|American woman Cherie has been living in Argentina for nearly four years now, where she works as a tango instructor and writer in Buenos Aires. Read about her thoughts on various aspects of the everyday culture of this Argentine city and learn from tips she shares, not only on living in Buenos Aires, but on living in another country and making the most of the experience.
-Where were you born?
Los Angeles, CA, USA
-In which country and city are you living now?
Buenos Aires, AR, in the barrio of Boedo
-Are you living alone or with your family?
I live with my American cat, Phoebe, who I brought from Mexico and who came with me from L.A.
-How long have you been living in Argentina?
Almost 4 years
-What is your age?
-When did you come up with the idea of living in that country?
Mexico was getting too expensive and besides there is no tango there, so it was only natural that one day I would come to Buenos Aires.
Actually I don't like the words expat or expatriate; there's just such a negative sound to them, you know, like ex-con, or ex-wife, ex-promqueen, even ex-millionaire.
Expatriate sounds as if I've been kicked out of my country, or I left it because I hated it, or I failed somehow, something bad, an exile, you know? It's even worse when it's mistakenly spelled expatriot, which connotes even more being against one's country, a spy or terrorist or something. If Paul Revere was one of our greatest patriots, who would be our greatest expatriot?
I guess I don't want to be an ex-anything.
I would prefer a more positive-sounding word to explain that yes, I moved to France, and to Mexico, and to Argentina to live. I'm thankful for the opportunities I've had to learn and enjoy other cultures and languages, but I still think the U.S. is the best country in the world despite its faults. Sometimes you have to leave it to appreciate it.
I know, maybe I'm a multipatriate! How does that sound?
-Was it hard to get a visa or a working permit?
I’ve been here for more than 3 years, and only now am getting all the required papers in order to apply for a long-term visa. Each time I show up with my file, they want another paper I didn’t know about.
-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?
Yes, because I have the pre-existing conditions of two cancers, which are in remission. But finally I succeeded. It’s not cheap, though.
-How do you make your living in Argentina? Do you have any type of income generated?
I work here as a Tango Tour Guide and as a tango teacher with my porteño partner, Ruben Aybar. We get our students from recommendations and word of mouth, also when people see us dancing in the milongas (the tango halls). We were lucky enough to have been Finalists in the 2006 Campeonato Metropolitano del Tango de Buenos Aires, coming in #15 out of the more than 500 couples to qualify, and that helps to bring us more students.
-Do you speak Spanish and do you think it's important to speak the local language?
Yes, I’ve tried to forget my Mexican Spanish, which didn’t help me much, and am fairly fluent in Castellano. My partner doesn’t speak English, so when we teach, I can translate as most of our foreign students speak English.
I can’t stress too strongly how important it is to learn local customs and to blend in with the people. Much behavior can be explained by understanding the culture.
-Do you miss home and family sometimes?
I have two sons in California and of course I miss them tremendously. I also miss my friends, job, the restaurants (!), the markets, the way of doing things in the U.S. Sometimes you have to leave it to appreciate it. But I also miss my friends in France (where my husband is buried), and my friends in Mexico. Travel is too expensive, especially from South America, to jet around various continents for vacations and to see people. Unfortunately it’s also very expensive to travel within Argentina, and I would love to know the country better, but so far haven’t been able to get out of Buenos Aires often.
-Do you have other plans for the future?
Ruben and I have had many invitations to teach in other countries, and I am looking forward to that. However, the chances of traveling to teach in the U.S. are small despite our many offers, because nowadays it’s almost impossible for an Argentine to get a U.S. visa.
-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?
I’m living in my third rental 2-bedroom apartment in three years. It is very difficult for a foreigner to rent an unfurnished place here long term because all the landlords want a guarantee of someone who owns property in Buenos Aires. My rent is 1200 AR pesos/mo, expenses (condo fees) are almost 200, and of course all the utilities. As a foreigner without a long-term visa, I can’t even open a bank account.
I love the apartment where I am! It’s on the ninth floor with a large L-shaped terrace with a barbecue and an incredible view! The sunsets and sunrises are amazing! It’s quiet and high enough that the pollution doesn’t bother me. Since we teach in my living room (little furniture, mirror), some days I never leave home!
Almost all of my permanent expat friends have bought houses or apartments here, some with the idea of renting rooms to tourists, but now that market is over saturated. I wish I could have purchased something when I first arrived, though.
-What is the cost of living in Argentina?
It goes up every day. Labor is cheap (for example, a maid, hairdresser), but products, especially imported ones like food items and electronics, are sky high.
Almost everything there is to buy is made in China. If you want quality, you can find it if you search, but you have to really pay. That goes for clothing, as well, but thank goodness I brought enough clothes to last my lifetime. Tango shoes are a good purchase, however, as the most beautiful and the best quality are under $100 US. Tango tourists usually buy several pairs, often extras to sell in their home countries.
-What do you think about the Argentine people?
There are good and bad people everywhere. I have good Argentine friends, and of course, my partner is Argentine. My only problem is that sometimes I get frustrated with trying to express myself in Castellano, and my friends need a lot of patience. But generally the Argentines have a lot of patience.
The biggest challenges, always, are the language and culture. If you don’t feel secure in communicating, you might opt to stay home or socialize only with English speakers, thereby missing out on a lot. Expats, even if they know the language well, always risk making faux pas because of not understanding the culture. But if you stay home alone, you risk loneliness and feeling isolated. It’s a conundrum.
In addition, sad but true in “third world” countries, all Americans are considered rich, with prices adjusted upward accordingly. Here it’s even official policy with some things: Teatro Colon tickets for foreigners are double, and Aerolineas Argentinas have a two-tiered price system.
-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Argentina?
Transportation around Buenos Aires is my biggest challenge, even after almost four years of living here. The city is huge, all the streets are one-way, and even though they have an excellent system of public transportation, it’s not easy to figure out how to use it.
Anyone who has the opportunity to live in another country is fortunate. What an opportunity to learn and understand, and I am grateful.
The people of Buenos Aires, or porteños, are generally ethnically European and feel strong ties to Spain, or Italy, or Germany, or England, or wherever. They’re self-conscious imitators at times such as in their architecture of a hundred years ago and wide boulevards, sidewalk cafes, and outdoor newsstands. And I think they have very strong subconscious feelings about being so far geographically from that world, especially nowadays when few can afford to tour Europe on vacation. Argentineans feel a bit forgotten by the rest of the world, and so their culture is somewhat nostalgic and sad. That’s where the tango comes from. I identify with these emotions as I’ve lost so much in my own life.
I thought when I moved here in 2004, that I needed a big city, full of theater and concerts and galleries, but I find now that my life is full with friends, my reading and writing, and my tango work.
-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Argentina?
As in everything else in life, sufficient money not to have to worry makes everything easier. It’s not realistic to become an expat with the idea of finding employment in the new country to support yourself, even more so if you are middle-aged. My advice is expatriate yourself only if you are financially independent. In my case I had early retirement because of my illness.
In many respects, because of dancing and writing, I’ve had an easier time living far from “home.” When I moved to Mexico, I had the goal of finishing the memoir I began when living in France. Last year I accidentally started writing a blog, which helps me feel connected to like-minded people all over the world. And because of the internet, many of my articles written far from home have been published. Next year a piece I wrote will be published in an anthology on San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
Basically since my husband died in 1991, I’ve been searching for “home,” like Dorothy in Oz, I suppose. But a few years ago I realized that Home Is Where My Cat Is. Phoebe, I couldn’t have done it without you!
Every country has its expat network, whether it’s an online mailing list or a club where people actually get together. When you first arrive, I recommend joining everything and meeting as many people—expat and local—as possible. Soon you will figure out what activities, and which people, are your style.
Making friends anywhere isn’t easy, especially as we get older. That’s why it’s important to look for common interest groups. I joined Toastmasters International in Buenos Aires because it has always been a life-long dream of mine to speak well in public, and in so doing I’ve met some wonderful, varied, and interesting people. Looking for groups that you belonged to in your home country, like the Lions, for example, or a tennis club, is a great place to start.
I’m lucky in that the world of tango is small, and anywhere I go in the world to dance, I find people I know, or at least recognize.
Wherever I go I have a lot of parties in my home. I love bringing people together. Volunteering is a great way to meet people, learn the culture, and to feel good about yourself
I think the key to success as a guest in another country is to participate, participate, participate.
-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Argentina?
Writing my blog, tangocherie,
has really helped me feel connected to the rest of the world. I love helping people understand what life is like here in Buenos Aires.
A few excellent blogs for people wanting to know more about life in Buenos Aires are:
Buenos Aires Argentina Guide
Living in Argentina
a great reference site with info on everything you’d want to know
Buenos Aires, City of Faded Elegance
Buenos Aires Daily
a new photo every day