¡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.
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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.