Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Memories of the past, dreams for the future. Part 4

The Patagonia you don’t see in postcards
(* indicates place named on map in Part 2)

After a late night asado with friends in Viedma* when the success of the evening and the presentations had been analysed from every angle, we had another early start to head west 600 km.  I was still running on adrenalin, and hardly noticed the burning behind my eyelids.  My two companions were always entertaining, alternating at being the straight guy and the funny one, and they made me laugh a lot.  I was fortunate that they too enjoyed photography, and whoever was driving willingly screeched to a halt if someone saw a good subject, though I think I tried their patience a little with my enthusiasm for dust pictures.  (I may try yours as well.) 

Valcheta Police Station – I was told that in out of the way places the police station was always built to look unusual and imposing, so as to inspire respect.

When we stopped for lunch in Valcheta, I had another first – I was recognised by the restaurant owner from the article in the paper and the brief item on the evening news the night before, and they made me feel like a minor film star (WHY hadn’t I put on make-up? Should I just smile?  Should I check there was nothing stuck in my teeth before smiling?  What intelligent remarks could I make?  How does one eat and look famous AND refined at the same time?) 

From here onwards was the area known as La Travesía, literally ‘the crossing’ the drought-ridden, windswept, unforgiving steppe which would lead us to the outer reaches of the foothills of the Andes. 

If you have an image in your mind of Patagonia, perhaps it’s the majesty of the snow-capped Andean chain, the surprise of a pale green lake and the torrential rivers in the midst of the purple haze and the blue ice of a glacier, the breathtaking danger of its precipices...?
That is certainly the postcard view of the Andes west of route 40, the north-south highway that roughly divides looking up from looking down:  you look up at this unattainable beauty, pay homage to it, climb it, photograph it to death, do jigsaw puzzles of it. 

As you travel east from this point, you find yourself admiring the gentler colours and shapes of the foothills by looking into the distance at shoulder level.  Still further east - the land we were traversing now - the unique and special raw beauty of Patagonia is appreciated by looking down at your feet, by keeping quiet, crouching down and listening to the life going on around you despite the wind.  Nature’s perfection is there:  you just have to slow down to see it. 

And at night you are dwarfed and awed by the Milky Way sweeping from one horizon to the other, uninterrupted by mountain or city light, the velvet background black as ink and the Southern Cross pointing the way…

During the afternoon we reached the main road opposite the entrance to Talcahuala*, the first farm where Mollie Robertson had lived between 1916 and 1918.

The next picture is a view of the old house where she lived, which I took 18 months ago.  Today we had a long road to travel, and didn’t stop for very long.

From here we gazed at the view at shoulder level –

("Simpsons" sky?)

…and came to a juddering halt when we caught sight of these horses and I fell instantly in love with the foal.  He was nervous yet curious as to what I was up to, and pranced hither and thither, wondering whether to stay or flee...

(At my camera club a new member once asked about a technical term he had heard us use - "High or Low R Factor" when describing animal and baby pictures, and what it meant.  We had to explain that it was "Aaaaaaaah!!" factor...  This foal's aah factor is stratospheric as far as I'm concerned...)

Shortly after that the paved road ended and we were enveloped in dust again.  (Try not to cough). 

When they're coming towards you, you roll up your window and pray the windscreen won't take flying stones...

But when you get behind one of these monsters and you’re travelling in a tiny Vauxhall Corsa, you wind up the windows, change down and charge….

Next time I'll tell you about the next presentation in the town of Ingeniero Jacobacci* and how I almost found myself cast as a scarlet woman...

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Memories of the past, dreams for the future. Part 3


Viedma (photo from Google Images)

Viedma is the provincial capital, an attractive city by the río Negro, with a thriving cultural life and a magnificent government building, the library of which provided the venue for our presentation on Mollie Robertson’s book.

I like its pretty riverbank houses, its shady streets and cafés, the combination of culture and quirkiness – such as this one.

This originally nude statue (a homage to the labourer) situated on the riverbank opposite the Centro Cultural, was considered too racy for some when it was made, and the male figure was subsequently given a modest pair of underpants/shorts to wear.  The temptation to ‘set him free’ by the use of paint proved too great to resist for some of the younger members of the community, and a tussle developed between them and the council workers, the latter who hurriedly removed their overnight daubs and the former who regularly painted over the top, as is evident from some close scrutiny.  (Notice also how he's holding his tummy in - ch!)

I was in Patagonia to give a series of talks about a book I’ve been translating over the past few years in my spare time, written by an Englishwoman in the 60’s about her memories of her childhood on British-owned sheep farms in Patagonia at the end of World War I.  Viedma was our largest audience, and I found myself thrust into my 15 minutes of fame.

 Carlos Espinosa
Carlos Espinosa, the journalist who organised my “appearances”  (hark at she, ‘oo does she think she is??) was a wonderful host, whisking us from hotel to radio station to newspaper offices by way of exhibitions and sightseeing tours, invitations to asados and back again. 

It was such a whirl that I hardly had time to feel nervous – though I must admit my heart was racing when I was asked to do a *live*, *telephone* interview with a radio station, from my hotel bedroom.  I was told the programme was from 4.30 to 5.00 p.m., and to be available, so from just after 4 p.m. onwards, and to the incessant rattle of the powerful wind against the ill-fitting windows, I was pacing up and down the tiny room, waving my arms about, declaiming (in Spanish) to the walls how Mollie was born in….she went to Patagonia and then… and I’m from Argentina but left in 1973 and….it’s a wonderful book because… it’s of interest to all people living in Patagonia who want to understand their heritage and…  and on and on till I was hoarse – because I wasn’t phoned until 3 minutes to 5, and apologetically told that they were running late and I would only have a minute to speak.  Great.  Just what a self-conscious gringa wants to hear. 

My way of coping with these interviews in the coming fortnight (10 on radio, 2 TV) was to speak slowly, and thankfully I only saw myself on one TV appearance, because it made me quite ill just watching myself – too serious, too deliberately slow, and I should have stood up straight.  Oh, and been a stick insect of course.  Sigh.  Should fame ever beckon again I’ll definitely be taking lessons in this area…

The flurry of interest was because not much is known about the social history of the area at the time Mollie Robertson lived there (1916-1921) particularly as it was seen through the eyes of a child, and the British companies who owned vast tracts of land and farmed in that part of Patagonia had a decisive influence on its development between the 1880’s and the 1950’s or so.

The radio broadcasts and the articles in local papers prompted several people to come forward and ask to speak to me, because they had once worked for the British, and had stories they wanted to tell.  Their memories were of being treated well, paid on time, and generally looked after.  In order to strike a balance however, it has to be said that the land was obtained in the late 1800’s by less than conventional means, to which the Argentine government conveniently turned a blind eye because there were international interests at stake.  The powerful shareholder businessmen in London wielded considerable power and knew how to use it to the advantage of the company’s interests.  When it eventually waned in the recent past and they sold their properties, the new buyers came up against the native populations who have since been claiming back the land they feel to be theirs originally, and with some success.

At local manager level the British seem to have been reasonably popular as employers, if patronising to the local population, as was common at that time.  They may have treated them well, but this didn’t stop them feeling superior to them, and letting it show.  While this is predictable behaviour by colonial powers generally and therefore should be seen in context, it can be difficult to explain when asked at a presentation by an audience.  No matter how I phrased the reply, my (modern) explanation seemed also to sound patronising.  The book was written in the 60’s but her memories are of empire and power, and there are therefore passages that I felt uncomfortable translating.  But I felt it was important as a social document and that she should be left to speak for herself.

This is a picture of Mollie when the book was published in 1964.

The most interesting thing that happened that evening was that a man in his 40’s approached me to tell me he was the grandson of the foreman of one of the farms where she had lived, a man for whom she and her parents clearly had a great deal of respect.  Any bit of proof which demonstrates that the story she tells is not just the work of an overactive imagination is very exciting, and there were several characters and incidents in the book which I was able to corroborate as I went along.

There were pictures of me in Viedma on the Legislature’s website, and I foolishly didn’t save them.  They clearly leave them on for a couple of weeks before removing.  All there is, is an audio of my TV interview, and that makes me cringe.  So apologies for fewer pics this post.  There’ll be more next time as Carlos, (the journalist) Ramón (the writer who co-presented) and myself travelled west the 600 km to Ingeniero Jacobacci, in the foothills of the Andes.

Bandwise, I think I was right to have an unfill of 1.5ml, because I always seemed to be eating ‘in public’, or being a guest at someone’s house where they were proud to remind me of the wonderful dishes I could no longer enjoy in Britain.  In fact, because the custom when serving you a classic asado or barbecue is to provide light salads as an accompaniment with no carbohydrate, and I feel that potato in some form is essential when eating meat, I actually didn’t over indulge, and was hardly aware of it.  It was delicious and tasty, but I was soon satisfied (except on one occasion when potato was provided…). 

However those kilos that got piled on weren’t thin air:  the ice-cream was the problem, and I’ve already enthused about that too much already in a previous post.  There was virtually no restriction, which was necessary at the time, but once home I was only too keen to have a fill and get down to business again.  This is too important to me, I can’t stop now.


Friday, 18 December 2009

Memories of the past, dreams for the future. Part 2

Under Way
Argentina:  places mentioned in these posts

On a fresh spring morning in early November, Michèle and I set forth in a westerly direction from Carlos Casares, the village 260 km south west of Buenos Aires where she lives, on a four hour drive to Santa Rosa, provincial capital of La Pampa, where a friend was to meet and drive me the remainder of the journey to Río Colorado – a further 280 km, or three hours.  The few days in Buenos Aires had been exciting and nostalgic, and I tried not to think about the unaccustomed quantities of food I had consumed. 

However, the distractions were powerful:  driving with Michèle at the wheel is a unique experience, replete with an excitement all its own.  She leads a very busy life as a farmer’s wife and devoted mother of five children aged between thirty and fourteen, and still manages to fit in garden design and run several households.  Her husband, two daughters and three sons keep in touch by texting or talking to her on her mobile several times a day, as do contractors, fitters, workmen and various members of staff.  There were 8 tolls along the way, and I saw the greatest example of multitasking I’m ever likely to come across. 
Michèle aged 13

She took calls and read texts, organised meals remotely, negotiated toll booths and supplied the right change, chatted animatedly to me as she puffed on a cigarette, balancing on the dashboard one of the medialunas we had bought at the last service station, deftly manoeuvring the steering wheel with an elbow when necessary, and taking sips from the cup of hot coffee in the cubbyhole by the handbrake.  Her capacious handbag was reluctantly relinquished by her to avoid being surgically removed from her lap by me, as I watched her, alternately laughing in disbelief and reflecting that though all of this was thoroughly illegal in England, we were now in the Wild West in road terms.

Aged 18

We have known each other since we were thirteen and at the same school, and we’ve always been buddies.  It was fun, albeit death-defying, to be part of her world for a while.

Aged 40

Friendship between women – what makes it so special?  History shared, mutual respect, a common approach to life, a special indefinable affinity?  Definitely, but male friendships have that too.  How about the reassurance of being yourself, even at your worst, and being able to share clinical issues without self-consciousness, not to mention the pure delight of shared weaknesses? … or just the ability to giggle like idiots and set each other off?  Perhaps a combination of all these things.  There are many bonds between us, not least that I’m privileged to be godmother to her older daughter.



Río Colorado is an attractive town by the slow, deep flowing river of the same name...

 ...with tree-lined streets and, typically for Argentina, the entire network of cables required for everyday life hovering overhead...

...as you can see from the picture below of the prolifically flowering ceibo (the cockspur coral tree, or Erythrina crysta-galli, national flower of Argentina and Uruguay).

The following morning was another early start, with a journey 300 km south east to Viedma, the provincial capital of Río Negro.   No matter where you are in Patagonia, whether city or steppe, you’re always aware of the wind, which tears fiendishly round corners trying to lift you off your feet.  The silence and solitude are for earlier in the year - in winter and spring you can still enjoy the solitude, but it’s nearly always noisy, the wind screaming across the vast open spaces and clattering relentlessly through the houses by day and night.  Photography is one of my passions, though I make no claims of artistry or expertise, and here I tried to capture… well, dust.

Hope you haven't drifted off...  Next time I'll write about Viedma.


Friday, 4 December 2009

Memories of the past, dreams for the future. Part 1

Forbidden City  
(or confessions of a Foodie)                                                     
(all pictures in this post are images from Google
except the one of my friend Michèle)

It was late October 2009, and wonderful to be back in Buenos Aires, my home town, to hear the familiar accent in the chatter around me, understand the slang – and for once not to mind the traffic chaos.  The red lights were there to be jumped; lane discipline was a 3D maze game, the horn a musical instrument, and the mood surprisingly good natured – not a hint of road rage despite the noise and the miraculous manoeuvres.

[At the suggestion of Patagonian journalist and writer Carlos Espinosa, I was in Argentina for 3 weeks to give a presentation to different audiences in Buenos Aires and Patagonia about my translation into Spanish of The Sand, the Wind and the Sierras – Days in Patagonia, by Mollie Robertson (Geoffrey Bles, 1964), in the hopes of finding out whether a publisher might be interested in taking it up.]

The three days there passed in a happy blur, thanks mainly to my hostess Michèle - buddy since early teenage years, now farmer’s wife and super-organised mum of 5. 

I gave my first presentation at a children’s library to very few people, which was an easy start – nice comments were made, nibbles appeared as if from nowhere, a delicious red wine was drunk… and it was a delight at last to meet Marcelo, my Buddhist pen friend and great supporter of the project since 2006, who had set it up with the owner of the library.

Before continuing with the story, I need a commercial break… sorry, it’s stronger than I am:
The food in Buenos Aires… conjuring it up now makes my tear-filled eyeballs roll.  I know this blog is bandit country, one doesn’t rhapsodise about food one shouldn’t be having – but please would you let me off the hook just this once?  I’d love to tell you about it.  These were the foods I grew up with, deprivation from which has always been the cause of great anxiety to me. 

Many months back in this blog I admitted to a dark night of the soul, when I sat on the edge of the bathtub in the wee hours grieving over the remembered comfort foods from childhood which I had just realised were not band friendly and would have to be resolutely put behind me.  Analysis of the whys and wherefores would yield enough material for a psychologists’ conference, but if you’ve been reading this blog and looking at the pictures of my other self from past posts, you know quite a lot of it.  Now here I was, with a loosened band, my temporary pass into the Forbidden City…

Breakfastfactura, café con leche

These pastries can be purchased from any of the multitude of bakeries around the city; you never need to walk more than two or three blocks.  They’re usually freshly made on the premises, and a couple of dozen choices.

My favourites are the medialunas, or croissants, above, which differ from the British and French versions, being a little heavier and more yeasty, and glazed with sugar. 

Sometimes you can get the variety made with lard, which gives a crunchy finish.  Vigilantes – butter or lard versions in long shapes, and others decorated or filled with jam, and (sigh) dulce de leche – caramel.  All liberally dusted with sugar and lightly seared. 

A rich milky coffee or foaming café con leche combines calorifically and perfectly.

Lunchmilanesa con puré; ensalada

Milanesas are known in other parts of the world as schnitzels – thin slices of beef beaten till tender, coated in egg, dusted in (garlicky) breadcrumbs and fried in hot oil till crisp, then served with a squeeze of lemon and mashed potato. 

A child’s routine lunch in a land where beef is relatively cheap, so it becomes a comfort food by default.  My love of tossed salad comes from there having been a bowl of it available at most meals, with the oil/vinegar/lemon/condiment cruet as standard always on the table.  You just picked at it if you wanted.

Dinnerempanadas; asado y bife de chorizo con papas fritas

Empanadas are savoury pasties served as a starter, which come in a variety of fillings – the traditional and my favourite being a spicy minced beef mixture condimented with cumin and garlic, also containing green pitted olives and some sultanas to give it the hint of sweetness here and there. 

People will virtuously tell you that they prefer them baked in the oven, but there’s nothing quite like the crispy, deep fried one. 

The asado or classic beef barbecue is the Argentine dish par excellence, and I enjoy picking at the various constituent parts, as long as there’s plenty of chips/french fries to go with them. 

The bife de chorizo is a cut of steak which I have yet to find in Britain, and is unsurpassed in delicacy of flavour.  It has the merest hint of smokiness and pepper, and the way they cook it means that the seared top is very dark while the centre remains pink and juicy.  (Excuse me while I sit down.)

Aftershelado de chocolate y dulce de leche

OK – close the shutters and the doors, gather round and listen up, because I’m going to tell you this bit in a whisper.  Bandits should not be hearing it you see, because it’s about ice cream.

Ice creams in Argentina compete only with Italy, where they learned it from. In every village of Argentina, however small, there will be at least two ice-cream parlours, often run by the proprietors, who make it and whip it in large churns on the premises. They will have a board listing the flavours which runs the length of the long counter, with little plastic spoons taped over the flavours which are temporarily out of stock.

At any one time there will be 30 odd to choose from.  The classic best-sellers, ditto with nuts, ditto with liqueur, ditto with chunks of all sorts of things in them.  You want chocolate?  Would that be finely granulated with solid chocolate, Bariloche chocolate, white chocolate, Swiss chocolate, chocolate with whisky, with peppermint?  Strawberry you say?  You mean sorbet, or creamy, or with added fruit, with liqueur, extra creamy, or low cal, non-dairy?  It’s all so exhausting. 

And – er – what size cup?  Well, the elegant cornet looks lovely but it drips out the bottom, and let’s face it, you can’t get as much in.  Go for the quarter kilo polystyrene, environmentally unfriendly but into which they really pack it in.  It leaves your gums numb, your teeth chattering and your stomach feeling like it’s suddenly been dropped in the Antarctic, but who cares.  My favourite is dulce de leche – caramel – made quite dark and very rich and sweet.  (Somebody mop my brow).  Terrible for diabetics – I was using insulin as if it was heroin.

Dulce de Leche, nectar of the gods,
in all its basic beauty!

Got to go and lie down - will carry on with the next adventure in another post...


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