Friday, December 19, 2008

Sleepy San Pedro

It seems that in this blog, I am always coming back to the kindness of the Argentine la gente. I don't mean to overstate it at all, it is just that when you are a foreigner, you are dependent upon the kindness of strangers. And while they owe us nothing, these people here have given us everything...And it makes our experience.

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to work as an exam administrator for a language school in a small town called San Pedro, about 170 kilometers north of Buenos Aires. The owner and director of the school contacted me to see if I would be willing to come to San Pedro for the weekend, work for a total of ten hours administering exams, with my meals, transportation, and accomodation completely taken care of. I accepted on the spot, and Nick and I decided to stay an extra night and make a mini-vacation out of it. And what a vacation it was!

San Pedro is a town of 50,000 that feels more like 10,000. Right on the river, it is characterized by giant river bluffs, from which you can look out upon the rio and its islands. The architecture is very Latin, with red, shingled roofs and stark white houses among bright pink houses. The main plaza is gorgeous and strikingly symmetrical: two palm trees, two lamposts, two benches, the center fountain, then two more palm trees, two more lamposts, and two more benches. It seemed so old-fashioned, so still; it was so calming to sit there. Walking on from the plaza, the town center is a paved mall flanked by a handful of traditional, cafeteria-style Argentine cafes boasting classic cafe con leches and liters of cheap Quilmes. The "boulevard," a quiet road winding across the bluffs, is the popular go-to with the teens of San Pedro, and they sit on the curb, drinking their mate as the sun sets on Friday evenings. And every night when the sun goes down, people bring their fold out chairs to the stoop and sip their mate with their families. The town and its movements are traditional, neighborly, slow-moving, and soothing.

Working at the institute was so much fun because I was working with children. These kids were so cute, hopeful, and hard-working in their attempts to succeed on their exams. Moreover, I was totally spoiled while in San Pedro. My boss there took me out for pizza upon my arrival, took me out to barbeque after work on Friday evening (and fed me snacks of cake and mini-sandwhiches in-between tests), gave me pastries and coffee for breakfast on Saturday, and brought Nick and me a quiche for lunch. She arranged for us to stay in an apartment that a neighboring family rents out. It was the best--the family was so accomodating, always checking to make sure Nick and I had everything we needed.

When I was finished with exams on Saturday, Nick and I traipsed up and down the town, walking along the bluffs, and stopping into cafes periodically to share a liter of Quilmes stout or to sip on a cafe con leche. In the evening, we asked the family with whom we were staying for a restaurant recommendation. In speedy Spanish, they told us to wait for 15 minutes. We were confused, but of course complied. 15 minutes later, the entire family--mom, dad, daughter, and son--came out of the house, freshly showered and wearing nice clothes. The dad opened up his van, and the four of them piled into the two front seats. The back of the van was like a bed of a truck, without seats. To our amazement, the father took out two fold out chairs and propped them up in the van for me and Nick. We couldn't believe it. So there we sat in these fold out chairs as the van bounced across the road. We weren't sure where we were going and we were trying desperately with the Spanish the family was speaking. Finally, we arrived at the top of a bluff. The dad got out and pointed down the bluff, telling us of their favorite parilla restaurant that waited at the bottom of the hill. "Okay," we laughed, and proceeded to thank the family and head down the hill.

Finally we arrived to a wooden lodge of a restaurant, well lit and cozy on the inside. We sat down, and promptly ordered a complete parilla. It was 45 pesos, a price unheard of in the city. We went crazy and ordered two bottles of wine and flan topped with dulce de leche. I can still taste the flan...After we were nearly done with our second bottle of wine, a musician arrived and began to sing South American pop songs. One by one, the restaurant patrons began to rise and join the dance floor, and finally, we hopped on the bandwagon. It was the very first time we danced in Argentina, and it was such a great memory. People were dancing all around us--grandparents, young parents, young about-to-be-parents, friends that were in their 20s, friends that were in the 60s. One couple danced with their toddler daughter bouncing in their arms. It was nearing two am, and the girls' eyes were drooping. Finally, she fell asleep as her parents salsa-ed around her, her pigtails flopping around with every dance move. It was such a cute image.

On Sunday, we went to a cafe near our apartment, drank coffee and munched on facturas, or sweet pastries, and read the newspaper. We walked to the river and waded in. Finally, it was time to go. We caught the bus back, and both of us were so sad to leave the calm of San Pedro, back to our busy lives in the city. We watched the landscape roll by--farm after farm after farm, reminding us of the other Argentina outside of the capital, and we daydreamed all about future journies to that other Argentina.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

A New Home Sweet Home

Remembering that it is December 18th is a hard task when the temperature is hovering in and around 90 with a constant helmet of humidity surrounding your every move. I have gotten used to sweating profusely. In fact, I feel I might think something is missing when the day comes when I am not soaking wet for the majority of the day. In our new home, the terrace tiles get so hot that when I go to hang our laundry, even my calloused, weathered feet burn. Our poor little home is home to three avid cooks now, so it doesn't get much rest from the heat. It burns under the sun during the day, and it burns from our over-worked oven at night. But it feels so much like home...

Our new neighborhood is sleepy and calm, with shopkeepers who strictly observe siesta time, and wait outside their shops during non-siesta time, greeting potential patrons as they walk on by. There is no Freddo, the most famous and grossly-overpriced Argentine ice cream chain store; only independent helado shops with hand-made ice cream sold by men wearing old-fashioned short-sleeved white button-down shirts, refreshingly formal and serious about their service. The stars come out at night and the streets are quiet when darkness falls, allowing you to sit outside and enjoy the peace and tranquility that can be so rare to come by in the city. Although this peace and tranquility comes at a cost of being 35 minutes from the city center, it is more than worth it to us...All I need now is my rocking chair and my knitting needles.

And our home...I love it. It is two stories with a gorgeous terrace, on which we eat dinner every night. The downstairs is full of light with windows on all sides. The kitchen is tiled and has marble countertops. There are glass jars for our spices and our roommate has arranged everything so nicely and home-like. She has flowers planted in a windowbox outside the kitchen and a sage plant resting in the sun. At night, the neighbor's cat crawls across the roofs and comes to join Nick and me while we eat dinner, reminding me of Janie. I wish she could come back inside with us. :-)

I feel settled...So refreshingly at home. After being in the pulse of everything for the first leg of our journey, I realize that to be at the center of things is so exciting, but can be exhausting, especially when you need to be concerned about your safety, and also about being overcharged with extranjero prices in a touristy neighborhood. So, sigh, I feel home...On Tuesday, our first full day at our new house, I did not have class until the evening, so I unpacked all of our suitcases, arranged our room, scrubbed the floor, watered the flowers, poured our spices into the jars, and handwashed our laundry and hung it up to dry on the roof. I wanted to feel a part of the house, and I really, really do. Our roommate is also so wonderful, and helps so much to make it feel like home. I am just so thankful for this new chapter of our Argentine journey.

Monday, December 15, 2008

This Crazy Life

Nick and I arrived in Buenos Aires nearly four months ago, full of images, ideas, and preconceived notions of our new city and our new careers. We came imagining a true Paris of the South, with beautiful boulevards and cafés teeming with patrons. We came excited to learn about a government that was democratic and outspokenly for the people. We came nervous to teach, but confident that the work would provide for a sustainable and stable life in this new world.

And now, after four months, I understand why anthropologists can not publish reflections on places in which they have not lived for more than three months. These past few months have systematically broken down our preconceived notions, and replaced them with life-long lessons. Upon arrival, we did see remnants of a Latina Paris, with the leafy Palermo promenades, the beautiful Belgrano mansions, the Recoletta cafés and meticulously curated museums and mausoleums. But turn the corner, and there we did also see just another Latin American city raped by decades of corrupt governments.

We have seen protests march by the Casa Rosada, demanding justice for the 30,000 who disappeared under the military junta of the 70's and 80's. We have seen alarmed headlines alerting the public of the $4 billion that has fled the country in the wake the President's decision to nationalize pensions. Everyday we see dozens of children with bare, blackened feet and matted hair, crowd subway entrances in pursuit of loose change, their baby siblings crying in their laps, making old men and women of these little boys and girls. We have seen people get robbed in broad daylight, and we ourselves have been robbed underneath a street lamp outside of our very own apartment door. And though that has made us scared and leary, our blame has limits, for we have never known the desperate poverty of our perpetrators.

In the past four months, we have stood by and watched as the global financial crisis takes its toll on a fragile economy. Rampant inflation without salary increases has pushed many to the limit. For us, hard economic times means that fewer people are willing to invest in extracurriculars such as learning English. Now, our work is very much week-to-week, as one company will cancel lessons and then we scramble to secure more hours within a different company. We have been incredibly lucky and have begun to teach for many American and European companies, conducting in-company lessons for Ernst and Young, Schlumberger, Moody's, and a few more. We work hard to procure these assignments, but sometimes it is out of our control; for instance, last week I had 25 hours whereas this week I have merely 10. Much of this week will be spent trying to find work for next week. It can be tiring and also scary.

And yet, despite the fear and the constant struggle to stay afloat financially, Nick and I have seen the most beautiful things, things no guidebook could capture, things that make us look at each other and say in a glance, ¨thank goodness for this.¨ These things we see and experience can be summed up in one word: kindness, kindness that you can not imagine, kindness without reason. It is so humbling, and such a life-long lesson for us. We have been given so much, and so often by those with very little to give. Nick and I have collected these acts of kindness, countless instances that we cherish and derive strength from during some of the challenges we face here. We have so many examples of this type of kindness, I would exhaust you if I named them all. But I must discuss a few with you, because I fear that unless I write them down, they will be forgotten in their specificity, in their uniqueness. I know that sometimes challenge and struggle stands out in your memory, its rough edges and harsh corners pricking your memories far into the future. At times, we forget the soft moments of daily miracles and blessings, and right now, these little miracles are changing us daily, are the gentle guide to our experience here, and I don't want the softness of their memories to get lost admidst the roughness of the struggle.

The first example of kindess I want to share with you involves one of my students, Martín. Martín is a thirty-year-old father of two, a sweet man whose life revolves around family and Argentine soccer. This is Martín's first English class, and since this experience is more-or-less my first Spanish class, there are many barriers in our efforts to communicate. Yet, through many hand gestures and lots of laughter, we manage to get our points across. Over these past two months, Martín has asked all about Nick, and I have asked all about his wife and children, and in this manner we have come to know one another's families, and come to be close.

Last Saturday, Martín and his wife, Paula, invited Nick and me to go to the Racing soccer game with them and their son, Franco. Racing is one of the most popular Argentine soccer teams, and the games are supposed to be quite an experience. Nick and I of course did not hesitate to say yes, and we met Martín and his family at the number 100 bus stop downtown, and rode the 35 minute ride to the stadium. Martín and Paula chatted with us along the bus ride, speaking slowly and pointing out landmarks along the way. When we arrived to the stadium, Franco was in his element, wearing a Racing flag tied around his neck like a soccer superhero, and Martín and Paula explained all the crazy things at the stadium. There was a section for the fan club, wild and crazy fanatics with Racing tattoos and shouts that never stopped. The field itself was a sight, with a surrounding moat so that crazed fans didn't storm the grass, and just in case they did, a circle of shielded policemen stood guard to beat off any rabid fans who crossed the water. The opposing team's fan section was also caged in by shielded police, and the crowd never stopped whistling their boos, when the ref came out, when a player was injured, when a yellow card was issued to a Racing player. So many chants, so many cheers, so much energy. It was insane. And it was something Nick and I would have had a really hard time navigating on our own--the bus, buying tickets, navigating the bleachers...As we have, or rather I have, such rusty Spanish, it must have been quite frustrating for Martín and Paula to communicate with us, and yet they smiled the entire afternoon, pointing out this and that, and always checking to make sure we were having a good time. When we got back to our apartment in the evening, we felt as if we had just spent the day with family friends; we felt as if we were home.

My next example of unfettered kindness involves two new friends: Eduardo and Paula, the cutest father-daughter team in the southern hemisphere. Eduardo had made a post on Craigslist, advertising his need of an English teacher. Nick responded, saying that he would love to teach him English, or to participate in an intercambio if he would rather. Eduardo responded in favor of the intercambio, and noted that his daughter, Paula, would also participate. They set up a meeting time of half-past seven last Wednesday night at a café downtown. Little did we know that this meeting would be one of the best nights of our Argentine life thus far.

Wednesday night rolled around, and I entered L'Opera, the café on the corner of Callao and Corrientes where we had agreed to meet. There they were, sitting at a table by the window, a red Spanish/English dictionary laid out on the table as an identifying marker. We introduced ourselves and jumped into a conversation. We ordered media lunas and cafés con leche. Nick arrived a half an hour later, after his class, and Eduardo teased him for liking Racing (Eduardo's favorite team is their competitor), and a friendly tone was set immediately. We spoke in a Spanglish mix for the next three hours, Eduardo sharing interesting and little-known tid-bits of Argentine history, Paula sharing with us her favorite parts of her trip to the United States last summer, and Nick and I sharing our story of why we are here, and how we are making our life here. When it was time to go, Eduardo insisted on treating, and then drove us home in his 1976 turquoise blue classic car. The car has a pretty awful turning radius, and as we turned corners, we went over sidewalks to avoid hitting the buildings on the other side of the street. As we tooled around the city, bumping along curbs, Eduardo regalled to us stories of street names, often forgetting to focus on the road, so immersed was he in his city's history. Nick and I kept looking at each other cracking up, as Eduardo would tell us the story of the Battle of Piedras as we passed Calle Piedras, or how Belgrano created the flag as we passed Avenida Belgrano, all the while hurtling over sidewalks. It was such a funny night, and it reminded us of all the reasons we love Argentina. Paula and Eduardo were so kind, and treated us with such generosity without needing to, without even knowing us...

These are just two examples of the type of interactions that Nick and I have been blessed with time and time again. We came here with nothing, without even knowing the language, and yet, there have been so many friends we have met here who have gone so out of their way to make us feel at home here. It has made our experience...It has made us fall in love with Buenos Aires, with Argentina, with Argentines. Yes, there are many hurdles...To work twenty hours teaching means most likely that you will actually be working at least 40 hours, with the actual hours of teaching coupled with the transportation time as well as the lesson planning. And then you must secure your work for the next week, and you need to be aware of your safety, and you need to take into consideration that there might just might be a subway strike, and then the avenues will be so crowded that it will take a bus forty minutes to go one block. But then you arrive at your class, and you realize the person you are teaching has lived this and more their whole life, and they still have the energy to reach out and bend over backwards to an americana extranjero who doesn't even speak their language. And you remember how lucky you are, and you realize how much kindness can be expressed by a single person within a single moment...

I teach a woman named Claudia, a mother of two who lives two hours away from the city, in a small town in the province that is safe and a good place to raise a family. And yet, there are no jobs in this town, so Claudia travels to the city and back daily in pursuit of work. Her life is overshadowed by the horrible worry of impending financial problems if she does not find work. And yet, she showed up at our class last Wednesday with a pair of silver earrings for me--she said she noticed that I always commented on her earrings, and she wanted to give me a pair of her's to remember her by. She has nothing to give, and yet she gave me that gift...It was so valuable...It is something I will never forget. And the next time I am sweating on the subte or waiting for the bus complaining in my head, I need to remember Claudia, and her silent journies done without complaint, and her willingness to give when she has nothing left to give.

Everyday I think about how life is different here, so different. The average person's life has been characterized by countless struggles. In the past twenty years, the Argentine economy has experienced four crises. Financial magazines have headlines advertising on how to prepare for the next crisis. It is a different world, one in which citizens have had to arm themselves against an uncertain future, to reach into the depths of their strength and become intensely self-reliant. I feel guilty when I think of challenges that I face here, because although Nick and I live a much more frugal life than we did in Washington, DC, our meager salary is what so many would dream of here. Things we once complained about giving up we now realize are luxuries to so many. Moreover, we come from the United States--we can always go home. Citizens here, this is there home. And while I may care deeply for the people, the culture, the land, if the going gets tough, I am under no obligation to stay here...But for the millions of people scattered across the nation, raising families and working for the progress of the country, they are a part of the tough goings, sailing up and down right along with the economy. They have every reason to be bitter, untrusting, and yet, so many of them remain so incredibly, unbelievably open-hearted...To say it is beautiful would be to undermine it. It is truly beyond words. I will live in admiration of the Argentine people for the rest of my life.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Lessons from the Little Prince...And a Thanksgiving to Remember

Saturday was unseasonably chilly and drizzly, so Nick and I read our books all day and did not get out of our pajamas until 6 o'clock at night...I know that sounds incredibly lazy, but it was actually incredibly glorious. While outside was gray and windy, inside was extremely cozy and I think between the two of us we must have drunk a dozen cups of coffee...Nick read, and finished, Ghost Wars, and convinced me to read it now as well...While he read his monster of a book filled with researched footnotes, I made my way through my good ol' children's book, The Little Prince. Because I am extemely slow in translating, 30 pages took me about 4 hours, but it was such a wonderful 4 hours. Maybe because it feels like a feat to understand a sentence, I appreciate the sentences so much in Spanish! I laugh out loud all the time while reading it, and even get choked up sometimes at the Little Prince's sincerity and simple, sincere thoughts...His innocence breaks my heart! But he imparts the reader with such wonderful life lessons that are easy to forget in our fast-paced lives. My favorite part that I read on Saturday was the part where the Little Prince, or el hombrecito as St. Ex sometimes calls him in Spanish, talks about the astroner who discovered the asteroid where the Little Prince lives, Asteroid B612. The astronomer was Turkish, and when he first came to present his discovery to the International Astronomy Congress, he dressed in Ottoman-style clothing. Nobody paid attention to his discovery because they were too focused on his clothes. The Turk did not want to give up, so he came to the Congress a few years later dressed in a suit, and this time, everyone listened, and believed his findings regarding Asteroid B612. However, the Turkish astronomer was disheartened this go-around because after his presentation, he longed to make friends with these fellow astroners. As the Little Prince recounts, he wanted the astronomers to ask him what he dreamt of and what games he liked to play, but instead they asked him how much he weighed and how much money his father made. After knowing these things, the astronomers felt close to the Turkish astronomer, because that is all they feel they needed to know, but the Turkish astronomer felt lonely because he knew these things do not matter in life. (Which all really reminded me of none other than Mr. Michael Esders, who hates when people say first in introductions, ¨What do you do?¨ rather than ¨What do you like to do?¨)Maybe I am too sentimental, or maybe I was just excited to read a passage like that in Spanish, but those words still have not left my mind! I've got el principito on the brain...

When Nick finished the last page of Ghost Wars, he closed the covers with a bang and told me he was going to head to the store--we were going to have people over in the evening to celebrate a belated Thanksgiving. Because I was cozy and lazy, I sent him off alone, promising that I would do the cooking when he got home. Of course, as karmaic retribution for me, a torrential downpour started not two minutes after Nick left. And I mean torrential. Within a few minutes, the sewers were backed up, and completely overflowing. Our street was flooded so that the water level was above your ankels. I started cracking up, grabbed an umbrella, and ran to the grocery store. When Nick saw me, we were both soaking wet and laughing. We bought the groceries, and headed home, both of us ducking under the umbrella that wasn't doing much good. The wind was so strong that it was blowing the rain underneath the umbrella's covering. We were absolutely drenched. When we turned onto Piedras, we saw three cars stuck in the middle of the road, unable to drive because of the level of the water. The passengers were sitting with their arms crossed and stares of death coming from their eyes, penetrating the windowshields. At the end of the block, two men stood outside and directed traffic away from our flooded calle. We turned the key into our apartment building, ran upstairs, poured glasses of red wine to warm up, and watched the chaos from our window.

And was it ever chaos!! Buses eeked down the street, creating tidal waves as they turned a corner; cars sputtered past, surrounded by the waves their wheels were creating; a group of teenagers down the street took boards and were literally surfing in the street. Nick and I felt bad for the two men who had volunteered to become crossing guards, so we thought we should share the wealth and give them some wine. I ran down to deliver it, and the two men thanked me and shouted ¨¡Estados Unidos!¨ Once again, Nick and I were dying of laughter.

An hour after the downpour started, it began to let up, and it looked like people would be able to come over afterall. We started a-cooking, making a whole chicken, amazing mashed potatoes that Nick mastered, and a French silk pie, that turned out to be more like pudding (that I un-mastered). Nick and Brenna came over with a DELICIOUS green bean casserole, another whole chicken covered with apples and onions, and an adorable carved pumpkin to make it festive. Lisa and Diego came over with green been and artichoke salad as well as a spinach salad; Sheila came with a dulce de leche cake, and of course Leonor, Elsa, and Fernanda came with the much-needed Quilmes. Jenny and Elise arrived a little later with wine, and so we ended up celebrating Thanksgiving with 8 Americans, 2 Peruvians, and 2 Argentines. It was lovely. It really was.
We all missed home for this holiday, but it was such a blessing to have friends here with whom to celebrate. As we went around the circle saying what we were thankful for, I said I was thankful to have made friends to celebrate with, and I really meant it. How lucky it is that we have met these wonderful people during our stay here thus far.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!!!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Trying to Learn Spanish

Trying to learn Spanish, like trying to learn any language, is so difficult, but there are bright moments where the clouds clear and you think, as cliche as it sounds this process can be so rewarding. New languages produce new thoughts and ideas, and it is all so awakening. But Spanish is particularly beautiful (in my biased mind). Even when you do not comprehend the words, the language is so fluid, so melodious, so thick with feeling. For example, in the Pablo Neruda book of poems that Nick gave me for my birthday last year, the translator advises the reader, "Even if you do not speak Spanish, I urge you to read the original poems. The words have notes, they resonate like a song. Our translations can never aspire to exactly replicate the rhythms and colors of Neruda's words..."

And it is true. Take for instance the following stanza from Neruda's poem, "Unidad":

Me rodea una misma casa, un solo movimiento:
el peso del mineral, la luz de la miel,
se pegan al sonido de la palabra noche:
la tinta del trigo, del marfil, del llanto,
envejecidas, destenidas, uniformas;
se unen en torno a mi como paredes.

These words in English can be translated to mean the following:

Just one thing surrounds me, a single motion:
the weight of rocks, the light of honey,
fasten themselves to the sound of the word night:
the tones of wheat, ivory, of tears,
aging, fading, blurring,
come together around me like a wall.

The meaning is beautiful in a simple, universally understood way: nightfall brings the unity of everything so that all the colors of our day fade into one wall of darkness. It is hard to appreciate the beauty of a poem without first understanding its meaning. But once you understand the meaning of these words, and you read it again in Spanish, as the translator says, the melody and harmony of the original Spanish syllables will sing more than the translation ever could. And it is the realization of this kind of unique harmony that pushes me on to find out what all of these beautiful words actually mean.

After three months of living in Argentina, I am embarassed to say that I am still very much a beginner when it comes to the Spanish language. (Some may even say pre-beginner...) Not to make excuses, but teaching English for a living makes learning Spanish a bit difficult. Difficult, yes, but impossible, no--something I must keep reminding myself.

Little-by-little, poco a poco, I notice small feats, which give me hope and encouragement. From daily interactions, things such as directions, food, and monetary transactions are becoming much easier. I get so excited when someone on the street asks me for directions and I can respond without thinking (too much). It is just that when it comes to emotions, ideas, and feelings, I stumble, fumble, and panic. After two months of teaching, I feel very close to many of my students, but because many of them are just beginning to learn English, there are many obstacles in our ability to clearly communicate. I am dying to ask them how they feel about lessons, how they learn, which methods of learning they prefer, but I lack the language skills to properly do so...

But despite the obstacles, the small feats, such as providing directions correctly in Spanish, give me just the positive umph I need to keep on going. Plus, I have my secret weapon: Nick! He really amazes me everyday in that he never stops focusing, never stops paying attention to all the new words swirling around us. He reads all the store-front window signs, listens to the conversations going on around us, buys newspapers in Spanish, and never hesitates to ask anyone a question regarding Spanish. He is a sponge when it comes to the Spanish language, and I really am so impressed everyday. He is a great motivator to me, and really helps me learn along the way. Together we have made some language goals to help us in our Spanish pursuit. At night this week, we have been turning on the news in Spanish, and we have also resolved to use some of our free time in the evenings to learning new verbs. We have been researching undergraduate classes at universities in Buenos Aires so that we can audit a class, something that will hold us accountable to keeping up in Spanish, something that will force us to learn more words than we would ever voluntarily learn in our free time. And in the meantime, we are reading The Little Prince in Spanish--El Principito. One of the sweetest books in any language, it is so much fun to re-read this book, to re-discover it with different words. Also, who can deny that once again, Spanish comes through with its uniqueness, as what could be a cuter word for little prince than principito?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Bienvenido a URUGUAY

After spending three months in Buenos Aires, it has begun to feel familiar, comfortable--like home. That is, of course, a blessing, as we learn the street names, and walk them easily without always having to glance at our maps, or ask kiosk merchants for the nearest subway station (although we still have to ask them for the nearest bus station, but the buses are a wholeeeee different animal...). But of course, often with familiarity comes the forgetfullness of daily wonder, and I think I had begun walking the streets with my head down rather than remembering to look all around me, remembering to remember that I am in SOUTH AMERICA. And Saturday was an exhilarating wake-up call.

Upon entry, our passports had been stamped with the date August 26, 2008, with a warning in all caps stating, ¨TOURIST VISA, GOOD FOR 90 DAYS.¨ Seeing as it was November 22, 2008, our grace period was almost up. So, we hopped on a ferry to Uruguay so that we could re-enter the country and get a refreshed stamp for a refreshed 90 days. The ferry left from Tigre, a small coastal resort town an hour train ride from the city. It was called the DELTA CAT, and she took us clear across the Rio de la Plata. The Rio is so wide--it took us three hours to cross over to Uruguay--that you forget you are sailing across a river and not an ocean. It left the Tigre station at 11 am, and as mid-day approached, the heat escalated, and Nick and I and the friends we were travelling with began to burn as we sat on the boat deck and watched the passing shoreline. As we crept closer and closer to Uruguay, we passed abandoned and rusting ships anchored next to the shore; giant sailboats and pontoons with Spanish flags, Italian flags, and Argentine flags; little motor boats cruising in our wake; and kayakers swiftly paddling away. The closer we got to Uruguay, the greener the shore seemed to become, and as we sailed into the Carmelo harbor, we were greated by the site of smooth beaches stretching before us.

Enter Carmelo, Uruguay. As we disembarked the boat, we were immediately confronted with the smell of pine trees. No buses, no traffic, no smog, just the smell of pine. There were trees with purple blossoms--jacarandas, I think--that gave off a soft and flowery scent, and left the street stained purple from fallen petals.

One kiosk had its doors open, and the rest of the shops, restaurants, and bars had signs that warned us not to disturb during siesta.

The streets were so quiet, and the five of us--Nick, Brenna, Nick, Lisa, and I--were the only people walking down the road. As we walked, Lisa commented on how everything was flooded with color, and it was true--a pink house, a purple restaurant, an orange house, a yellow house, a white house with a rainbow of a garden, a red bridge. We crossed the red bridge, and passed a simple green sign that advertised ¨COLONIA¨ in the direction we were walking. As we looked at the highway it pointed towards, we saw a two-lane country road, flanked by fields without people, without houses, without farms. Not to sound too cliche, but it looked like a scene from Motorcycle Diaries, and I felt a rush of reminder, We are in Latin America!!

After the bridge, we turned right, following the sign to the Playa Sere, the BEACH! The road to the beach passed houses and one restaurant-bar, with an old black lab sitting in-between the plastic patio-tables. The ground was grassy and covered with pine needles, and in-between houses were dirt paths leading to the residential side of the beach. As we approached the shore, we entered a wooded campground, with horses tethered to trees and grazing on the grass.

The beach sand was so smooth and light, and there were plenty of trees for shade. We unfurled a blanket and sat down to picnic on the rice salad and ham sandwhiches we brought in our backpacks. The shade was so cool and refreshing, but the water was so, so clean, and even though none of us had brought our swimming suits, we could not resist wading in.

The bottom of the river was so smooth, and the water was the perfect temperature. I of course had to take it all a step further and totally submerge myself, soaking myself and my dress, the only clothes I had for our day-trip to Uruguay. But it felt amazing. I swam about a hundred meters out, and there were groups of kids playing in the water, which was so shallow you could still stand even that far out. The kids were so cute, all there camping with their families, and Lisa, our Spanish whiz, heard them all talking about where they were from...It was so cute to see these children who had just met playing like they had grown up together. They were just splashing about, doing mini-dives while plugging their noses, chasing each other in the water. When I looked around, it was just beach and sparkling water for as far as I could see. It was beautiful...

We didn't have much time in Uruguay, as the ferry left the port at 6:30 pm. So, after a couple of hours on the beach, we dried off and walked down the road to the purple resto-bar we passed, the one with the sleeping dog. We walked up to the patio, where one table was occupied by customers and another was occupied by the waitress and the cook, chatting and resting in the shade. We sat down around a shaded table and ordered three literes of beer for the table. The waitress brought it out, and the dog took a position right next to our table for a nap. We drank the beer and chatted, taking note that the Quilmes-tasting beer had a Uruguayan label we had never seen before. At 5:45, it was time to head back to the port, and we paid the tab--360 Uruguayan pesos, only about 30 Argentine pesos, but the huge number really throws you off!

We walked back past the houses drenched in color, back across the bridge and past the Motorcyle Diary highway, past a few Uruguayans peddling on bicycles, past the miniature Greek-style plaza, and finally to the awaiting DELTA CAT. We stopped before embarking to buy croissants with ham and cheese, sparkling waters, a box of wine, and some pastries. And we took off, sadly leaving sleepy Carmelo behind us.

The five of us were sun-soaked and exhausted, and we closed our eyes inside the boat for the first hour of the trip. When we opened our eyes, dusk was approaching, and we all headed out to the deck to watch the passing scenery. Nick brought the box of wine and we poured it into our empty water bottles, taking sips as we passed sailboats, houses on the shore with smoking asados, couples cruising on jet-skis, and rickety motor boats trying to catch a wave from the DElTA CAT's ripples. The sky was all different colors, and the waves rocked the reeds on both sides of the shore.

As we pulled into Tigre, the setting sun illuminated the tops of the palm trees and the soft city lights made the town glow gently. We passed through customs and held out our passports to be stamped, thankfully allotting us more time in Argentina.

Being in a new place was such an amazing wake-up call of where we are living. Although we have been having wonderful days here, enjoying our classes, learning about our students, trying new foods, spending time with new friends, I think I had started to put these activities into the cruise control part of my brain, to take them for granted--going to work, meeting with friends, going to a restaurant, etc. I was forgetting to stay alert, to remember each day as something unique, as a day holding experiences I have never had before. Going to Uruguay was a reminder that this is a new land, with constant surprising offerings, lessons, experiences, sights, beauty, people...I remembered how Nick and I dreamt and planned for almost a year before coming here, how we spent every lunch hour looking at pictures on the Internet of sites in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the rest of South America, day-dreaming of the places we would go. Or how we would spend our work-breaks and train rides home practicing Spanish, imagining the situations in which we would use this new language. As I remembered what it took to get here, the planning and the acceptance of the unknown, and also the hope that coming here gave us, the hope of following our dreams, I reminded myself not to go on autopilot...To remember that each day is brand-new and has everything to offer that you can not even imagine, something that life everywhere has the potential to offer, but a lesson that travelling can remind you of. Carmelo was not only a beautiful, peaceful, sandy-pine-tree oasis, but also a beautiful reminder to not take anything for granted...To soak up everything.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Comida a la PERU

I woke up with visions of last night's dinner, visions that I fear will not leave me for a very long time. I am worried no meal can compare to the cuisine of yesterday eve, and that I will be having food envy for a past meal for days, perhaps even weeks...I have two words for Buenos Aires residents or travellers: El Rey.

El Rey is a Peruvian restaurant on Aguero right off of Avenida Corrientes, across from the Abasto Shopping Center. A truckload of us went there last night--Nick, Brenna, their roommate Clara and her two friends, Jenny (our roommate from the homestay), Jenny's two friends, and of course, our Peruvian, emapanada angels, Leonor and Elsa. The twelve of us reserved a giant table, and gathered round. Leonor and Elsa ordered a series of plates for us all to share and we ordered bottles of Quilmes to be passed around. While we waited for the meal, we munched on french bread dipped in Peruvian dipping sauces--some spicy, some with cilantro, some with onion. And then the dishes began to appear.

First came leche de tigre, or tiger's milk--a delicious medley of sweet milk (maybe coconut) with seafood, hot peppers, and cilantro. We passed it around the table with one spoon as if it were mate. It became the communal leche de tigre, and it was too delicious to worry about germs. Then came meat with potatoes in a cheesy sauce over rice, which got absolutely gobbled up. Then came chicken with spicy rice, and then the corazon de vaca, or cow heart, which was absolutely delicious. Finally, a plate of chicken covered in spices accompanied by a giant plate of french fries was placed in the center of the table. We were all so full, but we could not leave one bite leftover--it was too good to waste even a morsel. So we ate and we drank and Leonor and Elsa explained the recipes, and chatted with us about Peru, about the religious festivals, about the Inca, about the family culture, about Lima and the sea, about the different foods (including 3 kilo papayas), and about their own lives there.

At the end of the meal, the Peruvian waitress brought out twelve glasses of refreshing, pear-flavored champagne, which we all used to toast to our wonderful hostesses, Leonor and Elsa. And which we followed with more bottles of Quilmes, all set to the beat of the mariachi father-and-son group who sang famous Mexican ballads such as Bessame Mucho, all accompanied by a guitar and a trumpet and of course in traditional mariachi sombreros and suits. We were at the restaurant for four hours, but I don't think any of us noticed how much time had passed as we listened to the music and ate El Rey's amazing cuisine.

On the way home, without warning, a torrential downpour started, and when we hopped off the bus 3 blocks from our apartment, we were drenched within seconds. We hailed a cap for those last few blocks, got home, and drank a glass of fernet and Coke while listening to the rain. In the morning, the 90 degree humid weather was a distant memory, and an unseasonable chill had taken over, reminding us of a November day in the States. I went to teach for a couple of hours, Nick and I met up with a friend for coffee, and then we made a traditional Argentine dinner that, although it couldn't compare to the comida a la Peru that we had revelled in the night before, was still an exciting new culinary discovery: milanesas.

Milanesas are a popular Argentine type of meat--a thin cut of beef breaded and lightly fried, like a beef version of chicken parmesan. Nick and I hadn't tried them yet, but one of my student's provided me with a recipe, so we decided to take a stab at it. Soaking the slices of meat in egg yolk and parsley, we then dipped them in bread crumbs mixed with minced garlic, and then lightly fried them in olive oil. After the patties were done, we laid them in a pan, topped them with mozzerella, and then Nick's amazing homemade tomato sauce--full of onion and oregeno and hot pepper. After baking for 10 or 15 minutes, they were ready, steaming and looking delicious. We piled them onto our plate and poured glasses of Quilmes and dug in. They were good!! More than that, it was exciting to try a new Argentine recipe, something we will bring home to the States with us as a tasty reminder of life here. ¡Buen provecho!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Correo Argentina, Take Two

I have been defeated again by what is quickly becoming my South American nemisis: Correo Argentina. For some reason, my skewed mind thought that it would be easier sending a package rather than receiving it. So, as my sisters' birthdays are fast-approaching, this morning I packaged up their gifts, sealed them in a box, and headed to my first class, planning on going to the International Correo right after the lesson.

After my lesson, my student asked me what was in my bag. I told him I was sending my sisters gifts for their birthdays. Immediately his face clouded over. ¨Do you want them to receive this package?¨ Was this a trick question? ¨Yes...¨ I responded. ¨Well then, don't send it through the Argentine postal system. At the very least, use OCA [Argentina's version of UPS], and even that is not guaranteed. My advice is to not trust any Argentine enterprise for international mail.¨ Hmmm, great. This was going to be a long day.

I left the lesson unsure of what to do, but finally headed to the only OCA I knew of, right across from the Obelisko in Microcentro. I popped out of the subte and headed into the nice, line-free, air-conditioned building. I pulled out my shabbily-taped box and explained in horriffic Spanish that I needed to send this box to the United States. The OCA employee shook his head and said two loathsome words: ¨Correo Argentina.¨ He proceeded to then explain directions of how to get to the nearest office. Apparently it was in a tunnel near-by. Of course it would be.

Why on earth was I rejected on the spot? My only guess, my hopeful guess rather, is that it wasn't personal, but rather OCA must operate only within Argentina. (???) I decided to save face and go with that theory. Moving on, I walked the twenty meters that the OCA man had instructed to do, walking and sweating down Avenida Corrientes until sure enough I saw a stairwell descending into what looked like nothing-ness, a nothing-ness with a big red sign that said ¨PASAJES.¨ Hmmm, I though, Pasajes, here I come.

Enter Pasajes. Seemingly a strange underground shopping center, with kiosks advertising kitschy Argentine goods, a few stores with electronic goods, and of course, good ol' Correo, which was, true-to-fashion, accompanied by a line of homicidal looking people, a line which I joined both physically and emotionally.

30 minutes later, I was up. Once again, I pulled out my box. The postal employee looked at me, looked at my box, and looked back at me. Finally she opened her mouth. ¨No me peudo.¨ I can't do it. ¨OHMYGODTELLMEYOUAREJOKING!¨ I shouted--in my head. In reality, I meekly asked why not, to which the postal employee responded that I need a Correo Argentina box to send something. I asked her then politely if I could please buy a box from her so that I could send my package. ¨No, we don't sell them here.¨ Obviously. Why on Earth would the post office sell the boxes that you need to send something through the post office? That would make life far too easy. I focused on her nose-ring to distract myself, a tiny silver dot in the lower half of her left nostril. A nose-ring that seemed out of place on this bored-looking, middle-aged red-head wearing a white-collared shirt, who was in other words, very proper in every way besides the jewel in her nose. Should I feel some connection, some compassion perhaps towards her, as a fellow-nose-ringer? I tried to let her nose-ring and the question of its purpose distract me from the rage that was slowly collecting within my intestines. Maybe that focus worked, or maybe it was telepathy and she too felt a need to feel a connection with a fellow-nose-ringer, as she finally took some mercy on me and wrote out the address of the store at which I could buy the necessary box.

The store was six blocks away, on Libertad and Sarmiento. I walked there, pushing my way through the mid-afternoon Microcentro crowds. I arrived at the appointed corner, and there was no store to be found with the name the postal employee had given me. I double checked, walking the area again and again, checking in every window. No where. I surrendered and decided to walk home, drink some ice water, and look up a UPS store online.

I got home, chugged some ice water, and did some research until I found the address of the nearest UPS store. It was only a short bus ride away, so I grabbed monedas and went to catch the bus. As I approached the UPS store, I caught a glimpse of myself in the glass reflection. Today was not my best day. Sweat was visible even in a store-front reflection, literally glistening from my face. My hair had ceased to be curly and had instead turned into a massive knotted glob of yellow frizz. I decided to grin and bear it, and I opened the door to UPS, only to trip and fall, and send my shoe flying. Even the homeless man standing outside looked sorry for me. Oh Lord, I was almost there.

Inside, the UPS employees were as nice as could be and the room was so refreshingly cool. I explained what was in the box, and they weighed the contents. Weighing in at not even three kilos, this box came to a whopping total of $116 US DOLLARS. That is 360 pesos, over two days of work. Oh my goodness, my bank account could not afford this. ¨DOLLARS, US dollars?¨ I asked the UPS employees. ¨Yes,¨ they told me, looking sorry even as they said it. ¨Oh my gosh, I can not send this,¨ I told them, thoroughly embarrassed and blushing a fire engine red. They laughed, and I laughed, too, in utter relief of their response. ¨It is very expensive to send things from Argentina,¨ they informed me. ¨I can see that,¨ I told them. ¨Our advice is to pack it in your suitcase when you go home.¨ Oh no, but Lizzie and Colleen...

My poor sisters. I did not send the package. I left without my dignity, with the presents still in their box, still in my hand. But I can promise Lizzie and Colleen that their gifts will of course be waiting here as good as new whenever they come and visit, along with their Christmas gifts and other goodies along the way. I hope they are not upset!!

On the way home, I grabbed four cans of beer for me and Nick, and here I am, sitting at the computer with a can of Quilmes, revelling at how complicated the Argentine postal system is. One blogger commented on my previous post about Correo Argentina, saying that they grew up in Argentina and now cherish the US Postal System as one of the perks of living in the US. I could not agree more! Nick and I were laughing that here we are dealing with the Pony Express. :-) But at the end of the day, it is chalked up to a funny story and a good lesson, of which there are many in Argentina. One of my students told me the other day that living in Argentina is like reading a 1000 page book on life lessons. I think that may be one of my favorite expressions I have heard yet in these three months.


Other than Correo adventures, this week has been wonderful. Nick has been working for the past month for one company that he has come to really love, and which has come to really love him--they offered him two new classes this week! So he is very busy teaching, getting more comfortable in the profession with every passing day. He is reading up a storm, currently reading Ghost Wars, the book Barack Obama is also currently reading. :-) He continues to follow the news religiously regarding the President-Elect, and he has also found time to become very good at Scrabble, beating me in 4 out of 5 games this week. Yikes!

Other big news with us is that we are currently on the look-out for a new apartment. Although we have loved living in San Telmo and living with Cecilia, some things have convinced us that it is time to move. For one, San Telmo is relatively expensive for Buenos Aires, as it is very popular with tourists. In addition, unfortunately, Nick and I were robbed last week. However, for an unlucky situation, we were very lucky in that neither one of us was hurt at all--only our wallets suffered. Although a robbery is something that could happen absolutely anywhere, we feel that because San Telmo has so many tourists, it might at times proove to be a good target for thieves. So, we are taking extra precautions, taking cabs at night if we are alone, not taking anything valuable with us when we go out, etc. We have told Cecilia that we will be moving on December 15th and are currently looking at some nice and very safe areas, like Caballito, Almagro, and Villa Crespo--areas that are a little more removed from the city center, but seem to be very safe and have a community all their own. It is exciting looking for a new apartment--we will be moving in right around Christmas time, and will bring in the New Year in a new home, with new lessons under our belt, and a new chapter of our Buenos Aires adventure. We will keep you posted with descriptions and pictures of the new home we decide upon! Until later, ¡buen fin de semana!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Night to Remember

A Palermo apartment overheated by the massive glob of Americans & Argentines and made warmer by the oven working over-time to keep the swing-state food warm (genius idea donated by the Cunninghams). There were jalapeno poppers from New Mexico, corn from Indianna, rice and beans from Florida, an oreo cream pie from Ohio, and of course, the Victory Lemon Meringue Pie. CNN was projected onto the blank white wall, and Celeste, our amazing host, was running around making sure everyone was set with food and drink. The hours ticked by: one, two, three ,until it was four in the morning, and although we all had jobs, classes, and appointments to make in just a few hours, nobody cared about time or lack of sleep on this particular Tuesday night.

Watching one of the most historic elections in history thousands upon thousands of miles from home was a unique experience. I think that perhaps Nick and I feel a special kinship with other Americans here, simply because we are all in the same boat, and so far from our native port. Throughout the last leg of this election, that kinship has made watching the debates and now the final moment of truth electric. Living in Argentina has made Nick and I fall in love with this country, undoubtedly, but also become thankful and respectful of our country as well. Argentine friends share stories of being paid to vote for certain candidates, of seeing their savings disappear as the peso becomes devalued, of rampant cronyism accepted by other government officials and unable to be commented on by government-controlled media. These stories leave us in awe of the resilience of the Argentine people, of their amazing ability to keep moving on, to stay so welcoming, despite the disillusion that has colored their lives. And these stories also remind us to be thankful and respectful of the institutions and relative stability we experience in the US--for the relative freedom to vote for the candidate of our choice, for the relative transparency through which our government operates, and for the relative freedom to express discomfort and disagreement with the government, and therefore in a way govern those that govern. With these feelings of respect and gratitude comes a great desire to show the world our best face, the face we were so proud to see named the next President of the United States on Tuesday, November 4th, 2008.

As Barack Obama was announced the winner, Celeste's apartment erupted in screams. I could not stop crying, my friend Rebecca could not stop crying, a handful of our crowd ran to the balcony to shout in celebration, and my friend Elena uncorked the champagne. Nick and I looked at each other and remembered to remember this moment forever.

At 4 am, Nick and I walked to Avenida Santa Fe and caught the #64 bus home. As we sat in the bucket seats of the bus, we felt our repressed fatigue hit us full force, as the anticipation and excitement melted away into relief and happiness. The next day my students greeted me with ¨Obama!¨ shouts and we spent the first moments of English lessons watching our President-elect's acceptance speech on youtube. It is wonderful to feel proud of our country's decision, and it is wonderful to proudly represent two votes of that decision here in Argentina.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Feliz Compleanos!!

It began with a candle smooshed into a pre-packaged cupcake and a bunch of fellow TEFL grads singing a well-intentioned and hilariously-off-key Happy Birthday, while in full costume attire. It was midnight on Halloween, officially the first of November; Nick was turning 24 in Buenos Aires.

Bringing Nick's birthday in at our friend's Halloween party was perfect. Almost all the people we know in Buenos Aires were in one place, and we all on silly outfits. There was a great rendition of Joe Six Pack, a Sarah Pallin dead ringer, an impressive Marie Antoinette, a unique David Bowie, a wonderwoman, and a few more goodies. We listened to music, drank wine, talked with friends, and headed home when we realized it was allready 4 am.

The walk home took 45 minutes, and by the end of it, we were starving. We walked to Independencia, the major street two blocks from our apartment, and popped into the only open restaurant we could find. The restaurant was a very narrow two-story dive decorated like a ship, with anchors and fishing nets serving as the decor. It was perfect in every way save for the techno that they insisted on blasting. We ordered a grande mozzerella to go, and ten minutes later and thirteen pesos poorer, we were heading home with watering mouths. Within minutes of arriving home, the pizza was smoked and it seemed later than late. It was time to call it a day.

The next day, it was time to celebrate in earnest. We made coffee and a big lunch of bruschetta and sauteed vegetables. It was a beautiful day, 75 degrees and sunny, and we ate with the windows wide open. As soon as we finished our food, we piled the dishes in the sink, threw on shoes, grabbed the Scrabble board, and headed to the park. En route to Parque Lezana, we stopped at a bakery and ordered three pastries and four cans of Quilmes. We were set.

When we arrived, we staked out a patch of grass and set up shop, sipping on Quilmes and Scrabbling away. Two hours later, half the beer was consumed, the pastries had long been gone, and Nick had beaten me fair-and-square by twenty points. We packed up the board, opened the remaining cans beer, and read our books stretched out on the grass. It was my favorite afternoon in Buenos Aires.

After our beers were gone and the sun had moved so that we were now in the shade, we packed up and headed home. We made more bruschetta and some sangria and turned on Van Morrison. Nick and Brenna and our friend Katarina came over, and we listened to music, drank sangria, and munched for two hours. When all was finished, we grabbed our jackets and headed down Defensa to our very first parilla--Disnivel.

The restaurant was great--filled with happy diners and bustling waiters, pink walls, and countless framed pictures. Nick and I ordered a famous Argentine steak, and it was delicious--tender, juicy, and full of flavor--well worth its international reputation. The four of us toasted Nick and gobbled up our meals.

After dinner, it was again later than late, but we were the kind of tired that comes happily after a day well-spent. I could not hold my eyelids open any longer and I drifted off as Nick was opening his presents and reading his card. He didn't seem to mind, though, and we called it a day, a happy birthday day.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Correo Argentina

Lisa Maxwell strikes again. No matter how hard the obstacle, she will find you. In high school I went to the Australian Outback for two months, and week after week, her packages found their way across the desert to PO Box 153, Lake Grace, Western Australia. In college, though I was a mere 10 minute drive down I-43S, St. Nick's always began with a package delivery via campus mail to my dorm room. When I studied abroad in Ireland and subsequently celebrated my 21st birthday in Galway, I think the little Gaelic post office was overwhelmed by Lisa Maxwell's love affair with the courier system. But nothing compared to my year in Washington, DC. Week after week something arrived on my porch covered in styrofoam peanuts and wrapped in packing tape. I think Ro once asked me if my mom had considered buying stock in UPS, because it might have served to be a good investment at that rate. Needless to say, 3903 Morrison Street would have had much less flavor without those packages...

It was only a matter of time before Lisa Max's package service found its way to Calle Piedras. However, getting here proved to be quite a maze, and a prime example of Argentine efficiency operating at its best.

The saga began a week ago from Friday when a slip of paper was shoved under our apartment door notifying me that I had a package to be picked up at the nearest post office. Only three blocks away--not bad. True, I wondered why the mailman couldn't bring the package to me if he could bring a slip of paper to me, but I figured it could be a lot more painful. My first free morning came three days later, so Nick and I headed down the block for the p.o.

Five minutes after arriving, I was up. This is easy, I thought. I handed over my ID and package notification to the postman. He mumbled something into the microphone and looked at me expectantly. Ahhh, I was lost. ¨He needs your passport,¨ Nick translated for me. Oy, I didn't think of that. ¨Uno momento,¨ I told the postman.

15 minutes later, Nick and I had raced home and raced back, only to find we had to take another number and get back at the end of the line. 15 minutes after that we were up again. Feeling relieved that this was about to be over, I proudly handed over my passport. The postman looked at it, nodded, and took my notification slip into the backroom. Expecting to see him walk back with a beautiful, cardboard box sparkling with packing tape, my heart sank when I saw him return with another piece of paper. I knew it couldn't be easy, I cried on the inside.

In contrast to my about-to-scream insides, the postman looked quite pleased with his findings.

¨Here you go, señorita,¨ he said as he handed me my new notification, taking the courtesy to circle the new address to which I must travel. Apparently, I needed a notification to receive the official notification for which I needed to receive my actual package. Receiving a package in Argentina is akin to embarking on a scavenger hunt, and one that will teach you a lesson in patience.

Allright, let's get 'er done, I resolved. The new address was in Retiro, a neighborhood where I was scheduled to teach on Friday until 2 pm. Perfect, the post office closed its doors at 5 pm, so I would have plently of time to hippity-hop over after my lesson and pick up the goods.

On Thursday I texted my friend John to see if he wanted to get a drink with me and Nick that evening. ¨At the international post office,¨ was all his reply said. It was 3 pm. Could he possibly mean he might be busy at the post office through the evening? This could not be a good sign.

Well, John ended up making it out, and upon arrival proceeded to down two liters of Stella Artois by himself. As the alcohol relaxed him, he began to recount his boiling frustration after sitting at the post office for three hours, an unfortunate circumstance that led him to rip open his mother's carefully wrapped care package right outside the building in Retiro, miles away from his homestay. After tearing open the box, he proceeded to chomp his way through the packets of gum his mom sent, and begin to read the book she had enclosed, David Sedaris' latest, Engulfed in Flames. Laughing at Sedaris' imitation of Parisians while chewing the heck out of some Orbit apparently made John feel better about his situation, and he headed home and came out to meet us. Hmmmm, my Friday chore was beginning to sound ominous...

My time arrived and I surrendered to Correo Argentina at approximately 2:15 pm Friday afternoon. Chin up, I walked in, tried to ignore the massive herd of homicidal-looking people stalking the waiting room, and took a number. #86. I looked up at the board to see a neon #30. Okay, I can do this, I thought to myself, and I opened up my book. About 30 minutes later, my number was up. Whew! That was relatively pianless. This time, I came prepared and had my official, official package notification ready with my passport. The postman, a glorious Argentine with snow-white hair, a deep tan, and a half-unbuttoned white collared shirt, nodded approvingly at my passport, stamped my notifications, and disappeared in back...Only to come out with another notification.

You are kidding me, I thought. There is no way. Just no way. But, oh, it turns out there was a way. The postman handed me my new slip and circled the six-digit number at the bottom. ¨Go the other room and wait for this number to be called,¨ he instructed in Spanish. Sweating profusely at the anxiety of the postal system and also at trying to understand Spanish in such a hectic environment, I nodded my understanding with wide eyes, and obediently headed to the next room.

It looked like an emergecy room waiting room, just as desperate, just as manic. Rows and rows of fold-out card-table chairs, filled with rows and rows of feverishly angry yet knowingly helpless people sitting with their heads down, eyes glued to their slips of paper where their holy 6-digit saving grace was printed. I listened to the numbers being called off the loudspeaker, and immediately my over-worked pores poured. The announcer was listing off these 6-digit numbers so quickly, and without pause in-between patrons, I panicked. How was I going to understand him?? I was going to miss my number and this whole debacle will have been in vain. Oh, pobrecita!

To help me, I wrote down my six-digit number in every possible way it could be called. Uno siete ocho nueve uno cero. Dies-y-siete ochenta-nueve dies. Uno siete ochenta-neuve dies, etc., etc., so that my slip was now covered in written accounts of possible verbal translations of my number. Okay, that made me relax a little and I proceeded to stare at my numbers, my eyes glued to them everytime the announcer came to the mike.

One hour later, I wasn't hearing my number. It was allready 4 o'clock. I thought for sure I had missed it, I was going to go home packageless, I was never going to see what my mom had sent. I resolved to wait until the post office closed, and maybe I would be lucky and they would call everyone who did not respond to their called number. Just hold tight, I told myself, as I looked around and felt like the obvious Americana with deer-in-the-headlight eyes, grasping my number with a grip like the jaws of death.

45 minutes later, I heard it. My number, my glorious number was called, and I understood it! I raced to the back to pick up my package and joined the queue of the others who were just called. When I got up to the window, I proudly handed over my ticket, and the postman just as proudly handed over my package. Hallelujah!! I was so elated I literally felt 20 pounds lighter, and I bounced out of the post office, shouting to every postal employee ¨Buena fin de semana!!!¨ on my way out. They looked at me like the crazy Americana I am, but I was too relieved to feel self-conscious.

I arrived home at 5:30, three hours after my journey to the p.o. began, and Nick and I tore open the package. Scrabble!!! Lisa Maxwell had saved the day by sending a Scrabble board--and just in time, as Nick is really beginning to worry about his post-Tuesday life when there will not be anymore polls to read or pundits to analyze. :-) Scrabble, a box of chocolates, a candle, and a pair of purple loafers that I have not taken off for three days. It was so worth the wait. Lisa Maxwell indeed strikes again.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

An Interesting Intercambio of Our Own

Perhaps Nick took lessons from our friend Lisa (I don't know, I am choosing not to look too deeply into this), but he searched Craigslist Buenos Aires for an intercambio. I thought it was weird that his ad said, ¨American hottie searching Argentine hottie for language exchange and more,¨ but I didn't want to nag.

Just kidding! In truth, we were looking for a cheap way to accelerate our espanol learning curve. With Cecilia on vacation for the past month, we haven't had our daily doses of practice aside from random grocery store interactions and at times making Leonor and Elsa patiently wait while we stumble through a broken sentence. So, Nick really did search Craigslist (he just didn´t mention in his search that he was an American hottie), and he ended up finding us a really amazing intercambio.

We arranged to meet our language partner in the afternoon last Thursday at Bar El Federal, our favorite bar thus far in San Telmo--a notable it is called, as it is a landmark and preserved in its 19th century style. Nick and I walked in and remembered that we didn't know who we were looking for. We saw a man sitting at a table for four all alone, looking about with a newspaper under his arm. It must be him. ¨Marco?¨ I asked him. He looked at me completely mystified. ¨No,¨ he finally said, without a hint of a smile. Yikes, okay, moving on.

Nick and I sat down at our own table, eagle-eye watching the door. Bingo. A man walked in alone, and made a beeline for us. ¨Marco!¨ I called out. He looked startled, and that's when I realized the beautiful girl sitting at the table right in front of us. I had obviously interrupted their much anticipated reunion. Oy. He only let me throw him off for a second before he threw himself to his awaiting beloved.

Nick and I just sat still for a minute, acknowledging that maybe we should stop--I should stop--trying to pinpoint every poor schmuck who walked into Bar El Federal as ¨Marco.¨ Luckily, not long after, a man walked up to us. This had to be Marco.

¨Marco?¨ I said sheepishly.

¨Hola,¨ he smiled back. Relief! Moving right along...The three of us got a table in the back that was quiet and where we wouldn't disturb anyone (I averted the eyes of all the fake Marco´s I had accosted before), and we began the Spanish chapter of our intercambio.

Three coffees and three brownies later (of which I had two because Marco said he wasn´t hungry), the three of us were comfortable and in the swing of some much-appreciated espanol. Marco kept it simple for us, asking us why we were in Argentina, how long we have been here, where we would like to travel to, and where we had been living in the States. We tested the waters with our Spanish, responding to every question, and then we ventured further and asked him about himself, such as why he is learning English. He told us that he is learning English because his girlfriend is American and does not speak much Spanish. His English is good, but of course, he wants to improve. We then asked what he did as a living, and he explained that he had just returned from Afghanistan, where he was working as an aid worker through an international organization.

Yes, Afghanistan. Three years in Kabul. Wow, now if that doesn't change you...This smiling, happy-go-lucky, jolly man across from us began to tell us incredible stories of his experiences--of being unable to leave the house for days, of Western women learning they they also can't leave the house without a headscarf if they want to be safe on the street, of doctors working as taxi drivers because the pay is more on the street than in the hospital, and of much more--a world that is unfathomably foreign to me. I was speechless. We switched to English so that Marco could practice, and the tales continued as Nick and I fired question after question at him.

His stories were mind-blowing. Literally. Two hours later, we said goodbye and thank you. Our intercambio had given us language lessons yes, and some very unexpected life lessons...Marco is someone I will never forget, and hope to meet again!

Magical Intercambios and More

Our friend Lisa signed up for an intercambio, or a meeting in which English is traded for Spanish with a Spanish-speaking language partner. In an intercambio, you usually meet at a neutral location, for instance a cafe or a park, and speak in Spanish for one hour and English for the other hour. You help your partner along with English, and they help you along with Spanish. It is free and can be a great way to meet friends. Well, anyhow, our friend's intercambio was going quite well. So well in fact that she and her language partner began to email incessantly throughout the day, and then they began to text, also incessantly. This saga was unfolding back when we were in our TEFL course, and one day Lisa's phone buzzed during class. She began to glow slightly and leaned over to whisper that her language partner had just texted her because he was having trouble tying the knot on his tie. "Isn't that cute?" she wanted to know. ¨Lisa, this isn't normal,¨ I whispered back. ¨No, no, we're just friends. They're all like that here. Friendly.¨ Yeah right.

One month later and Lisa and her language partner are in the midst of a swingin' romance, going to the zoo on weekends, to the Tigre Delta on Columbus Day, movies during the week, and hosting asados on Fridays (much to our glee...). Asados are the most popular Argentine past-time. Picture the most delicious barbeque you can conger up: that is an asado. Lisa and her language partner boyfriend had us over and we all gathered around their barbeque pit. It's spring and although the days are hot, the nights are chilly, so the grill kept us warm (along with the countless bottles of red wine...), and Lisa's beau grilled us serving after serving of parilla--or grilled steak--and pork, and chorizos, with which we made mini choripans. It was beyond delicious...I thought I would nearly faint with culinary ecstasy when Lisa then carried up a plate of home-made empanadas, her roommate majestically appeared with a huge glass bowl of strawberries covered in whipped cream, and her roommate's boyfriend emerged with a bowl of divinely home-made potato salad. I was full to the point of being in pain, but I couldn't stop eating. Hey, I didn't know when I would get this kind of chance again! :-)

But, back to Lisa and her language partner. It is so funny and wonderful seeing them together now. After arriving here and meeting Lisa, all of us within our first weeks here, sea-legs not quite acquired, and hearing her timid little tid-bits about a cute language partner. And now look...They are as comfortable with each other as could be, and their story of how they came to be is one of the most memorable I have heard.

It is so nice forming these bonds with people we met in class. Everyone in class was there for a different reason--some were there to do something while applying for graduate school programs, some were there to become fluent in Spanish, some were there purely to travel, and some were there to try their hand at teaching to see if it could be a career to take home with them. While we all know that Buenos Aires won't be our forever, we will forever remember one another in this moment. I think perhaps because we are all so far from home and we all started at square one, or square zero rather, in terms of having a community here, we all reached out to each other quite strongly to make bonds. Which has made all the difference in the world. I was thinking about all of this a lot just this past weekend, which was surprise-party central. It was both our friends' Nick and Breanna's birthdays last week (confusing, I know!), and Brenna threw Nick a surprise party on Friday night, and Nick (her husband) and Nick (Cunningham) and I threw Brenna a surprise party on Saturday night. It was quite a weekend!

Friday night's party was hosted by our friend Bobby from class. Bobby is one of the most sincerely kind people anyone could meet. An elementary school teacher from Houston, TX, you couldn't find a person more perfect for working with children. But anyways, I keep rambling...Bobby hosted the party at his apartment's terrace that is just gorgeous...It has the loveliest view of the city, and just to stand and look over the streets and the river was just a wonderful reminder of how great Buenos Aires can be...It reminded me of the first week Nick and I arrived when we were just dizzy drinking everything in.

But, there was more to the party than just the view. Brenna made pitcher after pitcher of sangria, and grilled steak and chicken for fajitas. Our first Mexican meal since we got here!!! She was really the hostess with the mostest. It was delicious...Once again, I ate until it hurt. (I should probably stop doing that...) Nick (her husband) was so surprised, and so happy to see everyone from our class. It was a really magical night...Brenna did an amazing job, and she was so exhausted, I don't think she thought for a second that we were planning a party for her the next night.

Brenna's surprise party was not as glamorous (because it was at our house!), but still very fun. Nick and I hosted it at our apartment, and it was so much fun to have our Argentine friends over to our home here!! We ordered a dozen pizzas and stocked up on Quilmes and Malbec, and of course rum and Fernet as well, and our classmates trickled in. Lisa came with her beau, Nick and Brenna's roommate from France came, Leonor and Elsa, the Peruvian empanada-angel sisters came, and pretty much everyone else from our class! Brenna was really surprised, and it was such a fun, low-key night. Two surprise parties in one weekend...Not bad! :-) Here is a picture of our apartment, because I don't think we have posted any yet:

Nick and I were exhausted after the double-whammy weekend because not only did we have two surprise parties, but we sold empanadas on Saturday and Sunday! Unfortunately, we were not very successful...On Saturday, I left Nick all alone at our stand because I had to teach (yikes...minus points for me as a girlfriend...). I walked with him to Puerto Madero and helped him set up shop, bought him a choripan to cushion the blow, and then left him high and dry.

Two hours later, in the middle of my class, I got a text: ¨Calling it a day. Not very successful.¨ I came home to a slightly disappointed Nick who informed me that he sold a grand total of 5 of our delicious pastries. What the heck was wrong with everyone?? These babies are drool-worthy, let me tell you. Nick figured it out that Puerto Madero is really choripan territory, whereas the San Telmo Antique Fair is empanada haven. Therefore, we chalked it up to some market research and resolved to have a successful day at the fair on Sunday.

Sunday came and the alarm clock went off. I could not get out of bed. I was stuck. Like a tree. After a weekend of surprise parties, teaching, baking empanadas, cleaning for the party, my body ached. I didn't drag myself out of bed until 11 am, which meant we didn't hit the vending streets until about 2 pm. Which meant...We missed the noon rush! We had a difficult time selling our goods that day, although we did have some very sweet customers who helped the hours tick by. Three hours later, and down 36 empanadas, we decided to call it quits. But it wasn't all for nothing--we were left with a 25 peso profit, and about 50 empanadas for ourselves, which to me is a pretty fabulous coup.

When we got home, I promptly passed out for an hour and a half, and when I woke up, Nick had our spicy black-bean soup boiling away on the stove, and the Sopranos ready and waiting on the computer. What a perfect Sunday.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Rainy Day in BA

Yesterday marked our first Buenos Aires thunderstorm. We have had a string of sunny, warm, cloudless days, so when the noise of rain coming down in heavy sheets rang as our alarm clock, it was quite surprising. The sky was gray, gray, gray and it was so drenched outside that there was no way we were going to go outside. Luckily, neither one of us had class yesterday, so we had no obligations to be anywhere except inside our cozy apartment.

The day started out like most of our days here: pots of coffee made and drank, Nick at his computer, I at mine, occasionally one of us telling the other news that we have via email or an article we are reading online. Only this day, there was no rush. I can not count the cups of coffee I drank, and I took my time making the most delicious egg sandwhich for breakfast. I read a huge chunk out of the wonderful novel I am reading, Norwegian Wood, courtesy of Sarah Bobbe, and Nick read through-and-through the entire Economist. Finally, around 4 o'clock, we got out of our pajamas and into semi-real clothes--jeans & a tshirt, as good as it was going to get on a rainy day. (It sounds so lazy, but it was, in fact, glorious...)

And then we made soup. But not just any soup. A gigantic pot of home-made broth flavored with bulion cubes and garlic, then made hearty with potatoes, black beans, corn, chickpeas, tomatoes, onions, hot sauce, jalopenos, and rice. When it was done, bubbling and boiling, we topped it off with avocado slices and cilantro...It was so thick and so refreshingly spicy (the Argentines cringe at picante, so finding hot food is a challenge)...We were sweating with each bite. After one bowl, I was so full, but I didn't have the will-power to pass up another bowl. Nick went back with me and then he went back again, and again :-) (In fairness to him, his bowl was a lot smaller than mine!) I was bursting, but I could have eaten more bowls just for the flavor...There is nothing like spicy soup during a thunderstorm...And to top it all off, after we ate our soup, we spent two hours watching the Sopranos...It really couldn't have been a better day.

In the evening, Nick & Brenna came over, and we munched our way through olives, garlic bread, and cookies, while sipping our way through three liters of Quilmes and two bottles of wine, all as we semi-played a game of good ol' midwestern Yeuker. At midnight, it was officially Brenna's birthday, and we celebrated to that. At moments like that, as we are with a friend to celebrate the first moment of her birthday, Nick and I realize how we are so thankful to have met the people we have here...We arrived nearly two months ago, knowing no-one, excited and motivated, but scared and a tad lonely, missing all the friends & family that we had left in Washington & Wisconsin. Although we still miss everyone at home everyday, we are so lucky to have made the friends we have here; without such relationships, our life in Buenos Aires would be quite different. From Brenna & Nick, to Leonor our empanada angel, to Jenny our roommate from our homestay, these are people that Nick & I want to know forever, who have helped us beyond words to settle here and become comfortable.

It is a sunny day again today, a day filled with teaching English and taking Spanish, a day back to the go-go-go of our normal lives. It is gorgeous outside and I can not wait to open that door and enjoy the sunshine, to join the hectic beat of the crowds outside. But yesterday was a pause to be grateful for, a break that allowed us to take a breather and realize all we have to be thankful for, here in BA.

Monday, October 20, 2008

In Search of Carlos & the Humanist Movement

Last week was a busier-than-ever maze of new lessons, continued lessons, new leads, failed leads, and all the up's and down's of our semi-anxious quest to find work. We graduated two weeks ago from TEFL, and we both have some solid, wonderfully engaging classes. Nick is loving his courses at an IT firm on Wednesdays and Mondays, where he is meeting and teaching people from Buenos Aires and other parts of Argentina, learning their personal stories, and helping them to express all of this in English. He has also begun to meet with a journalist on Friday afternoons, so he not only teaches the journalist about English, but gets to learn about the life of a periodista in South America. Pretty cool stuff! And needless to say, right up Nick's alley. :-)

I have been teaching two business-English classes a week, which have been great. Just like in Nick's cases, my students are eager to express complicated thoughts in English, and have been teaching me a lot about their area of expertise: chiefly finance, which means they have been talking to me a lot about the financial crisis, which is so helpful to my annoyingly liberal-arts-geared mind. I have also been continuing to meet with a very sweet woman who takes English to help her in her Human Resources department.

However, we have had some challenges along the way. I ended up being misinformed by an employer as I was told that a teaching school was a half an hour away by bus, when it turned out to be over an hour away, far outside the city limits, and not in the best place to be standing alone waiting for the bus at dusk. However, my contact was understanding when I told her that I could not continue this particular position, and hopefully no bridges were burned. It was a hectic way to learn such a lesson, as it was on a day I had many other classes, and left the house at 7:15 and did not return until 13 hours later. In the end, it was a great lesson to learn to be able to be smarter about where I go when I teach, and to stand up for certain rights without ruining professional relationships...These are all lessons that have to be learned, usually the hard way, and at the end of the day, I think that Nick and I are so lucky to have each other, which helps with all challenges. Well, I should say, he helps me with all of my challenges. :-)

This is all bringing me to my point expressed in the title, I promise...Nick and I decided that volunteering and/or being engaged in organizations outside of our 9-5 job has always been important to us, and was definitely a big part of our life in DC. We had sort of been putting such activities on hold because of our job search, but I think after two weeks we have realized that we are doing all we can, and being anxious about it in the interim is a waste of time when we could be putting our time and energy elsewhere. Therefore, we contacted a man we met here who runs a nonviolence and ecological movement in the city. We met this man in a bar on our second night here, an incident that seemed very much to be a sign. As I said before, we had just arrived in Buenos Aires: we were wide-eyed and a bit nervous about not knowing a soul in such a huge city. We stumbled into a cozy bar where a band was setting up a stage and a crew was working on the sound and lights for the performance. We were the only customers in the bar, and the instructor of the lighting/sound crew approached us and engaged us in conversation. We explained to him that we had arrived the previous day, and that we were to begin an English certification course within two weeks, and were just currently exploring the city. We found out his name was Carlos, and he in return explained to us that he heads a group that meets to discuss and take action to decrease violence. With our broken Spanish, it was hard for the man to convey exactly what his group does, but it sounded quite impressive, and good-natured. He gave us his card before saying goodnight.

It had been a while since we had looked at that card, but two months later, it really began to feel like the right time to contact Carlos. Nick sent him an email on Friday, and he speedily replied by Friday evening, asking us to meet him at his office in the Almagro neighborhood the next afternoon. We whole-heartedly agreed.

Saturday rolled around, a necessary break from the rigor of our past week, and we got up early to greet the day. I had to teach and Nick went to the gym, both of our heads a little heavy from drinking too much wine at a friend's barbeque the night before. We were so tired from the week, but determined to meet Carlos and make contact with someone who could help us get into an extracurricular world we both were craving. We decided to meet in Chinatown after teaching and the gym to do a little shopping for the curry we use up so fast before our meeting with Carlos.

A few hours later, we had bought spicy curry, mustard seeds, and cilantro, and we were pumped. Now we only had to find the 168 bus that would take us from Belgrano to Almagro. Should be no problem, we thought, as there is a bus depot just around the corner from Chinatown. We headed to the bus depot and saw about ten buses, and none of them were the 168. Slightly discouraged, we walked the other way from the bus depot, sure that we would find the 168. Of course, we couldn't. We walked for 20 minutes in the opposite direction as the bus depot, seeing no new numbers, discouragingly. We were sweaty, slightly hung-over, and a little jet-lagged from our crazy week, and the bus system just would not throw us a bone. We tried a last resort of walking towards the next subway stop in the far opposite corner of the neighborhood, about a half an hour walk. We saw dozens of other bus numbers, but the 168 was nowhere to be found. Finally, we called Carlos and told him we were having no luck finding a bus, so he told us to take a bus to the correct subway line and ride the train to his office, which was a block from the station. We did that, and finally, one hour later, we arrived, thirsty as all get-out, bleary-eyed, but so thankful we finally arrived.

Carlos' office was what looked like an old house, with high ceilings, a homey kitchen with a gurgling coffee maker, and two open rooms that ran into one another, but yet provided privacy for the people working. There was a man from Chile working away on a laptop, rocking out to some tunes, and another couple from Chile that came to drop off groceries. Carlos took us into a corner of the room where a desk was seated, and two chairs. We sat down and he spoke to us about the mission of his organization, weaving in and out of Spanish and English. His mission is one that seeks to bring together people of all different nationalities, religious beliefs, and cultures with one common aim to take the violence from our society and to refocus on the humanity within the world. He was one of the kindest people we have met in Buenos Aires, and we were so thankful to establish a connection with someone who runs an organization that perhaps we could be a part of in some small way. About an hour later, we thanked Carlos for his time and promised to stay in touch. In no time at all, we were back at our apartment, more exhausted than ever, and cooking up a feast, which we chased down with Quilmes while watching the Sopranos. A hard week with a perfect ending. :-)