One summer, I spent a month eating, drinking and hiking my way through three countries (Paraguay, Chile and Argentina). I learned how to order salad in Beef Country; I learned to stand my ground with Argentine taxi drivers; and most surprisingly, I learned how very American I am.
When I am home in the United States, I tend to view myself as an outside-the-mainstream, unapologetic tree-hugger. I criticize my government freely and sometimes at great volume (see my “Dissent is Patriotic” bumper sticker). American Exceptionalism? Fie!
When I leave the country, however, I am astonished by how very American I am:
I value and guard my personal space. In Latin American countries particularly, people stand too close, touch me too often, expect me to share my table, my stories, my air. Once I was flying in cattle car from somewhere to Paraguay. (Seriously, the plane belonged to a cattle rancher.) I apologized a dozen times to the elderly man next to me, as he endure my fidgeting, jostling and spilling. Finally he touched my hand. “Please stop the worry,” he smiled. “You are not molesting me.”
I expect everything to happen quick, faster, right now! In bathroom queues and restaurants, nobody is moving fast enough. People seem to be dawdling on purpose, just to get on my nerves.
On a recent connection from Miami to Buenos Aires, the flight was delayed again and again with no explanation or apology. The other waiting passengers simply nodded and shrugged, went for coffee or took a nap. I fumed in silence. There was no one to commiserate with except Jack Daniels.
I am always multi-tasking. Music on. Composing email. One eye on the baseball scores, while cruising Amazon for new books and uploading photos to Facebook. When the flight finally left Miami, dinner was served at about midnight. I simply moved my tablet to my lap, and added ‘eating’ to my juggling act. Listen-read-bite-click-read-bite-listen.
Everyone around me, however, including the children, took off their headphones, paused their movies, put their phones away. Stopped what they were doing. Just. Ate. Dinner.
So my very first morning in Buenos Aires, I decided to embrace the local thinking. After all, I am a Citizen of the World, not some Random Arrogant American. I had breakfast like an Argentine. I sat quietly in the hotel restaurant, smiling at other diners or gazing out the window. I had 2 cups of cafe con leche before I even glanced at the menu. I didn’t touch my phone once.
It was excruciating.
Finally, a waiter took pity on me and wandered over. He served me a lovely breakfast of pastry, cheese and my favorite fruit – a plummy Malbec wine.
Apparently, the Argentines drink wine the way the Germans drink beer. Which is to say, incessantly. This became the basis for my love affair with Buenos Aires, and my go-to coping mechanism over the next month. I often had to wait hours for dinner, but I never once had to wait for a glass of wine.
Four weeks later, a Chicago airport bus driver snapped at me. “You think I got all day lady? Let’s roll!”
I smiled from ear to ear. God bless America.