“Sometimes it’s very difficult to keep momentum when it’s you that you are following.” – Eva Perón

March 29, 2010

I thought it time to write about some of our experiences in Argentina. As I mentioned before, Joe and I have talked for many years about the possibility of living abroad…mainly Europe. But as our economy is still spiraling downward and the dollar is worth less and less compared to the Euro or pound, we had to choose more economically. We needed something that would make our hard-earned savings stretch. Joe’s parents had traveled to Buenos Aires and raved about how lovely and cosmopolitan it was. And of course, we had read the NY Times now-famous (at least with our other American friends who high-tailed it to Buenos Aires after its release) article on the subject. Our dollar equaled 3.8 pesos, meaning we could live in Argentina for a third of what we’d been living on in Hawaii. That was what ultimately pushed us into deciding on Buenos Aires for certain. We’d read rave reviews about the gorgeous architecture, the throbbing metropolis and the exquisite wine and food.

Only ONE little hitch: we didn’t speak Spanish. Zero. Cero. We downloaded Rosetta Stone and started as soon as we made our decision. We were told over and over that English is taught in many schools in the city from the 4th grade and up and that we would have no problem. Um, no. Though we occasionally met a young person that spoke English, most people solely spoke Spanish. On our connecting flight to Buenos Aires from Mexico City, Joe and I were exiting the plane and were supposed to get our next gate info from the flight attendant. She chirped, “Buenos tardes!” I was about to respond when Joe said, “Si!!! Buenos Aires!” and then turned to me and said, “isn’t it crazy that she just knew that we were headed to Buenos Aires?!?!?” and I responded, “Honey…she said ‘Buenos tardes’ meaning, ‘good afternoon.’” It was right at that moment that I knew we were in trouble.

When we first arrived, we stayed in a trendy area called Palermo
. There are several sub-districts of this neighborhood: Palermo-Hollywood, Palermo-Nuevo, and most famously Palermo-Soho, modeled after NYC’s Soho district. Palermo was young and artsy and teeming with young people and many different ethnicities. When we first arrived at our chosen hostel, the young worker did not speak any English, and with my limited Spanish skills, we struggled. He was trying to explain to me that our reservation had been lost and that the hostel was booked. It took about 20 minutes and ridiculous gesturing and gesticulating to get this message across to me. We eventually struck a deal in which they would place us in an apartment nearby that the hostel manages for the same price. We were happy with that – our own space! We had been traveling nearly 37 hours and just wanted to crash and take a warm shower. We were shown to a teeny studio that was damp, dirty and FREEZING. The sliding doors overlooking a very loud elementary school did not shut all of the way, so the cold air was seeping through. It was the tail-end of winter when we first arrived (September) and about 40 degrees – absolutely frigid for two former Hawaii-dwellers. We really didn’t even care at this point about all of these little hitches…we crashed in bed for a few hours, then went out exploring our new digs.

Over the next few days, we set our sights on finding a temporary home. It took us longer than we thought to find a place. We had been warned that Americans are often taken advantage of and quoted higher rents than locals, but with our halting Spanish, there was really nothing we could do about it!

We explored different neighborhoods and ultimately settled on Recoleta, a historical part of the old city, famous for Eva Perón’s burial grounds and the home she shared with Juan Perón. We found a realtor that spoke English and soon found a flat near the University in a bustling business area. We were thrilled to finally have a home and to begin nesting! AND thrilled to be out of the terrible hostel apartment, with no hot water and dirty blankets!

As soon as we got settled in, we set out exploring the area. At first, we were very self-conscious and nervous about speaking Spanish. Even if we knew a phrase to be correct, we delivered it with such hesitancy that they often could not understand us. For example, I would prepare exactly how I was going to order my food in a restaurant so that I wouldn’t make a fool out of myself. I would even repeat it over and over so I could say it quickly, like speaking Spanish came oh-so-naturally to me. However, when the waiter approached us, I would instantly start sweating, giggle nervously and turn into a bumbling idiot. Joe never stopped finding this amusing. 😉 The lowest of the low (which our expat friends were in complete agreement with) was starting to order and then the waitress responding by impatiently leaving the table and returning with an English menu. Burn.

We soon learned to venture out of our comfort zone and started working toward making Argentina our home. We didn’t just want to be tourists…we wanted to make friends, meet porteños and build a life there. We befriended the owners of a café right next door to our flat. We would go there every morning for their delicious café con leche and medialunas. He (the owner) was from Holland and she (co-owner) was from Paraguay. They took pity on us and patiently listened to us massacre the Spanish language every morning. They spoke carefully and deliberately so we would learn and understand. Eventually, they offered me a part-time job working in the kitchen, helping out with desserts for the lunch shift. I was super excited…I was going to be an undocumented worker! Yay! I figured it would help me learn better Spanish, meet people and keep me busy.

Most everyone there was an expat from
somewhere (though most from Latin America). Other than one awesome girl and my boss, no one spoke English. It was interesting, needless to say. The chef, Gustavo, was Argentine. We tried in vain to speak to each other after the rush while cleaning up, but he could never comprehend my horrible Spanish and I could never understand his accent. Argentines are famous for mumbling and speaking very differently from the rest of the Spanish-speaking world. But he was silly and animated and we liked each other anyway. One afternoon I was cleaning up and dropped a huge ceramic bowl, which promptly shattered into a million pieces. I yelled, “FUUUUUUUCK!” (sorry family, I have a bad mouth, I know) and from behind me (I thought I was alone) I heard a deep chuckle and then Gustavo said, “Heh heh heh, Si. FUCK. Si.” We both died laughing and I realized it was the ONE time we had effectively communicated.

From the very start we tapped into a website for expats. They had informative forums in which you could post questions about life in Argentina as a foreigner (for example: “What cell carrier is the cheapest?” and “Does anyone know an English-speaking hairdresser?”). We used it frequently to help guide us. Also, it was used as a social network to meet other people, like us, who had packed up and moved to a foreign country. We met people from all over…Ireland, Australia, England, Holland…you name it. We all had two things in common: we were lonely and were dying to speak English! It made it easy to make friends. I quickly got hooked up with an all-girl group that met every few weeks to eat, drink and talk. We met a fabulous couple from Chicago (shout-out Aaron and Caitlan!) who quickly became our closest friends there. By the end of our time there, we had a great little group and I miss them terribly! It really confirmed to me that people are the same virtually everywhere you go…you just have to be open and kind and willing to look for them.

Okay, whew! That’s enough for now! To be continued…much more to follow.

2 Responses to ““Sometimes it’s very difficult to keep momentum when it’s you that you are following.” – Eva Perón”

  1. Sandy Henderson said

    Loved the post! thanks for sharing. Now-tell me how you guys are doing in california! Hope all is well. Love, Sandy


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