Isabel Whitelaw is on exchange at Belgrano Day School in Buenos Aires
I arrived in Buenos Aires on June 3rd. The second I stepped off the plane, I was immediately greeted by a rush of Spanish words constructed with the strangest accent I had ever heard! I wasn’t expecting the immense difference between the Spanish I was taught in school and the Castellano spoken in Argentina. When I first got here, I couldn’t even pronounce the language correctly. Castellano is pronounced “Casteshano”. When introducing myself to class mates at school, I made the mistake of saying “me llamo” and pronouncing the “ll” as a “y”. Here, “me llamo” is pronounced “me shamo.” “Ella” becomes “esha”, “pollo” becomes “posho”. It was crazy to me at first, but I got the hang of it after the first couple of weeks. The accent and the speed at which people speak in Argentina were intimidating at first, but, thankfully, my host family is fluent in English. Moreover, everyone at the Belgrano Day School is incredibly forgiving when it comes to my shaky Spanish.
The traffic in this city is by far the worst I’ve ever seen. There is no respect for pedestrians here! In my first week in Argentina, I almost walked into direct traffic at least five times on my way to school. I had to be pulled out of the way by my exchange partner and her little brother each time. I remember one day when I was sitting outside of a bakery about a block from school drinking tea and eating empanadas during the Argentinian rush hour. I glanced over to the road and noticed many of the people in cars around me had turned off their engines and pulled out newspapers and cups of coffee. I stared for a while and eventually looked up at my exchange partner. “Is that normal?” I asked, nodding towards the street. She looked over at the peculiar scene taking place and replied nonchalantly, “yeah, of course.” I was dumbfounded. I thought sitting in the same spot for more than five minutes was about as bad as traffic got, but visiting Argentina made me appreciate the relatively mild traffic of San Francisco. I eventually got over my Californian habits of walking aimlessly across the street. I am now incredibly wary when anywhere near a crosswalk.
Belgrano Day School itself has an environment I had never experienced before. Its school size is similar to Athenian, with around 70 people per grade. I learned in my first week about the education system here in Argentina. The grades are split into three orientations based on the students’ individual interest: Science, Linguistics or Humanities. The idea is that students begin honing in on what they want to specialize in for the future starting in high school, rather than in college. For example, a science student will never take a music class and a humanities student will never take a science class. I’m not sure I liked this set up, because I think I agree with the Athenian method of having a well-rounded student. (I can’t say, however, that I wouldn’t have liked to skip physics.) My exchange partner and I were both in the humanities department, so most of the classes I attended were humanities oriented. I soon learned that if I asked, I would be allowed to skip any classes I wasn’t interested in, and attend a class from a different orientation instead. Because Belgrano Day School is bilingual, some of my humanities classes were taught in Spanish, making it incredibly frustrating and hard for me to follow along. There was many a time I attended biology or chemistry in favor of those classes. I would recommend attending these Spanish-taught classes for at least the first couple of weeks. It was a very interesting experience to attend a completely Spanish-taught class, even though my participation level was limited.
The culture here in Buenos Aires may seem similar to the culture in the United States, but I discovered quickly that this country has a culture uniquely its own (as do all other places). The first thing I noticed was how loud and rowdy everyone in my class was. It took me a while to adjust, as I used to the mellow and relaxed social environment of Athenian. Once I got used to it, I started enjoying the banter between my peers during break times. Many of the loudest people in my class turned timid when faced with the task of speaking to me in English. I learned a lot about myself and how to effectively deal with a language barrier through these interactions and I believe this has affected my patience and cultural awareness effectively. As I near the end of my trip, I am noticing how much patience and courage it must have taken my class mates. I am humbled and thankful for those who gave it their best effort to communicate with me despite my shaky Spanish and their shaky English. They tried to communicate with me despite the language barrier.
The times Argentinian people go out to eat and meet up with each other was the most obvious difference between California and Argentina. Here in Argentina, I have eaten dinner every day at 9:30/10:00 PM. In California, I have dinner at around 6:30/7:00 PM, so getting used to this difference was challenging. Especially considering we have a whole other meal here, “merienda” at 5 or 6. Merienda is generally a pastry, such as a croissant or Dulce de Leche, and tea or coffee. At the same time we have merienda, my family in the United States would be having dinner.
Coming to Buenos Aires has been one of the best experiences of my life. I learned so much about myself, and challenged myself in ways I never thought I would. Although the language barrier made it hard to get through to people and communicate fluidly, the kindness of my classmates and host family really helped me assimilate to this culture. I will always be grateful for that. I highly recommend going on exchange if you are a person who is not afraid to be totally reliant on the kindness of people around you to support you on your journey. I had complete faith in my peers and host family. They opened my eyes to how powerful and effective human kindness can be and really made me feel welcome. I hope to come back and visit someday, to see how my perspective has changed with my age. I love Buenos Aires!