It is easy enough to find out the basic facts about a country if you are thinking about living abroad – the average cost of living, crime rate, systems of health and education – all those are relatively easily accessible. What is harder to research are the small things that make one country so different from another – those little things that can either make you mad or make you laugh but which definitely contribute to the whole rich experience of living as an ex-pat. So, in no particular order here are my observations on some of the idiosyncrasies of life in Argentina.
1. Speciality Shops
One of the things that surprised me most when I first came here was the sheer quantity of shops and the fact that they are so specialised. For example in the UK I would have been able to buy diapers, medicines, cosmetics and much more under one roof , whereas here there are separate tiny stores selling nothing but diapers, or nothing but make up or whatever. There are a few small supermarkets which have a range of things but the choice is very limited. You cannot buy many food items in the supermarkets either and have to go to a “dietetica” (a health food store) for things like spices, nuts and seeds or dried fruit.
The fact that there is no one huge mega store monopolising everything has its charming side and it is a pleasant way of shopping if you have time at your disposal. People in general are extremely courteous and nice, and everyday transactions are always enjoyable on a human level. If however, like me, you are always in a raging hurry, it can be slightly irritating to have to race around five shops instead of one. Especially as, despite the super abundance of all these little shops, there always seem to be lengthy queues – no doubt because the serving person is having a courteous and protracted conversation with each and every customer!
Another thing that causes delays is that in many shops there are several counters – at one you choose your goods and receive a receipt, and then you have to go to another counter to actually pay for them. In some places you then have to return to the original counter in order to collect your stuff – after showing your second receipt to show you have paid. When you repeat this process at a few shops the time flies by and you can easily find the morning gone with the surface of your “to do list” barely scratched.
2. School Uniforms
As a devoted but fairly scatty mum I was horrified to discover that the school uniform here consists of a white overall worn over normal clothes. The uniform is standard right across the country in the public school system although the private schools have their own. I believe it was introduced by Peron to reinforce the Nations’ sense of identity.
All well and good, but white? White! In one of the dustiest places on the planet! We live in San Rafael which is literally an oasis in the middle of the desert. The climate is great on the whole but we get frequent strong winds which regularly dump what appear to be tons of dust. I have long since given up on the ideal of an immaculate house and surrendered to the fact that dust – dry “clean” dust you understand – is an inevitable part of our life.
Which is why I am astonished on a daily basis when I see the gleaming white overalls worn by the kids at my son’s school. He himself is adept at creating mess wherever he goes – he can’t entirely help it, he has my genes – and already, four weeks into the school year, his overalls are starting to look bedraggled and grimy. Those of his peers however look like an advert for some shiny new washing powder despite the fact that we live in a rural, fairly poor area and the majority of people don’t have washing machines.
I suppose I should feel ashamed but I don’t as apart from the fact that I have other things to do apart from endless scrubbing and bleaching I don’t want to pour any more chemicals than are strictly necessary into our antiquated sceptic tank. So that is my excuse and my son will just have to look scruffy until he is old enough to do the laundry himself or they change the uniform to a more practical colour – like brown!
3. Arbitrary application of laws…
The police here seem to uphold the law in an arbitrary way. For example it is illegal to have a child under the age of twelve in the front seat of a car. My transport is my trusty bicycle, but friends have told me that they have been stopped and reprimanded for driving with their child securely belted in beside them while in the other lane a family of three or more chunter blithely past on a single moped with maybe one safety helmet between them.
Likewise tourists in their safe, reliable rental cars are routinely stopped for the offense of not having their lights on ( obligatory at all times ) – while rust- buckets held together with string, with barely one working light at either end – lurch along unimpeded.
My husband’s truck falls into the latter category and I am not in the least proud to admit that at times nothing seems to work on it whatsoever, apart from the wheels and the engine. Yet despite the fact that he gets regular parking tickets in town he has never been called to account for the less than road- worthy condition of his vehicle. Which brings me to…….
4. Health and safety
In the UK the concept of health and safety has been taken to laughable extremes in recent years. I could give numerous examples of officialdom interfering in situations where common sense used to prevail, such as when they removed a much loved wooden rocking horse from the children’s section of our local bookshop on the grounds of Health and Safety…..no one had ever fallen off it and no young children went there unaccompanied, but still it was DANGEROUS!
In Argentina however this mentality simply does not exist. The idea that the State might interfere in matters of personal comfort and safety appears to be completely alien. I was struck on arrival here by the wide concrete ditches that run alongside the roads carrying a foot or more of fast flowing water. These mini canals are bridged every few feet by concrete paths. Any child that fell in and got swept along would stand a good chance of bashing their head on one of these. When I remarked on how dangerous this was to an acquaintance she laughed airily “well who hasn’t fallen in when they were a kid?”
I must admit that three years later I worry less about this and similar issues – children do seem to adapt to the risks around them in a way that is perhaps ironically healthier than being wrapped in the proverbial cotton wool, which tends to happen in more H. & S. conscious cultures.
However I do still come out in a cold sweat sometimes when I see people riding their bikes through busy traffic with small children perched on the handlebars or standing up on the rim of the back wheel. Likewise you will often see young babies travelling on motorbikes – propped up front by their proud parents and of course wearing no helmet.
This cavalier approach to life is widespread. After a big storm last year there were many fallen trees and it was quite agonising to watch people teetering around on the feeblest of ladders to remove branches from the electricity cables.
5. Everything is sold by the kilo!
When I still had my British H.&S. attitude firmly in place I practically died of shock when we visited one of the many tiny shops which sell only cleaning products and equipment. Rows and rows of used soda bottles lined the shelves, full of toxically bright, colourful solvents, detergents and bleaches. Not a child proof bottle top in sight! I shuddered and was grateful that at that point my son had shown a distinct aversion to the fizzy drinks so popular here.
More or less everything is sold by the kilo or the litre. In our local grocery you have to take along your own container if you want to buy cream or honey and so on. In dieteticas they have huge transparent sacks of dry food which they weigh out in scoops. I am all in favour of anything that dispenses with the extra packaging that causes so much pollution – however it can be annoying when you buy crisps or cereals and get home to find they are inevitably soggy.
Even firewood is sold by weight rather than volume and my husband often gets asked for the price per kilo of the alfalfa rolls he makes.
The dieteticas do good business catering to the party market. One thing you can’t help being struck by here is how everyone loves to celebrate. Any event will do but it is mostly birthdays that are given the all-star treatment, and that holds especially true for children’s parties. A typical party here features: a bouncy castle, a huge lengthy table groaning with ritual party food: mini pizzas, sandwiches, bowls and bowls of violently coloured crispy crunchy snacks, and of course the inevitable cake. This will invariably be oblong, with four or five layers of thin sponge sandwiched together with different fillings such as dulce de leche, fruit, cream, ice cream and any combination of those. The whole thing will be smothered with incredibly sweet, sticky icing. It will be topped by candles and often an indoor firework which shoots out a spectacular plume of fire while everyone sings Happy Birthday.
There are no party games such as “Pass the Parcel” or “Musical Chairs”, rather there will be hours of playing on the bouncy castle while the grown-ups steadily eat their way through the party food. Eventually there will be a piñata and party bags. We have been to many parties since moving here and they have all followed the same pattern. The main thing that struck me at first was the length – three hours minimum and they often go on for much longer.
I was puzzled for a while about how spick and span people here look most of the time (not just in school uniform!) Then I realised that the customary birthday gift is an item of clothing, and when a child has a party ALL their relatives get invited, not to mention their entire class from school. So it is no wonder children look like they are wearing new clothes every day – they are! I have to say my son isn’t at all impressed with this policy and getting him to look pleased and grateful as he opens his twelfth present to find yet another tee shirt is a challenge.
7. Holidays, holidays and more holidays.
Argentina must come pretty high up in the list of how many public holidays a country has. There are the Saints’ days which are observed in all Catholic countries but also many historical dates are celebrated with a day off work – the Day of Independence and so on. San Martin, the great Argentine hero has at least three days to his name. Last week we had two days off to remember the “disappeared” from the period of the military dictatorship.
There are also numerous days “of” so and so. For example there is the Day of the child, Day of the family, Day of animals, Day of the worker as well as more specific profession- based “days” – teachers, shop workers, bank clerks, farmers etc all have their designated days. Not all of these are holidays but many of them are.
In some ways it is great to have lots of days off but as a parent it can become a bit annoying when it seems like almost every week there is holiday – especially as so far I have been unable to find a comprehensive list of these dates so it usually comes as a complete surprise to me when the teacher casually mentions that there are no classes the next day.
As a train lover it saddens me to pass the empty rail tracks and derelict stations around here. Up until a few decades ago there was a working train network throughout the country, now they only function around Buenos Aires and in some tourist areas. It is a great pity because Argentine produce – beef, wine, fruit and so on, is ideally suited to being transported by train, and vast swathes of the country are flat so it would be more economical and better for the environment if they could still be moved that way. Instead the roads, many of them in a poor state of repair, are full of overloaded fume-belching trucks.
From a passenger’s point of view a long distance train journey across the Pampas must have been quite an experience. Of course many people prefer flying these days. There is an extensive network of domestic flights within Argentina but it has its flaws. The foremost irritation is the fact that there are no direct flights connecting the provinces – if you want to fly from one end of the country to the other you have to go via Buenos Aires. The daily connection we have here with the capital is not entirely reliable – it is apt to be cancelled or postponed with no warning.
The good news is that the country has one of the best long distance bus systems in the world. I was sceptical about this at first having had truly horrible experiences of 24 hour bus travel in Europe, but after my first journey I was well and truly converted. The buses are extremely comfortable. They travel overnight between here and Buenos Aires so you make good use of your time as you sleep on board. Surprisingly, despite the fact that time-keeping is a very low priority for the majority of the Argentine population, buses both long distance and local do seem miraculously punctual.
Did you know that if you want to live in Argentina you have to possess a minimum of three dogs? Okay I am joking, but only just. Walking down an average street anywhere in the country you would be forgiven for presuming that a love of our furry friends is compulsory. Dogs here are treated differently from in the UK. Very rarely do you see them being walked – apart from in city centres where the majority of people live in apartments. In Buenos Aires you do see dog walkers with ten or fifteen dogs on leads but in our rural area people keep them in their gardens or yards primarily as guard dogs, and they get their exercise from tearing around crazily in those confined spaces.
Before we moved here I was beset by worries of all shapes and sizes about the unknown – nearly all of which were completely unfounded. One of my nightmares was that that there would be packs of savage wild dogs roaming the streets. There are some strays around but so far I haven’t come across any really aggressive ones. Dogs with homes, good or otherwise, are naturally territorial and will make a show of chasing you if you come too near the entrance of THEIR property, but it is generally all theatre and you very rarely hear of anyone being actually bitten.
I was never particularly fond of dogs but, as in so many other ways, moving here has changed me. Now we have two and they are quite a handful, full of energy and the joys of life. They are excellent pets for my son and they look quite ferocious which is good even though they are really big softies at heart. The only downside is the symphony of barking that goes on at night time as the neighbourhood hounds compare their days!
10. Kiss kiss!
Kissing is the standard form of greeting here. As an up-tight foreigner trying to fit in I used to be concerned about the exact etiquette – who do you kiss, how many times and so on. For instance if you meet a slight acquaintance in the street with her family, obviously you kiss her, but do you also kiss the three kids and baby? I used to study peoples’ body language, looking for that slight sway forward that indicated that I too should lean forward and kiss, at least once, often twice.
Now I just live by the policy of: “When in doubt, Kiss.” Thus in any typical day I may kiss the school teacher, my neighbours, the gas man….for me the most disconcerting time was discovering it was the “done thing” to kiss your gynaecologist – somehow that just doesn’t seem right!
At parties the usual thing is to make a round of quick kisses and hellos when you arrive, introducing yourself to those you don’t know. As a shy person I initially found this quite awkward but now I like the ritual and find that to break the ice in this formalised way makes it easier to go back and talk to people.
Of course kissing is not just for saying hello but also for bidding farewell. The length of time between these two smackeroos has also caused me some farcical angst. If you are at a large gathering and haven’t spoken to everyone apart from your initial greeting do you then have to go round again kissing good bye? When you stop and speak to your neighbour for five minutes do you kiss again on leaving? Do you kiss the teacher after talking to her briefly about your child? The answer has to be yes, yes and yes, on both cheeks!
About the author: Kate Kirby is a mother, partner, ardent foodie and artist. Originally from Scotland, she has lived with her family near San Rafael in Argentina for three years. In her former life she worked as a cook, a teacher, a cleaner…anything to keep the wolf from the studio door. For more information on her painting and the art holidays she runs in San Rafael please see her website: www.kate-kirby.com
Other links to useful resources on Argentina
Vacation Rentals in Argentina
Medical Tourism In Argentina