Monthly Archives: June 2011

Argentine altruism

In general, Argentines are pretty generous and giving to those lucky enough to enter into their confidence (it’s important to distinguish this from the general heightened mistrust between people who don’t know each other, and especially toward foreigners). A lot of what gets done in this country, from jobs to business deals to politics, seems to be the result of who you know — relatives, contacts, friends of friends. In the U.S. there’s a lot of buzz about networking, which is basically the same thing, but in Argentina these networks seem to extend much further, and the relationships involved seem more altruistic. Whereas in the U.S., both parties might be conscious that they give something to get something back, and networking events are specifically set up to allow people to make these contacts, in Argentina it’s an integrated and natural part of the social system. It’s not necessarily one hundred percent disinterested — but when the mutual expectation of generosity and giving exists on both sides inherently, it’s simply not thought of in the same calculating way. I remember learning in a high school anthropology class about the social uses of the godmother/godfather system in Latin American society. Basically the idea is that parents choose a godmother and godfather for each of their children from among their relatives and friends. The socially scientific interpretation of this is that those godparents are people who will be useful to the child and to the family — economically, helping them obtain work, and other favors. In Argentina, in addition to the two godparents the parents choose at baptism, when the child is old enough to be confirmed (at 17-18) they themselves choose two more godparents, multiplying their network. But from what I’ve seen the people chosen are not necessarily economically successful or politically powerful. They’re truly dear friends of the family, and the relationship created is often even stronger than that of blood relations, with the families visiting one another often, sharing meals and holidays and business secrets. But even if they’re not related by blood or by the church, Argentines love to do things for you, to put their own concerns aside to take on errands, help you solve problems, and show you the “right” way to do things (especially me, because as a foreigner, I’m truly a baby in their eyes).

On this trip I’ve been thinking about this cultural generosity more than ever because it seems that people who don’t even know me have been giving me so much lately. The fact that I’m even in Argentina is thanks to the good will of others — I won a (very cheesy, don’t care in the slightest) online contest sponsored by LAN where people submitted their love stories and whoever had the most votes won two roundtrip tickets from New York to Buenos Aires, business class. My boyfriend and I both pestered everyone we knew to vote, but at least half (and probably far more) of the people who voted for us are people I’ve never met — friends of friends of friends…And yet some of the messages of support and love I received from these strangers were truly heartwarming. And while my American friends were wonderful about it once the contest got going, it was noticeable that the first people to get into and show their support were the Argentines.

Once I got here, I received a welcome surprise that some other people I’ve never met (the parents of my boyfriend’s mom’s best friend, got that?) had offered us a studio apartment they own in one of the nicest neighborhoods in BA to use during my visit to have a little more privacy. Of course we insisted that we would pay — and of course they wouldn’t hear of it. But what we did do was spend a significant amount of time with them — I went with my boyfriend’s mother to have coffee with them the first day, and then his family hosted a huge, delicious, wonderful asado for them and their children and grandchildren, and then finally my boyfriend and I went again with a yummy ricotta cake to visit and thank them. So they gave us something, and in return, we both got wonderful company, and friendship. I feel real affection for this hilarious, sweet, adventurous elderly couple who so freely took us into their confidence. They are no longer strangers, but neither are they coldly calculated connections. They’re people who I know who help me again in a second if they could, and who I would go far out of my way to do something for if it was in my power and the opportunity arose.

And the final example is the least consequential, but perhaps the most glamorous. A childhood friend of my boyfriend’s wanted to meet me, and invited us to dinner at Isabel’s, one of those outrageously posh, no sign outside, only five tables, ragingly expensive bars in Palermo full of beautiful, glittery, thin people. It’s one of those places where you order 160 pesos (40 dollars) worth of sushi and they bring a few teeny tiny bites of something (is that fish? I can’t even see it) to the table. The drinks were amazing, though…I had the house special which involved vodka, cranberry juice, some other stuff, and raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries on the top. But with all that alcohol on a (nearly) empty stomach, we were VERY lucky to not be stopped by the breathalysing police on the drive home. And all I could think about on our arrival was scarfing down some empanadas. But back to the point, because he said he wanted to make a good impression on me, this friend insisting on paying.  Granted, this was a very different type of “altruism” in a very different world. Some might consider it fake, or all about appearances. But I think it’s that same Argentine desire to do things for others, manifested in a different way with a different generation. And admittedly, it was nice to enjoy a night of splurging like that without worrying about the dent it was going to make in my wallet. But  best of all it meant I had no regrets whatsoever when my boyfriend took me to the quietly elegant Club de Pescadores a few nights later, where we sampled exquisite seafood and delicious wine at a warmly-lit table overlooking the water of the Rio de la Plata. For these and many other reasons, it’s been a wonderful visit.

10 lesser-known lunfardo

Well, I don’t know if all of these words are technically lunfardo, Argentina’s special version of street slang, but here are some of the more recent (and useful) argentinismos I’ve heard:

  1. Capaz: a synonym for tal vez or quizas. Maybe.
  2. Pibe, piba: kid, guy, girl.
  3. Fiaca: laziness, like when you want to just lie around and not do anything, as in, “tengo fiaca” or “que fiaca!”
  4. Posta: really, truly. If you’re asking if something happened for real, you say “posta??” and you can answer in the same way.
  5. Macana: sucky, shitty, as in something bad happens and you say, “que macana.”
  6. Garca: a person who will screw you over, cheat you (get it? it’s cagar (to shit) with the letters switched).
  7. Cheto/a: a high-society person, who dresses well, goes to the best places, and looks down on everyone else.
  8. Careta: someone who wants and tries to be cheto, but isn’t. Careta means mask, so it’s someone who’s a social climber and forgets their roots.
  9. Garchar: yep, to fuck.
  10. Enganchar: to get hooked, or become obsessed/involved with, as in “me enganche rapido con ese pibe, y a poco tiempo nos pusimos de novios” (I got involved with that guy quickly, and soon we became serious).
  11. (BONUS!) Embole. something boring, a drag, as in, ¨that party was such an embole.”

Unromantic but happy

I absolutely love this hilarious list of the 5 Least Romantic Keys to a Happy Relationship…luckily, for the last nine months, long distance has imposed some of these on us. One more reason why, despite how much it sucks, overall it’s really been ok.

Some argenyanqui “cultural differences”

I’ve been staying with my boyfriend’s family for about two weeks now. Even though we have a cozy studio apartment lent to us by some friends of his parents, there’s no internet, no TV, and no mama’s cooking. So we’ve been spending a lot of time at his house anyway, and this intense exposure just highlights some of the sillier cultural differences between us. (And if most of them have to do with food, it’s because we both love to eat, obvi.)

1. Things that make them think I’m going to get sick and/or die:

  • Walking around the house barefoot
  • Not blowdrying my hair, sometimes even daring to go outside with it wet
  • Not liking to sleep with the blankets tucked under the mattress (always “desarmando la cama”)
  • Sending my underwear to the lavadero to be washed

2. Things that make them want to vomit:

  • Eating eggs in the morning
  • Eating pasta with salad (???????)
  • Mixing sweet and salty things (example: eating a pastry right before lunch)
  • River Plate descending to the second league of national soccer

3. Things that make ME want to vomit:

  • Desserts that include weird layers like canned peaches, soggy cake, whipped cream, dulce de leche, etc.
  • Touching raw meat and not washing hands
  • Soggy miga sandwiches
  • Matambre
  • Blood sausage, entrails, livers, brains
  • Stale galletitas

4. Things we mutually like:

  • Barbeque sauce
  • Cheddar cheese
  • Homemade empanadas
  • Milanesas with lemon from the lemon tree
  • Doughnuts and facturas
  • Mate cocido with milk

BA through different eyes

This is just a random comment on Buenos Aires life…I’ve spent a lot of time here, off and on, in a lot of different neighborhoods. Somehow I just realized that I’ve been moving gradually farther and farther from the center..and life on the borders of the city really is different.

I started off in Balvanera, where everyone warned me about how dangerous it was, full of squatters and casas tomadas, and I would be terrified to walk half a block at night from the bus stop to my apartment, which despite the multiple locked entrances and portero had been broken into just a few months before I got there.

Next I moved to a student residence, mainly for foreigners and Argentines who come to BA to study, right next to the national congress, Congreso. During the day, protestor’s drums would throb and noise bombs would explode out my window, while at night the street became eerily deserted, with newspapers and leftover political pamphlets rolling around everywhere.

After that I lived in a nice apartment in Almagro, very close to the border with Boedo and Caballito. I loved the neighborhood here – it was far more residential than the first two, with quiet, tree-lined streets and the clear presence of families and young children, but an easy commute by subte or collectivo to the center.

Then I stayed in Nuñez for a month, where I loved taking long walks to explore the streets full of gorgeous houses and gardens — real houses rather than apartment buildings — and the neighborly feeling of everyone sort of knowing each other.

And now, for just a few weeks, I’m staying in Villa Devoto (featured on my favorite Argentine TV show, Ciega a citas! I keep looking for the house), where there are even bigger, more beautiful houses and quieter streets. It’s so different from the more central neighborhoods for a lot of reasons. It’s not just that people don’t rush around frenetically, cars and motorcycles don’t try to kill you, and that people are there to live rather than to work. It’s a lot cleaner, there’s less dog crap everywhere, and you don’t feel like if you don’t cling to the zipper of your purse, you’re going to be robbed. There are fewer piropos (really!), and the lovely green plaza is a place for old people and students to hang out rather than sketchy bums. In the cafes, people sit calmly using laptops — a HUGE sign that this is a safe neighborhood, because well-meaning people will jump all over you if you attempt this in the center. But the reason I like it here most is that people aren’t obsessed with me being a foreigner, and don’t treat me differently as such. It used to seriously upset me — in a way that I’d have to do something nice for myself, to calm down after — when people would constantly ask me where I was from, what I was doing here, assume I didn’t speak any Spanish, or try to take advantage of me for being a foreigner. And here in Devoto, despite throwing my accent around all over the place, not one person has even asked me where I’m from. I love that, because it implies a certain acceptance, of my right to be here, of my legitimacy as a person regardless of where I’m from. And it gives me a lot more confidence to go up and talk to people if I know they’re not going to disregard me because of my nationality.

This morning I met the woman living next door to me, and she cracked me up; she was so sweet and funny and welcoming. I had knocked on her door to see if she could give me her internet password, but she actually didn’t know it — when she kicked out her last ex-boyfriend, he changed the password and left. A year later, she’s still trying to figure it out, and told me she can’t believe that bastard is still affecting her life. But anyway, this woman represents how different things are in a true barrio, where some of the distrust fades and companionship emerges. It’s isolated, and too far away from everything, and not that interesting once you’ve seen the pretty houses. So I would never want to live here for good. But for now, I like it. 🙂

Dragging it out

From what I can tell, Argentines are repeat offenders. They draw out relationships that just aren’t working in an insane way. I think Americans tend to have the mentality that it’s black and white, all or nothing, that when you break up it’s for good and there are a lot more fish in the sea. Most Argentines don’t seem so sure. They like stability, and they like what they’re used to, the same way they’re not so sure about Indian food or sushi. My boyfriend’s best friend has been seeing a girl on and off for about four years..they stopped clicking and started fighting a couple years ago, and periodically break up, don’t find anyone else, miss each other, and give it another go. The same with his godson, who at the tender age of 21 has been with a girl for five years, and says that the first two years were fantastic but then he sort of lost interest. And yet, they’re still together. It’s not working, you could be SO much happier, so why do you keep doing this to yourself? I know of a couple who recently broke up (we’ll see if it lasts!) after eight years together. They’re both 22. Isn’t that ridiculously young to be together for such a long time?? But regardless, I wanted to applaud them for breaking up. Go out and see the world! Have some fun, play around! It’s really incredible, whereas in the U.S. guys that young would be serious, serious commitment-phobes, it’s almost the reverse here. Not that I’m in love with awkward, phobic, emotionally-stunted American guys either, but I think it’s sad  when you see a couple that doesn’t pay attention to each other, doesn’t smile or laugh or touch one another. The other day I was invited to go see my boyfriend play soccer and one of the other guy’s girlfriends came along too, so we sat in the stands together drinking mate. When her guy came off the field for a break, he didn’t come over to say hi, to chat, nothing, he just stood off to the side with the other guys. As far as I can tell, they didn’t even make eye contact, and later, when everyone was walking back to the cars, it was the same, the girl talking to other people and the guy ignoring her. When I mentioned it to my boyfriend, he said, “yeah, well, they’ve been together for four years, after four years it’s like that.” Upon which I informed him that if after four years it was like that with us, then we would break up. I know that relationships change after a long time together — obviously couples who have been married for a zillion years don’t have the same heat as a young couple in their honeymoon period — but still, I think (I hope) that that electric excitement gets replaced with a quiet intimacy and friendship and companionship, and I don’t really plan on being in a relationship where someone ignores me, no matter how long we’ve been together. Despite their occasional behavior to the contrary, there’s a saying here that an Argentine girl said to me just last night, while ranting about the dramatic antics of the guy she was involved with: “mejor sola que mal acompañada” (roughly, better to be alone than in bad company). It’s so true.