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.
Exiting 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?
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.
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?
3.) 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.
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 apathy; 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
It’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.
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.
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.