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. :-)

Come Get Your Gringo Empanadas!

It was 9 am on a Sunday morning, and we were already hitting up the grocery store. We piled ground beef, a whole chicken, onions, hot sauce, and emapanada pastry dough into our baskets. We headed home, turned on the oven, and got to work. It was team work at its best. I put the ground beef in a pot and lit the stove; while I was chopping onions, Nick seasoned the meat. When both the onions and the beef were done, we opened up the dough, and placed it circle-by-circle onto a cookie sheet. Nick scooped the onions and beef into the middle of the dough circles, and then I folded the dough together, making sure to pinch the ends together to form traditional empanadas. We baked them until they were golden brown, and then we started on the chicken ones. 72 empanadas later, our apartment smelled like cumin, cooked meat, and toasted pastries.

While they were still hot, Nick and I lined tin after tin with rows and rows of empanadas, seperating each layer with a paper towel to soak up any grease and to keep them warm and fresh. We threw on our salesman clothes (an ancient summer dress and cargo shorts and a tshirt, respectively), and carried our cartons of empanadas down the street and to the San Telmo Sunday Antique Fair. At the beginning of Plaza Dorrego, we heard our names being called, and turned to see our friends Nick and Brenna walking towards us with their bright blue serving bowl lined with dulce de leche and banana empanadas, pastalitos, the carmel colored sweet syrup leaking out of the pinches in the dough. My mouth was watering at the sight of them.

The four of us staked out a corner in the plaza and held up Nick's handmade sign advertising our emapanadas for 2 pesos a piece. And customers actually began to come! I think we were so surprised by the first customer that they probably wondered if they should buy one of our pastries, based on our displays of over-gratitude. But the fair was so busy, and crowds kept passing us, and random passers-by would see our sign, smell our emapanadas, and hand over a two peso bill. We were absolutely cracking up that this was working, that we were actually selling empanadas!

A few minutes after we arrived, our friend Leonor arrived, Leonor our empanada sale savior. Leonor is a woman we met while student teaching for our EBC, TEFL-certification course. She was one of our students at the center, and quickly became one of our favorite students. She is one of those people who literally radiates warmth; she is always smiling, always laughing, and always inviting us everywhere with her sister, Elsa, and their friends. Yesterday, Leonor showed up in all of her glory, and led the way. She shouted out empanadas and pastalitos slogans, explaining to customers about our pastries for sale when the Spanish confused us. She took our baskets and walked through the plaza, drawing customers in along the way. She stayed out there with us for three hours, selling our empanadas and keeping us company. Needless to say, we could not have done it without her...Our empanada angel. :-)

Throughout the day we had many different kinds of customers. We had portenos frequenting the fair, Europeans vacationing in Buenos Aires, supportive friends who came to visit us and help our budding business, and American tourists. One family from Michigan was sitting outside at a nearby cafe and called us over. Why are you doing this? they asked. We explained how we are English teachers living here in Buenos Aires, and looking to make some pocket change by doing something we love: cooking! They got such a kick out of a bunch of Americans selling traditional Argentine pastries that they bought six. They made our day. What also made our day were travellers with fancy cameras taking our pictures, mistaking us for Argentines. We laughed and posed with our baked goods, trying to get them to buy one along their way.

At the end of the day, our friends Vera and Eva paid us a visit, and then paid us for 6 empanadas, topping off our day and buying the last of the empanadas. We had sold 70 empanadas, and made 120 pesos for doing something we loved. To celebrate, Nick and I, Nick and Brenna, and Leonor and her sister Elsa all went out for pitchers of beer. We sat at a cafe, half-watching a soccer game in the background, and thoroughly enjoying our cold glasses of Schneiders. We were exhausted, but excited and slightly in shock that we had just sold dozens of empanadas. We kept cracking up at the idea that our quirky idea had worked, somehow (Leonor, thank you!!)...

So, for all of you Americans out there in Buenos Aires, come buy American next Sunday at the San Telmo Antique Fair, come buy some American-made empanadas! And, for all you Argentines, come try something exotic, come buy some gringo empanadas! We will be there. :-)

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Earning our Ex-Pat Stripes

With the election less than three weeks away, the intensity is mounting. I don't know if any of you knew this, but I happen to be dating a political pundit, so I get informed of the latest poll stats multiple times a day. Although I am always a little leary of polls, the numbers are fascinating in the recent weeks, with the financial jumbles seeming to really engage voters. It is both sad and hopeful that polling stations do not currently have the means to handle all of the predicted voters; sad because so disappointingly few Americans voted before, and hopeful because of the sweeping change that seems to be blowing through the US.

Our own miniature Election Day actually happenned last Thursday, as absentee ballots had to be signed, sealed, and delivered by last Friday. We trekked out to the embassy in the morning, took a number, and waited our turn to vote. It was one line we were happy to wait in, as it meant more people voting! It is a strange feeling to already have our ballots in, and yet still be waiting for Election Day. Although, as it turns out, some of us are not in any hurry to have Election Day come and go...Nick admitted just the other day that he is a bit worried about what he will do with his time after the Election happens. :-)

It is interesting to see how non-Americans are tracking this election. On Wednesday night Nick and I watched the debate at our friends' Nick and Brenna's apartment, and they have a French roommate who watched it with us as well. At the end of the debate, I asked her about her thoughts on President Sarkozy, and she said that although she always votes, she does not pay close attention to domestic politics. She said she gives much more thought to American politics, as she feels they have a bigger impact on her country, and the world. Likewise, in almost every lesson I teach, the students undoubtedly ask me,¨Who are you voting for??¨ It is amazing to see how the United States affects the whole world.

Living in another country makes you realize that every country has its complications. Nick and I realize that we chose quite freely to move here, and because of that, we realize that the positive and negatives we encounter have been a choice. Thus, we certainly acknowledge the negatives and try to avoid them where we can, but they will always be there, and so to help us feel comfortable and help make this home, we have to focus on the positive aspects so much. I feel this effort to recognize the positive has carried over and caused us to really focus on the positives of our own country, as well.

In the past, I have always been far too quick to judge the US, far too quick to look at the negatives. I am realizing more and more how ignorant and naive that was. Of course, like any country, we have our faults and our mistakes--our complications. But we also have some great things and have done great things as a nation, for our own country and for the world. I feel the amount of people who want to learn English here is an example of how the US can be an image of opportunity, as literally hoards of people want to learn the language for business, or travel, or education. It is also unbelievable to me how Argentines have been following the Presidential campaign, as the talk of change and hope brought forth in this campaign spreads to people here in the hopes that America will bring positive change to the world.

Yesterday I was teaching a business-English lesson to a student, and we were discussing the global financial crisis. He was explaining how in Argentina, they do not feel this is such a bad thing, because they have allreay gone through it many times before. Likewise, Nick had a student last week who said, ¨I have seen this movie before...In 2001.¨ Semi-haunting words, as the Argentines refer to 2001 as ¨the crisis,¨ but it also shows how quickly a people and an economy can bounce back. Moreover, the students always top off their explanations with their faith in the US, that it is a stable country that will come back, especially after the election.

One student asked me, ¨Why did you come to Argentina?¨ Well, it was more like, ¨Why did you come to Argentina?¨ I explained how Nick and I wanted to challenge ourselves, and we wanted to learn Spanish, to which the student said, ¨Well, then why not somewhere else, somewhere like Uruguay, somewhere stable?¨ I was thrown off, and tried to laugh it off, saying that we understand that every country has its complications, but he was insistent. Many Argentines I have encountered have a fierce pride associated with being Argentine, coupled strangely with a self-deprecation in being Argentine. They have seen a junta, and their economy plummet, constant farmer strikes where meat and dairy products are withheld from grocery stores, the government and the agriculturalists in constant stand-off's, and I feel Argentines have learned to shake their heads and say as one of my students so perfectly quoted, ¨At the end of the day, this is Argentina, and we are not surprised.¨

At the same time that Argentines have this self-deprecation, they also show their excitement over their country, their eyes lighting up when they talk of the natural beauty of Patagonia, or how the falls of Igauzu put Niagra to shame, or how the Malbec from Mendoza puts French wine to shame. It is their land, their history, and they love it passionately. But it seems that when it comes to politics, they place great faith in American politics, which is a wake-up call to me to be proud of my country. I suppose you could say I am an ex-patriot learning to be patriotic. :-)

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Feminismo Side of Buenos Aires

When I personify Buenos Aires in my head, something akin to a sweaty, show-off man flexing his bulging biceps pops into my head. This is because of a few reasons...Before arriving in Buenos Aires, I always wondered at the photographs of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner--why was the President wearing so much mascara?? Coming from a country with the down-to-business demeanor of female politicians such as Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright, it was shocking to see the President of this country so heavily, even distractingly, made up. But now after having been here for two months, and having experienced how men catcall without reservation or hesitation, having heard how many Argentines first comment on a woman's appearance and then comment on her credentials, it is now clear that Cristina has little choice in her self-presentation.

It is not that the city is incredibly sexist or dangerous. No, it is rather just a touch of the old-fashioned machismo, the verbal judgment that comes flying at you from every corner as you walk down the street. It is a bit shocking and startling to be commented on in broad-daylight with such brazenenss, and is perhaps a part of the city I may never be able to get used to.

Perhaps that is why I feel so refreshed when I escape the usual noisy buzz when crossing the bridge into Puerto Madero, a barrio sitting quietly and snugly against the river. Its avenues are wide and calm; its park benches overlooking the water are romantic and peaceful. The yellow and red cranes that loom on the riverbanks are proof of the sweat and tears that made this barrio, an endeavor world-renown for its renovative feats, for this barrio laid as a wasteland of urban development deposit for 100 years. It wasn't until 20 years ago that the city began to clear away the mess and build anew, and now it literally shines as one of the trendiest and cleanest neighborhoods in the city.

Not only is Puerto Madero a model of progress in remodeling, but it also stands as a model of progress to feminism. The bridge that foot travellers take into the neighborhood is called the Bridge of Woman, and this beautiful structure designed by Santiago Calatrava overlooks the river while proudly standing as a monument to the Amazonian side of Argentina. The Bridge of Woman takes you from the Avenidas of Simon Bolivar and Vincente Lopez to the Avenidas of Julieta Lanterri and Olga Cossettini, linking the heroes and the heroines of this many-layered place.

Wandering through Puerto Madero is always an inspiring reminder of potential progress. On a sunny day, to walk across the Bridge of Woman and to sit on a park bench, eating a picnic while staring at the muddy-but-sparkling water, and to imagine the histories of these femme-fatales fuertes that are serenaded in the street names is indeed a day in which one feels close to Argentina, close to its problems, its progress, its complexities; close to its beautiful reality.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Deutschland, Argentina

A friend of a friend´s friend lives in Buenos Aires. The orginal friend in this line-up is actually two friends--Nick & Brenna--a couple we met in our TEFL course. They are from Kalamazoo, Michigan, and they are the kind of people that you spend 12 hours with and wonder where the time went. But that is another story, to be expanded on at a later time. Going back to the connection with the Argentine part of the line-up. Nick´s good friend´s mother went to high school with an Argentine woman. The two women met when they were 16, roughly 40 years ago, but have kept in touch via emails, letters, and interspersed telephone calls. When Nick and Brenna arrived in Buenos Aires, they emailed the Argentine counterpart of this friendship, who then invited them over for a barbeque.

The barbeque turned out to be a gathering of German Argentines, as the woman is married to a German man. The day was spoken in a mixture of English, Spanish, and German, and through this tri-lingual web, Nick and Brenna found out about an upcoming Buenos Aires Oktoberfest. 70 pesos for all you can drink and all you can eat. When beer is 10 pesos a pop even without the accompanying German music and festive atmosphere, we were sold before they even mentioned the all you can eat part. That was just a huge added bonus.

A week later the four of us, and two other friends from our course, were seated on a commuter train headed to Vicente Lopez, a suburb just north of the city where the famed fest was taking place. From the train station we found our way to the German Cultural Center, not hard to miss with the attendees going to and from the building in laderhosen and felt, feathered caps. We walked into the Community Center and sized up the situation: we were definitely the youngest attendees, by about 30 years. But the Isenbeck was flowing from the taps, the laderhosen-clad band was in full swing, and goulash was being served aplenty by blond waitresses in traditional German dresses. There was no way we were leaving.

The six of us sat down at our assigned table and began on our first pitcher of Isenbeck. Soon two others joined us, an older couple we took to be German as they sang along to every Deutsch balad. Nick sparked up a conversation with them, from which he learned that they were in fact Belgian and had ended up in Buenos Aires together due to a round-about and unpredictable series of events. The husband laughed at Nick´s English, teasing him for sounding so American. Nick asked the man how he had learned English, and the man explained that he had fought with the Allies during World War II and learned American English, but when he moved to London after the War, he was mercilessly made fun of and quickly adopted a British accent. After working in London for a while, the textile industry moved him to Brazil, and later to Buenos Aires, where he met the woman who would become his wife. He and the woman discovered they were from the same town in Belgium, but had never known one another. The woman had moved to Buenos Aires with her first husband, who had passed away, but with whom she had had eight children. The couple has now been together for a quarter of a century, and together they sang these German tunes, enjoyed their beer and sausage, and paused in conversation from time to time to enjoy a dance together. It was beautiful to see how the husband looked at his wife still after so many years together--how he helped her put on her jacket, took her arm as they walked to the dance floor, and translated everything we said into French so that she could understand the table conversation. They were certainly people to take notes from.

The night saw many more pitchers consumed, sausages and sauerkraut devoured, and German chocolate pastries inhaled. We were all so full from beer and heavy German cuisine that by 1:00 am, although the fest was still in full swing, we could hardly keep our eyes open. We got up to go, and as I stopped in the ladies´ room en route to the exit, I slipped and fell, sliding hands-first into the bathroom. Although I tried to laugh it off, nobody else in the bathroom laughed, and instead looked at me in pity. I am not at all sure I can return to the German Cultural Center anytime soon. But despite the parting mortification, it was a night to never forget.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Sweating on the Subte

My friend Celeste told me that summer is so hot here that you get back sweat.
¨Celeste,¨ I said, ¨you get back sweat in Wisconsin. That doesn´t mean anything.¨
¨No, I mean, you get other people´s back sweat. On you.¨
Oy. That´s a whole different animal.
¨Yeah, I know,¨she continued, acknowledging my look of disgust. ¨Ã‹specially on the subte.¨

Oh my gosh. The subte rides now are Hell, with everyone crammed in so tightly you don´t need to hold on to anything because there isn´t even any space to fall. I have seen way too many strangers up close and personal. I don´t want to notice that the businessman next to me needs to pop a pimple on his chin, but I have no choice but to see, and then to stare, like a car wreck.

I always emerge sweating and surprised I could even make it through the door with the massive glob of commuters. The other day I was trying gingerly to make my way through, past one porteno at a time, until an impatient man actually shoved me through the doors. On my tumble off the train, my sweater got caught on another train-riding sardine, and I stood by helplessly, watching the doors slide shut and the train zoom off, taking my sweater with it.

All this pain when it is a crisp and refreshing 65 degrees Fahrenheit above ground. I do not want to think about summer on the subte. I have some time, though, before the subte gets even sweatier. Luckily, we have just entered spring, and that brings with it its own bag of tricks.

Spring in Argentina means specifically, as a rule of thumb, that the parks are now always filled, and filled with the country´s finest. And by finest, I mean old, leathery, nearly naked men, letting it all hang out in a speedo. They stake a claim to a small square of grass, set up their lawn chair, and sit down with their arms stretched out and their faces tilted toward the sky. Some are bald and some have flowing white manes, and some are somewhere in-between. And they are all fabulous. No need to bring a book to the park any longer--your entertainment already awaits. But be careful not to let them catch you staring. They feel quite sexy (rightfully so), and if they see you looking, they will assume you second that emotion.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008


With our TEFL diplomas signed, sealed, and delivered, Nick and I are officially certified English teachers. Looking for work in Buenos Aires is an informal connecting of the dots, a hop-scotch across the city from one arrow to the next. These arrows come in the form of emails, newspaper advertisements, and good old word-of-mouth. Our first interviews were at a company where we interviewed together in a joint meeting led by one woman wearing tight jeans and converse sneakers and another woman wearing skin-tight white pants who laughed in her gravelly voice and tossed her Shakira-style mane between each and every question. We left the office laughing, and our interviewers kissed us both on the cheek before we got out the door. Since that interview, a few more emails have trickled into our inboxes, and Nick began his first job today and I began my first job on Saturday. Nick is currently on the number 33 bus headed to an IT company where he will teach employees about how to communicate with their American and British co-workers and clients. On Saturday and on Tuesday I headed out to privately tutor a young woman who needs assistance creating a presentation she must show to the American directors of her company. It is funny, our loopy schedules that have us teaching on Saturday mornings or Thursday evenings and for random chunks in the middle of the days. But it is nice to have free gaps where we can make a big lunch, or sit with coffee for some stolen morning hours, or take a bike ride through the park on a two hour break in-between lessons and interviews.

Without having impending class deadlines looming over our heads, I feel as though our minds have been freed to focus on the moment, and I have noticed so much more of what is in front of me now that class is over. I have since taken note of the woman who gets on the subte by our apartment, the woman who always stops to kiss the mosaic of the Virgin Mary that protects the descending stairwell. I have noticed the graffiti tattooed onto the wall of my tutee´s apartment building, an image of a rockstar lifting an electric guitar over his head, with none-other than the name MAXWELL spray-painted in block letters above the hailed instrument. I have time to chat with the grocer across the street, who likes to practice the one English poem he knows--roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet, and so are you--as I pay for the milk and chocolate I buy from him. Without having to stay cooped up in our apartment, head bent over our keyboards pounding out lessons and essays, Nick and I sometimes get to go to the Ecological Reserve during the day and take note of the wildlife that flocks there at noon versus the wildlife present at dusk. Along the way we get to take note of the laughter from the school children who race down the slide at their recess, a sea of blue-and-white uniform clad kids running in mini converse high-tops.

Perhaps most importantly, now there is time to get down to learning Spanish. This afternoon we are going to our first free Spanish class, at a language school in Palermo, and I think it will become a weekly endeavor. Cecilia has left for Spain to spend a month there with her boyfriend, and our goal is to be able to speak to her in a much more fluid way when she returns. Espanol, here we come.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Cruising on the Tigre Delta

Dos bolletos para ida y vuelta.
Cuatro pesos.
Ah, refresco
...Two round-trip tickets to Tigre, a small coastal town about an hour north of the city. A sunny Saturday tooling around a quaint riverside town, all for four pesos for the both of us. Not bad.

The whistle blew, signalling the approaching departure, and we hustled through the sliding doors. We walked through almost all of the cars, but it seemed as though everyone else in Buenos Aires had the same idea as us...And it was standing room only. We staked a position by the door, and as the train clunked away on the tracks and our coffee splashed along with every clunk, we peered out the window and took in life outside of Buenos Aires.

When we rolled into Tigre 45 minutes later, we stepped out into the sunshine and were greeted by vendors selling freshly baked empanadas in woven baskets. A few blocks later we found ourselves at the banks of the Rio de la Plata Tigre Delta surrounded by kiosks selling tickets to ferry rides in and around the delta. 15 pesos buys you an hour-long delta cruise, so we paid up and hopped on board.

The tour boat was pontoon-style, and it chugged slowly through the murky waters of the delta. Lofty trees weighed down with webs of what looked to be Spanish moss lined the banks, and little homes on stilts dotted both sides of the river. Native Tigreans sunbathed on their piers or sat outside eating parilla in a circle of plastic lawn chairs. Young Argentine men zipped by on jet skis, and middle-aged Argentine fathers sped by on speedboats, the arms wrapped protectively around their life-vest-clad children. Argentine flags, worn threadbare from years of being whipped in the wind, blew from poles attached to piers, some flags so old the blue and white stripes flew sans a smiling, centered sun. Boats filled with logs or palm trunks created wakes in front of us, and dogs barked from docks as we passed.

After the ferry ride, we walked around the town of Tigre, drooling as we passed street vendors selling strawberries dripping with chocolate (maybe that was just me...) and street carts offering spicy chorizo (okay, that was definitely both of us). We stopped at an outdoor cafe and split a litre of Quilmes and a plate of salted French fries. We walked on, mosying around the gigantic flea market that wraps around nearly the whole town. Vendors advertise home-made furniture, paintings, mate cups, leather ware, and other traditional Argentine goods, including choripan. Nick and I and the friends we were travelling with all bought one of the deliciously juicy sausages sandwhiched between two thick pieces of toasted bread, drenched them in spicy chimichurri sauce, and dug in. There is no ladylike way to eat a choripan, and the chimichurri sauce dripped down my wrist as I devoured my sandwhich, and I ordered a coke from the waitress before Nick had a chance to wipe the mustard smear from across my cheek. But it is too delicious to care.

An hour later, we made our way back to the train station for our veulta back to the Capital Federal. On our walk back, we passed a vendor selling spices from baskets and we spotted the unmistakeable golden dust of the curry powder for which we had searched Buenos Aires up and down to no avail. Two bags of curry powder later, and we were ready to call it a day. A week later, the curry is almost gone, but our taste-of-India apartment really feels like home now.