In the cafés of Buenos Aires, I’ve discovered what the word “leisure” truly means. I walk in with my friends, we choose the table by the window and take our seats. We chatter for a few minutes until the waiter slips menus onto our table, and doesn’t return until we catch his eye, ready with our orders. I order a water – sin gas, noncarbonated – dos medialunas con jamón y queso, and café con leche. Our waiter takes no notes and returns shortly, distributing glasses with one hand and deftly twisting off bottle caps with the other. We continue to talk until plates are placed on the table; wherever we go, the food is delicious and different. Once we’ve finished eating, no one checks their watch or makes a move to stand up. The waiter doesn’t bustle over with the bill. Instead, we finish our conversations in full, with tangents and laughter that shakes the table but cements my certainty that we are somewhere very far from home. No one rushes to leave, and we maybe order another round of waters or coffee before someone finally grabs the waiter’s attention with “La cuenta, por favor.” We may have been there for thirty minutes or three hours, and no one blinks an eye. We’re charged as a group, much swapping of large bills and small bills goes on and we struggle with the mental math for a tip. We laugh at ourselves and we usually round up, leave the bills on the table, and hit the streets.
On the streets of Buenos Aires, I’ve discovered my mind is capable of chasing thoughts down seventeen avenues at once. I glance around constantly, keeping one eye on the man six paces behind my right shoulder and one eye on the street as I quickly cross, skipping out of the way of an oncoming taxi and noting that the café a block from my apartment looks like it has excellent ice cream. I’ve got one hand on my purse and the other on my backpack, but it’s windy today, and I have to keep letting go of one or the other to brush strands of hair out of my face. I have my earbuds in and Taylor Swift ringing in my ears, head held high, sunglasses on, moving with a purpose. Walk like a queen, they said. And it works. I was warned about the catcalls, but even though my music’s on low, I don’t hear them, and no one gives me more than a passing glance, even with my blonde hair and pale skin. I feel confident and competent; for about fifteen minutes, and then halfway to school, I’m sweaty and tired and I wish I had taken the bus.
On the buses of Buenos Aires, I’ve discovered that people are generous. There are seats reserved for the elderly, pregnant and handicapped, and my friend points out that in Spanish, the sign above the seats reads “We do give these up for them” instead of instructing “you must” – establishing the cultural norms rather than the rules of the system. And it works. An elderly lady shuffles onto the bus and I’m the youngest person around, so I stand up and she takes my seat while I hang onto a handrail. Two stops later, another woman leaves her seat and gets off. The man hanging onto the handrail next to me asks if I’d like to take it, so I do. Another day, I get on the wrong bus, twice. When I explain to the driver in Spanish that I don’t understand the difference between the two routes the same buses run, a little old lady riding in the front seat clutches my arm and explains to me what the system is and where I need to be. Embarrassed but grateful, I get off at the next stop to avoid paying the fare and wait for my bus to come. When one pulls up and I hesitate, the woman next to me catches my eye, so I ask, and she points out the sign I need to watch for. All that, and I’m still ten minutes early for class.
In my classes in Buenos Aires, I’ve discovered what truly brings me joy. In my grammar workshop, the professor corrects me before I’m five words into my first sentence, and in my oral proficiency workshop, my professor constantly uses vocabulary I don’t recognize and I frantically scribble definitions in the margins of my notebook. But in my writing workshop, the professor has me hooked with every word as we discuss everything from our goals for the class to paratextual elements. And in my Argentine history class, the professor begins with a history of the events of the colonial period in both Europe and the Americas, eventually drawing a comparison between the United States’ war for independence and those of the countries of South America, including Argentina. I take notes frenetically and give answers – quietly, but they’re the correct ones. He knows this story so well that he can draw maps and timelines on the board with no notes on hand – the kind of teacher I want to be. I realize after that class that the things I’m passionate about – writing, teaching, history – stay the same in either language.
In the language of Buenos Aires, I’ve discovered it’s okay to not be perfect. I hardly ever conjugate a verb correctly, and I’m constantly forgetting when to use “tampoco” instead of “también” when I remember to use either in a phrase at all. But when I get home from school and my host mom asks me, “Todo bien? Cómo fue hoy?” I chatter on about what we talked about in class and where I went and who I went with and what I ate because the more I say, the more comfortable I get in saying it. Every day, I ask her what a new word means, or I hear something on the street, or I look up something in my dictionary, and I try hard to remember what each one of them means. I don’t always succeed, but sometimes I do, and once I spend two hours in class listening to and answering in Spanish, it feels strange to “change the chip,” as my host mom says, and switch my brain back to English to answer a text from a friend. It’s less about learning fluency in Spanish for me and more about learning to live in two languages at any given moment.
In any given moment in Buenos Aires, I’ve discovered that I never get bored. I don’t think there will ever not be something new to see, something to read, someone to talk to or somewhere to go. And best of all, I don’t think I would want it any other way.