© Copyright 2018 by Polly Alfano
A running joke my best friends have said about me is that I have Alzheimer’s. It’s not something that would usually cause laughter in people but if I told my friends now that I’m writing a memoir, they’d sure laugh at the irony. I have terrible memory—short-term, long-term, any term. If it wasn’t for diary entries I have my eleven-year-old self to thank for and retellings from my family and friends that spark the darkest corners of my brain, this memoir would be one page long—today’s activities. But the deeper I go into my mind the more memories I thought had vanished into the void come rushing back. When I start questioning my past, it’s amazing the amount of things I take for granted because I’m not putting them in words, and now that I am I feel like a disclaimer is in order. My experiences with my town in Argentina don’t necessarily define the entire population there. I criticize an inordinate amount of things ranging from the people and the culture to the government and the town itself. Mendoza is not Argentina, it’s just a little speck of land in what comprises the eighth-largest country in the world. In many cases, Mendoza is completely different from other provinces in the country, each having their own little quirks and charms. Still, to anyone born in Argentina, everything I write about the nation could seem offensive. But, it’s only my opinion and my experiences what I tell, not the ones from everyone living there. I’m neither correct in my accusations nor wrong, it’s simply a matter of perspective.
The room was dark and spacious, only lit by high, dim orange lights to achieve that traditional cellar atmosphere tourists seem to love. Soft classical music played through the room’s sound system which most days put me to sleep. The huge oak barrels behind the receptionist desk gave the room a final touch of sophistication. While I waited for the next group to come in, I was coming up with the best words to use for when I told my boss I wanted to quit. But that wouldn’t happen until after I finished giving my tour that morning. The double wooden doors opened bringing blinding sunlight and a fresh group of around forty people ready to learn about wine-making in Mendoza, but mostly to enjoy the tasting at the end of the tour. After they fumbled their way into the room, their hands extended forward like zombies because of the abrupt change in lighting, they saw me sitting behind the desk, a smile ready on my face.
My coworker came to take her turn at the receptionist desk leaving me to tour the new group of tourists around the winery. It was a forty-five minute to an hour worth of tour that included visiting the vineyards, the different machines around the winery involved in the wine-making process, the oak barrels and concrete tanks for wine storage, the wine museum that displays the different tools for wine-making since the 1600s, and finally the wine tasting at the wine shop. Once the tour was done and people applauded and gave me compliments for an entertaining tour, I went behind the counter and sold wine to the interested tourists. On occasion, I would find a new comment written on the visitors’ book praising my happy disposition. Little did they know, I hated the job.
I followed the HR woman into a tiny office, my wide smile stretched on my face despite the woman looking like she was about to doze off any second. I sat down across from her, my knees bumping against the desk while I thought about what I should do with my hands.
“Tell me a little bit about yourself.”
“Well, I was born in Hong-Kong, China. My family moved back to Mendoza, Argentina with me when I was five years old. I’ve always been interested in Mendoza’s wine culture, interacting with people from diverse backgrounds and cultures, and the fascinating experiences that a job as a tour guide would entail.”
One lie after the other rolled out of my mouth a lot easier than I thought it would be. True, I’d been born in China, and it was only worth mentioning because people in my small town of Mendoza have always been shocked when they learn of my birth place. “In China? That’s like the other side of the world.” “Why don’t you have narrow eyes?” Yeah, shocking. Despite the cringe-worthy questions, it’s a nice ice-breaker when meeting someone new and it helps me stand out in job interviews or applications. There was also some other truth in my sales-pitch. I was interested in meeting people with diverse cultures, which would happen on occasion at a winery whenever foreign tourists visited. But, wine? Bleh. A job as a tour guide? All my life I’ve been mortified when I’m forced to do public speaking. To this day, I have no idea how I managed to speak to groups of 10 to 50 people on a daily basis. Survival really does make you do the unimaginable.
After the lies stopped, the HR woman said she’d like me to meet the Head of the Tourism Department. She led me to a room in the winery’s main building where a wooden oval table stood in the middle and a view through glass doors offered a glimpse of the vineyards. I recognized the type as soon as the Head of the Tourism Department walked into the room. Blonde woman wearing expensive clothes. When it comes to dressing up, there are really two types of people in Mendoza—people with money who care about appearances and people with no money who dress frugally and spend their income in basic needs. My future boss was the first one. A quick look at the clothes I was wearing (borrowed from my fashion-lover friends) and a smile showed up in her face. It wasn’t designer clothes, but the blue blouse with white polka dots, the elegant blazer, and brand-new black skinny jeans that my mom and I bought a week before the interview as investment, made me look chic. My make-up, styled hair, and a fake charming personality allowed me to pose as another one belonging to the first category too, despite the bitter truth. She asked me the same questions the HR woman asked, but from the look on her face as soon as she walked in, I knew I had the job. They were looking for girls who looked charismatic enough for customer service, which translates as getting men to buy more wine at the end of the tour. After a few more formalities, my future boss said I could start working the following Monday.
My parents might have thought that having me as a baby in a foreign country would have no repercussions other than dealing with complicated legal papers. They were wrong. My dad, being an engineer that worked for an international company, was sent to work in Hong-Kong, China for what they said would be only a few months. My mom knew better and refused to let my dad travel alone to the other side of the world in 1990 when international telephone calls were considered complex. So, my dad, mom, and older brother, who was three at the time, packed their belongings and headed halfway across the world, oblivious to the one-month old baby growing in my mom’s belly. After I was born in Hong-Kong, I was immersed in a trilingual environment. My nanny and everyone around me spoke Mandarin, the kindergarten I went to was an international school where they only spoke in English, and at home my family spoke Spanish. It was in that kindergarten where I first dipped my toes into this small puddle containing the English language. It was later in life that I discovered there was an ocean of knowledge available and I wanted nothing more than to let myself dive into it.
Despite the triad of languages and cultures I was brought up in seeming to be more than enough identities, one more should be added to the mix. My dad’s parents were Italians who’d left Italy in the 1950s and headed to Argentina in search of a better future for their kids, away from wars. As per Italian law, my dad and his children inherited the Italian nationality. On paper, I was Hong-Kong born, an Italian citizen, and a permanent resident of Argentina. But that Italian nationality came when I was 17 years old. Until then, I was stateless—someone “who has no country that they officially belong to” (as defined by the Online Cambridge Dictionary). Despite the legal papers saying that I finally did belong to a country (albeit one I’ve never stepped foot on), a stateless feeling still follows me around to this day.
It’d been around six months since I’d graduated from college and I was still looking for a job. Unemployment in my town, and in Argentina in general, is so common that people assume it’s a part of life. You’re born, go to elementary school, then middle school, finally high school, maybe go to college, struggle to find a job, keep struggling to find a job, maybe find a job, grow old and die. What first started as applications to jobs that would involve me learning valuable skills connected to my Translation degree ended up becoming applications to whichever place was hiring, with very few exceptions. Some jobs included positions as a waitress, cashier or host at restaurants, a receptionist or cashier at hotels, and a secretary at international companies. I’d also sent my resume to a job placement office and one day I got a call asking me to go meet with one of the recruiters so they could discuss my resume.
If you ask someone to describe my personality, you’ll get different answers depending on who you’re asking. People know me as an introvert, an extrovert, talkative and quiet, a party person and a recluse. When I was asked to come in to the recruiter’s office, I had to be the extrovert me if I wanted a job any time soon. So I put up a mask, created a role—someone who wasn’t me. Just for the time being, until I got a job.
The recruiter was a guy. Bonus. All I had to do was smile a lot, laugh at the appropriate times, act helpless but determined, flirty even, if it was necessary. It sounds sexist, I know. But that’s just how it is in Argentina. I know it’s wrong and I shouldn’t have taken advantage of the culture’s faults but my options were slim and I was six months in with no income. The guy said he’d help me out because I seemed like an exemplary candidate. I had no experience whatsoever but he’d make an exception for me, I had potential. He’d find me a job. About two weeks later, he said he’d found me a position as a tour guide at a renowned winery in Mendoza. I had an interview the following week.
The economic status of a lot of people in Argentina can be described as dire. I could dedicate an entire memoir to the sole concept of how badly the economy sucks there, but that would be too depressing and I’m pretty sure there are plenty of those already in the market. The fact is you really can’t grow economically in my town if you don’t have a job in a lucrative profession. Job positions in Mendoza that won’t leave you starving include doctors (surgeons mostly), dentists (orthodontists mostly), big business administrators/owners (if you’re crooked and get a high position at a company by stepping on others), oenologists, lawyers, and some types of engineers. So, if you are stuck with liking a career in the arts like me or anything outside the options I already mentioned, chances are you are looking at a penniless future—at least that’s what people in my town drill in your head. Despite having an unlimited source of hope and wishes for a better future, the truth is very similar to the sad tune people are so used to—the economy drags you down and prevents you from succeeding at all costs. And that’s something I’ve known for as long as I’ve had memory.
I can’t remember when my family started saying this, probably when I was around eleven, but there’s this saying we have whenever we’re talking about money. Estamos saliendo. Literally, it means “we’re on our way out,” but a more meaningful translation would be “we’re not quite out of the woods yet, but almost.” Ever since I was a kid, there have been money struggles in my family. Whenever any of my two brothers or I asked for something new, my dad would say, not yet, but estamos saliendo. It became our family motto, and when we say it we don’t consider it a sad or frustrating notion. It shows our resilience, our perseverance, how far we’ve come since those hard times when we couldn’t afford to buy tomatoes or cheese—two of an Italian’s favorite things to eat.
Despite the economy, my parents have always supported my brothers and me on our professional choices. My mother, as a college student, didn’t have the same luck since my grandfather was very adamant on having her study accounting instead of something connected to her botanical interests. They both have encouraged our own choices, especially my dad who was the only one to get a college education in his part of the family. His other two brothers choosing the path of trade instead of studies. Despite all of my dad’s hard work and long years of nearly inhuman effort, he’s still struggling at an age where he’s supposed to be thinking of retirement. That’s a fine example of how the economy works in Argentina. No matter how hard you try, it’ll still be a pain to make ends meet. There’s hardly any professional growth because inflation and corruption keep stealing from your pockets. I’m not saying we’ve never had our luxuries, because it’s not true. We’ve had a few vacations as a family, gotten a slightly newer model of a car in exchange for the battered one, and a few other enjoyments from time to time whenever we could. But anything outside the little extra expense would not be possible. Asking my parents for money to pay for the trip that would help me get out of Mendoza and follow my career path was definitely more than I could ask. But I did anyway.
At the winery, I wasn’t the bookish girl who likes staying in during the weekends to watch a movie with her family. I was the party-loving, guy-hopping, spotlight-seeking girl that I thought would fit in with my group of coworkers after meeting them. In reality, I’m someone in between, because both those scenarios were two extremes that I didn’t belong to.
On a regular day working at the winery I arrived before the rest of my coworkers got there. The gravel crunched under the car tires as I pulled up into the parking lot. I still had around fifteen minutes to spare, so I lazily crouched down in the cramped-up space in the driver’s seat to take off my flats and replace them for high heels. One quick check in the rearview mirror reminded me to loosen my hair from the ponytail to let the waves cascade around my shoulders, and then I applied extra eyeliner. I looked presentable but still somber, the smile on my face wouldn’t show up until I was forced to face someone.
One deep breath later, I got out of the car and wobbled over the gravel till I reached the paved path leading into the winery. Jerry poked his head out of the window of his security booth and waved, getting a bright smile in response. My steps echoed inside the dim back corridor bouncing off the huge oak barrels lined around me. I made my way down into the tasting room, turned on the lights, and sat on a stool behind the counter. Five more minutes of serenity passed before my first coworker showed up. Katie gave out a high-pitched greeting when she saw me, in that natural, overly enthusiastic way she always exhibited. We started with small talk and then moved on to the topics Katie usually liked talking about. How living with her boyfriend had changed her whole life around for the better, how she can’t wait for him to pop the question, and how awesome her life is in every way.
“How’s it looking with Nate?” she asked once she realized she’d been talking for the past fifteen minutes.
I didn’t remember if I’d broken up with my imaginary three-month long boyfriend two or three weeks before, but my sleazy, made-up personality wasn’t planning on reconnecting, let alone considering him as a possible roomie. My coworkers at the winery thought I was a busy single girl, always looking for the next guy. “Katie, you know I can’t stand a guy for more than three months. He’s long gone.”
“See, you always know exactly what you want, and here I am struggling with everything going on in my life.”
Katie started going off again about her supposedly problematic yet perfect life when our boss finally decided to show up and we got sent to do our job.
Despite the person I tried to be, my favorite part about working at the winery was the reception area. It was just me, a desk in the middle of the room, and more oak barrels large enough to reach the roof with their bellies. I didn’t get to stay at the reception desk for more than an hour a day though, since my tour started as soon as a group of tourists dropped in.
The wooden doors opened letting sunshine blind me for a few moments. As I adjusted my sight with a muffled groan I saw Katie and the new guy approaching the desk.
“I’m showing him around one more time before you start with the next group.”
My smile broadened even though I knew my insides were churning. “Is there a new group already?”
“We just saw a travel agency bus pulling up, so it’s going to be a big one.”
The new guy looked impressed. “I don’t think I could lead one of those large groups.”
Katie nodded at me. “Oh, you don’t know her. She loves the spotlight.”
“Yeap, you know me.”
The mass of people began to come in through the door, their cameras flashing with their first step in. I stood up from the desk with a bright smile and a radiant attitude. I kept that unfaltering mask on my face until I finished waving Jerry goodbye from the seat of my car.
Polly Alfano is a writer and translator from Argentina currently residing in Iowa. She recently earned a Master's degree in English with an emphasis in creative writing and thought it was about time she shared her stories with the world. When she's not writing or reading, she enjoys catching up on fantasy shows and baking—often at the same time.