Monday, April 25, 2011

U is for Uruguay

And for U2

I went to Uruguay for the last time in 2000. My grandmother was dying and I wanted to see her. It was the beginning of November and I watched, remotely, the debacle of the 2000 presidential race. I walked around the dilapidated village square about a hundred times listening to U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind over and over again.

I have a strange relationship with Uruguay. By my calculations I've gone every year from the time I was 9 months old to the last time, when I was 28. That's 30 times (there was an extra, emergency trip when I was 13 when my grandmothers both got hit by a taxi). And I have extensive family there and in Brazil - most of which I can't keep track of because they all go by their nicknames. (Is 'flaca' the one you went to nursing school with, mom? No, that's 'polvora', 'flaca' is your auntie 'chica's' first cousin.)

But I've always felt like an outsider when there. I've always felt like the exotic, unpredictable animal on loan from a distant zoo. It might be something simple and devastating like the jeans my mom bought  in Kmart costing  a month's wage down there. Or it might have been the Yankee GO HOME graffiti on the crumbling sports center wall I walked passed almost every day. But it was probably my mother, red faced and lips pinched telling me to get OFF my new donald duck space hopper and give it to my less fortunate cousins, NOW. All those things and more conspired to make me feel other.

But, and it's a big one, Uruguay remains the stuff of my dreams. It's ingrained in my soul, as corny as that sounds. The first short story I ever wrote as an adult, the first one that made me think, wait, I could do something with this, was triggered by a smell. The smell was so place specific, so much a perfect blend of the scent of my grandmother's skin and the cooking and flower smells of her house, that I was shocked when I smelled the same scent as I came out of my office building in midtown Manhattan on early spring day. I stopped dead, in a revolving door no less, and let people curse me out. That smell transported me immediately to Uruguay and opened out a narrative, I was amazed to see, that wasn't exactly mine, but had a lot of the same scenery. It was a transformative moment.

So Uruguay is special, indelible, it defines my sense of self and place. Now that my grandparents are dead and my mother likely to move back to the states, will I ever go back again? I tell my sister I want to go back, take my kids there so they can experience it like I did. She's very smart. She says "Your Uruguay isn't there anymore. Don't go looking for it."


  1. That was a beautifully written post. Thanks for sharing it.
    Moody Writing

  2. I found this post so moving. It's so sad to think that the places that we loved in the past, the places we believed would never go away, did.

    That's why I also don't go back to the places where I grew up. I don't want to tinge my happy memories with the bitter reality of knowing that the places where they happened are gone.

  3. @ mooderino and @misha - thanks for your kind words about this post. It's quite personal, and I'm never sure if that's a good thing, but I'm the kind that puts it out there and then thinks about it later.

    For some reason, my memory is strongest when scent and geography is central. Conversations and what people were eating/drinking, I can't remember. But the building, the table, the room and the smell. I always remember those things.


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