Friday, 24 August 2012

Tales from Argentina - Of Mores and Manners

These anecdotes dating from over a hundred years ago highlight some of the differences that existed between European immigrants to Argentina and the local population, the latter usually being former immigrants too who had already settled generations before and become assimilated.  There was a certain amount of disdain on both sides and their attitudes could make you flinch, but there was common ground - they had all worked hard both to make a decent life for themselves and at the same time acquire a bit of status. 

Throughout the nineteenth century there was a steady stream of Europeans emigrating in search of better prospects to other parts of the world.  They were prepared to toil from sunup to sundown, whether it was as shopkeepers, doctors, schoolteachers or farmers.  My ancestors chose Argentina as their new green and pleasant land, and on my mother’s side it was this very element with which they strove to earn a living. 

When they could afford it, they purchased vast tracts of land and eventually set themselves up as landowners and local gentry.  Those that could not, either rented or managed it for absentee landlords who were living it up in Buenos Aires.  Failing that, they took employment as foremen on farms owned by others; but whether as owners or employees, tilling the soil and tending to cattle gave meaning to their lives.

My mother’s paternal grandfather Edward was German, and after a very strict upbringing and an unhappy childhood he got away as soon as he could and travelled the world.  It took him to interesting places such as Fiji and New Caledonia by way of Australia where he met British born Agnes, his wife to be.  They were living in New Caledonia ...

This was their house

...with several young children when he decided to buy land in Argentina and he migrated there with his young family towards the end of the nineteenth century.  A shrewd businessman, it wasn’t long before he owned farms in various locations at a time when the country was going through an economic boom prior to World War I.

The first years were tough but Edward ensured that his family were as comfortable as possible despite the enormous logistical problems of transporting items such as building materials and furniture to locations where there were few roads.  One great aunt describes in a letter the hazards of transporting a pianola through the prickly bush on the hillsides and across streams, with teams of sweating workmen taking it in turns to bring the instrument to its final resting place, fortunately the sitting room of the farm rather than the bottom of a muddy river.

The home farm – or estancia – eventually had a large and elegant house built in the rolling hills of the province of Córdoba 800 km (500 miles) north of Buenos Aires, with very pleasant vistas all around.  Here the growing family were raised until it was time to send them to boarding school in England, for Edward had become an Anglophile and his native language was never spoken.

My great grandmother Agnes seated second from the left,
my great uncles standing behind,
with my grandfather being the only clean-shaven one,
in the middle.

The only social life was to exchange visits with families from other estancias, and the conversation was mostly gossip and farm talk.  Later when foreign newspapers became available long after their dates, one could discuss the events going on in Europe.  Books were gold and circulated round the family so that everyone could read them.   Decorum was preserved at all times; it was unheard of not to dress up for dinner, and pregnancy was never mentioned in letters. 

Thus a new visitor not encountered before was the subject of much advance speculation, present scrutiny and later de-briefing, and perhaps subsequent gossip for many years afterwards.  The first two of the anecdotes survive from old letters written by one of the daughters in law to her parents in England, and the last purely from word of mouth, from generation to generation.

A letter from 1916 survives from one of my great aunts to her mother in England, in which she describes a visit by neighbours one summer.  My great aunt Winifred, her husband Bertie and several of her brothers and sisters-in-law were all staying at the big house.   The Montes family had written from their estancia several hills away to ask if they might visit a local beauty spot which was on Edward’s property.  My great grandfather replied immediately that they would be most welcome, and would they like to stay for lunch.  The Montes accepted the invitation but did not state how many of them were coming.  Just in case, Agnes had a lamb and some ducks slaughtered; there was much frantic preparation and cleaning carried out in advance and from dawn onwards on the big day. 

The Montes turned up late morning in not one but several carriages.  There were thirteen of them – the entire household and some friends plus children.  Edward and Agnes bustled about serving them their home-made ginger ale and the host family put their best foot forward and made polite conversation.  My grandfather and great uncles were serious farmers not given to very much small talk; they tried to adjust to the very noisy environment in which they had suddenly found themselves, as the Montes chatted and called each other over to view every novelty they saw around the house.  They had clearly never encountered ginger ale before, and it soon became apparent despite the exclamations as to its deliciousness and wonderfulness that they did not like it and would not be venturing past the second sip.  

René and Jermyn, sons of my great uncle Ted,
taken at about that time.

When lunch was announced the adults turned to their hosts in (probably mock) horror and exclaimed that they couldn’t possibly impose upon their hospitality in such a manner.  They had a picnic in one of the carriages, no, they wouldn’t hear of it.  With the possibility of Agnes’ organisation and work going to waste – not to mention the sacrifice of the lamb and birds – Edward stepped in, forced to argue strenuously with them in favour of staying to share their repast.  Some of them graciously gave in, and later stayed for a siesta, while the rest went on to visit the beauty spot and promised to be back for tea.  Fortunately Agnes had put by enough fresh bread and cake against such an eventuality, but she was by now beginning to flag, as she had had a very early start.

However there was no time for her siesta and once the guests woke up the high decibel incessant chatter started again, and this time her men had disappeared to “see to the horses/cattle/the hole in the roof of the barn” – whatever sounded most convincing – so it was up to the women to carry on with the hospitality. 

And it was all so jolly that nobody knew where the time had gone.  Twilight was upon them and the horses would have difficulty in picking their way back across the dark hills to the neighbours’ home.  Could they impose once more upon their hosts and stay the night?  Why of course, everybody responded politely.  But Agnes had had enough, and it had been a strain having to converse in Spanish all day.  Winifred says in her letter.  Pleading a headache, “...poor Mamita has gone to lie down quite exhausted with all the noise.”  History does not record what happened after that.

My great grandfather ("Taíta") and great grandmother ("Mamita")
in later life, taken in about 1925.
Two years passed.  Winifred and Bertie were now living on their own farm several hours away, with their four year old daughter Rachel, a sweet and articulate little girl.  Like most farmers, Bertie's day started before daybreak and apart for a short siesta after lunch he worked very long days; when he returned home he was usually too tired to do much more than have his supper and go to bed.  Winifred’s Spanish was fluent, but there was no one nearer than several hours’ ride away with whom she could converse about anything other than cooking and childrearing, and though she enjoyed reading and sewing and there was plenty of work to do around the house, sometimes she felt as though her brain had gone to sleep.

The farm belonging to Winifred, Bertie and Rachel
As was the case at her in-laws’ estancia, visitors provided a very welcome break, though here it was a mixed blessing.  The guests were generally members of the local farming community passing through, and the average length of their visits was approximately five hours, generally stretching through two meals.  It posed an extra burden for Bertie because he felt compelled to forego his siesta, and the men obviously preferred to talk to him about their farming problems.  Sometimes he was away at the village collecting groceries, and Winifred had to cope alone – on one nightmare occasion a taciturn man and his son stayed for two hours and she had run out of things to say after the first ten minutes.

Little Rachel and their house behind her.

An occasion young Rachel would never forget was when an old man came to tea.  After helping herself to some jam on her plate to have with her bread and butter she passed the pot to her visiting aunt, who in turn did the same and passed it to the older guest.  With enthusiasm he dipped the spoon in the jar and put the contents in his mouth.  As the others nibbled at their bread to conceal their shock and pretend it wasn’t happening, he repeated the action several times. 

Rachel didn’t know about these social niceties.  She stared at him with horror and burst out “But he’s eating all the jam, and he SUCKS the spoon!”  Winifred was glad the man did not understand English and she commented in a letter “... so that pot of jam had to go out to the kitchen and the rest of us did without.” 

Almost a century later I can see as if in a scene from a film the instinctive behaviour of the old man who may not have tasted jam before, and the horrified reaction of the others, all of which we might find comical today, but it’s Winifred's final comment that I find the most interesting.  Curiously, her response was completely instinctive too, since eating jam from the same jar would have done them no harm.

The final story took place around the same time as the others at the beginning of the last century, and was told to me by my mother on several occasions throughout my life; she had heard it from her father Manfred, who was my grandfather and another of Edward and Agnes’s sons.  He was staying with his parents at the big estancia house when they were told one morning that a local farmer would be joining them for lunch because he had business to discuss with Edward.   This meant they would all have to speak nothing but Spanish while he was in the house.

Agnes presided over the soup toureen as usual at the head of the table, and when the meat course arrived and the platter was offered to each person by a serving maid, the farmer ignored the beef which had been previously sliced for their convenience and tackled the main joint with the mighty facón which he drew from his belt behind him.

The "Facón" carried by gauchos, and its sheath.
This looks like an expensive version. 
(Google image)

How the facón is worn by the gaucho.
(Google image)
He sliced a large chunk from it and put it on his plate; proceeding to eat it in the way all gauchos still do today when there is no cutlery around.  Jabbing the whole piece with the tip of his facón he put it in his mouth, using his left hand to steady the meat and his right to hold the facón as he sliced it off very close to his mouth.  He must have noticed that the others were eating differently, but it appeared not to worry him, and when they had finished, he picked up the corner of the damask table cloth and wiped the long blade with it, before lifting the fabric and deftly slicing a splinter off the polished wood beneath of roughly the same shape as a toothpick.  He then picked his teeth with one hand while discreetly shielding his mouth with the other - standard practice in some sectors of polite society. 

The men had managed to carry on talking naturally, (although I'm sure there would have been the odd cough and splutter) but Agnes was transfixed by what she had seen, and had been speechless up to this point.  She had been brought up not to show her feelings, which was considered ill mannered; however this was more than she could bear.  Using the body language of British disapproval she gathered herself up, straightening her shoulders and forced her eyebrows down from their surprised arch into a straight line and narrowed her eyes.  She permitted herself one word.

“Heavens!” she expostulated.

I have no way of knowing how the farmer might have viewed the airs and graces of the family offering him lunch, but I can’t help wondering whether his actions were not in part deliberate, and that he too had a very good story to tell when he got home.


Photo Finish
from Lonicera's archive

The swans and ducks are local (digital), the rest are pictures
taken in Fuerteventura, Canary Islands (non-digital)



Sandy said...

I just loved this story. So great that you are documenting your history.

Carlos Espinosa said...

Caroline, hermoso relato, muy bien documentado... un abrazo a la distaaaaaaaaaancia!!!! Siempre te recordamos!!!

Carlos Espinosa said...

Caroline, hermoso relato, muy bien documentado... un abrazo a la distaaaaaaaaaancia!!!! Siempre te recordamos!!!

Lonicera said...

Thanks Sandy - I'm racking my brains (and my mother's memoirs) for a few more...

Lonicera said...

Carlos - gracias! Qué lindísima sorpresa. Ojalá tuviera más tiempo para traducir algunas de estas historias para mi blog Dulcinea, Un día lo haré. Pienso mucho en ustedes y leo La Prensa, La Nación, El Clarín y Rio Negro Online todos los días sin falta para mantenerme al día, así como tus blogs también. Abrazo para vos y tu hermosa familia. (Sigo en contacto con Luis Cayuqueo también, y le mando revistas inglesas para su clases de inglés!)

Joyful said...

Very interesting reading about the etiquette of the times in Argentina. I esp. enjoyed the story of the gaucho cutting off meat with his own flacon and wiping his face with the damask tablecloth. I share your views that it may have been done very deliberately and that he had quite a story to tell to his loved ones ;-)

Lonicera said...

Thanks Penny - you're right, it was a question of etiquette...

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