Rowing In Dulce de Leche

Summer Koester

If my foreign exchange to Argentina were a restaurant, then the menu would have read, “Now serving meat, Italian cuisine, and a healthy portion of gender norms.” Perhaps a high school exchange to the land of meat and machos was just what this vegetarian-feminist needed. As parents allowed me to go on an international exchange at the age of sixteen, clearly they afforded me some measure of independence. That only made the following experience even harder to swallow.

I waited next to other exchange students in the taxi area outside of Tucumán Airport and wondered if my paltry two years of high school Spanish would get me by. Would they mind that I was a vegetarian? I knew that Argentines loved their meat, but in my application, I had explicitly noted “vegetarian” under dietary restrictions. Gristle, fat, strange pieces of animal skin – the idea of eating flesh turned my stomach.

When the large wave of noisy Argentines approached, they came like one body, laughing and bubbling, nothing like the stone-faced teens that paraded along the corridors of Juneau Douglas High School. Everyone took turns introducing themselves. As Argentines claimed their host sister or brother with a kiss on the cheek, I scanned their faces, trying to recognize one from the pictures my host family had sent.

When it was my turn, no one stepped up to claim me. Where was the family from the letters that had expressed such eagerness in meeting me? They had not come.

I was orphaned, homeless.

Remando en dulce de leche,” the Argentines joked – “Rowing in dulce de leche.” I wasn’t sure what they meant by that, although I knew that dulce de leche was similar to caramel. It would be hard, if not impossible, to row through a sea of the sweet substance.

A young woman with beautiful, almond-shaped eyes approached me. Her gestures indicated that she wished me to go with her. Maybe she felt sorry for this pale-faced Alaskan. Seeing as I didn’t have much choice, I obliged. She told me her name was Gabriela. She was my age, sixteen. Her brother, Esteban, who accompanied her, was one year older.

We took a colectivo, a city bus, to the middle of what looked like downtown San Miguel de Tucumán. Arriving at a tall, heavy, wrought iron gate in the middle of a busy city block, Esteban pulled out a key, and the door opened. The old townhouse breathed of history and stories, much like the turn-of-the-century homes in my hometown of Juneau. Tall, white walls enclosed a small interior courtyard with a single plant. An art deco stained-glass door peeked into a dining room just beyond.

A middle-aged man sat in the dining room at a long, wooden table and looked up from his newspaper. A woman his age stood nearby, rifling through children’s backpacks. She wore a face that seemed to have fallen decades ago.

Gabriela rattled off some Spanish to her mother and father. From her gestures and my two years of high school Spanish, I deduced that she was explaining how I came to appear in their home, and could I stay with them for a week while the exchange organization found me another family? Gabriela had always wanted a sister.

The man extended his hand to me. His name was Ricardo. The woman introduced herself as Liliana. Her eyes were sad, perhaps because she knew that my arrival would only become more of a burden. Two young boys, around five and seven years of age, jumped excitedly at the prospect. The housekeeper, Fatima, stood like a guard in front of the door with a hand on her hip.

The Marcheses were third-generation Italian immigrants whose grandparents came to Argentina in the 1940s and spoke little English. Their Spanish sounded Italian, with similar accents, inflections, and gesticulations. Ricardo, the patriarch, carried the affectations of the old world, wagging his upturned hand in front of his mouth, fingertips pressed together when he couldn’t understand me.

With no living area or family room to speak of, the dining room was the heart of the house. In the early afternoon, the parents and children came home from work and school and gathered at the long wooden table to take part in the main meal. Ricardo would try to talk American politics with me, and he seemed to know more about the affairs of my country than I did. While sitting at one of the hard wooden chairs, I tried to listen and absorb, but mostly I was confused. Later, I would look up the new words in my pocket dictionary and jot them down in my journal.

Monday through Friday, Fatima cooked up the big midday meal. She often served up milanesa, a thin slab of steak, and I would politely decline. Although I reminded them that I was a vegetarian, my host family insisted I try a bite, and I managed to get down a few bites of the thin, flavorful meat. Unlike the steak I was accustomed to back home, it didn’t take hours to chew

A week went by, and I was still not assigned a permanent host family. Gabriela begged her father to let me continue to stay on with them. “Por favor, Papi,” she cooed to her father, covering his balding pate with soft kisses. I wondered where Gaby had learned this form of affection, how to manipulate her father like that. Is this how women got what they want from men? Perhaps I could learn something.

My host brothers were elated that I was allowed to stay, but Fatima made it clear she would not pick up after me. She was twenty-seven years old and looked sixty-five. I wondered how hard her life must have been to render her face like an old woman. She spoke with an accent from the original people of the land, the Quechua, and I could barely understand anything she said.

The front door remained locked and required a key to open from the inside. My host siblings, even the younger ones, had keys to the home and were free to come and go as they pleased. I was not given a key and had to get permission to leave. In the beginning, this was not an issue – after all, where could I go by myself in an unfamiliar city? Eventually, it felt like a form of imprisonment. Every time I wished to leave, one of my host family had to open the door.

Liliana went to the market every day to purchase fresh food for our meals, and Gabriela and I would often accompany her. Haggard men on the street hissed and called to us everywhere we went, but Liliana and Gabriela ignored them.

“Why do the street men call to the women?” I asked my host mother and sister.

“The women like it,” they responded, which seemed strange as it was apparent that neither of them enjoyed the attention. I certainly did not like the catcalls. Was I supposed to? Should I take them as a compliment? Perhaps I should, so the attention wouldn’t bother me anymore. But the hissing sounded hostile and derogatory. I tried to feel proud, but I only felt vulnerable.

On weekends, Liliana usually did the cooking. Sometimes the family cooked Italian food together. One afternoon, we made pizza, standing around the long table, rolling out the masa, then dusting cheese over the top. Noting my reticence to smother my dough in mozzarella, Gabriela asked why I didn’t like cheese. I shrugged, recalling how I used to choke on the melted, stringy stuff.

You are not Italian,” she retorted, piling more cheese on her pizza.

Clearly, she knew who she was, and that was Italian. I thought how nice it must be to know oneself so well, to be a part of something bigger than yourself and your immediate family.

On a special occasion, the whole family would make gnocchi together. At the long family table, the Marcheses taught me how to roll out the masa and form little gnocchi balls. As we worked the dough, they spoke in rapid Spanish, then slowed their speech when directing the conversation to me.

Over a meal of gnocchi, Liliana stopped her daughter as she reached for a second serving of pasta.

“No more, Gaby,” she interjected. “Gaby es gorda – Gaby is fat,” she announced to the table. Turning towards me, she said in Spanish, “Isn’t that right, Summer?” Gaby’s gaze remained at the empty plate in front of her.

“No, no,” I replied, shocked that she would talk about her daughter in front of her like that. “Gaby es bonita,” I insisted. Gaby remained silent, eyes downcast.

Gorda was a term I heard frequently among the Argentine girls and women. Gaby and her friends often talked about how they needed to lose weight. As I reiterated to myself to eat more vegetales, less pasta, instead I devoured the guava sweets that the street vendors sold and helped myself to the jars of dulce de leche from the Marcheses’ pantry. As the shame for my blooming body increased, so did my intake of food.

In the afternoon, Liliana, Gaby, and I would sit at the long wooden table for an afternoon mate. Over cups packed full of the caffeinated herb, Liliana told me how she was hospitalized for extreme exhaustion and had recently lived away from her family for an entire year. Right before my unexpected arrival, she had returned. I wondered if life was harder for women in Argentina, passed down through the generations, and would later be inherited by sweet Gabriela.

I asked them if they had a word for feminist or sexism— “Femenista? Sexismo?”

They shrugged, uncomprehending at my made-up Spanish. “We have a word: machista,” an exaggerated sense of manliness.

Ricardo promised to cook me up an asado soon. “What’s an asado?” I asked.

“We cook lots of carne – meat,” my host brother answered, appearing to salivate at the thought.

I reminded them that I didn’t eat meat. Esteban’s eyes widened as if incredulous, and Ricardo dismissed my reaction, confident that he could change my mind.

Then the day came when the family decided to throw an asado. In the backyard, Ricardo barbecued every kind of meat, just as his father had taught him, and his grandfather before him. Bistec, pollo, chorizo, morcilla, and puerco all browned beautifully on the grill like little phallic treasures, almost like a testament to masculinity itself.

Ricardo pulled off a piece of bistec and offered it to me. I thought about the steak my parents used to make me eat that never got any smaller between my teeth. I declined. Ricardo insisted, pushing the meat in my face. When I declined a second time, he asked angrily, “Why not?”

Soy vegetariana, I’m a vegetarian,” I replied.

He asked me why. Was it because of how they treated the cows? “Because in Argentina, we treat them well, not like in the U.S.”

No, it wasn’t because I felt sorry for the cows. It was because I was tired of taking bites of gristle, fat, and meat that never got any smaller and at times lodged in my throat, cutting off the air to my lungs, after I had also spent so many days of my life wheezing, using my inhaler, and ending up in the E.R. due to breathing problems.

But I couldn’t say all of that in my limited Spanish. Ricardo darkened, like I had just slapped his manhood in the face. Thus began the demise of my relationship with the family patriarch. Evidently, I was going to be more difficult than the more accommodating daughter he had raised.

Our rapport was further reduced one day over the midday meal when Ricardo opened the mail and exclaimed, “¡Incha bola!” His temper reddened his otherwise handsome Italian face. “Look at this phone bill! ¡A la mierda! No more using the telephone!” He looked directly at me. It was true that I had been using the phone frequently to arrange outings with some of the other exchange students in the city. “No one will use the telephone from here on out!”

A few days later, Ricardo leaned over the long wooden dining table and asked me point-blank: “When are you going to give us the $1000 we were promised for taking you in?” I had no idea what he was talking about; I had no money for him. My parents had already forked out thousands of dollars to pay for the exchange program. There was no money promised to host families for taking in students. He had been misled.

Without a key or way to contact the outside world, I felt like a prisoner trapped in another family’s home. Lonely, bored, misunderstood, and unable to express myself, I cried daily.

“You need to fill the void,” my Swedish friend told me. I filled it with box wine, beer, Belmont cigarettes, and dulce de leche. I was swimming in it now.

As the cold winds of late fall swept over the high desert plains and into the city, the house chilled. My host father grew icier towards me. The house had no heaters, and I warmed my frigid fingers over the gas stove.

I finally got up the nerve to confront Ricardo. Except, this time, I was asking for my freedom. “I want to explore more of Argentina,” I announced. “Besides, who knows when I will be back?”

Ricardo agreed; Argentina was indeed a beautiful country, and it would be a shame to keep me from seeing it. He knew he had to let me go; I wasn’t his daughter, after all. He wouldn’t let Gaby go, so I made plans with another exchange student.

On an Argentine bus, we rediscovered our freedom. We visited breezy Mendoza, resplendent in fall colors, and sampled some of its famous wines. We toured the widest in the world, Iguazú Falls, where rainbows greeted us at every corner. We visited the large metropolis of Buenos Aires and took in the street tango, and went shopping in the colonial city of Córdoba.

And that’s when I spotted a thick, broad-shouldered jacket in distressed black leather that hinted gray in the folds and creases. It looked too rugged and boxy for my thin shoulders, but I didn’t care.

“Can I try it on?” I asked the sales attendant. She assured me that this jacket was for a man, and tried to show me the ladies’ section with its soft, supple, form-fitting leather garments.

No importa,” I responded, and tried it on anyway.

The oversized, faded jacket weighed almost eight pounds. The rugged leather coat, made from the cattle of the high plains of Tucumán, became my armor. Putting it on exchanged my sadness for resilience. The thick skin I wore shielded my own thin skin. Wearing it, I didn’t feel sad; I felt invincible. Like I could row through a sea of dulce de leche.

The fact that it was a man’s jacket made me love it even more. Men were powerful. Men held keys and could go and come as they pleased. Men made decisions and called the shots. Men didn’t have to go on diets or get catcalled by other men sitting on sidewalks. Wearing this coat made me feel strong, like a man. Although I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy the flesh of the Argentine cattle, I could wear one instead. In this way, I became part of the ritual of the preparation and ingestion of the meat.

I purchased the boxy coat and proudly wore it every day like a tattoo of freshly earned street cred.

After I returned to San Miguel to Tucumán, back to the home of the Marchese’s, Ricardo cooked up another asado. No longer just a collection of various meats, the treasures grilling on the parrilla resembled peace offerings, love letters. Or were they tests?

In my leather jacket, I knew that Ricardo no longer held control over me. So I tried a bite of the steak, and then sausage, and then pork, and with every small bite, a hint of sparkle seemed to return to Ricardo’s eyes. But then again, maybe it was just from the wine.

Back home, I wore the leather jacket in rain and snow. No one had ever seen anything quite like it. It was strong and thick-skinned. It spoke opinions without words. This jacket was a feminist, had an independent streak, and understood Spanish. It had been adopted, although entirely by accident, into an Italian-Argentine family. This jacket didn’t eat meat from a cow, but proudly wore its hide. This jacket knew who it was.


About the Author

Summer Koester teaches Spanish in Juneau, Alaska, where she lives with her husband and two children. She also enjoys acting in local theater, writing songs on her guitar, and belly dancing. Her work is forthcoming in Alaska Women Speak and Plum Tree Tavern, and has been featured in the Juneau Empire and Capital City Weekly. You can visit her work here: prosegarden.blog.