Tango and expat life in Buenos Aires, Argentina, from the point of view of a Californian who lives there. My milonguero partner, Ruben Aybar, and I were Finalistas in the Campeonato de Tango 2006 and we have been teaching and doing Tango Tours ever ...
Why did you decide to move to Buenos Aires?
I had an advanced case of breast cancer, with very heavy dose chemo, radiation after my surgery, and it was hard to work full time in my job as a public librarian in Los Angeles. I continued working until I was offered early retirement, and then found it was impossible to live in my homeland on what I received after 30 years of work. I moved in 2001 with my cat to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. But there too it was too expensive to live and there was no tango to speak of. So I finally completed the process and moved to Buenos Aires in 2003.
How was the moving process?
Everything I now have from my old life I brought on the plane with me. At first I thought I could ship things, even my grand piano which I couldn't bear to leave behind, but I'm very glad I didn't try that.
I have a few representative items that mean a lot to me: my grandmother's quilt, original artwork, photos, signed art books-but I wish I had more. Some expats are glad to relinquish the vestiges of their old lives, but mine was such a happy life that I treasure the few souvenirs I was able to keep.
What formalities did you have to go through in order to be able to live in Argentina?
I had to file for permanent residency, which took several years to complete. (I hear it's much simpler now.) Before that, I left the country for the day and went to Uruguay every six months just to get the stamp in my passport that would allow me another six months living here as a tourist.
Did you face some difficulties to adapt to your host country (language, culture, do's and don'ts)?
Many difficulties. I had learned a rudimentary Mexican Spanish when I lived in San Miguel de Allende, but when I arrived in Buenos Aires, I found out that the Spanish that is spoken here (Castellano) is very different, unique to Argentina. There is a lot of slang (Lunfardo) and Indigenous Indian words mixed in as well. I had a few embarrassing moments using the wrong vocabulary.
Daily life is much more difficult here than in the U.S. For example, all of my bills have to be paid in cash every month, including rent, standing in lines at the bank. Another important thing is that most of the foods I enjoy are not available here or are outrageously expensive. And being from California, I am a foodie. Clothing tends to be "one size fits all" and cheaply made in China. And electronics? Forget it.
What surprised you the most in Buenos Aires?
The lack of spirituality, the materialism, the superficial importance of appearance, and that the coffee is roasted with sugar.
Could you please share with us something you like about Buenos Aires and something you don't like?
The tango of Buenos Aires is unique, and the best in the world. No other place, even in Argentina, has so much and so good traditional tango dancing as in the capital. I also love the folklore and the gaucho culture.
The Argentine culture is extremely machista, making it more difficult for women.
A common belief about Argentina which wasn't right:
That everyone dances tango. Given that the tango is the best in the world here in the land where it was born, and that many people enjoy listening to it, most local people dance cumbia and merengue and listen to rock.
Also the idea that Buenos Aires is the "Paris of South America" is a marketing ploy that couldn't be more wrong-it's as much like Paris as the Paris Hotel is in Las Vegas.
Is it easy to make friends in Buenos Aires?
That always depends on the person, doesn't it? If your Spanish is excellent, you may make local friends, but most of the locals assume foreigners are wealthy and sometimes try to use that to their own advantage. Otherwise because very few Argentines speak English, you'll have to make expat friends. There are many expat social groups that have lots of activities, which are mostly attended by "younger" folks, lots of students bankrolled by their parents. Most expat get-togethers are in the "expat barrios" of San Telmo, Recoleta and Palermo.
What's your favourite food from Argentina?
The beef is unquestionably delicious, the pork too is flavorful and tender, and the wines are inexpensive and fabulous.
What do you miss the most from the US, your home country?
Naturally I miss my family and old friends.
I miss the wide array of foodstuffs available in the markets, and in that vein I also miss the vast selection of products for every need. I miss internet shopping and paying bills online. I miss the cheaper and better quality clothing. I miss ethnic food. I miss walking down the street without suspicion. I miss good customer service.
How did your passion for tango start? Is tango a strong element of the Argentinian culture?
I've always been a dancer, and I had heard tango music growing up, but until I saw the traveling stage show, "Tango Argentino" in the 80s in Hollywood, I didn't know what the dance was. Then a few years later I saw an ad for group tango lessons in L.A., I took eight, and then joined a group tango tour to Buenos Aires for ten days, which changed my life.
What we tell our tango students who are curious tourists, is that to understand the culture of Buenos Aires, you must understand something about the tango, a unique social dance. It is complicated yet simple, often profound, and changes with each partner, each song, with codes and manners rooted in history. Sometimes people think the dance is "sexy," but it's not-it's sensual.
Have you visited other countries or other regions of Argentina since you are settled in Buenos Aires?
I've been lucky enough to visit several beautiful regions of Argentina: Iguazu Falls, Salta, Cordoba, Bariloche, Ushuaia, Mar del Plata, Mendoza. I wish they weren't all so far away from the capital. You have to travel for hours to get anywhere outside of Buenos Aires. Fortunately the long distance bus service is excellent. I also went to Brazil a couple of years ago for two weeks. And Uruguay is just a few hours by boat across the river.
Which advice would you give to people wishing to live in Buenos Aires?
Try not to wait too long. Everything is in flux here. And it's so much easier to adapt when you are younger rather than older as I was. Also bring way more money that you think you'll need. And I wouldn't plan on buying property, pretty risky when you want to sell, with the crazy economic times with "dollars" being worth whatever you can exchange them for.
Bring your good linens and pots and pans. And leave your dressy clothes at home (except for appropriate attire for dancing tango).
You lived in France, Mexico and Argentina: what did you learn from your several experiences abroad?
Two languages! I also learned a great deal by writing about my transition from Los Angeles, to France and Mexico, and finally to Buenos Aires -The Church of Tango: a Memoir (Mirasol Press, 2012).