It was my second day in Buenos Aires, my first day of orientation, and my first time actually out in the city. I knew it would be winter when I arrived here in July. But I figured, it’s South America: how cold can it really get? To my dismay: quite cold. That day it was in the high 40s, but there was terrible windchill. Naturally, the director of my program thought this would be the perfect time to take a walking tour of our new home. For once, I was glad to have experienced truly freezing weather. It was somewhat amusing to watch the Porteños (people from Buenos Aires) tightly bundled up it their fur coats, hats, scarves, gloves, and boots, their faces showing signs of fear that they would freeze to death at any moment.
After adjusting to the sting, I tried to enjoy my first real glimpses of the city, but it was hard with tears streaming down my face and a hood pulled so tight that my peripheral vision was cut off. As we finished trudging through the streets, my new-found friends and I decided that the best thing to do was to seek immediate refuge, preferably in one of the hundred cafes we had passed earlier. We made it through to Santa Fe, one of the major thoroughfares in the city, and crowed into a booth.
We sat, trying to warm up with coffee and tea while stuffing our faces with warm empanadas, and told stories. We compared the journeys that had led us to Buenos Aires, speaking in a slur of Spanish and English. But after a while, we decided to not-so-subtly listen in on the many vivacious customers who were speaking in the usual exceedingly emotional, Argentine way. The cafe was filled with all types of people: older women sharing gossip in stage whispers, young people reading newspapers and magazines, and businessmen in suits. They all must have had somewhere to go. And yet no one seemed to be in a rush to go anywhere.
We gazed out the window onto Santa Fe and saw the shops and other cafes. We heard the honks of the crazy bus and taxi drivers. We saw multitudes of people meandering down the street, they, too, in no rush. And suddenly we realized that two hours had magically vanished. I sat in the cafe that day, impatiently waiting for the check to come, unaware that I had just encountered cafe culture—a way of life that would punctuate my next five months here. Little did I know, in Buenos Aires it’s normal to order a single drink and sit in the cafe for hours, uninterrupted by the waiters (so unlike the waiters in restaurants in the United States, who constantly hover). Little did I know, every time I would go to a cafe or a restaurant in Argentina, it
would take a good 25 minutes to flag down the waiter and get my bill. Little did I know, it would be a normal occurrence for the cafes to be filled with people in the middle of the day—people who, one would think, should be at work, but instead are relaxed and immersed in enjoying a good medialuna.
This same relaxed attitude is everywhere in Buenos Aires. I was not aware, that first day, that at my internship I would spend a large quantity of my time observing the other employees as they showed up late, left early, and walked around the office singing, eating, and telling stories: all of which, from what I hear, are common office practices. I also didn’t know that one of my classes at the local university would always start 15 minutes late, and then pause half way through for a 30 minute coffee break. I could even walk into class 40 minutes late, with no excuse, and still be greeted with a smile and a “¡Buen día! ¿Cómo te va?” from the professor.
As I think back now on that first day wandering through Buenos Aires, on my first experiences and observations of the locals, and my time here over the past two months, I realize that perhaps the Argentines in the cafe had the right idea about life. Coming from Columbia and New York City, where each day is a test to see how much can be accomplished, I often become frustrated and impatient with the great inefficiency that this relaxed, laid-back attitude can produce.Yet some of my most memorable and treasured times here have been sitting in a café sipping tea with friends and doing what the locals do best: relax.
At least for now, I welcome this cafe culture with open arms. Here, I am slowly learning to be patient. When something goes wrong, I just sip some tea and think back to that first day in the cafe, repeating to myself one of the Porteños’ favorite phrases: “Así es la vida.” That’s life.