A city grows around a series of casual encounters that span a lifetime
I met Victoria before the supermarket Real Villa Morra was renovated in 1995. Maybe met is not the right word. She sat on the curb in front of the supermarket at the corner of Bogianni and Republica Argentina next to a wide basket filled with strawberries. She had brought them by bus from her home in Patiño, about 20 miles outside of Asuncion.
This was my first trip to Paraguay with my husband shortly after we got married. The neighborhood where he once ran barefoot and threw stones at the tiled roofs of the newly built two room dwellings had grown and was no longer at the outskirts of the city. As he got older it became the backyard of the wealthy and powerful. Mansions were erected among the scattered modest houses that also began to add on rooms and install higher walls and gates. In 1990, Villa Morra was already on its way to becoming a busy cosmopolitan area and the de facto center of the capital city.
Seven years after that first visit, the mall was built, and bigger mansions, walls and gates had sprung up. The landmark neighborhood grocery store down the block was a large modern supermarket with glass doors and a covered parking lot.
It was Christmastime and the scent of palm flowers filled the air. Victoria sat across the street in the shade of a tree wearing a tee shirt and jeans. Making sure we could not miss her, she flagged my sister-in-law and me down as we walked to the supermarket. We bought tiny local pineapples and imported apples to cut up with grapes from the backyard to mix with wine for the clericó we would drink on Christmas Eve.
When I moved to Asuncion in 2008 I remember buying overripe plums I made into sorbet with some limes from the trees in our backyard. I was so delighted with it I scooped some into a cup and brought it to Victoria to taste. In the heat of the summer afternoon, she crooned, “This is sooo delicious,” with a typical Paraguayan emphasis as the traffic rumbled behind her.
Now that I went food shopping regularly, I would sometimes be relieved as I approached the corner and saw that Victoria was not by her crates, having taken a break to go to the bathroom, eat lunch, or get a cup of coffee. Other times I would cringe as she called out to me, “Amiga” while I wagged my finger to signal that I couldn’t buy fruit that day. She might seem annoyed as I hurried by, but then she would ask me about my sister-in-law and we would strike up a conversation anyway.
One of the last times I saw her, Victoria told me how she had once wanted to be a translator like me. When she was a little girl she lived with a family in Buenos Aires. She loved studying English. But when she was twelve her mother died and her father brought her back to Patiño to help at home. She had been selling fruit on this corner six days a week for the past 32 years. And I had been buying fruit from her for 27. Now her granddaughter was studying English and she wanted to help her.
That day I spent all the money I had on six pears and two pounds of strawberries. After I walked away I realized that I did not have bus fare to get home. Not sure what to do, it occurred to me to go back and ask Victoria for the money. She laughed and handed me fifty cents.
That was right before I moved back to the United State. But when I go back, I’ll have to return the money, see how she is doing, give her a Spanish-English picture dictionary for her granddaughter, and buy a few kilos of strawberries.