By Julia Negrete
I remember the first time I saw her: she was sitting down on a bench in the courtyard of the school, looking around as if she was waiting for someone. It was not just the first day of school, but the first day at the university of our Master’s program. One of those days that creates some excitement and nervousness. As soon as I approached the bench, she smiled at me and moved to the edge for me to sit. She was wearing blue jeans, a white t-shirt, an old pair of brown sneakers, and a black pocketbook from which a long metal straw was sticking out. When I opened my notebook to look at my schedule, she came next to me saying that she was in the same program. She told me her name and grabbed my hand strongly when I said, “nice to meet you”. I knew right away, from her strong accent, that she was a foreigner. She was loud and expressive, qualities inherited from her Italian ancestors, she told me later. Next thing I knew, she took out the metal straw from her pocketbook and a kind of large round cup where she poured hot water from a thermos; three minutes later she was happily drinking a bitter infusion and sharing it with me. “It is mate,” she explained, “a kind of tea that people drink in my country.” It seemed like she was waiting for the right moment to show her entire national pride as she did every day since. Preparing that drink was a morning ritual that only started with the presence of someone else. She used to say that people from Argentina are not Argentinians if they don’t drink mate.
At first, she made me feel overwhelmed with her loud voice, her “escuchaaa” starting almost all her phrases, and the mate that I was forced to drink as proof of courtesy. Sometimes I ran away pretending not to see her, but as soon as she saw me, she yelled, “Juliiis!” and I knew I could not hide. As I got to know her, things became easier, even fun: her conversations about her husband, her life in Argentina, her new diet, or the last adventure with her dog. As the semester passed, I became familiar with the old pair of brown sneakers carrying the mate utensils everywhere.
Her kindness and generosity were blurred sometimes by her survival instincts. One day she was able to say to a professor, “I totally agree with the idea of getting rid of the Latin course, because it does not add much to the study of contemporary literature.” The next day she raised her hand in the Latin class to talk about how important it is to learn Latin as part of our program. I got to love her anyway, despite everything.
At the end of that semester, after the final exams, we went to a shopping mall to look around and give a break to our minds by seeing all sorts of things that we could not afford to buy. As we passed in front of an expensive shoe store, she kept looking at the shoes behind the glass. She stopped and went into the store. All the shoes were so expensive that I did not even want to put my eyes on them, but she was already in the store. I followed her. We walked around looking very closely at all those shoes just to make sure the price was correct and rounding our eyes every time that it was so. We noticed that the sales lady was giving us a bad look. All of a sudden, I heard a voice asking, “Can I try these shoes?” I turned my head to see the lady replying, “Are you going to buy them?” My friend’s face turned red, then yellow, and red again as she told the sales lady, “Of course, and I want to try them on.” As soon as the lady went to get the shoes, my friend called her husband to ask if he had enough money to buy an expensive item she really needed. She tried three different sizes and made the lady wrap them carefully while she took her credit card out of her purse. Without saying thank you, we left the store with dignity. That afternoon we said goodbye and wished each other happy holidays. I did not see her until next semester. On that first day, she was wearing a fancy pair of brown shoes that would carry the mate utensils for at least the next year.
By Julia Negrete