Monthly Archives: November 2012

Doy un suspiro

It’s been two weeks since I started Spanish classes. The initial jubilation—I can make a sentence! my pronunciation isn’t that bad!—has given way to a more realistic assessment of my abilities and how very far I have to go.

Our class has covered so much material: present tense; simple past; gerunds; imperfect; plus-que-parfait (I only know what it’s called in French); simple future; replacing direct and indirect objects with articles and pronouns; a variety of prepositions; and of course, a long list of vocabulary. I feel my head about to go under water, and I think my classmates Alex and Ramon are in the same place.

On Tuesday I went on the outing organized by the school to I could get in some practice speaking. A young teacher named Matías, just back from a year of travel in northern Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, took Ramon and me to Lago Gutierrez in the afternoon to enjoy the scenery and drink mate. Pete was in his private lesson so I brought Lou, too. Matías was patient with my fractured, error-filled Spanish, and I surprised myself with what I was able to say.

There’s something about the classroom dynamic—maybe because I suspect the teacher is constantly evaluating—that can make it harder for me to perform well there. Language learning as an adult is such a head game!

Primeros Pasos, parte 2

The short version of this story is that Pete and I decided that it was worse for Lou to live in isolation with his parents—and contrary to our language goals for him and bad for our mental health—than to send him to a preschool that we didn’t immediately love or trust.

So Lou went back to Primeros Pasos for a few hours the Friday before the play date with Maia, and he has been there for a few hours each day this week. Yesterday he peed his pants because, by the time he got up the nerve to tell the teacher he needed to use the baño, it was too late. Here’s a cultural difference, Lou: in a class of 10 or 12 kids with two teachers, where bathroom breaks are scheduled and conducted as a group, it is courteous and necessary to ask to use the bathroom. When you are in a classroom with one bathroom and one teacher trying to supervise and somehow teach 22 (!) small people, you just get up and do what you have to do.

I picked Lou up today and he was a little tearful and pissed off that I came so late (ie at 1:15pm, immediately after my class), but Seño. Andre said that he seemed happy during the morning and that he talked to her today. She continues to be effusive about his model behavior.

Monte Tronador y el glaciar negro

Today was a national holiday (“to commemorate some battle,” according to Mirna), so we booked an all-day excursion to see a glacier.

The sun was shining from a cloudless blue sky as we headed out of town in a micro with our driver, our guide Mica, and several Argentines including a group of women from Buenos Aires in their 50s or 60s that Pete called “the Golden Girls.”

We headed south and west, driving through the barrios or pueblitos pequeños of outer Bariloche where humble homes—many in the midst of years-long or never-to-be-completed renovations—led to a dozen or more rudimentary shacks that were not very far from the town dump, where we saw open pit burning. Then we drove around Lago Gutierrez, which is much, much bigger than what we saw when we went to Luciana’s.

To get to the glacier we needed to drive deep into the unpopulated part of the Nahuel Huapi National Park. A two-lane highway got us about a third of the way from Bariloche, and the rest of the way we drove on a narrow, extremely rocky road. We were the kids in the back of the bus, so we suffered the most despite having a luxurious amount of leg room.

We stopped for pictures several times on the two-plus hour drive to the glacier, and during our break at a campground next to some rapids I impulsively bought a couple of Cokes. It felt like we were leaving civilization.

All along the journey Mica offered commentary about the history, geology, and flora and fauna of the countryside, which neither Pete nor I could hear well enough to understand. But the volume of information offered, the enthusiasm behind it, and occasional chuckles from the Golden Girls convinced us that Mica was a good guide.

We finally arrived at the end of the road where we were surprised to see a restaurant serving a few different entrees, beverages including hard liquor, and an assortment of beautiful desserts. (Who are the poor truckers bringing in all that food? And where do the restaurant staff live? They have to drive in during the morning and can’t leave until  afternoon because most of the road is so narrow that it is unidirectional.)

Pete, Lou and I sat under tall trees eating the lunch we had packed, surrounded by Argentines and their thermoses of hot water and mate cups. In front of us was a thick sheet of snow and ice perched on the top of Mount Thunder, and we could hear ice melt pouring from cracks and crevices all along the mountainside. After lunch we did a short, easy hike up the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) to better see the waterfalls.

Our next stop overlooked the base of the black glacier, a glacial moraine, and a lake of ice melt turned green from pulverized rock. Several times we heard snow breaking off the ice sheet on Monte Tronador, and it truly sounded like distant thunder. Once a chunk of snow broke free directly in front of us, and it seemed to fall so slowly that I was sure I could have lifted the camera to shoot it if I hadn’t been mesmerized. When the ice finally hit the slope below it again sounded like thunder.

All along the drive Pete and I remarked that the scenery was comparable to what we have seen in Glacier National Park, except this was even better because the glacier hasn’t completely melted.

Reunión con Maia

Our colectivo and the forgetful driver.

We rented our current apartment through mid-December and didn’t see anything in our price range after that time on So we asked Véronica at La Montaña to put us in touch with an apartment hunter she knows.

Luciana not only found us a centrally-located bungalow (two rooms!) in our price range, she took an interest in us and in arranging a play date with her five-year-old daughter Maia, who happens to be in Lou’s class at Primeros Pasos.

During the apartment search and while trying to set up the play date, Luciana and Pete were in frequent communication by text and phone. After a few false starts, we settled on a play date at Luciana’s house on Sunday, when her husband would be on a camping trip.

Maia. Photo by Lou.

Luciana and her family live on Lago Gutierrez, about 20 minutes outside of Bariloche, so the plan was for Pete, Lou and me to take the #50 colectivo to the end point—called Casa Azul—and then Luciana would pick us up. Since we haven’t seen any bus schedules, we just went to the bus stop and waited. When we boarded the bus about 20 minutes later Pete asked the driver to let us know when we had reached Casa Azul.

We rode for quite a while and eventually the bus left blacktop and drove on a rocky, dusty road. Pete and I looked at each other with wide eyes. Then the bus circled a roundabout and started heading in the direction we had just come from. At the next stop, in front of a restaurant and kiosco overlooking the lake, Pete went forward to ask the driver when we would get to our stop. The drive apologized, sort of, for forgetting to tell us to get off at the roundabout where there was no sign or obvious marker, and no blue house. The driver proposed some complicated bus-switching scheme and we decided to just get off and call Luciana. Again.

I was glad that Pete’s Spanish was good enough to explain what had happened and to ask without too much awkwardness for Luciana to drive an extra 10 minutes to come get us. She was very gracious.

When we pulled up to the driveway in Luciana’s car, a friend and neighbor of hers was dropping off Luciana’s nine-year-old son Nino (Valentino) and his friend. Nino opened the gate and ran down the hill to the house, which sits on a wooded slope looking toward mountains and the lake.

Three dogs greeted us. After Luciana’s family lost their black lab and golden retriever (to thieves? to a more interesting living situation?), these other dogs showed up and decided to stay.

One of the dogs. Photo by Lou.

Luciana told us that the first night she met her husband in Buenos Aires, he said that one day he’d take her away from concrete and traffic jams to live in Bariloche, his hometown. After their son was born they started working with an architect in Buenos Aires to design the Lago Gutierrez house, which ended up being a mistake because the architect wasn’t familiar with the log-cabin style of construction that is typical of this area. So they have two supporting beams that weren’t part of the original plan on either side of their Russian stove in order to support the bathroom above. Water for the house is pumped out of the lake, cooking gas comes from a tank, and May through October they heat the house with wood (the bedrooms also have electric heaters). They are at the end of the cable that brings mediocre Internet service, and Luciana says there is no amount of money she can pay to make it better.

Nino and friend. Photo by Maia.

We brought a dozen facturas (pastries) and some temporary tattoos with us, and used eating and tattoo application to help break the ice between Maia and Lou. The turning point came when Maia took an interest in our camera and Lou showed her how to use it. After that they chased each other around (and collided and cried and bled) and, with ongoing encouragement for Lou, played in Maia’s room where she fortunately had a Fisher-Price style construction toy among the dolls and tea cups and pink fluff. Lou occasionally came to us and asked how to say things in Spanish, but it seemed like his real challenge was the usual one of overcoming bashfulness.

Luciana with a My Little Pony. Photo by Maia.

Pete and I talked with Luciana or, more accurately, Pete and Luciana talked and I listened. Her parents divorced when she was five and her father went to live in LA, where she visited him every summer. She speaks English “cara dura” (shamelessly, or in my estimation, pretty well), but I didn’t want to force the conversation into English too often. Her father eventually remarried and moved to Mexico, so she’s spent time there, and she has traveled to other places including Singapore and Brazil, where her family took a two-month vacation last summer. She is an economist by training and worked for banks in Buenos Aires. When she moved to Bariloche she knew she couldn’t find the same kind of work, so she took a year to think through her next career move. During that time she started to manage a few rental properties for friends and family—while she was renting out her apartment back in Buenos Aires—and now she has her own property management company and has acquired additional properties in Buenos Aires. She also arranges car rentals and excursions.

We stayed for several hours before we asked Luciana to call a remise (taxi) to pick us up. A sweet gentleman named Luis drove all the way from Bariloche to get us and charged only $12 for the trip.

Más duro que una piedra

Heart-shaped rock

If you have read previous blog entries, you know that we’ve had some challenges with finding a preschool for Lou. Other than that, it might sound like we’re living in Xanadu. Let me offer some balanced reporting.

Since we left home, we have lived in much smaller spaces than we are used to. We spent one week in a studio apartment with a loft bedroom. For the next month we are basically living in a hotel room with a kitchenette (we sit at the dining table or on the bed). Lou was the first to start referring to this apartment as “our room.” Because of the preschool challenges, the only time Pete and I have to ourselves is late at night (in The Room) or by special arrangement with the other adult (for example, I get to go to school and stop by the supermercado on my way home).

So, for our sanity and to give Lou a break from us, we’ve started to let him watch cartoons on TV. Since we don’t have a TV at home, Lou has had to learn about commercials and to accept that we don’t control the programming. Everything is in Spanish, but I don’t pretend that TV is about language learning. I too can zone out to those cartoons.

Our access to the Internets has also been frustrating. It goes without saying that the Internet is a form of escape—Facebook! New York Times!—and a way to feel connected to home. It’s also necessary for me to do my homework and to maintain the blog. We have been told that Internet problems occur when the wind blows (that’s a good one, huh?), and we’ve been told that there just isn’t enough bandwidth in Argentina to accommodate demand. Either way, I have to go to a restaurant with Wi-Fi for a stable connection that is powerful enough to post to the blog.

Then there are the obvious language challenges.

Good thing we’re all TOUGH. ; )

Las montañas aterradoras

A real-life horror movie, and one that is best watched in the middle of winter, is “Stranded: I’ve Come from a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains.” In the film, survivors of a 1972 plane crash in Chile tell the story of how they stayed alive on a snowy Andean mountain peak for 70 days.

With so much blue sky weather, this is the best I can do for terrifying Andes mountains:


This morning Lou got a haircut from a very nice guy named Matías. Then we tried to do too many errands on too little breakfast, which led to berrinches (tantrums) and lágrimas (tears). We all felt exhausted and Pete and I almost canned our plans to do a hike on the Circuito Chico until we realized the alternative was staying in The Room. Together.

So we hopped on the colectivo and headed to the bus stop near the Hotel Llao Llao, from which we could walk along the road to a trailhead.

All three of us enjoy walking a path through the woods under perfect weather conditions, but Lou in particular responds well to the outdoors. After a five-mile hike (GPS proved it!) we were tired but happy and grateful once again to have easy access to such an amazing natural environment.