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The cultural observations of a foreigner living in Buenos Aires

Working and living in Buenos Aires, as a foreigner is a constantly fascinating, intriguing, rewarding and sometimes amusing experience. Working at a Spanish School such as Expanish equally so, with Expanish blog observing a continuous stream of students and tourists from all over the world coming to Buenos Aires and experiencing Argentina and it’s culture for the first time. So this week Expanish Spanish School Blog has decided to delve a bit deeper into the fascinating world of Argentine culture, and the experiences of one of Expanish’s long standing staff members from the U.S……

Being a US native living in Buenos Aires for about five years, I have witnessed my fair share of confused foreigner-porteño interactions.  I learned quickly that as much as I immersed myself in Argentine culture, there would still always be inherent cultural differences that would leave me utterly perplexed about how to figure out any rhyme or reason to this culture.  For those not too familiar with Buenos Aires, or have only lived in the city for a short time, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact areas where cultural differences come into play.  To make the concept a bit more tangible, here is a top 5 list of  TRUE LIFE situations that exemplify some of the cultural differences:

Scenario #1: Argentime

You are invited to your FIRST Argentine party by a real local.  For stereotypical reasons let’s call him Nacho.  Facebook invitation is sent out, over 100 confirmed guests, and the party is due to start at 11:00pm.  In good foreigner fashion, you are playing it cool by arriving at 11:30pm.  You arrive to the Palermo PH and note that it is a bit too quiet for comfort… knock on the door and a stranger answers with a confused look on his face.

You: “I’m here for Nacho’s party, is he here?”

Argie: “No, not yet, Nacho is at dinner with his family, but should be back en un rato.  You can wait here if you want, but I have to take a shower and get ready.”

You: “The party is here, right?  When will more people arrive?”

Argie: “Yes, yes, the party is here. People are coming ahora.”

Perplexed as to what is going on, you sit in confusion waiting for more to arrive.

What happened here? ARGENTIME!  Some very important things to take from this encounter:

Most events NEVER start on time.  If you are supposed to meet a group of Argentines (or foreigners who have been living in Argentina for a while) at a bar – you can estimate the meeting time to be at least 30 minutes after the agreed upon time. If you are meeting just one person, usually running 15-20 minutes late is custom, and is not considered rude.  Argentines are generally very laid back, in no hurry to get from one place to another –  why do you think they keep their calm when getting into a ridiculously long line?  In such a bustling city, this go-with-the-flow attitude can be a refreshing characteristic, or unbareably irritating to get used to – depending on how you see it.

Important note: While the literal translation to “ahora” is “now” in Argentine Spanish it can be translated to “within the next few hours.” If someone tells you someone is coming “en un rato” don’t expect them to be walking through the door anytime soon. CAUTION: professional meetings GENERALLY start on time.  Don’t be that person who shows up late to an interview, but do expect your employer to be running late.

Scenario #2: Food

You’re sick of ordering meat empanadas for dinner, and want to cook an extra special meal for your local flat mates. After a recent Barrio Chino run, you picked up some curry paste and want to show off your fancy kitchen skills. You know that your roommates aren’t big fans of spicy food, but they seem eager to try something new and exotic.  While you are cooking, they comment on the “strange smells” coming from the kitchen.  You need to add some extra hot curry paste to your plate since you made an extremely mild version for your roommates. Soups on! You all dig in. You look over and your roommates are DYING – teary eyed, gasping for air, sticking their mouths into bowls of ice.  “Me pica, me pica (it burns/it’s spicy),” they scream.  You sit there, dumb-founded, as this is the most mild version of curry you have ever eaten in your life.

What happened here? The majority of locals stick to their comfort foods: empanadas, milanesas, pizza, asado and ice cream.  Any variation is not considered normal.  Spicy foods, even including foods that include regular non-spicy spices (cumin, curry powder, garlic powder), are unable to be digested by most locals. True Fact: You sprinkle pepper on food and many Argies may have their mouth suffering from the picante (spice).  Yes, you read correctly, regular cracked pepper.  Why do you think you never see pepper shakers at restaurants?

Scenario #3: Family

It’s New Years Eve, you know that Buenos Aires is a party city so you can’t wait for what fun you’ll have in store.  While deciding what to do, you ask your favorite local partiers for what they have planned.  “No, I am staying at home, I have an asado with all of my family.”

What happened here?  You’ll notice a few things:

  1. Your 29 year old friend still lives at home.  It is not uncommon for the “children”  to live in the family home until marriage, due to cultural traditions and / or economic reasons.  (In recent years it has become more common for young Argentines to move out on their own at an earlier age).
  2. Argentines are very family oriented, and not just the immediate family – it is common to be very close with aunts, uncles, cousins, cousins of cousins, your cousin’s friends, etc.  Family events will usually include the extended family – and families don’t just get together once per year around the holidays, here there are family gatherings all year round.  Sundays tend to be family days.

Scenario #4: Sharing

Your mother finds an old family tree in your basement, and it is soon to be discovered that your long lost family, who you suspected moved to Argentina before WWII, are still in the country!  You make plans to meet up with your long lost cousin, 5 times removed the same weekend you are moving apartments.  He discovers you are planning to move via taxi, and he generously offers his car and some help.  Never meeting before, the only thing you knew was that your great grandparents were midly related.  Upon first time introductions and small talk, he starts telling you his hobbies: “I like fútbol, spending time with my family, watching movies, going to my psychologist.  You know, normal stuff”  That’s right, his top 4 pasttimes included weekly therapy sessions.

What happened here? It may be sharing some mate, throwing their straw in your face to try their back-wash induced Fernet and Cola, being “too kind” by offering to help you without even knowing you,  or filling you in on their weekly therapy sessions with their psychologist – Argentines are sharers. This generous quality can be very sweet or sometimes a TMI overload, hearing a lifelong sob story in the first encounter.

Scenario #5: Political Correctness

 “Hola gorda, negra, grandota, flaca, rubia, morocha, etc.” basically translates to “Hey fatty, black, giant, skinny, blond, dark girl.” Maybe you have gained a few pounds and are wondering if anyone notices.  No need to fear! Your favorite honest Argentine will probably let you know, “Engordaste, no? Qué estuviste comiendo?” or “You got fat, what have you been eating?”  Or try being on the subway, and someone giving you a seat yelling so all the passengers can hear “Estás embarazada?” Or “are you pregnant?”

What happened here? Argentines are known for being brutally honest.  While the common foreigner may interpret this as rude, it’s important to remember that political correctness doesn’t exist here.  People are direct – tell it how THEY think it is even if feelings are at stake.  Also, many of these nicknames are endearing, said out of love, and not meant for anyone to burst out in tears.