Walking through San Antonio de Areco was a bit like walking through a movie set. But a movie set from an early Hollywood picture, when the California landscape was wide and remote, when towns were small and isolated, when everyone in a village knew each other by the first name and wore their Sunday best to buy groceries at the corner market or watch a film in the town’s small theater.
We visited this small town, located about 120 km from Buenos Aires, in late October, or early spring in Argentina. Although I have read that the town has a fair amount of tourism, we visited ahead of the summer tourist season and blended right in with the local residents’ pace of life one quiet evening.
As soon as our driver turned off a rural highway (that was to me strongly reminiscent of the interstates that cut through the endless woods and farmland of my home state of Michigan) and drove down the road leading into the campo (country) town of San Antonio de Areco, I knew I was in for a treat. On the outskirts of the town were a handful of rustic dwellings, not too different from what I might see in the countryside of northern Michigan: weathered wooden houses in disrepair, horses in corrals in the front yards. I suppose as a mere outside observer I was guilty of admiring the pastoral simplicity, but I realize some of these simpler homes may have been a sign of the ongoing economic struggles in the country (just as they also are back in my home state). As we drove towards the central square, we passed blocks of serene suburban houses, all tidy and well-kept, with beautiful wooden doors and fixtures, pretty yards and gardens.
We were left near a quiet central park with beautiful early-summer roses blooming in the golden late afternoon sunlight. Local families were milling about this impeccable central square. We walked over to the cathedral, a charming landmark that we were told was one of the oldest churches in Buenos Aires province. Inside the cathedral decorated with carved stone in a very romantic Italian style, an evening mass was just about to begin. I noticed paper signs tacked near the door advertising free English courses.
There were several beautiful little shops near the central square, which I dragged my husband to. Most were selling artwork and handmade crafts, although it was surprisingly not-too-touristy. They seemed to sell the types of items locals might pick up as a gift or a special treat: glass jewelry, handmade ceramic mugs, silver vases and maté cups. I joked that we should try taking a massive cow hide rug back home on the plane as a souvenir.
And then I stepped into a little shop that I will absolutely never forget. It was in a small courtyard, with a charming table and chairs and window peeking in. Inside, its walls were decorated with beautiful graphic drawings and white shelves held displays of the most dainty and beautiful classic yet modern clothing, shoes and home accessories.
On a bench near the front of a store, a woman dressed in a neat pair of skinny jeans and crisp white blouse sat sewing something by hand, while another woman who looked exactly like her sat at a MacBook behind a desk. A rack of the most tantalizing looking dresses, shirts and skirts was next to the desk.
The next few minutes, my husband struck up a conversation with the (very beautiful) women while I buzzed around the store, babbling incoherently about how wonderful everything was. It turns out that the women, who by then were speaking in perfect English, were sisters and owned the store and sewed every article of clothing for sale. Yes, you read that right. All of the fashionable clothing that had caught my eye on the way in was hand sewed. I couldn’t believe it at first because the products were so tailored and made of the most delicious materials: skirts of crisp, pretty cotton in beautiful colours and patters, incredibly soft and luxurious alpaca wool coats cut in a style worthy of Paris runways or a spread in Vogue, tastefully decadent dress shoes in all colours of the rainbow tastefully embellished with ribbons and gems. But -get this – with price tags that were well lower than almost any mall store back in North America.
I grew up on strip mall clothing stores in the suburban U.S.. We all know that a ridiculous portion of the mass-produced, generic-looking clothing available for sale in typical North American markets is from China or other countries with dubious labour standards. I thought that handmade, quality clothing was something from the past, never to return unless you had the means to hire a tailor and designer of your own. And here I was, standing in perhaps the trendiest, chicest boutique I had ever been in, owned by these two women, everything was made by hand, personal and beautifully designed. Needless to say I purchased a little dress and a pair of shoes constructed in a traditional Argentinean style. I long to go back to look at their elegant evening dresses and beautiful alpaca wool jackets. Like most businesses in Latin America, the store doesn’t have an online presence, so no chance of ordering anything from a distance. It was a personal shopping experience that you have to experience in person.
We continued to walk up and down a few of the streets, admiring the cafes with their elegant interiors that were so reminiscent of the historic cafes I came across in Italy and Portugal. We tried gelato at one that was recommended to us, and the gelato was perhaps even superior to that which I had tried in Italy. (The Argentines credit their good gelato to European techniques but thanks to their farming and agricultural industries, use even fresher ingredients than are available in Italy.) As we ate the gelato I surreptitiously observed a table full of young adults next to us at the cafe, all wearing black and several in black fedoras, books piled on their table, in a heated discussion about something to do with politics and economics. I commented to my husband that those were the types of people I’d expected to see in Paris. A group of intellectuals seemingly straight from a belle époque Parisian salon. (Alas, in Paris last year I had only seen harried business people, rushing to and from work in their bland Burberry trench coats.)
The next day we had to return to town briefly for a stop at the bank. We tried to get money from an ATM, but the first machine we tried didn’t work. So we went into the main part of the bank, where there must have been 50 people waiting in a very stark atmosphere. The bank, although it had an ornately decorated façade, contrasted greatly with the rest of the town with its minimal, if not distressed, interior – it almost looked like it had been gutted at some point, I suppose it had considering all of the country’s financial crises – worn out seats, no plants or posters, harried tellers with endless lines. Needless to say we decided to give the ATM another shot, and thankfully another machine was able to dispense the bills we needed.
As we were using the ATM, a local tried the first machine we’d used and was similarly frustrated. “Is it working?” she asked us in English. I shook my head. “I don’t think so,” I said. She smiled at me and shrugged good-naturally, then patiently waited for us to finish at the second machine. She was wearing a pretty jacket, skirt and heels, with tidy hair and makeup. She was elegant in the way that so many of the women in the town seemed to be: well dressed, serene, with a delicate, formal feminine beauty that I think had been lost in North America sometime in the 1960s.
She also stood patiently, clearly very used to bank machines not functioning and long waits.
“Where are you from?” she wanted to know.
Many of the locals had been asking us this, eager to learn more about the visitors to their small town and anxious to exercise their English. What’s more, we had many tell us about their own family connections to the U.S. or Canada and tell us the history of such-and-such ancestor who had immigrated from England or Ireland. There were indeed many people who had descended from English, Irish and other European immigrants in this part of Argentina. With one of the locals we’d talked to, she told us the story of how they lost cousins who moved to Canada. Interestingly, my husband’s father had also lost relatives who moved to Argentina from Italy (he had moved to Canada from Italy). What a strange web is woven by families who immigrated to different countries from Europe in the earlier part of the 20th century. Talking to the locals in this little town was an interesting way to reflect on the legacy of immigration that all of our countries – Argentina, U.S., Canada – share.
When I finished my friendly conversation with the woman (and our harrowing banking transaction at last complete), the woman gave me one last smile and clasped my hands in hers. “Have a very nice day!” she told me in one of the warmest gestures I’d ever received from a stranger.
“Thank you, you too,” I said, giving her a smile that I hoped was as warm as hers and vowing to myself to someday return to this small town in the Argentinean campo.