A few days ago I travelled from Buenos Aires toMontevideo, the capital city of Uruguay, on a boat during the worst rainstorm I have ever seen. I was sitting in the front of the boat right by the windows. It was impossible to see anything but the drops of water that would violently land on the boat’s huge windshield and then be blown apart and smeared across the glass by the heavy. They looked like a crisscrossing series of watery roads. Luckily the boat was steady and strong, and it felt kind of cozy speeding through the foggy darkness to our destination.
Just like Argentina, Uruguay has experienced revolutions – first for its independence in the early 19th century, and more recently in the 1970s from a military dictatorship. Those revolutions inspired writing that we are going to study together. Although the revolution for democracy in Uruguay happened at a similar time to the one in Argentina, I’m learning that in many ways it was a lot different.
Before I teach you about this country and what happened here, I want to introduce you to Montevideo through the words of one of the great Uruguayan writers, Mr. Eduardo Galeano. He is writer of fiction and non-fiction, and he writes about how important it is for people to remember who they are and where they come from. Most famously he has written about the history of Latin America, and how he feels it is critical for Latin Americans to remember and take ownership of their past. His truthful storytelling meant he was exiled from Uruguay during the dictatorship. He travelled first to Argentina, and he had to leave there, too, for the same reasons. He eventually came back to his city in 1985, and he has lived and worked here ever since.
The poem I want to share with you is about the city of Montevideo and, thankfully for me, it has been translated from Spanish by Mark Fried. It was written this year, and it doesn’t have a title. I illustrated it with a few photos that I have taken over the past few days. Consider this your introduction to the country of Uruguay and its stunning capital city. I can’t wait to tell you more!
Every day I walk the city that walks me.
I walk through her and she walks through me.
At the edge of the river-sea, river as broad as the sea, the clean air clears my mind and my legs stride on while stories walk inside me.
Walking, I write. At a stroll, words seek each other and find each other and weave stories that later on I write by hand on paper. Those pages are never the final ones. I cross out and crumple up, crumple and cross in search of the words that deserve to exist: fleeting words that yearn to outdo silence.
Born on the path of a cannonball, Montevideo is swept by breezes that cleanse the air. Before there was a church or a hospital, this point of rock, earth, and sand had a café. It was called a pulpería, the first house with a wooden door amid the huts of mud and straw. They sold everything there, from a needle and a frying pan to a pack of tobacco, while men sitting on the floor drank wine and told lies.
Practically three centuries later Montevideo is still a city of cafés.
We don’t ask, Where do you live? rather, What café do you go to?
But in the world of our time there is barely time to waste time, and the oldest cafés, the most endearing, don’t deserve to exist because they can’t turn a profit.
I go to the Café Brasilero, which miraculously lives on.
This is the last of the ancient meeting places where I learned the art of storytelling by listening to liars who, by lying, told the truth.
The café was my university.
I never knew the names of those magicians who could make what had never happened happen when they told it. From those masters, from their unhurried speech, their easy stride, I learned while pretending not to, looking out the window at a “Ford with whiskers,” as we called the many Model T’s that cruised the streets of Montevideo at the pace of a tortoise. They still do, inexplicable survivors that can be seen in our city and nowhere else: impassive, haughty museum pieces, indifferent to the vehicles of today which devour at a dizzying pace the hours and the air.
There are those who say Montevideo is a boring city.
Maybe they are right.
Nothing happens here.
Nostalgia wins out over hope.
In a yawn, you can lose two aunts.
But this is also the capital of a country governed by guerrillas released from prison and elected democratically, and it is the city that produces the most experts who philosophize on everything and nothing, the city with the most independent theaters and the most noncommercial moviehouses, including the first to show Bergman and Polanski, the city that celebrates the longest carnival in the world, and the one that produces the most soccer players, because here every baby is born screaming goal.
Montevideo, the city where I was born.
The city where I would be born again.