El Mate No Es Una Bebida

A poem by Lalo Mir

Picture this: a street corner in the city center, rush hour. A man, who, with a thermos in one hand and a full gourd of mate in the other, leapt onto the back of what I can only guess to be his friend's moped at a stoplight. Mere seconds later, the moped sped off. Its new passenger, his hands being otherwise occupied, never grabbed hold of anything: not the moped, not the arm or even shoulder of the driver in front of him. It seems only fitting to break my hiatus from the blog to bring you more on the beverage that seems to fix its beholders onto motor vehicles like the glue of God. While my mother may not be convinced that keeping a firm hand on mate keeps you from tumbling off of a moving vehicle, I witnessed it myself. 

After a conversation about mate and my previous post on the subject, one of my students shared this poem by Argentine radio host Lalo Mir. With the help of the rest of the class that challenges me everyday to be a better grammarian, I bring you an English translation paired with the original. I find it simply lovely, and I will let Mir's words - and our translation - speak for itself.

Mate is not a drink

Mate is not a drink.
Well, yes, it’s a liquid that enters through the mouth
But it is not a drink.
In this country no one drinks mate because they are thirsty.
It’s more like a custom, an itch.

Mate is exactly the opposite of television:
it makes you talk if you are with someone;
it makes you think if you are alone.

When anyone comes into your home, the first utterance is Hello and the second: Any mate?
This happens everywhere:
in houses of the rich and in houses of the poor.
Between longwinded women and gossips,
between men, serious and immature.
In nursing homes and among adolescents whether they study or get high.
It is the only thing that parents and children share without any argument or reproach.

Liberals and conservatives pour mate without question.
In summer and in winter.
It is the only thing that we seem to share between the victims and the executioners; between the good and the bad.

When you have a son, you start giving him mate as soon as he asks.
You give it to him only slightly warm, with a lot of sugar, and he feels he is big.
You feel a great pride
when your birth son starts sucking up mate.
Your heart beats out of your chest.

And later, with some years, they will choose to take it bitter, sweet, very hot, terere, with orange peel, herbs, or with a squeeze of lemon.

When you meet someone for the first time, you drink some mate.
They will ask, when there is not yet any trust: Sweet or bitter?
And their answer: as you like it.

The keyboards in Argentina have keys full of yerba.
Yerba is the only thing that is always there, in every house.
In times of inflation, hunger, war, democracy, or of any of our pests or eternal curses.
And if one day there is no yerba, a neighbor who has it gives it to you.
Yerba is not denied to anyone.

This is the only country in the world where the decision to stop being a boy and start being a man occurs on one particular day.
Not on the day of his first pair of long pants or of circumcision,
not his first day of University or of living away from parents.

Here we become adults the day we have the need to drink mate for the first time alone.
It’s not by chance. It’s not just because.
On the day that a boy puts the kettle on the fire
and drinks his first mate when no one else is home,
it is in that minute that he discovers his soul.
Or he is scared to death , or he's dead in love , or something else...
but it is not an ordinary day.
None of us remembers the day we drank mate alone for the first time
but each of these days was important
For on the inside too there are revolutions.

The simple mate is nothing more and nothing less than a demonstration of values.
It is the solidarity to bear taste of watered-down mate because the conversation is good.
It’s the lovely company.
The chat, not the mate.
It’s the respect for the time to speak and to listen,
while you speak and another one drinks, it is the sincerity to say:
Stop, change the yerba!

It is companionship made in an instant.
The sensitivity to hot water.
It is the care to ask, stupidly,
“it’s hot, no?”
It’s the modesty of who serves the best mate.
It’s the generosity of giving until the very end.
It is the hospitality of the invitation.
It is the justice of one for another.
It is the obligation to say Gracias, at least once a day.*
It is the ethical, honest and straightforward attitude,
with no great pretense other than to share.

El mate no es una bebida

El mate no es una bebida.
Bueno, sí. Es un líquido y entra por la boca.
Pero no es una bebida.
En este país nadie toma mate porque tenga sed.
Es más bien una costumbre,
como rascarse.

El mate es exactamente lo contrario que la televisión: te hace conversar si estás con alguien, y te hace pensar cuando estás solo.

Cuando llega alguien a tu casa la primera frase es ´hola´ y la segund´¿unos mates?´.
Esto pasa en todas las casas.
En la de los ricos y en la de los pobres.
Pasa entre mujeres charlatanas y chismosas, y pasa entre hombres serios o inmaduros.
Pasa entre los viejos de un geriátrico y entre los adolescentes mientras estudian o drogan.
Es lo único que comparten los padres y los hijos sin discutir ni echarse en cara.

Peronistas y radicales ceban mate sin preguntar.
En verano y en invierno.
Es lo único en lo que nos parecemos
las víctimas y los verdugos,
los buenos y los malos.

Cuando tenés un hijo, le empezás a dar mate cuando te pide.
Se lo das tibiecito, con mucha azúcar, y se sienten grandes.
Sentís un orgullo enorme
cuando un esquenuncito de tu sangre empieza a chupar mate.
Se te sale el corazón del cuerpo.

Después ellos, con los años, elegirán si tomarlo amargo,
dulce, muy caliente, tereré, con cáscara de naranja,
con yuyos, con un chorrito de limón.

Cuando conocés a alguien por primera vez, te tomás unos mates. La gente
pregunta, cuando no hay confianza: ´¿Dulce o amargo?´. El otro responde:
´Como tomes vos´.

Los teclados de Argentina tienen las letras llenas de yerba.
La yerba es lo único que hay siempre, en todas las
Con inflación, con hambre, con militares, con democracia, con cualquiera de nuestras pestes y maldiciones eternas.
Y si un día no hay yerba, un vecino tiene y te da.
La yerba no se le niega a nadie.

Éste es el único país del mundo en donde la decisión de dejar de ser un chico y empezar a ser un hombre ocurre un día en particular.
Nada de pantalones largos, circuncisión, universidad o vivir lejos de los padres.

Acá empezamos a ser grandes el día que tenemos la necesidad de tomar por primera vez unos mates, solos.
No es casualidad. No es porque sí.
El día que un chico pone la pava al fuego y toma su primer mate sin que haya nadie en casa, en ese minuto, es que ha descubierto que tiene alma.
O está muerto de miedo, o está muerto de amor, o algo: pero no es un día cualquiera.
Ninguno de nosotros nos acordamos del día en que tomamos por primera vez un mate solo. Pero debe haber sido un día importante para cada uno.
Por adentro hay revoluciones.

El sencillo mate es nada más y nada menos que una demostración de valores.
Es la solidaridad de bancar esos mates lavados porque la charla es buena.
Es querible la compañia. La charla, no el mate.
Es el respeto por los tiempos para hablar y escuchar,
vos hablás mientras el otro toma
y es la sinceridad para decir: ¡Basta, cambiá la yerba!´

Es el compañerismo hecho momento.
Es la sensibilidad al agua hirviendo.
Es el cariño para preguntar, estúpidamente, ´¿está caliente, no?´.
Es la modestia de quien ceba el mejor mate.
Es la generosidad de dar hasta el final.
Es la hospitalidad de la invitación.
Es la justicia de uno por uno.
Es la obligación de decir ´gracias´, al menos una vez al día.*
Es la actitud ética, franca y leal de
encontrarse sin mayores pretensiones
que compartir.

*there is a universal, unspoken rule that you must say "Gracias" but only once: when returning the mate for the last time, signifying that you are full and do not wish to drink anymore

Love Like Salt


A twisty and high altitude-reaching car ride brought us to the Salinas Grandes. Its Wikipedia page is curiously short, its tripadvisor page a trifle more helpful (rated 4.5 stars!). Having no idea what to expect, the sensation of actually standing on and among so much salt was, with the altitude, palpably breathtaking. I almost fell once and reached out to a pile of salt (there are actual piles of them) to break my fall. It was very sharp and to my immediate surprise a pointy bit punctured my skin only slightly. The salt crystals only glittered beautifully back at me, reflective and bemused. I will never reach casually for table salt again. 

It all reminded me of this poem,  which I hope finds my readers and their table salt very well:

Love Like Salt by Lisel Mueller

It lies in our hands in crystals

too intricate to decipher

It goes into the skillet

without being given a second thought

It spills on the floor so fine

we step all over it

We carry a pinch behind each eyeball

It breaks out on our foreheads

We store it inside our bodies

in secret wineskins

At supper, we pass it around the table

talking of holidays and the sea.


Bombitas de Queso


I've seen my dad cook to curious edibility all of the following in a microwave oven: eggs, potatoes, corn on the cob, bacon, oatmeal and mushrooms. He also showed me how, carefully, to melt mozzarella cheese on bread for a quick "grilled" cheese so as to keep it *just* moist enough (but not too moist) without tragically exploding the sandwich. I internalized how important this skill was about a decade later in college around the same time I first recalled that distant afternoon my mom showed me how use a moist paper towel to scoop up the annoying line of dust that persists when you're sweeping into a dustpan.

Despite being an obvious man of the economy and efficiency of the microwave, my dad can also really whip up a real meal. Knowing full well I'm bragging, every morning for me growing up was fresh-cut fruit and sage sausage cooked very, very, very slowly on a virtually unwashed, perfectly seasoned cast iron skillet -- all washed down elegantly with a glass of water and a weird number of vitamins. Supper in the wintertime was slow-cooked green beans and freshly baked bread with whatever else. And in the summer, cucumbers and red onions in vinegar or a colorful cabbage carrot slaw. When I was in Middle School his milled flax seed pizza dough (which he dreamed up back when health foods weren't so trendy and when "omega 3" sounded more like a Motorola cellphone model than a critical health supplement) rose to critical acclaim and became the signature ingredient to some of my fondest sleepover memories between the years of 11 and 14: unsupervised pizza making.

So despite an affinity for it, my dad still likes to improvise and experiment outside of the microwave box. In his character and way of going about things, I know one thing for sure about him which is that however unpredictable the path, he will always end up doing the right thing. He always tips baristas even when he orders a drip coffee and never speeds up to the danger of other humans or small animals in parking lots no matter how late we are for the appointment. He never gives up on people or the GPS, despite many a tiresome or aggrevating diversion. In this way, he embodies, among so much else, the culinary process.

I find myself thinking about this a lot here in Argentina, sitting down to meals and meeting new people, families. There is something so pure in sitting down to a meal without any idea of what's coming, but with direction that comes with a certain faith in one other to make something delicious. Today I sat at the kitchen table and did nothing but rinse the lettuce and watch lunch happen, which was a supreme joy. It began with bombitas de queso or "cheese bombs:" dough-wrapped cheese fried in the excess grease and fat of "milanesa" or breaded meat fillets. The 30-some minutes that passed were a symphony: the cheese retrieved from across the street mere moments before the gas was lit, the thump, thump, thump of the meat pounded to equal density and the dough rolled and cut in equal lengths. And then the milanesa: done just in time for the frying of the next thing. All the while, several conversations were happening, fighting for volume with the popping oil as if the cooking was a side-job. Finally, the salad tossed with dashes of salt and lemon.

As might be obvious, I have had zero bad meals over these past two weeks, but even if they were terrible - and they weren't - I don't think I would really know. I'm so glad that cheese melts. Happy birthday, Dad!


Two Journeys

Zoe, my tolerant travel companion who answers roughly 50 Spanish language related questions of mine a day, answered one particularly involved one as we were walking back to our hostel from an exceptionally tasty dinner in El Calafate: crispy milanesa, patagonian lamb, wine, and grilled and boiled vegetables, my favorite of which has become calabaza verde or green pumpkin which has the refreshing tartness of a green tomato without the bitterness that comes when a fried green tomato isn’t fried quite right. (The calabaza verde is very easy to sautée and becomes tender very quick.) 

Cordero (lamb) y verduras (veggies) en "La Tablita" en El Calafate

Cordero (lamb) y verduras (veggies) en "La Tablita" en El Calafate

I was stuck on how to express feeling correctly: "I feel," "to feel," "it feels," etc. “Sentir,” is to feel, but it depends, Zoe explained, when you would really use this particular verb. In English, we are in a longheld linguistic habit of using “feel” when we might also use “seem." "It seems like it's 40 degrees outside" and "it feels like it's 40 degrees outside" could be interchangeable. “It seems like” and “it feels like” are, however, deliberately but subconsciously separated in the Spanish language. Where the verb perecer is to seem, the verb sentir (se), is a reflexive verb meaning to feel, its use reserved for more personal, emotional types of expressions. All of that business is not even getting into the fact that tocar is to (physically) touch.

Because to feel (emotionally) is its own verb, it carries some weight. One might say “me siento feliz” (I feel happy) or “me siento infeliz" (I feel unhappy). Sentir is also a crucial part of the expression “lo siento” which is familiar to a number of English speakers and means “I’m sorry” but only very loosely. What “lo siento” means more directly is “I feel it.

So to say “lo siento” or “I feel it” when you bump into someone’s arm in the grocery aisle is not really sending the right vibe; this is when one would say “perdón” and keep moving. So when, then, do you say “lo siento”? In a more emotionally consequential circumstance: when you want to express with someone that you understand and that you too will bear the emotional burden:  sickness, a death, a tough day, a small but human mistake.

On our first night in El Calafate, which was also our first night not traveling or sharing a water bottle, our two tired souls met two other traveling souls: Tina and Dirk, hailing distantly from Germany. They had been traveling together for a 15 month adventure of a lifetime: through Bangkok, Tasmania (their favorite), Nepal, Chile, and now Argentina, planning to round off their trip after having passed through the Darwinian sanctuary of the Galapagos and the calm of Iceland with its many cafes and its apparently very special hot dog stand called "Baejarins beztu pylsur" which translates to "The Best Hot Dog in Town," of course.

We had a lot of questions for them: what inspired their trip, had it been hard to leave home and family, to say goodbye to friends of all kinds, to leave work. In awe of their relaxed and outgoing spirits after so many months of traveling as a pair, our hurried questions felt sort of silly once uttered. For some an investment is one more car, a bigger apartment, just one more thing - but for Dirk and Tina it was this grand and wonderful adventure that they, jointly, had decided to do and had saved up for diligently, just as one would with any other major transaction. The “things” would always be there.

Dirk described their experience together as “two journeys:” the first being the world journey itself and the other of getting to know the other person through that lense. Where the desire to leave everything behind, to get up and go, might be this grand universal sentiment (an emotion, a feeling), so is this openness and readiness to share the experience alongside another person. A lot of people wonder what it would be like to travel the world with another human, be it a friend or romantic partner, but don’t actually do it. “You think about it, but you cannot feel it,” Dirk said.

Until you do do it, at least. Cheers to feeling and not thinking - and to saying “perdón” instead of “sorry.” After all, if you really do want to say sorry, it’s truly never too late.

La primera vivienda or "the first home" in El Calafate, Santa Cruz province

La primera vivienda or "the first home" in El Calafate, Santa Cruz province

Grapefruit and Why I'm Moving to Argentina

In college I realized that I liked grapefruit and it changed my life. I had read in a cheery health magazine that grapefruit was special for its "anti-inflammatory properties." This sounded like a good thing, so on my next grocery adventure I purchased two grapefruits: one at Whole Foods and one at Kroger. Maybe fancy grapefruit is better, I thought, who knows.

The next morning, a cold morning, I sliced the Whole Foods grapefruit in half. I was more worried about wasting this one and it did actually look fancier and specklier in an interesting way. I carried one half with me on the way to an early morning class and stowed the other half in an almost-too-small ziploc bag.  I flitted along the brick collegiate walkways with the kind of bounce in my step that I imagined the woman on the cover of the cheery health magazine had after she ate her morning grapefruit. 

The problem was that one half of a grapefruit is nearly impossible to eat if you're not sitting down with a great deal of focus and brandishing a fancy spoon that is manufactured for eating grapefruit and nothing else - something the magazine neglected to mention. I expertly circumnavigated this problem by shoveling my front teeth and thus my face into the open grapefruit as if I were a pie-eating contestant or barbarian, because I was not NOT eating this grapefruit. This process was, as you can imagine, messy and difficult. It was also very cold, especially on a cold morning, to baptize myself in grapefruit juice that I wasn't even sure I liked at all.

But then my slow morning-brain, slave to more negative thoughts (the complications and logistics of eating a large fruit object so early in the morning, harsh winter morning climate, no gloves) finally responded to the urgent announcement from my taste buds which in silent alarm were freaking out. I liked the grapefruit. I loved the grapefruit. Every bitter memory passed hence, and I, a barbarian without a grapefruit spoon, sat down on a bus stop bench to devour it and the other ziploc-ed half at my leisure. Perhaps the grapefruit is a thing I had grown to love or perhaps someone somewhere up high flipped a switch at that moment, just for fun ("Ha! Catherine will like grapefruit now! Let's watch this blow her mind"). Either way, it's my favorite fruit now.

Argentina is not a grapefruit. It's a big country and I haven't tasted it before. I'm going because I know there are so many things out there (in the province of Corrientes and beyond) that I like that I haven't even held yet. To think that a grapefruit was something I had tasted before! Imagine the possibilities that lie among the things I'll experience that, as of now, I could not even conjure up!

EB White wrote in The Elements of Style: "If you don't know how to pronounce a word, say it loud! Why compound ignorance with inaudibility? Why run and hide?" In two weeks and approximately two hours I will fly to Argentina: not to run and hide but to be myself but somewhere that's new. I will travel, tutor English, practice Spanish and maybe learn to speak it fluently. I will meet people and experience places and I'll probably miss versions of home: my dog who is old and deaf and can only hear me when I'm holding bacon, my friends when they're not just a snapchat away, but at my side and patting my back. I'll miss my mom asking if I wore my retainer last night, and the smell of my dad's hats. I will not understand a lot of things I hear but I will try, and I will understand more by the end. 

For those without a grapefruit spoon who wish to eat grapefruits on-the-go without scaring others, cut it into eighths and keep a wet wipe at hand.

And as a rule, the Kroger ones are just as good.