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.

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