Published: 02.12.11

No mate, nothing doing

During her internship in Argentina, ETH-Zurich student Marlen Müller encounters the national drink: mate tea. Its preparation is a science in itself and encourages social exchange.

Marlen Müller
A Mate collection. (all images: Marlen Müller)
A Mate collection. (all images: Marlen Müller) (large view)

The sun is shining on my bare feet, the freshly hung washing on the roof is flapping in the breeze and the girls I live with are busy chopping vegetables to be transformed into fancy empañadas (stuffed pastry). On the gas cooker, a pot of water is being heated to exactly seventy degrees Celsius – just the right temperature for making mate tea. Up here, on the roof garden right at the heart of the university town of La Plata in the province of Buenos Aires, life could be a lot worse.

I have been in the Land of Silver for several weeks now and I am starting to get used to all the (clapped-out) cars hurtling around at break-neck speed, the constant beeping, the irregular working hours and the regular indulgence in mate tea, which is to an Argentine like beer to a German. The preparation is a science in itself. At least, that is what it seems like when you listen to the locals’ explanations. But the more detailed the description, the more different the process.

Social ritual

Basically, mate tea is prepared as follows: the mate (drinking vessel; originally a hollowed-out pumpkin, but available nowadays available in anything from wood to metal) is filled up to two thirds with yerba (the leaves). Hot water is repeatedly poured on top. A bombilla (metal drinking straw) is used for drinking. The mate tea is a ritual – it is passed around and drunk in turns. You also leave your own work station several times an hour to do so!

My flatmate is probably one of the few exceptions and tends to reach for the Paso de los Toros (a popular soft drink, a bit like lemonade) in the supermarket instead of the yerba leaves.

Speaking of flatmates: I am living with two Argentines in a room in a ‘pension’. We share a kitchen, bathroom and common room with nine other women, who are also lodging two to four to a room. It feels like a hostel, except that I’m not here on holiday for three months, but rather to work as a scientist at the Universidad de La Plata. I am doing this IAESTE-funded internship at the Department of Theoretical Chemistry, designing computer-assisted models to predict pharmaceutical structures. I find researching anti-HIV-1 structures especially interesting. In the project, I have been working closely with my supervisor, which has helped me to settle into the new group. Most of my colleagues also speak English; almost too much. After all, I want to improve my Spanish!

No shorts in wardrobes

On my first day at work, I stuck out like a sore thumb. With flip-flops and shorts on, I walked to the institute with my supervisor, who was wearing long, dark brown linen trousers and smart shoes. The Argentines also dress correctly in the most sweltering summer heat; you would be hard-pushed to find any shorts in most wardrobes. We quite literally walked over hedge and ditch – almost every pavement is an obstacle course: the aftermath of the major economic crisis of 2001. Cycling is an adventure in itself, not least because you hardly dare venture out onto the streets. There are traffic rules, but few people actually pay any attention to them. For the rest, the oh-so popular bumper sticker back home of “I only brake to throw up” is more apt. Sometimes, I really wonder whether certain cars can even brake; headlights are just for show-offs, anyway. The often criticised Zurich cycling network would gain a whole host of plus points!

When you arrive at the institute, first of all everyone is greeted with a peck on the cheek. It is also perfectly common among men. Then the kettle is put on, the mate tea prepared and another working day begins for me in sunny, green La Plata.

About the author

Marlen Müller (25) is studying Computational Biology and Bioinformatics at ETH Zurich. She is currently doing an internship at the university in La Plata, Buenos Aires Province, which she opted to do off her own bat to experience a different culture and improve her Spanish skills. The internship lasts until the end of December 2011.

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