Reflections of a Gringa

Cars fly down the road, jumping from one lane to the next, screeching honks almost more numerous than the vehicles themselves. The city hums with a palpable energy, embodied in the glamorous twenty-somethings that saunter down the streets; brought to life by hours-long dinner parties overflowing with red wine; and evident in the numerous street food vendors setting up their stands for the inevitable rush of late night diners looking to drunkenly gorge. I’m standing at the intersection of two very busy roads, the names of which I can’t pronounce. After repeated failed attempts at flagging down a cab, I get lost in my own musings.

It’s the first night of my study-abroad semester. Only four months and twenty-nine days left to go. At three o’clock in the morning, I’ve decided to call it a night, exhausted by the pounding bass of the night club and unaccustomed to the endless calls to chug, swig and guzzle. Hoards of well-dressed and equally well-boozed young people entering clubs at this hour, however, make it clear that this choice puts me in the minority.

I’m in Argentina to adapt, immerse, and acclimate — not to lose myself, but to redefine myself. Already, that’s appearing far more difficult than I had imagined.

“BEEEEEEP!”

Two cars nearly collide, missing one another by just a narrow margin. I snap out of my daze and back to the reality of my street corner, refocused on my quest to return safely to the house that I’ll be calling home for the next five months. First, I stick my hand out, flat-palmed and without movement. Next, I try the one-thumb approach, mirroring the tactic I’ve seen countless times in movies. Having failed yet again, I resign myself to a shameless, exuberant wave, perhaps more accurately described as a flail.

Semantics aside, whatever I do works. A taxi cuts across three lanes and stops right in front of me. I open the door, greeted by a smoky haze and the stench of stale cigarettes. The worn, wrinkled leather crunches and stretches as I sit down.

Gringa, you are not from here,” said the taxi driver as he let out a not-so-well-masked chuckle. “In Buenos Aires, you do not ask for a taxi. You demand it.”

Lesson One.

As we hurl down the road, allegedly headed towards my address (although I have absolutely no way of knowing), I look up and catch a quick glimpse of the driver’s inquisitive stare. He smiles. Fine lines crinkle at the corner of his eyes, divulging his age and hinting at the stories he might have to share.

I don’t want to be a gringa. A Texas transplant at Georgetown University, I’m tired of having to explain myself: why I use the word y’all, discussing the truth behind Friday Night Lights, and justifying the cowboy boots I don to parties. I didn’t go to boarding school, my parents didn’t meet at Georgetown, and, no, I don’t summer in the Hamptons or winter in the Catskills.

One week passes. My host mom, Silvia, treats me to classic Argentine dinners, beginning at ten pm and ending no earlier than one in the morning. I wander around the neighborhood, meandering through produce markets and traipsing aimlessly through winding streets. I don’t speak often. When I do, its in broken and very imperfect Spanish. There you go, gringa.

Our second weekend approaches quickly. Still uncomfortable with the colectivo (public bus) system, I opt to take a cab ride from Palermo, the core of the city’s beating nightlife scene, back to my house after a night out (again, I don’t make it past three). Remembering I’m supposed to demand a cab rather than ask for one, I’m able to hail a cab rather quickly. The driver, a chatty, giggly man, whose name I learn is Raul, asks for my address.

“521 Fraga.”

Raul glances back at me in pure puzzlement.

“521 Fraga,” I repeat, the confidence flooding out of me as I mispronounce my address.

Confusion. Amused at my unfamiliarity, Raul explains that he doesn’t really know where I live, but that we will find it regardless. In a world without GoogleMaps, coupled with my wavering Spanish skills, panic rises quickly in my throat.

“You have beautiful blue eyes, but they will enchant no one that is of German descent,” Raul informs me. I believe that this is his attempt at distracting me, but his thickly accented English only makes me uneasy.

Due to its European ancestry, Buenos Aires tends to think it resembles countries like France and Spain. While European history and culture certainly seep out of every part of the city, from the gnocchi-heavy dinner menus to the Spanish-style architecture, the true Buenos Aires is uniquely and indisputably South American. That said, many porteños do in fact resemble their European ancestors, a fact that Raul perhaps reasons might put me at ease.

After twenty more minutes of rambling Spanglish, we finally pull up at a redbrick house that I recognize.

“We have arrived, gringa,” Raul announces.

About six weeks and a handful of cab rides later, I find myself in the back of a yet another taxi, this time embroiled in a conversation about Argentine politics.

“Kirchner doesn’t really care about the people,” tonight’s driver says. “She pretends, but she doesn’t have any time for us.”

Argentines don’t believe in boundaries or political correctness. They proclaim their positions unabashedly, and will ask anything of anyone at anytime. This method, I find, habitually leads to fervent debate, chock-full of sweeping hand gestures, dramatic rises in volume, and the creation of a whole new octave in order to really emphasize your point. Especially, it seems, with cab drivers.

After many dinner parties with Silvia, I have learned how to turn conversation into an art form, generally more theatric than substantive. Tonight is no different. I emulate the cab driver’s passions and mimic his enthusiasm. I flail my hands and respond with the classically porteño que se yo (what do I know)?” when necessary.

So entangled in this political debate, it takes me a while to recognize that we’ve been driving aimlessly for quite some time. I’m getting ripped off. I realize that this driver knows I’m not from la capital, and he has decided to up his night’s earnings at my expense. I recall a warning from a cab driver just a few days earlier:

“You should be aware that many drivers will try to make you pay higher fees than you deserve,” a helpful driver had warned me not too long ago. “They will tell you they know a shortcut. Don’t be fooled.”

Lesson two.

Back in the cab, this evening’s culprit tries to transition conversation to mate, a traditional herbal tea in Argentina, and how it often tastes like marijuana. I interrupt.

Permiso, but I don’t believe that this is the right way,” I stutter.

When I get no answer other than a momentary pause, I try again: “I would like to go another way, por favor. I can give you directions.”

Although there are still holes in my Spanish, some more gaping than others, I can give fairly coherent testimony as to where we are versus where it is that we need to be. Knowing he’s been caught, the driver silences. No other words exchanged, we arrive less than ten minutes later.

About halfway into my stay, I find myself far more comfortable with Buenos Aires. I begin to see a change in the way taxi drivers treat me. Gregarious and convivial in nature, Argentines seek out interesting conversation, irrespective of your circumstances. Now that my Spanish sounds Argentine, complete with the accent and vocabulary that is unique to the country and dismissed by its neighbors, I can actually use these cab rides to get into the psyche of the middle-class, working citizen in the city. Rather than cobbling together conversation, focused primarily on logistics and introduction, the drivers speak freely, waiting for me to respond.

What’s more, I’m wholly committed to the pace of life in this country, endearingly known as “Argentina time.” Argentines don’t plan, nor do they set out tasks to complete by the end of the day; rather, they live by the word aprovechar, to partake in the very moment that exists now and to refuse to be ruffled by anything that might occur. Over many dinners, my host mom had encouraged me to embrace this outlook, opening myself up to any opportunity, experience or conversation that comes my way. It finally resonates.

In that vein, I hop into a taxi, and my being from Texas arises as a topic of conversation.

“Japanese women may be the best women in the world and Russians some of the worst,” a young driver fondly called Gordo explains. “But women from Texas are always friendly because of their weather. Just like you!”

Gordo looks back briefly, his eyes as bright as the sunrise into my drape-less bedroom at my homestay. The moment our eyes meet, I hear a “SCREEEECH”, and I lurch forwarded in my seat as he slams the brakes, deftly avoiding a street cat that sprints into the road. This episode may have startled me at a point earlier in my trip, but now we just laugh, and I resume giving him directions to my house.

About four months into my stay, I take a cab to a friend’s place across town. Cars and colectivos stack the roads, bringing traffic to a standstill. The summer humidity pours into the cab, combating any decent attempt of the weak AC to fight back.

As had become quite typical, I exchange pleasantries with the driver:

“Hola! Me llamo Carly. Como te llamas?”

Thirty minutes later, Tomàs and I are talking like old friends, touching on the current devaluation of the peso, the best boliches in Palermo Soho, and whether or not La Boca can beat River in this weekend’s match. After some friendly banter, he scolds himself for not having asked where I’m from: “Are you from la capital or a different part of Argentina?”

I pause. I can’t answer. I’ve done it.

Argentines do not fib for flattery. Their preference for unreserved and forthright discourse just doesn’t allow it. Sure, Tomàs made a mistake that I will ultimately correct, but its one that validates my journey towards the life of the effusive, unrestrained, constantly curious porteña.

When I leave Buenos Aires, I am grateful for many things — the doughy empanadas sold on my street corner, the smoky haze of boliches that house glamour-clad dancers, the vivid colors and sweet scents that mark spring’s arrival, and the full-bellied laughter of my host mom. These memories will travel home with me, stuffed into a suitcase and ultimately destined to mark this time of my life with nostalgia and wistful reminiscence.

But, the moments that will have the most profound effect, those that will endow this chapter with some kind of permanent weight, are these encounters with taxi drivers. These everyday interactions challenge me, teach me, and entertain me. They have revealed a new side of the city and completely changed my view of what it looks like to live in this world. They have instilled in me a newfound sense of spontaneity and imbued in me an untapped love of exploration. Because of these seemingly meaningless exchanges, I am no longer the gringa from Texas, the land of the cowboy; rather, I am a porteña, if not for forever, at least for now.

Lesson three.

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