Did I Even Leave?
Right now I am fairly certain I’m getting stares as I type this at an El Ateneo, the Argentine version of Barnes & Nobles. Maybe it’s because I’m the only one with a laptop, maybe because of the English stickers on its cover, or perhaps my Americaness reeks for whatever reason. Regardless, so much has happened this first week that I thought it would be best to record a new entry.
After a red-eye ten-hour flight, we touched down in BA Monday morning on July 18th. Stepping off the plane at Ezeria Airport, it honestly did not feel very different from any other airport with all typical signs displaying simple instructions and faceless imagery, just with Spanish, or castellano as it’s called here, as the primary language. After eking though customs and collecting our baggage, we made our way to the McDonalds where we were met some of the IFSA directors. With everyone accounted for, they lead us to the main entrance where they plucked us into taxis one by one to take us to the respective addresses of our host families. The rush of the last half day was finally catching up, along with the only two hours of sleep I got, was making my head spin. There was something else making me feel disoriented… something from the radio sounded oddly familiar…Billy Joel. Huh? All around me on the highway I was seeing Argentine flags, Argentine signs in castellano and the typical small Argentine houses, yet I was hearing the English lyrics of “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me” as if I was back home driving with my dad in his car! After the song finished, the Argentine DJ talked in castellano a little about Joel before introducing Annie Lenox’s “I Put A Spell on You”. An Argentine station playing American classic rock…interesting. I guess American culture is more dominant than I thought.
So far the entire ride the taxi driver and I didn’t converse. After much kicking myself internally to be social human being, I summoned the courage to ask how he was doing. He looked up surprised:
“Ohhh vos halbas castellano!”
I splurtted out: “Haha…un poquito…solo bastante sobrevivir”
The driver chuckled “Ahhh ok, muy bien”
We talked the rest of the way, often with me having to ask him to repeat his sentences. As I said to him, I knew my castellano was torpe but I felt proud of myself for my first genuine conversation, albeit the awkwardness. We arrived at my address in the barrio of Belgrano and he wished me good luck on my trip.
When I got to my floor, I was further disoriented when I didn’t see a marked apartment with the letter from the address. Panicked, I stood for a minute probably hoping for some kind of miracle before knocking on some of the neighbor’s doors. Only one of them answered, a girl around my age, who said my host mom, Marta, was probably next door at her friends’ place. Yet when I knocked there was no answer. After five more minutes the girl reopened her door and, for sure out of sympathy for this helpless American with a suitcase and backpack, offered me her phone to call my host mom. I typed in the phone number, anxiously breathing as I held the phone close. I exhaled a huge sigh of relief when I heard a women on the other end answer “Hola, este es Marta. Quien es?”
It turns out Marta moved up ten floors a few months ago and the address wasn’t updated…but at least my first scare was resolved 😬 😬
Marta guided me through the comfortable apartment to my room, showing me the various rooms and laying down a few basic rules. My room has a bigger than average bed, a spacious desk, a Wi-Fi router, and a wonderful view from my window of the neighborhood with a clear view down one of the calles. It was everything I could have asked for. Surprisingly I was still awake, so Marta and I took a walk around the neighborhood. She showed me the places to get a haircut, to exchange money, to do laundry, and Avenida Cabildo where many shops are located. Like many of our conversations, it went mostly smoothly with each of us switching languages on occasion, me because of my lack of knowledge of a particular word, and Marta because of her desire to practice English. After a quick stop at the supermarket, we returned home and she cooked classic Argentine carne for my first dinner. She very much acts like a grandmother; perhaps not letting me finish my sentence yet always making sure I was comfortable with plenty of food and other necessities, and always relaying some life advice. Before going to bed, I checked my social media, an instant buzz of everything I missed the last few days including messages from friends wishing me well. I thought it would have hit me then that I’m on another freaking continent…yet even then I felt like I was just in a hotel temporarily.
The next day Marta traveled with me on El Subte downtown so I knew my way to the Hotel Panamericano where orientation was located. There I saw many of the same students on my flight as well as others who had traveled via other cities. The first three hours was a general welcome and introduction by the Buenos Aires director Mario, of whom we all quickly became fans. We had the opportunity to ask various questions about BA, followed by a few information sessions concerning academics and then an especially confusing activity about how to use the Guia T to navigate the city’s bus system. Between sessions we had hour breaks where we grabbed bites to eat and explore the center of the city. Me and a group of other students purchased empanadas and lounged in a small park next to the huge Avenida 9 de Julio. By the end of the day I was exhausted, and made my way down to el Subte with a few other students who also lived in Belgrano. Getting home I wolfed down the pollo Marta prepared before having a very early night at 11PM.
Everyday was basically the same thing, session after session, and many of us grew mentally exhausted from all the information they were feeding us; all in castellano of course. Thankfully there were a few activities offered to break the cycle. Thursday night the IFSA group saw an avant-guard interactive show called Fuerza Bruta which was truly spectacular and something I couldn’t really describe with words. Afterwards we went to Romario, one of the best Italian restaurants in BA where we ordered several pizza pies comparable to pizza back in the states, expect for the fact we ate with forks and knifes which I didn’t completely adhere to. It was nice sitting with many of the IFSA directors and conversing with them about various Argentine customs. Friday morning, Mario gave us a tour of the famous enclosed cobblestoned Cementerio de la Recoleta where many famous Argentines are buried including, yes, Eva Perón, popularly known everywhere else as Evita.
This period has felt so much like freshman orientation it’s ridiculous. Just like then, there are the same old questions we are obliged to get to know each other: Hi, my name is _______. Where are you from? What school do you go to? What neighborhood do you live in? How’s your host family? What classes are you thinking of taking? In the beginning, many of us simply clung to each other just because we were all Americans in this strange new city. Similarly, it felt like the stage where we were all only acquaintances. However, I’ve hung out with a lot of awesome people my program so far this week and I’m hopeful that these relationships can eventually evolve into something more.
Overall, it really hasn’t hit me yet that I’m in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The language barrier has certainly been a challenge, but otherwise it doesn’t feel too much different from home. The majority of people are white, Western fashion is the norm, I’ve heard a surprising amount of American music, El Subte is just a more efficient though more crowded version of the subway in New York, and the buildings seem similar too while a bit more run down. Homesickness hasn’t really hit me yet, and I’m hoping that as long as I keep busy, I can mitigate the feeling when it happens. Also I feel like since everything is new, there’s not too much time for me stop and reflect on how I’m feeling. As I write this in English, in the Argentine Barnes and Nobles, part of me feels like I never left home.