Thursday, June 30, 2011


Tonight, after class, we had our second planned excursion with one of the teachers.  Tonight's outing was a tango lesson followed by a milonga, which is essentially just a dance where everyone dances tango.  I have only a few pictures to post-- I was busy dancing, or trying to-- but several videos of the lesson and of the milonga, where talented dancers danced.

We had decided to meet outside our classroom building at 8:00 so we could meet up with the Bibiana (one of the teachers from our course) and whatever Argentine students were going to come with us.  As it turned out, only one student came.  As we approached the corner where we were supposed to meet Bibiana, I saw someone familiar.  I turned to Maria and asked if she recognized him, too.  She did.  Germán, the USAL student that did an exchange at Loyola and lived with my friend Mark last semester, had come to our tango outing.  It really shouldn't have been such a surprise: he is from Buenos Aires and goes to the same university, after all, but it was still oddly comforting to see someone I recognized, despite the fact that we had only met a few times.

We took the colectivo (public bus--I can't remember if I've used the word here before, or defined it) to the destination and, all of us giggling nervously, entered.  It was a grand hall with high ceilings and enormous mirrors on the walls.  The wood floor was worn in the center, in the open space that was surrounded by small tables and chairs.  We were shown to our table, where we put down our bags and proceeded to change our shoes.  We had all come in boots or sneakers but brought heels in our bags, because they are a necessity when dancing tango.  We sat for a few moments, watching a few of the instructors informally demonstrate before two instructors came to our table and told us our lesson would soon begin. 

Tango is surprisingly simple.  They taught us very basic steps, and all the while I had in my head what Viviana (another teacher from our course) had told us earlier that day: that in tango, the man generally leads and the woman just has to follow his steps.  Under these circumstances, I was glad that that was the case.  The instructors danced with each of us individually after showing us the steps several times as a group.  Once we got a bit more comfortable, the male instructor and Germán both rotated through, dancing with each of us.  I had a lot of trouble with the steps for the turn, but I think I got it pretty much down by the time the lesson ended.  And when that time came, we returned to our table and ordered some food and wine, settling in to watch people really dance the tango.  It's incredibly beautiful and impressive to watch, and I hope I can post my videos on either Flickr or Facebook very soon.  I was nervous going into the whole thing, but it turned out to be loads of fun and it was great to see all the girls outside of class and hang out with them as well as Germán.

We left the milonga around midnight (it would continue until four) and Katie invited us to a party with some other exchange students.  For this last week of classes, they have apparently been having country-specific parties and tonight was U.S.-themed.  Germán guided us from the tango hall to the address Katie gave him, which didn't exist.  After an international call and some Facebook research, Katie found the correct address and Germán led us back to the apartment of her friend, where he said good night.  Katie, Maria, Brittany and I went upstairs to the party, but it was very small, there wasn't much to drink, and we didn't know anyone, so Maria and I left fairly quickly and grabbed a taxi back to our Residencia.  It wasn't very far and we really wanted to walk rather than having to take a cab, but it was almost 2:00 a.m., which made our decision for us.  I'm actually glad we did, because the cab driver was such a hilarious character.  We got into the taxi and it smelled like soap, and the driver was a gentlemanly old fellow who was listening to this very tranquil jazz sort of music and humming to himself.  It was a very pleasant ride.  Tomorrow we have a welcome lunch with some Argentine students, and then after class we're going to a nearby barrio where there is apparently very good shopping.  And this weekend, Maria and I are going to San Telmo Saturday morning and we're each going out to boliches with different groups Saturday night.  Make sure you tune in.  It's going to be exciting stuff.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Las Vacaciones

This Spanish class that we are in now ends on the 19th of July with a final exam.  After that, we have a week and a half of vacation before the semester at the university starts on August 1st.  So, of course, Maria and I have been thinking about what trips we can make in that stretch of time.  I would love to see Machu Picchu, and I know we both want to see Iguazu and Patagonia, as well as several other places closer to the city.  So today Maria told me that our friend Albertina who lives on her floor has invited us to go with her up to Misiones (where she lives, and where Iguazu Falls is) and stay there and see the falls when she goes home on July 27th.  Not only is that exciting to travel with Albertina and get to know her and meet her family, but it's also a free place to stay when we see the falls!  So I'm hoping that if we can get to Machu Picchu, we will go almost immediately after our class ends, so that we can return to Buenos Aires in time to travel to Misiones with Albertina.  Then on weekends we can make our trips to nearer places like Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay, las estancias in gaucho country to the west, and of course visits to various barrios within the city itself.  Hopefully this coming weekend will be San Telmo.

Yerba Mate

Today in class we finally tried yerba mate, a traditional custom in not only Argentina but Uruguay, Paraguay, and the general Rio de la Plata area.  It's like tea, but not really.  In fact, they do sell yerba mate in teabags like regular tea, but it's not considered "real mate."  Mate (pronounced MAH-tay) is about more than the drink itself; we tried in class but could not come up with its U.S. equivalent.  A transcription of Lalo Mir's description of mate says this: "El mate es exactamente lo contrario a la televisión: te hace conversar si estas con alguien, y te hace pensar cuando estas solo...El sencillo mate es toda una demostración de valores.  Es el respeto por los tiempos para hablar y escuchar. Es el compañerismo hecho momento."  Translated: mate is exactly the opposite of T.V.: it makes you start a conversation if you're with someone, and if you're alone it makes you sit and think.  The simple mate is a demonstration of values.  It's respect for time to talk and listen.  It's camaraderie in a moment.

When you buy mate, what you're buying is dried leaves.  You pour some of those leaves into the special cup-- made of wood, ceramic, or a hollowed-out gourd-- and shake them up until it leaves a residue on your hand.  Then you pour a bit of cold water in so that the hot water you add after doesn't burn the leaves.  And it's hot water that you add, not boiling water.  If you boil the water, it will ruin the flavor of the mate.  You drink yerba mate out of a thick silver straw called a bombilla that filters out the leaves.  When you are in a group, you share the mate.  You take a few sips until most of the liquid is gone, then you pour more hot water in and pass the cup.  It is in poor taste to wipe the straw before you drink: the water is hot enough to kill germs, and those who are sick generally do not partake as a courtesy to the others.  You do not use the bombilla as a stirrer, or in fact move the bombilla at all.  You simply take your drink, pour hot water in (you pour the water more or less on the spot where the bombilla is in the cup), pass, and repeat.  It's a delicious, warm, comforting drink and a custom that has no real equivalent that I can think of, at least in the U.S.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Oh, and another thing!

Something else worth noting now is the weather.  Travel books and general accepted knowledge tell you that the winters here are mild, with temperatures no lower than 40s and 50s (Fahrenheit).  Well, listen.  Today was freezing, as was yesterday.  I had been sort of regretting my decision to bring my winter coat, as it had been mild enough that I'd been wearing light jackets and sweaters.  But apparently we're heading into the coldest part of the year in July.  July and August, no matter where you are or what season you are in, are apparently the most intense months as far as weather and temperatures go.  And now I'm glad I have my winter coat.  I'm wearing my heavy sweaters indoors and layering up with my winter coat to go outside into the biting wind.  Maria and I are from the northeast in the U.S., so we figured we'd be fine handling what they call "winter" here.  Oh, we were arrogant!  "It'll be like the fall," we told ourselves.  Oh, we were wrong!  Luckily, I don't really mind the cold that much.  I just hope that we have more days like today: though it was cold, the sun was out in full force.  It's not like yesterday, which was just gray through and through. 

Fin de Semana

I've found a place with a solid Internet signal!  Rejoice, rejoice!  I'm in this little study room down the hall from my bedroom. 

 I  was a little nervous going into this weekend.  I didn't know how to fill the time without class and tours and all the other things we've been doing all week.  I mean, we have a few assignments, but they aren't that difficult and I knew they wouldn't take that long.  Plus, Maria and I wanted to go out and do something.  We decided that Saturday, whenever we woke up, we would head to San Telmo for the weekly street fair.  I woke up early for a long-overdue Skype date with my parents, but by the time Maria was up it was gray, cold, and threatening to rain.  We decided we weren't in the mood for the street fair, and it's there every weekend, so why not wait until there's some sun?  We went out walking around the neighborhood and stopped in a little coffeehouse called Casa de Gretha to have submarinos and alfajores.  Since you probably don't know what those are, it is with great relish that I will describe them.  Submarinos are hot chocolate drinks.  Think of the richest, most delicious hot chocolate you've had.  This is better.  They serve you a cup of steaming hot milk and hand you a little chocolate candy bar that you drop into the cup.  The chocolate melts, creating a rich milky drink that warms you all the way through.  Then the alfajores.  We had alfajores grandes, so they were almost the size of a tea saucer.  They're made up of two cookies-- shortbread, I guess-- stuck together with dulce de leche (like caramel) and coated in chocolate.  So that was our afternoon: sitting in a cozy tea-house consuming two of the best chocolate treats available in Buenos Aires, people-watching and chatting (mostly in English, which was lazy of us but kind of a nice break).

Since the Residencia doesn't offer lunch and dinner on the weekends unless you ask ahead of time, we had to go out again for dinner.  A few blocks away we found a little pizzeria called Amelia's and got a small plain pizza.  It was excellent, and being in the pizzeria reminded me of the one where I work back at school, which brought on a pleasant sort of nostalgia.  We went back there again for lunch today, but had empanadas, which were also very good.  This weekend has been full of good food: last night after our pizza some of the girls invited us to join them to get ice cream at McDonald's.  Now, I know what you're thinking:  "McDonald's again?  Why did you go halfway across the world if you're just going to eat at a crummy chain you have at home?"  ...Or something like that.  But listen.  You can get McFlurrys here with dulce de leche.  And the ice cream they use is so much better somehow.  It was delicious!  Then we chatted with some of the girls for a while before heading to bed.

Yesterday we actually spent a lot of time chatting with the girls in the Residencia.  We sat and talked with a girl from my floor, Lucina, for a long time about all kinds of things.  She attends UBA (University of Buenos Aires, a free public college) and studies translation and law, so her English is very good and she is very patient and helpful with us when we speak Spanish.  She even offered to read over any papers we have to hand in for classes.  We were also invited to go out this coming weekend for a birthday celebration for one of the girls.  I'm pretty excited to see the nightlife, which is apparently more subdued and not as overtly indulgent and drunk as college nightlife at home.

We just got back from the grocery store, and now we've both got to finish our assignments.  Hopefully next weekend we'll actually make it to San Telmo and I'll have some more interesting pictures and things to write about.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Every Day an Adventure: Our Unspoken Motto.

I honestly can't believe I've only been here a few days. We've packed so much activity into them that they have seemed much longer. It's Friday night. It's funny: I've never really enjoyed recording the events of my day; I could never keep a diary for very long, but when it comes to this blog, I'm always happy to recall everything I saw and did and to write it down. I'm actually a bit irritated that I didn't get a chance to write in here last night because of Internet problems. Of course, I could have done then what I'm doing now: writing the entry in a word processor document and saving it until I fix this issue.

Yesterday I woke up early, around 8:00, and had to get up and get moving to arrive at the university at 9:00 to go on a city tour. We left at about 8:30 or 8:40 and got on the bus, and we hit traffic, so I was a bit concerned that we would be late. That didn't end up being important at all. We got to the meeting place at 9:00 on the dot and proceeded to sit there for an hour. Finally, at 10:00, the tour guide, Juan Pablo, came in and retrieved us. We climbed aboard the giant Travelline city tour bus and seated ourselves among people from Paraguay, Brasil, Germany, Uruguay, and various other countries. The tour lasted until 1:45, at which point we had to get off the bus and walk back to the university for our class at 2:00. We were, needless to say, not on time. Having been on the tour for almost four hours, stopping only a few times to walk around in places like Plaza de Mayo, Recoleta, and the soccer stadium in La Boca (for photos, see Flickr photostream at the bottom of the page), we were starving. On our way back to school we stopped at McDonald's, where I purchased a McPollo sandwich (that is actually what it is called).

After class Maria and I realized we didn't know where to get our bus going back to the Residencia, since the day before we had taken a cab to transport our suitcases. One of the professors indicated where the stop was, and we got on only to realize we didn't know where to get off. But somehow over these few days we've managed to learn a bit about the local geography. We recognized street names. We recognized buildings. We got off in the right place, exclaiming, “We are so good at this!” Exhausted, we went back to our respective rooms to relax for a while before dinner. Before I really had a chance to relax, though, Maria had sent me a message telling me that my new room was ready! Antonia, one of the women who manages the Residencia, had told me that I could move to this other side of the building, out of the room I was in, which was off by itself. Maria had spoken to the night manager and the room was ready. I tossed everything back in my suitcases and Maria and I drug it all across the courtyard and up the halls to my new room, where I am now. I love everything about it, except the fact that I cannot connect to the Internet at all. That's why I'm writing this on a word processor. I spoke with Antonia about it this morning, and she said she would mention it to the guy who manages the network, so hopefully something comes of that.

Today I had nowhere to be until class at 2:00, so I had a leisurely morning of organizing my things, hanging some pictures, and fighting with my computer. After class we went to el Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, the fine arts museum in Buenos Aires, and then Maria and I walked back here to the Residencia-- a surprisingly short walk. The museum was very nice. We have a short assignment to do based on our visit there with the professor. So far I'm enjoying this class-- especially our thirty-minute break: today they served us medialunas. Delicious.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

First Day of Classes

I guess the reason the days seem to last so much longer here is because of how focused I have to be on people around me.  During a normal day at home or at school, when someone is telling me something, I can listen without it requiring too much effort.  Here, though, I have to stare at people's mouths and focus very closely on what they're saying in order to understand.  This intense focus is exhausting.  I guess that's why I'm so tired at 7:52 p.m. when I woke up at 9:30 this morning.  We also did a lot of walking today, so that could account for some of it. 

 We started off the day on the public bus.  With very specific instructions from two different sources at the Residencia, we knew what we had to do.  But when we got on, we still somehow made it obvious that we were clueless, and an old woman helped us with the coins.  When we got off the bus, we found our destination and realized we were half an hour early.  With time to kill and relatively empty stomachs (the breakfast provided for us this morning was crackers and what tasted like caramel.  It was good, but very strange and not at all filling.), we stopped at a corner restaurant-- a diner sort of place-- to get some food.  Of course, we had no idea what anything on the menu actually was, so we had to point to these pastries behind the counter and ask what they were.  Turns out they are called medialunas, and they are incredible.  It's a sweet pastry, sort of like a danish, and you can get it with ham or cheese.  We got them con queso, and they were unbelievably delicious.  They were like grilled cheese on a danish.  That sounds odd, but there was this great combination of sweet and salty and it melted in your mouth and boy, was it good. 

After breakfast we went to the International Exchange Office for our orientation.  The group of students is very small; I think there are six of us total.  Two of the girls, also from the U.S., are only here for the Intensive Spanish course.  The other two girls are both from Canada.  One is here for the semester, the other for a full year.  Orientation was simple and straightforward, and when it was over we had a few hours to kill before class started.  We went to the Claro store and picked up some cell phones from a friendly, charming salesman, then headed to the office where our luggage was meant to be sent to ask about its status.  They didn't have it.  Disappointed, we wandered for a bit and admired some architecture before finding our way to el calle Callao for our class.  We got a little lost there, too.

During the thirty-minute break that we had in our four hour class, one of the women from the exchange office told us that our luggage had arrived.  Ecstatic, we rushed back immediately after class to the office we had stopped at earlier.  We rang the bell.  Nothing.  We waited and rang it again.  We stood in disbelief, in denial, agonizing over the dilemma brought on by the fact that our towels and most of our clothing were in those suitcases.  Oh, how we just wanted to take showers!  Finally, the door opened, and behind the security guard we could see our luggage.  Our task then became transporting said luggage back to the Residencia.  Of course we could not take it on the bus or the subway, and we weren't going to walk ten blocks dragging giant suitcases.  What better way to scream, "I am a foreigner who has lost my way!  Rob me, please!" ?  So we had to hail a cab.  Only we don't actually know the address of our residence.  We know where it is, but not the street address.  Luckily I remembered the name of the street, Larrea, and we knew that there was a McDonald's next to the sort of hidden entrance.  The driver didn't recognize that as a landmark, though, so I gave him the number I'd seen on the wall outside the weird, parking garage entrance.  And we made it back, luggage in hand.  Tomorrow we're going on a city tour in the morning and we have class again in the afternoon.  Hopefully I'll have some pictures to post.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Well, here I am in Buenos Aires.  Maria and I left New York last night at 6:15.  Our ten-hour flight to Rio de Janeiro was smooth and rather uneventful: a little turbulence, a nice selection of movies, and an elderly Brazilian man singing to himself in Portuguese in the seat next to me.  Once we got to Rio, though, things got a little complicated.  We didn't have visas to get into Brazil-- we never intended to enter Brazil; we just needed to catch our connecting flight to Buenos Aires.  But because of a lack of inter-airline communication, we were not able to get our boarding passes for the second flight before we got to Brazil.  That meant, of course, that we had to be escorted on a bus through the labyrinthine underworld of the airport and led to an important-looking airline employee who took our passports and went to obtain our boarding passes for us.  Once we boarded the flight, though, it, too, was uneventful.  There was more legroom, though.

Finally, we arrived at Aeroparque Jorge Newbery in Buenos Aires.  We got off the flight like presidents: rather than a gate attached to the plane, there was simply a staircase, allowing for a visually dramatic de-planing.  We then piled onto a bus that took us to the international arrivals area.   We stood in line, paid the tasa de reciprocidad (tax) required of U.S., Canadian, and Australian citizens, and got our passports stamped.  Then came the fun part.  We got to baggage claim and each of us found only one of our two suitcases.  We stumbled through customs, too dazed and exhausted to be able to speak coherent Spanish.  This unfortunate state continued when we had to find our way to the airline's office and the baggage complaint counter, all the while dragging along the kindly old man from the university who came to retrieve us from the airport.  Finally we finalized our baggage claims and left the airport.  That kindly old man, it turns out, didn't know exactly where he had to take us and struggled to find our residence, but eventually we figured it out.

We've already met some really nice, friendly people who are willing to bear with us as we speak nervous, broken Spanglish and try to communicate with them.  Already I'm feeling more confident in my language skills, so I know it's going to be a fairly easy adjustment.  I've just got to focus on letting go, not worrying so much about grammatical proficiency and thinking instead of getting my message across.  Maria's roommate has so far been the most friendly and helpful.  She helped us figure out how to get to the part of the university that we need to get to tomorrow for our orientation, and then she took us to the cell phone store.  Unfortunately, it was already closed, but we'll go back again in the next few days.  Despite all this whirlwind movement and action, there was actually a lot of unstructured downtime today.  Maria and I wandered around the dorm, then walked around the block outside, watched a movie and dozed, and now she's coming over and I think we'll watch another movie before we go to sleep.  It's only 9:13 p.m. here, but it feels like it's about midnight.  Tomorrow will bring still more adventure.