Tag Archives: latin america

Backtracking on Spanish

8 Aug

It was bound to happen sooner or later, and was maybe secretly one of my biggest fears about returning home. After reaching such a high level of Spanish fluency, and nearly four weeks at home in the United States, I can see that I’m starting to lose some of my second language ability. I haven’t totally lost the edge, but going so long without consistent practice has caused me to start making some mistakes and to blank on some obscure vocabulary I wound up learning over time.

It’s hard to notice the setbacks immediately, but after talking with a few friends back in Buenos Aires, they joked about how my Spanish has gotten worse. Even just a short time away from a Spanish-speaking environment can affect how well you formulate the words and your response time. In a rush to overcompensate for possibly sounding off, I might speed up how I talk, ultimately causing me to make more errors. It’s nothing monumental for now, but I’m afraid of just how far it can go.

I was aware of this for a long time and after putting so much work and effort into becoming a Spanish speaker, I feel like the ability is my baby, and I don’t want to lose it. I plan on doing as much as I can to stay sharp on Spanish, which means not only staying in touch with my friends in Latin America, but making new Latino friends in Washington. Language is a constant back and forth, and the old saying holds true: if you don’t practice it you lose it. Feeling it slip away is a helpless struggle, and it makes me want to go back to Argentina today.

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Still Searching for a Sense of Reality

3 Aug

From the first day back in my hometown of Sharon, MA I had the sense of being in a ghost town. It’s not that the businesses have packed up and left, probably thanks to the fact that there’s hardly any industry here to begin with. It’s not because all of the boys are overseas fighting and only the elderly are left. But rather, there seems to be a hollow edge to the same streets that I walked and rode my bike on as a youth, and later drove up and down as a teenager. They are the same tree-lined tertiary roads where you’re likely to pass a family of deer or even the occasional wild turkey, safe from criminal activity or pollution. Yet things don’t feel the way they used to.

This is the part of the story where the buzz has started to wear off. The rush of coming home and seeing old friends while simultaneously running up and down the east coast has kept me busy. Fortunately this resulted in a prolonged happiness to be back in the United States, and even though I am in between work and study, my hands have been far from idle. There’s a lot to take care of after returning home three years later. In the last couple of days things have started to slow down. Returning from Washington with an apartment seemingly wrapped up, I continue to search for a job and see old friends, yet I’ve had spare time set in, allowing me to think and dwell on certain things.

I want to remember as many things as possible, and focus on the little details. The parquet floors of Buenos Aires, the random pine tree forest high up in the Andes between Quito and Cuenca, cropping up between the thick clouds, so close you could touch it. Once I start thinking about that stuff, I start to feel the emptiness where my deflated dream has started it’s backwards retreat. I’ve already lived out my lifelong goal, well before the age of 25, and now it’s back to the real world. Or is it?

What exactly is the “real world” to me anymore? Not some TV show on MTV, no way. It’s not a traditional summer vacation that a student would enjoy, with three months of work and play. In coming back to this ghost town, I’ve learned that my vision of reality is totally skewed and messed up, but worse still, I now have no vision of reality. At least for the moment. You see, most of my friends have moved out of the suburbs and into the city of Boston, and those who haven’t soon will. While summers used to mean hanging out at someone’s house, playing poker or drinking some beers while watching a movie, I now have little to do during the week. I drive around and check to see if I’ll recognize the driver or car, but I wince when realizing that no one will be around who I know. Even people younger than me from high school have graduated and moved on. I’m an old timer out of my element. This town is no place for someone in their mid-twenties.

While in summers past the middle of the day could be filled with the possibility of seeing a friend drive by, I now know that I’ll be here alone and there will be so surprise visitors. My reality used to be school, summer, work, etc. At first my job in Buenos Aires didn’t seem real–it was just something I was doing to live in Argentina. Then it became my reality and my only purpose for being there. That’s over now. But the real world is only what you make of it in front of you. Though I considered it a different part of my life, the last 3 years were my reality, and now this place is not my home, nor is it where I belong. It’s a comfortable setting and being surrounded by family is refreshing, but I clearly can’t spend much time here before I move on again. I’ve outgrown this role.

I went abroad and though I pictured coming home to the same place, it is no longer what I imagined. The neighborhood has grown up and left, and accordingly so, new people have come in to pick up the slack. No longer in my reality of Latin America, and not yet in my new reality of Washington DC, I’m simply floating along on vacation. It’s like a decompression chamber before starting the next journey, which will no doubt be as complex as the last one, but for different reasons. Little by little I see myself starring a little longer and thinking a little deeper, remembering those who I’ve left behind and wishing it wasn’t so. Where will they be when I have the ability to see them again, and when will that happen? It will never satisfy me to speak of them in the past tense, and I suppose that’s one of the many curses of being a returned expatriot.

Sunday is Family Day

17 Jul

My first year in Latin America was spent in Ecuador, and nearly every Sunday was a day of suffering, in which the fact that I was so far away and estranged from my family was only emphasized by the other families all together and having fun. Sunday in Latin America is a family day, and the streets can often be found empty, with only tourists and potential thieves walking around looking for trouble. People have big family lunches or head out as a group, and as a lonely foreigner, it can be a difficult and boring day. Not much is open and without other friends in similar situations, it gets you down.

Buenos Aires was different because it was such a large city that you could always find something going on. Likewise, there are many transplants living there, not only from the interior of the country, but from all over the world as well. Therefore, the last two years in Latin America weren’t defined by depressing Sundays. On the contrary, it was just another day in the week–one which had to be appreciated as a day off, even though Monday would loom in the shadows. However, the idea of family would always be present on that day, and I did my best with a weekly Sunday night Skype phone call with my parents. Though I was usually tired and in no mood for a phone call by Sunday night, it was a little tradition that we had, and if my brother and sister were around they would say hello as well.

There were only a handful of times in the last three years when we didn’t have a Sunday night Skype call, and that would usually be because one of us was out of town. Rarely would I cancel because I was out doing something else, and in fact I most often would have the phone call define my day. No matter what I was doing I would tell my friends that I’d have to be back later on for the call. Vero would often ask me on a Monday if I spoke to my parents and as always they would have told me to say hello for them. Once in a blue moon we would be off on our times and make up for a call the following Monday or Tuesday, but that was wishy washy, just like the signal we would usually have. If I was in a certain corner of the apartment the call could be dropped or we would have a delay.

Yesterday my old friends from high school and college came over for a welcome home barbecue, and it was great to see them all again. But today was family day, and for the first time in nearly two years I was home for it. Nothing special happened–with just my parents we checked out a new shopping complex a few towns over. Even though the country is in a recession, you wouldn’t be able to tell by the brand new stores popping up everywhere and the shopaholics throwing away their green bills. My dad tells me that’s more of a development in the last year, however.

For once I was able to just be with the family and not have to worry about finding a friend to hang out with today, just searching for a way to kill the spare time between Saturday night and work on Monday morning. So you often take the good with the bad, and if reverse culture shock is a symptom of coming home, at least I can also take a simple day with the family as par for the course. After three years of gallivanting around South America, I’m okay with that.

Back in the United States After 2 Years

14 Jul

On Tuesday night after two years in Argentina, my friend Matias accompanied me to the airport and I left Buenos Aires on an overnight flight bound for Miami. I spent the last day with my friend Amy, rushing around trying to exchange money and finalize packing. Later we met up with my friend Yerly and walked around for a final slice of pizza. The weather was spectacular for the winter and all things considered, it couldn’t have ended on a better day. I had kind of expected to get choked up or tear up on my way out with the final goodbyes, but was surprised when nothing happened. I even spent a lot of time reflecting on the last couple of days, but nothing got me to the point of weeping. I suppose I was ready to go home, at least for a while.

Two years is a very long time, and upon arriving to Miami I smiled with the anticipation of finally not being a foreigner. Yet in Miami International Airport I still had to speak in Spanish and was still surrounded by Argentinians. There I was, expecting to hear English and suddenly all I heard was “boludo” this and “boludo” that. I was exhausted from the last few days in Argentina and the long, mostly sleepless flight, so I passed out for most of the Miami to Boston portion. Yet once we landed in Logan International Airport, the song “Dirty Water” entered my head and I felt right. Things looked as they’d always looked outside of my window.

The reunion with my parents was nice, and as we drove out of the city and into the suburbs I was able to see many of the landmarks I had always seen as a child. Some things were different, and occasionally I’d be told about something that had changed while I was gone. My brother and sister were waiting as we pulled into the house, and then the tour of the house began. It was like being a guest almost, because so many things have changed that it almost doesn’t feel like the place I grew up in. It’s of course the same house and many things are exactly the same, but two years have changed this house. There’s also something to be said about coming home after a long time away and not feeling as you did when you left. Likewise, the other people and things in your life won’t be the same either.

I’ve been incredibly busy so far, from cleaning out the junk my mom has piled up in my room to running around to the bank and seeing old friends. A lot of people have been asking me if I’m going to be continuing the blog, and the answer is of course yes. The theme will obviously slightly change, and though I am no longer an expat, for a time this blog will focus on a recently returned expat. In time, I’ll move to Washington DC and then will explore a new city. Just as Buenos Aires was a new experience that I discovered, Washington will offer me new opportunities and stories which I will share with you. Continue to check back in for updates on what I’m doing at home and how the transition is going.

The End is Near!

10 Jul

Just two days left in Argentina now. Wow. On Friday night we celebrated with my going away party in San Telmo, and though I didn’t get to say goodbye to everyone I wanted to see, we had a good time with those who came out and it was a fun evening. Though my friend Amy was delayed two days because of the ash cloud, she arrived yesterday morning and so far we’ve had a lot of fun. It was tough to get a start at first because we were both really tired from the previous nights, but we made our way to the Ecuadorian restaurant in Once, where she was able to relive some of the food she enjoyed back in Quito.

Yesterday was July 9th, the Independence Day for Argentina, and a traditional meal to eat is locro. I’ve had locro before, and though it’s more common to find in the northwestern provinces, my friend Pablo made a batch at his apartment where Amy is staying. It was a quiet and laid back night, which was perfect for me since I was too tired to really do much anyway. I was hoping to take Amy to a bar I used to like going to called El Living, but a dry law went into effect at midnight because of the Buenos Aires mayoral elections taking place today. I would have had to vote, but since my DNI never arrived on time, I’m spared from having to choose the lesser to two evils.

Today is a day of running around like crazy, with a lunch planned with a friend, coffee time with my old neighbor, and then an asado at night. And then tomorrow is finalizing the packing, trying to exchange pesos for dollars, and heading home. That is of course if the ash cloud doesn’t show up.

Rio de Janeiro in 2 Days

7 Jul

Inside Confiteria Colombo

Despite the fact that I’d just lost 2 nights out of a 4 night trip to Rio de Janeiro, I used the positive energy of the Brazilians on my flight to pump me up for a fun time and looked ahead brightly. After all, the Brazilians are very fun and welcoming, so I knew this was going to be a good trip. I already had a place to stay with a friendly host from Couchsurfing named Sergio. On top of that, a girl I knew from Buenos Aires from Brazil was going to meet me in Rio and show me around. She’d also written me a letter of invitation for the visa application. So I got myself an overpriced taxi at the airport to avoid any possible late night kidnappings and start off well. Ludmilla suggested I not get a yellow cab (even though all the cabs in the city are yellow) and instead went for a private service costing 99 reales, where as a regular cab would have run around 60. Sergio later told me not to worry too much about the cabs, but just speak in Spanish at least if you don’t speak Portuguese and always pay after.

Getting into the Botafogoneighborhood too late to do anything, I talked with Sergio a while and then went to bed. In the morning I woke up to find that it was raining and cold, and I was ill prepared for it. In fact, I’d only brought one sweater and one pair of jeans which I’d already been wearing since leaving Buenos Aires, and would need to wear them every day. I had planned on warm weather and had shorts and t-shirts, plus sunscreen, sunglasses and a hat, all of which went unused. The umbrella did come in handy, however. I met up with Ludmilla and we started with a quick stop at the Rui Barbosa House, just a few meters down the road.

Tiradentes Palace

The Botafogo neighborhood is very residential and peaceful, but next to Copacabana and close to the center, which made it very attractive for me. The house was a former residence of a prominent Rio citizen, and is now a museum. We took the Metro which was in my opinion, years ahead of the Subte in Buenos Aires, and got off in the Central Station. Ludmilla wanted to show me a point where some of the poorest and hardest workers in Rio must travel to daily, and it’s a very symbolic point for many. Again, the Metro system in Rio impressed me, with wider, faster and more reliable trains. No one pushed or crowded the doors, and there were various methods for buying tickets. Buenos Aires could learn a thing or two.

In the center we moved around to various spots, including the Municipal House (Tiradentes Palace) where we got a tour of the main chamber, the recently refurbished Municipal Theater and the National Library. Between all of this it was on and off raining, but never as cold as Buenos Aires gets in the winter. It was odd because some people would be in shorts and sandals and others like myself were totally bundled up. We had a quick snack at Confiteria Colombo, a famous cafe in the center on par with the Cafe Tortoni in Buenos Aires. I took advantage of a store in the central market and bought a pair of sandals with the Brazilian flag logo, which in recent years has become very fashionable, yet were always a mark of a poor person without much money, so I was told.

I was pleasantly surprised by the churros sold at the stands in the street, and can say they were definitely the best I’ve ever had. Warm, filled with either dulce de leche or chocolate, they were coated in cinnamon and totally delicious. I wanted and had to have a couple more throughout the next days. We visited a couple of cathedrals, including a giant pyramid-shaped one, and then took a bondhi, or trolley car up to the Santa Teresa neighborhood. Santa Teresa is very bohemian and kind of like San Telmo in Buenos Aires. There are pretty cafes and restaurants along the hills and you get good views of the city below. One of my contacts fell out in Santa Teresa and I couldn’t see much for the next couple of hours, but we later met up with Sergio and went out for dinner.

I had my first taste of feijoada, the traditional Brazilian dish of steak, rice, beans, fries and whatever else. It’s a huge mix that’s usually eaten for lunch, and it’s a great blend. I also tried a caipirinha, which is a traditional Brazilian cocktail made with cachazaand lime. For me it was a bit too strong and acidic, but I can see how it can grow on you. We had an interesting talk about the favelas and Brazil’s booming economy and rise of the middle class. I was told that a lot of the favelas are no longer dangerous and have been pacified, though it’s still obviously a major problem.

The National Library

It was time for bed and the next day, which promised the main sights of Rio: Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf, Cobacabana and Ipanema…

What I Know About Brazil

2 Jul

Tomorrow I’ll go to Brazil for the first time, so long as this pain in the ass ash cloud hovering around Buenos Aires dissipates. The cloud came back in town today and canceled every flight in and out of the city, and I’m just clinging to the hope that it will be gone soon. As of this afternoon I could see that on the northern edge of the city it was a blurry mess, while towards the south some blue was visible. Maybe that’s a good sign. I can’t afford to miss time on my 4 night stay in Rio because I get in very late the first night and won’t be able to push my trip back. My friend Amy arrives to Buenos Aires the morning after I return, so it’s do or die. I’ve already bought the plane tickets and visa.

But what I was going to write about before the ash cloud came back was what I know about Brazil. It’s such an attractive country, and anytime you mention that you’re going to Rio de Janeiro, anyone within earshot will exclaim how jealous they are. Brazil borders almost every country on the continent and is widely diverse, though a lot of people mainly associate it with beautiful beaches.

Right near where I grew up is a huge Brazilian population. So large, in fact, that during the last presidential elections, a special voting sector was set up for Brazilians all over the northeastern United States to be able to vote. Yet the image you usually get of immigrants is quite different from the rest who stay behind. I was shocked to learn that there are actually blond hair, blue eyed Brazilians (mostly in the south). A lot of them come from German descent, and sometimes I get confused as being Brazilian. Pero no falo portuguese.

I know that while Brazilian isn’t quite as well known for it’s barbecues, you know you’re going to eat well if you go to a Brazilian steak house. I seem to remember going to a great one in Newark, New Jersey as a child. Then there are the beaches, from Florianopolis to Bahia, and maybe the most famous being Copacabana and Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro. While I’ll be far from living the life of a celebrity, I hope to stroll the beaches as well, without the ubiquitous zunga, or Speedo bathing suit.

Everyone always warns me to be careful in Rio, saying it’s dangerous, more so than Buenos Aires. They say look out for the favelas, or ghettos. They tell me to be careful when getting into a taxi, and to be on alert at night. Yet at the same time they say how friendly the Brazilians are and how they are always smiling and ready to party. Yet there’s also a serious side to Brazil.

I’ve done some research and know that Brazil has one of the strongest economies of Latin America, and now many Latinos are seeking to learn Portuguese instead of English, if not both. Brazilians are traveling abroad more and more, especially to Argentina, where their reales get them more than twice the amount of pesos. They have continued to industrialize and improve the quality of life, and the cost of living in Sao Paolo is in par with that of New York City or perhaps Paris. The Chinese are so interested in Brazil’s land resources that they are continuously trying to lease or buy land, investing millions into the economy, in what many fear is a backwards step towards colonizations, whereby the raw materials leave Brazil, get turned into products in China, and resold in Brazil.

But these are just the things which I have gathered before visiting the country. So long as I can fly tomorrow, I’ll soon be able to add my own opinions with a plethora of experiences including sights, sounds, smells, videos, photos, and of course, the stories. I can’t wait to share it.

My 5 Least Favorite Spanish Phrases

22 Jun

I’m perfectly guilty of using these phrases as well, but when on the receiving end I almost always cringe upon hearing them. Here are 5 sentences that I hate hearing in Spanish:

1. “Lo que pasa es…” Translation: The thing is…; What had happened is…

  •  This takes me back to my days as an English teacher in Ecuador when the students would always have a reason for showing up late or not doing the homework. This is an extremely common thing to hear, always kicking off an excuse or a reason why you’re not going to get a satisfactory result.

2. “Es así/Así es” Translation: That’s how it is; That’s the way it is.

  • Anytime a conversation has reached the point where nothing else can be argued on or you one party realizes that their system is flawed but they have no solution, you will hear this uttered. Example (translated):

Person 1: Argentina’s really nice, but there’s a lot of corruption.

Person 2: That’s the way it is.

3. “El tema es…” Translation: The thing is; The problem is.

  • Another set up for being denied something. Usually brought in with a point-counterpoint argument. On the one hand, but the other thing is…etc. Your good idea is about to be torn apart.

4. “Puede ser.” Translation: Could be; Maybe; Possibly.

  • This is such a non-committal phrase and to me it just shows a lack of interest in really doing something. You ask a friend if they want to go grab dinner later and they say this, almost as if they’re really just holding out for something better and if nothing pops up, you’ll be a last ditch effort. On the other hand, it can be used in a way that’s like saying yes, but without coming right out and saying it, which is just confusing.

5. “Es lo que hay.” Translation: It is what it is.

  • You know the phrase in English, and it’s the same in Spanish. Another phrase similar to “That’s the way it is,” covering up for a lousy situation that could or rather, should be fixed, yet isn’t. This is our system and there’s nothing we can do about it. Example (translated):

Person 1: They don’t pay us enough to live comfortably here.

Person 2: It is what it is.

Keep an eye out for these phrases when coming to Latin America and I guarantee you that you’ll hear them soon enough.