It’s what we get for waking up in…Buenos Aires?


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San Telmo, Buenos Aires

Welcome to the city of looking up

It’s been just over a year since I bought a one-way ticket to Argentina.

I’d been dreaming about South America for years, but the action-plan was conceived and booked into reality in less than an hour. I think some people take longer to shower.

With agenda apart from a violent ambition to learn Spanish, I was vacillating somewhere between curiosity and boredom. I knew nothing about “the city of looking up”, or how duplicitous that expression can be in a city where balconies are fair game for just about anything and everything, at all any any hour of the day.

2015-10-11_1444531924Exiting the plane that first day, I was greeted by grey skies and a smattering of gusty droplets. The clouds were saturated, but they clenched their waterlogged pleats. It was as if the universe was holding its breath right along with me, waiting to see what lay in store. As is the case for most mildly successful freelancers, my future was unwritten.

The first few days

It all began on the couch of a man named Miguel. He was charming, polite and unassuming; just the way a stranger should be when you’re at the mercy of their goodwill.

It was my third time Couch Surfing, and it was a crash-course in Porteño (local) culture. Miguel and his friends serenaded me with Argentine folklórico, fed me wine and asado (traditional Argentine BBQ), and helped me learn the lay of the land. They taught me slang and shared scandalous tales of Argentine romance. What was I getting into?

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I spent my first few days getting lost and tossing around the few Spanish phrases I knew:

––“No, the duck is not yours.”

––”What’s your favorite color?

––Please forgive me, I have a mountain of shame.”

I’d wake each day with new vocabulary scrawled across my hands. Or forearms. Or face. Argentinians loved to teach me new phrases and showered me with praise when I (oh, shock!!) actually remembered one. It was a magical time, but couch life had to end. I was growing fat and lazy in proper San Isidro style.

Hostels, pickpockets, and poor decisions

The next few weeks passed in a blur of boliches and backpacker shenanigans.

I felt like I was living the real-life version of Katy Perry’s song “That’s what we get for waking up in Vegas”. Every day was do-or-die and I was shaking glitter (cookie crumbs?) out of more places than I care to remember. I learned the hard way that waving expensive electronic property around is a great way to lose them very quickly.

After parting ways with an phone, an Ipod, my wallet, and a Mac charger, it was time to change the game. I gave backpacker Jess the flush and found an apartment, enrolled in Spanish classes, and started sketching out life as a local.

image (57)The new me lived in Palermo, ate WAY too much pizza, and had a really hard time discerning her front door from the other 10 on that block.

The learning curve

As the days ticked by, I learned not to pet the street dogs and never to wear flip-flops when it rains. (It’s like the story of Noah’s Ark, only with lots of trash and dog poop instead of animals.)

 

Disgrace is life’s greatest teacher, and so here are the lessons Argentina has taught me:

1.) Argentine pizza is eaten with a knife and fork. If you try to pick it up, the toppings will slide gracefully into your lap, like tiny passengers exiting a crashed plane.

2.) Argentines will ask you the following two questions when they first meet you: #1 How long have you been here for?  #2 Oh, really? Why isn’t your Spanish better?

pigeons3.) Pigeons will live in your windows, and spiders will live in your shower. YOU WILL NAME THEM ALL.

4.) Dog poop is a fact of life. Get used to it, and don’t ever take a clean sidewalk for granted again.

5.) Argentines love Whatsapp voice notes. Even if you tell them you hate voice notes, they will continue to send you voice notes. Asking why you don’t like the voice notes.

6.) Sorry to the Argentines who will take offense, but I think Tango music could be more accurately renamed “creepy elevator music of death”.

7.) If some kind strangers let you enter the lobby of a building that you don’t have the keys to, you will be trapped for hours. (Argentines would rather trap their thieves inside so everyone can die together in a fire, rather than make keyless exits.)

8.) Argentine Subway does not take their slogan “eat fresh” very seriously.

bus9.) You need to tell bus drivers where you’re going when you get on. This means you need to know where you’re going.

10.) Dating will confuse you. THE END.

11.) “On time” is 30 minutes late, and “late” is never. Unless it’s your day to bring facturas to the office -– then you for-damn-sure better be there first.

12.) Racism, like many concepts here, is not defined by syntax. There is a bluntness to the way people deliver information and they don’t see anything insulting or wrong about it. The American phobia of prosaic indelicacy does not exist. The good news is, if you make a tragic fashion decision or gain a little weight, you’ll know right away!

Mystery, intrigue, and a slap in the face

In the following months, I became infatuated with the paradoxical forces governing this city. Passion and apaSan Telmo, Argentinathy; glamor and decay.

One minute I’m drinking in stone porticoes and Parisian antiquity like a poet on crack – the next, I’m watching homeless children bath in a public fountain.

Everywhere you turn in this city, your faced with a new impression or feeling. It’s like living inside a kaleidoscope –– if also inside that kaleidoscope lived a tiny old lady who likes to slap you in the face every once in a while.

The way that locals treat foreigners is unlike anything I’ve encountered before. It can be great, but also horrible. Sometimes you feel like a celebrity, some rare and exotic creature that everyone wants to be close to. Other times, it’s like you’re at the zoo on the wrong side of the bars.

As I start to learn Spanish more and more, I begin to see an entirely new dimension to this culture. When it’s late at night and I’m taking the bus home after a long day, I can understand as two women discuss the color of my hair, my shoes, my height – and whether I’m pregnant or just a “gordita” (little fatty). I try to see it as flattering. In general, the way that people interact is both enchanting and exhausting, depending on the day and my mood.

Sydney VS Buenos Aires

sydneyIt’s been a weird transition after two years in Sydney, a city of my native tongue that welcomed me with open arms. Leaving that continent behind truly broke my heart.

The thing is, Sydney is the canine of cities – loyal, friendly, and consistent. I always felt like I was home. Buenos Aires on the other hand, is like a cat; duplicitous, discriminating, and unpredictable. It purrs when you pet it and nuzzles your hand, then viciously attacks you a moment later.

Like BA expats and cat lovers, we wind up completely intoxicated by the passion and excitement; whether it’s a laser beam steeplechase or a neighborhood protest. You can’t walk three blocks in this city without stumbling onto some kind of urban spectacle.

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At the end of the day, we need both the cat and the dog. Without one, you can’t fully appreciate the other.

Assimilation: What does it mean to you?

A year later, I still wake up with Spanish words written all over. I still embarrass myself most days, but I can chart my growth in confidence and conjugated verbs.

One of my fellow expats figures you’ve really made it somewhere when you can direct the taxi driver on the route you prefer to take. Since my internal compass is forever on quaaludes, I had to come up with another benchmark for my success.

The moment I knew I’d “made it” was when the kids I nanny for asked me to tell them a story in Spanish. Twenty minutes later, I had given rise to the life-long legend of the chicken-rabbits, a species of telepathic, power-hungry aliens that tirelessly roam the galaxy in search of interstellar domination.

Who’s going to explain to those kids in 10 years why they’re terrified of poultry, I do not know.

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Besides conversational Spanish and an appreciation for life without dog poop, living in Argentina has taught me an invaluable lesson: the importance of having goals.

I don’t think there’s any single idea that’s more powerful, because if you have something that you truly believe in and are working hard for, you’re never waiting for anything.

The diary of a penguin


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It was a penguin sort of day,
In that penguin sort-of-way

When the shipwreck landed here
Vagrants lost and full of fear

I watched them hug and curse and cry
And one by one they said goodbye

The earth is round and feet are cold,
The penguin truth is sharp and bold

What lies ahead we never know
Rain or fog or sleet or snow

But one thing goes without a doubt
For penguins out and on the scout

We have each other in the end
This loyalty won’t break or bend

Stand on me when you get froze
I’ll help you warm those furry toes

For when the wind blows hard and fast
It’s friends that help the living last.

It’s not about luck: How traveling makes us happier people


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A wise person once told me that luck is when opportunities present themselves and you’re ready to take them.

I think this is the most realistic view of life we can have. I’ve never been someone who believed in fate or destiny, but I do think there is some kind of science to the crazy patchwork of decisions that navigate us through life. As I stumble my way from one serendipitous exploit to another, there’s one thing that consistently drives me toward the right path – and that’s perspective.

Perspective is the key to happiness

Happiness has a lot less to do with what actually occurs in our lives, and a lot more to do with the discrete inner workings of our mind. American motivational speaker and writer Denis Waitley says, this means striking a balance between finding value within yourself and expanding your horizons for a greater understanding of the world.

monkeyMany of us are so preoccupied with our individual struggles and relationships that we don’t factor in the monkeysphere (The idea that our brains are only capable of seeing 150 people or less as real people). We don’t recognize ourselves in terms of a global collective of loving, feeling individuals –– we think only in limited, localized terms; “I’m fatter than the girl next door.”

When we have a terrible day it can feel like we have the worst life in the world. But that’s generally an unfair conclusion (unless you’re Nicholas Cage). This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feel frustrated or have negative emotions, but we shouldn’t let these feelings effect our general happiness in the long-term.

This is why, according to the 2013 World Happiness Report, expats and people who travel generally report higher levels of happiness. Because of their lifestyle, travelers are forced to develop a more solid relationship to reality. Cut off from their native support system, they learn to handle the swing of the luck-pendulum better than others, while investing in other cultures which expands their frame of reference. As a result, travelers can more realistically weight their failures and are less likely to get swept away by false hopes.

Overcoming struggle

But what if your dealing with something worse than the usual tempest of daily disappointments and irritations?

You burst beyond the bogs of insecurity to take a big risk, gratifying the creature of hope and anticipation that viciously burrowed into the cavity of your heart and made a nest.

slowlorisBut as you see it there glinting on the horizon, your ship of dreams sinks deep before your eyes, down into a lake of smurf blood and unicorn tears.

At one time or another, we’ve all known what it feels like to watch the thing you want most evaporate in a gut wrenching fog of disappointment and regret. But in the end, it’s not how you deal with painful situations. It’s how you collect the broken shards of yourself and what glue you use to mosaic a reflection.

As human beings, we are the most adaptable creatures on earth. We can get through any pain, and we can acclimatize to any reality. We use perspective the way a lion uses its sense of smell to hunt prey. It’s this skill that’s the key to staying happy, healthy, and inspired in the face of life’s greatest challenges.

Adopting a realist view can change your life

realistsssNo matter how hard you work in life, there is always someone who achieves greater things. And there is always someone who manages, somehow, to accomplish less. Crappy things could always be worse, and great things could always be better.

We are given a choice every day to assess the world and our place in it. It’s those of us that chase imaginary hopes or wallow in misappropriated grief that stand to repeat history’s failures.

As Ingrid Michelson points out, you can live forever inside of a moment. But we have the power to choose which moment, so I challenge you to make it a good one.

How becoming an expat helped me meet life goals


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Moving to a foreign country is a lot like writing a book. It’s something most people would like to do but most never will. It’s challenging, inspiring, scary as hell, and requires the loyal grit and determination of a cat chasing a laser beam.

You can be the most beautiful, emotive writer, spinning streams of golden prose that dance gracefully across a page––and in the same moment be a terrible storyteller with no sense of character development or narrative structure. Then, there are born storytellers. People gifted at crafting tales that intoxicate readers with just the right amount of complexity, soul, and intrigue. A twist here, a turn there. Literary origami. Often, these people are not great at prose.

Then, there are the experts––we cannot forget factual accuracy. So many specialists, historians, sci-fi nerds, and PHDs write books leaning on the near-religious grasp they have of a subject matter. But gripping facts and accurate situational dialogue do not, alone, make a good book. It’s incredibly rare to find that all the qualities of true authorship embodied by a single person. What being an expat has taught me is, life is a game of playing your strengths.

Many people, myself included, dream of writing a book. Like living abroad, where does one begin? What if I don’t have the brain I need to do this right? The key is, don’t think—just do. In the expat life, this mentality has led me through painful challenges, up volcanoes, off cliffs, and through new and dangerous situations. Why should life goals be any different? Creative expression can transport you from the passive condition of thought to the active condition of sensation and there is nothing more sensual or full of flavor than the experience of another place, people, and culture.

 

How to see the world with the eyes of a child


There’s nothing on Earth more here-and-now than the undiluted enthusiasm of a child; They observe the world with unadulterated amazement. Days are spent drinking in every visceral joy, basking in a sensual utopia of buttercream and moon shadows.

Children have no scars or wounds, no specters of alternate realities unrealized to choke their relationship to visceral perfection. They have an honest curiosity for existence that percolates more with every fresh second that ticks by.

The smell of wild strawberries growing in the field down the lane. Ladybugs and laughter. A terrycloth towel on smooth skin and the way Dad’s face lights up when he walks in the door. This is the marigold quintessence of life.

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Alas, as we grow older, we develop an alternate state of being –– an unreality –– the land of critical thinking. It’s the state of mind where we make major life decisions, learn, and growing as intellectual beings.

With each passing year, we spend more and more time locked in our cerebral prisons, evolving into the people we are to become. It’s a critical and unique marvel of the human condition. However, before long, we forget entirely how to commune with an uncharted moment. We stop noticing the plushness of the terrycloth in our rush to get dressed, get out the door, get to work, get home, get to sleep. Life is no longer an experience; it’s something to get through.

How do we get back to living free and in the moment? Living to live? The one remaining link between adulthood childhood selves is curiosity.

Living the Curious Life

The dictionary defines curiosity as a desire to learn or know about anything.

This is the key to life; it lies at the heart of all discovery, invention, creativity and intellectualism. Travelers and expatriates are practice “conscious curiosity”. We are forced to entertain a deeper existential awareness as a byproduct of the adventurous lifestyle.

 

However, many of us don’t exercise this knowledge actively outside of the experiential haze of backpacking life. As soon as we settle back into the routine of a host city, the existential magic ebbs away and we’re left with the doldrums of everyday existence. We begin to take the spectacularity of our surroundings for granted.We slip silently back inside of ourselves as the silt of boredom and responsibility blankets our mental repositories.

Getting the “magic” back

The first step to breaking this cycle is awareness. How many times a day do you catch yourself wallowing in unconstructive thoughts?

Fear, regret, anxiety, self-pity, self-doubt.

Whether you’re drifting to sleep at night or in the busiest part of your workday, escaping toxic thought patterns can seem impossible. And they’re addictive. The would-haves, should-haves, mights and maybes that lead us to construct grand romantic narratives in our head; playing out a kind of trick-fulfillment that’s ephemerally gratifying (at best).

Dear brain, this is how it should have gone…yes to Fritos, no to Ho Ho’s.

Do you ever stop to think about how much of the day you’re wasting by living forever in the stagnant recesses of unreality?

Luckily, there are several tricks to embracing the present moment:

Creative Expression: Art, literature, music, theater, dancing, singing. Whether you’re watching, participating, or creating, there is no better way to enjoy the present – even if it’s just grabbing the soap-mic to belt out “Let it Go” In the shower. According to the University of Washington’s Arts in Healing Program, engaging in creative activities or viewing art releases endorphins, reduces stress and boosts self-esteem. You’re transported from the passive condition of thought to an active condition of sensation and desire via the aesthetic form. When you truly throw yourself into the act of expression, there is no room in your head for anything else but the symphony of inspiration swelling inside you like a circus balloon. It’s rousing, tactile engagement that sweeps you into the here and now.

Meditation: Another great way to open your mind to the present is through meditation. Easy enough to work into any schedule, meditating allows you to halt destructive thought patters and reconnect with the simplicity of your inner self. According to the Brainwave Research Institute, meditation increases production of serotonin, dopamine and melatonin, all of which are directly related to positive moods, happiness and relaxation. By doing just a few simple exercises, you are given an opportunity to reawaken the part of your soul that appreciates the details of living minute to minute. You will be surprised at how much lighter you feel.

Laughter: As E. E. Cummings once said, “the most wasted of all days is one without laugher.” Laugh long, hard, and often because it just feels awesome. According to a recent article on stress relief by the Mayo Clinic, laughter not only rockets you’re brain into the present, but it also stimulates your organs, soothes tension, relieves pain, and releases endorphins into your system. Attitude and perspective are 90% of any battle so if you have the choice to chuckle, don’t, hold back. .

Do less: One of the best ways to re-engage with your casually curious side is to simply, do nothing. In the feverish onslaught of meetings, deadlines, and to-do lists, we can forget how important it is to take a time-out. And with technology at our fingertips, we are so accustomed to filling small gaps of time with checking emails, replying to texts, or browsing Facebook – but none of these things allow our brains to fully disengage from unreality and appreciate the present. According to an article in Reader’s Digest, doing 5 minutes of nothing per day can wildly transform your outlook on life.

Give Yourself a Break: For most of us, the mental to-do list never ends. There is always the next thing after the next thing, after the next thing. So…in the words of Idina Menzel, “let it go! It’s good to have goals, plans and agendas for what you need to done, but don’t let it get out of control. It’s not healthy to constantly harp on yourself for things you haven’t had a chance to get to. This email, that phone call, a bill, an errand, a meeting. Eventually it will all get done so don’t compromise more of yourself than you have to in order to get there.

No matter what is going on in your life, make a commitment to curiosity – cast off the shackles of un-actualized intent and live for today! Because life is what happens while your making other plans.

Buenos Aires: The city of looking up


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What is it about the rooftops in Buenos Aires? Welcome to the city of looking up.

For a metropolis that’s so compartmentalized, the skyline is enchantingly cohesive. Walking the streets, you never know what to expect. One moment you’re passing stone porticoes and neoclassical scrollwork, walking cobbled streets dappled by the boughs of great sycamores.

The next, it’s like you’ve stepped into the opening scene from Pretty Woman.

Dog poop, street food, spontaneous conga lines are all within the natural order of an afternoon stroll. It’s a hurricane of sensation. Who will I run into on the way to work? Emma Watson or Gorge, the homeless troubadour who haunts the subway and my dreams?

But up above the hum of city life, things make sense. The complex unpredictability is quelled just long enough for you to form an attachment to the present moment and revel in the awkward hilarity of your day.

Like a story written in watercolors, your removed from reality just enough to see things clearly.

Expatriotism: A risk lover’s dream come true


There’s no greater feeling in life than the reward of a risk taken and well achieved.

Travelers are by nature, life’s greatest gamblers. We are always searching for the next challenge, feeding off the electric pulse of constant uncertainty. Scaling mountains, trekking to the planets extremities, and leaping off just about anything they’ll let us.

With every risk rewarded, the addiction digs its talons deeper into my gut. As Truman Capote writes, you can’t give your heart to a wild thing: the more you do, the stronger they get.

A way of life

But what kind of risk are you running when instead of leaping off the cliff, you build a house at the edge of it and pull out a pair of binoculars?

Vacationing is one thing, while expatriotism is quite another. For many of us, the kinetic inconsistency of travel becomes a way of life. Once caught in the matrix of periphery encounters, poetic solitude, and adrenalin-pumping exploits, you’re lost forever in an ocean of uncharted potential.

The way you see the world shifts the tapestry of meaning formed from a new sense of experiential awareness polarizes your sense personal identity. Suddenly, home is not just the place you live. Home is the piece of your soul that finds its counterpoint in the intoxication of cultural reciprocity.

The risk of cultural investment

According to DW Dilauro’s article Using Neuroscience to Understand Risk, culture is defined as “a lens through which risks are interpreted”.

This is the idea that risk perceptions are a social construct designed to reinforce the institutional framework within a given community. The idea of acceptable behavior changes in every culture, based on how that society measures risk.

So what happens when you drop a risk-loving expat into a web of entirely new sociological characteristics? A whole lot of adventure. Without even realizing it, expats are taking risks and defying normality at every turn. Most of us don’t fit in. Many of us struggle to find a job. A few of us offend everyone we meet before even drawing a breath. These is are typical trepidations of an expatriate life.

The challenge of adapting to foreign customs and standards is personal growth at its best. The cycle continues as the more we invest and facilitate cultural exchange, the greater the risk –– and the greater the reward.

Reciprocity rewarded

If every expat in every nation around the world got together to form a new country, it would be the 5th most populous nation in the world.

As such a formidable group, we have a responsibility to establish standards of reciprocity for future, more mobile generations and inspire a climate of cultural awareness, tolerance, and global understanding. The inspiration that comes from investing in a foreign culture fills gaps in your soul that you never knew existed.

While reason is often at odds with reflexive behavior, curiosity is the spark to the flame of erudition.