It is late winter here in Argentina. The trees are still bare, and the nights cold. But already we can feel the weather beginning to turn warmer. The heavy jackets are starting to come off. Movement in the streets is a little livelier. Spring is on the way.
So too is a new cohort of students (they are due to arrive next week). Soon enough we will introduce them to you. But it feels important to us to pause at this turning of the seasons to reflect more personally on where we have been and where we are heading. In truth, it is difficult to speak with certainty about either of these things. We are beginning our second year in Argentina. So much happened this past year– a rich, abundant, joyous, challenging and sometimes bewildering first year of our program. We are still absorbing it.
And the path ahead? We have a rich program planned for our students and we are confident in our ability to guide them through it. But we have also learned from experience that it is impossible to predict what will happen from month to month–from power outages, to labor strikes, to complicated narratives around the Argentine debt crisis–even as we have gained a greater understanding of, and appreciation for, the rhythms of everyday life here. So we know that much of what lay ahead is and must remain unknown to us. We are learning to accept more and more the need to simply walk into our days with attention and openness; and to trust that the path ahead will gradually become clear.
It has been a little over a year since we arrived here in Córdoba in the depths of another, much colder winter. How little we knew all that awaited us! But as we disembarked from our plane, together with four of our five children and one seriously-stunned cat, we could feel how momentous this move would be for us. And it has been. The first cohort of students arrived not long after and soon enough we were off, tumbling forward into this grand adventure: orientation, classes, first visit to praxis , community living and the gradual unfolding of all the diverse elements of life here in Argentina: the extraordinary kindness and graciousness of our new Argentine friends, the food, the music, the vibrancy of the city, the physical beauty of the surrounding countryside; also the complex social, economic and political realities that shape everyday life here. All of it.
We have also become more aware of our complicated, ambiguous status as extranjeros. We have come here in part to help our students learn (and to learn ourselves!) what it means to accompany and be accompanied by others, and to do so in a country, culture and language not our own. Any one of those ways of being “Other” might make this task seem not only ambitious, but presumptuous. Yet one of the joys of being part of this program has been witnessing the way our students have responded to this challenge. How generously they have opened themselves to their experience here. How responsive they have been to the challenges and opportunities they were given. How vulnerable they have allowed themselves to become to a place and people that were, at first, almost completely unknown to them.
Not that they have not struggled at times. No one has been unaffected by the recurring waves of uncertainty and disorientation well-known to anyone who has lived abroad. A lot of things just don’t seem to make any sense (the names of things in the farmacia; the ever-changing bus routes; the way dinner-time and bed-time seem almost interchangeable; the free-wheeling life of dogs on the streets). There are unexpected bouts of fatigue and homesickness. An urge to seek refuge in the familiar. Over time these feelings dissipate; but they never go away completely. And this is a big part of the growth and stretching that happens in this kind of experience. You gradually learn to relinquish your own idea of how the world is supposed to work. And accept that another way is possible. It isn’t easy. But its good for you!
That’s a big part of what we have learned this year—being here has been good for us, and for our students. We hope, in time, that the communities who have opened their doors so generously to us, and the colleagues who have been so generous in their work with us, will also be able to say that their experience of us, and the program, has been good, is good. Perhaps they already do. But we are still so new here. Looking back and yet barely beginning.
Along with our students, we are still trying to wrap our minds around all that has transpired this year, how we have been touched and changed by this experience. It is not easy. Maybe it is not even possible. So we share stories, memories of our time together. We do our best to stay in touch, to help each other navigate the different transitions (going home after such a big experience can be challenging), to regard one another with the love and affection we have come to feel for each other during the time we have spent together. That in itself is a gift.
Still, it is not just about us, or even about our students. Casa de la Mateada is about this country, this city, its barrios, the people we are coming to know in the praxis , at the university, in the kioskos and panaderias, on the buses, in the streets. Their well-being has become important to us (as our own well-being has so clearly become important to them, much to our astonishment). And we try to express this in whatever way we can. Mostly by paying attention, by opening ourselves to their lives, and to their realities. Trying to understand what it means to practice accompaniment. Doing what we can to stand together with them. This is a simple thing. But it is not always easy to know how to enact it. We are learning by doing. By feel. By continuing to respond to what unfolds before us.
Often we feel our own helplessness, especially in relation to the larger social, economic and political currents moving through this country. The country is suffering through an acute economic crisis. Nor is there any clear sense of when or whether a way forward will be found. On the ground, prices for food, rent, and services keep going up. Life feels hard, the future uncertain. Of course, life here is not completely defined by these problems. Families gather for Sunday asados; friends meet in the park to drink mate and talk; the distinctive courtesies that mark ordinary daily life here still pertain; and the famous Argentine talent for improvisation is on more or less continuous display. Of course.
Still, day-to-day life here is not easy. Nor is it easy to imagine the way ahead.
For us and for our students, these realities complicate the question of what it means for us to practice solidarity and accompaniment. In many key respects, not least by our U.S. citizenship and our relative social and economic privilege, we are insulated from the difficulties facing ordinary Argentines. We don’t stand altogether on the same ground as they do. Even as we seek to engage with Argentina and to stand with our Argentine friends in relationships characterized by mutuality and reciprocity, we recognize and feel this difference. What does it mean, in light of this, for us to practice solidarity, to stand with others?
This not an easy question to answer. Nor should it be. In fact, it is probably good for us that it remains a live question, and that it continues to inform the daily work of our program. It helps us to proceed with greater openness and humility, to recognize how much we don’t know, how much we still have to learn.
We feel intensely the wonder and gift it has been for us to live in this beautiful, amazing, complex country. Even amidst the challenges and the struggles, we feel this. Nowhere is this clearer than in the small scale of day-to-day human interactions, in the kindling of friendship, in the simple practice of paying attention to one another. Here we catch glimpses of something immensely valuable for all of us: the emerging sense that we do indeed belong to one another.
Douglas E. Christie, Ph.D., Co-Director, Casa de la Mateada