Sunday, 31 January 2010

Memories of the past, dreams for the future. Part 10 - and last of series!

The “Chicas”

Picture from Google - wish I had taken it though.
 My favourite mental image of Buenos Aires:
in the spring, with the jacarandas in bloom

The following afternoon found Michèle and me racing against the clock to get to an event I had been looking forward to for weeks – a good friend from schooldays had managed to get some of my former classmates together (the “chicas” or “girls”, whimsical term I only dare use with inverted commas…) for a tea party, and we charged through rush hour traffic in downtown Buenos Aires with Michèle at the wheel, as I gained new insights into her multi-tasking expertise (already described in Part 2, of 18th December, with pictures of her). 
Deprive her of any of the contents of her huge handbag if you must, but don’t touch her mascara!  Did she leave insufficient time for applying makeup before she left home? No problem, that’s what cars and their rear view mirrors are for.  So while I notified her of red lights, buses cutting across us,
pedestrians chancing their arm because they were unwilling to wait for their light to go green, and sundry motorcyclists heading towards us on the wrong side of the road, (the tyke on the left)

she steered with her left elbow while peering in the mirror and applying mascara with her right hand, alternating with phone calls to our friend on her mobile to ascertain the whereabouts of the tearooms we were heading for.  See?  I’ve got the grey hair to prove it.

The buses of my youth (colectivos), and right up until the nineties, were brilliantly coloured...
(Google image)

(Google image)

...frequent, so crowded at peak hours that people often travelled on the lower step of the door hanging on for dear life, and were typically driven by a man who remembered Fangio with affection and attempted to emulate his racing skills while chatting to his friend standing beside him in the well of the driver's door (there was always one there, don’t ask me why), dispensing tickets, change and choice epithets, advising new passengers - over the blaring sound of the tango or the football on the tinny radio - at which bus stop they should eventually descend, or arguing with the bolshie ones (who wanted to arrive in one piece and were finding it difficult to hold on while the vehicle was being flung from one side of the road to the other), and generally making sweeping statements at high decibel levels out of either door concerning the ancestry of every other driver on the road.  The modern colectivos however are large and sleek, and the bus driver has little contact with his passengers - in my opinion their charm and uniqueness has been lost.
This gorgeous (modern) red and green one is the 59, an earlier incarnation of which I took to go to school every day for many years in the seventies.  I usually arrived late despite the bus driver’s breakneck speeds, looking slightly dishevelled and with wet hair; I would slink into the back of the hall after assembly had already started, to the embarrassment and irritation of the headmistress, my mother, who didn’t miss much.
St Andrews Scots School, Buenos Aires.
Headmistress in the back row, right, keeping an eye on things…
(taken in 1973, after I had left)

The tea was a great success.  I hardly tried any of the dreamy cakes, and the lapband had nothing to do with it – I had barely any restriction anyway.  I just talked till I was hoarse.  The organiser had sprung a last minute surprise, bringing along the lady who had been my favourite teacher - Julia.

- here's a picture taken on my wedding day in October 1977; she's on the top row, next to me on my left: 
Julia taught us music appreciation and singing, and was very popular; she had continued to inspire affection and respect in subsequent generations of school children until very recently, when she had retired. 
I had not seen three of the chicas since the day we left school in November 1971, but such is the bond you form as a teenager when you spend every waking hour over 6 formative years with these human beings, that those 38 years just melted away.  These events are often the overweight person’s nightmare, and yes, one of my school friends walked right past me and we virtually had to be re-introduced. 
Julia, me, Janet    (Photo by Cecilia Forrester)

If you’ve followed any of the pictures from posts dated June/July/August 2009 in this blog (the "Chubby Chops" series), you’ll know how different I looked in those days, but this is another blessing bestowed by the lapband:  I’ve only lost about a third of the total weight I want to lose, but I’m confident that the rest will also go eventually, because the band is … well, there.  It’s secretly hidden away, like the genie with the lamp, waiting to be taken out and polished.  All I must do is calmly follow a few basic rules – and be patient.
Michèle, Cecilia, Claudia


Back Row:  Janet, Diana, Gisele, me, Claudia
Front Row:  Julia, Michèle, Cecilia, Vivi

The socialising was extended as Michèle drove four of them home in different parts of the city, still all trying to catch up with the 38 missing years.  My voice had been reduced to a whisper.

The final hours were a blur of packing, unpacking, re-distributing, re-packing – checking that my documents were somewhere accessible, and trying to push to the back of my mind the sadness I felt at the prospect of departure, as I checked and checked again that the alarm clock would work the following morning.  I’m a night-owl and absolutely hate, loathe and detest getting up early; planners of air schedules are a bunch of sadists who clearly don’t sleep much and are damned if anybody else will either.
Seven thousand miles (11,200 km) and 24 hours later with half an hour’s sleep and my head in a spin, I was home, and it all turned into a dream, like Alice in Wonderland – until I sat down and told you all about it in this blog. 

Thank you very much for reading this far.


Friday, 29 January 2010

Memories of the past, dreams for the future. Part 9

Back to Buenos Aires
As I waved goodbye from the bus terminal I wondered sadly how long it would be before I saw Patagonia and my friends again.  I felt overwhelmed by the vast distances I had travelled, it was so remote from my life in England, and yet even here in Río Negro it was still not as far as Tierra del Fuego, a further 2,200 km (1,400 miles) south, the land described by Lucas Bridges as the uttermost part of the earth - and I had yet to cross the Atlantic and change hemispheres before I got home.
A last look...
Colonia Juliá y Echarren, Río Negro

Late afternoon football

"Galleta":  crusty roll, hollow in the centre.
Soft and fragrant when fresh (about five minutes), subsequently only edible when thoroughly dunked (the next five minutes), and effective missiles thereafter.

Over the last few years I have read as many books about (Argentine) Patagonia as I could find, and it has always left me wanting to know more about the land and the people who lived there.  A never-ending procession of characters who were hard-working, brave and colourful, they were offtimes violent and on the run, while behind the scenes were those who pulled the strings – the national government and foreign interests.  The present-day Patagonian Argentine (and perhaps the Chilean too) is a descendant of one of these groups of people.

For those outside South America, Patagonia isn’t just a place, it’s a state of mind; it’s a kind of shorthand for far away and long ago, “down there” (with vague gesture of the hand).  Most are not even aware that nowadays it is a geographical region and not a politically defined territory, no more than “the mid-west” in the United States, or “the bush” in Australia.  The Chileans probably feel aggrieved that it is often assumed by Europeans to be part of Argentina only, as well they should, for this cone-shaped land covers a considerable portion of both countries, and is four times the size of the United Kingdom. 
Virtually empty until about 150 years ago except for the indigenous population...
Tehuelche (Google image)

Mapuche  (Google image) was gradually filled by European pioneers,

(Google image)

Estancia Maquinchao, originally owned by a British company.
...proselytising religious orders...
Salesianos (Google image)
and adventurers...
Robert Leroy Parker (aka Butch Cassidy, front right);
Harry Longabaugh (aka The Sundance Kid, left front)
with The Wild Bunch, 1901 (Google image)

A great number of the native population were ignominiously exterminated in the late 19th century on the orders of the government of the day, and survivors were marginalised, but they are recovering their voice today and reclaiming their lands. 
(Google image)
Back in Buenos Aires I had to forget the haunting music of the wind whistling through every nook and crevice, as the man-made cacophony of a capital city where 13 million inhabitants live together in occasional harmony forced itself upon my senses.  
My first job was to register my translation for copyright, and if this paperwork and my experiences at the airport were anything to go by, it was a pleasant surprise to learn that Argentine bureaucratic procedures are a bit easier than they used to be.  There were echoes of the old times though... apparently once the form had been completed (in triplicate), it had to be submitted in an envelope: manila just so, measuring just so...  and no, they didn’t supply it, but the stationery shop round the corner would help... so back out into the hot sunshine I went with a group of similar hopefuls; we rounded the corner and trooped into the shop to buy 1 (one) envelope just so... (and have I mentioned that the country is suffering from a chronic shortage of coins?  I’m sure the shop had an elaborate arrangement with the copyright office to ensure a regular stream of people with jingling pockets), then back double quick to the copyright office where I had of course lost my place in the queue and had to get another number and wait until it was my turn once again.  However it was a brief procedure once I got to the front, and shortly afterwards left feeling ridiculously proud that I had been allocated a special number:  I was now a (sort of) writer!

My loyal friend Michèle was there once again to help me fulfil one last engagement in the interests of my translation – we met up with a successful Argentine writer to whom I had been introduced by a mutual friend, and who coincidentally knew my sister.  The latter had carried out some research for her in London to provide background to a book this writer had published some years earlier.  The lady was charming and helpful, and seemed interested in what I had to say – I left a CD of my presentation with her, and she promised to intercede on my behalf with her publisher.  I learned subsequently that she had, and that they would be looking at the project at the end of the summer recess, in early March.  For now there’s nothing further I can do. 

I take nothing for granted; in fact I’m prepared for this to be a long and hard slog to get some publisher in the world to give Mollie Robertson’s book the treatment it deserves.  But for a short while at least I have felt that people were listening to what I had to say, and am grateful for it.
(This instalment will, I think, be too long if I include the final section, so I'll finish it in the next few days.)

Friday, 22 January 2010

Memories of the past, dreams for the future. Part 8

Río Colorado & La Adela

Before returning to Buenos Aires I spent a last week with friends in Río Colorado.

This town and village respectively sit either side of the Colorado, a wide and stately flowing river born in the Andes which runs 1000 km (620 miles) south east to the Atlantic. 

It marks the northern end of that southern cone known as Patagonia in both Chile and Argentina.  Separated only by a short bridge,

(Photo:  Leandro Palacios)

...they’re nevertheless very different, located as they are in different provinces.  La Adela is in the province of La Pampa, and has the dusty charm and slow pace of life which characterises villages with modest municipal funds – La Pampa is not a wealthy province.  Río Negro, its neighbour, on the other hand has rich soil and a good water supply in the east where fruit plantations flourish – plums, cherries and pears, and in the cooler west where the best apples in the country are grown. 

Viedma, the provincial capital, is near the Atlantic, where that stretch of coast has very attractive beaches, a rich cultural tradition teeming with literary and artistic clubs, educational buildings, theatres and many cultural events.  Sheep-farming is an important industry, and there is tourism nearer the Andes.   
The town of Río Colorado, situated about 50km from the eastern seaboard, benefits from this bounty, and is helped along by a progressive and energetic mayor – Juanchi Villalba -

who is trying to improve the look of his town.  It has an unsophisticated yet prosperous air about it.

Take its symbol for example:  the wild boar is not native to Argentina.  The smaller peccary was found in those latitudes, until the arrival of Pedro Luro,

a rich landowner of humble French/Spanish origin who had emigrated to Argentina in 1837 aged 17 and eventually came to own at least 6 estancias.  It was said of him that he used to light his cigars with one peso bills…  He decided on a trip to Europe to bring back with him a few wild boar specimens, with the intention of letting them loose on one of his estancias in Río Negro for hunting purposes.  The inevitable happened in due course – several escaped and thrived in the scrubland, displacing the peccary, which eventually died out. 

Aah.. well, his mother loves him…

They are bulky, aggressive creatures – as well they might be, for tournaments are held every year in Río Colorado to see who catches the largest...  I was told they make good eating, though the relish with which the hunting stories were recounted put me right off.  In a tournament the animals are hunted with dogs and despatched with knives, but there are many families whose men go out in a pickup truck with rifles. This picture is a fairly common sight:

There is frequently a distinctly unsentimental view of animals in Argentina, where they are judged solely in terms of their usefulness.  I never noticed this as I was growing up, and now that I live in England where animals are if not cherished then at least respected, I cannot reconcile the two. 

Perhaps inspired by the Osborne bull dominating the Spanish skyline, the local powers that be decided to adopt the wild boar as their regional symbol, and to make it as visible as possible:

I can't help but make the negative comment that in both cases, the symbol is not used to celebrate life, since Osborne's bull is I believe the type used for the bullring, where it is sacrificed in the name of sport.  But that's just my own opinion.

La Adela across the river has beautiful views, irresistibly combining woods and water.  It boasts two notable man-made features, both worth mentioning.  The first is the plaza, built according to the specific instructions of the mayor of the time, Leonardo Tomassone -

It has a fountain with a spotlit mermaid in the middle surround by swans,

a further fountain topped by Cupid,

and two structures built of brick simulating little caves (or ovens?).

(Translation of sign propped inside 'cave':
"The Municipality will not be held responsible for accidents")

It was never destined to achieve the childhood glory Tomassone had probably planned for it, as the fountain was never filled with water due to the potential danger of electrocution to minors who wanted to paddle within ('potential' because the power was never switched on), and together with the brick structures all were fenced off in case children should drown or otherwise hurt themselves on the sharp protuberances.  It would  be merely sad if they hadn’t slapped copious quantities of paint on the figures – the ‘armless mermaid in silver, the other fountain in sky blue, and the Cupid in gold – which lend it an unmistakeably comical air.  I have never seen any children play there.

The other structure is my particular favourite – a statue to General Don José de San Martín (1778-1850) who was instrumental in freeing Argentina, Chile and Peru from Spanish rule in the first quarter of the 19th century.  These days generals may have fallen into disrepute in Argentina – there are too many terrible stories to tell, and this isn’t the place for it – but in all the post-mortems by historians when former heroes prove to have been disappointingly human or had feet of clay, they have yet to find very much on San Martín that wasn’t altruistic, charismatic or scrupulously honest.  The fact that he led an army across the Andes on horseback also adds drama to his story.
Every village and town has statues to him, whether a bust, full size on foot,

 on horseback in normal position

 and with the horse rearing heroically on its hind legs,

and also in old age, now exiled in France, sitting with children clustered adoringly around him (far from the truth – he died virtually alone and in poverty).  There are villages, towns, suburbs, streets, avenues, plazas, buildings, stations and railways named after him everywhere, and though well deserved, it can get very confusing.

Plaza San Martín, Río Colorado (Photo by Leandro Palacios)

La Adela was not going to be left out.  They sent away to Buenos Aires for a bust of the great man (“El Gran Capitán de América”), and commissioned a local artist to design the plinth on which he would rest.  Both outcomes were unexpected.

The artist must have adored concrete as a means of expression, and was probably going through a triangular period.  Looking at the completed work with the inevitable fondness typical of the creator, he clearly didn’t spot what everybody else has ever since – or perhaps he didn’t stand well back before looking up... or (who knows)... his eyes were misted by self-congratulatory tears.  The fact is that this structure has been known since the beginning as the Monument to the Clothes Peg. (El Monumento al Broche)

But wait, I haven’t quite finished.  People were so busy laughing at the shape of the plinth, that it was some time before anyone looked closely at the bust.  Like the boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes, a lone voice announced in tones of shocked disbelief that it was not San Martín! 

The ‘monument supermarket’ in Buenos Aires had sent the wrong bust.    The military hero destined forever to share space with a giant concrete clothes peg is Carlos María de Alvear, (1789-1852), soldier and diplomat, Argentina’s first ambassador to the United States.  A brave and worthy man, but not San Martín.  (Rumours abound that they had commissioned a job lot on Alvear by mistake and needed to farm them out discreetly – but it’s never been proved).

San Martín had similar looks, I grant you...
    Carlos María de Alvear

José de San Martín

...but if you saw a bust that was sort-of-but-not-quite Winston Churchill, you would know, wouldn’t you?  I confess I’m puzzled that the situation was not straightened out, and suspect that money may have had something to do with it, but this is just a guess.
Still, it’s the most photographed monument in the area, if not the province – and you wouldn't hear Sr Alvear complaining, except that the brass plate is now of course also wrong...

(With thanks to Ramón Minieri, who told me these stories)

The next - last - instalment will be about a tea party in Buenos Aires with my schoolfriends of 35 years ago before I returned to England...


Saturday, 16 January 2010

Memories of the past, dreams for the future. Part 7

On laxatives and hairbrushes…
The following morning I was late down for breakfast, and my two companions had already finished theirs and were catching up with the papers over a final lukewarm cup of coffee.  I sat down amid the used crockery and noticed that there was one medialuna left on a plate – the daily ration was one of these delicious typical Argentine croissants, butter, jam and a cup of coffee, and clearly one of the men had passed on the pastry.  I picked at it idly as I waited for my breakfast to arrive, and presently in trotted the old crone with the coffee, which she slapped on the table with the remark “you’ve already got your medialuna”, disappearing before I could get my brain into gear and ask her as to the whereabouts of the collection box for needy hotel owners.
Before the presentation at the Centro Cultural in Jacobacci that evening I had a brief shopping list of items essential to my immediate wellbeing – a hairbrush and a bottle of shampoo to replace those I had unwittingly donated to the last hotel I had stayed at in Viedma, and a little something to help with the effects of too much succulent beef and not enough vegetables. 
The chemist quizzed me thoroughly on my symptoms while I tried to forget about the queue of curious people behind me, and first suggested some clear pills filled with cod-liver oil.  They were only slightly smaller than gobstoppers, and one glance told me they would not be band friendly.  This necessitated more explanations, and when I finally settled on a mild laxative in liquid form, there were nods of approval from the assembled customers.  As I left the shop, I was startled to hear the chemist call after me “Good luck with the presentation tonight!”  I don't think I'll mind returning to obscurity.

The assistant at the perfumería, the shop that sold the toiletries, was at a loss to explain why his generous array of shampoos in different shapes, sizes, coloured labels and assorted exotic flora contained within, didn’t include one for greasy hair. Ramón had remarked previously that this was also typical of most perfumerías where he lived on the eastern seaboard of Patagonia.  Was it possible that the wind whipping through Patagonian hair all day long deprived it of its natural oils, causing a biological reaction on a national scale?  I got a wonderful Gallic shrug by way of reply (why, may one ask, should an exaggerated shrug be the prerogative of the French, when it is an essential weapon in the emotive arsenal of any Latin?) 
I chose my hairbrush with care, and it was only back in my room much later that I realised what I had thought was rather eccentric packaging, was in fact a tough plastic security device such as used in Britain by certain clothes shops to discourage pilfering.  The assistant had either not recognised it as such or forgotten to remove it, and despite my subsequent strenuous efforts, I was forced to brush my hair with a spanking new hairbrush several times its normal weight, and using only the last quarter of its length, until my return to Bristol two weeks’ later, when a pair of pliers were put to good use.
The presentation was a moderate success, though the laptop screen suddenly went black while the projector behind me continued to work, and thereafter I had to take my cue from the slide’s faint reflection on the black screen.  However, I was confident with my script and by now it would have taken a lot more to put me off.  I was even able to dismiss mentally the television camera trained on me from the back of the room. 
There was one question afterwards – what was the attitude of the British owners of the sheep farm towards the native population back in the days of the book – the twenties?  I had to reply honestly that the attitudes of the time were typical of a colonial power – they treated their staff well but were no different to other Europeans towards their colonies scattered across the world at that time – they considered themselves superior and it showed.  If I had thought of it at the time I would have added that the Spaniards were much the same when they colonised and then conquered Latin America (don’t you always think of the good things to say when it’s too late?)

We were treated once again to a wonderful dinner and a photocall at the home of author Don Elías Chucair, Jacobacino born and bred, a spry octogenarian, prolific writer and raconteur of local lore, considered a ‘national treasure’ throughout the province, and as El Rey de Jacobacci at home.  This was the best photo, taken by Carlos Espinosa – it can be seen larger in my post of 24th November (or double click on it of course.)
In this part of the world you usually have to turn your hand to more than one activity to make a living, and Don Elías is also a very canny businessman.  He has owned and run many successful stores in his time and at the moment oversees his very popular home appliance store, which he proudly showed us round.  I couldn’t help but admire the versatility of a person his age who could move smoothly from poetry to washing machines and give superb value on both.  At evening events he could also outlast everyone present – while we were dropping on our feet at midnight, keen to return to the hotel, his face would droop with disappointment because he wanted to take us out for another nightcap. 
He drove a very old saloon car, and as a passenger on several occasions I was grateful that as he made his way around the town, pedestrians recognised him and scattered with a friendly wave.  Not that his speed was a problem, in fact our progress was stately, for he prudently kept to first gear for most of the time.
His warm personality, twinkling sense of humour, gentle friendliness and old world courtesy were out of the ordinary, and I can truly say that I have never met anyone quite like him – I was very sad indeed to have to say goodbye.

Don Elías Chucair
Tuesday 10th November dawned sunny, windy and freezing.  The smaller hills seemed hell-bent on shifting from one side of the highway to the other with drifts of dust sweeping across our path as we made our way back east.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...