Tag Archives: summer

El finale: Home is where you hang your head and sigh

Okay. I have been told — and I fully realize — that I may be lingering far too long in the land of steak, wine, and dulce de leche. It’s a little self-indulgent, perhaps, and I get it! I totally do. While this armchair travel experience has been both hilariously entertaining and culturally educational for my readers, you are eager to get back to our dear homeland, where the grass is asphalt and the steak is hot dogs. Unfortunately, I wasn’t. Still amn’t. But I need to face facts and admit that we’ve actually been back in New York for the past month and a half, and no matter how hard I shut my eyes and hope against hope, the Fine Living Network isn’t calling to ask me to do an extended, intensive investigation of Argentina’s Ten Most Flamboyant and Revoltingly Luxurious Hotels.

As my grandmother used to say, here we are, so that’s where we’ll be. But before we got here, we were there: among the only hotel guests of a sprawling vineyard and resort in San Rafael, in the Mendoza (read: wine) region of Argentina. Our last three days of honeymoon bliss read like one of those ridiculous Celebrity Cruise lines commercials: we indulged in an outdoor cooking class with the hotel’s chef, I received an olive oil massage out on a patio overlooking the pool, we were given a complementary, 3-hour private wine-tasting class, and oh yeah, we had our own golf cart with which to freely explore the sprawling farm and untamed brush.

Pretty darn pretty

It was pretty perfect, in all, though the experience wasn’t without some valuable life lessons. For instance, while it may seem like too good an opportunity to pass up, one oughtn’t eat two consecutive meals featuring provoleta, chorizo, and half a bottle of wine (among other things). For if one does, one will wind up with a wretched case of “food poisoning” the day one is forced to wait 3 hours in a tiny airport and then make the 12-hour journey back to New York. And by food poisoning, I mean self-inflicted overdose, much like what would happen to a dog if you left the entire bag of kibble within reach. On the bright side, sun poisoning + food poisoning = honeymoon bingo! I win!

These plates represent the number of chorizo-topped grilled cheese blobs I consumed in a 12-hour period.

I also learned that after a 3-hour wine tasting, if one chooses to then consume half a bottle of rose poolside, one probably ought to wait a little while before jumping in and “swimming.” Didn’t my mother and camp counselors warn me about this when I was little? As it turns out, wine + pool = something of a mess, and I think I wound up consuming an equal amount of chlorinated water as I did alcohol. It was super fun, mostly because I didn’t actually drown to death!

You can't tell, but in all likelihood this book is actually upside-down.

Those sterling nuggets (ew) of wisdom aside, there was one exercise we just couldn’t master. We’d heard about how late people eat dinner in Argentina. And we tried to assimilate, tried to adjust our internal clocks and do as they did. But no matter how much effort we put into making late reservations, no matter how many times we were sure we’d gotten it right, we just kept winding up alone in restaurants. Fancy restaurants, trendy restaurants, wildly popular restaurants. We were always, always completely alone. We just could not figure it out. We’d show up at 10pm and leave at 11:30, never seeing another diner. We’d show up at 10:45pm and leave after midnight, and maybe catch a glimpse of an honest-to-god Argentinean couple sauntering in with a bright-eyed toddler in tow. At first, it was kind of nice. Two newlyweds, oblivious to others around us, absorbed in each other and our food and wine. No obnoxious table-neighbors drowning out our conversation, no competition for the water guy. But after the first couple of evenings like that, we both realized how awkward and uncomfortable it felt to be sitting in a big, empty establishment, with one guy waiting on us and the rest of the waiters milling around. Or worse, all of them serving us at once — sometimes we’d have a bread guy, a wine pourer, a water-glass-filler AND a crumber, all in addition to our server. Occasionally, there would be another family or couple seated, and we would perk up. Perhaps we’d cracked the code and been tacitly welcomed into the Forbidden City! But inevitably, within minutes their loud, American voices would reverberate across the room, serving as a sharp and shameful reminder of our lame tourist status, broadcasting our loserdom in our own heads. We are those travelers who really like to think we’re cooler and smarter and more sophisticated than your average Ugly American. I mean, we’re worldly, we’re from New York, we dig the restaurant scene, we’ve even been known to hang out at a hip bar or two. But throughout the entire country of Argentina, we may as well have been clipping coupons out of The Pennysaver for the early bird special. As silly as it sounds, it was humbling, but more than that it was just sort of frustrating. It was like all the Argentinians had conspired together to stay hidden until we were safely on the way back to our hotel. If only I’d looked in that urn by the bathroom.

Here’s the thing of it: Matt and I loved being on vacation together. We hardly fought, we typically wanted to do all the same things, got hungry around the same time, even our sleep cycles managed to sync up. But even traveling as a team, as closely knit as they come, being in a foreign country can feel very lonely. And when it seems like everyone is somewhere you will never find, it only heightens your sense of being an outsider. I’m aware that many people would pay for the privilege of emptying out a beautiful restaurant. But if I’m out in the world, I want the other residents to show their faces and be there with me.

So that brings us, inexorably, to the island of Manhattan. I’m back to spending my days elbow to elbow with far too many people. They cram onto the subway platforms, angling for a straight shot at the doors with no intention of letting people out of the car first; they dodge and weave aggressively around one another on the sidewalks; they groan and sigh loudly when a tourist takes too long making a decision at Cosi; they’re rude to customer service professionals and fiercely territorial at restaurants and bars. They’re loud, mean, impatient, entitled, and competitive, and they’re everywhere, all the time.

I guess it’s sort of nice to be home, jerks.

Fine Living Network, I work cheap.

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Luna de Miel interstitial: Champagne bus rides and caviar dreams

I have this theory about bus stations. Actually, it’s not so much theory as it is an astute and practiced observation. Pick a city or town anywhere in the world. Regardless of this locale’s sophistication, technological advances, cleanliness, environmental efforts, architecture or age, it will will no doubt be home to some troubled people. You’ve got your scallywags, layabouts, hobos, rapscallions, rogues, scoundrels, knaves, cretins—even the occasional blackguard. And if you pay a visit to the local bus station, I can almost promise that you will find each and every one of them, assembled in short order, for all your leering, pickpocketing, mumbling, grain-liquor-in-a-brown-bag needs. For it is the bus station that is the universal meeting spot for the dregs of any given society, no matter how sparkling that society may be. Loogies will dot the soda-slicked floors, empties can be found strewn under benches and in corners. Toilets will be clogged and paperless, with unlock-able doors but for one stall which seems to be permanently occupied by someone making far too little noise.

It’s not that I’m unsympathetic. It’s just that, get away from me. Especially when I’m dying of thirst, dragging a heavy suitcase, duffel bag and purse, it’s 97 degrees outside, and the system for figuring out when and from which of the 45 docks your bus leaves is incomprehensible even to those who speak the native language. This is exactly where we found ourselves trying to exit the city of Mendoza, where we had a one-night stop (and day-long wine tour) before heading to our final destination: The Algodon Wine Estates in San Rafael, 250 kilometers due South.

I'm pretty sure I saw him at the Port Authority

I’m the first to admit that patience is not necessarily my virtue. So by the time we battled the throngs of sticky, aggressive people (I think I may actually have growled at someone), located the right bus, and boarded the double-decker, I was in truly rare form. We collapsed into our assigned seats directly up front on the top level, took a deep, cleansing breath, and that is when I realized that there was no air conditioning and we were sitting behind a giant, untinted windshield, and heat rises. And that, dear readers, is when I threw a full-on, unabashed, pride-be-damned temper tantrum. I kicked our belongings around on the floor, cried, raged and seethed, banged on the vents to see if I could coax some air out of them, frantically fanned myself with our wilted bus tickets. Matt, ever the adult, calmly collected our things and moved us a few rows back, where we could crack open a window, get out of the sun, and even feel a teeny bit of air trickling out above our heads. Immediately, the bus steward came up and scolded us for switching seats and promptly closed our window. He gave us what sounded like a very disdainful lecture in Spanish, shaking his head and woefully moving blankets around. I looked at him desperately, weakly reached out my arm and in a cracked, hoarse whisper said simply: “agua…por favor…” He sighed, nodded, and thirty minutes later I was presented with a Dixie cup of warm Sprite. Things were looking up. A few minutes after that, he came back upstairs and turned on a little TV hanging from the ceiling in the center aisle, and for the next hour and a half we were treated to a veritable smorgasbord of 30-second clips from every music video made in America between 1978 and 1999. Baffling? Yes. Totally rad? You betcha. Meanwhile, our steward came back and asked if we wanted dinner. Dinner? On a bus? Well, no. “Mas agua!” I croaked. “Solemente agua!” He began to speak at length in Spanish, most likely on the virtues of eating three square meals a day, the quality of their dining selections, and the foolhardy, dinner-less path we were about to choose. So we acquiesced and were soon presented with a tray of what was essentially the food equivalent of our in-bus entertainment: a tiny green salad, a slice of vegetable quiche, a sort of yellow-cake-ham-and-cheese roulade, a roll, saltines, soft cheese, and a steaming hot package containing a quarter chicken and plain white rice. We received it with what I’m sure was visible shock, which only increased when he then offered us red or white wine and champagne. Well, yes! But also, mas agua?

As we drove through vineyard-striped countryside in the pitch black of night, I took a slow sip from my Styrofoam cup of battery aci…champagne. I looked over at Matt for a moment, watching him wrestle with a chicken wing, then closed my eyes and let the rhythm of the bumpy road beneath us blend with thumping beats of Snap!’s “I Got the Power.”

Robin Leach, eat your heart out.

Next came another golden oldie, "Rhythm Is a Dancer"