The buses whistle as they pass by each other. I’ve asked students for an explanation and most look at me quizzically before assuring me it must be the horn or the brakes. I hear these whistles everyday on the avenue below our institute’s windows. How do they not know what I am talking about? I persist with my description of the whistle that sounds much more like a two-toned catcall than a horn or wheezing brakes. I’ve gathered that the drivers whistle to playfully say hello and diversify an otherwise monotonous job.
What are the metaphorical bus whistles in my own culture that I have heard for years but have no idea WHY they happen? It is easy to be ignorant of the culture you call yours. After a proper googling, Bruno found out that the rapscallion bus drivers changed the standard horn for this more suggestive hoot.
I am able to tell you—more than anything— what my culture is not. In another country, it is as though I am completing a color-by-numbers until the silhouette of my own culture is revealed. Asking my students"why?" is my greatest joy in teaching English as a Foreign Language.
I ask them how they know when to graduate from “te quiero” to “te amo” in their romantic relationships when both mean “I love you.” I ask them why at 2am it’s common for old people to go out to a café and young children to be nowhere near their bedtime. I ask them why I hardly ever see someone eating and walking. I ask them why high schools don’t have sports teams. I ask them why a plastic bottle on top of a car means it's for sale and why the buses whistle.
I do not ask because I find these realities difficult to understand, abnormal, or incorrect, I ask because I know that if I was living in the United States I would hope a foreign visitor would accompany me in examining the unexamined.
My favorite thing about language and teaching it is we are always slipping behind the curtain and talking about culture— a place Google Translate will never reach. In this liminal space, we move from family vocabulary to why in Argentina your boyfriend’s mother is simply your suegra but in English you would never call her your “mother-in-law” until marriage. We move from debating if Halloween is just another holiday “copied” from the United States, to wondering if perhaps all culture is “copied.”
Relentless is the question, “You are from the United States, why are you here?”
My quick and crowd-pleasing answer is “Because in the United States there’s no time for mate!” They laugh but push back and give evidence for the fast pace life they experience here in the capital.
Recently, my answer has become more complicated--as it must. If my anthropology amiga Ansley is reading this she must have a word doc accruing multiple theorists who find fault with my laziness in using the word “culture” as if it were something cohesive, defined, and unchanging. I remind my students and myself that the United States culture that I refer to is by and large what we can call affluent white culture. There are thousands of folks, US citizens, who live a culture much more similar to my students’ culture than to what I recognize as my culture. My boyfriend included.
To honor this complexity, I try to open a window of my life for my students so they can peer into and assess the conversations I have with myself and with Bruno. Now with the economic troubles here in Argentina, the 3.8% US unemployment rate is more than attractive. Bruno would add that drivers who somewhat respect traffic laws and a greater trust in the justice system sweeten the deal.
But what the currency conversion doesn’t equate is the feeling of stress in the US that Bruno spoke out loud last night. I tried to put words to it, “that feeling of keeping your head above water.” And he searched longer to identify it as not simply climbing a ladder but climbing the ladder because if you don’t climb, the ladder will just keep getting longer. It’s the student loans, mortgages, and whisper-yells of “not enough!” It is a privilege to go up on that ladder, but it comes at a cost.
Here, I find pleasure in walking to the grocery store, making meals from scratch, and the overstaying of visitors. Perhaps this contentedness wells up in me simply because the rhythm is different from what I know. I don't hear many Argentines wax poetic about their routine, just like I didn't about my drive to and from work in the US. I hope if anything, they have garnered something from hearing my fondness for their mundanity.
Hopefully with these conversations my students catch a glimpse of what their country and communities offer that is considered a scarcity in the "land of opportunity." My hope is that I have helped students learn English, but more than that, I hope that I have offered them a foreign conversation partner who even with the ever-mercurial inflation rate finds great wealth in their country and their culture.
Over the years I have made a habit of listing things I notice. I have a tiny moleskin of moments of witness from my 5 years on Wake Forest’s campus. These lists strengthen my sense of understanding of place and accentuate my recognition of belonging. Inhabiting Buenos Aires, I have risen to a whole new level of “noticing” thanks to public transportation. There have been days when I think to myself “If only everyone took public transportation…humanity would be restored.” These lists help me convert the foreign to familiar.
I refreshed my podcast feed and the She Explores podcast this week is called “To Dad, From Daughter.” Reading those four words had me weepy. And typing these words now, I have that attention-demanding lump in my throat that whispers-yells “I feel! I feel a lot right now!”
To Dad, From Daughter.
An invitation to celebrate my dad through writing on this Father’s Day. I am often asked, “Sarah how did you get into the outdoors?” Before answering, my mind draws up the image of you in a green mechanic’s jumpsuit with your left hand on a gas pump, and your eyes lifted up above the car’s frame—into the hills of Yellowstone. I like to think that your adventures during your college summers pumping gas in Yellowstone were your first days of loving your future daughter, your future family. You spent such formative time in that park — living on your own, encountering people from across the country that were quite different from life on Wesley Drive in Charlotte NC, and running dozens of miles in between shifts to meet friends at other service stations. You spent time doing what you loved most -- a way of loving who you would eventually love most.
Dad, you take me back to those summers of living with one of the most pristine tracts of American landscape in your back pocket. What I know, too, is that you must also visit those memories alone. You remember climbing the Grand with Featherston, visiting Cindy's life in the wild west for the first time, and sneaking out to catch the sun rise on tucked away lakes.
As I acquired my own knack for the outdoors, I would feel sorrow and even guilt when I heard that you stopped climbing once you and mom started having kids. I worried I had robbed you of something you valued most. I think of the list of adventures I have had so far in my life — Alaska trail crew summers, a paddle through the Boundary Waters, an amble through the Himalayas, and now my second jaunt in the extreme south of Argentina. There were nights before I left for these adventures that I imagined myself handing my ticket over to you — honoring your Yellowstone wild and telling you to get out there!
With time I’ve garnered a wiser understanding of “wild” and “adventure.” Dad, in my 23 years of living as your precious daughter, you have accompanied me in my adventures in a way that assures me that we, your family, are the adventure you love most. You reserved campsites at Umstead on Friday nights, and mom met us the following mornings with Krispy Kreme. You stood beside a manmade lake on the Neuse and enlightened me to the fact that cutting off 3/4 an inch of a bass's tail isn't considered cheating in a big fish competition -- it is only being properly competitive. You took a picture of me in our living room the first time I ever hoisted up a self-packed backpack. You sent me letters written on the back of old Linville Gorge maps and addressed to a canvas tent in Denali National Park. You taught me the proper response for forgetting tent poles, paddles, and hiking the wrong way on the AT -- laughter and resourcefulness. You considered me a suitable trail runner for the last week of the 1,000 mile MST race; bussed me back to eastern NC gas stations when I suddenly needed tampons; and shared the honor of Diane’s last mile with me. You packed in a 15lb dutch oven on a weekend camping trip with my rowdy friends -- the wonders of backcountry deluxe were not lost on me. You gifted me a moleskin of your poems, meditations, and memories in that slanted scrawl (it always leans a bit forwards — I like to think of it as an expression of our wish to be a liiiittle bit closer to each other) of yours as I headed off for my own time at WFU. You sent PO box 8909 a letter each week and found me stationary that reads “The boat is moored, the spirit is traveling still.”
And that quote reminds me what I really want to thank you for today, Dad. Thank you for teaching me about the outdoors — for inviting me into wild places that first make me feel afraid and then make me feel brave. Thanks for teaching me that I belong in those spaces — that I am allowed to take up space in the outdoor community and lead others to do the same. I am a better woman for it. But even more so, Dad, I want to thank you for teaching me about the life inside — the wild inside myself. When I went to NYC for the first time and badmouthed “the big city,” you reminded me, “Sarah, there is more beauty behind every face you pass than there is in all of the acreage of Denali National Park.”
Thanks, Dad, for teaching me that everything is potentially sacred if we allow it to be. I cannot express how special it is to come to understand the truth that you hold us, your family, as the greatest, most sacred adventure.
Most days, the sky is blanketed with what appears to be one cohesive cloud. It’s on these days that I understand the answer I sometimes get when I ask, “what did you do over the weekend?”
“I just laid in bed.”
What I am realizing, is here, all the action happens in the sky. I find that when I take pictures I perpetually tilt my camera skywards — forgetting about the landscape. I have made up a cloud narrative in my head. I think they come from all over. The clouds in Nairobi, Dublin, Auckland, and Tokyo heard rumor of the flat lands in Tierra Del Fuego and bustle their way here. They come because it’s as if the grasslands are laid out in waiting for the cloud’s staining shadow to spread lazily across their surface. Molecule to molecule they gossip about The Tierra del Fuego, The Land of Fire—the place they are allowed to hang down low — peering at their condensing shape as a narcissist creeps ever closer to the full-length mirror.
I applaud their color shows. One time, on my way to work, I texted my friend Leo (he prefers to be called Shin, but it’s pronounced “Sheen”):
Sarah: [ Go Outside!!!!!! The world is on FIRE!!!!!! ]
I had walked down my apartment steps and encountered the world on fire. I tried to hide my awe. My eyes stretched wide as if I’d just seen a Khanki waiter turn a pile of rice into an erupting volcano.
But just like hot griddle tricks, if you’ve seen them countless times, your eyes begin to adjust to the magic. And so my friend Leo, who is known for his Eeyore-like ways, responded with:
Leo: [are you high?]
Some days, I walk through town and I’m certain we live within a snow globe. The light pours in as if from a sweet tea pitcher. Maybe it’s because there are no trees or because the terrain is devastatingly flat. The sun splashes down on the hastily constructed Rio Grande roofs and soaks them through with heaven shine. The nuisant* wisps of my hair which never make it back into my ponytail crowd my vision — desperate to match with the gleaming roofs. Maybe it’s the tilt of the earth. Maybe it’s the crisp air— it waltzes in chemical slo-mo with the UV rays before entering my light-less pupils. My mind files it with the light I see on movie screens.
The sky is multiplicitous. The vast scape is big enough, wide enough, full enough to include clashes of light and dark—terror and beauty. I am embracing the sky-ness in me. Allowing myself to be contrary, to change, to darken and lighten in rhythm with the world.
* warning! made up adjective
Argentinians are practiced at waiting. There is a “20 items or less” line at the grocery store closest to my apartment. And yet, no matter what time of day I go, I usually end up waiting upwards of 40 minutes to check out. At first, I experienced an ugly impatience—an incredulous “how can people live like this?” But over time, I have begun to experience time differently. I realize there is nowhere else I have to be besides in this line, holding my twenty items or less, standing behind the two knee-high children begging for two pieces of cashier line candy.
I started keeping a list of all the customs, norms, and habits here which “keep time” differently than the way I “tell time” in the US. Even those verbs interest me. We “keep,” “tell,” check,” “save,” “waste,” “spend,” and “pass” time.
In the United States, I see my day through the gray, semi-transparent lines of my Google calendar. Half hours and hours. My internal clock is not so much trained to daybreak and sunset but to the 60 minute mark. I sit with a friend at a coffee shop and conversation begins to lag..I check my watch…yep, we’ve been here for 52 minutes…time to go!
Here, A friend drops by my house and asks if I want some mates. He stays for 2 and a half hours and mind you we run out of gossip in the first 15. Initially, I squirmed through these visits. What do I do when conversation lags? How do I remain interesting for 2 hours? How will I get anything done? Now, in the middle of May, I have nearly adjusted my internal clock. The hour ticks are no longer how I keep time.
There is another way that Argentines practice waiting. On April 2, the town of Rio Grande memorializes the Malvinas War (or the Falklands)—a war in which they endured great loss. On April 1st, nearly the entire city goes out to the shoreline at 9pm and waits there (in the 40 degree rainy, windy, night). Waiting is an act of remembering—the mothers waiting for the boats to come back with their boys. Standing vigil is something Argentinian children enter the world and inherit.
I have been thinking about the tragedies of our shared history in the US. What are the unspoken, often cleaned-up parts of my history that I need to start standing vigil to? On March 24, Argentina dedicates the day to reflecting on the horrors of the last dictatorship. It was a day of saying, “this was us.” What if instead of spending Black History Month celebrating the past achievements, we begin to hold vigils on the anniversaries of lynchings and burned black churches?
One of my favorite times is the time called “sobremesa.” It’s the after-you’ve-eaten-before-you’ve-gotten-up-from-the-table time of dinner. It can extend for hours. Waiters do not collect your plates here until after you have left the restaurant. I was once with a group of friends and we were waiting for one more girl to join us. Someone got a text and announced, “she won’t be here for a while, she is still in sobremesa.” Sobremesa is a time that you can be in.
The time I experience here is changing the questions I ask. I am molting out of “What did I do today?” and growing into “Who was I with today?”
As much as I delight in studying as I speak, I have felt maimed in my inability to communicate fully in Spanish. I am unable to be creative in the way I thank people, and I end up settling with “Muchas gracias.” Full of curiosity for a new friend, I am unable to ask or even think of questions beyond, “where are you from, tell me about your family, and why do you want to be an English teacher?” It is a loss of identity — I love words and in temporarily losing my knack for them, I have become needy. I am dependent on the patience and understanding of others. I rely on the listeners that track my mouth’s movements and piece together my stilted words and animated body language. It is a place of weakness.
My parents introduced me to the writing and devotions of Richard Rohr a while back, and during my time here in Rio Grande, he and Cynthia Bourgeault have been teaching more on “The Law of Three” which identifies three forces. Here are some of the examples they give of the Law of Three in Action.
seed/moist earth/sun = sprout
flour/water/fire = bread
plaintiff/defendant/judge = resolution
And this is the quote that turned my frustrating line of communication into a worth-my-while triangle:
“The single most liberating insight to come out of my work with the Law of Three was the realization that what appears to be the resisting or opposing force is never actually the problem to be overcome. Second force, or ‘holy denying,’ is a legitimate and essential component in every new arising.” (CB)
My vision changed. I began to admire and accept my neediness as a required force for newness. My dependency on others pushes me to extend myself in ways I rarely do in the US. I walk into a cafe to use wi-fi and see the waiter as an opportunity for friendship. I find that the needier I am, the more likely I am to connect with others. My neediness bends me more towards compassion—much more than my self-reliance in the US. One of my favorite examples of encountering a “third way” here occurred as I walked to my classes one evening…
Rio Grande is one of the windiest cities in Argentina and the Fueginos (people of the province of Tierra del Fuego) both bemoan and boast in this fact. The evening was particularly windy and as I walked along the sidewalk, a student opened his passenger door and stepped out of the car. He cleared his throat and hocked a loogey without thinking. The wind carried his spittle promptly to the entirety of my person. In immediate recognition, the guy turned and blanketed me with profuse apology. I grinned and demanded friendship as the only proper repayment. His name is Mario and he is studying to be a primary school teacher. I am thankful that the wind was not resistance, but a harbinger of newness.
Other things of note:
-I win all the points here when I disclose the truth that my mom is a 3rd grade public school teacher. She is a hero. I work with a trio of women that remind me of her in their commitment to excellent teaching for all. I work at IPES Paulo Freire and students here take four years of classes in one of the 8 “profesorados” before becoming a teacher in that field…and its FREE. Imagine that. IPES is proud that many of their students are first generation students. And the teaching doesn’t come without its own perceived resistance. The institution just moved into new space and furniture arrived a week after classes started…I attached the picture of the director of IPES, Alicia, teaching the first class with everyone sitting on the floor — a powerful symbol of their commitment to teaching.
-April 2nd is the day in which Argentina commemorates the Malvinas War. Rio Grande (one of the closest cities to the islands) hosts the largest vigil. I got to attend and learn a great deal. One of the most striking things is how present it is in the memories of this community. The soldiers were their fathers, their grandfathers, and their sons.
-The first weekend in Rio Grande, I was invited to a friend’s house to make pizzas. This crew of friends really won me when one guy offered a game of UNO and the group responded as if he had offered a free trip to Hawaii.
Home is in North Carolina. But, I take seriously Wendell Berry's imperative, "Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary, some in the wrong direction."
I'm Interested in how in knowing a place, you begin to love it, and in loving a place, you come to protect it.