Thursday, April 22, 2010

Is that what you really meant to say?

When we moved to Argentina, my mother was only beginning her adventures in life. She was in her mid 30s, but she found that 're-inventing' oneself has no age limit. People can re-invent themselves anytime they chose.

Mom's life had been fairly simple up to the move to Argentina. She married straight out of high school, had her first son soon after graduation from college, and moved to California before her youngest (me) was born. She had driven across old Route 66 multiple times, from Chicago to the Pacific Ocean and seen lots of the United States. She had moved from her own family and neighborhood to live near the family she had married into.

And when my parents were 34 years old, they decided to move overseas. First stop, Argentina.

Lifestyles in Argentina were incredibly different than those she had known in Ohio or California. Mom, Elise, decided the best way to know the country was to 'become' the country. To 'become' the country, one had to fit in, to live as the locals did.

One of the first things Elise found out was that wives need their husbands' permission to drive the family car. The permission slip was not only signed by the husband, but notarized by the local authority and it was carried in the auto at all times.

Elise didn't care for this at all. Permission to drive their car? No way. She would ride the bicycle or take the train, thank you. My one speed blue Schwinn served her fine for trips to the market, and the train was better than any car for the rare trips into Buenos Aires.

So, every couple days, Elise would pull my bike out of the shed, load up the basket with her 'bolsas' (net shopping bags), peg her pant legs with clothes pins, and pedal towards the local market place. Our town did not have a supermarket - I doubt any place in Argentina had 'Vons' or 'Luckys' supermarkets. Instead, we had marketplaces. Each store carried its one family of products. The carnecia carried meat. The panaderia had the breads. Fiamberia had the drug store type items, and the lecheria had milk products and eggs. The stores were all grouped at one 5-point corner in town, called Cinco Esquinas (Five Corners, duh).

Elise, now called Elsa by the locals, would make her market appearance every few days. Shopping was precise - you only bought what you needed for that day and the next. Elise never bought a dozen eggs (how excessive!), but maybe bought 4 eggs to bake a cake. She never bought a gallon of milk, but a litre or less. Bread wasn't sold in sliced packages but in whole hard crusted loaves.

Elise/Elsa would proudly use her pigeon spanish to greet the store owners. She quickly became the darling of many of them - an Argentine Yankee. Una yankee Argentina! She'd practice small talk with each shop owner before pulling out her shopping list and requesting 'un medio kilo de carne picada' or 'medio kilo de harina, por favor.'

Some products, like poultry and especially eggs, were seasonal. Not seasonal such as in weather, but as in chickens desire to lay eggs. So, before buying eggs, you were expected to ask if there were any eggs to buy.

For three years, mom asked in perfect spanish "Tienes huevos?"

And then one day, our Argentine neighbor Mirta overheard Elsa asking if the vendor had eggs. "Elsa, que dices?" Mom turned to Mirta - "I am hopeful I can get three eggs for a cake I am baking!"

Mirta slowly pulled Elsa aside. "Never ever ask a man 'tienes huevos'. Ask 'hay huevos', ok? HAY HUEVOS? As in, 'are there eggs'? Never ever say 'tienes huevos'. It means something else to a man."

Elsa looked at the vendor. He was blushing. For three years he had listened to her ask him if he had balls.

OH. Oh dear. Oh my. OH.

It can be hard re-inventing oneself. Sometimes it is easier to just fade into the crowd...


Pat Tillett said...

Oh my! What a fantastic adventure. That must have been so amazing!
Just a great great story Brenda...
I hope there's more.

C. Pinheiro, EA ABA said...

OH Brenda! This story made me laugh out loud! And it is so true. I speak Portuguese and my husband speaks fluent Spanish. Some of the differences are minor-- but the slang is a different story. We've had little misunderstandings over the "balls" and "huevos" before, too!

So funny! Thanks for sharing this.

Sam said...

What a great story! Your mom was a real pioneer! You must have had a great childhood.


giantspeckledchihuahua said...

What a great story! Your mother must have been/is an amazing woman!

altadenahiker said...

Oh, oh, OH! Childhood stories at their best. At the time, did your kidhood seem like the exotic adventure it was, or did it just seem normal because that's the only childhood you ever knew?

BANJO52 said...

I confess I was looking for some smart remark about juevos until I saw you were way ahead of me.

"Are there any?" vs. "Have you any?" And everybody says English teachers are hair-splitting pedants.

Excellent story, Braz. I second Hiker's question, however. Also, do you feel that your life has been a cake walk compared to your parents' and most other lives of that time? I surely do about mine.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Oh yes, Banjomyn and AH, my life has been a cake walk. Honestly, I am now waiting for a shoe to drop, as someday it has to change, right?

But did I ever think my childhood exotic? NEVER. NEVER EVER. It was a childhood like every other child I grew up with. It was totally normal, until we moved into a normal 'american' life back in the states. Then I got depressed...

BANJO52 said...

" . . . back in U.S. Then I got depressed." Cause and effect? If you care to make that a story someday, I'm listening.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Banjoymyn - survivor's guilt? or depression from living in the excess of our America? I didn't want what I could have - I wanted the innocence of living abroad. Not sure if there is a story in there! Ya think??

BANJO52 said...

" . . . the excess of our America? I didn't want what I could have - I wanted the innocence of living abroad."

Absolutely! Yes, it's been done, but that's true of every story worth telling.

Elaine said...

Fascinating story. What an amazing adjustment for your mother and your family to make. Going to live in a different culture takes courage.