My friends were surprised, to say the least, when I told them I was leaving to spend the summer in Buenos Aires. No, I told them, I don’t speak Spanish. No, I don’t know anyone local there. After a draining year of attending grad school while working at a pharmaceutical company, I needed a change. Fortunately, my pharma job allowed me to work remotely, and that “remote” location became an apartment in Buenos Aires.
I can be braver than I thought.
The first week passed quickly; my cousin flew down with me to help me get my bearings. She spoke fluent Spanish, and I’d tried to retain as much as possible as she ordered food, asked for directions, and brought subway tickets (I repeated iday vuelta in my head the entire subway ride so I would be able to ask for a round trip ticket on my own).
But as soon as she flew back to New York, it dawned on me that I was alone in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language. I was a ten-hour flight from anyone I knew. I’d grown up surrounded by three brothers and had never had to anything alone in my entire life. I worried as I climbed into bed alone that I’d made a big mistake.
I’d picked Buenos Aires for a few good reasons (safety, culture, public transit system, exchange rate) and one bad one: novels. Travel and books have always gone hand in hand for me – as tools to learn more about other people and cultures – and often one can enhance the other. For example, when I visited Paris for the first time after reading Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, knowing about the architecture of the building made seeing it in person even more special. Some of my favorite authors are Argentinian. But while knowing about past Argentinian dictators helped me appreciate the mothers marching in the Plaza de Mayo for their lost sons, it didn’t help me feel like a local.
My first day alone, I passed a cute bookstore café in my neighborhood, but was too nervous to enter. Disappointed in myself, I came up with two rules: each day I had to
(1) talk to at least one person
(2) walk four miles a day (to ensure I explored new neighborhoods instead of just watching Netflix in my apartment).
Pretty soon, I started meeting the most interesting people: a university literature professor who gave walking tours of the city in her spare time, a woman from Australia who’d left her stable job and boyfriend to dance tango in Buenos Aires, the waiter at the bookstore café I finally worked up the courage to enter (he recommended a fun artist market), and the social work student who invited me to Friday night dinner where my circle grew even more.
And those connections turned into dinner invitations and movie nights and people with whom I could practice Spanish. By the end of the summer, I could hardly believe how much I loved the city and how much of a community I’d made for myself – out of nothing. I didn’t know I could do that.
Now, wherever I travel, the first thing I do is find a local. And then I try to become one of them.
I learned two important lessons in Buenos Aires.
First, I can be braver than I thought. I’d always wanted to be more outgoing, and being in a fun city alone was the perfect catalyst.
Second: locals are key. Guide books can help you understand the history of a city and what that place has to offer, but the most rewarding things I did weren’t the sites I’d read about beforehand.
The speakeasy hidden in the basement of a flower shop wasn’t in my guidebook. The rose garden with busts of famous writers didn’t even show up on Google maps. The best cheesy fugazzeta pizza I ate was at a tiny hole-in-the-wall that didn’t even have a website. All these recommendations came from people who knew Buenos Aires intimately, because they lived there. Now, wherever I travel, the first thing I do is find locals. And then I try to become one of them, even if only for a little while.