First thoughts upon entering Kansas City
As our airport taxi drove down one of the main streets in my area, I asked our driver, in what I assumed was a very legitimate query, “Where are all the people?!” Like, was there a game on or something? (Was it football season??) Were they all at work? Had KC suddenly developed a mass transit system?? Had they ALL MOVED AWAY? I was very concerned. The driver just laughed, as if I’d been joking, which meant that… everything must have been the same? This was shocking. In BA, I saw thousands of people a day; the streets were crowded starting at about 7:30 AM until, in a lot of areas, around 11 or midnight. And they got crowded again in some neighborhoods at around 5 AM again, when people started leaving clubs. This city was always crawling with people, so it was quite strange to realize that I could very easily spend multiple days at home seeing only my parents, and maybe 10 other people if I took a walk around the neighborhood. Suburbia is just absolutely vacant, and this has possibly been the single strangest thing to adjust to since arriving home.
And 2 days into my self-imposed English language pledge…
I’m began talking to myself in Spanish. After greeting about 5 shopkeepers with “hola!” the first day out, I segued right into translating things I was thinking into Spanish, by myself, while driving around town. This is legitimately strange. Also interesting is the fact that I sound waaay better at Spanish when I’m talking to myself, probably due to the fact that I’m not nervous.
Another revelation: it’s kind of boring to speak English. Ok, so I LOVED speaking English in Buenos Aires. Anything to make me feel interesting, intelligent, or funny; speaking English, by the end, was the biggest relief in the world. However, it’s not as fun once you’re back in the U.S. Short story: I went shopping the other day, and it was underwhelming. In BA, it’s true that I was always nervous interacting with service people, worried they’d ask me a question that I didn’t understand and that I’d get embarrassed or — the very worst — that they’d switch over to English. But at the same time, little things like making a purchase and without any miscommunications were immensely satisfying. You appreciated any successful communication in Spanish. It’s almost too easy now, and that makes it kind of boring.
Things I will miss about Argentina
- Mate culture
An Argentine friend once told me that, like with major world events or major milestones in life, “everyone remembers the first time they drank mate alone.” It’s a social drink that one usually brings out and circles up the group to enjoy, and it’s much less common to drink alone. That’s why, as he told me, drinking mate alone always means something big is going on in one’s life. He told me it was when he was a brand new exchange student in the U.S., and my other friend said it was when she’d first come back from a year spent on exchange in Argentina and missed it immensely. My first day back, I made my first mate while alone, and it was the best mate I’d ever made.
I really don’t know what it is about this stuff, but I’m just obsessed with it, along with the majority of my program here. I guess people always need something to talk over, and mate fills the non-food, non-alcohol, non-drug niche of “well, we don’t really want to go out/buy anything/be under the influence, but all just wanna sit and chat and have something to do other than stare at each other …” ; mate is such a social drink. I think it’s hard for people who haven’t seen it in action in Argentina or Uruguay to completely get it. I remember some friends were trying to introduce it to some British people at a hostel once and the conversation went vaguely as follows:
- Friends: We love mate! You guys should try it!
- English people: Yeah, definitely! Wait, it has way more caffeine than coffee, right?
- Friends: No, actually about a quarter of the caffeine. And it makes you have to pee every five minutes and there are lots of strict rules governing its making and consumption.
- English people (tasting drink): This is disgusting and bitter!
- Friends: Nawww. Ah! And you all have to share the same straw! And you can’t wait for it to cool down! You have to drink it close to boiling.
- English people: But what about germs!? And I’m burning my tongue off!
- Friends: Don’t worry about it. Isn’t this stuff great?!?!
They were not wildly successful.
The following couple paragraphs and music video are geared towards college-age friends… others are free to skip riiiiight over this.
So. There’s this alcohol called Fernet Branca about which I feel obligated to enlighten you all. It is magical. Not an exaggeration: it is all I ever ordered at bars while in Argentina. And to prove that it is awesome, I shall refer you to a song called “I Drink Fernet.” Two things to note: Fernet is huge in San Francisco (according to the Fernet blog I just found, San Franciscans consume 30-50% of all Fernet sold in the USA) and one comment in the comment section, and I quote, “You STUPID YANKEES, you’re wasting 750cc of fernet while drinking it STRAIGHT UP!!! FERNET MUST BE DRINKED WITH COKE!!!” (major sic). Yes, Fernet and Coke is the way.to.go. And the vid:
As a second piece of evidence, I refer to a slightly more reputable source. In this NY Times article, they discuss the miracle that is Fernet. Read and learn here, friends.
In conclusion, I shall quote from a blog devoted to Fernet, fernetiquette.blogspot.com, for the following, “Fernetiquette’s Official Rules of Fernet Etiquette,” though I have omitted a couple points due to their absolute ridiculousness (San Franciscans don’t understand that Fernet is not taken in shots; it is mixed and consumed with Coke):
- If you’ve never tried Fernet, you must seek it out immediately. I mean it. Look, whether you like it or you think it could peel the paint off the walls, Fernet is distinctive enough that it absolutely has to be sampled. Nay, not sampled: savored. Contemplated. Experienced. You must try it or you are not a complete person. Yes, Fernet is that powerful. Get to it.
- Don’t think about it. Don’t smell it. Don’t hesitate. Just drink it. Whether you decide to shoot it or sip it, just dive right in. I will warn you: You will hate it the first time it touches your lips. That said, as soon as that warm clean menthol feeling hits your gut, you’ll start to understand what is the big deal about Fernet. But I assure you my friend, it will be just a start.
- If you meet someone who hasn’t tried it, you are obligated to buy them a shot. This is non-negotiable. Iron-clad.
- If you are in somewhere outside of San Francisco and you see Fernet behind the bar, you are mandated to order it under penalty of law. Also non-negotiable. As a corollary: if the bartender then asks you if you are from San Francisco, you are obligated to tip like a Rockefeller and buy them a shot of their own.
- The artificial “You are not supposed to drink alcohol until X time of day” rules do not apply to Fernet. Fernet is not just a delicious spirit. No my friends. It’s also a hangover cure. It’s also a fantastic digestive. In short: it’s a miracle drink. Therefore it is appropriate for consumption twenty-four hours a day. If anyone looks askance at you, refer them to me. Besides, it’s always noon somewhere.
I didn’t notice until my last week in BA, when I found myself sitting next to a flower stand whose 70-year-old owner was rocking out to electronic club tunes, how much I loved the music I heard in Argentina. For one, there’s the fact that I for the first time found an entire city full of people who go just as crazy as I do when “Danza Kuduro” comes on. Then there were my discoveries of electronic tango, cumbia, and Argentine rock, all of which are fantastic. I’m going to miss hearing the reggaetone baseline (like, the most recognizable bar of syncopation in the world) emanating from ¾ of vehicles driven by young Argentines around BA.
And piggybacking on that, and not trying to play into stereotypes, the dancing here is magnificent. There’s no standing still at concerts here; almost everyone I met loves to move. And people dance differently, too. You know how grinding is the go-to move at college? Surprisingly enough, in a city filled with enough sexual tension to cut with a blunt knife, they never grind. In fact, you immediately identify yourself as American if you do, and most people think it’s disgusting. When someone asks you to dance in Argentina, they actually dance with you, which is awesome. Just another dichotomy in a culture that simultaneously constantly objectifies/demeans women and treats them with amazing amounts of chivalry and devoted attention.
4. Fanny packs worn non-ironically
Not to toot my own horn or anything, but I have got to say: I had been talking about the potential of a 21st century fanny pack trend for many months before arriving in Argentina, where I was immediately completely validated. This happens, and it is fashionable, and I am bringing it back to America. Get ready for my leather fanny pack: the most functional and classic party wear a girl could have!
5. People being chill
The following is a list of dead giveaways that identify people as “not having been living/traveling in South America for more than a couple weeks”:
- Checking one’s watch frequently: everyone knows that concepts like “early,” “late,” and “on-time” are nebulous at best in South America, and that all precautions should be taken to guard oneself against any concrete expectations as to when someone/something will arrive. Checking one’s watch is a clear sign that an individual has not grasped this concept and will probably become nervous/fidgety/unhappy if something does not happen on time. This is unfortunate.
- Appearing stressed: I was legitimately freaked out the first time I saw a couple looking stressed out in Argentina. They were Americans in the Brazilian consulate in line in front of me, and had lost their passports the day before (note to all who are not already aware: don’t carry your passport- carry a copy! duh!). I was at first very confused as to why this scenario struck me, then realized I hadn’t seen people appearing flustered or in such a tizzy for months (outside of fútbol fans, I guess). These Americans — doing typical American things like speaking in shriller-than-necessary voices, recounting in horrified voices the story of their pickpocketing, begging to be let to the front of the line, complaining about how much time this all took, etc. — were just so magnificently at odds with their surroundings. It was very strange.
- Attempting to maneuver oneself to get farther ahead in line or appearing annoyed for waiting in line so long: you have to wait in line for everything in South America, and generally for a while. I remember watching some European tourists in Brazil trying to slide around a get in front of a crowd getting on bus and being really amused. I hadn’t seen anyone care about beating people to a spot in line since America. I mean, they were in Brazil! Brazilians are too relaxed to care about waiting just a little bit! The clear desire to stay on schedule and to beat people out to get on a bus that everyone else was going to board a mere 15 seconds later seemed so… foreign.
So obviously all these points relate to my main idea that South Americans are [— or tend to be, generally— ] very chill. I didn’t really notice this until I started doing touristy things and observing travelers, who all just had something off about them. I realized pretty quickly that it was their lack of the “go with the flow” mentality that you pretty much have to adopt in order to survive in this kind of culture without developing stress ulcers. The vibe changes noticeably as soon as you’re in the U.S., which is something that’s a little difficult to get back into.
On the change from BA nightlife
I’m slightly ambivalent about how I’ll feel about Middlebury’s social scene after having lived in a city like Buenos Aires. On the one hand, there are some pros to college parties, like the fact that you know everyone, which is by far the best part. You walk into a fiesta, see a bunch of people that you’ve been meaning to talk to all week, meet a few new people every time who you see in passing the next day and say “hi” to, and it’s comfortable. On the other hand, there are no glowsticks. Or confetti dropping from the ceiling, or famous DJs, or light shows, or drinks other than cheap beer. You also can’t adopt as your mantra, “I’m never going to see these people again!” at Middlebury, a phrase which was a staple of my internal dialogue in BA, whether after making an embarrassing mistake on the bus or deciding to teach an entire club how to doughie. Basically, nightlife in BA isn’t real life. But I’m also really excited to (and this is directed to the smattering of Middkid frands following this) SEE ALL OF YOU because I’ve decided that the comfort level and the fact that you’re constantly surrounded by friends, potential friends, and generally interesting people completely outweighs the lack of glowsticks, lights, and confetti. College is great.
On things I’ve learned you should always do or say around someone who is learning English
Most important: “Your English is very good!” even if it’s not. I’m serious. People in Buenos Aires complemented my Spanish all the time, even at the beginning, when I’m sure it was absolutely horrific. It made my day every single time. So, tip, even if someone’s English isn’t that great, I’ve learned that the best way to encourage them in something that is extremely difficult is tell them they’re doing a good job. I am so excited to enact this policy and watch the first person’s face light up.
Don’t speak so quickly! No, you don’t need to speak louder. And you don’t need to say it again just the same way. Also, even if you do speak their language, first try again more slowly before switching over. It bugged me to no end when a porteño would say a phrase as fast as humanly possible, then, as soon as they saw I didn’t understand, either say it again in exactly the same way or switch to English (which was usually difficult to understand anyway). I understand Spanish very well when it’s spoken slowly, and not so well when spoken quickly if I have no idea of the topic. That doesn’t mean I don’t understand Spanish, just that it’s necessary to slow down a little bit and enunciate.
Be aware of regionalisms or slang. Just, avoid them more. I can think of a lot of things that I’d only say in front of a foreigner if I was going to explain the words as quick asides, and sometimes it was annoying how porteños — knowing that they use vocabulary unintelligible to even other Latin Americans and that American students don’t learn castellano argentino in school— wouldn’t adjust or at least explain a little more when they were talking. Again, it’s a proud culture and it makes complete sense, given the typical porteño personality, that they wouldn’t want to translate. But I think we could all do this.
And to cap it all off, a story
I’ve been volunteering at this charity called the “Crosslines Christmas Store” since around middle school, and it’s one of my favorite things to do in life. It’s the type of amazing volunteer experience that I would have written about gushingly in my Common App essay if every single essay-writing guide I read had not explicitly forbidden that type of behavior. It’s essentially a collection of food, clothing, toys, and housewares that needy families can collect every year before Christmas.
So this year, I arrived at Crosslines to find a collection of headbands with reindeer antlers and bells at the volunteer check-in table. Naturally, my reaction was to immediately pick one up and arrange it on my head, a decision to which the elderly volunteer coordinator responded, “Oh honey, you can only wear those if you’re bilingual. We need those to identify our Spanish-speaking volunteers.” And herein I encountered a dilemma. Was I bilingual? I mean, I was already having some major internal debates as to whether I was actually fluent in Spanish, so did I have to be fluent to be considered bilingual?? Whatever; I wanted to wear antlers. So I told her I was, and went on my way.
As I walked through all the stations to my own, I realized that I was the only volunteer so festively bedecked in holiday headwear. Well, there was one other. And as much as I would not like to delight in the misfortune of others, I would have to admit that I was secretly thrilled when the other volunteer sporting antlers approached me and began speaking to me in absolutely God awful Spanish. With every incorrectly conjugated verb and horribly pronounced vowel, I began to realize that I was officially the best Spanish translator this organization had. And lemme tell you, I freaking took advantage.
Imbued with the confidence I needed, I jumped at every opportunity to translate for someone or guide a Spanish-speaker through our station. Previous Crosslines experiences had seen me speaking Spanish, but I’d always get stuck at now seemingly simple questions or words, which made me quite timid in volunteering my translating services. But this time, I was happy to find that we didn’t have communication difficulties! The most phenomenal part of the experience was the look of relief on the shoppers’ faces as soon as I greeted them and started explaining the process in Spanish. They were so grateful and appreciative, even putting up with my Argentine accent with very few requested repeats (even though I could tell at times that I forgot to adjust to Mexican Spanish and was completely unintelligible). It was kind of a perfect capstone experience, because this is why I learned Spanish in the first place; I wanted to be able to communicate effectively with the non-English-speaking Latino population in the United States. I was able to help with so many little communication issues all around the stores, which I hope — I think!— made the experience less overwhelming and uncomfortable for the shoppers. I could tell by all their reactions that gringos hadn’t often spoken Spanish to them, and they were so incredibly relieved, comforted, and empowered by the sense that they could communicate what they wanted immediately, precisely, and without sounding foolish. There’s a noticeable change in someone’s demeanor when they switch from a language in which they are weak and timid to the one in which they feel the comfortable, and it was so amazing to watch all these people perk up and become completely different people as soon I spoke to them. It was wonderful, and it was everything I had been hoping for.
So, mission accomplished.