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!!!