Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Latino pleasures

Last Sunday morning we packed fresh vegetables, bread, homebrewed beer, and a free range chicken I bought at the farmer's market, and headed to the river with our friends Daniel and Ruth. We unpacked our baskets of food at the barbecue area, and Daniel got busy with the fire and chicken preparation. Luis opened his beer and served. To the American readers, please take note, for what happened next is a whole new concept for many of you: it's called ocio, and Argentines do it very, very well.

Ocio loosely translates as "leisure" in English, but that's not really it. Ocio is relaxing, hanging out, doing nothing (even the translation of this is hard) with pleasure as it's one and only goal. Forget about checking your watch; this is not something you squeeze in between 2 and 4pm, before soccer practice. There is no time table, no structure, no "to do" list buzzing around in your brain. We Americans love to be entertained: we spend gadzillions on movies, entertainment parks, large screen T.Vs, musical events, paintball, etc. But what I am speaking about, here, is a more quiet, simple, restful entertainment, one you don't have to pay for. And ocio, my Argentine husband clarifies, is more than just the love of not working. The whole point is to spend unhurried, unmeasured time with your friends.

Last Sunday was one of those special days. We ate our barbecued chicken and fresh vegetables with no hurry, and later put on our bathing suits for a splash in the river. The rest of the day was spent swimming, playing with the kids, talking, drinking mate. The hours ticked by, the sun started to lower, but no one made a move to leave, no comments such as "I really need to get some work done for tommorrow'. Lucas and Maite played on well past dusk, as did the other little kids who were there with their families. It was almost 10pm when we shook our towels out and headed back go the car. "This wouldn't happen in the U.S.", I remarked to Ruth and Daniel. "People have to get home to do things. You don't just hang out indefinitely".

Here in Argentina, there is no social inhibition to showing up unannounced at a friend's house and spending the whole day there. After a few hours, someone will say, "what do you feel like eating?", upon which a few people in attendance will go off to find a store that is still open. Lucas and Maite will inevitably be up way past their bed time; and Luis will ask me if we need to go home to put the kids to bed, hoping to God I'll be o.k. with it. (and I usually am. I've mostly given up on early bedtimes, at least when we are with company) No worries that we are overstaying our welcome, that perhaps our hosts have things to get done. We have played this scene over, countlesss times.

We had our own little ocio community in Colorado, too: Latino friends would come for lunch, and, simply, just stay. All day. After a few hours, Guido or Luis would bring the guitar out, or perhaps we'd all go for a walk at dusk. Barbara Kingsolver, in her new book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle", talks about a dinner party, "Italian style" which they managed to stretch into a five hour affair. "Five?" laughed Luis. "Is that all?"

I haven't been to all the countries in Latin America, but I have a hunch that where you find Latinos, you'll find ocio. In Greeley, I always noted that the public parks were more heavily used by Mexican immigrants, who would show up with picnic lunches and spend hours hanging out and playing. I have walked and driven past countless Mexican families hanging out on their lawns, sipping drinks and chatting, the kids running and playing. Homes of the gringo families tend to have uniform, green, and shady lawns, a showcase for their hard work and diligence. The Mexican immigrant families, judging from their scraggly grass, don't put much effort into their lawns. But they actually use them.

"Hard Work" is a value we Americans (or Yanquis, as we are called in Argentina) put right up there next to "family". In Latin America, "friendship" takes a premium position on the priority list. Most Latinos do work hard, but they'd almost surely rather be doing something else. They absolutely will not plan to clean the garage (if they are wealthy enough to have one) with the bit of free time they have. An asado (barbecue) is definitely the more rewarding choice. Americans, in contrast, feel guilty if they abandon their "to do" lists to spend a day at the beach. They feel the need to explain their slothfulness, like "I deserve a break. I've been working hard", and then, to assuage the concious a bit "I'll finish my work in the evening". Spending your weekends doing nothing "productive" (like, at the very least, cleaning the house a bit) doesn't feel right, somehow, to most of us Americans. Argentines require no excuses to spend the day with their friends.

Naturally, American productivity does have its rewards, as we are among the wealthiest in the world, and are infinitely more organized and tidy than just about anyone (excluding a couple of Aisan and European countries). Living in a somewhat chaotic, third world country, I really do appreciate American efficiency and structure, that allows me to paying my bills online, enjoy public libraries, drive on good roads, etc. But as far as the simple, quiet pleasures in life, the lovely days of ocio with friends--well, most Americans just don't know what that is. It is, truly, one of the greatest pleasures of living here.