When I tell people I studied abroad in Argentina in college, I always make sure they know I mean “studied” in the loosest terms possible. It wasn’t that I didn’t go to class so much as classes just didn’t happen–I was enrolled at the public university of Buenos Aires (UBA), and at the beginning of the semester a strike shut down the entire university system. In order to get any kind of grade (and ultimately pass my semester), I opted to have two sessions a week with a tutor, which ultimately was changed to one when the tutor ended up with an unmanageable workload.
As it turned out, this worked well for me. I was busy meeting new people and working at my new job at a local bar. I had a couple of good porteño friends, I was a regular at a few bars and sandwich shops, I knew exactly how long it would take me to run from my apartment to the bus, and after a lot of trial and error I had my coffee order down to a T. For me, this last one is the ultimate sign of feeling at home somewhere.
In fact, I became so happy with my life in Buenos Aires that I decided not to come home: a decision that ultimately didn’t work out when I came to the realization that I wanted to finish out my time at university in the United States. I rationalized this to myself, torn in my thinking that there was no way this had to be the end if I didn’t want it to be. After I made the decision, I told myself there was no reason I couldn’t go back.
But I didn’t go back. At least, not as quickly as I thought I would. I traveled around Peru, moved to Thessaloniki in Greece, then headed to New York before ultimately ending up back in Greece in Athens with plenty of little trips in between. I thought about my old life in Buenos Aires from time to time and continued telling myself I could always go back.
What I didn’t consider is that yes, you can go back, but everything will be–no, should be–different.
Ten years after I left, I had the opportunity to go back for three days. I had nothing planned–I just wanted to walk around my old neighborhood and see some of my favorite bars, restaurants, and cafes. I wanted to see what was new.
Of course, almost everything was new. Ten years is a long time and things change quickly, especially in a city as dynamic and energetic as Buenos Aires. I knew it wouldn’t completely match my memories, but the amount of change I found was really surprising. A few things, however, had stayed the same. The bar I worked at was still open and mostly unchanged on the inside, and my friend Martin picked me up in the same red vehicle that one can only call a car in the technical sense. What comforted me the most was that the atmosphere hadn’t changed at all. Sundays were still slow, cafes and bars were still packed with people enjoying life, and the choripan was still an excellent sandwich.
But the changes were fascinating. Speakeasy bars are now a big thing. The food scene has evolved and become extremely cool–I missed iLatina by two years, and Mishiguene by four with more game-changing restaurants opening all the time. My once charming old neighborhood, Villa Crespo, is now becoming trendy.
I realized something as I drove around the city with Martin. Buenos Aires reminded me of Athens, a city I had felt at home in the minute I arrived. It shares some physical characteristics, like the beautiful Neoclassical architecture interspersed with blocky grey apartment buildings. Both are coated in graffiti, and the city planning feels a bit random sometimes. Both came out of dictatorships within six years of each other, so they have a pervasive anarchist, almost anti-establishment atmosphere. The people and the lifestyle are also similar: going for a coffee is an all-afternoon affair, and sacrificing sleep to spend time with your friends and family is a must. I actively seek out this lifestyle–it’s something I decided I don’t want to compromise on when picking a place to live.
I also thought about all the people I met and the ways in which I grew when I lived in Buenos Aires. I said yes to as many experiences as possible, always looking for opportunities to do something that pushed me or made me view something I once thought of in a different light. I was open to meeting locals and going places they wanted to go to and it’s a mentality that I have carried with me to every place I have lived since. Trust the locals, and a city will immediately start to feel like home.
When I got on the plane to leave Buenos Aires, I was a little sad. I felt that I hadn’t seen even half of what it has to offer these days, and I wanted to get to know it again. But, I told myself, it’s okay. This won’t be the end if I don’t want it to be.
Have you ever had a place that felt like home that you didn’t grow up in?
Header photo by Fermin Rodriguez Penelas.