Views From Abroad: Studying in Argentina, The Other “Land Down Under”
In my time studying abroad in Argentina, I’ve learned many things. I’ve found that for every dude on Tinder who rants about American foreign policy, there are five more Argentines who will compliment my Spanish. Navigating the subte is now second nature, even if avoiding the rampant dog caca on the sidewalk will never be. A single country can include grassland, desert, tundra, and jungle, but attention seems to focus on the Falklands (or las Malvinas in Spanish). It’s been 180 or so years since Argentina lost the islands to the British, but there are still culture centers and ice cream shops with names insisting that Argentina mains sovereignty over the island’s half a million sheep and 3000 human inhabitants.
A subjective experience of Argentina can vary widely. Visitors, particularly students studying abroad, can stay in a town in the countryside, or (more likely) can hang out in the upscale themed bars and brunch places that dot the trendier neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. Although I did more of the latter than the former, my experience has left me with a deep understanding of a country fairly distinct from the U.S.
Argentina can be strikingly similar to the United States. Argentina broke away from a colonial power, suffered civil war in the mid-19th century, was settled by a diverse set of European immigrants, developed a close relationship with Great Britain, and built a complex system of railroads. In fact, in the early 1900s, Argentina was one of the ten wealthiest countries in the world by GDP per capita. But after 1920 or so the histories diverge, with Argentina oscillating between democracy and military dictatorship, experiencing economic crises and inflation, and striking a pacifist tone in foreign policy (with the jarring exception of the Falklands War). With Argentina's thirty-year streak of democracy, high levels of development, and cosmopolitan outlook, life can be fairly similar to that of the U.S. Of course, I remember that I’m in Argentina when I hear teens on the street discussing trade policy, bite into an empanada, or meet three guys named Facundo in one day.
There are, however, noteworthy differences between Argentine and American lifestyles. The most obvious difference is the concept of time. Being 15 minutes, half an hour, or even later is either mildly frowned upon or totally fine. Professors in Argentine universities can show up half an hour late to class and only the exchange students bat an eye. Dinner is pushed back to 9-10 PM, and going home before 6 AM while at a nightclub is inexcusable.
Another omnipresent difference is mate, Argentina's national beverage. Mate is a type of tea made from yerba mate leaves. The leaves are held in a gourd (today often a metal container) into which hot water is poured. Students, grandparents, and anyone in between carry a thermos of hot water around with them at any point of the day, although the afternoon is the most common time. Mate is often enjoyed as a group, with the gourd passed around and hot water refilled. I’ve sampled mate a few times, but each time I burn my tongue and wonder whether Argentines have a heightened resistance to mononucleosis.
Mate's dominance is only rivaled by Argentina's lionization of the same five foods. Some of these are originally from Italian cuisine. With about 60% of Argentines of at least partial Italian descent, this wave of immigration has made its mark on the nation's food. Pasta is everywhere, milanesa (schnitzel, more or less) is on almost every Argentine dinner table, and pizza is a lifestyle. My friends and I joke that to go to a leisurely lunch of pasta only to show up to class 20 minutes late with mate in hand would constitute going "full Argentine."
Perhaps the most important “p” of Argentine food culture is parrilla (literally grill, but steakhouse is a better translation). Argentina’s immense beef production (2.7 million tons in 2014) has led to some impressive steak. Argentina for a long time was the world’s leading consumer of beef per capita, but has recently slipped to second place behind Uruguay, its neighbor and (according to some) “rebel province.” Beef is joined by empanadas and alfajores in the national pantheon of food. Empanadas, a stuffed pastry found in much of Latin America, are omnipresent. The most popular include beef (naturally), ham and cheese, and roquefort. Even with the variety of flavors, I (and my body) resent when I have empanadas for too many lunches in a row. Finally, alfajores, are two sweet biscuits with filling, typically dulce de leche, in the middle. My personal favorite are alfajores with dulce de membrillo, some form of sweet berry paste. The resulting sugar rush gets me through my four-hour Friday afternoon class.
The biggest difference between studying abroad in South America compared to say, London or Amsterdam, is the language barrier. After seven years of studying Spanish in school, I would call myself proficient but not fluent. I thankfully had a two-month head start of immersion in Bolivia, but there are three significant obstacles to speaking Spanish in Argentina. The first is that although Argentina is a predominantly white country, most Argentines have dark, Mediterranean features, as it was mostly colonized by Spaniards and Italians. My blond hair and blue eyes scream: "FOREIGNER." This ties in with the second point, that a substantial portion of Buenos Aires speaks (mediocre) English. Instead of carrying on in Spanish, strangers will default to English (often worse than my Spanish) until I prove that I can communicate fluently. Finally, the Spanish spoken in Greater Buenos Aires is distinct from what American students learn. "Ll," instead of being pronounced like a "y," becomes a "sh" sound. "Llama" becomes "shama." "Yankee" becomes "Shankee."
The intonation used in Rioplatense Spanish, the dialect of Buenos Aires and the surrounding region, is similar to Neapolitan Italian. Perhaps most importantly, Porteños (residents of Buenos Aires) lean heavily on slang, which can vary significantly depending on context. The archetypical example, "boludo," literally means "big balls." This can start a quarrel, show endearment to a friend, or serve as an interjection. Boludo exists on a spectrum between “Boludo, I’m so glad you could make it to my wedding” to “Boludo, why would you hit my dog with your Vespa?” These factors can cause even experienced non-native Spanish speakers to face difficulties.
An interesting political difference between Argentina and the States is the Argentine affinity toward socialism, where in the States socialism incites outrage and possibly a nonsensical association with ISIS. Part of this is due to Peronism, a political ideology that emerged in the 1940s and remains influential to this day. Peronism promoted trade unions, the empowerment of the working class, and the idea of an Argentine people united against “foreign capital.” Today, Argentine socialism can be fun, including a popular bike-share program and state-run Zumba classes. Argentinians have access to free public medical care (although those who can pay usually seek private medical care), and most public universities are free and open to anyone. In universities, what at Emory is deemed “philanthropy” is billed as “solidarity” by student groups. That said, although these make for interesting comparisons, Argentina is on the whole a free-market state, closer to the United States than Cuba or Venezuela.
But what of my day-to-day life in Buenos Aires? It's pretty sweet. I live in a house with a psychoanalyst as a host mom, a garden, and a two-month old Border Collie. On a related tangent, psychoanalysis, based on Freud, Jung, Lacan, etc. is amazingly common in Argentina. Argentina hosts 202 psychoanalysts per 100,000 people, by far the most of any country in the world. Austria, the runner-up, only has 80 per 100,000 people. I’m enrolled in four classes, most of which are...less rigorous than their Emory equivalents. That said, all of them are taught in Spanish, and reading is particularly taxing. With less academic stress and no extracurriculars, I find myself with more spare time than I've had since freshman year of high school. Up to a certain point, more free time is nice. However, I find the abundance confusing. All of my classes are at least 30 minutes away by public transit, so that adds to my commitments. Beyond that, I try to fill hours by exploring different neighborhoods, visiting cultural attractions, and going to long lunches with my friends.
The strangest commitment I've picked up is my "hip hop street dance" class, which offers an opportunity to see American culture refracted through an Argentine lens. I only joined nine months into a year-long class, so I’m pretty far behind people from a country that only recently found out about hip hop. I spend 60-90 minutes every Tuesday trying my best to pop and lock it to everything from Biggie to a Charlie XCX remix. At the end I’m sweaty and still quite bad.
Though my time abroad has often been challenging, on the whole I've found it liberating and refreshing. I've gradually improved my grasp of a second language I've studied since age 13. I've made friends from Argentina and across the U.S. Most importantly, because of language barrier, I can't strive to be the smartest person in the room. Instead, if I can follow what's going on, that's enough for me. “Enough for me” also includes “stuffing my face with alfajores [cookies with dulce de leche]” and “understanding the presidential election and at least four of the six candidates.” Moving to a foreign country can be difficult, but with enough practice and replacing stolen sunglasses, I’ve found a balance and at least a facsimile of a normal life.