Spin the Gringa

My dear friend from home, codename The Jackal (Like it lady? We can change it if need be.) was introducing me to the glory that is The West Wing right around the time BAMF was becoming an acronym people used to indicate badassery. So when the Bartlett team did something particularly meritworthy, we would audibly congratulate them and one another on their BAMF-itude. It goes without saying that CJ consistently racked up the most BAMF points. My point is, and I’m talking to you jackal lady, I think I may have discovered the BAMF trump card, namley, EVERY YOUNG PERSON IN ARGENTINA. Let me explain . . .  .

I had the entirety of last week off because classes at my school hadn’t started yet and because of the Easter Holidays, so I packed my suitcase and headed to Cordoba with the daughter of the family I rent from (codename A) and 3 of her friends. I will not be able to tell you very much about Cordoba the city in the touristy sense of, “doing the city” where you go to museums, parks, monuments, guided tours, government buildings, etc. I’ll have to go back if I want to experience any of that, but I had absolutely the best time tagging along with A and her friends, and immersing myself in the rhythm of life as a student in Cordoba.

We were staying at the apartment of another of A’s close friends who is studying medicine in Cordoba. I had gotten to know the group a bit on the 7 hour bus ride to the city, and we hit it off really well, my Spanish being good enough to converse with them, but not so far advanced as to be able to banter. Let me just say that trying to follow along while young people start joking with one another is the absolute hardest. It’s like listening to Graceland (or watching MGMT music videos for that matter): It’s everyone’s favorite album and you know it’s all profound and stuff and you like the music, but you just don’t understand the lyrics so you just nod and smile don’t say anything and then someone looks at you expectantly and you’re like, “Ummmmmm.” Only here when I say “Ummmmm” I remember that in Spanish it’s “eeeeeehhhhhhh” and not “ummmmmm” and I feel like even more of a dingbat . . . . . . .  *takes deep calming breaths* So yeah, that’s what it’s like trying to understand banter here. That said, the girls were all kinds of patient with me, treating me like one of the group but explaining things when I was clearly lost.

We arrived in Cordoba Friday night at about 10 PM, and got to A’s friend T’s apartment at about 10:30. We unpacked, ordered some pizza (a standard pizza here is a thincrust with tomato sauce, mozzarella, oregano and green olives . . . it turns out I like olives! Who knew?) and chatted. I assumed that bed was soon to follow, but then the girls started to primp . . . and drink . . . and primp. . . . and drink. At about 1:30 AM we headed to a club downtown where a lot of students go. We waited outside for about 30 minutes and finally got into the club, which was packed. Being 5’ 1’’, packed clubs are kind of my nightmare because I am right at armpit/elbow height of most people. Besides the fact that it was bursting at the seams, it was way too loud for me to understand anything anyone was saying in Spanish, so when we finally left at about 5:30 AM I was frankly relieved. We went back to T’s apartment and were joined by a group of guys A and friends had grown up with. We drank mate and chatted until about 7:30 AM, at which point it became clear I could not last much longer and so I kissed everyone on the cheek and said Ciao (still not used to cheek kissing strangers) and slept until 3 PM the next day. When I awoke, there was a text from the girls who had NOT GONE TO SLEEP AT ANY POINT and had instead gone to the mall. I got a cab and met them at the mall where we proceeded to shop for hours. Then we went to the grocery store, made some dinner . . . . and then began to primp . . . and drink . . . and primp. . . and start the process all over again. Seriously. For four days straight. I was always the first one to conk out and the last one to get up. At several moments during the weekend I wanted to be like, “Are you all just beautiful robots or something! Do you not need to sleep???!!!!!” But they were just BAMFS, plain and simple. Shop, party, talk, primp, eat, drink, mate (the beverage not the discovery channel verb), lather rinse repeat.

Now this was a vacation rhythm for A and her friends. During the school year it’s not quite like this (although from what I gathered by listening to them it kind of is), and these girls are childhood friends who don’t get to see each other much so it was really fun and touching to see them aprovechar de (take advantage of) this opportunity to be together. Childhood friendships are at once so sweet and so raw. There’s just something really special about the bond you build with people you have known and who have known you since the beginning (Here’s looking at you Stubman and Jackal lady – I’m sending you hardcore virtual snuggles right now). Anyway, I think my favorite thing we did was go to a Peña, which is essentially a baile folklórico party. A is a ballerina, but also teaches baile folklórico, and so she has been telling me all about the different regional musical stylings and dances there are here in Argentina (post pending). A is a self-described clown off the dance floor. Her facial expressions rival Jim Carry, and she broke like 2 plates and a bottle of beer at T’s apartment, while sober. But when she dances she is all grace. The Peña we went to had 4 different bands from all over the north of the country that played while the audience members who knew how to (like A) danced in the center of the restaurant. I’m still working through the many different kinds of songs and dances that fall under the category of baile folklórico here, so for now I’m posting a video of one of the kinds of dances we saw.

You’re probably laughing at the poofy pants the dude’s wearing. The people I saw were just wearing normal clothes, which I liked. This is a kind of dance a lot of young people here know and do and they don’t need costumes to feel like it’s a significant link to their past. I think it’s really lovely. There’s another kind of dance called a Zamba they do that’s similar only both parties have a handkerchief and there’s this whole seducing without touching think going on. A’s friend M explained to me that it’s all about gauchos seducing innocent peasant maidens. Hmmmmmm.

One of the guys doing the dancing was also one of the musicians. He was from Tucumán, and his dancing (the fancy footwork from the dude you see in the video) was noticeably more exaggerated than that of the other men dancing. M leaned over to me and began to warn me about men from the north of Argentina. This is not he first time I have received this warning, and I’m never quite sure how to handle it. He said that as soon as “the gaucho” as he called him, heard that there was a foreign girl at the party he would try to “conquistar” me. I responded with my most alluring snortlaughter. M was of course joking, but nevertheless I assured him that I was no innocent peasant maiden and that I, the short but inarticulate gringa, was more likely to be conquistado by someone who could explain the pluperfect subjunctive tense to me than by the dashing “gaucho.” I also made a mental note that “conquistar” is an infinitely superior verb to “seduce.”

On our last night we went to another club, but this time there was plenty of room to dance and to talk, and our group was made up of both ladies and gents, so we could actually do some real dancing. . . . which I am pretty bad at but absolutely love to do. Eventually a different group of guys made their way over to us and we started pairing off. My partner was SO TALL, but was actually a really good dancer and was able to work with my passing knowledge of the salsa. . . . and then he got a little ambitious and began a fairly dangerous game of what A and I later decided to call “Spin the Gringa.” If you ever want to play, this game entails finding a gringa and spinning her till she’s extremely dizzy to this extremely popular Brazilian jam.

I was really disoriented by the end, and I think my dance partner flattered himself it was because I was so enamored of him. That was not the case. I was, in fact, just really dizzy, but menos mal if he wants to think he swept the gringa off her feet. It was good fun, and I’m excited to start dance classes soon so that I can stop describing my dance style to people as “casi madera” (half wooden).

So all in all it was an absolutely wonderful first half of my vacation week, mostly because I got the chance to interact with a lot of really interesting and fun people . . . and dance. I’m trying to think of a way to thank A and her friends for including me, so if anyone has suggestions let me know. From Cordoba I made my way back west by bus to Mendoza . . . which was equally wonderful, but very different and thus deserves its own post methinks. Until then, have some music:

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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.

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.