Me, after 18 or so hours on a bus: “I think we must be close to home…”
…Honk! Honk! Honk! Loud traffic noises persist; I glance out the window and see a sea of cars.
Tyler: “Yep, it sounds like we’re back in the city!”
When Tyler and I lived in Seattle, he didn’t like it very much. Whenever we left to go backpacking or camping, or just to spend a weekend away, we would come back and he would say “These trips away just remind me of how much I don’t like the city.” I would chide him for being so negative, but yesterday this was brought to me in a new light. We just returned from a lovely long weekend from an amazing place, Iguazύ Falls. It’s a place of national parks and natural wonders, up in the far northwest corner where a little finger of Argentine land borders Brazil and Paraguay, and where wide rivers suddenly plummet into dozens of jaw-dropping waterfalls. Pictures from the trip and more comments can be found here and here. It was truly amazing and I feel blessed to have gone. But it reminded me of something that’s been simmering in the back of my mind for several weeks now, something that I’ve tried to give time to develop, and yet still remains, more or less, the same, and the shocking juxtaposition of nature’s beauty and the city’s chaos put it into perspective.
This place, Buenos Aires, is, undoubtedly, unlike any other city, that I, or Tyler, have ever been to. And not to brag, but we’ve gotten around. It’s an enigma; I try to compare it other cities, to compartmentalize it in my typical individualistic, American, postmodern way. San Telmo is like Paris, Avenida Corrientes like Mexico City, maybe this neighborhood is more like Spain, this one like Madison Park or Madrona in Seattle, Galerias Pacificos and Avenida Florida are like Les Halles…but it’s all in vain. Not only are there too many cars, too many people, and too much noise for this city to truly be the “Paris” of Latin America, the vibe is completely different. The rhythm of the city is unfamiliar and mysterious. We’re still trying to “figure out” the people – are they generally nice, open, gregarious, or reserved, snobbish, and closed? Do they like Americans and other foreigners, or are we a nuisance? So far, all we’ve determined is that porteños – those who were born in Buenos Aires proper, in the Capital Federal – are proud of their status. And that they really do eat more desserts than any people I’ve ever known – we’ve had dulce de leche if not twice, at least once a day, each day, since we’ve been here. Our experiences have been a mix of seemingly rude, slow servers at cafes and restaurants, pushy salesman, courteous bus drivers, and our amazing host-mom, Julia. Some parts of the city are simply adorable, peaceful and chic; others have a hip, urban feel; others poor; others run-down, reminiscent of a by-gone age of glory; others feel downright ritzy; it’s truly a patchwork maze, meant to be accepted as-is.
While this presents an enticing challenge, in summary, I do not love it here. While I tried not to have expectations, it is not as I had subconsciously imagined it. I am not enchanted or in love with this place. However, I don’t dislike it either. It’s fascinating, there are many things I like, many things that are interesting, unique, challenging, and that present ample opportunities to learn and grow, but there is something off-kilter about it all that does not agree with me. Maybe it’s because I do not want to pick up their ridiculous, though beautiful, accent (I’ve been doing it anyway, to fit in and be better understood. I’m hoping I can drop it the second we cross the border). Or because their fashion, aside from outstanding leather handbags, purses, boots, and shoes, is not that great (are genie-pants and camel-toe shoes happening in the US?). Maybe it’s because I haven’t “figured it out yet” or made friends with locals, or even many friends at all. It just feels like yet another place, another stop along the road, another place of things to see, food to try, of shops and restaurants and bars, people passing through…all…meaningless. I don’t feel a sense of community. I think a key thing to this feeling is that I am not helping or involved with anything here (unless you count my internship, which today consists of writing this blog). It is difficult to get involved because we’re outsiders, not only that, we’re still learning the language, the history, and the culture, and it can take a lifetime learning these things before you can really make significant contributions and feel connected and like you belong to a community. I was just achieving this in Seattle when we left, and it seems impossible to achieve here. It is a nice place, it has charm, it has great qualities, but it’s like it doesn’t “fit.” I want to love it here; I try to love it, if I’m truly honest, it’s all façade.
People who have gone to B.A. and loved it, people that played a large part in getting me excited to go and take the plunge, always spoke of a unique energy here; a vibe; a pulse unlike any other. “You have to go! It’s unlike any other place in the world!” It is unlike any other place in the world, but in my experience, the pulse is quite weak. What many people see as quaint European charm just makes me ache for Paris. Sure, there is some amazing architecture, sure, they eat croissants and call them medialunas and there are some gems among them, and there are some good cafes, but it’s like a faded copy; the original is just better. Sure, there is a bit of that Latin American energy that I love, but it’s also watered down and bland, like the food. It’s an interesting mix but I guess I want it all one way or nothing, the same way I want to either travel or settle down; the in-between doesn’t often sit well with me. What I love about Latin American isn’t present enough here, and what reminds me of Europe or France just makes me realize how much it misses the mark. The people here joke about how Argentines have an identity crisis – they spent so much time trying to be like Europe, forgetting that they’re in Latin America, that they emerged from a dictatorship not knowing what defines them. They are confused and they haven’t found an answer yet, and I think this is what hurts them; what makes me feel like something is lacking.
And, if food is a way into a man, or women’s, heart, well, maybe this is why I don’t love it here. The food is bland, I mean, they don’t even use black pepper (Chris Wheeler would love it, as would Moira Carpenter – hello!), bland. The pastries are mostly dry and un-flavorful, unless you go to one place we’ve found courtesy of our program. The “pizza” lacks both real mozzarella and a tomato sauce that consists of something more than literally canned tomatoes (where is the garlic? The oregano? The basil, for god’s sake the basil!), not to mention the crust is never…well…right – neither thin nor doughy, with maybe a few exceptions of some overpriced restaurants and one catering company. Sure, I like empanadas; we went to a parilla and I found out I like both chorizo (more like polish sausage than the spicy kind we’re used to in the US), morcilla (blood sausage), and of course, the steaks are great. The wines are also great, though the best ones have been hard to find and pricey. And I’m sure we can find amazing, creative, fresh, unique, and flavorful food in fancy restaurants for a fancy price. The ice cream is good, the cafes are nice, but these are almost all things I can get in any number of places and that aren’t unique, in my opinion, to Buenos Aires.
I don’t mean to sound completely negative, I am merely trying to put together thoughts and feelings about this place. Maybe the things that disagree with me are due to personal qualities I should work on changing or developing; or perhaps I am self-centered, whining and complaining too much, making it too difficult to be happy and content, and these are lessons God is teaching me now. I look forward to learning them. I also want to distinguish that these thoughts or about the city of Buenos Aires; I think the country of Argentina will be quite different. I am enjoying my time here. Though it can be at times, bittersweet, for example, I love the weather and the sunshine, but I also miss the fall, and the snow the PNW just got that seems to have put everyone in the holiday spirit, which I only feel the slightest hint of here. I enjoy getting to know the people around me, going to museums, exploring the city, listening to music on the subway, (both on my iPod and the buskers); I enjoy the cultural idioms, I love the language, I enjoy getting to know the art, the music, the films, the politics, and history; oftentimes I feel as if I’m wandering about, delighted by the smallest things here. I enjoy the experience of my internship; that I have so much free time with Tyler, that I have time to read, to exercise (though I haven’t taken advantage of that much!), and to just think and write. It’s a beautiful place and it’s a beautiful time of year here. I enjoy that I’m learning to understand how Tyler felt living in Seattle and I think it’s creating some healthy compassion for me. I’m thankful to have free time to think about things I need to work on in my relationship with Christ; to ponder God’s plan for my life, to hope and dream about how the experiences I’m having now might be used in the future. I look for the positive things each day and try to enjoy each moment to its fullest. But, people keep asking if I like it here or what it’s like, and I feel they deserved an appropriate, thorough, response. 🙂
Salud and Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! We miss you all dearly and think of you often! And we welcome your thoughts and comments, and prayers!