Monday, February 28, 2011

estás sola?

During the month long trip that I took to Argentina this year there was a line of questioning that I learned to expect the moment someone picked up from my accent and my (hopefully charmingly) maladroit Spanish that I was foreign: where was I from and was I here alone?

A woman alone in a foreign country provokes a variety of reactions: from mild surprise and curiosity to outright suspicion and/ or concern. I encountered this everywhere: from taxi drivers to waiters to the locker room attendant at the beach club in Mar del Plata. I learned while I was there to embrace my status as a sort of exotic oddity and to deal with these questions good-naturedly. And often as not, the question that followed ‘are you here alone’ was ‘why?’ I learned that the simplest way to answer this question was to simply say ‘for an adventure’. This was almost always met with a brief, thoughtful silence and then an approving  muy bien’. I took this to mean that people admired my doing such a thing by myself but perhaps they just felt uncomfortable and didn’t know what else to say (part of the freedom of communicating in a foreign language is that it gives you a lot of space to interpret things, and so you can interpret them however you like).

I was lucky during my travels in that I met really great people early on. Being alone too much was something I had worried about initially. But during the times I was alone, I found I was able to embrace it in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to when I was younger: I went to dinner alone, went for walks alone, went on excursions alone. There is something almost magical about being by yourself in a place where no one knows you, where you are freed from the self-consciousness that you might feel if you were worried about running into an co-worker or a former boyfriend without the buffer of someone else by your side.  And as any person whose been single for any amount of time knows, there’s something incredibly freeing about being alone because it allows you to be spontaneous in a way that you can’t be if you’re having to factor in someone else.

Most of us feel more comfortable with a good friend or romantic partner by our side when we’re traveling or doing something new or even when we’re doing something mundane like eating dinner or shopping or going to a party. And there are lots of things that are wonderful to do as a couple: weddings, family functions, Netflix watching, brunch. But for the purposes of adventure? Sorry, but there is just nothing like the thrill of going it alone and unencumbered.

So my question for you is: if there is something you’ve always wanted to do, whether it be learning a new dance, eating at a certain restaurant, or traveling to a far off land, what or who are you waiting for it? Doing it sola could be a lot more fun than you think.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

I would be happy if only __________

                                the view from the beach house where I am thinking deep thoughts

Beware this sentence.

We all have one. I if I could only find an agent/ get a book deal/ lose seven pounds/ get promoted/ get married then I would be happy. But the problem is, it’s a lie.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all about goals. Goals are great (and lists!). But the ‘if only’ is something far more insidious because it’s the thing you come to regard it as a panacea for everything else.

For me there is no ‘if only’ more powerful than the idea of getting a book deal. Two years ago, I tried to sell my first novel and was unsuccessful. I came maddeningly close but ultimately my ‘if only’ proved elusive. I was a mess the whole time: from the first query letter I sent out to my conversation some months later with my agent after the publishing house that had been dangling a carrot of interest for a while passed, when I knew it was over, that there was no one left to send it to.

I look at pictures of myself from this time and I don’t think I’ve ever looked worse. That kind of malaise tends to manifest itself physically, like it’s coming out your pores, like your hair knows your miserable. The problem wasn’t that I didn’t get published; the problem was that I was unhappy with the rest of my life and I thought that getting a book deal would make me SO happy that it would make me not care about any of the other stuff. And it probably would have, for a week or so.  

Fortunately I’ve made a lot of huge changes since then and I am a much happier person than I was the last time I went down this rocky road. Make no mistake, the query/ submission process is still awful and some days I feel the weight of it pulling me down. But when I find myself going into that familiar downward spiral now, I mope for a bit and then move focus to one of the other parts of my life that is currently awesome. I didn’t really have that option before because there weren’t any other parts of my life I felt good about: I was unhappy with my job, my love life, my social life (three of my best friends had just left New York) and myself.

So well I still have my moments, I’m coping better. When I get frustrated or even a little angry with the whole process- I have a glass a wine instead of the whole bottle and I don’t cry after EVERY rejection letter, more like after every fifth or sixth. This is progress no?

And I try to think about what I can do on a practical, daily basis to get myself to where I want to be; as opposed to just longing and fretting. This to me is the difference between owning your ‘if only’ and it owning you.

What’s your ‘if only’?

Monday, February 21, 2011

oh for the love

                                                                    actual self not pictured

Most of what I really needed to know about life, I learned on the tennis court. 

I  flirted with a couple of other sports as a kid: swimming (which I was both terrible at AND hated) basketball, etc but from about the age of ten on, nothing did it for me like tennis.

I played as a junior and all the way through college where almost all of my best friends were other players.  It was an experience I wouldn’t trade for the world and a six figure book deal but after college I moved to New York where playing tennis (like everything else) is expensive and a huge hassle; besides which I was burned out after four straight years of four hours a day.

But after a much needed break, I started to miss it. The smell of new tennis balls, the comradery, the competition, the adorable outfits. And now that I’m back in my hometown, there’s no reason tennis and I need to be apart!

And so, number 28: join a USTA league team.

Luckily for me tennis is one of the few sports that you can play seriously on into adulthood. The USTA bestowed me with a rather terrifying 5.0 rating which means I get mixed in with people who played division 1 and are 6 feet tall and like teach other people to play tennis for a living. But I am rising to the challenge readers- shin splints and all! I am super stoked about being back in the game and have that familiar OMG-I-want-to-do-nothing-but-play-tennis feeling.  

Since we love a list over here at 30 Things: here are five life lessons I learned on the tennis court.

Be a team player
Tennis was mostly an individual sport growing up but once I got to college it was all about the team. As you can imagine with a group of 18-22 year old women, there was A LOT of drama on the team but it was also the most rewarding social experiences of my life. Very rarely do you share a common purpose with other people the way I did with my teammates; we shared the good the bad and the ugly (and TRUST there was a lot of all three) of life as college athletes.  There’s no empathy like that you have for your teammates because whatever happens to them, good or bad, directly affects you as well. There is almost no area of life where knowing how to play well with others ISN’T helpful: from work life to romantic life to social life.  The day my team won the regional championships my senior year (which meant we were heading to Nationals for the first time in the program’s history) was one of the best days of my life—partly   because I got to share it with my teammates and best friends. Sharing really is caring y'all.

Always  play to win

Winning is awesome. It really is. Few things in life give you the pure shot of unadulterated joy that victory does. And losing, conversely, sucks. But you can’t fear losing so much that you tighten up and play like crap. Life is like this too: if you let your fears take your head out of the game, you’ll never be at your best. As long as your risks are calculated, you're better off concentrating on the possible good outcomes than the bad ones; letting fear rule is never the way to go. 

Practice, practice, practice

You know how you get a great serve? Spend hours upon hours serving. Hitting a jillion baskets of serves isn’t really that much fun but having a serve that's good enough to ace an opponent on match point is SUPER fun. There is extraordinarily not-fun legwork involved in becoming good at anything and developing the focus to stay motivated enough by what you want to get you through the drudgery is vital to success. The aspect of daily discipline involved in becoming good at a sport is especially helpful in learning how to be a writer (for further reading on this connection, do yourself a favor and read Murakami’s excellent What I Talk About when I Talk About Running).

If the match is still going, there is time for a comeback

I was never the most talented player but I was always one of the most tenacious. I never gave up on a match. Never. Even when I was playing crap tennis, even when one of my myriad overuse injuries was hurting, even when I really just wanted to get to the post-mach celebration/commiseration with my teammates already--I always wanted to win more than I wanted to walk away. This alone got me further than anything else about my game.  Desire for something is powerful and being willing to stick around until you get it—no matter what happens—can make you unstoppable. Marilyn Monroe once said of being a movie star that she wasn’t the prettiest girl or the most talented, she just wanted it more. Word, Marilyn, word.  

Losing happens, learn to deal

I hate losing. HATE it. But losing is valuable. When you get a big juicy overhead on an important point and you flub it right into the net, you’re going to be mad at yourself but if you keep dwelling on that flubbed overhead for the next five points, guess who’ll win those? Not you. When you lose a close match, if you let it destroy your confidence for the rest of the season, you might as well not even show up. One of the most important lessons in sports is how to use a loss to your advantage, to learn what you can from it and then move the hell on. Just as it’s a million times easier to be a gracious winner than a gracious loser, your real mettle shows when you’re faced with coming back from one of life’s big disappointments. 

 Who or what taught you what you know about life? 

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Saturday nightmare

No trip abroad would be complete without at least one horror story. I choose to share this now as to not frighten the folks back home while I was still abroad. Since it happened so early in my trip I also wanted to avoid dwelling on it too much at the time.

In general, I’ve had really good luck travelling abroad. There are those people who like to tell you whenever you mention taking a trip abroad that VERY BAD THINGS happen to people in foreign countries, don’t you know that?! This is usually followed up with a tale of their cousin who got mugged in Paris, their aunt who had her passport stolen from her hotel room in Italy or their really good friend Claire Danes who ended up in a Thai prison (oh wait…).  And though I usually have to stifle a little eye roll a at these warnings—after all VERY BAD THINGS can happen to you in your own country— it’s true that the idea of getting into trouble in a place where you don’t understand the laws/ language/ customs is a scary proposition. I have always aimed to tread the line between cautious and paranoid.  
My very first Saturday night in Buenos Aires, I went out in Palermo with my new friend Ninna. We had a lovely late dinner and went out dancing at a nearby nightclub. We were drinking—as young ladies out on the town are wont to do—but we were drinking like two responsible thrity-ish gals who know their limits, not like some crazed nineteen–year-olds who fear they might never be allowed to drink again. I mention this to put what happened next in its proper context.

After we’d been at the club for a few hours, Ninna left the dance floor for the ladies room. She told me where she was going and I nodded and kept on dancing. A little while later when she still hadn’t come back I set out to look for her. I looked in the bathroom, on the first floor and the second and there was no sign of her. I figured perhaps she’d decided to up and leave (not something Ninna would ever do, but I’d known her for about three days at this point so I had no way of knowing this) so I went outside to try to call her and then head for home myself.

When I walked out of the club I noticed a concerned looking couple standing over a girl who was in tears and slumped up against the outside wall. It took me a second to realize that it was Ninna. I went over to her and she was in near hysterics (I would find out later that she had partially lost consciousness in the bathroom and then been tossed out by the doormen, thanks guys!); she was barely coherent and couldn’t really explain what was wrong. I got her into a cab and we headed for my apartment. After getting out of the cab we only made it a few steps before she passed out cold in my arms. Fortunately, Palermo is a nice neighborhood and there was a security guard in shouting distance. He called the police and they in turn called an ambulance. Thus began a very long night of trying to explain in Spanish what I knew about what had happened. I almost lost it on one of the EMTs when it seemed he was laughing at us until he explained to me that he was only laughing about the fact that about nine policemen were on the scene when he showed up, which did seem a bit overkill for one passed out girl.

Things did not improve once we made it to the emergency room. I explained over and over again that I did not think that the problem was that Ninna had drank too much but that she’d been drugged, she was drifting in and out of conciuoness and complaining of not being able to see (a side effect of a common date rape drug, I’ve learned since). I’ve been with drunk friends before (really drunk friends), this is not what it looks like. Apparently two foreign girls are not considered credible sources in an emergency room on a Saturday night because they were not having it. They hooked her up to an IV and left us.
There wasn’t really anything to do but stay with Ninna and wait. She wasn’t really coherent for most of the night, which quite frankly I think I would have preferred given the choice.

Initially we were sharing a room with a woman whose ranting and ravings probably wouldn’t have made sense to me in my first language and who was bleeding profusely from the leg and flailing around in such a way that the tile wall beside the gurney she was on was covered in blood, horror movie style. At one point the doctors left the room and the woman, for reasons clear only to her and the methanphetamines , got out of her bed, grabbed some thick plastic thing and chucked it at my head. I had my back to her so I wasn’t able to anticipate the assault. I wasn’t badly hurt but I burst into tears anyway as the doctors rushed back in. Don’t worry, they told me, we’ve put her in handcuffs now. Great! After she’s already thrown something at me.

Things only got more surreal as the night went on. The situation went from bad to Monty Python when a doctor in a long coat came by with a clipboard and asked me what the trouble with my friend was. I explained it for the umpteenth time. ‘Well does she have any cuts?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘not that I know of.’ ‘Well,’ he scoffed, ‘there’s nothing I can do for her then. I’m a surgeon. This is not my patient.’ 
He might’ve been searching for our next roommate, a woman who was wheeled in shortly after gushing blood from her elbow and screaming for her mother. Once they got to work on her they finally booted me to the waiting room and I happily complied. Later they moved us both to a room with only ONE derelict in residence and a curtain between him and us that did not really prevent his flehgm from occasionally flying across the room.  

Sometime around 9am, a doctor finally came back around to check on Ninna who was still out of it but conscious. The doctor scolded us gently about drinking. I wearily explained once again to her what had happened and that it had not been alcohol. ‘But nothing showed up in her blood test,’ she told me. ‘Don’t a lot of the drugs used not show up in blood tests?’ I asked. ‘That’s true,’ she said, ‘the three most common ones don’t show anything in a blood test.’

We went back to my apartment together to sleep off the traumatic night and watch some bad television. I couldn’t help but think as we walked past my doorman—both of us still in our cocktail dresses and heels—that it probably seemed like we were on our way back from a whole different kind of wild night. In the end, no lasting harm was done and Ninna and I have a good story about how we got to be friends and the kind of bond that can only come from a night spent dodging the body fluids of strangers in a foreign emergency room.

So remember kids, keep an eye on your drink, keep an eye on your friends and most importantly, keep an eye on the lunatic lady spraying blood on the wall: she definitely can’t be trusted with blunt objects.
Any tales of trouble abroad to share? 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

the space between us

One night in Mar del Plata I took myself out to dinner at a cuban restaurant and got chatted up by a couple of youngsters at the bar while I was waiting for my table. They asked me how old I was (a question that seems to get flung around with quite a lot more abandon in those parts than it does here). I told them and they gasped; they played their surprise off as a compliment but really it seemed to me not so much surprise that I could be that age but that ANYONE could be that advanced of an age. They were both (God help me) twenty years old. Once they recovered themselves they assured me (or themselves, I don't know which) that this age difference was actually not all that large. Oh but it is, I told them, you'll see. 

In fact, being in South America again provided me with a particularly good window on this exact difference because the first time I'd been down here, I was that age. Traveling and living abroad during my impressionable college years forever changed the way I see the world and gave me some of the best memories of my life. I noticed the occasional young American student in Buenos Aires and each time it reminded me in a visceral way that I am not so young anymore. And also that I'm pretty pleased about that. 

It's pretty easy to look back on my college days with rose colored fondness when life as a grown lady starts feeling complicated. My only big responsibilities then were writing and tennis: this is pretty much the exact life I want now (if only I could get someone to pay me to do these things instead of the other way around). But then I remember the angst of my early twenties, the feeling that I had no idea what I was doing, that no one took me seriously. the emotional ups and downs that pummeled me on a near daily basis. Sometimes I miss that girl: the way she just said what was on her mind and in her heart without worrying about the consequences, but other times I just feel glad I'm not her any longer.  

Part of what inspired this list was the idea that my twenties were supposed to be about something: finding myself, independence, adventure, risk taking that my circumstances won't countenance later in life. Not to say that all of this goes out the window once I hit 30 (or 40, 50 or 60), simply that I don't ever want to look back and I say 'I wish I'd done X when I had the chance'. 

I've had some good times here in my third decade: I've had exciting jobs and travelled the word, loved, lost, learned and lived--still I have a feeling I won't miss my twenties when they're gone. 

Do you miss your younger days or is the best still yet to come? 

Monday, February 14, 2011

kitchen confidential

We interrupt our regularly scheduled navel-gazing today to bring you news of wildly unprecendented goings-on in our kitchen last night.



Readers, I have never seen my father cook. I have seen him do some manly flipping of grilled meats very occasionally on a warm summer day but full on prep and assembly of a meal? Salad, main course and desert? I documented it in case no one believes me.

The catalyst for this adventure in gastronomy was a couples-cooking class that he took my mother to last weekend. There in a room full of people, I think it occurred to my father for the first time that cooking could be a competative sport; suddenly it held a whole new appeal for him.

So last night he came home with roses for my mom and groceries for dinner. I sat at the bar with my camera at the ready drinking wine with my mom. We alternately exchanged giggles and looks of horror as my dad crashed around with the pots, stared fixedly at the thermometer in the pan of cream and reached in the direction of hot things without oven mitts. My father bravely faced this new terrain of stovetop, oven door and kitchen sink and he even did the washing-up!

                                          we don't need no stinking matching lids 

The result? A pretty tasty dinner and a throughly amused and very touched mum.

Much of what's on my list involves trying something new or returning to something I once loved; my dad's kitchen adventures are a good reminder that it's never too late for either.

Happy Valentines Day!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Julianna y Ninna

Sometimes people come along exactly when you need them to.  

The idea of taking this trip alone both worried and excited me as I was planning it. I like spending time on my own and need very much to have time to myself but the balance is delicate because I’m also very social and susceptible to loneliness. Someone who knows me well once told me that I am an introvert who masquerades as an extrovert and I think she had it right.

Ninna I met first in a tango class. I thought she was American from the look of her: blonde and blue-eyed with that cheerful openness in her expression that I have come to recognize as a trademark of my compatriots. She turned out to be from Denmark but her English is so good it took a few moments to notice she wasn’t a native speaker. Ninna wins the language contest hands-down with seven of them to her name. Seven! Perhaps it’s this black belt in language arts that allow her to use the word ‘lover’ and actually pull it off  (as of press time she is the only person I’ve ever met who could do so).  

Julianna is Brazilian and mistakenly took me from one of her countrywomen the first time she saw me; on the second day of my classes at the escuela she sat down next to me and started talking to me in Portuguese. She too has a remarkable facility with languages with three to her name and in fact I have so many bon mots from Julianna that they are getting their own post.

Though we live in three very different countries we have a lot in common. I suppose we were a bit of a self-selecting population being that we were all thirty-ish women who’d decided to come to a foreign country alone for a month or more. All of us are unmarried, well traveled, passionate about our work and excited but overwhelmed by all the decisions about our futures that we find ourselves contemplating. And we were all having SO much fun in Buenos Aires: it seems it was the cure for what ailed each of us in our disparate but similar lives   

We spent long dinners together drinking bottles of wine and telling intimate stories about our own lives: all the tales of loves, losses, tragedies and adventures that you would usually never share with people you hadn’t known long. We talked long into the night about languages, about travel, about friends and boyfriends and family. Caught up in the headiness of the trip we even planned next adventure (Carnival 2012- it’s not just a vacation promise people). We talked about our lists: of what to do in the next year, before we married, before we died.

As much as I loved meeting people who actually live in Argentina along the way, it was these two girls I felt I shared my trip with. They were right there with me for the good, bad and ugly of my foreign adventure.

Who have you bonded with while traveling?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

and then there were 25

And what of the list after my epic journey?

# 3 Spend a month abroad
Done! Hurray. That was easy. Okay not easy, easy. But honestly if you’re looking to get your head straight, to really step away from your life without abandoning it completely this is the perfect amount of time. And if you go to Argentina you won’t break the bank either.

#6 Learn Spanish
I thought hard about whether or not to check this one off. It’s a difficult question because what does it mean to ‘speak’ a language? To be eloquent and have a rich vocabulary? That’s an accomplishment in one’s first language. To be understood by those you’re speaking to and understand them as well? Okay then. I would never call myself fluent in Spanish, not even close. But I was able to get past that very rudimentary level of ‘where is this?’ and ‘my name is?’ to being able to chat and converse pretty comfortably. I wouldn’t say I speak Spanish without the caveat of a ‘mas o menos’ attached but I am the boss of this list so I say: done.

#7 Learn the Tango
Again, there are many levels of knowing a dance and you don’t become an expert at a dance in a few weeks time no matter what DWTS tells you. But I can do it, I have the basics and I intend to continue with classes here in Seattle. I also give myself extra points for bravery from making an ass of myself in a genuine, Argentine milonga with a genuine Argentine. Done.

#10 Reconnect with someone I never thought I would see again
Done and done. In addition to my darling friend Jim who was my travel guide and occasional lifesaver in Buenos Aires, I reconnected with my wonderful Uruguayan host family from my student days. I took the Buquebus over to see them the day before I left for Ushuaia and spent a day with them in Colonia, Uruguay where they still live. My host parents looked exactly the same, the kids however were about four times the size they’d been when I’d seen them last; they were 4 and 6 nine years ago so were now teenagers. The chubby cheeked little boy I’d known was now taller than me and wanted to talk about Jersey Shore (our finest cultural export) and his rock band. How had so much time gone by? Where had I been? Colonia looked the same as ever: beautiful and quaint. Nine years? Feels like a moment ago. Feels like a hundred years. I got misty-eyed when I left, remembering the long nights I’d stayed up chatting with my host mom in the kitchen after coming home from a night with my friends and the nights we all danced samba in the living room with the kids and drank Amaretto. What I ever did to deserve having these amazing people as a host family, I wish I knew.

So the list and the year are off to as a good a start as they could possibly be.

What’s on your list for this year? Have you checked anything off yet?

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


Time moves differently when you're travelling. I've been away a month; not enough time for things to have changed much back home. If I'd been here and my life had been going on as normally, they might seem insignificant: these past four weeks. But a month in another country is a long time, long enough to get the hang of the language a bit, long enough to make some friends, long enough to make a place familiar--even a little like home.

And so here I am, back in my natural habitat: my life is the same except that it's not because I'm not. So how do I feel right now? Exhausted. Calm. Happy. Jetlagged. My dad pointed out that he has some of his best ideas when he wakes up in the middle of the night from jetlag and he's right that it has a weird creative energy to it: something between a hangover and a meditative state.

I have many more stories yet to share about my trip and many things that will continue to percolate in my mind long after my jetlag has passed.

I have the satisfying feeling that I got what I came to Argentina for: some Spanish, some tango skills, amazing new friends, stories I will be telling for the rest of my life. And I got a much needed look back into myself and what really matters to me, a necessary reminder about what I really want and of all that is available to me if I can only find the courage.

The question remains can I hold onto the Zen, the perspective, the life lessons I learned while I was down south or if it will all fade by the time my tan does? Only Time (that cranky old headmistresses) will tell.

Monday, February 7, 2011

and then we came to the end

Since Friday ended up being my last full day in Mar del Plata, I decided I had better go out and do something fun or risk letting the weariness I'd been feeling morph into a full-on funk.

With some minimal instructions from my hotel on how to find the place, I headed in a cab outside the city to a huge park just off the beach to do some horseback riding. When I arrived in the park, there were stables and an arena and horses everywhere but no people. Not one. I wandered around for a while hoping I was not in fact experiencing the rapture at such an inconvenient moment. Finally I saw a woman and her daughter who directed me to someone at the sables who told me the only such place he knew of was all the way across the polo fields. I crossed the field on foot alternately cursing my hotel for not giving me more specific instructions and reveling in the fact that I was traipsing across a giant polo field in a foreign country alone  (well not completely alone, one of the ubiquitous stray dogs followed me out there and kept me company).

When I reached the other side of the field the gate was locked but fortunately there was an easily hoppable fence (if that doesn't take you back, nothing will). The white building in questions was surrounded by miniature horses and once again no people.

When at last I found the right place some ways down a long dirt road, it was just a bunch of horses tied to trees, a man called Juan who was about my age and a gaggle of kids who seemed to work there in some capacity.

'Hi," I said to Juan, the only grown up in the bunch, 'Can I ride horses here?' "Of course,' he said, 'do you know how to ride?' Interesting question, that. I know how to ride about as well as I speak Spanish right now which is to say, more or less, depending on the day. I realized as I steadied my feet in the stirrups that I hadn't actually been on a horse in nine years (which didn't go so well). Huh. Well.

There was one really tall beautiful horse who whinnied at me and rolled his eyes back as I approached. This turned out to be the horse that Juan rode, it was only the second time he'd been ridden he told me, he didn't even have a name yet. How sad, I said, and wished my Spanish was good enough to make a horse-with-no-name joke.  Juan rode with me and we made a couple of laps around the large park, it was a beautiful day sunny but not too hot. I told him about my grandmother who raised Arabians.

                                                                          trusty steed

My horse's name was Carlito (I mean how can you not have confidence in a horse who shares a name with an infamous fictional drug lord?) and though he had an uneven gait, he was a steady ride. I'd forgotten quite what it felt like to ride a horse across a wide open field and soon enough my nerves had abated and I remembered why I'd loved it so much growing up.

I'm still a little saddle sore three days later, which is unfortunate because I am about to get on a plane for a unmentionable number of hours. I feel sad and happy all at once: so ready to get home and yet not at all ready to leave. I'm beyond exhausted as my final weekend in Buenos Aires couldn't have been much more epic without causing some sort of international incident. I spent most of it with Julianna who I said goodbye to today; she's promised to come visit me in Seattle (and not a vacation promise either, she assures me).

Julianna will be heading back to Brazil on Wednesday, she told me she that she feels like she is leaving with a lighter spirt and a fuller heart. Does that make sense in English? She asked me. It does, I told her and I couldn't have said it better myself.

Friday, February 4, 2011

the best laid plans

Whenever I explained my full travel plans to Argentines during this trip: three weeks in BsAs for Spanish and Tango classes and then a short trip to Ushuaia followed by a few days in Mar del Plata, they would nod approvingly at all but the last choice about which they seemed a little confused. When I pressed them on this reaction they just explained that it was a little unusual for foreigners to go there, it was something like what I imagine my reaction would be if someone visiting from France told me they had a few days in Milwaukee scheduled (nothing against Milwaukee, mind you). It's not a bad place but it's overwhelming, a little like the Jersey Shore of Argentina.

I found myself immediately missing the calm of Ushuaia. Truthfully I wish I'd gone elsewhere but there are so many pace to visit in Argentina that the mind boggles and my mind ended up boggling me here. If If had it to over again I would have just left the time open at the end for some spontaneous travel. This is one of the lessons I plan on taking with me: sometimes life is more fun if you don't plan.

My hotel is safe and clean but rather charmless and the staff seem utterly put upon every time I ask for help with something. Last night I had a comically bad dinner, easily the worst meal I've had in Argentina. The rain had been pouring for hours and this restaurant was the only one I could find that accepted credit cards. I drank a glass of too sweet Sauvignon Blanc and while I was waiting for my food, the waiter brought me a magazine; he clearly pitied me for being alone (in a great heaping dose of irony the cover of the magazine was a woman with a fake moustache and the headline 'Have women become too masculine? Chilean psychologist says yes'). This insult was followed by the injury of some rather foul smelling and inedible prawns. When I sheepishly explained to the waiter that I didn't actually like it much, sorry (I'm not a great sender back of dishes) he insisted I order something else and I got a pasta that while not good, was at least edible. They brought me a free glass of champagne at the end though, which is all it really takes to get me back on your side.

                                                        don't hate cause you're in a snow drift 

I've decided to go back to Buenos Aires a day early. I noticed on my brief stop back through from Ushuaia just how comfortable the place has started to feel to me, a bit like home. And my Brazilian friend Julianna will be back there which should save me the indignity of getting anymore magazines with dinner.

What's your home away from home?  

Thursday, February 3, 2011

no penguin, no cry

It was bound to happen at some point: a total and complete meltdown.

I love traveling abroad, I do. I have discussed often here my love of being in foreign countries and of speaking other languages, but it’s also really stressful--no matter how much fun you’re having.   
Being completely out of my normal routine for over three weeks: not exercising, not sleeping much, eating a completely different (extremely carnivorous) diet along with the stress of booking and dealing with hotels, trying to get my foreign cell phone to work and the million other details of being abroad have been wearing me thin. And while I’m having a lot of fun learning Spanish and feel I’m making progress, the constant knowledge that I’m missing at least some of the nuances of any given interaction is not exactly calming.

Monday morning I went to see the national park in Ushuaia with a group of some 20 Portuguese retirees. It stuck me as odd how much Ushuaia reminds me of home with the mountains and clear lakes. Monday afternoon was the thing I’d been waiting for: the penguins. My hotel had assured me that all of the penguin tours left between 3 and 3:30 so to just come down a few minutes before 3 and they’d set me up. Being the time-conscious American that I am I went down at 2:30pm at which point the ‘concierge’ let me know that there was a chance the boats wouldn’t be gong out that afternoon because of weather. I looked at him stricken. What? No. The penguins! Once in a lifetime! Not to worry though, he told me, there is another excursion that goes by land. I perked up as I recalled that this was the one my friend had told me about where you could walk with the penguins. Hurray! Oh no, he said when he hung up the phone, they’ve already left but not to worry, the boats probably won’t get cancelled.

I probably don’t have to tell you what happened next. The boats got cancelled. The woman told me I could to go tomorrow. I felt the tears coming on. I’m leaving tomorrow I told her. You can go on the shorter excursion she offered, to see the sea lions and the lighthouse. Sea lions? Lighthouses? Seen those. But what else could I do? It was too late to do anything else with the day. Mortifyingly I burst into tears while buying my ticket.

Once the tears started I just couldn’t seem to compose myself. It wasn’t just the penguins of course. It was all the stress of the trip, the emotional highs and lows, the exhaustion, all of the rumination on the meaning of my life, the exhilarating and alienating feeling of being in a foreign country on my own.

                           a colony of King Cormorants, who are black and white but still not penguins 

So there I was crying my eyes out in the corner of the catamaran getting jostled by tourists and feeling humiliated that I was crying in public; which only made me feel worse and cry more; a bad cycle I think most of us are familiar with. Somewhere deep down I knew that this would be at least a little humorous later on.

One of the guys from the boat kindly brought me some tissues. Later when I finally pulled it together after we set sail I went to get some coffee; he asked me if I was feeling better. I told him I was. Where are you from? He asked (the ubiquitous question). United States, Seattle I told him and his jaw dropped. Seattle? Julia is from Seattle, he said gesturing to the guide. I was completely confused. How could that be? Her Spanish was perfect and she didn’t even speak English with a particularly American sounding accent. She turned out to be from Camano Island, a small place near where my aunt and uncle live.
In between her entertaining and informative explanations of the history of the channel we chatted about home and how she ended up here. She had married an Argentine she’d met while traveling in Mexico. I dabble in traveling and living abroad, but Julia is the real deal: fully expatriated, fluent (and I don’t use that word lightly) in the language, married to one of their own.

                                                        lighthouse at the end of the world

When I asked if she had any good recommendations for dinner that night she asked me if I’d like to come to her house. She and her husband run a small company that makes videos of the boats trips for tourists; she picked me up at my hotel and I went on her rounds with her dropping off the videos from the day. It was clear the two of them worked hard and despite her ex-pat status, she had a recognizably American entrepreneurial spirit. We talked about all the many things we loved about Argentina and the things we missed about the U.S: including vegetables, which are in sparse supply here--this, is particularly tough on her as she’s a vegetarian. Yes, I went on a boat tour in a country famous for its meat, in a city on the opposite end of the world from where I live and my tour guide was a vegetarian from my own backyard.

I had a lovely evening drinking wine and eating torta with her and her husband. Julia and I talked long into the night about her fascinating life in this odd beautiful place. She told me about being a boat guide and which tourists were the worst, she explained to me how the native people of Ushuaia--the Yamanas --lived with no clothing and how they were able to swim in water that would kill your or I in about 5 minutes (the explanation involved a lot of sea lion blubber). She also shared her theory on one of my other burning questions: why the hell are Argentine people so skinny (more on this later).

So I missed the penguins but if I hadn’t missed the penguins I wouldn’t have met Julia. That’s the serendipity of travel for you.