Monday, February 28, 2005

How many petabytes does it take to screw in a light bulb?

For a workshop that I'm supposed to lead in a few weeks, I am trying to pin down some interesting factoids that I heard a few months ago at a talk given by a high-level exec at a technology company based here in the Seattle area (I'm sure none of you have heard of it so I won't bother with names).

Basically, the speaker made the following interesting point: "It is estimated that all digitizable information could fit on XX blurbabytes of storage space, and the entire Library of Congress could fit on X burbabytes. It's also estimated that we are really close to seeing a bingobyte hard drive, which means you could store [some fraction or multiple] of the Library of Congress on your computer. In other words, very soon the critical limitations will not be in the physical technology, but in the human mind, and we will need radically new ways to organize, sift and manage all this information."

Now, at the time, I found the talk very interesting but didn't think I'd need the details of the factoids, so I didn't really write them down. I thought to myself, "This is interesting. If I need this later, I'm sure I can find it on the Web. This is exactly the kind of thing available on the Web! No need to be writing this down, nope nope."

Well, I have now spent the entire afternoon following bunny trails around the Internet trying to confirm or deny these statements in some form, and it's like chasing shadows. Somebody claimed somewhere that all potential human speech could be contained in 5 exabytes* of storage space, but that turns out to be one of those things oft-quoted (including by the NY Times) with no demonstrable source. I have found estimates that the Library of Congress would take up anywhere from 5 to 136 terabytes of space (in part depending on whether you include just the text, or the formatting and images - but still).

And as to when the amazing terabyte, petabyte, or exabyte storage device might show up? Well, all the estimates I've found were basically just assumptions based on Moore's Law, stating that the capacity of certain kinds of technology (originally computer processors) doubles every 18 months to 2 years. Thus, the petabyte hard drive must be on the horizon, by 2007 or 2010 or something like that. But can I find anyone who will confess to actually making one? Hell no.

Hey all you technogeeks out there - I know one of you knows about the petabyte hard drives! I know you do! Come out and show yourselves with some proof, you cowards!

Oh the irony, that the Web, with its estimated 170 terabytes of material, should fail me in this matter. It turns out the Internet is decidely NOT TIDY.

Sorry. This whole thing isn't even central to my presentation, actually. I just thought it would make me look cool. And I'm sure I just don't know how to search properly. If any of my five readers happen to be librarians, perhaps you could take pity on poor Cousin Flora.

* Don't know what a terabyte, petabye, or exabyte are? Well THAT, at least, is pretty easy to find.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Of rings and things

Maybe it was seeing The Aviator last night, but this morning as I dressed for church I had an urge to put on a ring I inherited from my great-aunt, who died last year. All of her jewelry was very 1940s and 1950s - large, with bold and striking designs. This one has a kind of flower setting with a very sizeable amethyst. It's big enough (and pointy enough) that I almost never wear it. It was only when I got home from church, pondering a story in the morning's sermon about the death of a beloved family member, that I realized my great-aunt's birthday was just last week. Weird.

In recent years I've inherited a variety of rings from The Women of My House. I have long, skinny fingers and these rings appear ill-suited for me, as the Women of My House have generally had strong peasant hands. The simple pinky ring from Aunt M. fits perfectly on my ring finger. Another one of hers is swirly and filled with little diamonds, and fits loosely at best on my middle finger. I'm not much of a jewerly person, at least not the kind with real gems. I live in Seattle, where "dressing up" means wearing something nicer than hiking boots with your jeans, and all that glitter looks out of place next to my fleece and denim. So I'm more of a folk and costume jewelry gal, myself. And lazy about it to boot - the piercing holes in my ears have nearly closed from disuse. Plus, given the strife and injustice that the gem trade has brought to many countries and peoples in Africa, I'm a little self-conscious about visibly adorning myself with precious stones.

But I've come to value these rings as very practical, portable little ancestral tokens. There aren't a lot of of other mementos that you could carry along with you this easily, and with such durability. My grandmother was a china-painter and I have an entire hutch of her work, but it's not exactly portable. I have silver candlesticks from my other grandmother, which in addition to their bulk require endless polishing.

So, when I have an important professional meeting, I wear the big swirly diamond ring, and when I slip it on my finger it's as if I'm putting on my aunt's confidence and business savvy. For day-to-day, I wear the pinky ring that she took off her own hand one day and gave to me, matter-of-factly and without fanfare. Every now and then an inexplicable urge will call me to put on Aunt H.'s big bulky amethyst, and I just go with the instinct, not exactly sure what it's supposed to bring me, but putting my trust in the Women of My House.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Top ten lists

Hmmm, now I'm faced with figuring out my work situation, meeting various deferred obligations, paying bills (with no discernable source of income yet), cleaning my house...So instead, I'll do this. (Thus, this is really for my benefit and not so much for the three of you who read my blog.)

Top ten things I will miss about Argentina and Chile:

  1. Chocolate o'clock
  2. Avocados
  3. Really good red wine for $5
  4. Speaking Spanish
  5. Warm weather
  6. Funky architecture
  7. Happy dogs
  8. Craft markets
  9. Not hearing George Bush's voice on the radio*
  10. Bright, cheerful, whimsical colors
* Because what's the first thing I hear upon tuning into NPR for the first time after I get back? "The MOOlahs need to unnerstand that they can't have NUCULar weapons." Followed immediately by the sound of my head beating against the steering wheel.

Top ten things I will not miss:
  1. Diesel exhaust
  2. Cigarette smoke
  3. The Toshota Corosha
  4. Meat-centric meals
  5. The 11:00 dinner hour
  6. Fee-based bathrooms
  7. Techno-pop music
  8. Loud air conditioners
  9. Unscooped dog poop
  10. Terrifying traffic
Top ten things I am grateful for in the US:
  1. My husband, dogs, family and friends
  2. My comfortable bed
  3. Free bathrooms with abundant toilet paper
  4. Vegetables
  5. Dinner at 6
  6. Voice mail
  7. Lost and Alias on Wednesday nights
  8. Spiced food
  9. Clean air laws, such that they are
  10. The mountains and ocean right in my back yard - minimal travel required

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Don't Cry for Me 2005: Final Chapter

I got Thai food (spices! tofu! broccoli!) and 12 hours of sleep last night, so I'm finally ready to recap the rest of our adventures in South America.

Let's see, when last I left off, we were in the Toshota Corosha, driving through the Andes.

As you'll see if you've looked at the pictures (or if you've been there yourself), the Andes are not like any mountains in North America. Visualize the rock of Arizona or Utah - reds, golds, deep umber browns - and create enormous, peaked mountains like the Rockies with them. Only bigger. No trees, just low green scrappy shrubs and grasses. Extremely dry and windy. Spectacularly beautiful, and impossible to capture with camera or words.

Before crossing into Chile, we made some stops around Aconcagua National Park. There was Puenta de Inca, a stop on the famous Incan road system and, in the 20th century, a ritzy lodge with natural thermal baths. The hotel was destroyed by a rock slide in 1965, but remnants of the thermal bath building still stand, nestled under a natural rock bridge over the Rio Mendoza. Individual soaking rooms still remain - the tile and fixtures nearly destroyed by the harsh elements - and warm, sulfury water continues to bubble forth, leaving colorful mineral deposits everywhere. We hiked past the church - the only intact building - and up the hillside a ways, breathless from the altitude. Overhead, we saw an enormous Andean Condor, circling in the air and then chasing a smaller bird.

We also stopped at the Aconcagua Climber's Cemetary, the final resting place of many who have died on that mountain, as well as life-long climbers who have chosen to be buried there. There are probably 100 people buried in the cemetary, from all around the world, stretching back nearly 100 years.

Lastly, we stopped at a viewpoint for mighty Aconcagua itself, highest peak in the Western Hemisphere. Megan and I wished we had a couple of days to really hike here, and much as I enjoyed Chile, I still would have passed it up for a couple more days in those mountains, getting out among the rocks and the plant life and the birds.

Crossing over the Andes ultimately involves a tunnel. I guess the road just can't get high enough to actually go over the spine. The tunnel itself must be a marvel of engineering, winding for a seemingly impossibly long time through the bowels of the rock (the Mines of Moria, anyone?). The way down on the Chilean side seems even more impressive than the Argentine side, if that's possible. Winding down 33 switchbacks (they count them for you) and probably about 6,000 feet, every turn displays more breathtaking scenery and hair-raising roads.

Once at the bottom, Chile was a greener and more agricultural country than Argentina. It was late summer, and harvest time. While Argentina seemed to have two things - orchards and prairie - Chile was bursting with beautiful produce, especially avocados. Avocados as far as the eye could see, growing up hillsides, for sale in heaps at roadside stands for astonishingly low prices.

We pulled into Renaca, our little beach suburb, around dinner time. Renaca is a little upscale beach resort just north of the larger upsale beach resort of Vina del Mar, which in turn is just north of the larger, grittier, artsier port city of Valparaiso, tumbling down the hillside in a cascade of color and noise. Among other things, Valparaiso is known as Chile's city of poets, boasting one of the homes of Pablo Neruda.

Because of a music festival underway in Vina, the feeling there and in Renaca was like South of France meets Spring Break. Hordes of partying young people, celebrities arriving in well-guarded buses amid throngs of screaming fans, and techno-pop music thumping in the bars well into the wee hours. This, I could have done without. The Pacific down there is much like up here, with volcanic rock formations, seals, and a hard, pounding surf.

Our first night in Renaca, we ate at a Mexican restaurant, where our waitress was from Texas. Inspired by a Latin American history class, she had come to Chile 18 months prior, with absolutely no Spanish but some sort of student set-up, and was now waiting tables while waiting for her Chilean fiance to get a visa to return to the states with her. She gaves us detailed advice and instructions on where to go, what to see, and how to get around, which proved invaluable. When asked what she would miss most about Chile, she said "the avocados. Definitely the avocados."

Our first day was overcast and cool - more San Francisco than San Diego - and we were all tired. We shopped, slept, and got massages for about $15. Chile was more expensive than Argentina, but still generally a screaming deal.

Refreshed, the next day we hopped a bus for Valparaiso. The lower city of Valpo is stately and filled with ornate Spanish-style buildings, plazas and monuments. From there, you can take any of about a dozen ascensores - a cross between a cable car and an elevator - up to the old city, on the hill. You can also drive or walk the narrow, winding, cobblestone streets to the top, but the ascensores, the oldest built in the 1880s, are a more interesting way to go.

Once on top, there is endless exploring of winding, climbing streets, the houses painted bright colors - indeed, people have taken it upon themselves to paint everything. Light posts, window gratings, benches, gates - all have received the artistic touch. Along with the many craft shops, this gives the upper city the air of a bohemian artist's community, set against the backdrop of stunning sea and hillside vistas. It really is a magical place, though we were warned many times that Valparaiso has a grittier element and we should be careful of our backpacks and cameras, and get off the upper city before nightfall. We ended our afternoon with chocolate o'clock at a cafe with a beautiful view of the ocean, lower Valpo, and Vina del Mar.

After that there was dinner at a Syrian restaurant in Vina del Mar; the drive the next day back through the Andes with a stop for lunch at the Portillo ski resort, where for many years the US and other national ski teams have practiced during the northern hemisphere's summer months; another border crossing; and through Mendoza to the small town of San Luis, notable only as a stopover on the Pampases. There we stayed in the town's only 4-star hotel (for $30 a night!) and had a great meal ("Oh my god," said Megan, when the vegetable soup arrived, "I think I see a sweet potato.")

The last day of driving was again across the Pampases and it seemed long. By this time, we had exhausted all the word games we could think of. We debated whether it had been worth it to drive from BA to Mendoza, but agreed that while we really didn't need to experience the Argentine Pampas twice, we would have wondered what we'd missed if we hadn't done it at all. Plus, we would have missed seeing live polo games (the Argentines are big polo fans, and apparently the British royal family buys some of its polo horse stock there); an astonishing diversity of raptors and water fowl; and the most enormous free-range pigs you can possibly imagine.

Lastly, there were two more days in BA, which involved some final sightseeing and shopping. By the time we got on the plane Tuesday night, we were all ready to head home. Once we got through immigration and airport security, the airline announcements were increasingly in English first and Spanish second. I realized I could put away the pocket Spanish dictionary that had been my constant companion for two weeks. Before embarking on the 20-hour journey home, we drank a final bottle of Malbec at the airport snack bar, and toasted the continent that had treated us so well.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005


A selection of photos from the trip. We have lots of great pictures of the people we met - Anna the wine tour guide, Therese of the mate cafe, the artist whose work we bought in Valpo, the man with the bike-operating knife-sharpening business - but I didn't think it was fair game to post these people's pictures on the Internet without their knowledge/permission. So, you'll just have to use your imagination on some of this, or get an in-person slide show some time.

Note: Updated with more photos on March 14. All higher resolution and therefore bigger/slower files...if you view the slide show you may want to set it as slow as posible.

There's no place like home

Yes, I'm back. Didn't have time to post again before I left, but I have stories backlogged in my head that I will try to produce in entertaining form. For now, I will just make a few observations.

Did you know:

  • ...that you can purchase a vacuum-packed side of beef at the duty-free shop in the Buenos Aires airport?
  • ...that the egg tacos at the Chili's restaurant in O'Hare airport are the best FREAKIN' meal ever when you've been on an airplane for 12 hours?
  • ...that Buenos Aires supposedly has the highest rate of plastic surgery in the world, and if I lived there I would probably have to shop in maternity stores in order to clothe my size-8 body?
  • ...that it is apparently possible to make a living as a travelling knife sharpener, riding the streets of BA on a bicycle which converts to a pedal-run cutlery sharpener, and playing a set of pan pipes to call out potential dull-bladed customers?
  • ...that in Argentina you can buy shoes and purses made from the spotted, leather-like skin of the world's largest rodent, the capibara? Each item is genuinely unique because the bellicose capibaras leave so many scratches and scrapes on each other's coats during fights.
  • ...that during avacado season in Chile, it is possible to purchase over 20 pounds of avacodos for under $2?
For the record, I did not buy any rat-leather shoes. I did eat a whack of avacadoes though.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

The Andean Customs Game

I believe it's not really fair game to make fun of foreign customs experiences – there’s something illogical about any bureaucracy, and making fun of it in other countries just because it's unfamiliar somehow seems…unsporting.

Nonetheless, I recently discovered that crossing from Argentina to Chile in a rental car is a lot like a video game. I don’t play them, myself, but it’s my understanding that they generally involve moving through different levels, each of which requires you to advance via various skills, assets, and accomplishments.

First, the setting: 9,000 feet of elevation, in the Andes. Dry, dusty rock and snowy peaks all around. One lone road winding through a series of unimposing buildings and roadside booths.

Level 1: Random Guys in Sweatpants. At this level, a couple of guys in sweatpants, looking completely unofficial, run out of their booth to our car and take away our passports, leaving behind some immigration and customs paperwork to fill out. They come back a while later and explain that I, as the driver, must enter the main customs building for further procedures because of the rental car. We pull over to the side of the road, and I go into the building, leaving my friends in the car at the side of the road. Goal of Level 1: Obtain immigration paperwork. Don’t freak out.

Level 2: Argentine Customs. Entering the main building, I ask (as instructed) for Senior Amalfi. I hand him the paperwork for our rental car – three pages given to us by Hertz, with spaces to indicate the car’s entries and exits between countries. Mr. Amalfi looks very professional and kind, with small round glasses. He reads the whole document, slowly, as if he has never seen it before. This seems like a bad sign. He then asks “Is this all they gave you in Buenos Aires?” That also seems like a bad sign. However, he makes a photocopy and accompanies me back out to the Booth of the Sweatpants Men. They trash-talk him good-naturedly as he arrives – “Hoo, bigshot Mr. Customs comes out to our little booth...what do you want out here, exaulted Senor?” That sort of thing.

As Mr. Amalfi works on my paperwork, one of the Sweatpants Men asks me to please translate something for him into English. He wants to be able to say “Where would you like me to put the stamp in your passport?” At first I am confused. Shouldn’t he be the one to decide where the passport stamp goes, rather than the travelers? Nonetheless, I try a few versions out for him. He frowns dubiously at my first couple efforts, indicating that they are too complicated. Mr. Amalfi pitches in occasionally to reassure him that I’m not bullshitting. “Si, si, ‘put,’ es ‘poner.'” Finally we settle on, “Where should I stamp your passport?” and I dutifully write it down in English and Spanish. Mr. Amalfi provides me with my car paperwork, and explains, slowly and carefully, what I’ll need to do at Chilean customs and again on the way back.

Goal of Level 2: Obtain rental car paperwork. Demonstrate English-Spanish translation skills.

Level 4: Chilean Entry Fee. I return to the car and we drive to a booth where we are to pay an entry fee into Chile. They do not take Argentine pesos or American dollars. Thus, we must backtrack down to…

Level 3: Currency exchange. Goal of Level 3: Obtain Chilean pesos. Demonstrate mathematical dexterity required to shift from a 3-per-dollar currency, to a 580-per-dollar currency.

Level 4, again. We pay our fee. Goal of Level 4: Obtain little red receipt.

Level 5: Chilean Immigration. We pull up to a booth where a young, well-dressed man sits with a laptop. I get out of the car and walk to the booth, handing him all of our passports and immigration paperwork. He checks the computer to verify that we aren’t terrorists or criminals, and stamps our paperwork and passports, all of which takes a while. I breath in the mountain air and appreciate the strong sun on the rust-colored mountains. There is cheerful Latin music playing in the booth, and I begin to dance in place. I look over to my traveling companions in the car, and they are laughing at me. “Hey,” I say, “For all you guys know, I am required to rumba our way into Chile. I’m not sure you should really be laughing at the only Spanish-speaker right now.” But I laugh too, and continue to dance until the nice man finishes our paperwork. Goal of Level 5: Prove we are not terrorists. Obtain passport stamps. Demonstrate salsa-dancing skills and/or willingness to publicly embarrass oneself in front of a long line of cranky travelers.

Level 6: Chilean Customs. A polite man asks me to step out of the car and open the trunk. He asks the usual sorts of questions about what we’re carrying, including whether we have any fruits or vegetables. They’re very serious about that here, and I crack, admitting that we have some almonds. “Is that ok?”

No no, they say. I reach for the almonds – at least where I thought they were – and they’re not there. Afraid they will begin searching the whole car now that I’ve admitted to transporting illicit nut products, I notice a small bag of cashews that I’ve brought from the States. “Here,” I say, “They aren’t actually almonds, but I don’t know the word.” The customs inspectors examine my cashews intently and discuss them at great length, finally indicating that I can keep them, and be on my way. Goal of Level 6: Demonstrate quick-thinking abilities.

Level 7: Random Last Stop Just Because They Can. Goal of Level 7: Hand over the little red receipt from Level 4. (Surely this doesn’t require its own booth?)

Total game time: About one hour.

Unfortunately, on our return trip, the Chilean customs people seemed quite insistent that we did not, in fact, have the right paperwork for the rental car. This woman was seriously angry with me and accused me several times of lying. I cannot for the life of me understand what scam I could be perceived as trying to pull by bringing a rental car back to its country of origin four days after it left. I refrain from pointing that out, however. Eventually she let us go, but as we are driving away, Megan says “Jeez, she really looks like she hates you. I mean hates you. She's glaring at you like you just killed her dog.”

But that was later. On the way in to Chile, all of the men just seemed relieved, when confronted with a carload of American tourists, to have one who speaks even my level of spotty Spanish.

I'm happy to be back in Argentina. Tomorrow, more about our actual adventures the past few days.

Call me avocado!

“They’re laughing at me, aren’t they. They’re totally laughing at me.”

I glanced back down the stalls of the market. “No…” I said dubiously. I looked again. “Well, yeah. They’re kind of laughing at you.”

The day before, Megan had visited this same produce market by herself, and had giddily purchased the first good food we’d seen in days. Faced with a stack of perfectly ripe avacados, she turned to ask the vendors what they were called in Spanish. Drawing a blank on the simple sentence “What is this called?” she nonetheless remembered that the phrase for “What is your name?” – como se llama – translates as “what are you called?” So she started through running variations in her head, seeking the appropriate one for the avocado.

Unfortunately, at that moment the filter between her brain and her mouth ceased to work, and she began verbalizing everything that came into her head. Pointing to the avocado, she rattled off questions to the vendors: “How is this called? What you call this? This calls itself what? This is me – how am I called?”

Stifling a laugh, one vendor relieved her misery and gave her the word: palta. Yet still, one part of Megan’s brain watched in horror as another part continued to give voice to everything that ran through her head.

“Avacado. This is called avocado. Avacado it is. This is me – call me avocado!”

At this point the vendors collapsed in helpless laughter and begged her – oh, please, senora, do that again.

And so, the next day, when we went back – she was recognized, and continued to bring mirth to the food vendors of Mendoza.

Now, let me just say that I have Megan’s permission to tell this story – indeed, she revels in telling it herself and can still reduce me to tears simply by saying “Call me avocado!” I must also confess that I’ve had my fair share of malapropisms on this trip. A few of our favorites:

(To a park ranger, while pointing to a downward flight of stairs): "May we go up?"
(To the masseuse): "I have more tension in my right leg because my right foot was previously married."
(To a bus ticket-taker): "How do we indicate to the bus driver that we wish to get off? Do we tell him, or is there a…ding-ding?"
And, Megan’s personal favorite:
(To a hotel clerk): "May we drink a bottle of wine in the room where the economic development happens?"

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

A guardian Angelo

So today - Day Two in Mendoza - our goal was to get in some hiking in the Andes. Megan and I were practically desperate for a good long walk. We met for breakfast early, but by the time we´d gotten food supplies at the fabulous market, the morning was already wearing on. Then we went where we were told to go for information about Aconcagua National Park: the information booth in the big city park in Mendoza.

We stopped at the city park on our way out of town. After having one of those experiences of asking five people where the right office was (each one sending us on to a new place, which was wrong, and sent us on to a new place, and so forth...) we found the office - though it was now 10:45 and time was a-wastin´for the (alleged) 90-minute drive to the national park. However, as we searched, we were befriended by one of Argentina´s happy dogs, a cute if slightly mangy guy who looked like a small German Shepherd. He just trotted along with us companionably, not really exhibiting any kind of begging behavior or even seeming to want anything from us except company. It was almost as if he wanted to help us find where we wanted to go, like our own little tour guide. Because he seemed to want to be our guardian angel, we named him Angelo (which is actually Italian, but the Spanish Angel just didn´t roll off people´s tongues.)

We finally found the information booth, and the woman was completely unhelpful. Almost resentful, in fact. She had absolutely nothing to tell us about where we might go for a good day hike in the Andes, had no maps, had no information about whether we might want to worry about additional flash floods.

Angelo accompanied us back to our car - we decided he was a more helpful guide than the woman in the park office - departing occasionally to chase a bird, but always returning to our sides. As we left the park, a pack of three little dogs were wallowing in the stone ditch, still unusually full of water. They were classic Happy Dogs of Argentina, up to their bellies in muddy water and, literally, howling. But Angelo stuck with us all the way to the car, undistracted by the joys of a wallow and a good howl.

As we drove away, we saw that he had already found new people to care for.

We never did make it to our hike. It was just one of those best-laid-plans kinds of days, and the story isn´t even that interesting. We did drive a ways out of town, and the scenery was incredible, breathtaking, astonishing. Like Arizona and Utah and the Rockies all rolled into one. We get to do the drive again tomorrow on the way to Chile, and on the way back to Buenos Aires, and I can´t imagine we will get tired of it.

We love Mendoza (nos gusta Mendoza!)

Our first full day in Mendoza (yesterday) started with everyone feeling very cranky at breakfast. The drive from BA had been too long, we´d had too little food and had snarfed down bad pasta and pizza at 11 pm when we got to town, there had been some complications with the hotel...and personally, I was questioning the decision to drive on to Chile in two short days since I was really, really tired of the Toshota Corosha already.

Crabbily, we agreed to go our separate ways for a couple of hours, everyone ready to chew off their own foot to get a little alone time.

Two hours later, each of us bounded back into the hotel lobby saying ¨I love this town!!" Two hours exploring Mendoza had cleared the black clouds from everyone´s heads. It´s small, it´s quaint, it has lovely little public squares and a nice warm temperature. "I am so happy!" bubbled Megan, over and over. She had found a nice food market with fresh produce and good food, which could not be more welcome after our miserable driving day deprived of nourishment. She returned bearing soy snack bars, almonds, some bread, a fabulously fresh avacado, and a salami for Brian.

So we headed off together to the information office (whence I wrote yesterday´s blogs), and arranged a private winery tour. There are a couple hundred wineries in the Mendoza area. It´s a desert, but can be irrigated from the many rivers and streams coming out of the Andes. After a quick lunch, a van arrived at the information booth with our guide. Anna is a native Mendozan whose family is in the wine business, and who recently finished law school. Fluent in English (having attended an English high school, like Manuela at the Mexican restaurant in BA), Anna does wine tours, as well as rock-climbing excursions, for Americans and Europeans while she sits for the various exams that she´s required to take. She wants to become the lawyer for the family business.

The first winery we visited was a small one that still does things both organically and "the traditional way." No stainless steel fermentation tanks, no additives or chemical pesticides on the grapes. Anna´s father also produces his wine here, through a business arrangement with the owner. The guide from the winery gave us a tour and a very excellent explanation of how to look at and taste wine. The Mendoza area of Argentina is particularly known for red wines made from the Malbec grape. The wines we tasted were excellent, and we left with a bottle of their 1997 Malbec, a gold-medal winner that year at the Montreal wine festival - in other words, the best Malbec in the world that year.

Outside the winery were olive groves as well as a grove of almond trees, which were in the midst of harvest by men with long sticks, banging the branches so the ripe nuts would fall to the ground. Numerous happy dogs lounged nearby, occasionally sauntering over to eat an almond or two.

The second winery that Anna had picked was a contrast - a very large winery that does everything "state of the art." What made it interesting, in addition to the contrast, was the presence of a wine museum, with various squeezing, squashing, separating and holding implements from nearly 200 years of wine-making. The guide worked in Spanish and English, delivering both at blazing speed, and the wines did not impress us as much in part because we hadn´t learned anything about them. At the first winery, the guide had told us about each wine in detail, like describing the special personality and unique attributes of each child.

Meanwhile, a violent storm had rolled in, the raindrops creating a thunderous din on the tin roof and the sky turning pitch black. We were scheduled to see a third winery, but they had lost electricity, so we headed back into the city. As we were driving back along one of the main canals, we realized there had been a flash flood from the storm - the canal´s water was almost to street level, and as it approached a bridge under a large intersection it spewed upwards like a geyser, chocolate-colored and thick and smelling of earth. Neither Anna nor Raoul (the driver) had ever seen anything like it, they said. People and cars had stopped to gawk. Megan got a great short clip of footage using her digital camera.

The next day we would learn that this storm had caused extensive flooding, forcing 400 people to evacuate their homes and killing two people. That´s a pretty big deal in a town of 100,000. For the wineries, the grape harvest is just this close, and speculation on the damage caused by rain, wind and hail was the talk of the morning.

But we didn´t know this yet. We made avacado sandwiches, imploring Anna to share in our bounty since we knew she had skipped lunch to take on our last-minute tour, and we peppered her with questions about life in Argentina and in Mendoza.

Back at the hotel, we decided to share our special bottle of Malbec before dinner. The top (fifth) floor of the hotel has a small breakfast room, with a terrace outside, which struck us as a lovely place to drink our wine under the setting sun, if they´d let us up there. So - being the designated talker in all such complex situations - I asked the front desk clerk as politely as I could: "Please sir, could we drink a bottle of wine up on the terrace?"

His answer exemplified what I love about this country and this town: "But of course!" he replied. "Do you have a bottle of wine, or do you need one?"

As we climbed to the top floor, the electricity went out. We sat on the terrace, drinking our gold-medal-winning Malbec from borrowed glasses, watching the sun set pink and orange over the darkened town and the towering Andes.

Monday, February 14, 2005

The happy dogs of Argentina...

...and other things I´ve observed and learned

Lots of Argentines seem to have dogs - and, like in the United States, many of them are large. Not the little dust bunnies that the Europeans favor. Megan and I have noticed that the dogs of Argentina are very happy, at least most that we see. We know there are also sickly and malnourished dogs, but that doesn´t seem to be the norm.

There are dogs on leashes, and then there are dogs off leashes - roaming the city or countryside, in packs of four or five, with their tails high and confident and broad canine smiles on their little faces. I know, packs of loose dogs in a city are not particularly safe for dogs or humans, but - Megan and I have both lived with dogs and we agree that these loose dogs look absolutely joyful. They trot through the train station, large and small dogs travelling together, looking so self-assured and businesslike. "Ok boys, we need to check out that trash bin on Platform 7, and then head over to the plaza to drink from the fountain. Let´s get cracking, we´ve got a lot of work to do today."

Sometimes we take pictures of the happy dogs. Just looking at them makes us happy.

Other random observations...

Argentine red wines, unlike most American ones, do not give me headaches.

Chicken is not necessarily considered a meat here. Neither is ham, it seems. Several times Megan has confirmed that something is "sin carne," only to receive a meal full of ham or chicken. Despite the abundance of pasta, this is not a country where it´s easy to be a vegetarian. That wasn´t a surprise, really, but it´s odd how ¨meat¨seems to mean ¨beef or pork."

Sometimes I think that Argentina and the United States are like two alternate realities of the same place. You know, like the Star Trek episodes where they somehow find themselves face-to-face with themselves in an alternate reality. The two countries have a similar geography - coasts, mountains, plains, desert and red rock canyons, expansive wetlands, humid green zones. They also have a similar history, with an indigenous population that is now small in relative terms, a population mainly of European descent, substantial waves of European immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and even waves of immigrants from Asia. They have rich natural resources. So it´s almost like seeing how a country evolved in a different dimensional reality - not better or worse, just different.

This last one is just for the linguistically geeky (you know who you are): Megan´s landlord came by right before we left BA to check on the malfunctioning Internet connection, and he speaks no English but does speak both Spanish and Italian. It was completely liberating - the ability to use whatever word came to mind, without having to think about whether it was Spanish or Italian. Gleefully, giddily, my brain spilled out whatever it could grab onto, and speaking was no longer an effort. "Si, Megan esta aqui, pero cambia i suoi vestiti," I explained confidently. "Ayer, la internet functionaba, pero oggi non fa niente!" If only more people spoke Spitalian, I could communicate more globally.

So many things to tell

The internet access went out at the apartment our last day there, so it´s been a while since I´ve been able to post! We´re in Mendoza now, an incredibly charming small city about 1,000 km west of B.A. It´s the center of Argentinian wine country, and I´m currently in a locutario (public Internet access place) which doubles as the information office, where a nice young Argentinian who grew up in Hong Kong is helping us arrange a wine tour.

The drive from BA was long and somewhat painful; we broke the cardinal rule of car travel and did not take control of our own food destiny, leaving ourselves at the mercy of a largely uninhabited landscape on a Sunday (when most things are closed). We set out in our little Toyota Corolla (or Toshota Corosha, in Argentine Spanish, which causes us no little amusement). Driving across the pampas was like a combination of Nebraska and Montana, with the Everglades tossed into the middle for good measure. Much of it was a bit dull on the eyes, but overall it was interesting. Fantastic birdlife, especially in sprawling wetlands in the middle of the country.

We ended up driving in dark and rain and getting in very late, but were treated to quite a show of heat lightning after the sun went down. Driving was fine, although it confirmed our suspicion that lanes, traffic lights, stop signs...all of these are what we´ve come to call ¨theoretical constructs.¨ As in:
"What the bleepity bleep is that guy doing in my bleeping lane?"
"Now now, remember - your lane is just a theoretical construct. Let´s not get too attached to it."

It´s very Buddhist, really - this non-attachment to "your" lane.

Quick updates from my time back in BA...On Friday, while Megan and Brian took a day-trip via ferry to Uruguay, I went to the Recoleta cemetary, a very famous one where Argentina´s elite are buried in mausoleums ranging from ostentatious to genuine tiny cathedrals. It´s really unbelievable to see, and I have many pictures. It´s a photographer´s paradise, with the angles and the light and the sculptures, and I know my mother would have loved it. Evita Peron is there (after a long journey that involved mummification and temporary interrment in Milan), although her husband Juan Peron is across town at a more working-class cemetary.

Next to the cemetary is a huge market, where I spent an afternoon and bought lots of things. The leatherwork in particular in this country is truly astonishing (probably because they have so many cows, which we saw in abundance on our cross-Pampas drive). The artesanos who sell their work at the Recoleta market had actually just had a major run-in with the police the previous day - which Megan and Brian had witnessed in person - because the city had decided to enforce the long-ignored rule that the market could only take place on weekends and holidays. The next day, when I was there, there was a peaceful demonstration in the morning, and then they set up their booths - many with signs, "artisans protesting their right to work."

Recoleta is the wealthiest neighborhood in Buenos Aires. Between the cemetary and the plaza that plays host to the market is a church built in the 1730s, whose cloisters are now open as a museum.

We also went to a tango show on Friday night in the San Telmo neighborhood, home of the tango. It was dinner, drinks and a dance and music show, for the astonishing sum of $55 each - ensuring that most of the room was filled with European and American tourists, since we figured out that this was roughly the equivalent of $800 a person for the evening for an average Argentine, given what we´ve heard about income levels. The question of ecnomic status here is one that continues to fascinate us.

Saturday night we went to an excellent Mexican restaurant. Mexican food is a novelty here, since Mexico is far away and its people are rare. The waitress started to explain to us all about margueritas and mole, until we assured her we were well versed in the ways of Mexican food. She spoke excellent English and relished the opportunity to practice it. She told us she herself had created the elaborate iron chandeliers and grating in the restaurant - "I don´t know the word in English, I the girl in Flashdance." A welder! we said, and she beamed happily. She seemed very interesting, and Megan and I agreed she´s the kind of person we´d want to befriend if we were staying in Buenos Aires.

We have a very short time in Mendoza, unfortunately, and are scheduled to leave for Chile day after tomorrow. There is so much to do here, it´s really amazing.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Re-igniting my love affair with Spanish

Since I've been focusing on Italian so much for the past few months, I had forgotten how much I really do like Spanish. I had been forcing Spanish out of my head, on the theory that Spanish and Italian could not co-habitate peacefully in one brain (unless one of them is your native language). Kind of like those Asian fighting fish, where you can't put them in the same bowl or even in two bowls next to each other, or they try to kill each other.

However, so far my Spanish (which was never stellar, just...competant) seems to be coming back, and I'm remembering all the things I really like about the language. The "v" that's somewhere between a "v" and a "b", the "d" that's somewhere between a "d" and a "th" - neither one hitting the consonant directly, but edging right up close to it, leaving a little layer of air between lips (for the v) or between tongue and teeth (for the d). I like that. I like the way you can tack the object pronouns onto the end of the infinitive, like Italian.

Another thing I like is the "ll", which I was taught to prounounce as in the English word "million," - familiar even to most completely Spanish-less people from the phrase "como se llama?" (what is your name?"). But in Argentina they prounounce by beloved ll - and also the letter y - like "shz," which is terribly confusing. I insist on prounouncing it with the lovely roll, and for a while Megan would correct me. Look, I said, I already have Spanish and Italian engaged in a fight to the death inside my brain; I can't possibly risk layering on any dialects of either one. No Sicilian, no weird shz sounds. Surely the Argentines realize that most of the Spanish-speaking world pronounces ll and y differently, and they will work with me on this. Which is somewhat true, but not always.

So yesterday, on my first full day here, with a mysterious subway strike underway, I was encouraged by my fellow travellers to ask the cabbie what's up with the strike. Moving up from menus and money exchanges to government-labor relations - it seemed like a small leap. And so my linguistic confidence has been increasing ever since.

Yesterday we took the train to a small town called Tigre outside of B.A., along the river. Formerly the out-of-town get-away for the porteno elite to escape the heat and crowds, it is still charming but is clearly one of those towns whose grandeur has seen better days. Beautiful mansions, some kept up nicely, some converted to businesses, some down and out, and some completely dilapidated. You could see that neglect and climate had conspired together to slowly wear the buildings down, a bit of New Orleans with its heavily Spanish-influenced architecture.

We have made our road trip arrangements - car rented (with permission to enter into Chile), and accomodations despite the fact that the coast of Chile is completely booked up for some kind of music festival. Which should be interesting.

As the only two internationally licensed drivers, Megan and I are kind of excited to head into the country, but we'll have to play rock-paper-scissors for who gets us out of the city. Like most big cities outside the US, lane markers in Buenos Aires are totally just a suggestion.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

So basically, they live on Seattle time here

First morning in Buenos Aires, up bright and early at 10:30 am. Since the Argentines follow the Spanish tradition of eating dinner at 10 at night, I almost don't have to change my clock - to bed at 2, up at 10. Cool. My sister would do well here. For two weeks of my life, I get to be a hipster who stays out till 2 am.

The trip down didn't feel as long as I expected. Sitting in the waiting area at O'Hare, I noticed a small pack of Argentine high school students, with a chaperone not much older, returning from some kind of group trip. A trip that involved shopping, clearly. They looked pretty much like any gaggle of high school kids you might see - the girls sporting low-ride jeans and snug t-shirts that showed just a little bit of belly, and perhaps a pierced navel. I almost found them intimidating in their hipness, their confidence. I know I was once that age, traveling the world and feeling fearless in my ability to move through it, but it seems a long time ago now.

The kids also made me curious about economic class in Argentina, which continues to fascinate me and which I'll come back to at some point. I pointed them out to Megan on the way out of the airport and she said "Yeah, there are a lot of young hotties in this country. They are a little intimidating."

The flight was pretty easy - I got a good 5 hours of sleep, immigrations and customs were a breeze, and it was fabulous to see Megan waiting for me at the airport. With relatively little Spanish, she has really figured out her way around and is assisting my orientation into life as a portena, a resident of B.A. I've gotten pesos from the cash machine (though I belatedly remembered to call my bank back in the States and tell them I'm here, so they'd remove the fraud alert that was immediately triggered when I did so). So far my Spanish is serviceable if largely untested, and still peppered with Italian-isms. Brian also speaks Italian and Megan gets little kicks during cab rides quizzing us on our vocabular for things as we pass by: Come se dice en italanio "big old building?"

I still have to learn how to use the subway, which was closed down for a strike yesterday - for how long we're not sure, but Megan has heard there is a cab in this city for every four portenos, so transportation isn't really a problem.

Megan is also educating me in the ways of food and meals here. Because portenos sleep so late, they don't eat breakfast to speak of - some bad coffee or the local herb drink, mate, and a little bread. (No Starbucks here.) Then lunch, siesta (when many but not all business close down), and a little meal around 6 pm that Megan refers to as "chocolate o'clock." It consists of chococate cake (or french fries, in a pinch), and red wine. I'm still new here, but I suspect Megan just made this meal up. Most Argentines are working until 7:00 pm or so. But it's definitely time to eat and drink something that isn't dinner yet. Then, dinner around 10. The dinner rush seems to hit at 11.

Last night we ate at a seafood/sushi restaurant, and dinner for three of us with wine and tip was 105 pesos, or $35. Megan says a teacher at her Spanish school here told the class she works 3 jobs and earns about 800 pesos a month, of which 300 pesos goes to rent. Argentina had an economic meltdown about 4 years ago, and although I've read news reports about how "well" it is doing economcally - largely in spite of , or perhaps because of, ignoring the advice of the IMF and other world finance heavyweights - I wonder what that means, exactly. Who are the Argentines who are eating dinner with us at that restaurant? What are the financial cirumstances of the average Argentine? You walk around the city and in many ways you could be in New York - people of all fashion sensibilities, income, age; the crazy traffic; the constant sense of summer grime accumulating on your skin.

No sightseeing has happened yet - yesterday was about orientation, a nap, and some errands. The city itself presents an odd mix of European feel, and developing country - I can't quite put my finger on it yet, but there's no doubt it's an intriguing place. Yesterday we stopped in a used book store, which displayed old-looking books in a multitude of languages marked "16th century," encased in glass, right next to a stack of used English-language Sunset magazine home decoration guides - Stencilling Walls, Fashionable Floors.

"That," said Megan, "is Argentina for you."

I don't yet know quite what she means by that, but I'm going to relish finding out.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Cousin Flora loves to pack

"Make copies of your passport. Seriously, bring lots of copies of your passport!"

That was the last thing Megan said to me on the phone from Argentina. "Yeah, yeah," I said, distracted by someone at the door and the dogs barking their brains out. "Gotcha. Copies of the passport."

No big deal, but - why, I ask myself now? Why will I need photocopies of my passport? I guess I'll just have to wait and see. I hope seven copies are enough.

I love to pack, I really do. One of my favorite things about backpacking trips is the preparation: laying out every item of clothing, food and gear, in orderly piles, knowing that one single forgotten item can mean inadequate food, water, warmth, shelter, or light in the middle of the woods at night. I like buying the little packages of dried foods, and organizing them into ziplog bags labeled with masking tape, and then further subdividing them into stuffsacks to evenly distribute the weight among the various packs (for the dogs, too, carry packs - bright red double-saddlebags whose appearance from the closet elicits instantanous displays of canine joy). I love finding clever ways to make the load lighter, more compact; finding ways to make the simplest item do double-duty.

So, what does one prepare for South America?

First of all, there were shots. Not as many as there could have been, since we're not visiting any tropical forests. No yellow fever this time, no malaria pills, thank heavens - those things cause some seriously freaky dreams. But there was the dreaded tetanus (why does that one hurt so darn much?), the ever-practical HepA, and my personal favorite, typhoid: four little capsules of live typhoid, kept in the refrigerator right next to the milk and OJ, and taken on alternating days for a week.

What else? A power converter. International driver's license. Camera, of course. Two Spanish dictionaries. New swimsuit and a good murder mystery for the beach. The special sleeping pills for the plane. The passport - ah, a fresh passport on its first trip out of the country! - and the mysterious extra copies.

And, at the bottom of my luggage, an extra empty duffle bag to bring back stuff. "What kind of stuff do you buy in Argentina? " asks my husband. "A side of beef? Tango shoes?"

I dunno, but the adventure starts tomorrow, and Cousin Flora is going to be as prepared as she can be. You're never fully prepared for an adventure, after all - what fun would that be?

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Don't cry for me

With my report nearly completed, I now turn my attention to departure preparations. I leave on Tuesday, and I'll be meeting up with my friends Megan and Brian, who at this moment are in the lake district of northwestern Argentine Patagonia, but who will be back in B.A. in time to meet my plane.

Where is Buenos Aires? (Besides being in Argentina, that is.) Having consulted our world atlas, my husband informs me that Buenos Aires is at about 35 degrees latitude (south), which is roughly the southern hemisphere equivalent of Wilmington, NC; Little Rock, AR; a whole lotta nothing in the middle of the US; Albuquerque, NM; and Santa Barbara, CA. Longitudinally, Buenos Aires is five full hours ahead of Seattle. Because of the weird ways in which printed maps are distorted, we tend to think of North and South America stacking up tidily one above the other, when in fact South America veers way out into the Atlantic towards Africa.

The plan, in addition to some time in Buenos Aires, is a road trip across South America, from Buenos Aires to Valparaiso, Chile (actually slightly north of there, but I can't remember the name of the town). Megan has a strong urge to stick her toes in both oceans, and who am I to argue? So across the continent we will go, with a rental car, our international driver's licenses, and a Hungarian friend whom Megan met at Spanish language school.

First to Mendoza, the center of Argentina's wine country and a gateway to the central Andes. Then over and through the Andes under the shadow of her highest peak, Aconcagua. On through Santiago, Chile, to the beach at colorful Valparaiso, to end up slightly north in some (hopefully) cute little beach town. Total driving time: 19 hours.

Valparaiso, Chile is at 33 degrees latitude (south), roughly equivalent to San Diego, CA; Yuma, AZ; Dallas, TX; and Charleston NC. It's the same as US east coast time, I think.

The travel time to Buenos Aires is 20 hours - yes, you read that right. Four hours to Chicago, a layover, and then 12 hours to B.A. I've been to Europe and Central America, but nothing this long. I know there are much longer trips in the world - an Indian colleague was recently recounting the 48-hour ordeal required for her to visit home - but 20 hours seems unfathomable.

Fortunately, I will be packing some excellent sleeping pills, along with a good book, my knitting, and my meticulously prepared Spanish-language study sheets. I figure, 20 hours of flying time should be ample to to knit a baby blanket, re-learn Spanish, and catch 8-hours of chemically-induced sleep.

Saturday, February 05, 2005


I try to sustain a sense of gratitude about the little things. We humans slip into taking things for granted very easily, I've found, but I've also noticed that life has a way of helping you out on this one if you keep your mind open.

I'm working on a community research project about the "unbanked." Yes, that is a real term - try Googling it and you'll be amazed at what comes up - to describe people who do not use the mainstream commercial banking system. An estimated ten million households are unbanked in the U.S. Many of these folks rely on check-cashing and payday loan businesses - currently, the fastest-growing segment of the financial services industry - which isn't bad, in and of itself, but the payday loan places in particular charge pretty astonishing fees (as you will have learned by now if you took my suggestion and Googled the unbanked).

On behalf of a local foundation concerned about this phenomenon, I've been surveying and talking with people who are excluded from the banking system. And let me tell you, it's a humbling reminder of how fortunate I am to have snagged a seat in middle class America. Having spent my entire professional career in the social sector, I am well aware of the fact that it's just damn hard to be poor. Every single aspect of life becomes more complicated when you're truly poor. But this project gives that realization yet another new angle.

You get a disability benefit from the government, which has caught up with the 21st century and started using debit cards for your monthly payment - which is great, except the debit card is from the state, it isn't drawn on any bank. So every single place you go, you get charged a buck fifty or two for withdrawing your money. And, because your account isn't on any bank, nobody will let you withdraw more than $100 at a time - which means you are forced to incur this fee over and over again. Plus, you get hit at the other end - when you live on a few hundred dollars a month, you need every last penny, but most ATMs won't let you withdraw less than $20. To get your last few dollars, you have to buy something at a store and ask for cash back. They get you coming and going.

I've talked with people who can't produce the proper forms of ID (leading me into the bowels of the US Patriot Act, and trust me folks, THAT's a place none of you want to go); with women fleeing domestic violence who cannot have a bank account because we live in a community property state, and any bank account becomes a way for an abusive spouse to trace your whereabouts; with identity theft victims who don't know how to fix the problem and are now blacklisted from opening any bank account until they repay what they "owe." I've heard about Muslim restrictions on earning or paying interest, people who literally wear their savings in gold to avoid accruing "too much" savings and losing their pension or food stamps, and the complex mathetical calculations required to determine the best deal on wiring money to Mexico.

There are two of us working on this project, each with analytically-oriented masters degrees and years of executive management under our belts, and we have found ourselves completely baffled by the answers to these seemingly simple questions: "What fees are charged for checking accounts at this bank?" and "How much do you charge for wiring money?"

Poor people aren't lacking in intelligence, after all. They just live at a margin where rules really, really matter - rules that most of us can afford to leave vague and fuzzy in the back of our mind. If my financial survival depended on figuring out this crap, I'd be wearing my savings account in the form of gold bangles too.

So, next time you visit your bank, or withdraw cash from an ATM - take a moment and be grateful for that simple privilege.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Procrastination as performance art

So, I'm leaving for Argentina on Tuesday. Prior to which I must finish up both of my current freelance gigs, one of which involves writing a final report full of statistics and pretty graphs.

The deadline looms. So, what did I do today? Did I crank out my report, saving my final weekend for trip preparations and quality time with my husband? No, I did not.

Yesterday when I called the veterinary shrink for the weekly phone check-in on my crazy dog, I commented that Nelly's furnace fear is now manifesting itself much like garden-variety separation anxiety - she works herself into a tizzy when she thinks I'm leaving the house. Presumably because she's afraid of being abandoned to the furnace, but still, it's a change - less about the furnace in and of itself, more about being left alone with it. So, the vet suggested we video or audio tape her while we're gone, to see if her distress continues after I've left (which would suggest doing standard exercises to alleviate separation anxiety), or whether it stops the minute the car is out of the driveway (which would suggest she's a big fat faker). "Thirty to 45 minutes will do it," the vet said. "You'll know within 30 minutes."

So, this morning when I went out, I turned on the little microrecorder that I sometimes use for work purposes. And when I got home, I listened to the tape. Whereupon the opportunity for prime procrastination presented itself.

Sadly, Nelly did in fact keep crying throughout the 45-minute tape. I could also hear the dreaded furnace turning on and off, so I asked myself - does her whining correlate in any way to the actions of the furnace, or are her little panties just in a bunch the whole time she's alone? The outcome of this speculation? - a tidy, colorful graph in Excel showing Nelly's whining status (at 10-second intervals, for 48 minutes), as well as the moments when the furnace warms up, starts, and stops (conveniently color-coded yellow, green and red). I adorned it with helpful lables and arrows, like "Maximum time without whining: 12 minutes (16:50 to 29:00)."

Hey, it was number crunching and graph-making. I choose to think of it as an analytical warm-up exercise. And now, I have further enhanced my procrastination experience by blogging about it all.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Who is Cousin Flora?

It seems a shame to take away a mystery, but what the heck.

If you have never seen the movie Cold Comfort Farm, you really should, because it's very, very funny. It's based on a book by Stella Gibbons, and the movie version I have in mind is the most recent one, with Kate Beckinsale and Ian McKellan among the cast.

The story is set in the 1930s and our heroine, Flora Poste, is a young woman recently orphaned (though she makes a point of letting us know she wasn't particularly close to her parents - boarding-school upbringing and all that). Being one of those upper-class Brits with no actual money, Flora appeals to distant relatives around the country for a place to stay, at least for a while. Selecting Cold Comfort Farm from among many eccentric options ("At least it sounds interesting and appalling - the others just sound appalling!") she sets off pluckily and cheerfully to experience an adventure (for Flora, you see, aspires to be a writer), and "perhaps tidy up a few family messes."

And tidy she does, bringing sensible and creative solutions to the various disputes and dysfunction that she finds at Cold Comfort, and, perhaps more importantly, finding ways to make nearly all of the characters' deepest unformed aspirations come to fruition. Through it all, she is unflappable and sensible. And quite stylish.

The ensemble cast is truly brilliant in bringing this crazy lot to life, especially Ian McKellan, who gets to give one of the funniest fire-and-brimstone speeches ever.

My husband and I love this movie, which has been the source of numerous inside jokes. And while I certainly would never presume to suggest I am as clever, unflappable and creative as Flora Poste - and certainly not as stylish - it has been pointed out to me that I like to make things tidy. Perhaps even that I can't resist an opportunity to help somebody else tidy up a little mess in their life. Even professionally, I seem to have been drawn into management positions by an irresistible pull to solve problems, to make things orderly. When I start tidying, or sticking my nose in other people's business, my husband would call me Cousin Flora.

That's all there is to it, really. You should rent the movie sometime. Then you, too, can apply these handy little sayings in your daily life:

  • "I saw something nasty in the woodshed."
  • "Mother Nature is all well and good in her place, but she mustn't be allowed to make things untidy."
  • "There'll be no butter in hell!"