Argentina. Exhilarating, interesting, vibrant, complex, complicated, intriguing Argentina.
My Virtual Nomad philosophy is to not influence our Virtual Nomad travels with my pre-existing knowledge, particularly if I have visited the country. This is because that is my personal experience and not a shared one, and the objective of Virtual Nomad is not to tell the stories of my past.
This said, I have been to Argentina so many times I have lost count and when we finally organise a Virtual Nomad Argentinian night, the Virtual Nomad Special Adviser CH (who has been to approximately 140 countries) and I are happy to compare travel notes and our experience of the country, and we find out that there is so much to say and share.
Argentina is famous. The food, the meat, la pampa, tango, the music, Maradona, Lionel Messi, Evita Perón, Buenos Aires, the grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, the disappeared, the economic crisis of the 1990s, the Falkland/Malvinas war, dulce de leche, Perito Moreno, wine, etc. Argentina is so much, Everyone knows where it is so this Virtual Nomad stop was easy to find.
Argentina lies in South America. A huge country of 2,780,400km2, it is the 8th largest country in the world. It has the southernmost city in the world (although there is a town further south of less than 3000 people in Chile called Puerto Williams) and a climatic variety from rainforest to glaciers.
An Argentinian night
There is a fairly famous Argentinian restaurant in Sydney but a closer look at its menu does not convince the virtual nomads. I decide to organise an Argentinian night at home and find the ingredients mostly from small local producers. For an Argentinian night to be a success, we will need, at the very least, meat, chimichurri, provoleta, dulce de leche, empanadas, alfajorres and yerba mate. This will all be accompanied by an ordinary salad whose sole objective is to look pretty but be overshadowed by the Argentinian delicatessen.
I am vegetarian but there is something I have learned from meat-eaters and that is: the best, the very best, meat comes from Argentina. The consumption per capita of red meat is the highest in the world and Argentinians are proud of their asado.
The Argentinian night gathers all the central players of the Virtual Nomad adventure – my children L (15) and A (9), CH (Special Advisor), and of course the Virtual Nomad Chief Editor JK and his child FK (13).
JK gets quality meat from a butcher on the North Shore, and then I make a list of what I need for a successful Argentinian night. So exciting.
Chimichurri is an uncooked sauce that can be used with almost anything. It is prepared mostly of herbs (mainly parsley and cilantro), garlic, vinegar, olive oil and spices.
I order chimichurri and alfajorres from a wonderful small family business called Sur Direct. They are an absolute delight to deal with, have impeccable customer service, affordable prices and quick delivery in a beautiful paper bag. On top of that, the quality of the products is incredibly high. Sur Direct gets 10/10 from us. I get three types of chimichurri (mild, hot and extra hot, and also Chimichurri spices for future cooking) and beautiful alfajorres – dessert cookies that combine a delicate flour structure with dulce de leche in the middle.
As for the empanadas, there is an Empanadas Che in Drummoyne that is absolutely fabulous. I put an order in for 10 empanadas of different flavours. When I pick up my order – one rainy morning before work – my order has been lost but the woman working at the counter goes at it and produces ten empanadas in no time. Gotta’ love the Latin attitude. The Café also has authentic Dulce de Leche, so I buy a tub to go with the empanadas. I get ten empanadas of six flavours (chorizo and potato, pollo, carne, gorgonzola with ham, ham and cheese, vegetarian caprese) with criolla sauce and also a ‘choripan’ (chorizo with bread) and the Dulce de Leche. While my order is being prepared, I chat without a customer who comes by weekly and does not mind the wait.
I get provoleta from Harris Farm Market but I forget to serve it because of all the Argentinian food and desserts from both Argentina and Antigua and Barbuda (see previous entry). Provoleta is an Argentinian cheese that tastes similar to traditional provolone cheese.
We decide against Yerba Mate, which contains up to 30% caffeine. As none of us are really coffee drinkers, it would probably mean that we would not sleep for a week, But for anyone who would like to know, Yerba Mate is said to be very good for many different health issues (even if there is still very little evidence on that) and a very popular drink in Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and southern Brazil.
CH brings excellent Argentinian wine, which will be mostly consumed by me as both JK and CH are not heavy drinkers. CH also brings an excellent Chilean wine but we will have to leave it for the future occasion when we get to the Cs in about a ten years time!
We have a wonderful night of great food, great company, great music and a great country trivia for the kids. We learn from the Argentina trivia that:
- Argentina has both the highest (mount Aconcagua) and lowest point (Laguna del Carbón) in the Southern Hemisphere. Laguna del Carbón is a salt lake in the Santa Cruz Province and the seventh lowest point on Earth.
- 88-97% of the Argentinian population has European roots – mostly from Spain or Italy.
- The first ever (documented) person to be born in Antarctica was Emilio Marcos Palma in 1978. Why his mother was sent to give birth in such a remote place is an interesting story.
- Argentina has 23 provinces. The capital city Buenos Aires is in the province of Buenos Aires/La Plata (Silver city)
- Argentina is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world with 15 continental zones and four main climate types.
- Perito Moreno glacier is one of Argentina’s top tourist destinations.
- Ernesto Che Quevara was a middle-class boy from Rosario who, after receiving a medical degree, decided to join the Cuban revolution under Fidel Castro.
- The first animated film was made in Argentina in 1917 (El Apostol).
It takes two to tango
There is a lot of amazing music that has originated in Argentina. This includes very famous musicians of different genres, such as Mercedes Sosa (probably the most prolific Argentinian singer and famous for opposing the military regime), Facundo Cabral (a harrowing life story and murdered while on tour in Guatemala), Andrés Calamaro ( hybrid musical style mixing different genres), Leon Gieco, Gustavo Santaolalla (who wrote the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack) and a young superstar Paulo Londra.
But tonight, tango it is. We listen to tango all night from Carlos Gardel to Astor Piazzolla and the Gotan Project. Tango was born in the dance halls of Buenos Aires in the 1880s. Carlos Gardel was probably the most famous tango singer. One of his most famous songs is El día que me quieras, whilst La Cumparsita is probably the most famous tango of all time. My children found the Gotan Project to be especially interesting.
Many years ago, I learned the basics of tango dancing but never got to the level of LRT. One of my dearest friends, who now happens to live four hours from me, looked like she hardly touched the floor when she danced tango.
Argentina in images
What to watch out of everything that there is on offer? I try to be guided by my basic rule: history, geography, people and significant events. My children and I are either native or nearly native Spanish speakers, so diving into the turbulent Argentinean history in the original language is fairly easy.
The quick histories of Mr History are usually excellent but the Quick History of Argentina does not do justice to the complicated history of the country. It is a confusing set of many events starting from the Palaeolithic era. Something we do learn is that Argentina got its name from the Latin word for ‘silver’ (‘Argentum’). At the time of the Spanish conquest, Argentina had no grand civilisations (like Peru) but rather different tribes living in the territory. Buenos Aires was established in 1580. Argentina was first part of the Spanish viceroyalty of Peru and then the viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata. José de San Martin is an important figure in Latin American political history, having liberated a huge portion of the Latin American countries, leading Argentina to become independent in 1816, but then falling into a prolonged civil war. More wars with neighbouring countries followed, as did a succession of presidents. Juan Perón is one of the famous ones, also famous for being the husband of Eva Perón. After Perón resigned in 1955, several other presidents followed until Jorge Videla became the dictator and the dirty war of 1974 -1983 saw thousands of people disappear. Argentina lived through another great recession 1998 – 2003 and the economy finally improved around the time when Néstor Kirchner became president, followed by his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The current president is Alberto Fernández. The Quick History concludes with the words: “despite centuries of social and political conflict, this country still managed to give the world tango, Nobel winning scientists, brilliant writers and sportspeople, and to maintain a very high human development rank.”
But we get it. Argentinian history is complex.
I have to think through what I should explain to the children about the (contemporary) history of Argentina. We decide that instead of trying to cover it all, I should choose different topics. I think long and hard and then decide to go for these three:
- Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo and children of the disappeared
During the Argentinian military dictatorship 1976 – 1983, the “dirty war”, an estimated 30.000 people died or disappeared. This is only an estimate and a full list of murdered and disappeared people does not exist. Most of these people were captured for political and religious reasons, many of them were young and a number of the young women were pregnant. There are approximately 500 children that were born to mothers that were captured and then ‘disappeared’. Most of those children were never returned to their biological families but sold or given up for adoption under a different name and identity.
Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo is a human rights organisation founded in 1977 by grandmothers of missing grandchildren, born in captivity to women that were later ‘disappeared’. The objective of the organisation is to connect the stolen children with their biological families through DNA testing and offer awareness, training and counselling. It is work that, of course, is not without its difficulties and controversies. As of 2022, 130 grandchildren have been found.
Estela de Carlotto is a human rights activist and the President of Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo. She became the President of the organisation in 1979 and spent 36 years looking for her grandson – son of her murdered daughter Laura, who was one of the few ‘disappeared’ whose body was delivered to the family. In 2014, Laura’s son and Estela’s grandson was found. The stories of the stolen grandchildren are not simple but have nuances of personal conflict. For Ignacio, being Estela’s grandchild has not been easy, but he still believes in the importance of finding the missing grandchildren.
There are several testimonies on Youtube from the found grandchildren. My children were able to follow these stories in Spanish but there are also several in English. These stories are dark tales of abduction and theft of identity, confusion and tragedy, but also stories of hope and growth.
- Who is Evita Perón?
Evita Perón is one of the most prominent figures of Argentinian history, made immortal by the musical and, above all, the iconic song. She was the wife of president Juan Perón and has had a strong impact on the Argentinian collective memory. She died of cervical cancer at the age of 33.
As with many historical figures, the kids find the musical more interesting than the actual story of Eva Perón. But her life story is quite fascinating and her final resting place is in the Recoleta cemetery.
- Economic crisis 1998 – 2002
I chose this theme because explaining the political turbulence and corruption is difficult to place for the kids, who have no prior knowledge. Many people I know were affected by the Argentine great recession, caused by many factors including the Russian and Brazilian financial crises, a partial default of public debt, and an abandonment of the fixed exchange rate. The economy plunged, leaving over 50% of Argentinians living below the poverty line. Many people lost their savings, unemployment rose to unprecedented levels and many who could, left the country. It took the economy several years to recover.
Short stories and reflection on ‘sexaffective’ relationships
Argentinian literature is famous, varied, abundant and rich. The most famous Argentinian writer is Jorge Luis Borges (author of Ficciones, 1944 and Aleph, 1949). There is Ernesto Sabato and Julio Cortázar. Cortázar is famous for his 1963 book Rayuela (Hopscotch in English). I had a complicated relationship with Rayuela when I read it many moons ago as its open-ended structure drove me crazy. Many of my Latin American friends consider Rayuela a masterpiece. It has a unique structure that allows the reader to read it either in a linear or non-linear mode, but for me it was a book that ‘talks a lot but says very little’. I recognise, now that I am older, that I could enjoy it more and I make a promise to myself to go back to Rayuela one day and give it another try.
But for now I want something new. Something more contemporary.
I turn to two very dear Argentinian friends. AS who lives in an ecological community in Uruguay with his wife and MG who is originally from Mar del Plata but has lived in Madrid for many years. When I ask for contemporary Argentinian authors, MG comes back with the message: “I would recommend Samanta Schweblin (narrative, short stories, lives in Berlin), Mariana Enríquez (journalist, innovative, horror genre), Claudia Piňero (politico-social narrative), Gabiela Cabezón Cámara (feminist, activist), María Gainza (art related narrative), and Leila Guerreiro (journalist, short stories, narrative, sharp social focus).
Well, I think, I should start with these.
I can’t read all of them so I decide to go with Samanta Schweblin and her book Pájaros en la boca y otros cuentos. It is a collection of short stories and won the Schweblin the Casa de las Americas award in 2008, and then the English translation (Mouthful of Birds, 2019) was nominated for the Mar Brooker International Prize and won the Shirley Jackson Award.
Samanta lives in Berlin and is considered prodigious in her home country. She has won many prestigious awards and in 2010, she was selected as one of the best writers in Spanish under 35.
The book (Pájaros en la boca y otros cuentos) leaves me in a state of slight confusion. It could be the format – short stories has never been my favourite genre – or the open-endedness of the stories. The stories in this book are like photographs – little studies of people and human nature, situations without resolution or proper explanation. They have unusual topics that play with themes and images and much is left to the reader. For some, this might be unusual, interesting, mind-blowing and an intriguing way of writing without ready-made formulas and without chewing the content too mushy for the reader – and I get it. But for me, it’s exhausting. I still enjoy the book and the stories – some more than others – but I feel a bit relieved when it’s over. Maybe I am old and I need answers, and when I don’t get them, it frustrates me.“What the hell was that supposed to mean?” is my primary thought after many of the stories.
Feeling slightly unsatisfied, I decide to read another book. Another friend recommends a book called El Fin del Amor (The end of love) by Tamara Tenenbaum – a young journalist and academic who left the ultra-conservative orthodox Jewish community of her childhood to go to a ‘normal’ high school and university, and to live a ‘normal’ life as a young Latin American woman. That ‘normality’, of course, means a lot of headaches and pondering about heterosexual relationships.
The book is not what I had expected. I had expected fiction but the book is a study of modern heterosexual ‘sexoaffetive’ relationships in Argentina, tangled with autobiographical anecdotes from
Tamara’s life. The description of the book is:
“El fin del amor gives us a glimpse of what happens when marriage and the monogamous couple are no longer a life’s objective, and it’s a tool for the creative destruction of romantic love and the principles that sustain it so that from its ashes, a better love – one that makes men and women more free in their relationships – can rise. From the value of friendship to the culture of consent, passing through motherhood as a choice or an imperative, desired and abhorred singlehood, polyamory, open relationships, the workings of the technologies of desire (Happn, Tinder), and with a vast bibliography about these topics, Tamara Tenenbaum talks about everything in order to dive into the universe of affection, celebrate the end of romantic love, and propose the eroticization of consent.”
It is an interesting book and I can imagine how important it can be for young Argentinians and Latin Americans. Every generation seems to think that they have discovered something that the previous generations have not, and that is a bit the approach of Tenenbaum (31 years old), whose youth shines through in some parts of the book. Nevertheless, it is an incredibly well researched book with a lot of ground to cover from the history of marriage to studying the functionality of open relationships, modern understanding of sexual activity, the role of women in (heterosexual) relationships, the modern culture of worshipping youth and beauty, decisions on maternity, building the culture of consent and the examination of sexual violence. It is interesting and I enjoyed reading it. She mixes the themes with autobiographical anecdotes from her own life, and her original cultural group. I also learned there is a Netflix series drawn from this book.
Some parts of the book have incredible value, whereas others are slightly preachy. When she writes about sexual violence and building a culture of consent, she is as sharp as a knife. Tamara explains how sexual violence is not an innate characteristic of men (not every man is a ‘potential rapist’) but a product of a culture, which sees male sexuality as an uncontrollable phenomenon and admires power. She talks about women of her generation making hard decisions on career and maternity, the culture of the ‘cult of the physical body’ affecting relationships – sometimes seen as a market of flesh (due to dating apps that she seems not to be in favour of). She also calls for sexual education for young people that focuses on consent, respect and pleasure.
Tamara says that after researching all these different forms of relationships, she has opted for quite a revolutionary one in which she lives with her boyfriend but her female friends are such an important part of her life that they also have keys to her house and she (Tamara) envisions herself growing old with her girlfriends rather than her partner. It does make me smile as it feels as if Tamara believes she is the first one to discover the value of female friends in life, and also because of her idyllic ideas regarding her vision for her old age.
Where in the cyberspace are you, moving images?
Argentinian cinema is famous and abundant. There are many quality films of different genres and there are many movies that I would like to show JK and L who are less acquainted with Argentinian cinema than I am.
There is a slight problem.
None of the many, many Argentinian movies I want to show them are available on streaming platforms, at least in Australia. I go through Netflix, Prime Video, Disney, Youtube, Kanopy, SBS, Tubi, Amazon and even try to access them in other ways. I look for DVDs to order from the library or from overseas. No luck.
So, L asks, if you would have to choose five Argentinian movies to show us what would you do?
I think about it long and hard and then decide on a selection that I am not currently able to offer them, but hopefully one day I will. These are not automatically my favourite movies (although I do include the one that is) but a great representation of Argentinian cinema and a good collection for general knowledge:
- Nine Queens – fast paced movie about two con artists in Buenos Aires with twists and turns. A very clever script that I thought JK and L would appreciate. Could not find it anywhere. Boo.
- The Official Story – a fictional story of an adoption of a stolen grandchild. A very important movie on this topic mentioned above.
- The secret in their eyes – An award winning thriller that won a swag of awards. There is an American version, but this one is better.
- A boyfriend for my wife – I also wanted to include a comedy so there you have it. A man wants to divorce his wife but rather than telling her, he hires another man to seduce her.
- Intimate stories – I loved this small warm-hearted road movie from Patagonia, but it has been a while since I saw it.
As I am unable to show Argentinian movies, I decide to watch one anyway. Something I have not seen before. I select Initials S.G., available on SBS. It is described as a dark comedy about a former porn actor who is trying to find a place in the mainstream cinema. It has a 100% tomatometer rating in Rotten Tomatoes. Sounds promising.
Needless to say, I am not watching this with kids.
It was not a movie for me. That is all I will say.
Next stop: Armenia