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WORLDVIEW: Beginnings in Buenos Aires

Elena Korn ’13 finds unexpected challenges abroad in Argentina

By Elena Korn
On October 25, 2011

I boarded the plane to Buenos Aires, Argentina with goals: "Next time I am in this airport, I want to be a fluent Spanish-speaking tango extraordinaire, a mujer of international status, who can whip up empanadas with one hand, while navigating my Guia T with the other."

I pictured myself sunbathing daily in El Rosedal, Buenos Aires' famous rose garden, sipping yerba maté and laughing carelessly with my new friends from around the city before we would gather at un apartmento for a late dinner of malbec wine, asado (barbeque) and light music playing in the background.

My sunny fantasy was almost immediately slashed as I stepped outside the Buenos Aires airport into the sleeting rain and an onslaught of cab drivers vying for my desperate patronage. I searched for the golden sun I had been reading about in my Fodor's guidebooks and for the green, spacious monuments I had read about in my Lonely Planet travel guide.

During my taxi ride from the airport to my new apartment, I began to notice the filthy, graffiti-covered walls of decrepit buildings and houses, many of which were surrounded by makeshift huts that housed the impoverished communities of Buenos Aires. I swallowed my fear and muttered some convoluted phrases to my taxi driver. Though he was patient and charmed by my first experience using Spanish in Argentina, about halfway through the conversation I realized the words this man were saying to me were like nothing I had ever heard in the classroom during my six years of high school and college Spanish.

This was my first taste of castellano, Argentinian Spanish that is quite different from the Spanish I had studied, and in this moment I considered whether the two languages had any similarities apart from "hola."

Perhaps this is when it hit me. My expectations of this experience living and studying in Buenos Aires would be turned upside down in the next few months and my character and ability to stay positive in uncomfortable situations would be tested on a daily basis. Little did I know that I would emerge from this experience in December as an entirely different person than the one who boarded that 10-hour flight in July.

My first visit to the University of Buenos Aires was one of the most overwhelming moments of my entire life. I boarded a city bus from my host family's apartment in Palermo and stood for 45 minutes until getting off at my stop at the UBA building in a less-than-savory area of Buenos Aires.

Completely disoriented, I followed a couple of students down the street to a large building surrounded with barbed wire and brightly painted posters, which looked more like a jailhouse than a university.

The hallways were lined with students chatting, smoking cigarettes, laughing and sitting in circles on the floor sipping maté, a traditional South American infused drink. Everybody seemed to know each other. I felt like every eye in the building was on me, judging me, wondering what I thought I was doing in their country and their school.

I made it to my classroom on the third floor and sat in a desk in the back of the room waiting for "Introduccion a Violencia Familiar" to start. My class was scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. and I, as a typical Brandeisian, had arrived 10 minutes early on the first day in hopes of meeting the teacher and introducing myself.

Twenty-three minutes later, the professor strolled into class, followed by students here and there, some on their cell phones, some with absolutely no writing materials in hand. This was my introduction to the Argentine educational system in La UBA: laid-back, casual and low-stress.

The professor eventually began the four-hour course, and I realized that even if I used every ounce of focus within me, I only understood about a fifth of everything the teacher said. Sneezes or getting things out of my backpack, formerly petty occurrences, turned into huge gaps in comprehension. Classes in Spanish demanded my absolute full attention. Whether it was the cigarette smoke or my inability to understand most things my professor said, I left my first day in a haze—overwhelmed with isolation and loneliness.

Over the next couple of classes, I began to experience tiny successes. I started sitting in the front of the classroom, writing everything down that I could understand and checking my pocket dictionary for any and all words that I didn't know. I changed my attitude from a passive, scared foreigner to an eager, somewhat neurotic notetaker who simply refused to miss a point. My biggest goal became speaking out in class, and one day, I swallowed my fear, raised my hand and attempted to explain Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon to the class.

The habitual chatter in the back of the classroom halted as the students and teacher leaned in and listened with supportive eyes and raised eyebrows as I mumbled some form of description in my broken Spanish. When I had finished, a wave of pride washed over me, and I felt a new sense of control over my life in Buenos Aires.

However, my biggest obstacle in my study abroad experience is not the language barrier, the miscommunications with store clerks or the differences of culture—it is the way in which I approach these challenges. A porteña lifestyle invites new challenges and adventures every day. My weeks are a constant roller coaster taking me anywhere from enchantment to frustration or confusion to appreciation.

One day, I am confused and frustrated wondering why I was charged 35 extra pesos at lunch in a café for the pasta sauce on my noodles, while another day has me covertly giggling to myself when I board the subway and have to literally heave my entire body weight into the sardine-smashed cable car to get to class. Sometimes the windows are open and there is a breeze throughout the car, but sometimes we are not as lucky, and by the time I get to my stop, I have sweated off the café con leche I had for breakfast an hour earlier.

And other days I sit down and have long conversations with my deliciously sweet apartment building doorman, Luis. He is from the north of Argentina and has an extremely thick accent that I can hardly understand. Somehow we manage to speak about everything: cinema, his family, the weather and holidays of Argentina. Luis and I have become quite the amigos in my time here, and I will miss the sly grin he gives me when I come home from a late night out.

But the crown jewel of my time in Argentina is my host family; I live with two amazing people. Fernanda and Sergio welcomed me into their home that first rainy day in July as their hija, their daughter, and have not stopped treating me as one since. When I had pharyngitis in my second week here, they both stopped what they were doing to take me at midnight to the 24-hour clinic to get medical attention.

Each dinner conversation is filled with laughter, patience, stories and delicious home-cooked meals. They invite me to family get-togethers, teach me new words and phrases and provide me with constant love and care in this foreign country.

This is my experience here in Argentina. With its trials and tribulations, failures, tears and moments of hysterical laughter because I am simply unable to communicate basic concepts such as "sour cream," I am learning more and more every day about the Argentine culture and about Latin America in general.

I have left my easy, comfortable routine in the U.S. and have entered a completely different world; things are vastly different, in some ways harder, and yet stimulating and engaging in a way that invites magical discoveries each and every day.

Buenos Aires is an unbelievable place with some of the most friendly and charming people I have ever met. I see the two months in front of me as a gift filled with adventure and opportunity.

I might not meet every goal I set for myself the day I arrived, but I will return home with a new sense of wonder, independence and admiration of an entirely different culture.

And most importantly, I'll make sure not to step foot on U.S. soil without a mouthwatering recipe for empanadas!

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