Alphabet of the Republic

by Chip Livingston

Always I’m asked what I love about Uruguay.

Because the food, I say, because the people. Because the rhythm of the place, the Culture. Carnaval. Candombe

Drums that demand I dance. It’s different:

Everything. Its Education – free through university and evidently effective. Everyone seems wise, well-read, and worldly. It’s egalitarian. And though I know one Richie Rich, the majority of people are equal. They treat each other as equals. It’s

Fun, I mean, fatal, just

Going to the grocery store, a walk in my

Hawaianas to practice my holas. The Healthcare – universal and fucking fantastic.

lemanja, the goddess of the ocean. Idea Vilariño, the first poet whose collected works I read entirely in Spanish.


Karaoke at Il Tempo. Kioskos to buy my tobacco y hojillas.

, the small green parrots that top the palmeras. La Paloma in Rocha, where I’ve beached seven summers.

Llaves antiguas
 – old skeleton keys to open my doors, and, oh man, the beautiful doors of Uruguay. There are photo books and collage posters of the puertas in Montevideo. I take

 at merienda, I

Nap at siesta,

Obey the rhythms of my borrowed land.

Public transportation. Public wifi. Public Welfare. Public exercise equipment. Institutions that actually serve the public.

I guess it makes sense that if Uruguay has the most natural beef in the world, its dairy would be as pure. Quince paste, which they call membrillo, and I have a story about that for another time.

Really it’s remarkable I haven’t mentioned the meat.

Rrrreally rrrremarkable but

Seriously, Uruguay outlawed antibiotics and hormones in its livestock in the 1970s, it’s banned Monsanto and GMOs, imported

Transgenic foods are marked with a yellow triangled T.  Tomatoes still taste like tomatoes in

Uruguay; bananas still have seeds. It’s a long trip south but

Vale la pena
. Now if I shortened “vale la pena” to just “vale,” it would suggest I’m from Spain. The abridged version in Uruguay is “dale,” used like “okay,” pero ta,

You know I love learning those distinctions between spellings and palabras.


Zorrilla’s on the twenty-peso note, which you can imagine as a dollar, Juan Zorrilla de San Martin, an epic Uruguayan poet, whose home, bought by scholars of the state, is now a national museum; a street and park are named for him. Juana de Ibarbourou appears on the thousand peso, another poet. The hundred peso features Eduardo Fabini, a musician and composer. Do you know what I’m getting at? The Uruguayan money has artists and thinkers on it. And I think about the killers I carry in my U.S. wallet.

, my first onomatopoetic Spanish word, the drowsy bee’s buzz.

Yerba Mate
, obviously, if you know me. I’ve nearly always got a mate full of yerba, the Guaraní herb that motors the world’s most nocturnal country, Uruguay.

Xcept Uruguay isn’t really the country’s name. No tiene nombre oficial but is officially known as La República Oriental del Uruguay, the republic east of the Uruguay River, referencing itself by location, by the X on the upside-down map, and uses the indigenous name of the nearby river, this cattle country crossed and bordered by rivers and sea, its bays a sweet and salty mix,

Which are just some of why and what I love about this watery paisito, the first time I met her crossing the Río de la Plata from Buenos Aires, on a whim, a mention, just the first weekend of a 10-day escape from North American winter with another U.S. writer. We decided within 24 hours to stay the entire holiday in Uruguay.

Verdad. Era verano
. It was summer in our wintertime. Carnaval. And we toured the Atlantic beaches, convinced we’d been secreted into a kind of heaven, as if the venteveos saw and sung to us, the velas lit for Iemanja an extraordinary riverside welcome, warm beacons with carnations, coins, watermelons. Y acá volvimos, vivíamos, y yo vivo de nuevo.

Uruguay. Uruguay. Uruguay.
“Ur-u-guay? You’re a guy?”
“Ur-u-guay? You’re a gay?”You’re a single gay guy living in Uruguay? Que suerte, che! Uuuuu!

It’s tranquilo, and truth be told, todavía no sé what it is to be exact. Todo: los tomates, las tortas fritas, los teros, el tortugon, el tango, los tambores. The drum groups in the streets, the people on their feet, the two beats that keep the culture dancing. Los tambores. Los tangueros. The tango. The tambores. And los Tupamaros.

Spanish as a second language. I’d studied a semester with a Spaniard, had Cuban friends teach me to cuss, heard my share of Puerto Rican pillow talk, but learning to speak Uruguayan Spanish, No es poca cosa. No es Catalán, cierto, pero casi Canario, an idioma of opposites, where a former prison is now a luxury shopping mall and the current prison is called Freedom, where barbaric and fatal are adjectives for amazing, where to experience joy is to die or to be killed by something. Sino es así, no? O sí? Sí no? See?

RR. Errrrrrrrre. 
Mi perrita, mi porro, mi ferrocarrilMi fat yankee tongue trying to roll the double RR. Joderrrrrrrr!

Really, I don’t know if that will work on the page. The Rambla: among my first and constant appreciations, Montevideo’s Rambla is 13.7 miles of uninterrupted sidewalk along the river and up the Atlantic coast; it’s where Montevideanos ramble, rest, relax, and meet for mate, to read, to exercise, to take sun, run. Its rhythms still and accelerate me. Requesón.

Que tal? 
How’s it going? Quizás you’re wondering how much love for this little country I’m going to share. I’ll try to be quicker.

Pero el problema es
 you can’t rush a Uruguayan, and I am growing more Yourugua every day, and there are a lot of things I love in the republic that start with P: poets, there are so many poets, and the people actually read poetry. There are poems etched in marble in public plazas. The people read! And the people are kind, helpful, pretty and peaceful – until it comes to fútbol, then it’s back to the killing metaphors. But Pizza. Pasta. Pan de Azúcar, where I saw a live wild black puma in a sheep pasture. Ah, population statistics: there are seven sheep for every human in Uruguay and there are four cows for each person. Palermo. Piriapolis. Parque Rodó. Cabo Polonio. Punta del Diablo. Palos borachos.  

and other sandwiches de miga. Las ondas buenas, ojalá, y obvio eating
Ñoquis on the 29th  of every month.

Niños envueltos
, delicious sausage in cabbage with a tortuous name, wrapped children. Riquísimos son.

Mira! Mate, mimos, mercados, murgas
, the meat (see “Carne”), medialunas at merienda, the extra meal. They have four meals a day in Uruguay! And merienda suits me, soothes mi hambre at North American dinnertime. I have to mention Mujica, the former president, his example, history, and his changing the face of the republic to el mundo.

. I love the fucking rain in Uruguay and it’s a good thing because this country is elemental, water falling into water, sky and sea, sea and earth, sol and sky, where llamadas call me to my feet for their ensayas y desfiles.

 and I’m even allergic to onions, but this Armenian-inspired Uruguayan dish is like, paf!, a grilled pita bread topped with spiced citrus beef ceviche.

Kisses – abundant as bread – and everything starts and ends with a beso. How tender and wholesome and masculine and shattering of macho North American stereotypes of how two humans can so naturally touch each other. Granted this is one kiss on the cheek, but there are exponential expressions of their comfort with intimacy.

is how they text laughter. Y les gusta reir. And I laugh at how distant my language just got when I spoke of showing affection. I have a lot to learn yet. Jamón y quesoJuas

lemanja, I have mentioned, an important figure in my knowing the country and my gratitude. Part of my introduction,

How we arrived the first time the weekend of her birthday, February 2, and joined Montevideo on Playa Ramirez to light candles and leave her regalos on the sand and in the sea. Olas de hermosas holas. Horneros. Y hombres excepcionales.  Guapos. Guapas. Gauchos. And Gooooooooooooooooool! We’ve gotten to Fútbol! And I’ve become a fanatic. Ya fui a mi first clásico, between Peñarol y Nacional, and now only lack one task to becoming unofficially Uruguayan – learning to play truco – but of my fondness for the other game. Obviously it has a lot to do with futbolistasFainá. Y bueno ta, no falta mucho para el fin, and 

Everything yet to be said yet an expression of some sorts shared. Empanadas. I don’t know if Uruguay invented the tango or empanadas, but it has perfected them.

 of diversity and marches for more derechos humanos, and the country is already known to be the most humanitarian in the Americas. The first country in the world to legalize marijuana, the first country to allow a woman to file for divorce, one of the few Latin American countries where abortion is safe and legal. Gay marriage, claro, like it was never a question. Uruguay elected a transgender senator and a female vice president.

Chorizos, choripán, chivitos
! But Cheescuchame, the way Italian, Spanish, and African genes have mixed with los Charrua.

, the best meat in the world. Happy cows and 52 cuts of beef: pulpón, asado, entrecot, lomo, nalga, peceto, vacío, colita de cuadril, morcilla sweet or salty, chinchulín, chorizo. I dated a carnicero. I dated a cowboy. Carnival drums and murgas, parades and bailarinas, las comparsas, la cumparsita, a never-ending series of cenas and cumples.

But because the rhythm of the place I say, because the people: because the food, which centers on the Asado, the barbecue, and ends with aplausos for the asador.

First published in Carve magazine in 2018
Copyright © Chip Livingston. All rights reserved.

Chip Livingston is the author of a novel, a collection of essays and stories, and two poetry collections. His writing has appeared on the Academy of American Poets’ and the Poetry Academy’s websites; and in Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, New American Writing, and other journals and anthologies. Chip teaches in the low-rez MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, NM. 
He lives in Montevideo, Uruguay.

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