Paola is an amazing Italian lady who has lived everywhere in the world… her husband’s most recent destination was Uruguay, where she wrote this beautiful and meaningful article that she agreed to share with us. Paola presently live in Belgium, where she is trying to sort out the 244 boxes that represent a life of moving around. Thank you Paola!
This articles was first published in “The Oldie”, March 2008.
Carrasco, a privileged suburb twelve miles east of Montevideo, is sandwiched between the Rio de la Plata to the south and Avenida d’Italia to the north. Leafy avenues lead to the river, where the broad Rambla welcomes joggers and walkers. Elegantly tracksuited ladies drive their BMWs to the Lawn Tennis Club, or discuss Botox treatments in their Pilates class at the Cottage Hotel. But there are signs that this opulence is not all there is to life in Montevideo.
Guards do twelve-hour shifts in booths outside mansions, young men walk twelve dogs at a time, and the hurgadores – the rag and bone men – clop along with their horses and carts, stopping to rummage in the green plastic bins at street corners. There are stories of bag-snatching and break-ins.
Just north of Avenida d’Italia is the suburb of Carrasco Norte. Here, dirt roads lead to tumbledown shacks, water from this year’s record rain stagnates with rubbish in ditches, and children steal whatever they can to pay for their pasta base, the local equivalent of crack cocaine. Not far from the Lawn Tennis Club, but firmly separated by Avenida d’Italia, in an area of Carrasco Norte called La Cruz, some run-down buildings cluster around a courtyard.
This is La Pascua, an NGO which welcomes children for after-school support, and offers secondary education to those who have missed out. In a multipurpose room, a teacher tells a group of youngsters about Artigas, Uruguay’s 19th century liberator and national hero. A tango class is being held in a classroom. Outside in the courtyard, some children kick a football around while others play ping-pong at a table shaped like a V, with a piece of cardboard slotted into the crack in the middle as a net.
As I walk in, they call “Hola, Profe!” and run up to me. Kisses all round.
“It’s Paola, not Profe, remember?”
A few teenagers follow me into an empty classroom.
“Profe, I have an English exam tomorrow, and I need to know the Past Continuous and Present Perfect and Passive…”
This is Estela, overweight, brown teeth, orange hair, who can’t say “My name’s Estela” in English.
“Okay, let’s start with something practical…”
Miriam pushes a stroller in. She’s sixteen, beautiful, with a sad smile. She sits down, pulls up her jumper, and hoists three-month-old Manuela to her breast. Daniel, a punk-haired adolescent with so many piercings you can hardly see his face, picks Manuela’s dummy off the floor and tosses it into the stroller.
“Profe“, Miriam says, “I have an oral exam tomorrow and I haven’t studied. My boyfriend’s mother died last week. AIDS. She got it on the street.”
“You’re okay, Miriam?” I ask.
“Yes, I’m fine, and my boyfriend too. We had the test. But Profe, I have to invent a phone conversation for my exam. About buying something. Business English. I have to pass. I owe it to Manuela.”
The Spanish is clipped and slangy, but I get the gist.
“Right, everyone, let’s help Miriam. Miriam, imagine what you might need to buy. In bulk.”
“Fine. Estela, you’re the receptionist. How about we start like this: ‘Happy Nappies, Estela speaking, can I help you?'”
We all work for an hour. Estela makes no progress with her complicated tenses, but she is an excellent Happy Nappies receptionist. For that hour at least, no-one is smoking, drinking, or taking pasta base. And miraculously, Miriam passes her exam. It’s the little things that give you joy. Not many expats get to see this half of Uruguay. Here in Carrasco Norte, I feel privileged.