A very serious warning: this could easily be the corniest post I have written thus far. And if talking about parks (#1) doesn’t seem corny, just wait for numbers 2, 3, and 4. Yep.
1) Los parques de Palermo
2) The Kindness of Strangers
When strangers are kind it’s always quite delightful, but it feels even better when you’re living alone in a foreign country. That’s because from the moment I walk out the door, I feel like I have to be “on.” I have to pay closer attention to my surroundings — what street I’m on, where I’m holding my bag or my valuables, what people are saying, who is walking near me, etc. It’s exhausting, and sometimes it makes me feel isolated from the other people around me. It’s too bad that almost everyone I know has been stolen from, touched inappropriately, or warned me about talking to or even making eye contact with strangers, because it just makes you wary all the time. And the piropos make you feel immediately defensive whenever passing any man on a street. So I was trying to figure out why a smile received from another girl on the bus as we laugh at the same thing or someone picking up something I dropped of makes me so grateful, and I think it has to do with how I don’t often feel connected to random people I see every day. At Middlebury, I feel like we’re just automatically connected; there’s no question that we’re all generally good, smart, trustworthy, interesting people. And there’s the fact that on the way to class, you might see fifteen people you know and have a couple stop-and-chats. Here, I just don’t know anything about anyone I see. It reminds me of this article I read about the really low retention rate at NYU because apparently psychologically it’s really easy to feel even more isolated when you’re around lots of people and still don’t know them. Interesting, huh? So how this relates to the kindness of strangers: I can’t even describe how good it feels when someone does something randomly and unnecessarily kind, because it makes you feel connected. I almost cried once because the empanada guy told me I could just pay next week for my $1 empanada and gave me a big smile. It just reminds you that most people are good, and most people want to help.
3) Mutual acknowledgement that speaking a foreign language is hard
So there’s this moment I’ve really started to appreciate, and that’s when a porteño who is trying to practice his or her English tries to say something in English, and the tables turn; instead of them being comfortable and you struggling, they’re struggling and you become the expert. And there’s this vulnerability in them opening up to you like that. You just kind of both look at each other and are mutually like, “Look how we both sound dumb now! Yeah, this is hard!”
4) Missing people
This might sound strange, but before I came here, I had never really missed anyone for an extended period. I was lucky because I skipped over prime missing-people months — the first few months of college — due to my absolute love for Middlebury and the people there as soon as I arrived. And other things like going away to summer programs and stuff? Nope, no homesickness. Ever. I assumed that I missed people, because I thought, “Oh, I like them! And they’re not here. And it’d be nice if they were here, so I must miss them!” And I’d tell people I missed them, because I totally thought I did. But then I came to Argentina, and experienced the very new sensation of actually, very acutely, missing people. And not just some people — like my parents or my very best friends —, but everyone. So much. Which is actually really wonderful in some ways, because it’s nice to realize how happy everyone around me always made me. I don’t give hugs very often, so take that into account when I tell you this: I will be so excited to see you all that I will very likely initiate some major bear hugs. Just beautiful.
My final essay for my class on economic liberalization is about the privatization process undergone by Menem’s government in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and it is absolutely fascinating. (The topic was just “anything about liberalization in the entire world” and I decided that since I’m here, I might as well study Argentina.) A moment that really stuck in my mind after coming to Argentina was my last visit to the dentist before coming abroad (I promise this relates…). I was lying in the chair while my dentist talked to the dental hygienist about Argentina, and I remember him saying, really confidently, that the reason Argentina was no longer one of the wealthiest countries in the world was because they, “started socializing everything, and look what happened…” and then referenced “Obamacare” or something. I remember thinking that that did not sound like an accurate description of the cause of their economic crisis at all, but given my lack of concrete knowledge of the situation and given that the fact that my teeth were currently being cleaned left me unable to talk meant I just listened. And so I’ve had that conversation in the back of my head for a while, because I just really, really wanted to come back from Argentina with a good comeback to that statement. And success! Now I know all about it. The 2001 economic crisis was directly proceeded by a period of neoliberal policies designed to appease the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and Argentina was the poster child for these types of policies — like financial deregulation, privatization, lowering trade barriers — until the entire country fell apart. And there’s the fact that the privatizations were initially conceived as a way to ameliorate government debt… which was also accrued through neoliberal policies. So. It’s really interesting. I am also enormously stressed that I have to write a 20-page paper on this in Spanish that’s due in three weeks and spend a lot of my free time freaking out about it, but in the end, I’m learning a lot. And that’s an awesome feeling.
6) My immigration project
My second interview with a Japanese man fell through because he got nervous at the idea of a formal “interview.” However, I discovered that my boss’ fellow former Fullbright scholar is the director for a center for African immigrants and refugees, and so I was immediately all over this and set up an interview this week. Score! And then this other women working at GPS did her masters thesis on immigration, so she has been really helpful and informative, too. I’ve also visited a local film festival on migration and refugees and been reading some articles about the topic, so it’s really coming together as a cool project.
7) Being “tranki”
‘Tranki” is the most common command I hear from my (albeit few) porteño friends. It’s actually tranqui from tranquilo and is used to say, “Calm downnnn.” I receive this response whenever I 1) ask for a general timeframe as to when we’re meeting somewhere, 2) tell them I have arrived at said location, or 3) when I tell them apologetically that I’m arriving late somewhere. In the last two instances, the reason they tell me to be so tranki is that they’re almost guaranteed to show up about half an hour to an hour after I do, even if I’m late.
But it’s kind of struck me everything they use it, because they really mean it. People here are very, very relaxed about their sense of time. They don’t fidget and check their watches when friends are late; they don’t rush to get out the door; they don’t freak out when their bus is 30 minutes late; they don’t complain when waiters take 15 minutes to even bring you a menu. I was even in a taxi with a friend who lived here in high school and who came back here to live who — in English — said, “Yeah, he’s taking us the long way. That’s annoying… but whatever.” She didn’t even complain to him! They’re all so laid back, and sometimes it seems a little ridiculous. But then again, it’s probably a good thing to internalize. Yes, I still tap my foot impatiently when my buses don’t come on time, and check my watch in disbelief when my professors arrive 30 minutes late to class. But it’s also impressive; they’ve learned how to let it go.
7.5) Speaking of being relaxed
It is imperative — absolutely imperative — to be able to chill out when studying abroad. I’ve realized that one of the things that stressed me out most initially was not being completely in control: I didn’t know what people were saying, I couldn’t be as proactive as I wanted to be, I didn’t know what was going on in my classes, everything was unreliable, I was less efficient because I was confused, and wasn’t progressing as quickly in Spanish as I had hoped. I was all in a tizzy. But I think in the last couple months (the first month doesn’t really count; taking Spanish classes abroad with a bunch of Americans and living with 2 English-speakers = virtually zero stress) I’ve learned how to just relax. Lots of times I don’t know what’s going on — and it’s certainly weird to get used to not catching 30% of what people are saying to you or feeling confused on a regular basis — but it’s part of living in a foreign country and learning a language. Maybe that’s why all the expats I’ve met seem so calm; they’ve relinquished the control of their surroundings that we’re likely to feel in our home countries. (Also, that’s also because most of the expats I’ve observed I saw at beachside restaurants Zihuatanejo. And they are of an entirely different breed.) But, I think the point still stands: in order to enjoy living foreign country, at some point, it’s necessary to decide that in every situation ever possible, you will just go with the flow.