The first one's a small one: I wish I'd had a better sense of the weather here, and packed accordingly. For some reason, I assumed that it would be always hot. And it's not! Argentina's got four seasons, and although places like Buenos Aires are fairly moderate (i.e., it doesn't snow in winter!) it can still get pretty chilly in spring and fall, when we were here.
History and Culture
I didn't really have a sense of Argentina's history and culture before we arrived, and I believe that had I taken the time to familiarize myself a little more with this, our transition from North to South America might have been a little smoother, or at least, that we would have had a deeper appreciation for the richness with which we were surrounded for eight months.
Sure, we read some picturebooks together, the boys and I, and I knew about Tango. Heck, I'd even heard of Eva Perron (and not just because of Madonna!) And, having watched (a LONG time ago) Motorcycle Diaries, and read (an even LONGER time ago!) Eva Luna, I was not completely unfamiliar with the South American ethos. We've even taken the time to have coffee with several people in Toronto who were either Argentine, or who had recently lived in the country, just to get some guidance before we embarked on our 8-month journey into the unknown.
So we kind of prepared.
And yet, I had no real sense of Argentina when we arrived.
I did not know, for example, about the Economic Crisis of 2001 and its impacts on Argentines from all social classes, which can still be felt today. I also had not realised how recently there had been a military dictatorship here, and at that as result of the estimated 30 000 "disappeared", the Mothers and Grandmothers still march every Thursday on Plaza de Mayo (we saw them just this past week!) It took me months to figure out Mate culture. And I had little sense of Argentina's physical regions and its fascinating Inca history (which in some ways parallels our Canadian First Nations story in the systemic eradication of origins culture) until we actually traveled to Missiones, Patagonia and Salta/Jujuy.
The next time I go to a place that is so very "different" in terms of socio-economics and politics, I will take better care, too, to research the money situation in advance.
We'd read about the blue rate before coming here, but didn't really "get" it. We also hadn't considered how the country's economic volatility would affect us as long-term foreign visitors. For example, realizing how frugal we'd had to be Sept - Dec, we'd decided to increase our weekly budget from $250 USD week for a family of four to $280 after the new year, thinking this would allow us a little more wiggle room. But, when the 30% inflation and plummeting blue rate were factored in, our USD did little to help us, and we ended up right where we'd started!
Perhaps the most significant factor on this trip was language. Although we did a little bit of prep in the form of a sticker book (and I had a few phrases already from high school, when my mother had forced me to learn some basic Spanish before my band traveled to Spain, Costa Rica and Mexico), our language skills were really rather pathetic, given that we'd be living in this country for nearly a year!
Although Tats was taking a daily Spanish class when she was here, I was pretty much resigned to picking up the bits and pieces I did through immersion, and through the occasional bout of "Cat Spanish". (Though the latter didn't address the Argentine-specific problem!)
Not speaking the language of the people really affects your everyday life: I had no idea what folks were saying to me the vast majority of the time, and everyone from bus drivers to shop owners to people we met on the street must have thought I was pretty stupid!
Not knowing the language also precludes one from having rich, meaningful relationships with "friends" you make abroad. Frequently having to resort to a game of charades to glean understanding or make oneself understood, "deeper" conversation topics seemed like insurmountable hurdles, and with most Argentines, we were restricted to superficial topics. Our only truly "deep" relationship developed with the Marias, and that was primarily because their English was exceptional. In essence, we were restricted to a subculture of ex-pats and English-speaking Portenos, which had its own charm, but which I felt inhibited us from truly experiencing all the greater culture Argentina in general and Buenos Aires in particular had to offer.
The only silver lining here was that I developed an enormous empathy for the many ESL families I work with back home in Ontario -- not only am I now more familiar with what it feels like to be reasonably intelligent but feel totally stupid, I also have a better understanding for why they don't learn English sooner: Life in a new country, with children, is BUSY, and basic survival often usurps language learning, despite a recognition of the latter's importance. Having said that, I also realise how critical it is now to learn the language of the place where you're living, and I will do my best to support the ESL families at my school in getting the language acquisition help they need to improve their situation.
Although I learned a lot as a teacher, I wish I'd been able to communicate more effectively with the locals.
I didn't have a lot of very specific expectations about coming to Argentina. I knew the weather would be warmer than in Canada, and I was looking forward to that. I also knew we'd have grand adventures (which we did), and I had been looking forward to discovering a new part of the world together with my children, and integrating our discoveries into our existing schema of how the world worked, and expanding that schema.
As we look out over the city this final morning here in Buenos Aires, I'm somewhat in awe of the fact that -- despite our lack of preparation in the ways outlined above -- we actually pulled this off. We had help from many people along the way, both emotional as well as financial. But ultimately, we are the ones who did it, this crazy year, and we are forever changed because of it.