14 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Moved to Argentina
Say “Argentina” out loud and people will wonder if you’re some sort of geography Rain Man for just blurting out South American nations. But generally speaking, the country brings to mind a handful of images -- soccer greats like Maradona and Messi, tango, and nowadays, even the Pope.
But, well, there’s a lot more to Argentina than what you’ll find out from Hollywood or the news. These are the 14 things I wish I knew before I moved to Argentina.
Everyone has a shrink
Argentina has more psychologists per capita than anywhere in the world. Friends, coworkers, and dates will add their shrinks’ insight without pause into conversation. Basically, you’re crazy if you don’t see a shrink. Freud's still the man here, though, so at any moment the subject being discussed can take a turn for the sexual.
Kiss hello, kiss goodbye
The Argentine goodbye is the polar opposite of the Irish goodbye. Here, you take the time to kiss everyone on the cheek upon arrival and prior to leaving. This goes for girls, guys, Grandma, and even pets. OK, the last one is a lie. But you do it even if it takes 10 minutes and requires stretching across tables. Give a general wave goodbye and everyone will think you’re a cold, rude foreigner.
Love hotels are normal
There are hotels, there are hostels, and then there are telos, or “love hotels”, to put it nicely. With many people living at home until they're close to 30 or married, telos are a big business and there’s one to suit everybody's style. You can find spots mirroring traditional-looking hotels with white sheets and shiny fixtures, but also kinkier spots with hot tubs and mirrored walls. Most patrons seek the latter. You can even indulge your inner freak with themed rooms like Arabian Nights and Star Wars. If you can dream it, there’s probably a telo room for it. Just look out for places marked "albergue transitorio".
The customer is not always right
In fact, the customer is often wrong. And if you’re wrong, you’ll be told you're wrong. Sometimes that results in a shouting match at the checkout counter while a line starts snaking around the store, leading to more people getting fired up.
Such encounters usually go one of two ways: the person tending to you will either shrug and do absolutely nothing, or go so far beyond the call of duty that you’ll wonder if you’re in some bizarro good karma universe. And you’ll never be able to predict which one it’ll be.
Cash rules everything around me
Four years of living in Argentina has been like an undergraduate education in economics. When I first arrived, the Argentine peso was slightly less than 4:1 with the dollar. Today it’s more than 14:1, but also 8:1 if you consult the black market goblins or the dubious government-reported numbers. It’s all about the dolla dolla bills, ya’ll.
Everyone celebrates everything
The 2014 calendar has 15 government holidays, including eight long weekends. The US? Just 10 official holidays, and the only people who really get all of them deliver mail or work in banks.
But Argentines celebrate everything to the extreme: a goodbye party before a two-week long vacation or a welcome back party upon returning from that trip. The first day of spring, for example, is a blowout. Though it’s actually a working holiday, employers gift their workers plants and everyone wishes each other a feliz primavera (happy spring) and goes out partying.
WYSIWYG on menus
If the menu says “carrot salad” and the only ingredient listed is carrots, you will be served a bowl of chopped carrots. Don’t assume any other ingredients are in your order. Steak comes by the cut and that’s all that will come on your plate. Sides are ordered separately. Also, doggie bags aren’t really a thing, so order only what you’ll eat.
Argentines get fired up about everything
Italians take a lot of flak for talking with their hands, and there’s a lot of Italian blood in Argentina. These people are passionate when it comes to... everything. People approach, discuss and believe in every topic with the same fervor, whether it’s club soccer teams or ice cream flavors.
Side note: Steak is great in Argentina, but helado, or ice cream, is really out of this world.
Argentines devour innards and wash them down with Fernet
While not the most adventurous eaters, Argentines love blood sausage, and mollejas (sweetbreads) are also a parrilla (grill) favorite. To wash it all down, they’ll guzzle Fernet mixed with Coke. (The aperitif Campari is another choice beverage, especially during summer). Develop a genuine appreciation for bits you wouldn’t eat at home and you’ll be the most celebrated foreigner to ever attend an asado (barbecue).
Also, always say yes to mate, a bitter caffeinated yerba drink that’s as much a cultural tradition and social bonding opportunity as anything else.
The Spanish is not what you learned in high school
Armed with a 10th-grade level of Español, you’d be proud to ask your friend how old he is, by saying: "Cuántos años tienes tú?" Well, that’s not how it’s done in Argentina, where the Spanish is almost another language ("Cuantos años tenés vos?", FYI). The Spanish here is a mash-up with Italian that's got its own world of slang and its own “you” conjugation form, while the double-L sound that normally sounds like a Y (as in calle) sounds more like a “shh” sound. So instead of crossing a cay-yay, you're crossing a cay-shay. Good luck with that...
As if that weren’t hard enough, Argentines also often talk in vesre, in which syllables are swapped like Pig Latin. Vesre, for example, comes from flipping the syllables of the word revés (reverse). Telo, for example, comes from the vesre of “hotel”. Confused yet? I still am sometimes, four years later.
You can get just about anything delivered
Booze or ice running low at a party? Call delivery. Hung over in bed with no food or energy to cook eggs? Call delivery. If you can consume it, you can get it delivered, shame-free. I once saw a neighbor shuffling to the door to retrieve delivery from the ice cream place directly next door to our building. That’s lazy -- and awesome. You can even dial the cafe nearby for a coffee and an aproned, bow-tied waiter will come your way with a cup, saucer and silver spoon that he’ll pop by later to pick up. And as if McDonald’s weren’t already easy enough, yes, you can also get that delivered.
There’s no such thing as PC
Nicknames in Argentina stem from appearance, they’re rampant, and often not words that would fly in the US. Someone who is olive-skinned will be Negro (black) while every friend group also seems to have a Chino (Chinese) who’s not actually Chinese. Couples often call each other gordo or gorda, which essentially translates to “fatty”. Pretty sure that would get most American guys slapped. Additionally, most everyone in Argentina is miraculously thin, despite the proliferation of steaks and the aforementioned guzzling of Coke and Fernet.
Being in a rush is unacceptable
People stop to ask each other how they are and actually want to know the answer in Argentina, which is so not American. “Busy” is also not an appropriate response here, because everyone always has time for a long, lazy lunch or a coffee. After all, the national pastime is the asado, or barbecue, which is usually a minimum four-hour-long affair that involves slow-grilled meat, eating, drinking, and hanging out. That’s not the kind of thing you should rush.
Relationships mean everything
Argentines will say it and they’ll also back it up: an Argentine friend is a friend for life. All you need is one look at the country's mixed-bag friend groups -- rugby players, hipsters, and hippies with interests all over the map -- that are the result of loyal friendships formed in infancy for proof. And Argentines have standing dates that are a given on their calendar from now until forever: Sundays with family and the weekly asado with their friends and family.