Monday, May 11, 2009
The Grapes of Grappa
Our arrival into Cordoba was marked by not only a changing landscape but also by a changing landscape. As we left behind the humid, people-packed palms of Buenos Aires for the desert-swept, cracked-earth interior arms of Cordoba, we also left behind the English words that swirled around us in the Capital for the Cordobesa sing-song Spanish that we have now collided with. Although we were lucky enough to make many friends from either Argentina or from other parts of South America while staying in Buenos Aires, all of our friends spoke far better English than we spoke Spanish. That being said, whenever we reached a communication bump, we all resorted to the formerly stated language. This fact of our BA life was a blessing in that we could clearly express ourselves and build deep relationships with little miscommunication. But it was a major curse in that it allowed us to be lazy and not bend-over-backwards in our pursuit of la idioma espanola.
But, our hour of allotted laziness has expired--because we have arrived at the Casa Roca, where Spanish is the dominant tongue. And we are learning to swim so as not to sink.
Casa Roca is headed by Alejandro and Maria, and their adorable two-and-a-half-year-old hija, Abigail. They are incredibly patient with us, repeating-repeating-repeating and taking it slow-slow-slowly. (And they always give me a second chance and help me correct myself and take my foot out of my mouth when I fake an understanding by saying "si" when the correct answer is apparently anything BUT si.) As we eat dinner together nearly every night, Nick and I are learning a lot, and fast, thanks in huge part to Ale and Maria's patience. We're not always completely sure of what is going on, but it always works out for the best.
A good example of not always knowing what is going on is the situation last weekend. On Saturday evening, Nick and I were making dinner when Maria walked in and invited us to go and visit the town where her mom was from, Jesus Maria, with her and Ale and Abi on Sunday. The town was apparently very lovely, with a UNESCO Jesuit mission and beautiful countryside. It sounded great--we were totally game.
Nick and I wondered what was in store for us the next day, and figured it must be a little day-trip of sorts. I began to nurse images of a countryside dream, picnicking (perhaps frolicking) in the fields with Ale, Maria, and Abi. While I fed those little daydreams, Nick and I ate dinner, watched a movie (The Big Lebowski), and went to bed. When we woke up, the house was filled with little voices shouting, "Tio!" We went downstairs to see what all the commotion was about, and that's where we were met with Maria's entire extended family, apparently all set to take the trip to Jesus Maria as well. Okay, I began to realize that my picnic fantasies were a silly pipe-dream (really, where had they come from?! how ridiculous!). Using the evidence on hand, Nick and I pieced together that Maria's mother must still live in Jesus Maria, and that this was a family visit. Alright, we got ready to be a part of the fam for a day! Language barrier or not, we were ready!
I'm not quite sure why, and I know this is completely ridiculous, maybe it was fostered by the name of the town (Jesus Maria), but on the bus ride to the country, Maria's mother took shape in my mind as a tiny, ancient woman shrouded in black veils and weighed down by rosaries. I pictured us staying the day in her quiet and holy house, having a very special experience. Which is why I was (ridiculously) surprised when we pulled up and were greeted by Maria's very normal and very cute mother, wearing a salmon short-sleeved shirt, khaki pants, and woven clogs. An adorable abuela! Cooking a delicious-smelling stew over the stove, next to her equally normal and adorable (and very jolly and welcoming!) husband, Maria's father. I really am no good at predicting outcomes, am I??
I took in my new surroundings, laughed at my daydreams of yesteryore, and settled in. True to form, everyone was so patient with us and spoke slowly, simply, and carefully. We ate ate ate the amazing stew, snacked on bread with home-made jam (made from a cactus fruit!), sipped on mate and wine, and played with the kids in the backyard. It was lovely, and far better than any ludicrous day-dream I could have conjured up.
Around 3 pm, Alejandro said loudly, above the extended family din, "Nick y Sarah, listo? Vamos!" Nick and Sarah, ready? Let's go! Okay, we guessed it was time to go. Short and sweet, we concluded, and hopped into Maria's brother's van, to the bus station we guessed.
Once again, we guessed wrong, a conclusion we realized as the van parked right outside beckoning iron gates guarding a stone mission. Ah, UNESCO! Another surprise, this time an 18th (I think!) century estancia, or farm, that was built to provide the Jesuits income with which they could use to pursue their educational endeavors (and conversion endeavors, too, perhaps?) in South America.
It was architecturally an amazing site, with winding stairways and hallways letting in mysterious and limited shafts of light. Walls preserved artwork from the beginning of Jesuit history in Argentina, and rooms preserved religious relics from days of yore, as well as mementos left behind by all the pilgrims and tourists that have passed the mission by (from almost every country I can think of!). As always, my imagination was running wild, and it was eerie (in a fun way) to think of the Jesuits swishing around the ancient property with their robes swaying, lighting their way with torches, writing letters back to the Vatican from their drafty, candle-lit quarters.
But alas, as with any "preserved" site, the mission was a teensy tiny bit on the stuffy side. There were too many guards lurking in the corners, ready to snatch your camera at a moment's notice. There were too many old lady regular visitors sitting on benches watching you, making sure you were appreciating everything as you very well should. There were too many rules and a bit too much cleanliness. Don't get me wrong--it was amazing, of course, just a tad-bit on the stuffy side (as all protected historical sites very well need to be!). I'm not arguing against it, I'm just saying it gives me a bitty case of the nervous giggles. Which is why I enjoyed our next stop so so very much...
The next stop: the winery! After the estancia, we cruised on over to the Bodega, or the local winery, where an adorable young lady showed us the up's and down's of that house of vino. We saw the wooden barrels, the steel barrels, the catacombs where the wine was stored back in the day (its walls stained a deep, dark red), the grape thrashers, the grappa-processing room, the whole shebang. And, at the end, the wonderful guia gave us a taste of it all--a bit of the Chardonnay, a bit of the Merlot, a bit of the Malbec, and a bit of the grappa. I had never had grappa before, but it certainly was potent! Made from the third go-round of the grapes (the first mashing produces bottled wine, the second produces boxed wine, and the third produces the grappa), it's extremely alcoholic, and tastes a bit medicinal. But, with a little honey thrown into the mix, it is actually quite good (I think!). And what's more is it cleared my sinus problems right up! Voila! Who needs antibiotics when you've got grappa?!
We left that Bodega goodness with bottles for all, for us, for Maria and Ale, and for Maria's adorable parents. It was so delicious! With our wine and the sting of the grappa still zinging our tongues, we headed back to the ranch and joined the rest of the party. Once back with the rest of the fam, we drank some more mate and ate some more bread and jam.
Well, last weekend we really had no idea what we were getting into, but was it ever worth the risk of the unknown!