I’ve always been fascinated by the distinct quirks that define a culture. How better do you define culture, anyway, besides a combination of “quirks” that define a group or society? Perhaps that definition boils it down too much – culture is far deeper than a set of “quirks.” It’s a collective history, a timeline of achievements, a set of beliefs and ideals and conceptions of the world. In short, it’s difficult to define in words. I believe culture is something better understood when it is felt and experienced than when it is explained.
I’ve lived in the Boston area for all 20 of my years, so leaving Massachusetts for four months was – is – a huge venture for me. Until a month ago, the T was the only public transportation I knew, I comfortably used the word “wicked” in conversation without having it pointed out, and Dunkin Donuts iced coffee continuously flowed through my veins year-round. I was accustomed to terrible drivers and epidemic road rage, proud liberalism, sports fanaticism, extreme weather, a general lack of the letter “r” and fast-paced living. The same things that shocked others about the culture were so far ingrained in me. Up until this point, I had never been the outsider. Being the outsider presents a dichotomy of emotions: it’s isolating but exhilarating. As hard as I try to pronounce my double L’s as J’s or greet someone with a kiss on the cheek instead of the customary business-school-student handshake, I will never be a porteña.
I’ve compiled a list of culture shocks that most non-Argentinian visitors can expect when visiting Buenos Aires:
- I’ll start with the most obvious one – the language. As Americans, we’re accustomed to visiting foreign countries and reading menus written in English, getting directions from English-speakers, and generally getting by with little to no knowledge of the language. Argentinians don’t make it as easy on us! I would estimate that around half of the population can speak English to some degree. It’s extremely important to practice the language before going to Buenos Aires. It will only enrich your experience further and ease your integration into the culture. That being said, sometimes pointing and nodding are my most effective means of communication. Even once you do perfect the language (or get as close to perfect as you possibly can) there are still idiosyncrasies that distinguish Argentine Spanish from, say, Mexican Spanish or Spanish Spanish. For example: it’s not “tú” it’s “vos” and it’s not “calle” pronounced “ca-yay” it’s “calle” pronounced “ca-jay.” And it’s “ciao” not “adios.”
- The role of religion in society. As you probably know, the pope is an Argentine. Some of the most beautiful historical buildings in Argentina are churches. Every time my bus passes a church in the morning, nearly half of the people on the bus bless themselves in the sign of the cross. But if you ask an Argentine, they’ll say “yes, the pope is one of our own, yes there are many beautiful churches, yes we bless ourselves when we pass said churches but we aren’t really that religious.” I’m still not entirely sure what this means, but I’ve heard the sentiment repeated several times.
- The style. And by “the style” I am mostly referring to platform shoes. Women wear platform shoes for any occasion and understandably – they’re the perfect marriage of comfort and style. Who needs heels when you can walked a few inches taller without balancing your heels on toothpicks?
- The pace of life. I’m from the notoriously fast-paced, constantly stressed out east coast where 5 minutes early is on time and on time is late so this one was a biggie for me. Everyone takes their sweet time. It’s honestly nice but if I carry the habit of walking slowly back with me to the states, I run a serious risk of being pushed down on the dirty Boston sidewalk.
- The driving. I would like to buy the next person who claims that Massachusetts drivers are the worst in the world a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires. Traffic lights here merely offer suggestions, pedestrian signs and crosswalks are simply road decorations and I have witnessed many a bus driver open the doors to allow someone to exit the bus as it is still moving.
- The lateness of everything. My host mom makes us dinner around 7:30 and this is considered early by Argentina’s standards. Because most porteños don’t begin partying until 2 in the morning, dinner can be served as late is 11 o’clock or midnight. Bedtime on a typical weekend can sometimes stretch to sunrise.
- The food. Buenos Aires is a big metropolitan city, so you’ll be able to find whatever you want here from empanadas to pizza to Middle Eastern cuisine. Most sushi is rolled with cheese and your slice of pizza will likely come with olives whether you want it to or not. Water is an extra charge and will likely come with bubbles unless you ask for “agua sin gas” and you’ll often find yourself faced with a “cubierto” or cover charge when you get your bill. Pie and cookies are perfectly acceptable breakfast foods. Oh, and the most heartbreaking food culture shock of all: it’s very rare for Argentinians to finish the gratuitous bread given before a meal. It’s considered bad taste to eat all of the bread and it is a sign of high class not to eat it. It’s not uncommon to see an untouched bread basket on a table once patrons have left. (</3)
- The cost of things. Food is relatively cheap but clothes are crazy expensive. An average pair of jeans or shoes can sell for $2000 pesos (roughly 130 USD), easy. It’s easy to justify spending a couple hundred pesos for lunch every day, but those costs add up quickly so it’s important to be cautious with spending.
- Telos, in general. Just look it up. Argentinians live with their parents well into their late 20s and early 30s so they gotta do what they gotta do somewhere.
- Pet culture. People in Buenos Aires love their dogs. You will often pass dog walkers walking 5-15 dogs on the street. Most dogs walk unleashed, even through the most heavily-trafficked parts of the city.
- Protests. When Argentinians seek change, they make their presence and objectives known through expressive demonstration. These demonstrations are often loud and well-organized and can hold up traffic in the city for hours. During my first week, I watched from the window of my school as elementary school teachers gathered to demand a raise. At first these protests are shocking, but it soon becomes evident that they are simply a part of life in the city.
- The layout of the city. Argentinians value their green spaces and clean streets – a few elements U.S. cities notoriously lack. Parks can be found throughout the sprawling city and are adorned with rose gardens, extensive bike paths, beautiful lakes and countless sculptures and statues (literally countless… please someone explain to me why there are so many statues in this city). Parks provide the perfect means to escape the bustle of city life if such an escape is wanted.
Those are just a few of the many differences I’ve observed during my month in Buenos Aires. Going in with little expectations and understanding of the culture set me up for lots of surprises. Though it is fun to dive headfirst into an experience, preparation is key to long stays away from home and can help smooth the adjustment period.
Please note that none of the pictures used in this, or any post are my property and were found on Google Images.