December 26, 2008

We need(ed) a little Christmas...

and we had one, the first one I've had in Wonderland since the great drunken expletive-on-tablecloth debacle several years back.

I missed Maine, but at The Girls' party Xmas eve, when I saw the box of ornaments, I froze for an instant. I thought, oh my God, we're going to have to put up all of them, for that is how we do things in Familyland North, one tradition I'm not enamored of.

But no. The Girls didn't care if the tree got decorated, or if they did it the next day. Their party was at their late mother Cicely's house, and, even though she is in a box on a bookshelf, it was a happy time. We reminisced; we looked at 20 year old pictures of ourselves; we danced. A good time was had by all.

This was the first time in 20+ years that my mom, my brother, and I celebrated together. The last time I can remember, my dad was still alive. Seems like many lifetimes ago.

It didn't start out auspiciously: Brother was in town to have spinal surgery, and he is staying with The Mother until his doctor gives him a thumbs-up to go home. While Brother may live happily in Tiny Town, Slow Southern State, he was not about to let any M.D. there get close to him with a scalpel.

Thankyou, no, it was time for The Mother to pull strings and get him in to the best doctor in the country, one who operates at the hospital where she volunteers. In my family, when it comes to the Big Stuff, we don't fuck around.

Admittedly the month has had its strains: The longest year of my life was the December I spent in New York, Brother says. Well, a month of immediate family togetherness, after 30+ years of our not sharing much, has had Alice bolting for her Xanax, and both Brother and The Mother drinking a tad more than their share.

But Christmas -- come hell or high water, I decided we were going to have a genuinely festive day. We did. I made some rules about presents: we were to spend $50, max, even if we wrapped up toothpaste and shampoo to stick under the tree. So long as we had gifts to unwrap, it didn't much matter what they were.

So we got creative: we swiped things from one another's closets. The Mother got her monkey sandals back from Brother; he got a pair of clean socks she had just washed, along with some unmentionables.

Brother and I did the Costco run and wrapped up 36 roles of toilet paper for The Mother. The tag read, to F-----. from: Mr. Whipple's friends. (That would, apparently, be the late Mr. Whipple, as those Charmin commercials were from another century, and he is long since gone. Who knew?)

Brother gave me a photo of Kay, my niece, that looked as if she were the picture that had come with the frame. Kay is Goldilocks come to life. If times weren't so tight, Kay and her mom, my sister-in-law, would have been to Wonderland for the holidays. Alas, not this season.

The Mother gave me a sweater I loved, but had forgotten I'd given to her. She re-gifted me a decorative collection of boxes of tea, and the chocolate-peppermint candy Brother had given her and she hadn't liked.

My bonus gift? A vial of pills marked, "Alice. MEDS from Mom."

Then dinner. My menu, executed mostly by The Brother. He is, after all, the one in the restaurant business. He cooks without thinking, never consults a book. Filet mignon, roast potatoes, timed just right. My applies-heat-to-food contribution? The asparagus with hollandaise, a sauce I make from scratch, just the way my father taught me. No restaurant can make it better.

For dessert, a chocolate souffle. Again, my specialty, but one I asked Brother to prepare, as I'd missed a blue pill and temporarily gone haywire. After dinner? Irish coffee. (This was the one night I encouraged The Mother to drink. Dewars, of course, then red wine, then the Jamisons. Will she remember the evening? Do I care?)

So: we did little to enhance the economy, but we entertained ourselves big time. Maybe that's what the holiday should be about.

December 15, 2008

Alice's Argeninian adventures

A day in BA:

Alice el turista in full force remains an observer of the strange, the silly, and the bizarre. For example, on her city tour, she is astounded that one of the main stops is the soccer stadium.

She had no idea soccer was an Argentine religion, could not imagine a city tour of, say, Wonderland, that put Yankee Stadium so high on the priority list. Alice roots for no team, not in any sport.

Everywhere the tourists come in couples: Alice meets the 50 somethings from Chicago, who think the digital camera in the running for the sliced-bread contest. So easy, they say. So cheap, for thousands of exposures.

So little thought, Alice suggests. So little artistry. Alice prefers to compose one spectacular shot rather than run through a dozen at a clip, attempting to capture the image at random.

The 20 somethings from Seattle are lovers of technology and sport. Alice considers them The Youth, and gets Youth to change her camera batteries, for she is certain Youth has a better handle on all things technological than does Alice. Youth, after all, was born after Alice got her first computer.

Chicago and Seattle don't have as many questions as Alice does: she wants a constant narrative: where are they? what's the historical significance around here? what do the Portenos, as the people of BA are known, think of the multimillion-dollar flower statue whose center follows the sun?

But Alice's Spanish is limited, in part due to a mental block about the language, which she first heard one summer in Cambridge, spoken incessantly by teenage offspring of the Nicaraguan elite, who had been sent to Harvard to learn English. Ha.

They went for a two-month party, highlighted by the celebration the day Somoza was overthrown. None even tried to hablas ingleses.

Then, too, Wonderland is awash in bilingual signs and companies with phone machines that, Alice gathers, ask you to press 2 if you want to conduct your business in Spanish.

Alice thinks it all very fine and well to have a bilingual city, but she draws the line at her local drugstore clerk who does not know the English word for "film."

Yet in Buenos Aires, Alice wishes she did not choke on the language, confusing it with every other romance language she has known. She could use a few sentences to question the tour guide.

On to the Plaza de Mayo, site of Evita's famed plea, and the Casa Rosada, Argentina's answer to the White House. BA is a cross between Washington, D.C., with all its government buildings freshly scoured with her tax dollars, and Wonderland, where government is an afterthought.

The original house of government, the Cabildo, dates from 1765, and is open only as a museum. Outside, it wears graffiti tags and shady teenagers hanging out. A father and daughter who appear homeless sit on the building steps to eat their shared lunch.

This in itself reminds Alice that while she is a tourist, BA is a real city, just like Wonderland, with a huge range of comfort levels.

Caminito is a postcard, an open-air museum with street-dancing tango performers, a locale originally settled by Italian immigrants and now home to tourists from all nations. It is not, as Alice was told, just one street.

It is a warren of pedestrian walks, with colorful buildings that blur in Alice's mind, as well as confuse Alice's sense of direction. There, she nearly misses the bus, for the tour guide fails to live up to her job description. Every other guide Alice meets is perfect.

She is most fond of George, her go-to guy, the man who tells her that if she has the slightest need or curiosity, all she has to do is call. Alice would like a go-to guy in Wonderland, to steer her past all the messy bits, the times when Alice would prefer not to lead the way, not to navigate the crowds herself.

Had his timing been better, he would have given Alice a tour of Recoleta cemetery, where Alice ventures on her own and pays her respects to Eva Peron, one of the many famous and honored at the exclusive plot of mausoleums, where to this day, funerals are held. It is odd, the juxtaposition of the tourist and the mourner.

At the gaucho ranch

The next day, another double-take. Alice has gone to the estanzia with a group of Belgians and a mother and daughter from Columbia. They share the day with a huge group of men celebrating 50 years of their company's manufacturing success.

What does the company make? Toilets. Alice has never given any thought to where the porcelain gods originate, much less where its creators celebrate.

The Columbian daughter has taken this trip to Argentina in lieu of a 15th birthday celebration, akin to Alice's Sweet Sixteen. Are Sweet 16s still part of the teenage lexicon for girls of a certain class? Alice has no idea.

She thinks the trip a much better idea. Two weeks of seeing the world vs. four hours of a party: would Alice have made that decision? Who can remember 16?

At the gaucho-style barbecue, Alice et. al. receive a standard meal for a cowboy: four courses of meat, with an occasional shredded carrot for variety. Had Alice known what a huge repast was planned, she would have paced herself better.

Then there is the floor show, where songs of every nation come alive. There is nothing quite like hearing Hava Nagila on a tourist-ed up horse ranch outside of BA. For a moment, Alice thinks she is at a Bar Mitzvah.

Solo explorations

Alice finds life to be one image contrasted against another, with disconnects abounding, and entertainment found in the oddest of places. At the tango show, Alice discovers the ladies' room has no tampon dispenser, but condoms, or preservativo, have a shiny white dispenser.

The tango dancers are lithe and flexible; the women ballerina-thin and just as agile. Alice takes a tango lesson, and feels exceedingly clumsy. The dancers tell a story that Alice cannot translate, but embraces just the same.

In Palermo, the next evening at a restaurant, Alice spots the preservativo dispenser again. This time, it is paired with a toothbrush dispenser. Obviously, these items are what every Porteno needs in a hurry.

Portenos, like Parisians, are also fond are what are marketed as American brands. Many years ago in France, Alice grew accustomed to seeing sweatshirts from non-existent U.S. universities.

On Avenida Alvear, BA's most elegant shopping street, akin to Wonderland's Madison Avenue, Alice comes across a clothing store called "SoHo New York Est. 1958." She is certain that the brand's creator has no idea that what has become SoHo, was, in the 1950s, a manufacturing district, chic in no one's eyes.

What sums up Alice's experiences best is the BA duty-free shop: She cannot figure out how one fits a 42-inch flat-screen LCD TV under the seat, but it is for sale nonetheless.

Then she comes upon shots of Chivas, dispensed for the tasting, with no one minding the open bottle. Try that in the U.S. Since the whiskey is there, Alice has to have a couple of shots. What better way to fly?

December 14, 2008

Alice becomes a "godthing"

Iguassu Falls (on the Argentine/Brazilian border) is the world's widest waterfall -- more than 270 km or 1/4 mile across, in contrast to Niagara, which has the most volume, and Victoria (Zimbabwe), which stakes its reputation on some other superlative.

It is amazing. Water, water everywhere, tumbling down steep rock cliffs.

Alice goes first to Brazil, a four-hour sojourn for which she has spent at least twice that time in New York getting her spite visa (the U.S. has a cover charge, so Brazil thinks it only fair to have one in return), where the falls are distant and panoramic. Then onto Argentina, where Ricardo, the tour guide, keeps a special eye on Alice, the only solo woman traveler.

A couple from San Francisco, Shelly and Jack, adopt Alice for the day. They are accustomed to adopting friends, usually only children who have become only adults, something Alice frequently feels despite the brother in Alabama. Originally from the East Coast, we share a sensibility.

Their adoptees are not their godchildren; they are their godthings, a title Alice wears for the day with love and pride.

Ricardo calls Alice's attention to several different views, calls to Alice and Alice alone. By the time he points out the bathroom, Shelly says, "oh, do I get to go too? Or is the bathroom just for Alice?" She and her husband are I are laughing hysterically.

He and I have bonded over scarring from the same prep school circuit; she and I have the crazy moms and non-linear career connections.

In the boat that took us into the falls, we shared a waterproof bag for all our belongings. We scrunched together in the same seat to be blasted with water, soaking us head to toe as the boat operator scudded us through the rapids, and the distant mist became a close-up, cold, soaking shower.

It is at that moment that I realize one of the best things about being a solo traveler is the people I meet and the serendipitous nature of my journey. Laurie Colwin's story "The Lone Pilgrim" comes to mind: "Single, you carry only the uncluttered luggage of your own personality, selected and packed by only one pair of hands."

I am a diversion; I am entertainment; a conversation with me is not tantamount to what I imagine the intimacy of marriage, not that I am sold on that institution.

(Shelly and Jack have it right: I could be married, too, if I had my own bedroom, my own space. All their friends, who once thought them insane, are now envious.)

Another joy for this trip is that other people have made all the decisions; for once, I does not have to be in charge. I can become a child again, having all the fun and lack of responsibility the title brings with it.

The Argentinians want to take care of me; the female tour guides want to hug me, cheek to cheek, as does the woman who later washes and braids my hair in Buenos Aires. It is a huge luxury not to have to braid my own hair.

The male guides watch my every move; George in Buenos Aires narrates the history of his city, wants to assure my comfort, explains such peculiarities as double-daylight savings time, brought to the country by its president, who may not have all her marbles.

George knows everyone at the airports, which pays off big time when I check in. I go straight to the front of every line, thankyouverymuch. It is bliss.

I share odd cultural references with the San Franciscans. For instance, the coffee stirrers in Argentina resemble the ones McDonald's retired when too many people were using the tiny spades to shovel coke up their noses. This too bonds me to my family for the day, the people with whom I later pad around the Sheraton pool, blissfully cool in the hot Iguassu sun.

The San Franciscans came from Puenta Arenas, Chile, nearly the most southernmost town in the hemisphere. They have traveled extensively, as have I. On my trip to Africa three years ago, I noticed that you did not get to safari in Botswana without having seen all of the Western world and a good portion of the rest; the same is true in Iguassu.

Later, I will develop a fierce sunburn, due to my confusion between when to apply apres sun spray and when to apply sun protection spray. Whoops. In the airplane returning to Buenos Aires, the flight attendant offers me a barf bag full of ice to cool my inflamed skin. Finally, a use for that item eternally riding in the seat back.

This is inadvertently my second stay in Buenos Aires. The first was prompted by a missed airplane connection. It astounded me that American Airlines came through with a night at the Intercontinental hotel, plus dinner and breakfast.

It is a fancy joint, and after my massage, I learn that the AA crew stays in the same hotel -- a far cry from the kinds of hotels I had imagined the crew frequented. Note to self: flight attendants have a much nicer gig than it may first appear. If this is any example, they stay at ritzier hotels than I do.

Airline finance mystery solved, for a week the brave new world does not obtain, and no news is both good news and all the news I will allow.

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December 12, 2008

Abroad, riding the unemployment wave

Even in Argentina, the news is unavoidable: U.S. jobless rates reach a 26-year high. That about sums up Alice´s time in the marketplace. This leave her back where she started, only a tiny bit wiser and a whole lot older.

When did Alice attempt to enter the workplace initially? That would be 1982, the year to which the current lack of jobs is being compared. But how did it happen that Alice has consistently ridden the recession wave? First, she tries for gainful employment at a time no one is hiring.

Later, she becomes a recessionary trend-spotter, as noted by her 1990 exile from corporate America. That time, she worked for a company that the magazine where she toiled on the same day that it won a National Magazine Award for general excellence, an experience recently likened to working for a TV show that is cancelled the day it wins an Emmy.

She hit the 1990 unemployment line ahead of the benefits extension afforded colleagues who quickly landed subsequent jobs at trendy mags that folded just a few months later. So, Alice has had her recessionary bout with government subsidy of artistic pursuits without incurring Jesse Helm´s ire, or so she chose to look at being on the dole then.

Now, she´s been self-employed for long enough that the only unemployment money she will get is from the first national bank of Mom, a long-standing institution that has only made a couple of bad loans in its day, none of them to Alice. Her credit is good there.

The terms of doing business at the bank of Mom would be unacceptable to most people: while repayment plans are at the customer´s request, in the interim the customer and her daily life are subject to far greater scrutiny than they would be at, say, the late Wachovia or the deathbed-rattling Citibank.

How did Alice come to Argentina? Frequent flyer miles, the last remaining currency. And why? Because if she is going to lose money, she might as well have a good time in the process. A couple of thousand bucks are nothing compared with the beating her portfolio has taken in the past six months -- and this time, she will have a great suntan, leather goods, and some excellent adventures to show for it.

Once upon a time, the U.S. was the land of opportunity, or so it was perceived. Now, immigration seems to work on the pay to play principle, which is not exactly what I consider welcoming. It appears to me that if you want to get foreigners to spend their dinero in the U.S., you would want to make it cheap and easy for them to visit. No, first we make everyone pay a toll.

Welcome to America. Whatever you want, we make you pay tax on it, and, unlike other countries, we offer no rebate upon your exit. Whatever you´ve got, we´ll take it. Pity we couldn´t convince enough people to buy what we were selling, so our deficit is so high, if the U.S. tried to write a check, it would bounce sky-high. Knowing us, we wouldn´t apologize.

On election day, I was a patriot. Today, not so much.

Today I want to be an Argentine.

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