Buenos Aires, Argentina
Crossing the street in Rome could be the final exam for a 500-level course on “How to Avoid Getting Hit By a Car.” It requires advanced preparation and specialized knowledge. While studying abroad in Barcelona, I traveled with a friend to Rome. We took a bus into town from the airport, hoisted on our backpacks, and began walking to our pensione. At the edge of the grassy median separating the bus station from the main road we stopped abruptly, paralyzed by fear. A group of travelers stood cowering like a family of pioneers about to ford a river. In terror-stricken silence, we watched as multiple lanes of Italian sports cars raced past. It wasn’t oncoming traffic; it was the Running of the Bulls.
Frantically, we searched for an intersection, crosswalk, or animal whisperer. With none in sight, we resigned ourselves to spending the afternoon on the curb. Suddenly, I remembered an obscure fact I had read in a guidebook: the key to crossing the street in Rome is eye contact. I waited for a lull in the traffic, took a deep breath, stepped into the road, and with feigned confidence shot the Italian drivers an intense look that said, “Hey! I’m walking here.” Magically, the vehicles slowed, kneeling graciously as we sauntered to the other side.
Fortunately, in New Zealand you don’t need wits to cross the street, just patience. You simply congregate on the corner and wait for the neon crossing guard to give you the green light. It’s all very civilized, albeit boring. The biggest risk is that it might be ten minutes before the light changes. (Jaywalking was completely out of the question for me since I never could work out which direction the traffic was coming from.) However, when pedestrians are finally given their turn, they have the opportunity to cross diagonally, thus getting two crossings in one.
The best part about being a pedestrian in New Zealand is the zebra crossings. Alternating dark and light patches of pavement, and black and white poles indicate places where pedestrians always have the right of way. Because the friendly, law-abiding Kiwis actually respect the road code, you can walk into the street while reading a book without fearing for your safety.
When I finally landed in Buenos Aires after a seventeen-hour delay, an eleven-hour flight, and traveling backwards in time, all I wanted to do was shower. Before I could so, I had to walk a few blocks to the store to buy toiletries. At the first intersection, I spotted the familiar black and white bands of paint, and mindlessly continued into the street. A gang of taxis fought each other for the chance to commit vehicular manslaughter. I jumped back onto the sidewalk, barely avoiding an accident. Between the pharmacy and my friend’s apartment, I had three near-hits. It seems I was a little unclear about what city I was in.
There are no pedestrian walkways in Buenos Aires; there is only target practice. Although Argentines are essentially displaced Italians, you can forget about the eye-contact strategy. Staring at an Argentine motorist only helps him perfect his aim. Even where there are pedestrian lights, turning traffic has the self-appointed right of way. The best strategy for crossing the street in Buenos Aires is to run for your life.
Other than a few close calls at the beginning, the transition back into life in Buenos Aires has been relatively smooth. The weirdest part is that it’s hardly weird at all. There are no suggestions of my time in New Zealand, save a few photos on Facebook, and many remnants of my former life in Argentina remain. Most of my close friends are still around, I have an active social life, and I know where things are. It’s comfortable. It’s home.
With everything so deceptively normal, I predicted that I would only need a few days to recover and establish a daily routine involving cooking, meditating, exercising, reading and writing. After ten days, my biggest accomplishment was watching an entire season of America’s Next Top Model in one afternoon. Apparently, you don’t get over an abroad experience overnight.
For more than a week, I did little more than sleep and sit on the couch in my pajamas. I felt like a character in a Jane Austen novel sent to the coast to convalesce. Except that instead of taking a carriage to the seaside to breath in the salty air, I rode the elevator to the rooftop terrace to lie by the pool. At first, I was confused by my exhaustion and frustrated by my apathy. After a difficult year abroad, I had been looking forward to going somewhere easy. Now, I appreciate that reentry is harder than I expected, especially because I am so hard on myself.
Returning to a city where you’ve already lived is certainly less challenging than, say, starting anew in Lithuania. But, it’s still a process and it definitely takes longer than a long weekend. Even if mentally it’s as though I never left Argentina, emotionally, I’m still tied to Auckland. I may not need to meet new people, but I do have to catch up with old friends and make sure no damage was done to the foundation of our relationship in my absence. There is the work of creating and adhering to a new schedule, acclimating to local sounds and smells, and seeking out the raw materials needed to facilitate my lifestyle and hobbies, both of which have changed considerably since I last lived here. Thankfully, I don’t have to worry about a job or a place to live.
Rather than reprimand myself for being lazy (or blame Argentine drivers for my reluctance to leave the apartment), I lowered my ambitions. I set smaller, attainable goals for myself, such as getting dressed before noon or reading in the Recoleta Cemetery instead of on the couch. Slowly and naturally, life is regaining a sense of order and purpose, and I am becoming more active and motivated. More importantly, given that I am only in Buenos Aires for six weeks, I have reassessed my priorities. I didn’t come here to be responsible; I came here to spend time with friends and decompress before starting a new adventure. Staying out until 6am on a Wednesday may decrease my productivity, but I am supposed to be on sabbatical. With no one to answer to but myself, maybe, for a little while anyway, I can stop being so demanding and unreasonable.