Sunday, April 26, 2009

I had a dream you were two towns from me

Last Sunday I woke up to my first full day in Caballito and just felt cold and lonely. Fall really arrived that day...the light was thin and pale and the breeze was cool enough for a scarf and jacket. Everything feels different when the light is different, and I felt like I was someplace else. Philadelphia, New York, could have been any city. I didn't feel like sitting in the house but I didn't feel like being out in the world alone either, so I packed up my reading and journal and figured out how to walk over to Parque Centenario to go to the Natural Science Museum.

Sometimes being surrounded by people can make you feel the most lonely, and I know that. It has really been confirmed here a million times over, since there are few places in Buenos Aires where there aren't tons of people. I'm not naturally a lonely person. I like alone time, which is so different from being lonely. I've obviously had some great experiences, but I also feel like I've peppered Buenos Aires with a lot of loneliness. In my old neighborhood I had places where I purposefully went when I felt lonely, and places where loneliness had suddenly struck, and places where just walking by them made me feel lonely.

And now, strangely enough, it made me feel even more lonely to have to move and create my new lonely places again. The fact that in Palermo I had been lonely in them so many times before almost made them less they were comfortable, worn-in, familiar. So I went to the Natural Science Museum, paid 3 pesos and wandered through dark, stuffy rooms filled with whale skeletons, bottom-feeder fish, and squids preserved in formaldahyde. I took videos of bubbles squirting out of fish tank pumps and looked at dinosaur bones. I watched kids run around and gasp in Spanish, and saw an aboriginal skeleton of some sort of pre-human that was short and thin but upright.

I started to miss things I don't usually miss, like the Zoo (since I saw stuffed birds that made my skin crawl) but it was just a big longing for familiarity, I guess. I exited and sat on the front steps eating chocolate con leche aireado (my chocolate intake here has been unprecedented...and obscene) and then wandered over to the park.

Going to parks alone on lonely days is not a good idea, in case you were ever considering it. I sat on the cold stones next to the pond and watched families and couples and friends. (I also watched an obscene park puppet show where a muscle-man puppet danced to "You Can Leave Your Hat On" and then whipped off his tiny Speedo to reveal a foot-long penis, but that's neither here nor there). I wondered why my friends hadn't called me, and missed my brother, mom and dad. I watched mate gourds be passed around and kids fight with their siblings and grandmas help grandchildren throw bread crumbs to geese.

Building a life in Buenos Aires has been the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. I have pretended that it hasn't, even though I've known it has all along. One way of dealing with this has been watching hours of online TV and sitting in my room alone. Today at dinner my new host mom Liliana called me out on it. At my old house in Palermo I had gotten used to coming home and heading to my room, to never seeing anybody and having my host sister ignore me. She asked me why I hole myself up in my room. I hadn't even given it much thought...I'd just gotten so used to being alone.

Today, I stop being lonely.

Friday, April 17, 2009

and we're slow to acknowledge the knots in our laces

Just as I'm moving out of my neighborhood, the lady who works at the place where I take my laundry finally knows me by name. I walked in there yesterday after dragging my mesh bag full of dirty underwear across 5 of the fanciest blocks in Buenos Aires and she says "Raquel, no?" It made me both happy and sad. However, the place where I am going will have laundry probably on the same block and not all the way across Libertador, the 12--lane highway/street. So there's some consolation.

We spent last weekend in Mar del Plata, which turns out to be kind of a gross Miami Beach-like city 6 hours south of Buenos Aires. Since it was Semana Santa and unseasonably nice weather, I read in the Mar del Plata newspaper that over 150,000 tourists descended on that place for the weekend, so no wonder it felt a little crowded. We stayed in kind of a shady hostel but thankfully were bunking with three cute, cool Colombian kids who are studying in Buenos Aires. We also got together with a guy that Amy's dad met traveling over twenty years ago in South America who happens to be from/live in Mar del Plata. He and his wife picked us up at our hostel and took us on a great tour of the town and then had us over to their wonderful house for a delicious lunch out in the garden. They were so kind and smart and worldy and not Buenos Aires, so that was really nice. It was definitely my favorite part of the weekend, and we saw so many things that we never would have been able to had they not gone out of their way to drive us and show us around.

On a rocky surfer beach in Mar del Plata I touched the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. Hard to believe that I've been in Philly for almost three years and never made it to the Jersey Shore. The Atlantic was cold (though nothing like the Pacific), but it was so hot out on Sunday that it felt really good to swim. Mar del Plata was definitely not my favorite place, and it wasn't the perfect weekend (messed-up bus tickets, came down with a cold, night busses, night busses, night busses, dirty hostels, physical discomfort in general) but in the end we saw a lot of things that I have never seen before and had a really great night out at this ridiculous club and a really nice night in at our hostel with a bunch of people we met/ran into.

I'm still trying to figure out how I am going to pass these classes I'm supposedly taking if I never have them. I got back into Buenos Aires at around 7:30am on Monday morning, alone, because Amy and I had to take separate busses because of my messed-up ticket. I went home and slept and relaxed and then went to class that night. Then I had my Sociología y Antropología del Arte section the next day as well as my weaving class. Then the teachers at UBA went on strike Wednesday and Thursday. This doesn't necessarily mean that there won't be class (I saw a lot of classes going on anyway) but one of my professors informed us that there would not be class on Wednesday night. Great. Saves me about 3 hours in bus transportation time. Then it was unsure whether we would have our 4-hour "teórico" lecture for Sociología y Antropología del Arte on Thursday, so I showed up just in case, as did many people. It seemed like we might have the teórico because since the last two Thursdays were national holidays, we have only had one class.

Apparently not having class isn't that big of a deal because after waiting around for about 45 minutes, a friend that I didn't even know was in the class and I decided we would go get haircuts. So, instead of digesting 4 hours of valuable information about the roots of the concept of art, we found a nearby semi-luxurious L'Oreal salon and got our hair washed and cut for less than $12. I told the woman to cut some of the bulk out of the back since I had basically turned into a wookie, and her version of that was taking the thinning shears and literally removing pounds of fluff from my head, but it seems to have worked because I woke up this morning pretty satisfied.

This week was kind of long and tiring, but a few good things happened. Learned how to weave a basic stitch in class, spent some nice afternoons reading in the park by my house, went to two museums I had been meaning to see, actually ran into non-American people at the facultad that I know and spoke to them, and ate a lot of empanadas (not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing). I'm nervous about moving and having to pack up the accumulation of 2 months kind of sucks, but I'm hoping that the lighter, more vibrant neighborhood will give me a new lease on (Buenos Aires) life.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009


"Trámite" was a word that I had never heard until I got to Argentina, but now I feel like it is a vital part of my life. "Trámite" essentially translates to "procedure," but I feel like so much more is caught up in it. Procedures in Argentina seem to be way more complicated and bureaucratic than in the States, and therefore the word holds much more power.

Today was the second and final phase for the residency trámite. Instead of having student visas, international students in Buenos Aires have to apply for Argentine residency in order to stay in the country for the correct amount of time and actually enroll in our universities. This means showing up at the immigration offices at the port (next to the Retiro shantytown i.e. one of the places that most scares me in this city) at 7:45am, waiting in a massive clump to get your number called for an hour and a half, being treated like an idiot by multiple officials, paying 200 pesos, and then being herded into a fluorescent-lit room without enough seats to wait up to 5 hours for your name to be called in a thick Spanish accent (again with most of the population of Perú and Bolivia). Thankfully I had the company of some friends, but REALLY. We finally finished at 3pm (after missing the most worthwhile 2 hours of my week - my Sociology and Anthropology of Art discussion) and emerged out into one of the stillest, smoggiest days since I got here. I then took two subways over to my weaving class at the Rojas Center, which I didn't completely feel like doing because I had not had a meal all day and had only slept 3 hours last night. But I went, and weaving was nice, except for carrying my extremely large loom on the rush hour bus home and then walking 6 blocks with it hanging off my body. For once I actually had an excuse to be stared at on the street, which was kind of nice.

After a somewhat crappy weekend (friends out of town, lost cell phone, plans that fell through, class schedule messed up) I am finally back to the good feeling that I had on Friday before all of that other stuff happened. Life has been so unpredictable here, and once I finally think I have my feet solidly under me all of a sudden something pulls out that stability. But I feel like I'm really on the verge of something big.

Yesterday I wandered around to about 20 different yarn stores to assemble all of the obscure supplies for my weaving class. Not gonna lie - people were not that helpful. Never mind the fact that they keep everything behind the counter and freak out if you so much as put a toe over the counter line in order to see an item or a color better. Thankfully I was more or less successful, with the help of a really nice guy in an artisan weaving store who pointed me in the right direction for everything I needed. Who would have thought that a wooden ruler would be so hard to find? Why don't they sell more yarn in balls instead of just all tied up together? Buenos Aires, you are full of mysteries.

After yarn searches around Palermo Viejo, I went and bought a new cell phone in the Microcentro (my least favorite part of Buenos Aires) as well as had a snack and then returned home to rest for an hour or so before beginning my long journey to the facultad at Puán (that is the name of the street, but it is also how many people refer to the facultad). Total transportation for the day: 6 buses and two long subway rides. But a really successful day. Now I finally have all of my classes figured out and they are not that scary...I love Puán because even at 9pm when I have my class it is loud and spirited and bustling with cool college students who make me feel at home in a place where I very rarely actually feel that way. I emerged at 11pm to take two long buses home, which I did successfully for the first time. My professor and and American friend who happens to be from Portland were even on the bus with me. I got off at the last stop on the first bus, so when it was near the end of the line only one other girl and I were on it. The bus driver pulls the bus over, leaves it idling, hops out, runs over to a kiosco, buys a candy bar, and hops back on. So funny. The girl and I just sat there quietly, and when he got back on he said "Oh hey, thanks for waiting."

Trámite is over finally, and as one of the cool young workers in the migraciones office said through sips of mate while he was taking my finger print, "es un fin de semana laaaaaaaargo!" (It's a longggggg weekend!). Amy and I are going to Mar del Plata, a lively beach resort about 5 or 6 hours to the south to celebrate the extra days off of class for Easter.


Tuesday, April 07, 2009

first impressions

Made this a while ago, but haven't gotten around to releasing it to the world until now:

first impressions - buenos aires from Rachel Lieberman on Vimeo.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Nothing worth having ever comes easy

A lot of life has finally occurred since last week when I had a false start to classes and the worst sore throat of my life. I shopped a few classes that I decided not to take, began my real ones, began my Argentine/Latin American/Pre-Columbian weaving class, and saw some independent films at the Buenos Aires Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente. Even though yesterday was a national holiday which means I don't have the 4-hour lecture for my Sociology and Anthropology of Art class for 3 weeks after only one class meeting (next week is Semana Santa i.e. Easter) this week was more like a real week will eventually (in theory) look like than most others have been.

On Monday I shopped an art history class and a geography class at one of the private universities, and hated them. The kids seemed okay and the professors were nice, but the classes just didn't seem that interesting and the classroom that they both happened to be in is really crowded, noisy, and ugly. I also would have had one at 11 and one at 6pm, which means about 5 hours to kill alone in a neighborhood I don't especially like. On Tuesday I had my first small discussion "práctico," at Universidad de Buenos Aires for Sociología y Antropología del Arte which is a little scary but nobody had done the reading yet (and I actually have read some of the book in English multiple times before) so I didn't feel all that behind. UBA is just so cool. It's busy and dirty and political and crowded and is just a great place to study. The professors are amazing and while the classes are difficult, they are really interesting (they remind me a lot of Bryn Mawr classes) and I only have to take two of them plus my stupid required Spanish class to get to my required number of credits. So there is some justice in the world.

By this time I realized that I needed to find another class at UBA, even though none of the other three I signed up for were going to work. So I found a literature class on Tango song lyrics and decided to drag myself all the way to the facultad at 9am (1.5 hours of traveling, roughly) to shop the class. I got there and...nobody was there. The facultad was like...dead. This was bad news considering it was really my last option and it would be nice to meet the professor and see the class before I took it. Thankfully a girl who is also in my program and has been here since July is in the class as well, and showed up. She said it was a good class, and that it was in fact supposed to be occurring at that place and time, so that was comforting. Apparently in Argentina you just don't have class the day before a national holiday. I don't know how everybody else got this memo minus us. Oh well. This is basically going to be my life at UBA, from what I can tell.

I used my 4 free non-class hours to track down the syllabi for both of my classes (a real victory!) and get the reading for my Sociología y Antropología del Arte. I found the random photocopy shop where our professor had supposedly left the materials, and because it was morning before a holiday, there was no line. When you go into these places, you cannot see how they would work. The copy place is probably about as big as my bedroom at home (or maybe smaller), and basically has papers stacked from floor to ceiling. There were about 4 people and 4 copy machines crammed into this tiny space. I went in and told him my class, and he rifled through some papers and asked me if they were what I wanted. Amazingly, they were. So, for less than 7 American dollars I had the entire text of John Berger's "Ways of Seeing" ("Modos de Ver") and "La Experiencia Estética" by Jacques Maquet. Now I have to read them, but never mind. School in Argentina is confusing. I basically don't have class for the next few weeks, which is nice but also disconcerting. The way I see it, if all of these Argentine kids somehow do it, I can probably do it too. I just need to pay extremely close attention and stay on top of all of my stuff.

My extremely long and tiring commutes and fights for monedas this week led me to a difficult conclusion: I need to switch host families. Somehow my entire life here happens to occur in a cute, cool little neighborhood called Caballito, where my closes friends live and my UBA classes on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday take place. It is near impossible to get to Caballito from where I live without walking 10 blocks and then taking a 40-minute bus ride. This sucks. If I lived close to my friends, we could get together for short periods on week nights, I could basically walk to school, I could take the subway (it doesn't run near my house here), and I could save lots of money on cabs. Monedas would also be much less of an issue, because I would need them less and Caballito is a much more moneda-friendly neighborhood. In general, a lot more things would be at my finger tips.

I am comfortable in my little space here in Palermo, and I do like my host family, but I get lonely here. It is isolated and expensive and far from most transportation. Caballito is more working-class and younger and busier. It's hard. It was a really difficult decision, and I put off telling my host mom for days. I interviewed a new "family" (i.e. a single woman and her two cats) and I really loved where she lived and it seemed like she and I would really get along. So while I'm excited to move, you also don't know how to appreciate what you have until you're losing it. I know it's the right decision, but it's strange to think that "home" will be somewhere completely different and I will take different buses and see different things everyday. I will miss my comfortable little office and bedroom and I will miss my host mom Silvia and her grandkids. The director of the program basically said that this is the fanciest, nicest house out of all of the host families, which is probably true. I like the house, but don't see much more of it than my few rooms, so that's not as much of an issue to me. However, sometimes drinking white wine in the beautiful living room is really nice. When I finally broke down and told Silvia she was so nice about it and said that there was absolutely no reason to be sad, I could come visit whenever I wanted, which almost made me sadder. We are such different people, but I have gotten so used to our quick little dinners together.

I can't move for two weeks anyway, which is something of a relief. Since there are no hard feelings between us about the whole thing, I guess I can just enjoy my remaining time living in Palermo Chico until I move to Caballito for the next three months, closer to school and friends and transportation.

I am waiting for Buenos Aires to be less of a character-building experience and more of a fun experience. But I guess nothing worth having ever comes easy.