Notes on Coming Home

I am sure my mother and father are tired of me starting or finishing every other sentence for the past couple of weeks with, “But in Argentina the veggies and beer only costs this much”, “But in Argentina I wouldn’t be eating dinner until 10:30”, “But in Argentina I had free health insurance…”.  But every disgruntled pessimistic comment I spit out about returning to the U.S was equally matched by cultural frustrations like these: “But in the U.S, the police actually enforce laws and don’t accept cash bribes”, “But in the U.S we recycle” , “But in the U.S people respect the bike lanes made for cyclists only”, “But in the U.S there aren’t about 10 steps to go through to sign up for a 10k and then trek across the city to realize you never actually signed up anyway” (clearly something I’m still getting over).

In March I had compiled a list of my impressions of “the bueno y malo” of living in Argentina that you can revisit here but today’s post is a list of the little and big things I miss since landing on U.S soil three weeks ago, and of course the things I will never miss after living 5,352 miles away from home.

Let me preface this theme regarding reverse culture shock by saying this post is specifically dedicated to every single expat who has been living in Argentina for infinitely more time than me.  I’ll point out the obvious by saying that culture shock and the reverse, happens regardless of the amount of time spent in a foreign place, and manifests in each of us in different ways. I met bunches of American friends who not only purchased one way tickets, but who also made my three months stay look like a bite-size couple of weeks in contrast with the super-sized years they have spent living in Buenos Aires.

To My fellow expat community (read: soccer/bike tour gang): this list only begins to address the change you might feel when coming home, or the moments that trigger reverse culture shock, down to smelling the laundry detergent on your clothes when you unpack your bags.  You’ll see, as soon as you purchase that return ticket home.  The nostalgia that just one smell can create for a place will then trigger trips down memory lane and inevitably make you question why you are staring at maple and oak trees instead of palm trees, or why a grill has a not only a cover, but also a gas source.  After smelling the yummy detergent on my clothes, I came up with the following laundry lists:

Extrañaré ( I will miss):

  • Kiosks. On almost every block of the 77 square mile city, there are kiosks to buy anything you might need while you’re on the run, including 40’s of beer (the typical and most common size sold).  I will really miss these itty bitty glass bottles of coca-cola that contained the ideal amount of coca cola without taking in the 240 calories and 70 grams of the standard individual size bottle of coke in the U.S.
  • Greetings: Watching two straight men greet and say good bye with a kiss on the left cheek. Equally, for me, I will miss the warmth that giving kisses creates, like kissing 12 sweaty cheeks after playing soccer games, instead of shaking hands with the other team.   Shaking hands just seems lame now.
  • Activities/Available Resouces: Availability of resources are high (doesn’t mean you may have to wait hours in line for something!) because of living amongst 13 million people in the 2nd largest metropolitan city in South America after Sao Paolo.  This means amenities such as pharmacies on every corner, free doctors, dentists (I should’ve gone for a cleaning), free exercise classes in the parks, language classes, and even easy access to places like a Buddhist Meditation Center, where Roberta took me for my first time a few weeks ago.  Additionally, transportation, not only 24 hours a day, but so many bus routes, trains and subway lines that one never has to walk more than a few blocks to find a route to take you to from your front door to your final destination.
  • Local/Regional Dialect: Speaking Spanish, and more particularly Argentine Spanish which I am obsessed with. Forget every swear word I’ve learned in Castellano—the purest form of Spanish hailing from Spain, or the names for every vegetable or clothing item, because Argentina has its OWN words for those things, including their own pronunciation rules. I started compiling my culture shock list a few weeks ago
    and what I wrote down pretty much sums this up: NOT READY TO TRANSITION TO ENGLISH YET (and I’m still not–yes, I’m asking for you to feel bad for me).
  • $$$: 4 to 1 exchange rate with dollars and pesos.  $10 pedicures and $8 Pilates Reformer classes. Need I say more?
  • Chilled-out schedules: Not rushing people and their schedules.  Time is almost always on your side in Argentina.  I really do enjoy having dinner after 9 pm because one is able to accomplish all those daily errands after work that we can’t get done oftentimes working a 9-5 in the States, with dinner on the table by 7:00.  I loved the feeling of a long day, every day in Argentina. After all, “You get somewhere, when you get there”, right?
  • Simplicity: Thoreau once said, “Our life is frittered away by detail…Simplify, Simplify”.  Tiny kitchens, lighting a gas tank in order
    to have hot water to shower, not putting plastic wrap on every item in the fridge, or living off the same clothes for three months, isn’t so bad or weird.  Every time I travel outside the U.S I am reminded again and again how much “stuff” I have and how materialistic we are as a nation. Gross.
  • Where’s the fat people?:  I can’t even imagine what people must think when they visit our country and see the presence of obesity or begin to see what it takes for a nation to be so gluttonous that  1/3 of its children are obese. It’s something I notice immediately after I leave the U.S for extended amounts of time.  These types of observations only confirm an outsider’s opinion that we all live off of McDonalds.

Nunca voy a extrañar: (I am never going to miss)

  • Second hand smoke: After washing my hair twice one weekend, I went to work on Monday with my blonde locks still smelling like cigarettes! I do not miss being the only one in a group of 8-10 people that wasn’t smoking or dancing until the sun comes up in a closed space, inhaling smoke for hours, while you’re trying to burn some empanada calories on the dance floor.  I am still happy to say I have never tried it, and probably will never ever understand it.
  • Upside-down Etiquette: More specifically about the lack of consideration when using escalators. It’s a rare occasion when Argentines actually walk up a moving escalator simultaneously, which means that imaginary lane to the left that is usually used for people in a rush does not exist.  Cue uncontrollable American mentality: “Don’t you people have anywhere to get to right now?!”
  • Machismo:  The look on every man’s face that screams, “You’re a girl and you play soccer? Like, soccer soccer?” followed by an action of them lightly kicking an imaginary soccer ball with their instep, while their eyebrows raise past their forehead and into their hairline, showing their surprise and unfortunately, skepticism as you continue to nod and say “Sí, Sí, Sí since I was 4 or 5. It’s normal to start at that age for women in the U.S.”  These weekly conversations were frustrating for me.
  • Argentine Plumbing: Throwing used toilet paper in trash cans because the plumbing isn’t so first world? Check. I’ve done this in other countries like Greece, Peru, and Costa Rica, but in poor or rural areas.  One could be out at a pretty nice place to eat or a decent bar in Buenos Aires and still have to plug your nose when entering the bathroom stall because of the used toilet paper overflowing the trash bin that permeates the air and makes your nose hairs get all defensive. I feel so bad for the person who has to empty/clean those bins. Argentina tries to be like Madrid but sometimes it ends up like Mexico City. This is an example of its Mexico city side of life.
  • Wierd Tampons: If the above bullet was “Too Much Information” than skip this next feminine based product point I have.  I think it’s completely worth printing and this is the kind of info that should be found in the section of guide books in the “female travelers” section.  Ladies—there are no tampons with applicators to be found in Argentina. If there are, they are really expensive and extremely difficult to hunt down.  This brings me to a cultural phenomenon that one does not find out unless talking with other lady friends about this subject matter.  Culturally, on the whole, Argentine women only use pads. Should I even address the humidity that exists in the summer months in Buenos Aires? No I shouldn’t. Talk about adult diapers. Qué Asco!!!! I’m going to allow myself to get on my “North American High Horse” here and say, “Ladies of Argentina, You are officially living in the dark ages and REALLY missing out!”
  • Napkins:—No I’m not talking about the bullet point above. I’m talking ‘bout the kind in dispensers on restaurant tables. These opaque plastic-like little origami squares, that look like a piece of computer paper that had greasy Lays chips rubbed all over it, and then you’re supposed to wipe your hands with it.  These napkins are similar to the kind of material that cosmetic companies sell so people can wipe oil from their pores at the end of the day.  Flimsy, non-absorbent wastes of squares. I missed the quicker-thicker-picker-upper: Bounty.
  • Crime: In Buenos Aires there is crime in ever neighborhood. Maybe I sound naïve since “crime can happen everywhere” but I know there are no kids pulling out knives and robbing kids as they walk to school on Beacon Hill in Boston.  Of course robberies, petty theft or grand theft are ubiquitous, but regardless of which neighborhood I was in, I had to be careful every day, at all times.  Backpacks are always worn on the front when you’re on the metro. Bags/purses? Never let them leave your lap when you are out to eat at a restaurant.  Stopped at a red traffic light? Look out, because if you’re bag is on the passenger seat, you’re asking for it.  My friends from Sao Paolo said Buenos Aires is safe because in Sao Paolo the same types of crime happen but always with a knife or a gun.  CD players swiped from cars at red lights. Talking on the phone while walking down the street? Ciao cell phone! In Buenos Aires these ladrones usually “just” beat you up or are so smooth you don’t even notice your pesos are gone when you go to buy your next cafe con leche.  To imagine my Brazilian friends saying Buenos Aires was safer, only made me eternally thankful for being able to bike or walk home in Boston at 2 am, as a young female without having fear for my life. In the middle of the day, while giving a bike tour solo, a group of 12 year old punks in “La Boca” (a some-what ghetto) tried shoving a long wooden stick through my bike wheels so I’d fall and they could rob my bike or the equipment bag and my Nextel phone.  The number of stories I heard from friends and strangers or read in the daily paper just kept growing and each time seemed to sound worse. I never knew PhDs in theft existed until living in South America.
  • Slums: It would be more appropriate to say that I won’t miss the outcomes that having slums surrounding a city of 13 million people produces.  Not everyone realizes that Buenos Aires, dubbed “the most European city of South America” has shanty towns built around its outskirts, with some neighboring the most affluent neighborhoods.  The biggest and subsequently most dangerous shanty town is Villa 31, with a whopping 26,000 people living without plumbing and under piece of tin.  Villa (pronounced “Veeesssshhhha”) is the word for slum.  Do not be fooled and think it means “Villa” as in, “I docked my yacht in St. Tropez so my chauffeur could bring me to my billion dollar Villa.”  Oh contraire my friends.  Having over 2 million people live in slums means the amount of children sleeping on the street is a problem the government may never be able to control.     My heart sank daily when stepping over teens sharing a mattress outside a store front when I walked home at night, or watching a 5 year old jump on each metro car to do a juggling presentation to collect monedas when he should be in school.   And if you were lucky enough to get a seat on the metro, your thighs would soon be covered in scissors, mirrors, gum, calendars, or any other piece of junk that someone trying to make ends meet desperately tries to sell to you. When I worked the bike tours, I saw the same homeless mom with about 5 kids all under the age of five crying, screaming, begging, every day on the same corner.  Apparently there were never this many kids out in the street before the 2001 infamous, economic crash in Argentina.
  • Lack of variety in foods: In particular, good, fresh, seafood! I have been eating the freshest haddock, tuna, and sushi practically every single night for the past couple of weeks. For every incredibly tender, juicy, flavorful piece of red meat I ate in Argentina, I am eating the same amount in fish here now.  I missed the presence of seafood in my diet for 90 days!

Something I can’t decide if I miss or don’t miss at all:  Depending on the generation, being called “Hanna Montana” or for those older than 40 calling me “Hanna(h) and her Sisters” from the 1986 Woody Allen movie.  This happened to me when I ran the marathon and I had NO clue what people were referencing. People kept shouting “Hanna! Where are your sisters?!” “Go Hanna and her sisters!” It all makes sense now.

Something I miss that I had no idea I would if you had asked me 3 months ago: I am fully embarrassed to admit that prior to traveling to Buenos Aires, I had promised myself that I would not interact with other “yanquis” because I not only didn’t want to speak English, but also  wanted my experience to be “authentic”.  I remember thinking, “I’ll just play soccer on Wednesday nights with these American girls and that’s it.”  I did not want to associate with the other 60,000 American expats sharing the city with me.  I have never been more wrong in my life, and realized it the moment I showed up for my first soccer game and listened to the advice and stories of every single one of the girls about living in the city. Not only were these girls my source of connections to jobs and social activity, but they became my rock—often being able to sympathize over things like the lists I described above.  I never understood the expatriate community that people speak of in other countries, but befriending my gringa group south of the equator was the best decision I’ve made in a long time.  I miss all of you!

My going away dinner with my fabulous soccer crew!

My Last soccer game in Buenos Aires (for now!)

In conclusion:  I really only can generate one solution to keep this ying & yang going in my life, and that would be to happily lead hiking and biking trips in fabulous destinations like Maine, Napa Valley or Europe in the summer and return to Buenos Aires in the winter!  Now, who’s with me?!

My friend's and family make it pretty easy for me to come home, with an empanada and malbec wine party for my first meal. Thanks Alison for organizing! I clearly have the best friends around the world.


One response to “Notes on Coming Home

  1. John "Whiskey Bar?" Freeman

    Very interesting. Unless you count a Caribbean cruise I took senior year of college – and you shouldn’t – I’ve never been south of my birthplace in this hemisphere. Buenos Aires sounds like a definite must-see, especially since some of the “Nunca voy a extrañar” ‘s are … um … inapplicable to me. I haven’t travelled as much as I would have wanted to since college, although I was in Africa five years ago (check out my website – you have the link!) and tentatively I’m going to Southeast Asia around New Years. Now I know the next part of the world in my travel queue.

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