Sunday, September 20, 2009

It Takes A Village

Huge sugary thanks to Bri & Geoff, Leslie, John & Joe, and Anna, Pete, Nola & Nick, for the use of their kitchens (and stand mixers!). Thanks to Ann & Rob for transporting two tired travelers toting a disassembled cake and buckets of buttercream from NYC to Cape Cod. Thanks to Meredith & Philip for trusting their wedding cake to a crazy person. And thanks to Ken for his ongoing patience with my, um, ambitious commitments.

I'm going back to bed now. Possibly for three days.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Gillian & Ken in NYC: FAQ

Q Why are you back? I thought you were staying in Buenos Aires/South America for a year!

A We came back for a visit! This weekend we'll be at a wedding in Cape Cod, then we'll be in NY for 2 weeks. On October 5 we fly to Canada to see our peeps (and kitteh!) up north, and on October 15 we fly to Lima, Peru, to start another 6 months of South American Adventures (not to mention a full 15 months of summer).

Q Is it true that you are baking the cake for this wedding?

A Yes. Because I have a condition known as "insanity." The buttercream frosting, however, is some of my best work, so no regrets.

Q When can I/we see you?

A We have few plans after this weekend. Email us! If you're in Waterloo, we'll be at Oktoberfest at the Aud Queensmount (thanks Leigh!) on October 10. Two words: Walter Ostanek.

Q In your last post you referred to Ken's brother as your brother-in-law. WTF?

A Relax. It was a term of endearment, not legally binding <cough>Marc</cough>.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I ♥ NY

We've been back in the States for 24 hours and in NY for 18 and I can't believe how happy I am to be here. While I was waiting in line for US Immigration in Dallas I watched the US's new "Welcome" video, with montages of American landscapes and very deliberately multicultural people. I almost wish I could be cynical about this blatant PR effort but, I have to admit, it made me tear up a little. (Shut up! I was really tired, OK?)

Ken's brother picked us up at the airport which was the best possible scenario, given our 250 lbs (!!!) of luggage and general states of mind after 2 flights totaling almost 14 hours. Then, because he is the best brother-in-law ever, he took us to our most favourite diner in Brooklyn (Tom's - go there, please, it is the best) and not only did we eat bacon and eggs, we drank coffee out of huge mugs (with free refills) and used giant, soft, luxurious napkins. I didn't even realize I'd missed these things!

Later, Ken and I went into the city to buy wedding-cake-making supplies. We ate slices of thin-and-oh-so-crispy-crust NY pizza and watched the weird and beautiful people of NY go by at the corner of 22nd & 6th. Later, on our way back to the subway, we saw Janeane Garafalo in Union Square.

Last night I went to a friend's and we ordered chicken shwarma (so delicious) and now I'm off to another diner for more bacon and eggs and more mediocre-yet-bountiful coffee, and before I'm up to my elbows in cake frosting I just wanted to gush about how much I love NY. And I haven't even had a bagel yet.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Favourite Buenos Aires Activity #1: Eat Dessert

Let's be honest: Eating dessert is pretty much at the top of my to-do list anywhere, not just in Buenos Aires. I've lost track of how many times I've mentioned my lust for dulce de leche, the rich caramel spread/sauce that is to Argentines as Nutella is to Germans, or maple syrup to Canadians - in other words, essential. However, I have yet to describe the myriad desserts in which it is contained (or accompanies), not to mention the dessert-menu items that don't even contain the magical substance.

Two classics that are often served with dulce de leche are flan, a firmish pudding not unlike the crème part of crème brûlée, and panqueques, which are really crêpes. The former is usually served with a generous dollup of ddl alongside, while the latter is filled with the stuff and either rolled or folded into a triangle, so that when you cut into it the ddl oozes out delightfully. Panqueques may also be ordered de manzana (with apples) or al rhum (with rum). The only time we tried panqueues de manzana they were extremely carmelized and so sticky that they were kind of unpleasant to eat. The rum pancakes, however, are fun because they're flambéed at your table, and everyone likes an open flame.

If you need a quick-fix of ddl, grab an alfajor. There are a few different types, of which the most common are the dulce de leche (filled with ddl and covered in a sugary meringue coating), and chocolate (also filled with ddl, but covered in chocolate). Then there are alfajores de maicena, which are the homemade varieties in which ddl is sandwiched between two cornstarch cookies then, optionally, rolled in coconut or dipped in chocolate.

Every ice cream store also has a plethora of variations on the dulce de leche theme. There's straight-up dulce de leche, which is ddl-flavoured ice cream, and dulce de leche super, which is ddl-flavoured ice cream with a ddl swirl. The other day I had dulce de leche bombom: ddl-flavoured ice cream with chocolate bonbons containing dulce de leche scattered throughout. Luxurious! And of course, you can order ice cream for home delivery, which is even more dangerous than the selection of Ben & Jerry's at an NYC bodega.

Lest you think this post should have been titled "Eat Dulce de Leche," there are a few other ubiquitous desserts in Buenos Aires that deserve a taste. Queso y dulce is fresh, salty cheese served with a hefty slab of dulce de membrillo (quince paste - quince was recently a Fruit of the Day), or dulce de batata, made from sweet potatoes. It doesn't look super-appetizing but it's tasty and a good compromise between dessert and cheese courses. Frutillas y crema (strawberries and cream) is usually Ken's first choice, and the Don Pedro is another favourite: It's a scoop (or three) of vanilla ice cream, doused in whiskey.

P.S. On Tuesday we'll be back in NY and on Wednesday I'll be baking the Queen Mother of all desserts: A wedding cake, for our friends' Meredith and Philip's nuptials in Cape Cod next weekend. Blogging (and sleeping, I suspect) may be limited for the next week or so, but I'm sure you'll survive, somehow. ¡Besote!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Favourite Buenos Aires Activity #2: Exercise

As I've mentioned, cheap food isn't always healthy, and anyway, who can resist the siren call of dulce de leche? To mitigate the more undesirable effects of too much steak and wine (and my inability to refuse the dessert menu in a restaurant), we signed up at a gym and hired a personal trainer within a few weeks of landing in Buenos Aires. While I've paid as much as $80 for a personal training session in NYC (Richie!), here we paid just over $10 for a session that included a 10-minute massage (!).

Buenos Aires has a surprisingly large community of runners, and even though I decided back in June to forego marathon training this year, I ran a handful of times in Palermo parks, which are beautiful and safe. I also ran a few races in these parks, and even PR'd in the last one I ran, in June.

Walking around the city is also great exercise; you just have to be vigilant about watching for dog poop. Consider it additional training, like an obstacle course! You could also walk your own dog (or 12).

And of course, there's dancing. Tango is the most obvious choice, but in the four months we lived here, we never made it to a class, let along a milonga. We did, however, try out Zouk-Lambada, a French-Brazilian dirty dancing, and tomorrow night will be testing our mad Samba skillz at a bar in San Telmo.


Gym: Always Club in Palermo

Running Clubs:
Club de Corredores has a group that meets weekly. The club also organizes regular races in Palermo Parks.
BsAs Runners also organizes races around the city.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Here is the story of how we chose to take a 5 hour bus ride to a city that sells towels with images of enthusiastic-looking naked ladies on them.

(Click to enlarge; NSFW.)

Last week, on the day our Brazil visas expired, we reluctantly boarded a bus to leave the country. (OK, that's a lie; we'd just spent a very rainy day in Puerto Alegre and were pretty psyched to swap the glamour of playing cards at the bus terminal for another 12 hour bus trip.) During our preliminary immigration check with the bus company we were asked about slips of paper that we were supposed to have filled out when we entered the country, not to mention stamps in our passports - neither of which we had received. The woman at the bus company assured us that we'd be fine.

Cut to: 3 a.m., the border crossing at Chui, Brazil, also known as Chuy, Uruguay (both pronounced "choo-ie"), at which time we were asked to step off the bus and explain the deficiencies in our passports. In Portuguese. Or, in my case, in Spanish with very poor Portuguese pronunciation.

After about 20 minutes of "explaining" to the Brazilian Federal Police that we hadn't received anything when we crossed the border, we were asked to write down our parents' names--never a sign that things are going well. A few minutes later we were handed forms. Mine read, in Portuguese, natch, that Gillian Gutenberg, daughter of [parents' names witheld to protect the innocent], committed the heinous crime of not having her passport stamped. (Thank god they didn't catch me smuggling coconut chocolate bars out of the country.) After a half-hearted attempt to read the forms, we signed them, which may mean that we'll be on an upcoming episode of Locked Up Abroad. We were also instructed that should we desire a Brazilian visa in the future (...duh), we would need to pay fines of $93 each.

Obviously the Brazilian Federal Police are not familiar with Monk Mode.

We arrived in Montevideo, Uruguay, about 5 hours later. The next day, after a fruitless attempt to pay our fine at a bank, we hit up the Brazilian Consulate, where I had the following conversation (in Spanish; illustrated here in BASIC) with a woman working there.

10 Me: We need to pay this fine. Do you know where we can pay it?
20 Brazilian Consulate Woman: You have to go to a Banco do Brasil, in Brazil.
30 Me: We can't go back to Brazil because our visas have expired. And we can't get new visas until we pay the fine.
40 GOTO 20

After a few rounds of this, an Orange Alert was issued for levels of annoyedness, and another woman came to speak to us. At that point Ken took over, and we learned that we could go back to Chui/Chuy and pay at the Banco do Brasil there.

And so, on Tuesday morning we boarded a 7 a.m. bus to Chui/Chuy to give the Brazilian Federal Police $186 to be allowed back in the country. We found the Banco do Brasil in Chui/Chuy with minimal effort and after some hijinks involving various metal items in my purse, I waited by the ATMs (and under the careful watch of the security guard) while Ken went in to pay our dues.

He came back out a few minutes later and reported that we needed to pay with Brazilian reais, not the Uruguayian pesos we'd brought. Please note the irony of this situation: We could buy a naked-nurse towel (click to enlarge; NSFW) using either Uruguayian or Brazilian currency, but we couldn't exchange our money at the bank. It was then that we learned that the ATMs at this particular bank didn't work with any of our banks' networks. Visa, apparently, is not everywhere you want to be.

We walked back about four blocks to the money exchange center, exchanged pesos for reais, then went back to the bank, where I waited, again, by the ATMs and the security guard, while Ken went into the bank, again, to pay the fine.

Ken came out a few minutes later to tell me we hadn't exchanged enough to pay the fines. Math is hard! Let's go shopping! We walked back to the exchange center (again) and back to the bank (again). The security guard watched with equal parts suspicion and amusement.

I was starting to think we liked Brazil more than it liked us.

Fortunately, third time's a charm: We left the bank with our precious receipts and made our way back to the bus terminal (which was really just a row of bus company offices on a street) to catch the next available bus back to Montevideo. Unfortunately, the next available bus was with a company that didn't accept non-Uruguayian credit cards, and we'd used all of our precious cash paying our fine. We were directed to another nearby bank, where we tried, using various combinations of bank cards and ATMs, to withdraw money. Guess what happened?


We walked back to the row of bus companies and found the next bus departing Chui/Chuy, at a different company. One that, thanks to all that is good and pure in the world, accepted MasterCard. We rejoiced quietly, then retired to a café across the street to drink coffee and play cards until we could bid farewell to the fabled land of naked-lady towels (click to enlarge; NSFW) and giant skewers of meat.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Monk Mode

We've almost reached the six-month mark of our yearlong South American adventure, and as I mentioned previously, the second half of our year won't be spent in Buenos Aires (where we've lived for four of the past six months). Instead, after our visit home in September (during which I plan to consume copious amounts of nut butter, maple syrup, and Timbits) we're going to fly to Lima and travel around the continent - first south through Peru, Chile, and Argentina, then back to Brazil and possibly a few of the northern countries like Bolivia.

For the past three weeks we've been traveling through Southern Brazil and Uruguay, which has been a great trial run to figure out exactly what we want to carry on our backs for six months (the answer: a lot less than we're carrying now). It has also given us the opportunity to figure out and implement our new budget, in which we allocate a third of our daily spending to travel - something we didn't have to do when we were living in Buenos Aires. Borrowing a phrase coined by my BFF, Sirrah, we're in Monk Mode, which means that we're living frugally - just like monks, except without all the annoying celibacy.

It wouldn't be so bad except that we both like to eat, a lot, as in we really enjoy eating and we also like to eat a lot of food. In Brazil, we could usually find lunch of either chicken, fish, or meat, plus rice, beans, fries, and a small salad for around $5, and it was more than enough to share. A shot of coffee (cafezhino) in Brazil goes for anywhere from 25-50¢, and there's all that delicious fruit.

We're now in Montevideo, Uruguay, and have found a bakery near our hostel at which we can buy 2 coffees and 6 tiny medialuna sandwiches for $2.50. A hamburger from a street cart costs as little as $1 (and up to $2, depending on how many toppings you want to add, and by toppings I don't just mean ketchup and mustard - these babies come with slices of cheese, ham, bacon, and sometimes a fried egg).

As you may have gathered, the menu items available during Monk Mode are often not the most nutritious, so my new plan is to seek out introductory (read: free) classes of any physical activity I can bring myself to do, from yoga to capoeira to pilates.

Activities in a new city are also a challenge. We spent one day in Puerto Alegre, Brazil, and it rained, nay, poured, for 11 of the 12 hours we were there. We spent most of the day wandering around the central market, parking ourselves at one of its many eating establishments and ordering 2 of the cheapest coffees on the menu which we nursed for an hour or more while we played cards.