From the Issue: Terra Cognita
Written by Bwog Staff
From the November issue of The Blue and White, we bring you study abroad dispatches from Argentina and France written by correspondents Hannah Goldfield and Ren McKnight. Hard copies will be on the (nonexistent) racks on Monday!
I am already thinking about the things I will miss. I’ve been in South America since May and the things I miss about home are starting to gnaw at me. It doesn’t help that my body, accustomed to 21 years of crisp, chilly, autumnal November, is disoriented by the intense, impending Argentine summer, which is beautiful but feels misplaced, almost artificial.
The things I will miss about Buenos Aires mostly involve food. Milanesa: beef pounded thin, battered in egg and breadcrumbs, then both fried and baked. My host family eats it once a week, served cold with a salad of lettuce and tomatoes. Empanadas, which can be purchased on just about any block of the city, although the style and quality can differ greatly. I prefer baked over fried, filled with chopped meat, hard-boiled egg, and olives, or sweet corn. And then there are the steaks. It’s true what they say about Argentina: steak is what’s for dinner. There is nothing so tantalizing as the smell of thick cuts of beef roasting over hot charcoal, nothing so satisfying as each juicy bite of my favorite meat-centered meal: ribeye, accompanied by French fries or a puree of squash and washed down with a great Malbec.
I will miss sitting in cafes for hours in the afternoon. The wait staff never drops the check before you ask for it, an invitation to linger over espresso and medialunas, which are modified croissants, sticky with a sweet glaze. This leisurely, relaxed manner is the way of life here. Buenos Aires boasts a vibrant energy, but it lacks the sense of nagging urgency that can drive New Yorkers to madness.
I notice this most in school. My classes at a small film university are challenging, but if a student rolls in an hour late to a two-hour class, no one bats an eye. “Hey, how are you?” the professor might say, interrupting his lecture. There’s no shame in slacking off: when questioned about their progress on the readings or the films, students answer honestly, knowing that they will be gently scolded, not chastised or humiliated, for falling behind. No one’s defending the efficiency of this system, but no one’s jumping off the roofs of any buildings, either.
I can’t see this attitude catching on at Columbia, but I will take home—in addition to as much dulce de leche as can fit in my suitcase—a virtue I never quite mastered before living here: patience. I thought the lines at Duane Reade were bad; then I met Farmacity, the Buenos Aires equivalent. Argentines are more concerned with smelling the flowers than getting to their next destination. And why wouldn’t they be, when chronic lateness isn’t considered a personality flaw?
Though I’ve often daydreamed of being reincarnated as an Argentine schoolgirl–effortlessly stylish in a short plaid skirt, Converse high tops, v-neck sweater slung carelessly around my shoulders, with my waist-length hair swept up in a faux-silk flower—the most unexpected thing I will take home is pride in being American. I have never felt as patriotic as I do living here. Argentines may have loathed our politics before Election Day, and they think it’s really weird that we eat eggs for breakfast, but when it comes to our language, our constitution, and, most noticeably, our culture (both high and low), they’re hard pressed to deny their admiration. I feel lucky to call the U.S. home.
From the balcony of my apartment in Metz, France, I can see a cathedral and a Protestant church, almost side-by-side. And while the very juxtaposition of these two buildings suggests a history of change and reformation, there is something else worth noting: both dominate the skyline, but at this point serve as little more than tourist attractions.
This paradox has been on my mind since I moved to France over a year ago: The French, a reputedly non-believing people, walk daily through cities replete with religious remnants. The streets, schools, and even the cities themselves are commonly named after saints or make other religious references. And yet many of the people I speak with every day on those very streets, by those schools, and in those cities refer to organized religion as one would describe an outdated ride at an amusement park: “J’ai fait tout ça” – I did all that.
Why, you may be wondering, do I talk with people daily about their faith? I’m an American in France. Why don’t I just go sit out on my balcony in a pair of pointy shoes with a cigarette and a bottle of wine, reading L’étranger and shouting “bonjour!” at passersby? Well, besides the fact that I already converted to French shoes and have already read Camus, I am a full-time volunteer missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and I share a message that God is our Father who loves us, that Jesus Christ lives, and that a prophet of God, a man like Moses, walks the earth today.
Of course, these are all very big claims. And they seem to become even bigger when I state them to people of a culture that may or may not even hold a general belief in a supreme being. What do you do when something that once permeated every aspect of society and occupied a position of strong daily importance falls into the realm of empty tradition?
I’m about to leave the Internet cafe and walk back into the commercial plaza by the St. Étienne cathedral. Scaffolding covers half of the cathedral’s sandstone exterior; the building is slowly being cleaned and renewed by a long process of sandblasting. Half of the façade is a proper yellow, and you can see the awesome workmanship of centuries past. But the other half, at least for the time being, is blackened with time and defaced by graffiti.
They won’t finish the cleaning project before I’m transferred to another city in a few weeks, but I hope that when I come back to visit Metz in the future, they will have taken off the scaffolding and the building’s exterior will shine anew.
Tags: study abroad