Archive for November, 2008

I’m Thankful for Monedas: Thanksgiving in Argentina

Buenos Aires, Argentina

My family doesn’t do traditions. My father, a 63 year-old lawyer, needs a logical reason before doing anything. And my mother’s favorite argument, “because that’s what people do,” just isn’t convincing enough.

On holidays, my dad has all the power. He’s the only one in the family capable of cooking an edible meal. Unfortunately, my dad has made defending the right to not eat turkey on Thanksgiving his personal mission. One year, he actually held the turkey hostage and served Spanish paella in its place. Upon learning of this substitution, my cousin burst into tears. Traumatized, he later wrote a school essay about this dinner. My dad never made that mistake again.

Ironically, my father’s refusal to “do things just for the sake of it” has led to the creation of our own family ritual. Every year, my mother badgers my father with a series of, “So, are you going make a turkey this year?” This does nothing but provoke my father into fighting about the menu as a matter of principle (and ego and pride). He finally surrenders and produces a gourmet Thanksgiving dinner worthy of the pages of Bon Appetit.

My family then spends the entire evening awkwardly thanking my father for his kindness and generosity, and devouring dinner as if this is the last time they will ever eat such a meal. Which, knowing my father, is not an unjustified fear. Someone is inevitably thankful that my dad didn’t make paella or lasagna or enchiladas or some other atypical dish. And we all finish the evening full to the point of explosion on the food that my father made under duress.

Needless to say, I’m not a great fan of holidays. I certainly don’t hate them, they are just not something that I learned to care about or value, and I don’t miss them now that I’m gone. In fact, I’d be happy to let them slip by undetected. But instead, I celebrate them.

This year I even prepared a Valentine’s Day dinner for a group of single friends. Why would I, someone with a natural aversion to forced gatherings, want to torture myself by hosting an evening honoring a commercial holiday for lovers? Because I can.

The reality is, for most of us, the most important part of a holiday celebration is not the meaning or the menu, but the people sitting around the table. The fact that I have a group of friends that inspires me to organize or attend a dinner party, regardless of the occasion, is perhaps my greatest accomplishment since moving abroad. And I am happy for any excuse to congratulate myself on a job well done.

Last night, my friend, with the help of her mother who flew in from California with a suitcase full of ingredients, prepared Thanksgiving dinner for 20 people. This is no small feat, especially in Buenos Aires in the summer. The guest list included her American friends, her Argentine family, and her Japanese boyfriend. Despite the location, humidity, and varied backgrounds of the attendees, my friend and her mother were able to produce a perfect American Thanksgiving in Argentina. There was turkey, stuffing, cranberries, and pumpkin pie, awkward conversation, commentary on the weather, a crazy aunt who entertained us with her life stories, and plenty of complaining about how much we ate.

In true Thanksgiving fashion, we went around the room and said what we were thankful for. And then we translated it into Spanish/English. We were all grateful for the meal and the invitation, our health, the opportunity to share cultures, and that America has a new president. Personally, I was thankful for air conditioning, that the bank had monedas (coins), and for having close friends in far away places.

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Please, May I Have a Little Less?: America’s Consumer Culture

Peanut butter and jelly on a pumpkin bagel

Peanut butter and jelly on a pumpkin bagel

I was recently in the States for the first time in almost a year. Now, a year may be long enough for my parents to redo the landscaping, but it is hardly long enough for me to feel like a stranger in my own home. Yet this trip found me in tears in the snack food aisle.

“Do I want barbeque or sour cream and onion? Baked or fried? Do I even like potato chips?” What had started as a simple trip to the supermarket had turned into an identity crisis. Aisles later, I realized that my problem wasn’t that I couldn’t pick a flavor, it was that I couldn’t find the right product. Back to my senses, I returned the box of chocolate chip cookie cereal to the shelf, and as I left the store empty handed I wondered: if America is the land of plenty, why doesn’t it have anything to offer me?

Groceries come in a wide range of shapes, sizes, and colors but they all belong to the same category: artificial. I don’t want to microwave it or just add water. While I appreciate convenience and efficiency, I prefer to have the time, energy, and materials to cook it myself. But Americans don’t create, they consume. This cultural phenomenon, reflected in the supermarket, was the true cause of my culture shock.

Americans, it seems to me, are in a never-ending pursuit of products, because “stuff” has become synonymous with happiness. Money dictates moods. People are defined by what they have and they are haunted by what they have not. Because new and improved products constantly enter the market, there is a lingering sense of dissatisfaction and relative deprivation.

Perhaps worst of all, the availability and accessibility of top end consumer goods has caused Americans to lose perspective and to miscalculate their own quality of life. Some of the wealthiest people in the world believe themselves to be poor. Clothes purchased at Target are often better than those found at top stores in Argentina. Luxury has become the new basic. Yet Americans go into credit card debt over Louis Vuitton purses.

My preferences and priorities are somewhat simpler. This is not to say that I don’t like pretty things or that I don’t miss certain products from the States. Garbage disposals, tampons with applicators, and pumpkin bagels all spring to mind. However, I am not defined or motivated by them. And for me, the cost of living in a society that offers those products is too high. I don’t want to trade my interests, passions, talents, and health for purchasing power. Houses, cars, clothes, and iPhones are not worth my soul.

Personally, I would rather pay less and receive less. There are even times when I would be willing to pay the same and receive less. One night while in the States, I went to the mall to treat myself to frozen yogurt. The boy behind the counter grabbed what looked to be a venti frappuccino cup stolen from the neighboring Starbucks. “Is that really the smallest size there is?” I asked in disbelief. He assured me that it was. Before he had finished filling the cup, I shouted to him in desperation, “That’s enough!” I wanted dessert, not Thanksgiving dinner. In the end, I had to throw most of it away anyways.

25% more free is wasted on me. I don’t have the space to store it and I can’t possibly consume it before it goes bad. What I want is moderation. But that option is now obsolete.

Finding balance in the States is it not impossible. But when the pervasive culture is to always strive for more, you have to fight if you want less. Or if not fight, at the very least defend. You have to defend your lifestyle from the judgment of others and from the temptation to keep up with the Jone’s.

When I explain to people that I would rather enjoy my life now than spend it collecting objects, they look at me like I’m lazy, crazy, or a Socialist. If you ask me, lazy is letting a machine do all the work for you. And crazy is starting to save for retirement the day you graduate from college, saddling yourself with debts and loans so that you can buy things that you can’t afford, wasting your days inside chained to a desk, and looking for fulfillment in material possessions.

Ultimately, this is not about ideology. I’m not trying to start a revolution. And I don’t think that there is anything inherently wrong with having expensive tastes. I just don’t want to live in a place where comfort kills creativity, where salvation is found in shopping, and where fear of financial insecurity in the future prevents people from living the present. Personally, I don’t want to have to be rich to be happy.

For more on the paradox of choice, check out Barry Schwartz’s Ted Talk

On Record in London

London, England dscf15371

I recently went on a family vacation to Europe (explaining my considerable leave of absence).  Now, my parents and brother are wonderful.  At least they can be, at times, particularly from a distance of more than 5,000 miles.  But traveling is stressful even with the best of company and I was understandably nervous about spending two weeks in Europe with my family.  Luckily, the trip ended up being much less of a disaster than it could have been.  Especially considering how it started.

Before embarking on our European family adventure, I flew to the United States to spend a week at home.  Although we departed from the same city on the same day, my family and I flew separately.  My parents and brother were scheduled on a direct flight from Detroit to London. I, in what can only be described as geographic avant-garde, had to change planes in Chicago.

Unsurprisingly, my flight was delayed leaving Detroit, I missed my connection in Chicago, and I was rebooked on a later flight.  My family was unaware of this change and I could sense my mother’s worry before the plane landed at Heathrow.  Already cranky and tired, I was eager to meet my family at baggage claim and put the flight behind me.  But more than anything, I was excited to be in Europe again.

Despite having lived in Argentina for three years, I am a Europhile at heart.  My first visit was in the form of a three-week exchange program to Paris when I was nine years old.  I have returned various times since, including the summer I spent backpacking through Europe with my best friend, and the semester I studied abroad in Barcelona.  I was thrilled to see Europe again.  It seems, however, that the feeling was not mutual.

Required documentation in hand, I approached passport control at London’s Heathrow airport. “What is the purpose of your visit?”

“Family vacation”

“How long are you planning to stay in London?”

“One week”

“Do you have evidence that you will be departing London on that date?” 

That’s when things took a turn for the worse.  My parents planned the entire trip and had all of the relevant information, including my train ticket to Paris a week later.  The official then proceeded to inquire into my employment status, the reason why I quit my job, and if I had any interviews lined up.  I did not appreciate having my life judged by a British Immigrations official.

At one point, I asked him, “Are you worried that I’m going to stay in London? Is that the problem?  Because I’m not.” Clearly flustered by the fact that I had figured out what he was up to, the official informed me that he had “documented me in the system.”  He assured me that this was standard procedure and that as long as I left London when I claimed that I was going to, there would be no problem.  I was now on record in London and I was furious. Being an unemployed nomad may be unconventional, but it hardly makes me a criminal.

He stamped and returned my passport. I began to proceed to baggage claim when my cell phone rang.  “Is everything okay?” my dad asked.

“Oh, just fine,” I replied with just a hint of sarcasm. “The Immigration official was giving me a hard time because he thinks that I’m a risk to stay in his country which I’m not,” I explained loudly. “But it’s done.  He let me through.” Evidently, I have a problem with authority.

I am no stranger to border control.  In the past year alone, I visited seven countries. But I had never been treated quite like this.  In Colombia, I was never made to clear customs.  On our way back from Guatemala, my friend and I walked back and forth through the airport trying to find passport control, convinced that we had missed it.  In the end, we had to ask a staff member to please check our passports because, as it turned out, there was no official Immigration counter.  Once, upon returning to Argentina, an Immigration official accidentally gave me a new tourist visa.  I had to politely ask her to cross it out so as not to invalidate my clearly irrelevant residency visa.

So imagine my indignation when I was almost refused entry into England.  I know that I could have lied, that I could have said that I was a student or that I had never quit my job. But I didn’t want to because I didn’t need to.  I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I wasn’t there to steal anyone’s job or collect social services.  What threat did I possibly pose, other than obnoxiously trying to imitate a British accent?

Later, my friends told me that they faced similar questioning and that British passport control is notorious for being difficult.  While it was nice to hear that it’s not me, it’s them, I was left wondering, when did crossing borders become so difficult? 

I understand the need for strict border control.  I understand that terrorism and illegal immigration are real problems.  But I don’t understand why I, an American citizen, should have to lie in order to go to England on a family vacation?  There must be a way to keep the bad guys out without turning away the good guys, or turning friends into enemies.

As more and more countries demand permits and visas, and make obtaining them nearly impossible, the world becomes smaller and more segregated.  We may have international markets, but what about international citizens? Shouldn’t we be encouraging people to open their minds and to explore new places, ideas, and ways of life? Shouldn’t we be facilitating positive cultural interactions? Because it seems to me that we already have enough barriers to entry and obstacles to overcome without erecting new ones.


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