Author Archives: MaddieB

Cows and Christmas: A Cultural Exchange

By Madeline Blasberg

Thanks to my Intercultural Communication class, a rather unique (and delicious) cultural convergence took place.  It began as an attempt to share a “quintessential Argentine” experience and a “quintessential North American” experience, and turned into a kind of culinary fear factor.

Phase One: Argentina’s Turn

A friend of mine, who sweetly agreed to be my cultural exchange partner, drove me out into the mountains for an Asado, otherwise known as Argentine BBQ.  Although rather than a bag of charcoal picked up at the gas station, you use actual wood (go figure) and rather than brown sugar and ketchup you use salt- the Argentine seasoning of choice.

The drive took us outside Mendoza, through the fields of drying grape vines, past the run down neighborhoods they don’t show you in travel brochures and into the picturesque winding roads of the entrance to the Andes.  As with all BBQs, real estate is everything.  Prime picnic territory always has a scenic view, wind shelter, shade trees and just enough distance from neighboring picnic-ers to not feel as though you must defend your plate from scavengers.  Thanks to our guide, we set up camp beside a river in the middle of a mountain canyon.

On the menu: Matahambre a la Pizza.  Translation: Giant slab of meat lovingly smothered in spiced tomato sauce and creamy cheese.  But before the cow can be cooked, the vegetables need to be charred in the fire.  Just the outside though, and not a cremation-char, just a burn-the-outside-char.  The eggplant and onions then became a delicious salad, and when the cow was cooked through and the chef gave the signal, the feast began.

This is not time to go into graphic detail about the flavors that happened that day, and so I will leave you alone with this picture and your imagination.

Phase Two: The USA’s Turn

It was a struggle to come up with an activity that is typical in the US.  The brainstorming session was quite fruitless: we could go to a baseball game — which doesn’t exist here, we could go to a state fair — same issue, and somehow the idea of watching “American Idol” while eating McDonalds just didn’t really entice me.  So instead, I decided we should celebrate Christmas – a la USA.  Which in this case meant Christmas cookies.

         

         

Now, estimating recipe yield is never something I pretend to be good at.  I have a chronic worry that there will not be enough, which led to a vat of extra butter cream frosting.  Whoopsi.  And while I was concocting the perfect blend of sugar and butter, it dawned at me that this cultural exchange was a display of some of the more ridiculous foods each culture had to offer.  Would any other country but Argentina have the gumption to turn a cow into a pizza as it cooks on the grill?  No.  And would any other country but ours think it was acctually acceptable to whip together butter and sugar and then smear that on top of a sugar cookie, only to adhere onto said cookie even more sugar?  Nope, probably not.

Never the less, we rolled sugar cookies, frosted them and showered them in sprinkles and candies while listening to Christmas carols.  Turns out the more modern selections on the iTunes Happy Holidays play list do not go over so well this far south of the equator.  “You really listen to this?” was a common question, accompanied by a slight look of horror.  Then to end the festivities, we read The Night Before Christmas, which also was not such a hit, and really very difficult to translate.

So, tummies full of sugar cookies and dreams of cow a la pizza dancing in our heads, the cultural exchange came to an end.  Everyone pleasantly charmed by the wonders we had seen.

Mid-term Mishaps

By Maddie Blasberg

Midterms have come and gone and in their wake, they have left a rather storm-battered student trying to figure out where exactly she went wrong.

Seven weeks into Social and Political History of Argentina and the professor had only shown up to give 3 lectures.  The other weeks, a painfully dull grad student would draw the most bizarrely constructed maps on the white board, while a room full of students would hopelessly try to make sense of what was apparently a lecture on the South American wars of independence.

The week before the midterm was spent reading and rereading the packet of photocopies, piecing together notes scribbled in Spanglish and supplementing all of that with BBC documentaries and Wikipedia articles.  Until eventually I felt prepared and confident enough to finally put the books away and let myself fall asleep.

As is tradition, on exam day every one comes to class.  Nearly every chair was filled with an Argentino or gringo student and midterms were passed out — form A for the natives, form B for the foreigners.  Class lasted from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m., I had recently reviewed my notes, had my lucky pen with me, cell phone on silent and water bottle within reach.  All systems go.

Unfortunately, page one of the exam brought with it a bit of rocky start.  The only way I can think of to accurately describe the four different sets of instructions for how to answer the various question types is a series of booby traps.  Each set of instructions had a different way to mark the right answer, a different set up and a few words I had to scramble to look up in the dictionary just to figure out what it was trying to tell me to do.

Section one: “Mark only the correct answer” which, I later learned, meant “for every three statements, Mark only the correct answer”

Section two:  Standard true/ false.  Not a problem.

Section three: fill in the blank – pick the right answer.

Section four: Standard fill in the blank.

Section five: Series of essay questions

Somewhere nearing the middle of the fifth section I hear a whisper a few rows ahead of me that catches my attention.  Did they say ten minutes left?  How can that be?  We only just started.  Cuanto tiempo más tenemos?  I asked the dreary grad student, Hasta 4:30, he replied.  But without a watch I didn’t know if that was a good thing or if I should start to panic.  A gasp of horror from a student to my right told me that 4:30 had to be a bit too close for comfort.  Ok, so change of plans.  Apparently we had half the time we thought.  No big deal, it’s all about flexibility…and speed writing.  GO GO GO.

In a blurr of blue ink I succinctly summarized the Argentine wars of independence, followed by the various forms of governments that sprang up, their futile efforts to unite the populous and tossed in a lovely comparison with Mexico to wrap it all up.

Minus one completely failed essay question and the hiccups with the instructions on the first page, I didn’t feel entirely horrible about my performance.  Until that is, I stepped outside to talk it over with the other exchange students.

It was there that we determined we had each interpreted the instruction on the first page differently.  Some people X-ed all the right answers, some people saw they were grouped into groups of threes, some people crossed out wrong answers where other people circled the right ones etc. etc.

The professor had asked us to stay after class to talk about the exam, and it only took a few seconds for us to relay the general consensus that it did not go so well and it only took a few seconds more for her to get, well how should I put this, scary and angry.  We tried to explain the confusion over the instructions and the time constraints, to which she merely replied that we are no longer in the United States and therefore needed to adapt.

The lady had a point.  But I believe so did we.  After explaining where on the test we had found difficulty, she begrudgingly offered a few more minutes to finish the exam, which I used to revisit the multiple choice mine-field.  Handing in the test for the final time, only to be interrogated as to why I didn’t use all of the extra minutes, I left feeling frustrated.

This was a professor who had seemed to be excited to have several exchange students in her class, and now she had turned into someone who seemed to think of us as an obnoxious burden.  And the frustrating thing is that she is and is not the exception to the rule.  There are some teachers here that go out of their way to make sure we (exchange students) understand the material and the expectations, and there are others who cannot be bothered to care.  Some offer adjusted syllabi and extra office hours, and some don’t come to class at all.

I’m not nearly prepared to explain all the differences in educational systems between Argentina and the U.S., but I am prepared to make one comment on cultural adjustment: there is a difference between trying to adapt and failing, and not trying to adapt at all.  And it seems to me, we have to meet each other half way.  Misunderstandings, misinterpretations and language booby-traps are bound to come up.  But when a student says, I don’t understand, or I think I misinterpreted that, it is a lot different than saying, you need to write the exam in English and do things how we do them in the U.S.

I’m just thankful that my other midterms had much happier endings.

The Native Tourist

By Madeline Blasberg

Last week I received my first care package since coming abroad.  She’s got bright red hair, stands just over five feet and comes from a faraway place I once knew quite well…

I met my friend at her hostel on Sunday afternoon, nearly teo months after hugging her goodbye on the streets of Buenos Aires.  Anna’s study abroad program and mine were logistically only 12 hours apart by bus, but light-years apart in every other way.  While she interned for an advertising agency, lived in an apartment with another Mizzou student, fended for herself in grocery isles and obscene bank lines and traveled every weekend, I navigated a massive public university, chatted in broken Spanish with my two Argentine host sisters and settled into a new kind of life.

I spent my first week in Argentina with Anna in Buenos Aires.  She guided me through the trauma of ATMs denying bank cards, taught me how not to die when crossing the street and shared with me an inaugural mojito and night out dancing until 5 a.m.  Not only did I get to spend time with a very important person in my life in a very incredible city, but I also got to ease into life in Argentina.  And now, 77 days later we are together again.

   Hanging out with Anna and some of the people on her study abroad program, lunching in a park and making family dinner.

Her final hurrah in Argentina was a few days in Mendoza with me, where I showed her my city, introduced her to the life I have found here and reignited the tourist inside of me who had gotten a little too comfortable.  It’s a difficult balance to strike, studying abroad for six months.  You want to jump on any bus/ taxi/ plane/ mule or horse drawn wagon that can potentially take you somewhere new, but you also want to stay put, blend in and just enjoy where you are.

And that’s what I’ve been doing.  I’ve been watching my host mom as she puts the final pieces of lace on the wedding dress she’s making in her sewing room upstairs.  I’ve been reading in the park by the mountains, trying not to stare at the couples making out two feet away from me.  I’ve been spending time with new Argentine friends,  eating in with my family as we debate if Osama bin Laden is actually dead and waking up on Saturday mornings at noon only to then let myself sink back into sleep.

Perhaps maybe, just maybe, I had achieved what I’d hoped would be possible — I had Argentinified just a bit.  I was able to bring Anna home to eat tortas and drink wine with my family of three girls and a crazy cat, introduce her to the important people in my life and hopefully show her how Mendoza looks outside of the pages of Lonely Planet.

It’s a difficult world — studying abroad you have to straddle the line between native and tourist.  But often times natives do the worst job of appreciating their own home.  We forget to go to the places we say are just so beautiful, or do the things we recommend to others.  We become complacent, and assume we’ll always do it the next weekend, or when it’s a little more convenient.  We assume we’ll always have more time.

Anna’s arrival reminded me that there is still so much here for me to do, and see and experience. And I was also able to see Mendoza with the eyes I had the first week I arrived.  Flipping through the pages of guidebooks, and perusing blogs of people that have come before, I realized just how much remained unexplored.

So, with Anna by my side, I set out to cover new ground.  We rode around on horses in the campo, following the line of the Andes on the horizon.  Unfortunately, my horse was broken.  Roto.  Couldn’t do nada.  Following the instructions of our gaucho guide, I adjusted my grip on the reigns, leaned forward, nudged with my heel and cooed to the horsey that we should vamanos.  Vamanos! Horsey wasn’t having any of it.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Caramela didn’t even know she had a rider.

At the half way point we stopped for a leg stretch and photo shoot, and when it was time to remount I put my left foot in the stirrup, and hoisted myself up.  When I was somewhere in mid air, with my right leg poised to swing around to the other side, Caramela suddenly swung her rather massive rump towards me, throwing me off balance and into a rather spectacular whirl of flailing limbs which ultimately ended up with me landing butt-first on the ground.  Hip checked.  By a horse.  Suffice it to say that I did not coo to her the rest of the ride home, and that the next time I meet a diva horse I will be much, much better prepared.

Anna and I also spent a day enjoying the thermal pools of Cacheuta, an hour outside of town.  We opted for the slightly more expensive spa day, complete with several pools of different temperatures, a natural cave sauna, mud bath, delicious lunch and enough time to fall asleep in the sun.  It felt strange treating myself to such a luxurious day, but when I looked out from the infinity pools at the river gorge and mountain backdrop I really did not think twice about coming.

Saying goodbye to Anna reminded me of how suddenly rich my life has become with incredible friends and experiences, and it also reminded me of the plane that I, myself, will have to catch in less than three months.  Thinking about leaving depresses me, so instead I’m thinking about making every moment count.  And in the end, maybe it’s possible to be an honorary Argentinean native.  I can blend, live and be here just as much as I can explore and still see my Mendoza with  fresh eyes.

Patagonia

By Madeline Blasberg

Every so often you hear that a place is too beautiful for words, and I’ve always kind of thought that was a pathetic copout.  Until now.  Because as it turns out, Patagonia can’t be done justice in words or pictures.  If you asked me to describe it to you I’d stare at you bug-eyed, arms gesturing wildly, mouth moving up and down producing not a sound, like a fish underwater.  And then maybe I’d be able to form a word or two…

It’s just so….if you only…and the mountains…you just can’t…there is no way to…and ooohhhh it’s soooooo…and what’s the word for…can’t you just imagine it?

And this debacle could go on for hours, after which you’d demand to see my pictures, but I’d tack on several thousand disclaimers about how they don’t do justice to such splendor.  And they’d all be true: the camera’s not the best,  I don’t actually know how to work it, sometimes it’s in the wrong setting and the lighting is never quite right.  And it’s always a thousand times better in person.

But such is life.  And so, in the wee bitty pixels of this blog post, and in my broken stammers of amazement I will try (futilely try) to do justice to all that is Patagonia.

There’s a good amount of debate circling this subject, but some say that the Shire, of Lord of the Rings, was based on Patagonia.  But no matter what, the resemblance between the two is kind of impossible to deny.  And here is where my journey began.

Bariloche, our base camp, is not only a mecca for outdoors men with terrifying dreadlocks and a particularly authentic pine aroma, but it is also a major ski destination.  And in the off-season, the ski lifts are utilized for a little sight-seeing.  You ride them up the mountain, marveling at the height and how thankful you are to be surrounded by green, and on the way down you overlook the lake and the snow-capped peaks of Patagonia.

And then there was the pesky problem of accurately assessing distances and how far two legs can carry on person in a day.   I´d like to blame the metric system, which has been scrambling my mind ever since I got here.  But that would be unfair, because I know that the majority of the problem is not that every distance is in Km; the problem is I like to think that hiking 40 or 50 Km in a day is easily doable, and can be quite a lovely stroll.  Yeah.  Wrong-o.  But if studying abroad has taught me one thing, it would be that when you find you have kind of hosed yourself up, you will find that you can usually find a way to untangle your own mess.  Sometimes it means admitting defeat and hiking home a little ahead of schedule (Day #1), and sometimes it means hitchhiking up a mountain (Day #5).

And when times are had, and the budget minimal (which lets face it, it usually is), you learn to pack your lunch before you leave the hostel, and when ham and cheese doesn’t do the trick, you learn to find berries and live off the land.  Yum!

And finally, as luck would have it Bariloche (stop number 1) and El Bolson (stop number 2) are the chocolate and beer capitals of the world.  And so, when in Rome…and I’m pretty sure you can guess the rest.

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