Thursday, May 28, 2009

a bit of reading...

I recently read two interesting articles about Buenos Aires - the city, its culture, and history. I thought I would share both of them:  

The first one is from the current issue of Smithsonian magazine:

It talks a bit about the expat scene in Buenos Aires, which has been getting a lot of attention recently. One often hears, "Buenos Aires is the Paris of South America"; most people agree that this is little more than a marketing ploy. One also hears, "Buenos Aires is like Prague in the 1990s", or right after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I'm not sure about this one either - if you mean a vibrant artistic and cultural scene paired with a weaker currency, then fine. But I think that's as far as the comparison goes. But then again, ¿qué sé yo? (Sidenote: this is one of my favourite expressions. It basically means, "What do I know?", but the manner in which Argentines say it - accompanied with the Italian-esque hand gesture - it's usually closer in meaning to "What the hell do I know?" It's very informal, and can be considered rude - so it's not advisable to say it to your boss, professor, or grandmother, for example. Everyone else is fair game. At least I think.)

The comment in the first page about the prevalence of English is a bit misleading - yes, if you hang out exclusively in Palermo, you will hear English quite a bit, and mostly of the American (United States) brand. But once you get out of the Palermo bubble - and you must - you're less likely to hear English. As for the businesses set up by expats - I've been to the Natural Deli twice, and have enjoyed it both times. It's a bit more expensive (at least for my budget) but it's a good place to check out to get some work done and get your fix of vegetables/health food. I haven't been to CBC (California Burrito Company) yet, though I've heard generally good things about it. They've just opened a second branch in Palermo Soho (I believe on Thames, but I'm not sure...) so sooner or later I'll make my way over there. The Argentimes is a great resource - they have a lot of information about upcoming events as well as interesting and pertinent articles about life in Buenos Aires. And finally, I live next door to the Peruvian martini bar, Mosoq. I haven't been there yet - again, a bit out of my budget, and when I do go out to dinner I prefer to go out, and not just right outside my house. 

Here's the link to a second article:

It's an extract from the book, False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World by Alan Beattie. It discusses how the United States and Argentina - which both began the 20th century in a similar position - have developed over the past century, and how different policies have determined their current states. Many people don't realize that in the beginning of the twentieth century, Argentina had just as much appeal as the United States for immigrants from the Old World. Indeed, the similar culture and language of Argentina attracted many Italian and Spanish immigrants (unfortunately, however, the Italian immigrants failed to pass on the recipe for a true Napoletana pizza...¡qué garrón!) 

Thursday, May 21, 2009

la vida verdadera de una profesora de inglés en Buenos Aires

Several people have recently asked me about the reality of teaching English in Buenos Aires. Though I have briefly mentioned different aspects of my current job in other posts, I thought I would write something a bit more coherent and organized. And since a chipa/empanada-induced quasi-coma (oh sure, you laugh, but it's real) has confined me to my room, I figure there's no better time than now. (More on my chipa-obsession and empanada cooking course in a future post.)

Before coming to Buenos Aires I had heard several opinions about the prospects for teaching English here. "How easy is it to find work?" and "Can you make enough money to live on?" were the most frequently asked questions, and rightly so. I tried to read up on the subject as much as I could, but in the end I said, "Fuck it, I'll just figure things out when I get there." (an attitude which, for better or worse, has determined the course of my life thus far.)

So this is what I have found out over the course of the past three and a half months. Obviously everyone's experiences will be different, so I would keep that in mind when planning your own adventure. 

For my first month here I took an intensive TEFL Certification course at TEFL International. It's a big investment - about $1600 US for a four week course - to be sure, but one that I feel was worthwhile. Do I use the teaching methods I learned there in my lessons? Well, not really. Because all of my current classes are individual lessons, it's difficult to apply certain techniques. But that's not to say that I don't apply what I learned; it's just in a more general approach sort of way, if that makes any sense. 

Once I finished the course, I sent out my CV to many - probably around 20 - institutes. My school gave us a list of English teaching institutes in Buenos Aires, and while it was not entirely up to date (some schools had moved or closed) it was enough to get me started. I had interviews with several institutes; all of them were extremely informal and I have never been asked for a copy of my TEFL Certificate. 

With time I have been able to create a full-time schedule (mas o menos.) I currently work for two smaller institutes and a small business started by an American. I have the most students with the latter, and so far the experience has been great. I also have one private student. The pay ranges from place to place. Originally I told myself I would not work for less than $30 AR an hour (which is about $8 US. I usually avoid making the conversion, as every time I remember I'm making less than $8/hour I start to question my decision to stay here - cue the existential crisis and before you know it I have been rocking back and forth in the fetal position for a good two hours.) But I soon found that this salary was too much to expect from an institute, and that I would have to settle for less. Right now I am making anywhere between $23-26 AR an hour through institutes, and I charge $30 for private lessons (which is a steal, if I do say so myself.) 

In terms of how I spend my time...I have a different schedule each day, and some are busier than others. Evenings seem to be prime-time for lessons, as most business men and women want class after work. I had heard that travel time was one of the biggest disadvantages of teaching - it takes time to travel, time for which you are not paid. I'm pretty fortunate with the situation I have right now in that most of my lessons are in my neighbourhood - Palermo - and several of them are in my home. I have one student in Belgrano, a more residential area to the north, which is about 40 minutes from my home (well, really it's closer, but it takes me a while to walk to the bus stop) and two students in Microcentro, which is a 15 minute subte-ride away. So I can't really complain too much about an absurd amount of travel time. But it's definitely an important consideration to keep in mind. 

Classes generally last 1.5 - 2 hours, and when I'm not teaching I'm usually preparing for the next lesson. It's weird because even though I'm only teaching about 4-6 hours per day, the days have been going by so quickly. It's May 21st, and I still don't know how that happened. 

As for my students themselves, they are great (mas o menos.) They all have different levels, and it's been an interesting experience trying to adapt to their levels and interests and trying to figure out what type of exercises and activities fit each of their needs. In many cases they enjoy just talking - having a conversation, allowing me to correct them, and then continuing. This not only makes my job easier, but it's also a learning experience for me and a cultural exchange of sorts. For example, I read an article in the NY Times about a car-bullet-proofing trend in Sao Paulo and brought this up with my Brazilian student. This topic immediately got him talking about his position on Brazilian society and government, and I was shocked to find out that he had been held up at gunpoint at several times while driving through his native Sao Paulo; one time he was thrown out of his car and the people made away with his car. For his part, he was shocked to learn that when in the US I can drive with my windows down and feel safe, and not have to check out my rear view mirror every five seconds. I've also heard stories (some of them incomprehensible) about life in the South Korean army from my Korean student. After serving for two years (military service is compulsory for South Korean males), my student was discharged in March and then arrived in Buenos Aires two weeks later, not knowing a word of Spanish and only a handful of words in English. Classes are always interesting with Helen Chicken-Killer Keller (ok, this warrants an explanation. During one lesson I was trying to explain 'nickname.' I gave a couple of examples, and then, satisfied that I had got my point across, continued. Ten minutes later, my student started talking about driving a tank and how it had damaged his hearing: "I can't hear because of tank. My nickname - Helen Keller!" Well, I thought, at least he understands what a nickname is. At a different lesson, we were discussing foods, and he told me how much he loves chicken: "My nickname - chicken killer!" Hence, the ultimate nickname, Helen Chicken-Killer Keller, was born.") and they always put things in perspective for me - sure, I complain about how difficult Spanish can be, and how certain things about Argentine culture irk me. But at least this is somewhat familiar, not entirely overwhelming, and I can still speak my native language often. It's the quite the opposite for Helen Chicken-Killer Keller, and yet he's doing really well. Any situation is whatever you make of it, I suppose.

But I digress. So, is it worth it, this teaching English? Absolutely. True, I'm not really making enough money to live on, and my bank account (which has never recovered from my year in Italy) proves this. But it is possible to make a living teaching English down here - private students and a frugal lifestyle being the best ways to go about this. 

But I look at my situation this way: teaching English abroad has been a goal of mine for many years now, and not for financial reasons. You gain more from the experience than your paycheck (or envelope stuffed with cash) shows. Hell, I'm 21 years old and living in Buenos Aires. I came here with the intention of not only teaching English, but learning Spanish and learning about a part of the world I had never been to and did not know much about. And as far as these two more significant goals go, I think I'm doing pretty well. 

I've learned a lot about myself over these past three months, and I'm thinking I'm getting closer to answering that question that plagues so many post-college students, and I guess people in general - What the hell am I doing with my life?

Originally I thought I would start in Buenos Aires, get some experience, and then move to a more lucrative ESL market - South Korea being the country that most people mention. But being in Buenos Aires has reinforced something that I think I always knew, but never wanted to admit. I'm not good in big cities, and goddamnit, I like my comforts. So maybe Seoul or Tokyo are not for me, just in terms of size, and maybe the third world is not a good fit. They are locations that are undoubtedly unattractive and deserve to be seen and experienced, but they're not somewhere I would want to live, at least not right now.

So if not teaching, if not Argentina/South America, then Where? This probably is a shock to no one, but it begins with an I, ends with an -TALIA. Italians in Italy always complain about their country and how much they want to leave, but when leave, as so many of them still do, they just bitch about how their new home isn't Italy. Granted, this is a generalisation, and I'm sure it could be said about immigrants from many countries. But I've found it's particularly true with Italians, and now I know why; I'm going through the same withdrawal. To be honest, I would have a hard time trying to articulate what I miss about Italy (which means I'm probably romanticizing my time there, but so be it). Pero mi manca. Un sacco. 

I also somewhat naïvely thought that once I started teaching English, I would fall in love with teaching, have an epiphany, realise my purpose in life, etc. We all have those moments, and then almost always the "Really? How I could ever think that/am I really so self-unaware?" moment follows. Or at least that has been my experience. So no, I haven't fallen in love with teaching. Do I enjoy it? Yes, a definite yes, but it's not something I want to do as a real career.

Right now I'm sort of in that "By jove, I think I've got it!" upswing. I think I've had a lot of difficulty figuring out what to do with my life because of my many disparate interests. I also felt that, while I was interested in and liked many things, I was never passionate about any one of them in particular.  And as trite as it sounds, I have always thought you should find something you love and you should do it well. I'm at a point now where I feel my interests - history, languages, cultures, peoples, education, and most importantly, real, good food - seem to be converging. Or there's the potential for convergence, and right now I'm trying to work out the details. I'm applying for a Master's degree in Food Culture at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy. Yea, that's right - food fuckin' culture. Ok, I need to wrap up this post, so I'll just recommend two books that I'm reading right now, that can best sum up my current state and the path I would like to pursue: "Slow Food Nation" (by Gigi Padovani) and "Slow Food Nation" (by Carlo Petrini - who currently holds the "Dopest Cat Alive" title in my book.) 

So take the plunge. Come to Buenos Aires to teach English. Sure, I didn't find exactly what I was expecting or hoping. But I've found so much more, and it's only May.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

life in BsAs

Wow, has it really been a month since my last post? I blame it on a combination of busy-ness and laziness and I'll try to get back in the swing of things. 

The past month has been interesting, wonderful, thought-provoking, frustrating, anxiety-inducing,'s been up and down, and just about everywhere in between. It's life in BsAs, and in my third month here I'm getting used to this range of experiences that have come to define my experience as an English teacher. 

As for the wonderful and breath-taking...
...paragliding over the Andes in the outskirts of Mendoza. Ever since I went bungee-jumping last year in Italy I have wanted to try another you-have-got-to-be-crazy extreme sport. Mendoza, a city located in the shadows of the Andes near the Chilean border, provided the perfect opportunity. After spending a day biking through the wine country, visiting several bodegas, and tasting wine and olive oil (also wonderful) my friend and I decided that we wanted to see the mountains; we soon found ourselves in the back of an old truck, barreling up a narrow mountain path. My fear of heights was mitigated by the breath-taking view of the Andes, which I tried to focus on - rather than look over the side of the truck into the abyss.
Once we reached the mountain top, we were quickly thrown into the harnesses and ready to go, or at least our expert guides (with whom we would jump) thought. Needing specific instructions, I began to drill my guide in a mix of broken Spanish and English made incomprehensible by the 'what the fuck am I doing about to run off a mountain?' thoughts running through my head. "When I say run, you run" was the only instruction we received. Ok, fair enough, I can do that...
Though it took us about ten minutes to get the perfect gust of wind, eventually we were off. I immediately understood why more specific instructions were not necessary - you pretty just run until you hit the edge of the mountain, and then you are swept off your feet - literally. Then it's just a matter of sitting back, relaxing (as much as that is possible) and trying to take it all in. The ride itself probably lasted about 15 minutes, my favourite part being the end, when we did some "acrobatics" in order to lose altitude. Being a novice and huge clutz, and I fell forward on my knees on the landing. But lack of grace aside, it was truly amazing. Indescribable. If ever you have the opportunity to go paragliding, ignore the rational voice in your head and run off the side of a mountain. You're not likely to regret it. 

As for the interesting...
I almost have a full-time teaching schedule - ideally I would like to teach between 20-25 hours per week, and right now I'm at 18 or so. In addition to the two institutes I have been working for since April, I have started working for a new, small tutoring company started by an American. My boss, Lindsay, understands the frustrations and limitations of working for a big company - namely the travel time needed to get to classes, low wages, and lack of connection between students and teachers - and has started her own company based on her own philosophy of teaching, one which I agree with. So far I have three students through her and hope to start with more in the near future. Most of the students come to my home for lessons, which is brilliant - though I have conquered the collectivo (bus) system, the lack of monedas sometimes makes a bus trip impossible. As for my students themselves, I'll have to save that for another post. 

As for the frustrating...
I don't want to dwell on the negatives too much; I'll preface this by saying that after living abroad for several months you begin to notice the many little things that bother you, the cultural differences that just don't seem to make any sense, and a certain nostalgia always seems to lurk in the back of your mind. For me, it's a nostalgia for things that never were; or rather, I, like so many others, forget all the things that frustrated me, that were suffocating, about life in the 'burbs. Really, when I stop and think about it, I'd take Argentine idiosyncrasies over the humdrum routine of Phoenix, MD any day. Yes, I'm not as comfortable as I was back home, but what was so great about that comfort anyway?
But enough with the ambiguity, the generalisations. 
The most frustrating thing in the past weeks has been my house. Remember how I said that considering the low rent, there were bound to be many little surprises along the way? Well, occasionally not having running water has been one of those surprises. Ok, so it's only happened twice, but in both instances we were without water for an entire day. It's never to good to start your day seeing several workers in your kitchen, dirty water everywhere, and when you ask, "¿Hay un problema?" they respond, " tenés agua." My response, "Motherfucker!" I'm pretty sure they understood that. My other big concern is the lack of heat in my room. I could not ask for better weather right now, but as it's fall, the nights are starting to get chilly, and I've already woken up several nights shivering. Ok, so I exaggerate. But a space heater is needed...and soon.

As for the thought-provoking, anxiety-inducing...
...I've been thinking about my future. I've realised that sooner or later, I will have to move back home and find a job (easier said than done) to save up money for my next big step (which, without going into too many details, involves getting back to Italy and studying gastronomy...) So I'm trying to mentally prepare myself for this while at the same time thinking in the present and enjoying my time in Buenos Aires. Because, despite the downs, life in Buenos Aires is good.