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El despegue

07/20/2011

Cinco meses no alcanzan

para conocerte bien.

Sin embargo, me siento

como si estuviera dejando

a un viejo amigo.

En este momento de despedida,

te veo en toda tu complejidad:

tu orgullo y tu dolor,

tu inteligencia y tu sensibilidad,

tu pasión y tu conflictividad.

Tengo lealtad a otro,

pero esto no significa

que no podemos comprendernos

o que no puedo aprender de ti

y vos de mí.

Tenés tus locuras,

como todo el mundo tiene las suyas;

no obstante, sos loco bueno.

No hay que escuchar a aquéllos,

ni acá ni allá,

que te llaman loco de mierda.

Me van a preguntar,

“¿Cómo es?”

Diré,

A veces se porta como un boludo,

pero es de muy buena onda.

Y te digo a vos

no adiós

sino:

Che, fue un placer.

Suerte,

y nos vemos.

La dificultad de despedirse

07/06/2011

Making friends here has been delightfully uncomplicated. Almost all the Argentines I’ve met have been de muy buena onda, as the saying goes. Outgoing, easygoing, and I can’t think of another adjective that ends with -going, but you get the idea. Not to mention they’re curious about the States, and whatever their opinion may be of our government they are very interested in picking an American’s brain for a while.

Add in the fact that the Universidad Nacional de La Plata attracts exchange students from all over the world, and you’ve got a recipe for a delicious stew of cultures. Mmmm…multicultural understanding and friendship…tasty.

Left to right behind me: American, Argentine, Colombian, German

Unintentionally creepy metaphors aside, it has been an absolute pleasure getting to know the kids (and adults) here. I’ve had both good old-fashioned fun and intense discussion on every topic imaginable. And out of that, I really feel like I’ve developed some great relationships. Which, of course, is going to make it all the more difficult to say goodbye. Ain’t that how it goes.

But to paraphrase the old cliché, it is better to have made a friend in a foreign country and potentially not see him again than to never to have met him at all. Plus if you come back to visit, you can probably crash on his couch.

I also take a lot of comfort in knowing that I’ve forged bonds just as strong with my fellow W&M students. The shared experience of living in Argentina, with all the difficulties, good times, craziness, and inside jokes that come along with it, is something that we’ll always have in common.

A mis amigos argentinos y extranjeros: fue un placer conocerles. Espero que nos veamos otra vez en el futuro. Suerte, y Diós les bendiga.

To my W&M buddies: see you in the fall on the Sunken Gardens for some mate.

Happiness

07/06/2011

Take a look at this picture.

Would you say these girls are happy?

Now what if I told you they belong to an indigenous group called the Guaraní, and that they live in a small, relatively isolated village called Fortín M’bororé near Puerto Iguazú, Misiones, Argentina?

What if I told you they are desperately poor, and live on crops that their fathers manage to grow themselves and whatever money their mothers can make selling crafts to tourists?

What if I told you they weren’t barefoot by choice?

Would you still say they were happy?

On the day this picture was taken, we ate a meal prepared by some of the women of the village. We played fútbol with the boys. We got a tour from a young Guaraní man who spoke Spanish. He showed us their crops (sugarcane, squash, yerba mate) and the traditional traps they still use to catch animals (all made out of wood and held together with vines).

When the day was over and we returned to the relative luxury of our hostel, I couldn’t help but wonder. Many of the Guaraní suffer from malnutrition and they lack basic medical care. But they live on their ancestral land, they hunt in the same way they have for hundreds of years, they practice their religion, they grow crops, they sell handmade crafts, they wash their clothes in the river. They marry and have children. In short, they live their lives.

So are they happy?

If your definition of happiness is comfort, long-term security, and material possessions, then you’d have to say no. This is not an easy life, or even necessarily a safe one.

But the Guaraní of Fortín M’bororé do the best they can with what they have. They care for their families and they are free to practice their traditions.

Call me crazy, but you could do a lot worse.

Reverse culture shock

05/21/2011

It’s so interesting how you can pick up mannerisms, habits, and attitudes from another culture and make them your own (naturally, it happens a lot faster when you’re actually living in a foreign country). When I get back to the States, I know the following things will happen at least once:

  • I will freak out a male friend by greeting him with a kiss on the cheek.
  • I will get strange looks when I bring a thermos and mate to class.
  • I will say “chao” instead of “bye.”
  • I will cause a heated argument by referring to the US as an imperialist power.
  • I will try to explain the dynamics of Argentine fútbol by comparing Boca Juniors to the Red Sox and River Plate to the Yankees.
  • I will feel cold and get up to light the gas estufa, only to remember I have central heat.
  • At 2 AM on a Friday, I will try to convince people that the night has only just begun.
  • When I bump into someone accidentally, I will say “perdón.”
  • In classic Argentine style, I will communicate that “I have no idea” by flicking my hand under my chin, unintentionally pissing off a person of Italian ancestry in the process.

No, Tony, I'm not flipping you off. I'm just saying I haven't the slightest clue why you aren't extremely offended by Jersey Shore.

  • For a brief second, I will wonder why there are no Spanish subtitles on TNT’s showing of “Men in Black.”
  • I will remember (too late) that I don’t have to flag down a city bus in the US to get it to stop for me.
  • I will no longer be afraid of American cops, having realized that 95% of them are honest (instead of the reverse being true).
  • I will make up new political/ideological movements by adding “-ismo” to the end of a person’s name or concept. (ex. Obamanismo)
  • I will never casually refer to a person I can’t find as having “disappeared.”
  • I will ask the guy in charge of the music at a party if he has any cumbia songs. I will be disappointed.
  • I will wince when someone mispronounces a Spanish word or name.
  • A one-hour wait at the DMV will seem like five minutes by comparison. On a related note, government and university bureaucracy will seem refreshingly efficient.
  • I will be pleasantly surprised after an hour of hanging out at a friend’s house that no one has stepped outside to smoke.
  • A Spanish professor will raise an eyebrow and correct me when I address a classmate as “vos.”

Living just enough for the city

05/13/2011

I never saw myself as an urban kind of guy.

I was born and raised in the suburbs, and Glastonbury, CT isn’t exactly a bustling metropolis. In a town of fifty-two square miles but just forty thousand people, going over to a friend’s house might involve a twenty-minute drive. There’s no public transportation. The center of town has restaurants, shops, banks, the public library, and a Whole Foods, and that’s about it. My only experiences with “city living” up to this point have been vacationing or visiting friends.

On top of that, I’m the type of person who likes to be alone now and then to rest and recharge. That’s no problem when you have your own bedroom in a two-story house in a suburban neighborhood where the only time people go outside is to mow the lawn. Before this semester, I assumed it would be more difficult in a busy city, where you can never truly escape the crowds, the noise, and the smells of the street.

But what I’ve discovered in La Plata is that a city offers a different type of community and a different kind of loneliness.

Some days, when I’m walking to the Comisión or to class at the university, I’m struck by the constant movement, the sheer numbers of human beings living in the same space. La Plata isn’t a megacity like Buenos Aires, but six hundred thousand people is no suburb. I imagine all the different stories passing by in just a few short blocks: the blue-collar construction worker, the first-year university student, the mother pregnant with her second child, the old married couple, the rebellious high schooler. It’s impossible to escape the feeling that in such a concentrated mass of people, every kind of human activity is not only possible but is actually happening right now.

Then there are strange moments when my mind runs in another direction. I put in my earphones and press play, and time distorts. I’m encased in a bubble, or moving through a blurry tunnel, and the other people on the street, the stray dogs wandering past, the traffic noise, the streetlights, all seem part of some weird fever dream. The city itself is alive; it’s more than the sum of its inhabitants. You get the feeling that individuals are interchangeable, that you could swap any person for anyone else and it wouldn’t make a shred of difference to La Plata as an entity. It’s beautiful and terrifying at the same time.

You can look at this one of two ways. City living can be dehumanizing, because you become little more than an ant in a colony, reduced to one insignificant speck among thousands and millions of others. Or you can choose to rejoice in the fact that you’re never far from human interaction if you want it. The bonds of community can be infinitely stronger in a city neighborhood than in a suburban neighborhood, just because everyone is relatively close. In La Plata, I don’t have to get in a car just to see a friend. All I have to do is give a yell to the family upstairs, or send a text to the other W&M students to meet up in the plaza to drink mate.

Granted, this is in the context of a mid-size Argentine city. La Plata is pretty tranquil when compared to Buenos Aires or an American metropolis like New York. The streets are relatively quiet after dark and there are plazas and green spaces every seven or eight blocks. Doubtless I’d feel differently in BsAs, and I’m not saying I’m going to move to Brooklyn straight out of college. But after three months in an urban environment, I can see myself living in a smaller city or the outskirts of a big one. Baby steps.

Unpatriotic thoughts on the death of a madman

05/04/2011

Sorry it’s been so long since my last post. I don’t want to disappoint my legions of fans, so I’ll try to update more often from now on. By the way, I uploaded more pictures to Facebook (the link is on the Links page) from a recent trip to Mendoza. If you’re planning a trip to South America anytime in the future, put this place on your list. Here’s a sampler:

Yeah. Pretty much.

Anyway, on to what I sat down to write.

_______________________________________________

A month ago, I posted a proudly patriotic entry after hearing Hugo Chavez speak. I felt like I had to defend my country in a place that has a number of reasons to be hostile towards it. But the news coverage of the death of Osama bin Laden triggered a flood of thoughts that have been building up during my time here.

There’s an Argentine television program called “Duro de Domar” (“Hard to Tame”) that consists of “Daily Show”-esque editing together of news and pop culture clips on a specific issue, making fun of it, and then discussing it more seriously. Their spin on the killing of bin Laden was more or less this: A.) it’s really messed up that US citizens were celebrating in the streets after the news broke, and B.) and this incident is just more proof of US empire and worldwide military supremacy (and not in a good way).

Like I said, spin. What made me extraordinarily uncomfortable is the nagging feeling that they might be right.

First of all, while I definitely understand the need for vengeance or some form of justice against bin Laden, it is messed up that there were impromptu celebrations in our streets after the fact, especially from an Argentine perspective. Think about it. This is a culture steeped in a history of violence, state repression, forced disappearance, and torture. To most Argentines, the very idea of celebrating anyone’s death is repulsive. As it should be.

Now as Americans, it would be easy to say, “We finally got him! He got exactly what he deserved. U-S-A! U-S-A!” and be done with it. But shouldn’t we be using the occasion of Osama’s death to commemorate his victims, not get drunk in the streets? Are we so desensitized to the reality of war that we turn the death of an enemy into a party? And isn’t celebrating the death of the man, in a perverse way, vindicating the power he held? Have we just succeeded in turning him into the martyr he always imagined himself to be?

Even more disturbing was the “Duro de Domar” segment’s second implication: that the operation that killed Osama bin Laden was not the steely hand of American justice finally finding its target, but rather a display of the United States’ arrogant self-assumed authority to intervene anywhere in the world, sovereignty of other nations be damned, in the pursuit of its interests.

Don’t get me wrong. Osama bin Laden was an evil megalomaniac who twisted the teachings of Islam to promote a war against the West in a quest for personal vengeance and was ultimately responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent people. I’m relieved he’s dead, and the world is a much better place without him. That is not at issue.

What I’m getting at is the very action itself. What right does the US have to that kind of power? I ask that question in light of the fact that literally no other nation on Earth could take the kind of actions the US has taken in the war on terror (invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, bombings in Pakistan, killing of bin Laden) without substantial and tangible opposition from the developed world. Plenty of people questioned the motives for these interventions and opposed them in theory, but very few people (in the States, at least) asked the even more basic question: what right do we have to intervene in the affairs of other nations in such a direct way?

The war on terror is one thing; we were attacked and we responded, and every nation certainly should have the right to defend itself from enemies (at least, Afghanistan fits into that logic. Iraq…that’s another story for another time). But when you talk about Latin American history, the issue gets real murky, real fast. Knowing what I do now about the actions of the US government in the region, I can’t help but think that thousands upon thousands of people, people just as innocent as the victims of 9/11, would still be alive if the United States had simply chosen NOT to intervene, to allow Latin Americans to choose their own destiny. I’m talking about the 1954 coup in Guatemala and the 1973 coup in Chile. I’m talking about the Contra War in Nicaragua. I’m talking about Operation Condor. I’m talking about a US government that treats Latin America as its backyard playground instead of a continent of sovereign nations and an American public that, in general, knows far less about its southern neighbors than it does about the intimate details of Prince William’s wedding.

I guess I’m really talking about the greatest danger of being American citizens: the assumption that our amazing Constitution, the miraculous stability of our form of government, the freedoms we enjoy, and our rise to world power give us the right to do whatever we want. The notion that our system is inherently better than any other. In other words, the tantalizing but ultimately corrupt notion that might makes right.

In the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, “Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them?”

And even if we can, should we?

“¿Che, como andás?”

04/06/2011

Argentines, especially those from the BsAs area, have a very distinctive dialect of Spanish called porteño. Instead of the usual informal tu in the second person, as in tu comes mucho (“you eat a lot”), they have vos, as in vos comés mucho. The form of the verb and the pronunciation are slightly different from the tu. You can address pretty much everyone using the familiar vos unless they’re a clear superior in status or an older person you don’t know very well. Besides this main difference, there are a lot of slang words floating around that come from lunfardo, a mixture of Spanish and Italian that developed among the immigrant communities of Buenos Aires. All this mixing and matching makes for some interesting conversations. Not all of the words on this list are exclusively Argentine; they’re just some good examples I’ve picked up so far.

The highlights:

che: A way of addressing a friend or getting someone’s attention (“Che, podés pasarme el sal?”)

boludo: Very familiar term used when addressing a friend or close family member. More or less translates to “idiot” or “a**hole”…but, you know, in a friendly way (“Por favor, boludo, no digas tonterías”). Can also be a straight-up insult if said in anger.

¿Como andás?: “How are you doing?” Usually followed by the standard Argentine kiss-on-the-cheek greeting. (Advanced Argentine Spanish maneuver: “Che boludo, como andás?”)

re: very. Means the same as muy. (“Este libro es re aburrido; no lo quiero leer.”)

mate: traditional strong herbal drink; the name for both the prepared beverage and the cup itself (the cups are usually made from wood or from hollowed-out gourds and have a very distinctive look)

yerba/yerba mate: the herb used to make mate

bombilla: filtered metal straw for drinking mate

mate and bombilla

carne: beef

lechón: pork

fiambres: cold cuts

parilla: grill

restorán: restaurant

asado: beef, chicken, or pork slow-cooked on the parilla. Unbelievably good. And yes, half the words on this list relate to food. I need to exercise more…

carta: (at a restaurant) menu

menú: the restaurant’s special for the day (One time a W&M friend and I asked for two “menus” and to our surprise, two plates of food we had no interest in eating came out 10 minutes later. Whoops.)

confitería: bakery

facturas: pastries

medialuna: a common pastry snack and breakfast item, basically a sweeter version of a croissant

micro: bus

combi: van

cerrajería: locksmith (for some reason I haven’t yet figured out, it seems like there are a ton in La Plata)

boliche: dance club, disco

pileta: sink or pool

mina: woman. Most often used by men when talking about women. Considered impolite when talking TO women. (“Mirá esa mina! ¡Qué linda!”)

tipo / pibe: dude, guy / kid

chamuyero/a: smooth talker, charmer (often used in a mocking way to describe men trying to pick up women or vice-versa)

bárbaro: an exclamation or interjection that means “awesome!” or “that’s great!” (“Me divertí mucho en las vacaciones.” “¡Bárbaro para vos!”)

trucho: counterfeit, fake

bichos: bugs

grasa: technically this word means fat, as in the physical substance found in food; used by young Argentines as an adjective to describe something cheesy, stupid, or very uncool

putear: to swear, curse

“La noche está en pañales”: “The night is young” (see above: boliche)

And finally, an important traveler’s note on a word you should NOT say in Argentina: the verb coger, a common word in many Spanish-speaking countries that means “to take,” “to pick up,” or “to catch,” is extremely offensive here. Even angry, foulmouthed fútbol fans don’t use it. Use agarrar or sacar instead. Interestingly, compounds of coger (recoger, escoger) are still fine.