There has been a long interlude of silence here. I have found that blogging really does require a computer with a good keyboard. Every time I contemplated taking the time to write about my Argentine experience, my initiative was severely limited by my impressively sore fingertips resulting from diligently pecking out only the requisite emails. Alas, blogging didn’t make the cut into my Latin American adventure. Clearly, however, I still documented my food adventures. I was totally food tripping. That entry is soon to come. For now though:
Ponderings of Castellano and a culture of yerba mate
I think Argentina draws me back every time for one neon, fluorescent, and blinking reason above all others. My Spanish (Castellano, really) is best there. I understand the Argentine cadence and flow more clearly than in any other country or microcosm of Spanish speakers, and I gradually come to speak it while I am there with a level of confidence that I feel nowhere else in the world. Fully formed Spanish blither blabber gurgles out of my mouth like a miniature Iguazu.
Words that I didn’t even know that I knew miraculously insert themselves into my sentences as if they withdrew quite independently and entirely without my knowing from the dusty cerebral file cabinets of my brain.
Of course, it wasn’t all like that. And a glass or two of a certain magical elixir, Malbec, certainly didn’t tamper my flow. My Spanish was rusty, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It felt so good to use it again. My Spanish might be just as good speaking to a Mexican as a Peruvian as a Columbian…but I just feel most comfortable when I am in my element, in the country where I learned it all: Argentina. And I get this huge exhilarating rush when I hear it, understand it, speak it, eat live and breathe it. I only know one language besides my native English and it makes me sad to think that I could know more. I realize that I am only truly limited my own perceived ability to learn other languages, but truthfully, who has the time? If I am honest with myself, I know that it is not like I am going to sit down to Rosetta Stone for the next three years just because I have a whim to learn Cantonese (Thai, Italian, Swahili, Japanese…) So, for now, I will bask in my current contentment that I know Spanish. Por lo menos.
Argentine culture is amazing. Even though it varies dramatically from Buenos Aires Capital Federal to almost any other province (as any Argentine will tell you) there is a welcoming openness and friendly curiosity that I have found nearly everywhere. In the rural campo (like where I did my thesis in Santiago del Estero) the humble folk are quite clearly the most loving (amable) than anywhere else but even in Capital Federal I always found the people quite warm. Anyone I asked for directions was always willing to help. And because I was never brushed off of turned away, I never hesitated to ask. In the US, I am quite timid with these things, even though I know that the vast majority of the time I would easily receive the help that I need. But the difference is that in Argentina, I never felt like I was inconveniencing anyone by asking. They were never in a hurry. Quite the opposite, many seemed almost overly eager to help like they had just been waiting for me on the street corner where I happened to appear, feeling lost. I still vividly remember my first days of studying abroad in Buenos Aires (over 2 and a half years ago). The city felt enormous. We were given little slips of paper with an address on them and nothing else, and instructed to find our ways to these unnamed locations. Like a needle in the haystack. I took a deep breath and asked someone for help. Sadly, he couldn’t help me…he didn’t know the address. But he took me to a friend who owned a kiosco, informing me that he knew the city far better than he himself did. We walked a few blocks. The kiosco owner turned out to be slightly confused as well. Not to fear, now with two men, we walked over to a fruit stand and asked that owner whether he knew any better than the others. Within half an hour, I had located a bus that I needed to take, and reached the bus stop with the assistance of at least 5 different Argentines, all of whom seemed to feel personally responsible in getting me to my location safely, cheaply, although not necessarily as quickly as possible. (I was quite late in arriving to the restaurant, but that’s beside the point, Argentine style.) This experience has stayed with me because it is so typical of Argentina.
My favorite Argentine tradition is one that taught me about sharing–beyond what I learned while eating play dough in preschool–and about appreciating every moment. Yerba mate is customarily shared among friends. There are many customs and unspoken rules to drinking mate, although they vary slightly among different groups. The nuances of mate drinking still mystify me but the jist of it is simple. One person (usually the owner of the mate that is being shared) serves. He/she is called the “sebador” and directs the flow of mate drinking. This individual is in charge of preparing the mate, a fairly complex process, and then drinking the first cupful which is considered the most amargo y fuerte (strong and bitter) and therefore the least appetizing. Then he will pour more hot water into the mate and pass it to the first person. Once that recipient drinks the full mate, he/she passes it back to the sebador to be refilled and passed to the next person. This continues until all have participated, and then the circle begins anew. It continues until each person has consumed his/her fill of mate, at which point they will say “gracias,” thereby signaling that they will no longer drink more. I love watching Argentines serve and share mate. It is an honor and a sign of friendship to be offered to share mate. It is intimate and it seems to slow down time. In Argentina I drank mate alone while doing homework, with friends at bars, in many parks during the springtime, in the rural campo of Santiago del Estero, in the rain on a long bike ride to Tigre, in a cooperative market selling everything from sneakers to homegrown honey, and many other interesting locales. My memories of Argentina are speckled with yerba. As a consequence of slowing down to take the time to drink mate, I remember these moments better than many others. The details have more clarity, the colors are more vivid, the voices and words more distinghuishable. This is what I love about sharing mate. It is sharing so much more than a moment because it creates a setting in which time ceases to exist.
Time is an issue for me. I always seem to lack it. So I move fast. In Argentina, I was always made fun of for how fast I walked. Even in a big city like Buenos Aires, which is in many ways reminiscent of New York, the pace of life is ever-so-slightly different. Unless you yourself are native of the rat race that we come from here, you might be hard pressed to notice the difference between BA and NY. But for me it was like trying to drive a Nascar engine slowly among horse-drawn carriages (certainly a gross exaggeration, but makes a funny illustration). In Argentina, I knew that I wanted to be in one of those horse-drawn carriages but for the first few days I really couldn’t get my car to slow down so that I could jump out. I figured it out eventually, but even being home for a few short hours I can already hear the roaring engine of my race car coming to pick me up. I hope I can let is zoom past me until it is really time for me to pick up the speed again.