Since the write-up about Danish bodega bar Funchs Vinstue, I felt that I wanted to continue with another bar from the fifties. I really enjoy bars from this decade and I believe that they are unique in their own way. They are old enough to be just old and they have all of them gone through an interesting part of history.
However, they are still young enough to be treated as bars, not only as remnants of bygone times. Even though the bars of the fifties has reached an old and respectful age they are still very much the scene of an ongoing production of culture and people tend to use and perceive them as natural meeting points, far away from the disneyfication which many older bars has surrendered to. Also, they are often aesthetically appealing as they tend to lay on the verge between an old, artisan handcraft and the functionalist currents that with this time became more and more decisive. This contraposition is in many ways intriguing. For the enthusiast, bars from this time can also be a common thing to visit as this was an expanding era within the entertainment industry, leaving us today with many great examples of these gems. All over the world.
So here is Bar Nuevo Polvorin, a bar that I visited in Montevideo a couple of weeks ago. As I know nearly nothing about this place, I can not really recount any wild stories or captivating trivia from here. There is no information about it and except a very entertaining Facebook-page it is almost as this bar lives a life outside (or above) the world of internet. Even though this non-existence of information is somewhat liberating and charming, it makes my job quite a bit harder. All I have is a half hour of pleasure, when me and a friend had escaped our girlfriends (and tragically my one-year old son as well) under the false pretences of changing some tickets at the main bus station in Montevideo. Yes, this may sound dishonest and with a clear lack of character, but this is how many sad men work. We flee and we drink. And then we lie all about it. Regardless of these immature and corrupt ways, this is how we came about this place. We were actually on our way to another bar as our cab were speeding through the central neighbourhood of Cordón. It was a Sunday so the famous flea market, Feria de Tristán Narvaja, had just slowed down and people were packing up their vending stalls. A sentimental mood was in the air. In the rearview I spotted Bar Nuevo Polvorin and we made a hasty decision to jump off the taxi and try our luck here.
Seconds later we were voluntary captives of a dive bar seldom seen. A beautiful affair, this fast encounter of ours. Everything from the simple variations of brown interior to the warm and sincere people made us more weak-kneed than the burning spirits we hastily consumed. It had all the attributes that a down-and-out whiskey den should have at five o'clock in the afternoon. There was of course the ever present "alfa-drunk" who always seems to be a couple of glasses drunker then the rest of the average drunks, talking to himself and eager to shake your hand every second minute. All in all a nice chap. In one corner you also got the Gary Cooper - the strong, silent type; a thin and wearied man who spends the autumn of his life by staring into his dark past through a highball of cheap whiskey and ice. On the other side of the bar stands the intellectual with a glass of red and a newspaper. This guy may act and believe like he is somewhat better than the rest of the gang but in the end of the day we all know his true ways. He is a total sponge as well. Supervising these gents is the quick bar owner that is beaming with pride of the enterprise he runs. This is where he grew up, this is what he inherited and this is where he reigns. He makes witty jokes, sees to it that everyone gets heard and he pours the water of life like no other. In theory this is his joint but he knows for sure that this is as much the drunkards domain. Without each other this wouldn't be and so goes the truth. Together they share this beautiful bar, this barrio but also the forgotten city down by the delta. The bar is called Bar Nuevo Polvorin, the barrio is Cordón and the city is Montevideo, Uruguay.
Uruguay, Uruguay. It is a long and personal story for me. I can't really write about a bar from here without bringing my relation to this country into presentation. In fact, there are so many thoughts on the matter that I, even with the most extreme case of logorrhea, never could fit it in one article. Therefore, I will divide it into two parts, leaving also bar number 19 on this list of drunken dreams under the fiery sun of Río de La Plata. But where do I start really? More importantly, what is there exactly to tell?
In fact, it all comes down to the seventies. Doesn't it always? Myself, I wasn't even thought of at the time so do not expect any egocentric and romanticised tales of travel from my side. Not yet at least. But at the time, most of Latin America had been absorbed by a political surpression that followed a period of economic failure and the dirty imperialism waged by the US. Military juntas were popping up like mushrooms all over the continent and a witch hunt after lefties, dissidents and random opponents became a dark and bitter reality. Loads of people were thrown in prison for many years and there they were exposed by horrible torture and thousands of them simply "disappeared", brutal acts against humanity. This widespread terror forced many Latin-Americans to flee their countries and because of this, large groups of political refugees sought asylum in other countries, most notably in Europe, US and Australia.
During the time, the nordic country of Sweden were at the height of a rapid social development that since the Second World War had placed the country as one of the most prosperous places in the world. The social-democratic "middle way" that had paved way for this, emphasised the weight of showing solidarity with political activists around the world and therefore a generous migration politics became a Swedish hallmark at the time. So when many political refugees in Latin America were forced to abandon their homelands, Sweden welcomed them with open arms. In many ways it was a love affair that was bound to happened. The economic capacity was there to actually provide work for the new arrivals and even though the cold climate of the north was to challenge these southerners, there couldn't culturally have been a more suiting time to adopt Sweden as their new home. During the seventies, there was a big socialist movement among the younger generation and many people had already since the sixties been involved in protests against international affairs such as the Vietnam war, post-colonial suppression and of course the situation in Latin America. But this was also a time when cheap red wine was flowing at informal and bohemian house parties, when Swedish rock bands wrote lyrics about the struggles in the Latin world and when every blonde, longhaired hippie seemed to know how to recite the poetry of Pablo Neruda. The Latino, with its continental manners and carefree ways, became for many Swedes the ultimate symbol of an intellectual, urbane and exotic hero who was forced into exile because of the revolutionary cause they had fought.
This, together with the desire among many young Swedish people to branch out to the more progressive world outside little Sweden, became defining in the way this immigration group acclimatised to their new home. Some of them became very influent in the cultural and academic life, some entered the political scene and many started organisations where their backgrounds were showcased and practiced. But most importantly, many of them fell in love. Between the latin heat and the nordic frost there seemed to be an exotic tension that was to be proven fruitful in more than one way. As most of the dictatorships ended in the eighties, many of the Latin Americans in Sweden had started new lives and families, so the decision to move back to their homes were not at all obvious. Many returned to the motherland but many chose to stay.
When I was a confused teenager in the beginning of the noughties, I started hanging out with a bunch of new folks. They were all a part of the recently told story as they were the kids of Latin Americans that had stayed in Sweden and started families here. More specifically, they were with a couple of exceptions, all with Uruguayan roots. Because of some sort of push-and-pull factor had their Uruguayan parents all ended up in the small academic town of mine in the Swedish south. They formed a tight-knit community and just like many other ethnic groups in exile, they were avid practitioners of a patriotic romanticism towards the old country. The diaspora was full of elements that reminded of home and these were in many ways expressed in a fanatical nostalgia. Twelve-hour long asados in front of the revered fire, a football craze like nothing else and the frenetic mission of keeping up the tradition of the Afro-Uruguayan drum-culture Candombe was maybe the most significant characteristics of all this. But also all the dinner tales about those "golden days" before the military dictatorship, the struggle that came with all that and the comic differences they had all encountered when arriving to their new country. All in all, this was all acts of remembrance and they were manifested as often as possible.
For us Swedish kids that got to know this small world, this was a bewildering experience. Coming from a "normal" and in some ways a little bit boring Swedish household, there was a whole lot of funkiness going on in these circles. It was spontaneous, informal and accepting. Sure a whole lot of fun. It was very much welcoming. As a teenager you felt equal to the grown-ups as they really took interest in what you had to say and did not just discard it as thoughts in progress. The boundaries between the old and the young generations was less noticeable and for a teenager that was knocking on the doors of adulthood this was stimulating and exciting. But also, there was a sort of rebellious and anarchic way of handling things. You could eat your steak directly from the grill with your bare hands and if you ran out of smoke, you could surely find one of the elders that didn't mind to share a porro with you. It was a very liberal environment. But also educational. We were here exposed to another continent, another way of looking at things and quite coincidentally, we acquired specific knowledge about this small, random Gaucho-country that many people would never be able to spot on a world map. I have often thought about this obscure encounter and the mysterious ways how life just throws us in on the weirdest of paths. Why Uruguay? Why in Sweden? It is all very vague. Personally, I was very affected by all of this and as I grew up to be where I am now, wherever that is, Uruguay became a decisive factor in how I chose to relate to the surrounding world.
At the time Latin America was on every young lip as well. A sort of Neo-romanticism about the continent became the fashion of the day. Manu Chao celebrated worldwide success with easy to understand lyrics about the situation in the Third World and from Seattle to Gothenburg iconic Che Guevara-posters was to be seen at the many anti-Bush demonstrations that took place in the big cities. From the ideological seventies, the fascination of Latin American cultures now had turned into more of a "pop" thing, but nonetheless popular. This was of course both rooted and manifested in the big travel boom that hit Latin America during these years. Dirt cheap prices and a more accommodating tourism industry allured many young people from the western world to take on the big adventure. Back home they brought stories from the wild continent but also clothes, habits and even partners. Suddenly everyone was fluent in Spanish and could namedrop every shaman between Lima and Quito. Latin America was on the map again.
This "latinophilia" could in many ways be seen in a rather comical light. I know about one girl who firmly believed that her dog could only understand commands in Spanish even though she herself barely knew how to answer the question; "Quieres ir a mi casa?". Another friend of mine met a Chilean woman and decided to baptise himself as a Mapuche Indian in a Swedish lake. Another guy sold all his belongings to go to Buenos Aires to work as a street clown for a couple of pesos a day. Myself, I did probably every stereotypical mistake a young and naive twenty-year old could make but that I'll leave to someone else to tell about. They could probably write a whole book about it.
From the small context to the big, this is a story of Uruguay and Sweden, but also about the strange nature of things. About where we might just end up. For me and my friends, we knew exactly where we were heading as soon as we were legally old to fuck everything up. It was the big adventure of gigantic Latin America, but also the visit to that small and little known country of Uruguay. To be continued.
Drinks? Uruguay is together with France the country that consumes the most whiskey in the world per capita. Dives like Bar Nuevo Polvorin is a big factor in this high ranking. These simple and straight-on whiskey stops can be found all over and makes up an interesting cultural aspect of the country. I have asked many Uruguayan people about this thirst for the whiskey but with little clear answers. Nevertheless, there has been a notable British influence in the country and between the Uruguayan independence in the early 19th century until the WWII, British presence was in many ways culturally significant. In this perspective, the religion of football is of course the prime example but I am also leaning towards the idea that the love of whiskey has descended from these cultural encounters. If not, this romance to the bottle of malt is solely to the fact that Uruguayans are hard drinkers, something they do not share with the otherwise dominating heritage from Spain and Italy.
While at these gloomy spots of whiskey blues, make sure to savour one of the cheap national whiskey brands such as Dunbar, Mac Pay and Gregson's among others. Not at all any great spirits but decent enough to drink and ordering these is the ideal way to show these hard-knock people that you are all in this together, a wise tactic at bar like these.
Munch? They do serve food, and it ought to be traditional "Minutas" like Milanesas, the occasional quick pasta fix or even a steak with fries.
Where? Avenida Uruguay 1799, 11200, Montevideo, Uruguay.
I'm always on the lookout for for more bars to enjoy and write about. Do you know about an interesting place in your city or elsewhere, let me know and maybe I'll stop by!