One of the main reasons (excuses?) I decided to move to Argentina was to learn the language. While I had three years of high school Spanish and always ordered “café con crema” from my favorite snack bar server at Annandale, in all honesty, my Spanish is terrible.
When I told friends and family about my intention to become fluent over the next six months, they were very encouraging. “Oh, you’ll pick it up!” some said. “In six months, you’ll have plenty of time to pick it up.” I continued to get hit over the head with this idiom for weeks. Sure, they had faith in me, but I was not at all convinced that it would be as easy as “picking it up”. You can pick up a ball. Or a friend before a night out. But picking up a language? If it were that easy, wouldn’t we all be multilingual?
I arrived in Tucumán with serious reservations. After settling into our respective rooms, Jimi offered to take me on a little city tour. We called a cab (no Uber *gasp*) and within minutes a small, white and yellow Fiat was outside our front door. I scooted to the far side and when the cab driver said, “Hola. Adónde vamos?” I muttered, “Hola” and looked to Jimi with pleading eyes. Jimi spoke to the driver in his natural Argentine accent, barely pausing for breath, and the driver sped off down the street.
I reached for my seatbelt and Jimi warned me, “Oh no. You don’t want to do that.”
“Are you crazy? They drive like mad here!” I said, trying valiantly to yank the seatbelt from its holster.
“You’re welcome to try,” he laughed as I struggled, “but they’ll leave black lines across your clothes. They’re always filthy.”
I sighed. I vividly remembered getting laughed at in Greece for attempting to be safe on the road.
Jimi thought for a moment, “I can’t remember ever seeing an accident in Tucumán.”
“Yeah, I mean in Los Angeles I saw one every other day. I’ve seen motorcycles go off the road here before, but for the life of me I can’t think of a single car accident,” Jimi said, with a look that showed he was as surprised as I was by the realization.
It was still only mildly comforting.
I stared out the window as the taxi winded through traffic deeper into the city. We passed kids in uniform just getting out of school for the day and storeowners drinking coffee outside their small shops. The architecture we passed was a strange mix of old and new, rundown and modern. The center of downtown was full of historic buildings dating back to the mid-1800s. The post office, cathedral and government palace, “la Casa de Gobierno,” were particularly beautiful.
After our brief driving tour, we arrived at a hopping little plaza. We paid the cab driver 30 pesos (roughly $2) and found ourselves on the doorstep of a “confitería”. Jimi explained that the reason Starbucks had failed so miserably in Argentina was that there was already a rooted, coffee shop culture. We went inside and treated ourselves to “tostados” (Argentine grilled cheese) and “licuados” (water + milk + fruit juice whipped together).
Our next stop was a bakery, where we bought a bag full of “medialunas.” I quickly realized that a ‘tour of the city’ was linked primarily to food.
I was still licking the honey off my fingers as we entered the Central Plaza. At the far end a group of people hoisted signs in the air and chanted vigorously as drums beat out a rhythm.
“Umm… what’s going on?” I asked Jimi, wondering why we were heading in that direction.
“Oh, just some sort of protest.” He read a few of the signs before telling me, “Looks like the sugarcane workers think the latest regional elections were rigged.” To express their frustration, the farmers had parked their tractors in front of the government palace. It looked like a parade from the Indiana State Fair.
I noticed a few policeman casually reclining at a table nearby, looking nonplussed.
“Well, how long is the government building going to stay closed?” I couldn’t help but wonder as we passed by. “Isn’t this like a problem?”
“Oh, there’s a backdoor to the building somewhere,” Jimi assured me, opening the door to a small ice cream shop next door. The shop seemed to be operating as usual, despite the mess outside. “What would you like?”
“Un helado de menta granizada, por favor,” I said to the boy behind the counter.
Jimi nudged me and said “E-lado. The ‘h’ is silent.” He smiled and ordered a “dulce de leche merengando.”
We devoured the delicious ice cream inside, watching as it grew dark outside. Afterwards, as we walked to the corner to hail the cab, Jimi said, “I hope I haven’t spoiled your dinner.”
“Wait, what?! I thought this was dinner!” I said, aghast.
He laughed. “No way! Don’t worry, we’ve got a couple hours ’til then. My mom is making empanadas.”
I sighed, filled to bursting as I entered the cab. So much food!
I listened as Jimi directed the cab driver back to the house. I caught “barrio obispo piedra buena” and recognized that as our neighborhood. Instead of feeling threatened by the rest of the stream of words they exchanged, I let them lull me into a sweet sense of expectancy. Soon I would know more of their language and be able to join in. For now, I would be content to order ice cream like an Argentine.