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.


Tina said...

Hi roommates! It's refreshing to read your point of view on Buenos Aires. It looks like your eyes are truly open while you're down here. :-) Great blog you have here!

Bessie Julia said...

great stories! I found your blog back in August, and I follow it from time to time, but now that I'm living in Buenos Aires as well, I can even more vividly visualize the streets and smiles you describe. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!