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.

Management Lessons From Argentina

Prior to moving to Argentina I worked for the Portland Business Journal as a sales manager.  As a young manager I gleaned what knowledge I could from a number of more experienced managers and sales trainers.  I recall my mentor George telling me early on just how similar managing salespeople could be to parenting.  Our superb sales trainer at the time, Jeff Schneider, hammered the key tenets and roles a sales manager must play into me while also drawing many such parenting analogies.  While traveling and living abroad as a family, I  have been repeatedly reminded just how much parenting can mirror sales management challenges.  The lesson I suppose is that it can be more difficult than one might think to escape entirely from reality and thoughts of work while on sabbatical.  While I don’t claim to be the best parent or manager, the lessons provided by these men provide a wonderful goal to aim for whether it be while managing a sales team or a family experiencing life south of the border.

The four primary roles of a sales manager I was taught are coach, mentor, trainer and supervisor.  As Jeff so wisely pointed out, most sales managers end up focusing primarily on supervision, an eerily similar problem faced by Erica and I here!  I’d like to share a few additional management lessons I’ve learned thanks to living abroad as a family.

Manage the individual, not the team

Just as salespeople are unique individuals and require an individual approach, living abroad together has illustrated just how different our kids are.  We’ve spent A LOT of time together.  It’s been a fascinating and rewarding experience to discover what approach might inspire one of the kids, while having zero impact on the others.  Freed from the responsibilities of a job while we live in Argentina, I’m grateful to have the time and energy now to truly learn about my kids.  They are all highly motivated by any electronic device of course. Elliott tends to be very money motivated, Ben not at all.  Sport of any kind and socializing with friends drives Elliott.  Ben loves having friends over for play dates, but sport, eh.   Elliott cherishes access to his email account we opened for him to keep in touch with friends at home.  Ben has one also but we have to nag him to use it.  On the other hand Ben loves rocking out with his headphones and iPod.  Michael Jackson and Charlie Daniels are favorites.  Molly loves the iPad and pleasing others.  She might be freaking out about her shoes not fitting one minute and kissing your hand the next.  Not unlike seeking the right formula for a sales rep, Ben’s a tough cookie.  We’ll let you know when we figure that out!

Be humble

As any good sales manager knows, you want your salesperson to be a better rep than you.  Well, I can tell you that my kids and wife excel at speaking Spanish while I simply manage the logistics of our existence here.  While I would love to be more fluent, I recognize my own strengths and weaknesses.  The other day at rugby, Ben was speaking to Erica with a new friend looking on.  Afterward Erica overheard the friend ask,”Hablás inglés, vos?”  Nothing makes us happier.

Lead during times of change

Our team at the Portland Business Journal went through a tremendous amount of change while I was a manager.  Learning how to manage during times of change while also learning to be a manager was incredibly difficult, but not so unlike our current status.  Our kids have adapted amazingly well to living in Argentina.  Their world has turned upside and yet they have just rolled with it all from the start.  When we started selling furniture on Craigslist last year, they barely batted an eye.  We moved in with a Costa Rican family of 5 for 3 weeks and enrolled in a language school.  We tossed Ben and Molly in a taxi with the school director each day to go to kindergarten in Spanish.  We lived out of a hotel in Cordoba for 2 weeks!  No problem.  Well, minor issues that we can gloss over now.  We threw the boys into a public school that is 100% Spanish.  We jumped on an overnight bus to Buenos Aires.  All things considered, the kids have been champs.  I like to think that they have been relatively unfazed because of the confidence Erica and I have tried to project despite our own concerns.  Although scared out of our minds and unsure at times during this adventure, we have always positioned each trial or phase as a new adventure.  I don’t recall who started it, but we began a corny Team Vaughn chant completed with hands in to kick off meaningful new adventures before we even left Portland.

Motivation by trial and error

Our challenge to provide motivation for the kids began the moment we sprung our plans on them a year ago. We pulled out the stops with stories from our scouting trip about meat, ice cream and swimming pools. When we were in Costa Rica incentives took the form of a trip to the public pool after a good behavior day at language school.  This trial and error continued in Cordoba when we came up with the Morning List, The Big 3 and the Night List.  While we’d tried a number of similar things in Portland, we actually managed to find the time and motivation to stick with it here.  In an effort to teach responsibility and maintain our own sanity, we came up with a few basic things the kids should do on their own without endless nagging and reminders.  Morning and Night includes stuff like get dressed, make the bed, and brush teeth.  The Big 3 believe it or not are flush, wash hands and lights off in the bathroom.  I cringe to envision life with 3 boys rather than 2.  Successful completion of these tasks on a daily basis is rewarded with 5 pesos each.  Given the ready availability of kioscos and sugar this has proven to be a fairly productive incentive so far.  I won’t lie though. It’s not uncommon for the boys to have a debt tally on the fridge when motivation devolves into supervision. Homework, behavior at school and our home school efforts have provided endless opportunities for experimentation with motivation.  We committed to home school the boys 5 days a week in English since their school day is short compared to the US.  Although not particularly popular with the team, we created a chart per day with subjects including reading, history, math and science.  We have a mix of workbooks, apps, documentaries and games we use to keep it mildly interesting.  Regardless, Ben still manages to try to scratch out math on the chart and make it look like history. We also have learned when to call in the big guns for training help as does any good sales manager.  We finally saw the light and have our wonderful babysitter helping Elliott with his homework twice a week.  It’s a far cry from our painful attempts to interpret assignments using Google Translate, and he’s far less likely to misbehave with a cute 21-year-old Argentine instructing him that ourselves.

Unfortunately, after our best efforts, it sometimes all comes down to banning the kids from electronics, rugby, play dates or loss of pesos.  I learned some of my biggest lessons as a manager from the people who worked for me.  The analogy continues as our children challenge and inspire Erica and I everyday in Argentina.

A Tale of Two Days

During our time in Argentina we have been fortunate to have very few days in which Erica and I are both at the end of our rope.  Some days it seems that nothing goes right or according to plan.    Being flexible and patient are critical,  and I like to think we’re pretty good at it, but some days it all falls to pieces regardless.  Rarely however, do we seem to have two days that are so starkly different from one another.  Yesterday was a rough day for both of us.  The sun comes up the next day and the magic is back.  A tale of two days living in Argentina:

Wednesday, March 19

Yesterday was unusually cool and cloudy.  Molly and Ben are killing us the moment they wake up.  In short order Ben and Molly both lose access to all electronics for the day.  Molly freaks out about everything from hair to shoes, is late for school and screams during drop-off.  Ben and Elliott bicker and mess around rather than buckle down with morning homeschooling.

I proceed to get my ass kicked in my Spanish class and realize I may have hit my learning limit.

Erica tries yet another new bus route to work downtown but has to abort and get a cab.  Paying cabs to get to teaching gigs is not very profitable, thus frustrating.

The boys goofing around on the walk to school grows so annoying I nearly push them into the street.  My plan to check in with Elliott’s teachers about homework fails when I first try to ask Ben’s teacher if we have bought the correct math book.  Ben has disappeared with said book to the kiosco to spend the pesos I gave him for a water bottle on candy. By the time I return the candy and collar Ben, Elliott’s class has started.

Molly and I head to the grocery store for the weekly restock.  At checkout I try yet again to ask for home delivery.  After 3 attempts the checker understands me.  When I ask if I said it correctly, she says yes.

Erica tries to pay a hotel deposit for my sister’s upcoming visit at a bank and realizes that ALL banks close for the day at 1:30pm.

Hoping for a nice day tomorrow, I vacuum the pool and proceed to break the vacuum.

While Erica’s heading to her 2nd teaching gig of the day, she gets hung up in downtown traffic since all the garbage workers are striking and firing off cannons in the street.

Molly and I head to a nearby doctor’s office to schedule health checkups for the kids before we pick up the boys at school.  After feeling pretty good about making the appointment despite my rough language, I realize I booked a time when the boys are in school.  By the time I realize my error we’re on the bus headed to school.  The bus Molly and I take from the doctor’s office completes its route before I expect it to, making us late to get the boys.  On the walk home from school, every dog seems like Cujo, ready to rip our limbs off and I start to realize I’m really bothered by the ridiculous amount of security on the beautiful houses in our barrio.

On Erica’s way home from teaching downtown, she flags her bus which slows down at the curb, and then, for no apparent reason, speeds up and drives past the bus stop without stopping.  She ends up having to wait another 15 minutes for another bus to come by.

Thursday, March 20

Today it’s a gorgeous, sunny day.  The boys start their math homeschooling today without being reminded!  Bickering is minor.  Molly awakes in a good mood and gets dressed with no fussing.  She’s dressed and delivered to school on time and with no crying.

Erica recovers the boys’ notarized birth certificates (previously missing) at their school and successfully completes the bank deposit she tried the previous day at a bank near our barrio.

The boys and I hit the pool store for some supplies and I miraculously get what I need with zero translation help from the boys.

With trepidation, I call the doctor’s office to reschedule the appointment, and am amazed that I’m able to do so with near total comprehension.  The makes my day since speaking on the phone in Spanish is one of my greatest fears here.

I’m able corner Elliott’s teacher and ask how he’s been doing on homework.  Seems he’s doing what he’s supposed to so far.  I covertly watch Ben buy his water bottle today as instructed versus candy before heading out for a quick run home in the sunshine.

Erica’s finally able to get Molly to wear her tights to ballet and dropped off with no fuss allowing her to get to work on time.

Erica’s evening English class goes well….her favorite 82-year-old-student charms Erica with her question about idioms, “Ehreeka, I don’t understand. What means this, ‘hunky guy?'”

My medicinal Fernet & Coke seems to be easing a persistent cold this evening.  The day was good.  I didn’t even explode when Ben dropped an entire bag of milk on the kitchen floor (yes, I said “bag”)!

So again we have a lesson in perspective.  It’s all still parenting, with just a few extra wrinkles to make things more interesting.  One day we feel worn down and helpless.  The next, all is well in the world and we’re living a dream once again.

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.