Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Primeros días x 2: Buenos Aires edition

Stepping out of the plane into the air outside the Ezekiel airport, my legs and belly seared from the sunburn I gave myself in Mexico; I could barely see anything through the misting rain, but I could see my own breath. I laughed out loud, just like the first time I stepped foot in Ireland, though I’m not sure why the cold has that lunatic effect on me.

I saw a sign for IFSA-Butler and met Patricio, one of the assistant directors and the cinema concentration coordinator (which makes total sense looking at him – he’s Argentina’s answer to J.J. Abrams), and he told me our program would start bright and early tomorrow. Today they just wanted us to arrive, relax, get to know our host families and settle into our new rooms. I was slightly bitter because I thought we’d be doing something exciting on our first day; why else would they make it mandatory for all of us to fly in by a 2pm deadline? I wished I’d stayed in Mexico with my beautiful sister and her funny friends and our weird, interesting family.

I met a few other Americans in my program waiting for the other IFSA workers to fetch us taxis. I remembered my airport experience in Spain, when I had Joe there to give me comfort, and we met Katie whom I never got to know quite as well as I would’ve liked, even after four months of going to school together in Alcalá, and how we had to drive the bus back and forth twice to pick up stragglers and then a couple dozen kids from Alabama.

But then my mind was rudely brought back to Argentina: the taxi ride into the city from the airport was terrifying. I finally saw what my dad kept warning me about – the worst manifestations of urban decay, discontent and squalor. I felt guilty for doing so, but I prayed that I’d be living as far away from this area as possible and hoped I’d never have to go back through it. I would like to help the people living in that kind of hell, but I have no idea how.

Imagine my relief when we kept driving for about half an hour past that area. I realized we had been in the Buenos Aires provinces, and we were only just now getting into the city proper – the autonomous city of Buenos Aires (C.A.B.A). In our orientation over the next couple of days, we learned that area we had to drive through to get to the city from the airport is the poorest in the entire country. And it shares its border with the south of the city of Buenos Aires, just like the richest areas of the entire country share their borders with the city’s northwest. In this country the rich and poor classes are literally, geographically, diametrically opposed.

I talked to the taxi driver very little. I was in a pensive mood. When I arrived to my new home I soon cheered up, because my host mom Haydee is a warm, compassionate, sweet and thoughtful lady and I clicked with her immediately. She introduced me to Lola, who is the ideal Argentine dog (she looks like a cow – she’s white with black spots). What’s funny is Lola’s apparently the hottie of the neighborhood. It’s a struggle every time Haydee takes her out for a walk – the other dogs go mad over her.

Haydee showed me the house and then gave me my space to unpack and settle in. At one point she asked if I wanted a cup of tea and we sat and talked for a long time. I showed her my photos and she showed me all of hers, which are scattered all over the house. When her husband Fabio came home at 9 we finally ate dinner – the late dinner hour was unexpected but is no longer a surprise after Spain. I had a fun conversation with my host dad, asking him all sorts of questions about the local football clubs and sharing our thoughts on the recently finished World Cup. I went to sleep very content and looking forward to my new life here in Argentina.

My first week was a series of ups and downs after that first night. I’d assumed this program would be full of sensible, self-motivated undergrads like Heather and me. While I was right in some cases – my favorites are the clever Puerto Rican from Brown and the sweet French and American students from Columbia – the orientation overall has been a waste of time. I don’t want to waste more time explaining why it was a waste of time, so instead I’ll give just the highlights.

The first day we played a good icebreaker game. We all stood up and formed a gigantic circle around the room, and as Mario (the head boss) called out traits we had to take a step forward if we fit them. For example, he’d say, “If you’re from the East coast of the United States…” or “If your major is History…” or “If you plan on playing fútbol…” It was great to get a better idea of who the other 140 students were, what their interests were and where they’re from.

They printed out maps with dangerous areas circled and explained the nature of each one. Mario, who is a wonderful character and makes the orientation worthwhile, told us about the different neighborhoods and the demographics of the ones we’re living in. (I’m living in Villa Crespo, by the way, which is a very central, safe, busy, popular shopping area; Heather lives a mile away in Palermo – the biggest neighborhood, which is divided in two sub-neighborhoods called Hollywood and SoHo – other kids are living in the upper-class neighborhoods of Belgrano – where all the British and German immigrants apparently settled – and Recoleta – the downtown shopping area where our program’s situated). He told us the same traffic laws we have don’t apply in reality here, so we have to be extra careful crossing the street. He told us other safety concerns about taxis, passports and ID, ATMs, protests, fútbol hooliganism, typical pickpockets’ tricks, and not to linger outside clubs after they close because of prostitution. All of this was highly entertaining because Mario would tell us in little anecdotes, whether they be funny or tragic. For example, he asked us if we thought it a good idea to consume drugs, and after a monotonous chorus of “No,” he said, “Not even in your bedrooms? No, because the host mothers have the noses of detectives… Not even in the bathroom? Well you could, but how boring! Not even in brownies? Be careful to not make the same mistake as another kid did and feed one to the dog…”

The second day Mario picked some questions we’d written down the first day out of a box and answered them. I was appalled to see how much fear and insecurity permeated these questions, and how Mario was not only unsurprised but also willing to humor them. The only one worth remarking on is this: a student wrote, “How can I make friends?” and Mario asked us if we thought we’d make Argentine friends easily. I figured it’d be rather like how it was in Spain, or every single other place I’ve ever lived: the people generally are proud, already have their friends, and don’t open up—but then there are those blessed few who warm up to you and after little effort welcome you into their lives. Still, Mario impressed me in his answer. Instead of getting impatient with these childish questions like I was, he said this: here the locals won’t be awed by us like in other parts of the country, where the people have an exaggerated admiration for Americans, or at least consider Americans something of a novelty. “Aca, hay que conquistar…seducir” – he explained the other meaning of seduce in Spanish. I liked that, but then he said things I already knew and I got bored again… we have to do things independently, to learn how to be alone, to avoid sticking with big groups of Americans, yada yada…

A few days later Mario was analyzing the Argentine and American cultures to try to help us overcome culture shock or whatever. Again, I didn’t care for the baby treatment but I was fascinated to hear what he thought about the differences between the cultures, so I took notes. He said one big difference is how we keep to ourselves and give others privacy, too, and this manifests in a few ways. He talked about “la mirada” – the gaze. On the bus, on the sidewalk, in the subway Argentines stare; they invade the other. Americans keep our eyes to ourselves; we mind our own business and tuck our heads down. People here make more remarks out loud, especially children. He said how an Argentine kid will point at a man and say, “Look, Mom! Look at the fat man!” and the mom responds, “Yes, son: he is fat, he eats well, that’s good.” Mario continued describing how the two peoples feel about body language, personal space, and completing promises. He said Argentines never say “No.” They say, “Yes, but…”

Last week we had our first couple of Spanish classes, which is provided and obligatory through IFSA. My professor’s Darío Steimberg (you might’ve already guessed, but his family comes from Jewish refugees), and I’m already learning a lot about Argentina just from listening to him and observing his mannerisms. He’s knowledgeable, passionate, sweet, and interesting. He taught us the difference between all the local newspapers, which required a good 45-minute history lesson; he made it incredibly clear where he stands politically, although he constantly reminded us that it’s only his opinion and he can be wrong and that we’re free to think whatever we want, which was super refreshing.

Throughout the whole two-week orientation, Heather and I tried to find cheap places to eat lunch – that and Saturday dinner are the meals not included in our homestay – but since we were in Recoleta, one of the most expensive shopping neighborhoods of the city, we didn’t have much luck. I have found better places in my neighborhood and in San Telmo, which I’ll mention again later.

Heather’s (21st) birthday was the first Monday we were here and I tried to plan a big weekend for her. Friday night we went to a Couchsurfer’s house to hang out and drink a bit before going out to a bar or a club for the first time. We met some really cool people from all over South America but ironically ended up being too exhausted from the program to go out when everyone finally decided it was a good time (at 1:30...which is when we realized that Buenos Aires has more than just dinnertime in common with Spain). On Saturday night, after I got home from playing fútbol just two miles away with a bunch of Couchsurfers, I treated her to a delicious dinner with an awesome salad bar, red wine and pizza made with breaded beef instead of dough (Argentina’s so funny with their beef obsession!). It ended up raining on Sunday, but at least we got to go to Mass with Fabio, who’s Catholic like Heather. We also attempted to go out in the rain and saw some really cool graffiti in her neighborhood, Palermo SoHo, as well as some good bookstores and record stores. On Monday, her actual birthday, we did some touristy things that we’d been meaning to do earlier but didn’t get to because the program took up so much of our time. We went to the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral, the Obelisk, and the Casa Rosada (like the White House, only more stylish).

And speaking of food, it’s one of the highlights of my life here. Not only is my host mom and amazing cook, Argentine food is just better in general. The import nothing. Not to mention, besides the beef (which is a big part of their cuisine, and comes in lots of different ways), there's grilled everything, chicken in orange salsa, spinach and egg pie, salads with all kinds of flavorful leafy things, lots of pizza, milanesa (breaded and fried chicken or beef), ravioli and every other type of pasta, tortilla española, soy bean salad, fluffy meatballs, stuffed peppers and other veggies I’ve never seen before, and lots more...!

Emotionally, I’m a bit sensitive to the isolation (though alienation is not to be unexpected of a huge capital city in the middle of winter). I can’t remember ever having experienced this firsthand, even though the majority of my favorite stories have protagonists whose biggest issue is exactly that. I’ve realized how much I need to give and receive love to be happy – moreover, I like to have many, many people I can connect to on this level, not only one or two. I believe that’s why I was so unhappy last fall at Rider, even though I had Jules and Judith there for me. Here, I’m really thankful to have Heather and to live with incredible host parents, with whom I get to see what it’s like to have a happy marriage and a healthy relationship with their children.

Last Wednesday, my first free weekday morning (without a mandatory IFSA meeting), started magnificently – I went to San Telmo, the oldest neighborhood in Buenos Aires, to meet Phil, the manager of an NGO called South American Explorers to see what I could do as a volunteer, and he and I talked for an hour and a half about absolutely everything. Then I went to my program and got all my happy energy ripped out again by the same exact remedial conversations the inept Americans I’m surrounded by keep having about their exes and their blackouts and Mardi Gras and their search for more drunken messes here… Heather and I were both miserable after that – I can’t stand when that happens because neither of us can cheer the other up – and we both realized how much we want to go home. I miss everyone I love, and I miss reading and relaxing in the sun, and I miss summer storms…but I believe I will get better as I get to know the city more and, most importantly, as spring starts to take root.

On Thursday, I took Heather to San Telmo so I could introduce her to Phil and show her my new favorite neighborhood in the city. We walked around to check out all the many little literary cafes and art galleries. We had a huge, cheap lunch (gnocchis), and then we decided to go to the Plaza de Mayo to see the Madres de los Desaparecidos (the women/families that still march every Thursday in front of the President’s office with photos of their brothers and sisters and husbands and children that were kidnapped or jailed by the repressive government in the 70s and never seen again). It was wonderful to see some of the best parts of the city, to spend hours with Heather, and to see some living political history. Plus, we went to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (National Museum of Beautiful Art, great name huh?) and saw paintings by this genius Argentine named Berni, not to mention Goya and Manet and Van Gogh and El Greco, and I enjoyed another wonderful dinner with my host parents as always.

After dinner, Heather and I took the 106 bus (sitting on it for the first time felt like such a victory!) to the same neighborhood we go to for our program, Recoleta, and met up with Phil again. He was still eating dinner with his coworker from Lima, her boyfriend, and an American traveler who’s a member of the organization. Heather and I went two doors down to a Mexican restaurant/bar just to have drinks and dessert while we waited. She got a Cuba libre and I got a margarita, my first one since Gabby’s wedding, which was actually stronger than the ones they made at the resort in Mexico! Then Phil and the others came and joined our table, and we all hung out and talked until his coworker had to go. The American, named Will, sat next to me and I learned his story: as an undergrad he majored in Anthropology and Italian, then he did Teach for America and now he’s helping to fix the education system in Newark – small world, huh? He came here on vacation to improve his Spanish, which is just as good as mine, shamefully enough. Heather was tired and said goodbye after that, but I went with the others to a bar and restaurant hotspot area – still, unfortunately, in Recoleta, which means it was too expensive so we just ordered two pitchers of beer and nursed them until the bar closed.

On Friday we went out to the theatre district (which is close to where I live!) to see the Argentine translation of “All My Sons” by Arthur Miller with Mario. It was absolutely phenomenal! According to Mario, the actor who played Joe, the protagonist, is famous and important; in fact, he said everyone in the production was a well-known actor. While that means almost nothing to me in this brand new theatre world, I thoroughly appreciated all of them. The famous protagonist captured the mannerisms of a concerned businessman and father who just wanted to disappear and forget his sacrifices. The actor who played Chris, Joe’s son, was exquisite: never too exaggerated, with reactions perfectly on time, he was handsome, wild and heartbreaking. The story of the play is very hard to stomach though, so as we were walking out I asked Heather for a hug, and we both still had tears in our eyes, and we couldn’t really join in on the conversation Mario started with the other 13 students right outside the theatre. Then Mario treated us to dinner – whether on his bill or the program’s I don’t know, but it was fantastic. Besides the couple different kinds of beef, we got grilled cheese (I mean literally, a whole wheel of cheese grilled on the parilla), some greens, French fries and flan for dessert. We shared some red wine and talked about our lives here in Buenos Aires.

Saturday night I first met up with Luis, a Chilean Couchsurfer born and raised in Norway, for a language exchange—my English for his Spanish and a mini-lesson in Norwegian. He has a fascinatingly similar and yet mirror-opposite story to mine: his father opposed Pinochet’s rise to power and as such had to escape before being assassinated; he hopped on the nearest boat with foreign flags, which happened to be headed to Norway, and he met another Chilean, and they got married! Now their son is majoring in Latin American studies in Oslo, studying abroad in Buenos Aires, and in his free time learning English. We had a great talk about politics, history and culture, and next time we meet we’ll tackle mythology.

I said goodbye to Luis and walked across the street to a bar called Club V to meet another Couchsurfer for another language exchange, except this one was a group thing and an organization called Spanglish arranged it. Andrea is a born and raised porteña and recently opened her own store. She already speaks English fluently but wants to learn more vocabulary and practice. Heather met us there and we had a blast talking to each other before the event officially started; she taught us the funniest bad words in the Spanish of the Rio de Plata. The language exchange went well, too; in pairs we talk 5 minutes in Spanish, 5 minutes in English, and then switch tables. Both Heather and I ended up meeting a really sweet Colombian girl, and I got her email address at the end. Then Andrea, Heather and I grabbed a taxi to a hostel where her friend Sara from Washington, DC was staying, so we could all meet before going out.

After getting sick of waiting in line outside a bar/restaurant called Sugar we walked down the street to the only other restaurant still open at 1:30am, although they had nothing to eat but nachos with cheese and guacamole. It was called Muu (say it out loud, it makes more sense than the way we spell it!), an American 50s-diner-style restaurant with a big video projector and Rolling Stones concert footage playing. I was absolutely delighted to watch them perform “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and “Time is On My Side”, and we ended up having a fun conversation about American and British culture and music in which Andrea the Argentine knew more than any of the three American girls at the table…when I said, “I know I should know this, but is Mick Jagger gay?” She shrieked, “Are you kidding me? All Mick Jagger needs to do is look you in the eyes and you get pregnant!”

A little less tipsy after filling up on nachos, we took another taxi, this time joined by a Nicaraguan trying to hook up with Sara, and another taxi with a bunch of his friends inside followed. We stopped at Club Aráoz and lamented at the length of the line, but the Nicaraguan (I can’t remember his name, or any of his friends’ for that matter) insisted he could get us in the fast line because he knew someone who worked there. After a few minutes he did, and we stayed there dancing until 6 am. Heather and I were both glad to finally have a night out, but we realized neither of us have enough money to do that every week.

Speaking of money, even though the Argentine peso – American dollar exchange is 4:1, the prices of everything are numerically much higher than normal, so it’s equivalent. For example, a cup of tea is A$8, and when I treated Heather to dinner, it was A$180 with tip. Mario told us everywhere else in Argentina is cheaper than Buenos Aires, so at least when we go traveling it won’t be so hard on our wallets. Heather and I are planning monthly excursions to see other parts of this huge country, like the peninsula of whales, the Incas in the Andes Mountains to the north, one of the top three Oktoberfests in the world in the province of Córdoba, and then south to the glacier at the end of the world...

So Sunday’s course of events is actually the reason I finally had enough time to sit and write these seven long pages of my Argentine experience. I played fútbol again, though this time with IFSA students and three Argentine men as captains. Towards the end of the two hours of play, I threw myself after the ball and either stepped on it or tripped on the student, it happened too fast and I couldn’t remember for the pain – as I went down I heard my left knee pop twice. I grabbed it and started yelling, but it wasn’t bad enough to make me scream and cry like I did when I sprained my knee skiing, so I knew it couldn’t be too serious. Another student named Julia who tore her ACL twice helped me out, calmly telling me to be still and translating what I was saying to the Argentines in charge, since I was in too much pain to think in Spanish. She helped me hobble off the pitch and later into the van, telling me that in her (experienced) opinion it’s probably just an inflamed ligament, or torn at the worst, but not sprained or broken or fractured. She soothed my anxiety and gave me her number in case I needed more help. When I got home the IFSA people had already alerted my host mom, so Haydee and Fabio were both there ready to take care of me.

Ever since Sunday night I’ve been relaxing, pampered, as my host parents have been providing me ice and tea and food while I finished my book – “The Curious Case of the Dog in the Nighttime" by Mark Haddon (I bought a translation in Spain, so it was in typical Spanish slang, which was a joy for me). It was a quick and easy read, and I was surprised at the realistic yet fortifying ending after the painfully tense 150 pages preceding it. I highly recommend it. I’ve started reading “Bodas de Sangre” by Federico García Lorca, after a Mexican American student at Alcalá told me the first week we met in Spain that I was missing a lot having only read the English translation. Now I realize the benefits of being sick or injured, and why some kids would even go so far as to fake it – the treatment is just fantastic! Yesterday at the insistence of IFSA Haydee took me to the local hospital, which was beautiful for some reason – it looked like it could’ve been a museum or political building before, but Haydee told me it’s always been the Hospital Italiano. It took a couple hours altogether, and the doctors told me the same thing my brother Justin told me from 5000 miles away – but at least we know for sure there’s no swelling, and I just have to take it easy and not play fútbol for a couple weeks. After just two days my knee’s feeling a lot better, so I’m going to be able to slowly walk to my first class tomorrow night!