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THE ROAD TO YOUR ROOTS // MONTEVIDEO, URUGUAY

At the passport control booth at Carrasco Airport, my husband, GJ, noticed that the officer returned his document without the temporary visa issued to all foreign visitors.

Although his Spanish was rusty, GJ managed to convey his concern, pointing to the American seal on the passport's cover.

"That's all right, you were born here," replied the officer. "You don't need a visa."

He may as well have said, "Welcome home."

This brief encounter proved symbolic, for throughout our stay in Uruguay, that small, quiet nation wedged between Argentina and Brazil, we indeed felt at home.

Having collected our bags and headed for the taxi stand, we were welcomed again, this time by our friend Miguel, whom we were not expecting.

We began our exploration of Montevideo, Uruguay's capital and the city GJ had not seen in 40 years. His immigrant parents _ and Miguel's _ had fled Hitler's Europe in 1938, and Montevideo had been his childhood home during the 1940s and early '50s.

My husband's journey, then, was only secondarily tourist-oriented, and Montevideo is not a common destination for North Americans. (It does draw Argentinians and Brazilians, attracted by the relatively low prices, fine Atlantic beaches, temperate climate and leather and woolen goods and gemstones.)

About one-third of Uruguay's 3-million people live in Montevideo and its sprawling coastal suburbs, but it has few sights that typically draw tourists. There are no first-rate museums, for example, as there are in Buenos Aires, its sister capital across the Rio de la Plata, Nor does much remain of the country's indigenous culture or even its Spanish colonial era.

We heard so little English spoken in Montevideo that we had the rare (and illusory) sensation of having the city to ourselves.

What we found as we roamed on foot and by bus was a safe and shabby city, exceedingly pleasant, bustling with cafes on every corner. Montevideo struck us as a city of contrasts, a place trying not to be left behind by the rest of the world: Sleek new Swedish buses compete with pollution-spewing old wrecks for business along the shady avenues. Sidewalks can abruptly end in a pile of cement shards. Horse-drawn carts driven by scrap-metal scavengers woke us in the early morning.

The dictatorship of the '70s and early '80s, a time when economic progress more or less ceased and the multiethnic society languished, left its mark in a crumbling (or missing) infrastructure: few traffic lights in a city of more than 1-million, post offices without stamps to sell, many unpaved roads in the country.

Yet advertisements for beepers and cellular phones are plastered everywhere, and the city appeared to be undergoing a building boom. Along the magnificent coast, high-priced condos are sprouting. The well-to-do neighborhood where we stayed, Pocitos, sports a new American-style shopping mall _ but we noticed a large number of aging Ford Falcons and Ramblers in its parking lot.

Still, there is much to admire about Montevideo, and our favorite diversion was to stroll the Rambla, a ribbon of promenade that stretches alongside the Rio de la Plata for more than a dozen miles. From early morning until late at night, people strolled, jogged, bicycled or skated along this wide brick path.

But we could never walk far without GJ stopping to watch groups of boys, young and old, playing soccer in the sand. It was one of the sights he had come back to see.

For we gave most of that January week _ summertime in South America _ to GJ's past, to finding the places he remembered, his apartment house, schools, playground, YMCA, and so on.

Interestingly, they all stood where he recalled them, although the last time he saw them he had been just 11. His apartment building _ a couple of blocks from Plaza Independencia in the heart of Montevideo _ now sports a Pepsi billboard. The nearby mercado, the market, where his mother shopped, and out of which he remembers live chickens escaping the butcher's knife, has been enlarged and spruced up. It still houses the group of kosher butchers he remembers, part of the ample evidence that Montevideo's Jewish population thrives.

On a Sunday morning we visited the feria de Tristan Narvaja, the weekly flea market where one can poke among the fruit and vegetable stalls, buy a hand-knitted sweater, live poultry or even a canary _ as GJ did as a boy.

But we also explored parts of the city GJ hadn't known as a child, or at least that he didn't remember. We walked the broad, bustling Avenida 18 de Julio that is lined with municipal buildings, cafes and galerias. We explored the ciudad vieja, or old city, that dates back to the first Spanish settlement in the early 18th century; it is home to the main cathedral and the pretty, leafy Plaza Constitucion.

Beyond the narrow and often crumbling streets is the Aduana, the old customs house down by the harbor. In this lively, colorful section of town, musicians and vendors mingle, selling songs or selling crafts while visitors stroll the many tiny restaurants, taking a look at what's cooking on the parrilla, or barbecue.

Dining in Montevideo was one of the highlights of our time there. The city smells faintly of the wood fires that fuel the parrilla. Not surprising in a country whose economy is cattle-based, the beef is excellent and relatively cheap.

GJ and I learned on our first evening that a Uruguayan bife lomo bears only slight resemblance to the filet mignon in American restaurants. His "regular" cut nearly filled the dinner plate, and his meal cost about $12.

I don't know what the secret is to successful cooking on the parrilla, but everything we ordered, whether chicken or lamb or steaks, was uniformly perfect _ juicy and flavorful. We also found a vast variety of pasta dishes, pizzas and salads.

One specialty that GJ was eager to try for old times' sake was faina, a deliciously moist bread made of chickpea flour, sold by the slice like pizza. We also admired the chivito, an overstuffed sandwich that begins with a thin filet of beef and includes lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, olives and hard-boiled eggs.

As we wandered throughout Montevideo speaking English and taking pictures, we noted brief and curious looks rather than the prolonged stares we have encountered in our travels. Except for the occasional offer of assistance while we blocked a street corner looking at our map, people let us be.

GJ did speak at length with shopkeepers in his old neighborhood, then _ as he grew more confident of his Spanish _ to anyone, on any pretense. Once he began, his listeners would eagerly respond, invariably and warmly welcoming him home.

Jill Knight Weinberger lives in New Britain, Conn.

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