Childhood Summers

Memories of family holidays in Argentina in the 90s

The seaside resort of Mar del Plata, a five-hour drive south of Buenos Aires, has been my family’s summer favorite destination for decades. Every year, we enjoyed two weeks of unbridled summer vacation fun before returning to school in March, the beginning of autumn in the Southern Hemisphere.

Every year, the countdown to our holidays began right after Christmas. My brother, two sisters and I daydreamed about the beach and speculated as to which friends we would see again. We girls planned our outfits while my surfer brother dreamed about the waves. It seemed time stood still in the January heat, but February always came.

The drive from our home in Buenos Aires to Mar del Plata initiated our annual pilgrimage. When we were young, we piled into the back seat of my dad’s blue Renault 12, a snug fit for the four of us.  The road joining the two cities in a straight line was too narrow and potentially dangerous at peak summer season. That road is a dual carriageway now.

After three hours, we left civilization behind. Cattle, a windmill or two and country towns, where we sometimes stopped for lunch, broke the monotony of vast expanses of flat farmland. We played games to while away the time, and the highlight of the six-hour drive was to try to spot the sunflower yellow hills of Balcarce in the distance. When we saw them, we knew the end of the drive was near, and the best was still to come.

Every year without fail, we arrived at the roundabout by the entrance of Mar del Plata and my dad would ask “Should we take Avenida Edison –that cuts through the city- or the waterfront?” The answer was always a unanimous shout. “The waterfront!” we cried. We wanted to see the ocean and not drive through boring neighborhoods! Going up the slope of Avenida Colón and seeing the shimmering sea for the first time was a magical moment.

My grandparents used to rent a big stone house in the traditional marplatense style, with an enclosed front porch and a red tiled roof and eaves. One year, the house wasn’t available, so we switched to a three-story townhouse near the lighthouse in the area known as Punta Canteras, the southern end of the city. My father now rents this same house for his grandchildren, the fourth generation of our family to spend summer holidays in Mar del Plata.

We had a fairly set routine. Mornings were for housekeeping, grocery shopping, getting the paper. Maybe pastries for breakfast and getting our beach bags ready. We ate lunch at the house then walked to the beach, the coconut scent of our suntan lotion trailing after us.

We threw our stuff in the orange cabana and hopped our way to the water on the burning sand. By contrast, the water felt so cold it made us gasp as it splashed against our bellies. We played in the waves until our lips turned blue, then lay in the sun, played cards, read, or munched on snacks.

Ice cream and coffee vendors plodded up and down the beach touting their wares. Over the years, we got to know one or two by name. Hugo, the coffee vendor with a thick moustache, was proud of her college-educated daughter. Or Carlos, the lanky ice cream guy who doubled as barquillero selling icecream wafers to the visiting crowds.

Every year, we went to the same beach club right next to the lighthouse. The military service was still compulsory, and the recruits woke us up at sunset with their chants while running along the waterfront under my window.  That all changed in 1994 when a young recruit died by hazing. His death triggered a huge public uproar that made the then-president Carlos Menem decide to abolish compulsory military enrollment. From then on, men and women interested in pursuing a career in the military were free to enlist as they chose.

Our annual ritual included renting a beach cabana on the main area of the balneario. We held prime beach real estate, and we would have more or less the same neighbors year after year. This group spent so much money at the balneario that the owners took good care of us and made sure we were comfortable. That area was the meeting point of a big group of friends of my grandparents’.  The men played truco, a very popular and lively card game, and the women played canasta.

On hot days, they carried their orange card tables and chairs almost to the edge of the water and raised their voices in the heat of the moment of the game. Their shouts would blend with the cries of the seagulls and the roar of the mighty South Atlantic.

Ice cream and coffee vendors plodded up and down the beach touting their wares. Over the years, we got to know one or two by name.

The truqueros played for money, not a lot but just enough to make it interesting. I don’t know if the canasteras –the canasta-playing ladiesplayed for money as well.

We were friends with the children and grandchildren of the truqueros and the canasteras. When my grandfather won, he would share his winnings with the grandchildren. So, we would hover around the card tables at sunset, cheering him on, hoping he’d win.

Most truqueros were self-made-men, shrewd in business but a bit rough around the edges. Many lacked sophistication and graceful manners. Some owned well-known companies, like a pizza chain, a cider distillery, or a menswear emporium. Some were well-off and comfortable, while others were unbelievably rich. My grandparents fit more in the well-off department and fit in well with the rest of the group, but our spending power was nowhere near that of some of these people.

Ostentation abounded. Both men and women wore gold chains as thick as ropes to the beach. The higher crime rate nowadays makes wearing so much gold in public unthinkable. Conversations about their many properties scattered round the world was common. Some would spend the summer in Mar del Plata and continue their vacation at their apartment in Marbella or Miami. Or tacky talk about how much they paid for a meal at a fine dining restaurant or how much they spent during their Caribbean cruise. I think there was an undercurrent of jealousy and rivalry; some tried very hard to keep up with the joneses at all costs.

Despite this undercurrent, it was a fun group of people who knew how to enjoy life. Throughout the year they organized dinner parties and barbeques at their city homes, and the men gathered every week for dinner and a game of truco. When it was my grandfather’s turn to host the party, he carefully planned the menu and had someone in his office print the menu du jour. Stakes were raised on Thursdays and they gambled large sums of money, sometimes enough to purchase a small car.

The heyday of the group as well as of the country came and went with the nineties. Both were a lot of fun. We had economic stability, foreign investment, and a high GNP. People spent money like water. The local currency was pegged to the US dollar. Imports were cheap. Foreign travel was affordable. Shopping sprees to Miami were the norm. What these lazy, crazy days at the beach didn’t show, though, was low employment rate as manufacturing companies started to close. All this, compounded with other factors, led to the huge financial crisis of 2001.

Eventually, the members of our group became ill or too frail to make their way to Mar del Plata and the beach. Inexorably, they started to die and piece by piece the group disintegrated. A couple of the men asked for their ashes to be scattered on the beachafter their deaths. Perhaps they wanted to continue their traditions of cards and women and gold chains. I imagine them still sitting on their orange wicker chairs, sunning themselves at the very edge of the water, playing a perpetual hand of truco

Leave a Reply * Deja un comentario

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.