Saturday, 26 February 2011

Intercambio exchange (or online dating by another name?)

Two weeks into Spanish classes and I am determined to practice speaking as much as I can. So what else can I do to improve my grasp of this language they call Castellano (charmingly pronounced 'Casteshano' in Argentina)?. One morning before class I decide to set up a profile on an intercambio exchange website entering my name, age, nationality, languages spoken, and a brief blurb about myself, then off I go to school. On returning home a few hours later I am met with eight emails: 'You have a message from Luciano', 'You have a message from Alejandro', 'You have a message from Carlos', etc - I think, dear reader, you see a pattern emerging (my favourite was without a doubt 'You have a message from Jesus' - how many people can say they have received that in their inbox?).

I don't know how else to choose except to write to the first couple that are a similar age to me. The following day, several more emails: 'You have a message from Pablo', 'You have a message from Santiago', 'You have a message from Joaquin'. I start to panic. How am I supposed to email all these people?? I don't want to be rude but I don't have time for this! The following day after that I realise I can hide my profile and still be able to use it to communicate with my existing contacts. At this point the email count is in the twenties, with a grand total of two from women...hmmm.

The next Monday I have my first intercambio meeting. As I am sat waiting on the corner of Armenia and Guatemala (road names here tend to be after countries or people) in the Palermo neighbourhood I feel very much like I am lacking a red rose or some such accessory for my partner to recognise me. I have already told him I have red hair and white skin so he shouldn't have trouble finding me amid the sea of bronzed brunettes in Buenos Aires. Yep, he spots me straight away.

Two beers later we are chattering away: he in English, me in (bad) Spanish and the time flies by. He is interested to know about London because he is hoping to visit later in the year and I ask for tips on Buenos Aires. At the end he insists on paying, reminding me firmly but with a touch of irony that this is a macho society, and walks me to my subte station like a true caballero (gentleman). I am glowing. It couldn't have gone better and I feel like it was great practise. Next day we email each other agreeing to meet again some time.

Carlos, is my next potential intercambio partner. We have been emailing back and forth a few times trying to arrange a meeting. Finally we settle on coffee one afternoon. That morning he confirms the location to meet and I also tell him that I have red hair and 'look like a gringa'. His response: he sends a photo of himself. Looking typically latino, the photo is so posed a catalogue model would be jealous. Back facing the camera, head turned to look wistfully over his left shoulder with an attempt at smouldering eyes. This is too much! I cancel, feigning illness, much to my housemate's amusement.

Number three is Luciano who I am a little dubious of before we meet. We have chatted a few times via msn messenger and his sentiments have been decidedly forward. Again I describe my hair colour and that I am quite tall, 'red hair and long legs: a dangerous combination for men' comes the reply. I almost cancel again but decide to see what happens. We are meeting in San Telmo, my favourite neighbourhood in BA, so I am keen to encounter some new hang-outs. When we meet to chat over a class of Malbec I am pleasantly surprised. He is much shyer than his msn-alter-ego and I begin to wonder if I have met up with the right person. He tells me about the time he spent living in London working in an exclusive gentlemans club which explains his delightfully posh english accent. A pleasant evening but neither of us suggest meeting again.

Number four is a journalist writing for an underground cultural magazine, interested in live music and wine. We meet for coffee and again a perfect gent, he walks me to my next appointment, a party at a friend's house, which is decidedly out of his way.

While all this is happening I am feeling a growing sense of uncertainty. What is the 'proper' etiquette for intercambio exchanges? Am I 'cheating' on number one (who I am still meeting up with) by meeting with successive partners? Should I stay faithful to one intercambio partner? And how would I feel if I knew they were meeting others? Ok, so yes, I am starting to sound like the paranoid hysteric that is Carrie Bradshaw but it has got me me old-fashioned but I think I only have space (and time!) for one intercambio partner at a time.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

The subject that cannot be ignored

Tango is the perfect metaphor for the relationship between men and women in Argentina, so says my Spanish teacher. The man leads and the woman must follow his cue while playing a game, alternately showing interest one second, turning her face away the next. So it is in romantic relationships, according to several men I speak to who have dated Argentine women (both Argentine men and foreigners). Argentine women are 'more complicated', 'difficult' and 'indecisive' so they assure me, but it undoubtedly begs the question of context: historical and cultural. Surely Argentine women are not inherently different from women the world over. What has happened to create this pattern of machismo, these starkly contrasting gender roles?

It is unheard of (nigh on illegal) for a woman to pursue a man in this country. And going back to the tango analogy I can recall my first tango lesson in Buenos Aires almost three years ago in which I made the apparently-reprehensible mistake of pre-empting my partners moves having just learned an eight-step sequence which we were practicing. He, a sixty-plus porteño (a BsAs local), was, to put it mildly, not best pleased with my efforts.  

The history is a long and complex one, but Argentina is strongly influenced by its Italian and Spanish heritage. On first arrival to the Americas, Roman law ruled and this meant that women were ultimately the property of men; their fathers and then their husbands. It wasn't until 1905 that women first had the opportunity to go to university in Argentina and 1947 was the year women won the right to vote, largely thanks to Evita Peron's prominent efforts. So yes, things have evolved as they have the world over, but Argentina today remains a firmly patriarchal society.

In a country that has a female president; where the law dictates that 30% of ministers that sit in congress must be women and where the most celebrated human-rights campaigners are women (the mothers and grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo all is not as it seems. There are not many policies that reflect the relatively strong female presence in Parliament. Abortion is still illegal here, as it is in most of Latin America, and proposals for equal pay have not gotten anywhere. A case of token gestures but no substance perhaps?

On an everyday level, the machismo is manifest in fleeting moments. In the lack of attention I get when trying to get a waiter's attention in contrast to my male companions; in the proprietorial manner I see a man handle his girlfriend and in the not-so-subtle predatory stare of the porteño sat opposite me on the underground. In a strong imitation of their Italian heritage, men here tend to have very close relationships with their mothers and it is not uncommon for a man to visit his mother for lunch every Sunday, I am told. That said, in contrast to other South American countries such as Brazil, there seems to be less of a stigma attached to people moving out of their parents' homes before marriage.

Interestingly, we discussed these issues in one of my spanish classes (in spanish of course). The teacher asked us what we thought the situation was like for women in each of our own respective countries. I was astounded to hear that all seemed to think that women were treated equally to men in Australia, France, Austria, the U.K etc. Easier to point the finger at 'macho Latin America' than to think reflexively I suppose...