What Can I Tell You About Argentina?

December 23, 2010

Searching through my Gmail for something else entirely, I came across the following description of the year I spent in Argentina when I was 15. I wrote it in response to a friend’s casual question about how I know Spanish, and I don’t know what came over me to wax so lyrical. Nevertheless, I like it.

What can I tell you about Argentina? I was there quite some time ago, when I was in high school, doing a year-long exchange program at the tender age of fifteen, and for all the romance that the country’s name may conjure up, it was frequently a rather ordinary existence: Buenos Aires sprawls for many miles outside the capital district and into the province of the same name, an endless blanket of working class, low-level city, where main thorougfares bustle with buses and cars and clouds of commerce and smog, while side streets are unpaved and potholey, forcing cars, which can only move so fast on that terrain, to give way to donkey carts, pushcarts, and all manner of reconstructed and cleverly adapted pedal-driven vehicles (to call them bicycles would do a disservice to their ingenuity). I was plunked in the middle of that sprawl in a forgettable municipality half an hour from downtown B.A. and told to go about my business. So I went to high school, found myself a part-time job, played in a rock band, had a girlfriend, went to parties, and learned Spanish.

Which is not to say that my life lacked for wonder and joy. Maybe it’s not surprising, but one of the greatest pleasures of my time there was my girlfriend, not so much because she was exceptional (she was a lovely person, don’t get me wrong) but because my relationship with her was entirely secret from my (very strict) host family. She was eight years my senior, and I assumed they would disapprove and forbid. I had acquired a job in the center of Buenos Aires as an assistant at a private English language school for adults. She was a teacher there, and we became friends, so my host family knew about her but suspected nothing. (At one point, after we became romantically involved, my host mother said to me, out of the blue, “I think you have a crush on her, but you may as well give up because she will never go for you. She is too old.” That was a delicious moment.)

Naturally, I had a huge crush on this woman from the outset, but she was plainly out of reach, which is, I think, what made me act so boldly. What’s more, whenever I spent time with her, we were right in the bustling heart of the city, away from the crowing roosters and diesel fumes of the grimy periphery, so everything that happened seemed otherworldly, as if rules and logic might be suspended. On the night of our first kiss, I spent so much time prolonging our stroll through a famous old cemetery, having made up my mind to find the opportune moment to kiss her, that when I finally did it, I had missed the last train to my neighborhood, and was left with no option but to spend the better part of the night roaming the city with her, snuggling into doorways and alleys now and again to kiss some more. My host brother, who was basically a jerk, answered the phone when I called and refused to put my host father on the phone. “They won’t worry,” he said to my protestations. “They’ll just chew you out when you get home.” So the entire night I knew that disaster awaited at home, and I could just let go of excuses and explanations and embrace the unexpected joy of the moment. On the ride home, with dawn just lighting up the sky in that optimistic, electric sort of blue that summer mornings can have, I was punch-drunk from lack of sleep and everything felt surreal and beautiful, as though my every casual glance around the mostly empty train car and out the window had been carefully planned by a cinematographer. At home, I came through the kitchen door and the house was quiet save for an enormous ham hock sizzling in a pot, untended. I collapsed into bed amid an overwhelming, pungent smell of pork and slept hard and dreamlessly. At some point during the morning, my host father came in and berated me for a long time while I blearily apologized, and then I slept some more, and when I finally woke up, no one mentioned it again and it was as if I had dreamed the whole thing, except it was real.

So actually, I guess Argentina did have its spectacular moments. I don’t think I realized then just what a rare treat it is to be in a place that feels endlessly new and undiscovered, but to exist there not as a tourist or visitor but as a part of it, able to move freely and unnoticed and, at fifteen, unencumbered by serious considerations of punishment or responsibility. It’s like being James Bond in St. Tropez, but there’s no mission, no time limit, and no one’s trying to kill you.

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One Response to “What Can I Tell You About Argentina?”

  1. What can you tell us about Argentina? A lot, and beautifully.

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