Advice on really appreciating/taking advantage of living abroad?
September 19, 2013 8:23 AM   Subscribe

How I can make the most out of a few months living in a foreign country? If you've spent time living abroad, what kinds of things were you most glad you did (and/or most regret not doing)?  What helped you feel like you were really experiencing/appreciating a different culture?  (Definitely interested in general advice, but FYI I'm in Buenos Aires if you have specific thoughts.)

I'm a little more than halfway through four months abroad, and I really want to make the most out of my remaining time in Argentina!  A big part of why I came here was to try to experience a different country and different culture in a substantive way by spending several months in one place. What are the best ways I can try to do that?  What kinds of experiences have you had abroad that you feel were the most meaningful/interesting/illuminating?  What questions could I be asking/what kinds of conversations could I be having?

Feel free to just jump ahead and answer from your own experiences, or here are some details about me and my situation:

I'm not a student, although I kind of view this trip like the study abroad I never had (I'm 31 now.) I'm here alone, and living in my own studio apartment. I'm volunteering roughly 5-15 hours a week on a fairly unpredictable schedule and taking a few hours a week of Spanish lessons, and I've also been trying to go to a couple language exchange nights a week. Other than a couple weeklong trips with visiting family, I've stayed and plan to continue to stay in Buenos Aires until I return to the US.

I'd like to deepen my experience and understanding broadly, but I'm especially interested in understanding more about politics and social movements here, how people think about and engage around social justice and social change, etc. Both currently and historically... for example, I'm interested in understanding more about people's experiences and thoughts about the crisis and popular response here in 2001-2002, and how and why things have changed between then and now. I also feel like there's a particularly big gaping hole in that I haven't really seen much of what poverty's like here at all, my exposure has basically been limited to working class, middle class, and upper class life (I'm thinking about trying to add some additional volunteering to get at this, but not sure the logistics will work.)

One change I've thought of so far is just trying to come up with better, more substantive and probing questions to ask Argentines I interact with, especially at the language exchange nights. Any suggestions for good questions to ask/good approaches to trying to get into deeper and more illuminating conversations? (I will undoubtedly feel super-nervous and awkward about starting conversations on this stuff, which is part of why I haven't done much of it so far, but hopefully between the alcohol and some good advice/ideas for how to semi-smoothly bring it up, I can make myself do it.)

(Some challenges which I've been giving into too much but really want to try to push through more: I'm introverted, low energy, and a homebody; somewhat shy and socially anxious, as well as more generally anxious/nervous about things like personal safety and crime; and my Spanish is only high-intermediate with a tendency to freeze up and do worse in any conversation that's at all important to me. (This is me.) I don't have any friends here, although I do get to have friendly conversations with Argentines at language exchanges, but I'm nervous and awkward about how to extend those into something more and haven't been able to so far-- I'm awkward and terrible at making friends at home too, so if your advice is "make friends" I need more help than that to figure out how to actually do it!)

I'd really love to hear your experiences and suggestions. Thanks so much!
posted by EmilyClimbs to Travel & Transportation around Buenos Aires, Argentina (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
One of the best experiences I had while living abroad without a social network was when I found a way to connect with the local religious community (of my religion) and be invited to religious services and a holiday dinner at a member's home.

Years later, the memories of all the stuff I did by myself have faded (even though they were wonderful at the time) and the memories of the warm human contact remain. So yes, my advice is definitely to find a way to socialize by hook or by crook. Is there any sort of local community you can connect yourself with in any way?
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:37 AM on September 19, 2013

I honestly wish I'd kept a journal.

Memories- even memories of wonderful, amazing things- fade, details get fuzzy with time, and a lot gets lost into the ether. I wish I'd been better about documenting my experience abroad, because even a year later I wish I remembered more of it than I did.
posted by Tamanna at 9:48 AM on September 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm a Canadian living in the Middle East, in a country notorious for having a huge expat population. The best thing I've done is make as many local friends/acquaintances as possible. Fortunately for me, I work with locals so meeting them has been fairly easy. I've never been to Buenos Aires but I imagine the people there are friendly, and most people (anywhere!) love to share things about their culture, so I suggest asking a local at your language exchange meetups some things specific to BA. Where's the best place to go for authentic (food item)? How do people in Buenos Aires mark (special occasion)? What do people do on the weekend, in their downtime? By asking a lot of questions and showing a genuine interest in the culture and your surroundings, I'm willing to bet someone will be eager to show you a few things and help you make the most of your time abroad. (Example: I am doing my best to learn as much as I can about Emirati and Arab culture so I ask a lot of questions. As a result, the people I work with bring me traditional foods, teach me cool phrases in Arabic, and explain all about the holidays and local events because they know I care and I appreciate what they teach me.)

I also think keeping a journal would be a great idea. You may forget some of the small details of your experience once you return home, but having a record of them will help you recall the awesome things you saw/did/learned.

Enjoy the rest of your time!
posted by gursky at 10:21 AM on September 19, 2013

Best answer: Start hanging out at the Centro Cultural de la Cooperación. There are tons of interesting cultural events there (music, theatre, art exhibits, lectures), many of which have "charla debate" style structured group discussion afterward. You're guaranteed to meet talkative people deeply interested in the social justice issues you mention above, and you're likely to experience some good (or at least unusual) art you would never find back home. Other cultural centers too (CC Borges, CC Rojas, CC del Sur, CC Recoleta, only to name some of the best-known) -- not having access to free or almost-free culture of such wide-ranging tastes is one of the things I miss most about BsAs now that I'm back in flyover country USA.
posted by dr. boludo at 10:32 AM on September 19, 2013

Best answer: Keeping a travel journal is a wonderful idea. I made one of mine into a mini-scrapbook, catching minutiae like receipts, flyers, ticket stubs, etc. from the day and pasting them throughout.

Are there are local coffee shops or bars accessible to you? Bring a book, take a seat, and try talking to an approachable and friendly bartender or barista. Mention that you've not been there before. Ask when it gets busiest. Find out if there are other good spots nearby. Go a few times and see if there are regulars. Smile and nod if you start to recognize people.

Don't be afraid to say, "My Spanish is still intermediate, and I get nervous talking to new people!" with a smile. Most people will understand, and if they don't, well, stop talking to them and move on.

Finding a spot and making it part of your daily or weekly routine can go a long way towards getting you out there in the community, whether you drink coffee, tea, alcohol, or just water. Tip well (if that's culturally appropriate there?) and soak it in. There's something special about becoming a regular.

I can be nervous and introverted in new places by myself, but just going down and grabbing a seat with a book isn't too scary. And you can leave in 20 minutes if you hate it. I mean hell, you made it all the way to Argentina already!
posted by juliplease at 10:37 AM on September 19, 2013

Best answer: Do you like hiking? I'm living in Santiago right now and one of the ways I've gotten friendly with Chileans is through joining Facebook groups centered around hiking trips (easy with the Andes right here). Try searching Buenos Aires trekking on Facebook, or asking people at the meetups you go to. Try to use other expats as a resource in this too - they can probably hook you up with some argentinos. Of course, you can substitute hiking for any other sport or activity (soccer, rugby, whatever). I'm also introverted, and not a huge fan of team sports, but I found it was helpful to go hiking because you had things to concentrate on other than making conversation, and you had built-in conversation topics like look at the view!

Speaking of physical activity, do you like dancing? If I were in Buenos Aires I would sign myself up for tango lessons stat. Here I do a lot of salsa and have met a bunch of people that way.

I think the church suggestion is a really good one if you practice a certain religion. Otherwise, do you do clases particulares? Private classes in English are actually a REALLY good way to get suggestions for places to go and things to do, or to build connections (and earn some pesos while you're at it). It is unfortunately time spent speaking English, but I really think it pays off in the end, especially if you get tight with the family and they invite you to things. Just put up some flyers with your contact information (advertise that you're a native speaker) and see who gets back to you. If you can tutor a kid, or do some sort of volunteer opportunity with kids, go for it, because it is so much easier and less intimidating to practice Spanish with children than with adults. I'm a teacher, so I'm lucky in that regard, but my fondest memories of here will be the time I spent with the kids outside of the classroom.

When it comes to starting conversations about political and social temas, I try to approach each conversation as a blank slate and ask the person I'm talking to what their opinions are on x (the current president, upcoming elections, poverty in Argentina, etc.). It's particularly tricky in Chile because certain topics like Pinochet's regime are still very taboo (as I would imagine certain temas are in Argentina as well...). I've somewhat ironically found, though, that because of my gringa status I'm sometimes more likely to get an honest conversation going, because many Chileans don't feel the need to censor their opinions around me the way they might around another Chilean. Unless I feel very comfortable with the person, I normally don't interject my own opinions and just try to take in what they're teaching me. Another good approach is to compliment the way something is done in Argentina (comparing it to your home country or not, it's up to you), and seeing where the conversation goes from there.


You - Me encanta Argentina pero no se mucho de la politica argentina. Que opinas tu de la presidente?

You - Sabes que, me encanta el ritmo de vida aca en Buenos Aires...estan todos muy tranquilos. Friend - Si, pero nada se compara con la tranquilidad del campo. You - Si? Como es el campo comparado con la ciudad? Etc.

Hopefully this isn't coming off as condescending, since I'm sure you are very capable of coming up with these conversation ideas - I just have had these exact conversations hundreds of times over the last two years and I wish I'd had them handy in my pocket when I first arrived. Asking people things like "donde naciste," "has viajado mucho por argentina," "fuiste una vez a brazil? como son los brasilenos" etc., are also guaranteed conversation starters (in fact, pro tip - here, ANY conversation that compares Chile to another South American country means you will not be able to escape for quite some time, and I bet you it's the same in Argentina).

Hopefully some of this has been helpful! I feel your pain, as I'm coming up on my last three months in Santiago, so I'm also looking to take advantage of my remaining time here and will be watching this thread closely! Good luck!
posted by luciernaga at 12:08 PM on September 19, 2013

Pictures. I have thousands of pictures from my years in Korea. Some are of students and on my blog. Others are of places I visited.
posted by kathrynm at 12:46 PM on September 19, 2013

For me, this applies to living overseas, or just living somewhere: Act like you will be there permanently.

It's super, dooper easy to act like a stint somewhere else is a kind of tour of duty. What's the point of making close friends? I'll just be gone in X time anyway. What's the point of making a garden? It's just a rental and I'll be gone soon. What's the point of taking up hobby/joining club/going on a date/etc? I'm not going to be here forever.

I'm 32, and have lived in 5 totally different places during that time. For me, I was only truly happy when I stopped treating the places I lived like destinations and started treating them like homes. In one case in particular, a city I had previously found cold, hard-to-make-friends, kind of dead, just bloomed for me, after I decided, "You know what? I might be here for a while." I couldn't believe it, it was like a totally different city. Part of this meant not using stuff/people from back home as a crutch - which had been holding me back way, way more than I thought.

So my advice is simple: Put down roots. Deliberately. You won't regret it, even if there's a twinge when you pull them up, they'll always be waiting for you again.
posted by smoke at 4:04 PM on September 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Go see the major tourist sites, and the ones that are in other areas of the country - go on a tour. You'll meet more people that way. I went to Guatemala, went on a tour to Tikal, and spent the long unplanned afternoon before the return flight on a boat trip with a Guatemalan family. Learned a lot about how 1 middle-class family feels about issues, had a really nice time. I'm an extrovert, so it's easier for me to strike up conversations, but people are pretty friendly if you smile, and say hello. Make sure you find out where the markets are and spend some time in them; it's a real insight into the economy and the people, and it's fun. Lots of colorful pictures.

Find out where the ex-pats hang out, and check it out. It can be a good to find travel partners if you're shy about going places on your own.

Do you have a hobby area of interest? Take your watercolors and go paint outside, or collect rock samples, or buy local fabrics. Most hobbies have groups that meet, and it's a nice way for an introvert to connect.
posted by Mom at 7:35 AM on September 21, 2013

I keep a blog. It's ostensibly for my parents, who've spent very little time outside of our country, and other relatives, but it's mostly for me at a later date (when I'm domestic in both senses of the word).
posted by charlemangy at 8:44 AM on October 7, 2013

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