Argentine Interlude

I didn’t actually want to take a long trip this fall, since I had already been to Greece for 10 days and to China for three weeks. The flight to Hong Kong was 12 hours, followed by a layover and another hour’s flight to Guilin. In addition, there were the hours traveling to and from the airports. The flight to Buenos Aires took 13 ½ hours, but at least it was direct.

My daughter was making a film in Villa Gesell, Argentina, and since her boyfriend does not have that much vacation, I decided to go for a couple of weeks and babysit for my granddaughter, so my daughter could work. They normally live a long six-hour train ride from me, and I normally do not get to see them for such extended periods. Fully aware of how quickly the time had passed from my daughter’s birth until she was out on her own, I saw this as a rare chance.

A couple of days in Buenos Aires with a visit to Eva Peron’s tomb in Recoleta Cemetery. She came from a poor family and became a champion of the poor and women’s rights until her death from cancer at the age of 33. The story of how her remains finally got there after years in Italy and Spain, and her tomb is supposedly now so elaborate that it would be very difficult to get to the place where her embalmed corpse is finally resting.

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In the ornate cemetery:

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Church next to the cemetery: this guy seemed to be thinking “What I am doing here? Is it really worth it?”

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I visited a beautiful bookstore, El Ateneo Grand Splendid, which the Guardian called the second most beautiful bookstore in the world, where I was finally able to get a copy of the novel Zama by Antonio de Benedetto, which a bookstore in Germany told me was out of print and which was only available in English, Dutch and Italian translation on Amazon. The bookstore is located in a former theater, beautifully renovated keeping its frescoes and sculptures. The stage in the back is now a café.

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Getting money is not easy in Argentina, and it was impossible to get more than 100 euros from ATMs, but then you would not want to have too many pesos given the inflation. We had dinner with fellow filmmaker friends of my daughter and her co-worker Phillip. One of them had ancestors had fled Nazi Germany since they were Jewish, and the other Nazi ancestors who had fled after the war to avoid jail time (whom he was ashamed of).

We took the long six-hour bus ride to Villa Gesell on the coast, a village with a very interesting history. Formally only sand dunes, the German Carlos Idaho Gesell bought the area in 1930 and — after many attempts — finally succeeded in getting trees to grow in the area. He planted weeds and Acacia trees (imported from Australia) that could survive in the dunes and protected the pine trees that he planted behind them. He invented a method for the pine trees to get water and grow, i.e., tubes that routed the roots of pine trees down instead of their normal horizontal direction to where there was water. The once barren sand dunes are now covered by vegetation with many huge trees. Gesell gave land to people who settled there, but only to those who stated that they did not drink or smoke, since he was a puritan hippie who did not want the village to develop into a raucous party town (and it is now known for its partying teenagers). He invented numerous things such as for solar energy and desalinizing water as well as sired almost as many kids if local gossip is to be believed (apparently, his puritan streak did not extend to his sex life). His first house, which is now a museum, had four doors, one on each side of the square building, since the wind often blew so much sand that they often could not open a couple of them from the inside.

My daughter rented a nice house on the north side of town, surrounded by huge trees filled with sundry birds that made quite a racket every day. Except for the main streets in town, all streets were simply sand. There were dogs everywhere, at least one in each house and often more. They barked at us from behind fences when we walked the streets, and there were many just roaming around freely on the streets and beach, but those were quite tame and did not bother us. Some were certainly has protection against intruders; the man whose house we rented told us to be sure to lock the doors securely when we went out and at night: no, it was not an area with an especially a lot of crime, but he said, “After all, this is Argentina.” Dangerous. But in the case of the great number of other dogs, I wondered whether the people had them because they felt very lonely. There is even a statue of the town founder, Gesell, with his dog.

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The house had no internet, which was a nice change in a way, since I didn’t/couldn’t check my email as often and spent much less time online. However, I had promised my customers that I would do some work if it was pressing, so I often had to go to cafés to check whether anything had been sent. There was a restaurant and café within a short walking distance, and I could use their wifi even when they were closed just by standing outside them.

I have a fairly good command of Spanish and read the novel El ruido de las cosas al caer by Juan Vasquez in the original while I was there, albeit on an e-book where I could just press a word and get the translation. My Spanish teacher last winter in Spain said my level was B2 (European standard) and was certain that I would soon be at C1. However, I had great difficulty understanding the Argentines, both with respect to the accent and the dialect.

Most restaurants and stores were still closed at the end of November, and a few opened on December 1, but the main tourist season does not start until around Christmas at the earliest. Those they did open often had irregular opening times and were often closed although the signs on their doors said open. When restaurants did open, it was not before 8 p.m., and some even gave discounts if you came before 9, which we usually did, not being accustomed to each at 10 or 11 at night.

While my daughter and Phillip went around town interviewing Gesell’s daughter and step-sister (both approx. 90 years old, one who offered them cigarettes and beer and the other coffee and Christmas cookies, and who had not been on speaking terms for many years) as well as curators at the local museum and archives, all dedicated to Gesell, I spent the days with my granddaughter at the beach, which was windy and the water too wild to swim, a park and cafés. It was sunny, but the waves were still very big in the ocean, and the one time I was able to go swimming, a lifeguard soon appeared and told me to get out, that the undertow was too strong. Most days a very strong, cold wind made beach life someone difficult. And it was unbelievable how much energy a five-year old can have! I can’t imagine how we managed when my daughter was that age, but of course kindergarten channels a lot of their energy when at home.

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I sometimes called my granddaughter by my daughter’s name, and the experience brought back a lot of memories, some beautiful and some painful. I thought how much my deceased wife would have loved her granddaughter and what a loss it that they did not get to know each other, although my girlfriend has a fantastic relationship to my granddaughter, so that the latter still has that kind of experience. And my deceased wife then appeared in many of my dreams while I was there, not all of them nice.

There was an abandoned aquarium, supposedly once the biggest in Latin America. There are efforts to renovate and reopen it, but which might (or probably will) fail due to the huge investment costs required.

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Artist at work:

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Of course, a highlight of the trip was also provided by Argentine wine and meat, and we also had a couple of barbecues (“parilla”) of our own and the steaks were much better than those we ate in restaurants. However, we soon had eaten more meat than we wanted.

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Chef Phillip at work:

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Pizza was available everywhere, but they put so much cheese and few herbs on that it was just filling.

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I was having chilli withdrawal symptoms, since the food lacked spices (of course, the meat is so good, you don’t want any with it). One American called “Jimmy” had visited long ago and yearning for some spicy curry, had concocted a slightly spicy sauce, which the locals called “Gimmi Churri”. Actually, it was closer to Thai sweet chilli sauce than Indian curry.

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Many of the locals still spoke German, having learned it from their parents or grandparents. However, most of those who had settled in the town were of Italian or Spanish ancestry. In the poorer part of town, the farthest from the beach, there was no one who understood German and many Argentines who settled there to work in the town’s hotels and restaurants. We attended a folklore festival held there where locals performed their folk dances to live music.

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Filmmaker at work

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Horseback riding on the dunes was also a highlight for my granddaughter. Two local men rode with my daughter and granddaughter, one who said he was a gaucho and the other a vaquero, although I don’t understand the difference expect that the gauchos wear a very particular hat, slightly resembling a beret.

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The sand dunes where they road: I was slow on foot and could barely see them in the distance.

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I can’t say that I saw much of Argentina, but then that was not the purpose of my visit. Although the disturbances canceling the Copa Libertadores final between Boca Juniors and River Plate and the following week the G20 took place in Buenas Aires when I was in Argentina, we were a six-hour bus ride away and only noticed the events in the news, i.e., I could have been anywhere else in the world. But staying in Villa Gesell for two weeks also meant that I was known and welcomed by extremely friendly people working in the bakery, wine store, butcher’s, supermarket, etc. each time I went. And I treasure experiencing such friendliness in a foreign country much more than trying to see as many of the sights as possible.

 

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