The Expat: Malene Ginete

Malene  11-06-2013 foto mariano fuchilaName: Malene Ginete
Born: Stuttgart, Germany, but from the US, with Filipino-Chinese-Spanish parents
Age: 31 last Wednesday
Profession: I work for the US Embassy
Education: Business and German degree, University of Florida, Masters in International Enterprise Management at the University of Maryland
Just read: Lucky Girl by Mei-Ling Hopgood
Just seen: Iron Man 3

What brought you to Argentina?
I was posted to the US embassy in Baghdad and we used to have a link assignment, where if you went to a hardship post, you could then line up the next one. I was fortunate enough that when I bid on Baghdad, I got Buenos Aires at almost the same time. It doesn’t happen any more so I’m really glad I got it.

Did you visit Argentina before your posting?
I’d been posted in Bolivia on my first tour, and I came here for a three-day vacation. It was all about meat, empanadas, football and all the touristy things. We stayed at the Marriott, and I loved it — walking around the city. It was such a change from Bolivia. Buenos Aires was so beautiful, the food was delicious, we did wine tastings, went to a tango show…

Did you see any differences on moving here?
It was a lot cheaper the first time! I had got a taste of it in three days, and over this two-year tour (which concludes at the end of June) it’s been like eating a whole meal. I’m leaving Buenos Aires knowing I’ve done as much as I can in this country and I don’t regret anything.

Tell me about being in Baghdad.
It is a hardship post but we do a lot of positive things there. I had the opportunity to teach a cooking class in the Red Zone, for example. I will say this: the blue skies of Baghdad are only rivalled by the blue skies of Buenos Aires!

What’s it like going into a job you’ll move on from in two years?
I’m a born and raised military brat. I can pack up my happiness and keep it moving, and growing up that way has helped me in my career as an adult. I can see the good in a new place and start off, appreciating a place for what it was, then my life again in another place. That’s not to say I’ll ever feel comfortable with saying goodbye to a lot of people — I always cry like a baby.
But it’s difficult every time. Every two years, I go through an amnesia about how horrible it was to pack up all my crap and say goodbye — but I do it. I love it. I wouldn’t change it — I left the private sector for this and I want to retire doing this.
It’s good to go into a tour knowing when your last date is because you can brace yourself. “I have to visit all these places, I have a bucket-list for these places because I’m leaving on X date.” I don’t want to leave Buenos Aires, just as I didn’t want to leave Baghdad.
But this is the post that someone will have to push me onto a plane when it ends. I’ve made too many friends here, not only official connections with colleagues but on a personal level, I figured out a lot about myself. I changed careers within the foreign service so I will always look back at Buenos Aires as a pivotal point.

Food is important to you, for many reasons.
It is. I grew up in Germany, so I have that European influence of meat and potatoes; I have a Chinese/Filipina mother so we make a lot of those dishes and I personally have taken an interest! I love it — it keeps me sane. It’s like a coping skill. Moving around, being the new girl every two years — cooking is my constant; it’s like a crutch. I always go back to it and it’s also how I make friends in a new place.

How do you kick off in a new post?
You already have a little group of colleagues, and usually the embassy has a sponsor to help you find the stores, take you to the first restaurant, practise ordering — someone holds your hand. I volunteer to be a sponsor the whole time because I know how important it is.
I use cooking as a way to reach out. I know I have some skills so I use those to learn a new cuisine. And obnoxious as it is, I meet the chefs and go right into their kitchens! Luckily, in Buenos Aires, stomping into kitchens has led to me cooking with some of those chefs — when they’re not kicking me out…

What do you cook to conquer new friends?
Pork adobo makes friends. It has the power to heal the nation! It’s my basic, it’s my mom, it’s the first recipe I ever learned and can do blindfolded and it lets people know a little about me. It says it all — that I’m inviting you into my home and my childhood. It’s also a Filipino dish most people have never tried.

Tell me about cooking with chefs.
It started externally, by being a patron and loving closed-door restaurants. Take Mun (Kim, of Casa Mun). His story, of giving up the corporate life, well, I wish had the same balls as him! It’s the total dream and I wanted to share that with other people, by getting all my friends together at one of these restaurants and showcasing these chefs. And it worked out.
It was an accident how I ended up cooking with Mun. He came to stay with me while he was doing a pop-up event, and he was looking for kitchen help. I knew my embassy restrictions (that I can’t do additional work for money) but said to him: “I’m pretty handy with a knife, and I’d love to help if you’ll have me.” He embraced it, and approached it as teaching. He let me work with him three nights in a row, chopping, dicing, washing salad for four hours…
Nothing compares to working in a professional kitchen. I cried after that as I was so proud to be part of his pop-up but so sad it was over. Crying over not washing lettuce any more! I had to put on my diplomatic panties and hold it together.

What do you do in your spare time?
I try to hit up four new restaurants each week. I go biking and I picked up a new hobby; I go rowing at the Puerto Madero yacht club — to burn off those four restaurants. I try to be as active as I can. You’ve got to balance out all that eating!

Who are your friends here?
I’ve tried to get the diplomatic corps together, as we go to a lot of receptions. It’s common ground. Also, a lot of people connected to the food world: bloggers, chefs, because I gravitate toward food. I respect people that eat bacon every day — I want to hang out with you! It’s also healthy to have friends outside of work. One of my good Argentine friends Sebastián lets me into the world of Argentine men, while María Ana tells me about Argentine women!

What’s your most Argentine characteristic?
I now slack on my German timing and arrive five or 10 minutes late for everything!

Do you drink Fernet?
The first time someone handed me a Fernet I felt as if they were punching me. I thought it was a joke! However, I have learned, diplomatically, to enjoy it… that’s food diplomacy!

Where have you visited in Argentina?
All over. Ushuaia, Calafate, Iguazú. I’ve been to Mendoza three times for the eating, drinking and beautiful vineyards. I’ve also been to La Cumbrecita in Córdoba. It was surreal to go to such a German place, but everyone speaks Spanish! It was like being at home, in a weird, Disneyland way.

What do you miss about Germany and the US?
Order. After working in so many countries where sometimes the systems just fail, you have an appreciation for countries that have organization down, that have good timing down. In the States, I miss the south and the hospitality. I grew up in Germany where people shake hands and it was very cold, versus Buenos Aires where people embrace you and kiss your cheek. The south is warm like that. And the food is all fried and delicious!

You’re very much a link, albeit unofficially, between the embassies here. Will diplomats’ social lives fall about their ears?
It’s a big question! Over this past month, people have been asking me who will take my place! I say that it’s a group effort, with a few people across various embassies, and they say “Thank goodness there are a few people because no one has your energy!” Actually, what it is, is that no one is as much of a food nerd as me!

What’s on your bucket list as your tour draws to a close?
I’ve put it into action and been to the Colón Theatre, a tango show, rowed a boat in Madero, been biking. I’ll also be participating in the BA Chili Cookoff tomorrow using the secret ingredients that go into my championship chili!
I’m holding a huge despedida to celebrate both my birthday and leaving, as a way of distracting myself. It’s not a pity party but a huge thank you to all my Argentine and expat friends who have made this tour so amazing. A tour is what you make of it. It’s the same in life.


Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on 15 June, 2013

Ph: Mariano Fuchila

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.