Monday, May 9, 2011

Saturday Afternoon in Montevideo

The other day, I had one of those moments of pure gratitude just to be where I was in the world. I was sitting in a riverside restaurant in Montevideo, outdoors at a wooden table painted bright red, looking over a broad green playing field where a dad with his jeans rolled up kicked a soccer ball around with two young kids. Beyond the field, the wide Río de la Plata stretched to the horizon, Argentina invisible on the far shore. On the river, dozens of little white sailboats tacked into the wind, and on the shore, near a thin white line of surf, about twenty white gulls rose in a flurry against the blue sky.

I had come to Uruguay on my own. For the first time in four and a half months, Rie and I aren’t traveling together, though we will reunite in a few days to fly to South Africa. After my daughter, Annie, flew home to Boston, Rie and her son Zach headed south to Argentina’s Peninsula Valdés. I took a ferry and then a bus to Montevideo to visit a friend I hadn’t seen in almost 30 years.

Way back when, Rosina designed Cornell Cinema’s monthly calendar and I wrote the film summaries. We used to sit in a little office upstairs in Willard Straight Hall, Rosina at her drawing board, me at the typewriter, laughing, giving each other a hard time and agreeing that our joint productions were works of genius. When her husband finished vet school and they moved back to Montevideo, we exchanged a few letters and then lost contact.

But now there’s Facebook and it was easy enough to find her email address. And when I got off the bus, it took us just seconds to recognize each other. She wrapped me in a huge hug, lit a cigarette, and sat us down right there in the bus station so we could lose no time catching up. She had choir rehearsal that night—her youngest daughter will get married next month and she and a couple dozen other members of the family will sing at the wedding. So we talked fast--our families, our children, our work. Then Daniel called to say he was coming to pick us up.

“I love that man!” she said, kissing her cell phone. “He is so nice!”

They drove me through dark streets—palm trees, plazas, nineteenth-century mansions—and dropped me at my hotel. The next morning, when I called, Rosina said hoarsely, “I thought you were going to sleep in.”
“I did.” It was maybe 10:30. “Did I wake you?”
“No, I’ve been up for an hour. I’m sitting in bed knitting.” These days, she has a small business designing and making clothing, pillows and other things.

She picked me up and drove us east along a curving beach lined with apartment buildings, through a leafy neighborhood of low houses, and then out to see the new air terminal east of town, a white swoop of a building, gleaming and graceful.

She smoked and drove and filled me in on Uruguayan politics. She described a recent vote to keep a law giving the military amnesty for misdeeds during the junta of the late 70s and early 80s.

“Why?” I asked, fresh in my mind the museum in Córdoba that memorialized Argentina’s disappeared. I knew there’d been abuse and torture in Uruguay during that era as well.

“First of all,” she said, “those who did the worst things are already in prison. There was a provision in the law that they could prosecute those there was a clear case against. And people don’t want to remember that time. And they recognize that we need the militars, even if sometimes they go too far. In every country, the militars go too far. What they did, they did in response to the actions of the terrorists.”

She had already told me the president of the country is a former terrorist—and that there’s a shopping mall where once a prison held guerillas. The president wants to revoke the amnesty law and the U.N. Commission for Human Rights wants it gone too.

“But our national government should come before an international government,” she said. “And the people have voted to keep the law.”

“Uruguayans love democracy,” she said at another point. “It is a passion.”

We pulled into a green park in front of a big stone mansion that’s now an art museum, its cupola haunted, local legend says, by the mad daughter of the mansion’s former owner. Inside was an exhibit that used newspaper ads from an 80s-era propaganda campaign to say something—neither of us could figure out exactly what—about those times, about violence and memory. We gave up trying to parse the artist´s meaning and wandered out to the Japanese garden out back, but it was closed for repairs.

So we drove down a tree-lined avenue filled with dappled light to the anthropology museum in another old mansion, one Rosina remembered from her childhood, when it belonged to a friend of her father’s. The rooms had great high windows, hideous flocked wallpaper and a cobblestoned courtyard with an ornate fountain. The displays depicted bygone occupations, a tinsmith, a marble cutter, a knife sharpener, a man who made brooms. One showed a man with a bag of raw wool and a contraption with curved metal teeth.

“I remember that,” Rosina said. “Men would come around to your house and open up the mattresses along the seam, take out the wool, fluff it up again and put it back in. Afterwards, the mattress would be so soft.”

Her own neighborhood, Prado, was old and mainly elegant, but with the occasional surprising juxtaposition. The president’s mansion, where he lives when he isn’t at his farm, is a block away from some buildings used for cattle expositions. We drove into a park with a curving arroyo and a huge rose garden—very famous, Rosina said—and pulled up next to a memorial depicting the last five members of the Charrúa, an indigenous group hunted to extinction.

“We will visit them,” she said, spraying the smoky car with air freshener as we got out. “It’s a great story, a great story.”

Though there were only about 6000 Charrúa, they resisted Spanish domination for 300 years, she said. “Can  you imagine? 300 years.” They adopted only those aspects of the invading culture that appealed to them, including horses and playing cards. It was the playing cards that set Rosina on a year-long project researching them. Back in the late 90s, the company she worked for asked her to extrapolate the missing cards from a partial deck, made out of rawhide, that the people the statues depicted had left behind in France.

The last members of the tribe were in France because they’d been taken there early in the 19th century to be studied in some institute or other. When the scientists were done with them, they were sold to a circus. Two of the men escaped and were never heard of again. The other man and the woman had a child, born in a French hospital, the woman squatting on the floor and letting no one near her but her husband. She died soon after, but the man took the baby and escaped. He too was never heard of again.

“Isn’t that a great story?”

“A tragic story.”
“But so great that they held to their own ways for 300 years. They didn’t give in, even though it would have been an easier life.”

We went on to her house, the same house she lived in from the time she was 15 until she married Daniel. Her family used to live nearby when she was very young, and one day, she said, her father went out for a walk. When he came back, he said to her mother, “Guess what? I bought the house on the corner.”

It was in terrible repair then. Now, at about 180 years old, it’s a simple and gracious place, a large, square, flat-roofed, yellow-painted structure surrounded by tall, leafy trees and a high iron fence. Past the loose-stone courtyard out back is a smaller house where Rosina’s oldest daughter lives with her husband and cherubic baby.

Inside, the house had walls painted in warm colors, wood and tile floors, high ceilings and wooden shutters on tall narrow windows covered in lace. The décor was the appealing hodgepodge it takes several generations to accumulate—crucifixes, paintings, demitasse cups, family photographs, sea shells, a tray of maté gourds and thermoses. In the bathroom was the poster Rosina designed for the Antonioni retrospective that Cornell Cinema put on thirty years ago.

A few days and several outings-about-town later, we were back at her house, sitting in the living room eating the meat Daniel grilled for us in the fireplace, slices of chorizo, beef and pork on little rounds of bread. Earlier, I’d helped her sew together the brightly colored crocheted pillows she was making for a customer, and as we worked she smoked and we talked and teased just as we’d done so many years ago. When I told her I had finished my pillow she said, “You’re finished, OK. But is it good?”

I laughed. “It’s genius,” I said.

Now we were eating Uruguayan beef and sipping Uruguayan wine as eucalyptus wood popped loudly in the fireplace. My mind was pleasantly full of plazas, museums, cathedrals and recommendations for movies I should see, writers I should read. I was so glad I’d come to Montevideo—partly for all that, but mostly for the joy of finding that my old friend is much as I remembered her and that her life is happy and full.

Sitting in the riverside restaurant the next afternoon, I realized that though I’ll have a few more days in Buenos Aires, that cozy evening by the fire felt like the real end point to these four good months in South America. I can’t imagine a better finale.


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