Month: September 2015

I have seen more overboard PDA (public displays of affection) in the past six months the than in the past six years. I am all for PDA that would not embarrass a tween, like holding hands or stealing a quick kiss. What I have seen goes beyond that.

imageCouples are making out in parks, on sidewalks, in airplanes, and on public transportation. And they are not trying to hide themselves in the shadows or corners. I’m talking about couples lying on a blanket in the middle of the park next to a family or sitting on the bus stop bench next to other people who also are waiting (like me).

The couples usually appear to be teenagers or people in their 20s, but I’ve seen much older couples going at it too. It seems like even when people are older and presumably living with their partner or spouse, they just continue the habit they developed while they were young.

I took the time to write this post so I could share at least one reason behind this behavior. A Colombian friend confirmed my hypothesis that it is because people usually live with their families until they are married. Thus, the only place they can have some privacy is in public.


Note: Although I came close to snapping photographs of the different couples that prompted this post, I decided to respect their public privacy. I am sure most of you can use your imagination to illustrate the point.

One Way I Feel Safer In Bs As

I was nervous in about 99% of the taxis I took in Bogotá. The drivers there are aggressive and there are no seat belts in the back seats. The worse part was that in almost cab I took, the driver was talking on the phone, and some texted as well. Then there was the one who was watching a YouTube video. Mostly while he was driving.

Occasionally, I said something, but often felt impeded by my poor Spanish. I considered offering to pay drivers more if they would not look at their phones during the trips, but never actually did it.

Taxis in Bs As

Taxis in Bs As

In some ways, the taxi experience in Buenos Aires is similar. The drivers are aggressive, but slightly less so than in Bogotá. The majority of the taxis also do not have seat belts in the back seats.

There is one major difference. The drivers here do not talk on their phones. Because it is prohibited. And people take this prohibition very seriously. The fines are high and it is not worth risking the negative impact on their licenses.

A few have glanced at their phones at red lights. One or two have answered the phone to say that they cannot talk, and those calls were very brief.

I actually feel safer in a taxi in Bs As than I do in DC, even though many intersections here have no traffic lights or stop signs.

When I started writing this, I did not intend to get up on a soapbox and preach about the dangers of distracted driving. But I find myself not wanting to resist the temptation because I know how extremely harmful car accidents can be. And because I do not want you increasing your risk of being hurt, or hurting someone else.

Three quick facts from the Put it Down campaign:

  • Engaging in visual-manual subtasks (such as reaching for a phone, dialing and texting) associated with the use of hand-held phones and other portable devices increased the risk of getting into a crash by three times.
  • Five seconds is the average time your eyes are off the road while texting. When traveling at 55mph, that’s enough time to cover the length of a football field blindfolded.
  • Headset cell phone use is not substantially safer than hand-held use.

And, in case you have not seen it yet, take four minutes to watch this and remember that the only thing you should do while driving is drive.

So Are You Fluent Yet?

Today was my last day of Spanish class. And, before you ask, no, I am not fluent. Not even close.

I am significantly more advanced than I was when I arrived in Bogotá six and a half months ago. But I still have a long way to go.

Last day of school!

Last day of school!

Learning in a school for non-native speakers is great, until it isn’t. One reason (among many) that I am not fluent is that the teachers speak slowly, clearly, and using simple language. Most Colombians and Argentines I encounter outside of school do none of these things. The basic task of deciphering the words they are speaking is difficult, and that is before I try to comprehend the meaning.

I still have a hard time speaking fluidly because I stop to consider which verb tense to use (Spanish has many more than English) and then I have to conjugate the verb. For the rest of the sentence, I have to remember so many things: which nouns are feminine and which are masculine (thank goodness nouns in English do not have genders) and adjust the adjectives to agree, which word to use to express “for” (por or para), and which verb to use to express “to be” (ser or estar). Thank goodness my teachers are very patient.

For my Spanish to reach the next level, I would need to immerse myself completely. I could do this by getting a job and/or living in a place where no one speaks English. Another thought is to take classes at a Latin America university.

IMG_4373I also would need to severely limit the amount of time I spend living in English. When I am alone, I pass a lot of my time reading books or online articles and listening to books and podcasts, all in English. I have read a few books (very slowly) in Spanish, which has helped my vocabulary and grammar. But watching the local news and listening to local news radio a little bit each day has not done much to improve my skills.

I am not sure what the next steps are. I need to decide how much time and effort I want to put into maintaining what I have learned and improving upon it. I have lots of grand ideas about continuing to study once I am back in the US. Realistically, most of those ideas will never get off the ground, or if they do, they probably will crash back down quickly.

It has been a long time since I was a student for more than an afternoon workshop. I can look back and see the process and progress—things built on each other and connected. I have challenged myself and my brain in new ways. I have put effort into expressing my thoughts and ideas. And hopefully I have accrued some of the benefits that research shows multi-lingual people have.

Do I wish I had more mastery? Of course.  But regardless of what happens with my Spanish abilities in the future, I think the time has been well spent.

My experience by the numbers:

  • Different schools I attended: 3
  • Total weeks studying: 19
  • Total class hours: 374
  • Beginning level: A2
  • Ending level: C2
  • Verb tenses learned: 14

Far From Home For The Holidays

I have been missing home lately, a feeling that intensified as the Jewish High Holidays approached. For seven years, I lived far from any family and scrambled every year to find a “home” for the holidays. Since 2002, I have been fortunate to live near close family with whom to celebrate. When I planned this trip in early 2015, I worried about what I would do when the holidays arrived.

rosh-hashanaIt turns out any time I spent worrying was wasted. I knew one couple in Buenos Aires before arriving. She’s originally from here, but lived in the US for many years and ended up in Washington, DC, where she met him, who is American, at a potluck Shabbat dinner (that I also was at, and is how I met them both). This is the couple that took me out to eat on my first night in town, introducing me to the hours people in Bs As keep.

They invited me to join them on Sunday night as the holiday began. They belong to a Conservative synagogue; I grew up in the Reform movement. If I were to attend a Conservative service in the US, I probably would not know the tunes for the prayers and there probably would be more Hebrew than I am accustomed to. I was thinking about these differences being added to the fact that the normally English part of the service would be in Spanish, and expected to feel glad I was in synagogue but unsettled because it was unfamiliar.

Once again, the time I spent worrying was wasted. Most of the experience was just like being at home. The atmosphere felt familiar: people greeting each other, kids running around, and me mentally noting who was dressed inappropriately. Almost all of the tunes were familiar, and they used the special High Holiday version* frequently. I understood as much of the sermon here as I usually do at home. But unlike at home, I didn’t fall asleep once here.

The differences were Argentine. The 7.00 service started just before 7.30; most people didn’t even arrive until close to 7.15. The service was a little more than an hour, after which we had to walk home and feed the children. Therefore, we sat down for the adult’s dinner at about 10.15, and I got home at 1.15 am.

The food was homemade, traditional, and delicious, including a stuffed challah (which seems to be the trend this year based on Facebook posts), matzo ball soup, chicken, and apples dipped in honey for a sweet new year. Basically everything a Jewish girl far from home could ask for.

To all who celebrate: L’shanah tovah tikatevi v’taihatemi, May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.


*If you follow the link to listen, I’m referring to the tune under the heading “High Holiday melody.” In the service, there was a choir and organ in addition to the cantor, just like at home.

My Care Package

The best part about my care package is that my dad delivered it in person. The only thing that would have made it better is if my mom could have been part of the delivery team too. However, she had (successful) back surgery in the spring and is not cleared yet for 11+ hour flights.

August 2015 weather

August 2015 weather in Bs As

About dad’s trip

The best part of my dad’s trip? Having him here. I have “seen” my parents quite a bit while I have been in South America thanks to FaceTime. I saw them in person the weekend before I left the US. Living in different states, we often go months without an in-person visit so this separation is not a noticeable difference in my life. But spending time together is better than communicating electronically.

The worst part my dad’s trip? The weather. Seriously. Look at the graphic. He was here for the coldest days of August. And the image fails to show that it was gray and raining most of Monday-Friday. For his birthday, I bought him a winter hat (that he left with me and, that, thank goodness, I took with me on my very cold trip to the north and wore almost every day for two weeks).

Dad sporting his new hat

Dad sporting his new hat

I was nervous about being the hostess for my first visitor of this whole experience. (I spent a few days with two former co-workers who came to Colombia for a project, but they did not travel to visit me and had practically no free time that I needed to fill.)

I had lists of things we could do and places to eat, but was nervous about committing to much before my dad arrived because I wanted to make sure we did things he was interested in. At his request, I set up a full-day walking tour covering the key sites and history of Buenos Aires with the addition of a Jewish focus. Luckily, I happened to schedule it for the only sunny weekday.

I also bought tickets for the Philharmonic at the legendary Teatro Colón so we could hear a Beethoven program (but somehow the program that night was something I do not remember and Scheherazade, a piece we both love, especially since it is often used in figure skating).

On the other days we picked items off my list and visited a handful of museums, took a driving tour of different parts of the city, and, once the weather improved, traveled to nearby Tigre for the day. We ate good food. A lot of good food. My dad loved the long, leisurely dinners Buenos Aires-style: lasting 3-4 hours and keeping us out late (one night we got home at 1.00 am).

It was  fun to see the city through his eyes. To him, it is modern, rather European, cosmopolitan and sprawling.  Fortunately, the dog shit was not as prevalent as usual (probably was washed away by the rain). He asked a lot of questions about politics and how Argentina works (is there a program like Social Security? since it is mandatory, what happens if people do not vote?). My knowledge about most of these topics is limited. Our guides and my friends answered some questions; the rest remain unanswered.

He was very impressed with my Spanish. Of course, since he does not speak it, he did know if what I was saying made any sense or if my translations to English were accurate.

Here’s the full photo album from the trip, captions included.

About the care package

I won’t lie. I was almost as excited for my care package to arrive as I was to see my dad.

The most important category was, “Items I cannot find here.” The most important things in this category were curly hair products.  It seems like no one in Buenos Aires has hair like mine. It later was explained to me that anyone “unfortunate” enough to be born with curly hair straightens it. Also, I did not realize how much I enjoy a shower pouf until I could not buy one. The woman I am staying with has a special love for cinnamon Altoids, so the delivery included packs for her.

The second category was, “Items I could buy here but would not want to because the quality is not the same.” For example, I bought a bottle of a name-brand lotion. After a few weeks, it separated and no amount of shaking the bottle will mix the ingredients again, so I was using handfuls of watery liquid that left my skin just as dry as it was before I applied the lotion. Similarly, I bought some gum and it just wasn’t the same.

My care package!

My care package!

The final category was, “Items that are available here but I would not want to buy because they are outrageously expensive.” There was only one thing in this category: quinoa.

In a bit of an irony, my dad brought to Argentina quinoa that had been imported to the US from South America. And, he paid less for it than I would have paid for a package half that size. This means I have more quinoa and more pesos.

A side note: Having more pesos is important because money for foreigners works differently in Argentina than in most countries, especially for people with access to US dollars or Euros. There is an official exchange rate and then there is the “blue rate.” (Here is a detailed explanation or short explanation). I am living an entirely cash life, which I have never done before, and am thinking about my money differently because getting more is not just a trip to an ATM or swipe of a credit card.

Another side note: Mothers sometimes go overboard in showing how much care they about their children. You might notice the inordinate amount of Trident in the photo (do not overlook the 12-pack leaning against the wall) and think I chew gum 24/7. Not even close. I requested two packs of gum. Just two.

My So-Called Exciting Life

I wrote this post a few weeks ago but have been hesitant to publish it because I do not want to burst any bubbles, rain on any parades, or disappoint anyone with the harsh light of reality.

Despite the glamor of the idea of living overseas and exploring new worlds, my life has been pretty unremarkable most days of the past six months.

In both Bogotá and Buenos Aires, I developed a routine for my weeks around Spanish school. In Bogotá, my school offered activities three afternoons per week from museum visits or tejo, to a weekly dance and cooking class. (This is when we didn’t have to make up classes after school was closed on a Monday because Colombia has a gazillion national holidays—seriously, I think national productivity suffers because of this calendar.) More often than not, groups of us would go out to lunch before the activity.

Spanish tools-my phone and notebook are most important

Spanish tools-my phone and notebook are most important

My school in Buenos Aires offers short workshops after class on topics such as spotting counterfeit money and the culture of mate, and shows Argentine movies on Thursdays. Going out for lunch after class also is a given, although there are fewer students here so I have eaten alone a lot more often. The school is in Palermo, a trendy area with a ton of restaurants, so whenever I can, I take my preferred approach of trying somewhere new. I also have spent some afternoons doing touristy things like the graffiti and street art tours in Bogotá and Bs As (photos from both coming soon).

Pretty exciting, right?

Afternoons without activities, or post activities, are usually a combination of naps (hey, learning a language is tiring!), homework or self-study, reading, writing these blog posts, planning future travel, or cooking dinner. I have gone through some Netflix-watching phases, especially when I was sick, but I always use Spanish subtitles, so that sort of counts as studying.

Add in time on email and Facebook, and that’s a day. About once a week I am astonished at how quickly the time flies.

In Bogotá, I often ate dinner with the couple I lived with and liked to go to a salsa dance class on Wednesday nights. In Bs As, Wednesday nights are for the school-organized happy hours.

I also walk a lot. In Bogotá, it took me about 35-40 minutes to walk to and from class; in Bs As, it is 25-30 minutes. In the afternoons and on weekends, I also walk to and from as many places as I can because this is the only exercise I get. And since I usually have the time, why not walk? (Unless it is too cold or raining, which it often was in July in Bs As.)

With my dad’s recent visit and longer trips around Argentina, the last few weeks of my time in South America are going to be different, probably closer to the exciting life people imagine I am leading. But honestly, my daily life usually has been less than amazing. And that is fine with me.

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