Acclimating to Buenos Aires

Me and my new friend/co-worker, Miguel, transplanting swiss chard seedlings into larger pots

Three weeks ago, I arrived in Buenos Aires, Argentina to start my internship in the urban agriculture sector of the city’s environmental protection agency. I’m amazed by how familiar living in this city feels, despite every daily interaction ending in complete confusion. Hypothesis: is it the language barrier? College student incompetence? Por qué no los dos?

I’ve decided to maintain a running list of the times I’ve felt lost since arriving:

-learning to turn on the pilot light of a water heater

-taking 30 minutes (and 12 matches) to figure out how to light a gas stove while facetiming my landlord for help

-looking really dumb while trying to buy fruit in a verdulería — do you pick out the fruit yourself or wait for the employee to pick up the fruit?! Answer: you wait.

-how to make an “@” sign on a computer keyboard designed to type in Spanish

Having lived in the U.S. my whole life, I take so many daily actions for fact. Talking to a fruit attendant, metro station employee or ice cream parlor scooper is seeped in its own cultural shocks and the smallest customs have taken twice the time to decipher.

All day in the office, maté, a caffeinated South American tea, is passed around to each person in the traditional wooden cup with a metal straw. Did you know that you’re supposed to finish the cup before passing it to the next person, not just take a single sip? The cup’s owner then refills it with hot water and passes it to the next lucky recipient. Argentinian culture is incredibly communal, sometimes making me feel like a cold fish. Throw in the thick Argentinian accent and I’ve ended up with a lot of comedic hand gestures and laughter.

Yet conversations other agency employees during lunch feels completely commonplace: they love the same things I do, from geeking out over our favorite Netflix’s Chef’s Table episodes to discussing the medicinal properties of spices used in Indian cuisine. I’ve loved spending my afternoons transplanting seedlings in the greenhouse, and picking lettuce from the hydroponic educational garden for dinner. They react shockingly well to my constant questioning about the efficacy of environmental work in the private versus public sectors. Obsession over food and sustainability has no borders and for that I am grateful.

Written by Alexandra Nguyen-Phuc ’18, Earth Systems major, FSI Global Policy Intern at Experiencia Buenos Aires Internacional.