When I first applied for this internship in Buenos Aires, I greatly overlooked how significant the homestay experience would be. I was just so excited to be in Argentina, to see Iguazu, to drink wine in Mendoza, to see tango, and to fulfil any number of other Argentine stereotypes. I completely underestimated how a significant chunk of my experience would revolve around this concept of building a home in this city with my new Argentine family.
If you really think about it, the entire idea of a host family is actually quite amazing. A local family literally decides to adopt you for a prolonged amount of time based on nothing but the trust they have in the program coordinator. The family knows nothing about you other than your name and your university before letting you stomp all over their home upon arrival. For all they know, you could be a totally inconsiderate jerk and yet they’d still have to feed you and wash up after you. The generosity and trust that these host families possess is really quite astounding.
I completely lucked out with my host family. Strictly speaking, I just have a host mom, but I used to have a host sister as well (Olenka, another girl who just finished a semester abroad), and we were a lovely little family. Now, it’s just me and Ivonne, my host mom, but we still make a cozy family of two. Words cannot express how grateful I am for madre, as I call her.
Of all the amazing experiences I have had so far in Argentina, I’d say the one I value the most is building my relationship with her. This happens primarily over the dinner table where madre and I break bread and work on my equally broken Spanish. I love it though! It makes such a difference that I have someone to ask me how my day was every time I come home.
I don’t think I really realised how intimate cooking is until I started eating with madre. I could see that she was concerned with whether or not I enjoyed her cooking which made me extremely aware that every bite I was taking was not only a bite of her hard work, but also a bite of her culture. And while I was tempted to just nod and say that I loved everything, madre was thick-skinned and insisted on honesty. Luckily, we do have very similar tastes and she is a fantastic cook so I genuinely loved most of what she cooked the first week. But after I told her that I didn’t like mayonnaise, coleslaw disappeared from the table and was replaced by a green salad. After I told her I was meh about bananas, apples and oranges suddenly filled the kitchen drawers and the bananas were banished.
After the first week, it’s really just been hit after hit from madre. In particular, I genuinely appreciate how seriously she has taken my request to eat healthy. You are what you eat which is what makes cooking for someone else so intimate. What you cook directly impacts someone else’s health. For the most part, madre and I eat incredibly delicious yet nutritious and light food. Madre really moved me one night when she made a healthy chop suey (veggie stir-fry) with rice after asking me about food from back in Hong Kong. Other favourites of mine include her wonderful pea soup, her grilled vegetables, and her delicious steamed fish. She’s an artist by trade and you can tell that she loves working with her hands and puts care into everything she touches.
Sometimes though, we eat a little naughty (all in the name of cultural immersion though of course). Madre cooks a mean steak (this is Argentina after all), a banging milanesa, and great homemade gnocchi.
On the 29th last month, I walked into the kitchen to see a little ten peso note laid underneath my plate.
“Madre, ¿has perdido diez pesos?” (Mom, have you lost ten pesos?).
“No Rachel, es porque hoy es el día de ñoquis” (No Rachel, it’s because today is the Day of Gnocchi), while loading a mountain of gnocchi and tomato sauce on my plate.
Yeah, you heard that right, Argentina has a monthly gnocchi day. The story of the tradition is that the 29th of every month use to be the day before payday so money and supplies would always be low. Families usually only had potatoes left at that point so delicious little gnocchis, essentially small pillows of potato, was the obvious way to go. Now, families gather on the 29th to eat gnocchi together for good luck. For extra prosperity, the tradition is to put pesos underneath the plate.
Little stories like this have greatly enriched my experience here (at the expense of enriching my waistline as well). I’ve loved learning about my madre and her culture through the amazing food that she puts in front of me every night. After each meal, I wash the dishes while she drys. We’re a perfect team. I am so thankful for being let into this home and for being so welcomed. This experience has shown me the importance of home cooking. It has reminded me how linked home food is to motherhood (I don’t call her madre for nothing), to nourishment, to wellbeing, and to tradition. As I sit here writing this, I can’t help but salivate a little at the thought of what madre is going to serve up tonight. Whatever it is, it is sure to be made with love and entirely mayonnaise free!