I was nearly thrown out of the Brazilian Embassy in Buenos Aires for high-fiving Steve, the Asian guy standing in line behind me. The lady behind the plexi-glass window in charge of approving tourist visas for Brazil glared at me over horned rimmed glasses. She looked like the Argentine Ann Landers, with poufy, lacquered hair topping a dour face, and I wanted to take her picture but figured she would embed a ninja star in my neck. She called a security guard over who spoke to me in rat-a-tat Spanish but I only understood the word “Quietos!”
Apparently, no one but Steve and I found it crazy that we had gone to the same high school in Cupertino, California (twenty three years apart!) and had randomly met half a world away in a grumpy, windowless place where you stood a better chance of being forcibly ejected than of getting a visa. “Lighten up!” I wanted to say when my turn at the window finally came, but I didn’t because a.) It probably wouldn’t translated well, and b.) We really needed our Brazilian visas.
Living in a foreign country is kind of like going back to school. We make many mistakes. Like letting the kids eat a muffin in the back of a taxi, which prompted the large, angry driver to scold me in a deep, grumbling voice on how tables were for eating. We fail many tests. Like going to a medical clinic to get yellow fever vaccines only to find the address we are searching for doesn’t exist. We laugh about many things. Like “brains stewed in tomato sauce” or “stir fried bull testicles” on our dinner menus. But mostly, we have picked up the rhythm of a life that bears almost no resemblance to the one we had in the U.S. just fine.
In the mornings, we take Griffin and Ado to summer day camp at “Club De Amigos”, a giant facility in the middle of the city that has everything—pool, playground, soccer field, track, tennis, obstacle course, and indoor gym. The noisy, zoo-like atmosphere of “El Club” makes me yearn for the schools we left behind—the sweet Neighborhood School in Los Angeles where the kids ran around in their underwear having splash fights on sunny days, and their Maine schools that were calm, loving places of learning and fun.
Each morning, our two little Americanos join two hundred Porteños (people from Buenos Aires) under the age of five in the club’s massive gym. There, the kids are loosely organized into groups of twenty and herded onto various playgrounds or into the pool by their “Professoras” or camp leaders. About half cry vigorously or try to make a break for it
to the busy Avenida Del Libertador, which, thankfully, is a locked and guarded gate away. Griffin, whose new friend Mateo bit him the first day during a fight over kick boards, really likes El Club. Little Ado just seems resigned to his fate, shuffling along with his pack of three year olds and looking less hopeful each day that someone will speak to him in English.
So far, there are really only three things about Buenos Aires that concern me. One is the street design in our little neighborhood of Las Cañitas. What would be four-way stop intersections in the U.S. are no-way-stops here and the Porteños drive with a frightening combination of aggression and speed. On the narrow one-way streets the car is king—and the pedestrian, if not careful, is road kill. Walking to the train station or the playground six blocks away takes total concentration and a death grip on the children’s hands.
The second thing is the pickpockets. When we take the train or the subway, concerned riders continually warn “Cuidado!”, pointing to the new Nikon camera around my neck (someone would really yank my head off to steal it, they say) or a bag not held closely enough. When my mother-in-law Donna came to visit for the holidays, she was ripped-off in the streets of San Telmo, one of the oldest and most beautiful barrios. Wearing her thin, supposedly pick pocket proof purse slung over neck and shoulder, some stealthy thief lifted the flap, unzipped the zipper and slipped her wallet out. Credit cards, debit card, cash and license all gone in a swift sleight of hand. “Welcome to Buenos Aires!” I said and she laughed it off. But later, when a woman warned “they’ll kill you for that Rolex watch”, she took it off and bought a white, plastic thirteen-dollar replacement.
The third thing that bothers me is the lack of peanut butter. Coto, the low end Super Mercado next to our apartment does not sell it. Disco, the high end Super Mercado two blocks over does not sell it. When we ask for it, we are directed to Dulce De Leche, which is sickeningly sweet and fabulous but not peanut butter. Ethan thinks importing Skippy and Jif to South America may be the answer to our unemployment woes.
But for everything familiar and dear that we can’t find here, something new and different pops up. Ado’s favorite curiosity is the bidet. We have two in our apartment and he uses the word as a verb. “Mommy, can I bidet?” he begs, as excited as if I have unrolled a brand new yellow Slip and Slide down the hallway. He squirms and giggles as the water tickles his little butt and usually ends up soaking the bathroom floor. This lark drives his clean freak of a father crazy but he takes such pleasure in it that I can’t kick him off.
Being immersed as we are in local life, our Spanish language skills are coming along. Ethan and Griff have perhaps the easiest time, with Ado and myself struggling more with the wacky Argentine accent (yo is pronounced “scho”, calle is “cai-zhay”, and “voz” is the informal word for you instead of “tu”–go figure). When I remind Ado to say “thank you” in Spanish, he still blurts out “tesekkurler” which is the Turkish word for thank you that he learned four months ago.
Ethan cringes when I speak Spanish, sometimes with good reason. One day at lunch we were conversing with three local men when Griffin somehow got his finger stuck in the ice-cream freezer in the corner of the restaurant. When I walked back to the table holding my crying son, one of the men asked what had happened. I answered “Pinche el dedo” and Ethan nearly began to cry too because I had accidentally said “fucking the finger”.
No one said this was going to be easy. The language, the food, and the culture all have learning curves and it takes time to get to know a place and its people. In the seven weeks we have left in South America, I’m sure life will slowly start to feel less exotic and unusual. Just in time for us to move on and start all over again.