Thursday, August 19, 2010
In the US, for the most part, your name is your name. As that NPR story signifies, people react with shock and awe if you stray too far from your given name. Sure, we’ve got Joseph’s who become Joes, Jennifer’s who become Jennies. But radical departures are seen as just that – radical and inspiring of NPR stories that people talk about.
In Latin America, it is common for people to have a variety of names and naming customs are very different. In the northern parts of South America and in Central America, people often take their mother’s maiden name too. So you can meet a Maria Jamilla Ruiz Perez that is sometimes know as Maria Jamillia Ruiz P.
Another one you will encounter all over LatAm is people being called names that are not even among the litany of legal names they may have. Some of them sound obvious – Lau for Laura, for example. But other times, people use a name that has nothing to do with their other name – like Nacho in place of Guillermo. In Bogota, I even ran in fear from trying to see an apartment when I asked for Maria, only to be told there was no one by that name there. Turns out, Maria was just the name she used on email. Violeta was the name her neighbors knew her by. Me? At first I thought it was a tourist scam (Craiglist, while wonderful sometimes, can also be sketch city regardless of what city you are hunting in) but I eventually realized the naming customs were not what I was used to.
Today, I am just going by Jill and kinda liking it.
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Where have I been? What have I been doing? More importantly, WHERE am I? Well, I am in Washington for the summer, enjoying mi bi-hemisphericality (yes, it is a lifestyle choice).
While enjoying my blazing fast internet speed recently, I read a blog post from blogger Brendan van Son about all the things he won’t miss about South America and my first thought was that I had to agree with many of them. While life in Buenos Aires is different than in many parts of South America (ie you don’t usually have to worry about the lettuce there), there are still a tons of things he mentioned that I found myself agreeing with.
But in my nearly two months back in North America, I also find myself missing a ton of things.
So here it goes... Five things I miss about Buenos Aires:
1. My Friends. Wandering expat and porteños alike, I have an amazing and supportive group of friends in Buenos Aires. It’s not that I don’t love my friends in North America or the rest of the world (I love you all). Maybe it’s about me and the place I was in when I met my BsAs posse – I feel this wonderful connection, this ability to say and be myself unlike I have with many people I know in other parts of the world.
2. The loose concept of time. As one learns quickly in Latin America, time is a different concept in those parts. Latin time is a flexible, adjustable, whim driven concept. Planning? Pshaw! Por que? While at first this drove my type A self insane (getting an invite for a huge party two days before? Whhhatt?) , I have found myself frustrated with my overscheduled life (and the lives of others) since I am back in the north. Scheduling things two to three weeks in advance is the norm. "But hell, I could jet off to Paris in the morning", I think sometimes when putting something on my schedule a month ahead of time. I miss the whimsical nature of deciding today what I want today, instead of focusing on the future in the present.
3. New experiences. I am back in the city where I have lived on and off for more than a decade. Sure, there are new people, new places, new things happening everywhere. The US has changed more in the last two years than in the last two decades, but the changes are merely a raindrop in a storm compared to the rollercoaster life in Latin America. Maybe my standards have changed, maybe I am lazy, but I just feel like it is easier to walk around with my blinders on in a place that feels like an old pair of shoes.
4. Facturas. No, not my bills. Pastries. These are the most delicious, melt in your mouth snacks that induce an immediate gut reaction to run to the gym afterwards. They are sugary sweet and I love and miss them.
5. Speaking Spanish everyday. Some days I adored it as the rrrrr’s rolled from my tongue efforrrtlessly. Other days it was a nightmare – no one understood what the hell I was saying, I felt deaf, dumb and mute as people looked at me like I was a moron. But the struggle was delicious and gave me more confidence and sense of accomplishment than arguing with a Senator and winning.
Ok, now the nostalgia is killing me. Will just have to turn on some tango and read some Julio Cortazár for relief.
Tuesday, June 1, 2010
I realize that I haven’t been writing, giving you the delicious tidbits of my expat existence as you sit in your cubicle, daydreaming of escaping to some foreign land and then returning to online shopping or your annoying boss. The big news, folks, is that I have returned to the first world and the remains of my former life. This just means I am back in DC and living in my beautiful, extremely spacious (and extremely expensive) first world apartment replete with every modern convenience known to man. This is not really a permanent move but a strategic moment in the shift of the weather to figure out some stuff. Or for those of you new to the game - it is summer here in the north.
I have been about town a fair amount in the last week for meetings and other stuff, which means that I’ve been running into people left and right. People who look at me and exclaim, “Wow, you look great! How are you?” and then sometimes they ask again, filling up the awkwardness between us when I cannot tell some of them the same (some of you look fabulous, really) because the majority look tired and sallow from too many hours under the florescent lights, fighting the ego laced turf battles that define a large part of Washington life. I can’t decide if they keep saying this because they have nothing to say to me, feeling that I have detached myself too far from the matrix to understand anything or that they are so deeply into the matrix that they cannot even see a glimmer of light from the outside of it. Or maybe it’s true that the last two years of avoiding winter, struggling to find work, and living a life a little less predictable have all agreed with me.
Either way, some of these reunions have been a little bit painful. As I walk away, I often think about how lucky I am to have escaped. Now don’t get me wrong – there is another kind of comfort and pleasure that my friends are getting in that other life. Sometimes I wistfully dream of a day when I am not worried about a bank balance that is in a downward spiral that would rival the stock market circa September 2008, where I will live in the next few months, my lack of 401K contributions -- a life somewhat more secure than my somewhat (at times) precarious existence.
Ultimately, security is an illusion most of the time anyway- something we convince ourselves exists as to not feel like daily life is a precipice. Just don’t look down.
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
So the world here is in metrics. Summer temperatures swelter above 35 degrees, meat comes by the kilo, and car rides are in kilometers. Fine, fine. I am not a complete idiot, as I know that 32 degrees does not mean boots but rather sandals. I did struggle once with a cookie purchase, ordering 500 grams and lamenting afterward how it was just simply too many cookies to eat (ok, not really since I love cookies more than just about anything in the world and I was probably really happy to have that many cookies to eat).
Yes, those of us from the US are more accustomed to ordering illicit drugs in grams than our food.
This problem became a weighty one a few weeks ago when I decided to weigh myself. With a life stuffed with crusty pizzas, crustier empanadas, endless rivers of red wine and a cavity inducing sweet tooth, I could feel my pants cinching my waist like a corset. So I step on the scale before my workout and immediately freak out. What is the conversion again? Since the number was just in double digits, I knew it had to be at a minimum doubled. But then what? Add 5? Or was it really multiply by 3? Shit, shit, shit, I couldn’t remember. All I knew was that this number I did know had no reference for me – it could have been equal to 200 pounds, it could have been equal to 150, I had no idea.
Since I was at the gym while all this went down, I naturally did an extra 20 minutes on the elliptical so I could think about the unsolvable math equation. Or try to help with its unknown outcome. And then I tried through the powers of reasoning to figure it out from the weight machines that litter the gym, some of which have both kilos and pounds. Forget it. I was such a neurotic mess thinking I weighted 200 pounds that I eventually raced home to find out.
I opened my Mac, I checked the little widget and sighed with relief when it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought. One kilo is 2.2 pounds, so it’s a little more than double and if you’ve a first world white girl (or probably any girl for that matter, especially here in Argentina where they sadly have the highest rates of anorexia in the world) you know that every pound counts. Which is why I don’t weigh myself too much – in kilos or pounds.
Photo Courtesy of http://school.discoveryeducation.com/clipart/images/scale.gif
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
It’s not just the makeup, however. Ladies flout about town bedazzled beyond belief with tons of shiny baubles bejeweling their bodies, skyscraper high shoes with acrylic heels (just saw it last week), and skirts with hemlines as short as a sailor’s haircut.
After living here for a while you start to realize that maybe your sense of style changes. No, it doesn’t mean that I have cut my hair into a mullet, but it does mean I keep letting it grow. Nor does it mean that I’ve picked up a pair of hooker heels to wear to Sunday brunch. Instead, it takes on more subtle things, like wearing makeup (which I barely wear anyway) to lunch or always making sure I’ve got on some earrings or a little something to jazz up my outfit when I go out.
Women here also love jewelry. And I always have too, honestly. Even when I lived in DC, I still managed to gather a collection of little bits of glitter and sparkle to bejewel myself with when I felt like it. DC gals are a bit more, well… conservative in their style than many other places I’ve been or even lived.
But here they take it to whole other heights. For example, there is the flower. We’re not talking a flower on a lovely spring day or for an event. No, we’re talking a plastic flower in the hair for a Friday night drink with the gals. A friend from the US who has lived here for a while even sheepishly admitted to me that she has one and has worn it on occasion. We got a nice belly laugh out of that one.
Maybe it is because women like to fix themselves up. Maybe it is because women equate femininity with the stuff that is seen as “womanly” – jewelry, makeup, etc. Maybe it is because gender roles are a bit more rigid here and women are expected and taught to behave as women were traditionally expected to behave and look. Granted, Buenos Aires is one of the more progressive cities in Latin America, but old habits die hard I guess.
Whatever it is, I have to admit I am affected by it. As long as it’s a little jewelry or a touch of makeup to keep me fresh-faced, that’s fine. But if you see me eying any heels with metal tips… please shoot me.
Tuesday, March 23, 2010
In English, I have no real accent. I grew up on the east coast, so I definitely talk quickly but there’s nothing else notable about my twang when I chatter away. I remember as a child, I wished for the clipped tones of a British accent, always thinking it much sexier and interesting. I think it even was what made me love Simon LeBon. But I digress.
I’m not alone in my love for the tarty tone of the Brits. Even here in Argentina, people learn British English and it is always pretty funny to hear an Argentine switch into English and sound like Hugh Grant or Elizabeth Hurley.
This has made me realize a sad fact – a US accent just isn’t sexy or interesting. It’s just a plain ‘ol American accent. The kind from the movies or TV, I am told. In fact, I recall when I first started traveling around Latin America I hung out with a couple of Asian chicks. I was always the spokeswoman for the group; mostly because I knew some Spanish and if not, my English was the kind of English that almost anyone could understand. Useful, yes. Sultry and exotic, no.
Sigh. Oh, the plight of the first world white girl traveling the world!
My spirits were lifted about this sad syllabic state by my Spanish tutor when she told me recently that when I travel to Spain, my Argentine-ish accent will be seen as sexy by some Spaniards, like a British accent to my North American ear. For this, I was stoked. Finally, FINALLY, someone may develop a crush on me because of my accent!!
Eat your heart out, Keira Knightly! As I am sure that’s why all those boys love her.
Thursday, March 18, 2010
I am preparing for my summer in the North, which is likely to include some time in the US, Europe and even a dash of Canada for a dear friend’s wedding. The bottom line is that I need to make sure I have health insurance to take care of me everywhere. I mean, one never knows what can happen and as a US citizen, I am sadly all too aware of the financial cost of just one little incident.
I have asked around, I have searched the internet. I have been on the phone with people in the UK, in the US, even here in Argentina. And this is the sad fact – if I want any coverage in the United States at all for any real period of time, I basically have to pay more than double the premiums. Double!
This problem is unique to those of us from the U.S (my other English speaking first world friends don’t have this problem) where health care costs FOUR TIMES more than anywhere else in the world.
This whole thing reminds me about something that is always on my mind when non-Americans talk about life in the U.S. , which is that there is truly a price for a first-world life, isn’t there? It cost four times more to save your life in an emergency.
Anyway, it is stressing me out beyond belief. And pissing me off. The rest of the fricking world doesn’t put up with this shit. Now for all you fascists who want to rave and bitch about health care that is government run (and I know you are out there), c’mon. The reality is that we will never have a fully government implemented system in the US – there’s just too much money to be made. But what can work is some kind of public-private effort, like you see in most places in the world. Here in Argentina, I have private insurance that is modestly priced by my distorted U.S. standards. The funny part is that all of my friends from other parts of the world complain about how expensive it is!
Here in the Paris of the South, where the health care system seems ok (note, this is based on what I have heard and I can only speak about Buenos Aires, as I imagine it is different outside of the capital) there are two systems – a public one and a private one. While the private one is pretty glam (private rooms in the hospital for example) and the public one less so (old buildings, lots of waiting), there is basic care available for everyone. And if you do have something terrible happen, you are not likely to lose your home, all of your savings and be pushed into bankruptcy.
Anyway, I have no idea if what Congress is plotting and planning will solve the problem. After living and working in DC for over a decade, I am certainly skeptical of a politician’s grip on the real life of most people. And while my life is far from an average one, I am now burdened by what has unfortunately become an entirely average problem in the United States– the obscene cost of health care.
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
In Argentina, there is no shortage of hot dudes. Tall and buff, short and stocky, muscled, skinny, curly haired, long-haired, no haired – they’ve got it all here, ladies. And the men love the chicas. Maybe there’s something in the water, maybe it’s in the famously succulent beef, but whatever it is, you can pretty much guarantee that when you walk down the street, the boys will be in the yard to check out your milkshake.
While all you first world white girls out there are thinking, shit, I am on the next plane, think again girls. With these admiring glances also comes a whole slew of cultural games that one has to be prepared for, particularly the omission of vital information like being married, having children or living with your significant other.
For example, it is common for men not to wear a wedding ring even if they are, in fact, married. I recently met a hunky guy who chased me around for an entire evening only to find out he was married when he friended me on Facebook, his page replete with photos of his wife and children.
Besides the fact that most North American men would wear a wedding ring if they were married, they also probably would at some point reference the ‘ole ball and chain. But not here – you could go out to a party or club on a Saturday night (which here means sometime around 4 am) and spend the night being pursued by a man who has a wife and kids that he kissed goodbye after dinner around 1 am to come out on the prowl.
When I mentioned that I wanted to write something on my blog about this, horror stories quickly piled up from my girlfriends – Argentine and North American alike.
Among my faves:
- The man who dated my friend for a few weeks one summer and when she wanted to see his house he got super nervous. Why? When she got there, there were photos of his wife and kid who were off at the beach for the summer!
- Another friend’s boss revealed that among his 10 closest friends, seven of them had double families! WTF?
Someone remarked to me how ironic it was that a culture that values family so much would be willing to tolerate this violation of “family values”. But maybe that’s the point – could it be that they don’t see one night or even a regular sexual relationship as a violation? Are they just such master compartmentalizers that it doesn’t seem like they are bringing pain onto anyone or even risking their families?
I will never understand it. All I can do is chalk it up to the fine Latin art of not saying what you’re saying while you sort of say it. There, I said it. Or did I?
Monday, March 1, 2010
This realization this morning threw me for a loop. It’s summer, isn’t it? I mean, I come here to enjoy the sun and the heat. Could it really be the southern world equivalent of the end of summer?
It’s only March! I want more!
This is something I always struggle with – I never really know what time of year it is in that seasonal sense here in the Southern Hemisphere. In the last few weeks, we have had outrageous rains that have inundated neighborhoods all over town. I was on a bus the other week that got diverted because people were rioting in the streets because they had gone two days with no power. Nice. This brought about some cooler weather that left everyone asking if summer was already over. I blamed the cold (as everyone did) on all of the rain, but I think I may be wrong.
It really started to hit me last night as a friend and I rode out bikes home at about 8 pm, the city was already enveloped in that inky black darkness that comes with days that are shorter, winds that are brisker.
If you know me, you know my thoughts on this. I am a seasonal nomad, so even the slightest idea of cold weather is enough to get me checking out Travelocity. But yes, it is true. March is September in my Northern oriented internal clock, with the first day of fall being March 20th.
Anyway, it appears that summer is over. The children were not the first sign, they were the final sign.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
For those who earn pesos, they have to manage a couple of things, most importantly the exchange rate between the dollar and the peso. You wonder why people in Argentina have to worry about a currency that is legal tender 5,000 miles away? Well, because things like houses are priced in dollars. So this means that if you want to buy a house here, you have to borrow dollars. But you earn pesos. Oh and did I mention that the peso is constantly losing value against the dollar? When I first arrived here, the exchange rate was 3.50 pesos to the dollar. And now, 15 months later, it is 3.85 to the dollar. For me, this is seemingly a good deal. But for the peso peeps, it kinda sucks.
While this all may seem like a great deal for me, it really isn’t as lovely as it sounds. Inflation eats everyone alive here, regardless of one’s currency status. Last month, inflation was eight percent. As for last year, there’s some debate - the government of Krazy Kristina (aka Presidenta Cristina Kirchner) says it was eight percent, private economist say more like 15-18 percent. What does that mean for real? It means that every time I go buy something, it costs more. For me, with my dollar driven life, it’s like a pinch of salt. But if your money is worth less and less every month, it’s like a shovelful of shit.
The reasons why are complex and I would never profess to being an economist: It has to do with the Argentine government keeping the peso low to encourage investment by foreigners. It has to do with trying to keep the cost of exports low so someone will buy them. It has to do with the huge amounts of foreign currency the government needs to pay its huge debts. It has to do with the amount of money the government prints. It has to do with a taxation system that is insane, antiquated and easy to avoid. Whatever the reasons, the result is the same: it is harder and harder for everyone but the very rich to afford life in Argentina.
For many people, this roller coaster economy is better than it was. There is a deep history of economic instability and inflation insanity here. During the economic crisis, the rates of inflation were so outrageous that the prices in the grocery stores used to change every hour. Fellow blogger Buenos Aires Photographer has a beautiful posting (with photos) that can give you some of the backstory.
So while my friends freezing their tuchases off up north may be bitching about things, it’s for sure not as wacked as here … if that’s any consolation.
Photo from: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/c/ce/5pesos.jpg
Monday, February 1, 2010
You probably know that people kiss hello and goodbye here in BsAs. I like the kiss, something that is somehow more emotive and warmer than just a simple, clammy handshake. Of course, this means when you are leaving a party it can take forever and a day to kiss everyone goodbye, but I digress.
Anyway, I bring up the kiss for two reasons… one is because I always struggle with what to do when I meet fellow Americans. Do I kiss them? Of I do I just say hello with a feeble wave or even WORSE, a limp halfhearted handshake?
I have fallen on the side of the kiss route, mostly because I am a when-in-Rome-kinda-gal, which hasn’t always served me but at least I am consistent!
The other reason why I mention the kiss is that often men will kiss each other in greeting too. Just a peck on the cheek to say hello. And no, this is not just the gay men, I promise! I have seen old men kiss hello, the guys at the gym kiss hello, buddies meeting for lunch in a busy café. Even reader Emily commented about how this is part of work culture as well.
Of course, I was super-curious about this custom. I asked and poked around a bit and it seems this male kissing phenomena is unique to Argentina in Latin America. You may find it in other cultures, including in the Middle East and of course, Italy. Even in some parts of the former Soviet Union you can find men who will embrace with a little kiss. But Brazil? No. In Colombia – forget about it. Colombians don’t really kiss hello for the most part, it is more of handshake type of society even for the chicks. NB: Reader Yonas H comments that in Portugal, men in fact, do kiss.
What’s so interesting about the dude kiss is that machismo level of Argentine society. Many of these men who are kissing their dude friends hello are cut from the cloth of some of the most macho men en el mundo. Argentine society can sometimes be a retro throwback – at a party, the women and men can usually been seen gathered in gender specific groups, something out of a sweet 16. I’ve talked incessantly about the level of sexism here, so I don’t need to remind you, my loyal readers about this or why it would seem a tad peculiar to have dudes showing some affection to other dudes.
I will say though, that maybe because there’s so much kissing everywhere, maybe the kiss doesn’t mean as much as it would to a gringa, yanqui or whatever you want to call us cooler blooded northern folk. After all, a kiss is just a kiss. Even if you get them from different people all day long.
Thursday, January 28, 2010
I thought I had all my caca issues under control. Remain vigilant, especially in the morning (what creature doesn’t drop a load between the hours of 8 and 11am?). But this week, they got me.
Of course I don’t realize it when it happens. I arrive at my slightly snooty gym (there is a snootier one a block away) and head for the elliptical. I get on and start moving, putting my ipod on and enjoying my new gym mix. And then, it beings - a musty, gaggy, repulsive, treacherous and disgusting stench. At first, I look around. Could it be the guy two machines over, sweating a tad piggishly as he huffs and puffs to nowhere? Or the woman striding with purpose up an imaginary hill? Yes, it must her. How gross I think, imaging what in the world she must have done to herself (or not done to herself) to bring such a foul odor onto all of us.
Before too long, the smell faded and I continue my sweatfest. I strolled over to the weights – arms, back, chest, those little triceps all get their due. Wiped out, I collapsed onto a mat to stretch a bit and then, it starts again. That tang, that vicious olfactory assault that had nearly killed me an hour earlier. I frantically looked around for Lady Reek, but she was nowhere to be found.
This could mean only one thing – I was Lady Reek.
Shit (literally)! I quickly look down to my lovely Adidas Supernovas (the only shoe for me, I love them) and sandwiched in the little cavities of the bottom of my sneaker is shit, shit and shit.
I leave in embarrassment (after all, I was Lady Reek to everyone else) and when I get to the street, I begin scraping my shoe wildly against the sidewalk, like an animal with a bad itch. But the shit is just caked in after 45 minutes of cardio pounding.
Pissed off, I walk home. I take off my shoes outside the front door, carry them inside and stick them on the patio, leaving the smell for my neighbors to enjoy. What the hell did this dog eat?
I avoiding going to the gym yesterday because I just didn’t want to deal with my shitty shoes. But today, feeling brave, I put on rubber gloves, grabbed the paper towels and held my nose. Done and done, shit-free run.
Friday, January 8, 2010
I have been in the US for the holidays and for a little business time, doing my usual east coast lap from Ft. Lauderdale to NYC to DC. It’s a familiar route at this point in my life that’s spread around across two continents, two time zones and two languages.
Before I embark on these multi-week schleps, I try to organize coffees, meetings, lunches, cocktails, dinners, chats, gym dates or whatever to catch up with people, organize more work, get some gossip or even get some love (love has many forms, you filthy freakshow).
As you can imagine, this is not only time consuming trying to organize all these type-A people’s schedules (No, I can’t do Wednesday, I have my shrink or well, if the lawyers get back to me, I won’t be able to do 3pm – that kind of shit), but it’s just nuts to actually follow through and do EVERY SINGLE THING you overcommitted yourself to when you were sitting in the summertime and chilling out. But inevitably after three weeks of dragging your ass through the winter, a cold starts to bud, digits are perpetually frozen and a you have a stump speech on what’s been going on that would make an incumbent senator a little jealous.
Truthfully, it’s all lovely: all the friends, all the festivities, all the food, all the memoires. Everyone is happy to see you; you are happy to see them. But there are other people, the people who you once imbibed with countless glasses of fancy wine and canapés who don’t return your calls or your emails. The people who you thought were friends that once you unplugged from the matrix, no longer want anything to do with you. I don’t have tons of these types but there are some people who have mysteriously disappeared from the universe. Hmmm.
When I first started doing these east coast tours and I didn’t hear back from these ghosts, I felt sort of bad. What happened to my friends? Then I realized that these people were never my friends – they were part of the transactional life that has overtaken life in the big city. And now that I can only regale folks with tales of my wacky Argentine life or third world wanderings, I don’t have something they think of as valuable.
The good news is that people I never thought of as particularly close have also come out of the woodwork, becoming good friends even when I am far away. These people have served as inspiration and support and I am more grateful than ever for them.
I no longer feel bad about these spirits that have disappeared. And I don’t even bother sending those emails anymore, I just enjoy my wonderful, amazing North American friends.