Victory at the Papeleria
September drops in temperatures have the habit of stirring up back-to-schools past in my mind. Usually I think back to my days as a Minnesotan teenager, where I’d take to the tennis court after a summer of fundraising for my team with carwashes at the local Cub Foods. I was somewhat focused on my net game but mostly swaying and dwelling over who, if anyone, would ask me to Homecoming. I’d pilot my new sweater on the first day of school, willfully ignorant of the summer temperatures that remained, bravely accumulating sweat stains for the sake of fashion.
I walked across the Manhattan Bridge to work today. It was the first morning in a while where I didn’t have to worry arriving at work overheated and pink-cheeked. As I descended upon the Bowery, with it’s lineup of specialized Chinese grocery stores, the neighborhood triggered a rarely revisited back-to-school memory of back-to-school season as a child who actually lived in a city.
My old neighborhood of Martinez, a northern city-suburb of Buenos Aires was a setting of comfortable grids of sidewalks guiding inhabitants towards cafes, ice cream shops, pharmacies, bakeries, pasta shops and butchers. During back-to-school season, I’d go to two shops in particular: the school uniform store, which sold all the nearby schools’ attire independent of the school itself, and the papeleria. Papeleria loosely translates to “stationary shop” but the atmosphere within is cramped and uncontrived, having more in common with a vintage shop than a Paper Source or Papyrus. A papeleria is like the school supply section of a Target or Staples, if the entire 5 aisles and elaborate child-marketing displays were crammed into a New York City studio apartment and a friendly shopkeeper was then airlifted behind the kitchen counter.
As an American at an bilingual all-girls school mostly populated by Argentine girls, I forever lagged in adopting the latest trend, my mom and I both unaware before it was too late. My lunch placemat was hand-drawn and later laminated lovingly by my mom alongside the other mothers at the parent-teacher meetings. It contained a park scene with pencil-drawn birds made by curved black v’s, a single tree, and a field of stubby green pencil marks. We were both surprised to find my classmates arriving at school the next day with store-bought hot pink barbie placemats that sparkled and served as aspirational reminders of what a woman should look like during mealtimes.
The kilt I wore as a part of my uniform was gringoTM. Like the rest of my clothes at the time, it was purchased too large to pave the way for my future and inevitable growth, and fell all the way past my knees. My classmates both wore minis and were minis of the high school girls who would watch us pass and say “Ayyy que divina” (Ohh how cute) to my precocious annoyance. I didn’t wear my sweater in the winter, proudly sporting goose-bumped arms in defiance and confirming all my teachers’ assumptions about the upper midwest planted by Fargo. I would play with the other girls, but just as often I would go to the library during our recess to get in touch with American culture through Sweet Valley High.
My saving grace throughout my floundering was part blissful ignorance of my own weirdness and part confidence in my papeleria choices. The back-to-school shopping list in elementary skill precipitated a visit to the store, in which my mom gave me about a minute to choose the pattern which would envelop each of my six subject’s notebooks for the year. This was the self-defining choice for a seven year old. My most memorable and greatest stylistic choice was made in my final year at Northlands School for Girls. A third grader who already knew that paddington bears were the shit, I chose a plaid green print overlaid with small teddy bears streaming down the cover with umbrellas. Trippy for its time, it was the perfect nod to the pseudo-Britishness of my school. Finally, five years into life as a Buenos Aires native, a sartorial choice well-made.