Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Cost of living in Montevideo

Is it really economical for a retired expat to live in Montevideo?  I have discovered a fascinating website that makes it easy to compare basic costs of everyday living in a number of places around the globe. It's called Expatistan and once you've tried it you'll be hooked on international comparative studies.

I learned the following facts in one afternoon of research.

The cost of living in Oslo is 113% higher than in Montevideo.
 London is 82% higher than Montevideo.
Singapore is 77% higher than Montevideo.
Paris is 65% higher than Montevideo.
Amsterdam is 62% higher than Montevideo.
Hong Kong is 49% higher than Montevideo.
 Rome is 37% higher than Montevideo.

The cost of living in Toronto is 49% higher than in Montevideo.
Vancouver is 41% higher than Montevideo.
Halifax is 34% higher than Montevideo.
Edmonton is 30% higher than Montevideo.
Saskatoon is 20% higher than Montevideo.
Montreal is 19% higher than Montevideo.

The cost of living in Charlotte, N.C. and Johannesburg, South Africa are about the same as the cost of living in Montevideo.

The cost of living in St. Petersburg, Russia is 6% less than in Montevideo.
Prague is 10% less than Montevideo.
Budapest is 13% less than Montevideo.
Warsaw is 22% less than Montevideo.
Mendoza is 26% less than Montevideo.
Buenos Aire is 27% less than Montevideo.
Lima is 29% less than Montevideo.
Mexico City is 30% less than Montevideo.
Quito is 44% less than Montevideo.

 The website compares average prices for food, housing, clothes, transportation, personal care, and entertainment.  Visitors to Expatistan can participate and improve the accuracy of statistics by entering current local prices for items such as a tube of toothpaste, a Big Mac, 2 lbs.of potatoes, a litre of gas, movie tickets, a public transit pass, a pair of dress shoes, or four rolls of toilet paper.

From my own experience, I would say that living in Montevideo has become more costly for expats in the past year due to the decline in the value of the U.S. dollar coupled with high inflation (8.5%).  When we do our regular grocery shopping at Disco supermarket, we note that prices are sneaking upward from week to week on basic items such as coffee, jam, cereal, rice, bread and butter.  Our life in Uruguay is definitely simpler and more spartan than in North America - we do not own a car, a dishwasher, a television, a washer or dryer. Our house does not have the luxury of central heating, which makes the winter months uncomfortable.  Utilities are expensive in Montevideo, so I avoid using the electric oven.  Baking and roasting  have become vague memories from my Canadian culinary past, as it is much less costly to buy pastries from the panaderia and a ready-to-serve slice of beef from the deli counter. Slow food is out of the question.

On the positive side, public transit in Montevideo is reliable and inexpensive. Tickets to concerts, ballet, opera and theatre are affordable and offer a full range of world-class performers.   This city may not be a cheap place to live, but it is never boring.

When former left-wing militant Jose (Pepe) Mujica was elected President in 2009, his acceptance speech included the following passage.

"There is no fixed list of things that make us happy.  Some think the ideal world is full of shopping centres.  I've nothing against that vision, but I simply say that it isn't the only one.  I say we can imagine a country where people repair things instead of throwing them away, where they choose a small car instead of a large one, where they put on a sweater instead of turning up the heat."

Clearly, we are living in Mujica's imagined republic.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Made by Marita

My favourite Uruguayan sweater is a loose-fitting raspberry coloured cardigan with raglan sleeves, a shawl collar and two lines of cable stitching down the front.   It is made from 100% wool, hand-spun and kettle-dyed, a natural fibre that is lustrous, soft, lightweight and warm.  When it's cold and damp in Montevideo, this garment is the ultimate comforter.

What makes this piece of clothing particularly special is not the styling or the drape of the wool, but the fact that I know who made it.  Her name is Marita and she lives in a village northeast of Montevideo called Totoral.  She's part of a rural co-op associated with "Manos del Uruguay," a progressive homegrown venture that helps skilled artisans to develop and market their creations.  Each knitter is a part owner of the co-operative and directly benefits from the profit generated.  

Each "Manos del Uruguay" label names the maker
The organization began with five women in 1968, and has grown to include 350 artisans working in 17 co-ops.  "Manos del Uruguay" was a pioneer in introducing health insurance, retirement pensions, paid vacations and maternity leave for its members.  They also established the first preschool and kindergarten facilities in Uruguay for members' children.  In 2009, "Manos del Uruguay" was admitted as a full member of the World Fair Trade Organization which promotes sustainable economic development.  

The high quality wool used for knitting their ready-to-wear collection is distributed and sold throughout the world, with each skein personally signed by the dyer.  There's an American website Fairmount Fibers a Canadian one Manos Canada and a British site Artesano Yarns.    A colour lab in Montevideo is directed by Santiago Vera Puglia, a master dyer who maintains quality control for the entire "Manos del Uruguay" operation.  The "stria" or shading of the wool from dark to light tones is a distinctive characteristic of his specialized dyeing techniques.  He is responsible for developing over 1000 colours and for keeping those colours consistent as large batches of wool are hand-processed and hung out to dry.  

"Manos del Uruguay" operates four retail stores in Montevideo and also sells products at the Carrasco Airport duty-free shop.  

"Manos del Uruguay" store at Punta Carretas Shopping

I want to send a big "Gracias" to the woman named Marita.  The work of your hands has kept me warm and comfortable all winter.  It's more than just a piece of clothing  -  I like to think that stitch-by-stitch you've created a poem.  

Friday, August 5, 2011

La Rambla, then and now

Strolling along the rambla, 1930s
The rambla of Montevideo functions as an emblem for the city, a place to congregate, an extended promenade, a sports track, and a connector for diverse neighbourhoods. For the visitor arriving from the airport, the winding route along the rambla offers a scenic, impressive entrance to the city.   The 22 kilometre stretch of coastal avenue extending from the port in Ciudad Vieja to the suburb of Carrasco is the subject of an exhibition of archival photos presented at El Centro Municipal de Fotografia, Sala CMDF.

Installation of photos at CMDF

The construction of the rambla was initiated by the municipal government of Montevideo in 1922 and took over eight years to complete.  The economic boom of that time period made the visionary project feasible, while the steady stream of working-class immigrants arriving at the port provided a ready and willing labour force.  Montevideo was promoted as the "Switzerland of South America" and "Athens of the River Plate", and politicians wanted to take advantage of the natural attributes of the waterfront and make the coastline accessible for recreation and transportation.

Land was appropriated to provide space for the public project.  The red-light district "El Bajo" was completely eliminated in the process, a social consequence undoubtedly foreseen and approved by city council.   By displacing bordellos, dance halls and cafes from prime land, the seedier elements of Montevideo were forced to move to less-visible areas of the city.  Creating the rambla meant radical surgery; a big facelift for a rundown riverfront.

Construction of the rambla, c. 1925

Lots of manual labour was required

The finished plaza in  front of the Parque Hotel c.1935
Some urban spaces are just awkward, unfavourable places in spite of  fancy design features and updated architectural elements.   Those unsuccessful city squares and walkways - though well-intended - end up being perpetually vacant, or serving as a magnet for undesirable activity. The rambla, in contrast, maintains its reputation as a vibrant, safe, well-used part of Montevideo, embraced and enjoyed by all sectors of society.  It is a public treasure that has become an integral part of the collective experience.

The wide sidewalk allows for multi-purpose use

Beach volleyball courts at Playa Ramirez, set against the city skyline
The plaza is now used as a skateboard area

A place to be active,  or sit and watch the parade.  The Parque Hotel from 1910 is in the background.

An unobstructed view of the water is essential to the concept of the promenade

A contemplative place

The rambla is a popular spot for fishing

Sunday morning pastime

The rambla allows access to the beach for joggers

Enjoying yerba mate with friends



Night, with fireworks

"Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance — not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any once place is always replete with new improvisations." 
           — Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities)

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

La Casa de los Gatos

La Casa de los Gatos, Boulevard Espana and Juan Paullier
I have mentioned this house in two previous blog posts, but I vow that this will definitely be the last time.  The house no longer exists.   Once the home of Geronimo Ithurralde, a prominent Montevideo merchant, the mansion located at 2232 Bulevar Espana was demolished earlier this week.  In the early 1900s, Ithurralde designed his grand residence incorporating elements from a favourite castle in Segovia, Spain.   He lived here with his wife, seven sons and one daughter.   In her old age daughter Thula,  the last surviving family member, remained in the house and sheltered more than 20 stray cats.  The reclusive woman kept to herself, looked after her feline companions and died alone - Thula's decomposed body was discovered by police in an upstairs bedroom.   Legend has it that her ghost frequented the watchtower at night.

Demolition begins at the top, with the cupola

Oak staircase is removed

Urns at the entrance

Fine ironwork
Salvaging bits and pieces

Fig leaf decoration
Layers of history

Tile detail

Reduced to rubble

The cat lady's watchtower disappears
Sledgehammer assault

Bulldozer removes the remains

A hole in the streetscape, soon to be filled with an apartment tower
Here is a video of the demolition in progress, the only press coverage that I could find.

On the street

Postscript 5/8/2011:  Today's edition of " El Pais" section B has an article about the house in which architect Mariano Arana mourns the loss of the building, and describes the demolition as "incomprehensible."   Too little, too late, I'm afraid! 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Art Underground

There is no subway system in Montevideo, but in the center of the city, hidden below Plaza Fabini, there's an underground art gallery. Salon Municipal de Exposiciones known as SUBTE is a public venue with three exhibition spaces labelled according to size - XL, M and SX.  This place is one of the cultural hot spots in Montevideo, with an ongoing program of free art exhibitions, musical concerts,  lectures, drama and experimental performances.

 Descending the stairs that lead from the busy, sunlit plaza to a subterranean, cavernous space is like entering Alice in Wonderland's rabbit hole, a transition from reality to fantasy that's heightened by the make-believe world presented by artist Claudio Roncoli  in the exhibition "Black Life."  

Roncoli uses digital images printed on blackout fabric as the foundation for his works.  The photos are appropriated from corporate and institutional documents, advertising and vintage magazine covers.   The artist paints over the enlarged black and white photos, dripping vertical lines of bright colour which alter and screen the original.  Roncoli's intent is akin to a graffiti artist's; by applying a layer of paint he can disrupt an established order, while poking fun at it.  It's a naughty and daring approach.  See how a red dot turns a sensible schoolgirl into a silly clown? Look at the kid with the goofy crocodile mask!  Roncoli clearly enjoys mark-making as much as a youth with a spray can aimed at a blank wall.

"Sistemas" 2011, digital print, acrylic on blackout fabric, 200 x 400 cm

Detail, "Sistemas"

"No somos todos iguales", 2010, digital print, acrylic on blackout fabric, 200 x 300 cm

Detail, "No somos todos iguales"

"Algo Todo Nada" 2011, digital print, acrylic on blackout fabric, 200 x 300 cm

Detail "Algo Todo Nada"

Installation view at SUBTE

Education, consumerism, corporations, government and the media - all are subject to Roncoli's scrutiny and his wry, cutting sense of humour.  There are visual puns in the paintings that hint at an underlying clever irony: a pie in the face, (pie graphs replace portraits in "No somos todos iguales") eating your words (text fills the refrigerator in "Algo, Todo, Nada") seeing double (mirror images in "Sistemas".)

The fact that Claudio Roncoli grew up in a toy store seems perfectly fitting once you've become familiar with his aesthetic sensibility.  His parents owned a shop in Buenos Aires and took to the road with their children in a converted school bus to sell party souvenirs.  Play is an activity that the adult Roncoli hasn't outgrown, but that doesn't mean that his work is not taken seriously.    He is represented in Buenos Aires by Galeria Praxis , in San Francisco by Gallery 415 , in Miami by Zadok Gallery, and so on, around the globe. You can read more about the artist and his work here.

We leave SUBTE in a buoyant mood, join the crowd on Avenida 18 de Julio and walk down to Teatro Solis.  The Allegro Cafe is full of young children, parents and grandparents who have just emerged from a special winter holiday performance of the Comedie Nacional.  When our espresso and carrot cake arrive at the table, we are treated to some impromptu live entertainment.

Our conversation goes like this:
Clown 1: "You speak English!  Where are you from?"
Me: "I'm from Canada."
Clown 1: "We learned English at school."
Clown 2:  "The pencil is red."
Clown 1:  "The weather is cold."
Clown 2  "I like hamburgers!"
Me: "You'll do just fine when you visit my country.  That's all you need to know."

Sometimes art imitates life, sometimes life imitates art.  It's amazing when both combinations happen in the same day.

"Black Life" by Claudio Roncoli continues at SUBTE until the end of July.