This article is part of a series covering the different types of housing at the various study away sites in the Global Network.
Before coming to Buenos Aires, I had a particular fear in my gut that kept nagging me over and over: why the hell am I doing this a second time? The first time being when I went to China and chose to live in a country where I didn’t really know the language. I thought about how hard it had been to make friends, how hard it had been for me to adjust and feel comfortable doing everyday chores, and how hard it was to be away for my family for such lengthy periods of time. It came to a point where I seriously started wondering whether my joy of traveling was actually a guise for an inner masochism that enjoyed watching me struggle to order food. I found myself somewhat dreading the day I would have to leave for the airport. However, I had yet to realize that what was waiting for me in Buenos Aires was completely different than what had awaited me in China, mainly because this time I would have a family looking out for me.
When I first came to China I found that NYU Shanghai works hard to help students get acclimated, and, despite it being a valiant effort, some things just can’t be taught; some students just take longer to adjust and oh boy was I one of them. Again, thoughts like this were plaguing me in the NYU-paid cab to the academic center, the streets streaming past in a blur as my mind kept racing from one doubt to the next. I knew NYU Buenos Aires would have an orientation, and it would be similar, but what if it didn’t work? Can I actually handle this a second time? I don’t want to starve again! I miss my friends. Thank god they’re paying for this cab because I don’t have any money. What do I need to do to calm down?
These thoughts continued for the next couple of hours, through registering at the academic center, scarfing down free sandwiches at said academic center, and then attempting to make small talk with those around me and hoping they didn’t sense the fear in my soul. And then suddenly people started disappearing. Host-moms and dads from far and wide appeared and exchanged a kiss on the cheek with NYU Buenos Aires staff before stealing away with their “new child.” A room filled with over 50 people steadily trickled down to only about 5. We stared at each other eating tasteless sandwiches as doubts began to re-enter my mind: Is my tongue breaking? What if my host-mom forgot about me? But more importantly, my tongue?!
So I sat there, my feet up on the coffee table in front me, my head tilted back onto the sofa. A couple more people disappeared and I was left staring at the ceiling when I heard the door open and a small lady wearing a brown jacket walked in. I don’t know where it came from, but some sort of sixth sense told me to get my feet off the coffee table in front of me, I needed to be respectful in front of my new host mother. And sure enough the NYU Buenos Aires staff called, “Stephanie Ulan?” As I timidly walked over to the lady, I was not quite sure how this was going to go. Everyone’s speaking Spanish and discussing things I’m not listening to. Then the small lady turned to me, “Tu hablas espanol?” Do you speak Spanish? I swallow for a moment, and then do what I’d been doing for the day thus far: speak in Portuguese and hope for the best. “Não, eu entendo tudo, mas eu só falo português.” No, I understand everything, but I only speak Portuguese. The lady’s face brightens. She responds back in Portuguese, “Perfect, I speak and understand Portuguese too.” I’m hit with a feeling of love and appreciation for my new host-mom. And, as my days in Buenos Aires have gone on I find this feeling coming up quite often.
The two of us became fast friends, her speaking in Spanish, me speaking in Portuguese. We arrived at her house, a beautiful three-bedroom apartment with tan walls, brown and white furniture, and bursts of color here and there from her own paintings and pictures of her grandkids—my host-mom is a bit more of a host-abuela. She asked me if I needed water? What did I need to do first? Did I need help unpacking? She helped me exchange money for pesos, took me to the nearest pharmacy to buy some toiletries, and then that night, took me out for ice cream. We joked on the walk back from the ice cream parlor and I briefly wondered if I actually did have a third grandma I’d lost somewhere down the road and if I had just discovered her, walking next to me on a bright street in Buenos Aires. The benefits of a host-mom only got better from there.
On my first day of orientation, I realized that Buenos Aires was much colder than I expected it to be and I had forgotten to bring a jacket. I internally groaned, thinking about how I would have to find a place to buy one, and expressed this thought to my host-mom. About ten minutes later, she showed up at my door, a jacket in hand. “It’s an extra one I own, do you want it?” I hesitated, feeling like this had to be too nice of a gesture to be true, but she insisted, so now I have a bright-pink North Face jacket. It is totally not my usual style but whenever I wear it I feel like I am getting a warm hug from my host mom. Our first dinner together with my roommate, a close NYU Shanghai friend who arrived a couple of days late, was filled with laughs and smiles. I could not believe how well it was all going. Even now, I feel so fortunate and don’t understand what I did right to deserve this.
Thinking back to when I arrived in Shanghai, I remember we didn’t have a canteen with English menus. A lot of the time my first week, I had to skip meals or settle for sad excuses for food at our nearby convenient store. In Buenos Aires, my host-mom makes me breakfast and dinner every day. We all sit together every night for dinner. In Shanghai, we were all teenagers trying to act like we’re strong brave adults, as if we hadn’t just graduated high school a couple of months ago, and everyone pretends not to miss home. In Buenos Aires, I don’t have to miss home, because everyday there’s a small lady named Maria who cares about me and asks me about my day, buys me and my roommate surprise chocolates, and likes to make sure that we don’t leave the house without a jacket. In Shanghai, a lock out is a terrible experience, with public safety and RAs getting involved. The other day I came back at 2 AM and couldn’t figure out how to use my key. I suddenly found the door opening by itself, a small Maria standing behind it and smiling at me. “You couldn’t figure out your key?” she teased.
I admit, sometimes it is weird. For example, when you have to say goodbye to your host mom as you leave the house at 11:30 for a night out, wondering if she’s making wild assumptions about you, but I quickly realized that Maria is an adult too. She wants us to enjoy Buenos Aires, and she understands we like to go out a lot. Maybe I’m looking too into it, but sometimes I wonder if she sees a little bit of herself in us, remembering when she was younger or when her kids were younger and did the exact same thing. It will always and forever feel weird to put your hands in someone else’s fridge, even though they insist that it is perfectly fine, but I manage because I get thirsty and because I understand that my roommate and I got very, very lucky when we ended up living with Maria.
During my third night, my roommate’s first night, here I was talking to her about our host-mom. I told her how much I loved our host-mom, how this environment had something that appealed to me in a way that is so different from what I experienced in Shanghai. I told her I felt like I had arrived home, like Buenos Aires was just a part of me that I had not discovered yet. She turns to me and goes, “You know, I think you might just be a home-stay type of person.” And it occurred to me—yeah, I think I am. Which means, as much as I want to tell the whole world homestays are fantastic, remind them that they are great practice to practice your Spanish, and how your host-family will be a fantastic support system when you’re in trouble, I don’t know if it’s justified to do that. My experience has been great, but I have friends who have struggled a lot more, from being unable to communicate properly or not liking the space they’re living, to just wishing they could be in a dorm because they hate living so far apart from one another. But me? I have no complaints. I have already been so fortunate. In only three weeks, Buenos Aires has stolen my heart, and I hope whoever comes in the future will feel the same way.
Other things you should know about Buenos Aires:
– BA is not cheap. A lot of it has to do with complicated Argentinian economic policy, but just know that it’s basically American pricing, even though it’s 9 pesos to the dollar.
– Studying Spanish is incredibly refreshing after two years of intensive Chinese, let me tell you.
– Night life starts at 11 and ends at 6 AM; if you’re going home at 2 or 3 then you’re going home too early. Porteños really know how to party. This can be an adjustment.
– Lunch time is normal, but dinner is normally between 9 and 10 PM. Any earlier than 9 is kind of weird. This can also be an adjustment, but never fear, there’s a fourth meal called merienda, a sort of snack and coffee break in the late afternoon which helps transition to these dinners and gives you a good excuse to splurge on dulce de leche and medialunas (Argentine croissants).
– Dulce de leche is the purpose of life.
– Argentinians are very, very into politics. The government here is still pretty new and so the people are very much invested in it, and it’s refreshing to have teachers so passionate about everyday politics, and for the people of Argentina to be the same way.
– Classes are very small, ranging from one to ten people. And yes, there is a class with only one person in it.
This article was written by Stephanie Ulan. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Stephanie Ulan