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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”