Odd Argentine Customs
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE HOSPITALITY OF THE PEOPLE-PRESENTS WITH STRINGS TO THEM-THE CEMETERIES AND FUNERAL CUSTOMS-HOW THE DEAD ARE FILED AWAY IN PIGEON-HOLES - RENTED GRAVES-CURIOUS GASTRONOMIC TASTES - SNAILS AND ARMADILLOS AS TIDBITS-THE GREATEST MEAT-EATERS IN THE WORLDóHOW TURKEYS ARE SOLD-MILKMEN WHO CANNOT WATER THEIR MILK.
THE Argentines are generous, after the Spanish style. That is, they will make you a grandiloquent presentation of anything you admire, expecting that you will politely refuse to accept. This is the custom of all Spanish-America. At Santiago I dined one day with a millionaire friend of the President of Chile, a gentleman of high education and culture; the dinner was given at his home in the suburbs of Santiago, a palace surrounded by a garden conceded to be one of the finest in South America. As I walked through the house with its owner I could not help but admire it. He at once offered it to me, and that in such a cordial manner that I feared for a moment he might be in earnest. When I reflected, however, that the property would bring at auction at least $100,000, I felt there might be a mistake, and refused it with thanks.
This habit sometimes causes the giver trouble when he has social relations with a foreigner who does not understand him. Not long, ago a Spanish don was travelling down the west coast of South America on a steamer with a charming young American girl as a fellow-passenger. The don was married, but the young lady was beautiful, and when she admired a poodle which he was carrying with him, he at once placed it at her disposal, bowed to the floor, and told her it was hers. He expected that she would thank him and refuse; but to his surprise she thanked him and accepted the gift. Now the don was carrying this poodle to his wife, who was as jealous as Spanish women usually are. He had especial orders to bring it home safe and sound, and as the American girl was going to the same town, he knew that serious complications would arise if he did not recover the dog. Before he left the ship he was compelled to ask one of his friends to explain to the young lady that his offer was not in-tended to be taken in earnest, and that he hoped she would send back the poodle, as it belonged to his wife.
I have heard of many similar incidents of the failure of such polite lies and cheap generosity. One relates to a young naval lieutenant who has since risen to be an eminent officer on one of our American men-of-war. It was during his salad days when he was in South America on a coasting tour that he became acquainted with an Argentine don. One day he asked the latter for a match, and was handed in reply a beautiful gold cigar-lighter. The lighter must have been an expensive one, for it was set with diamonds. Our young lieutenant admired it, and the don, putting his hand across his heart, told him it was his and at his disposal. The young lieutenant, then green to Spanish ways, as grandiloquently accepted it, and the Argentine don was too amazed to explain. At least, he never asked that it be returned, and I dare say the American naval officer has it among his trophies to-day.
Some of the oddest customs of the Argentines are those relating to the dead. In the lands of the Rio de la Plata funerals are grand functions, and the average funeral costs more than a wedding. The undertakers advertise their wares as our mer-chants advertise their dry goods. Each undertaker gives his prices; he tells you just what you can get for your money; he lauds his peculiar burial caskets, and the virtues of his patent embalming fluids, and states that he can take charge of the departure of the deceased with all fashionable accompaniments.
Funerals are first, second, and third class; the first class are worth seeing. I shall never forget one which passed me in the business section of Buenos Aires. It was the funeral of a steamship manager, who had evidently been a man of wealth. The hearse was as big as a baggage waggon, and the four black Orloff stallions which drew it were as fine as any in St. Peters-burg. The hearse consisted of a black canopy resting on wheels; at its corners were massive bunches of ostrich feathers, each as big around as a half-bushel measure. The roof was upheld by four black Ethiopians, made of carved ebony, and the magnificent coffin, which rested on the platform beneath, was covered with flowers. On the front of the hearse sat a coachman dressed in black, and on the back a footman in the same sombre livery. Each of the coaches following the hearse was drawn by black horses and driven by coachmen in mourning. The mourners were dressed in black, all wearing tall hats and black gloves. It was indeed a parade of grief.
An important part of the advertising of the Argentine news-papers relates to funerals. The family always inserts a statement of a death and an invitation to its friends to be present at the funeral. They announce the masses, which are given from year to year on the anniversaries of the funeral thereafter, and which all friends of the deceased and his family are supposed to attend or to leave their cards at the church door. Here is a sample funeral notice :
Nicolas Ió Gó, Q.E.P.D. Died June 22, 1892.
The family invites the persons of their friendship to attend the masses, which, for the eternal rest of his soul, will be celebrated in the Church of San Miguel Wednesday, the 22nd of June, 1898, from 8 to 10 A. M. The family will assist at the mass at 10 o'clock.
In response to the notice, all the friends and relatives of the family were expected to attend. There were servants at the church to receive their cards as they went in, and those who could not go in person sent cards. As soon as the family got back from mass they probably looked over the cards, and the person who had slighted the deceased, though dead six years, undoubtedly incurred the resentment of the family. Every Argentine scans the newspapers that he may keep track of the masses said for his dead friends and the deceased relatives of his friends that still live. The Argentines respect funerals. Everyone takes off his hat, and reverently waits until the hearse passes, and it is etiquette to bare your head when passing a house that has crape on the door.
There are fine cemeteries in all of the Argentine cities. Buenos Aires has 230 acres of them, not a large area as compared with some of our cemeteries, but big enough when it is considered how South American cemeteries are built. The cities of the dead in South America are genuine cities in which the deceased are as closely packed and crowded as are the living in a New York flat. The cemeteries have their paved streets, their narrow courts, and even their tenement vaults, where the poorer dead are laid away to rest for so much per year for a season.
I have as yet, however, seen no cemetery so crowded as the Recoleta, the fashionable burial-place of Buenos Aires. It covers thirteen acres and contains more than 200,000 inhabitants. There are enough corpses in it to cover the ground two feet deep with-out crowding, and there is a high stone wall about it strong enough, I hope, to keep their ghosts in. Inside this wall there is a central street or avenue, paved with marble, cutting the cemetery in two. As you walk up this you find at the centre a place where eight other streets branch off at right angles. All of these streets are paved with marble or mosaic; and they are again cut by smaller streets dividing the cemetery into a great number of blocks.
In looking over this beautiful city of the dead you notice that the houses resemble those of a city of the living. They are of all sizes and conditions, small and big, grand and mean; the palaces of the rich and the tenements of the poor. Each house is a vault, and contains from one to many hundreds of inmates. Some of the houses are in blocks, marble structures from eight to fifteen feet high and from eight to ten feet wide, each the property of one family. Some stand alone with only a crack between their walls and those of the adjoining vaults.
All have but one room that can be seen, and this room is in most cases of the same shape, although furnished in different degrees of magnificence and taste. It might be called the chapel of the dead. It is four or more feet square, and five feet high, and is entered by a door at the level of the street. At the back there is a marble slab or table set in the wall and upon this sometimes a coffin rests. The slab is covered with a lambrequin of fine lace, and in its centre stands a crucifix with the dying Christ upon it, or perhaps a waxen image of Mary the Mother of our Lord. Upon some altars are silver candlesticks, while above many lamps burn incense from one year's end to the other. On the marble floor there are flowers, sometimes real, in the shape of growing plants, sometimes bouquets placed there fresh for the day, and again artificial flowers and immortelles made to last for years. The doors of the houses are often plate glass. All have locks, and not a few have padlocks. Many have lace curtains, and most are covered with gratings of iron curiously wrought.
But where are the inhabitants of these houses ? God knows, I can only show you where their decayed bodies are. Come with me to the cemetery. Through the grating in the floor of that vault which has been opened to admit a corpse, you can see steps which lead below. Here the proprietor and his family sleep in the basement. Their beds are those coffins resting on the shelves fastened one above another to that brick wall, keeping them in death as in life together, while their friends who are still living make their offerings and their prayers above. I don't know but that this is better than our way. These people lie here and dry up within their vaults; we are usually planted in the earth to give the worms a feast.
In times of epidemics the Argentines bury their dead with lime to aid decomposition. The southern cemetery of Buenos Aires was opened during the cholera epidemic of 1869 and closed after the yellow fever epidemic of 1871. Well, in this time, it received twenty-two hundred corpses, which were cremated by spreading upon them two hundred tons of quicklime.
There are many curious things to be seen in Buenos Aires markets. There are all kinds of vegetables and meats, quantities of juicy snails, and hundreds of young armadillos. Armadillos are among the delicacies of Argentina. The armadillo is a tooth-less mammal peculiar to South America, about as large as a number eight derby hat, looking not unlike a turtle, save that its back is more rounded and is divided into plates or belts like a coat of mail. It has feet with claws, and a little head shaped like that of a pig. It lives on fruits and roots, burrowing in the earth and seldom going out except in the daytime. Its flesh tastes like young chicken.
The Argentines are the chief meat-eaters of the world. Out-side the cities the people live on mutton and beef, and any day they would gladly trade you a pound of meat for a pound of bread. In Buenos Aires the annual consumption is 274 pounds of meat per inhabitant, or, counting five to the family, 1,370 pounds per family. This is the highest average of any city in the world.
The Argentines are very fond of fowl. It is estimated that 90,000 hens, 77,000 roosters, 12,000 turkeys, and more than 60,000 brace of partridge were eaten in Buenos Aires last month. Live chickens are peddled by hucksters, who carry the fowls in wicker crates slung over the back of a horse, from house to house. Turkeys are driven through the streets by peddlers; you pick out the turkey you want from the flock and the owner will catch it for you. Fish and vegetables are sold by men who carry them through the city in baskets hung to the ends of poles suspended from their shoulders.
The milk peddler on horseback has been driven from the main part of Buenos Aires and his place taken by the dairy companies that now furnish good butter and milk on almost every street. Until within a few years ago butter was not to be had in Buenos Aires; the country had millions of cows, but not a score of good butter-makers. Farmers who owned I0,000 cows imported their butter in tins from the United States or Europe, and a great deal came to Buenos Aires from New York in firkins. A few years ago an enterprising Argentine established a large dairy outside the city. He imported butter-makers from Switzerland, and now the city has as delicious butter as can be found anywhere. The butter is made without salt; I am told that sweet cream is used, but it is so good that you can eat it like cheese. It is sent to Brazil and other countries, and even shipped to London.
The former milkmen carried their milk from house to house in cans swung to the sides of a horse. Each can was closed at the top with a piece of wood, about which an old cloth was wrapped to keep it tight. This made the milk so foul and in-sanitary that the government objected to it. Milkmen still drive their cows from house to house in all towns outside of Buenos Aires. They milk the cows for you while you wait, and there is no possibility of them selling chalk and water for the pure ex-tract. Each cow has its calf with it, but the calf's mouth is protected by a leather muzzle, so that, Tantalus-like, it is ever within the sight and smell of the milk, without a chance to satisfy its hunger and thirst.