Minor annoyances in Buenos Aires

…don’t worry, you’ll get used to them.

the middle shot is from Yayoi Kusama in MALBA (from my Instagram)

My experience as an expat wasn’t like that of other people. For one, my family are immigrants from El Salvador and I moved around a lot. I grew up in Los Angeles, did a stint in DC and Mexico City during college, and already spoke Spanish upon arrival. Plus, I had been back to El Salvador several times and felt extremely safe in Buenos Aires where I was able to travel alone, as opposed to having a well-intentioned but overprotective family around me.

I still grew up in the US though, and on days when I got homesick, some things that were normally mild inconveniences would annoy me a lot more often than usual. I’d want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, but there was no JIF. When I arrived I had to figure out which peanut butter brands were good. This is but a mild inconvenience, and with time, I learned to let go of wanting small things that ultimately wouldn’t be so important later on. In fact, I even learned to live without many of the things I’d grown up with.

Still, there are some things that may come as a shock to people who choose to live in Buenos Aires, especially if that’s their first experience abroad. Remember, these are inconveniences. If you’re smart you’ll work to get over these annoyances, but I list them here so you can be ready. Also, remember that wherever you’re from, there are things about your country that annoy tourists, expats, immigrants, and locals alike. Being from the US, with its constant shootings and overt racial tensions, I’m really in no place to judge a country that doesn’t have the former issue (the latter is something for another post).

  • Small change is a problem here. When you pay for groceries or other times, you’ll find that some places don’t have enough change, and some grocery stores such as DIA or Carrefour (mostly DIA though), will try to offer you a small candy instead of giving you your change. This is quite common and they do this to locals as well. I have a Venezuelan friend who worked at Farmacity and explained to me that when he would round the change up for the customer, he’d lose that money. This means that if a cashier is trying to give you that, he or she is trying not to lose money from their own wages. I’ve also been in circumstances where I want to buy a small item but have a large bill, and cashiers might not have enough change for me and refuse to sell to me. It seems impractical, but that could happen to you too.
  • Lateness is more acceptable here. This could work in your favor, but if you’re like me and used to being on time, you get stressed when you’re late, and probably very angry when others are late. People here may tell you that their party/dinner starts at 9pm, but most guests may arrive at 10pm. I know I was terribly annoyed when I arrived at my first few dinners at 9pm and the food wasn’t even cooked yet! I had to get around this by bringing snacks. I actually never got used to people’s lateness when I’d host, and eventually started telling people that food will be served at ______ time. Obviously, you have to show up on time for work and job interviews, but even they can be more flexible about this than in countries like the U.S. (just try not to test this theory!).
  • Flakiness is more acceptable here too. It’s common for people to say they’re interested in going to your dinner/event/party/picnic, but that doesn’t mean they’ll show up. Like anywhere else, some people do have legitimate reasons for this, but overall, it’s common for people not to show up even if they intended to, and it’s not as frowned upon as it would be in other cultures.
  • Dinners are later, and so is everything else. This is something most people get used to after a while, and I can say I’m now used to eating dinner at 9 or 10pm. Most people here have merienda (tea, mate and/or a snack) after work and eat at 9pm. Others go to an after office (happy hour) after work with colleagues or friends, and this is probably when they might eat earlier. If you stay a while you’ll even enjoy this. 🙂
  • Busses have no schedule. Once again, this is just something you’ll eventually get used to. Some lines are quite fast, and others have less service after about 9 or 10pm. Trains and subways do have a schedule, and they often stick to it.
  • Protests, paros (strikes), cacerolazos (protests where people show up with pots and pans), and blockades. There are many social justice movements, unions, and political factions in Argentina that participate in these activities, and you can’t just say that it’s the right or left of the country. Strikes may keep you from accessing transportation and services, and if there is a full shutdown chances are you’ll just stay home. Some people even chose to ride their bikes on days like this, or even to go out and support. It’s common for people to show up late because of this, and if you stay a while, you’ll also learn how to plan for this.
  • PC culture isn’t a thing. Especially if you live in the United States, you may be bothered by the fact that people here don’t stick to certain norms you may have gotten used to. Some terms used in US liberal/progressive/social justice circles are difficult to translate, and people see no need for them, or the dynamics around certain terms are different here.
  • Street floods. If you see above, there’s a picture of a flooded street. Some parts of Buenos Aires flood easily, and flooding is common in the rest of the country. Some expats/immigrants even get involved in collecting food or other times for affected areas, and why not help if you’ll be around for a while? I’m from Los Angeles and didn’t grow up with flooding, so this really freaked me out.
  • Some places are cash only. Even places that say they accept credit or debit cards may suddenly decide not to, so you should always make sure you have cash in pesos and double check.
  • Carnaval is fun, but expect noise in certain neighborhoods. Carnaval is great fun and celebrated the entire month of February in Buenos Aires. However, you may find that murgas (percussion groups) play every weekend near your neighborhood. Bus service is also interrupted. Just be sure to check the city’s website so you can plan. I found this fun, actually, and getting sprayed with soap in a can wasn’t so bad.
  • People played “guess the ethnicity” a lot. This was specific to me (on the left, below). Buenos Aires is mostly European, and although people in provinces of Northern Argentina (Tucumán, Salta, Jujuy) or near the Brazilian border (Misiones, Corrientes) are often darker-skinned thanks to their indigenous ancestors, being brown makes you exotic in Buenos Aires. This was especially the case when I arrived because there were fewer Venezuelans and Colombians than there are now. Plus, people had a hard time deciphering my accent because it’s all over the place. I couldn’t answer basic questions about El Salvador, and eventually had a rehearsed speech about how I grew up in one of the immigrant parts of L.A., Huntington Park.

See me on the left? Yeah, I was the subject of “guess the ethnicity.”

  • You have to get used to people being direct. In a way, this was refreshing to me. I dislike sugarcoating things, and there were instances where I even felt locals weren’t being direct enough.

But hey, this is just a list of inconveniences and annoyances. Some days I didn’t even notice them. In the end, a lot of people choose to stay here because there are many positive aspects of living in Buenos Aires, especially once you figure out how to budget even during inflation (a feat unto itself!). There are so many wonderful things to see, and traveling to the provinces and around South America is absolutely worth it. And don’t worry, I’ll get around to writing about the positives of living here as well. Eventually.

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