Is a place a fixed location? Can we find it elsewhere? What does it taste like? In this excerpt, Andrea Salerno finds in Dubai, UAE the accidental culmination of her Migratory Birds project once initiated in Rosario, Argentina. With her photographs of Francisco Sala, a self-taught dessert cook and cabin crew, Andrea unpacks this story as an example of “causalities/causalidades” (read: causa and casualidad/cause and coincidence), the casual encounters that seem to have a cause, that seem meant to be, even if they lack explanations. In this case, Argentine desserts… well, in the desert. Maybe this causalidad tastes like chocotorta.
Words by Andrea Salerno:
13,817 km between Rosario, Argentina and Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
It couldn’t be otherwise. This project began in Rosario, Argentina and had to end in the same place, even in a metaphorical way. That is why when I arrived in Dubai in October 2020, I began the search for someone who came here from Rosario and would like to tell me their immigration story.
And fate, always doing its magic, brought to my shores a person that also makes traditional Argentinian alfajores and pastries as a means of subsistence. Because that’s how Alfajuencer began, as a means to survive the onslaught of the Covid pandemic and the dismissal of the airline where Fran worked for so many years.
Francisco Sala emigrated from Rosario in 2011 to become a Cabin Crew in a recognized airline in this country. What he never imagined is that almost ten years later he would have his own venture and that it would be deeply linked to his roots.
When I first enter the place where the kitchen is in Francisco’s house, I perceive a familiar smell: Dulce de leche. Vanilla. Sugar. A smell of warmth and sweetness that in particular brings back to me so many memories that makes my heart beat faster.
Amid the excitement of speaking in Spanish with someone for the first time after so many months, and also with a “rioplatense” accent, I forgot to take the most important photo in this project: the photo of Fran’s hand.
That is why I would go back a second time.
So the scent in the place has changed. Fran has changed. The whole world has changed in a matter of eight months and here we are again, wrapped in that sweet perfume left by the mixtures of dulce de leche, cream, grated chocolate and chocolinas. That’s the truth: these cookies are Chocolinas, not just any cookie but Chocolinas. (Chocolinas in Dubai , I repeat myself in silence several times), and the blaze of the heat of a summer afternoon, at least 48 degrees outside.
“Do you want a maté? I can pour two matés with different straws, if you want.” This is the first thing Francisco asked me, with a huge smile that lights up his entire face with the complicity that is created when you talk to someone who understands word by word the meaning of what you are saying. Because maté means many things and even more so, when you are so far from home.
My emotions get mixed like Scrabble pieces. Between the sweet and bitter aroma of the steaming maté, I begin to feel a nostalgia that makes me realise that Fran is more used to being away from Rosario than I am. Because in December 2021 will be 10 years since he arrived here and for me it’s gonna be the first year; only one, long year.
I also begin to realise through Fran’s story that I am unraveling mine, trying to find in this new migratory flight of mine a mirror to reflect on, even knowing that our stories are very different.
Although he was born in Buenos Aires (his father is from Rosario and his mother from San Nicolás), he grew up in Rosario. “I am from Rosario because I grew up there, because I feel I belong there and because I was there all my life”, he tells me between one maté and another, and he closes the idea by telling me – “You grow up there, you relate, that is what gives you identity” – .
While finishing his training in Physical Education he met the vehicle for him to enter the cabin crew’s universe. A chain of “causalities” happened to make it possible: a friend who was also preparing herself to work as a stewardess introduced him to her boyfriend, who told him that a company was looking for cabin personnel and thus began the path that would bring him to Dubai that December 2011.
Improving his English speech while working in a call center, he took the test for cabin crew and was selected.
When he looks back at his most vivid memories of the city, almost all of them revolve around those moments before he became an immigrant.
And it is from that place that he began to weave new rituals, such as travelling every February, year after year, to celebrate the birthday of a large number of members of his family, including his mother and father.
If you want to know somebody’s life story, get into their kitchen, taste their seasoning; It is in the kitchen where home’s soul lives, the place where everything is possible, especially the joy and the memory.
Years later, life, which is never linear, would bring to Fran, the greatest challenge: a disease that would put his life at risk and that instead of knocking him down, would make him understand how important it is to plan for the future.
Another challenge would come five years later, hand in hand with the Covid-19 virus and the pandemic, taking him out of the cabin crew’s universe overnight, unexpectedly, like so many millions of people around the world that became jobless one minute to the other.
Choosing to stay in Dubai implied choosing to turn his path around and take a completely different course, and which seems to be his leitmotif for life, he decided to ride that wave and flow with what the months brought to his kitchen counter.
While he considers that his palate was not properly trained, he does acknowledge that travel and age expanded his tastes. However, in order to find the appropriate recipe to make the alfajores that had the characteristic Argentine flavour, he navigated through the first twenty-four recipes in search of the missing link that would connect him back to the peculiar flavour that his memory insisted on keeping alive.
“It’s an Argentinian national icon, besides, who doesn’t like something sweet?” Fran tells me when he answers the question why “Alfajuencer” (a very Argentinian play on words: Alfajor-Influencer).
And if we talk about Argentinian icons, the Chocotorta has a place next to the sun of the Argentinian flag.
“Who doesn’t like something sweet?” I remember again, months later, what Fran said when I spoke with him about his alfajores venture. And now, that the spectrum of his entrepreneurship has expanded, that mix of dulce de leche, cream, and Chocolinas cookies appears almost like a miracle.
At that same kitchen counter where he calmly and precisely assembles a Chocotorta, he has made tests of pasta frola, chipacitos and marroc chocolates. And he also pours matés.
The afternoon slides slowly between one maté and another. It melts between the layers of dulce de leche, cream and cookies.
The sun goes down in the last photo; in that portrait that will give closure to this project. A portrait where the traces of the uncertainty appear fearlessly in a smile that welcomes whatever life brings, to Fran’s life.
Words for a closure:
Reinvention. That is the word that comes up most often these days of my life. In therapy, in conversations, in love and dreams. At every step. Almost like a mantra, I see it repeated in the life of my affections, in the people I meet along the way and in my own daily construction.
And to give proper space to reinvention, certain closures are necessary. Allowing the time to do what it knows better to do with people and stories: embellish them even more.