Monthly Archives: February 2012

Orientation and Beyond

Today officially marks the end of my first week in Buenos Aires. I’ve learned quite a bit about the city in the past seven days: I can now navigate with relative ease using the colectivos (buses) and el subte (the metro). I spent the first couple of days going through a fairly intensive orientation period, with several two-hour sessions each day where I, along with the other 90 students in my program, were inundated with information ranging from safety precautions to how to enroll in classes to the intricacies of Argentinean Spanish.


Safety is a very serious topic here. The rate of violent crime is very low, but the rate of petty theft is incredibly high, and if you want your wallet, phone, camera, etc. to remain in your possession for the duration of your time here, you must adhere to the mantra of Mad Eyed Moony: constant vigilance. Women walk the streets and ride the subways with their purses clutched tightly under their arms or clutched in their laps, zippers zippered, buttons fastened and snaps snapped. It’s not unusual to see someone walking along the sidewalk or riding in the subte wearing their backpack on their front; it’s the best way to keep sticky fingers out of the pockets. I’ve never lived in a city before, and such diligent exercises of caution are foreign to me, but I’m starting to adjust. I can’t help but feel terribly paranoid clutching my bag every time I walk out the front door, but I’m gradually realizing that it doesn’t have to be paranoia motivated by fear, and I’m growing used to my heightened level of awareness whenever I’m walking the streets by myself.


In our first orientation session, I realized that I had very little idea of how my program was structured going into this. I was vaguely aware of the fact that I might be enrolling directly into the University of Buenos Aires, or UBA, and knew that there was a Literature Concentration option that sounded interesting. The program has a wide variety of options that I didn’t know about before I got here, however. We have the opportunity to enroll in any number of classes at 4 different universities: Universidad de Buenos Aires, Universidad Catolica Argentina, Universidad Torcuato de Tella, and the Universidad del Salvador. In addition, IFSA Butler itself offers several classes geared towards study abroad students that provide broad overviews of certain aspects of Argentinean culture.

In the Literature Concentration, I’m already locked into three classes: Tópicos de la Literatura Argentina Contemporánea, Castellano Avanzado y Cultura Argentina, y Metodología de los Estudios Literarios. In the last class, concerning methodologies, I have the choice to either do an internship at a small publishing house or magazine or participate in a workshop, of which there are several to choose from. At this point, I’m leaning towards a workshop on poetry translation. Outside of these three classes, I can choose one or two at any of the other universities, and a daunting task it is to sift through the hundreds and hundreds of class options at each school. I’m glad that I only have to choose one or two!

Classes don’t start until mid-March, luckily, so I have plenty of time to research before I make my decisions. UBA is one of the largest universities in the world, and enrollment is free. This creates, from what I understand, an interesting classroom dynamic, with incredibly crowded classrooms full of enthusiastic students, many of whom take classes at UBA for years without ever obtaining a degree, simply for the love of learning: and why not? It’s free! It seems as though it’s a more gritty sort of experience than the others schools, and I’m still undecided as to whether I should take a class there. The down side is that I cna only take one class, because each class is 6 credits, whereas at the other universities I could take two 3-credit classes. On the other hand, it seems like an experience worth having.


Outside of the orientation sessions, I’ve spent a great deal of time making new friends in my program, lounging on the warm grass in sunny parks with said friends, watching passersby and sampling some of Argentina’s most renown products: beef and wine. As I continue to consume enough of both to approach expert status, I will be sure to begin evaluating and advising; for now, all I know is that I heartily enjoy an empanada con carne and una copa de vino tinto.

This Wednesday, my entire program is taking a 45-minute ferry ride across the Rio de la Plata to Uruguay, where we will spend three days sight seeing and, among other things, enjoying a traditional asado at the weekend home of one of the directors of the program. My friends and I then have plans to extend our stay through the weekend, which we will spend camping and lounging on the beach. I will be sure to report on our adventures when I return!

Bienvenido a Buenos Aires

The last 36 hours have been an absolute whirlwind. I flew out of JFK international at 9:35 last night, and touched down in Buenos Aires at 9:30 this morning (BA time is 2 hours ahead of New York). I took a cab through the stiflingly hot morning air to my host mother’s apartment in the leafy suburb of Palermo. I got into the apartment, unpacked, and set up my computer so I could let my parents know that I had arrived safely. Immediately upon logging on, my brother contacted me to let me know that my grandmother passed away yesterday. I cried, I skyped with my family in New Orleans, and I felt grateful that I got to spend so much time with her when I was in New Orleans this past month. Then I wiped off my tears, took a shower, and prepared myself to embrace this city, because if I can’t be with my family right now, I’d better be making the best of my time away from them.

Butler must have really done their research before pairing me with my host mother, Diana. She’s a liberal reform Jew, to begin with; she doesn’t attend temple regularly, but she celebrates the big holidays, and will be celebrating Passover. This if perfect for me, as a Jew who doesn’t really practice but wants to stay connected. It also creates an instant understanding between the two of us, and best of all, will be a comforting reminder of home.

She took me for a long tour of the streets near her house, in the barrio of Palermo. She showed me where I can buy groceries, fruits and vegetables, areas with good coffee shops and restaurants, and ice cream (incredible, rich, flavorful helado) and helped to generally orient me. She has talked to me in English all day, in order to help me transition into life here and not get too overwhelmed. Sometimes I would ask questions in Spanish, but mostly I would respond in English; it felt strange having a conversation with one side in English and one in Spanish. She seems to have very little faith in my current level of Spanish (which, admittedly, I certainly lack confidence in my own abilities) but I suppose it’s better to have her underestimate me than to have her chattering on in Spanish without understanding anything she’s saying. Furthermore, she seems very confident that I’ll improve quickly enough, and after seven years of acting as a host mother for an IFSA Butler student each semester, I believe that she knows what she’s talking about.

As we walk along the broad, leafy avenues, sweating in the oppressive humidity preceding the rain, I ask her about her life. She has had a very, very interesting life, and much of it, she said, has not been easy.

She has studied journalism and psychology, and now she sells imported cosmetics. She was married to a physician, but is now divorced, and they had two children together, who now live abroad: one in Spain, and one in Sweden, both with children of their own. She tells me that she studied journalism briefly when she was young but never worked as a journalist because she had her hands full with her two young children. She also pointed out, rather disdainfully, that Argentine men didn’t typically help out around the house then, so she was straddled with all of the domestic responsibilities.

When I ask her why she is no longer a practicing psychologist despite her degree, she shakes her head solemnly. “It’s a long story,” she says, and we stop right in the middle of the sidewalk, in the midst of a sea of pedestrians, as (I have noticed) we do whenever she wants to say something. She finally admitted to herself, when she was in her thirties, that she was unhappy in her marriage, at which point she went back to school so that she would be able to support herself after the divorce. She studied psychology, and worked for some time as a psychologist. She was very interested in social psychology, and started her own social psychology group. Unfortunately she quickly discovered that there was no money to be made in that profession, but she found that she couldn’t stand to work in a clinic. Argentines ascribe heavily to Freudian psychoanalysis, but she is skeptical of it, and couldn’t bring herself to spend her time listening to people pour out their minds in a clinic every day; that was not what had attracted her to psychology in the first place.

So now she lives alone in her apartment, thousands of miles from her children and grand children, supporting herself with her imported cosmetics business and acting as a host mother for study abroad students. In a way, this is a truly wonderful arrangement; I need someone to help show me the ropes, a reliable companion who can help me through this adventure, and she has the means and space to host me, and is herself seeking company. She has friends, of course, but I imagine that not having any family nearby nor a family of your own can get pretty lonely. We get along splendidly, and I think I’m going to really enjoy my time living with her.

And now I am sitting on her porch decorated with with 20 different kinds of flowering trees, seven floors above the street, as night falls over the city. I’m fighting off the hunger pangs as I try to adjust to the new schedule of dinner after 9pm every night, and thinking vaguely about my birthday. I turn 21 in four hours, but in light of everything, my plunge into Argentine culture, my grandmother’s death, it feels, well, kind of insignificant. Orientation starts tomorrow, and things will only get crazier from here on out. I’m both excited and apprehensive for my first day of real Spanish immersion – Diana said she would only baby me with her English for one day, and all of the program coordinators will be speaking Spanish. The only thing to do now is to keep that feeling of being-in-over-my-head at bay, and it seems that the best way to do that is to keep my chin up, a smile on my face and a chuckle in my throat. Helado helps too.

Approaching Departure

My adventure in Argentina begins in a little over a week, but it still feels so far away. After two and a half months of winter break, I’ve gotten so used to being vaguely excited about this big trip that lay in my distant future that I just can’t shake the feeling of it being in the distant future. There are also a lot of big things happening in the coming week, including but not limited to Mardi Gras parades, my return home to Albany after 6 weeks in New Orleans, and a weekend in New York City before I ship out.

To set the scene: I’ve been living with my relatives in New Orleans for the past month and a half, volunteering at the Animal Rescue and helping teach an English as a Second Language class; mostly just killing time before my semester abroad, but also enjoying myself thoroughly. It’s been a good warm up, too, living in this subtropical, heavily French- and Spanish-influenced city, where you are frequently greeted with a kiss on the right cheek (Argentine-style!) and the pace is somewhere between the frantic hustle of New York and (what I imagine to be) the languid flow of life in Buenos Aires. Not that I believe it’s a slow-moving city; on the contrary, it’s a bustling metropolis. But the European style of enjoying moments of pleasure to their fullest extent – long, slow meals, for example – is an experience I’m looking forward to, and I’ve gotten a glimpse of that lifestyle here in the Big Easy.

Preparation: I haven’t done much. Despite having lots of free time, I’ve spent very little of it trying to get myself organized for my five months in Latin America. I get my visa when I arrive, which simplifies my responsibilities before I leave significantly, narrowing them down to, more or less, money, clothes, and technology. I have to make sure that I’ll have money when I get down there (when I went to Israel last winter, I didn’t call my bank before I left, and had no access to my bank account for the first three days of my trip – I will not be making that mistake again), that I have clothes to wear, and that I have my laptop and that it’s insured. Simple and straightforward. Great.

So all I have to do now is enjoy my last week in the states, pack my bags and wait for the next phase of my adventures to begin. Next time I write, it will be from an internet cafe in Buenos Aires, or perhaps from the living room of my host family’s home – fingers crossed that they have wi fi, but no guarantees. Until then, chau!