Personality. Argentine people have BIG personalities. They are generous and friendly and will take you into their bosom and talk with you until you can talk no more. And then they will talk some more. They have all the time in the world to converse and have an opinion on everything. Even the quiet gentle ones will talk when they can get a word in above their more gregarious friends. Some are loud and dominant, waving their arms in their excitement, even if it is a conversation about the more mundane things in life. Others sit very quietly, yet still command attention. The joke about how to punish an Argentine (put him in a room on his own) seems to be very appropriate!
Resourcefulness. Argentine people are adaptable and resourceful. Money is tight for many and near-poverty is an accepted way of life. There is no spare money to go around and being resourceful is expected. I found so many things mended in the most imaginative ways and the Argentine lack of Health and Safety excesses mean that people could use their repair jobs until they fell apart again. I saw armchairs strapped to the back of trucks with another layer of the family sitting in them. I saw boxes tied tightly to the side of mopeds with a baby poking its head out of the top. Everything was saved to use at some time – and it would be!
Business. Business is everywhere in any form and only having one thing to sell is not a valid reason not to open a shop. People are selling in every street – vendors selling ice creams or clothes or both. Farmers sell at markets, from the gateways, from their bags. After the rocky economic times of the 70s and 80s, Argentina is struggling to regain stability with high unemployment and underemployment. It is very susceptible to fluctuations in neighbouring economies and corruption is still an issue. However, these situations have born a people rich in business acumen and any one of them could sell a sunburn to a Gringo!
Mate. Mate (pronounced mah – tay) is an Argentine ritual that must be partaken. Mate is a herb from the llex paraguayensis also known as Paraguayan tea. It is made in a small gourd with hot water poured onto the herb. The drink is sipped through a straw with a bulb at the bottom with small holes in that stop the herbs being sucked up, called a bombilla. There is important etiquette surrounding the drinking as the gourd is passed clockwise around a gathering and each person drinks their gourd-full and then passes it back for re-filling. Regardless of who is to your right, you are not supposed to wipe any dribble off the bombilla as that would be very rude.
Mate is passed around any group of people, including in buses and even through bus windows if the bus has stopped long enough for the incumbents to stick their head out of the window for a chat. People carry thermos flasks and their mate paraphernalia as easily as women carry their handbags. Some even have little pouches made for their gear!
Entertainment. Money may be tight but that is no reason not to enjoy life. Argentines do not stay at home feeling hard done by, they promenade the streets at night chatting to each other, or they sit in their front porches shouting to the people on the other side of the road. Doors and windows are thrown open and everyone is open to conversation and fun. Lines of chairs sit in what look like the oddest of places – until you see the people who congregate to sit in them and then they look perfectly situated.
Dancing. The beauty and grace of young Argentines make them perfectly suited to dancing – and particularly the Tango. I had never realised how sexy this dance can be until I saw it on the streets in Buenos Aires. Women with their faces painted into stone and their hair scraped back wore red and black and entwined themselves round their men as crowds watched in a trance. As soon as the music stopped, the dancers returned to being just people handing round the hat and the crowd would wander off before it got caught for some cash. I could never bring myself to wander away in time; they were always mesmerizing!
Dogs. Dogs are everywhere. They are scraggy mutts that roam the streets all day and play in the dust together. They are, on the whole, friendly, but can be quite intimidating to the unaware. They are always large and have no collar or any other means to catch hold of them. No one ever walks them, they are just tipped out of the house by day and possibly brought in at night. Evidence of them is obviously everywhere too, but no-one seems to get too uptight about that; it’s just part of life in Argentina.
Welsh. Welsh is one of the dozen or so native languages spoken in Argentina. Welsh nationalists docked in Patagonia in 1863 to seek a remote land where they could practice their religion and cultural ways without interference from the English. 153 people arrived first and, despite early difficulties in adapting to the conditions that put them close to starvation, they thrived following help from the local Tehuelche. Soon others joined them and together they occupied a whole region in the Chubut Valley. The language is still spoken by a few today, but their presence is better noted by the low cottages and the streets named Micheal Jones or Bryn Gwyn. For Welsh pilgrims, the tea rooms are very welcome and the only place in Argentina where you can buy a decent cuppa! Great tea-pots covered in bright tea-cosies and plates full of Welsh cakes make up for the fact that pictures of “Lady Di” cover the walls!
Family. Family, and huge extended family, and anyone who is friendly enough who is being treated like family, are very important. Children are loved and expected to be everywhere. They are not given separate facilities in the Play Barn kind of way, they are just absorbed into every aspect of life. Squalling babies are gathered up by strangers, bus conductors and friends and therefore don’t squall for much longer. Very few people have pushchairs, so babies and small children are carried everywhere and therefore are far less tetchy than ours. Pregnant women are patted and pawed by everyone and all are happy for their fate. Some supermarkets even have special tills for pregnant women to prevent them standing for any longer than necessary.
Religion. Argentines are Roman Catholics in the way that people should be religious. It is not worn on a sleeve, but is a way of life. People sit in churches for a rest, to keep cool and to listen to the speakers that line up to speak or read from the pulpit.
Food. All Argentines love good food and it is an important social element in their day. Everywhere you look there is access to food. When buses stop people start buying it through windows, or women nip onboard to sell a few nibbles. The Argentine special is obviously the barbeque – not silly little round tins with thirty minutes worth of charcoal on it, but great big structures with coals that burn for enough hours to cook the cow that is turning above them. The steak house, or parilla, will offer a selection of cuts and you point to the bit you think you want and then sit back and watch. Argentines eat plenty of beef – they have plenty of it roaming around – and they know how to do it well! Vegetarians are greeted with disbelief. Most vegetarian options will include ham.
The Gaucho. He is Argentina’s romantic figure, their equivalent of the cowboy. He used to roam the pampas, a master at looking after cattle and horses by day and drinking and gambling by night. He was a rough character who lived in even rougher conditions and would never be tamed. He could be identified by his baggy trousers and black hat. Today’s Gaucho tends to be a little more suburban and probably lives in a little house.
Mañana – meaning “tomorrow” is used often as a shrug and an “ah, I’ll do it another day,” gesture. It is typical of the laid back culture and one of the reasons that Argentina is a great place to be in. People don’t get stressed, they just look at their workload and say, “ah, Mañana!”
One last word of warning after this insight — be careful of the stereotypes! Whilst you can always draw a thread of similarity between the nationals of a country, the extent and size of that thread may vary widely!