Friday, July 24, 2009


This past weekend I went to Colonia, Uruguay to get my tourist visa renewed.

Side note: Tourist visas last 90 days, meaning that every 3 months you need to leave the country – if only for several hours. If you overstay your visa, you will have to pay a fine upon leaving the country. While this used to be less than the cost of the trip to Colonia, it has recently been raised to $300. (A round trip ticket on the one-hour ferry costs about $280.) I’ve heard that if you overstay your visa more than three times, you are henceforth banished from Argentina. I don’t how true this is, but it’s not something you want to find out the hard way.

Colonia is a quiet town which boasts a light house and a quaint (if a bit touristy) historical center. It has the obvious bonus of not being Buenos Aires,  meaning it’s quiet and you can breathe and think more easily. When we went three months ago it was the end of April, and we slept on the beach after enjoying a long lunch outside. Upon waking up, we found a great little café where we devoured delicious chocolate chip cookies and watched the sun set. It was, in a word, wonderful.

This past Saturday was cold and misty/rainy, putting a damper on our six-hour trip. So instead of wandering around the cobble-stoned streets, we found a restaurant with a warm fire and decided to stay there.

I’m not sure what prices are like in the rest of Colonia – the more modern, less touristy part of the city – or the rest of the country, for that matter. but most of the restaurants we saw were very expensive. We were told that 1 peso argentino = 5.5 pesos uruguayos; luckily all places seem to accept pesos argentinos. But our lunch – which consisted of two chorizos, a morcilla (yea, I know it’s gross, but I’m obsessed and can’t help it), papas fritas, provoleta, and three aguas came to AR$150, or $50 each, plus tip. Slightly ridiculous, when considering that we ordered the cheaper items. In Buenos Aires, chorizo and morcilla are often sold on the streets, and even when in a nice parilla they are served as appetizers and cost about $6. So be prepared for the inexplicably higher prices in Colonia. 

I think I had mentioned the chocolate chip cookie café in another post. We made an effort to find the café again, and considering Colonia’s size it was not difficult. Though I’m a bit reluctant to give up the name of the café, lest it become too well-known, it would be a bit presumptuous of me to think that one comment in my blog would send masses of people to overwhelm this gem. Besides, it’s a great spot that deserves business, in my opinion. So check it out – Lentas Maravillas, Santa Rita 61. It lives up to its name of un lugar sin apuro; if I had more time I would spend hours pouring over their collection of art and cook books and foreign literature (with caffé and chocolate chip cookies as fuel, obvio.)

As my second trip to Colonia, it conveniently marked – albeit a bit prematurely –  the six-month point of my Buenos Aires experience. After my initial how-the-hell-has-it-already-been-six-months? reaction, it immediately put me in a contemplative mood: what have I done so far, what have I learned, how have I changed, and what do I hope to do and learn and see in my remaining time in Argentina? There are frustrating moments of reflection when you think, “I’ve been living here for a while, and yet I still sound like blabbering fool whenever I speak Spanish”  or, “I’ve only really been in Buenos Aires, and even still I’ve only seen a quarter of the city.” Such thoughts beg the question, what have I been doing all this time?  In such moments, I like to remember that often it’s the seemingly innocuous or mundane moments which constitute much more of our lives than we sometimes would like. Yet these moments are not devoid of value; although the change they bring is more imperceptible, it exists nonetheless. Almost inexplicably you are not the person you once were; you seem to change imperceptibly. But once you look back, it hits you, and you realize that the right combination of the quotidian and the extraordinary have brought you to where you are today.

In my attempt at profundity I fear I have become, yet again, quite incoherent. To be more concrete, I’ll say that last week, when I went to an institute that I work for, I started speaking in Spanish with the secretary.  Upon hearing my Spanish my boss, who was in her cubicle and couldn’t see me come in, got up and asked who was speaking Spanish so well. (Pardon my bragging.) It was in that moment that I thought, despite all the frustrations inherent in learning a foreign language, I have been making significant progress. Sometimes the external reinforcement is needed to make us stop and take stock of how far we’ve come.

Moreover, I’ve gotten to what is, for me, one of the most fun parts of learning a language – picking up on all the little words that people use, the accompanying hand gestures, and then realizing how many people say the same words in the exact same manner. For me, once I get to this point, I feel a certain sense of ownership, like I have cracked the secret code, making the language mine. I don’t mean to say that it’s my language, or the language in which I predominantly speak or think in, merely that it’s mine. I suppose its one of those things that you have to experience to understand. In Italy it was words like cioè, guarda, dici, and che cazzo ne so?, (which, deprived of a context and tone are meaningless) among others which made Italian mine. En castellano, it’s words like este, mirá, dale, todo bien, and even the particular way of pronouncing “ehm” which I love. Yes, I know these are all very basic vocabulary, but for me they are much more, as they have connected me to castellano in a way which I didn’t feel for quite some time. And when you don’t feel connected to a language, it is distant and impossible and discouraging.

I’ve also somehow become a real teacher. A new teacher at the one of the businesses I work for shadowed two of my lessons last week, so I found myself explaining the general structure of my lessons, the materials I use, etc. As I’m normally on the other end of this conversation, it was a bit odd to be talking as though I knew what I was doing. (Sidenote: I’m pretty much convinced that none of us every really knows what the hell we’re doing, it’s just that some people are better at pretending than others.) But then I realized I do, in fact, know what I’m doing, at least to a certain extent. I’ve amassed two binders full of materials, much of which is activities I have made myself.  How did this happen? Slowly, but surely.

Of course, as soon as you begin to feel connected it seems like it’s time to go. While my time has not yet come (put that way it sounds like I’m dying rather than just going home to Baltimore), I have been sort of feeling the phenomenon of pre-nostalgia, or of nostalgia-for-things-that-will-be. (Is there a better word for this? I’d love to know.)  Meaning, quite simply, that even though I’m still in Buenos Aires, I get sad thinking of the things that I will miss once I’ve left. Which is stupid, to a certain extent, because I’m unnecessarily becoming sad, but also good, to a certain extent, because it makes you realize how lucky you are and makes you want to take advantage of the time you have left. I won’t go into all the little things that induce feelings of this type of nostalgia; I’ll save that for a later date.

This particular brand of nostalgia is not to be confused with another, that of nostalgia-for-things-that-never-were. Our memories often play tricks on us, and I’ve also been experiencing this emotion more frequently than I care for. It has been induced most often after talking with my family on Skype and hearing of summer crab feasts and get-togethers, among other things. I find myself longing for home, though it’s usually a fleeting feeling, lasting only until I remember that life back in the suburbs of Baltimore, while not awful, was not particularly stimulating. I remember this and take a deep breath, knowing that I’ll be going back before I know it; I can deal with all the conflicting emotions then.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

bust out your barbijo, here comes la gripe porcina!

So it seems la gripe porcina - swine flu - is on the rise in Argentina. According to the New York Times, 35 people have died "locally", which I assume means the entire province of Buenos Aires. It was announced yesterday that schools and universities will close starting next Monday. Normally, the last two weeks of July are winter break, but the government has decided to start the break early as a precaution. One of my students is a doctor, and according to him, the current situation is much worse than the media and government would like us to believe. When I mentioned the death count, he said that in reality the figure is much higher. Well, isn't this magical?

Oh, and Happy Canada Day! Here's a little piece (from the NY Times, again) about what some Canadian expats miss about Canada.

What do I miss about Canada/Montréal? I would have to say Jean-Talon market, the biggest open-air market in North America, is up there on my list. And the bizarre/ugly/awesome québécois accent. Loonies and toonies are great, especially because they are easy to come by - imagine not having to ration your change! And the obvious, "eh?" It's such a great and versatile word, eh? (Wow, I'm clever.)