Reflections on a Year in Argentina

Now that we’ve left Argentina and are spending a surreal week at a resort in Brazil, it’s a good time for Erica and I to finally reflect on the impact this year has had on the two of us.  It’s hard to imagine that in less than a week we return to the US after a year away.  We’re already going through some stages of grief as this stage in life ends before the next begins.  This year seems to have passed so quickly that we haven’t spent a lot time analyzing what it all means yet until now.

What did we learn?

As one of my Spanish teachers graciously pointed out as I was struggling, not only were we learning a new language, but also an entirely new city, community and way of life.  It was a lot to process initially.  We learned how to navigate a foreign city without a car.  We learned a new neighborhood, where to buy whatever we needed, how to get money and how to rent a house.  No small things.  We learned more about each child than we could have imagined and witnessed the incredible adaptability of children.  We gained a new sense of patience and confidence as we navigated Argentina and achieved an audacious goal.  We managed to see a lot of Argentina in our travels, while also learning about its history, people and culture.  I learned how to blog, how to plan complex travel logistics and how to budget for a complicated international adventure.  I learned the art of making an asado and hope to carry this tradition home with us.  Erica learned a huge amount about teaching English and building lessons plans for non-native speakers.  As we transition now, I’m learning an incredible amount about a job search and interview preparation.  This year pushed us all in many ways and provided the education of a lifetime.

This is Erica, and I’m going to write in italics so that Rob and I can each post on the same blog, but so it’s also easier to see who is writing what.  For me, I don’t think I’m going to “see” all that I’ve learned in one unique moment or time.  I feel like this is something that will be revealed to me in pieces and sections. In a lot of ways, I don’t feel like I have enough distance from this experience to really answer this question.  My typical response (which drives Rob NUTS), is “I don’t know.  Ask me later.” But that’s not really fair to Rob because he’s been so dedicated to making sure that we post on the blog, and he has been much better than I have about sharing our experiences via the blog. I guess I would say that mostly I learned that my kids are way more adaptable that I ever gave them credit for being.  Throw them into an unfamiliar situation, and with a little encouragement, they are pretty good at just “going with it.” I have also learned that I am a decent actress.  An air of confidence in a foreign country can go far.  It would be impossible to count the number of times we’ve been in a situation (looking for a specific location in a new city, driving around in circles in a taxi, listening to directions in a foreign language) when I have survived merely by appearing to understand and know what is going on.  I don’t doubt for one second, though, that we have missed out on some awesome stuff for this exact same reason.  Maybe they were giving out free ponies that day at preschool when I had no idea what the teachers were telling me.  Poor Molly!  She would be so disappointed if she knew, but really, what would I do with a horse? And then, of course, I cannot for one minute fail to mention that I learned to simply sit and enjoy someone else’s company.  I thought before we lived in Argentina that I knew how to enjoy time spent with friends, but I never truly appreciated it. To just spend time with someone sharing a lunch, a dinner, a drink, a warm fire is a fine art, and one that I think many Americans (myself included) have not mastered.  As Americans, I think we are often thinking about “What’s next?”  “What do I have to do when I get home?  What do I have to do this week?  When should I leave?  What are we going to have for dinner?  I need to send that e-mail when I get home, and start some laundry.  When is that project for Kid X due?”  How fantastic is it to just spend time with friends and have no agenda beyond enjoying each other’s company.

How did this experience change us?

We believe that the great thing about extensive travel is that it always changes you somehow.  This is a hard one though, since I don’t think we’ll really know for sure how it’s changed us until we return to our post-sabbatical lives.  I like to think it will give us a sense of peace and confidence as the rest of our lives unfold.  Time will tell.

I’m not in a big hurry to answer this question.  I don’t know.  Ask me later!  I hope it has made me more open, and willing to open my life and family to others who might not share the same language or culture.  Maybe our friends and family will be better at answering this question than we will.

What was difficult?

Easily the most difficult part about Argentina was access to money.  As we’ve elaborated in previous posts, part of the Argentine-experience is learning the various workarounds that Argentines and expats devise in order to keep pace with inflation, devaluation and a controversial government.  While we learned a tremendous amount about living within our means using cash alone this year, we’re very happy to return to a country where access to money and paying for items becomes simple and straightforward. We had plenty of concerns about security, but in the end we passed the year without incident.  We leave missing just a video camera and a GPS.  Petty theft was certainly an issue, exacerbated by the wealth disparity in the country, but we heard very little about violent crime in comparison to the US.  We found many Argentines to be exceptionally cautious and vigilant in personal safety, far more so than Americans.  This was certainly disquieting for us coming from lil’ old Portland, Oregon. Homeschooling the boys was much harder than we expected.  We also felt helpless at times in our inability to understand and help Elliott with his school assignments.  We can’t help but still wonder at the long-term impact this year might have on his education and learning. Living for a year without a car was both liberating and difficult.  We owe our combined weight loss this year to the tremendous amount of walking we did despite helado and asado intake.   Sin auto, we saw less of the city and surrounding region than we could have had we had a car. Given a variety of tax and import difficulties, Argentina tends to lack a lot of creature comforts that we all came to crave and appreciate.  Cooking according to our tastes tended to require careful examination of ingredients to determine what spice of key component could be found in Argentina.  We relied on family visitors to lug in peanut butter, salsa and maple syrup in large quantities.

I didn’t realize how much the kids and I would miss living in a neighborhood where kids don’t really run from house to house playing.  We were/are spoiled in our Portland neighborhood.  Even if the kid playing outside isn’t your first choice for playmate, at least SOMEONE is out there.  For security reasons (real or imagined), kids in Argentina who don’t live in “closed” or “private” neighborhoods don’t play outside freely with their friends.  There are plenty of arranged playdates, but without a car (as we were for this year), that takes a lot more arranging.  The kids enjoyed a lot of time having friends over, and going to other kids’ houses, but it’s not the same as zipping across the street by yourself to see who is home. The language barrier was definitely hard.  Needless to say, I’m much funnier in English—unless I’m making a mistake with my Spanish, like when I asked our first neighborhood guard if he had a dress, when I meant to ask him if he had a uniform.  He laughed and told me that he most definitely did NOT have a dress that he wore to work.  But even that became less of an issue.  I haven’t laughed as hard as I did recently while spending an afternoon with our friends Manolo (pictured above with the boys), and his wonderful wife, Silvina, and that afternoon was primarily in Spanish.  To be fair, they were telling the jokes, and I was just enjoying them. But we’ve spent many evenings and afternoons like that, and let me tell you that Argentines are some funny people.  Maybe it was just the wine, but they have some good stories to share.

What did we enjoy the most?

Easily the best part of our year abroad has been the relationships we formed and the people we met.  We hoped to get invited to an asado on occasion, but we never dreamed we’d integrate into the community and be so accepted.  The quality time spent with friends around food, wine and mate was a wonderful part of the experience. I loved planning our trips, large and small, during our year in Argentina.  I enjoyed logistics behind making a travel plan work and of course the actual trips themselves.  We love to travel and we certainly got our fill over the past year. I spent more time meal planning and cooking for my family than ever before.  I became a much better cook this year and loved the feeling of putting together a meal for my family each night. While spending such an intense amount of time together as a family was stressful at times, it was also one of the most memorable parts.  I loved having the opportunity to change roles with Erica, if only for a year, and stay home full-time with the kids and get to know them so much better.

Without a doubt the thing I enjoyed most about our year was, like Rob said, forming the relationships that we formed.  Meeting the families and friends, that, despite the language barrier, were willing to give us their precious time and open their lives to us.  Through tears (so I can only imagine how it came out in Spanish), I recently told our friends that it meant so very much to us that they would make the effort to include us, and welcome us into their circle.  Families everywhere are busy.  We have houses, jobs, kids, families, and lives that keep us occupied.  The fact that these friends would make space in their busy lives to include a new family who was only going to be in town for a year, and a family in which the adults didn’t even really SPEAK SPANISH for gosh sakes still blows me away.

What regrets do we have?

We have very few regrets this year other than not seeing more.  While we managed to travel extensively throughout Argentina, we never visited Chile.  We would have loved to see other parts of South America as well.  I had faint hopes of climbing a peak in the Andes which never materialized.  We both wish that we’d been able to become fluent in Spanish rather than just scraping by, in my case.  Erica’s Spanish is amazing by the way.  Amazingly enough, we never saw a tango show!  It would have been great to be able to visit Bariloche or Mendoza in the winter and ski in the Andes. Travel can be an obsessive pursuit sometimes with the endless destinations and possibilities

.

I agree 100% with what Rob said above (expect for the part about my Spanish and him climbing a peak).  It seems crazy to say that I wish we’d traveled more, but I do.  I would have loved to see Peru and Chile, but somehow, the year got away from us.  Next trip, I guess.  Like Rob said, “travel is an obsessive pursuit.”

Would we do it again?

In a heartbeat.

Ditto.

4 thoughts on “Reflections on a Year in Argentina

  1. A beautiful ending letter together. Thank-you for sharing your year with all of us. You have been a wonderful example of life’s possibilities when you have a dream. We are very happy that we were able to see first hand your world in Cordoba when we visited you all. We love you and “CONGRATULATIONS ” ! Love ,Jim and Patty

  2. This is truly lovely, and I have little tears thinking of what momentous things you have experienced and imagining the MOMENT when I get to hug each and every one of you. I have missed you so much! My essay about what I have learned this year is short: “It sort of sucks without you guys across the street”.
    Erica, I always knew you were an actress. When I first saw you, I thought, “Wow, what a beautiful woman. She looks like an actress in a Disney play adaptation, but she doesn’t have forgettable good-looks so she is totally going to be typecast as the evil step-mother.” That is EXACTLY what I thought. Luckily Argentinians just thought you understood their Spanish.
    I can’t wait to sit and be with you guys again.

  3. I’m thrilled for you that the adventure with your family was so successful! And I’m thrilled that you shared your experiences all along the way. Since I know a little Spanish and taught in Mexico one year, I can identify with many of your experiences. Now I wish the best to you as you reintegrate into your former life in Portland. Love you, Joan L.

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