Sitting at a sidewalk café at mid-day, I watched the people pass by – women striding along with an air of confidence and feminine ownership uncommon in the United States, and men somehow pulling off a sporty and masculine presence while donning “long” hair, and wearing sweaters casually tossed over bright polo shirts. Coming from conservative Alaska where dressing up meant putting on clean Carhartt pants and a jacket that didn’t tell of your last hunting trip, this was new territory. Since arriving in Mendoza, Argentina, there had been a series of firsts: the Castellano language, my host family, transportation options, my classes at the university, the weather, meal times, the siesta culture, and of course the food and drink. As part of a six-month study abroad program being offered through my college, the trip was living up to the promise of adventure hinged on higher education. Having grown up in rural Alaska, I was no stranger to adventure; however, this was Adventure-Chic, if you will. It stimulated all of my senses while inviting metacognitive thought where I privately waxed on in my journals about my place in the world, about unique cultural traditions, and about the social graces and norms particular to my new environment. One such social norm was the café culture.
In Argentina, meeting at a café with friends is as common and expected as going to work on a daily basis is in the United States.
Friendships are considered an essential piece of mental and emotional health, so it was no surprise to me that my new friends wanted to meet at a café after class to “hang-out and share a beer.” My first foray into café life was not so successful. I attempted it sola (alone) during siesta hours because I enjoyed how quiet the streets were before the city began to wake up again and sport an active night scene. After ordering “una ensalada de tomates” (a salad of quartered, deep red, Roma tomatoes with salt, olive oil, and fresh basil leaves), and “una botella de agua sin gas” (non-carbonated bottled water), the waiter politely suggested that I enjoy the salad with a glass of Mendocino wine instead….” to bring out the full flavor,” he added. I quickly acquiesced, more interested in showing the small group of onlookers that this “Yankee” did not need company to enjoy her meal – a sentiment that would change over the coming months as I slowly shed my mono-social lifestyle.
Subsequent attempts at café life went much more smoothly-primarily because I realized that, unlike Internet cafes and coffee houses back home that served as both tech-savvy hotspots and private respite-houses for the proud or edgy loner, it was a social affair and required more than myself.
So, greeting my Argentine friends with a kiss on the cheek (strangely not as difficult to adopt as other customs), I adeptly ordered a round of beers for the table. In the land of world-class wines (there are 1400 + wineries in the province of Mendoza alone) and mate (an Argentine herbal tea with a social culture all its own), I was surprised that a beer culture existed.
Perhaps, as part of the endearment process between Argentina and all things U.S., it had been adopted along with Levi jeans and Marlboro cigarettes. Whatever the reason, beer consumption was alive and well in this town, and I embraced it as part of my “acercamiento a la cultura argentina” (rapprochement with the Argentine culture).
Not being an avid beer-connoisseur, my choices in college were more influenced by cost and label than anything else.
It wasn’t until a trip to Germany during my graduate school program for my master’s degree did I learn to appreciate what beer should taste like. However, as a foreign college student in South America, I put my trust in the waiter to serve a beer worthy of our budding friendships, and he did not disappoint. The round arrived in cool, tall glasses, filled to the brim with a healthy head of foam. The waiter also served a large bowl of salted and shelled peanuts that I assumed were for eating along with the beer; however, I was quickly proven wrong as my friends nonchalantly dropped a handful of peanuts into their glasses, waiting for the salt to cut down the foam before drinking. Hiding my surprise with mimicry, I followed suit and gently added peanuts to my own beer, watching them slowly sink to the bottom of my glass. As someone who also avoids ice cream flavors like Rocky Road, I did not understand why anyone would want to chew their ice cream, let alone their beer. As the saying “When in Rome” goes, I found that not only did the salty peanuts add a nice, earthy taste to the beer, but vice versa as well – creating an alcoholic version of a peanut-butter finish that was quite delightful. Who knew?
As the conversation and laughter crept into the evening hours, I remembered that in Spanish the verb “tomar” (to take) is often used to describe consumption.