Things you can’t do:
One of Tennessee Williams’ most famous plays ends with a tragically self-deluded woman handed off by her only sister to a dubious mental institution as she loses the one thing she has left: a sense of dignity. As Blanche is carted away by a clearly malicious doctor, she delivers her final line in a tone both bleakly ironic and agonizingly hopeful: “I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers.” We in the audience are left to consider the painful reality that Blanche refused to accept: strangers (and, as Williams implies, most people) are not kind.
When I arrived in Buenos Aires, I had no time to consider such literary theories as this because I was too busy being knocked off my horse. It is a truth universally acknowledged that study abroad is not easy, but I don’t think anyone can fully describe or prepare for the feeling of strandedness at the beginning. So, I won’t try to – but there is a distinct feeling of stranded-ness that comes from being unable to achieve basic functions like simple navigation or setting up a working cell phone – and even more frustrating, not even knowing how to start trying to tackle those problems. My dreams of total independence in a foreign country shriveled and died.
Unlike Blanche, I began to stumble repeatedly into the kindness of strangers — most particularly, the stranger who was my host mom. She was friendly and kind from the moment I showed up on her doorstep, but at first I wasn’t ready to open up and wasn’t certain what the parameters of our relationship were. Landlord and tenant? Roommates? But one night after repeatedly getting lost throughout the day on unsuccessful errands, I hit my limit: I realized I would not be able to get to the evening’s orientation event because I didn’t have the subway card (one of the day’s unsuccessful errands) to get me there. Seeing my general despair, my host mom swooped in. She made me a comfort meal and ran through my list of trials and tribulations with me, developing a concise action plan for each one.
Things your Host Mom can do that you can’t:
I discovered that a host mom is the ideal source of figuring out how to survive in your neighborhood. I couldn’t access google maps, so she drew out personalized maps for me and walked me through them, providing specific directions for each location I needed to get to that week. Armed with her maps, I familiarized myself with the local streets until I was able to get google maps working so now I rarely need a map in my neighborhood, Recoleta, at all. She also insisted on walking around with me as my guide so that the stress of navigating wasn’t on me alone, and on those walks she told me about the landmarks and historical pasts of much of the city around me. After a long dinner one night, she pulled out a book with pictures of old churches we had passed on walks and we pored over them together. Even if you do pride yourself on independent navigating, I recommend letting your host mom help you – she is a better tour guide of the city than any map.
My host mom was also well-equipped to handle my “otherness” – although I’ve encountered several forgiving strangers as I stumble through a Spanish-speaking country, my host mom has most dutifully put up with the language barrier. Once when we were out walking she mentioned her deceased husband in a passing comment. I don’t remember which words she used but I did not understand that he had passed and instead cobbled together the idea that she was divorced. Consequently, I responded with something along the lines of “good riddance to bad rubbish.” In a word: inappropriate. A little shocked, she assured me that he was the love of her life and yet she still took it all in stride. Patience and a will to understand are two deeply necessary elements to bring to the study abroad experience, and in my home-stay I found both.
Things you can and should do:
Though I came to Argentina hoping to find new reserves of independence by striking out on my own in a foreign country, I’ve come to realize that this experience is not about recreating college freedom and experiences. To those considering study abroad, I have this to say: the best place to learn how others live is at home, and you have one. Don’t forget to get to know your host mom or host family by spending nights in sometimes and letting dinners go long – it’s the people who make the place.
Bethany Catlin is an English and International Studies major at Macalester College and studied abroad through the IFSA-Butler Argentine Universities Program, Buenos Aires in Fall 2017. She served as an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-to-Study Program.