Sunday, July 26, 2009

Viviendo en Argentina

Hello again everyone!

At the time of this writing, I will have been in Buenos Aires for a week. Now, this may sound very strange, but I think I went through the worst of my culture shock on the first day. I started crying and thinking that I'd never know enough Spanish, that I was ruining my relationships, and that I would never make friends. However, all of those things have turned out not to be true. My host mom cheers me up a lot, so that, the awesome people of ISA, and talking to friends back home has helped a lot. Sometimes I still get confused as to where I am, especially after I've been dreaming, because they usually take place in the US. When I wake up then, I have no idea where I am. But I suppose all travelers feel like that at some point. I seriously thought I had swine flu last week because it's advertised here so much, but thankfully it turned out just to be a cold (that I probably got from the airport).

Anyway, before I tell you what I've done, I must aquaint you with some Argentine customs. First and foremost, you must know that if you are introduced to someone, or you see a friend or family member, you MUST kiss them (in the air) with your right cheek when saying hello AND goodbye. You must always say and do these things. And this isn't just for women; men do it too. The fashionable thing to say is "chau," when leaving, which, as you note, is not written in the French "ciao" way, but "chau."

Now that we've gotten that out of the way, I've noticed that it's not really necessary to say "excuse me." Even in the US, people usually say something to the effect that they're sorry if they bumped into someone or they made them go out of their way. But that's definitely not the case here, and I don't think it's being mean; they just don't do it. Also, and this is very peculiar: no one looks left or right when crossing the road. The first rule that we learned growing up, "look left and right before crossing," doesn't apply here. Granted, most streets in Belgrano are one-way so it's necessary to just look one way, but that even seems to be too confounding. People will only stop if the car is literally about to hit them, and sometimes they still don't stop walking. I would hate to drive around here; the road definitely belongs to pedestrians.

I should also remark about a misconception of Latin Americans. While it is true that many of them are people of color, many of them aren't. Especially in Buenos Aires, the people's Western European heritage definitely shows, and I honestly feel like I'm in the US sometimes. With that said, people also seem to forget that people of other continents are here, like Asians and Africans. Indeed, one of the largest Jewish populations outside of Israel resides in Buenos Aires. It is also worth noting that when someone asks where I am from, I cannot say America, as all North and South Americans are indeed Americans. Instead I must say that I am from the US. I think we sometimes forget that we don't own both continents.

Speaking of American things, it's really nice because whenever I want to feel like I'm at home, I only have to turn on the TV to find like 20 channels that show movies in English. One of the reasons is definitely that Hollywood owns most of the movie-making world, but also that it helps people learn English. It also doesn't take any time to dub (I watched a bit of Hannah Montana (or something similiar) dubbed and it was really weird). Things are very similar here (from toilets to trash cans to drying hands). The major difference, of course, is the language spoken. Most of my friends here want to come back fluent, and I'm not even taking a Spanish class, so the fact that I can understand a lot of what they're saying is rather amazing. We'll see how well I can keep up though.

I really love all the people on the ISA (International Studies Abroad) program, or at least the 15-20 people I know. ^_^' Everything is much, much slower than anything you would encounter in the US, likes meals or even just tea time. However, I can kind of see why, because in Argentina, it's seen as rude if the waiter interrupts you for anything. So, they don't ask you for your order, and they definitely don't just leave your check on the table. You must ask them (staring intently in their eyes is the only way I've found to attract their attention) for these things. Another strange thing is that water here is not free, and if you order it, they will automatically give you carbonated water. It's basically water that's fizzy, but I really don't like it. Because of that, people really don't drink water here, so it seems like I'm always thirsty.

Anyway, my friends and I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires a few days ago, and it was awesome. They had all sorts of Spanish art, Argentine art, and native art. Christianity definitely played a role in the former two and when you're trained to look for it, you notice all the subtle ways the painters portrayed the Romans (aka the Pagans) as barbaric, rapists, pillagers, etc. I have to say though, at least the women seemed to have some sexual role; later on women were only allowed to be mothers in the paintings. Anyway, enough of my art history rambling!

A bunch of us also went out to the bars the other night, which was a lot of fun. Now, I must explain something about Argentine nightlife. It is definitely not like in the US where people drink 5 shots in 20 minutes and get blacked out for the next few hours; here, you take a nap in the evening, get up around midnight to shower and meet your friends, and then go to the bars around 2. Four in the morning is considered the best time of the party. When they close around 7, it's traditional to go out and get breakfast with your friends. Finally, around 8 or 9, you go back to sleep. We definitely haven't adjusted to Argentine standards, but we're getting there! Anyway, at the bar we went to, they played American songs like "Hot N' Cold," "Just Dance," and "Cry For You." It was so much fun singing along to them, and after way too much wine, hard alcohol, and some Sex on the Beach, we, naturally being Americans, felt the need to get up and starting dancing in the middle of the third floor of the bar. Yes, every Argentine was looking at us, and yes, they were laughing, but we really wanted to dance, so I don't regret it at all.

Speaking of dance, as you must know, tango here is really huge. Even if you're walking down the street, you're likely to see street performers dancing tango; in one case, a man had created a doll that imitated a woman in tango. It was quite amusing. The university offers a few tango classes, and you can learn salsa in a lot of different venues as well, so we'll see if I'm able to dance as well as the natives when I get back. :)

We've been doing a lot of shopping lately as well. Cabildo Avenue is really near to my house, and it has lots of cafes, clothing shops, electronics stores, shoe stores, etc. Now I must remark on the last one. In most Argentine stores, the shop's wares (whether it's cell phones, shoes or clothes) are displayed in a glass case on both sides of the entrance way so, naturally, you can see their supplies, but you can see also the prices without going inside. And I swear, every day, every women is looking at leather boots. I don't know if they can't afford them (they are about $70-$120 USD) or are just dreaming about them or what, but seriously I felt like I would only fit in if I gazed at them as well. They're really popular here, but they kind of look like cowboy boots to me, and they only seem to work with jeans anyway (and we all know how much I hate those).

For the most part though, everything here is really cheap. I bought some really cute shirts and these beautifully intricate scarves for only FIVE DOLLARS EACH (yes, you heard me right).I was also forced to buy a few sweaters (one of which reminds me of what Little Red Riding Hood would wear, but in blue) by my host mom because she thinks I'm going to die of the cold or something. I admit, it has been cold here, about 30-40 degrees F every day, but she doesn't seem to understand that I'm from Minnesota and I literally have walked miles in -20 degree weather. Oh well. I also found this cute little shop that sells Asian-style things (I later found out the owner of the store is from Shanghai), and you will not believe this, but they had SAILOR MOON STICKERS. My mouth literally dropped open, because at least in the US, they lost the license to sell Sailor Moon things many years ago. I'm not sure if it was imported or bootlegged (some of the senshi's outfits were strange colors), but either way I bought them. Even better news is the fact that I found TWO Japanese restaurants and one Chinese restaurant just a few blocks from my apartment building. I'll have to go there soon because I'm kind of getting sick of Italian and French food. Also, my phone, after SIX DAYS of trying to activate it, was finally fixed by someone in the store. It was seriously a pain, and no one else had as much trouble with their phones as I did. Apparently there was something wrong with the chip, but I seriously don't think it could have been that easy. Either way, it's finally working and I'm glad. Most of the features are similar to American phones, but on mine at least, you can also connect to FM Radio and play games like Chicken and UFO. I have still not figured out what those are. The three main companies in Argentina are Claro, Personal, and MoviStar; unfortunately, touch phones and slide phones haven't really made it here yet.

Classes start on Monday, and there is a sort of "trial period" where you can see if you really want to take them. Some of them are really far away so I'll have to take the subte (subway). Hopefully I don't get lost again.

Sorry about not adding pictures by the way; the cord I actually brought with was the one chewed by me and Michael's rats. -_- Either way, I'll add more later. Chau for now!

Monday, July 20, 2009

Touchdown in Buenos Aires

Hola everyone!

I arrived safely to Buenos Aires on Saturday, but of course, with my luck, not without some difficulty. The Chicago airport wouldn´t let me travel without a visa, and told me I´d have to cancel my flight or pay an extra $600 on top of the $1,000 ticket to take the flight to New York. Even after talking to the director of my program, who had the Argentine and US laws in front of her, they still said that their information dictated that I needed a US visa (which isn´t possible, because I´m a citizen). Thankfully, after some crying (and some threatening), a woman decided that she`d let me bypass the rule.

The flights were alright; the plane trip to Buenos Aires is 12 hours, and of course that was on top of the 9 hours I had already been in the airports. Suffice to say, it was a long couple of days.

Anyway, my host mom is super nice. When I first saw her outside the bus window, I knew I wanted her to be my host mom. Well, she is almost 70 years old, but she is super active.

In fact, since today was El Dia de Amigos (the Day of Friends, which occurs every Monday), she came back pronouncing she was drunk! It was so funny. Anyway, her name is Neli (short for Nelida), and her friends call her all the time, and her son and his family live in the apartment next to hers. I met them, and they are all nice as well, but the youngest granddaughter (15) knows a lot of English and we talked about castellano (the language they speak in Argentina, kind of like a sect of Spanish), school and even Lost!

I live in Belgrano, a nice neighborhood right in the heart of Buenos Aires, and only a short walk from my university. As I said before, I´ve worked in a city, but I´ve never lived in one, and it´s nice to see all the shops and people about as I walk home. My apartment building is pretty similar to the ones that you´d see in America, except that the elevators have two sliding doors instead of one automatic door. Also, my room is entirely blue (the walls, the dressers, the bed, etc.) and I felt like I was in a room I would have designed myself. :)

There are about 100 people in the ISA program, though we are not all in the same classes. ISA offers a lot more options than Knox does, including classes in English, Spanish classes with other international students, Spanish with Argentine students, do an intensive month where you enroll in a local internship. In the Knox program, you can only study Spanish with locals. Everyone is really nice, and they´re from all over the US. I´m also really glad that I got to meet new people instead of falling back on the few friends I had in the Knox program.

About 20% (roughly 2,300 students) of la Universidad del Belgrano comprises of international students, and most of them seem to be from the US and Europe. However, there are about 10,000 students total, so it´s definitely bigger than about 9,000 people. It`s a private university that was established in 1964 to honor Manuel Belgrano, a major figure in Argentine history.

Unfortunately, I`m doing a lot of boring things right now like attending orientations all day, filling out migration forms, applying for a student visa, and learning about swine flu. Seriously, it´s a big thing here. The university is actually closed to local students, but it´s open to international students. I don`t know if that means they think we`re safer or something, but I`m glad it`s open either way.

We did take a city tour and I got to see the the Plaza de la mayo (where the famous Madres de la plaza march), San Telmo, la casa rojo (equivalent of the white house), the Congress building, the famous Florida Street, a complex of cathedrals and tombs, and many other things.

Also, I should make a remark about the food. Because the food is the soul of a people, ¿no? It`s similar to most Western countries, but it`s more heavily influenced by Italian, Porteguese, and Spanish foods. It`s interesting to notice, however, how they`ve managed to take the same ingredients and make totally different foods. For example, what we think of as tuna salad is actually that here: they add some lettuce, onions, mayo and tuna and it`s good to go! Breakfast usually consists of toast, orange juice, tea, and maybe some fruit. Lunch and dinner are always later in the day (like 2pm and 9pm), but you get used to it pretty quickly.

As I thought, my Spanish is not the best, but I like to think of it as functional. I can communicate basic things, and when my friends are switching back and forth between Spanish and English in conversation, I don´t miss a beat. The Argentine lingo is very different from what we learn in the US, but I think I`ll get the hang of it eventually.

Anyway, I´ll talk more about Argentina later, but for now, ¡hasta luego!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

New Adventures: Argentina Chapter

"You can kiss your family and friends good-bye and put miles between you, but at the same time you carry them with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world but a world lives in you." ~Frederick Buechner

Hello everyone!

This is my first post. I thought I'd start a little before I left (I'll be in Argentina in 17 days). Since it seems that it's a tradition for students studying abroad to keep blogs, I thought I'd keep one too.

First, let me tell you how I've gotten here.

I have always wanted to study abroad, especially in the British Isles. Why did I not go there then? There are two main reasons: 1) It's too expensive. 2) I don't have enough time left at Knox to study there. Because I have the motivation to go there, I know I will, probably in graduate school through a fellowship. Since my academic career will likely center around Goddess worship in that area, I don't doubt I'll be going there often.

Most of you know I traveled through Japan to Hiroshima, Tokyo and Kyoto for 16 days in the months of November-December 2008 with a Knox student group, but you probably don't know that it solidified my decision to study abroad. I had only taken a term of Japanese, but with the help of my friends, this seemed sufficient. That's why I know that after 6 years of taking Spanish, I will be alright. I truly treasured every moment I stayed in that country, and I miss most of all the politeness, the food, and the beauty. It transformed my view of the world. It was truly one of the best experiences of my life, and I realized that I would be emotionally okay if I studied abroad. That's a big deal for me.

So, you know about Japan now. Most people don't know I also went on a cruise to Jamaica and the Cayman Islands when I was 16, which was nothing short of a dream (I still remember it in a sort of hazy fashion). I've also traveled to Honolulu, NYC, Cape Hatteras, Lake Mackinac, Orlando, St. Louis, Los Angeles, and all the places in-between. I've also been to Ontario twice. I think the difference between the LA and Hawaii trips and all the other trips were that I didn't have my family or friends around to help me; I had to fly on my own, figure out the transportation system, manage my own money, and find time for research. I think a lot of my confidence came from living near and working in Chicago.

If you don't know, I moved from my little town of Winona, Minnesota to Wilmette, Illinois (northern suburb) last summer to take two job offers I had received. One was a Planned Parenthood internship in Chicago, and the other was at National Safety Council in Itasca (a western suburb). Thankfully, I received a stipend from Knox for $1,500 to work at PP and I also earned $12/hour at NSC. That was when I started working in a professional capacity, and I was using my head to solve problems instead of the same routines that my library or Subway jobs had me do. I had to quickly master the subways and the fast-paced life of the city. Of course, none of this would have been possible without Michael or his father letting me live with them, and for that I am eternally grateful. Chicago will always have a special place in my heart, but I think I want to live somewhere more challenging in the future. :)

For the Knox people out there, you might not know that I'm not going on the Knox-Argentina program. The main reason for this is that I don't have any professional interests in Spanish, and because of this, I have not studied it nearly as much as other people going. (My major is creative writing with minors in history and gender and women's studies!) I'll be able to get around, but I didn't want to take classes in Spanish, which is how Profesor Ragan found the ISA program for me (I actually met her on the Japan trip, coincidentally). My classes will be in English, which will be much less stressful for me, and I'll get to meet people outside of the Knox program. I'm really excited about that.

So, if I don't want to learn more Spanish, why am I studying in Argentina? This is what I wrote in my study abroad essay:

...My love for Isabel Allende’s works, which I had found in high school, grew, and while these novels and short stories were based speculatively in Chile, they accounted for much of the horror and disappearances the rest of Latin America had seen. This curiosity met and mingled with my love of writing, and when enrolled in Beginning Fiction with Professor Hache Carrillo, this curiosity turned into diligent history digging and writing in a character’s head totally removed from my own, in surroundings totally different from mine, and with traditions that could not always correlate. Writing about the disappeared not only forced me to understand Argentine consciousness quickly, but it ignited in me a profound desire to spread the word about these grotesque injustices, often indirectly caused by the USA, my own home country.

When I enrolled in Latin American Women Writers with Professor Magali Roy-Feguiere, I not only read more Allende, but I encountered the works of Elena Poniatowska, Rosario Castellanos, Luisa Valenzuela, and Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. These writers opened up even more portals for me in the way of Latin American history and literature, and cemented my own passion for telling others about the disappeared. Reading first-hand accounts of these atrocities forced my pencil to write stronger, so that when I enrolled in more fiction and poetry classes, the themes inevitably showed up in my work. I have written stories about Chile’s dictatorship and poems about Argentina’s tortures. I even performed these works at open mics, drawing me closer to the people that call themselves Latin American, and if I may say so myself, people were blown away by the content.

I decided to put on a film screening in 2008, in collaboration with Spanish Club and Estudiantes sin Fronteras, about Chile’s disappearances. The film was a documentary taken over the recent decades with much care, and followed Judge Juan Guzman as he converted from a Pinochet supporter to one who demanded that his crimes during his military dictatorship be tried in the court of law. I wanted to raise awareness about these issues at Knox, especially because it has now been proven through records released by the CIA that show America’s participation in the Dirty Wars, and in other events to produce unstable economies in Latin America, and I thought it was important in a world where prisoners, under American watch, were being tortured in Guantanamo Bay. I still do not think we will know the full scope of the atrocities of the Iraq War until many years after it has ended. About 30 people attended the film viewing, and I was happy to start a dialogue with students who were interested in the subject, especially former students of the study abroad program in Argentina.

So that's the professional version of it. I can't wait to learn Argentine history and literature in an Argentine school. Not only do I pay Knox directly for my tuition, but it's actually cheaper to study abroad there!

It's been a long road getting here. I had a tramatic childhood to say the least, the effects of which I'm still dealing with today. But thanks to my friends, especially Michael, my siblings Michelle and Bryan, and Knox--which has given me everything--I think I'll be alright studying abroad in a place completely separate from my own.

I really think the quote at the top is true, and it's equally true if you replace "world" with "home." It's funny because I've called Knox my home, Michael's house my home, and my Winona house home. My sister even asked me when I was going home the other day (i.e. to Michael's). I think that's why this quote rings so true to me: it doesn't matter where you are, as long as you have yourself and your loved ones in your heart, mind and stomach.

Wish me luck!