buenos aires, argentina - anonymous' reflections after years there in their 30s

posted by anonymous on 11/22/13.


How much time have you spent in Argentina?

I was there just shy of 5 years, from Feb, 2009 to Oct, 2013.

How old were you when you came to Argentina? Where were you before?

I was 32 when I arrived. Before, I was living in Seattle, and had just finished m bachelor at the University of Washington.

What brought you to Argentina? What made you choose Argentina over any other place you could've gone?

I am a linguist and spent about 5 years studying Spanish before graduating from the university. I had a Dominican friend who learned English in the US when there as part of an NGO. I spoke to him after he returned home and noticed that he had lost a lot of his English in the month or so that he was there. For me, that sealed the deal - I was going to do a masters, so why not do it in a Spanish-speaking country? I knew that I needed to "seal" the language in, and had to go right away so that it didn't go stale. I researched a number of countries: Venezuela, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Mexico, and decided that Argentina looked like the best bet since it is a very developed country, and has a very good infrastructure (and free healthcare!).

What is Buenos Aires like? What are the good and bad things about it?

Buenos Aires is a very large city, and in the US, only New York is larger than it (by around a million). For those who have lived in large cities (I have lived in LA, San Fran, New Orleans, Seattle), it's not such a hard transition, but for others, it should be. I had a friend from Queens, NY who had no trouble adjusting, but for me, it wasn't so simple. The biggest thing you will notice, and right away, is that the concept of courtesy is completely different. In the US, we tend to be concerned about how other people are feeling or how our actions will affect others. The Porteños (those who are from the city of Buenos Aires) never think about that sort of thing, and so end up insulting and offending many foreigners before they learn to understand it. In Argentina, I lived in a shared house, and spent my time there with (literally) about 30 people, in total, from; Columbia, Brazil, Argentina, France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Morocco, the US, England. The people from South America never noticed any perceived rudeness, but those from Europe would say to me, "What have I done to make them hate me so?" I always explain it this way: in the US and (for the most part) Western Europe, people have a filter at their mouth, and worry about what they say. In South America, people have a filter at their ear, and truly don't even notice what is being said in public. There is a saying: "The baby that cries gets fed." What does this mean? In the Latin American world, for somebody to notice something, you have to be very emphatic or even repeat it. Things that would incense someone from North America don't even register in Argentina.

Buenos Aires has a lot of great aspects to it. First off, health care is written into the State Constitution as a human right, and so even foreigners can receive full, chronic treatment (such as with cancer or AIDS) free of charge. People say that people cross over from Paraguay and Uruguay once a month to receive treatment, and go back home the same day. Most medications are available over the counter, and always have generic varieties, so even poorer people can get treatment quite easily. Argentines tend to be intensely curious about the outside world, and those at a (lower-)middle class income or higher always send their children to private schools. The model for private schools in Argentina is always the [Blank] School - the English school, the Japanese school, etc. Students are expected to study the appropriate language their entire twelve or so years, and will study subjects such as mathematics and history in both Spanish and the school's language. This means that there is a significant portion of the population that is at least conversationally bilingual, and eager to practice whenever they encounter a native speaker.

Argentines tend to be social beings, in an activist sense. When presenting my thesis to the committee, one of the members asked me, "How will this help society". When I suggested that it wouldn't, her response was, "This is what we call an 'academic' thesis." People tend to be activist in every environment, from home- to work- to school, and focus on making the world a better place. I suspect that this is, in part, a reaction to so many years of dictatorship, as you will find a similar mindset in Chile. Protesting is a daily part of political expression, and you'll find a large protest at least once a week in front of some government building or blocking a major road. The only government involvement you'll find at such times is the presence of police to protect the protestors, and make sure that things don't get out of hand. If you tell an Argentine that people in the United States are arrested for that, they will look at you in disbelief and say something like, "But I'm in the third world, and I have more rights than you do?"

How does Buenos Aires compare to other parts of Argentina? What drew you to Buenos Aires over other cities in Argentina?

I hadn't considered other cities in Argentina, although looking back, it would probably have been easier for me to transit the culture shock. In Argentina, they have what they call Buenos Aires, which refers to both the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires (the capitol) and the Province of Buenos Aires, which covers quite a bit of territory around the city. Something like 80% of the population lives within the Province. The rest of the country is referred to as the "Interior". People in the interior tend to be far more open and kind, though I suspect that it is this way in any environment, with "country" folk being kinder than "city" folk. I once had a Porteña friend say to me, "I hate Porteños". What is indicative for me is this: people in Buenos Aires will drive aggressively past a pedestrian to get to a red light, while people in the interior tend to stop, in traffic, and let the pedestrian cross. If a car flashes its lights, you know it's not going to stop, and you should let it pass.

Was making friends and meeting people in Argentina in general easy or difficult? How did your social life evolve?

In the United State, people tend to speak topically: about the weather, about politics, about what they did yesterday or what they will do tomorrow. Argentines, and Latinos in general, tend to simply speak about anything that pops in mind. There is a saying about Columbians: "If a Columbian is alone in a room, he will talk to the plant." It took me a long time to get used to that, since in the US, we often sit for extended period of silence. In the Latino world, people will often become uncomfortable and have to fill the silence. As a result, I often felt that I had no time to think to myself, and had to be on stage at any moment that I was around people, and it is something that I never truly adjusted to; my latino friends never understood why I wanted to sit in silence at times.

I suppose that making friends is this way in any foreigner situation in any country: the vast majority of my friends were non-Argentines, that is, other foreigners studying (or in some cases, working) in Argentina. The locals tended to be set in their lives with their friends and circles, their jobs, their personal history. The foreigners came in, empty, and needing to form a new life and identity around them. As a result, a large group of us formed a strong set of friendships and would hang out constantly during my time, there (in fact, a great part of my impetus to leave was when several of my friends graduated before me and left, leaving me with fewer and fewer friends). The Argentines I did have as friends tended to be someone's girl/boyfriend or a random friend that someone brought along. Myself, I don't feel that I made any true friends with Argentines while there, but made a huge number of friends with other foreigners, and am in contact with them although we live in different parts of the world.

What did you do to meet people? How did your social life in Argentina compare to how it is/was in other places you've lived?

I studied in a masters program at the Universidad de Buenos Aires that is around half foreign students. As a result, I had little trouble making friends. The process of becoming friends in Latin America is a lot different, though. In the US, we tend to ask probing questions as we try to understand what a person is like. That sort of discourse does not occur in Latin America, and people tend to look for an automatic "click" of sorts. I found that some people would be offended by me trying to get to know them, and I was told, in so many words, that it is not done that way. The truth is that it was far harder in Argentina to make friends than in any place I have ever lived.

How did your race, nationality, gender, accent, etc. affect how you were treated or how people reacted to meeting you in Argentina? Positively? Negatively?

I think that this really depends on the person. Educated people, and those who went to a bilingual school tended to be very open. Those who have studied another language are the most understanding about difficulties in speaking. Being a white person, I had no troubles, racially, although my best friend (who's black) was assumed to be Brazilian more than once. When going to the markets, people would often react with considerable annoyance at having to work with a foreigner. This, of course, lessened as time went on and my Spanish improved.

How did the language barrier affect you (if it all)?

It was about 6 months after I first arrived before I felt comfortable going to a store or restaurant alone. Even after that, I would prepare my speech before entering, because the worst thing is being in front of people and being stuck, trying to find a word or conjugate a verb. I remember an Argentine friend of mine who I met in Seattle telling me that she would write down what she was going to say before she called for pizza. The truth is, until you get to a stage of fluency, you have to work to say what you want, and when the natives, who can speak fluidly, quickly ask you questions or respond, you need time to formulate a response to them. In party situations, I found that people would sometimes become bored of waiting and "move on" to talk with someone else, but this stopped happening as time went by.

Do you have any observations or stories to share about dating, relationships, gender norms, or sex in Argentina? Or any impressions of how these things are different in Argentina than in other places you've been?

Argentines tend (or certainly try) to be very socially forward. For instance, it was the first country in Latin America to approve gay marriage (or marriage equality, as they call it there). You will see a lot of LGBT very openly and in public, and people, for the most part, pay them little attention. The problems of machismo don't affect the Argentines as much as in other latin countries. In fact, and I imagine that someone could study this and come up with an interesting paper, there is a great deal of theater involving crossing of roles, especially men dressed up as the old lady who's losing it a little bit.

Myself, I married a Columbian while there, and as we speak, am in the process of getting his visa to the US squared away.

Any social/cultural advice for others who might come to Argentina? How do people in Argentina socialize differently than other places you've been?

First piece of advice: people will seem like assholes to you. Trust me, they will. Don't let it bother you, it's never, NEVER personal, it's simply a way of interacting. I really wish that I had known that before going, it would have saved me a lot of heartache. When someone shouts at you, "¿Qué querés?"

what do you want?

, as you walk through the store, it's not a sign of annoyance, it's just getting down to business.

What sort of work/school did you do in Argentina? What's it like working (or studying) in Argentina compared to what it was like where you lived before?

I studied two masters at the Univerisdad de Buenos Aires. The schooling system is far different than in the US. A bachelors would take 4 years in the US but 6 in Argentina. For a Master's 1-2 years in the US, but 3-4 in Argentina. And for a doctorate, 2-5 years in the US, but 1-2 years in Argentina.

In Latin America, those with a bachelor (licenciatura) are considered to be prepared to work in their field, and need no further education. Those trained as doctors, for instance, are unspecialized, but can work in clinical settings, and they specialize when they earn their masters. The master is somewhere between a US master and doctor, while an Argentine doctor tends to be, more or less, on par with a US doctor. It takes far longer to complete these degrees, and as a result, very few people graduate with them and they are far more valuable than in the US. There is no concept of transfering credits or of elective classes, as the degrees are completely programmed. As a result, if someone wants to change their area of study, they have to start from the beginning.

In Argentina, there is a thing called the alguinaldo, or 13th salary. Twice a year, in June and December, you receive half of your highest salary from the previous 6 months. This, if course, is very useful. Most jobs require 5.5 days, so you will probably work a half Saturday unless you are in a professional or office setting. Unionization is required by the government, so you always have representation. Argentina may have the strictest (or very darn close) labor laws in the world, and it can be a paradise for people who HAVE a job, but harder to GET one, since businesses want to make sure they have the perfect person (once you hire someone, you're stuck with them for life). The standard penalty for unjustly firing someone is a years salary.

Does your money go further or not as far as it does in other countries and cities? Are you able to afford a better standard of living than in other places you've lived, or able to afford less? What things were more expensive than you are used to and what things were cheaper?

The dollar goes very far in Argentina, but if you are earning pesos, it doesn't go as far. Housing is EXTREMELY costly in Argentina, but food and medicine prices are far lower than in the US. Clothing and electronics are very expensive, and as a result, there is a saying: "You can do anything with wire", which refers to the ways in which people will repair time and again any electronic device they have.

Vegetables are the cheapest food, so people eat a lot of pastas, followed by chicken. Red meat is very expensive, so it tends to be saved for family gatherings or special occasions. There is very little fish or seafood consumed in Buenos Aires, although you can find fishmongers (if you look). If you are vegetarian, as I am, life is simple (and cheap) when cooking at home.

How much was an average rent for an apartment? A beer at a bar? A meal at a restaurant?

For a one bedroom apartment, nowadays, you are spending about AR$2,000, or about US$400. Keep in mind that the average monthly salary is AR$3,000. A liter of Heineken is about AR$20 or US$5. McDonald's and Burger King cost the same as if they were in dollars, which makes them very expensive places, and are somewhat high-end. A McDonald's will tend to be done up nicely, with marble, modern design, plantings, etc - it is a place where people will go out on dates or take their family. Eating out is very expensive when compared to the US, so people tend to only do it rarely, with the exception, maybe, of pensioners, who you will find in groups at street cafés, usually on Saturday night or Sunday afternoon.

What are your favorite things about Argentina? Least favorite?

Yerba Mate. Greatest discovery in the world. Works as an energy drink without the caffeine drop-offs, keeps you regular, and is a great social vehicle. I highly recommend researching Yerba mate and its culture, as you can find on Wikipedia or in other such places. Here are the basics:

Yerba Mate, called Mate in daily discourse, is a traditional drink in all of Argentina and Uruguay, parts of Chile, southern Brazil and in parts of Paraguay. Each region and country has its own particular additions and traditions, but the basics are common across all areas. Yerba mate consists in two parts: the Yerba is a tea that comes from a tree related to the Holly. It is ground and served in a hollowed-out gourd called the Mate, and drunk (generally with hot water, although cold juice is sometimes used in the hotter areas, creating a drink called Tereré) through a sort of filtered straw called a Bombilla. It is a caffeinated tannic, bitter drink, but those who like black tea or red wine will enjoy it. Most people drink it plain, but having it with sugar is not frowned upon. As a foreigner, if an Argentine asks if you drink it sweet or bitter, answering bitter will usually receive an "ALL RIGHT!" or similar response.

One person, usually the host of the social gathering, but always the owner/bringer of the mate, works as the Cebador (cebar in this context could be translated as "to serve mate"). The Cebador will drink the first serving, to make sure that the water is not too hot and that the mate isn't too bitter. The Cebador fills the mate with water and passes it to the first person in the circle with the Bombilla facing them, usually going to the left. The recipient drinks the entire thing and hands it back to the Cebador, who repeats it throughout the group. Once the Yerba is "washed", meaning that it has lost its flavor, it will be discarded and the Mate refilled. This cycle continues until everyone has had their fill, and can last 45 minutes to an hour. In Argentina, especially in Patagonia, people will say "gracias" when offered mate to indicate that they have had enough, and the turn will skip them to the next person. I am told that some regions use a different word for this.

This tradition is wonderful, and serves as a way to bring people together, socially. At any sort of gathering, someone will have mate, and passing it around is an intimate experience that can bolster friendships. I have even had professors bring it to class and designate someone as the cebador while they teach. At work (in an office for a major corporation), I became the Cebador since I was usually the first one in and would drink it on my own - as each person came in, I would add them to the circle.

During the summer, on any strip of grass greater than a few meters square (even on the side of the road!) and in parks, you will find thousands of people sitting on blankets, drinking soda and mate, eating cookies, playing guitar, chatting, etc. It is one of the best ways to enjoy the Argentine heat.

What things about Argentina surprised you?

People can be so self-assured, so confident in anything about themselves, that you will find yourself believing it, only to find out later that it was wrong. This really surprised me. This can lead to some conflicts, though, as people will not back off, even if the logic of the situation shows that they are wrong.

What did you miss while living in Argentina (could be something tangible or a cultural/social phenomena)?

An anthropologist friend of mine who lived for several years in Brazil told me that one of the hardest things to replace is comfort food. There are certain foods that you love (peanut butter, for instance) that are not available where you are living. The trick is to find something to replace it, which I eventually did. Once you get something that causes the same effect, you're fine!

Would you recommend Argentina as a place to live, travel to, or neither?

To travel, to spend a few weeks or a month, to study a semester abroad, absolutely. I would not recommend living there, though, the country is in a period of transition and life can be challenging. I think that for people from Europe and North America, it is a difficult transition, but for those from South America and Africa, it seems to be easier. I think that it really depends on the originating culture.

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