City Bell

When I was 7 years old, and living in the apartment, el departamento, in La Plata, my parents bought a little bungalow in “the country”. In reality it was within the confines of City Bell, a semi-developed town near La Plata. My father had actually grown up there, in a large house near the end of the city – we used to pass close to it when driving to the weekend house. Our bungalow was situated in a pretty undeveloped area, very close to the Estudiantes de La Plata country club. Indeed, the club had bought the land where the bungalow was located for its country club, but later sold it in parcels. People had bought them planning to build country houses, but most of the parcels were still undeveloped. Our parcel itself was very small – extending maybe 20 meters beyond the house at most – but there was a lot of space beyond it to play/explore. In the parcels next to ours there were tall eucalyptus trees, but beyond there were shorter trees which we could climb. And the country club was only about 100 meters away – the gate was always closed but we were small enough to fit underneath it.
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The house itself was also rather small. Downstairs there was a largish rectangular living room and an adjoining kitchen-dining room (and the bathroom). Cement stairs lead to a loft, semi-opened to the area below (I think). My parents turned this area into two bedrooms, separated by a large wardrobe. Our bedroom, at least at the beginning, had an old chair that turned into a bed (mine), a daybed for my brother and my sister’s crib. Later they bought a slide-out bed. We had decorated the back of the wardrobe with lots of greeting cards – the pretty ones that my mother’s godmother, Elsa, had sent her from the US, where she lived. They were much prettier than the plain cards then available in Argentina.
We spent most of our weekends in the casa de City Bell. I remember that when we first bought it we made several friends who lived or weekened in the area. There was Pablo, a blond 9-year old who actually lived in the area, across calle 11 (I think). Then there was Federico Carriquiriborde, I’m writing his last name just in case he googles himself and finds this posting (hmm, it’s in English). I wonder if he remembers me. Anyway, Federico was 8, had brown hair and I think bangs. Laura (10) and Matías (8) also had a weekend house in the other side of calle 11.
Laura and Matías were the children of friends of my (grown) cousins Barullo and Ana and they were already good friends with their son, Esteban. Esteban was about a year younger than I and Junior (my brother) and I were very close to him during our childhood. He often shared his weekends with us.
Nuestro grupo en City Bell
This picture was taken at some birthday party at our City Bell house. Pablo is the blond, blue-eyed boy at the top. I think the boy with the brown hair, looking towards the side is Federico. In front of Pablo you can barely see the top of Esteban’s face. Matías is the boy wearing the white and blue t-shirt (he must have been a fan of Gimnasia, a La Plata soccer team). I don’t see Laura, perhaps she’s the girl behind him. Other kids in the picture include Germán (lower left), who lived in the 6th floor of our apartment building and his little brother, the one with the black hair (bottom middle). I can’t remember his name. My brother Junior is the boy closest to the camera, and our cousin Marito is in the bottom, towards the right (the blond boy). The girl in the back with her hand covering her mouth is my (second) cousin Claudia. I don’t know who the other girl and the other boy are. Perhaps someone in my family remembers?
Pablo, Federico, Laura, Matías and Esteban were already a group when we bought the house, and we soon became part of it too. I remember that they had sort of a “club house” under a fallen tree somewhere between Federico’s house and ours. They had brought all types of “treasure” there, though the only thing I remember are some band-aids or bandages. One of our favorite games at the time was SWAT, after a popular TV show of the time. I remember playing that once in an area full of thick cañas (I’m not sure how these thick, tall plants are called in English. They share the name with fishing sticks, so I assume these were once made from them. The cañas may be bamboo, perhaps sugar cane or something else).
Our targets were mostly imaginary, but I think we had one as well. It was a boy, not much older than us, who lived in the area. I don’t know if I ever learned his real name, we called him “el gordito de las vacas” – the “fatty of the cows”. Now, before you get all riled up at our insensitivity, let me tell you that in Spanish (or at least in Argentine Spanish), it’s not unusual to give someone a name based on their physical characteristics. “El flaco”, “el negro”, “el gordo”, “el rubio”, “la petiza” are all common nicknames. Still, as I go back and think of the time and that boy, I can’t but feel guilty at how we treated him.
Our biggest sin, actually, was that we /didn’t/ treat him. He was there, always, tending his cows and there we were, playing – and never once did we think about including him, talking to him, befriending him. Was it because of very early set class prejudices? Shyness in our part? I can’t really recall a reason beyond the fact that it never occurred to us, to me. Other than his ubiquitous presence, there, in the background, in the still open fields surrounding two sides of our property, I remember only one semi-interaction with him. That day, when we were playing in the cane field, we decided that he was our “enemy”, the criminal we were after, I guess. We didn’t do anything to him, don’t worry, but I think we might actually have exchanged some words – perhaps the only ones ever.
I can’t remember exactly when it happened, if after our first year there or somewhat later, but our group sort of disintegrated. I also don’t know why – perhaps Federico’s family stopped going to their house on weekends, Pablo’s dad was strict and perhaps he forbid him from playing with us any more. Laura and Matías we saw for longer, but eventually, much before we left Argentina, those friendships cooled as well. I guess that’s what happens. I haven’t heard of any of these kids for decades. I do know that a couple of people with the last name Carriquiriborde were disappeared in La Plata and I’ve wondered for years if they were relatives of Federico. I don’t remember the last names of the others. As for my cousin, Esteban, we lost touch many years ago as well – I saw his family, but not him, during my last trips to Argentina.
What else can I say about City Bell? We held most of our birthday parties there. I remember playing cops and robbers, starting off the wooden gate, and a game called “colors”. Each person but one chose a color for themselves, then the person without the colors started saying all the colors they could think of. When she mentioned a person’s color that person ran away and the player had to catch him. We used regular colors but started getting creative as well, trying to get more choices. I remember that one of the colors we decided on was patito, little duck, meaning a soft yellow.
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My sister Gabriela’s birthday. I’m the one on top (wasn’t I cute? 🙂 besides my cousin Marito, my brother Junior and my cousin Marina. The girl in the front is Merceditas. She was the grand-daughter of Mercedes, the woman who ran the kiosco near our house, where I bought milk daily and my dad bought cigarettes. Over the years my parents became friends with her and later with her daughter Marisol. I remember Mercedes well. I barely remember Mercedes’ son Atilio, who “disappeared” when I was 8 years old, one of the 30,000 people kidnapped by the military government forces, kept in secret detention centers, tortured and killed. Mercedes became a Mother of Plaza de Mayo. I knew of Atilio’s disappearance even as a child, but it wasn’t until ’84, when democracy returned to Argentina and I saw Mercedes in a documentary about the disappeared on TV, that I realized what had happened to him.
My mom’s side of the family seldom came to visit us at the country house. I think that was probably because her younger siblings (her older ones didn’t live in La Plata) only started getting married and having children towards the end of our life in Argentina. Or it could be because most of them didn’t have cars. My dad’s family came more often, in particular my cousins Ana and Barullo with Esteban (and later Mariana). Gladys and Granny were there from time to time.
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My dad’s family at our City Bell home. On the top my cousin Barullo (Ricardo) holding his daughter Mariana and my father. Below is my cousin Ana María (with the red hair), I, my aunt Gladys, Granny and my aunt Grace holding my sister Gabriela. Grace was Granny’s youngest and only surviving sister. She lived in Atlanta and came to visit us in 1978, a short time before Granny died (of a stroke). For years, after I came to the US and learned English, we corresponded – until she also died, I think when I was in college. She had a daughter, but we didn’t keep in touch with her. Sitting are my cousin Esteban, my brother and my mother.
I remember in particular my 8th or 9th birthday (I can usually remember well what happened in what year while I was growing up, but 8 and 9 blend in my mind, probably because I had the same classroom for 3rd and 4th grade). Granny was famous for her cakes, and I wanted in particular her sponge cake, but topped with whipped cream rather than lemon curd. She made it for me and I can almost remember the flavor – it’s pretty amazing how we can recall flavors so well. That year they gave me a blue living room set for my dolls – alas, it was too small for them.
I particularly remember my 10th birthday for the cake. My mother had met a woman who decorated cakes and ordered a Swiss cheese shaped cake, with little mice, for me. The topping and the mice were made of marzipan. I can’t really remember the flavor of the cake, but marzsipan has never been my favorite. Still, it was a *very* cool cake.

Towards the end of my childhood (aka around the time I turned 12) I stopped going to City Bell – I preferred staying alone in our apartment, reading and doing who knows what. Then we left Argentina and I didn’t see the house for 20 years. During our 2003 visit I had a taxi driver drove us there, but only saw it from the outside. Then when I returned in 2007 the real estate agent took us to see it. It had been rented for the better part of two and a half decades and barely cared for, so it was in less than great repair. Inside the house looked tiny. Someone had built a short wall between the living room and the dining-room. Gone was the furniture, of course – long ago stolen or given away to relatives. I couldn’t help but remember my father making cinnamon rolls (arrollado de canela) on the kitchen table, all of us sitting by the stone fireplace enjoying a fire made from the wood we had collected, the games of scrabble, risk or generala (a dice game).
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The fireplace at our house in City Bell. The girl in red is Laura.
And, of course, the asados – those mandatory Sunday BBQs with choripanes, asado (ribs) and (vacío). I only ate vacío and it had to be red, just like my dad liked it. My mom only liked it well done. Sometimes we had chicken. My dad, Junior and I liked the legs; Gabriela, the wings. My mother didn’t (and doesn’t) eat any poultry, a consequence of a childhood cleaning chickens.
The asado was cooked in a stone grill in the corner of the property – I was sad to see the whole grill destroyed when we visited in 2007.
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The parrilla where my dad made the Sunday BBQ.
cityarbol.jpgBut really, the whole property was sad. The evergreen tree (left) had grown to unmeasurable heights and had managed to kill the grass – so it was all dirt. The lemon and almond trees that served as the ends of our “goal” when we played soccer, were both gone. The tuyas (thuja occidentalis) that my parents had planted to separate our property from the neighbors, almost reached the sky. A couple of very tall trees that I can’t remember rose on the back of the property – and the plum tree was gone.
It wasn’t the house I left, that one lives in my memory.
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