Give and Take

The end of this school week was a remedial period in which the teachers don’t do anything with their classes and students who still haven’t passed last year’s final exams take them again. My economics teacher didn’t even show up for the first class (it would’ve been boring anyway), so I left and made some new friends on the balcony above the courtyard. After Marilina went to math help, we snuck out and met up with friends and got sandwiches and soda. Then we returned to school to pick up the rest of the squad. We headed towards the bus stop to get to Paula’s house. As we approached an intersection, one of the girls said something to the effect of “Hold on to your mobiles, folks.” We all took heed. Or so I thought. This was a pick-pockety spot, and someone was gonna drop it like it’s hot. The cell phone, that is. (Awkward transition to the present tense although this event happened in the past.)

Two blocks later, Miss Take claps her hand over her pocket. “It’s gone!” Checks her backpack. Nope. She turns back and runs in pursuit of No One in Plain Sight. I vacillate between following her and warning the rest of the group ahead, who have taken no notice. I chase after her. A woman stands right outside a clothing store with glass doors. “Two boys just ran past,” waving us forward. A distraught Miss Take follows. We are chasing after no one. Two more blocks and nothing stands out. Miss Take crumbles. “They took my last cell phone too. Right here, at this same place. Oh god oh god oh god oh god.” Head in hands, breathing fast. I give her a hug, sit her down. “It’s gonna be okay.” (It’s just a handheld device).

I go inside a back-to-school store to take out my phone and call and tell the others where we are. My phone is buzzing when I take it out. My sister. “Where are you guys?” I tell her what happened, where we are. When I get back, there are a bunch of marshmallows crowded around Miss Take. Oh, that is just the school uniform. It is a group of students from la Normal, that old glory where we spend our daze. Some look sympathetic, some look bored. There is also an old woman telling a story. Her son was robbed here too. And there was a lady who told him that two boys ran by. And she did it, she did it, she did it. It was her. It had to be her.

Awkward consoling happens. People shrug and leave apologetically. One friend stays and puts his arm around her shoulder. Her hair falls over her face as she sobs. I tie it back. We sit. Time passes. I look at my watch. The thief is probably on another continent by now. Sigh. I rub her back. She mumbles something I don’t really understand. Squad finally rolls in. All fluttering around MT, hugging, saying vague, comforting nonsense, exchanging glances. Paula calls her boyfriend, who says the same thing happened to a classmate just that afternoon.

We talk about the woman, what she looked like. “The only thing I am sure of is she was wearing a black shirt,” MT tells me. And I thought it was coral-pink. Gulp.

“She had short hair,” I say.

“But was up in a ponytail, right?” Uh-oh.

“I don’t think so. Blonde?”

“Dirty blonde.”

“Yeah. Angular face?”

“Ummmm”

“Prominent cheekbones?”

“I think so. Darkish skin?” Not by my country’s standards. There are not many black people in Argentina, so dark means ochre.

“Yes.” I want to say she has mean eyes, but I think that’s just in retrospect.

A less than conclusive witness description, at best. We walk back to the store to get some information from the owner. Did the woman buy something? No. Had she seen the woman before? No. Did she even know which woman we were talking about? Not really. A less than helpful source. We comb the streets, peering in stores and scanning the crowds hoping for a glance of the nasty little trickster. Obviously, she is long gone. A less than point, less than hope and less than fruit endeavor. Pointless, hopeless, fruitless. We report the incident to a police officer, not expecting her to do anything about it. But sometimes you have to do something purely to be doing something; the goal was to make MT feel as though she’d done all she could, made every effort. Surprisingly, after taking vague notes, the policewoman sets off down the block, in a slightly sideways lope, nightstick bobbing, black boots springing off the concrete. We watch her go for a moment, fascinated. A brief suspension of time. Then it’s back to searching for a vapor in the wind, a raindrop in an ocean, a needle in the proverbial haystack, the straw that broke the camel’s back. Oh no, it’s only 2 pm and I’m already mixing my metaphors.

Finally, we hopped on the colectivo bus we’d been intending to take two hours earlier. I wanted to sleep but I was not lucky enough to snag a seat. And if I had, I would’ve had to cede it to one of several elderly or pregnant folks (but not elderly, pregnant folks.) We got off a few stops early with MT to walk her home. As we descend, one of the girls throws me a hot potato question.

“Am I your favorite?” Chiara looks at me hopefully.

“Of course you are,” I say and she smiles. Pause for dramatic effect. “But maybe I would say that to whichever one of you would ask.” Her smile fades. She whacks me. “No, really, you’re my favorite,” I tell her. “Eres única.” One of a kind. I hug my favorite, which she really is. We walk further and finally come to MT’s house. Cheek kisses. She disappears behind the gate. Poor thing. A collective sigh of relief. Or maybe it was just me, relieved to have the problem child off my hands. I like this girl, mind you. She’s a sweetheart. Today was just unfortunate and taxing for me. Chiara’s next, to spend the afternoon at abuela’s house.

When we get to Paula’s house, her mom’s already made lunch. Mango-orange juice, cheese and bread, fideos (noodles), and tomate relleno (hollowed out tomatoes filled with rice, onion, tuna, boiled egg, and spices). Yum! We sit and talk. Then Marilina and I go out to the ice cream shop and buy a quart. Our favorite is dulce de leche, but Marilina suspects that Paula doesn’t like it. “I can’t remember if she does,” she tells me. So that flavor is a no. We settle on cookies and cream and three little packets of toppings for an extra peso. That’s a heck yes. We run back to the house to save it from Mister Heat Miser. 🎶 I’m Mr. Heat Miser, whatever I touch melts in my clutch. I’m too much. Bah dum bum bum🎶  I personally think sprinting was unnecessary, but perhaps it was key in burning off the calories we were about to consume. We got three spoons, sat on the couch and ate the whole quart. Yep, the whole quart. Actually, I’m pretty sure it was a two-quart container. Yep, the whole two quarts. #NoShameNovember

The two of them then take over the couch, lying side by side and watching music videos. I’m almost at the point of falling asleep on a puffy chair across the room when it is time to go back. I’m meeting my AFS counselor at my school in a half an hour. The walk to the bus is strange. My thoughts are muddy. I get on the bus and mercifully, there are two empty seats in the back. I pull my crumpled school uniform out of my backpack, refold it, and voilà, a public transportation pillow, the only thing it’s good for. I sleep. Marilina wakes me up at our stop.

Perfectly in character, my phone dies at a crucial moment. Mercifully, I find my AFS counselor outside my school as planned. We go out for alfajores and talk things over. I start to give her the run down. A half hour in and I haven’t even unwrapped my cookie. I take a breath to do just that. We check our perspectives, try to find various interpretations, and run through possible solutions and their potential outcomes. As I see it, the misunderstandings with my host family are over rather small details that are for some reason being made into the battlegrounds for an unnecessarily bloody conflict. As she sees it, I’m doing everything I can to adjust to a new situation.

“So the problem’s not on your end,” she says.

“Okay, but what can I do about it?” I ask.

“You see what intel you can get from family member Y. Meanwhile, I’m going to have a meeting with X, the source of the issue,” She tells me.

“When you try to get X to see that [CENSORED], make sure you present it in a way that doesn’t seem like you view X like [CENSORED],” I point out.

“Okay, I will frame it like [CENSORED] so that X reaches the desired conclusion without realizing that [CENSORED],” She responds.

And definitely don’t let on that we talked about [CENSORED] because X will react by [CENSORED],” I remind her.

I had no idea that being an exchange student required so much backhanded scheming. We finish our snacks and wait for the waiter to notice us and bring over the bill. By the time he does, Donald Trump has made at least 15 stupid and/or offensive remarks, another vapid celebrity has given birth to a girl and named her after an inanimate object, and several Argentines have finished either their evening siesta or another round of mate. We are on the way back to the school when a woman stops me. “Someone just took something out of the outside of your backpack. They went that way.” She points behind us, the direction from whence we’ve come. I wonder what they could’ve taken. I’d put my phone and iPod in the very bottom of my backpack, inside the folds of my school uniform. I’d also taken all the money out of my wallet and moved it to various pockets on my person as a precaution. Oh, no my wallet! With my international student ID, AFS contact information, global traveler medical insurance card, and Pennsylvania driver’s license.

“That’ll be a pain to replace,” I think. We are about to chase after the unknown and now out-of-sight pickpocket when she comes to us, bearing a stolen gift. My wallet.

“I saw someone pull this out of your bag and chased after them,” the girl says, panting. I open it up. Inside are my cards and my tiny notebook with all the Argentine Spanish words and phrases I’ve learned and frantically scribbled in its pages.

“Thank you so much,” I tell her. I stuff it deep inside my bag, which I zip up tight.

“Wear it sideways,” the first woman, the one who stopped us, scolds me. I sling it over one shoulder and shift it to the front, on my hip, keeping one hand over its front. “Yes, like that,” she confirms.

“What luck! That never happens here. No one chases after thieves,” My AFS counselor remarks.

“You’re right, no one does. That girl was probably the pickpocket herself,” the first woman looks at us knowingly. “When she saw there was nothing of value in the wallet, and that you were a foreigner, she took pity on you and gave it back.”

“Well, I’m grateful at any rate.” My counselor and I thank her and walk away.

I can’t believe I let that happen after they took MT’s cell phone earlier. Talk about a wake up call! I feel lucky. Actually, I feel blessed. “God is looking out for me today,” I say to my counselor. Then I direct a thought towards him. “Good one, God. Thanks for that. I really don’t deserve you.” We part at the intersection. When I finally get home, I’m exhausted. All I want to do is lie down. I greet my mom and sister, then flop on my bed. Five seconds later, I hear my name. “What is it now?” They’ve forgotten to tell me that we’re going to my grandma’s house for Asado (a cook-out, but really a cook-in.) It’s a family dinner with a lot of grilled meat, this time in celebration of my little cousin’s birthday. I want to groan because I’m so tired, but I know my taste buds will think it’s worth it. I shower (after my sister because she ever so rudely cuts me in line when I go back to the room to get my clothes). A long car ride, a little bit of a wait inside, and then it’s action time. Steak, chorizo (sausage links), morcilla (blood sausage), chicken empanadas, tomato/onion salad, potato salad, and a strawberry/pineapple cake with marshmallow frosting for dessert! I can’t resist stuffing myself with these delicious vices (well, everything except the morcilla). I even accept half a glass of Norte, a fairly local brew. When in Argentina…

Do as gringa Carlina would do in Argentina. Which is pretty much what gringa Carlina would do in the U.S., only in Spanish and without worrying too much about the consequences (in terms of waistline and reputation.) Which in this situation is to try the beer, try not to make a face on account of the taste of the beer, take a few more tiny sips of the beer to be polite, and then give the rest to someone who actually likes beer. The perks of being a short-term resident include not having to give a smack about what people think of you. I try not to stray grossly from social norms, but beyond that I am not all that concerned. I’m spending time with family, I’m making friends, I’m exploring the city, I’m doing what I can to understand this place and understand myself in it, but I’m not trying to change who I am. On that note, here is a random collection of photos (with friends) that I have previously neglected to post.

4SMEnOcn.jpgGonzalo, my classmate, volleyball clubmate, and friend. We’re tall troublemakers.vDWBF7I5 (1)My sister and I with friends we made at Ciroc (a nearby discotheque).qIHxRPil.jpgManá concert! My favorite song is Mi Verdad, a duet he sings with Shakira.HQjeTXw5.jpgChiara, my favorite.y__EL81H.jpgMy mom and I at my birthday lunch. Holy flaming cake, Batman!Faq5MyaD.jpgMy sister and I before a family friend’s quinceñera.qp4_2qrp-1.jpgPersonally, I don’t like to drink but the drinking age here in Argentina is 18, so it is neither uncommon nor unlawful. Anita, Lara Garcia, and I on the terrace. Cheers!

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