Walk and learn

Years ago when I was still living in Virginia, my Argentine brother-in-law came to visit. Not crossing a single person as we toured the neighborhood, he insisted everyone must be on vacation. More recently, I walked about 20 blocks on a sunny spring Saturday in Denver, pop. 700,000. The only other people on foot were walking their dogs. I saw a yard sale of the accumulated excess of one house that would have filled three in most other countries. Despite the perfectly manicured yards, crack-less sidewalks and nice weather, this was not a pleasant walk. Not having a car, I felt exposed, somehow lesser, the dog-walkers looking at me curiously, like ‘Did you lose your dog?’ As I strolled past dozens of empty front porches behind fragrant rows of lavender, I knew exactly what my brother-in-law was talking about. It’s like no one is really there.

My feelings about walking are not a commentary on the need for more exercise, or the obesity problem or even the act of walking per se. There is a bigger picture here that I fear is hard to see from inside the frame. It’s about what we’re missing by not walking; and what we’re losing along the way: our ability to coexist. And hey, I know there are exceptions, neighborhoods of neighborly people where they do ‘front-porch Fridays.’ I once lived in one of those places. The very same one that shocked my brother-in-law, which I fervently defended at the time as a unique community of friendly neighbors who made good use of its sidewalks. I could not see it through his eyes used to people walking from corner vegetable stands, kiosks, shoe repair shops to butchers, hardwares, etc. on every block. And of course there are a few truly urban US cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, where people walk regularly to do their shopping, buy the paper, take the cat to the vet, get where they’re going. But in the vast majority of US cities, towns and neighborhoods, they don’t.

It is the sense of oddity, even suspicion, surrounding the act of walking in these places that concerns me. My husband, walking home from the library at dusk in small-town USA, his satchel of books over his shoulder, was once harassed by two guys in a pick-up, ‘Hey, faggot, get a car!’ A police car flashed its siren and pulled up to stop a friend’s father on a stroll through a Dallas suburb, ‘Sir, is there a problem?’ Another friend describes a guy she recently met in LA: ‘He’s great in every way, except he doesn’t have a car, which is just weird.’ Just last year, two siblings walking home from a playground two blocks from their home in Silver Springs, Maryland were picked up by the police; their parents were accused of negligence and social services called in. Incidents like these are beyond baffling to people from just about anywhere else in the world. Because in any city of any size in Europe, Latin America, Asia, wherever, walking is a natural part of life for everyone. The exercise is just a fringe benefit. Of course people in all of these places also take public transportation, bike and some even drive. But there is no stigma attached to one form of getting around as opposed to another. How people move around is not a measure of social hierarchy.

In the US, however, car culture is pervasive to the point of rendering all other means of transportation somehow inferior, with walking being the lowliest form. Who walks? Poor people, black people, homeless people. Foreigners. Or the fools who suffer big, crowded cities and surely long to move someplace where they can drive and never worry about finding a parking place, right? The lone walker, unless clearly dressed in expensive athletic gear, or attached to a dog, is cause for alarm. Because why would you? There’s a scene in one of the early episodes of Madmen, set in the early sixties, where the women are gossiping about a new divorcee in the neighborhood. They fixate on the fact that she’s always walking. Where is she going? Why is she always walking? As a measure of social norms way back then, the scene gives some sense of the historical dimension of what I’m talking about. She is an outlier, a rule-breaker — a divorcee, for god’s sake. She is a threat to their perfect suburban landscape.

While European cities took shape around pedestrian paths laid centuries before the invention of cars, the US concept of urban planning has been built upon the notion of individual freedom of movement by car. Our highways, suburbs and massive shade-less parking lots are an ode to that freedom. Like the mind-numbing sameness of suburbia, the hermetic seals on everyone’s individual mode of transportation for the past 70 years or so has taken a toll on our tolerance for each other, for our differences, even for our perception of climate change. From inside the acclimatized “freedom” of our comfy individual spaces, we have become both unable to tolerate extreme temperatures and at the same time able to ignore them. The same goes for other kinds of people.

It is hard not to see the implications of this drive-by culture of insensitivity reflected in the current state of US politics. Look no further than the current president, who recently took a golf cart up the hill in beautiful Taormina, Italy, while all the other NATO members walked together, taking in the breathtaking view and getting to know each other. This is the face we show to the world in our unparalleled freedom to drive by with the windows up.

I now live in Buenos Aires, a big, crowded city of millions at the other end of the planet. I walk, a lot. I also bike or take the bus or subway to get where I’m going. I generally have to allot several hours of my day for these journeys. It is often uncomfortable — hot, crowded, smelly, noisy — but I have learned to live with the inconveniences of broken sidewalks, exhaust fumes in my face or the human crush on public transportation at rush hour. And I have learned to observe, the good and the bad. Sometimes I get inspired and take a whole series of pictures of doorways.

Or I come up with an idea for an article about walking. A particular walking obstacle that many foreigners living here complain about is how Argentines always walk side-by-side instead of single file, making it impossible to pass them. How inconsiderate, right? The thing is, here it’s considered extremely rude to give your back to a friend, so that’s why people always walk abreast. It took me a while to come to this realization, but all that time walking and thinking about it as I try to get around them gave me the answer. So who’s to say whose version of inconsiderate is the right one?

Something else I’ve learned is that every time I take a street on the opposite side, I end up noticing something I’d passed dozens of times unawares. There’s a nice old house with typical Italianate details and ironwork that I always pass on my bike. Today I walked down the other side of that street and saw that the house has a fantastic second floor, set back from the façade, clad in very modern, dark wood slats that look like some Finnish spa. The combination of styles is fantastic. Or on my last visit back to the US, I discovered a historic public bathhouse that I’d never noticed on a street I’d driven down hundreds of times in Richmond, VA when I used to live there. I never knew it used to be full of public bathhouses.

I asked for walking stories from friends:

As I take my morning walk or run to buy my $5 cup of coffee in this nation’s capital, there is a particular homeless woman I pass throughout the seasons. Sometimes she’s sleeping on the metro grate in winter to catch the warm air rising, sometimes she’s collecting leftovers from the trash of high-end dinners of the night before. The other day on a warm summer morning, I noticed she had just finished bathing and washing her clothes in the public kids’ water fountain. I stopped to speak to her and her words for that morning were that the weather and life were wonderful and what more could she ask for!

For any long-time resident in one place, walks are an experience with historical accumulation: the mandala marking a late-night murder; the fading political graffiti from two cycles ago; the plaque on the branch library celebrating a local civil rights heroine. My favorite invisible story lies in front of the disability center, where the sidewalk looks like any other, but has very slightly different surface finishes. The wheelchairs and everyone else take diagonal shortcuts without a thought. But the blind customers follow the more polished path, which takes predictable right angles to the front door.

It is these snapshots of the lives of others that we miss entirely from inside a car.

My mother lives in a small town in Colorado. She is 81 and no longer driving. She describes this as a ‘punishment, like being in jail.’ Unwilling to use the taxi service or town shuttle (miraculous in its mere existence), she is forced to walk for the first time in her life. I can only hope she benefits, but the sad truth is I know she won’t be passing many others along the way and will likely be viewed with pity.

Car culture in the US is one small piece in the short history of seemingly benign developments that society has taken for granted as just one more convenience. But there are social consequences. It’s so easy to just drive past the guy holding a “Need Work” sign at the stoplight, you barely need to look at him. But in the time it takes to walk past a homeless person, you might just notice — like my friend with his expensive cup of coffee — how neatly they’ve arranged their belongings under the bridge, or that they’re shivering, or you see the color of their eyes. If any of these things causes to you consider that person’s predicament, even for a few seconds, you are that much closer to empathy than you would have been speeding past in your car. Walking takes longer, requires more effort and patience. But it puts us at eye-level with other human beings of all sorts. There is so much to see if you take the time to walk.

Advertisements

GPS Moment

 

images-1

I like maps. They give me a sense of control, a bird’s-eye view of my options in which I ultimately get to decide which way I’ll go, as well as Plan B and C, just in case. It’s a spatial thing, really. I just don’t like being lost, and feel disoriented if I don’t have a broad aerial sense of things.

I remember my enthusiasm way back when my kids were in fourth grade and had to map out our neighborhood. Such a simple task, I imagined the light-bulb coming on as they saw their surroundings organized for the first time on a map of their own making, a sudden sense of order to the sidewalks, intersections, parks, neighboring buildings and shops. One of the first steps on the path to independence in a big city.

The GPS on my phone has conveniently replaced the old map of Buenos Aires that I used to constantly stop to unfold, always getting tangled up in its tattered, scotch-taped sections. This new technology naturally suits me. I use the GPS much like a paper map, planning my route before I leave, but with the added ease of being able to check my location if I lose my way, no willy-nilly unfolding required. However, there is one function that I hate: the voice option. Suddenly, my trusty map morphs into someone else telling me where to go. It makes me crazy.

Case in point: L. has recently gotten his driver’s license, so he asks to drive often. F. and a friend needed to make an early Saturday morning pick-up, so he volunteered, meaning I would have to go along for the ride since he’s still not driving alone. I was groggy and hadn’t had my coffee, so didn’t think to check the map before leaving. I knew we were going somewhere in Devoto, so thought: Avenida San Martin, and the kids will have the exact address. The following scene ensued.

“Does anybody have the address?”

“I’m turning my GPS on,” says F. from the back seat.

“OK, but give me the address so I can map it. Turn right at the next light onto San Martin,” I say.

Right at that moment, a different voice with a California-neutral accent issues from the back seat, “Continue straight, on &*%^&Y.”

“Mom, the GPS said to keep straight. Why did we turn?”

“Because this is the way to Devoto.”

“Turn left, onto $^%&D$,” the GPS says as we continue up San Martin, now fully into Metrobus construction chaos.

“Don’t turn left. What the hell is she saying? Why do you have it set to English? She can’t pronounce the street names right! I have no idea what she’s saying, just give me the address now.”

“Turn left – Gire a su izquierda y vuelve,” now the GPS was a Spaniard.

F. gives me the address. “Oh no, my phone is dead. Give me yours so I can see. I need a visual! Watch out for the cars on the right! And don’t turn left!” Full-blown PMS joined forces with GPS lady at that point.

The two girls are frantically texting in the back. As the española continues to bark out orders to turn left at every intersection, Fiona says, “Why don’t you just do what the GPS says, Mom?”

“Because you can’t turn left on two-way avenues in the city of Buenos Aires! She obviously doesn’t know that. You have to turn right to go left.”

“Stop calling it a she. It’s not a real person,” F. finally hands me the phone.

“Gire a su izquierda—“

“Shut up, gallega de mierda!” I bark at the GPS woman. To L. I say,:”Do not turn left, whatever you do. You have to turn right and then come back across.”

He says, “Calm down, Mom. The GPS is updated, so I think we should follow it. You have to trust the technology.”

“NEVER when there’s construction or on two-way streets. She can’t possibly know!”

“Not a person, Mom…” he says as he tries out the accelerator on the bridge.

“Slow down!” I yell, while grabbing the armrest on one side, my other hand pressed hard on the ceiling of the car. “Why didn’t I just check the map before we left? You have to have a plan before driving into unknown territory. I know this. Turn right!”

We finally get across San Martin Ave. and are presumably somewhere in Devoto. We come to a railroad crossing and I say, “Turn here.” He turns left. It’s a two-way street. Luckily the oncoming traffic isn’t closer. I go completely berserk.

“You see! You see what happens? I meant turn right, but she has burned it into your brain to turn left! There is a universal law according to which you can never, EVER turn left on avenues in Buenos Aires without a turn arrow.”

“Ok, Mom,” he says as we finally find the address and he handily parallel parks. “I think you need to get out and take a walk around the block.”

It is hard to describe the anxiety over having your kid behind the wheel of a car in a mega city; it’s a lethal mix of the instinct to protect your child and the knowledge that they’re on their way, surrounded by imminent danger but don’t need or want you telling them how to maneuver. You have no control. Despite my mounting hysteria, the construction, the traffic and contradictory orders from me and the GPS women, in addition to the fact that his girlfriend had witnessed my meltdown, he had driven carefully and skillfully and kept calm. How did we get to this point?

Although I would like to think we have provided them with the basic tools to find their way, I know that their coordinates are different from mine. Writing this today, their very last day of high school, I am reminded that there was no map to get us here, and yet… here we are, safe and sound.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Road Signs

DSCN2076I believe we largely make our own destinies. And even though I carelessly used the word ‘providence’ in an interview once in reference to an uncanny alignment of events, I don’t believe in fate or god or any of that. I am, however, a faithful disciple of Dr. Seuss and his vast wisdom of the universe—the forks in the road, road signs, speed bumps to be heeded. Anything traffic-related really. Because these are behind the choices we make. And sometimes the signs are billboard-sized and all in neon.

One example of this would be how my family and I ended up living in the house of Hugo Midón. I could play connect-the-dots on that one back any number of years, but I’ll just limit the connections to one: a public school in Seville, Spain –> our current residence in a PH in the noisy barrio of Caballito in Buenos Aires. Short version goes like this: Frustrated by the lack of arts activities in our children’s elementary school in Seville—a school where “art” class consisted of a color-coded text book and our naturally musical kids would come home crying about how mean the music teacher was—my husband turned a volunteer storytelling activity into a makeshift drama club, which quickly mushroomed into a major theater project. Then our friend Marina from Buenos Aires gave us a CD of music from Midón’s musicals. Then we decided it would be cool to incorporate some of those songs and build our own script around them. And everyone went a little gaga over the music, and there were suddenly people making weird percussion instruments, giant pinwheels and I was running a tie-die operation off my balcony. Contagion city.

Then in the midst of that circus I made a solo trip to Buenos Aires because we were thinking maaaybe about moving. But all those crazy theater people wanted was more music from Midón’s plays, so in addition to real estate sleuthing, the music thing was also on my shopping list. And one day as I was wandering the (then still hipster-free) streets of Palermo Viejo, I found myself accidentally in front of Rio Plateado, Hugo Midón’s theater school. Two-bird moment, I rang the buzzer thinking I’d avoid Musimundo and score a few CDs of his musicals right then and there. And because my short version is turning long: I ended up sitting in Midón’s office, sipping tea with the man himself and he happened to mention his house was for sale. That was one of those signs you heed.

Six months later we were living in his former house. The music happening in that house, mostly thanks to my kids, has never ceased for a moment. And we also have a resident writer. Call it a muse, creative spirit, providence, whatever—but it really comes down to the choices we made.

Following some similar signage, I made a trip to San Francisco, CA last year. This was after a moment of personal crisis and a conversation with a friend about what the hell to be when I grow up (in the second half of my life). She asked, “If you could wipe out all factors limiting your field of options—responsibilities, family, geography, etc.—what would you do?” In a very random moment, I said, “I’d go to San Francisco, visit the Pirate Supply Store, maybe buy an eye-patch, and hope to meet Dave Eggers.” She said, “Why don’t you? You could open your own pirate operation here.”

I have to confess I suffer from a bit of starry-eyed giddiness when it comes to Eggers, which is mostly just about his writing. When I read his first book way back when he was all ‘stream of consciousness’ and I was all ‘holy crap, he is speaking directly to me in my special language,’ I decided he was the writer of my generation, that I had connected deeply on that. So over the years I’ve read all of his books, and he’s grown up, and so have I. And I’ve learned to respect him not only as a constantly evolving and multi-talented writer, but also for coming up with the brilliant idea behind 826 Valencia, an ingenious public initiative that has writers and volunteers doing free creative writing workshops with public school kids. It has mushroomed into numerous centers throughout the US and elsewhere in the world. After following the project for the past few years, forcing my family to watch his popular TEDTalk more than once, and just generally being way too much of a groupie, I learned about the 826 National seminars not long after aforementioned conversation with my friend. The national NGO runs seminars for people interested in starting their own 826 centers. Which gave me a much more concrete (ok, mature) reason to go the Pirate Store.

Dot-connecting: Went to 826 seminar in SF last July, spent two days learning about how to start a non-profit, raise funds, talked to volunteers, explored the store and writing center, met inspiring directors of other connected organizations, like Mimi Lok, executive director of Voice of Witness. It was all better than I’d imagined—just brimming with genuine commitment, quirkiness and the most incredible people. Luckiest of breaks, the organizers told me someone else had come from Buenos Aires earlier this year with similar intentions. They said they’d put me in touch. After months of mulling over how to start one of these centers in BA, a notebook full of lists of potential donors, venues, school-system contacts, other education NGOs, etc., I knew what I really needed was a partner, someone with the same mission. Someone like any of the amazing people I had met during the seminar. My wish was about to be granted. Soon after my return to Buenos Aires, I got an email with the contact info for this other person interested in starting an 826-inspired center here.

And sometimes we ignore the signs. The official version of this story is that I met Ignacio (not his real name), began to brainstorm and collaborate with him, helped raise volunteers, bring in writers to run workshops and handled the social media and communications aspects of a pilot program that he had arranged through the sponsorship of a local publisher. The program was incredibly successful and a joy to be a part of, mainly seeing the enthusiasm of the students and teachers from the five public schools that participated. And to see the need firsthand and know that a program like this, if done right, will address serious failings in the school system when it comes to writing skills and creative self-expression. The experience confirmed that following my long-term interest in this project and making it happen was right on target.

The backstory is a little different. There were billboards. And flashing lights. That I chose to ignore because I knew they would prevent me from being a part of the project. And because sometimes I overanalyze and make too many allowances for potential “cultural” differences. Sometimes those differences are really just about people being out for themselves no matter where they’re from… And this is the part where I have to delete a whole paragraph of ranting in an effort to stick to the high road and boil it down to: I had good reason to be pissed by the end.

Do I wish I had followed those signs from the beginning and saved myself from some humiliation and the feeling of being used? Actually, no. Because if I had, I would have missed being a part of the whole process of making it happen and now knowing that I am quite capable of doing it myself. With better people. And better ideas. And truer to the whole collaborative spirit of the thing, and not some convenient marketing scheme. Even though I ignored all the little lights and warning buzzers I saw early on in small acts of incompatibility, I can now see they were pointing to a much larger—huge, really—difference in our global understanding of the project and Egger’s vision.

I live in a house where at least three generations of artists, performers, musicians and writers have regularly come to dinner and worked their creative magic under its roof. It feels like the appropriate site for an 826-inspired program to come together. In an imaginary dinner conversation between Dave Eggers, Hugo Midón, and my family, I see lots of shared vision, like-mindedness and lively conversation. (Ignacio is not invited.)

Daytrip

 

Image

Every once in a while, usually when I’m feeling like the kind of person I’d like to hang out with, or sometimes when I’m blue, I indulge in a quiet Saturday afternoon date with myself and go alone to the movies. On this particular Saturday in Buenos Aires, I choose to venture out to the Arteplex cinema in Belgrano, far on the other side of the city. Because it is quite a journey and looking a bit like rain, instead of biking I decide to do a combination of city transit, taking the 141 bus to Plaza Italia and then the Subte out to Congreso, the last stop on the D-line.

 

I

Clown boards bus bearing beat-up guitar. His attire is accurate but filthy: high-waisted, green plaid pants sag from suspenders above exposed, flip-flopped feet. Gnarled, cracked, crusty dirt-brown feet—too brown to match hands on guitar. White face-paint grayish with traffic grime suggests several days of wear. Circle around clown features reveals outer regions of naked face: high forehead, steel-wool hair awry, pushed back with headband sprouting sad, plastic flower which may or may not squirt tears. He lays his pitch on us, monotone and sad, as if way more skeptical than his audience.

Damas y caballeros, and especially all you kids (there were none on the bus), I’ve come to brighten your day. Hope you’re all having fun. Pardon the bother, I’ll just sing a ditty or two. Brought my whole band along (shows us his harmonica as he anchors it around his neck). Yes, we’re a one-man band. Again, please pardon the intrusion, hope you enjoy the show, then I’ll be right on my way, chicos.”

I kick myself for not bringing my iPod. Then again, he does seem to be taking his whole act very seriously with all the preparations and is entirely consistent with the sadness concept, I’ll give him that. And I also have to admit that blasting my headphones to drown out all nuisances around me in recent months is taking its toll on my hearing. Perhaps it’s best to give the man a chance.

Guitar rings true, rockabilly sound, voice channeling Elvis, deep, wide like an unpolluted river of pure sound. Disconcerting, real concert. Sounds like English, but not quite. More like that video of What English Sounds Like to Non-English Speakers—the one where the only decipherable word is “squirrel”. The phonetics are all right, the intonation, pauses in the natural places, only the words are not quite words. They are a melodious approximation. Then the harmonica jumps in: in and out chuffing blues, Memphis on a bus in Buenos Aires.

“Thank you very much (no longer Elvis). That was one from the archives. Traveling across the ocean back to my origins, now we’ll visit Italy.”

I have no idea what song he’s belting out in Italian, but at least he seems to be getting the language right on this one. It feels authentically 1950s Mediterranean, like something Marcelo sang to Sofia. On a Vespa. All pencil-thin pants, loafers no socks and cleavage. By the time I get to this image, I realize I’ve been hauled into the music, completely sold on it, but having a really hard time with the clown act. The 141 show takes a bow, passes his hat, I give him a fiver and almost tell him, “Lose the make-up, it’s distracting, have some self-respect. You are amazing.” Almost.

 

II

I exit the bus right after it turns off Scalabrini Ortiz and onto Santa Fe. I am at the gate of the Botanical Gardens, an abiding memory of the first time I ever came to Buenos Aires. I was a tourist then. I check my watch and decide I have time for a walk through. No longer a tourist, like people who live in cities with Eiffel towers or Empire State buildings, I have relegated these gardens to the category of places for visitors who stroll with their hands clasped behind their backs, gazing around with half-smiles and taking-it-all-in blank expressions on their faces. I have never understood the hands behind the back.

Like so many places in Buenos Aires, these gardens are a relic of the city’s glorious past, a lush piece of turn-of-the-20th-century landscaping and statuary—a reminder that this level of sophistication was once the norm. In a way it is a time capsule. But then again, I don’t come here often enough and perhaps things are not quite encapsulated. Today what I first see are fathers and little boys, enthusiastically pulling on hands to take them to see carnivorous plants. Couples on benches, legs stretched out, ankles crossed, intimately reading side by side. Venus rising out of a litter-free pond of lilies, so serene, I make a mental note to come back and sketch her. A path that pulls me along, leading me to ground-level vats teeming with strange, snaking aquatic plants. Down and around I come up behind the main building, see Saturnalia snapped in mid-action, preserved in bronze—a worthy welcome committee for visitors to the tiny, children’s green library on the back corner of the red-bricked Victorian visitor’s center. The library has a carpet of believable faux grass and I imagine the books on its shelves are filled with stories of plants, sustainable ways, garden fairies, forts made of fallen trees and discarded bits of this and that—a reason to come back another day, sit on the grassy rug reading children’s green lit and spend the whole afternoon exploring the silent wonder of these gardens. Today time is running short: I have a movie to catch.

 

III

I step out of these imaginings and onto the subway platform at Plaza Italia. Just as the doors are closing, a young man struggles to get on with a keyboard and speaker on a cart. Top right forearm riddled with scars on scars, not accidental—intentional, random, mean razorblade hatch-marks. My brain cannot conjure the horror of their origin, so I look at his face instead: protruding front teeth, freshly scarred upper lip, maybe from a punch, or maybe just a skateboard accident. The braces on his teeth are somehow in disharmony with all his broken parts; braces mean fixing, future, caring. Then too, he is clean and neatly dressed, so someone cares.

He removes the keyboard from the trolley and places it on the subway floor. It is a mirror of himself: cracked, patched, duct-taped. And amplified. He plugs in and flops down on the floor, not on his knees: butt on the floor, legs splayed at odd angles to one side like a kid about to play with his Legos. He fully occupies the space in front of the doors, making it impossible for anyone to enter or exit and further highlighting his blatant, genuine lack of shame. He starts to play and everything else fades to black in that moment. Bach, Beethoven, flawless Rachmaninoff flying over the keys. On the floor, on a beat-up plastic Yamaha, brandishing scars on the D-line to Congreso. This is Buenos Aires.

I have to get off even though I’d rather continue. I give him a much bigger tip than the clown, not because he deserved more—half of it was my guilt for not giving the clown more, for not having openly congratulated either of them for their talent, for not thanking them for the music. But mostly for presuming they’d be too loud, too predictable, too hard to drown out, too in my face. Perhaps someone will make a movie about the countless characters like these on public transit in Buenos Aires. Because sometimes you set off on a quiet solo trip to the cinema not wanting to be disturbed only to discover that what happens along the way is a story worth telling.

 

 

 

Set Your Alarm for 5am (Parents’ Guide to BA Teenagers)

After seeing way too many looks of horror on the faces of friends as I casually mention what my teenagers do on a typical weekend night out, I am reminded of the stages along the way to reaching my current state of zen. So for expat parents of kids who will soon be moving on to secondary school in Buenos Aires, here’s the lowdown on what to expect outside of school.

Year 1: Your still cherubic 13-yr-old will at some point this year ask to be allowed to go to a matinee. Strike down immediately any inclination to inquire as to whether it’s an afternoon film or play; it is not. Matinees are essentially kiddy night clubs that run from 8-12pm, don’t sell alcohol (supposedly), no one over 16 allowed in (ditto). There will likely be much online debate among members of your class parent list as to the potential evils of these places and you will get first glimmers of other parents’ true colors. Seize this opportunity to identify: the slackers, who always let their kids go out, no questions asked and never volunteer to drive; the clueless ones (most) waiting to go along with the group consensus; the detectives, who try to ascertain which kids are lying about the venue by comparing stories; and the die-hards who make grand statements smacking down the mere idea of discussing the subject in the first place: My daughter will not go to a matinee, a disco or around the corner to the kiosko until she’s 18! (Now you know who to avoid.) Whoever you are, face the fact that you will give in at some point and let them go. Find out which matinees have the best rep and take the hurdle, pool with the other cool parents for drop-offs and pick-up times. Welcome to high school.

Year 2: The Fiestas de Quince. Having grown out of the matinees (so soon – no one over 14 ever goes!), not to worry, they don’t get to graduate to full-on after-hours clubs quite yet. You are saved this year by the endless chain of fiestas de quince, each so special yet essentially the same as the last one. I’ll spare you yet another description of these ubiquitous affairs, other than to say that even though they last all night long, at least the grandparents are present, not to mention the rest of the family. So not much to worry about in the middle of the night other than possible sugar coma from the mesa dulce that usually premieres sometime around 4am. Your parent taxi services are, however, still required this year, so get used to setting your Saturday alarm for 5am. Nearly every weekend. And sometimes twice. As with all ostentation, by the end of the year, the kids are mostly bored to distraction with the pomp and gluttony and feel no shame at going to sleep in the muck on the floor under a table. Good preparation for what is to come next year. (I should point out that it is allowable to break with tradition on the quinceañeras and do your own thing. We rented a music venue, put on a concert and sent everyone home by 2am. By all accounts, it was one of the most memorable parties of the year; they didn’t even complain about the cakes not having dulce de leche.)

Image

Year 3: Brace yourself. The fact is those all-night parties last year had an ulterior motive: to lay the foundations for the Argentine notion that all fun happens between midnight and 6am (only the extended family is no longer welcome). Having gone through my own high school years with a 12pm curfew, adapting to this schedule felt downright scandalous but with a curious element of transgression against one’s own aging parents… When it comes to your kids, if the late hours of the fiestas de quince were a stretch for you, third year fun and games require deep-breathing exercises and a huge dose of faith. The key shift is that, while they stuck with their classmates in previous years, they now socialize with the older students. Sex, drugs, rock ’n roll, baby. They start the year asking to go to previas (pre-parties) at relatively reasonable hours (10-2am), always at private homes but rarely with adult presence. This is the point at which you can start worrying about drinking, a happy stroll down your own seedy memory land. The good news is it takes them a couple of months to muster the courage to request the all-night pass and carry on at the real parties that kick in after the previas, so they actually come home by a reasonable 1 or 2am, meaning you might still be awake enough to hold their heads over the toilet.

However, they will not settle long for the mere pre-party, so onwards and upwards: after-hours bashes at rented venues, where the kids organize and serve bar and who knows what else. Interestingly, they also hire security and, in an effort to control ticket-sales and avoid over-crowding, do not allow anyone to re-enter once they’ve left the venue. And I am told that drug consumption is pretty limited, at least among the public school crowd, for a simple reason: no money. (This small fact was a light-bulb moment for me, given my very recent efforts at trying to procure summer work for my own kids so they’d learn the value of work/money, control their own expenses, blah blah blah, the standard US approach. Working while still in high school just to earn “spending” money is uncommon in Argentina; kids go to school, study, hang out, do what they do, but most don’t work for money unless they have to. Ergo, very limited buying power. Flip-side: One way to look at drug consumption among US teens.)

Once you’ve accepted this is their night life for the remainder of high school and decided to trust in the decency and good sense of Argentine youth, your next hurdle is how to deal with the comings and goings at insane hours of the madrugada. You will probably, like we did, succumb to your parental instinct to sacrifice your own sleep, texting throughout the night to track their movements and then stumbling out to your car in your slippers in the pre-dawn glow to pick them up from some warehouse on a street you’ve never heard of in Barracas or Chacarita or Parque Patricios… and it will all be fine. And you will soon realize it’s OK to let them just take the bus to the party because they always travel in herds, and find yourself a good remisero or reliable taxi service to bring them home. And you’ll wake up several times during the night the first few times, but then you won’t because you’ve reached nirvana and now trust them to make the right choices.

Which brings me back to kindergarten… A very wise kindergarten teacher once taught my kids the value of making good choices. I can still hear them repeating that line in their 5-yr-old voices to each other. Sounds simple, but it is actually the key to being a good parent and is not so simple. Because it means your kid is the one who has to learn to make those choices and the only way for them to do that is for you to shut up and let them. It requires a mountain of trust.

What I have come to know about Argentine teenagers: They genuinely look out for each other; they travel in large groups; they have a tradition of ripping up their uniforms and covering themselves in rainbows of paint on the last day of school; they are surprisingly organized when it comes to their own fun; they make their own music; the boys like to cook more than the girls; they have strict codes of honor; they care about politics; if they trash your house, they also clean it up with mops and brooms in the haze of dawn. What’s not to trust?

Images

(Sorry not to include years 4-5, but not there yet and even so, it wouldn’t matter. By this point, you will have either reached acceptance or decided to bail out and take them to some first world suburb where they have smartboards at school and everyone comes home by midnight.)

Getting There

Image

I grew up in a small town, so a sense of independence came at a very early age, pretty much as soon as I could ride a bike. Back then, bikes were just for kids. There were no mountain bikes, no trendy, foldable urban bikes; there were just banana seats and high handle-bars. And we all had playing cards clipped to our wheel-spokes. In a place of such relative silence, we were like small swarms of bees. And those bikes really were our wings in the sense that we relied on no one else to get us where we wanted to go, and they also gave our parents freedom from having to taxi us around. Funny how none of us ever gave all that a second thought when we turned sixteen, got our  licenses and presumably gained limitless independence behind the wheel of a car. Because where I come from, driving is considered a major milestone on the road to self-reliance. I’ve been getting around that way ever since. Until recently.

Now I live in the vast urban landscape of Buenos Aires. Despite the magnitude and efficiency of the public transportation system here, I have to admit that my car habit has been hard to break. Even knowing that it takes longer to drive, that parking is a hassle, that all of this stresses me out, puts me in a foul mood and reduces my quality of life, even after having made “I will drive no more in the city of Buenos Aires” my New Year’s resolution several years running, I have truly been like a junkie who simply cannot kick the habit. My husband gave me a bike for Christmas two years ago. It sat in the garage for most of that time. Not that I’m physically unable, or that I haven’t been applauding the new bike-lanes in the city all along; I just couldn’t shake my car monkey.

The only other excuse was the danger factor, but in all fairness, I was never afraid to drive a car here. So I suppose there is some sweet irony in the fact that it took a minor car accident to finally get me on a bike for good. Between the pace of Argentine insurance companies and mechanics we have been carless for several weeks now. The transition to biking (and walking!) turned out to be painless once I didn’t have the choice to drive, combined with the fact that the Subte A is indefinitely closed for renovation, making bus travel from my neighborhood look something like an episode of The Walking Dead.

They say it takes three weeks to form a habit. In this time I have not been stressed a single time due to an inability to move forward; or to someone cutting in front of me by turning left from the right-hand lane; or to pointless horn-blowing and cursing; or to watching some girl teeter along in 5-inch heels at a brisker pace than me in my car. In fact, I have not been in a crappy mood even once since I started biking. I listen to great music to drown out the honking and cursing as I cruise by traffic jams, early fall breeze in my face. It makes me smile. It makes me feel in control. It makes me feel like part of a community of like-minded people. Not to mention healthier, more in harmony with the environment and one car less on these crowded streets. Mainly, it makes me feel less dependent on my car.

Which brings me to the cycle of life thing. My kids will both turn 16 this year. But they have grown up in a very different kind of place. Their independence didn’t come on a banana seat; it came on the 26 and the 42 and the Subte. And now even the 151 that takes them all the way to Saavedra, distances that in most US cities could only be traversed by car.  Getting a driver’s license is not even a topic of conversation among teenagers here; they are already independent in terms of moving around the city. As my friends in the States one after one announce the big day when their kids turn 16 and start driving, I get a brief flash of “oh, another cultural milestone of childhood foregone.” Until I realize the freedom sought therein… Oh, we already have that! And it came with a number of other perks. Unlike me – who cannot deal with long bus lines and the subsequent sardine-can effect due to my North American impatience derived no doubt from getting everywhere on my own terms in the hermetic silence and bastion of freedom inside my own car – they will hopefully reach adulthood with a larger store of patience and tolerance for inconvenience. Not to mention the adventures awaiting them on the buses of Buenos Aires.

Aside from discovering the beauty of biking to get where I’m going, I must admit that not having a car has forced us all to reflect on how dependent we are on the car, especially at night or when we need to carry anything large. We’ve ended up going out a lot less these past weeks. On the one hand, that’s good because we’ve spent less money; but on the other, it’s given me new appreciation for all our friends who don’t have cars but manage to make the trek all the way over to our house in Caballito for dinner, pick their kids up at all hours of the night from parties and somehow get their sundry amps, drum-sets and heavy bass guitars across town anyway. So once we do get the car back, I will think twice about driving unless absolutely necessary. Otherwise, I am finally sticking to my New Year’s resolution. I might even get an ace of hearts and clip it to my wheel.

University Prep Schools in Buenos Aires: The case for ILSE

I have lately come to believe that the education debate is kind of in free-fall, with different solutions, alternatives and panaceas up for grabs. I suppose this is the product of having dealt with three different systems in as many countries, rendering me muddled and confused as to what’s really best for my kids at the moment or in the long run (not necessarily the same thing.) I have gone from leaving No Child Left Behind far behind when we moved from the US, to a public school in southern Spain that appeared to be mainly about getting through all their textbooks and memorizing long lists of bones, muscles, plants and provinces; then we crossed back over the pond to a “progressive” private elementary school in BsAs. that often seemed more like a cage of monkeys than a school. This last finally led us to our current best option for high school: ILSE (Instituto Libre de Segunda Enseñanza), a traditional, uniformed – some might say old-fashioned – school that came with the initial filter of a heavy-duty entrance exam (see previous post). Who knew such a school would turn out to be the least of all evils and perhaps even the best of all worlds?

Despite my continued misgivings about the education my children are getting, when people ask if we plan to stay in Argentina, to my surprise I find myself mentioning school as one of the most compelling reasons for not moving on to cleaner, cheaper, more first-world climes at present. How did this happen, me and all my complaining and second-guessing of so many systems? To be sure, I’m definitely not convinced that their schooling is suddenly fantastic, but I’m also not convinced that the alternatives available to them in the US would necessarily be better, at least in terms of the big picture. Yes, they would have a full school day, elective classes, better facilities, more resources, sports, etc. – all things I wish they had – but I am not so sure that they would in fact be learning more. And then there are the social realities of high school life in the US that don’t need pointing out…

Honestly, I started writing about my kids’ schooling when they began first grade in Spain as a way to hash out my concerns and frequent bafflement. These have always at heart been largely due to my foreignness to the system and local codes, and compounded by the fact that my brain has been constantly fed by the education debate in the US conveniently coinciding with my kids being educated abroad. So in my surprising present state of quasi-satisfaction, I set out to clarify some of my lingering doubts about ILSE and how it differs from the other colegios universitarios de la UBA (see previous post for basic description of this unique system of university prep schools). In an interview with ILSE Vice Principal (Vicerrector), Roald Devetac, I had the opportunity to discuss several issues that may prove interesting for other expat parents looking for high school alternatives for their kids in Buenos Aires.

My first question was regarding the school’s academic focus compared to the Nacional Buenos Aires (humanities), Carlos Pelegrini (historically more business-oriented, although has undergone a shift in recent years) and the new Agronomía (agro-technical). According to Mr. Devetac, ILSE’s focus is comprehensive and humanities-based, much like the Nacional Buenos Aires. The latter being historically the most prestigious of all these schools, I told him we had chosen ILSE over the Buenos Aires because it was similar academically (actually, nearly identical; see curricula for both at ILSE and CNBA), but differed in three key aspects for us: no third shift, no teacher strikes, no student takeovers. I was curious as to why the last two issues do not seem to come up at ILSE as part of the public university system. As such, it has never been sufficiently clear to me everything implied by the assertion that these schools all “dependen de la UBA (Universidad de Buenos Aires).” If they all “depend” equally, then why do neither ILSE teachers nor students go on strike like they do in the others? The answer is that ILSE’s relationship of dependency (more aptly translated as ‘governance by’) is limited to the UBA-designed academic curriculum. While this relationship extends to politics, policy, administration and student council in the other schools, ILSE is an independent institution on all fronts except its curriculum. This independence is also reflected in the fact that its subsidy is only 70%, the remaining fee of 30% effectively rendering it a private school, while the others are completely public. For me this guarantees that my kids’ classes will be equally challenging academically, but they won’t be cancelled due to walkouts like the one that went on for weeks at the Pellegrini last year due to parent, student and faculty opposition to the choice of new principal there.

Another feature that sets ILSE apart from the other universitarios is its reputation for strict discipline. Notably, students are required to wear uniforms and stand up when a teacher enters the classroom. There is also a very clearly defined system of sanctions for non-compliance with the rules. As I mentioned in my original post on Argentine schools, for some parents who grew up here, this kind of requirement may be reminiscent of the years of harsh repression in schools during the dictatorship of the 1970s. (For a good film depicting that atmosphere in the Nacional Buenos Aires, see La Mirada Invisible.) In fact, a number of our friends overtly criticized ILSE and discouraged our choice for this reason when we decided on the school. However, not having lived through those dark times in Argentina myself, but rather having lived through the backlash of its aftermath, my initial impression of ILSE was one of clear rules aimed at students’ best interests, genuine prioritization of academic excellence, and quiet, focused classrooms with thoughtful and accomplished adults in charge. What really stayed with me from that first visit, though, was the impression Mr. Devetac made on me with his obvious dedication to students’ wellbeing and commitment to providing the best learning environment. So when I asked him what he thought about the school’s reputation as heavy-handed, or even military in the eyes of some adults, he chuckled and said in no uncertain terms: There must be rules for there to be learning. Honestly, the kinds of sanctions my kids have had to suffer during their first year at ILSE have amounted to being written up – if you accumulate too many write-ups, they affect your academic standing – for forgetting permission slips, talking in class, etc. They have served the purpose of breaking bad habits, so I fail to see how this is repressive.

As for the academic side of ILSE, this has been a year of transition for us. Perhaps not as demanding as I had expected outside of school hours, although the work has definitely ramped up the second half of the year; they spent a lot of time working on group projects the first part. I asked Mr. Devetac about this, given the comments from many expat parents here on the issue of group vs. individual work. He assured me that ILSE takes a balanced approach to the two, and that as of second year, students begin to produce term papers and other demanding individual projects. He also mentioned the worldwide shift in education toward prioritizing teamwork, alongside the importance of individual work and the self-discipline it requires. In the context of global education trends, we also discussed new technologies. Mr. Devetac acknowledged the need to incorporate them, with the caveat that not all of them have yet been proven to add value to education; in other words, the real benefits of new technology should always be kept in perspective.

Going back to what I mentioned earlier regarding the learning factor at school, I think it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between excellence and superior learning, especially for Americans since we come from such a competitive society where excellence always refers to top performance in school. I personally have really struggled with this issue this year. My kids, their ILSE classmates, and friends attending Pellegrini and Buenos Aires all seem to be focused on passing grades. Not top – just passing with a 7 or above. (It is a daily exercise for me to subdue the nagging alarm bells that anything below 88 is a C, mediocre, not up to par.) The fact is, they struggle to achieve these grades, spending hours studying for tests, producing charts, summaries, lists of definitions, etc. to prepare for long essay answers on everything from music history to Greek and Roman mythology. Not a multiple choice in sight, no standardized testing, no grading curve here. Then in my other ear, I get to hear from my friends and family in the States about their kids in wow high schools, all of whom are taking AP classes, in IB programs aiming for the best universities and jumping through the necessary hoops to get there: the coveted 4.0, stellar SAT scores, extracurriculars and all of the above. Bs are frowned upon. A friend recently sent me her daughter’s schedule, which ran from 6am-9pm and included scheduled activities on Sat. and Sun. in addition to the loads of homework. We don’t have that kind of “excellence” here. However, we do have lively conversations in which the kids spontaneously discuss things over dinner like the differences between the societies of  Sparta and Ancient Greece. They have strong opinions about learning Latin and syntax; they’re definitely much more verbal about school subjects than I ever was at that age. In fact, they seem to be learning a lot without being focused on the competitive aspect of top grades as a means to get somewhere else in the long-run. And I wonder if this way  of learning is really such a mediocre thing after all, what with so many paths available to them.

En fin, it turns out that ILSE was probably the best of all choices for us. I wouldn’t trade this for the kind of schedules kids have in the US, no matter how great their sports facilities, theater programs and state-of-art classroom technologies. My kids are engaged, challenged, well cared for, developing good habits, at times stressed about academics, but still have time to learn outside of school as well, which is equally – if not sometimes more – valuable. Perhaps I will write about that another time…