Being Human

I recently went to the doctor and filled the usual questionnaires and disclaimers. One of the questions I always hesitate to answer is “race” (or “ethnicity”).

What am I? White? Latino? Hispanic? South American? South European? So I answered “Human”. The doctor chuckled and said: “that looks accurate”.

I was raised under the belief that most of my family came from Italy and Spain. For some reason, I had a small bias towards things Italian. Perhaps because I had the privilege and fortune of meeting my paternal grandfather (who was Italian), and about whom I wrote before.

Fast forward many years and genetic studies are now a commodity. So I decided to take the test. And I almost forgot about it because it takes a few weeks.

And then I got the email: “your results are ready!” …

I’m glad I answered “human” because my genes are quite a mix:

dna

Iberian and Italian, are no surprise…but the rest? Balkan? (likely greek). North African! British! Native American! West African!

I’m a man of the world!

Not entirely surprised with the Native American and West African. I was told that some of my dad’s mother side lineage came from Brazil. Not many details were offered, but…

An estimated 4.9 million slaves from Africa were brought to Brazil during the period from 1501 to 1866

and:

Slave women were also used by freed men as concubines or common-law wives and often worked for them in addition as household labor, wet nurses, cooks, and peddlers.

So, perhaps some slave blood flows through me…

The Balkan mix is also not super surprising. Sicily, the ancestral place I associated myself with (although I’m hesitant to call it like that anymore), was widely colonized by Greeks, Albanians, and half western world.

The North African is also not at all unexpected. That’s close enough. My grandfather told me he would sail to Tunisia often for trading.

What is really surprising is the British/Irish component… not really sure where it comes from. I have no clue.

I could hypothesize…was this ancestor a “he” or a “she”? was he a slave trader? Was he a mercenary fighting in Spain or in Italy? Or maybe was she in someone’s household? Is it just someone in North Spain (an area close to England and Ireland)? That remains a little bit of an enigma.

My parents have not done the test, so I don’t know which part came from where, but that looks like a nice follow-up project!

Also, now another project is brewing in my mind: visit every place I’ve got ancestry.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Beloved Metropolitan Vickers

Until I turned 17 or so, my world revolved around the suburb I grew up in (Olivos, BA). I traveled, of course, but my daily activities were circumscribed to a radius of maybe 5 miles from where I lived: the school, the gym, my friends. Anything beyond that was “far”.

Towards my final years in high school, I found myself going more often to “the city” (Downtown Buenos Aires). Especially as I started preparing for college.

I did not have a car, and anyway, the best way of getting around the busy city was the train. It took 25-30 min to get there. I had 2 options.

There were a few ways of getting to the city from where I lived:

  1. Take the bus which took forever, often standing up and crowded.
  2. Take the “Linea Mitre” train at Olivos station to Retiro. Quick trip, crowded in the morning but fast (about 30 min). The station less than a 1 km from my home.
  3. Take the other “Linea Mitre”.  Slightly longer than #2 but comparable. The station was 1.3 km from my home.

2, 3 were my favorites and I liked I could load balance them if one happened to be “down”. This didn’t happen very often, but it did (e.g. strikes, power issues, etc.).

The line from Olivos to Retiro was served with Toshiba electric units that were relatively modern (bought in the 60’s, so 20-ish years old), and where comfortable when not fully loaded.

The line from Mitre to Retiro was served by mixed formations: the same Toshibas and…older Metropolitan Vickers like these:

ferrocarriles_argentinos_-_metropolitan_vickers

I loved these. Sometimes, I would skip trains to specifically get in one of these. My two favorite spots were:

  • Right next to the conductor, (behind the little square window you see over the headlight). I could peek into the cabin, and look at the controls, gauges, etc.
  • In the “furgon”. A special section of the train you would go with a bike or bulky stuff.

Unlike the more modern Toshibas, the Vickers had a mix of motorized and non-motorized units. The “M.U. 72” label on the picture above stands for “Motor Unico”, meaning that the unit is motorized and is “single class” (no First or Second Class). Local trains in Argentina were of single class. Long distance had a few levels: Coach, First, Pullman, all the way to actual cabins with real beds. I took a 33-hour ride once in one of such cabins. That will be another post.

Back to the Vickers, the units labeled “A.U.” meant they were “Acoplado Unico” (not motorized). Riding these was much more interesting, it was a little bit like being on a rollercoaster. They moved side to side, up and down. Lot’s of fun!

Riding these units was my first choice second perhaps to being next to the conductor.

The trains showed their age of course: the windows rarely worked. The floor had holes and you could see the rails below you.

Another favorite was riding on the doors that were not automatic. You could feel like you were flying. The true test was riding on the door over one bridge:

puente-elcano

It was not that high, but I was young, and I felt I was on top of the world. And for 2 seconds or so, I hold the handles tight and felt very scared and brave.

I rode these trains for years. In the last years, they were refurbished once and painted white, but to me, nothing replaced “los marrones” (“the browns”). And will forever remain my favorites, my beloved Vickers.

 

The Books That Shaped My Life – childhood

One of the most significant treasures of my childhood is my library. My parents rarely said “no” to books, so I grew up surrounded by many.

One of my early favorites was the “Enciclopedia Estudiantil” from Codex. I inherited it from my mom, and it was not complete, but each book I had (made up of smaller chapters) was a window into beautiful stories and information.

enciclopedia-estudiantil

I read its pages many times, and it became handy at school too.

When I was 10(?) I inherited a large set of books from my godfather. Among them were quite a few from the “Robin Hood” collection:

 

Anyone from Argentina will recognize the yellow covers. These books were gateways to an incredible world. I traveled in sailboats across all oceans, I’ve barely made it through terrible storms, I’ve fought pirates, recovered treasures, crossed deserts, joined the Légion étrangère. My all-time favorites were Jules Verne and Emilio Salgari. Among those, I remember the most are: En las llanuras de Argelia and Sandokan. 

Later in high school, I turned to some history books. I read a lot of books about WWI and WWII. I also read Beria’s Gardens and The Morning of the Magicians. During that time, I also frequently bought the Spanish magazine Muy Interesante, which was something like Popular Science in the US.

High school was the peak of my interest in model trains, so I was a subscriber for many years to Model Railroader and Railroad Model Craftsman. They always arrived with months of delays in the regular mail. But each issue was a small miracle for me, and I expected them eagerly every month.

A Spanish literature teacher introduced me to Borges and Fritjof Capra. Borges I loved. All his books are fantastic. One to highlight is The Book of Fantasy, a compilation from Borges, Bioy Casares, and Ocampo on fantastic literature. (Not all of them written by Borges). I also read English classics: Animal Farm, 1984.

 

Hello NV87148

I inherited my grandfather’s typewriter from my mom. The longer (unverified) story is that my great-grandfather (Ynocencio, my maternal grand mom’s dad) worked in an import company in Buenos Aires (Palmer & Co.) and there was a fire in a warehouse. Everything was destroyed, and among those unfortunate items was a batch of typewriters. My great-grandfather was a handyman, so he salvaged pieces from one machine and another and built this one that is sitting next to me:

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Somehow, it ended up in my mom house. And it was the machine my grandfather (Eugenio, my mom’s dad) used to write his poems, stories, and essays.

My mom would always tell me about how Eugenio would stay late, writing (like I’m doing now). The sound of the keyboard piercing through the night.

For a few years, it was lost. It had been sent for repairs, and never reclaimed. I had been fascinated by my grandfather’s writing, so I asked my mom and dad about the typewriter. My father remembered the old address of the mechanic, so one afternoon we drove there, and ….voila! There he was. The old mechanic, still alive. And yes, he had the old typewriter. Recovered from oblivion for the second time.

In late 2017 I went to Buenos Aires, visited my parents, and my mom decided to give me the typewriter. And I brought it home. I changed the ink spools (that I got from Amazon), and here we are, writing this.

The machine has no visible marks or brands, so I decided to do some research. Remington was my first guess, and after some googling, I found a perfect match for it: it is a Remington Portable Model 1. Some more research led me to the Typewriter Database. And after some cleaning, I found the serial number: NV87148:

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Turns out, our adventurous typewriter is 90 years old, was born in July 1928:

NV87148:

  • N: Model 1
  • V: July
  • 8: 1928
  • 7148th machine built that month

It still works perfectly, and perhaps more amazingly its keyboard is highly compatible with its distant cousin in the future, one reason I can type (almost) as fast and double as loud.

My COLIMBA

24 years ago I served in the Argentine Army, B Com 602, as a conscripted soldier. It was not my own election because there was a draft at that time in Argentina.

The informal, slang for the mandatory military service is (was) “Colimba”. You would use it like “I am a Colimba” meaning, “I am a soldier”. Or “I’m doing the Colimba”, as in “I’m doing my military service”. The term “colimba” comes from combining the first syllables of 3 different words:

  1. Correr (run)
  2. Limpiar (clean)
  3. Barrer (sweep)

Which is what supposedly you spent 99% of your time doing while serving in the armed forces.

My own personal acronym would be “Limadin“:

  1. Limpiar (clean)
  2. Administrar UNIX servers (admin UNIX servers)
  3. Instalar (install stuff)

I did have my share of running, and yelling and drilling for a month, while I was going through bootcamp:

the-story-behind-gunnery-sergeant-hartman_s-speech-from-full-metal-jacket4

It was an interesting month, summarized as:

  1. Wake up at 5am to a lot of screaming
  2. Change clothes (in 5 seconds)
  3. Get outside to raise the flag
  4. Lot’s of screaming and running around, push-ups, sit-ups, followed by more screaming and running
  5. Lot’s of mud
  6. Breakfast (tea and bread)
  7. More of 4, 5
  8. Lunch
  9. More of 4, 5
  10. Dinner
  11. Cleanup, sleep

We slept in an abandoned barrack in the middle of nowhere. It had walls and a roof, but all windows were broken or missing. We slept on the floor inside sleeping bags. We were 100 recruits or so.

In between the 10 steps above, there was a lot of instruction: how to salute, the ranks, the jargon, the etiquette. Everyday stuff has a different name in the Army. The doctrine at that time was borrowed from the German Army, so you addressed everyone with a possessive: “yes, my Captain”, “no, my Sergeant”, “yes, my General”. It was intense, and after a week or so you knew everything you had to know, and you acted without thinking, and thought in fractions of a second. Our Sergeant told us:

Tienen que ser una pelotita de nervios, no unos pelotudos nerviosos

Which is difficult to translate, but roughly means (in Spanish, there’s a play on the words)

You have to be a ball of nerves, not nervous morons.

I learned to dress quickly, wake up fast, go asleep quickly, sew everything, carry a FAL, clean up a FAL, fire a FAL.

Shortly after my bootcamp, we all went back to our base, where I’d remain for exactly one year. My unit’s mission was to keep everyone connected. This was the BCOM 602 after all (Communications Battalion 602). We were in charge of connecting all Army units, including those deployed in Antarctica, and all UN Peace missions (e.g. Bosnia, Haiti, and others). I remember the thrill of listening to guys stationed in the Antarctic bases.

At that time, a complete overhaul of the communications infrastructure was taking place, and that included a bunch of UNIX based servers. And I spent 1 year learning and working on that. My routine looked like this:

  1. Wake up at 4:30 – 5am
  2. Quick breakfast
  3. Clean up bathrooms, sweep halls, haul trash, get food from the mess, etc.
  4. Every other week, I’d be on “guard duty”. So, I’d be on a desk guarding one of the doors to the Unit, just scribbling C programs on a piece of paper.
  5. The rest of time, I programmed on a UNIX terminal. Learned sed and awk and shell, and many other things.
  6. I’d crash at 9 or 10PM.

In retrospective, I feel very fortunate to experience all this. I learned a lot, and I met two of the many people that have shaped my life.

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On my right, (then) Captain Alejandro Luis Echazú and on my left side (then) Sergeant Major Angel Luis Puñet. Exceptional people, who taught me different and profound things. And I’ll be forever grateful to them. Both exercised leadership in the way I respect the most: by example. I met them in late 2017 to tell them in person how grateful I am.

I mention them in my blog post on self-made men.

Even though I was a plain low-level soldier, Captain Echazú showed respect, and care. I saw him many times leading his men (and myself) with conviction, passion, and compassion. Everyone (and I mean everyone) in the ranks had the utmost respect for him. I was impressed by the unanimous respect, and authority.

With Sergeant Major Puñet I worked side by side all year long. The most impactful things I remember from him are his resourcefulness and good humor. He’d make fun of everything, and I think I laughed more that year than all the time combined before it. Nothing would stop us from working on cool stuff. We’d beg, steal, borrow, hack, whatever. We got the job done. From him, I learned there’re no excuses. I’ve kept him in my heart since then.

A close encounter with my grandfather in 1930

There was a family story about how my grandfather (Carlo) left Italy and went to the USA. Only to be deported back to Italy. Presumably the reason was that he hadn’t paid the boat ticket. Not many details were offered, but the story was that he and a couple friends sneaked into a ship and in the middle of the ocean showed up to the crew and said “surprise!”

It was one of many anecdotes of our family.

Then, in 2016, my wife, sons and I went to New York. We all like architecture, and NYC is full of great buildings. We took a boat to the Statue of Liberty and then to Ellis Island.

It is a beautiful building. We walked it all around. We took pictures of the graffiti left by many immigrants. The halls, the infirmary, the docks, etc.

Then I causally searched for “Carlo Pace” in the archives….and I found this:

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There he was… 3rd row. PACE CARLO, Laborer, from San Vito lo Capo, Sicily. And a “Stowaway”. Notice how the agent scratched “Passengers” and replaced with “Stowaway” on the header. The ship left Italy from Genova, but apparently it stoped in Napoli. Likely the city he sneaked into it.

The 2nd page offered a few more details:

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Looks like his intended destination was someplace near Chicago. Which makes sense, considering that his sister was living there. And lived there all her life, only returning to Sicily to die in her country.

Google maps shows a gas station in that address, but it is surrounded by a few older homes. Who knows, maybe I’m looking at the houses I would have visited if his life had continued there. An alternate future that never came to be.

Sometime after February 18th, 1930 he went back to Italy, only to take a new ship (the Belvedere) to Argentina. He arrived in Buenos Aires on January 25th, 1931. Almost a year after his New York adventure. And exactly 10 years later, my father was born.

His adventure perhaps is not that remarkable compared to what others from his generation lived and went through. But I still find it an example of tenacity, struggle and desire for improvement. Values I share and live up to every day.

When I was 15 years old, I casually asked him to read something for me while we were walking in his incredibly productive garden. That’s when I learnt he didn’t know how to read (or write). I can still clearly remember the shock, and the embarrassment I felt. Followed by an immediate surge of respect and admiration: how far he had gone, with so many disadvantages, so many obstacles stacked against him. I loved him more that day, and over time. And I continued to love him a little bit more every day through the years after he passed away. And I like to think he’d be proud of me, as I’ve tried to live up to his high standards over the years.

Obstacles are not there to prevent you from moving forward, but to test how much you want what’s behind them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The tree of time

My school was exactly 1.3 kilometers from my house. In the mornings, my father or mother would take me. For some time, I took a school bus. I liked that the driver would allow me to stand next to him, sometimes he even allowed me to operate the doors  (somewhat unbelievable in today’s “seatbelt culture”).

But as I grew older (older being 9 or 10 years old), I started talking the public transportation bus. Bus 59.

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Although at that time, the bus looked more like this one:

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Because taking the bus meant paying, I figured that if I walked, I could keep the change and add it to my allowance. Smart, wasn’t it?

So I walked a lot through all those years, always on the same path. I also raced against the bus. It sucked when I walked and the bus would just beat me by 50 % of the route. But it was great when I was just one block away from home, and saw the bus coming. I would run as fast as I could, and get to the stop before it. I’d WON and my allowance just increased by a few pesos.

Anyway, the path from school to home took me through a few milestones. One of them was a tree. Someone had nailed a sign on it with the name of the street: Tucuman.

It looked like this:

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For more than a decade I witnessed the growth of the tree, as it slowly swallowed the sign.

It is now end of 2017, and I retraced the road from my school (that doesn’t exist anymore) to my home (that does exist still), with my son. And I had to stop by the tree. I like to think that I’m one of the few that remembers what’s behind its skin. But I showed it to my son, and I told him: “Look. This is the Tree of Time. It has many treasures inside it. It has a sign that guided me for many years. It is a also witness to my life”

tree of time