BA & MV; studying Spanish

posted in: Trip reports | 2

I have been to Argentina and Chile four times in the past. Every time it was a regular holiday which made studying Spanish quite ambitious because I preferred exploring the country and skiing some great terrain in the Andes to spending my well-deserved vacation in a language school. This time I’m traveling for a year so I simply had no excuse…

BA and MV do not refer to two well-known people, the first being a hero in a popular TV series and the second being a so-called one day fly who was capable of being more renowned for binging flügels than making history in Dutch tennis, but to two major cities in South America, namely Buenos Aires and Montevideo. I just had to use initials in order to control the length of the title of this post…

After chilling out in the French Alps in a very safe and relaxed environment I tried to put myself into the travelmode again when entering the plane to South America. Walking around in Chamonix is different than wondering around Buenos Aires at night, for example. Iberia surprised me by actually flying this time. My skis were checked in for free thanks to my Iberia Silver Card so that saved me a possible 150 to 200 euros, not bad. It may sound Iberia suddenly is a great airline, well of course it’s not. They must be the only airline not offering a private screen on an intercontinental flight and the food, well I’m not sure it was food. An advantage of their struggle these days, is that the planes are half full at the most. I had multiple seats to choose from for 12 hours. It was a dayflight, so it didn’t really pay off, but still, it was comfortable. The same evening the Tienda Manuel Leon bus took me to the center of Buenos Aires where the second part of my trip started…

The first days were spent relaxing and getting into the ‘real’ travelmode again. I primarily watched the World Championship snooker online to enjoy every second of Ronnie O’Sullivan. He didn’t compete in an event for 11 months and won the title, what a legend! The quote of the century must be his: “I was bored, I thought I’d pick up my cue again”. Many call it arrogance, I think he is just being honest…

I changed hostels a couple of times trying to find the best one for my relatively long stay of 2,5 weeks. I had quite a lot of laundry to be done after my ski adventures. I visited a local laundromat which was quite interesting. The guy took my bag through some bars and only said “a las ocho”. OK, so it would be ready at 8 pm but how much would it cost me? And could he take care of the special ski jacket? Well, it turned out to be fine for only 35 pesos, which is either 5 or 3 euros depending on the exchange rate. Yes, that gets your brains working! But I will explain it in a moment, don’t worry…

When I had dinner with Fabien Nadal, a skiguide I met a couple of years ago in Las Lenas, and his girlfriend, they informed me about the so-called blue market. In order to sell some good news the Argentine government presents lower inflation figures than the actual high numbers mentioned by many independent sources. Therefore every Argentine with a bit of savings is looking to change pesos into something more secure causing capital to fly out of Argentina. In order to stop the capital flight and fortify the central banks’s reserves the government implemented strict measures to prevent Argentines from obtaining foreign currencies. Nowadays people are simply not allowed to have dollars anymore and therefore a parallel market, the blue market, came into life. The so-called blue dollar reflects the value of the peso or is at least closer to it. After having been to the ATM for a couple of times, it became very clear to me that was a no-go area! The ATM spat out about 7 pesos for every euro while an exchange on the blue market would result in a whopping 10 to 12 pesos for every euro. The only question that remained; how do you exchange money on the blue market?

When you have cash you can simply go to Avenida Florida, which is the main shopping street in the center of the city, where many people exchange money with the ‘blue rate’. You have to be careful though that they won’t give you fake money. Because I didn’t bring any cash with me from Madrid, this was no option anyway. Then there is an online service where you can transfer your euros to an account and pickup pesos at several locations throughout the country. They offer a slightly lower exchange rate of course. The last option is to have direct access to someone working in the caves, as the underground blue market is locally referred to. After using the online service once with success, I got access to the caves which saved me quite some money. Once I got free accommodation through Fabien as well, things were suddenly looking very good in Buenos Aires!

morning view from my apartment in Buenos Aires
morning view from my apartment in Buenos Aires

The main reason I visited Buenos Aires was to study Spanish so let’s talk a bit about that. Arjan Griffioen traveled for about 10 months last year and recommended a language school to me, Academia Buenos Aires. Another reason to pick this school was the fact they had another school in Uruguay where I could continue my study without having to start at a different level or study according to a different system. I signed up for two weeks in Buenos Aires and two weeks in Montevideo, hoping to create a solid base of Spanish language for traveling in Bolivia, Peru and Argentina (again).

Classes started every day at 9:30 and lasted 4 hours. The first week my classmates, or “mis compañeros”, were from the Netherlands, South Korea, Canada and Italy with one representative of every country when we leave myself out of the equation. The five of us tried to make the most of it together with Bettina, our teacher. We were not allowed to speak any English which resulted in hilarious situations. My enormous ability to focus and concentrate for a long time didn’t contribute as well but hey, at least we had some fun!

Every day we discussed some new topics and yes, we got homework too. Ah well, like I said before, there are no highs without the lows… Being me, I wanted to study a bit extra but finally only did the minimum required. Still, I progressed bit by bit. It was frustrating though that putting the material into practice often resulted in me asking a fluent question before getting completely lost after the answer of the Argentine. It takes time to learn a language and I’m impatient, a difficult combination…

the entrance to Academia Buenos Aires in the center of the city
the entrance to Academia Buenos Aires in the center of the city

Buenos Aires might not be the best city to study Spanish because there are so many distractions. The Argentine capital offers many different areas to explore, has unlimited restaurants to enjoy different cuisines and its nightlife is abundant to say the least. It’s up to you, do you want to study the whole afternoon or do you want to explore this amazing city? Hmmm, let me think…

I got along really well with Rogier, my Dutch classmate. Together we visited la Boca and Puerto Madero, two completely different neighbourhoods or “barrios”. La Boca is a poor area known for possibly the most famous footballplayer in the world, Diego Armando Maradona who played for Boca Juniors. Due to the poverty in the area locals decided to cheer it up by painting the houses in different bright colours resulting in a refreshing visit. However once you leave the main part, el Camanito, you’ll soon be confronted with a rather depressing area. Puerto Madero on the other hand is the most expensive area of the city with many up-market restaurants aiming for business-people. In the middle of this barrio one can also find a department of the UCA, the Universidad Catolica Argentina. The woman capable of turning Willem-Alexander (or Guillermo Alejandro as he is called in the country of the tango) into a popular man, studied at this university. It’s a private and very expensive place to study, I have been told.

eating out with my classmates at a classic in Buenos Aires; la Cabrera
eating out with my classmates at a classic in Buenos Aires; la Cabrera

The other main areas in Buenos Aires are Recoleta, San Telmo and Palermo. Recoleta houses the cemetery containing the graves of many notable people including Evita Perón and former presidents. San Telmo is an area known for being artistic and a bit alternative. I guess because of the many crises the country went through many antigue shops had to close. When I visited this area years ago it was more lively. The sunday market leading towards Plaza Dorrego is still worth visiting though. Palermo is the area offering many restaurants and boutique shops. There is also a lot of dogshit to be found! The many young hip people as well as the expats like their pets and unfortunately people don’t have to clean up after their dogs…

In the evening I enjoyed many good restaurants. The meat is fantastic in Buenos Aires. Years ago you could just enter any restaurant and enjoy a huge bife de lomo, the Argentine equivalent of a tournados, without looking at the menu. Nowadays I recommend a quick look at the menu before you place your order because prices have risen quite a bit. One of the best restaurants in Buenos Aires is said to be la Cabrera. Because Porteños have dinner around 10 or 11 o’clock they offer an interesting discount of 40 percent if you come between 7 and 8. Another great pick for a bite to eat is Taco Box where you can have the best fajitas you’ll most likely ever have because of the quality of the meat. On top of that you pay 107 pesos only for 2 persons which is just under 10 euros with the “blue rate”.

Of course I couldn’t leave Buenos Aires without visiting their famous theatre, Teatro Colon. On a Tuesday night I visited an opera for the first time. I thought that would be the best overall experience of visiting this theatre that is known for having one of the best acoustics in the world. Completely underdressed I arrived at the main entrance amongst the 60-year upper class dressed in their finest outfits. When I arrived at my seat, I was relieved to see more relative youngsters in lousy clothes. Besides that, I was impressed by the interior of the theatre, absolutely beautiful. The ceiling is impressive as well. I sat down waiting for the show to begin. The first part was in Spanish (I think…) with subtitles, in Spanish too. During the interval two locals told me the story and looking back, yes, pieces came together. The second part was not in Spanish, but in Russian with Spanish subtitles. Lost in translation? Not at all.

visiting Teatro Colon
visiting Teatro Colon

After merely three weeks in the Argentine capital time had come to cross the Rio del Plata with the Buquebus-ferry and visit an old friend from primary school, yes from primary school. On arrival in Montevideo Anibal was already waiting for me. After not having seen each other for 28 years he showed up in the Netherlands last summer and we agreed I would visit him during my trip as I was nearby in Buenos Aires anyway. It was quite special.

The first week in Montevideo I continued my Spanish study at the academia. The academia in Buenos Aires was good but I liked this one even better. Less students meant more individual attention which was good. My teacher Lucía was really good and used more English than my teacher in Argentina. This way it was easier to relate both languages. Unfortunately this didn’t result in me speaking fluent Spanish. No, I could only have some conversations in the academia with other teachers and students. On the street it was impossible. Every sentence sounds like one word. They don’t pronounce the h or the s and therefore I had no clue what they were saying. But, I do have a certificate! I now have level 2.2, out of 9. According to Emilia, Anibal’s girlfriend, I write like a 4-year old…

beautiful trees in Montevideo
beautiful trees in Montevideo

Anibal and Emilia live in la Comercial, a barrio located just outside the center of the city. The streets in this area are characterized by beautiful big trees creating some sort of roof. Compared to Buenos Aires it was really quiet outside. They live in a very nice house which was previously owned by his sister. They live together with their turtle and fishes. Well, for the time being. Because the aquarium makes a lot of noise they turn it off at night resulting in the fishes not getting too much oxigen. The turtle seems to be fine though…

I traveled half the world to arrive in this part only to find out that Anibal is wearing carpet slippers from Friesland, a Dutch province, and that they love to drink Jenever. It’s easy to see he’s born in Heerenveen. One day we visited his mother, Rosario. She remembered Anibal and myself playing in Holanda. We used a mattress to slide down the stairs resulting in damaged clothes. My mother used to call her to ask what the hell we were doing there. We were just playing a very common game…

We enjoyed alfajores (a local delicacy consisting of cake, chocolate and dulce de leche which is some sort of local caramel) and she had made a great stew. The food was delicious and it was special to see her again after so long. Another day I made my first visit to a hippodrome. It was the first time for Anibal too. He initially said he only wanted to go because of me. Two hours later, when we had won some money, he was more excited than me. Now he wants to go back. Thanks “Vip Giant” and “Royal Gaspacho”, our winning horses!

horseracing in Montevideo
horseracing in Montevideo

The last five and a half months I only ate out (what a luxury!) but this time we enjoyed some homemade food several times. Supermarkets are very nice in Montevideo, some of them even sell Maredsous (both Blonde and Tripel!). Well, what else can I ask for? Besides some really good dinners, Anibal made a parilla for his friends one night too. Parilla is the local BBQ with the infamous big pieces of meat. We had sausages, paprika’s stuffed with cheese, bread and of course, several types of beef. The parilla is more than just a dinner. People invite their friends and it’s really a social thing. The food is of secundary importance. I could see they were all enjoying their night together.

having dinner with Anibal and Emilia at their place, check out the Maredsous next to Emilia!
having dinner with Anibal and Emilia at their place, check out the Maredsous next to Emilia!

On one of my last days of my stay in Uruguay’s capital I visited Teatro Solis together with Emilia. Anibal had to practise for one of his music performances (he is primarily a bass guitar player). This theatre is the true equivalent of Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. The design is exactly the same, I think it’s only just a little bit smaller. Prices however, are a lot smaller. In Buenos Aires you easily pay more than 100 euros for a good seat whereas in Montevideo all the seats for the philharmonic orchestra cost 6 euro! If you’re ever in Montevideo, use this opportunity to listen to some of the finest classical music. Even when you’re not the biggest fan of this type of music (like me) it’s still a great experience.

Not everything was without problems as it turned out during the later stages of my stay. Being lost in translation, because I don’t speak Spanish (level 2.2 really does not allow one to have a conversation, trust me!) and their English is only slightly better than my Spanish, and facing cultural differences lead to some difficulties or “noise on the line” every now and then. Luckily we were able to somehow talk about it and sort things out. Hopefully it will make all of us stronger in the end. My stay in Montevideo was a very special one. Thanks to Anibal and Emilia I was able to enjoy a big city in a different culture as a local and not only as a tourist. They showed some amazing hospitality which I thoroughly enjoyed and hopefully they have some good memories of my visit.

The next two weeks will be spent in Brazil. Saturday evening I’ll fly into Rio de Janeiro before going to the Pantanal. The Pantanal is a national park South of the Amazon which I really wanted to visit for some time. The park is home to some jaguars which I could spot with a lot of luck. Fingers crossed on that one! After my 4-day visit to the Pantanal, I will continue my journey to Bolivia and Peru before making my way back to Argentina, possibly via the Atacama desert in the North of Chile. On July 27 I will start my South American skiseason in the freeride capital of the Southern Hemisphere, Las Lenas. Next update will most likely be somewhere mid-July.

Click here to see more pictures of my trip to Buenos Aires and Montevideo!

2 Responses

  1. Marvin

    Great post! Argentines have one of the strongest accents of folks who speak Spanish. For a few weeks of study simple convos arent so bad. Also good to know about the classical music in Montevideo. Keep it comin big Paul!

  2. Marijn

    Ha die Paul!

    Wat een leuk verhaal om te lezen (je had genoeg te vertellen!) en wat een mooie mooie foto’s weer: zeker die met het uitzicht vanuit je appartement in BA. Eens kijken…., die televisieheld(en) he…, zouden het Bassie en A… kunnen zijn?! 😛

    Veel plezier voor je komende reizen door Zuid-Amerika en hartelijke groeten vanuit Hanoi,


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