I grew up picturing the big city bright and tall in my mind. It was a dreamscape of endless possibilities and exotic people. I grew up in a small rural town in the middle of nowhere, at the base of a mountain range the size of a small state. In Hailey, there were four stoplights on Main Street, a rodeo-ground that doubled as an ice skating rink in the winter, and one gas station we liked to hang out at past 9pm, because everything thing else was closed. Hailey was tight-knit, secluded, and sheltered. The streets were safe at any time of day, and I always knew at least three people in the grocery store. The only city I knew was a few hundred miles away, Boise, which was still a conservative size. When I moved out of Hailey and to Washington for college, I merely transitioned from one bubble to another. Although my university introduced me to the possibilities of a world outside my small community, I still failed to fully understand my privilege, or become acquainted with some of the harsher realities of the world.
Overwhelmed and Excited
Sophomore year of college, I applied to spend a semester studying in one of the largest cities in the world; incidentally it never occurred to me how different and overwhelming it might be. July 24, 2017 is the day I arrived in Buenos Aires (or BsAs as the locals call it). I knew the city would be big, but I never graspedquitehow gigantic it would feel. It took nearly an hour just to get from the airport to my apartment! At first I was overwhelmed, but also excited; I was prepared to take on the challenge of this city, and to have the best experience I could possibly have. However, I soon realized BsAs was no ordinary city, and thus I was launched into five months of public transit, crowded streets, deathly traffic, and 13 million strangers speaking a foreign language. There were a lot of moving parts for me to adjust to:
There wasn’t a subway system in the entire state of Idaho, and the one bus route we had didn’t stop anywhere near my house. Suddenly adjusting to commuting nearly an hour to class, or forty minutes to meet a friend at a restaurant, became an exhausting daily challenge. To this day, one of my proudest accomplishments is mastering the BsAs bus system. I’ll never forget the first time I successfully rode the bus alone; it was a terrifying and exhilarating experience.
Awareness of your surroundings
Early on, we were warned by our resident staff (and by our host moms) to be aware of those around us, and to specifically protect ourselves against being pick-pocketed. I needed to constantly maintain awareness of those behind me or next to me, especially when on the bus or subway, and I had to carry my backpack on my front (which was incredibly embarrassing). Walking alone at night made me fearful in a way I had never been before, and I quickly learned that Uber was my best friend when I needed to get home past midnight.
I was foreign…
and I stood out like a sore thumb. I have blonde hair and I dress distinctly differently than Argentines, so, whether I liked it or not, I grabbed a LOT of attention. Unfortunately, a lot of the attention I grabbed was unwarranted, inappropriate, and objectifying. Walking to the bus stop on my way to class in the morning became a nightmare depending on who I saw, who saw me, and what I was wearing…which is the awful truth. Stifling the bubbling anger I felt after hearing whistles, kissing noises, or whispered comments in Spanish as I walked by, regretfully became a part of my daily routine. I learned to consider the cultural norms, listen to music when I walked down the street, and not give in to my anger or discomfort.
Once the honeymoon period of arriving in BsAs wore off, I began to realize just how difficult my semester might be. And so I continued my journey feeling significantly more lost, frustrated, and discouraged than I had hoped to feel. There were certain aspects of BsAs that I absolutely loved, like the diverse and flavorful food, the cultural eccentricities of street fairs, and the nature of a relaxed and simplified lifestyle of laying in the park, drinking traditional mate and eating cookies. However, on a day-to-day basis I was struggling, and feeling more and more hopeless about the prospect of adjustment.
Confused and Conflicted
I reached a point in my semester in Argentina, about half way through, where I started to feel quite bad for myself. I felt confused and conflicted, and I was constantly wondering, Why am I not having the incredible, life-changing experience everyone told me I would have? As I was desperately searching for an answer to this question, I failed to see I was losing and wasting time I should have spent enjoying the remarkable opportunity I had been given. The answer was right in front of me, and it took me a while to admit, Wow, living in a city is a challenge, and it’s effecting my experience.
Once I reluctantly came to this conclusion, and I realized I wasn’t going to be able to change my environment, I knew all I could do was accept the inevitable fact that my experience wasn’t going to be perfect, and That was okay!I found a source of comfort in the fact that my happiness was more important than fulfilling the “life-changing destiny” studying abroad held for me; and so, I began to reward myself for the things I had accomplished, and had achieved thus far. I was proud of myself for solving the puzzle that was the Buenos Aires bus system, and for learning how to understand the Argentine Spanish accent and slang. I prided myself on seeking new adventures every weekend, and traveling to all corners of the country to discover new wonders. I came to the very important terms that Buenos Aires wasn’t going to change, and neither was I, so I should make the best of it while I still could.
The Pursuit of Happiness
Allowing myself to have an experience that I knew would never be perfect was a huge part of my time in Argentina. It led me to find self-acceptance and positivity in light of all the challenges I was facing. Although it was one of the most challenging semesters of my life, it was also the most rewarding, and I achieved some of my proudest accomplishments in Argentina, including learning self-sufficiency, discovering my personal potential, and overcoming fears and discomforts on my pursuit of happiness. Everyone was having an entirely different experience, and it took me a while to realize that no one’s would be perfect. I found a way to focus my attention and time doing meaningful and intentional things that would bring me happiness, while still encouraging myself to step outside of my comfort zone and try new things. I learned a lot from my time in Buenos Aires, including how to confront a world I had never known before.
Avery Closser is a student at the University of Puget Sound, and studied abroad with IFSA at the Argentine Universities Program in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 2017.