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March 30, 2010

The ABCs of Uruguay

Stuck in Uruguay in 1833 (waiting out repairs to the Beagle), Charles Darwin rode into the interior—the vast unvisited pampas. He was struck by the Uruguayan method of training sheepdogs to guard their flocks. Puppies, he noted, were given to suckle on a kindly ewe. They slept in sheep pens on nests of wool and had only sheep for brothers: They were made, literally, into sheep-dogs.

Over the past couple of years, my husband and I borrowed this immersion method in transplanting our young daughters from London to a small fishing village in this remote, still strangely empty country. Fernanda and Clio had a Uruguayan grandfather and though they had never known him, they were going to inherit their patrimony. Their sheep pen would be a small school with a deceptively English (and for Uruguayans, unpronounceable) name.

The school days would be long: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. The girls would be driven the 25 miles to school by a local gaucho. Every morning and every evening, they would be hugged and kissed by their teachers. They would learn fluent Spanish, with a strong regional accent. They would become small experts in Uruguay's history and geography, on its plants and soils, on the local fauna—the gormless ñandú (the ostrich that runs faster than a horse) and the tucu-tucu, a cute little lawn-destroying tailless rat.

The girls would attend birthday parties for other six-year-olds that finished at 9 p.m. They would become hooked on the ubiquitous, piercingly sweet dulce de leche. And they would learn math—and value—by strolling, unaccompanied, down to the town square to buy one- or two-peso candies from the tiny thatched quiosco. They would learn the Uruguayan drum rhythm called the candombe and passionately beat it out each year during February's Carnaval. They would participate in the celebrations honoring José Artigas, the country's founder. They would come to love and on almost any occasion spontaneously sing the blood-drenched national hymn (la gloria, la patria, la tumba!). Uruguay, like many small unsung nations, is ferociously patriotic.

One day the school called us in. They were "concerned" that our daughters lacked sufficient feelings of national belonging. They were baffled (and unpersuaded) by our protestations that in the United States voluble patriotism was complicated by empire; that in England, too, zealous flag-waving suggested hooliganism. Probably our time in the remote South has confused our girls even more. But it has prolonged the period of their innocence—in Uruguay they were blissfully unbombarded by goods, by the whole concept of cool. Above all, our sojourn shrunk the world right down to their size: They now expect to belong wherever they are. The experiment worked—and we are soon to return to the Northern Hemisphere.

Isabel Fonseca, her husband Martin Amis, and their daughters Fernanda and Clio moved back to London this fall.