Sunday, July 09, 2006

Please, I insist!

Discussions with fellow settlers have confirmed that I am not alone in finding porteños, especially the ladies, rather rude. One Englishman told of holding a door for an elegantly dressed porteña in Recoleta, this mop of bottled blonde hair walked through without any acknowledgement; He muttered "a thank you would have been nice" to himself and lo and behold, the hair turned round and said in her bilingüe school (private school teaching 2 languages, most of the time, English and Spanish) accent "no one asked you".

I have been saying "de nada" (literally means "of nothing", equivalent to "welcome") to thin air for as long as I have been in this city. Occasionally, and I stress the rarity, someone would realise her forgetfulness and shoot me a dirty look. Compared to that poor man, I suppose I should count myself very lucky.

Since my move to this city, I often wonder if other languages care as much about "please" and "thank you" as English. In Cantonese, it may not exactly be a formal "please" but there are others words conveying the same message, albeit in a loud voice. The Japanese are not content with just words, they have to complete the show of courtesy with a deep bow. Formal conjugations of verbs in the romance languages take care of the matter to some extent but it seems general good manners still count for a lot more in Europe than here; except if you ask a waiter in Rome, peak of tourist season, for a decaf skinny soy latte! In that case, I think the cazzo is you.

Being the culturally confused, I tend to look for other signs of good manners. "Please" or "Thank you" when uttered without sincerity or accompanied by actions indicating the contrary is certainly a poor show of good breeding. In short, I am looking for heart. I am always surprised by just how much a bit of heart can break down the intangible barriers of culture and language.

A dear friend from London stayed with us for 4 weeks with the sole purpose of learning and dancing tango. She had no Spanish except "Hola" and "Gracias"; within days, she was not only able to go everywhere on her own but made many local friends in the tango halls. Her radiant smile alone said a thousand words.

Back in my hill-billy days in the village of Molazzana, facing the Apuan Alps, I once ran into the father of my friend Claudia. He happened to be escaping from the hustle and bustle of Pisa in his country pile. I had a five-minute conversation with the dapper gentleman and then bid him farewell with an arrivederla instead of the standard arrivederci or a casual ciao. I later heard through the grapevine that I gained high approval in his book. Everyone was happy.

To be fair, I have encountered polite and helpful strangers here; however, they are needles in a haystack. It shows that people still know what appropriate manner is, they just can't be bothered. So why do porteños find it difficult to show regard for their cohabitants of the city? Besides the mental blockage in expressing gratitude, their contempt is manifested daily by litters they leave so nonchalantly all over the city. They create filth so they can let themselves live in filth?? This one may be harder to crack than the Da Vinci Code.

And please don't get me onto the subject of saying "sorry"...all I'd say on that matter is: if a porteño/a is not sorry, he/she certainly wouldn't dream of uttering the word, and if he/she is truly so, God is the only one that needs to hear it.

So what do porteños eat when they have their chit chat with God over tea? Maybe a slice of Angel Food Cake? Since they believe God is Argentine, they will always be angels in God's eyes, whatever they do.

3/4 plain flour
1/4 cup corn/ potato flour
1 1/2 cups caster sugar
12 large egg whites
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 170°C, with rack in lower third but not on bottom shelf. Prepare a 10-inch angel-food-cake tin. Using the tin as your guide, cut a circle from a piece of parchment paper; use it to line bottom of pan.

Using a sieve, sift flours and 1/2 cup sugar onto another piece of parchment.

Set sieve over a bowl, and return mixture to sieve; sift again and set aside.

Place egg whites in a large mixing bowl. Beat on medium speed until frothy, about 1 minute. Add the cream of tartar, lemon juice, vanilla, and salt; continue beating until soft peaks form, about 2 1/2 minutes. With mixer running, add remaining cup sugar a little at a time, beating no longer than 1 minute.

Raise speed to medium-high; continue beating until firm, but not stiff, peaks form (when beater is lifted, only the tip of the peak should fall over slightly). Gently transfer egg-white mixture to a large, wide bowl. Sprinkle a third of the reserved flour mixture over the whites. Using a whisk, gently combine in a folding motion, allowing batter to fall through the whisk as you fold. Sprinkle remaining flour mixture over whites in two more batches; fold until just combined. Be careful not to over mix because the egg whites will deflate.

Using a large rubber spatula, transfer batter to prepared tin. Run a knife gently through the center of the batter to remove any large air bubbles. Bake until a cake tester inserted in the middle comes out clean and cake is springy to the touch, 45 to 50 minutes.

Remove tin from oven and invert onto its legs, making sure cake clears the surface of the counter. (If using a tin without legs, invert it and hang over the neck of a bottle.) Let cool completely, 1 1/2 to 2 hours.

To remove cake, reinvert pan, top side up. Run a knife around the inner and outer edges of the cake before releasing the bottom. Cake will keep up to 2 days at room temperature in an airtight container or wrapped in plastic. To serve, slice with a serrated knife.

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