To Cordoba I go!

Hi there, lovely readers of TheMeerkate. I just want to let you know I’m off to Cordoba until mid-next week, and then to I don’t know where until Easter Sunday. I will not be bringing my computer because if anything happened to it . . . . *shudders* . . . I will take lots of pictures and have some moderately intelligent thoughts to share upon my return.

Besos!

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The Little Green Vegetable That Looks Like a Tree

* Post with actual facts about San Luis still pending – the public library where I’m doing most of my research doesn’t have a set schedule so I’m having a little trouble coordinating their available hours with mine. Soon though!

When I was in high school my favorite teacher made a habit of asking our class, “Does anyone have any scathingly brilliant questions? . . . Moderately intelligent questions? . . . Terminally stupid questions?” I would bet money that I’m not the only member of my class or from her classes past, who to this day categorizes questions/knowledge in those terms. In normal circumstances I like to think I average a solid “moderately intelligent.” I have my fair share of brain farts (putting my keys in the freezer) mixed in with the occasional insight (maybe I put my keys in the freezer!), and this allows me a respectable level of confidence in social situations. After two weeks of operating closer to “terminally stupid” both in terms of language and cultural savvy, I can safely say that I miss the social agility that comes with linguistic and cultural fluency more than any other comfort from home.

Here, everything I say is saturated with an endless chorus of, “cómo se dice (how do you say)” and “cómo se llama (what do you call).” I am lucky to have found such a lovely family (hereafter known as TFM – stands for The family M) to rent from because they are equal parts patient and understanding. They actually seem to want to talk with me and we’re getting used to each other’s speech patterns. The act of conversing is becoming easier allowing the content to become more complex, but it’s impossible not to be aware of how the power dynamics in a conversation change when one party is fluent and the other talks like a racist caricature of herself. For me, speaking Castellano is like driving through a city with a detour sign at every other corner. When I can’t think of the word I need at the exact moment that I need it I have to think of another way to say what I want to say which more often than not brings me to another detour sign. The resulting sentences aren’t pretty. I’m fairly certain that at some point yesterday I came up with this gem: “Where can I find a business that has the machines that make the clothes go in a circle so that they get clean and the other machines that make them not wet anymore?” In case anyone is worried I found the nearest lavandería (a word I knew, just like I knew limpiar (to clean) and secar (to dry), but of course couldn’t come up with any of them in the moment) and I now have clean clothes. But man, I felt like such a child. I wanted to smooth over the situation with a laugh by doing the “I’m a monster!!!!” thing Buster from Arrested Development does. Then I remembered that I’m as culturally ignorant here as I am linguistically limited and that awkwardly imitating American sitcom characters is more likely to hurt my cause than to help it. I might do well to remember this upon my return stateside as well . . .

Anyway, TFM don’t seem too fazed. Nor do BPE1 or BPE2. I told them I felt a little at sea earlier in the week and so they’ve started teaching me all about San Luis slang and how to properly make and serve mate. Tomorrow I will purchase my very first mate gourd. Nóm (The ó makes it a castellano “nom.” Just go with it.). Today Anabella and Mama M were teaching me bad words and we were all giggling at how strange they sound coming from me. It’s funny what an innocent I seem to them when I’m speaking Castellano. It’s not like this is my first time swearing, but it all seems so much more scandalous when I have the words but lack the contextual knowledge of when, where and how to use them. That agility with language I was talking about earlier comes so much more slowly than the discrete vocabulary words.

Whatever. It’s only been two weeks. And besides, these limitations have their perks as well. In group settings I stay pretty quiet because I’m working to follow along and I know that to join in would mean interrupting the rhythm of the conversation. I’m finding that it’s kind of wonderful just to sit back, listen and observe. To not be always thinking about what I want to contribute and instead to really concentrate on what everyone else is saying. And then, when I do actually manage to contribute something moderately intelligent to the conversation, it’s so unexpected to these people who are used to hearing me say things like, “Last night I cooked pasta with the green vegetable that looks like a tree,” that what I’ve said seems SCATHINGLY BRILLIANT by comparison. Even if it’s just that I’ve successfully remembered the Castellano word for broccoli . . . which is actually brócoli.

So I’m working my way through a Spanish grammar book to review and build up my confidence a little. I think that if I strengthen my understanding of the structure of the language the linguistic (and thereafter social) flexibility I miss so much will come with time. In the meantime my goal is to laugh instead of getting angry when my brain fails me so that these first few months are funnier than they are frustrating. Luckily, Argentina makes both fun and relaxation a priority. Last Friday I went for drinks, dinner and dessert with BPE1, BPE2 and some other professors from the school I’m assisting at. I learned several new swear words and tried fernet, a really popular alcoholic drink here. It’s made from herbs and in Argentina they drink it with coke. It tastes like a mixed drink one of the iron chefs would make if the secret ingredient was cough syrup. That doesn’t sound appetizing but it’s actually really good. On Saturday I went to see The Hunger Games (review posted) and when I got back to my apartment at about 10 PM, TFM were all outside star gazing and talking. We stayed out there until about 1 in the morning just chatting, drinking sparkling grapefruit juice and NOT BEING ANXIOUS. It was absolutely wonderful. Sunday I went with them to “El Campo” about 30 km out from the city center. I saw the house Mama M was raised in, walked around some gorgeous sierras, saw a baby horse, drank mate and ate croissants until dark (pictures below). I love the night sky from the Southern Hemisphere!

So despite all the whining about my frustrations speaking the language here, life in San Luis is the good. Today I discovered that I live 2 blocks from a store that makes and sells all kinds of fresh pastas, so for dinner tonight I had tagliatelle verde with the little green vegetable that looks like a tree brócoli. Nóm.

The view from the spot where we took our mate/croissant break. Mama M says she feels like she can truly breathe out here.

We saw this little guy on the way to Mama M's childhood home.

I love the streetlights along the dirt roads here. It's like The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe meets Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Wherein I Review The Hunger Games

Around this time last year I was working on my thesis, and I came across this line in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda: “Who can deny that bows and arrows are among the prettiest weapons in the world for feminine forms to play with?” The contrast between “weapon” and “play” within this seemingly innocent musing on the narrator’s part spells out a cruel irony: in the nineteenth century, when Eliot was writing, female archers didn’t wield weapons. They “played” with them, while the spectators admired the female form on display as the archers drew back their bows. Though the archer held the weapon, she was, in fact, the target, the arena a stage and the spectators the real sportsmen. It’s the same dynamic in the countless action films where women with weapons are something to be laughed at, oggled or both, but rarely taken seriously as action heroes (with some notable exceptions!). And this is why Katniss Everdeen rocks my world. In her hands a bow is anything but a toy. She wields it like it’s an extension of her own body, and judging by book and movie ticket sales, no one is laughing. Maybe that’s because it’s finally not a big damn deal that a female action hero is carrying a wildly popular novel film franchise. Maybe the gender of the protagonist has nothing to do with it. Whatever Suzanne Collins intended when she created Katniss, I think it’s absolutely perfect to have a female archer at the heart of a narrative that can as easily be described as an extended meditation on the politics of spectacle as it can be classified as Young Adult fiction.

The first installment of the Hunger Games introduces us to Panem, a society in which the Capital city’s only contact with its 12 outlying districts is a series of propaganda videos and the annual The Hunger Games. In these games, two “tributes,” a boy and a girl from each of the 12 districts are chosen at random to fight to death in a strategically crafted arena while the bloodbath is edited and packaged as must-see reality TV. Once in the arena Katniss uses her wits and her bow, along with a fair amount of help from some fellow tributes and her mentor, to re-write the spectacle of the Hunger Games so that it becomes a weapon against the government that created it. Ever since I read the first novel I have been really excited to see the narrative brought to life on screen via a medium capable of visualizing what the novel can only describe  .  .  . and I absolutely loved what they did with it.

I liked the books. They hooked me from the first page, but if I’m honest they read like a first draft, as if Suzanne Collins was making notes to herself within the text about things she would come back to later to develop further or smooth over. Often I felt like she was shouting at me: KATNISS IS CONFLICTED ABOUT PEETA AND GALE, BUT THEY BOTH THINK SHE IS THE BEST THING EVER AND WILL LOVE HER ALWAYS, BUT WAIT, SHE DOESN’T HAVE TIME TO WORRY ABOUT THAT BECAUSE OPPRESSION, AND NOW SHE HAS TO GO FIGHT PEOPLE TO THE DEATH BUT I STILL WANT YOU TO BE REALLY INVESTED IN THIS LOVE TRIANGLE. Or perhaps even more obviously: RUE REMINDS KATNISS OF PRIM. ARE YOU GETTING THIS? PRIM, HER LITTLE SISTER? RUE = PRIM, GOT IT.  .  .  .  I’M NOT SURE YOU’VE GOT IT (credit to Stubman for this point).

Now I suppose that might be a little unfair to Collins. Her vision of Panem and it’s annual hunger games does as much to comment on the narrative cliches it utilizes as it does reinforce them. The most obvious example being that the first hunger games, which takes up a good three fourths of the first novel, offers up as much in entertainment value as it does in social critique. After all, to get invested in the outcome of the games and route for Katniss and Peeta is to hope for the death of 22 other children, thus demanding that even the least critical of readers engage with the moral ambiguity of the narrative at some point. So I agree with the critics who praise Collins for trusting her young audience (and let’s be honest, everyone) to be critical readers. I just wish she had trusted her audience to get the subtler moments within the narrative as well.

The film is at once shorter and denser than the novel. It trims, expands and reorganizes where necessary, the most important change being a shift in perspective. In the novel, Katness shows us Panem. We experience the narrative with her and her alone, but Collin’s vision is bigger than the frame she’s given herself to work with so that some of the strongest components of her vision thematically speaking – the political manueveings of President Snow, the omnipotent power of the gamemekers, and the uprisings within the districts – are the clunckiest in terms of narrative. In the film, we don’t see Panem through Katniss’s eyes; rather, we watch Katniss in Panem. It is a broader perspective that allows the film to more vividly develop both the dystopian world of Collins’ imagination as well as the supporting cast of characters.

Take Peeta for example. In the novel Peeta is obnoxiously impossibly good. This is established early on as Katniss describes the time she was starving in his yard and he gave her some bread he burnt intentionally. In her head this is a one-way debt she feels she has to repay. The film tweaks this encounter, alluding to it in a series of three different flashbacks so that the audience only knows that Peeta came to her aid until the last segment is played about a third of the way through the film. We are left wondering until the last part of the flashback in which Peeta rather coldly throws the bread into a puddle of mud for Katniss to pick up herself. Later on during the games when it is Katniss saving Peeta’s life, she acknowledges the bread and he expresses remorse that he just threw it to her instead of coming out into the rain to give it to her. This is a subtle deviation from the events in the book, but an important one. Peeta’s attachment to Katniss is not a juvenille infatuation as it is in front of the Capital’s cameras, nor is he “the boy with the bread” as Katniss thinks of him in the novels. The film lets him define himself as “the boy who should have done more.” The power dynamics shift ever so slightly, and all of a sudden Katniss is not just someone he wants. She is tied up in the moral question of who he wants to be. In this moment, for me at least, Peeta becomes infinitely more interesting, as does his relationship with Katniss.

Just as a sidenote, Peeta also had the absolute best line of the film when he and Katniss emerge from the cave to hunt and he tells her, “I’ll take the bow . . . just kidding I’ll go pick some stuff.” A cookie for the screenwiter because that moment was all things lovely.

But the film goes even further than just fleshing out the supporting cast of characters. There are several moments when the camera and audio align with the first person perspective of a character, and in the film, unlike in the novel, these moments don’t privilidge Katniss’s perspective exclusively. There is one very important moment that belongs to Rue. In the book, Rue’s death is heart-wrenching for several reasons: she’s twelve, smart, kind, and because she reminds Katniss of Prim. Rues death does more than that of any other tribute to individualize the barbarity of The Hunger Games. But the Rue of the novel is entirely innocent. The Rue of the film, however, is something more. She sees that Cato is the most senselessly aggressive of the tributes and plays a clever trick on him the first day of training. As we see her laughing from the rafters of the training area holding Cato’s knife while Cato accuses another tribute of stealing it, Rue gives the film it’s first real moment of levity and for this reason her death also packs the biggest emotional punch. In the novel, the reader experiences Rue’s death through Katniss’s eyes. In the film, after Rue has been stabbed the camera lingers on her face. She begins to cry softly, tells Katniss she has to win, and asks for a song. All of a sudden the camera cuts away from Rue’s face and aligns with her eyes. We see the light and hear Katniss’s song, both fading into nothing, and we die with Rue. Her death in the film is significant not just because it is devastatingly sad, but because it does what the novel cannot: it demands that the audience, even if just for a moment, see the games through the eyes of a dying tribute, not just the victor.

In the novel, Collins has to spell out every little impact moments like Rue’s death have on the people in the different districts. In contrast, the film takes us to District 11, to the crowd of spectators watching Rue die and actually channels the sadness at her slaughter into the rage of that first revolt. The film shows us the gamemakers manipulating the arena, playing with the lives of the contestants, both in the name of justice and for the sake of good TV. During the games, shots of the Capital watching and betting on what to them is a sporting event are followed by shots of the different districts watching their young citizens slaughter and be slaughtered. And because Katniss knows that the games are first and foremost a spectator sport, she is able to subvert the intentions of the government and gamemakers who would make a plaything of her humanity.

So yes. I’m really looking forward to what they do with the next two books, both of which involve much harder decisions about using spectacle for good and for evil. And if you’re craving more YA fiction now that you’ve finished The Hunger Games, read The Chaos Walking Trilogy already. You won’t regret it! Meerkate out.

Update: A link to some feminist ponderings on The Hunger Games that articulate much better than I can what Collins may be doing with “spectacle” in the novels.

Here Be Puppies

This has all been pretty ME ME ME so far. I mean, it is a blog, as my dear friend, Pianoman (dude, if you hate the name I can totally change it) reassured me the other night via skype, but I want to mix a little more information in with all this emoting. Pure emoting is never a good thing. Unless one is running. Y’all know I like my running music good and angsty. So to add a little more substance I’ve found the local public library and a few museums, all of which have some really good resources on the history of San Luis, province and city alike. I’ve been working with them for a few days, but I have a little more digging to do before I’ll feel confident enough to write a responsible post about it. That’s in the works for those of you who can only take so many “I feel” statements. And Mom, if you’re the only one reading this . . . that’s cool too. I am eating my vegetables, I promise! So for now, what I have to offer are some reflections on the settling in process and pictures of a sweet, sweet puppy. Yeah, that’s right. HERE BE PUPPIES.

So BPE1 and BPE2 found me the apartment I’m staying in, and so far it is absolutely perfect. It’s what my Mom calls a “mother-in-law apartment” –  attached to the house, but with it’s own entrance and everything. The houses here in the city are literally right next to one another, and no one has a front yard. It’s kind of like some of the neighborhoods in the French Quarter that look really small, concrete and closed off, and then when you open a gate there’s a beautiful garden or courtyard or patio. I’ve always loved neighborhoods like this, because it’s like there’s a secret garden behind every door. I mean, realistically I know that there are probably secret gardens behind, like, 20 at the most, and then it gets real Sandlot real fast . .  . . but it sure seems like there’s something lovely and surprising behind all of them. The gate to my house leads you down a 40 meter gravel driveway lined with roses and other flowers to another gate which leads to a nice green yard and then to the house. There’s special area for asados, an outside workspace and a shed for my landlord who is a retired metalsmith, and a yard for the grandkids and puppies to play in. My entrance is hidden off to the side. I have a small kitchen/living space, a bathroom and a bedroom all furnished, clean and comfortable-like.

Settling in reminded me a little of how I was as a kid am now. I couldn’t wait for anything, and my mother would kindly but sternly remind me that I really needed to learn patience. Well, I bought a router the first day here so that I could connect my computer to the available wireless. I finally got it to work, but until I did I was kind of an anxious wreck, and I’m certain Olga and Federico (my landpeople) thought I was crazy while I was muttering to myself and typing frantically. When I finally got it all fixed I slumped down in the chair and Federico came over to me to say, “Lento, lento, lento bonita.” This is how nice people say “Chill the f*&$ out, crazy gringa,” in Argentine Castellano. Note: People here are adamant that they speak “Castellano” and not “Spanish.”

Federico and Olga are wonderful, and even thought they saw me living up to every awful stereotype about uptight Americans that first day (so much for being a good global citizen), they have still welcomed me into their home, given me mate, fixed my shower, and let me snuggle the hell out of their puppies and guinea pig. They have three children (Just FYI everyone I am naming has given me permission to use their real names in this blog) Gisella (26), Anabella (22) and Camillo (?). Gisella is a student at the IFDC where I am assisting, and she has two adorable daughters and a son on the way. She speaks English quite well as she is studying to be an English teacher herself, but she has been kind enough to speak to me only in Spanish because she knows that’s what I want. Anabella is a ballerina and is studying to be a physical therapist. Next weekend she’s invited me to Cordoba (a city a few hours away) to celebrate a friend’s birthday, so this will be my first taste of Argentine nightlife. Science fair project time: will drinking make my Castellano awesome or awful? Hypotheses?

I’ve settled in in other ways as well. The first thing I did on Monday when things opened up again (everything is closed on Sundays), was join a nearby gym. Routine! I was hopeful I might meet some people there, but it’s pretty dead in the mornings when I go. No matter. I am also trying to get in with a group of people who do mountaineering-like things around the province and further out. It’s funny, I didn’t mean for this to happen, but when my colleagues/bosses (the English Professors at the IFDC) found out I had joined a gym they all kind of decided that I was re (re = very/really) deportista (into sports) and so now they’re all looking for a women’s soccer team I could play with. Trouble is that women here don’t really play soccer. Field hockey is much more common. I would love to play again, but in case that doesn’t pan out . . . I’m looking into Tango lessons. I know, me dancing Tango is kind of a horrifying/hilarious mental image, but I think a dance class would be a really fun way to meet people. Other things: I’ve gone to the movies, found a class in Castellano for extranjeros (foreigners), walked the city and located the local library, laundromat, pharmacy, grocery store and bakery. Seriously, I am going to buy the pastries here in bulk because the “sacramento” I ate today (croissant with fruit filling) may be the first thing that’s made me cry since The Notebook. Judge me, I dare you.

Obviously it hasn’t all been puppies and pastries so far. There have been difficult moments and I have felt isolated at times, but there have been many more small kindnesses offered by individuals than there have been individual frustrations. It’s gotten me to thinking about what immigrating must have been like centuries ago, when there were no telephones, much less skype, and when saying good bye meant “good-bye forever” more often than “good-bye for now.” Have any of you ever read The Arrival? It’s an absolutely breathtaking graphic novel for children by Saun Tan (he won the Oscar for his short animated film, The Lost Thing, last year) about starting a life in a different place, and . . . just, yeah. It’s enchanting.

And then what about immigrants from Spanish speaking countries today, living in America? I feel isolated, and my welcome/adjustment period has been about as cushy as it gets. I may be the least bad-ass person I know. I can’t imagine immigrating to a country that is so repulsed by my presence that entire areas would ban courses that taught my culture. The inevitable alienation one experiences when adjusting to a new place and culture is hard enough, but when coupled with complete rejection . . . .

No way to gracefully transition from that to this, so here: have a puppy!

When you rub her tummy she moves her arms like a roach on its back. Swoon!

Have two puppies!

I think this one is Nuni. If I'm completely honest, I can't tell the three of them apart yet. But they all like to snuggle which is the material point.

Thanks for sticking with me dear readers (Hi Mom!), and I promise more substantive content soon. Besitos from San Luis.

¡Cómo nos tratan!

On our first day in Buenos Aires we were treated to a historical bus tour of the city. Most of us were exhausted after a sleepless night on our 10+ hour flight from The States, but we boarded the bus anyway, grateful that we had only to listen and observe as opposed to say communicating anything even moderately intelligible in Spanish. I’ll be honest and say that communicating in English would have been pretty hard for me at that point as well. When we boarded the bus, we found each seat had a small bag on it. The tour guide and one of the Argentine Fulbright Commission employees explained that in the bag we would find dulce de leche (literally “sweet of/from milk”) candies in two glorious chocolate meets dulce de leche configurations. They had also packed water and juice for us with little cups for everyone in case we got thirsty at any point during the tour. After they explained about the candy and the drinks, the grantee sitting next to me exclaimed “¡Cómo nos tratan!” (How well they treat us!). That phrase has stuck with me this entire week.

Just to preface a bit, what follows may come dangerously close to the first stage of culture shock. For those unfamiliar with this, the stages go something like NAIVE EUPHORIA -> FRUSTRATION -> INTENSE FRUSTRATION -> DEPRESSION -> NEW METHODS OF COPING -> ACCLIMATION -> MATURE EUPHORIA (dibs on MATURE EUPHORIA as a name for . . . . anything). That said, I have felt nothing but welcome here from the moment I successfully convinced the visa lady that I didn’t have to pay the $140 entry fee, (she didn’t see that I had a 9 month visa at first) to the moment yesterday when I arrived in my assigned province and city, San Luis. But first, Buenos Aires:

On our first night out in Buenos Aires, a group of us asked our hotel’s front desk staff where we should go eat. The attendant gave us the name of a nice little Italian place in walking distance and we headed off. We got wine, pasta and salads, made merry and chatted a little with our waiter . . . . and upon hearing that this was our first night in Argentina (and I think half in appreciation that we actually spoke Spanish and didn’t expect him to speak English) he brought us a beautiful ice cream made from Mascarpone with a rasberry/blackberry topping, free of charge. As a sidenote for those of you who have asked me, it’s becoming clear that vegetarianism is doable here while veganism is not when eating out. Anyway, this was a charming, much appreciated, and wholly unexpected gesture of welcome. This kind of generosity has pretty much been a constant so far.

Here is a list of the things the Argentine Fulbright Comission has done for our group of grantees:

  1. Bought plane tickets here (with specific meal requests) and shuttled us from the airport to the hotel.
  2. Put us up in a hotel near the Plaza de Mayo and arranged a bus tour for the first day.
  3. Gave a well organized and helpful three day orientation on adjusting to life here and how we can be successful Language Assistants.
  4. Arranged our travel to the provinces and gave us money for a taxi to the bus station.
  5. Made themselves entirely available to us during our time in Buenos Aires in case there was any kind of problem.
  6. Assured us that if there is any problem in the provinces (and they even consider not being able to travel as much as we would like to be a problem) that we are to let them know.

Now, here is a list of things my referentes (mentors) in San Luis, codenames BEST PERSON EVER 1 and 2 (BPE1) and (BPE2) have done for me:

  1. Picked me up at the bus station at 7 in the morning.
  2. Found me a lovely little apartment! (More on this soon)
  3. Lent me sheets and a towel until I could buy my own.
  4. Taken me to buy all the things.
  5. Lent me Argentine films and books because Sundays here are dead.
  6. Given me a phone.
  7. Helped me set up wireless in my apartment, para que esté conectada al mundo afuera!
  8. Brought me a TV they weren’t using and offered to set it up.
  9. Checked in on me to make sure I was functioning.
  10. Agreed to speak to me entirely in Spanish when we are not in the school where I’ll be a language assistant.
  11. Made me feel wanted.
You get the point. And all I brought BRE1 and BPE2 for all of their help are some Tony Chachere’s. So yeah . . . this:

Just so this doesn’t get too saccharine, I’ll share one unsavory experience we had with a waiter our second night in Buenos Aires (all the waiters are dudes here – I’ll have to look into why). A group of us were dining at a restaurant that advertised itself as “tradicionalmente porteño” (Traditional Beunos Aires fare). Buenos Aires is a port, so porteño/a means “people of the port.” One pair of grantees ordered gnocchi to share and the waiter brought a spinach crepe instead. The grantees told him politely that they had ordered gnocchi and not spinach crepes, but the waiter just checked his list and said firmly, “No. Crepe de espinaca.” It was clear that we were entirely capable of negotiating with him in Spanish, but all he would do when we tried to explain the situation was shake his head and say, “No. Crepe de espinaca.” Finally, the pair of grantees took the crepes because they looked good anyway and we were getting nowhere with this guy. When we were finished he brought us the check, and sure enough, he charged us for gnocchi. Now this is obviously not worth getting upset about. There are surly waiters everywhere. Hell, there are places where surly waiters are a marketable part of the ambiance. but it was the first hostility of any kind we had encountered and the waiter’s unwillingness to listen to us, even though we speak Spanish, was kind of jarring. Not much value to this story except to temper the above gushing, and to make it seem like I’m not in the first stage of culture shock. It’s cool. I totally am.

So in the spirit of NAIVE EUPHORIA, I offer this thanks. Thank you, Argentina, for a gracious and entirely humbling welcome. Thank you for the free desserts, for your incredibly beautiful “Castellano” which I can only describe as Spanish spoken like Italian and for your patience as I mangle the subjunctive and your impossible fickle prepositions. Thank you for your insanely comfortable buses, for dulce de leche, for your movies and for your waiters – surly and sweet alike. Here: I brought you these Tonys, which I assured myself would be a fair cultural exchange.

Led by Mormons

My trip to Argentina began with what I am choosing to think of as a good omen: I got to the boarding gate at the Dallas airport, and I noticed a large group of young men in suits at the pay-phone bank by the terminal. I could hear most of them, and it was clear they were talking to parents and other loved ones. I thought to myself, “What lovely young businessmen and/or pilots, to be calling their mothers before a flight. How sweet.” We boarded the plane, and I took my seat near the center of the plane. The lovely businessman-pilots boarded in a group, and I finally got a look at the front of their suits. I’m sure you see where this is going, or perhaps you had it at the phone banks. They all had nametags on that said “Elder ______.”

Mormons! Dozens of them, off to Argentina to make some more. One of them struck up a conversation with a woman seated in the row in front of mine, and she mentioned that she was coming to Argentina on a Fulbright research grant. An thus, the Mormon’s led me to my people.

I have been in Buenos Aires for two days now. I will be here one more day, and then on Friday I take a 12 hour bus ride to San Luis, where I will be an English Teaching Assistant (ETA) at the local teacher training institute, the Instituto de Formación Docente Continua, for 8 months. My fellow ETAs are 15 incredible women from all over the country – California, Washington, Oregon, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York (so many from New York), Maine, Illinois, and Louisiana (me). The 9 Fulbright research grantees here with us are women as well, and according to the Argentine Fulbright Commission, this is a first. Several of the male presenters during the orientation have made awkward jokes about reverse sexism. No one laughs.

Many of my fellow grantees speak much better Spanish than I do, but I am taking comfort in the fact that I understand 99% of everything I hear and read. It’s when I have to speak that there are problems. I am at least able to make myself understood clearly, if not eloquently, and I just keep telling myself that the rest will come in time with patience and practice. That is what I want most out of this trip, and I am doing absolutely everything I can to make sure I am fluent in Spanish by the time I return home.

So far, the orientation presentation I enjoyed the most was from US citizens currently living in Argentina, who spoke to us very frankly about confronting cultural difference in Argentina. Here are some of the things they said about life and people in Argentina that particularly caught my attention:

  • People here are blunt. They will tell you straight up if you’ve gained weight, lost weight,  look tired, look . .  anything. Many will tell you their life story without being asked and will expect you to do the same. When they say, “¿Qué tal? (How are you?)” they actually want to know, even if you share ALL THE FEELINGS, and they will keep at you until you actually tell them how you really feel in that moment.
  • There is no taboo about talking money or politics with strangers. People ask how much money you make without thinking twice about it. As for politics, we’ve already had some firsthand experience with this. On our way from the airport to the hospital, one of the grantees who had studied abroad here during undergrad asked the taxi driver about some construction work on the subway system in Buenos Aires (“El Subte” for anyone interested in the mechanics of the city, which are fascinating, but better suited for a different post methinks.) In response, we were treated to a 20 minute lecture that somehow segued into the same complaints about “welfare moms” that we hear in The States. This was both comforting and not. Point being that politics were clearly not off the table even though we were complete strangers. This openness in conversation does not, however, carry over to sex. In fact, today we were warned that it is actually really shocking to eat a banana in public here. You get it.
  • You are a loser if you are on time. This one is hilarious. Everyone warns us that no one is ever on time here, but we asked some follow up questions and we have found that like most things, it is much more complicated than that. So far the unspoken rules, as we can piece them together, are as follows: 1) If you have an meeting or interview with someone older or “more important” than you, you must be on time, but the Professor can be late and you shouldn’t be upset about it. 2) If you are invited to a party or out to drinks or to dinner at 9, show up at 9:30 at the earliest. 9:45 is probably better. 3) Never expect someone to apologize for being late. 4) Never take lateness as a personal insult!

Having been here only two days I have yet to encounter much of this, but I am ready and excited to see how I negotiate and am changed by my encounters in a country where I am an “other.” And I’m so grateful that I can e-mail, call or skype home when I need to see a familiar face or hear the voice of friends and family. Not the Mormons. No phone calls for them except for Christmas and on Mother’s Day. They’re more hardcore than me. Like those Mormons my dear friend, who for the purposes of this blog shall hereafter be referred to as Stubman (I swear it’s not as offensive as it sounds), once saw popping wheelies in Baton Rouge.

I find comfort in the strange symmetry of this beginning: a large group of Mormon men and a large group of female Fulbright grantees beginning our very different journeys in Argentina on the same day. They’re here to make more Mormons, and we’re here to teach English and be good global citizens. I hope we all find what we’re looking for.