Discovering Family in Argentina

Q: What’s the proper way to greet family you’ve never met before?

A: In Argentina: with kisses, warmth — and a heck of a lot of steak.

Earlier this year, with a visit to relatives in Argentina only days away, I received my first email in Spanish from my grandmother. This may not sound noteworthy, but the fact that she wrote it in her mother tongue transformed it for me from a simple letter into a welcome to a part of my family I hadn’t known before: the Argentine side.

Audrey and Oma
Audrey and Oma. Isn’t she cute (Oma, that is)?

Author’s note: Our visit to Argentina was months ago, so why am I writing about this now? With the holidays coming, I began to reflect on tradition, family and what it means to be “far away.”

My Soccer-Loving, Mate-Drinking Grandma

When I was growing up, there were a few things that made my grandma different from other grandmas. She wasn’t just the cutest grandma in the world, one that I called Oma. She really was a little different, in a good way.

During my visits with her in the suburbs of Philadelphia, she would drink this bitter herbal tea out of a hollow gourd using a funny sieve-like metal straw. Whenever I tasted it, I’d wince, and she’d laugh, “It’s just something you have to grow up with to like.

This was mate: an Argentine beverage, an Argentine social institution.

She was also an avid soccer (football) fan, seeking it out on television whenever she had the chance. During my soccer games as a kid, she was usually the only grandma in attendance, cheering away on the sidelines. More than that, she actually knew something about the game.

She had a cute little accent, too. I didn’t pay much attention to it when I was growing up. After all, this was just how my Oma spoke. But her letters to me – written in English – were always flawless. I later found out this was thanks to my grandfather, a journalist and editor. Only when he was no longer able to edit did I begin to notice some grammar mistakes creeping into her letters.

All of this is a long way of saying: Oma grew up in a different culture, somewhere far from the United States.

A Gardener from Switzerland

Like many good stories of family history, this one begins with a man on a boat.

My great-grandfather was a gardener born and raised in Switzerland. In search of economic opportunity (Switzerland wasn’t always the land of abundance that it is today) for him and his fiancée, he boarded a boat from Europe to Argentina in the early 1900s.

Why Argentina? Family lore says that he couldn’t afford a visa to the United States; Argentina was the next best alternative within reach.

Aboard the ship, he happened to meet the owner of the Eden Hotel, a luxury retreat for the European elite tucked into the hills outside Cordoba, Argentina in a small town called La Falda. It was the sort of place where royalty vacationed for months on end and guests were allotted their own horse and stable.

With that conversation, he secured himself a position. My great-grandmother came over from Switzerland to get married and start a life together in Argentina. He worked for years as a landscaper and gardener and built a family home only a few blocks away from the hotel.

From Buenos Aires to the World

Years later, the family moved to Buenos Aires so as to provide more educational opportunities for the children. My grandma, the youngest of five, was born there.

When we visited Buenos Aires, I emailed Oma to ask about where she grew up. She responded instantly with an address, one apparently embedded in her permanent memory.

We took a trip there to see her old family home in Villa del Parque, a quiet, almost suburban, neighborhood in Buenos Aires. I tried to imagine what it must have been like for her to grow there in the 1930s.

A lot has changed: the family home has since been divided into apartments and a typical stand-alone Buenos Aires neighborhood has filled in around it. My grandmother could barely recognize it at all from the photos.

Audrey in Front of the Family House in Villa del Parque, Buenos Aires
In front of my great-grandparent’s house in Buenos Aires.

Her walk down memory lane with me included the church where she was married. She’d met a young Lutheran pastor from New York State who had just undertaken his mission, my grandfather. The Lutheran community in Catholic Argentina was quite small: they met at a church function, dated and married in Buenos Aires. A few years later in nearby Rosario, my mother was born.

When my mother was still a toddler, the family moved to the United States. They’d move further still to India and then to Switzerland before again returning to the U.S. All the while, my grandmother was still close with her family. Wherever she was in the world, she’d find a way to return to Argentina every few years for a visit.

From Buenos Aires + Family = Asado

When you find yourself, like me, saddled with American-style inhibitions, contacting people who are technically family but with whom you have no active relationship can feel a bit awkward, to say the least.

But here’s the thing about family in this part of the world: if you’re family, you’re family.

My Argentine family roots are of Swiss origin, but the family structure is decidedly Latin: big families (4-5 kids each) who live near one another and see each other regularly (as in every weekend).

Our first encounters with family in Buenos Aires were in the midst of large family events: twenty people or more, spanning four generations. Everyone gathered together on the weekend for an asado, the traditional Argentine barbecue: long afternoons, relaxation, astounding amounts of meat, and wine to wash it all back.

Weekend Asado (Argentine Barbecue) - Buenos Aires, Argentina
Weekend = family asado time in Buenos Aires.

While I love my family dearly, I should say that I could not imagine living down the street from them and barbecuing every weekend. So it is that I developed a new respect for the close-knit nature of family in Argentine culture. I also began to imagine and appreciate how difficult it must have been for my grandmother to leave Argentina and to be separated from her family all these years.

Then I looked at our own lives in contrast, one that we have deliberately chosen: living thousands of miles away from our families. To all my Argentine kin, it must have seemed so foreign, so uprooted.

Full Circle: Family in La Falda

A few weeks later in La Falda, my mom’s cousin Chango invited us to an asado at his home, the same one my great-grandfather the gardener had built decades before. Just next door stood an adorable a-frame house that was built for a great aunt. It was home to another distant relative. On the outside it read Omi, similar to the name my brother and I called our own grandma (Oma).

As my family plied us with more meat — asado style (they told Dan he really could do with a few more kilos and did their best to act on it immediately) — we recounted our lives in broken Spanish. At the same time, we admired the family, the crowd and the fluidity between them all. We sketched family trees in our heads, drawing connections between the vast network of cousins, second cousins, boyfriends, girlfriends, children, stepchildren and everyone in between.

No more family awkwardness.

Family Gathering in La Falda, Argentina
Family gathering in La Falda, Argentina.

Later that evening, Chango took us to see the old Eden Hotel. These days, it stands quite sadly in ruins — a shell of its former grand self, a monument to a bygone era. An era when there was a horse for each guest, and a man came from Switzerland to tend a garden in Argentina.

As we looked out from the balcony onto the grounds, the sun drew down over a spread of hulking trees with deep roots uplifted.

Chango observed, “Your great-grandfather planted many of these.”

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Comments

  1. says

    @Andi: You can definitely relate to the big families in Argentina! Glad you enjoyed this and yes, my Oma is pretty darn cute.

    @Andrea: At various parts of this journey we’ve been able to do a bit of family research (e.g., finding my grandfather’s birth place in Qingdao, China) or visit places where my family lived at different times. Hope you can visit some of your family scattered around the world with your upcoming trip!

    @Michael: Really glad you enjoyed this piece. One of the things that impressed me about the family gatherings was how boyfriends, girlfriends and friends were like part of the family as well. So, let me introduce you :)

    @Ayngelina: That first photo is from our visit with my grandmother this past summer. She’s still got a lot of spirit!

  2. says

    This is such a lovely piece; my dad spent all of my teenage years nearly obsessed with mapping out the family tree, and it all seemed so silly to my then self. But a few years ago, while I was traveling Europe I met up with my dad in Ireland and he was able to show me gravestones and empty stone houses on land that actually still holds my last name if you look on maps, and even a great-great uncle (still living) – it was then I began to appreciate the family connections and ancestry and discovering roots.

    Loved reading about your family journey, Audrey :-)

  3. says

    What a lovely post. Your Oma sounds like she really might be the cutest grandma in the world, and I love that she was the only grandma at your soccer games :)

  4. says

    @Shannon: What a great experience to be able to travel with your dad around Ireland and actually see where your relatives came from. Even more cool to meet one of your living relatives! There are many things that I thought were silly a couple of decades ago that I now value and appreciate now. Guess that’s one of the few benefits of getting older ;)

    @Emily: She is a pretty special grandma!

  5. says

    What a heartwarming story! It was so touching I added it to my holiday round-up. :)

    I love hearing about family histories. It’s so fascinating to find out the twists and turns of someone’s life. I was spellbound for an hour when one of my husband’s relatives was telling stories of the family origins in Italy.

    Good for you for appreciating and visiting your grandmother! I wish I could see one of my grandparents but they died years ago. Time goes faster than you expect.

  6. says

    @Jennifer: As I get older, I also find family stories much more interesting. Perhaps it’s that I can relate to the decisions and what they must have gone through so much more as an adult and with some life experience under my belt.

    Thanks so much for including this piece in your holiday round up!

  7. says

    Hi Audrey,

    I loved reading this article because I felt you were telling a very similar story to my own. I was born in Buenos Aires but moved to Los Angeles when I was 3. My grandparents on both sides travelled on a boat to get to Argentina from Europe and from the U.S.

    Most of my family is now in Argentina, with my nuclear family being the only ones that ventured out to the U.S. Those who are not in Argentina are people who remained in their original countries, or countries along the way to Argentina: Bulgaria, France, the U.S.

    Thanks for sharing this story, it made me happy to see someone with a very similar background!

    I was fortunate enough to be able to travel back to Argentina every couple of years starting when I was 17 until I decided to study abroad in Buenos Aires and really reconnect with my family instead of visiting just a couple of weeks every two years or so. It was an amazing experience and I now consider Buenos Aires my other home, whose street names and corner cafés I vividly remember.

    Cheers and good luck on your travels!

  8. says

    @Soledad: Thank you for sharing your story! Recently I met a travel blogger in Thailand with a similar Argentina connection. Seems like there are quite a few of us around :) How wonderful you were able to study abroad in Buenos Aires and really get to know your Argentine family. It’s such a great feeling to feel at “home” in multiple places.

  9. says

    I am currently in Bs As, and was going through different blogs to see what other people is saying/ said about the city. Then, I came across this post. I loved it. I hope it is not in the distant future when I can go find that very little known jewish side of my family. Breaking language, cultural and time barriers to find lost connections. It doesn’t get more exciting than that! Thanks for sharing.

  10. says

    @Natalia: Thanks so much for your kind words here. I can only imagine what sort of experience you will have when you find the jewish side of your family – what an emotional and exciting journey you’ll take. Where does this side of the family live? Good luck!!

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