Tombs, Poo, and George

I came to a crucial epiphany today that sums up how I’m feeling: Buenos Aires is lovely until you have to talk to someone. Then it becomes either a horrific, panic-inducing event or, if you’re very lucky, simply humiliating. Recognizing that today was my first full day here, I’m assuming these interactions will become (at least slightly) less painful as the weeks pass. Here’s hoping.

I had my first day of class today. I left my apartment an hour early and—surprise, surprise—got lost, ultimately pounding on a glass door with a small sign with my school’s name on it. Turns out, it was the back door. I was only a few minutes late, though, and my teacher was very sweet about it. I have two teachers, Luciana and Sophia, who are absolutely adorable. They both seem like they’re in their early twenties and are energetic and really patient. [Note: When Luciana found out I was from the US, she talked for several minutes about how much she loves The Simpsons—how much all Argentines supposedly love The Simpsons. She even pretended to be Mr. Burns for a moment. If she weren’t so sweet I would probably be annoyed by the American representation, but she really is nice enough to make it okay.]

George, my only classmate (for this week, who knows for next week), is a cocky Bulgarian who drops the f-bomb every other word in, it seems, both English and Espanol. When we practiced talking about ourselves, George informed us that he has two girlfriends. When I said I was not married, he winked at me.

As some of you may know, Argentine Spanish is a little different than other dialects. For instance, in standard Spanish, “yo” (I) is said just like it looks. In Argentine Spanish, it’s said “sho,” as in, “fo sho.” (READ: This means that I was wrong about at least one of the 20 Spanish words I thought I could pronounce.) I knew the dialect here was a bit different going in, and was assured today that other Spanish-speaking folks can still completely understand you if you speak it. Dialect seems like a much more specific, far-off problem to me than not being able to ask for a sandwich, so that’s just fine. George, however, was all up in arms today for about three hours when he learned that the Argentine form of “you” is “vos,” whereas in the rest of the Spanish speaking world, it’s “tu.” “I want to speak to the world in Spanish,” he told our teacher, “not Argentines.” He’s taking Spanish lessons for exactly one week, so I wanted to tell him that, more than likely, he’s not going to be speaking comprehensibly to anyone, but instead, I just continued to use “vos” all day while he used “tu” in protest.

The walk to class was cool, as it took me through a few different neighborhoods and then the obelisk in the center of the city. Today, Monday, my neighborhood was also a lot livelier than yesterday. There were lots of people and kids walking around, and a ton of dogs who, it turns out, $hit all over the ground while their owners flick cigarette butts at passing cars. You really have to watch where you’re walking, because the sidewalks are often uneven and torn up, as well as, yes, covered in $hit. I stepped in poo today. Minimal poo, but still, poo.

Anyway, I found the description below in some online Jewish magazine about my neighborhood. Pretty interesting:

Last Thursday I made my way to Once (pronounced OWN-say), Buenos’ Aires version of New York’s Lower East Side, and former hub of Jewish life. It was here in the early part of the 1900s where Russian Jews fleeing pogroms and persecution, mingled with Jews from Morocco and Syria, similarly seeking a land free of poverty and tyranny. The barrio is officially named Balvanera, but is known commonly as Once, or eleven, from the neighborhood train station (formerly 11 de Septiembre, today Sarmiento), which recalls a historical political uprising.

Once can be lauded as neither a fashionable nor particularly charming section of Buenos Aires. Particularly by this tourist who loves quiet and green spaces, its gritty, dense feel recalls its humble origins, where multi-ethnic and diverse Jewish life once bubbled. Similar to the case of New York’s Lower East Side, the Jewish community here prospered and emigrated up and out to more attractive barrios. Back in the good old days, crowds gathered on Sundays to buy the Yiddish paper (there were several), nosh at one of several delicatessens that lined the street, or share heated debates over political issues of the day at coffee bars that, like the Yiddish press, are no longer extant. Where Jewish shopowners and residents once were the predominant inhabitants, today Koreans and Catholic Argentines have moved onto the scene. The flavor of modern day Once simply isn’t what it used to be.

Present day Once is celebrated as the city’s garment district, where fabrics of all kinds and colors might be acquired at bargain prices, and button stores, clothing wholesalers, and five and dime stores proliferate at every turn . . . I was . . . fascinated by the dazzling display of color in these little shops (several sporting mezuzot), full of bolts upon bolts of varying fabrics. Some of the fancier shops had attractive window displays, others gave off a bazaar/market feeling, with fabric bolts creeping out of their storefronts onto the street.

After class I took another long walk to, and then through, the Recoletta Cemetery, where Eva Peron is buried. It was one of the coolest places I’ve ever been. Eerie at first, almost the way I remember Pompei feeling, but then different as I kept walking through all of the little alleyways and stopping to look at the mausoleums. It sounds obvious to say that these shrines are purposeful where Pompei was stopped randomly in time, but that’s what I kept thinking about as I walked through. The statues were so intricate and the effort put into keeping up the individual crypts was amazing. I saw people sweeping in front of the tombs and, peeking inside some of them, I could see little black and white photos in frames on the tops of caskets and what was probably once expensive, flawless fabric, now rotting. Some of the plaques hanging outside were really detailed, even showing engraved images of the deceased in, say, his medico uniform. I posted some pictures (on Flickr, to the right of this blog post), but they really don’t do the place justice.

Lastly, I just want to note that I am aware that these blog posts are far too long and likely incredibly boring to anyone who is not, well, me. I won’t be offended in any way if you, readers, skip around or skip it all together. I’m looking at this more as a venue for me to a) write as much as possible while I’m gone, and b) make some notes about key things I don’t want to forget. I promise I won’t berate you if, in August, I say, “Did your read my posting about X?” and you say, “That shiz was too long, yo.”


11 Comment

  1. Hey Jess. I don’t mean this in a stuck-up white way, but what culture shock you must be experiencing! Don’t worry, it’s totally natural. I’ve worked with hundreds of international students, one of them literally a gangster from the shittiest slum in Rio, and every single one of them took at LEAST a week to adjust. But they all did. So just remember that even though you’re far away and still finding new ways to communicate, you can find some solace knowing that it’s totally normal to spend a little time getting used to your new environment.

    On a different note, I thought the little snippet from the online Jewish magazine you read about Once was really fascinating. As I read it I failed to notice that you had specifically stated it was from the internet, so I had assumed you had found this in print. I thought, “how strange for a Jewish magazine in Argentine to be available (free of charge, I assumed, vis-a-vis The Onion, et al) and to be written for Jewish tourists specifically. When it makes a point of mentioning that the Jews have long left Once for better ghettos.” And then it started to sound a bit like some elaborate propaganda.. You know, a little bit of the ole flavor of Latin American right-wing fascism.

    Boy, this has taken a turn for the worst.

    My stream-of-consciousness in a sorry attempt and being humorous. Alas!

    I hope you’re having a fantastic time, and Laura and I miss you. We want to come to Argentina and visit! That way I can find hermano. Wait, ? Si.

  2. Love the blog! Thanks for sending the link! You will be conversing charmingly soon and those Latinos I am sure are already quite taken by you! (-: .. and … yes… give yourself some TIME to adjust!

  3. Jess, I love this! I love the way you write, although it makes me miss you more. I can’t believe how long it’s been since I’ve read something you’ve written. Anyway, it’s great and I will faithfully read it for sure. Love you and miss you!

  4. HAHA. “Who is, this, *hermano*?”

    Don’t ever worry about posting too long! These are so, so fun to read!! I’ll never get tired of them.

  5. how come you haven’t mentioned drinking argentinian beer yet? omg, i’d pay $ to have you wear a red dress with faux pearls to class for a week a la lisa simpson.

  6. re: BLOG… i want more. i want more. i want more.

    i was telling clay this morning how i am slightly jealous of you. i want to be you for a day. actually, i want to hang out with you, in buenos aires, for several days. he said i should tell you that i’m jealous. what i really am is proud of you. i think you are a brave woman. xoxo.

  7. Did you know that your comment directions say “Please be polite”? That made me laugh and laugh. Because who could be mean to Jessy?

    Is your name pronounced Hessy there? Tell me so I can start calling you that.

    I’m loving reading the blog. I can’t wait to hear about the really fun stuff–like the nightlife. Because you know I’m a big clubber.

    I agree with Josh; the first week is the toughest. So just think, if you have fun this week, every other week will be four times the fun.

    I love you and miss you!

  8. PS–I love the Kittens! picture, but I really, really love your sepia picture. That must be some camera. It’s a gorgeous shot.

    (I don’t wanna sign up for a Flickr account.)

  9. me "JJJJJJ"ama laura says: Reply

    your spanish class reminds me of david sedaris’ french class (stereotypes and all), only with a much nicer teacher!

    the city looks beautiful. my friend who lived in chile for a year and traveled all around south america told me that there are a lot of interesting cemeteries in the area. (she told me this because i love old cemeteries). did that one have above ground tombs?

    keep reading mafalda!

  10. The longer the better in my book when it is coming from you. And, I expect a report on you and George being an item by weeks end.

  11. Haha. Hessy. Hee.

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