Sunday, 30 January 2011

Tales from Argentina – The Dressmaker (Part 2 of 5)

Link to The Dressmaker Part 1 of 5 - "Early Struggles":  Click HERE
Link to The Dressmaker Part 3 of 5 - "Doña Sol's Daughter":  Click HERE

Pastures New

Sol grew into a very attractive young woman with light eyes which sparkled when she laughed, and long brown hair which she wore in a bun at the nape of her neck.  She had many admirers, one of whom was a Spanish lad named José; her parents particularly favoured him, perhaps because of his nationality, although they knew he had a temper.  He was very much in love with her, but she didn’t return his affection in quite the same way.  She found his passionate and intense nature tiresome and his poor prospects disappointing, and while it pleased her to have a partner to take her to the cinema occasionally, she did her best to hold him at arms length.   

This state of affairs continued until her mid-twenties, when early one fresh spring morning when the jacarandas were in flower either side of the main avenues which led into the centre of the city, she made her way by tram to a haberdashery to purchase sewing materials for her employer. 
Contemporary Tram
Another customer was already there before her.  Prosperous and well-connected, Don Pedro Quintana was in his mid fifties, and as he purchased a bolt of cloth for his wife he noticed the young and shapely Soledad at the next counter. 
He admired her petite profile for a while, taking in her light brown hair and dazzling smile, and as she turned towards him to look at something on a shelf above his head he saw her fine cheekbones, hazel eyes and creamy skin.  From that moment onwards he was smitten, and hurriedly paid for his goods to wait for her outside.  As she emerged from the shop he approached her, politely doffing his hat with a smile, and engaged her in conversation.

What Soledad saw was a smartly dressed middle-aged gentleman inclined to corpulence who sported a silver cane and a smart fedora, wore a gold ring on one of his carefully manicured hands - and had good teeth.  Accustomed to sizing up people at a glance, what she saw was prosperity, good living and (probably) healthy habits – everything she yearned for.

For someone in her reduced circumstances, what came next was predictable and not unwelcome – it was clear he wanted her as his mistress, and the prospect of going from penury to some degree of security, even if not long term, was irresistible.  With charm and modesty she told him that he would have to talk to her elder brothers, and some days later a meeting took place.  Her brothers satisfied themselves that he could afford to keep her and that she would have her own home, before agreeing to his terms. 

A week later she had packed up her few belongings and said her goodbyes to her parents and her dismayed employer, setting off with her brothers to the apartment in the smart part of town where Don Pedro had rented a property in preparation for her arrival.  Well and truly in love, he was waiting for her in a sitting room full of red roses.

Her employer was not the only dismayed party – Don Pedro’s wife Victoria, a well-known society lady, had to endure the humiliation of being told by her husband that he was leaving her to go and live with someone half his age. 

He had assured her she would want for nothing (except his presence of course, and she had never had much of that in recent years) but the issue was really about going out and about in genteel Buenos Aires society with people whispering pityingly about her behind her back, not to mention her family who ‘had always known he was bad through and through’ and whose disapproval she had ignored when she married him.  They had four children – two daughters and two sons ranging in age from 33 to 21, and he may well have also been a grandfather by then.

Meanwhile, Sol’s Spanish suitor José was inconsolable and it was unfortunate that in the circles he moved, guns were the means of settling old scores.  He had no plans to harm the woman he loved however; instead he turned a gun on himself, putting a bullet through his temple.  He died instantly.  Sol was by then far removed from the barrio where they had lived, and she only heard second-hand from her youngest brother that his family held her responsible.

Don Pedro Quintana was a member of the Quintana de Aldama family, well-to-do members of Argentine society, some of whose ancestors during the 19th century had colonised the eastern section of the province of Córdoba, north of Buenos Aires; there is in fact a town named after them.  Thus by leaving his family and setting up home with a mistress he became the black sheep of the family, and henceforth anything he did – or didn’t - was merely living up to their low expectations. 

The regular income he received from his family ceased, and they ignored Sol’s very existence.  It was a brave move for a family man in his fifties, and only one close friend from his old life kept in touch with them, Coronel Jorge Espuela, a much respected military and political figure of the time after whom he had named one of his children.  None of his other friends and relations ever visited them at the apartment.

Downtown Buenos Aires in the 1920s

Sol never looked back.  She settled happily into the unaccustomed comfort of a spacious apartment with a live-in maid.  Don Pedro had never worked and they needed an income; idleness was not in her nature so before long she had started up her own dressmaking business at the flat.  He was a man-about-town with many contacts, and a word in the right ear got her plenty of commissions among the society ladies with whom he mingled.   At a time when Paris fashions were slavishly followed, the word soon spread that the modest little mouse living with him was a gifted seamstress, and while they may have been scathing about her social status behind her back, they recognised her unique abilities and were happy to offer her their patronage. 

(The names and some of the places have been changed.)

Part 3:  Doña Sol’s daughter

Photo Finish:
from Lonicera's non-digital archives

Fauna & Flora


Bluebells (Spanish variety)

Guanacos, Patagonia, Argentina

The only true British primrose

Back to the top:  Click HERE
Go to Part 3 of 5 "Doña Sol's Daughter":  Click HERE


Friday, 28 January 2011

Tales from Argentina – The Dressmaker (Part 1 of 5)

This is a true story told to me by a friend, which I am recounting in five parts.  It is not strictly speaking a biography, and I regret that I have no photos of the personalities involved so have used contemporary ones I found on the internet instead.

Early Struggles

Doña Sol Vázquez knew she had a magic touch with fabric.  One dispassionate glance at the wealthy client before her, holding a fashion magazine with the picture of the desired dress, and she could bring her back to reality at a stroke: the shade clashed with her client’s colouring; the glittering features of the material were far too young for her, and so on.  Above all she was a genius when it came to cutting cloth – the imperfections of the human form held no mysteries for her.   A lopsided shoulder?   An outsize bottom? A breast larger than its companion... or just the one plus a prosthesis?  Her scissors never faltered as they snipped their way along intricate patterns and through fabulously expensive georgettes, brocades and satins. 

Her clientele knew her and put up with her tut-tutting and ruthless appraisals – a garment made by Doña Sol would last for years and, provided she was given a free rein, would be of a classic style that would serve the wearer for a very long time and draw many admiring glances from other women, who were much tougher judges than the men.  She knew she was good and she was confident of her abilities – yet it was the only aspect of her life where she felt in control.  There would have been no point in giving her patterns, measurements or instructions – Doña Sol could neither read nor write.

She was born María de la Soledad Vázquez Montero in the city of Logroño, north-eastern Spain  in the year 1900, ...

Bridge into Logroño across the Ebro river

...and was also known as Sol.  As was customary, she used both her parents’ names, Vázquez being her father’s and Montero her mother’s. 

Logroño, early XX Century picture

Logroño, early XX Century picture

Logroño is now a city of some 150,000 inhabitants, equidistant with San Sebastián to the north and Pamplona to the east; it was once a part of the ancient kingdom of Castile and at the time of her birth boasted a population of 20,000.  It was an important crossing point of the river Ebro and one of the stages for those making the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in the north west of the country. 

Market in Logroño, early XX Century picture

The Vázquez’ were one of many Spanish families who emigrated to Latin America looking for better prospects, and Argentina was a popular destination.  In the 80-odd years between 1857 and 1935 Argentina took in 2.5 million Spanish immigrants, among whom were the Vázquez family in around 1907. Sol was the youngest child of seven siblings, with the eighth being born after their arrival in Buenos Aires and thereafter her favourite brother.  They settled in La Paternal, a very modest suburb of the city near a deep stream, the Maldonado. 
Arroyo Maldonado
The shops were on the other side of the river, and it was the little girl’s job to fetch their daily bread from the bakery, which meant wading across the waterway in both directions.  It was frequently in flood, and the precious bag of bread had to be held high over her head.  Times were hard and her parents could not afford for any of them to go to school.  Her brothers went out to work with their father, and she and her sister stayed at home to work with their mother.  There was no time for play, there were no dolls, but her one enjoyment was when she repaired her brothers’ torn clothes – her mother was proud of her youngest daughter’s neat stitching and invisible mending.   She therefore never had any formal schooling, and throughout her life was only ever able to scrawl “SV” as a form of signature.
Bridge over the Maldonado built long after the Vázquez family lived by its banks 

When she was a teenager she became very ill with lung disease as a result of the daily crossing of the Maldonado stream, and her carelessness about the subsequent drying out of her clothes – or perhaps she simply had no other garments to wear.  When she started to recover her father was forced to be ruthless:  if she could no longer run errands she would have to learn a trade.  He apprenticed her to a dressmaker, and here at last her luck changed for a time. 

She learned the rudiments of sewing and dressmaking, picking it up quickly and often experimenting by herself.  She showed great promise, and the dressmaker considered her to be her star pupil.  To encourage her she gave her increasingly difficult work to do, and there came a day when her employer knew she could trust her to finish off the dresses which the older woman made for her well-to-do clients.  The girl’s wages were very modest, but it was clear to her parents that this was where her abilities lay, so other than to ensure that she gave them all her earnings, returning a few pennies to her each month, they were content to leave her alone.

(The names have been changed.)

Part 2:  Sol leaves home

Photo Finish:
from Lonicera's non-digital archives

Flora & Fauna

Go to Part 2 of 5 - "On to Pastures New":  Click HERE
Back to the top:  Click HERE


Monday, 24 January 2011

Tales from Argentina - The River as Legend (Part 2 of 2)

Link to "The River" Part 1:  Click HERE

A strange bond formed between the female and the Spanish woman over the next few days.   The puma merely tolerated her at first, but as the woman never tried to get any closer, clearly found her presence comforting.  Game was plentiful in the area and it was too soon for the cubs to need this sort of sustenance, so the animal would allow La Maldonado to finish whatever meat she didn’t want. 

One day a small group of natives passed by the other side of the stream and were awed to see a white woman accompanied by a puma and two cubs across the stretch of water.  They were filled with respect for this woman who did not fear wild animals.

However she was not as lucky on the next occasion when a larger group of natives appeared and scared off the pumas, taking her captive. 

She was held prisoner at their camp for many months.  There are several documented stories of Europeans being held captive by native populations in that part of the country, and the life was brutal and harsh, with few opportunities to escape, particularly for women. 

This was the fate of La Maldonado, until one day when she was out collecting firewood and she came upon a troop of Spanish soldiers who were out foraging for food. 

She was taken back to the fort, but her relief at being back with her own people was short-lived.  She was put on trial for having gone beyond the boundaries of the fort months before, and worse, had gone to live with ‘savages’.  The punishment imposed upon her was terrible:  she was tied to a tree by the river and left for the pumas to devour her, or to die from hunger and thirst. 

The evening brought relief from the hot sun, but in a haze she saw that there were pumas approaching to drink from the river, and that they had spotted her.  One of them roared, and as she had done many times before, she prepared herself for the end; then as if in a dream she saw in the twilight the shadow of another one attacking it and scaring it off.  Three shadows approached her as she sagged half-fainting against her tethers – she saw the fiery eyes looking at her, she smelt their breath.  What she felt next was not their teeth and claws upon her body, but the sensation of a rough, warm tongue licking her feet. 
.Photo by Charles Blair
Three days later the Spanish soldiers returned to the river, and they found the woman barely alive still tied to the tree, and around her three pumas were lying quietly, one female and two younger animals. 

The older creature went for the soldiers as they approached, for they were clearly guarding the woman.  Shots fired into the air made them flee, and the men untied La Maldonado.  Sadly by this time she was so near death that she expired in the arms of one of the soldiers.  As they rode back to the fort with her body, in the distance they heard the lament of the pumas for their brave benefactress.

She was given a Christian burial and pardoned posthumously because it was judged that she had served her punishment by having tamed the wild animals around her, and it was decreed that henceforth the river would be named the Maldonado.

The river flowed on, and as the population increased so did the disasters when it habitually burst its banks.  It became a repository for rubbish and frequented by very large rats; during periods of heavy rainfall a large, dirty lake would form, making it unhealthy and dangerous, all of which seriously devalued the area. 

A local recalled that when the Maldonado flooded they would hear the sound of police- men’s whistles, and the fire brigade would arrive with boats.  People would have to climb on to the roofs of their homes because the water would rise by 2 metres – and this happened many times a year.  The renown Argentine writer and poet Jorge Luis Borges lived as a child in Palermo, a prosperous suburb near this river, and in his stories he mentions the undesirable characters that operated at the water’s edge and the brothels that proliferated there.  Its colour was described as grey.

The flooding problem was finally tackled by the government during the late 1920’s and by the mid 1930’s the stretch of river that flowed through the centre of the city had been enclosed in a culvert, and a road built over the top.  This did not solve the problem altogether however, and in the 1990’s its capacity was augmented by the construction of two supplementary tunnels on either side of the main riverbed and 15 metres beneath it, and this work is still unfinished.

Pumas no longer frequent these areas so close to population; these days they are normally to be found in Patagonia and other lonelier mountainous areas of the country.


Photo Finish
from Lonicera's non-digital archive

Flora & Fauna

Back to the top:  Click HERE

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Tales from Argentina – The River as Legend (Part 1 of 2)

When I was investigating another story I came across this legend, and wondered if you would find it as moving and interesting as I did.  The pictures I've used to illustrate the story are all taken in Argentina as far as I know, and are from Google.

Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires was founded in February 1536 by Spanish conquistador Don Pedro de Mendoza. 

It failed because he and the members of his expedition ill-treated the local native population, the Querandíes,

who, having initially been friendly and shared their meagre supplies of food, as a result of the mal- treatment by the Spaniards turned against them and attacked the fort over and over again until it had to be abandoned because the starving inhabitants could bear it no longer. 

Mendoza set sail for Spain the following year but died of syphilis en route.  Buenos Aires was not settled successfully for another 44 years.

But to go back to their first days, it is thought that when he set foot on the shores of the River Plate in late 1535

the view that confronted Don Pedro de Mendoza must have been a vast plain crossed by streams and small rivers, among which was the river subject of this story.  Some 24 km in length and flowing southeast into the River Plate basin and thereafter the Atlantic, its peculiar characteristic was that it would suddenly swell to many times its size after a heavy rainfall, and burst its banks turning the surrounding countryside into a floodplain.

Thus it was destined in the future to mark the northern boundary of the city of Buenos Aires for generations to come, and bullock carts forced to cross it would have to do so by travelling great distances to one of the few bridges, or by fording it at a reasonable location. 

The Maldonado got its name as the result of a sad and extraordinary alleged series of events which took place at its banks. La Maldonado was a Spanish woman who had travelled with the Mendoza expedition.  At first she lived in the fort erected by the Spaniards, around which a mud wall had been built to provide a measure of protection against native incursions. 

Its effectiveness was limited by the heavy rainfalls which partly melted the wall each time, but the authorities forbade the inhabitants to cross the boundary, meting out severe punishment to all those who infringed the rule. 

However, as the food stores eventually dwindled, La Maldonado and the other women were starving and in despair, for there was no prospect of the situation improving or being able to return home to Spain.  With her companions starting to die one by one, La Maldonado decided that she preferred to die fighting. 

She defied the order and at nightfall climbed over the wall and escaped onto the plain.  She walked for many hours until she came to a large stream, and after slaking her thirst noticed a cave nearby, where she sought refuge.  She crawled in, fainting with hunger and exhaustion, and fell into a deep sleep.

Two powerful factors made her wake suddenly in the night: the fierce roar of a puma and the smell of raw meat nearby.  She started up with fear and saw a female puma lying watching her from a corner of the cave,

and not far from where La Maldonado was lying, a piece of meat.  Hunger overcame every other instinct, and moving cautiously she took the meat and ate ravenously.  Exhaustion overcame her and she fell asleep once more.  Some time later she was awakened again by the roar of the puma, except that this time it was the sound of an animal in pain. The animal had left the cave and was lying outside, clearly in the midst of a difficult labour. 

La Maldonado had on many occasions assisted the women at the fort to give birth, and realising what the problem was, quietly approached the puma.  The female was too preoccupied to offer any resistance, and after a struggle with the woman’s help her two cubs were born and she placed them gently by their mother’s body where they could suckle.  The roars of pain had by this time given way to gentle mewing as she licked her new cubs, and keeping absolutely still the woman watched this moving scene.

In a few days I'll post Part 2, telling about the ordeals La Maldonado had yet to face.


Photo Finish:
from Lonicera's non-digital archives

Clevedon & Portishead, Somerset

Clevedon Pier

Link to The River, Part 2 of 2:  Click HERE
Link back to most current post:  Click HERE

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