By Annie Bacher
I thought I was bold for moving more than 6,000 miles south to Buenos Aires, Argentina, following my college graduation and starting a new life in an enormous city in South America. I felt a little less hard core, though, when through some weird coincidences and strategic Googling, I discovered that my great-great-grandmother had done just the same — in reverse — 127 years earlier.
Let me back up. When I moved to Buenos Aires following my May 2014 graduation from my small college in the middle of Maine, I did it for the culture, the asado (mountains of juicy grilled Argentine beef), the wine — oh, the wine — the friends, the romance and the excitement of this chaotic city in the heart of South America. I had no family and no close friends there — everyone I had met while I was studying abroad the year before was long gone.
I didn’t move there for a “real” job, either. I taught English for a few months and soon found a journalism internship with a local English-language newspaper.
It was while working for the news publication that I planned a trip to Chile and started doing a little research to see if there was a story to cover while I was there. I also remembered that my mother had mentioned some vague far-off family connection to Chile.
Through extensive internet searches and countless emails to relatives, I discovered more than I ever expected. It turns out that David Trumbull, my great-great- great-grandfather, had been sent to Valparaíso, Chile, on Protestant missionary work in 1845 following his theological studies at Yale. He became so dedicated to the community that he decided to create his life there, soon bringing over his wife, Jane, from New Jersey, raising their nine children in the coastal city and fighting for religious freedom in the strictly Catholic country.
“Our lives are obviously so different, but I found a kind of comfort reading of her struggles and observations of this odd new experience.”
Trumbull’s contributions to Chile and especially to the rights of the non-Catholic population were so great that the country bestowed Chilean citizenship on him out of thanks for his efforts to promote the civil register and allow non-Catholics to have civil rights. And when he died in 1889, the Chilean national congress honored his life with a moment of silence.
His story was fascinating, but what truly intrigued me was the story of Trumbull’s eighth daughter, Anita, my namesake. Her granddaughter, also Anita, is my grandmother. Through a chain of emails to aunts, uncles and twice-removed cousins, I finally received a transcription of the first Anita’s diary.
At 26 years old, she wrote in the diary almost every day, starting on September 7, 1889, the day she boarded a boat from Chile to start a new life in New York.
Accompanied by a cast of entertaining friends and assorted men who tried to steal her heart (but didn’t succeed), Anita journeyed up the coast of Peru, through Panama and the southern U.S. to New York, where she would make a new home far from her family while still keeping alive the traditions of her childhood home in Chile.
My journey to Argentina only took 15 hours compared to her weeks aboard the ship. I traveled in economy class; she on The Imperial, a boat fitted with a social hall, organ and piano. She sent 16-page letters to her mother back in Chile; I call mine in California using Skype. Her friends sent telegrams throughout her journey telling her how brave she was to start a new life in such a faraway city; mine say the same, but comment on my Instagram photos and on my blog. I complain about the tasteless catcalls in the streets of this city. She complains about boys aboard the boat with her: “The male portion are restless and impatient to get some ‘decent beer’ etc. Such slaves men are!”
As I read about her encounters with Eric, a persistent suitor, her fierce defense of her own independence and happiness inspires me: “All through the meal he spoke of his love for me. Implored me to engage myself and try to love him… Funny man! He kept saying: ‘You would have to be happy because of my joy in possessing you.’ My own joy seemed to be of little consequence.”
Our lives are obviously so different, but I found a kind of comfort reading of her struggles and observations of this odd new experience. Reading her diary helped me justify my living abroad and the challenges that came with it. I sometimes felt guilty, putting so much distance between my family and me, but Anita’s words kept me company and reminded me that I was not the first one to be far from her family. I looked forward to having part of her story to come home to read every night for a few weeks.
“She documented her journey in handwritten words; I documented mine in typed Word Docs and Instagram photos.”
When Anita moves into a boarding house after her first few months in the U.S., her maturity astounds me. She is thousands of miles away from her family and must wait weeks for letters and telegrams, but instead of being impatient or intolerant, Anita is appreciative. She concluded, “Why was I ever so spoiled? This is the first time in my life that I have been actually alone, and we shall see how I stand it.” A friend tempts her to give up on her quest for total independence and move in with her, but she resolves, “I will not succumb quite so soon. I must give it a fair trial.”
She certainly gave it a fair trial. She soon made friends with the Van Lennep sisters, who gradually introduced her to their brother, Frederick, who became my great-great-grandfather. The diary ends just as Fred and Anita are choosing a wedding date.
This photo was taken the morning of my first full day in Valparaíso. I traveled to this beautiful coastal city just for a few days, but even in such a short time I was able to retrace some of the steps of this faraway family, visiting Anita’s father’s church and finding her parents’ gravestones in the Dissidents Cemetery. She documented her journey in handwritten words; I documented mine in typed Word Docs and Instagram photos.
I wonder why she decided to write every single day. I wonder if she ever imagined that anyone else would see her words and her amusing conclusions about the daily happenings and social drama of her 26-year-old life in a new country. The diary seems written the way that a Facebook status or Instagram post would read these days, documenting the social events, scandals and gossip.
I remember reading this diary just about a year into my life in Buenos Aires. I was far from alone, but my plans were uncertain, and with my internship finished, I wasn’t quite sure where my next step would take me. I’m still not completely sure.
I found a job I enjoy, a boyfriend I love and slowly made Buenos Aires my home. I still don’t know exactly what lies ahead, but I like Anita’s attitude. She said, “As I close this journal and take up my new one I cannot help looking ahead with wonder and almost a certain degree of curiosity as to what this year has in store for me.”
I don’t know about the practicality of taking advice from a 20-something in 1889, but I found comfort in this realization of the repetition and unremarkable nature of my cross-continental move. I’ve now been living here for more than two full years, and I can say the same as Anita. On the last page of her journal, the conclusions are poignant yet unpretentious: “The experience has made me more self reliant and I hope less selfish. What will this next year bring?”
Annie Bacher (still) lives in Buenos Aires, working as a copywriter and freelance journalist. She loves Malbec, quality grilled meat and good conversations over strong coffee.