Letter From Buenos Aires
couple of weeks ago something very strange happened. While speaking with my Spanish professor, I said "us" when referring to Argentines. I paused, looked at my professor and asked, "Did I just say, 'us'?" She laughed and said, "Gavin, you're a porteño now," using the name for someone from Buenos Aires.
The experience is often shared by many students studying abroad. At first you feel like a stranger. You feel like you don't belong. You notice all of the little things that are different, like the traffic signals that turn yellow a second before they turn green. But after awhile everything just becomes familiar and normal. You stop making the comparisons and just accept everything for what it is. That is the point where you truly immerse yourself in another culture; the semester ceases to be an exploration and turns, simply, into your daily life.
I first studied in Buenos Aires with the Council on International Educational Exchange during the fall of my junior year. Now I'm back as the first-ever participant of the Swarthmore Buenos Aires program. Professor of History and native Argentine Diego Armus believed he could use his network of academic connections in Buenos Aires to create a program tailored to the varied interests of Swarthmore students. I can attest that he has succeeded in creating an academic environment in which the classes are one-on-one with professors and the curriculum is as demanding as Swarthmore's.
For instance, I am taking a political science class with Professor Maria Matilde Ollier, one of the first academics to publish a book on the military government in Argentina from 1976-1983. My first homework assignment was to read one of her books. The next week I was able to ask specific questions directly to the author herself. Her responses even included her own experiences as a Montonera guerilla during the early 1970s.
In my Spanish language course, we work on a wide array of areas including literature and grammar. The one-on-one nature of the class allows us to do exercises that a normal classroom environment wouldn't be suitable for. One writing exercise involved writing an argumentative article in the style of a letter to the editor. After doing the exercise, I submitted my letter to the editor of La Nación, one of the city's two or three major newspapers. To my surprise, the following day the paper printed the letter along with my email address. My inbox the next few days was flooded with Argentines either berating my letter or congratulating me.
One of the benefits of the program is the opportunity to complete an independent study project. I chose to look at the recent growth of the wine industry in the province of Mendoza. In truth, I didn't even like wine when I chose the topic, but I thought it was interesting how Argentine wine had grown in popularity in the United States over the past five years. I just returned from a trip to Mendoza and where I met with government officials, academics, business association leaders, and vineyard owners. Furthermore, my Spanish language professor incorporated into the curriculum the creation of a blog on the wine industry that follows my research while allowing me to practice different writing styles learned in class. The research will eventually become a case study for my political science senior comprehensive exercise on Argentine monetary policy during the 1990s.
Just 15 years ago, Argentina was the International Monetary Fund's neoliberal pride and joy. Five years after a devastating economic crisis, to call someone a neoliberal is considered an outright insult. To learn in the classroom about political science, economics, and social movements in Trotter or Kohlberg is one thing, but to learn about it both inside and outside of the classroom in Argentina is a truly rewarding experience.
Most students are familiar with the seductive tango, the traditional French architecture, the rumble of the crowd in the football stadiums, and the juicy beef from the Pampas. Yet, there is something beneath the surface imagery which gives great depth to this city and country. In Argentina, ambivalence toward any subject is virtually unheard of. Argentines love to argue, or as they would say, "discuss," any topic, whether it be politics, soccer, or the best brick oven pizza place in the neighborhood. It is a national pastime to gather with friends and drink mate, an herbal drink native to this country, and discuss whatever is on your mind. It is within these discussions that you learn to release yourself from your foreign standpoint and begin to understand what it means to be Argentine.
Buenos Aires is cosmopolitan, yet friendly. European in architecture, but Latin American in feel. Old World at sight and New World in practice. To understand Buenos Aires, and for that matter Argentina, it means to feel the passion of discussion, the shake of the soccer stadium under your feet after a goal, and the bitterness of mate. In short, it simply means to become one of "us."