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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Our 35th Anniversary

Well, yesterday, July 28th was a momentous day for us. Our 35th wedding anniversary and the final negotiation for our house in Marindia. For the first time in our lives, we would be homeowners, instead of home "owers". Though we always checked "homeowners" on every application or credit request- to be honest, we have always owned just a share in any house we've lived in- the bank actually owned the house. For the first time, we would own our house outright. It was with great anticipation that we have looked forward to this day. It started out with a serenade on the bus coming in from quite a good guitar player and Willie Nelson look-alike. He had quite a nice voice, so we gave a little donation and took this picture.

Then we headed on into town to try and find a motorcycle accessory shop, where we could buy some high quality (DOT approved) helmets and other safety gear. We found the place and were a little surprised at the prices. We ended up getting only one helmet for the day, clocking in at $340 (US), and will get the second and more gear when we have a little time to shop. The new motorcycle is due to be delivered this week, so we needed to have a helmet for me, since it will take a couple of weeks of practice to get comfortable enough to ride with Denise.

By that time, we were scheduled to meet with the escribano (notary public) who was going to help us exchange one of our cashier's checks for two of like value, to be able to pay each participant from their own check. Unlike Argentina (where all real estate deals are transacted in hard cash, Uruguay transactions use bank issued letres de cambio or cashier's checks). That completed, we went on to the office for the closing.

Now here is where it gets interesting (you knew you kept reading for some reason). The closing takes place with all persons involved in the transaction present. In this case, there was a prior agreement of sale, so that means that the original owner of the house, the 2 sellers (Dr. Andrés Garcia and his wife Claudia) , the 2 real estate agents, the 2 buyers and the escribanos (both the buyers and sellers representatives) and office staff are there to complete the transaction. First, the original agreement of sale was finalized. To do this, the seller's escribano had prepared a sales contract to transfer ownership of the property to the sellers (the Doctor and his wife). This was done by reading the entire document out loud, with both parties listening, then signing the document and transferring the money (which we provided in our purchase price). Then after kisses all around (this is Uruguay), the original owner left, and we continued on with the last portion of the purchase. We now went into the smaller office and Rose (the escribana) read our purchase contract, first in Spanish, then in English. Then we each signed our signatures. After that, the Doctor turned over keys and some utility and tax receipts and offered any help that we needed. There was a warm round of kisses all around and even a few tears.

I think you can get the idea that a real estate transaction in Uruguay is not like a real estate transaction in the US. These people had somehow become almost family. This was, of course, a business deal. But it was much more than that. The escribanos were like our older brothers or parents helping us through this arrangement. We felt we were being accepted into the family circle and not just buying a property, but taking over a family possession- to be cared for and cherished. I know it sounds a little over dramatized, but this is how we actually felt. When we finally left, with another warm round of kisses, we were finally home owners in Uruguay.

After coming back to Atlantida (since it was long after dark, we resisted the temptation to rush over to the new house. We dropped off the papers and helmet at the hotel, then went out to a nice restaurant for dinner. You have to take a look at this delicious meal. I had some wonderful beef (look at the size of that) and Denise has a great fish dinner. We ordered a bottle very nice Tannat wine (2000, supposed to be one of the best years). Then we couldn't help ourselves and had these fabulous desserts.

This was quite an anniversary. Lots of work, lots of business and lots of food. We should sleep in tomorrow, but I doubt whether we can keep from running over to our new house- but that is another story.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Uruguayan Spanish

Well, as we struggle along with our crippled Spanish, I am reminded that we are not only having to learn Spanish, but Uruguayan Spanish. It would be comparable to learning English as a second language, then being dumped into the middle of Harlem. You wouldn't really understand much.

UY Spanish has it's own peculiarities. For instance- take this statue on the 1 Mayo Plaza, near the Legislative Palacio. Look at the name. How would you pronounce that? Well, did you guess "Baht Shjay"? Yes, the "ll" sound in Spanish (a rolling "Y") is now a "Shush" sound. So is "Y" in many cases. In fact the "Shush" sound is found in so many words that it sounds (to the untrained ear) as if it dominates the language. Now to be fair, it adds a distinct soft sound to conversation, but not easily understood by a person just learning.

Let's try another one. "Tres Cruces" (a downtown bus terminal in the capital). How would you pronounce that one? Well, if you guessed "Tray Crussay" you would be correct. You notice the "S's" are left out. Yes, most trailing S's and many in the middle are left out entirely- leading to even more confusion.

Add to the mix the fact that as typical anglo-americans we do not stand out from the mostly European stock that makes up 70%-80% of the Uruguayans. That means that on the street, with our mouths closed, we look exactly like any Uruguayan. That is why frequently we are stopped and asked for directions. Of course, the first words out of our mouths identify us as "not from around here".

On the plus side, the Uruguayans are very patient and very sharp. They will find a way to communicate and appreciate any little Spanish you can add. For the most part, we have been able to do what we have needed to do and get what we have needed to get, with our limited language skills. A little trick I learned has helped me. The first thing I ask is if they speak a little English. Most will say no, or "very little". Then, when I use my Tarzan style Spanish ("Me Wally, I want buy guitar")- they are relieved that they will not have to carry the full load of the conversation.

As I completed my bank transactions, today, in preparation to closing our house on Monday, I realized that I have been focusing on my difficulties with the language. I totally forgot to consider their problems in dealing with me. Asking me the simplest question draws a stupid look from me. How disconcerting that must be for them. Then I had a small little idea for a Saturday Night Live routine that involved my trying to rob a bank in Uruguay. You can see the scenario- I shout at the top of my voice "This is a holdup" in my best Spanish. It draws blank stares. The round of explanations begin- gesturing- and finally I leave, because they don't know they were being robbed. Ah well, I digress.

We are working on it though- but it will be a long, long time before we can carry a conversation. However, the Uruguayans are an optimistic people. Even when they know you don't speak Spanish- they just go on as if you do, and I just nod and smile (when I think it is the proper response). When asked a question on the bus the other day, I responded with what I thought was the answer to the question. The lady just looked at me sympathetically and said in Spanish "You don't understand do you?" She had me pegged. So now, when asked for directions, I put my hand on their arm, look at their faces, smile and say "Somos Americanos"- That explains a lot.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Parroquia del Cristo Obrero

We walked towards Canelones, yesterday about 5 miles out of town to see the Catholic school that is an architectural sightseeing destination in Atlantida. It was quite a walk, especially in bitter winter weather (60+ degrees and sunny- eat your heart out). When we arrived, it was a little disappointing. The architecture, as you can see, is quite striking, but the setting is definitely very rural and the neighborhood rather run down. We took a little walk around the neighborhood. Despite the fact that it was not a prosperous area, you could see that the people took as good a care of their houses as they could. Many yards were nicely kept. While walking there- we remarked how secure we felt. If this were a suburb of Tijuana, even in broad daylight I would not have felt comfortable. But here, in Uruguay- no fear. It was just a residential area. Nearby there was an abandoned railway station. Estacion Atlantida. Apparently there was a train system that ran on those old rails. Actually looked serviceable, and the station was for sale. Thought briefly about buying the station, opening a theme restaurant, but then the warmth of the sun brought sanity back to me and I just kept walking.

We saw a car for sale. We have decided that we probably won't get a car, at first. But we are looking into a little 200cc motorcycle, just to get us back and for to the market for daily supplies. Look at the picture. Can you see the for sale sign? If you look closely, you will see a water jug sitting on top of the car. This is a Uruguayan "For Sale" sign. They don't post prices, but it does indicate the car is up for sale.

On the way back, we decided to take the bus. We waited for what seemed like hours. This is a bus stop ("Parada") in UY. Some have concrete seats and a roof, but most are just stops by the side of the road. No seats, not even a stump. Fortunately there was some shade from the sun. Apparently the buses to Canelones (the direction of the school) don't run as often as those in town. But eventually we got back, and were happy to see our own little stretch of beach in front of the hotel. Only 1 1/2 months of winter weather left. I think we will be able to hold out.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Walk to Parque del Plata

Today was another one of those brutal winter days (60+ degrees, clear and sunny), so we decided to walk north, this time- towards Parque Del Plata. It was a wonderful walk and the rambla (seaside drive) is paved all the way, with beautiful wooden stairs leading to the beach at about every other street. Many people out fishing today. Have not seen anyone catch a fish, yet, but I don't think that is the full purpose. As we walked and looked at all the beautiful houses on the rambla, with their beautiful view of the water- we get more and more anxious to get into our new house and start making it our own.

We saw this neat little service station in Las Toscas. We had seen some houses in Los Toscas, but never actually saw the commercial center. We thought it was very active and provided many services. Most of the houses we saw in Las Toscas were off the water and one was even on the other side of the highway, so none of those had interested us. If we could have found a house on the water in Las Toscas, I think we would have been there- but it, too, is probably pretty hectic in the "high" season.

Just before coming home, we stopped into a small restaurant. We were going to get pizza, but they hadn't run up the oven, yet. You see, the pizzas are made in wood fired ovens (cool, huh?). So we just ordered a hamburger, each. At least I thought we were getting "a" hamburger. What we actually got was a milanesa on a bun with lettuce and tomatoe. I am not complaining, since it was delicious- but a lot of food, and if you notice from the photo- each of us got 2! That turned out to be our dinner. Then we took the bus back to Atlantida- stopped in at Baipa's for some delicious confections. They have the best I've ever tasted, little bite sized delicacies. That will end our day nicely.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Walk to Marindia

We walked on the beach from Atlantida (where we are currently staying) to Marindia (our soon-to-be new home). It is about a 5 mile walk on what turned out to be a sunny day with 68 degree weather. I took my shirt off, but out of consideration for the locals, I didn't wear shorts. Near the famous eagle of Atlantida (El Aguila) we saw this family fishing. The Eagle was built by millionaire Natalio Michelizza as a place to think and read and it is one of the best known landmarks around. Of interest is the tractor below the eagle. There is a program underway to dry the beaches out for the "season". There were several tractors on the section we walked all combing up the sand. The fish were literally jumping out of the water about 50 yards off shore. And there were a few gill nets placed perpendicular to the shore that we say. It is said that much of the commercial fishing is done within sight of the beaches.

then back at Atlantida (on the right).. It was a long walk, but we thoroughly enjoyed being able to walk, almost by ourselves, except for less than a dozen people, some walking their dogs, some picking up little stones and some fishing. Great exercise, but we took the bus back from our walk to Marindia. After dinner, we heard the unmistakeable sound of Candombe drums (traditional African/Uruguayan rythm). There areStanding at the Eagle, we looked toward Marindia (on the left), the 3 types of drums, each playing their special parts. The base drum (called piano) plays a very regular rhythm, the chico (smallest) plays an important and steady beat and the tenor drum can improvise. There are drum groups, especially practiced by young people in all districts and cities, that play all year around, and then especially compete at Carnival. During the weekends, in Atlantida, one of the local groups will form and walk around the city drumming. We took this picture out front of the apartment (sorry that it is so dark and grainy).

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

eBay and Denny's

Actually Uruguay doesn't have eBay (locally) or Denny's but our visit to Montevideo, yesterday centered on Uruguay's counterparts to these institutions. I wanted to buy a guitar, so I searched MercadoLibre, the eBay of South America. Actually I have been told that eBay bought out MercadoLibre, so it really is the eBay of SA. If you would like to see what is available to us, feel free to browse (get your Spanish ready):

I found a guitar that looked good, registered with ML, and pushed the "purchase" button, just like eBay, but instead of actually making the purchase, I was sent the contact information for the seller, much like CraigsList. I then contacted him to see the item the next day. I learned that ML charges the seller a fee for listing the item. Apparently you have to deposit the fee in their account at a local bank- hand it to UY to make more paperwork.

I have learned not to drink liquids before we travel by bus (for obvious reasons that need not be stated here), so the first thing we needed, upon arriving in Montevideo was coffee and some breakfast. We settled upon La Passiva, which as the other part of the title of this post suggests, is a substitute for Denny's. La Passiva is a chain and there are several in MVD and even one in Atlantida, where we are staying. They are very much like fast food, but still provide most of the choices you will find in all restaurants, including the parilla grilled meats (for which UY is famous). But unlike most restaurants, they give you the bill (a little ticket) right after serving the food. Most restaurants take forever (by N American standards) to give you a bill, because they expect you to eat and then stay around at least an hour or more. By the way- the picture on the right is a McDonalds. And yes, a Big Mac in Uruguay tastes the same as a Big Mac in Seattle. However, it is not a cheap meal, but it is a good place to go to the bathroom in a city that does not have a lot of bathrooms.

Before viewing the guitar, we went to one of the several malls in MVD, the Punta Carreta Shopping to look for some furniture for our new house. We have gone back and forth between leather (which despite the fact that Uruguay produces more beef per capita than any country is still expensive) and fabric. Leather is winning out. But Punta Carreta Shopping is by far and shopper's paradise. Of course, one couldn't help noticing that many of the stores, including the one pictured on the right were offering substantial savings (couldn't help adding this picture). It is beautiful, as the pictures show and today, with 60+ degree weather and clear, blue skies, we were glad we were out.

Then we went to view the guitar. I was kind of disappointed, because it had some dings and finally, it didn't work with the amplifier (it was an electric acoustical guitar). So we headed back to town to a guitar store we had scouted before. The girl who was the manager, Josephina, was an Argentine who imported these lovely guitars and they were on sale (just my kind of deal). She was so animated about Uruguay that she totally sold us on the country, again, as well as the guitar. She could have sold (forget refrigerators) ice cubes to eskimos. Her store is Music Time, on Calle Paraguay near Calle 18 Julio- click for their website.

We brought the beginnings of a musical tradition back to Atlantida with the hopes that we will spend more time on music and less on the computer. But tonight the computer is winning. ps- on the way home, with our food, I picked up a liter of some of the nicest tannat merlot wine that I have ever had for the whopping price of $2.60 (eat your heart out).

Monday, July 7, 2008

Immigration in the Rain

Denise told me that my last post was dry and uninteresting. I like to think it was extremely informative, but it did lack pictures. Look! I have some pictures for this one.

Today we traveled to Maldonado (just inland from famous Punta del Este) to formally apply for our residency permit (cedula). It was a rainy day when we arrived at one of the nicest little bus terminals and were whisked on to immigration in a pale yellow taxi (the color of taxis in that area).

Peter Stross took us into the office and remarked that they had put on a few more people in an office formerly staffed by two women. We went to Maldonado because you can get an appointment the same day (sometimes in minutes), whereas the same appointment takes weeks or even months in the capitol. Once the application is made, the processing returns to Montevideo on the faster (not fast) track.

The operation was quite smooth. Documents examined and then the girl typed out (on a manual typewriter) the necessary forms and fingerprint cards. We were fingerprinted and in less than 1/2 hour we were finished with the process. After this was over, we stepped outside and Peter and Denise are pictured in front of the office. You would never find this office, tucked away on a side street, so we were glad Peter took us.

Then we took a stroll through Maldonado on the way back to the terminal. We were very impressed. It was a beautiful city. Much like a small, manageable Montevideo. I think we could find anything we would want in Maldonado. I have seen many posts indicating that Punta del Este is a "ghost town" in the off season. That may be relatively true, but minutes away is one of the nicest and most extensive towns that we could imagine. If we had the money to buy in Punta (which we wouldn't ever have) I wouldn't hesitate, knowing that Maldonado is next door. Back to the hotel for a rainy day, but we accomplished much.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Two Interesting Days at the Bank

Yesterday we made the trip into Montevideo to attempt to open the bank account with the bank whose agreement with the US Govt allows us to direct deposit our social security payments. We had finally found my SS card (I was not as stupid as I thought- no comments).

As we now went to the bank with the documents requested, it was still up in the air, as to whether it would go through. But lo and behold- it seems like we did it. The key to telling whether a banking operation is progressing (since we really can't figure out what is going on due to our lack of Spanish) is that they start typing into the computer. From then on, it was smooth sailing.

Then today, we went back to MVD, this time to try and get them to deposit the money we had transfered from our US account into our Uruguayan account. Before that we had to get 2 important documents- a copy of the boleta (sales contract) and declaration of dwelling, both of these having to be fully legalized documents. We were really impressed with the documents. They were on special paper, had seals all over them and a special notary stamp (not like a notary stamp in the US, but an actual stamp like a postage stamp). They were truly impressive documents.

So we went to the bank, got our ticket (remember) and waited in line. When we were called up, we stated our case and showed them our papers. First he had to find the papers which substantiated our somewhat significant transfer. They were in a bunch of papers hanging off the divider of his cubicle and paper clipped together. He found one easily, then finally searched and found the other. I was amazed that anything so potentially important was just lying around. It had been over a week since we were there last. After stamping and signing at least 2 dozen papers, making photocopies of our passports (for about the 4th time at this bank), having us sign about 3 separate statements, he began typing. I knew we were in! Finally he told us he was transfering the money into our account and printed out our balance. Whoopee! We can buy the house, now. And also we won't be thrown out into the street. Incidentally, as the papers were signed, initialled and stamped, several sets were tucked under his lunch bag on a corner of the desk. Now I think this points up the general impression I got: that they are very conscious of protocol and very needful of paperwork, but very lax on actually filing the paperwork in any kind of organized manner. I frankly can't imagine how anything gets done- but it does.

Monday is our appointment for the temporary cedula (residency paper) and if all goes well, we may be granted a temporary cedula in a couple of weeks and we will almost be official residents. Till Monday....

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Couple of Quiet Days

I've been a little under the weather. My back decided it didn't like laying up in bed watching TV, so I've been giving it a rest. Actually, after the big Friday activity- nothing is on the horizon before next Monday, when we go to Maldonado for our official application for residency. Then there will also be the effort to free our money and be able to use it.

As I sit here this morning- thinking about the rapid steps we've made and seemingly rash moves- I'm satisfied. Denise and I have always been quick to make decisions. We are both thrilled with the choices we have made. Our friends, Syd and Gundy tried to pound some sense into our heads. They were no doubt substituting for my father and sister who would have given us the same advice. They told us we should delay signing the boleta (sales contract) until after we had looked at more houses. They were certain we could have found a better place for better money. They were probably right. There is always something better. Nobody has bought the only and best deal in town. However, when you find the place that you want to buy- it is best to stop looking. So, we have put our real estate listings aside and are focusing on the steps we need to take to make this house comfortable, year around.

We anticipate being new homeowners, possibly in this month. Until then stayed tuned for upcoming adventures- but not today.