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Goodbye Buenos Aires, for now…

Time January 3rd, 2012 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Coming back to the United States. I always knew it had to happen. That didn’t make it any easier.

Saying goodbye to my host family was difficult. We didn’t actually have much time for a long goodbye, because I had spent the afternoon having lunch with my host mom, and then I had been out running around buying last minute things to bring back to the U.S. with me: a container of dulce de leche, a box of alfajores, candy…you know, the important things. I made it back to the apartment and was still throwing things in my suitcases when the taxi arrived. My family helped me get the bags into the cab in the rain, I gave everyone a quick hug goodbye, said thank you for everything, and was off. But “thank you” never seems like enough, and “goodbye” is no good at all.

Despite the rain, the grey day, my sadness, I told myself I wouldn’t cry. I should be happy, I was going home to Nevada to see my family, and soon to UPenn to see my friends.  I made it until the plane took off. That’s when it hit me — that I was really leaving. I had the urge to jump off the plane.

In the Miami airport, I was still hearing announcements made in Spanish, people speaking Spanish around me. I was even still speaking in Spanish, out of habit, or perhaps out of some sort of longing or nostalgia. I had an entire conversation in Spanish with the woman checking my luggage. When she asked to see my identification, and I handed her my U.S. passport, she stared at me. “You’re…from the United States? But you’ve been speaking Spanish…” She was confused as to why I was speaking Spanish with her, but quickly added, “I mean, you speak well, really well! You hardly even have an accent.” I felt so proud, and sad at the same time, because I knew it might be one of my last chances to have a conversation in Spanish.

 On the flight from Miami to Los Angeles, the flight attendant asked me if I would like something to drink. I was so used to having to respond in Spanish, all I could say was “Uhh…uhmmm…sí. I mean, yes.” She stared at me. “Okaaay, well, would you like to tell me what you would like to drink?” And all I could think was, “Café con leche, but you don’t have that. Not like in Argentina.”

I’m going to miss Buenos Aires very much. I knew I would fall in love with it even before I arrived. I will end with a list then, of things I love about Buenos Aires. And a disclaimer: I don’t think the porteños are perfect, by any means, and I don’t mean to idealize or romanticize, or paint Buenos Aires as some sort of utopia. These are simply some things I love:

I love that you don’t ever have to worry about being late there. In the United States I am often stressed, rushing, gotta go, gotta go, late, late! There is no sense of punctuality in Buenos Aires. If someone tells you to meet them at 2:30, it’s understood they really mean for you to meet them at about 3:45.

I love that people there are more relaxed. I don’t know how to explain it, but you can feel the lack of tension. And see it on the faces. They don’t stress! And for someone who always stresses and worries herself sick over every little thing, this is liberating for me. It’s like a weight off my chest that I never even realized was there until it was lifted.

I love that “having a coffee” is an important event in this culture. You sit down in a café for hours and hours just to talk, relax, have a cup of tea or coffee with pastries. Human connection is important. I’m going to miss that.

I love that the people there seem warmer, friendlier. They touch each other all the time. Personal space bubbles aren’t as large as they are in the United States. Many people hug each other. When people talk to each other and get really excited or want to emphasize a point, they grab you by the forearm or elbow. When they’re concerned for me or want to express affection, they place a hand on my shoulder and give it a squeeze. When you get to class and see your classmates, you kiss every one of them on the cheek as a greeting. Same goes for when you leave and say goodbye. When you’re being introduced to someone for the first time, you don’t shake hands, you do the cheek kiss. Everybody kisses cheeks, it is their form of greeting. It is strange to not do that anymore now that I’ve returned to the United States.

I love that many people here care for each other so genuinely. They go above and beyond to help you. The phrase “time is money” does not exist. They don’t do things for incentive or think only of themselves. 

I love that they joke and laugh a lot here. That the professors can crack hilarious and often offcolor jokes in class. They are a fun loving people, they’re not often very rigid and serious.

I love how they talk. How they move their hands, how their accent sounds, the cadence of their speech, all their sayings and slang. I love that strangers strike up conversations with each other. I love when the porteños get all riled up over something, passionate, start shouting and waving their hands.

I love how important reading and literature are here. I love that there are streets with so many bookstores, one after another after another. I love that just about everybody reads on the buses and subways, standing up or sitting down. 

I even love that so many things, aspects of everyday life, seem chaotic and dysfunctional. I love, for example, that the sidewalks are so atrocious, full of pedestrians and craters and broken cement and piles of dog poop that you just about sprain an ankle trying to navigate. I love that sometimes the buses come in spurts of three, and other times fail to come for way too long, leaving you waiting on the corner forever. I love the feeling of taking life as it comes. I love that even though nothing seems to work, everything somehow works out in the end. 

 

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Iguazu Falls and Northern Argentina

Time January 3rd, 2012 in College Study Abroad | 1 Comment by

With about two weeks to travel, and a college student’s budget, I had to choose and plan wisely.

But I didn’t.

For once in my life, I didn’t obsess over every detail or freak out trying to plan everything. I got on a bus headed north to see the Iguazu waterfalls, and I had a basic idea of where I wanted to travel throughout northern Argentina, but other than that — nothing. No plan. One backpack, a travel guide, and myself. Wherever I decided to go, living moment to moment. A skill I picked up living porteño style for about five months.

I went to the falls with my best friend from the study abroad program. Iguazu park was packed with tourists, but seeing the waterfalls was worth braving the crowds. We went on a boat right up to the bottom of the falls, got soaked! We spent the day hiking through the park to see the different waterfalls, and inadvertently wound up saving the best for last. The Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat), which we approached on a metal walkway constructed in the river, was beautiful. The walkway provides you with an aerial view. But the falls drop so far down, it is impossible to see the bottom. You seem to stare into a bottomless pit of white foam that surges up in huge sprays, drenching everyone on the walkway. The water gushes so powerfully, converges so quickly, and plummets so heavily. You cannot see the falls until you are upon them, because of the angle at which the walkway approaches the point the falls begin. It’s as though you’re walking along (on top of) the river, and suddenly the world drops off. You get closer to the precipice, look down, and see everything. I felt like I was at the end of the world. Or perhaps the beginning, its creation. Something impossible to capture in a photograph. We wanted to stay and stare at the waterfalls for the rest of the day, but eventually we tore ourselves away.

After Iguazu, I was going to venture North alone, and my friend was to head South and into Chile. She had already traveled through northern Argentina and assured me it would be amazing.

Many people told me I would be fine traveling alone, that I have a good head on my shoulders and would make good choices. Others told me I was crazy — a young woman, traveling alone, what was I thinking? With such pale skin and blonde hair, and my accent, I would stick out.

I decided I wanted to go by myself, and that, crazy or not, it was the way I had to travel. It was scary, but liberating. At times, I did feel limited and frustrated by what I could do as a woman traveling on my own in a foreign country.  But for the most part, it was an amazing experience. I had to look out for myself, and only myself. I planned as I went, and never had to worry about running late, or falling behind schedule, because there was no schedule. I didn’t have to buy bus tickets well in advance, I could buy them as I needed them.

From Iguazu, I traveled to Tucuman, Tafí del Valle, Amaicha, Cafayate, Salta. From Salta I splurged on a guided excursion through the quebradas (canyons) and Salinas Grandes (salt flats) that ended in Purmamarca. From there I took a bus to Tilcara, and spent two days in that small town, taking one short bus trip to see Humahuaca. Then I took a bus allll the way back to Buenos Aires — a 24 hour bus ride, that was a bit much for me.

Aside from that last long stretch, the bus rides were one of my favorite parts of my travels. Of course I enjoyed seeing each pueblito. I was glad to see how people live in the rest of Argentina, outside of Buenos Aires. But the journeys in between were beautiful, and as important as the final destinations. In a way, there were no final destinations, only one long journey. I didn’t know where exactly I would wind up sleeping at the end of each day. I didn’t know how far North I would make it before needing to turn back to Buenos Aires to catch my flight to the United States. I simply relaxed, stared out the window, enjoyed the trip in and of itself. It was great to read, listen to music, and just think — daydream, and take in the beautiful scenery.

Here are pictures of the waterfalls, the small towns throughout the provinces of Tucuman, Salta, and Jujuy, and all of my journeys in between. A few shots I actually snapped through the window of a moving bus.

 

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Studying abroad, and traveling too

Time January 3rd, 2012 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Throughout the entire semester, I worried that I would never get to travel. Every weekend people took trips to Mendoza or Iguazu or Chile, I always had books to read, papers to write. I challenged myself with a difficult courseload, and I worked hard to be able to keep up with the classes. I was so afraid I would go back to the United States having spent my semester abroad with my nose in a book instead of exploring Argentina beyond Buenos Aires, that I’d wind up regretting the way I spent my time studying instead of “living”. It took me until the end of the semester to realize that I didn’t have any regrets. Sure, I was still itching to travel, especially since this was my first time outside of the United States.

I think there is a balance to be found between “studies” and “fun” when studying abroad. All along I was thinking there was some exact formula, and that I was doing something “wrong”. I wanted to be traveling more, but I didn’t want to give up doing well in my classes, and I tortured myself trying to have it both ways. It was never about my GPA; I love learning, and reading, and classes — that made me happy. But I felt like I needed to be doing what many other students do, going out more, traveling.

It took me a while to stop worrying about how the other students were budgeting their time abroad and realize that the study abroad experience varies for every individual. What matters most is if I am getting what I want out of the experience, if I am happy. It sounds so simple now that I’m writing it, but throughout the semester, I didn’t know what I ought to be “getting” out of my time abroad. Experience comes through studying, too, I realized. Living with a host family, going to museums, theatres, watching movies, constantly speaking and listening to Spanish. Eating new foods, getting lost, making your own discoveries, and learning from observing a culture that is not your own.

Something one of my professors said during our last class struck a chord with me and provided me with the opportunity for reflection. She was talking about the difficulties foreign exchange students face when studying abroad, and she basically said we don’t have a sufficient level of Spanish to manage such rigorous courses, and that the ideal would be to encounter only professors who are compassionate and understanding of our situation, or to enroll only in classes specifically geared toward exchange students. And that she wasn’t sure how much we could hope to get out of our experience in the universities. She meant well, she is one of the more compassionate professors I have encountered here. But I couldn’t help feeling outraged, because I would like to think I have done quite well this semester! I got really high marks in my literary theory class, for example. And the profs were impressed with my ability to grasp advanced concepts in a foreign language, and without ever having taken a class on literary theory. They, as well as my advisors within the study abroad program, have told me that my command of Spanish (in terms of oral and especially written expression) is phenomenal.

So before I knew what I was saying, I started to respond to this professor’s remarks. Out loud. In front of everyone. Normally I don’t speak up very much in my classes taugh in English in the United States — I prefer to sit quietly and listen to the discussion. But since studying in Buenos Aires, I’ve spoken in front of the crowded classrooms (probably 100 or more students) in UBA, and I’ve become more confident in my Spanish speaking abilities. This seminar was much smaller, and I was passionate about what I had to say in response to this professor’s opinions about foreign students that she had announced without fully knowing my situation, and so speaking up came more easily. It was as though somebody had opened a sort of floodgate, and everything I’d been worrying about lately came to the surface. I contradicted what she’d said, and told her that yes, foreign exchange students can get a great deal out of their experiences in the universities here, and that no, there is nothing wrong with taking only study abroad program courses, but this shouldn’t be our only option. I tried to explain what I’d “gotten” out of studying at UCA and UBA. If I never would have enrolled in the universities, I never would have met her or my classmates in her seminar, for example.

I will admit that taking high level literary theory courses in UBA was extremely difficult, and that there were times I wanted to pull my hair out, times I thought I wasn’t going to survive the semester with my sanity intact. However, if I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t have done it any differently. Because I learned so much, not only from the classes themselves, but about myself, and what I am capable of academically. I said all of this, and more, and my Spanish flowed so well, because I wasn’t worrying about my grammar. I was passionate about what I had to say. I felt fluent. But when I finished, there was absolute silence, and as it stretched painfully on, I thought, “Good going, Callie. Sheesh what a rant.” Then one student started to clap. And then everyone was applauding me, including the professor! I couldn’t believe it. Great way to end the class.

Finally I managed to get everything written and turned in with enough time to travel through northern Argentina before returning to Buenos Aires for my December 23rd flight back to the United States. Thanks to the help of amazing professors and advisors and program directors I met along the way. In a way, the struggle is what made the experience meaningful. And now, being able to travel feels like a great reward for all of my hard work!

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Comfort Food, Loneliness, and “How are you doing?”

Time January 3rd, 2012 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Aside from all of the sugar and caffeine, I have been enjoying healthier options. I use that term lightly, however. I don’t understand how the porteños stay so slim, eating the way they do. They do red meat very well, and they eat a lot of it! Another popular meal is a milanesa, a thin sheet of beef or chicken, breaded and fried. Often with a side of french fries. Other staples are pizza, pasta, and empanadas. Lots of carbs.

It is all delicious, but after awhile, I am starting to crave variety. They seem to know what foods they like, and they stick to them. I find myself missing vegetables, couscous, falafel, certain dishes I would cook for myself in the United States.   

Out of all the delicious, albeit repetitive, meals and foods I have tried so far, the best has been not the bife de lomo and bottle of Malbec I shared with other students from the program in a fancy restaurant, but a half eaten piece of cheese and onion filled bread that a stranger offered me in la UBA.

Normally I never share food with strangers. Often not even with friends. But I was tired, lost, and hungry. The Argentines do not eat dinner until very late at night, and that has been hard for me to adjust to. I am always hungry earlier, but with late classes, I don’t get home for dinner until close to midnight.  

So when this guy saw me trying to find my way around, told me he was looking for the same class, and offered to walk with me, and then offered me his food on top of that kindness, I couldn’t turn it down. You know how things just taste better when you’re really hungry? I just about inhaled that hunk of bread filled with slimy slices of onion and I don’t even know what else. Many times, studying abroad, I eat things without fully knowing what they are. I’m proud of how adventurous I’ve become. I used to be a bit of a picky eater, but now I just try everything. For one thing, I might not know how to translate the Spanish description of whatever I’ve ordered. And for another, when you’re hungry and you just want food, asking for details or ingredients in a foreign language stops being a priority.

Sharing food and drinks is also important socially, I feel, especially in la UBA. The students are constantly passing around cigarettes and sipping mate. If you buy a pack of gum or candy and start eating it, it is expected that you offer it to everyone around you.

I love that sense of camaraderie, the spirit of sharing, one for all and all for one. And yet, with the language barrier, I sometimes feel alienated from the community. I don’t have any porteno friends yet. The director of the study abroad program, during orientation, told us it would be difficult to make friends, and now I understand what he meant. It’s not that they aren’t friendly. On the contrary, they ask me so many questions and are eager to find out where I’m from, why I chose to study here, what my life is like in the United States, what I think of Buenos Aires, and so on. But as soon as the inundation of curiosity stops, that’s it. They have their own lives, their own friends, and I am just temporary, an exchange student.

It is one thing to feel lonely when you are by yourself. It is quite another type of loneliness to be surrounded by hundreds of moving, talking, coffee-drinking, snack-sharing bodies, and yet feel utterly alone.

I was at this point when I decided to ask a professor to clarify the syllabus. He asked me a lot of questions, like: “Ah, de donde sos? ¿Tenes otras preguntas? ¿Cómo estás? ¿Cómo va, todo bien?”

The “are you doing okay?” part got to me. Because he meant it. So many people, in the United States, at least, when they ask you “How are you?”, I feel like they don’t actually mean it. It’s just a phrase to say, like a tic, or an engrained obligation. The trained response is an equally quick “Good,” or “Fine,” even when you’re not good or fine. Here, it seems different – I feel as though people take the time to wait for an answer. So when el professor asked me and stood there with a worried look on his face, waiting for me to tell him, honestly, if I was okay, I almost started to cry. Everything that had been building up for the past week – not understanding anyone when they spoke to me, feeling waaay in over my head in terms of the level and volume of readings, not having friends – it all flooded to the surface. Am I doing okay? I have been telling myself I am, but I realized I’m not so sure. Sometimes you don’t know how badly you need to be asked if you’re okay until somebody asks you.

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a few quick photos

Time January 3rd, 2012 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Here are some photos of the cemetery in Recoleta that I meant to attach to the last post. The passageways are so narrow, it was hard to take clear shots without having to tilt the camera up toward the sky. Very bright sunny day.

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Coffee and Sweets

Time January 3rd, 2012 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

They LOVE dulce de leche here. (Dulce de leche is a thick caramel goo. Delicious, and very rich.)  They fill cookies, breads, churros, cakes, and pastries with it, smear it on toast or crackers for breakfast or tea, put it in coffee drinks, smoothies or milkshakes, yogurt…basically everything edible here is partially comprised of dulce de leche. Another foreign exchange student told me his host mother once offered to make him an omelet filled with dulce de leche!

Dulce de leche ice cream (the ice cream here is expensive, but worth it), crepes layered with dulce de leche, flan covered in dulce de leche…

Often we (or maybe I’m speaking for myself here) eat it plain, by the spoonful, scooping it out from the tub in the refrigerator.

My host sister taught me how to eat dulce de leche with bananas for dessert. There are two methods, she told me. This is serious business. You can slice the banana and drag the slices through the dulce de leche. Or you can mash the banana with a fork and swirl in the dulce de leche, then eat the final product like pudding. I prefer the first way, she likes the second.

I think by the time I leave Argentina, I will be comprised of about 80% dulce de leche.

The most well-known or popular cookies are called “alfajores”. These consist of two shortbread type cookies sandwiching a thick layer of dulce de leche, with the edges rolled in shredded coconut. The bakeries sell them ranging from quarter sized to larger than my fist.

In la UBA, there is a table at the entry of the facultad that sells sandwiches, apples, portions of cake, and the miniature version of the coconut rolled alfajores in packs for 1 peso each. I always like to buy one, then walk up the stairs and buy a small coffee in a styrofoam cup from one of the coffee and tea stands. I think the woman who sells the alfajores downstairs judges me for only buying one. She raises her eyebrows and repeats, “one?” As in, how could you only want one? They are so rich, one is enough for me. Which is saying something, considering I have a ridiculous sweet tooth.

Kiosks and cafes sell individually wrapped alfajores, usually the chocolate dipped (milk chocolate or white) variation, sans the shredded coconut. Before I leave Argentina, I am making it my mission to sample every brand. So far I prefer the alfajores sold by the Havana chain of cafes. I like that you can select from their menu the “special” of your choice of espresso beverage plus an alfajor. Coffee, alfajores, medialunas (porteño version of croissants), and the omnipresent dulce de leche…I am in a caffeine/sugar addict’s paradise.   

I wonder if the fact that the porteños never seem to sleep arises from the fact that there is a café on every corner in Buenos Aires. Or rather, if the fact that there is a café on every corner is part of the reason why the porteños never seem to sleep.  

My daily coffee intake before coming to Argentina was already high. Now it is out of control. I can’t help it! I love coffee, it is especially delicious here, and very readily available. It is in my house for breakfast or afternoon consumption. When I go to cafes to study, ordering a coffee is a cheaper option than ordering a full lunch. Also, I take many classes at night, in la UBA, from 5 to 11 pm. So I need to buy a small cup of coffee (or two!) from a coffee stand to stay awake and focused. The first floor has two or three stands, so does the second. There are also at least 5 kiosks or fotocopiadoras or cafes that sell cheap styrofoam cups of coffee within a two second walk of the facultad. I am going to miss the cheap, not the greatest, tiny styrofoam cup coffees from the university. The powdered milk that the woman stirs into the cup with a plastic spoon, never managing to get rid of all the clumps. The display of boxes of tea to choose from, a cup of sugar to help yourself to, sticking in bits to the serving spoon from the humidity. And the platter of cellophane wrapped pastries and alfajores.

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the cemetery in Recoleta

Time November 15th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

There are many places in Buenos Aires that I love. This is one of them. The Recoleta Cemetery.

Often cemeteries conjure images ranging from morbid to fantastic – zombies, vampires, coffins, death, decay, ghosts. In the United States we associate cemetery imagery with Halloween. A cemetery is a “spooky” place, creepy, dark, barren. Obviously not all of these connotations are reflected in the cemeteries of the United States. Many have well kept grounds, are filled with rows of gravestones covered in flowers, wreaths, ribbons. There’s just something about the Recoleta cemetery that I find inexplicably unique. 

It is a labyrinth of mausoleums. Marble, granite, names etched in stone, statues of men and carvings of angels. Ornate coffins, many draped in intricate lace shrouds, rest behind stained glass windows and wrought iron gates. And it isn’t cold and barren, but quiet and peaceful. The glass and marble reflect the sunlight, and the sound of the footsteps of visitors and tour guides against the tiled floor mingles with the murmur of tourists speaking Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, English.

I chose not to join a tour group, preferring to find my own way by using posted signs and maps. I found the tomb of Eva Peron. And I felt proud when somebody asked if I knew where the tomb of Sarmiento was and I could give them perfect directions in Spanish, because I had just found it myself.

I also let myself get lost. Part of why I like the Recoleta Cemetery so much, aside from the aesthetic reasons, is that it is a good place to be alone and think, wandering the passageways turn after turn. Without a map I never knew when I’d stumble upon a dead end (no pun intended) in a narrow alley, or encounter a wider passageway that opens up into a sunlit plaza.

I could let the thoughts in my head flow and walk slowly, without having to worry about where I was going. The tranquility encapsulated in the cemetery is such a different world, removed from the chaotic traffic and sidewalks of the rest of Buenos Aires.

 

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La Universidad de Buenos Aires

Time October 12th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

My studies here are split between two worlds. I’m taking one course at the private Catholic university (UCA), and two at the public Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA). The latter is considered top notch. It offers a free education, but it is considered the toughest, most rigorous university in Buenos Aires. For a college student from North America, this concept might seem incongruous with the university’s aesthetic. It is very gritty-urban, has the shittiest broken down classrooms ever, pigeons in the filthy hallways covered in cigarette butts and trash, political graffiti and posters plastered on every wall, no toilet paper or soap in the bathrooms…

One night in UBA, four hours into my class, the power went out. So did we go home? No. We had the next two hours of class (10-11pm) in the pitch dark. I was bundled up in my winter coat and scarf, because UBA is basically a glorified cement warehouse, and in the winter the classrooms are freezing. I could hear the assistant prof’s voice filtering from somewhere nearby, and from the hallways, the sound of students celebrating the power outage, going wild — yelling, pushing desks across the floor, feet running pounding. Finally I was released from a pointless two hours in which I didn’t take any notes and didn’t understand a word the professor said.  I had to try to find my way out of the building by memory and by groping along the walls and trying not to crash into anyone/thing. I started to see a light in the distance, so I walked toward that, thinking it was an exit. When I got closer, I realized it was a bonfire. The students had lit a bonfire. In the school. And people were running in all different directions, I felt like I was in the wake of some terrible natural disaster. Often in UBA, I like to pretend we are the only survivors of the apocalypse, like we’re in a Fahrenheit 451 Brave New World and we’re communing in secret in the night to discuss literature and philosophy.

I can’t help but feel I’m learning “more” in la UBA than I do at Penn. I’m learning differently, I’ll say that at least. Obviously I’m overwhelmed by the fact that the subject matter is somewhat of a novelty — that is, for an undergrad from North America, someone who has never had the opportunity to study literary theory, this material is especially intriguing. There is also the fact that I’m being inundated with a volume of readings each week that is triple the amount I’ve experienced at Penn.

Beyond the sensation of feeling that I’m learning so much, I have to say I feel very at home where I’m learning it. Yes, there are difficulties, I have struggled with the language barrier and with figuring out what I’m supposed to be reading each week and how to find copies. And before I made friends in my classes, I felt lost. And yet, I feel like I fit in at la Universidad de Buenos Aires. In my Teoría Literaria class en la UBA, I sit in a room of more than a hundred students until 11 o’clock at night, and I watch them participate not to earn “participation points” for a good grade, but because they wonder, question, and want to share their opinions. There are not always enough desks to go around, so students sit on the floor or stand clustered in the doorway. The professor is so engaged he is practically shouting, everything is “fascinante, eh?” and “sumamente interesante!”, hands waving, wiping the beads of sweat from his brow. In these classrooms, there is such a genuine enthusiasm, an energy that is almost palpable. The four hours I spend every Wednesday night in la UBA are some of the happiest hours of my week. I don’t know exactly what it is I’ve found, only that I never felt it in any public school classroom in Carson City, Nevada, nor amongst the ivied brick buildings and marble staircases of Penn, but here in this facultad de UBA, sucia, caótica, full of cigarette butts and pigeons, with no toilet paper in the bathrooms.

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My home away from home

Time September 19th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

My host family is the greatest. I won’t go into too much detail in terms of personal information, out of respect for their privacy, but I wanted to at least mention a few thoughts on living with a host family, as it is a huge part of my study abroad experience. The basic info, then: I live in an apartment with Mom, Grandma, brother and sister (older than I am.)

We don’t sit down for dinner together every night, since we have such different and busy schedules. I mostly talk to my host mom, when we both happen to be home. When you’re in a foreign country and don’t know very many people, it’s a comfort to know there is at least one person who will consistently be around to ask you how your day went.

Aside from the fact that it’s a great opportunity to practice my Spanish, and that I like having a mother figure who will listen to me, the conversations with my host mom are important to me because they are an opportunity to share our cultures. We talk about the difference in systems of health care, education, politics. She teaches me that voting here is mandatory and takes me with her to vote so that I can observe. We compare details about social interactions and values, and she teaches me Argentine expressions and slang terms. And then there are the smaller things, which to us are just as interesting: differences between the yogurt here and the yogurt in the United States, or types of desserts and candy bars.

If you walk down the streets of Buenos Aires and pay attention, if you sit in a café and listen to people’s conversations, if you go to a supermercado for groceries, if you ask a stranger for directions, if you ride the bus, take classes, and go to bars/theatres/museums, you’ll get a sense of the different culture in which you’re immersed. But to throw yourself into a house of strangers, that’s how you’ll really learn – about yourself, about adapting to living with them, about their culture. Living with a host family, of course, provides first-hand knowledge that is harder to gain from the streets/bookstores/classrooms/etc. It also provides each student with the unique experiences that she won’t have in common with every other student in the program who also took the class on Argentine History or went on the trip to Mendoza.  

What’s going to stick with me the most, I think, from my entire study abroad experience, will be the memories of my host family. Funny little stories, like how the other night I got home from a bar at 4am to find my host grandma in the kitchen eating pie out of the pan with a spoon, holding it out to me and asking, “Want some? Eat, eat. Did you dance with any good-looking men tonight?” Small details, like the fat white mug with the chipped handle that my host mom filled with tea for me when I had the flu.

My camera has been sitting in a drawer since I got here. I have a feeling I’ll return to the States without very many pictures. But I know that for the rest of my life, whenever I make tea the way my host mom does (scoop of honey and a big squeeze of lemon), I’m never going to be able to taste it without thinking of how my host family took care of me when I felt so miserable and homesick, and of how they always made sure I felt at home.

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The best of times and the worst of times

Time August 3rd, 2011 in College Study Abroad | Comments Off on The best of times and the worst of times by

My blog posts are going to be a bit delayed, due to the fact that I do not have the most reliable wireless internet connection here. For now, here is a story I wrote down after my first few weeks in Buenos Aires.

My first night out:

I got scammed. I shared a cab with friends and was the last in the group to be dropped off. I was to pay for the ride, and my friends would reimburse me for their shares the next day. I handed the driver a 50 peso bill, and he said something in Spanish that I didn’t understand, some reason he couldn’t accept large bills. I knew about the shortage of monedas (coins) in the city, and that many businesses don’t accept large bills because they can’t make change. I told myself, “ah, that must be it,” even though I felt unsure of the situation. I wasn’t confident enough to ask him for an explanation, so I took my bill back when he handed it to me. Or so I thought. In my flustered confusion, I didn’t realize he had swapped my bill with a counterfeit. A very good counterfeit. In the dark cab, I couldn’t even tell it was fake. So I paid him in small bills instead and realized the next morning the 50 peso note he gave me was fake. I was so furious, not at the taxista, or even at how corruption prevails in this city, but at myself. For not being alert enough, and for not speaking up. I felt so cheated, and upset that my accent and lack of Spanish fluency allows people to have an easier time taking advantage of me.

My second or third night out:

In Buenos Aires, we never hail taxis from the street. To do so is to risk getting into an unsafe, “fake” taxi, and being robbed. So we always call a cab company and request a taxi to pick us up. Much safer.

We called the company my friend’s host mom (Julieta) uses, but kept having troubles with the cell phone, and didn’t see the cab anywhere, though the company assured us it was there with all the other cabs in the plaza. Eventually our assigned driver sought us out on foot, that’s how badly we kept crossing paths. We explained the mix-up to him, and he was understanding. A friendly old man with a thick sweater and a deep laugh. Once we were on our way home, he said, “Hmmm, you sound American, so I don’t understand why the call was under the name Julieta…” We laughed and explained. “Ah, I see,” he said. “Because I was starting to think…if you guys were Julieta, that must make me Romeo, since we kept missing each other, crossing paths.” We spent the cab ride home talking about Romeo and Juliet, the tragedies of love, and Shakespeare.   

Many porteños have a great affinity for reading – Buenos Aires is a highly literary/literate city. However, it is also a city with a very high crime rate. Because of this, a perpetual state of vigilance is a simple reality for people living here. You do what you have to – carry your bookbag on the front of your body, never the back. Know which sections of the city to never walk through at night. Keep your hands in your pockets at all times. Never enter or exit your apartment building if there is somebody near the door. And so on. I find living like this to be exhausting. And yet, just when I feel the most disheartened, somebody pleasantly surprises me. The majority of porteños react very kindly to my North American accent. They ask me questions about my life in the United States and about what I’m doing in Buenos Aires, and they praise me for attempting to learn Spanish. Many have helped me through all sorts of negotiations, from purchasing a cell phone plan to choosing the best type of bread on the menu for the sandwich I’m ordering.

For every taxista who will rob you and use the language barrier to take advantage of you, there’s another who will discuss Shakespearean tragedies with you and compliment you on how well you speak Spanish. Living in Buenos Aires, I’m learning to take the good with the bad, and to navigate a city in which barred windows and graffiti are juxtaposed seamlessly with bookshops and literary cafes.

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On the brink of a great adventure

Time July 18th, 2011 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

I will be waking up in four hours to leave the country, and I am in packing frenzy mode right now.

A quick introduction: Hi, my name’s Callie, I go to the University of Pennsylvania, where I’m majoring in Hispanic Studies and English. I grew up in Carson City, Nevada, and I usually return in the summers to visit my mom, dad, two younger brothers, and our dog. Carson is a city of about 50,000…big enough to have six Starbucks, but small enough to not be able to go anywhere without running into somebody I know. Having already moved 3,000 miles away from home to live in Philadelphia for the past two years, I feel ready to spend the next six months in Buenos Aires. I have never traveled outside of the United States, so studying abroad has been something I’ve wanted to do for most of my life.

Getting ready to leave has been a flurry of shopping for luggage, clothes, and toiletries. Saying goodbyes, sending emails, making phone calls, lists, multiple trips to the doctor, dentist, bank, figuring out insurance, prescriptions for allergy medication, and on and on. I still don’t have a clear idea as to how I’ll be making phone calls from abroad, how I’ll find adapters for portable electronics so that my laptop/camera charger/hairdryer doesn’t explode, how I’ll sign up for classes, or how I’ll adapt to a new city, culture, and family. I have no idea how I will manage to do all of this (and so much more!) in Spanish.

And yet, I feel calm. Giddy with excitement, but with an underlying sense of calm. I know this will be a venture into the unknown, and I will have to learn as I go. But that, to me, is immensely liberating.

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