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I’m strolling through a park in Buenos Aires on Saturday afternoon when I come across an unusual sight. There are three teenagers wearing black, with piercings on their faces looks of rebellious angst in their eyes. Punks. Funny seeing them here, I think. But as I meander on, this minor diversion becomes a curiosity on a much grander scale. Suddenly, there are punks everywhere, scores of them loitering in every corner of the park. Fortunately I have encountered this exact scenario before, in Seattle, except that instead of punks, it was pugs. As the novelty of two pugs walking in the park gave way to utter amazement at the spectacle of nearly identical little dogs stretching as far as the eye can see, I realized there must be something going on.

The difference (aside from the subjects’ size and general demeanor) is while in the Seattle park I was able to deduce that I had stumbled upon a pug festival, featuring pug tricks, pug product samples, and a pug kissing contest, here I have no clue what is going on. I can’t eavesdrop on their Spanish conversations, I can’t read their Spanish t-shirts, I can’t ask one of them in Spanish “Why so dark? Can’t you see what a beautiful day it is?” And so the mystery of the punks in the park remains unsolved, simply because I lack the skills for basic communication in this country.

As much as I love understanding everything that’s going on around me when I’m at home, part of the reason I travel is that I like to be lost as well. It can be relaxing to have no clue what the people are saying on the subway. The assault of information from signs and billboards is dulled. Not knowing where everyone is going, or what their politics are, or if that shirt is considered trendy, I’m free to sit back and observe, like a fly on the wall, in a way that I couldn’t someplace more familiar. Being disoriented also means having many pleasant surprises. Stumbling on the Buenos Aires Punk Club’s monthly meeting was a delight simply because I had no clue.

The thing is, Buenos Aires is not a really strange place. Being lost in the foreign culture of, say, China is one thing, but here there’s not much to shock me. At least, not on the surface. Having only a week of Spanish under my belt, surface-level observations are all I’ve got, and while the cultural differences of many places are readily apparent with just that, here I’m looking for more subtlety.

After a few days of these surface-level observations, I have collected enough data to apply a tool I use to measure the foreignness of a place called the Total Foreignness Index. The TFI is a compilation of five criteria, each of which measures one aspect of foreignness on a 0 – 4 scale calibrated on one end with comfy, familiar city, and on the other with an extreme foreign city. They are then totaled to produce the TFI on a 0-20 scale. Here are my results.

for Buenos Aires

Vancouver/Varanasi Dirtiness Scale: 1.0
St. Louis/Seoul Food Weirdness Scale: 0.5
Dayton/Delhi Chaos Scale: 1.0
London/Lagos Poverty Scale: 1.5
Tulsa/Tunis Scam Artist Scale: 0.0

TFI: 4.0

While the foreignness or normalness of a place is by no means the most important reason to visit, it is a factor we all consider. Another is cost. Now, you may think that with a TFI of only 4, Buenos Aires would be a pricey place to visit. To travel cheap, you think, you have to go to weird places like Bangkok (TFI: 12.5) or Delhi (TFI: 20). Well think again, Buenos Aires is a bargain! Normally for prices this low, you’d have to go to a place with a TFI as high as 10! But here in Buenos Aires, mistakes at the highest levels of monetary policy mean you get a steal! In fact, on the Tokyo – Timbuktu Cheapness Scale, where we’d expect to see…

Oh never mind. “As familiar as Europe, but for half the cost,” I’m speaking in tourist generalizations. My Spanish is not yet nuanced enough to get past the clichés.

But I have learned a few things. One is that these folks are night owls. I remember in my seventh grade geography class being shocked to learn that fashionable Spaniards often don’t eat dinner until 10:00. Unbelievable, that’s when I’m brushing my teeth! Well, Argentines are proud to not even think about dining out until more like 11:00, and on weekends it’s not cool to eat dinner until after midnight. If coolness is indeed measured by how long you can put off dinner, then these people have got to be at the top of the list. (Although there is room for improvement. “Where I’m from, the restaurants don’t even open until 1:00 AM, but hardly anyone eats before 4:00.” “Oh yeah? In my country, we eat dinner at 5:00 PM, but that’s for the previous day.”) What this means for me is that I either get very hungry and grouchy for hours until I finally sit down and devour a steak that looks like it was meant for a family to share, or I eat at 6:00 in a café and pretend like it’s just my snack.

I’m halfway through two weeks of Spanish classes, which should help me get to know these people a little better. Perhaps more so than anywhere else I’ve been, the Argentines have little interest in speaking English with me. Not that I can blame them. With the notable exception of Brazil, they’d have to go north well into Texas before they found a sizable group of people who didn’t speak their language. “He’s from the United States and doesn’t know Spanish?” exclaimed my landlady in honest disbelief to her husband. She made a face when I told her I learned German. In any case, I think it’s great that I’m forced to learn some little bit of the language, and my classes are going well.

The only problem is the rolled “r”, which I maintain is not a natural sound. I’ve been made fun of for my inability to properly roll an r, which is apparently important because it can change the meaning of a word.
“Like this,” a friend would say, “dog.”
I would repeat, “but.”
“No no, not but, it’s dog.”

I figured I would never learn Spanish with my handicap. If fact, we can probably attribute my longtime disinterest in Latin America to my poor alveolar trill. You can imagine my surprise then, when the other day, walking down the street and talking to myself, I felt my tongue move in ways it never had before. Was it…? I tried again. I think that’s it, wait, yes! The Latin American air had wrapped itself around my tongue and moved it faster than I could even control! By some power beyond my understanding, I was rolling an r. I might be able to learn Spanish after all. And then, I can go ask those punks just what was going on.