you want to be on the morning boat.

After four dives on Saturday, I spent yesterday (Sunday) on Water Caye with a group of friends, lying on the sandy beach of this tiny palm and coconut tree-covered island, picnicking and occasionally splashing into the turquoise waters to swim and snorkel. Later in the afternoon the staff and students of another dive shop invaded the island in droves, blasting trance music, cooking barbeque, stringing up hammocks and, in the words of one of my friends, turning the caye into a "miniature Thai beach." Fortunately we were ready to leave at that point anyway.

This morning I made my way down to the shop at 6.30 to help load the boat (something that has become fairly routine). For the first time I can recall, I witnessed a cloudless distant horizon that permitted perfect views of the Honduran mainland some 20-odd miles to the south. Jagged mountain-peaks punctuated the length of the coast. Those peaks drop off into the sea where the same range continues underwater. The few points that stick up above the surface constitute Utila and the other Bay Islands.

I used the trip out to complete my "Deep Dive" course, a PADI specialization that focuses on making dives up to 40 meters/130 feet, the limit for recreational diving (whereas commerical, military and so-called technical divers use different equipment and techniques to make deeper and longer dives, most frequently requiring decompression stops prior to surfacing). Two of my four dives were to the maximum depth, a point at which light and color fade-out almost all-but-completely and the surface seems remote and foreign. I had the impression of being between two worlds --- the relatively shallower realm of the continental shelf and the abyss that drops away into the deep, black-blue beneath. For example, the first dive I did to approximately 130 feet (at which point you may only remain for several minutes before needing to ascend to a significantly lower depth in order to stay within accepted recreational/no-decompression diving limits) involved swimming down the side of an underwater mountain-peak (a "sea-mount") known as "Black Hills." Looking behind you as you descend from the summit, some 38 feet down, you can see it rising up above you. Meanwhile the slope ahead of you continues to drop down, seemingly endlessly. Colors mute and fade away and the amount of aquatic life surrounding you greatly diminishes, lending an eerily silent, surreal quality to the experience. My instructor on that trip (it was only the two of us) decided to kneel on a patch of sand and place his dive computer, which read 125 feet while at the level of his wrist, on the sea-floor, to get a precise depth reading. In dropping his head down an extra foot or so he experienced a squeeze in a cavity in his tooth and shot his head up again with a look of agony (later he told me he felt that tooth was about to explode, so intense was the pain). With the surrounding pressure at this depth five times greater than that on the surface, somebody taking an empty plastic Coca-Cola bottle along with them would observe that it would become "crushed," with the sides touching one another and only a small pocket of non-compressed space remaining near the very top and bottom of the bottle. The label would appear muddy-brown rather than red.

Today's first dive at "Duppy Waters" involved plunging to 130 feet along the side of a sheer, craggy, coral-covered wall that descends into seemingly infinite depths. After several minutes hovering in the blue, feeling tiny, we ascended for a more normal dive at about 50 feet. Along the way I found a 4-5 foot-long green moray eel sprawled out in the green and purple corals, remaining virtually still but for its endlessly opening-and-closing jaws (revealing rows of razor sharp teeth). (See photo here: It seemed to eye me menacingly from where I hovered about it, a few feet away. In fact, eels continuously open and close their jaws as part of their "breathing" process. This one had left the security of its cave to be "cleaned." Tiny yellow gobies and blue-striped Peterson cleaning shrimp flitted across the head and body, feeding off of bacteria and microorganisms harmful to the eel and tasty to the cleaners (symbiosis in action). While on Utila I've also seen a 4-foot great barracuda receive similar treatment, its jaws wide open while gobies fed blissfully on the build-up inside the barracuda's mouth. While the barracuda could have snapped its teeth down on the gobies at any moment, it didn't. Go figure. (It looks something like this, by the way:

Briefly, here are a few more comments on my time here:

Best Dive: I've done nearly 60 since returning but my best dive was undoubtedly the one I went on on the morning of my birthday, May 29th, along with my instructor (Peter, one of the Course Directors at BICD) and a couple of other dive masters and instructors. Using nitrox (air enriched with extra oxygen, which reduces nitrogen intake into the body, permitting longer bottom times within no decompression limits) we drifted along a dark rock and coral-lined wall, laced with caverns (known as "Blackish Point"), between 50 and 70 feet below the surface. Encountering stingrays, an eagle ray, immense midnight parrotfish and equally immense and rare rainbow parrotfish, spotted moray eels, cleaning shrimp, arrow crabs, and a massive black grouper would have been more than enough, but we had the luck to encounter 6 or 7 immense tarpon, cruising slowly in and out of the mouth of a cave in the side of the wall. For the most part unpurturbed by our approach, they let us get within 10 feet or so before finally retreating back into the cave or propelling themselves out into the blue. One of the fish must have been approximately 7 feet in length, the others between 4.5 and 6. (See photo here: For the rest of the dive we would catch frequent views of one or two tarpon as they followed us along the wall. By hovering perfectly still I was able to allow one to pass within not much more than a foot away from me.

Drunkest Night: The night of my birthday was also the night of my "snorkel test," a tradition in which recently-made dive masters are taken to a bar and forced to chug shots of rum, tequila and everything else under the sun through a snorkel with a funnel at the top, all which wearing a taped-over scuba mask that prevents them from seeing anything. At the end of this ridiculousness, somebody fills the eye and nose compartments of the mask with beer and the new dive master "demonstrates" how you clear a mask while under water. This results in (1) plenty of beer going on the dive master's lap and (2) a slight amount of beer going up the dive master's nose. This was all very stupid but I did it anyway and managed to keep from being sick. Drunk and vocal is another matter. I had to collect some information on exactly what I said that night from other people the next morning.

Strangest Suggestion: More than one person has told me that because I was born in Honduras I can rather effortlessly obtain an ID card and passport, permitting me a wide range of buesiness opportunities a lot of foreigners here can only dream about (as they are prohibited by law). The consensus among these people was that an "honest lawyer" on Utila could make $50,000 US per year or more --- an absolute fortune here. I don't have any current plans to set up a law practice on Utila, however. Besides, I suspect the not-so-honest lawyers here would not be beyond having my apartment machine-gunned to smithereens in the middle of the night.

Clearest Realization: If I had unlimited money and time I would strongly consider becoming a full-time scuba bum, perhaps teaching it. It's a great activity, I love it, and you meet all kinds of people from all over, most of them actually worth meeting. Adam, one of the instructors at BICD (and an exceptional underwater photographer), was once a highly successful hedge fund operations manager in London. When he had enough money and had had enough of business and finance, he became an instructor. I can understand that decision.

Most Dubious Achievement: When I'm not cavorting with scuba nerds at waterfront bars, I try to make sure I tune into MTV every night at 10 PM. I don't do it just because I relish being able to receive MTV Argentina here in Utila --- complete with shots of Buenos Aires and slushy-slurry-accented Argentine program hosts announcing videos and music news --- although I do, but because South Park comes on. In Spanish. Apart from a new dirty word here or there (diligently noted and researched later on), I understand 99% of it with little effort. Sadly, you have no idea as to just how proud of myself this really makes me.

Plans for the Future: Future? Oh crap, that thing. Well, I've been in touch with New York headhunters and New York headhunters have been in touch with me. Each time it's a lot like two dogs meeting for the first time and sniffing each others' asses. Only slightly less poetic than that. We'll see what happens.

Immediate Plans for the Next Several Days:

1) Dive, dive and dive (Tues and Weds)
2) Lie on beach and think happy thoughts (Tues and Weds)
3) Drink beer like my life depends on it (Tues and Weds)
4) Bus down to Tegucigalpa with three lovely Scottish lasses (Thurs)
5) Experience a weird sense of deja vu on Thursday night. Treat said deja vu with more beer.
6) Fly into Newark on Friday, arriving at 10:25 PM. Spend flight time thinking of something appropriately sardonic to say to my father, meeting me at the airport.
7) Head upstate to my parents' house.
8) Sleep
10) Work on resume

That's about it. If it's been a while since we've talked, I'll be calling you soon or at least writing to ask for your number. Once I have settled myself in a little bit I will get around to actually filling in some back stories and anything worth relating that might have occurred during the final few days.

Posted by Joshua at 06:47 PM
View/Add Comments (2) | Category: Utila Again

May 09, 2006

Deja Vu and Blackouts Too

Sunday, May 7, 2006

Utila, Honduras:

I'm wrapping up the very last (yes, very last) month of my trip back in Utila, that familiar little island of sun, coral and ravenous biting-insects lying some 20 miles off the north coast of Honduras, where I learned to scuba in October of 2004, just after starting my trip. Oh the poetry of it all. Using an exotic mixture of transportation devices including an over-heated, over-loaded school bus; clunky 7-person plane piloted by a seeming narcoleptic; and a rusting cigar-boat overloaded with cargo (including several ovens) and idiots (including several old Floridian men who were genuinely stupider than the ovens), I barely managed a long-overdue escape from Belize, where I nearly overdosed on a heady blend of boredom, impatience and hot-sauce covered shrimp omelletes (best things about Belize include abundant cheap shrimp dishes and Mary Sharp's "Beware" hot-sauce). The near-final haul from the Honduran port city of Puerto Cortez to La Ceiba (from which I made it to Utila peacefully by way of ferry) involved nearly five-hours wedged with a group of other travelers in the back of a pick-up driven by a very temperamental Honduran man who at one point "joked" to me and my fellow passengers that, at the end of the ride, we had "better" tip him --- while wielding a machete about for additional dramatic effect. The fellow passengers I refer to included two very nice Irish lesbians as well as The Woman Who Knew David Bowie and her 13-year old daughter. Oddly, when I told the Women Who Knew David Bowie --- who seems to have had a wild groupie past that she was not sharing in the presence of her daughter, or because she couldn't fully remember most of it, such as whether John Bonham was present when Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones sang her "Happy Birthday" --- that I think David Bowie is a genius, she assumed that I too Know David Bowie. I had to confess I didn't, evidently deflating her expectations and possibly her impression of me as well.

Now, at the time of writing this, I'm a little more than a week into my divemaster course at Bay Islands College of Diving, the school where I learned to dive in October, 2004. Most of the instructors who were there at that time have long since packed up and moved on to other slices of beach paradise across the globe --- I don't blame them because, pleasant as it might be, I would go insane if I had to spend much more than 4 or 5 months on this little 5,000-person island. But a few people, mainly the more experienced, higher ranking/management staff-members, have held on, their levels of sanity more or less where they last were. Since these people basically gave the dive shop its particular vibe and degree of professionalism when I was last there, I felt very comfortable and familiar with the place upon return. However, as I've now done over 100 dives, I'm no longer interested in quite the same things (learning to dive and just having fun), looking to the school to teach me in-depth about the theory and industry of diving, while giving me class internship experiences. The joy is enriched by the necessary assumption of certain employee-like responsibilities, including hauling air tanks on and off boats, caring for equipment meticulously and making sure oxygen and spare-parts kits, among other things, are on each boat that goes out. Soon enough I'll be leading other divers around underwater and stressing out about whether they will do anything stupid. That comes later, after the instructors determine that I'm qualified enough to be able to do this without doing something overly stupid myself.

The last week and change saw a series of power-outages sweep Utila (for once a good "couldn't do any blogging" excuse). Eventually they just shut down their piece of crap, over-taxed generator altogether, plunging many establishments into the dark for 5 days and closing a number of restaurants down completely (while changing the hours, services, foods, etc... offered by various other restaurants and businesses --- "Blackout Specials" was a common sight to see on the daily menu (at least most places cooked using gas rather than electric stoves)). Rumors circulated wildly, as they do about everything else on an island this small. Some people were convinced the blackouts were a conspiracy to raise rates or otherwise influence business/government. Corruption accusations toward this or that politician (in regard to the power company) made the rounds. Some thought the problem would be fixed quickly while others, more cynical or just plain accustomed to the ways of things, predicted it would be a month or two at best. But Saturday, at midnight, the lights came back on. And although it is more developed and busier than it was since last I was here, Utila is pretty much the same place I wanted to come back to. Complete with baleadas and fresh, cheap seafood. My schedule typically has me up before 6:00 in the morning and exhausted and in bed not long after 9:00 PM. I'm enjoying it but keeping quite busy. In fact, with so many classes and so much studying, diving, test-taking and gear-hauling going on, the levels of exertion applied sometimes seem take on frighteningly JOB-LIKE proportions. Scary, that J-word. Very, very scary INDEED...

Posted by Joshua at 06:01 PM
View/Add Comments (1) | Category: Utila Again

April 12, 2006

Some Questions Quickly Answered

Hey, a blog entry! What the hell happened to the blog?

Urgh, yeah, it has been a while. What happened to the blog was that I got busy, plus I got bored, plus the nature of my trip changed in such a manner as to make a continuous blog seem like a relatively uninteresting endeavor capable only of boring myself and others. Since Italy the name of the blog should probably have been changed from International Journal of Sport and Leisure to something along the lines of International Language Geek and Procrastinator. Also, thank god for this excellent and completely on-point article I saw on because in copying a link to it here I can save myself the tedious effort of thinking up something remarkably similar on my own: . Please note that nobody has approached me for a chick-lit book-deal. And that I do not own a kitty-cat. Otherwise I identify. And yet, here I am typing away.

Where have you been all this time?

Where have I been all your life? Ah, that question yet again, or close enough to it, really. I know what you mean, even if you're too shy to come out and say it. Anyway, most of the last 5 months were spent in Buenos Aires studying Spanish and eating tender-juicy cows by the tender-juicy herdful. I have a catch-up post in the works on this, which I plan to complete after my next quadruple by-pass procedure, G_d-willing.

After leaving BsAs on April 14 I spent a very pleasant, tropically sunny and virtually cow-free week with my parents and my sister in Cozumel, Mexico, where the former two have a time share. After reuniting with the family, which quickly learned it would be supporting me indefinitely on my return home (lots of crying all around) I got back to diving after nearly 10 months away. Although the reefs have suffered because of the hurricane that devastated the island last summer, it was a good experience and Cozumel itself is a beautiful, very tranquil place. Most of my time was not spent diving but rather lounging around in beach-chairs sipping increasingly spicy Bloody Marys. It was one of those all-you-can-drink inclusive-deal places, so I was free to experiment often and liberally with the addition of more and more tobasco sauce. My tongue is still slightly numb and I don't really remember too much more. The fat, drunk Texan guy who slapped me on my back and hollered "YOU A REAAAAAL MAN!!!" into my face, in an enthusiastically explosive gust of cheesy-nacho and Heineken breath, just after I added a heaping fiery-red spoonful of tabasco to one of my Bloody Marys was, I like to hope, just a figment of my imagination.

Where are you now, you big lug?

In Placencia, Belize, in the process of lugging my lovable lug of myself down south to the Bay Islands on the north coast of Honduras.

In the first place, Why? and in the second, Did you actually think that last response was clever?

(1) I want to get my PADI Dive Master certification before I come home. I started my trip and learned how to dive in Honduras and I like the idea of ending it there with an advanced scuba course, just as I like the idea of being able to return to the country where I was born, this time with the ability to speak the language, more or less. Oh how it does bring tears to my eyes, the very notion...

(2) No. I'm so sorry. Never again.

When you hauling that lazy ass home?

My heart says "Never!" but my wallet says: "June 3rd, Bitch!"

What are your plans for the future?

Work and save, save and work. Ideally I'd like to find opportunities in the law/business/finance world that involve South America or Europe. It may be hard to come by, it may be easy. Either way I will have a suitcase packed and ready for the next flight to Buenos Aires, Rome or, to paraphrase Neil Patrick-Harris, aka Doogie Howser, aka "The Doog", in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, wherever G_d takes me.

Anything else to say for yourself?

Nah. Will try to crank through a few more entries soon if only to stave off the maddening boredom of my stay in Belize (as of Tuesday, April 25, stuck waiting for a boat to Honduras that only runs Thursdays and Saturdays).

Thank you, you've been fantastic.

No comment.

Posted by Joshua at 09:51 PM
View/Add Comments (0) | Category: Temporary Update

January 12, 2006

Brief News

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Buenos Aires, Argentina:

I'm still too busy and too lazy to write all the details about what I'm doing here. Suffice to say I study Spanish and haven't killed myself or anybody else while taking tango lessons. The following is a copy and approximate, hastily writen English translation (by yours truly), of an article that just appeared in the online version of Argentina's La Nacion. It may do a little to clear up why I decided to come back to this country and spend so much time here. It has little to do with anything in my life, but sometimes it is nice to see your views reinforced.

Link to article:

La Argentina lidera el ranking de una prestigiosa guía de turismo
La lista de Lonely Planet contiene los diez países más recomendados para visitar en 2006; señalan la "fabulosa cultura, comida y vinos" y la "belleza natural extraordinaria" de nuestras tierras

[Argentina Leads Prestigious Tourist Guide's List of Ten Most Recommended Countries to Visit in 2006: Cites "fabulous culture, food and wine," and "the extraordinary natural beauty" of the land]

(Télam).- La Argentina figura al tope de una lista que contiene los diez países más recomendados para visitar en 2006, según una de las más prestigiosas publicaciones especializadas en turismo que consideró su "fabulosa cultura, comida y vinos" y su "belleza natural extraordinaria".

[Argentina stands at the top of the list of the ten countries most recommended to visit in 2006, according to one of the most prestigious tourist publications, which noted its "fabulous culture, food and wines" and its "extraordinary natural beauty."]

Así lo difundió en su última edición Lonely Planet , una guía internacional de viajes y turismo consultada por miles de viajeros y que todos los años elabora un ranking con los diez países recomendados para visitar.

[So says the latest edition of Lonely Planet, an international guide of travel and tourism consulted by thousands of travellers. Each year it publishes a ranking of the ten countries most recommended to visit.]

La Argentina figura por primera vez al tope de este ranking y, entre los factores que destaca la pubicación, figuran su "fabulosa cultura, comida y vinos" y la "belleza natural extraordinaria de sus paisajes", a la vez que remarca que es un país "culturalmente rico y a la vez moderno", "económicamente accesible" y "seguro".

[Argentina came in at the top of the list for the first time, and stood out for factors which include its "fabulous culture, food and wines" and its "extraordinary natural beauty," while at the same time it was noted that the country is "culturally rich and at the same time modern", "economically accessible" and "safe".]

La guía dice que, por estos factores, la Argentina es "la Nueva Zelanda de Sudamérica", al tiempo que remarca la "belleza de la Patagonia y la "bienvenida que le da a todos los viajeros".

[The guide says that, for these reasons, Argentina is "the New Zealand of South America," while noting "the beauty of Patagonia" and the "welcome that [the country] gives to all travellers.]

Orgullo. El secretario de Turismo de la Nación, Enrique Meyer, sostuvo que "es un orgullo y una gran satisfacción para nuestro país que un medio tan prestigioso y consultado por viajeros de todo el mundo califique a la Argentina de esta manera".

[Pride. The National Secretary of Tourism, Enrique Meyer, declared that "it is an honor and great satisfaction for our country that a publication so prestigious and used by so many travellers around the work describes Argentina in such a manner."]

Agregó además que este "es un indicio más de que las perspectivas turísticas de nuestro país hoy tienen un techo muy alto" y manifestó su optimismo para que este hecho "contribuya a mantener el incremento del turismo receptivo que se fue dando a lo largo del último año".

[He added that this "is another indication that the tourism prospects for our country are now very high" and expressed his optimism that this fact "will contribute to the increase in tourism that has been building since last year."]

Los destinos que siguen a la Argentina en el ranking son China, Nicaragua, Croacia, México, Antártida, Canadá, India, Colombia y Alemania, en ese orden.

[The destinations that follow Argentina in the ranking are China, Nicaragua, Croatia, Mexico, Antarctica, Canada, India, Colombia and Germany, in that order.]*

Lonely Planet fue denominada por el diario español El Mundo como la "reina de las guías de viajes" por "la calidad de sus informaciones", y lleva ya publicados 500 títulos en inglés, alrededor de 50 en francés y 11 en español.

[Lonely Planet has been designated the "Queen of Travel Guides," by the Spanish journal "El Mundo" because of "the quality of its information." It has published approximately 500 titles in English, about 50 in French and 11 in Spanish.]

* Were you paying attention? The observant will note that the inclusion of Canada in the ranking destroys any and all credibility it might have otherwise had. Gonna go grab a steak dinner now, ehh?

Posted by Joshua at 10:10 PM
View/Add Comments (3) | Category: Argentina

December 23, 2005


Friday, December 23, 2005

Buenos Aires, Argentina:

One of the things I like most about BsAs is the city's deep-seated cafe culture. Numerous grand, old, atmospheric, 19th-century spaces provide relaxing, ambient spots for reading, study, and meeting friends. Porteños think nothing of spending hours there and, as is typical in South America and Europe, there is no push to leave. In addition to the coffee, food, history, and aesthetic features, many cafes host shows and events, most notably but not limited to tango performances. With the dollar strong to the peso, you can treat yourself like virtual royalty in often opulent settings --- many on par with the famous cafes of Paris, which cost about 4 times as much --- for less than what a cup of Starbucks will set you back at home. [To answer the question of just how good the coffee actually is in comparison with the coffee in Italy, particuarly after my US-coffee-bashing-post a while back, I will be blunt: On the whole, not nearly as good; but you can order regular filter coffee without being treated like a pariah, then linger over it in a spacious, luxurious setting. You can't in Italy, so there is a trade-off and I'm happy enough with it, particularly since the Italian espresso will, over time, strip all the enamel off of your teeth.]

Here are a few notes on some favorite and/or notable spots. You can't go to Buenos Aires and not see the first, but for a feel of the city, trips to several more are essential as well. BsAs without cafes is not BsAs.

Cafe Tortoni: It might be somewhat cliche, as it is almost always packed with photo-snapping tourists and staffed (on the whole) by gruff, grim, ineffecient and seemingly depressed tuxedo-ed waiters who appear to be on the brink of either killing themselves or killing all their customers --- you can never be too sure. Nevertheless, the space --- dating to 1858 and claiming status as the oldest of its kind in BsAs --- is spectacular: mirrors, dark cherry wood panels, marble, massive dimly-lit chandeliers, and walls covered in paintings of all styles. Despite the noise at peak hours, I could practically live at Tortoni. I've been there enough (nearly every day) to gain reasonably pleasant treatment by the staff, as evidenced by the facts that (1) I can get served in less than 10 minutes and (2) they haven't killed me yet.

London City: Not my favorite but by no means bad, London City is at the foot of the central pedestrian street, Florida, on the corner with the famous Avenida de Mayo. The food and service are decent enough, even if the ambience is a bit plain. Famous Argentinian author Julio Cortazar is said to have written his first book here. I assume he was able to do it because of the general lack of visual distractions.

Richmond: The name says it all. Richmond on Florida smells like money. Its simple but immense dark-wood interior is filled with Porteños in power-suits, most of them older and flashing bills and gold watches. Fortunately the prices don't exceed those of most other top cafes --- by too much (exception: the more expensive Biela). You can still get a cafe con leche for less than US$2. Alcohol and food can be a bit pricier, but most everything the kitchen and bar turns out is at a high standard --- it might be the best of the famous cafes in terms of the quality of what is offered (not to mention the variety). Service is also quite good. Who knows if it was like this when Jorge Luis Borges (Argentina's most famous writer, often said to be the most talented author never to win a Nobel for his work --- and with good reason) was a regular. The downstairs features an impressive space for chess and pool.

La Biela: Stodgy but beautiful, aristocratic but very aristocratic, Biela, just off of the famous (and creepy) Recoleta Cemetary, brims with tourists and locals alike. A scene for intellectuals during the infamous (and far more than creepy) "Dirty War," it is said that a disproportionate number of its left-leaning clientelle were among those abducted, with never a trace of them to be found again. Today the cafe doesn't seem to offer any hint of a "left-leaning" tradition. Like Richmond it smacks of money and is priced accordingly. Coffee is still affordable, but the food usually isn't worth what you pay (twice as much or more as in any half-decent restaurant more than three blocks away from the tourist and high-society hot-bed that rings the cemetary). Nevertheless, it is a good place to people-watch and worth a trip before or after a visit to the cemetary and its opulent, often tacky monuments to the (egos of the) dead.

Bar Plaza Dorrego: With a small but atmospheric old interior, the main attraction of this cafe is its outside seats, on the perimeter of San Telmo's ever-active Plaza Dorrego. Although there are many other places you can also go for a table, this is the most authentic and the best for coffee or a 4 PM beer with a platito or two of ham, salami, olives and/or cheese cubes (also recommended is the lemonade). With shaky, ambivalent service (par for the course anywhere) but good food and drinks, this cafe is where I go when I want to sit outside and read or review my Spanish lessons on a warm, sunny day. Though I am often interrupted by somebody trying to sell me a knick-knack or give me religious reading materials, the upside is the ability to watch and listen to live musicians and tango dancers performing for donations (a peso or less --- not more than $.33, is a small price to pay for often excellent entertainment). On Sunday San Telmo becomes the scene of a famous and impressive antiques market. Plaza Dorrego is the epicenter. Don't even try to visit the cafe then.

Confiteria Ideal: Almost last but not least is this famous old tango venue. Classes and performances abound. With an immense, high-ceilinged interior, dark wood and mirror paneling, and a large stage against the length of the side wall, the place feels slightly shabby and run-down, when you look at the simple, dirty tables spread out haphazardly in such an otherwise grand environment. They seem lonely, almost neglected --- but while the service can be slow and impersonal, the atmosphere and history (it is nearing 90 years of age) still charm. A massive space upstairs is host to the myriad tango classes and milongas. You can hear the music and noise from the dance classes resonate from above while you have reasonably good coffee down below.

There are plenty of other places, some famous and historic, most of them not. In the latter category, I like:

Cafe Valerio: On the corner of pedestrian street Lavalle and Esmeralda, Valerio is modern, brightly-lit, rather expensive for what you get and nothing all that special. But it is open very late and the service is (at least to me) very friendly. If I want a meal or a coffee at 1, 2, 3, or 4 AM (and I usually don't, but in this Insomniac City where many bars and clubs don't even get going until 3:00 in the morning, the real "City That Never Sleeps", there are those times), Valerio is a great place. One of the waiters and I have an agreement whereby we are free to consult each other on language questions. Every time I enter he asks me something in the hopes of improving his ability to communicate in English with the many tourists who come through the doors each day. I often get a virtual pile of free cookies along with my coffee and, if a place lacks history, ambience, and fame, it can surely make up for many of these faults with free cookies.

Posted by Joshua at 10:14 PM
View/Add Comments (1) | Category: Back in Argentina

December 14, 2005

Wandering BA

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Buenos Aires, Argentina:

Two weeks back in BA and I've done more and less than I planned on. On the plus side, I have starting taking Spanish lessons and scoped out a lot of information on other activities and courses offered through the various private institutes, cultural centers and universities spread throughout the city (unfortunately, December is a dead month and I'll need to wait for the new year). Less successful has been that elusive search for the perfect city-center apartment, complete with satelite TV, broadband internet access, climate-control, jacuzzi, scenic balcony-views and 600-hectacre grassy backyard fit for large scale cattle-farming. I´m holding out for the dream, however, steadfastly adapting the phrase "yo siempre insisto en lo mejor!" as my motto.

The next few posts will be short subject-oriented descriptions relating to the odds and ends of my deliciously satisfying cholesterol-rich existence:

Wandering Buenos Aires

Perhaps the only reason I haven't dropped dead already, or turned into a piece of lard, is that I've been getting some exercise in while wandering from place to place and steakhouse to steakhouse. My first time in Buenos Aires, I arrived after months spent in Honduras, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. I was instantly struck by how European everything seemed. Coming now from Italy, and seeing the city again, I am not inclined to change my view as to how "European" everything is --- and in particular, the people --- but I have noticed, in addition, how "South American" everything is. That's for better and for worse. For example, I am struck by how warm, engaging and friendly most people have been to me. They are not unfriendly in Italy, which has it's deserved reputation as one of the friendliest tourist countries to visit (in Europe, at least), but I feel more enthusiasm here in Argentina --- a country with a population that the other South Americans deride for it's aloof, snobbish airs. I suppose it all depends on what you are used to and where you are coming from.

On the other hand, the dirt, dust, and decay is evident. Yes, it is certainly evident in many European cities such as Rome (a city that is virtually the epitomy of dirt, dust and decay), but there it seems to persist more as a result of laziness and idle beaurocracy. Here it seems to exist more clearly as a result of a lack of resources (and plenty of beaurocracy, as almost any Porteño will tell you with clenched fists). There is a difference and while the former explanation exasperates, the second gets you down a bit. Walking through the center of the city at night, a city in which the prices of meals, hotels and goods have gone up about 15% since I was last there in March, you can see plenty of evidence of the economic crisis the country is in. While a few people beg for change, you will notice far larger organized groups of other people rummaging through and sorting the bags of garbage taken out by businesses after they close. These people, cartoneros, are, for the most part, laid-off workers who have taken to collecting and recycling cardboard and trash to scrape out a very meagher living. Many take two-hour train rides from the poorest outskirts of the city, work all night, and return at dawn. Buenos Aires was once one of the most expensive cities in the world for tourists. While the currency-crash made it very affordable for American and European visitors, the situation for a large percententage of the population is very poor with unpromising prospects.

On a more optimistic note, Buenos Aires is a nearly perfect city to explore on foot. Flat and lacking hills it has wide, shady streets and a fairly easy lay-out. Plenty of interesting buildings, stores and cafes, mixed in with the landmarks and main attractions, keep it rewarding. If you do get lost or wander too far off-course, a 10 to 15-minute taxi-ride to whereever you're going in the center shouldn't cost you much more than US $3.00 at the most.

Heading up or down Avenida Florida, the main pedestrian shopping street in the Microcenter, I've had fun seeing some of the same street-performers I saw before, still putting on their shows or some variation thereof. They include guitar-players, puppeteers, mimes (most of whom you don't even want to kill, oddly enough), comedians, and --- of course --- tango dancers. For a few coins thrown into a hat, you can watch some really talented people. Sometimes people in the crowd come into the circle and start dancing or performing something of their own. The trick is to remember just how many talented people are out there --- and watch your pockets while you watch the show.

Posted by Joshua at 10:44 PM
View/Add Comments (1) | Category: Back in Argentina

December 04, 2005

Where the Beef is

Sunday, December 4, 2005

Buenos Aires, Argentina:

Ok, so what the hell am I doing back in Argentina? Wasn't I planning to go all the way around the world? Didn't I originally say I would be spending a substantial amount of time in Asia, perhaps taking the Trans-Siberian railroad across Russia and into Mongolia, before heading down through China, Tibet, Nepal and India? That was the plan. It was a good plan, too, if I may say so, and the idea held a lot of temptation up through the very end. However, the truth is that even if I did go ahead with that planned route, I would still miss out on seeing plenty of other places I've wanted to visit. I doubt I could make a trip like the one above and still have time left to visit countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. I certainly wouldn't be able to make it over to Japan or Korea. Australia and New Zealand would probably be far too costly to get to and time-consuming to properly travel after everything else mentioned. Then there are countless Pacific islands to consider. What I'm trying to say is that the world, which seems very small at times, seems huge when you try to travel around it. After visiting some 22 countries or so over the course of an unbeatable 14 months, tacking another 5 or 10 or 15 counties onto the list --- while sure to be an incredible experience --- would not provide me with some of sort of sated, glutted traveller's experience (as if I could rest easy in the knowledge that I'd been all over the globe and that I hadn't missed a thing). I will never get to see absolutely "everything" or even a significant fraction thereof. You have to pick and choose according to your interest. Not only that, but it also gets tiring to move from place to place to place for that long --- and a trip like this should not seem like work or what's the point of it? I figured that one out somewhere between being nearly-robbed in South Africa and maxing out on anti-malarial pills in Zanzibar, Tanzania. In the end, it is a lot more rewarding to spend a significant amount of time getting comfortably situated in one place, getting to know it in greater depth and appreciate it in ways you might not have on a brief vacation from work. Plus you meet people and learn languages this way. I'll have a lot of photos and memories when I come back, but having friends in the countries I visited --- and the ability to talk with those people in their language (to some extent, at least) is what will make me feel like I did something more than take an extended sight-seeing tour (but let me stop before I sound all preachy and goopy, like Dr. Phil crossed with Rick Steves).

On that latter note, my three months in Italy were incredible and flew by. I was able to get a feel for life in Perugia and was able to take trips all over the north and center of the country (but sadly not to the south or Sardegna, which will wait for the next time around), visiting Naples, Capri, Florence, Turin, Asissi, Elba, Rome, the Cinque Terre (where I got into an Italian cursing-and-shouting match with some cazzo hotel-proprietor) and other locations. I would have happily stayed in Italy longer, even enduring the snow that was starting to fall in Perugia when I left, but there was no practical way around the 90-day limitation short of flying home, applying for a visa and flying back. It is no accident that one of the very first ten words (I kid you not) I looked up in my Italian-English dictionary was burocrazia. Unable to stay in Italy or (because the 90-day period applies to the whole region of participant "Schengen" nations) just about any other country in Western Europe short of England (too expensive) or Switzerland (too neutral), I had to decide where to go from there. I'd actually made up my mind a long time before. I wanted to go back to South America and, in particular, Buenos Aires, Argentina. I can't make a list of reasons why, but I just love the city and the country --- and the whole continent they're on, really. I don't have it all planned out yet, but the next 4 or 5 months before I head home will be spent primarily or entirely in Buenos Aires, where I will rent an apartment (perhaps with a backyard spacious enough to store beef cows). In addition to studying Spanish, I will have little trouble taking a few hours a week of Italian classes as well (a huge percentage of the population, perhaps pushing 40%, claims some Italian heritage; the impact of Italian culture on the capital city is instantly obvious almost anywhere you go). With the rest of my time I can pick just about another activity I would like to learn or improve on (from guitar-playing to swing-dancing to cooking to ice-sculpture carving, just by way of example) and find instruction at excellent prices.

I arrived on Wednesday in spite of the Aerolineas Argentinas strike, which delayed my flight for two days. The airline put me and the other stranded passengers up in a hotel in Rome - Lido, about 30-minutes from the center by train. I took day-trips in and wandered around the fountains, piazzas and monuments, often stopping for coffee or gelato in places like St. Peter's Square, Piazza Navona, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Colloseum and (always impressive) the square in front of the Pantheon. Being stranded pissed me off at first; then I wished I had another week to spare. However, my zinc and iron stores were running dangerously low. I had gone months and months on pizza, pasta and panini; prosciutto, pesto and pomodori. Yes, this was all of the highest quality (or at least, most of the time it was), but where was the beef? Where was meat that didn't look and taste like it came from some poor, sorry, starved anorexic animal? Fillet of Jennifer Aniston would be better than the stuff I was served in bugers or in place of what they called "beef" on the menu. I was beginning to go a bit mad from the excess of carbohydrates in Italy. I felt like every meal was a combination of side dishes without any main course. The meat "second" dish was usually a sliver of gray stuff the size and thickness of your typical slice of bologna.

But fear not (and I'm sure you were all worried); the story has a happy ending, assuming you are not a cow (and if you are, you are most welcome to my new apartment just as soon as I get it, my tasty friend). My first meal in Buenos Aires marked my return to the "La Estancia" Parrillada in the Microcenter. It wasn't even necessary to look at the menu, though I did, of course, just to be sure nothing had changed too much. Nothing had except for prices, which had increased by some 10% to 15% (Argentina is having a very bad time economically, despite occasional travel-articles heralding a come-back). From the perspective of an American using dollars (and particularly that of an American coming over from Euro-using Europe), everything was still remarkably affordable. I had an enormous and perfectly (un-) cooked bloody-red steak with sausage, salad, bread, an empanada, beer, and water. I paid about $10 with tip. This restaurant is in one of the most expensive parts of the city on one of the main pedestrian thoroughfares.

On Thursday I ate the same meal for lunch at a steakhouse down near Plaza Dorrego in the San Telmo district. Friday involved a steak and sausage lunch followed by a steak and sausage dinner (the only reason I didn't do this on Wednesday and Thursday was because jet-lag put me to bed too early to pull off a proper Argentinian dinner at the appropriate hour of 11 PM or so). Saturday saw a steak-sandwich lunch chased by a return to La Estancia for a fried (milanesa de lomo) steak dinner. Today is Sunday. I decided to regroup and digest, sticking with chicken. But despite this brief reprieve for the cows, I was secretly plotting and planning my next move, gearing up for the next attack. [Cue uneasy mooing across the Argentine pampas.]

(What have I done? What am I doing, lazy fat bastard that I am becoming? Next up.)

Posted by Joshua at 09:45 PM
View/Add Comments (6) | Category: Back in Argentina

November 26, 2005

When in Rome, If You Get There in the First Place, You Might Not Be Able to Leave Again

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Perugia to Rome, Italy:

I reached Rome at 3 PM this afternoon (just barely) and am scheduled to depart for Buenos Aires tomorrow at 8:40 PM (but it's not likely). I had planned to leave Perugia for Rome yesterday, but, unsurprisingly enough, a national transportation strike (un "sciopero") put an end to those intentions. It's the strike season in Italy again. The season lasts from January to December of each year and is thankfully interrupted from time to time to permit certain essential activities to take place. Like the seemingly bare-bones minimum for the miraculous, nearly-incomprehensible survival of the nation's economy.

So, as I was enjoying my (second) last day in Perugia yesterday, I was less than thrilled to find out, while browsing the web, that Argentinian carrier Aerolineas Argentinas' technicians and pilots have commenced a strike (una "huelga") that has grounded all planes and that will continue for an indefinite amount of time. I am, you might gather, booked to fly with Aerolineas Argentinas. Because the strike might end at any time, I had to get myself to Rome this afternoon to wait it out and see. But I've been checking the news articles on "Yahoo! Argentina" and it looks bad right now. Perhaps they can put me on a flight with another airline, but there are bound to be hundreds of other travellers in need of a similar re-routing. It's "up in the air," and so I have no idea when I will be able to leave Italy. Oh --- not incidentally, Sunday is my 90th day in the country and the last day I am legally permitted to remain on my basic tourist's visa. So if I don't fly out as scheduled, there is the slight chance that the Carabinieri will show up at my albergo in their ridiculous black and red uniforms and funny hats and arrest me. But hopefully they will be striking and not bother with all that.

The good news for me is that I wouldn't mind being stuck for another day or five in Rome --- especially if (1) the airline comps me for some of my expenses in such a situation and (2) I am not arrested and promptly deported to the US at my own expense. I was vaguely bothered by the thought that upon arriving in the city for my third time, I wouldn't find it remotely as exciting or interesting a place as I remembered it on the two trips before --- and this would not be hard, since, as I've told numerous people many times, Rome is one of my favorite cities. After all the places I've been to, and now that I speak a reasonable amount of Italian, I thought the place could prove anti-climatic this time around. But despite a two-hour series of train delays (triggering fears that the strike was persisting), I arrived in the mid-afternoon, found myself a reasonably-priced hotel, and set about walking through the historic center, quickly remembering why Rome might still be my favorite city in Europe. I have to say I was also feeling a bit smug and pleased by the fact that I didn't have to use a word of English as I went around. But this smugness was quickly extinguished by nature's reminder that truly clever people don't trudge around in circles during torrential downpours, even if they can speak a little Italian here and there.

Leaving my hotel and wandering down Via XX Settembre, passing fading Baroque palaces and the four gargantuan statue-fountains lining the corners of (the aptly named) Via di Quattro Fontane, I soon found myself in front of the Presidential Palace, looking out on the city's ancient hills and landmarks, including the Vatican. In my rush to get to the Spanish Steps without using my map --- all the while patting myself on the back for my memory of the city's layout and recollection of the numerous key sites --- I stumbled dead into the Trevi Fountain, mobbed as it always is, despite a chill and a bleak leaden sky that threatened to pour buckets of rain in the not-distant future (any minute). I'd completely forgotten where it was. In fact, I'd forgotten at that particular time that it was on my list of sites to revisit in the first place. But I recovered from this failing by remembering the location of the nearby San Crispino Gelato shop --- the best gelato in Rome and, by default, one of the best few places in Italy and the world. With a cup of pistacchio, hazelnut and creme (egg) gelato in hand, I started for the Spanish Steps. It started to rain lightly while lightening flashed in the distance. "So I'll get soaked. So what," I thought. I had a rainjacket on but no umbrella.

The Spanish Steps were equally jammed with crowds. On shopping mecca Via Condotti there were lines of people waiting just to enter the Gucci and Prada stores. I didn't join then, wandering a few blocks and then circling north to Piazza del Popolo, with it's obelisk and water-spouting lion statues. I had a ridiculously-overpriced caffe latte overlooking the Piazza (about $6.50), and sat listening to a mix of English, Italian and Spanish conversations going on around me.

I then headed toward Piazza Navona. As I walked, two things happened. First, it began to pour, drenching me and making me realize how stupid I had been to shrug off the impending weather. I buckled down and quickly bought a cheap umbrella from a street vendor, but I still got soaked. The second thing --- and a chief reason for why I still got soaked --- is that I wound up passing the Piazza Navona about 4 times before I finally realized I had been skirting around it in a large and clumsy circle. So maybe the map wasn't such a bad idea? Getting to within 20 feet of the place without one isn't so impressive if you don't know how close you actually are --- and have water pouring out of your shoes each time you take a step by the time you figure it out.

I paused again in another cafe to let the worst of the rain stop. On the television an Italian comedy show --- apparently a sort of "Daily Show" style news spoof, minus Jon Stewart and plus a scantily-dressed quasi-Sofia Lauren type, as with almost every other program in Italy (not so very creative but god bless) --- ran a segment in which George W. Bush declares war on extra-terrestrials, stating that the US isn't just ready to take on the world, but all other worlds as well. Nuclear missiles blast off and demolish far-away planets. I was waiting to see Dick Cheney criticize the Democrats for opposing this, but the segment ended and the camera promptly returned to more close-up cleavage shots of the anchor.

On my way to find a restaurant two Italians stopped me to ask about (1) directions and (2) bus information. Despite the soggy-wet-dog look I had going on, I apparently still looked like I could actually be a Roman. Not bad --- my smugness surged again for a brief matter of moments. But, of course, I had to tell these people I didn't know a thing --- my accent quickly betraying my foreign origins. I should mention that one particular joy of Italian is that you can profess utter ignorance simply by saying "boh," which is a short and very effective means of saying "I have absolutely no idea whatsover (and I'm planning to go on strike from my job at any moment)." As a student informational booklet in Perugia points out, you can leave it to the Italians to find a monosyllabic word for making this message as concise and easy-to-say as possible.

By the time I entered "La Pollarola" restaurant near Campo de Fiori and the old Jewish Ghetto (derived from the verb "ghettizare," which means, roughly, "to marginalize" or "to isolate"), I looked like some crazy who had just come from swimming in the Tiber river. This had me thinking of another Italian verb, "scomparire," which pretty much means "to cut a sorry figure; to look very unimpressive." Italian has other charmingly vain and appearance-related verbs that you don't find in English, including the verb "spettinarsi," which means "to get one's hair in a mess." Anyway, I was in both the scomparire and spettinarsi camps when I trudged into the restaurant sloshing water all over the recently-mopped floor. I know it was just mopped because there was a stone-faced waiter standing in the corner with a mop in his hand.

But nobody threw me out and I had a great meal --- a possible last dinner in Italy (but probably not), with an antipasto of stuffed peppers and clams; a meat and cheese canelloni; and baked chicken and potatos with rosemary. The smugness made a final comeback as well.

"Ah, you speak some Italian?" the waiter asked as I ordered.

"Mmm... Con questo accento bruto Americano, penso che non possa dire che verramente parlo l'Italiano pero... posso capire... posso communicare un po'."

["With this terrible American accent I don't think I can really say I speak Italian... but I can understand... I can communicate/get by a little.]

This got my cup of coffee knocked off my bill.

I'm still half-soaked as I type this out in an internet cafe near my hotel, all while hopefully searching for Spanish news on the Aerolineas Argentinas strike. My Spanish is not so great anymore --- it's pretty bad, actually --- but I can still read it well enough to get the content of an article. Just don't ask me to speak it without adding in a few unnecessary vowels. I feel no smug sentiments about my Spanish right now.

Tomorrow should be interesting. I need to take a train to the airport no matter what, because even if the strike continues (as it probably will), I will have to deal with the airline and see what they can do for me. There is a problem here, however. There is still a chance the trains to the airport (or anywhere else) will be shut down due to another "sciopero." So, I am stuck in international, multi-lingual strike/sciopero/huelga-land as of the moment. And my hair is all messed up.

Posted by Joshua at 03:39 PM
View/Add Comments (4) | Category: Italy: Living in Perugia

November 04, 2005

Heading into the Last Month...

Tuesday, November 1 to Friday, November 4, 2005

Perugia, Italy:

It was like this at the beginning of September and also at the beginning of October. With new classes, new professors, and a new group of classmates (not to mention new roommates and a new apartment, which will be covered in the next post), the first week can leave one feeling a little uncertain. Was it worth signing up and spending another month in Perugia? The answer is definitely yes, but it remains to be seen as to whether the people I meet will be as worth getting to know as those I met in the previous two months.

After three days of class, it is clear that the professors are all quite good and the people in the class, though I don't know many of them yet, seem interesting. Its a bit of an older group and a little more serious. Some of them are living long-term in Italy and a few have been here for a year or more. I'm the only American again, and the class includes a mix of German, Spanish, Swiss, Brazilian (including the Sister from the class last month), Polish, Hungarian, Colombian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Turkish, Australian, Montenegran, Azerbaijani, and Russian students. In Perugia you can always count on meeting people from the least expected places. I was in a bar a few nights ago when a classmate introduced me to a friend, a girl in jeans with a beer, who could have been Russian, Italian, Australian, or of just about any other background. In fact, she was Iranian. "Oooh, we're not supposed to talk to each other," she joked. "Yeah, yeah, keep away," I kidded back. Of course, she was very nice and we didn't discuss politics at all. (With regard to that country and news coverage here, it's president's remarks have provoked a comfortingly high level of general outrage.)

As for the Italian it's coming along. I make a number of mistakes and am still working on my vocabulary, but things improve noticeably almost daily. I can converse about a number of topics and my understanding of what I hear (spoken, on TV and over the radio) and read is fairly high --- in the last few weeks I've never had a conversation that I couldn't manage (the kind in which you just have to say that you're sorry, you don't understand). After another month I will certainly not be fluent, but I will be closer to it than from it. It's unfortunate that I can only stay in Italy for 90 days without a visa. 120 days or 150 days would be ideal for approaching basic fluency, though even if I did manage to achieve a near-perfect use of the grammar, I would still need more time to develop an extensive vocabulary and knowledge of the various idiomatic phrases. Regardless of how many words and phrases you memorize from a book or lesson, you need to spent time putting them into practice and making errors. In this regard, there is a reason why my abilities to comprehend and speak diverge to a great extent. Hearing a native speaker speak the language correctly, I can usually understand the message quite clearly. Trying to say what I want to say (and quickly, without stammering and pausing) isn't nearly as simple.

At least the work will help my Spanish when I return to the study of that language. Certain topics I never quite grasped in Spanish, including the use of pronouns and the conditional/subjunctive tenses, are pretty clear to me in Italian now. If anything, the Italian is more difficult, so I should be able to apply the concepts to Spanish without too much of a struggle. What will that do to my Italian? I prefer not to think about it.

Posted by Joshua at 03:54 PM
View/Add Comments (1) | Category: Italy: Living in Perugia

October 30, 2005

Music in Italy: Party Like it's 1983

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Perugia, Italy:

I don't dance and most new dance and pop music I hear makes me want to throw up all over myself. However, most of the bars in Perugia have small dance spaces and the music is, as a consequence, dance/pop music. It's all over the place and I often find myself humming bars of irritating tracks I can't recognize and loathe. After a while, however, my standards have dropped. I now have a standard for judging these songs, classifying them as (1) Awful, (2) Just God-Awful, and (3) Kill Me Now. If it's in the first category, relatively speaking, I like the song and hum it to myself like a recently-lobotomized imbecile.

I don't think all of this music gets played because Italians love to dance. To the contrary, most of the people dancing in these places are drunk foreign girls, while the Italian element consists of the guys who want to grope them. One night, about a week ago, a bunch of us were sitting in the bar Merlin, drinking beer and taking a look around. A group of three or four girls, the whole lot of them pretty much pickled from too many white martinis, was stumbling around to the music, trying hard to pick up some rhythm and not fall over a table.

"They're Americans," said my friend Argentina (Florencia).

"How do you know?" I asked.

"They're the only ones dancing to '50 Cent.'"

I looked around. Damn. She was right.

At another club a few days later, the bunch of us realized that the saying that European clubs are stuck in the 80's remains dead-on accurate. You cannot go to a club that does not, at some point, play "YMCA" by the Village People. They are legally required by law to play this, just as they are legally required to play "Disco Inferno" and tracks from "Grease". Fifty years from now they will still be doing this.

The only good thing going for the music scene is the Spanish music they play. If it isn't English, chances are you are hearing Spanish and not Italian. I don't know if the Colombian "Juanez" is getting any play in the States with "Camisa Negra," but that song and others like it are the one's I find myself humming here, despite myself. I might even admit to liking some of the Spanish Shakira songs, but nobody should quote me on that and I might deny it later. As for Italian pop, it isn't all bad. Only about 95% of it is.

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