An American in Argentina: The Culture Shock is Real
This is our fourth season in Argentina, and as we prepare to return to the states in a few weeks, I’ve been reflecting on some of the biggest cultural differences and norms that we’ve experienced, compared with our lives in the U.S. While one might think that I’d be used to the ins and outs of Argentinian life, the truth is that I’m still often taken aback because those differences can be stark. I often talk about the Argentinian way, which I use mostly in the context of people being very relaxed (and yes, very slow) about everything, but there’s so much more!
1. Sharing is caring
Everywhere I look, something is being shared. Cookies, snacks, pastries, but most of all, drinks. Yerba Mate is perhaps the most popular drink in Argentina. It consists of dried and crushed tea leaves, which are placed at the bottom of a wooden or metal Mate cup. Hot water is added as needed, and it is sipped through a filtered straw. At basketball games, hanging out in the park, or even walking around the supermarket, people carry their mate cups, along with a thermos filled with hot water. They sip and pass and sip and pass, seemingly forever. It’s a social activity usually shared among family and friends, but I have been offered sips from the cups of strangers many times.
The same can be said of alcoholic drinks and soda. By far the most popular alcoholic drink is an anise based drink called Fernet, which is then mixed with Coca Cola and shared in an oversized cup. I detest anise and anything that tastes like black licorice, so I never partake in the passing of Fernet. This is also true for drinks at parties, which are often poured into one big cup (or sometimes a Coke bottle is cut in half and used as a cup) and then shared among the guests.
While I can certainly understand sharing those drinks among friends, what boggles my mind is the sharing of water in public places. In the U.S. there might be a water cooler with many single use cups to drink from. Here, instead of a seemingly endless supply of cups, there might be 1 or 2 cups sitting on top of the cooler, and people will grab a cup, drink from it, and put it back. No wiping off the rim, rinsing, or anything! They just grab, drink, and return. I nearly passed out the first time I saw someone drink from a cup at a doctor’s office and then put it back on top of the cooler. The next person did the same, and the next after that. This is the case in doctor’s offices, government offices, at school, or wherever a water cooler is present. In the U.S. we are a generally germaphobic bunch, but that doesn’t seem to be much of a concern out here.
2. Friendly is an understatement.
Along the vein of sharing, people out here are remarkably friendly and polite. Now when I say polite, I don’t mean that you won’t get pushed out of the way in line at the store, or honked at if you cross the street too slowly, because you will. I mean friendly and polite in general interactions. When in New York, I can be on an elevator with 10 people during the course of a day, where *maybe* one would have made eye contact and said hello. In contrast, it’s almost as if every person I cross paths with here, is ready with a “buenos dias,” “buen dia,” or “que tal.”
People I don’t know say hello and often stop for small talk, even after I tell them that I struggle with Spanish. I’m often forced to walk in the street because the sidewalks are filled with groups of people who have stopped to say hello and talk. It’s like trying to walk quickly through Times Square in New York, it’s just not going to happen. In the beginning, you may feel like a celebrity because of all the attention, but really, that’s just how they are with most people, and it’s certainly a welcome change to encounter so many friendly faces.
3. Safety first is surely not the motto.
There are cross walks everywhere, but rarely are there traffic lights. The lights are reserved primarily for the main intersections, so you’re on your own for all other streets. I learned quickly that if there isn’t a traffic light, then cars and motorcycles simply will not stop. Not if you’re pregnant, holding a baby, or an old lady with a cane. No one is spared. God forbid you have the light and a car is turning, you will get honked at and just about run over every single time. Each day is like a real life game of frogger. It truly amazes me, especially in this city where they really value relaxation and don’t seem to be in a rush to do much, but then will run you over in a rush to do nothing.
One day while walking home from school, my 6 year old was damn near hit by a motorcycle. It actually looked like he was hit head on, but it just slightly rolled over his foot and pushed him forward. This was while crossing the street at a major intersection with traffic lights, and we were crossing the street with the walk signal. All cars were stopped and this motorcycle just came out of nowhere and ran the light. I stood there screaming at him in Spanglish, but he had the nerve to just keep going like nothing happened!
They also aren’t big on seat belts, helmets, or car seats. I’ve seen just a handful of cars with car seats, and even less with the children actually in them. What I often see are kids in laps in the front seat (driver and passenger), standing up and playing in the back seat, or hanging out of the window, with not a seatbelt in sight. A motorcycle meant for 1 or 2, will have a driver, two kids in the middle, and a 4th person in the back. I get so nervous when I see tiny babies just chilling on the drivers lap, yet no one bats an eye, so they seem to have perfected this living on the edge style of transport.
These are just a few of the many kids and babies I see riding dirty daily.
4. Siesta is Life.
When we lived in Italy and Greece, we were first introduced to the concept and practice of siesta. During a period of 2-3 hours in the early afternoon, the majority of the town would shut it doors to business and relax with coffee, sleep, or have a long leisurely lunch. In the two cities we’ve lived in since moving to Argentina, we’ve discovered that they do not play about their siestas. Shops close their doors promptly at 12 or 12:30, not to be seen or heard from again until 6 or 6:30. Only a couple of cafe’s remain open, two supermarkets, and a few kioskos (bodegas/newstands).
The city becomes one big ghost town, and all productivity ceases. It’s a crazy system where the crowds at banks, supermarkets, doctors offices, the post office, and pretty much anywhere essential, are through the roof before siesta begins. I’ve stood in line at the supermarket for upwards of 30 minutes, more times than I care to count! Back in New York, I can already hear the vocal complaints if someone found themselves on line for longer than 10 minutes, if that. People here don’t seem to mind the long waits, because I believe they would give anything for those 6 hours of midday relaxation.
It seems that anything worth doing happens at night, so people go to bed very late, hence the need for the long siesta. Most restaurants don’t open until 9pm, with a rare few opening at 8pm, so there’s no such thing as an early dinner out. If you’re heading to the club, you’ll have a long night because most clubs are empty until around 3am, and reach their peak at around 5am or later!
5. Kid’s rule the night.
A few weeks ago I joined a friend for drinks at a popular restaurant/bar. I had just finished having dinner with my family at a different restaurant, and we wrapped it up around 12:30am, which is pretty average, if not on the early side. Since most restaurants don’t open before 9pm, it’s customary to head out around 10pm, and children are usually invited and welcomed. Many restaurants have staffed play rooms to occupy the kiddies, as well as child friendly menu options. When there are no playrooms, the kids sit and enjoy the meal and the conversation along with the adults.
The restaurant in question does not have a play room, but we frequently take our kid’s there, as do many others. This particular night we were there until just before 3am and I kid you not, there were two families with children that had left just before us, both around 2:30-2:45am. Even though I am used to the late culture, I was still surprised to see what looked to be 6 and 7 year olds just yapping it up with family when almost all my friend’s back in the U.S. had been sleeping for hours! We’ve gotten looks when we’ve had our kid’s out in the U.S. past 11pm, so it’s definitely a culture shock.
6. Ice cream and Coca Cola for everyone.
I’ve never seen a collective group of people that love ice cream as much as the people here, and that includes my time living in Italy! There are more ice cream shops in this city than anything else, except maybe cafe’s. There is an ice cream shop at least every few blocks, and some with two on the same block. The ice cream shops are among the few establishments even open during siesta, and this is all year round. When we leave for our summer in the states, it’s the beginning of winter here and pretty cold, but that hardly deters these ice cream lovers from flocking to their favorite ice cream shops.
After ice cream, coke, or Coca, as they so lovingly call it, rules the day. It seems as though when they are not drinking mate, they are drinking Coca. This is in the morning, afternoon, and evening. These are grandma’s and toddlers alike, and when they drink it, they really drink it, often walking down the street with a two liter bottle and giant straw. I’ve seen plenty of 3 and 4 year olds drinking it at basketball games or restaurants at midnight. I cannot even imagine the horror on the faces of some American moms, gasping at the idea of giving their young child soda, let alone in the wee hours of the night. But again, no one bats an eye because this is the norm.
7. Endless holidays and celebrations.
If you have followed our travels, and my accounts of life in Argentina, you would know that I really dislike the school system here. Our kids have been in private school, but the public schools follow the same schedule. Depending on the age of the child, they attend school for either 3 or 4 hours per day. I’ve often complained about having to wake up early to get the kids to school, walk 20-25 minutes each way, only to return 2 hours later, which gives me time to do maybe one thing per day without the kids. I can sit at a cafe near the school to write a little, I can go for a run, or I can run hit the supermarket. That’s it. When 12 noon comes around, the kids are all mine again, so alone time is hard to come by, and after school activities are not a thing. They just don’t exist, outside of the English classes offered by some schools. To this day I don’t know how working parents do this, unless they have jobs that close for siesta.
Even with these limited school days, there still seems to be a day off every 2-3 weeks. I’ve noticed that Argentinian people are pretty patriotic. Every morning before classes begin, schools gather for assemblies, where everyone is required to listen and sing along with the national anthem, and to raise and honor different Argentinian flags. I was used to the occasional Independence Day or Labor Day holiday in the U.S., but here the holidays, or feriados, are seemingly endless. They include Independence Day, Flag Day, two Labor Days, Revolution Day, Sovereignty Day, Truth and Justice Day, Malvinas Day, two days for Carnival, Cultural Diversity Day, Good Friday, Immaculate Conception Day, San Martin Day, and of course a few days for Christmas and New Year’s. This is in addition to various national strike days, which result in schools and many businesses being closed.
If that wasn’t enough, there are also local historical figures and battles that are honored, so schools are not only closed, but there are frequent school performances for these events. In the states there might be two performances a year, but we tend to have one every month or two. It’s hard for me to keep up with what is being honored or celebrated, but the kids generally enjoy taking part in the dancing, singing, and storytelling, and I’m happy that they are able to take part in these traditions, since they are such a big part of the culture here. They have learned some traditional Argentinian dances, as well as the words to many songs, in Spanish, and I do melt a little when I see them perform.
8. Sports, sports, sports (or futbol, futbol, futbol).
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the sports fans. I think it goes without saying that futbol/soccer is extremely popular in South America, and Argentina is no exception. Some basketball fans are extreme as well (like when I was spit on by opposing fans at a game), but futbol and the many rivalries, are what really get people riled up. There are constant parades, random gatherings in the streets, fights, and assorted celebrations in support of the many Argentinian futbol teams. Streets are often cut off because large groups have gathered to light fireworks and smoke bombs, play drums, sing songs, and otherwise celebrate victories. If a restaurant or cafe has a television, a futbol game or highlights, are shown 99% of the time. I’ve never seen anything like it.
A few months back, a soccer game in Buenos Aires between teams Boca Juniors and River Plate had to be postponed because River fans physically attacked the bus carrying the Boca players, which resulted in multiple injuries to the players from broken glass, rocks, and the gas bombs. The game ultimately had to be moved outside of the country, to Spain, because of further violence every time they attempted to play.
Our city, Santiago Del Estero, doesn’t have a soccer team in the first division, but we have a few in the second division. I didn’t even realize there was a game last week, but this was the result of a win. We couldn’t even cross the street!
So with that, we’re out of here. It’s been an eye opening 4 years, and I’m thankful for the experiences. Farewell, Argentina!