Christmas in Argentina is celebrated on December 24, but things don’t really get started until late at night. Christmas stockings are not traditional here, so for fun Lore and I brought some for her family. We hung them from the counter in the dining room.
At midnight the adults all brought the gifts to the tabletop tree. Then we brought Lore’s five-year old nephew in and told him that Papa Noel (Santa Claus) had come. Lore’s youngest sister even dressed up as Papa Noel and pretended to be caught leaving the house. Oddly, even in the subtropical summer heat he still dresses for the North Pole. For a nineteen year old girl my sister-in-law made a pretty good Papa Noel.
After midnight we exchanged gifts. Outside the entire city erupted in fireworks—another benefit of summertime Christmas. Argentina doesn’t bother with the exercise of outlawing or discouraging fireworks in the name of safety, and they are everywhere. Some people lit globos, paper hot-air balloons that sail glowing overhead.
Driving Lore’s grandmother and aunt home, we passed a club where some celebrating was to happen. It was still empty, as it was only around 2 a.m. and much too early to start partying. Lore’s younger siblings went out later but we took a pass on the all-night dancing this time.
Saturday, December 25 was more of a take-it-easy day. We actually swam in a backyard swimming pool on Christmas. It was a hot day, but the pool was pleasant in the late afternoon. We shared mate in the shade afterward. Taking mate is a nice, easy-going ritual of conversation and passing around tea that we sip from a common straw.
All this swimming and hanging out in the yard reminds me that Argentina is not “Chrismassy” from an American point of view. Of course the weather is not Christmas-like, but the decorations are pretty minimal and the gift-giving is modest. I think Argentina’s Christmas lacks the excess I’ve come to despise, and that is okay with me.
It was hot. The dryness made the heat tolerable, especially indoors, but the heat sort of crept up on us and wore us down. I think humidity, for all the discomfort it causes, is a gift in the sense that it alerts you to unpleasantly hot weather sooner rather than later.
We’d wait for it to cool off before going downtown. On Sunday we went to the Paseo de los Artesanos—also known locally as “los hippies”—a popular weekly street fair. The vendors aren’t so much hippies as independent designers and crafters. In the U.S. these fairs are common enough that it’s hard to find the good stuff among all the junk, but this fair was pretty good. Lore says the same is happening with this fair, though; it has outgrown the plaza and many vendors have opened permanent shops on the adjacent streets.
The cool Sunday evening was also an occasion for asado (barbecue) with Lore’s friends. We brought bags of surplus Halloween candy to share. American candy goes down well here, though Lore’s friends didn’t quite know what to make of Tootsie Rolls.
The heat wave intensified on Monday to over 100 degrees Fahrenheir, and the local news announced a “heat alert”. I knew it got hot in Argentina but that was hottest I had experienced in my several trips there. The news announcer said to stay home and take a nap in the afternoon, and we obeyed.
After it cooled off, we walked across town to visit Lore’s grandmother and aunt. On the way we walked through the National University campus. In front of the business school there was a big mess, like an elephant had thrown up on the walk. Lore pointed and said, “That’s what happens when you get your degree.” As if that wasn’t enough of an eyebrow-raising thought, just then a young woman walked past wearing only her underwear, but covered from head to foot in multicolored mess. Lore explained that when you graduate, your friends cut off your clothes and douse you with food, paint, confetti, or whatever they can bring from home. “You have to make sure you wear nice underwear and bring something to sit on so your car doesn’t get dirty,” she said.
The next day the the heat wave broke. We went to a downtown bookstore to buy a Spanish dictionary. I mean a real one, with definitions in Spanish, not a Spanish to English dictionary. My Spanish was very, very rusty on this trip and the dictionary will help with that (and with Scrabble too).
Lore tried to explain peanut butter to her mother. Descriptions of peanut butter always get the same reaction from non-Americans and I could never understand why. It’s so simple and mundane that it hardly merits a mention, but some people find it as exotic as I might find fried grasshoppers. It also turns out our use of fruit as part of any meal (like breakfast) is a bit odd. Fruit, to Argentinians, is thought of as an after-lunch dessert. So my breakfast of fresh fruit and a cup of yogurt stood out as a little bizarre.
For all that, Argentina has never been very shocking to me. I’m always struck by how similar it is to the U.S. And there are I times I can’t tell the difference. We went shopping at Patio Olmos, a downtown shopping mall, and ate lunch in the food court. When I squinted and blurred out the Spanish menus I felt like I could have been anywhere. Lore related to her family my comment that I didn’t think Argentina was a Third World country (more like a Second World country, as I like to joke). That was worth a couple of days of discussion over tea.
At the end of the year the shops were open during the day, but waiters and cab drivers seemed grouchy and in a hurry to go home. We passed New Year’s Eve with a nice chicken dinner with Lore’s family on their patio. They don’t watch television—there is no ball drop like in Times Square—but as expected all hell broke loose at the appointed moment.
The fireworks in the neighborhood were even more intense than on Christmas. The most spectacular thing about these fireworks was their ubiquitousness. Since they go off in all directions you have to pay attention, so as not miss anything but also for your safety.
On New Year’s Day Lore’s mom and stepfather took us up the scenic route to Villa Giardino. We went first through Córdoba’s suburban towns and then by a new highway over the sierras. The sierras were cool and covered in lush green pastures full of horses and cows. The paved highway isn’t complete, so we took a bumpy dirt road that wound its way down the other side of the hills to La Falda, where my mother-in-law grew up. La Falda is a cute summer town but most of the cafes were closed for the holiday.
At night, back in Córdoba, we were looking for something to do. After the rain stopped, we went to Paseo del Buen Pastor for a lomito (like a Philly cheese steak but with much more cholesterol). We also strolled through the Plaza España to see the Christmas decorations. The concrete monuments were wrapped up like giant gift boxes and a tall tree of Christmas lights rose from its center of the plaza.
In our down time, Lore and I flipped through her mom’s old magazines. One biweekly, Caras, is a bit like an Argentinian version of People. I was struck by how many celebrities Argentina has for a country with a medium-sized population; the percentage of whom appear in this magazine seems extremely high. Pretty much anybody wealthy, prominent, or successful who wants their picture taken is a celebrity. My mother-in-law calls them figureti: those who stick their heads into other people’s photos. They are sort of like an volunteer army of Kim Kardashians and Paris Hiltons, who fill the gaps in the endless celebrity news cycle.
This was not much of a sight-seeing trip, so I don’t have many good photos to share. It was more of a visiting, celebrating, and shopping trip and I was glad to put the camera away for most of it.