We call him street noodle guy. In NYU Shanghai, the students don’t actually know the Chinese names of places and restaurants, so we make up our own. Places that we frequently eat at consist of: “noodle bar”, “rice place”, “curry place”, “muslim place”, “dumps” (short for dumplings), “skewer guy” and everyone’s favorite, “street noodle guy”. Vendors cooking noodles in a wok on the street are very frequent in streets in China. We encountered them in Shanghai, Beijing, Xi’an, Sanya, Chengdu. Five very different places. Each location has its own local signature. Chengdu incorporated its famous lip numbing ma la spice while Sanya’s street noodle vendors used tropical seafood.
Street noodle guy only comes out at night and usually works from 9:30 PM to around 3:30 AM. His cart is bare minimal and rides on the back of his bicycle. I’ve been there enough times to memorize the ingredients. Customers can choose from an option of 4 different kinds of noodles, rice, or my personal favorite, rice cakes. He starts off by heating oil in a hot wok under a propane flame. After frying an egg he puts in bok choy, a type of Chinese cabbage, and bean sprouts. After adding your choice of noodle it gets interesting. Street noodle guy begins to finish the order as he adds soy sauce, flavoring, and MSG, making a “ding” noise as he hits the spoon on the wok. We always say that it’s the sound of goodness going into the dish.
He is a migrant worker from a different province, coming to Shanghai in search of opportunity. He is typical of most of the 1.3 billion Chinese because he is from a rural area in China and is working hard to make a living. While China represents itself with its big cities, Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou, most of the Chinese are still living in rural areas in low standards. He now knows most of us by face and has come to memorize everyone’s favorite orders. He knows that I don’t like bean sprouts in mine and that I like two eggs, not bad for 5 RMB, or 80 cents. I’ve noticed that Chinese people are either extremely intrigued by foreigners or couldn’t care less about them. He seems to be interested in us and has asked us about our studies and where we are from but for the most part he is concentrated in his business.
The first week that I was in Buenos Aires we didn't have classes scheduled and I didn't really have much direction or know where I was going so I found myself just hanging around my neighborhood parks and gardens. One of those days I went with a couple of friends to the Botanical Gardens where a couple of NYU kids were hanging out, drinking wine and taking in the sun. I went to go sit with them but then noticed that there were two men on the other side of the park playing the guitar and singing. They sounded really good so I ventured over there to listen to them some more with a secretive motive to ask them about going about buying a guitar for myself. Considering I only have class twice a week I was planning on taking up a hobby of some sort shamefully I guess I had this romantic notion of learning how to play the guitar in Argentina. Anyway, I sat next to them and conjured up a conversation with the two of them. But I ended up speaking to Ariel more. Like most Argentines, he spoke super fast and used a lot of slang and I often had to ask him to repeat the last thing he said. His features as you can see are much more dark and he has long where which he wears in a ponytail, all traits which here in Argentina is associated with indigenous people, or gauchos. He told me he was from the more rural area of Argentina in the province of Salta and that he had moved to Buenos Aires to go to school and enjoys passing time with his friend and his guitar.
He was playing Argentine folk music that I had never heard before and his voice was very melodic. Him and his friend would kind of just look at each other and without saying anything just play a song on their guitars. At one point, Ariel put his guitar down and picked up a flute-like instrument that he considered to be the most beautiful instrument in the world. It was an instrument with indigenous roots and you could tell he was extremely proud of it. He played the flute like a pro and he was able to attract some neighboring people who applauded the little concert. There was a family nearby who also was listening to the music and when Ariel noticed them he summoned them over to sit near us. This is a common occurrence that I notice with Argentine people where, they have no problem going up to someone, introducing themselves to someone or inviting the person over to listen to music. The mother of the family had mate with her and offered Ariel and his friend to share the mate with her and her family in exchange for some song requests. Ariel and his friend seemed real grateful to just get some free mate and they played a song requested by the woman that was a very upbeat, folk song. During the song Ariel got up off of the grass and began to do this folkloric dance complete. The lady had great rhythm and Ariel had insane footwork technique. While they danced the husband was kind enough to offer my friends and I some mate as well and at one point I got up to try to the dance myself.
After they were finished dancing, the park was getting ready to close and I conjured up the courage to ask Ariel where I could buy a guitar. He told me that he would be glad to take me to the store where he bought his guitar and that he'd be even more happier to hang out in the park and teach me a few chords. I was extremely happy that someone would take the time out of their day to help me with something so silly and we exchanged numbers and promises to meet up. A couple of days later Ariel, a friend and I met up at the garden again and we went off to buy guitars. An hour and 250 pesos later I was the proud owner of a new guitar. Ariel was waiting outside for us and within the first step I took on the pavement and looks at me and says in spanish "so...i'm thinking that I could charge you 40 pesos/hr for classes, is that good for you?" Excuse me??? I thought we were just hanging out. He went on to say that he was giving us a deal because he really enjoyed our company. ugh. All of a sudden Ariel was a guitar teacher. You would think that he would have brought that up after I expressed to him that I was interested in buying a guitar and learning how to play. He was no longer a new friend that I had made in Buenos Aires. I was annoyed/disappointed that his seemingly innocent desire to hang out in the park was really just a way for him to make money. My friend, trying to be diploatic about the whole thing, actually entertained the conversation, reassuring him that we will let him know but that we were extremely busy and had to iron out our schedules. I couldn't even look at him. We parted our ways and I knew for a fact that Ariel was full of it after finding professional guitar teachers who were charging 20 pesos/hr. He continued to text me over and over about "ofertas" or sales that he was having and after ignoring his messages over and over I finally sent him a one simple message: sos mentiroso chico. chau.
When I came to France, it was really important to me to stay in a host family, and I think it was one of the best decisions I made while I was here. I live in an aristocratic French family, in a very fancy apartment on the Seine facing the Eiffel Tower, and enjoy free dinners whenever I want, or access to the massive kitchen complete with dishwasher, washer, and dryer. But most of all, I’m glad to have had the opportunity to get to know and hang out with my host family. They have given me an education in the practices of an aristocratic elite that is quickly dying away, but also always treated me with overwhelming kindness, generosity, and politeness.
The person that I spent the most time with was my host mother. A retired hostess to visiting ambassadors, I have never met anyone more maternal and solicitous. Most times I go to the kitchen she is either cooking, doing laundry, or ironing, and she always greets me with a smile and asks me about my day. She always likes to know what I’m doing, whether I have a lot of work, whether I’m going out a lot. But she is also has a very strong sense of propriety. Being a princess (yes, a princess), she was raised with very strict rules of conduct. I always do my best to make sure that I am polite and appropriate, and I hide the less upright aspects of my Parisian lifestyle…
Despite the formality of her social milieu, we have become remarkably close. We share and laugh and she always makes sure that I have enough to eat. She has even become slightly affectionate, which greatly surprised me. Several times she has embraced me or touched my cheek, and once called me like a second daughter. The French are very reserved about forming new relationships, especially ones that are necessarily temporary, so it means a lot to me that she has opened up a bit.
Of course, you have to keep in mind that not all French people are royalty…
My home stay mother, Isabel, is an interesting character. I have lived with her for three months now and I know surprisingly little about her. We are ships passing in the night. I am going to write this from a fair, observatory distance because at this point I’m embarrassed to ask her about herself. In fact, generally, I’d say I am slightly intimidated by her. I come home after class and she usually isn’t home. There is some pasta left in the microwave for me, or a pizza in the freezer and the table is set. My roommate and I, another girl from NYU, heat up the meal left for us, consume it, wash our dishes and go back to our rooms. I occasionally see my host-mother in the kitchen as I am on my way out but not always, and I occasionally see her when I come home, but not always. But she is a friendly woman. I appreciate the space she gives me; I know others in the program who have to say where they are going and when they will be back to their home stay families, whereas I never the next time I will see her.
I was not in Buenos Aires for very long before I started making the joke that everyone in this city is a hustler in one way or another. My home stay mother is a perfect example of that. She does not house exchange students because she wants to experience another culture, or because she wants to share her culture with others. Rather she has a constant, year round circulation of students and travelers housed in the three spare rooms in her apartment. She does not seem to have, or at least I have no been able to deduce that she has any other form of income. In the three months the other girl from NYU and I have been living in her apartment we have had four other roommates in the other bedroom for various amounts of time. There was a girl from Boston College living here for a month before she found her own apartment, a girl from Holland doing a month long Spanish emersion and two travelers who have stayed for two weeks each. The last time someone new came she did not tell me before hand and on my way to my room from the bathroom I ran into a 45-year-old man in the hallway with no idea why he was there. Now that bedroom is open and I have been woken up in the morning twice this week to foreign Spanish voices in the hall outside my door as Isabel shows the room and apartment to potential renters. She’s not breaking the law, but she’s certainly working the exchange student system. It has made for an interesting home stay experience.
I met Matias at an Argentine bar that my friends and I frequent many Thursday nights. That my first encounter with Matias was at this bar says plenty about his persona. Undeniably the most authentic Argentine bar I’ve ever visited, every time I go here with friends we have fun and meet plenty of people, but we always get sexually groped in the process. By the end of the night we are frustrated and fed up and we always falsely declare that we are never returning again. The boys here are simply too aggressive and too unfamiliar with the concept of personal space and Matias was no exception.
I was dancing with friends when I first saw him. He noticed I was looking at him which was my mistake, because seconds later he was too close. He was short like most Argentine boys, and although this is something my superficiality typically refuses to let me overlook, it was an especially fuzzy night and at 5 a.m. my soft spot for boys with dark hair, scruff, and piercings was all that mattered. We exchanged names and then he spoke to me in English, detecting my inability to speak fluent Spanish before I had to tell him. Long story short, when my friends and I left the bar about an hour later, Matias had my number and he had told me that he would call me the following day. Since I have learned to accept the stereotype that most Argentine boys are full of themselves and assholes, I honestly wasn’t expecting Matias to call me. But as he promised, the next day I missed a call from him when I had been away from my phone. After that, Matias proceeded to call me at least, without exaggeration, 20 times throughout the day. The first time he had called me I hadn’t answered because I was busy. But after that, the compulsivity of his calls simply freaked me out. Soon enough I was receiving phone calls from private callers and from other numbers that I had never seen before. Two days later, the phone calls were still obsessive and I still had yet to answer a single call. So Matias was a freak…he was strange, obsessive, and unable to grasp that my neglect of his phone calls meant I was not interested. Thanks to my unfortunate luck in Buenos Aires, I am no longer dealing with his phone calls because I left my phone in a taxicab one night.
Since I haven’t spent much time with Matias, my account of him may fall short of describing a person from Argentina in depth. Still, I chose to write about Matias because my experience with him says a lot about the people that I have met here on more general terms. The boys in particular are of some kind of species I can’t understand. The language barrier is strange to begin with, but the behaviors and the approaches of the boys in Buenos Aires are so different than I am used to at home; I feel I am too foreign to accurately analyze them or to describe them because I can’t decipher their meanings. I just wonder how Argentine females cope…or perhaps if any American boys here have had similarly strange/different/unknown experiences with the Argentine females as I have had with the males.
Before going on an extended trip or journey to a new place, one of the questions that we ask ourselves is "What will the people be like?". This question is of course a very understandable one. Being from a different culture and living in a completely different part of the world it is likely that people we encounter during our travels will have different mannerisms that we Americans can't seem to understand.
Since I had never been to England before I could only imagine that England's people would be similar to what is portrayed to us through television and movies. The stereotypical english man or woman of course talked with the British accent -- either a proper form like the Queen or that wonderful "slang-sounding" and difficult to understand dialect of Cockney. Young men would be properly dressed like gentlemen or they could be the kind that had clearly just rolled out of a pub after watching the 'football' match, while young women would be well up on the fashion trends and all somehow look like Keira Knightley. The older generations would exude an "air" about them of proper English heritage, dressed in Tweed with the men smoking pipes and the women wearing giant sun hats and pearls, while both the men and women would partake in drinking tea and eating biscuits. All of these attributes, along with the "English attitude", one that was proper and almost "stand-off-ish" and guarded, was what I was expecting when I landed on British soil. But I was proven quite wrong.
Once classes began, I was introduced to my Nineteenth Century British Novel teacher, Professor Moira Ferguson. Professor Ferguson, or Moira as we are accustom to calling her, was far from the British stereotype that I was expecting. Just by looking at her you can tell that she has lived a fascinating and exciting life. (Not to say that English men and woman can not live exciting lives, but what is portrayed through television and movies is a British disposition and demeanor that is more subdued, while Moira was certainly not!) Moira is a very outspoken and open person. She makes an effort in each class meeting to discuss something that is going on in her life, whether it be a movie that she went to see, a place that she visited over the weekend, or a "naughty" joke that she recently heard. As the semester continued, she began to let us (her students) into her life. We came to find out that not only was she an intelligent person, but a well traveled and cultured women. Many of the stories she tells are about her activism days (one of which involved walking beside Harvey Milk in California), stories about her wild travels with her ex-husband who was a journalist (who introduced her to Jim Morrison!), and even some interesting stories from right here in London. Daily I am fascinated by the exciting life she has lived and more often than not, cannot believe the wild life she is still currently living. Everything about her breaks the stereotype of an Englishwoman. She has a wit and sarcasm about her; she is outspoken almost to the point of being a New Yorker!; she is all about traveling and immersing herself into different cultures; she lives for a life of excitement; and she is certainly not guarded with a "cold" English front. Although she does enjoy the occasional cup of tea, she is far from what I expected out of my proper British teacher from London!
After a month or so in Buenos Aires I decided I wanted to play an instrument. I played trombone from third to twelfth grade and even tried guitar in middle school (isn’t that the most likely time a kid would want to learn guitar?) but the one instrument I have always tried to play and given up on is harmonica.
I wanted to learn tango. Tango on the chromatic harmonica which is distinct because it enables the player to play every note instead of only playing notes in one key. The chromatic harmonica means you could use one harmonica for any song. I bought a cheap (relatively) after a week or so of back-and-forth-shouldIreallybuythis—then I did.
I was just screwing around with it until I happened upon a milonga where I saw a slightly balding, scruffy, paunchy dude playing harmonica and (in fact) leading a band playing tango. This was my chance and I asked him if he’d give me lessons. He said sure (and spoke English well) and asked what kind of harmonica I had. A Chrometta 10.
“Oh that’s shit man.”
That’s the first thing I remember Rafael telling me.
He seems like he’s in his late thirties. Divorced. We had the first lesson in the park by my home-stay and he biked from far way to be there. We couldn’t have it at his place because he was living with his ex-wife at that time and as one might expect, he told me “it isn’t a good situation.” So we sat down in the park and he taught me how to get a better sound. He wasn’t a professional teacher but rather a musician who, like many of the (few) artists I have met here, teaches anything they can to make extra cash. He told me I needed to cover the holes on the instrument more, surround them with my mouth, “like eating a p***y.” This comparison would come up again. It’s part of who Rafael is. I think it shows how Argentine he is.
But he’s not from Buenos Aires. The reason why he can speak English so well is because he spent two years teaching snowboarding in Vermont. The reason why he can snowboard is because he spent some of his childhood with his father at their home in Bariloche, the gateway to some of the best skiing on the continent. I think his parents split up when he was young. His father is alive but his mother died a few years ago. He still keeps an embroidered flower in his wallet to remember her by.
The next few lessons were at a clean apartment he was renting as long as he could. For a few weeks this French woman stayed with him. He lived in France for a few months and could speak more or less fluently. She had bought him a top-of-the-line harmonica in France, something he couldn’t buy in Argentina. But it was the best.
He didn’t have the money to pay for it so he asked me if I wanted to buy his old harmonica—a nice Hohner. I eventually decided to buy it for 200 pesos less than retail along with his snowboarding jacket thrown in for free. I felt like I was ripping him off and he seemed sad to sell both but he really needed the money for the new harmonica.
He is a patient teacher and he has a passion for music. He freely admits that he teaches tango classes to get laid. He loves to snowboard. He says he has to dance every day or he feels sick. I haven’t heard from him in a month.
In an attempt to control the superhuman number of media-lunas (sweet, scrumptious, buttery croissants) that I consume per day, I’ve been visiting the fruit and vegetable stores (“verdulerias”) that I always found so charming. In order replace—at least a few—of my overly abundant guilty pleasures with an apple or two, I’ve started going to one verduleria in particular. This tiny little market caught my eye with its overflowing baskets of produce, shiny fruits, and exotic looking legumes—not to mention its irresistible proximity to the NYU campus.
Now at least 1 time out of 5, when I have the urge for something sweet and flakey, I turn right instead of left, and head reluctantly towards the verduleria. This adorable little shop, “La Cosecha,” is not particularly conspicuous here in Argentina. In fact, it’s very much like the hundreds of others I’ve seen in Buenos Aires as I walk from one place to the next. But this verduleria does indeed have something special about it. When I go there to survey the goods—looking but of course not touching, since such activity is not permitted in these places—a small Argentine man, named Juan, is always waiting to help me.
Juan who has been in the food retail business since he was 25, is sweet as pie, and always gives me a smile as I fumble around with my Spanish. “Una manzana verde y grande, por favor!” He has worked in La Cosecha for the past three years and is used to seeing lots of NYU students popping into his store to grab a healthy snack in between classes.
Now that I’ve been trying to go into the verduleria more often (to avoid the coffee shop on the other side of school) Juan and I have become quite the amigos. Not only am I certain that he saves the biggest, shiniest, crispiest manzanas for me, but I also find him to be extremely interesting, and a great conversationalist—and wonderfully nonjudgmental of my botched Spanish speaking endeavors.
Our brief afternoon conversations might even been a significant determining factor in my declining rate of media-luna consumption. Every day I learn something new—some tid-bit about how Juan came to be where he is. He moved here from Tucuman, like most Argentines, to study a “carrera,” the Argentine notion of a major. Juan had a military carrera (whatever that means), but some how ended up in the fruit and vegetable business, working in the super-market chains, “Carrefour,” “Claro”—you name it.
And despite my rosy image of the verduleria life, it wasn’t by choice that Juan ended up working in this little shop. Apparently, supermarket work is very much like the modeling industry—one day you’re young and desirable, and the next thing you know you’re 30 and useless, and out on you’re ass. No one cares about experience in this town, it’s all about youth. Juan, who is now almost 50, says no supermarket would ever hire him, but luckily he’s happy with the comfortable work at the verduleria…unless of course I was offering him something better!
The dimly lit room glows a warm orange as sunlight slowly pours onto the freshly polished hardwood floors. All around there is the lively chatter of an audience clearly too large to fit in such tight confines. Slowly, as the realization sets in, the audience gradually dies down as they notice the bemused face staring at them silently. Sitting there all along was the infamously controversial Czech artist, David Cerny. After gazing in silence for a good minute or so, he breaks his silence by saying, “I don’t know why you want me to say; All my work is bullshit,” he says, catching the audience off-guard and leaving them to wonder whether to laugh or stay quiet. He then laughs heartily, stating that we shouldn’t ask him about his infamously controversial work known as Entropa, for which he was commissioned by the European Union in celebration of Prague holding the E.U. Presidency. The work depicts countries in a satirical, and sometimes even blatantly inappropriate fashion, including a certain country (that shall not be named to protect the little dignity it has left) as a Turkish toilet. But the audience didn’t settle for this of course, and instead probes Mr. Cerny further, prompting him to state that out of the 12 million dollars he was paid to create Entropa, he returned the two million given to him by the Czech government. As for the remaining 10 million? Cerny defends his decision to keep the amount because the money came from “private donors”, as he grins sheepishly, swearing to never accept government funds again.
Reminiscent of a teenager trying too hard to not care in order to seem cool, Cerny says that he “doesn’t care about fame,” and cites it as the reason why he never signs any of his work. When asked if he creates his work with the intention of being controversial, he slyly says that he doesn’t, but instead views it as a reflection of his sense of humor. He reaffirms that while he cares about politics, he chooses to not get involved, and that the influence politics has on him only influences his work subconsciously. He states that his job is to simply “fill a space, and stick to the budget,” and tries to get the audience to empathize with his feigned humility by stating that he only gets about “one in ten” of his art proposals realized, and now even less with the state of the global economy. He further attempts (and fails miserably) at attempting to make himself seem grounded by saying that his work is “influenced 100% by the fact I was born and raised in the Czech Republic”, his chuckling almost bordering hysteria, “...or not.” He considers himself an exile of the Czech art community, stating that he would rather “hang with buddies at a bar” rather than fellow Czech artists. Leaving the audience with a story about how he was almost arrested for his “artistic expression,” he walks out laughing about he was going to go get trashed after the presentation at a bar. So he leaves the audience to wonder: Is he an innovative artist, or simply a pretentious douchebag? That is an expression for you to call all your own.
Professor D’Alimonte has come to be one of my favorite people I have met in Italy. He is the only surviving professor from when the La Pietra campus opened in 1994, and he is loved and admired by the other faculty as well as students. He is also a Professor at the University of Florence. He teaches History, Politics and Economics, and he teaches everyone as though it is the subject he specializes in. He always wears a navy blue sweater and he says that’s the way he likes it, he doesn’t want any flash to distract from what he is saying.
I take a course with him called US and European Relation Since WWII. There is no one better suited to teach a class on this subject. Although he was born and has lived most of his life in Italy, He went to a few years of school in American and ended up marrying an American woman before returning to Italy. He follows American news as carefully as if he lived there, and he is an Obama expert. He recently gave an amazing lecture series on the first 100 days of Obama where he brought up points and facts that I was completely unaware of.
Since the class is very small, he invited us all out to dinner. To make the meal more interesting, he invited a dozen of his Italian students as well. We had dinner at his country club, a members only affair farther across the Arno then I had ever been before. He staggered us so that we wee sandwiched between Italian students, and he welcomed us to switch back and forth between Italian and English.
The meal was a huge success. Although initially uncomfortable, a few bottles of wine helped everyone loosen up and we were soon describing our political views in poor Italian. The students were quit a bit older then us, Italian students graduate high school later and don’t go to college right away as often. It was the first experience I have had in Italy were I got to meet Italian students like me, interested in the same things, even with similar life goals.
I sat next to D’Alimonte during the meal. He looked over the table, so proud of his students struggling to explain their views on NATO in a foreign language. It was an experience I could not have had without him, and I really appreciate it.