Author Archives: Michaela in Argentina

About Michaela in Argentina

I am a Political Science and Spanish double major with a focus in Latin American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I've left my hectic life at home to spend a year in the lovely Buenos Aires, Argentina. Follow me as I dance, eat, laugh, and learn my way through my South American adventures!

Seeking home at the bottom of a jar

All I wanted was peanut butter. About a month into my stay in Buenos Aires, I was going crazy for peanut butter and was seriously dedicated to finding some. It’s not the most common thing here, where super-sweet dulce de leche is preferred, though it is definitely available in health food stores called dietéticas. However for some reason I had the hardest time securing a jar of my heavenly, creamy, good-anytime treat; I had heard of some places to find it from people on my program, but either I couldn’t find the store, they would be out of stock (since the American students were all raiding these places around the same time), or I’d find a store to realize it was be closed. For a good two weeks, peanut butter was on my brain. I think my host family found my fanaticism a bit ridiculous, but at that point in my stay, I was feeling the low point of culture shock, and peanut butter represented home to me. I was craving the comfort of something just so American to pull me away from the difficulty of being far away. I was frustrated that something so common in the United States was so difficult to obtain here, frustrated that stores are closed on Sundays when I had the time to go to them, and frustrated that I didn’t have the variety of food here so readily available to me like I do at UMass.

When I finally found peanut butter, it was awesome. I ate it at least once a day and went through two full jars all by myself within the next month. However, I haven’t had it since then. Part of the reason is that I did admittedly go a little overboard with it, but the other part is about adapting to the culture. On the one hand, I have found healthy alternatives that I can pick up at the supermarket instead of running around the city to search for them, and on the other hand, I have become comfortable here and don’t have the desperate need for the comfort of something American. Obviously there is more to the phenomenon of culture shock than the desire for sandwich spreads, but I think it serves as a good analogy for the process. As the semester has progressed, I have learned to adapt myself more to the porteño culture, instead of the other way around, and my ability to do that has made me so happy here. Feeling incorporated into the culture and having settled into my daily life has made Buenos Aires feel much more like home. It is a great comfort that makes me amazingly content and excited to be staying here another semester.

And that is another topic in it of itself. Right now I have been at the peak of the culture shock transformation for a while, and since I am staying in Argentina for the year, the prospect of continuing this experience, getting to explore the city even more, and being able to immerse myself further into the culture is a welcome relief. However, hearing about all of my friends on my program getting ready to go home and see family and friends makes me miss home a lot more than I feel like I would otherwise. I don’t know what it would feel like to be going home soon, if I would be reluctant to leave, if I would have considered extending my study abroad for another semester, if I would have been happy going back to UMass (which I do miss a lot!) after this crazy semester…All I know is that I am staying and I am so happy about it. Being away from home for so long will no doubt be difficult, and I am curious to see how culture shock will manifest itself over a longer period of time, but at least now I know where to get myself some peanut butter if I need it.

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Unknown, but refreshingly so

At first when I was thinking about this question, I didn’t feel as though there had been any specific realizations or experiences brought on during this semester abroad which have affected my academic or professional roles. I still feel fairly undecided about where I see myself heading after college, but I will come away from my time in Argentina with some insight on that. For example, one of the things that drew me to my study abroad program was that they offered an internship with a non-profit organization. The people that I worked with were wonderful and did great things, but the experience was not exactly what I had hoped for. Coming out of that reinforced that to work in such an environment is difficult and takes a lot of dedication, but can be so much more rewarding because of that, something I have observed working with other non-profits before. Furthermore, being a part of the Gilman community has opened up other opportunities for me here. In October, a group of us visited the Fulbright Commission in Buenos Aires and got to learn about the various programs that Fulbright offers for students to do research abroad, which is something that I had not known much about and now very much interests me.

However, I think even past the specific things such as those, what will be even more valuable to me in my future academic and professional endeavors will be the skills I take away from my abroad experience. My ability to speak Spanish aside, it’s perseverance, self-reliance, creative problem solving, self-confidence, being able to step out of my comfort zone – all things that I have learned and adopted even unknowingly, just by making my way in a foreign city every day. I might not make it back to America with a newly enlightened vision of my life plan, but indeed, having those sorts of qualities under my belt will help me in the long run to be the best I can be with whatever I end up doing.

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Argentina’s Political Whirlwind, making this PoliSci major’s head spin!

Argentina is a very political country. This becomes apparent as you see campaign signs plastered one on top of another on every street and hear the commotion of the frequent protests in the center of Buenos Aires, but it characterizes the society on a deeper, less sensational level as well. As a political science major, I was excited to come here and learn about the politics in the midst of a presidential election season. And while what I have been able to clue into and learn about has been fascinating, I have barely been able to scratch the surface of the intricate political system. With myriad parties that each have a nuanced place within the workings of the political apparatus, it proves a great challenge to try to remember what each one stands for, their candidates and representatives, and how they all function together. I have been deeply impressed by the level of knowledge that Argentines exhibit of their politics, past and present, as well as the genuine eloquence with which they can express their opinions on such matters. More than once I have felt a bit embarrassed of my relative knowledge about certain American political debates or have made mental notes to brush up on my presidents.

But due to the complex nature of Argentina’s political atmosphere, it would be impossible to even begin do it justice here. However, one aspect that has also made a great impression on me has been the politicization of the university students. My study abroad program gives us the choice of taking classes at four different Argentine universities, and I am currently studying at the University of Buenos Aires, the only public university of the group. Thus I cannot speak for the private universities, but my impression is that they are not quite so active. And “active” is an understatement to describe the student body at UBA. When you walk into the Facultad de Ciencias Sociales, a non-descript building in a potentially seedy neighborhood with a man selling sandwiches and a range of school supplies in front, you are greeted by a sensory overload. Hundreds of students mill about, talking and drinking coffee or smoking cigarettes that they nonchalantly put out on the floor. What completes the scene is the haphazard collage of posters that cover practically every empty space on the walls, and when there is a lack of space, propped up against chairs or railings. These hand-painted, no-frills posters advertise events like rallies and conferences, promote candidates, or just make general political statements calling students to take a stand.
Once you navigate your way through all this and settle into your classroom, more awaits. In the four or so hours that I am in class each week, we are interrupted about five times by representatives of different student groups. It is usually a guy and a girl, who politely ask the teacher if they can make an announcement, even in the middle of his sentence. The students, who come from groups such as La Frente Izquierda, Contra Hegemonía, and La Juntada de la Izquierda Independiente, all start with, “Hola, compañeros…” and then launch into a quick but thorough overview of their current activities and campaigns. They pass out flyers, publications, and sign-up sheets. As in the political system as a whole, it can be difficult to keep track of what each group stands for, but the one thing for sure is that they are passionate and vocal.
Back at UMass, I work with MassPIRG, a non-partisan public advocacy group that runs campaigns on social issues that are of interest to the students. For the 2010 election, we worked with other groups on campus, such as the University Democrats and the Center for Education Policy & Advocacy, to register students to vote and urge them to educate themselves on the candidates and issues. While we all had our own strong opinions, we were very careful to stay completely neutral during the voting drive. Here, neutral isn’t an option. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that voting is obligatory in Argentina, but there is strong support and strong opposition when it comes to elections. Debates are fast-paced and heated, everyone has an opinion, and you are constantly bombarded with information, propaganda, or slander. Though it is hard to crack, the political life in Argentina is indeed captivating, and its great presence in the culture refreshing.

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Searching for peanut butter and side-stepping cow pies: the travel experience

When you make the decision to live abroad, it is obviously a very great undertaking. Leaving behind all that is familiar and venturing into a perfectly unknown environment can be nerve-wracking, especially as a college student who has most likely finally shed all that high-school awkwardness and is starting to really form their own life at home. However, it’s also indescribably exhilarating to make such bold step. It is an amazing experience, but as excited as you may be for it, it is by no means easy.

Living in a foreign country, you soon realize that everything is, well, foreign. It sounds stupid to say, but it can become blaringly evident that such a redundancy might be necessary to keep in mind. When you are adjusting to your new home, regardless of how permanent it may be, there are days when everything seems like a struggle, from putting minutes on your phone, to finding a newly uncommon snack (I only found peanut butter after several days of active searching over the course of a couple weeks), to figuring out seemingly basic customs through trial and error, like etiquette for waiting in lines or interacting with restaurant wait staff. These trials are often humbling, but also frustrating and tough to deal with on your own. Though you make fast and strong bonds with students who are also going through the same experience and host families provide a wonderful source of comfort, sometimes at the end of the day you long for the support of those who know you inside and out. This mix of circumstances can really be overwhelming, but facing it and thriving in spite of that challenge is empowering and invaluable.

I have found that this experience has forced me to become incredibly more self-sufficient, in both my emotional and personal life and in my day-to-day interactions with the world. I must talk myself through trying situations and make them work for me and rely upon myself to make the best out of everything that comes my way. Instead of becoming overwhelmed by the challenges of settling somewhere new, I have begun to see them as opportunities to push myself and stretch my comfort zone. In this way, your days are filled with small victories and moments, like successfully giving directions to a stranger or running into someone you know on the street, that help you regain your balance. I notice that I am so much more appreciative of the little things like that which put a smile on my face and am more in touch with myself.

Last weekend I travelled to the province of Córdoba for La Fiesta Nacional de Cerveza, Argentina’s version of Oktoberfest. While recounting the events of the weekend could fill an entire blog in itself, to say the least, one of my favorite moments was the morning that I woke up before all my friends and took a walk through the hills around our cabin. The only thing I could hear besides my footsteps were bird calls and the occasional moo from the pastures of cows that stretched into the distance, and I relished the fact I could be alone in the morning sun with my thoughts as I meandered through the countryside. Of the whole weekend, I enjoyed this the most because it was such a grounding, refreshing hour that allowed me to be fully present in the beautiful surroundings. An hour of alone time for me and Córdoba brought the trip to a full circle and left me feeling so much more satisfied and connected to the lovely province. Though the experience of travelling and living abroad can be trying, those challenges are what make such times so rewarding, helping you develop your sense of self as well as your ability to appreciate every moment.

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Simple and Scrumptious

I love food. Really. I love eating food, cooking food, trying food, shopping for food, even just talking about food. Being such a self-proclaimed foodie, coming to Argentina has been an interesting experience. Instead of a “nice meal” being so determined by intriguing combinations of ingredients, the subtle addition of an obscure spice, or the artistry with which it is arranged on the plate, Argentine cuisine speaks for itself. Simple, scarcely spiced, and unfussy, the emphasis becomes less on intricate presentation and more on the preparation and quality of ingredients. This is especially true when it comes to Argentine beef, which really does live up to its divine reputation. Many Argentine restaurants offer as the main component of their menu a parrilla, which is an extensive list of meats, ranging from ribeye and stripsteak to chorizo sausage, from riñones (kidneys) to chicken breast, all cooked on the grill. They might be served with a small side of pureed calabaza (pumpkin or squash) or papas fritas, but just as often the cuts of meat fly solo, served on a slab of wood or simply on a plate.

Obviously more complex dishes do exist, and while many of them are still relatively simple and highlight each component, I have also seen some very distinctive combinations that seem to be acutely geared towards the Argentine palate.  For example, green olives and hardboiled eggs are two foods that make it into a lot of dishes, which can be somewhat discomfiting at first when you’re not used to it (a side of shredded raw carrot mixed with hardboiled egg, anyone?), but soon becomes expected and regular. However, less easily adapted-to are the instances when such ingredients come together on the same plate. Along with ham, cheese, marinated asparagus…and pineapple. On an open-faced sandwich. With mayonnaise. I did not have the pleasure of consuming such an interesting meal, but I got to see my friend do so with gusto.

In Buenos Aires, which has more international influence than other parts of the country, the porteños tend to experiment more with their traditions, but for the most part, the same tried-and-true dishes and flavors appear again and again. These include milanesas, a thin piece of meat, usually beef or chicken, breaded and fried and eaten in sandwiches, with a fried egg, or alone; tartas, somewhat like a bigger and less-eggy quiche, which can be filled with a variety of ingredients, like just cheese (talk about divine…), spinach, zapatillos (small squashes), or sweet onions, but are usually some mix of vegetables with the occasional addition of chicken or ham; and lastly empanadas. Empanadas, half-moon savory pastries formed and filled by hand, are a staple of Argentine life. Practically every restaurant offers some form of empanada, you can find take-out restaurants on every corner, and they even offer them at some kioskos. They can be doughy or flaky, filled with chicken, ham and cheese, ground beef, roasted corn, onion, spinach, you name it, and often come shaped specifically to designate the type of filling inside. They generally cost four to eight pesos each (less than two dollars!) so they are a great snack on the go, but at home they are often the delicious, hand-held main course.

Another quintessential Argentine treat are alfajores, which are a layer of dulce de leche sandwiched between two light cookies and usually drenched in chocolate. Before I get ahead of myself, which could easily happen when describing these delicious desserts, dulce de leche is a thick, caramel-like spread made with milk. It is another Argentine favorite and shows up everywhere: on toast, on cakes, on fruit, and, obviously, in alfajores. Just like empanadas, they are so wildly popular and inexpensive that there are seemingly millions of variations on the original. Every kiosko displays rows upon rows of alfajores, ones with nuts, ones with three layers, ones dipped in white chocolate, ones with chocolate mousse, even ones made with Chips Ahoy (called Pepitos here). You’ve heard of the Freshman Fifteen? Well take one bite of an alfajor and you’ll be on your way to gaining the Travelling Twenty. The temptation to work my way through and try every different kind is overwhelming, but since I have a year I figured I should pace myself. So far my favorites have been one made with a wafery meringue cookie at a local café and a jumbo-sized one made with buttery shortbread cookies at another. But at the kiosko, I still go for a new one every time.

When Argentines find a food they like, they really go for it. It seems like it could get a little monotonous, but Buenos Aires and all its cosmopolitanism offer enough variety to keep one on one’s toes. However, it is also a joyful adventure to become an expert, spending your meals searching for the single best example of the classic Argentine cuisine. Continue reading

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Mica…making adjustments

Got culture shock? It happens to the best of us. I must admit that when my advisor talked about the phases of culture shock before I went abroad, I was skeptical. After having been so excited to come to Argentina for so long, I could not imagine it ever being difficult. However, it is true, and after the initial adjustment period and subsequent intense infatuation with your new environment comes a time when things aren’t quite so easy. That is obviously not what you want to be nor what your should be focusing on as you embark on your experience abroad, but it does help to be aware of the phenomenon. That way, when the waves of culture shock start to splash upon your foreign paradise, you can understand your feelings and deal with them realistically.

Needless to say, after having been in Argentina for about two months, I am going through that period right now. It seems ages ago that I was scurrying through my house to finish (over)packing just hours before my flight, landing in a rainy Buenos Aires 24 hours later, having my first meals with my host family, and learning enough information to fill volumes during orientation. It felt like a whirlwind time of discovering new things, trying to do anything and everything possible, meeting people, getting lost, getting found, and being overwhelmed but loving it. To an extent, I still feel like that, since in such a big city not a day goes by where I could not do something new, but I have also started to find my routine. I know which buses to take, how much time I have between classes, which supermarket has the best variety of products, and how to navigate the city’s vibrant nightlife without spending a fortune every weekend. Having this sort of grasp on my day-to-day gives me a sense of accomplishment in that I am starting to make Buenos Aires my own. On the other hand, I find that among my everyday activities, I have had less time to try new things and stimulate my adventurous side. It is all about finding a balance, which I have not achieved quite yet but undoubtedly will with time.

It has been this among this mild crisis that I have encountered the rough patch of my cultural immersion experience, which unfortunately coincided with the beginning of school for all my friends back at home. This has meant that I’ve spent perhaps a little more time than I should on Facebook before bed browsing through their pictures and that I’ve been missing a lot of things from home, like iced coffee, our farmer’s market with deliciously fresh produce, riding my bike everywhere (which in Buenos Aires has been accurately described as a suicide mission), or not having to pay for water at restaurants. However, having been well primed in the in the cycle and effects of culture shock, I have realized that these are mere things, things whose absence has not severely affected my ability to enjoy my time here thus far and that adapting to living without them is all part of this experience. More important for me to focus on are the many aspects of porteño culture that I have come to appreciate and incorporate into my own.

That said, the one thing that I have found most significant and endearing about Argentine culture has not been the tango, their political awareness and activism, or their deep passion for fútbol, but rather the idea of buena onda. It literally means “good vibe,” and as my program director has said, you either have it or you don’t. There’s no way to learn how to have a buena onda, and if you do try, then you definitely don’t have it. Though it’s just a phrase, the idea behind it is that the culture as a whole has a laid-back, no-worries feel to it, whether they are lounging in a park every chance they get, lingering over dinner, or turning the idle strumming of a guitar into a full-on jam session. This mentality makes its way into many different parts of daily life, even into seemingly names. Everyone here seems to have a nickname, whether it is a shorter version of one’s given name (Matias becomes Mati), related to one’s appearance (and usually not PC, like el Gordo or la China), or just completely out of left field (one of my host brothers’ name is José, but he goes by Pocho). After about a month of being here, my host brother and his friends informed me that my name does not have a buena onda. Apparently, “Michaela” is what someone might call me if they were mad at me, but it’s too formal and long for everyday use; so now I am just “Mica,” which I love. Who knew such a carefree concept could have such complex implications? Either way, while I might be feeling a little homesick here and there, Argentina has taught me that I should simply exercise my buena onda: acknowledge the feeling, but just relax and keep on enjoying my time in this crazy cool city.

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