I may or may not have cried on the plane to Buenos Aires. It was my first time leaving the United States, and I was flying alone across the world to a country where I didn’t know the language. As someone who prides herself on quick comebacks and loves recounting funny stories and correcting the grammar of my unsuspecting family members, being unable to adequately communicate myself terrified me.
I feared embarrassing myself, appearing unintelligent, accidentally being rude to people, and having trouble making friends due to my inability to say anything remotely interesting in Spanish. While I’ve experienced all of these things, some more than once, I’ve also experienced so much joy, and my Spanish interactions have been nothing short of wonderful – even when I just smile and nod and hope nobody asks me any questions.
One of the first things I learned in Buenos Aires is that there’s often more meaning in people’s actions and expressions than in their words. On one of my first days of school, I passed a young couple walking together and joking around. Although for the life of me I could not understand them, and possibly for this reason, I saw the look of happiness and love on their faces, and was moved by their joy. My inability to understand their words gave me an opportunity to see them in a completely different way, to think a little less and just appreciate the happiness around me.
Similarly, I quickly learned how to communicate myself purely through facial expressions, laughter, and an openness to learn and participate. I’m proud to say that I earned the friendship of my host’s grandkids through a combination of making silly faces, playing tag, and constantly committing comical errors in Spanish (who could have guessed that the Spanish word for banana is banana!?!). On my volleyball team, I’ve seen how I can motivate my teammates with a high five and a smile, and how those simple actions can help change the course of a game. Although I still can’t say exactly what I’d like, I’ve seen that there are equally valid ways to express myself.
I’ve also been so pleasantly surprised by how welcoming and kind people are to me, even when I’m admittedly not contributing too much to conversation. The standard Argentine greeting is a kiss on the cheek, and there’s something about receiving a kiss from fifty strangers at a party just makes you feel welcome. At the first asado that I attended in Buenos Aires, every person who knew a bit of English gathered around me and talked to me so that I wouldn’t feel lonely. At my second asado a month later, they listened patiently as I tried to speak in Spanish, and helped me out when I needed it. More recently, one of my volleyball teammates invited me out for coffee, and we spent a delightful two hours together. She talked slowly and clearly, helped me out with words when I needed it, and corrected my grammar without making me feel bad about my errors. When I began recounting a story and realized that it would be quite difficult to tell in Spanish, rather than letting me switch into English, she encouraged me, giving me much-needed confidence and practice. Given that I really feared loneliness, I’ve been so pleased by the number of people who take the time to talk to me, both in English and Spanish, and I have been surprised by my growing ability to sustain interesting conversations!
Furthermore, I’ve really grown to appreciate the Argentine culture and nuances of Argentine Spanish. I see the beauty in sitting and enjoying my coffee with a friend instead of taking it to go, and have grown to love the simplicity and warmth of greeting someone with a kiss. Here, every silence is filled with a bueno (good), and most propositions, whether extraordinary or mundane, are met with an enthusiastic dale. Although this means that I’ll never be able to read my hometown’s name, Glendale, the same way, it made me acutely aware of the opportunities that come with enthusiastically agreeing to new experiences.
In my four months here, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to so many beautiful places in Argentina – including Iguazu Falls, Mendoza, and Patagonia – and although each was stunning in its own way, all were populated with wonderful, patient people.
This past weekend, I experienced the kind of perfect day that I’ve been working towards for four months. Fresh off of our first win, my volleyball team had an asado bonding together at my friend’s house just north of the city. I spent six wonderful hours in a sea of happy Spanish, intermixed with some helpful English, caught up on some hot gossip about some people I’ve never heard of, impressed everyone with a couple marching band stories, and even got in a few good jokes. When I got back to my hostel where I was staying, I was invited to eat with one of my roommates and their friends from back home. For the second time that day, I was eating a delicious home cooked meal and was immersed in Spanish, this time with a different accent, but still with just the same kindness that I’ve grown accustomed to. After dinner, I spent two more hours enjoying a conversation with a new friend from Mexico, learning from his life experiences and recounting my own, all in a language that I could neither speak nor understand just four months ago.
Absolutely every day I’ve spent in Argentina has been fabulous, and I’m so glad that I put aside my fears and took advantage of this amazing opportunity to study abroad. The next time I’m presented with an opportunity that scares me, I’ll think back on my time in Argentina, smile, and like the Porteños, say dale.
-Brenna Cancilla, Bass ’15