I would like to state officially that I am the coolest person on the planet. Most of you may not have come to this realization yet, but it’s true. Do you know how I know this? The New York Times tells me it is so. The boy and I emerged from our apartment after a lovely dinner of butternut squash ravioli care of the Verm y Chelli, the pasta factory down the street, and then ventured off to plug in to the ‘net. After nearly an hour of Peru travel organization, I decide to indulge myself a bit and check out headlines on the NYTimes. Not surprisingly, they do not interest me. I immediately scroll down to the pretty little squares on the bottom of the page indicating multimedia and magazine presentations for small-minded folk like myself who need more aesthetic stimulation than the dry news world can normally provide. I see that the new “T” magazine has been released. Ordinarily this would not warrant interest, because the ridiculous fashion, home decor, and architecture in TimesStyle magazines are übertrendy, impractical, and frankly 70% of the material is unattractive, however “stylish” it may be.
Travel does interest me. And what should the new T magazine be, but travel! Click I go, whizzing, or rather wheezing at the speed of the not-so-broad-band connection at the locutorio. As the image files load at an agonizing pace, a headline appears. A spiritual shaft of light emanates from the fluorescent bulbs overhead, choral music fills the air with ethereal chanting, and Bacchus smiles down upon me from on high. I see pixelated on the screen: “Dining out in Buenos Aires: Palermo Viejo”
This boon comes on the heels of another episode of Adventures In Dining, a tragicomic short play adapted for the page. We decided to take the recommendation of our venerable landlord, Ruben, and visit La Escondida, an apparently popular parillada. The parillada is a phenomenon particular to Argentina, with its millions of acres of arid pampas grass: prime beef territory. I was first acquainted with the parillada on North Miami Beach, at a restaurant called La Vaca Gorda (lit. “The Fat Cow”). This street side café is nestled in the middle of an Argentine neighborhood and serves not much else but meat. You can buy a sausage wrapped in a steak, covered in bacon, then grilled. Having just come from a long hot day at the beach, we were given strange stares when we ordered a vegetarian snack of soup and empanadas. I expected, even hoped for similar fare at La Escondida.
My culinary expectations were met, but not nearly in the manner I imagined. I left the house hungry, still not accustomed to the 10 pm dinner hour; due to this alteration of mind, I should have been on my guard against hasty decisions. Alas, during my perusal of the menu I failed to notice the fatal words: “salad bar.”
I believe they were even written in English. As we entered La Escondida, we found that the restaurant sprawled back into an old warehouse, strongly resembling middle of the road dinner chains back home. A sense of foreboding passed over me, settling heavy on my mind as we passed by the salad bar.
This said, the food wasn’t bad. My steak was well cooked, and D’s rib eye wrapped in “pancetta” that mysteriously resembled bacon was delicious. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that we had stumbled upon a watering hole for the petit bourgeoisie. Large extended families of Palermo’s middle class flocked to this place. It was packed with even early on a Sunday night, and by the time we left at 10:45 there was a line of some twenty five people outside the door. When I felt the need for some greens to go along with my 18 inch asado (a cross section of the ribs) I had to muscle with old grey-haired ladies at the salad bar! This is not exactly the kind of experience that pleases the holistic diner; there is more than the palate that needs to be satisfied at a restaurant.
In retrospect, Ruben’s recommendation wasn’t terrible. The food was fine, and the meal didn’t break the bank. The funny thing is that I could envision our diminuative landlord sitting down for dinner with his mujer, and having her fight it out at the salad bar. Just wasn’t quite the right place for us. What I should have realized is that I needed advice from a different source, one that more reflected my needs and desires.
Here, ready to fulfill my every gastronomic need, is advice from someone I trust, a source that I admire, at times revere, and occasionally envy. There is now a smorgasbord of restaurants laid out before me; let the dining commence!
This brings me in a rather roundabout fashion (please excuse the ebullience, I’m having a moment) to my initial statement that I am the coolest person on the planet.
I have rarely been in a place that the New York Times considers cool. True, some may say that the Times is behind the latest fashions, that the paper’s taste is bourgeois, not avant garde, that it is stuffy and less liberal than its projected self-image. Pooh on you, negative nillies and jealous naysayers! You just wish you were this cool. We have “discovered” for ourselves the coolness of Palermo Soho, and even if we’re not hip enough to really belong, we’re here. I bask in the glow of self-congratulation for which every explorer desires. I am in the moment, living the pages of the Sunday Times. That, my friends, is cool.
One could also observe that this is also the anti-cool, that the appearance of our barrio in the Paper is but another sign of the encroachment of wealthy New York jetsetters who come for the cheap eats and high fashion of BAires. There are quite a few Manhattan-esque twentysomething girls to be found on the streets and sidewalks around our apartment on the weekends, indicating a strong tourist presence (the antithesis of cool). This phenomenon, while irritating, affirms the paradox of cool: if a place is so cool that everyone goes there, it almost inevitably drifts from the trendy to the kitsch. In my rationalizing way, I’m going to say that finding Palermo in the magazine is the antecedent to its fall into kitsch. This way, we can still be cool, but get out in time to save ourselves. This timing is quite perilous, for as Mr. Kundera tells us, kitsch is what kills the soul. Are we kitsch? No, I think not. And if we were, how would we know? Kitsch is delightfully ignorant of its kitsch-ness. I’m going to continue to bask, thinking positive thoughts.
It’s funny that I pay more attention to the NYTimes when I travel than when I’m at home. Perhaps its because of my sister and D’s addiction to the news cycle, or I just crave a bit of American culture when I’m away. Of course, my .5 seconds of fame from the March 2003 Sunday Travel section comes to mind, when a NYTimes reporter stumbled upon my travel-weary form on the steps of the Prado, and I think fondly of that different type of coolness: someone wanting to publish your perspective. Meditations on this variant of cool may be saved for another time.
Being newsworthy is fun, and I think that it pleases me because I don’t often get to feel cool or trendy. I’m not jaded enough to roll my eyes and dismiss the article as “so last season.” I am a wide-eyed wanderer, at times in need of a little affirmation that my path has merit. This part of the world is new to me, and so I need to investigate, discover, and question. These processes are not at all a guarantee of success, so whenever I can have a little guidance to nudge me along the preferred path, I’m grateful for that.
The road less traveled is good and all, but it’s a hell of a lot of work breaking your own path the entire way.