Tales from abroad: Buenos Aires

The day I arrived in Argentina, Buenos Aires was wet and cold. As the taxi driver sped through the small streets, I tried taking in the sights and sounds of the city, but really, the fact that I was on the other side of the equator didn’t hit me until two months later.

Buenos Aires is an immense city, dirty and bright. From August to November, I lived in a residencia filled with students from both Americas, run by three or four women who acted as our host mothers — fussing over us when we lost our keys or were caught with wine and beer bottles and helping us with our Spanish.

The heads of my program tried to give us some basic guidance too during our two-week orientation.

“Don’t have sex, but if you do, go to a telo,” they told us (telos are short-term hotels where people stay to have sex in). “The only black people Argentines have seen are Brazilian. The only black women Argentines have seen are Brazilian prostitutes.... Men will call to you in the street. Ignore them.” They summed up all of our orientation sessions by reminding us that Argentines don’t believe in arriving on time and that we should quickly accustom ourselves to Rioplatense Spanish, the Italian-tinged Castellano that Porteños, natives of Buenos Aires, speak.

I was introduced to the graceful fluidity of Argentine Castellano when men in Palermo, the neighborhood I lived in, started calling out to me in the street several times every day. “Cómo estás vos, morena? Que linda negra.” Being a black person in Argentina was truly an experience, and once, a woman commented on my skin, saying she had never seen anything like it and asking where on earth was I from. People’s reaction to my race was usually more a show of ignorance than racism, and although it was tiring, I found that laughing and explaining that I was not from Brazil or Africa was the best response I could offer.

Although I went to a museum or a market here and there, I found that assimilating myself into Buenos Aires culture was really about participating in nightlife without a large group of Americans. On Monday nights, young Argentines and travelers from outside the country gathered at a magnificent drum show, Bomba del Tiempo, and afterward, plenty of bars and clubs were waiting with open doors. Both Porteños and visitors are friendly to an extent and willing to make friends with new people in the sweaty bar or club setting. Palermo is a sprawling neighborhood, filled with young Argentines and hostels every few blocks, creating a diverse and open place. But even with the established diversity, store owners and café workers are curious about people who are obviously not natives. And that’s a good thing. Buenos Aires offers intimate, independently-owned cafés and restaurants, and few chains are established other than McDonald’s and Burger King.

Because of this, owners want to establish a good rapport with the people who flow in and out of their establishments. My roommate and I used to go to a café called Las Pizarras every few days after class to talk to Rodrigo, the chef and owner. He’d give us free food and test our Spanish, sarcastically reminding us that the best way to better our speaking skills was to get a boyfriend who only spoke in Spanish.

Rodrigo was an example of the strong attitudes Porteños have. It’s easy to think of them as native New Yorkers, with an attitude that reflects the city they live in. Traveling outside of Buenos Aires, I found other Argentines weren’t as brash or curious as those in the capital. Like almost all Porteños, Rodrigo had strong opinions and wasn’t afraid to express them, even if it would offend someone. He was going to say his piece, and he would argue passionately if you let him. Porteños are deeply passionate people.

I decided that I’d have a better time appreciating Buenos Aires if I looked outside of my program to find friends, and I was right. Many of the people in my program were ignorant of the lush culture that surrounded us every day and opted to try to make Porteños speak to them in English instead of trying to adapt themselves to the rapid Castellano. By going to nearly empty cafés during the day and diverse bars at night, I met Argentines, Europeans, and other Americans who were just as excited about the filthy, beautiful city we were temporarily living in, even if the sidewalks were literally covered in dog droppings. The main thing that separated our experiences was that I had class nearly every day, and the people I met were either attending a university in Buenos Aires or taking an extended holiday.

Mostly, classes were repetitive and boring. I took all four of my courses in Spanish, and in three of those classes we talked about the same things: Evita before she was played by Madonna; Che Guevara, and therefore The Motorcycle Diaries, the story of Guevara’s life before he became a revolutionary; Jorge Luís Borges, a renowned writer and poet who has a street named after him in Palermo; and the Dirty War, a period of dictatorship that took place between the ‘70s and ‘80s. The only class where I learned something new was my grammar class, where our teacher, Diego, let us talk about our cultural impressions of Argentina, and he’d reflect on our responses, teaching us a bit of grammar here and there. It was there that I learned the most.

Being back in Pittsburgh is completely different, and there are many times when I miss the smog, the overcrowded subways, the dead heat of spring, and nights ending at 7 in the morning, not to mention empanadas and a diet heavy in beef. When people ask me if I’m glad I went to Buenos Aires, it’s hard to answer — the way I feel about the experience is impossible to put into just a few words. The day I bid farewell to the city with a “chau” and a kiss on the cheek was a day I will always remember.