Gaiman is a perfect little village. The sun blazes, a fat river runs through it flanked by lazy willow trees.
The mad thing about it is the fact that it is a Welsh settlement. Dragon flags emblazon signs, flags and buildings; many of the written words are in both Spanish and Welsh, and every so often, you’ll hear the gentle lilt of spoken Welsh. Very bizarre.
I’m afraid that I’m going to have to write more about this when my brain is not totally hollowed out by 8 hours on the bike. We got a great interview with the town’s most beloved couple with 58 years of marriage under their belt and both fluent Welsh speakers.
Alvina and Virgilio Zampini, despite their surname, are pretty much as Welsh as they come in these parts. Well, Virgilio (as the name might suggest) is son of an Italian father, but his mother is pure Welsh. Alvina’s parents came over on the 1860 boatload from Wales. She grew up speaking Welsh and still speaks Welsh today to her children and in her home. When we asked in town who to interview, everyone without fail pointed to these two: married for 58 years, both have written detailed books about the Welsh story here in Patagonia, one of Alvina’s books is 200 pages of detailed family trees of each of the families in the Welsh settlement.
We knock on the door of their home. It’s opened by a well-dressed, kind-eyed elderly gentleman. We explain what we are after (“This is a very unusual request, but we hope you’ll indulge us…”) and he smiles patiently. After we finish the shpiel, his wife arrives and asks us into her home, then to repeat our request. It turns out the kind-eyed Virgilio suffered a serious stroke in 2002 and has not been the same man since. That said, he seems to me to be very with it – he has full mobility, helping Mike with stepladders and the like. He also seems to understand everything, though his wife explains that he will only ever say small amounts.
We interview them about their story. Alvina grew up in Gaiman, speaking Welsh at home, and went to BA to study to be a nurse. She left behind a fiance, though when she returned, he had married someone else. Cheeky blighter. At that point, she met her first cousin’s son, Virgilio, who had just returned from the seminary at Rome. With the dispensation of the church, they were permitted to marry (as we flicked through the scores of family trees, it was obvious that fewer than 10 children per family is a rare thing). They married and moved to teach at a school for orphans where no one else wished to teach. The two of them lived in the wilderness with no electricity or running water for 4 years, but loved it. They had each other.
They had 3 children, moved back to Gaiman where Virgilio became a history teacher at the local school. This allowed him to write his books, he studied to get his masters in the evenings which meant little time for the family, but again they got through it. He taught at the school until his stroke 8 years ago.
Alvina is small and incredibly warm. She rests her hand on my arm at the end of every sentence, she refers to me as “querida” (dear one) from the moment we appear in her life, and generally, I can imagine she is a wonderful grandmother. When she speaks in English, which she speaks fluently but says she has little occasion to use, she speaks with a charming Welsh accent. She’s wonderful. She talks to Mike and I about the arrival of the Welsh in this harsh land where the winds blow hard and it rarely rains. The Welsh got the permission of the Argentinians to settle and cultivate the land, and they were the first settlers of this land – even the indigenous people were based on the West coast of the South American continent. The Welsh established themselves, and made a go of it. Some moved across to the more fertile, more Alpine Western part of Southern Argentina, near the Andes in a settlement called Trewellyn, but some stuck it out. Totally fascinating. The village is lovely too, I can see why it would be an attractive place to live.
The couple are enchanting. Though Virgilio speaks little, his eyes suggest that he understands, and he will often look over at Alvina with total adoration, then lean his head down on her shoulder, smiling. She refers to him as “Rubio” (the blond one) and looks after him without smothering him. She says that he is not given much more time to live, but that he’s better now than he was after the stroke itself – though not like the man he was before, a fierce intellect. There is so much love in this home. When I ask for advice, Alvina says she can’t give advice, every couple has its own secrets. And in that, she is not wrong, but she is adamant that even after 58 years, she knows no more about the secret of marriage than we do.