Plata

IMG_8745

An interesting local idiom in Argentina is plata.  When referring to money or cash, plata (silver in English) is often invoked.  Plata makes the world go round, so here is a little background on our experience thus far as it relates to financing our sabbatical and now living in Argentina.

For the past few years our lives have been dominated by saving money for our year abroad.  The path we took to build this nest egg and subsequently spend it has been fascinating, while turning my rapidly eroding hairline more gray each day.  Building a realistic budget from scratch and then watching it evolve over the past 7 months has been both stressful and satisfying.  After much research and financial planning, we established a savings level we needed to achieve by the time I quit my job.  As the weeks and months ticked by in early 2013, every paycheck and Craigslist sale became more and more critical to our goals.  Erica and I were both surprised at how quickly the savings piled up once we had actually set a firm goal and timeframe as opposed to saving with no purpose.  It was a wonderful reminder of how critical setting goals can be.

Transitioning from saving and earning to spending with no income to speak of has been an interesting psychological experiment.  One might compare the process to climbing a mountain.  The ascent was long and arduous to the summit, but descending can be just as difficult and potentially hazardous.  It was sobering to see my final paycheck and realize our savings was complete.  Of course we had rental revenue to counter our mortgage and storage costs in Portland, but I had no idea when the next time I would earn a paycheck might be.  We had spent so much time planning and being frugal, and now the time had come to actually begin spending.

After 7 months I’m happy to report we are tracking very close to our budget targets.  I’m more than a little surprised.  Despite this, Erica can attest that every few months I have a sudden panic attack and dive into our budget for an hour to reassure myself.  However, given how much initial guesswork was involved, I’m thrilled at how close we are.  I update our budget spreadsheet about once a month to account for remaining savings against anticipated future expenses, both in the States and in Argentina.   I’m constantly monitoring how we are trending against our estimates.  Our budget target continues to be impacted by changes in the exchange rates, inflation and how much work Erica manages to find teaching.

One of our biggest adjustments we encountered from the start was living solely on cash.  We needed to develop a system to manage cash and keep our budget on track.  Given fees and exchange rate issues, it’s far better to only spend cash rather than cards here.  Adjusting to a world where we don’t allow ourselves to run to the ATM or pay with a credit card was difficult initially.  An added level of complication with cash is security.  Cash is used far more extensively than credit or debit in Argentina, perhaps exacerbating theft and robberies that grab the headlines here.  We try to minimize the amount of cash we have on us or in the house at all times.

In order to track what cash we’re spending on what line items, we went with a highly sophisticated envelope system.  We have five weekly categories I refill each week: groceries, dining out, transportation, cleaning and miscellaneous.  These account for just under $300 per week.  So far we like this system so much we’re considering how we might adapt to 100% cash back in the States.  Using only cash certainly has made us more aware of how much we spend and forces us to be more prepared and thoughtful each time we leave the house.  The upside certainly comes with some inconveniences though.  Grocery shopping can be slow and tedious since it’s necessary to bring a calculator along to ensure we don’t have an embarrassing shortfall at checkout.  Trips outside of the city have been difficult to estimate exactly how much cash to bring along.

The cost of living in Cordoba has been better than we had hoped.  While a terrible thing for Argentines, the weak peso has allowed us to stretch our hard-earned dollars farther than we had planned.  We have had to adjust our way of thinking in order live on cash alone as well as store, spend and access our hard-earned dollars in a country that makes access to dollars difficult.  While it can be hard to watch the chaos that is the Argentine economy, it’s morbidly fascinating while we get a close up view of a currency crisis in progress.   Carefully managing our own plata in Argentina is just part of the adventure.

Related Links & Reference:

http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21596582-one-hundred-years-ago-argentina-was-future-what-went-wrong-century-decline

https://www.xoom.com

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-25877391

http://www.buenosairesherald.com/article/152099/the-illusion-is-over-januarys-consumer-price-index-clocks-in-at-37

http://www.afr.com/p/lifestyle/life_leisure/embrace_argentina_cash_economy_and_1PENURHZfxghwLMngOG70I

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-01-23/argentina-s-peso-plunges-17-as-central-bank-scales-back-support.html

http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dólar_blue

http://www.buenosairesherald.com/article/147813/2001–today’s-odyssey

http://www.preciodolarblue.com.ar/

Uncertainty

While reflecting on recent events here in Argentina and considering how I might describe them in a post, I started considering how we as a family have been dealing with varying levels of uncertainty throughout this adventure.  As many Argentines will tell you, fiscal and economic uncertainty has seemingly always existed here.  I’m not sure we will ever grasp Argentina politics or the economic upheaval, but like many times during this journey, it continues to be an education.  This is a part of the world in which most houses have a rooftop water tank, because on occasion, the water system fails.  Accepting a level of uncertainty is part of life here and was instrumental in making our dream become reality.  Adapting to life in Argentina also serves to remind us of how stable and certain our lives in the States are.

When we stopped dreaming and started acting, the level of risk and uncertainty we needed to accept exponentially increased.  I believe that the biggest obstacle holding others back from a sabbatical or long-term travel is fear of the unknown.  Deciding to quit a good, stable job with 3 kids and one income and forsake our financial security was no small matter.  While Erica and I had dreamed of dropping our safe, consistent American lives for many years in order to live abroad with the kids, it was not until we accepted that we could not plan or foresee every detail.  As the consummate planner, this was exceptionally difficult for me.  The number of questions that loomed were endless and remain so.  How long will it take to get another job?  Will it pay as well and will I like it?  Will a gap year hurt my career?  Will we have to move to a different city when we return to the States?  Will we run out of money?  Do we have enough budgeted for when we return?  Are we jeopardizing college for our kids?  Will the kids fall behind in school here? What grade do the boys go into when we return?  Are we hurting their development?  Will we like Argentina?  How will the kids adapt?  Will we be lonely and isolated?  How safe will we be?  Eventually, Erica and I decided that we had an opportunity before us that we could not pass by and that the risk was acceptable.  I could not plan every detail and know for certain that everything would be all right as much as I wanted to.

Now that we are here, life in Argentina continues to be an exercise in both patience and uncertainty.  When we left we had neither rented our house in Portland nor had we found a rental in Cordoba.  We were not certain the boys could enter the local school.  It has been a challenging year even by Argentine standards.  Earlier in the spring a police strike here in Cordoba initiated a nationwide strike and subsequent looting.  December and January have been the hottest months in 50 years, causing electrical outages in parts of the country.  President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and her administration seem to revel in uncertainty.  Recently she made her first public statement in 40 days.  Currency control policies seem to change week-to-week, inflation is rampant, and no one seems to have any idea how far the peso will fall or what the government will do next.  A major devaluation occurred several weeks ago, with the peso destined to fall further against the dollar.  Changes in the peso and currency regulations mean that we are never quite sure how reliable our supply to pesos is.  The rate we change dollars into pesos has undergone tremendous change in the course of our time here, as has inflation, impacting our budget.   For example, today Erica bought Ben’s asthma medication as a local pharmacy.  Last month it cost $180 pesos, today it costs $360.  The school year ended for the boys 2 weeks early unexpectedly, and we have very little idea when school will resume due to a teacher strike.  Despite all of this uncertainty, we have tried to mirror the Argentines we have met, and simply roll with it over the course of the year.

One of the aspects that we enjoy most about living abroad for an extended period of time and total immersion is the window that opens to a whole new world.  We try to treat each difference between Portland and Cordoba as a learning experience rather than complain about it.  While our time here is limited, we find ourselves wondering how Argentines manage to live indefinitely with constant change and uncertainty.  Here in Argentina, on the eve of my 40th birthday, there are very few things that I’m certain of.  I hope it all turns out, that the kids thank us someday, and that we are doing the right thing.  I do know that I could not be more excited by the uncertain future that waits for myself and my family in the next 40 years.

Patagonia Greatest Hits

Travels in Patagonia with los abuelos

Travels in Patagonia with los abuelos

All things considered, our kids travelled like pros for three weeks as we explored Patagonia, Buenos Aires and Colonia de Sacramento in Uruguay with Erica’s parents.  Much to the kids’ dismay we managed to squeeze in some study time along the way, but the best part was watching them learn simply by seeing new and amazing sights along the way.  At times it can difficult to appreciate how wonderful this time together has been for all of us when Ben is squealing, Elliott’s yelling or Molly’s screaming about how her clothes are too tight.  It sometimes takes just a deep breath and a look out the window at the gorgeous lakes of Bariloche to gain perspective (terrific wine doesn’t hurt either).

This segment of our year abroad marked 6 months since we left Portland, Molly’s 4th birthday, a long anticipated trip to Patagonia, a visit from grandparents and our 2nd border crossing to renew our 90 day tourist stamp.  We thought it would be fun to share some of the kids’ favorite experiences from the trip south.  Needless to say the best part for all of them was seeing Grandma and Grandpa.

Elliott

  1. Bariloche chocolate (check this out!)
  2. Seeing all the glaciers (Parque Nacional Los Glaciares near El Calafate)
  3. Hanging out with Grandma and Grandpa and the boat captain on the glacier boat ride

Ben

  1. Our house in Bariloche was awesome
  2. Seeing the lake monster and playing in the fort (Lago Nahuel Huapi)

    Playing in a driftwood shelter on the beach near Llao Llao

    Playing in a driftwood shelter on the beach near Llao Llao

  3. Eating lots of hamburguesas and drinking Fanta

Molly

  1. My birthday cake

    Molly's 4th birthday cake in Bariloche

    Molly’s 4th birthday cake in Bariloche

  2. My smoothie at the hotel in Bariloche

    Savoring a smoothie at Hotel Llao Llao

    Savoring a smoothie at Hotel Llao Llao

  3. Seeing the glaciers

A few other good times captured on film include:

Being tourists in Bariloche

Being tourists in Bariloche

Elliott on the Cerro Catedral chairlift

Elliott on the Cerro Catedral chairlift

Taking a bet to swim in Lago Gutierrez

Taking a bet to swim in Lago Gutierrez

Multi-generational Travel

It was just four days ago that we landed back in Cordoba.  An over-night bus brought us home from Buenos Aires, and although I was sad to leave my parents after having them with us for five weeks, and I felt wonky after not sleeping very well on the bus, I was thrilled to have not one, but THREE Christmas cards from friends in the states waiting for us.  And I have to admit, it has been nice to start getting back into our “routine” here.  I think I may finally be seeing the end of the laundry tunnel.  I remember a friend once saying that she was tackling the Mount Everest of laundry, and these past few days, I know exactly what she meant.

After spending about 10 days in and around Cordoba, we hopped a flight south to Bariloche.  Bariloche is a gorgeous place in the mountains, and we rented a large house with an incredible view of the Lake Nahuel Huapi.  This was, honestly, our view of the lake from the house:

IMG_7884
Really, it does not get much more beautiful than that!
It was nice to have a big space to spread out in Bariloche, but like so many, many things in Argentina, this house had little things about it that made us wonder.  What are those wires hanging out of the ceiling?  What is that hole in the fireplace?  Were they going to build a deck, and just ran out of money, or is this house built on an old foundation?
Bariloche was great because everyone got to do a little bit of what they wanted to do.  My dad and Rob went fly fishing:
DSCN4867 DSCN4872
My mom and I ate a lot of chocolate and ice cream (photos unavailable), and the kids got a lot of great outside play time:
IMG_7935 IMG_7937
Bariloche is very windy, though, and one morning, after a particularly bad wind storm, I woke up to find all three kids in Molly’s bed:
IMG_8020
I would say that we moved on further south to El Calafate because we had our fill of chocolate (Bariloche is known for its chocolate), but anyone who knows me would know that that’s a lie.  There is no such thing as too much chocolate, but our time was up in Bariloche, so we checked out of the house, and headed to the airport to catch our flight to El Calafate.
When traveling with seven people, you can guarantee that there will be at least a couple of wrinkles, and our flight from Bariloche to El Calafate was one of them.  We arrived at the airport with enough time to grab some water, and make a trip to the bathroom.  After waiting for a flight that was “delayed” for about two hours, we were told by the airlines (actually, Rob had to go up and ask, and right after he asked, there was an announcement over the intercom) that our flight had been cancelled, and we would have to wait until the flight five hours later that evening.  As happens anywhere, the crew for our original flight were over their flight time after the delay, so they couldn’t fly.  We were disappointed, and feeling tired, but what could we do?  We decided to take a cab back into town and get some lunch, or at least, I thought ice cream!
This was a case where it paid off BIG TIME to be traveling with small children (and I don’t usually say that!).  When we went to the ticket counter to ask if we could store our bags at the airport, the ticket agent said, “Well, aren’t you a family with young children?”
“Yes,” we replied, wondering, “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Well,” the ticket agent said, “your children are probably tired.  We will get you a room in town so they can rest.”
Rob and I exchanged looks that said, “Are you serious?”
It was siesta time in Argentina, and you don’t mess with siesta!  So we happily took two cabs back into town (paid for by the airlines), then checked into the hotel for the afternoon.  For whatever reason, I told the woman at the hotel counter that we could really all just fit in one room.
She looked at me like I was crazy:  “But you’re seven people!  How will you fit?  We’ll give you three rooms.”  Luckily, at that point, I decided to shut up.
This was a time when what could have been a very frustrating situation turned out much better than we could have imagined.
We arrived in El Calafate much later than we had planned, but settled into our rooms and decided to hit the little town the next day, and figure out how we would spend our time there.
El Calafate is a lovely little town.  The town is very clean by Argentine standards (maybe it’s all the wind?), the streets are wide, and the pavement is smooth, and they have wonderful sidewalks throughout.  Also, this is the home town of the president of Argentina.  That’s all I’m going to say on that matter.
We spent four days in Calafate seeing amazing things, the likes of which, I don’t think I will ever see again.  Glaciers:
IMG_8229
Sheep shearing by hand:
IMG_8241
And some really, REALLY big icebergs:
IMG_8273
Some of us had a better view than others:
IMG_8282
That’s my dad shooting from the first-class cabin.
And others of us didn’t really care about the view:
IMG_8265
Molly slept through the first two hours of the boat ride, and woke up next to a huge iceberg.  Needless to say, she was a little confused.
After a couple of days of icebergs and glaciers, Rob and I were off…….SIN CHICOS…….to El Chalten for three days of hiking.  El Chalten is about a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride north of El Calafate.  It is a haven for hikers and backpackers, and Rob and I had flashback after flashback of our backpacking trip to Asia almost 13 years ago.  We came into El Chalten much older, much wiser (I would like to think), and much more discriminating than many of the other hikers.  Although we stayed in a modest hostel it was fantastic to have our own bathroom, a fairly comfortable bed (on a frame off the floor–unlike many of the beds we slept on in Asia), and enough cash to have fantastic dinners out.
We decided to do the longer hike the first day (28 km round trip!!!!!), and were rewarded with views of Cerro Torre like this:
IMG_8402
After which we rewarded ourselves with desserts like this:
IMG_8360
Tired and sore after a long hike the first day, we took a “shorter” hike the second day to the Fitz Roy range, and although I told Rob I wasn’t sure I would make it all the way to the look-out (10 km one-way), I am so, so, SO glad that I did:
IMG_8540
Our trip to El Chalten would never have been possible if it hadn’t been for my amazing parents, DAVE AND CATHY STEVENS, who volunteered to watch the kids for us so we could have some time away.  The cottage/hotel they stayed at in El Calafate was cozy but cramped, and we are so GRATEFUL to them for taking on three of their busy, rambunctious grandchildren in a country where they speak very little of the language.
A couple hot baths with epsom salt, a bus ride, and plane trip later, we were in Buenos Aires, back in the heat and humidity of the Argentine summer.
Upon arriving at the house that we had rented in the Palermo Soho neighborhood of BA, we ran into another “snag” in our travel plans. Electricity use in Buenos Aires has grown immensely over the past 15 years, and the supply has not kept up with the demand.  Power outages are common in the summer, and can last anywhere from half an hour, to two weeks.  Do you see where I’m going with this?
We were hot and tired after a long travel day of over 1700 miles, and ready to just sit and relax.  When we arrived at the house, however, the power was out.  The caretaker told us that the power should be coming on within the hour, so we decided to stay and hope for the best.  After a fantastic dinner out (really, it was amazing—-or maybe I’m just remembering their air conditioners), we came back to the house, and still, no power.  I walked around the block talking with neighbors and store owners, and found out that the power in our house, and the neighbor’s house had been out for three days, and they had no idea of when it would be back on.  “Maybe tonight; maybe next week” was the response I got from most.
At this point, I’ve got to hand it to my parents and kids:  there was no swearing (at least, that I heard), no shrieking, no yelling, no “What-the-hell-kind-of-a-place-did-you-book?”.  They were incredible troopers.  We were all tired, we all realized that late on a Sunday night, we didn’t really have any other options, so we sank into fitful, mosquito-bitten sleep.  When the power STILL was not on the next morning, we knew we had to make a plan.  Fortunately for us, the hotel we had reservations in Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay could take us early, so we packed up our things as quickly as we could, talked with the owner of the house (who agreed to refund the money), closed the door to the house (and left a key on the inside which in turn caused them to have to cut open the door–oops!), and high-tailed it over to the ferry dock to catch the next ferry just as the power came back on.  Oh well.
Once on the ferry, I thought it prudent to buy my dad and Rob some beer, the kids some Fanta, and ice-cold agua con gas for my mother and me.  We all shared some Oreos, and things started looking up.
We loved our time in Colonia, and had a great time just walking around the cobblestone streets, visiting the late-17th and early-18th century houses turned into museums, and……eating ice cream.  This is not the best picture of my mom (she’s behind Rob), but this little pulperia, called Buen Suspiro, where we had lunch was so delightful, that I had to include this picture.  Again, kudos to my kids because this was not a quick in-and-out lunch.  We were probably there for about 2 1/2 hours. Fortunately, right outside is a very quiet pedestrian street, so they were in and out of the restaurant the entire time.
IMG_8573
We eventually made it back to Buenos Aires, and to a different hotel in the Recoleta neighborhood.  The heat was still fierce, and for some reason (I think we had heard rain was on its way), we decided to do one of those bus tours where you can sit up on top of  a double-decker bus where the roof is cut off.  The tour was great, but so was the heat.  That day in Buenos Aires, the heat index reached 47.3 degrees celsius!  That’s 117 degrees fahrenheit, so yeah, it was hot. Not the best day to be sitting up on top of a bus driving around a huge city.  We called it quits for a late lunch, then somehow made it back to our hotel for cold, cold showers.
That night it rained, and the following day was like a gift from the travel gods who were saying, “Okay.  You guys have all proved your muster.  Here’s a nice cool day.  Have fun!”  There is no shortage of things to see and do in Buenos Aires, and we had promised the kids on a previous trip to the city that we would come back to see the zoo, so our family was zoo-bound while my parents did more grown-up sight-seeing.
Again my parents blessed us with their grandparenting skills and Rob and I had an incredible dinner out at Cafe San Juan, where we had been dying to go.  We were not disappointed, and felt almost like we were back in Portland with the Argentine version of hipsters with tattoos and trucker hats.
After five weeks of togetherness (certainly more than they get of us when we’re in the States!), the Vaughn family was headed back to Cordoba, and my parents were headed back to Gig Harbor.  It was an amazing time, and not only am I thrilled that my parents could (and would) take the time to visit us, and travel with us, I am thrilled that I look forward to seeing them AGAIN when we return!  It’s been a long time since I lived under the same roof as my parents, and I’m proud to say that I think we all had a fantastic trip.  Thanks to Rob for his amazing planning!
The day after we got home, the kids were promptly “bored,” so we have enrolled them in two weeks of summer camp. This serves two purposes:  entertainment for them, and a nice little break for Rob and me!

Feliz Ano Nuevo!

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind since Erica’s parents arrived on Christmas Eve.   We put them on the Argentine-culture fast track the day they arrived by joining some friends for Christmas mass and dinner until the wee hours.  That day also marked a week long vacation for our camera as it disappeared in a cab and miraculously was returned after much searching and detective work.  The driver along with the concern and assistance from friends affirmed our faith in humanity with an amazing display of honesty.  We were disappointed to find much of the city’s sights shuttered until February during the Stevens stay, but we managed to enjoy the pool until our pump finally gasped its last during the heat wave last week.  Argentina has just wrapped up a record-breaking heat spell.  The local heat index in Cordoba topped 111 degrees one day.  The heat, resulting power outages, and temporary loss of the camera contributed to a blip on our senses this past week, so it’s amazing how our emotions are so quickly restored with cooler temps and the return of lost possessions.

Mystery pics on our camera upon return indicate an interesting week elsewhere

Mystery pics on our camera upon return indicate an interesting week elsewhere

Argentina’s culinary delights and excesses lived up to its reputation during the holidays as well.  We managed to fit in 5 asados in 10 days including a wonderful overnight trip to Dique Los Molinos with our friends Tom and Gaby.  Gaby and her family are largely to blame for our selection of Cordoba in April.  Erica and I met Gaby the same day she invited us to her family’s lake house to the south of Cordoba, marking her as a true Cordobesa.  Along with Erica’s parents, we celebrated Ano Nuevo along with 20+ family members at the lake house complete with turkey and fuegos artificiales (fireworks).

DSCN4831

Elliott & Malena ringing in 2014

Since we hadn’t eaten enough, the next day the feasting continued with an afternoon asado on the most impressive parrilla in the province of Cordoba.  Gaby’s father Tindero served up delicious chorizo, bife de chorizo, and bondiola to over 50 family members.  We were thrilled to be able to share in this annual affair and for the Stevens to bear witness to the chaos that is an Argentina family asado.  The pool party that followed lunch was topped off by a 2 liter Coke bottle mixed with Fernet (signature Cordobese beverage) passed communally.  Much to my chagrin I haven’t been able to get my father-in-law to admit that Fernet & Coke really is a great drink! dscn4847 The holidays have been yet another reminder of how blessed we have been to meet such welcoming people in Cordoba.

Hace mucho calor!

Summer in December is in full stride here.  Temperatures are regularly topping 90 degrees.  We hear the afternoon tormentas that break the heat every few days will increase after the first of the year.  These storms are an impressive demonstration of nature’s fury with howling winds, lightening and thunder.  The rain that follows the wind can only be described as a deluge, transforming the streets into canals.

A big part of our verbal argument to the kids when making the move south was that we would find a house with a pool.  We lucked out and were able to deliver on this promise, and it’s paying huge dividends right now.  It’s doubtful we will ever live in a house with a pool again, so it’s been a great experience so far for the kids.  Along with providing hours of physical entertainment to the kids when they otherwise would probably be driving each other nuts, the kids are rapidly becoming awesome swimmers.  Molly in particular has made giant strides in just a month.  The swimming lessons included at her preschool have obviously made an impact for her.

Ben’s Camping Trip

IMG_7802

Ben’s 1st grade class had an overnight camping trip at the school on Thursday night so we thought this would be a great experience for him to recount in his own words. Karma goes to the parents (not us) who sacrificed their night to give the kids this experience.

“We played volleyball, karate and I got an orange belt cause I already know karate.  Then we ate hamburgers, I ate at least 5.  I sat with my friend Ignacio.  We roasted marshmallows and I burnt mine.  I showed my friends how to burn theirs.  We made s’mores and I had 5.  Afterwards an Indian came, which was a fake one, cause they don’t exist.  We made hats and put our handprints on them.  We slept in the class on the floor.  My friend Santi brought a mattress for me.  I tried to sleep but so many girls and boys were talking.  My favorite part was doing karate.  We got to punch wood that was really thin. ”

-Ben

It was awesome seeing Ben completely comfortable in all the chaos of 30 kids totally amped for a sleepover.  This was one night after the police strike in Cordoba that resulted in looting and a city-wide lockdown, so tensions were still a little high.  We were not sure if he would be scared overnight, but all was well.   I picked him up the next morning and he was asleep on the couch an hour later.  To prepare and recover, the school was kind enough to cancel school for Ben’s whole class Thursday and Friday.  2 more weeks of school for the boys before summer break!

-Rob

Dia de Gracias

Image

So somehow we’ve made it to the end of November!  I still can’t imagine where the time has gone, but here we are!  We recently returned from a ten-day vacation to Buenos Aires and Punta del Este, Uruguay.  We had a wonderful time, and even though Molly came down with a terrible virus on the trip (high fever, terrible cough, and really stuffy nose), we managed to see and do a lot—including eat a lot of delicious ice cream as pictured above.

The purpose of the trip was to leave the country so that we could renew our tourist VISAs for another 90 days.  We didn’t need to leave for as long as we did, but since we were going as far as we were (BA is a 9-hour bus ride, and Punta del Este is another 2+ – hour ferry ride, and 1 1/2-hour bus ride), we decided to make the most of it.  The overnight bus ride was an experience in itself.  The kids were thrilled by the big seats that folded down into full beds (with blankets and pillows, even!!!), and the dinner that was served.  At one point, I heard Ben say to Rob, “These are some good meatballs!” To me, “good” seemed like a very strong word in this case, but I was happy that Ben was happy.

Both places we visited had fantastic weather.  We all managed to get sunburned in Punta del Este, and despite the arctic chill, the kids all swam in the water.  Molly’s cold set in almost as soon as we got to Punta del Este, but the good thing about South America is that the pharmacies are really helpful (read: liberal).  I went into one, and told them that my daughter had una fiebre muy grande, and un muy malo tos, and after a few questions about her age and size, I walked away with some awesome fever reducer, and cough medicine. At one point in Buenos Aires, poor Molly was so sick, and we were in between our hotel (where we couldn’t get a late check-out), and our night bus, that we decided to stop for lunch.  We had all ordered and were snacking on bread, when Molly put her on the table, and promptly fell asleep.  Fortunately, it was a nice restaurant, and they had a tablecloth, so the drool that was dripping out of her mouth was soaked up. The people at the restaurant we very nice to us and even wrapped up Molly’s chorizo in a piece of bread so that she could have a snack later. With the hours that families keep in Argentina, I doubt that Molly was the first kid to ever fall asleep in a restaurant.

So all of these things and events (and many others–like the fact that this Thursday is Thanksgiving) have gotten me thinking about the hundreds of things that I’m feeling thankful for this year.  Here’s a quick (not really) list:

Image

*HELADO:  I mean, REALLY!!!! How could ice cream like this NOT make some sort of “thankful” list?

*TRAVEL: This is no surprise to anyone, right? It is exciting and fascinating to see the world through our children’s eyes. To watch our children learning and growing at almost every turn, and to challenge ourselves beyond what we ever could from our safe haven of Portland is a true blessing.

*FRIENDSHIPS FAR: I never knew how much I would appreciate Facebook.  It is wonderful, and gives me such a cozy feeling to be able to keep up with our friends and family on a daily basis.

*FRIENDSHIPS NEAR: I never would have thought that it would be possible to be so warmly embraced in a country where we are strangers to both the culture and language.  Just this weekend we were invited to two asados (had to send our regrets to one because two asados in one day is just madness—even by Argentine standards), Molly and Elliott were each invited to birthday parties, and Ben had a 5-hour playdate! At the asado, our friends asked us what has surprised us about Argentina.  I told them, with as much passionate Castellano as I could muster that we were thrilled and honored that so many people had made the effort to welcome us and include in their circle of friends.  It’s not easy to make time for, and foster a friendship with someone who does not speak the same language as you.  Every day I feel blessed that we have essentially plopped down where we have.

*ROB’S INCREDIBLE PLANNING: Because if I’m honest (and why not be?), I know that this trip would have never happened without it.

*DUMB LUCK: See above.

*FLEXIBLE CHILDREN: Some days are really, really hard, and we just want to throw in the towel.  My understanding of static electricity is thin in English, and then when you wrap it up in Spanish, it does’t get any better.  So sometimes I am completely lost trying to help Elliott with his homework.  And then other days, the boys have their friends over, and they’re all in the pool, and chattering back and forth to each other.  If I’m not looking right at them, I can’t tell if it’s my kids talking, or the kids from the neighborhood.  Their Spanish (or, as everyone here calls it, “Castellano”) has taken off, and it’s at this point when I think, “OK!  THIS is why we’re doing this!  THIS MOMENT!  RIGHT HERE!”

Image

So in honor of Thanksgiving, this Saturday we’re having some Argentine friends over for a Thanksgiving asado.  I have been told that I really shouldn’t use the word asado because we’ll be cooking turkey in our outdoor Chilean oven, not beef, but it’s going to be so much more than just a lunch.  Just like Thanksgiving in the states, we’ll eat too much, probably drink too much, some people may nap, the kids will probably swim (and some of the adults, too!), and we’ll spend the afternoon enjoying each other’s company, and feeling so very, very blessed that we find ourselves in the situation that we do.

Idioma

Learning language as a family has been a wonderful, yet challenging experience for all of us.  It’s been fascinating to see how we each learn differently over the past 4 months.   A big part of life for us here is simply the ability to communicate.  Each action requires advance thought on what we need to say and how.  Talking on the phone is incredibly difficult.  For the kids it’s simply been trial by fire with school.  Molly’s been in her daycare for a month now and is showing progress already.  The boys have been at Zorrilla for nearly 3 months now!  Both schools are 100% Spanish.   Needless to say , we all have good days and bad days.  I thought since we’re coming up on 3 months in Argentina I’d sum up how we’re each individually doing on this front.

A little background on all of our language and Spanish instruction prior to leaving the States first…Erica’s minor in college was French, so I like to think she’s sort of cheating on all of this.  French is so similar in structure to Spanish her progress has been great.  She and I also took several intensive courses in Portland last winter.  My two years of Spanish in high school have been embarrassingly worthless (sorry Ms. Boyer-Root) as was my investment in Rosetta Stone 2 years ago.  Ben completed Spanish immersion kindergarten at Beach School in Portland in June, and Elliott completed 4th grade.  Our time in Costa Rica was intended to provide Erica and I with the basics and sharpen the boys.   Erica and I have now had two months of one-on-one instruction at a local language school here in Cordoba.

I describe my Spanish as muy basico on a regular basis.  I’m very good at saying, “Me Espanol no es bueno, lo siento.”  Despite my language disabilities, it has been amazing to reflect on how far I’ve come individually since July.  Each day I try to set small goals and study for an hour.  My most recent trick is to jot down 3 or 4 verbs or phrases to memorize on the walk or run back from the boy’s school.  I think the Argentine moms dropping off their kids wonder about the mumbling gringo in workout gear.  I’m also trying to have the local news on the TV in the mornings when getting ready.  Poco y poco as they say.  With the kids in school and other activities, we are fortunately forced to regularly be in situations where we have to speak Spanish and interact, rather than be isolated in our own little world.  Learning Spanish for me is a roller coaster.  One day I walked out of 3 hours of class feeling confident and a woman asked me for the time.  I was stumped.  Nada.  I had to show her my watch.  Then again, yesterday two different people asked me for directions (happens to Erica and I all the time here!) and not only did I understand them, but I was able to give them directions!

It took all of 2 days in Costa Rica for our teacher to recognize that Erica was the better half in terms of learning language.  We’ve been in different classes ever since.  Having had a strong background in French, the transition to Spanish has gone great for her.  She tends to understand far more in a conversation that I do and has become fluid in speech.

Witnessing the kids learn a language has undoubtedly been the most rewarding part of our time so far.  Yes, the boys attended a Spanish immersion school in Portland, but it was nothing compared to this immersion!  Ben and Elliott had a disagreement the other day about whether Castellano was truly Spanish.  Castellano is the Spanish dialect that’s spoken here.  Right now I’m listening to the boys play a board game with a friend in Spanish.  School, rugby and play with friends in general is totally in Spanish.  Ben has gained the most in terms of speech and comprehension.  He is completely fluent and seems to be at the perfect age for this experience.  He regularly corrects our Spanish and seems amused at our pronunciation.  Erica overheard Ben and a friend playing the other day and couldn’t discern who was who.  Rugby has had a big impact on Elliott’s learning.  He tends to be more cautious about making a mistake and doesn’t speak as much as Ben, but play and sport removes a lot of that.  Molly’s beginning to try out new words now and then.  I heard her say, “gracias” in her sleep the other night.  Despite the fact that no one at her daycare speaks English, she’s unfazed.  We’ve been told that after 6 months or so she should be conversational.

That’s not to say it’s all rosy though.  With the exception maybe being Ben, we all have our daily challenges learning and adapting to the language here.  Molly seems to think that boys at her daycare are mean to her since she doesn’t understand them.  Elliott struggles to understand lessons in school and homework.  While Elliott is our social butterfly, school and learning here has been rough.  His learning difficulties go way back and are certainly exacerbated by the complete language barrier here.  We hope we’ve made some progress after a meeting with his teachers this past week.  Reading, writing and processing remains his challenge rather than speech and oral communication.  Ben’s challenge remains the tallest 6th grade girl with her heart set on him.

The past 4 months have been a great reminder of how much we take for granted our own language.  Simply stepping out the door to run an errand can become exhausting sometimes.   One of our primary reasons for planning such an extended experience was to ensure that we integrated within the community and truly learned the language.  We are certainly witnessing how valuable it can be to have plenty of time to do so.  Everyday Erica and I seem to pick up new words and comprehend more.  The kids seem less homesick and more comfortable in their surroundings as the language gets easier.

Off to Buenos Aires tonight on a night bus for our first border crossing trip.  After a few days in BA we will spend about a week at Punta del Este, Uruguay.  More on that soon!  Chau chau!

Hail

Today we had a glimpse of the crazy weather we’ve heard all about here in Cordoba when the heat starts cranking up.   Outside of one massive rainstorm a few weeks ago, we’ve had gorgeous weather since August.  Oddly enough, in Cordoba the winter is incredibly dry, while spring and summer tend to bring the bulk of this region’s precipitation.  This afternoon was hot and muggy but otherwise beautiful.  About 30 minutes before this storm the wind picked up and clouds rolled in.   We could hear a massive roaring sound and realized what was coming just a few minutes before it arrived.  The windows in a car parked outside our house shattered, and we has some minor damage and flooding.   Trees on the street look shredded of branches and leaves.  Mother Nature impresses again.