Here’s the short version: Phoebe and her family came to visit. It was great. We went to the beach a lot. We traveled. We saw many sunsets. We ate. Some of the food was really good. Sometimes it was just nice to be together. Eric ate a lot of beef. We went to Buenos Aires. It was fun. They went home. That was bittersweet.
Let me back up. A lot.
On Christmas Day after months of anticipation, weeks of planning, and hours of travel (for them), Phoebe and her family arrived in Montevideo for a ten day visit. The excitement and joy of seeing dear friends after a long absence is really only surpassed by how quickly you forget how long you’ve been apart; that these people haven’t been with you all along. I don’t know exactly how to tell you about their visit. At night after the kids went to bed I jotted down notes on the day. Notes that quickly filled two pages and could have filled more if my hand hadn’t cramped and my eyes hadn’t drooped. Sometimes I want to recount every day in gratuitous detail and sometimes I can’t imagine trying to recount the experiences of eight people over ten days.
During the first few days heat followed us everywhere. My memories are of sweating. On the bus to the port where we went to find Eric’s first of many, many chivitos, I remember watching the beads of sweat form on Mette’s nose as she and all the children gradually melted into the plastic seats. When Phoebe and I finally went to get her long-promised suitcase worth of Uruguayan yarn, it seemed impossible to believe that we would ever again require woolen anything. We set up fans in our apartment and then everyone fought for space in front of them. Everyone except Eric who was often leaning out the window admiring the heat and the view. We allotted the kids time in the air conditioned hotel room to cool off and veg out.
We rented two high-mileage, low frills, American sedans (one with a faulty check engine light and the other with barely working air conditioning) and followed each other first east and then west down busy and empty highways. At our destination we would trade stories of near misses with inattentive drivers, of crossing six lane highways in the dark, of motorcycles with families of five crammed onto the seat, of roadside castles, of packed roadside restaurants, and of brush fires. We drove into the heat of the day to get places and then drove home in the cool, near black of night.
Toward the east there was a mass of other people trying to get to the beaches, to second homes, to hotels, to cabins. Out past the city in the east the there were small towns with small cement houses and dirt roads. There were grocery stores, lumber yards, and plant nurseries. Then there was nothing but scrub-filled fields, marshy patches with horses grazing, and forests of pine and eucalyptus until the next town or until a road jogged off to the right leading to the coast.
The first beach we visited was covered in rocks and deserted except for a man and woman freely exploring each other’s anatomy. The wind here was cooler than in the city. The water crashed in foamy cold waves that the children waded into without hesitation, regardless of their ability to swim. We drove farther east to Piriápolis. Here, just a few miles down the coast, the sand was baby powder soft, the water calm, and the beach crowded with families.
The next day a friend invited us to his beach house for an asado. He sweated over the wood-fired grill laden with various cuts of meat (and a few vegetables) while the rest of us drank and ate. We walked the red dirt roads of the town past one-story cement houses to the beach. Following us as we walked were eerie and alarming cries that sounded like packs of kittens, or maybe feral babies. It sounded at first like the sound came from the tall roadside grasses, but we soon realized they were echoing from the storm drains. The more we listened the spookier it became. We imagined colonies of all sorts of creatures living underground and the wrath they could unleash. Our friend told us they were toads. Not killer toads or radioactive toads. Just toads. He said this quite nonchalantly as if it would be hard to mistake the sound for anything else. I still kind of wonder, though. They sounded a lot like feral babies to me.
To get to the beach here we had to follow a path through large dunes. Then the beach, filled with families, spread out before us. Waves crashed huge here, though the water smelled more like the river than the ocean. Phoebe and I had somehow not connected the beach with swimming, so we stood at the water’s edge while everyone else dove through the waves. Our friend picked up the slack for us by throwing any willing child into the waves or offering himself as a human boogie board; and when one child tired he found a better rested one.
Heading west the highway was eerily empty. It was hotter heading this way and the highway farther from the water. Phoebe has rightly pointed out that this is a serious understatement. It was hot enough that she worried that the cars would melt. Or that the faulty check engine light on their car would turn out to not be faulty and we would all melt at the side of the road. The fields were more cultivated and dotted with cows, sheep, and, to our delight, a herd of goats. In some places cows stood under palm trees for shade; something Phoebe and I found hilariously incongruous. The towns had names like the cheeses we had sampled in the market, like Cufre and Danbo. There were honor system roadside stands, which lacked refrigeration, advertising fresh cheese and sweet cheese. We turned off the highway around kilometer 55 driving down a sycamore lined road to a tiny town where the sand was flat and wide. People beached themselves on sand bars like seals, wallowing there in the warm water that was flat and shallow for ages. Driftwood lay on the beach and trees leaned down from jagged dunes.
Our first afternoon in western Uruguay was one those days that felt so dry and hot that spontaneous combustion wouldn’t have been surprising. The air smelled of Eucalyptus, dust, and cooking meat. Phoebe and I let Nathan and Eric sort out finding gas for the nearly empty cars while we turned up the air conditioner in the cabins to arctic blast, let the children plug into any form of technology they wanted, put up our feet, and gently infused the afternoon with gin. Then we talked until the light started to fade, the children needed to be aired, and our husbands returned victorious.
The eight of us watched the sunset nearly every night of the trip. We watched the sky turn orange and then fade to dark from Montevideo, from eastern and western beaches, from the terrace of a pizza place in Colonia, and from the rooftop pool of our hotel in Buenos Aires. How is it that night after night that show never gets old? For me, it was the time each day when I would think, “Here we are on the other side of the world from home. Together.” Every night I’d be amazed. Plus, they were just crazy beautiful sunsets.
On New Year’s Eve, on an empty beach in western Uruguay while the kids finished popsicles, laughed and ran, and got wetter than we had authorized we watched the sun sink on 2013. After we had trooped home, the children had gone to sleep, and our husbands had gone on to other things, Phoebe and I slipped outside in our pajamas to wait for midnight and share a bottle of champagne she had had the foresight to buy before leaving Montevideo. Fireworks, out of sight but not out of earshot, let us know when the hour finally clicked over to a new year. Our conversation, though, continued unchanged. Before turning in for the night we passed the half-full bottle across the fence the neighbors who showed no signs of retiring anytime soon.
With ten days of meals, some are sure to be unremarkable, but on vacation in a place entirely new sometimes even boxed macaroni and cheese eaten out of a bowl balanced on your lap can feel festive. Even when the food wasn’t great, there was almost always something to make the meal memorable. At a restaurant cheerful in decor and lacking in service where we waited over an hour for mediocre food, Otto lost his second tooth.
And sometimes the most memorable food appeared where we least expected it. After a hot walk on the beach into town we stopped at the first restaurant we found. It was unassuming, but open. We sat on a patio
overlooking the beach and ate one of our best meals. Eric talked about that chivito for the rest of the trip. It’s worth saying again that Eric ate a lot of chivitos and then Argentine lomitos. He examined menus, consulted with Nathan on translations and then ordered meat, which he never failed to enjoy. I felt like I finally got to experience the much talked about South American meat dishes, thankfully without having to eat any of it myself.
In Buenos Aires Phoebe and I went out for a late night dessert date to a famous confiteria where the decor was amazing, the waiters entirely old world gangster, and where the pies, while delicious, were weighted like bricks.
Of course, we had to eat Uruguayan pizza at least once. We took them to our favorite pizza place in Montevideo and they all tried fainá, which Nathan had been raving about for almost five years. Then Eric found a pizza place in Colonia that had tiered patios overlooking the water and combined Uruguayan pizza with more American ideas of toppings. I still think about that pizza.
Our family almost didn’t make it to Buenos Aires for the last leg of the trip. Uruguayans, including temporary residents, have to provide birth certificates in addition to ID cards for all children. Of course we didn’t know this and there was no budging the woman at immigration who could hardly even be bothered to come to the window. Nathan took a wild ride in a taxi driving twice the legal limit on the Rambla to collect the birth certificates. In the end it turns out the surly woman in immigration was fairly lenient. One birth certificate was expired (everything here expires) and one wasn’t even the right version. Finally, with the clunk of a stamp, we were cleared to leave. We made it on board with minutes to spare. I even got to do some movie-like fist pump while Phoebe and family cheered our arrival.
We thought driving in Uruguay was pretty exciting, but the experience of riding Buenos Aires taxis made that seem tame. Taxis were inexpensive and uncrowded compared with the subway so there were many wild rides. One though, topped all others. Out of the line of waiting taxis outside a shopping mall, Phoebe, the girls and I grabbed one at random. The driver, standing outside his taxi while eating a cup of ice cream, seemed to have a bit of swagger, but it wasn’t until we were settled in the backseat that it began to dawn on us what we had gotten ourselves into. The front of his otherwise dingy cab was decked out with faux chrome plating, a smaller sporty steering wheel, and a whole lot of nitrous gauges. He slammed the door and took off, heel-and-toe shifting his way through clogged streets. At a traffic light he stopped short, yanked up the hand brake, and strolled to a nearby trash can to throw away his empty ice cream cup. He slammed the door just in time to catch the changing light. This was the only traffic light he obeyed. He ran through at least eight other red lights. He swerved sharply around cars, cutting as close to them as possible for greater dramatic effect. Just as our neighborhood drew into sight Mette fell sound asleep in what I can only assume was a slightly delayed response to terror. While we arrived a few minutes earlier than the boys’ taxi, our wild ride, as evidenced by the higher fare, took us much farther afield.
When we weren’t being flung around inside flying taxis, we spent hours exploring the city. We spent a couple of hours in the beautifully morbid Recoleta cemetery where shiny mausoleums muscle each other for space. Evita Perón is buried here and there is always a crowd around her perfectly maintained crypt. Phoebe and I though both found it was the crumbling tombs, where vases of fake flowers lay broken and cobwebs spread across caskets like lace doilies, that drew us in the most.
In the Japanese Gardens we fed the giant carp that roiled in anticipation of the small food pellets. We visited the small and beautiful art museum.
We set the children loose in El Museo de los Niños where they climbed through a giant toilet, ran a bank, made a television program, and grocery shopped. None of them wanted to leave.
We visited a famous bookstore housed in a refurbished theater that Eric has been thinking about for years. The balconies, box seats, the stage, and all the period decor had been meticulously preserved.
When we needed a break from the hustle we spread out in one of our giant two bedroom apartments or lounged in the rooftop pool, which was the perfect depth for half the kids to figure out swimming, one to show off his fish-like abilities, and one to dance until exhaustion put her in danger of drowning.
Before we knew it our time was up. To spare the tears and the sadness, goodbyes are generally best kept brief. That’s how we said goodbye at the end of ten days together and it’s how I’ll say it here. They went home, which is a good feeling even after the best of vacations–even when it is 100 degrees colder (no, I’m not exaggerating) than where you left. And we went back to a place that felt that much more like home for them having had been there.