Roberto Herrscher was one of the many Argentinians who fought against Great Britain in the Falklands War in the 1980s. Decades later, Herrscher returns to the islands to confront his memories and ends up making an unlikely friend.
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Martina: In Argentina, people can get emotional about a lot of things — like soccer, beef, soccer… But there’s one experience that stands apart: the war over the Falkland Islands, or as Argentinians refer to them, las Islas Malvinas. It was a chaotic war with the United Kingdom back in 1982, waged to stake claim to these tiny islands off the southern tip of Argentina. The UK won. Roberto Herrscher was one of the Argentine soldiers who fought and survived.
Roberto: Nunca pensé que iba a volver al lugar de mis peores memorias. Pero lo hice.
Martina: More than two decades after the war ended, Roberto wanted to face his trauma from the war… and write a book about what happened on those islands so long ago. So he decided to return to the islands — but of all the people he planned on meeting there, there was one he wasn’t expecting.
Roberto: Me hice un nuevo amigo, un amigo que hace muchos años fue mi enemigo.
Martina: Welcome to the Duolingo Spanish Podcast, where we bring you true bilingual stories of travels with unexpected turns, plans unraveled, and destinations unknown. The Spanish in this story is for intermediate level learners, but if you get lost, don’t worry, we will be chiming in throughout the story. When Roberto returned to the Falklands in the winter of 2006, the first thing he saw through the airplane window was the shape of the islands he so vividly remembered.
Roberto: Como dos alas de mariposa.
Martina: Like two wings of a butterfly.
Roberto: Las Islas Malvinas, o ‘Falkland Islands’ en inglés, están en el océano Atlántico Sur. Argentina las colonizó en el año 1830, pero Gran Bretaña las ocupó tres años después.
Martina: Gran Bretaña, or Great Britain, and Argentina disputed their claim to the islands for more than 150 years. Until all of a sudden, on April 2, 1982, Argentina decided it was time to reclaim its sovereignty over them.
¡Si quieren venir, que vengan, les presentaremos batalla!
Martina: The military dictator at the time, Leopoldo Galtieri, sent in troops to take the islands by force. The prime minister of the UK, Margaret Thatcher, ordered her armed forces to recover them. And in less than three months, the British won.
Roberto: En ese momento yo tenía 18 años y era un joven haciendo el servicio militar. Era obligatorio y muchos tuvimos que ir a las islas a combatir. Fueron tiempos difíciles. Muchos de mis amigos murieron.
Roberto: Me explotó una bomba a pocos metros de la cabeza.
Martina: 18 year old Roberto joined the military for the same reason many of his fellow soldiers joined — because it was obligatory back then. The bomb that exploded near his head, thankfully, didn’t injure him. But the war did change him forever. And for the longest time, Roberto wondered if he would ever set foot on those islands again. Then one day his son asked him about what the war was like and Roberto realized it had been 25 years since it ended. In that moment, he decided it was time to face his old memories.
Roberto: Me di cuenta de que era el momento de escribir un libro sobre mi guerra.
Martina: So Roberto returned to the islands.
Roberto: Cuando regresé a las islas, conocí a un hombre que se llama John Fowler. Es profesor de inglés. John era superintendente de educación de las Islas Malvinas durante la guerra, y después fue secretario de turismo.
Roberto: Él y yo fuimos a un bar para beber unas cervezas y conversar. Me sorprendió escuchar sobre su miedo y sufrimiento por la ocupación de las fuerzas armadas argentinas.
Martina: John opened Roberto’s eyes to how locals had perceived the Argentinean Army as invaders. John told him about the times he felt most terrified, like when a missile fell into his house, where his family and others were taking refuge. It had been one of the most violent nights of the war, towards the end of the conflict.
Roberto: Estaban ahí, precisamente, porque era la construcción más sólida y segura. La mujer de John y sus dos hijos pequeños también estaban ahí. Todos estaban nerviosos: los combates se aproximaban.
Martina: When the bomb fell, John was able to protect his own family. But three women who took refuge with them inside the house died that night.
Roberto: La historia de John Fowler y su perspectiva sobre la guerra cambiaron mi visión de mi guerra, para siempre.
Martina: While they sat together at the bar, Roberto told John where he was the night the missile hit John’s house. As it turns out, Roberto and his battalion were only a few blocks away.
Roberto: Esa noche estábamos escuchando por la radio al gobernador militar de las islas, el General Mario Menéndez. Él decía que no nos íbamos a rendir.
Martina: Rendir… surrender… General Menéndez from Argentina confidently announced that it would never happen. So when Roberto and his battalion heard this on the radio, they hunkered down for the night. Roberto’s superior asked them to make food for the coming days. Specifically, dozens of servings of a traditional Argentinian dish: Milanesas, which are basically breaded flank steaks.
Roberto: Hicimos como veinte milanesas. Pero a la mañana siguiente recibimos una sorpresa.
Martina: The surprise? That the war was over.
El combate del Puerto Argentino ha finalizado.
Roberto: Argentina perdió. Entonces nos tuvimos que ir rápidamente de la casa a presentarnos como prisioneros de guerra. En el refrigerador quedaron más de la mitad de las milanesas.
Martina: Yes, when Roberto and his fellow soldiers turned themselves in as prisoners of war, more than half of the milanesas were left behind. As Roberto talked about those last few hours at the house, he mentioned the address — 10 John Street. Then, John started laughing out loud. He recognized the address right away.
Roberto: “¡Qué ricas estaban esas milanesas!”, me dijo John aquel día en el bar. Pero yo estaba totalmente confundido.
Martina: Roberto was confused because, how could John know anything about the milanesas? It turns out that when John’s house was damaged by the missile he and his family were moved to another building: the very same house on 10 John Street where Roberto had been just hours before. The house had been repossessed by the British as soon as Roberto and his battalion surrendered.
Roberto: Y cuando John entró a la casa, encontró, todavía en el refrigerador, nuestras milanesas.
Martina: When Roberto and John finally put the pieces of their story together, they couldn’t believe the coincidence. That night at the bar they toasted the turns of fate that made their paths cross not once, but now twice.
Martina: After his trip to the Falklands, Roberto published a book about the war and what it was like to return. It focused on the small ship where he spent most of the conflict, a wooden sailboat named Penélope. The book is titled “Los viajes del Penélope”.
Roberto: Dos años después de mi viaje a las Islas Malvinas, John me escribió una carta. Me dijo que leyó mi libro y que le gustó mucho. También me dijo que quería ayudarme a traducirlo al inglés. Y le dije que sí.
Martina: Here’s a paragraph from Roberto’s book, translated into English, and read by John Fowler. It tells the story of what was happening on the battlefield, on the very same evening when John’s house was hit by a missile, and Roberto was cooking milanesas, just a few hundred feet away.
John Fowler: On June the 12th, the war was already lost. The British destroyers were bombarding our positions all night and the battle-hardened attacking soldiers were advancing on the mountains that surrounded Stanley: Longdon, Kent and Two Sisters, where soon they would be involved in the most terrible battles of the war.
Roberto: Cuando terminó de traducir el libro, John y yo decidimos irnos de vacaciones juntos. Pasamos dos semanas en mi casa en Barcelona, España. En esos días descubrí que John Fowler no solo era un excelente traductor, sino también un muy buen compañero y amigo.
Martina: One of those nights in Barcelona, over dinner, Roberto’s son José Pablo asked again about the war. But now, he wanted to hear from John. John told him about the bombings and the women who died as a result inside his home. José Pablo listened silently; he had grown up hearing Roberto’s version of the war, the Guerra de las Malvinas. But this time it was different.
Martina: A few year later, John decided that he too had a book to write about HIS war. It’s titled “1982 And all That: Difficult questions from a difficult time in the Falkland Islands”.
Roberto: Unos años después, John me envió su propio libro. Era la historia de SU guerra, de cómo sus islas fueron invadidas por las fuerzas armadas argentinas. Se titula “1982: Días difíciles en las Malvinas”.
Roberto: Leí el libro en un día y le dije a John que quería ayudar a publicarlo en español. Los argentinos necesitaban conocer a John Fowler y su perspectiva sobre la Guerra de las Malvinas, tan diferente a la nuestra.
Martina: So that’s how Roberto helped John translate his book about the Falklands War. At the end of 2013, Fowler’s memoir was published with an epilogue by Roberto. On that fateful evening of June 12th, 1982, John and Roberto had been separated by only a few hundred feet, though they didn’t know of each other’s existence and were on opposite sides of a war. Today, the two men live thousands of miles apart but they feel closer to one another than they ever imagined possible.
Roberto: Después de conversar, escucharnos, y leernos tanto, creo que John Fowler es el amigo que quiero tener junto a mí en la próxima guerra.
Martina: Roberto Herrscher is an author and journalist from Argentina. He teaches journalism at the Universidad Alberto Hurtado in Santiago, Chile and with the Fundación Gabriel García Márquez in Colombia.
You can find a link to his book about the Falklands war and a transcript of this episode at podcast.duolingo.com.
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I’m Martina Castro, gracias por escuchar.