In the three years after college that I spent playing squash at a local club in Boston, I would half jokingly promise one of the pros there, my friend Fernanda, that someday I would turn pro, leave Boston and make a stop to play in her native Argentina and visit her family there. For three years we laughed about the idea of me stepping off a bus in the town of Rosario, Argentina armed with a squash bag in search of the Rocha family, until last week when a bus pulled to a stop in Rosario and I stepped off, armed with a squash bag and in search of the Rocha family.
Four hours north of Buenos Aires, I was greeted warmly in Rosario by two of the Rocha family members, the two family dogs, and two of Mrs. Rocha's homemade cheeseburgers. I moved in with Fernanda's brother Dario and his girlfriend in a house a few feet across the street from the parents and two of the daughters, with their cousins next door and other cousins down the block. Mr. Rocha threw his classic meat-packed asado barbeque upon my arrival and I got my butt kicked in training daily with the Argentine national champ at the neighborhood squash courts. I was home in the middle of Argentina.
There was a special rhythm to life in Rosario. Red wine with almost anything, dinners starting after 10 PM, gatherings lasting well into the next morning. Time was a relative thing- if squash was set for 3 PM, show up by 4ish. There were no stop signs on the street- rather, cars just kind of figured it out when arriving at each intersection. I asked a friend about it. "Most exciting" he replied.
One night I stopped by a bodega to get a bottle of water with Fernanda's older sister Ana. An elderly man shuffled over to the counter to take our order. He looked like an Argentinian Albert Einstein, with disheveled white hair and a well worn face. He heard me speaking to Ana in a foreign language and asked Ana in Spanish if what he just heard was English. When he learned it was, his face lit up and with Ana as a translator, asked where I was from. I said California, and at that the old man's eyes grew big. He shuffled a bit closer, leaned up further against the counter and paused. In an exciting whisper he rambled to Ana what looked like a burning question that had been bottled up for years. Ana turned to me with the elderly Argentine gentleman behind her, watching with great anticipation. "He...wants to know if there are a lot of horses in California."
My final days in Argentina coincided with the Columbus Day holiday, and Fernanda's brother Dario invited me to join him and his cousins and their childhood friends for a long weekend trip to the farm. Three cars and a motorcycle caravanned fourteen twenty-something year old male cousins, their buddies, and a visiting American stranger straight west on a two lane highway, four and a half hours from Rosario into rural farm country.
Grilling was the activity of choice. Everyone had a skill- the butcher and the sous chef, the salad guys and the grill master, the marinade man and the clean up crew. No one asked what to do, where to go. An orchestra in harmony. It all just happened. It was beautiful.
It took a full day to get used to doing nothing- to give up checking for service on my phone, to pick back up my book after two months off, to sit at the fire and take in the darkness surrounded by guys who grew up with this group and to this scene. To them it was a nondescript weekend at the farm. Boxes of Malbec wine, homemade sangria served straight from a massive mixing pitcher, blood sausages and chorizo and burger patties and sirloins from the grill. Soccer in the field, salsa blaring from the stereo. I've been to my share of male bonding retreats and barbeques. This was something.
The best act was saved for my last night. One of the friends, Damian, was tapped for duty given his certain speciality for ribs on the grill. It was like Mariano Rivera being called from the bullpen to close out another win for the Yankees. Damian spent the night before by the fire carefully concocting his marinade in an empty wine bottle- garlic, lemon, oil, spices. By noon the next day, an 18 pound slab of ribs was slow roasting on a spear by the fire, and five hours after that, Mariano had completed his masterpiece.
Start to finish was a matter of minutes. Meat falling of the bone, crispy skin plucked off the cutting board, no forks or napkins, no slowing down. Hands tearing up baguettes in seconds, sangria sloshing in the big pitcher next to a pile of freshly diced tomatoes and lettuce flying out of a communal bowl in the middle. Organized chaos. Before you could sit down, a dozen Argentines and their American transplant went through a dozen and a half pounds of meat, engineered to perfection by the Mariano Rivera of barbequed ribs.
An instant later, everyone had disappeared. Someone had found out a way to get the TV to show the Argentine pro soccer match on that night. I squeezed in near the couch with the cousins and their buddies in La Granja, Argentina, the colors of the TV screen and Spanish shrieks from the commentators giving life to the otherwise still darkness in the late hours of an early spring evening. Just another Sunday night on the farm in Argentina, bringing a close to my long awaited visit Fernanda's family and the rest of my monthlong stay in South America. Most exciting.