Getting Oriented

This week was International Student Orientation Week at UCA, and as I made my way to campus on Monday morning I couldn’t have been more excited. I felt like a kindergartener on my way to my first day of school. I was happy and nervous about the opportunity to meet so many new people. I was encouraged, however, by the knowledge that everyone would be new. They were all here from other places, like me, and looking for new friends, too. When I arrived, I made my way to the auditorium where orientation would be held. There they provided us with some pastries and juice, and left us for a good hour to engage in some slightly awkward small talk before the actual agenda for the day began. I happened to join in on a conversation between three girls who had all come together, but they were very nice despite my being a bit out-of-place in their conversation. As nice as it was to get a chance to meet everybody, I was happy when we were all instructed to sit down and the information session began. We were introduced to all the staff of UCA International, and I must say I’m very happy with them. They covered all the questions I had and were all very welcoming. I know if and when I have more questions I won’t be hesitant to go to their office. The orientation did run a bit long and I think it could have been done in less than four days, but who am I to say the parts that seemed superfluous to me weren’t extremely helpful to someone else? It was also great to have a couple days to keep meeting new people. On the second day I met a girl from Montreal, Edith, and it was lots of fun to talk to her. I know we’re not supposed to let ourselves gravitate towards people who come from the same place, but that’s difficult since we have a lot in common.

One of the things we connected through over orientation week was the question “Where are you from?”. This proved to be a complicated question for both of us. For Edith, it had to do with her being from Quebec. Many people, she told me, don’t know where Quebec is (this surprises me, but obviously there are many regions of other countries I don’t know the names of) so she finds herself having to say she’s from Canada. She told me that this bothers her because she, herself, does not really identify as being Canadian and feels strange labelling herself that way. I’m sure this is a common problem for Quebecers traveling.

My problem is both similar and different from hers. I am American, yes, but I was neither born or currently live there. Montreal is the place that I have come to call home. In Montreal I have my apartment, my grocery store, my job, my favourite cafe, my friends, my school… it’s where my life is. Telling people that I’m from the states feels like an inaccurate impression. At the same time, I would never tell someone I’m from Montreal. That’s simply not true. I grew up in the states. Then if you want to add in the factor of me having been born in the Canaries… it all gets quite complicated. I’ve come to realize how little national identity means to me. So much weight gets put on that question – Where are you from? – but what does it even mean? Of course, it’s a natural question to ask people when you’re on exchange, but the answer means absolutely nothing.

The highlight of orientation, at least for nerds like me, was choosing classes. I have to admit being more than a little bit disappointed that UCA doesn’t have an anthropology department. I had really been looking forward to taking anthropology classes outside the North American context. Plus, a friend of mine told me Argentina is renowned for its forensic anthropology and I was excited to spend a semester outside the purely cultural. I got over this disappointment pretty quickly once I started flipping through the course catalog, though. There were so many interesting classes! I decided to focus on really learning about the place I’m in. The university has a whole department (PEL) geared towards helping exchange students understand South America more deeply. From that department I’ll be taking Contemporary Argentinian Art and Social Movement in Argentina. I’m particularly excited for CAA because I spoke with the professor and he said that we’ll spend most classes going to museums around the city and talking about the artwork “live”. What a great opportunity to see Buenos Aires’ museums (and get credit for it!). I didn’t really want to be in classrooms entirely filled with exchange students, though, so I decided to take some classes outside PEL and will be taking Argentinian History and Art History.

But as interesting as these classes are, there’s a reason I’ll be taking them for pass/fail credit. This semester is about the experience – making friends and having fun, which so far has not proven to be much of a challenge. There’s a student group called los PALS which plans events for exchange students to give us a better chance to get to know each other. On the Thursday night Jobs Bar outing, I met a really wonderful group of people (all French, for reasons beyond my understanding) and we’ve been exploring the city together since. On Saturday we went to PM Open Air, which for my Montreal friends is very similar to Piknik Electronik but with palm trees.

It’s a daytime thing, so we danced and drank and laughed in the sun and into the night. I’m starting to really grow a liking for Fernet, a classic Argentinian drink. It takes a while to get used to. The wikipedia article describes its smell as “like black liquorice flavoured Listerine”, so you can imagine that the first sip is rather shocking. I’ve gotten used to it, though, and have found that it’s really perfect later on in the evening. Yesterday, which was the best day I’ve had here so far, ended with Fernet.

Yesterday, my friend Mathilde and I headed to San Telmo, a neighbourhood we had yet to explore. It was Sunday, and at 5 pm we arrived just in time to catch the tail end of la Feria de San Telmo. This market, as opposed to the artisanal Feria de Recoleta, is a weekly antiques fair. We had so much fun weaving in and out of the different stands looking at beautiful old jewelry (Mathilde quickly realized how much I love the colour green) and nicknacks. Many of the stands were selling Mate gourds and I decided to get one!

My beautiful new Mate gourd!
Me in the Feria de San Telmo









You can’t go long in Buenos Aires without making Mate part of your daily routine. The vendor explained to me the different kind of “straws” and warned me against the kind that don’t come apart since they’re impossible to clean. He also recommended that I get a small one, because you can keep it comfortably in one hand as you go about your day. Also, according to him, the Mate tastes better in a smaller gourd. I really couldn’t be happier with my beautiful little gourd and can’t wait to go out and get some Mate! We’ll see if I can perfect the art of preparing a good one by the time I leave. After buying my gourd, Mathilde and I explored the wonders of the market for a while, but it was closing up so we expanded our wanderings to more of the neighbourhood. San Telmo is very different from where I’m living and has a very genuine sort of charm. We passed by a little wax museum, countless little ice cream shops, and what seemed like a community festival with dancing and food and lots of music. When we got hungry, we met up with our friends Paul and Marie and sat down for a really delicious dinner at Don Ernesto as the sun went down. Afterwards, the four of us went off to find a bar (not a difficult task in San Telmo) and on our way came across a percussion jam that just perfectly summed up the soul of the area. There’s nothing like a drum circle to get your heart beating. After some laughing and clapping and general debauchery, we sat down for some two-for-one beer specials and a wonderful conversation woven gracefully together by Spanish, French, and English, and capped off, of course, with a pitcher of Fernet.

Making friends and having people to explore with has been amazing, but I’ve still been doing a lot of site seeing on my own, which I love. Seeing things by myself gives me time to really think about and appreciate what I’m doing, what I’m seeing. Plus, there are some things which I just know not everyone will appreciate as much as me. For example, I don’t know of many people who would have been happy to stay with me for the three hours that I spent in El Ateneo. El Ateneo is truly one of the most beautiful bookstores I’ve ever seen. In fact, it has been voted the second most beautiful bookstore in the world.

The beautiful Ateneo
The beautiful Ateneo
When it opened in 1919, it was a theatre called El Gran Splendid which hosted many great tango performances. In the late twenties it was converted into a cinema, then was finally converted into a bookstore in 2000. It is really a spectacular site, but as I wandered, I felt they could have done more with the ambiance. With such amazing beauty, there’s certainly more they could do to make the place feel more magical. They were playing Peter Gabriel and Michael Jackson, and while I have nothing against these artists, I much prefer bookstores that have the “hushed” feeling of libraries. In my favourite bookstores the stories that line the shelves speak for themselves and the air is filled with the energy of the words. But I really don’t want to undermine how beautiful it is, and the cafe on what was once the stage is really a nice touch.
El Ateneo from the outside
El Ateneo from the outside

This past week, living here has really begun to feel natural. I know that I still have so much of it to explore; there’s no way I’ll be able to see everything in just one semester. But at least I feel like I’m beginning to understand it a bit. Once classes start I hope to make some Argentinian friends, and I can’t wait for all the surprises Buenos Aires has waiting for me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *