Monday, April 20, 2009

La Hoja de Rosario

Sometimes when I travel, I am confused and over-whelmed when deciding how to translate the place--the experience--into words. When everything around you is new, and you want to convey all of that newness verbally, you will lose the meaning, the feeling, the heart of a place. As Nicole Krauss wrote in A History of Love, "to capture the whole tree, you should focus on drawing only one leaf" (actually the real quote is something much more poetic, but the gist is something to that effect). But, how does one choose the leaf??

This weekend we traveled to Rosario, Argentina's 3rd largest city, 4 hours northwest of Buenos Aires. And here is where I struggle with the leaf metaphor--what can I say about Rosario, or rather, what part of it can I describe that touches on the feeling of the whole? That it is the birthplace of Che Gueverra, as well as Lionel Messi? That it is not the capital of its province--Santa Fe--despite it being the province's biggest city? That it is the "birthplace" of the Argentine flag? Yes, I could say all of these things and expand on them to create a picture of Rosario. But I think that picture would be empty of heart, because truthfully, that is a textbook version of Rosario. As interesting as it may be, it does not connect with people, and that connection is the very heart we are after, the heart of the journey.

So, what is the heart of Rosario to me? I suppose part of it is the river beach where we laid in rolled-up jeans and got tan lines that perfectly outlined our t-shirt sleeves. And part of it is the crazy, unexpected, and over-bearingly patriotic flag monument that rises up out of nowhere and glows blue and white at night, kept aglow by the eternal flame honoring the flag's creator, Manuel Belgrano. And part of it would have to be the beautiful Sunday evening Mass we stumbled upon in the dark, the folksy guitar sounds strumming forth from its choir, parishioners taking Communion, the doors flung open in welcome, and the young couple catching the last moments of service from outside the side door, their antsy toddler at their feet, unable to sit still in a pew.

Part of Rosario to me is also the cab driver who laughed and shouted "City of Al Capone!" when Nick told him I was from Chicago. (Okay, I'm not really from Chicago, but who is going to know Milwaukee?!) And part of the city is the couple on the moped flying down the street with a dog cuddled between their velocity-filled bodies. Part of it has to be, too, the slightly-creepy but character-filled Hotel La Paz and part of it is still the pigeon-filled plaza that our hotel room over-looked. Part of it is the flaky empanadas that are sold a dime-a-dozen, and part of it is the sophisticatedly-scrumptious Don Ferro, where we feasted on pork in mustard sauce, steak in peppercorn sauce, and chicken in mushroom sauce.

But to me, the biggest part of Rosario is the Pena la Amistad, and here is where the story begins...


On Saturday night after arriving, we went to a small cafe/bar on the main Rosario strip, Pellegrini, to drink some Quilmes and catch the last moments of the soccer game (Rosario versus Jujuy). An entertainment show in-and-of-itself, the cafe was silent until a play was made, after which the patrons either jumped up in a chorus of hurray's, or slammed the table in a chorus of boo's. Every cafe on the street was the same as our's, with all the chairs pointed towards the television, with grandfathers, teenage girls, young boys, middle-aged dads, and old senoras all equally entranced by the match. People who left the cafe for a smoke break would hover by the window and watch the TV while nervously puffing down their cigarette, smoking it as fast as they possibly could.

After much anxiety, the game ended in a tie, and we watched with awe as every patron jumped to their feet and filed out of the cafe, joining the massive hordes of football fanatics out on Pellegrini, all spilling out of their respective cafes, free to pursue the rest of their lives now that the soccer game was over. It was a serious lesson in Argentine culture.

Amazed, and with hearts still pounding from the crowd's excitement, we paid our bill and headed to Maipu Avenue to the Pena la Amistad which our Lonely Planet guidebook recommended for some asado and folk music. After a brisk walk, we found Maipu, and walked 6 blocks in, where we came to a block that was dark save for the one place we were headed for, 1111 Maipu, the fated Pena la Amistad.

We walked in and were immediately met with curious (but very welcoming) stares from the cook and the adorable curly-haired waitress. An older gentleman, presumably the cook's husband, came out to greet us and tell us the menu. Our entrance at 9 o'clock marked us immediately as Americans--who else would eat so early?! But we felt welcomed and the waitress came and brought over some house wine immediately, reassuring us that we weren't too early, and informing us that the music would begin in about an hour.

While waiting for the music, we feasted on amazing asado, grilled to perfection, and three lovely rosarino empanadas. The sounds of corks-popping definitely surrounded our table, as we drank down generous glasses of red wine.

Little-by-little, other diners trickled in and sure enough, a man with a guitar in-hand took the stage. Surprisingly, the cook emerged from the kitchen and took the microphone, and then her husband sat himself down with a drum.

The rest is history. We literally lost ourselves in the singing and clapping and foot-stomping that accompanied the musicians as they belted out their soul-filled chacarera tunes. As the night wore on, we opened more bottles of wine and were eventually handed a make-shift marocco (made from salt inside of a plastic Mayonnaise bottle!) and then, gem-of-all-gems, a rain-shaker!!! (Which Nick took great joy in!) It was, really and truly, the time of our lives. We left at 2:30 in the morning, after being there for nearly 6 hours. And we were the first to leave! We left exhausted and desperately needing bed, but feeling like wimps as we left the Pena when it was still a-rockin'! I know I will always remember Rosario mostly for that little hidden folk music treasure, the Pena la Amistad. That, I know now, is my leaf of Rosario.

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