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Inside of a year

From the outside a year seems like so much time. And it is a lot of time. 12 months. 52 weeks. 365 days. 8765 hours.

It’s long enough to conceive and have a baby. Long enough to buy land and build a house. Long enough to go into remission from a disease. Long enough start a new career, like becoming a realtor. Long enough to plan and leave for a sabbatical. Long enough to learn a lot of language. Long enough to get inches taller. Long enough to forget most everything about home (if you’re three).

But when you’re on the inside of those months and weeks and days and hours, a year can feel like no time at all.

It took five months to get temporary residency organized. Longer to get pay checks fully worked out. It was nearly six months before I could hang laundry outside our tenth story windows in a strong breeze without feeling like I should follow it up with a stiff drink.  Almost nine months passed before the portero casually mentioned that “everyone” knows the water from the garden spigot is the best for drinking. It was ten months before the kids settled into close friends and frequent play dates. At eleven months I found a friend for coffee dates. There are days when, after almost twelve months, it feels like life here is just finding a groove. That we’re just really getting started.

Then there are days when a year feels endless and home is the only place we want to be.

Either way, here we are almost at the very end. Back to the beginning of the calendar, but nowhere near where we started.

As quickly as people here asked, “Why come to Uruguay?” when we first arrived, they now ask, “You’re leaving so soon?”

We will miss being surrounded by Spanish. We’ll miss pastafrola, ice cream, fainá, and pizza. We’ll miss roaring buses that take us almost exactly where we need to go. We’ll miss the Rambla and the wide expanse of blue sky and brown water beyond. We’ll miss the store downstairs where, when we’re running late , he lets us take what we need and pay later. We’ll miss the almost daily find of some new knowledge (that soda moves east in the summer, that alcohol sales are prohibited on election day, that it is illegal for restaurants to have salt shakers on tables, that children’s vitamins just don’t sell here).

The kids will most certainly miss the porteros who chase them, tease them, bring them gifts, and never ever let them feel ignored. They’ll miss their schools where every single person knows their names. And where kids now stop Nathan and I to look up at us with the most forlorn expressions and ask, “Why do you have to leave?” I will miss walking past the boy’s school and catching a glimpse of him yelling and running after some giant six grader, his voice lost in the cacophony of kids at play.

I will miss kissing on the cheek as a way of greeting; that brief, intimate contact that humanizes even a passing exchange. I will miss this even though it often means waiting forever to be served because the person helping you must first kiss every single coworker and acquaintance they pass between them and you.

There are things we certainly won’t miss: dog feces, neighbors fornicating at 4am, the involved process of paying bills, and the sour smelling mold that blooms in our walls.

I think we’d all agree that we’ve enjoyed Uruguay a great deal. In some sense we wouldn’t mind the chance to stay longer, but it’s time to go and so we’re ready.

We’re ready in large part because over there, on the other side of the world, is home and friends and family and community, which I admit I never stopped missing.  Not missing it in the choking way that makes it impossible to enjoy the here and now, but in a way that is comforting and reassuring. And here’s where I get stuck in translating emotions into words. Phoebe is far better at expressing thoughts on friendship and distance.

Look, maybe it’s as simple as this: The experience we’ve had here this past year has been made richer and warmer by the support, friendship, and foundation we have there; and for that we are profoundly lucky.

 

 

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When My Husband Turned into a Shoe

People have a lot of advice about raising children. A lot.

This is especially true about sleep. All the sleep books that I read were guilty of using scare tactics couched as evidence to convince sleep-deprived parents to stick with a particular method. Using an opposing method either meant that you and your child would become so unattached that he or she would become a sociopath, or you would become so attached that he or she would never ever be capable of independence. Either way you’d be screwed in the long term, and still so sleep-deprived in the short-term that you would be a complete jerk. I speak from experience on the jerk part. Then there are the well-meaning advice givers who parrot back advice from one of the books you recently hurled into a wall. They have the added benefit of telling you long-winded, unsolicited stories about their own children’s sleeping (or lack thereof) habits. As parents we’re almost all guilty of this. I know I’m guilty of this because reliving the trauma of sleep deprivation is very cleansing for me. Less so for the poor schmuck, like you, stuck listening to me.

The thing sage advice givers and slick books don’t tell you is that whatever method you choose probably won’t work forever. Babies grow into kids. Needs change. Expectations change. Suddenly, the dark is scary.  Night terrors happen. Extra books will need to be read. Pre-bedtime extreme dehydration, which can only be resolved by a cup of water that should be from the fridge and served in the Monsters, Inc. cup (which is most certainly dirty and likely missing) because only an ass would bring it in the plain white cup, will need to be addressed.

In our house we sometimes fail to stay ahead of the curve of evolving needs and wheedling.  We give into some request for a short-term gain, but that leads to a long-term loss.

When it got colder here and was dark by dinner it was so easy to give in to the kids demands for extra snuggles at bedtime. It was warm under those blankets and they were finally quiet and still. What could it hurt this one night to stay a little more?  It couldn’t for that one night, but then one became two and two became three and three became a week and a week became a month and a month became an expectation on the kids’ parts that we would always stay with them until they were asleep.

After a while it felt like all we were doing was getting children to sleep or rousting them out of bed in the morning for school. Staying with the kids until they were asleep also meant that I was asleep, which meant that Nathan and I saw each other alone approximately never. It’s not that I don’t love time as a family, but trying to have every household conversation in the presence of the Why-Monster and the Interruptasouras Rex is maddening. Also, never spending time alone with your partner can mean seeing them more as an amalgam of all their annoying habits than as the person you do actually love and respect. So I was a pile of clothes on a chair  to Nathan, and he was his shoes left in the middle of the entryway to me.

Please note: This photo is a dramatization of actual events.

Please note: This photo is a dramatization of actual events.

Finally, we decided enough was enough, and one Friday night over dinner, all Bearenstain Bears style, we had a family meeting. We laid out the plan, which was clear and simple. Read. Brief snuggle. Leave. Children sleep.

The girl mulled this over for a bit while picking her nose. The boy immediately began to look for loopholes. Do you mean every night or just once? How long a snuggle? What exactly do you and Papa need to talk about?  The girl continued to pick her nose.

We held our ground because consistency is important, because children need boundaries, and because we really wanted to finish watching the third season of Sherlock, which we had started long before we got ourselves into this mess.

Now it’s 9:30 on the first night under the new regime. The kids have moved through the stages of denial and negotiating. They are in their beds with the lights off, but they’re still awake.

The music ostensibly lulling the girl to sleep suddenly switches, meaning that she has again stood up in her bed to retrieve the iPod off the shelf. The boy is groaning as he flops from one side to the other. When no one immediately responds he increases his volume.

The new music hits a crescendo and the boy reaches his breaking point. “Does anyone think I can sleep with that wailing music?” he yells, sounding much like a Florida retiree annoyed by the teenagers on his lawn.

We intervene to negotiate the lowering of volume,  the partial closing of doors, and to offer a gentle reminder that the girl is not to play club DJ at bedtime.

There is relative silence.

“Paaaaatito,” comes the forlorn cry from the girl’s room. “Want Paaaatito.” The stuffed duck is procured.

Silenceish.

“Ow. Ow. Ow. Ooooooow,” howls the boy. “My foot. It hurts. I can’t sleep. Ow.”

We can only hope this is a last ditch effort because he can’t help but slur his words.

Silence. Then snores.

One and half hours from bedtime to sleep.

Nathan and I then spend ten minutes alone together (mostly talking about the kids) before I fall asleep mid-sentence. It’s not much time, but it’s enough to make him look distinctly less like a shoe.

This night has been an unmitigated success.

 


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Ranching Like Tourists

The thing about being vegetarian in a carnivorous country is that you rarely go hungry. People are so concerned about making sure you get enough to eat, and concerned that the foods you eat seem entirely unsatisfying to them, that they keep offering more food until the table (and your waistband) are groaning.

This was definitely the case for us last weekend when we headed into Uruguay’s interior to visit a ranch.  Uruguay has many tourist ranches, which range from very fancy to basic. This one was a family run working ranch with 1000 head of cattle, several horses, chickens, two geese that mysteriously disappeared during the weekend (only their feathers remained), and a number of sheep recently diminished by preparations for a large group lunch.

To get there we drove three hours into Uruguay’s interior mostly on a tree-lined two-lane highway that cut through gently rolling green fields populated by cattle, horses, sheep, birds, and outcroppings of rocks. There were some cultivated fields and places where farm buildings were visible. Occasionally we watched gauchos ride across fields or farmers maneuver huge farm equipment across the highway.

Somewhere between Trinidad and Durazno there was a faded sign pointing down a rutted dirt road toward the ranch. The road dipped down to cross a stream and on the other side cattle stood knee deep in swirling early evening mist. The ranch itself was a few white washed one story buildings with thatched roofs and some outbuildings surrounded by manicured lawns with nothing but pasture beyond.  We were greeted by five barking dogs who chased our car down the winding drive. They were intimidating until we opened the car doors when they promptly stopped barking and prostrated themselves before us, waiting to be pet.

Our room was attached to the main house and was accessed through a walled garden, which was crowded with flowering plants and small trees. A porch ran along one side of the house, dormant wisteria vines climbing up the poles and over the roof. The door to our room, as well as doors to the kitchen and entry way, opened off the porch. Our room was a clean, high-ceilinged, spartan space with three beds covered in wool blankets, wooden shuttered windows, stone walls, and a moldering armoire filled with dusty extra blankets.

Before we had our coats off Mariela and her assistant Iris were feeding us. We ate our meals in a small room with a thatched ceiling, a sturdy wooden table and carved straight-back chairs, a huge fireplace (which was the only thing keeping the damp chill at bay), and two pink armchairs that felt like sitting inside a warm hug. The room was dark and cold away from the fire, but also appealing and cozy.

Mariela and Iris always brought us soup in a traditional cast iron pot with white bread and butter on the side. This was followed by delicious, but rich, dishes like canalones de choclo, milanesa de berenjena, and  zapallitos rellenos.  And this was followed by dessert. They made other dishes that would please the kids as well, but in quantities large enough for several busloads of children. Two meals in Nathan and I realized we were eating past hunger and on into guilt. No matter how many servings we ladled onto our plates, we didn’t seem to make a dent in the spread. Yet somehow after every meal, as we waddled out of the room, they worried that we were leaving hungry.

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To work off the food we explored outside. We watched the sheep who, understandably, were not so fond of people. The kids picked the pink flowers that grew in the yard. We rode horses around a bucolic field (bucolic as long as you didn’t look down at the sheep skulls chewed clean by the dogs and bleached by the sun). The kids climbed on the various tractors. The fact that it was a working ranch, not just a tourist destination, was always apparent. At one point I found the boy staring transfixed at piles of sheep skins hanging from a rafter in the barn. Trying to rationalize it, he suggested maybe they had been able to remove all the fleece so it just looked like a skin, but the sheep were still alive. There was a disappointing experience with milking that involved a year old cow, her still nursing calf, and a very sticky udder.

The ranch had plenty of entertainment to offer, but we also managed to tear ourselves away long enough to see some other sights. Outside Trinidad is a large, well-kept, and free animal reserve. We spent a few hours there looking at carpinchos, monkeys, alpacas, rabbits, snakes, deer, goats, and the cutest swarm of guinea pigs (including baby guinea pigs).

Some twenty kilometers down a bumpy road  in Flores are the Grutas del Palacio.  Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Grutas are 70 million year old naturally occurring limestone caves. Columns of stone and curved archways formed by millions of years of erosion give the impression of some intricately planned architecture. There are places where, with the help of a guide, you can walk back into the caves, stepping over puddles of water and into ancient history. Given the chance there are many reasons you should visit them, but our kids will tell you the best part was the flashlights they got to carry while exploring the caves.

On our last day at the Ranch, still well-stuffed from lunch and not yet ready for dinner, the owners took us for a drive to see some of the cattle and their property. They pointed out their cattle, distant property lines, and birds while we all made awkward conversation. A short way into the drive we discovered three yearlings who had escaped the pasture. We followed them in the pick up truck, Mariela leaning out the window making the same huffing noises cows make. Eventually, for some reason neither Nathan nor I could discern all three calves decided to plow back through the barbed wire fence into the pasture. Across the road curious cattle gathered to watch the show. Mariela knelt down in the ditch again making soft blowing sounds and grunts, which urged the cattle forward. We all stared at each for awhile as the light turned golden.


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Getting to Santiago de Chile

The Buquebus Ferry from Uruguay to Buenos Aires is like a cruise ship. When the sun catches its perfectly shiny outside as it glides across the river the whole thing seems to glow.  Even its name, Francisco, in honor of the Pope, sounds regal. They require you wear white booties (like those of crime scene investigators) onboard so your philistine shoes do not damage the boat’s pristine floors. Inside it has plush chairs, deep carpeting, sweeping staircases, a well-stocked snack bar, and a duty-free shop the size of a small grocery store. The boat is so large and so weighted with people, cars, luggage, and duty-free Toblerone chocolate that you barely feel it moving.

This was not the boat we took.

No. On the day when meteorologists were predicting 60 mph winds, we took the SeaCat, which is a glorified pontoon boat where luggage is lashed to the deck and covered with tarps. I admit that watching it bounce and skip into the port caused me a low level of panic. Watching passengers around us ready their bright white, plastic barf bags for the journey did nothing to calm me. And when they slammed the doors shut and told everyone to sit tight because while the journey might not look or feel safe it definitely was, I may have turned to Nathan and told him I wanted to get off.  I didn’t get off, mostly because I couldn’t.

The televisions proudly told us that the boat traveled at a speed of 30 knots.  It did not tell us how much air space there can be between your bottom cheeks and the seat when the boat hits waves at that speed.  Several is the answer.  It also did not tell you how loudly people may shriek, in both fear and joy, when this happens. Really loudly and shrilly with the notable exception of the gentleman who just groaned as if he were dying. Our children responded in their usual ways. The boy said he wasn’t pleased, but it certainly didn’t stop him from eating or talking.  The girl spent her time singing and pointing out to our neighbors that we were on a boat! On the water!We made it to Buenos Aires and spent an evening with an Aunt and an Uncle before heading on to Santiago de Chile.

I’m not usually one to get worked up about seeing something just for the sake of seeing it, but have you seen the Andes from 30,000 feet? I felt a little like the girl, wanting to nudge people around me and say, Look! Big mountains! With snow!  Judging by the way the Chilean woman next to me (who I’m just going to wildly speculate had seen the mountain range before and possibly even from high altitudes) kept leaning over to take pictures and videos until the flight attendant told her she really, really had to shut it down for landing, I don’t think I’m exaggerating their awesome beauty. Really, my feelings didn’t change much once we were on the ground. Walking around in the city we’d look up and catch sight of the mountains–sometimes snow-capped, sometimes frosty with fog, sometimes glowing pink in the sunset, and sometimes just massive and brown–and gasp. There is something very humbling about being in a city of 5 million people, of being surrounded by crowds, traffic, skyscrapers, restaurants, and all the fine trappings of modern civilization, and having all of it dwarfed in magnitude and beauty by some ancient rock and dirt. Check yourselves humans.

Montevideo, both in area and population, could fit into Santiago’s  hip pocket, so it’s entirely unfair to compare them.  However, I’m not going to let that stop me. Chile is very different than Uruguay.  That should be obvious, right? They are different countries with different histories, different climates, different cultures, etc. I shouldn’t even need to say it, but both Nathan and I were caught off guard. I think having only traveled between Uruguay and Argentina in the past 9 months it was easy for us to lose sight of the bigger picture.  Argentines and Uruguayans will spend any amount of time telling you about how different they are from each other.  And they are. The accents are different enough that you can distinguish them.  Argentines use a kettle for their mate while Uruguayans tend to use a thermos. Argentines eat lomitos and Urguayans eat chivitos. I’m joking a little of course, because there are real differences between the two countries, but things are also similar enough that both cities feel familiar.

Chile was a different story altogether.  In the airport I heard people talking and briefly wondered what language they were speaking.  We were so accustomed to the lilt of Uruguayan Spanish that the harder and completely distinct sounds of Chilean speech sounded entirely strange.

The Spaniards didn’t manage to kill off all the indigenous people in Chile like they did in Uruguay, so there was a much broader mix of people. In fact, there were people (and foods) from all over the world.

We ate Japanese food (without any cream cheese added!), Indian food, spicy food (oh, spicy food!), Chilean-style ice cream and so many avocados (hot dogs are even served with a thick layer of avocado). According to a PSA we saw, Chile is second only to Suriname in its sugar consumption, which may explain why when we ordered juice we were served uncarbonated orange Fanta.

Ice cream

The streets were cleaner in Santiago. Less trash blew around and there was so little dog poop on the sidewalks that I almost forgot to look down while I walked.

Santiago also felt somewhat less child friendly.  Of course, this is an observation based on limited time and experiences. One of those experiences did include a woman insisting that the girl give up her seat on the subway. I can’t imagine that happening in Montevideo where people practically leap out of their seats to make room for kids. To be fair, Uruguayans are particularly accommodating to and appreciative of kids. It’s rare to make it through an entire outing  in Montevideo without our kids being patted on the head, chatted with, pressed for a kiss, or offered candy by people young and old alike–and that’s even when they are being totally obnoxious. Maybe, though, it’s just a difference of living in a place versus being a tourist for a brief time.

And we were tourists Santiago. More on how we touristed in a bit.

 


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8 people, 10 days, 6 cities, 2 countries, 2451 words

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

Pizza place, Colonia, Uruguay

Pizza place, Colonia, Uruguay

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 lomitosHe 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.

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Start of Summer and Christmas Eve

Summer vacation, hot weather, and Christmas arrive all together here.

As with everything here, the end of the year school parties, field trips, and other events came with little notice or time to prepare. It felt for weeks like we were in a constant flurry of making food, packing kids off on trips, or figuring out how to get to the school’s farm, located 25 kilometers outside the city, without a car. It all culminated in a graduation party for the boy’s class that, including a dinner organized by the parents, went on past our children’s entirely graceless exit at 1am.

Then suddenly there was summer, a season we left only five months earlier, stretching long and languid before us. The heat came all at once. Glorious sunny 75 degree days were pushed out without warning by 95 degree scorching heat that left us all feeling like our oven had swallowed us whole. The kids bickered constantly and we adults didn’t do much better. However, living in a city that faces an estuary has its benefits, and by evening when the sun finally sinks low it is almost always pleasant. This is summer, though, and the sun doesn’t sink until after 8pm, which is what finally convinced us to adjust our schedules to something more resembling that of most Uruguayans’. We started taking the kids to the park at 8pm, eating at 9pm and finally putting them to bed between 11pm and 12am. It took some creative darkening of their bedroom to finally convince the girl to sleep past 7am, but now even she has come around to the new schedule.

If Halloween in October was disorienting, Christmas in summer felt almost hallucinogenic. For our family, the highlight of the holidays has always been the lights and decorations that add some sparkle to the darkest part of the year. We look forward to the chance to snuggle in close at home in the cold, but here there is an abundance of light and snuggling only resulted in heat rash.

The shopping mall down the street spent weeks creating a winter wonderland complete with a ride-on train that went through a tunnel in the three story tall Christmas tree. There was an abundance of fake snow, an animatronic Santa in a sleigh, oversized squirrels, and dancing bears swinging to songs about snow and firesides. We took the kids there quite a bit because the train ride was free and the air blissfully air conditioned.

For the most part decorations, especially lights, around the city were sparse. The season is no doubt one reason, but electricity here is also very expensive, so stringing up more than a few lights is a serious financial commitment. While we’d been distracted by the charms of summer, parks to visit, and a new ice cream freezer at the mini market downstairs, we occasionally lamented missing our annual drive through the suburbs to admire other people’s lights. Then, on the night of the boy’s end of year party, we accidentally stumbled upon the decorations in the center of the city.  Driving back to the city with another family at 11pm, seven of us crammed into a car made for five, windows rolled down and sweat rolling down us, we drove up one of the cities biggest avenues and into the blue glow of lights. Strung high above the street reaching from one side to the other were lavish banners of lights. It went on for blocks and blocks, punctuated by even more intricate displays at the plazas. We drove slowly, heads out the windows, gaping and basking in the glow. It was noteworthy enough to merit a photo gallery in the paper, which you can see here.

In the week or so leading up to Christmas Eve firework stands popped up all around the neighborhood. Every few blocks there would be three or four tables laden with bottle rockets, sparklers, firecrackers, pop cracks, and so on.  With each passing day there was a steady increase in the number of loud, unexpected explosions.

On Christmas Eve the city closed in on itself. By early evening the only places left open in our neighborhood appeared to be the Catholic church and the firework stand located conveniently adjacent. Traffic was negligible and the playground nearly deserted, but the heat wasn’t taking any kind of vacation. As dusk settled, we stood on the sidewalk while the kids threw pop cracks.The church disgorged a group of worshippers dressed in everything from flip flops and shorts to semi-formal attire.

It was dark by the time we got home, and families were piling into cars, covered dishes balanced on laps. We lit sparklers on the balcony, an idea much less terrifying in theory than in practice, and watched as apartments and terraces filled with families and extended families. The booms of firecrackers and the pfffts of bottle rockets grew steadier until at midnight the city exploded with fireworks. Our apartment is high enough up and angled in such a way that, if we lean out, we can see coastline from nearly every window and it seemed that every bit of coastline had its own set of fireworks. The explosions, bouncing off the buildings, were deafening and the still hot night air was quickly filled with clouds of smoke. Nathan and I stood at the open windows and other people leaned out their windows or stood on rooftops or balconies to watch.The fireworks went on so long that they finally lost a bit of their magic. We grew restless and turned our attention inside again. The noise finally subsided and the air gradually cleared of light and sound until the city was once again strangely silent and still.


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10 Easy Steps to Residency in Uruguay

Disclaimers:

1. This is not intended to be taken as actual advice.

2. We are privileged. So privileged. I recognize that. We speak the language here. We have the ability to pay the fees and eventually absorb the burden of unexpected costs. We have flexible schedules to wait for things. We are applying for a visa in a country that is happy to have us. If things didn’t work out here for some reason, we could leave at any time. There are many, many more things I could list. I wrote this partially as catharsis and it’s meant to be ironic, but maybe take just a minute to think about what this process, or any immigration process, would be like if none of the privileges listed were true.

Step 1: Get a job, preferably one with an institution that will help you through the process of getting your temporary residency. Assume that, like the state run university where Nathan got a job, it will offer no such assistance. Instead, it will act as if no one in the history of the country has ever had to go through this process. It will struggle to even tell you what your salary will be.

You’ll next want to contact the immigration office to find out exactly what you’ll need to do for temporary residency. Don’t bother calling because no matter how many times you call or how long you let it ring no one will answer the phone at any of their many offices around the country. There is information on the website, but the immigration office advises against trusting it. You’ll need to go in person. One hundred appointment numbers are given out per day starting at 9am, but only a fool would show up at 9am expecting to get a number. No, to get a decent number you’ll want to arrive by around 6:30am, unless you can afford to pay a professional placeholder. Once inside, you’ll wait until your number is called. The room is not uncomfortable, which is good because the wait will likely be long. Finally, you’ll get a list of the required documents. Congratulations, but don’t get too excited because chances are that by the time you gather everything that list will no longer be valid and up-to-date. Either way, you will definitely be asked for something that’s not on the list.

Step 2: Gather original copies of your birth certificates and marriage certificate. Look up apostille. Find out that no matter how much it sounds like it should involve a religious body, it doesn’t; though it is essentially getting your documents blessed. It’s form of international notarisation for countries participating in the Hague Convention Abolishing the Requirement for Legalization. Send the original documents back to the state of issuance to get them apostilled. At this point you may, like us, realize that in order to get your documents back in a reasonable amount of time you will need to pay through the nose for registered mail, fedex, tracking numbers, and fast-tracked services. There is no other way. Suck it up. Get fingerprinted for FBI background checks and then get the background checks apostilled by the State Department.

Step 3: Go to Uruguay.

Step 4: Get the birth certificates, marriage license, background checks, passports, and apostilles translated into Spanish by an approved translator. Take the apostilled and translated birth certificates and marriage license to the Records Office where they will be Uruguayanized, registered in the system and then hand copied onto another form. Sure, you may gain or lose a last name in the process, but it doesn’t matter what your passport, the original document, or you say. This is now your name. Get documents from the University confirming you are employed. Get them again when they realize they didn’t put the correct salary. Get them again when this happens again.

Step 5: Schedule medical exams for everyone in your family. Of course, these will need to be done at a specific facility, which will not be anywhere near your house. If you are a woman you will need to also provide proof of having a pap smear in the last three years. If you’re over 40 you will also need proof of a mammogram. Side note: Uruguay now provides pap smears, which are mandatory, to all women free of charge every three years. They also require that employers provide women with a day off in order to get their pap smear. The medical exam requires that you fast for six hours, but because they’re not barbarians it’s definitely ok to drink mate or water. It also requires that you provide a urine sample. You can pick up the sterile cups at your local pharmacy and fill them at your leisure at home. Try not to do what we did and schedule the appointment for the week your child decides to potty train. As if getting a family of four up and out without the luxury of food weren’t complicated enough, I spent twenty minutes chasing a willful two-year-old still not fully in control of her bladder around the apartment while holding an increasingly unsterile cup. It wasn’t until she was finally peeing into the cup that she and I realized she had no idea how to stop, so we both watched helplessly as the cup filled and filled with urine. For the medical exams you will be shuttled through a series of increasingly smaller rooms to have your blood taken, teeth checked, and general health observed. For added excitement try like I did to forget your required photographs at home. This will send your spouse scuttling back home to retrieve them while you try to cram yourself and your hungry, exhausted, and overwhelmed children into the previously mentioned tiny rooms. At the end you will get a laminated card with your photograph showing you have passed the exam. If you’re lucky they will get your name wrong and you’ll have to wait for them to print it and laminate it again. Go to the police station to get your proof of address. Take your favorite two witnesses with ID cards, about 20 pesos, and your address to a police station. It took us longer to find parking than it did to get the form completed.

Step 6: Go back to immigration with all your precious documents. When they tell you that you are missing some previously unmentioned document (like, proof of school enrollment) remain calm and remember it may be that you have more to do and it may be that it is never mentioned again. Sign and pay and sign some more.

Step 7: Wait for six to eight weeks. Eventually a phone call will come saying you’ve been approved. You’ll get an actual appointment to receive your residency. It will feel exciting. It will feel like a celebration. You’ve been approved! It will be an utter let down when you realize that this appointment earns you only a piece of paper that allows you to begin the process of getting your national ID card, which gives you your ID number, which actually allows you to do things like access health insurance. You’ve been approved to stand in another line.

Step 8: Get original copies of your Uruguayan birth certificates and marriage certificate. Get twenty if you can because you can’t have too many. Take your residency paper. Get some money. Head to the Cédula office. Here you will make an appointment for an approximate time of day. They will say the process will take twenty minutes. It will definitely not take twenty minutes. It will not take twenty minutes times four. It will take hours. You will get in line at the appointed time in a building that smells of waiting and resignation. You will do just that and be just that. You will be fingerprinted and photographed and questioned about why you don’t have the right number of last names in the right order. You may be re-fingerprinted and renamed and you will wait again. At the end of the day you will not get a card. There is a law that gives immediate numbers to those under three. You can’t get a number because a newborn might need that number. You will get a piece of green paper that tells you to come back in five days. You will then go back to the beginning to repeat the process for your children because they can’t get ID numbers until you have an ID number, which you don’t have yet, but you kind of do, even though you don’t.

Step 9: Wait. Maybe get a phone call telling you that when they gave you back the photocopy of your passport they didn’t mean to and your only choice will be to drop everything and trek back to the Office of the Ministry of Waiting and Resignation to give them the copy again.

Step 10: Get your cards. Love your cards. Love that you can now get health insurance. You can get direct deposit (eventually). You can put your ID on credit card receipts. You can order tickets online. You can get the kids’ rate at the movie theatre. Accept that, for better or worse, you are now wed to the unrelenting and confusing Uruguayan bureaucracy. Mazel tov.