When the plane touched down at Ezeiza International Airport, Buenos Aires, I had a backpack full of climbing gear and a head full of dreams about summiting Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Americas. I hadn’t expected to land in Argentina for the first time and feel like I was finally returning home.
At the airport, Spanish with an Italian lilt blasted over the speakers and women with legs like spaghetti paraded in short, tight mini-skirts. Dark-haired men that could easily have been models sauntered through the airport, comfortable in their own charm and sex-appeal. By the time I hit Buenos Aires proper I’d decided that this was the place of my heart – and I hadn’t yet tried the ice-cream.
Half the population of Argentina comes from Italian heritage, easily identified by their passion for coffee, cakes and ice-cream. Argentines have a great love for “lunfardo” (slang), as do Australians which was one of the first things I found we had in common. Slang and wine, but that’s a whole other post. It took me three visits to Argentina before I finally took the plunge and moved there.
The first friends I made in Argentina were through bonding over homemade ice-cream. It’s not uncommon to find ma and ma shops on every street corner, a rainbow of frozen flavors just waiting to be devoured. Plastic chairs and tables are set up on sidewalks and locals gather to eat, laugh and gossip. It didn’t take long to find my favorite ice-cream shop, and I set about trying to fit in. Boy, that was a lot harder than I expected.
I thought my love for Argentina would give me an automatic “in.” Here was a single woman who uprooted herself, moved to their country and had fallen in love with the people and culture. But wariness lined their acceptance. When I was asked “Boca or Riverplate?” I thought they were talking about political parties. I had no idea which football (soccer) team you barracked for could have such an influence on how people view you.
Often, I was asked why I would choose Argentina when I could live elsewhere. I never found it difficult to answer. The language, warmth of the Argentine people, astounding scenery and lifestyle all added up to something I couldn’t resist. Now don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of amazing places in the world, but for so many reasons, Argentina captured my heart. But no Argentine could understand why I would want to live in their country, even though their patriotism is amongst the strongest I’ve ever experienced.
Fortunately, my Argentine friends embraced me and my flawed Spanish, inviting me to family functions, including weddings and milestone birthdays. I learnt how to tango (very badly), eat asado (Argentine BBQ) without looking like I’d just had a bath in a tub of fat and I perfected how to swill copious quantities of Mendocino wine without falling over. Life was good and it didn’t take long to adjust to my new country.
In the early days, though, especially when my Spanish was worse than a toddler’s, I felt left out. The gap between languages left me floundering, especially in large gatherings and I felt like an imposter. I desperately wanted to be “one of them” yet my accent gave me away every time. But the harder I tried to learn Argentine ways and their Spanish, the more accepted I became. When people realized I wasn’t just flitting through, they took me more seriously and went out of their way to help me negotiate customs and language challenges.
When the economy in Argentina took a dive in 2001, many Argentine’s couldn’t escape their dire circumstances. And even though it was never mentioned, I know many friends and colleagues were thinking that the gringa could go back to her life outside the financial shambles of Argentina at any time. I wasn’t privileged by any means, but because I came from a non-South American country, people naturally assumed I was rich. But man, I was far from it. Although if you measure richness by experiences and the depth of friendships made in Argentina, I was richer than all the Spanish galleons put together.
But I stuck it out, protesting right alongside the nation. That single action changed how I was viewed forever and finally, I felt I was amongst my people.
And in case you need to know, my answer is Boca.
What have you found in common with people from other cultures? Did that commonality help build friendships?