The Pleasures of Mate

Mate.

Yerba mate (MA-tay) is in the holly family. It’s cultivated in northern Argentina and its leaves are dried and shredded into goldfish food-like flakes. In Argentina the “palos,” or stems, are left in. In Uruguay the stems are taken out. Uruguayans say Argentinian mate is “all sticks.” Argentinians say, “Uruguay is not a real country.”

To prepare mate first heat water. I almost wrote “boil,” but boiling is one of the cardinal sins of mate preparation. You’re less likely to offend an Argentinian by snorting the yerba than by boiling the water. They claim it changes the water’s “composition,” that it burns the yerba. What it does do is make steep faster, and thus less suitable for sharing, which is the primary objective of mate. Mate can be drunk alone, and if you drink enough mate you’ll inevitably drink it alone, just as in life you’ll eventually be all alone. Those around you will perish, and you’ll be sitting on a park bench somewhere, sipping mate.

While the water is heating prepare your gourd, or simply “mate.” Fill it two thirds full, tilt it and insert the straw at the low end so it digs in and touches the bottom.  Some people prime the yerba with lukewarm water, claiming this makes it less likely to burn. I learned mate preparation from an Argentinian woman named Mercedes who yelled at me when it was too hot or too cold, and grumbled when it hadn’t been primed. I still remember the first time I prepared it well, passed it to her, and she said, after taking a sip, “Está bien.”

Once the yerba is primed add hot water, making sure not to get all the yerba wet at once. Pour a small quantity into the cavity created by the straw. Drink it yourself, drink it until it’s gone, then refill it and pass it to the left. Do not leave part of it un-drunk. And do not touch the straw. Hold the mate by the gourd, never the straw.  Argentinians are adamant about this. I think they think holding the straw makes you look weak.

The one who prepares the mate is called the cebador/a and is in charge of all subsequent mate pours for that session. Being the cebador is a good feeling. It’s like commanding a large fleet of ships, except in this case it’s only one ship and it’s really a small wooden vessel meant for serving tea. However, with the position of cebador comes great responsibility. Argentinians will judge you on the quality of your preparation. If an Argentinian is evaluating you as a potential mate, your ability to “cebar” will make or break his/her decision. Is she going to spend the rest of her life with someone who can’t prepare mate? Have unskilled-at-mate-preparing babies? Spend afternoons in the park drinking lukewarm water and weeping?

Lately I’ve been drinking pre-prepared mate from grocery stores like PCC and Whole Foods. It’s becoming more common. Real mate is better, but to find the real mate drinkers you need to head south. Upon crossing into Argentina you’ll start to see them. In Chile you have to go a bit further south, at least south of Santiago.

The ritual of mate is not just the social aspect, the taste, or the satisfaction you get from doing something well. It’s all of these things. It’s synergy. So go to your local grocery store and buy a bag. Or better yet, buy a gourd (they sell good, polyurethane ones on Amazon), some yerba (Guayaki isn’t terrible, but Rosamonte or Cruz de Malta are better), and make some new friends.

Just remember not to boil the water. Or touch the straw).

The Travel Plans I Just Posted on Couchsurfing

Originally posted 22 March 2015.

TO THE LOYAL CITIZENS OF KRAKOW:

This letter is to inform you that four days hence, on the Twenty-Sixth Day of March the year of our Lord Two Thousand and Fifteen (sic), His Esteemed Highness King Mark Thomas Wetzler I of the House of Wittelsbach, son of Maximilan Joseph, protector of the Realm, dear friend and servant of the Kingdom of Prussia and Her Majesty Louise of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, Tyrant of the Forest, Speaker of Kind Words and Doer of Kinder Deeds, The Rake of the Rainy City, etc. etc. Will be paying a visit to the Royal Capital of Krakow.

Under normal circumstances, as is customary, His Divine Grace would stay in his usual vacation residence of Wawel Castle. However, on this occasion, His Excellence has decided to forgo the usual luxury of his vacation estate and stay among the people! Which means, loyal citizens of Krakow, that His Most Serene Highness requires accommodation, and trusts in his most kind and rhythmically-beating heart that there exist those among you most willing and able to provide it.

A FEW REQUESTS FROM HIS HIGHNESS:

1) Please arrive to greet and receive His Excellency on the date stated in a carriage pulled by two of your finest draft horses.

2) Have in the carriage a bottle of the finest Argentinian Malbec that the illustrious city of Krakow has to offer (His Grace enjoys South American vintners)

3) Be ready to brief His Beatitude on the current events of Krakow in a way that is both concise and scintillating.

Arrival is nigh and His Most Esteemed Eminence is eager to better make the acquaintance of beautiful Krakow and its faithful inhabitants. Please send a scribe as soon as possible should you be willing/able to meet with the humbly requested elements listed above.

A good day to all,

Scribe for His Majesty Mark Thomas Wetzler I of the House of Wittelsbach, 22 March Two Thousand and Fifteen

Why Wait in Line to Get on a Flight?

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Imagine, if you will, the following scenario: You’re at the airport and the gate attendant makes the boarding announcement:

“We’d like to announce general boarding for groups one and two for today’s 4:35pm flight to Medicine Hat. Once again, this is the 4:35pm flight to Medicine Hat, the sixth largest city in Alberta and home of notable broadcaster Jurgen Gothe. Groups one and two are welcome to board.”

You lift your dungaree’d ass out of the vinyl seat you were sitting in and get in line behind 80 other wretched people only to shuffle onto the plane like holsteins being led to the feed trough.

And what I want to know is: Why do it?

What’s the alternative? Well, the alternative is to wait. It’s really very simple. You wait for an indeterminate amount of time, and then you stroll onto the plane like you’re walking out on the Santa Monica Pier to smell the salt air, unless of course you misjudge it and the line from the waiting room is gone but there’s a line on the jetway. But this is normal — you can’t see through walls! So I forgive you. But why, for the love of Demeter, would you willingly stand up and wait in line? So you can get overhead space? So you can spend extra time on the plane? Hot dog, I haven’t flown on a 737-400 in a long time, I have to take some extra time to examine the seat pocket in front of me, to fold down the tray and marvel at the button you push to make your seat recline. Better hurry!

On airlines like Southwest and Ryan Air I can understand it because they don’t have assigned seats. But on an airline that has assigned seats, i.e. most airlines, why wait in line? You’re not going to get off the plane any earlier. Your seat’s not going to be more comfortable. You’re not going to get your food earlier. So why, would someone please tell me and tell me now, would you wait in line?

Now, the interesting thing would be this: What if everyone showed a bit of mental acumen and waited to get on the flight? Well, then we’d have a problem. Because you see the line can only be avoided if poor souls are willing to stand up and shuffle like so many bovines so that you don’t have to. Imagine a scenario where there’s a bunch of people waiting around, not wanting to wait in line, waiting longer and longer and longer, and finally the gate attendants announce final boarding and 150 people rush to the gate. What would happen then? Well, I dare say it would be chaos.

But it would be a beautiful chaos. And I prefer to live in that world instead of the world where otherwise sentient sapiens moo their way onto a 767. I prefer to live in the world where people show some damn common sense.

Right?

The Chair

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The chair is pink, or rather the seat of the chair is pink. The rest of it is a cold unforgiving black metal. It’s sitting in front of a table that looks like it was made in a 7th grade woodshop class. That’s not to say the table’s ugly, just that it looks like it was made by an amateur.

The chair has probably supported many butts. What a job, to support butts, support them indiscriminately. A chair must accommodate all weights and body types, fidgety children who do nothing but spill on the upholstery. A chair never complains. Well, actually that’s not true, a chair will groan and creak if too much weight is put on it. And it might protest in the ultimate form: It might break. Have you ever been present when someone has sat in a chair and it’s shattered? It’s hilarious. Its hilarity is directly proportionate to how uncomfortable it makes the user feel. For example, if a joker sits in a chair it’s still a little funny but it’s not that funny. But if the swarthy balding man sits in the chair, the one with the permanent frown, and it breaks it’s much funnier. The look on his face as he tries to salvage his dignity. The bewilderment.

When I was young we had some kitchen chairs. I spent a lot of time in them. They were wooden and all of us, or at least my brother and I, liked to lean back in them so they’d be on two legs. We were constantly reprimanded for this. Nowadays I wouldn’t dream of it. My parents still have the same chairs and when I go to their house and sit in them sometimes I think how I used to lean back. Not too long ago I even did it to see what kind of memories it would evoke. It felt downright irresponsible. I suppose this is what it’s like to become an adult: Something ceases to be fun when you know how destructive it is. Then again, we still do many things that are destructive.

The chair is still sitting there in the cafe where I am. Motionless. I would say it’s listening to the music but everyone knows chairs are deaf. And blind. The only thing they can do is feel, and pretty much the only thing they feel are butts. Despite their mind-boggling utility we still take them for granted. For example I’m sitting in a cafe writing an essay about a chair, and I’ve completely forgotten that I’m sitting in a chair. I haven’t even looked to see what kind it is. If I’m brutally honest, I don’t even care. I will not thank this chair for its service. I will not think about it after I’m gone.

But it won’t think about me, either.

The cup of tea however, is a completely different…cup of tea. I have an actual relationship with this cup of tea. It’s going to go into my body, so I pay more attention to it. I can see it and smell it and taste it. It’s a black tea with orange essence. Its temperature is ideal. I drink it, it goes into my stomach, and our relationship ends. If I haven’t eaten and I have too much of it, it can make me nauseous. But the cup of tea is passive. It is acted upon. It only acts upon its user in proportion to how it’s acted upon. In other words, it’s inanimate. Much like the chair. Except I can’t eat the chair.

Or could I? I’ve heard of people eating things they’re not supposed to eat before. Wasn’t there a guy who used to eat model airplanes and things like that? A guy who was slowly devouring his entire living room, piece of couch fabric by piece of couch fabric?

But back to the chair. The chair is still there and will be there all day. Tonight the shop will close and the chair will still be there. Tomorrow the shop will open and the chair will still be there. Supporting butts gives it no pleasure. It does not miss the butts when they’re gone. It is not disappointed if no one sits in it all day, or if someone sits in the chair opposite it. It doesn’t notice me looking at it. It doesn’t look back.

I suppose I could taste the chair, too.

When I get up to leave the chair still does not acknowledge me. It almost frustrates me. It’s rude. But then I forgive the chair. We both have legs, but only mine can take me outside into the big, wide world.