The Intimacy of Home Cooking and the Importance of Motherhood

When I first applied for this internship in Buenos Aires, I greatly overlooked how significant the homestay experience would be. I was just so excited to be in Argentina, to see Iguazu, to drink wine in Mendoza, to see tango, and to fulfil any number of other Argentine stereotypes. I completely underestimated how a significant chunk of my experience would revolve around this concept of building a home in this city with my new Argentine family.

If you really think about it, the entire idea of a host family is actually quite amazing. A local family literally decides to adopt you for a prolonged amount of time based on nothing but the trust they have in the program coordinator. The family knows nothing about you other than your name and your university before letting you stomp all over their home upon arrival. For all they know, you could be a totally inconsiderate jerk and yet they’d still have to feed you and wash up after you. The generosity and trust that these host families possess is really quite astounding.

I completely lucked out with my host family. Strictly speaking, I just have a host mom, but I used to have a host sister as well (Olenka, another girl who just finished a semester abroad), and we were a lovely little family. Now, it’s just me and Ivonne, my host mom, but we still make a cozy family of two. Words cannot express how grateful I am for madre, as I call her.

Of all the amazing experiences I have had so far in Argentina, I’d say the one I value the most is building my relationship with her. This happens primarily over the dinner table where madre and I break bread and work on my equally broken Spanish. I love it though! It makes such a difference that I have someone to ask me how my day was every time I come home.

I don’t think I really realised how intimate cooking is until I started eating with madre. I could see that she was concerned with whether or not I enjoyed her cooking which made me extremely aware that every bite I was taking was not only a bite of her hard work, but also a bite of her culture. And while I was tempted to just nod and say that I loved everything, madre was thick-skinned and insisted on honesty. Luckily, we do have very similar tastes and she is a fantastic cook so I genuinely loved most of what she cooked the first week. But after I told her that I didn’t like mayonnaise, coleslaw disappeared from the table and was replaced by a green salad. After I told her I was meh about bananas, apples and oranges suddenly filled the kitchen drawers and the bananas were banished.

After the first week, it’s really just been hit after hit from madre. In particular, I genuinely appreciate how seriously she has taken my request to eat healthy. You are what you eat which is what makes cooking for someone else so intimate. What you cook directly impacts someone else’s health. For the most part, madre and I eat incredibly delicious yet nutritious and light food. Madre really moved me one night when she made a healthy chop suey (veggie stir-fry) with rice after asking me about food from back in Hong Kong. Other favourites of mine include her wonderful pea soup, her grilled vegetables, and her delicious steamed fish. She’s an artist by trade and you can tell that she loves working with her hands and puts care into everything she touches.

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Only an artist would have such an aesthetic cutlery organization system.

Sometimes though, we eat a little naughty (all in the name of cultural immersion though of course). Madre cooks a mean steak (this is Argentina after all), a banging milanesa, and great homemade gnocchi.

On the 29th last month, I walked into the kitchen to see a little ten peso note laid underneath my plate.

“Madre, ¿has perdido diez pesos?” (Mom, have you lost ten pesos?).

“No Rachel, es porque hoy es el día de ñoquis” (No Rachel, it’s because today is the Day of Gnocchi), while loading a mountain of gnocchi and tomato sauce on my plate.

Yeah, you heard that right, Argentina has a monthly gnocchi day. The story of the tradition is that the 29th of every month use to be the day before payday so money and supplies would always be low. Families usually only had potatoes left at that point so delicious little gnocchis, essentially small pillows of potato, was the obvious way to go. Now, families gather on the 29th to eat gnocchi together for good luck. For extra prosperity, the tradition is to put pesos underneath the plate.

Little stories like this have greatly enriched my experience here (at the expense of enriching my waistline as well). I’ve loved learning about my madre and her culture through the amazing food that she puts in front of me every night. After each meal, I wash the dishes while she drys. We’re a perfect team. I am so thankful for being let into this home and for being so welcomed. This experience has shown me the importance of home cooking. It has reminded me how linked home food is to motherhood (I don’t call her madre for nothing), to nourishment, to wellbeing, and to tradition. As I sit here writing this, I can’t help but salivate a little at the thought of what madre is going to serve up tonight. Whatever it is, it is sure to be made with love and entirely mayonnaise free!

Let’s talk about… the Subte

Little known fact about me: I’m from Hong Kong. Ha! Who am I kidding, I might as well have “HK” tattooed on my forehead seeing as I talk about it so incessantly. An actual little known fact about me though is that I wrote one of my college essays about my love of the MTR, the Hong Kong subway system. This isn’t as weird as it sounds, I swear. Hear me out. Subways are by far my favourite mode of public transportation. Subways are democratic and used by people of all walks of life. In Hong Kong, subway stops dot every part of the city and are connected in a rainbow grid of lines as vibrant as the neighbourhoods they service. Subways are great – easy to use, traffic free, and predictable. Though no subway system in my opinion comes close to the 99.9% on time, pristine, and air conditioned Hong Kong system, I’ve always enjoyed taking subways around the world.

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I’ll always be a Hong Kong kid, at my core.

You see, there’s nothing more local and authentic than taking a subway during rush hour. In Buenos Aires, I have gotten myself into a short-term but extremely committed relationship with the Subte (short for “subterranean”). I have a thirty-minute subway commute to work everyday. And while this seems mundane, some of my greatest personal victories, little moments of triumph and empowerment, have occurred while zipping around underneath the streets of this chaotic capital.

Little victory número uno: There’s nothing more satisfying than a good life hack. Something as small as figuring out the best place to wait for the train in the morning in order to guarantee finding a seat or a comfortable spot has really made me feel like I belong in this city. It’s very hard for me to look like I’m a local by virtue of my chinese-ness. Other than my Chinatown wanderings, I think the only times where I have come close to passing for a local have been on the Subte. I’ve really started to fit in with the dreary-eyed morning commute crowd, especially since I’ve started to read books in Spanish during the journey. Finding a good spot on my morning trip and relaxing with my book really just sets me up for success for the rest of my day.

Subte moment número dos: I knew I had made it in this city when I was one day stopped on the way to the Subte by an elderly couple that was lost. Like I said before, I definitely don’t look like a porteña local. However, I guess something about my fast-paced, self-assured, rush hour stomp to the Subte signalled to this lovely couple that I knew what I was doing. They stopped me on a street corner and kindly asked me where the closest Subte stop was. The poor things were visiting from one of the provinces and had been walking in the wrong direction for almost ten minutes! Feeling good about myself, and as surprised as ever by my actually decent Spanish, I walked with them to the station and even managed to tell them how many stops they needed to go before reaching their destination (I have the green line almost memorised at this point. Wasn’t kidding about being in a seriously committed relationship).

And finally, my favourite Subte moment: One day, at crammed-in-like-sardines-level rush hour, I managed to squeeze myself into a corner seat. However, at the next stop, this old lady who looked like she was about to faint stumbled onto the train. Naturally I let her sit. She looked extremely ill and I was very concerned for her. I worked up the nerve to talk to her in Spanish.

“Perdon señora, está bien?” (Are you ok ma’am?) 

“Me duele la espina” (My spine hurts). I truly felt for her as I watched her grimace with every jolt that rocked the train. However, what inspired me was how all the other women around me came to her aid as well. This old lady had managed to find herself in a corner composed entirely of women. One of them offered to give her water, another to hold her bag, and another gave her a piece of gum. She asked for updates on how many stops she had to go and I gladly talked to her until she finally reached her destination. When I first got here, I was a little nervous about taking public transportation after hearing stories about robberies and what not. And while I’m still very cautious (I rock the front backpack/pregnant lady look everyday), I am happy to report that women on the Subte take care of their own.

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The ceiling of Retiro, BA’s main train terminal.

Now, I’ve had my fair share of mishaps underground. One time, I had to wait for three trains to pass before I finally managed to elbow my way into a carriage during rush hour. It wasn’t that there wasn’t enough space in the first ones. It’s that I wasn’t confident enough to push myself in. Sometimes, the Subte really requires some grit. I’ve also found myself on trains that suddenly go out of service halfway up the line and have more often than I’d like to admit climbed out of a station at the wrong exit. That being said, the rhythm of taking the subway everyday has really made me feel like a porteña. I’ve loved spending hours reading on the train and I feel more and more local every time I swipe my Sube card or give someone directions.

And while I still think that the MTR is far superior, I will give Buenos Aires this: you’d be hard pressed to find a violinist playing Despacito in any other subway system in the world.

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Despacito virtuoso in the Plaza Italia station!

Florals? For spring, I mean winter? Groundbreaking.

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But how about for invierno, Miranda?

The only thing better than the good aires in Buenos Aires are the good flowers. It’s hard to believe that this is what they call “winter” in this amazing city.

Almost every street corner in Buenos Aires features a beautiful flower stand. The gardens of Palermo are also still stunning. I’ve loved walking around the city and encountering beautiful flora everywhere I go. Here are some shots from the Botanical Garden as well as the Rosedal of Palermo. 

The tomb of Evita, Argentina’s most famous lady is likewise beautifully decked with florals. I’m fascinated by Eva Peron and plan on writing about her in another post very soon!

For now though, let’s all remember the importance of stopping to smell the flowers every once in a while.

A trip to Tigre

In 1492, Columbus sailed the Ocean blue, yada yada yada. We all know how the tale goes. Columbus, in search of a western route to Asia, found himself in the Caribbean. Thinking he had reached his destination, he immediately labeled the natives he encountered Indians before realising that he had in fact landed somewhere half a world away from India.

In a similar fashion, when European settlers first reached the river delta just outside of what is today Buenos Aires, they were greeted by locals. This time, in the form of fearsome jaguars. Quite literally for lack of a better word, they reported that the area was full of tigers and consequently named their settlement Tigre.

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A wonderful scene by the river.

Last Tuesday, my friends and I all got a day off work for el Dia de la Bandera, Argentine flag day. We hopped on a train and decided to take a little break from the city. We encountered neither jaguars nor tigers on our trip save for little tiger logos on flags around this charming little settlement.  Instead, we were treated to beautiful views of riverside houses, walks along the promenade, and churros. Lots and lots of churros!

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A basket of magnificent churros

After a river tour around the delta in a lancha, we gorged ourselves on steak and pasta before walking to the local museum to work it all off. As ~cultured~ as we are, we are first and foremost stingy college kids and we couldn’t bring ourselves to pay to go in. Instead, we just wandered around outside the gorgeous building. Looks a bit like a haunted house no?

Photographers call the hour around sunset the blue hour. Normal people simply call this twilight. Regardless of what you call this precious time of day, the sight of the sun slowly sinking into the river, the gradual painting of the sky in shades of orange before giving way to an eerie blue, is universally beautiful. These photos don’t do it justice:

Happy to have spent a perfect day in Tigre, sans big cats and all.

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With the wonderful Nat ❤

An important reminder:

I stumbled upon this beautiful piece of street art the other day while wandering around Palermo Soho, the chicest barrio of Buenos Aires:

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“Mujer ¡Empiece una revolución! Ame su cuerpo”

It reads: “Woman! Start a revolution! Love your body!”

Wow. What an important reminder to us all.

I am currently doing a 2 month internship in Buenos Aires at ELA, el Equipo Latinoamericano de Justicia y Género (The Latin American League for Gender Justice), an Argentine NGO dedicated to improving women’s rights, increasing female political participation, and bettering the lives of Argentine women. It’s a great organization and I am incredibly grateful to have the opportunity to work with them. I am very excited to learn more about women’s rights in this country and to learn about how advocacy groups operate and fight to make the world a better place.

I also encountered another more sobering reminder while walking the streets of Buenos Aires:

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“1 femicidio cada 24 horas – Vivas nos queremos!”

It reads: “One femicide every 24 hours – We want to Live!”

Estimates put the rate of femicide in Argentina, or the killing of females due to their gender or factors related to their gender, at somewhere between one every 18-24 hours. That. Can’t. Stand. The fight for women’s rights is one that very much must still be fought and I am constantly in awe of my colleagues at ELA for the work that they do.

It’s safe to say that  I have been inspired by the incredible street art in Buenos Aires. The following photo was taken in La Boca, a colorful old barrio. Notice that little hood in right corner? That’s the symbol for Las Madres, a group of mothers who’s children were “disappeared” by the government during Argentina’s Guerra Sucia (“Dirty War”) of the 70s.

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To this very day, las madres gather in the Plaza de Mayo every Thursday to publicly protest government corruption and to raise awareness for los desaparecidos, the term given to the dissidents that were taken against their will. The whole topic of the Dirty War is still quite controversial and it has been interesting talking to locals and hearing a wide range of opinions. I hope to head to the Plaza de Mayo myself one of these Thursdays to hear directly from these brave women.

Until I do though, here are some pics of other beautiful street art – work that reminds us that as much as art can be political, it can also just be beautiful.

Exploring the Feria de Mataderos

I’m a firm believer in delayed gratification. The longer you have to wait for something, the better it is when you eventually obtain it. At least, that’s what I told myself as I banged my head yet again against the window of the rickety collectivo (public bus) that I was standing on. It was one of Olenka’s, my amazing host sister here in Buenos Aires, last day in the city and she had invited me to tag along with her and her friends to the Feria de Mataderos, a Sunday fair in a working-class barrio (neighborhood) of the city. I instantly leaped at the opportunity to explore another part of the city and to indulge in some good street food.

However, as the six of us rattled around the inside of the collectivo like clothing in a washing machine for about an hour, I remember thinking to myself “damn, I hope this is worth it”. It. So. Was.

Here are some snapshots that I managed to take in between shamelessly asking for free samples and downing desserts:

Is there anything better than a fresh panqueque (crepe) smothered in dulce de leche? How bout this beautiful little chocolate covered churro, filled with, you guessed it, more dulce de leche? Olenka’s friend Isa also got this divine waffle (at this point, you can just assume that all the desserts have dulce de leche).

There was also meat galore! I had a juicy empanada while also stealing some of Olenka’s boyfriends beef stew. Nothing like a warm guiso on a blustery day.

I highly recommend making the trip down to Mataderos if you find yourself in Buenos Aires. The fair has real character to it with elderly gauchos dressed in full gear dancing in the square and live music to match. Thank you so much to Olenka for inviting me and for also helping me adjust to life here in Argentina! Te extraño muchissimo! Besos!

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Bad lighting, great ~sisterhood~

That one time I joined a cult

That one time…

Most of the world’s best stories start with the same four words: “Remember that one time…?”. Say these four words out loud and I’ll bet that your mind fills in the blank the same way google suggested answers pop up in your web browser. This column is dedicated to some of my “that one time” moments. Some (most) of these moments are embarrassing, some are hilarious, some are truly moving, and all of them are truly memorable.


That one time I joined a cult 

You know, I never really got the hang of the Spanish imperative until I found myself in a dark room with strobe lights and pounding music.

Let me wind up a little.

Here’s a little grammar refresher for those of you who have repressed the memory of taking the SAT: the imperative mood is a gramatical mood that forms commands. Basically, every time your roommate tells you to “shut up!” (¡cállate!), or your grandma tells you to “eat more!” (¡come más!), they’re using the imperative. This mood was always one of the conjugations that I kind of just glazed over during Spanish class. It’s not that hard to form, and I just gave up on the irregulars. In short, I never really gave the imperative its full due. That is, until I joined a cult.

Given how commanding these words are by their very nature, they’re perfect for any sort of cult-like activity:

“¡Empuja, empuja!” “Push! Push!”

Her voice rang in my ear as I forced my poor legs to keep going. Push! Push!

“¡Pon más peso!” “Increase the weight (resistance)!”

Loathing her, I twisted the knob to the right making my thighs labor all the more intensely with each pedal.

Yup. I joined the cult that is spinning.

While not quite Soul Cycle, the spinning classes at In Out Gym certainly do the trick. My first spin class was quite the experience. I walked in a couple minutes early feeling apprehensive, only to feel even more nervous after seeing some spandex-clad-protein-shake-chugging super stars already on their bikes. Honestly, I was just planning on winging it. So, I just tucked myself into a corner on a bike that more or less seemed to be adjusted for me. Actually, that’s a lie. I tried adjusting my bike but I was too weak to even twist the adjusting knobs but I didn’t want to switch bikes like a fool. In my defence, the knobs were rusty.

Then, Sabrina, cult leader and avid fan of the imperative, walked in.

“¡Vamos chicas, empiecen!” “Let’s go ladies, START!”

Ok, I said to myself. They say you never forget how to ride a bike. And I mean come on! This is a stationary bike. How hard can it be? In fact, for the first couple of minutes I was feeling pretty good about myself. But APPARENTLY, I was doing everything wrong. Sabrina took one look at my form and quickly said “¡Para!” “Stop!”.

Sabrina came over and helped me adjust my straps and pushed my handles to the right height. She then showed me how to hold my arms, elbows in and at 90 degree angles with your shoulders when in a leaning forward standing position. She then went back to her bike and proceeded to completely destroy me.

Now, the reason why spinning classes have often been compared to cults is that in the midst of the pain, and the sweat (so much sweat), and the abusive yelling, and the lights, and the music, everyone actually really enjoys themselves. Was I destroyed? Yes. Did I absolutely love it? Also yes.

As Elle Woods once said, “endorphins make you happy, and happy people don’t kill their husbands!”. Alternatively, “endorphins make you happy, and happy people keep spinning!”. Like I said in my last post, I’m trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle here in the land of asado (barbecue), alfajores (two cookies glued together by dulce de leche), and malbec (beautiful wine). I’m also sincerely trying to improve my Spanish. So, ¿por qué no los dos? The cult that is spinning seems to really be doing both for me at the same time.

*A note about the pic. Sadly, there are no gross and sweaty photos of me at la clase de spin. However, doesn’t this cool mural that I found in Palermo Soho look kinda cult-y? Yes? No? Oh well, I tried.