Saturday, February 24, 2007

Buying bus tickets (Ken)

The president of the college where I teach, Dr. Carol Eaton, was a foreign exchange student in Argentina as a girl. When I applied for sabbatical to come to Argentina to study Spanish, she was new to the college. When my sabbatical was approved, she made an appointment to meet with me to congratulate me for having been granted sabbatical and tell me that she was especially interested in my proposal because of her Argentina connection. She told me that she has kept in touch with her host family, and that their daughter, Monica, stayed with Carol’s family in the USA while Carol was in Argentina. (I think I have the story correct).


Anyway, when I was making final preparations for my trip, I asked Carol to put me in touch with her Argentina "Sister" so that I could meet her. Carol was happy to make the introduction and we made tentative plans for Helen and me to visit Monica and her family in Córdoba while I was between classes at UBA. That is less than two weeks from now, so I had to make travel arrangements.


Here in Argentina, the way to get around the country is by bus. For my friends in the USA, I do not mean a Greyhound bus. In Argentina, the busses do overnight trips in luxury. There are different classes of seats from semi-cama, which is a seat that partially reclines; to full cama, which is a seat that reclines 180 degrees, to a suite which is a seat large enough for you to sleep on your side with privacy curtains, a television, and meal service. The only problem is that I had to actually make these arrangements, in Spanish. My Spanish is improving, but it is not good--not even close.
I have taken the train from Retiro, and am familiar with that part of the city (or so I thought). Several people told me, "Just go to Retiro, on the third floor there are dozens of bus companies." So, I went to Retiro. I wandered around the train station for 20 minutes or so until I gave up and asked someone where the bus companies were. A nice train attendant directed me to an office at the end of the train station. There, a confusing conversation took place where I was told there were no tickets until after March 22.
I left and spotted a kiosk advertising bus service. I spoke to the nice man and asked him about service to Córdoba. He told me my options, but they did not include "full cama." I asked him if there were other bus companies. He said something like, "Well, yeah, there are dozens. Don’t you know about the bus station?" Terminal de Omnibus, he told me, was three blocks down and one to the left. OK, I am an idiot for the first time that day.


I walked the four blocks and found the legendary "third floor." And, indeed, there are dozens of bus companies. After walking past each of them, I finally realized there is a color-code system. I was going to the "Red Zone" so I needed to look at the bus companies that had the red number signs. I went to one and asked for suite service. The sales agent told me that was the next window. I went to the next window only to realize that he meant the next bus company. Now I am an idiot for the second time.

I shamefully walked to the next company, and they did indeed have suite service. I was making great progress. I told him where I wanted to go, when I wanted to go, that Helen was coming with me. It was going great until he asked for passports. Of course. Passports. Now I am an idiot for the third time. I carry a photocopy of mine, but I needed Helen´s as well. So, I headed home vowing to return the next day.
Our friends Tom and Maya have a saying that if you don’t make a fool of yourself three times by lunchtime, you are not really trying. I probably still had 25 minutes to spare.
The next day was yesterday, and Helen made the walk back to Retiro with me. We accomplished out goal in short order with no problems.
That was my plan before I got here. Go out and try . . . and fail. Come home, figure out what I did wrong, and go back out the next day and try again.

Everyone says that three months of immersion is the magic number to get some skill at a language. Today makes eight weeks. In another month, I’ll let you all know if they were correct.


emilyeffinconrad said...

but you're learning

Mia said...

Ken, you don't have to publish this, and I do hope you won't take what I'm going to write the wrong way, but I think that you are being too hard on yourself and, also, that your expectations are too high, I'm afraid. You are not doing immersion, not even close. You and Helen spend most of your time speaking in your native language, watch English TV and movies, etc. Plus, many of the Argentines you interact with speak enough English to bail you out.

Let me tell you about my own experience. I was born and raised in Buenos Aires and I'm fluent in four languages. My parents, both European-born, wanted me to speak their language as a native so, at home, my mother would only speak to me in Italian and my father in German. I started school speaking very little Castellano, but by the end of kindergarten I had caught up. Young brains learn so fast, don't they?

In the mid '80s I traveled to Canada on my own. Fate had it that I was to stay and become a Canadian citizen. I set foot in the country unable to communicate in English. During the first few weeks I had the hardest time trying to make sense of what people were saying to me. Luckily, I met very nice, patient people, foreign students like myself. Less than six months later I was able to read and comprehend books (novels) without the help of a dictionary, participate in meaningful conversations with peers, and my diction had improved noticeably. You will get to that level in such a short period of time only when forced to speak the new language 24/7. I interacted with English-speakers only. Watched TV and movies in English, listened to English radio. Only when I called back home did I get to speak in another language.

And I was half your age...

Enjoy beautiful Buenos Aires and try to relax. You will go back to the States with a solid (real life) intermediate level Castellano. Perhaps not enough to maintain conversations with Spanish speakers over the phone, but close.

BTW, about feeling like "having to apologize for being from the nasty old US." You shouldn't feel that way. Just try to remember that while Americans believe that their country is the best country in the world and that the "American Way" is the only/best way, nations around the world don't necessarily share that belief. Argentines may like to visit New York, California and Florida but the American Culture isn't something they look up to. People from many other nations feel the same way. As a Argentine-Canadian of European descent, living in the US for several years now, it bothers me when I hear an American say "this is the best country on Earth" because it simply isn't true. This is a good country and it naturally is the best country on Earth for the American citizen, but so is Canada for the Canadians and England for the English, Holland for the Dutch, France for the French, Italy for the Italians, Spain for the Spaniards, Greece for the Greeks, Russia for the Russians...

And while it maybe true that 30 million Americans think that Starbucks is wonderful, there are hundreds of millions of people from around the world who think that Starbucks is awful and that it is an aberration to drink coffee from a paper cup. Most Americans love the taste of charred meat smothered in BBQ sauce, I guess I would too if that was what I grew up with.

Ken and Helen said...

Yes, my expectations are too high, and I am too hard on myself. But that is not just Argentina--that´s pretty much how I am with everything in my life that is important to me.

I agree, I am not doing total immersion. It is more like I am waist deep in the shallow end of the pool, and I occasionally swim in over my head. But . . .I am wet all the time.

One reason for keeping this blog is so that I can remember the experience in detail. When I return home in July, these six months will fade into a series of selective, romanticized vingettes. I try to be honest in these postings and write while the experiences are new and the emotions are unprocessed. That way, I have will have a better recolection of this experience when it is over.

It is like running my first marathon. Two weeks after it was over, all I remembered was that I finished it. The despair of miles 20 through 26 faded from memory. I lost touch with how greatful I was when my mind allowed my thoughts to wander, for five minutes, away from the pain and agony and put another half-mile behind me. It was only after I had repeated the marathon experience a dozen times that I was able to fully recall that part of the experience.

However, unlike running a marathon, I´ll never get the chance to do this again. That´s why I write it down.

Thanks for your comments and your perspective. You are thoughtful, and I welcome the dialog.


p.s. The "Nasty old USA" must have been in a Helen post.

Jos said...

Ken, keep writing about your experiences; I truly enjoy reading all your posts.

I am still depressed over coming back so soon from Mendoza; two weeks were simply not enough. I miss the fresh air, the mountains and the people.

Must go back soon!

Chas said...

Mia --

We Americans grow up being told over and over that we live in the Greatest Country In The World. The information is absorbed as The Truth at a very early age. Then we get old enough to go overseas, and we bring our superior attitudes with us. We spend a couple weeks offending the natives, and we go home and announce to our friends that the French are extremely rude. We all hear that over and over as well, and soon it, too, becomes The Truth. But I digress...

I have to admit, I spent most of my life assuming that everyone else in the world secretly wished they were American (our own president is convinced that the "terrists" hate us for our freedom), just based on "the fact" that everything is better here. This belief was reinforced by my college roommate who grew up as an American in Japan; he claimed that Americans had a kind of rock-star status there. It's only been in the last decade or so that it occurred to me that people from other countries probably love their homes as much as we love ours.

If some of us are a bit self-conscious about looking like Americans while overseas, it may be because we've been thinking about how we might look to others. In my imagination, we Americans haul our fat asses to other countries wearing our shorts and Nikes and Yankees baseball caps, expensive cameras slung around our necks, complaining in our loud American voices that we can't make a cell phone call or get a 32-ounce Coke with plenty of ice any time we want it, and treat our hosts like they were our servants, because really, how smart can these people be if they can't even speak English?? Intellectually, I believe that most Americans aren't quite like that, but it's the image I've assigned to us, for whatever reason. Nonetheless, I steadfastly resist the urge to apologize for being an American. I have this naive notion that if we can just refrain from behaving like bufoons, we should be fine. Hope it's true...

(But if you don't like the taste of charred meat smothered in BBQ sauce, there's something wrong with you!)