1950s Archive

South American Journey


Originally Published March 1956

One cannot see a country,” Uncle Willie said, “by staying in its largest and most popular city. We must move on. Travel is broadening.”

“So are the meals you order,” I said. We were in our rooms at the Plaza Hotel in Buenos Aires, trying to figure out just how far our money would go and how we could go on with what we had left. There was a knock on the door and a little waiter came in with our breakfast on a wheeled table. He bowed and said, “Mornin’, señors.”

Uncle Willie motioned for me to tip the man and began to pour the coffee. He passed me a plate of dulce de lece, milk and jam over very thin pancakes. “I don't understand, Stevie,” he said, “how a nation as new and primitive in many ways as this one is eats better than we Americans—cooks its food better and serves it better. Perhaps it's because at heart we're puritans—blue nosed reformers afraid of well-fed souls. Pass me the broiled trout.”

The truite verte, from the cold upland streams, had been stuffed with a mixture of mashed egg yolks, pickles, mushrooms, and water cress and then barbecued. Uncle Willie also had some hot asparagus canapés. I finished off with a pecan torte, and Uncle Willie handed me a cigar I had paid for. We sat smoking, looking over the road maps and planning a trip to the Argentine-Chilean lake district.

There was tapping on our door, and a small plump woman came in, her pretty face one big smile. It was Lolita (“what-you-call-Mollie”) Valez, my Buenos Aires art dealer.

“Ho, boy,” she said as she saw our breakfast table. “What Mollie she needs is one big cup coffee.” She poured and drank and sat down and kicked off her very high-heeled shoes. “I am feeling no pain, as you Yankees say. The art show was a big success. I have sold eight big pictures.” She sighed happily.

“That's fine,” I said. “We want to go into the lake country.”

Mollie put down her cup and took a sheet of paper from a purse made of an alligator's head and paws. “Is the adding here—less my per cent, the lighting, the booze for the art lovers, the printing, the broken window, the newspaper ads, the dinners for the critics,” she said briskly. “So—I owing you five thousand pesos.”

That would get us across die Andes into Chile where I had some lectures booked. Mollie ate a piece out of a small pencil and sighed. “I have spent much money and will owe her to you. But I am willing to do a thing. I will marry Uncle Willie if you will take one-third of what is due you. I like Willie.”

I must say I could only sit with my mouth open, but my Uncle Willie is more a man of the world. He smiled, knocked off a bit of good Havana ash from his cigar, and crossed his legs.

“Charming,” he said. “Mollie, charming, and I'm honored. But I am not sure we are a pair.”

Un clavo saca otro clavo,” said Mollie.

“What we need it a period of adjusting and testing. Suppose, instead of getting married, we become engaged. And instead of giving us one-third of what is due us, you give us two-thirds? I promise you won't regret it.”

Mollie rose and came over and kissed Uncle Willie on the cheek. She was weeping with pleasure. “What a gentleman. Like my father, Don Filipo de Avellanedo Manrique Cordoba (sweet Jesus, take care of his soul). We are then engaged.”

She reached into her blouse and pulled out crisp new native bank notes and began to count.

I went out on the balcony and looked down past the Ninth of July Avenue on the sunny, happy, busy city, and left the engaged couple alone. Mollie came out and said, “I am driving you up to the lake. Your Uncle Willie! Like a king with his waxed mustaches!”

“May you two be very happy.” I felt like a page out of Alice In Wonderland.

“You need a valet, you two. A man to take care of your clothes and baggage. In the lake country it is the habit. I have a brother. He will make a valet.”

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