19. 10. 2006
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Britské listy

ISSN 1213-1792


Jan Čulík


Karel Dolejší


Michal Panoch, Jan Panoch

Grafický návrh:

Štěpán Kotrba

ISSN 1213-1792
deník o všem, o čem se v České republice příliš nemluví
19. 10. 2006

A Letter from Argentina I.

A Rainy Window Curtain

I lean with my forehead pressed against the window. It feels nice and cold on my skin as I watch the big rain drops rolling down from it. The rain comes as a relief. It was hanging in the air the whole day, making the sky above Buenos Aires gray and heavy. The heat made all 30 students in class this morning restless and uncomfortable in their seats. I found it hard to keep hold of my pen and even noticed I left traces behind as my hand moved further down the paper. Now, leaning against the cold window I wonder if the rain also relieved the pressure of the heat. I can't tell, because in the car we have turned on the air conditioning.

(The first of a series of letters by a Dutch student of Hispanic Studies at Glasgow University, who has spent a year of study in Argentina.)

I sit in the back of the car and with me are Joao and his aunt. His aunt luckily had to go the same way as us, so she was able to give us a ride. Joao is my new friend, who I met after moving to Buenos Aires to study here for a year. I met him at the university and he has invited me to come and stay in his home town for the weekend. I happily accepted as I was eager to escape the tumult and noise of the huge city for a while. I vaguely listen to their conversation.

Joao is complaining about his ex girlfriend and stating how happy he is not to be with her anymore. How he used to get bothered by her, listening to her going on about her new fancy clothes. He is now trying to convince his aunt that this would be one of the biggest reasons they did not fit together as he does not care about these materialistic things at all. I smile to myself as his aunt goes on saying he should be with a girl from `el campo' the countryside. Not some kind of city bird.

I keep watching the sky as it has now stopped raining. The curtain of raindrops has opened up to reveal the amazing landscape behind it to me. The feeling of space I experience is immense as I look out over hectares and hectares of land. Big outstretches of grassy fields for as far as the eye can see with nothing to interrupt it.

These must be the famous landscapes of `La Pampa', miles and miles of flat grassy fields. Now and then a sheep or cow flies by, but other then that there is nothing to take the attention away of the feeling of space. This is where the cattle are held that Argentina is so well know for. I think of my own country where you can also see flat outstretches of land. But in Holland the view is always interrupted by something or other on the horizon. There you can never watch as far as the eye stretches, rather as far as the infrastructure allows you to! As I sit here, looking out over these fields I am overcome by a feeling of space to which my country seems claustrophobic. It makes me feel small. But at the same time it feels liberating. Here you can actually experience nature, be alone without meeting anyone for miles, without seeing anything, not a house or road not even lights. You could see the stars at night. Holland is full and it is making itself fuller every day. Every piece of land or nature we have left we bulldoze to construct something on top of it. Hell, we even turn water in to land! And the bit of nature that we do have left is man made and planned carefully into the space coordination.

I am being asked something by Joao's aunt and have to pull myself out of my thoughts back into the car. I had tuned out of their conversation and don't know what I have been asked. It is especially easy to loose myself in my own thoughts after listening to a foreign language the whole day. Sometimes I forget to pay attention to what they are saying and then easily loose track and get lost and drift off. Now I decide to just give a nod and see what the effect of this will be. If she keeps on looking at me questionably she might just repeat the question. Instead she accepts my nod and continues talking to Joao. I am lucky I am completely capable of communicating in Spanish, at least as long as I pay attention! It hasn't been long since I am here, only 3 months now. Of course I had studied it before, but then they where only foreign words staring at me from a page. Now I am really using the language and every word leaving my mouth feels like a party on my tongue.

The window is closed off by the rain again, but rain does not bother me here. Since it only rains ever so often here, it comes as a pleasant change. A chance to stay inside of the house and do nothing. Cuddle up on the sofa. Not like after having lived in Scotland for two years, where I can say I have grown rather accustomed to the weather pissing it down! And it's not like Holland doesn't have its own appropriate climate struggles either.

We drive into a very small town and stop the car. All the towns here are built in the utterly Spanish colonial way; all the streets lead to the main square of the town. This is the place where the people come together to meet each other. Now, however, because of the rain there is no one. Joao's aunt has to get out here to speak to someone.

We also decide to get out of the car and start running towards a bar. We enter a large room with a big bar at the front. In the back there are a view locals having coffee on wooden tables. Only men, I notice. Joao and I decide to sit at the front. I am firing questions at him, as curious as I am to know when we will arrive at his house and what will be awaiting me there. He tells me his mum and her boyfriend and also his oldest brother will be there. I am intrigued by the fact that his mother is openly living with her boyfriend, seeing this as socially accepted in the big city but I am surprised to hear it is as well in the country. He goes on showing even more how his family is absolutely modern as he explains how his mum had her boyfriend built a separate attachment to the house for him to live in, keeping her life nice and simple! His younger brother won't be there as he took off to Spain to try out his luck there playing the guitar on the streets. I am now well fascinated by his family and am excited about the prospect of staying with an argentine family for the whole weekend.

I pay the bill and start pushing him back towards the car, eager to move on. Unfortunately his aunt is taking her time and I decide to buy some cigarettes to puff our time away. His aunt finally returns and we start driving again. This time I am intervened in a conversation with her as she wants to know all about me, what I am doing here and most importantly what I think of her country. We happily chat away the last part of our journey. By now it is dark out side and we have turned on the heater in the car.

Cows and such

It is dark as we drive through a lane of trees pulling up on the terrain in front of Joao's house. It is too dark for me to make out the surroundings around the house as we get out of the car and hurry inside. We enter in to something I, probably completely stupidly, take for a medieval kitchen. But I have to defend this first expression of mine; it did rather have something amazingly out of time about it. Especially for me having grown up in the super high tech kitchens of Holland with its microwaves, dishwashers and electric ovens, I now found myself in a super sized kitchen.

A large table stood in the middle with enough seats for 15 people around it. An old massive metal stove was opened with a nice fire blazing inside, heating up the room. Big square black and white tiles lay on the floor with two dogs in front of the door in a deep relaxing sleep. Two men stared at me from the table where they sit drinking a `mate' together. `Mate' is as high as argentine culture goes. It's a tea you drink out of a cup which can be described as half a coconut or pumpkin shaped to a good sized cup to fit easy in the hand. This is then filled up almost to the top by `yerba', the tea leaves of the mate and drunk through a straw made out of metal or silver with a little strainer on the end to keep you from sucking up all the tea leaves into your mouth. Each time a little bit of hot water is poured onto the yerba and you drink it. It is a very nice social thing to do, as the mate is passed around in a group, each emptying the drink and handing it back to the one holding the hot water who will refill it and who makes sure everyone is getting the cup passed in a rotational system. The taste of mate is rather bitter and not many foreigners like it. The men at the table therefore are surprised when they see my happy face at the look of a warm mate. They invite me to sit with them and ask me if I drink mate with sugar. When I say no to this they heartedly start laughing and make jokes to Joao what a precious little thing he has now brought them. They introduce themselves to me as Hugo, the boyfriend of Joao's mother and Juan, his older brother. His mother, it turns out to be, is still at university where she went to take night classes in continuous education. Just out of her own interest. The rest of the house also looks amazing to me. All the rooms are very big and heated by fire places. Big heavy furniture is placed in each of them, and the house is free of any unnecessary decoration keeping it very plain and simple. Joao tells me his grandparents build the house and it's all still in the original state.

The next morning I am woken up by Joao as he holds a cup of coffee under my nose. I follow him into the kitchen where his mother is seated on the table. I join her and thank her for having me here. I help her prepare lunch for the whole house, as the men are out working on the land. She is such a nice and interesting person that I enjoy my time with her. Later I walk around with Joao as he shows me the terrain around the house. First we walk up to a massive concrete swimming pool. I climb up the stairs and walk around it. It is full of colourful leaves now, no water being in it. We go on to a shed which used to be a bar. He tells me he is going to prepare it to be re opened for the summer. It looks fabulous, completely decorated in the `gaucho' style of the country. The gauchos are the traditional cattle holders. They are the folklore of the La Pampa. They have their own music and their own clothes: their own culture. You could see them as the cowboys from Argentina! They originally came from Spain and settled in the plain fields of Argentina where they started holding cattle. The most what, to me, they are famous for, are the `parillas' they make. These are barbeques, but not as we consider them in the west. I am talking about huge fires with an entire pig or cow being grilled above it!

Joao now show's me what he considers some domestic animals they keep for fun, but what I take for a complete farm! When we stand looking at the goats we see two little new freshly born goats lying in the grass. I run to the house and come back with my camera and follow each of their first movements they make in their new life in this world. They look so fragile as they try to stand and fall again. Further on we see a slimy bulb lying on its own. It's a third tiny goat but the mother has rejected him. Leaving him there on its own. Joao picks him up and carries him to his mother. After a bit of sniffling and looking she accepts him and starts cleaning him. I feel so peaceful as I stand here in the nature looking at new life.

I enjoy the rest of the day reflecting on this while sitting in the sun against the back wall of the house. Joao has met up with his friends and they are all playing football on one of the far away fields around the house. The amount of land they own is incredible. Further away from the house they also hold cows, which his brother Juan is working with. But I got a bit frightened walking among them. I had never been so up close and personal to cows before and was shocked how huge they are. Joao couldn't stop laughing at me, which made me even more frightened, thinking that his snorting noises of laughter might attract them even closer to us. In the evening I was faced with even weirder cows...They say the people from the country are much nicer then the `porteños', people from the big city Buenos Aires. This might be true, as the general rule goes that city people are quite observed with themselves and always in a hurry. In the country everyone knows each other and chat with you in the street. I am overcome by the friendliness of everyone I have met so far, no matter if it where in the city or in the country. Everyone has shown such great interest. You cant even ask someone if this is the right bus to go to such and such without getting stuck in a large conversation and end up being invited to their house!

But this night I was confronted to something new. Joao had invited his friends around, all young men from the country. And as they started pouring into the back garden where we had the fire going for the parilla, they said `hello' to me, but after that nothing more came out. After listening for a while to their conversations I had decided they where perfectly fine young men, so I leaned into Joao and whispered in his ear asking why it was that I felt as if I was not there. He thought they might be shy and started trying to get me involved into the conversation, but yet again the mission failed. Later on, as I was really starting to get bored looking at the fire by myself, I heard on guy asking something about me. `Yeah' I laughed, `I do speak Spanish you know!' and a huge sign of relief came on his face as he sat down with me and started chatting about the Dutch football team. Not a topic of my choice, I thought, but at least they are finally talking to me. They took out the guitar and all started singing songs. There was laughter and joy and confession to me that they had been shy to speak to me. I was explained that it was not normal to just see a foreigner sitting in the back yard of your friend here.

They started joking with Joao what a great life he must have in the big city, meeting all these foreign girls with blond hair and blue eyes and how clever to invite them to show his romantic house out in the nature. I jokingly hid back that if I wasn't the first or last to be invited her by Joao, they should better warm up their manners and get used to speaking to scary foreign girls! They bursted out laughing, I was now accepted; I had broken the ice and was no longer seen as `something weird'. We sang the night away.

The next day, Sunday, we went in car around the town. The funniest phenomena revealed as we entered the centre. A Sunday, which would normally mean you would only see a few dogs hanging around, now showed the streets so full of cars, bicycles, motorcycles, basically anything that could move. Then there where people sitting and talking everywhere. Joao explained to me that they all go out on Sunday to meet each other. Especially for the men to look at the girls and the other way around. But also to meet up with friends and see old acquaintances again. If someone saw someone they new they would stop their car and start speaking together. Maybe even share a mate. And no one would complain or start honking their horns, cause on a Sunday, no one is in a hurry.

We stood there for ages, looking at the people walking by and people coming over to talk to Joao with curious looks at me. I absolutely loved it, it felt like an immense party was going on. Such social, warm people the argentines are. I was thinking how fun it would be to introduce a tradition like this in Amsterdam!

The next morning we where woken up at half 5 by Joao's mum. After a quick coffee we got in the car driving back to the city. She had to go there anyway to do some shopping so she could drive us back. I fell a sleep again with my head on Joao's lap. They woke me when we where in front of the university. I looked up as I saw the familiar street again with its busy city noises. I loved it to be back again, all charged up with fresh energy soaked up in nature. We got out of the car and I left my bag pack behind with the friendly porter of the university who didn't mind looking after it for me, ready to pick up after class. We got in to the lift, Joao getting out on the third floor and me going on till the fifth.

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