Traveling AgainWednesday, November 15, 2006
There is a curious smell in all the subways of the world and the Buenos Aires subte is no exception. It may be a combination of the electricity-generated ozone, rusting brake-pad dust and the hint of urine. I love the smell. I also love the noise and the flow of hot, dry air when another subte rushes by in the opposite direction. I thought I would never be able to share this nostalgia for my Buenos Aires youth. For me the shine had come off travel. I was wrong thanks to a little girl.
It all began in the summer of 2003 when my wife Rosemary and I went to Washington DC. We brought along our granddaughter Rebecca (then 6). At the National Gallery I plunked Rebecca in front of my favourite American painting. Rebecca looked at the two ducks, flying askew and said, “That’s Winslow Homer’s Right and Left.” Several of the museum goers present were quite startled and I smiled.
Before leaving for DC, I had shown Rebecca, in books from my library, three Francisco Goyas (one the portrait of the Duke of Wellington), one Leonardo Da Vinci (portrait of Ginevra de ‘Benci), one Jacques-Louis David ( Napoleon in his Study), Salvador Dali’s Sacrament of the Last Supper and my favourite Winslow Homer. These were the only paintings we saw at the National Gallery although we did take some extra time to stop at Edgar Degas’s sculpture, Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.
In the mid 80s 70s Rosemary, and our then teen and pre-teen daughters, Ale and Hilary and I had gone for a month’s trip to Europe. Our girls hated being dragged around the Louvre, the Prado, and the British Museum. They specially objected to the El Greco’s of Toledo. They wanted to shop or flirt with the handsome bell boys back at the hotel. Only in the beaches of Málaga did they finally stop sulking.
I did not know then what I know now: When you travel with children you travel for them. Our efficient sweep of the National Gallery in 2003 gave us the time to lunch at the venerable Willard Hotel, Rebecca held 4 inch long live cockroaches at the Museum of Natural History and we enjoyed at leisure an almost full day at the National Zoo. Best of all, Rebecca was not turned off to visiting museums as was the case with her mother Hilary years before.
So in December, 2004 we traveled to Buenos Aires and the beach resort of Punta del Este in Uruguay with Rebecca.
Our 18 hour flight to Buenos Aires (Vancouver, Toronto, and Santiago) was grueling but Rebecca slept through most of it with the help of the large pillow and blanket we had brought. In her little red carry-on she had her books and her felts for drawing. When we landed on Buenos Aires’s Aeropuerto Ministro Pistarini, Rosemary and I felt like tired rags while Rebecca was fresh and awake in spite of the 38 degree heat. It was like that for the rest of our three-week stay in Buenos Aires and Punta del Este. We always had to play catch up with her. It didn’t take long for Rebecca to adapt to the porteño habit of having dinner at 10 and going to bed past midnight.
By morning Rebecca required a schedule. This meant the usual hotel breakfast of café con leche and medias lunas de grasa (astounding croissants made with lard, not butter). I prepared her for the day by giving her quick descriptions of where we were going. During our day we made sure we stopped at cafes for café cortado (espresso with a shot of milk), Rebecca opted for orange Fanta or we had our dulce de leche tentación ice cream cones at the ubiquitous Freddos. At these stops and especially under the shade of the huge gomero (Ficus macrophylla or Moreton Bay fig tree) at La Biela coffee shop, Rebecca liked to open her traveling sketch book to draw or paste subway tickets and low denomination Argentine pesos. Rosemary had not forgotten to pack a glue stick. During the week we knew that the last subte to our hotel, the Park Elegance Kempinski, near the fashionable Recoleta district, was the 10:45. We didn’t worry, Buenos Aires taxis never seemed to exceed the Canadian equivalent of $2.00 on their meters or we walked.
We didn’t visit the elegant Teatro Colón opera house nor did we watch tango dancers at the Café Tortoni. In fact most people would say we didn’t see anything in Buenos Aires. But more than anything I wanted Rebecca to meet my very English relatives and show her a bit of my personal Buenos Aires. While we could have gone everywhere in the subte this was no way of seeing all the parks and beautiful boulevards. We walked up Avenida Santa Fe and stopped at all the shoe stores. A 7 year-old is no different from a 15 year old teenager! On the famous pedestrian Calle Florida Rebecca was enchanted by the street tango dancers and especially by an old gray-haired man dancing a 30s milonga with a young man in slicked back hair. Rebecca’s favourite stops (and mine, too) were the venerable old pizzerias like Las Cuartetas, Burgio, Los Inmortales and El Cuartito. We stood up for a porción de muzzarella [Argentine spelling] which Rosemary and Rebecca washed down with agua mineral while I had a glass of ice-cold moscato, a sweet wine that traditionally Argentines drink with their pizza.
Rebecca wanted to see penguins. We saw penguins and every other imaginable animal at the Zoológico including an ugly guanaco. At age 7, I had pointed and laughed at one. With a precise double hit the animal spat on my face (oh, the stench and the pain!). Rebecca laughed at my story and we kept our distance. Next door to the zoo, is the Jardín Botánico. It was here that the magic realism of Latin America leant itself to my Rebecca’s sensibilities. Besides having exotic plants and a notable collection of 19th century statuary the garden is famous for its cats, hundreds of them. It seems that porteños abandon their unwanted grown up kittens here. Rebecca picked up just about every one. A mysterious cat lover must feed them as they all looked in top shape.
Rebecca’s most surprising contribution to our trip was her desire to go to places that were free. I never had much love for Eva Perón. I hated the useless wooden toys she gave us for Los Tres Reyes (the three kings of the Epiphany). I wanted a Meccano. But Rebecca had seen the film Evita so we had to go twice to the presidential palace, la Casa Rosada, to see the balcony from which she made her speeches. I chose not to mention the existence of the Eva Perón Museum. Nearby was the Catedral Metropolitana with the elaborate tomb to Argentine independence hero General Don José de San Martín. Guarding the entrance to the mausoleum were two 6 ft Granaderos de San Martín in their shakos and early 19th century uniforms. Rebecca went nuts snapping with her digital camera. Rosemary had insisted I buy her one. She was right. Rebecca nagged uso to see Evita’s tomb at the Recoleta cemetery. She chose to sketch it in her book. We stayed for three hours walking through the baroque and gaudy monuments to dead Argentine heros.
Rebecca agreed with me that my 84 year-old first cousin and godmother, Inesita O’Reilly ( centre in picture, right), sounded just like the queen of England when she poured our tea. Rebecca had to reluctantly switch to Spanish when she talked to my half-brother Enrique Waterhouse who refuses to speak English since he never met our English father. At the old fashioned San Telmo barrio Enrique took us to a cozy steak restaurant called La Brigada. Rebecca noticed that the waiter was cutting her steak with a fork and a spoon. For dessert, as part of Rebecca’s routine (and mine) we always had flan served with crema chantilly (whipped cream with sugar) and dulce de leche.
Once we arrived at Punta del Este Rebecca liked to eat at our apartment in the evening and she made it a habit to write postcards to her parents and friends. Part of the fun was going to the little post office to buy the stamps. We enjoyed the contrast of going in the colectivo (bus) to the playa mansa (calm) beach of the River Plate side of the peninsula on one day while on another we would enjoy the brava on the rougher Atlantic Ocean. From the point, a few blocks from our apartment, we could stand exactly where the ocean and the river meet. Looking South Rebecca, asked me, “Are there penguins down there? Where is our next adventure going to be?” I cannot wait. And I haven’t. Since going to Argentina we have gone to Guanajuato, Mexico (2005) and Morelia, Michoacán, Mexico (2006).