October 26th marks a full seven years of my life in Buenos Aires. Seven crazy years. That’s the entirety of my adult life. And still, I sometimes feel very much like the stumbling, bumbling, clueless newb I was when I first arrived here. I still get lost on occasion (all the time). I’ve yet to warm up to Yerba Mate (honestly, it tastes like wet grass, why would anyone drink this?!). I still struggle with a few Argentine customs. And I still– not all the time, but once every once in a while– have just a tiny bit of difficulty communicating.
“But Jorge! Whatever do you mean?!”, ask none of you. “You’re originally from Colombia, where they also speak Spanish! Surely, you’re able to communicate clearly and effortlessly”. Well, not really. Language is a complicated and malleable thing. It branches off into all kinds of directions, accents, dialects, slang; absorbing a plethora of regional influences, be they topographical, cultural or climatic– shaping, and in turn being shaped by, the people who speak it. What you hear in Belfast, Northern Ireland is pretty radically different than what you hear in Syracuse, New York– and yet they’re both technically English. Similarly, Spanish has variations all across the countries that practice it.
The differences between Argentinean and Colombian Spanish are pretty minor, for the most part, mostly related to accent and word usage. For instance, the word “coger” (in Colombia, meaning “to grab” or “to take”) was all but eradicated from my lexicon, as it’s the most commonly-used Argentine term for sex (and oh boy, do these Argentines have a lot of words for that). And there are a number of small, everyday expressions that I was absolutely baffled by during my first six months of life in BA. The most common Argentine greeting is “¿qué hacés?”. What they mean to say is something akin to the English expression “what’s up?”. What it literally means is “what are you doing?”. An oblivious foreigner like myself is immediately caught off guard and, like the Socially Awkward Penguin of legend, will stammer clumsily through an unnecessarily detailed explanation of what it is he’s literally doing that very second.
The follow-up to “¿qué hacés?” is often “¿y tus cosas?”. Again, there is a disconnect: what they mean to ask is “how is everything?”. What it literally means is “and your things?”. This is perplexing and somewhat alarming to someone like myself– my things? Are they asking me where my things are? I don’t carry them around with me. They’re back home. Do they expect me to lug them around with me everywhere? Why do they want to see my things? More awkward and confused stammering ensues, and the Argentine, who was just looking to make small talk, reacts with equally confused exasperation. Neither party knows exactly what happened, but they both know something went horribly wrong in this small exchange.
And, y’know, fine. There’s hundreds of amusing little mix-ups like that. It made for some stilted conversation during my first few weeks here, but I quickly learned and adapted. However, nothing could prepare me for what happened when I decided to try my hand at preparing a bowl of Colombian soup and ended up propositioning an employee at a local supermarket.
During your first couple of months of living anywhere, you are overwhelmed by the sheer newness of it all. You wanna see everything, you wanna try everything. However, after you’ve settled, you kind of long for some familiarity. And you find it in the smallest things– like watching some of your favorite TV shows, listening to your favorite music from back home, or sometimes, by preparing some food that harkens back to your childhood. In my case, I decided I was going to prepare ajiaco, a popular potato soup from Colombia that my Mom used to make a lot when I was a kid. I was never much of a cook, but I thought I’d give it a try.
Ajiaco is a heavy concoction, including chunks of shredded chicken, avocado, corn, rice, and several types of potatoes. But hey, it looked easy enough to prepare (the recipe to all soups is basically just “dump a bunch of stuff into a pot”, right?), so I scribbled a list of ingredients down on a piece of paper and bravely trekked off to the supermarket. I would find everything, come back home, dump it all in the pot and be rewarded with a delicious, home-cooked meal, and it would feel just like home again.
Turns out one of the key ingredients in the ajiaco soup is something known as “guasca”. See that leafy green stuff in the picture above? It plays a big part in giving the soup its distinctive flavor, and every recipe I found online stressed the importance of the guasca in achieving the “traditional” ajiaco taste. So it was established that it was an important ingredient. However, I looked through the produce area of two different supermarkets, as well as the spice racks, and couldn’t find it. Naive and clueless as I was, I turn to the shopper closest to me– a lady in her forties– and I ask her, “excuse me, do you know where the guasca is?”. She grimaces in disgust and keeps walking, completely ignoring my question. I find this pretty rude, but think nothing of it. “She’s probably in a hurry”, I think to myself. “Most people in this city seem to be in a hurry.”
So I decide to ask someone who actually works at the store, and approach this burly supermarket employee who’s re-stacking some of the shelves. I walk up to him and very politely ask, “I’m looking for guasca. Do you have any guasca?”. The employee turns to me, incredulous. He stares for a beat. “What did you say?”, he asks, defiant. “I’m, uh– guasca? I’m looking for guasca? Do you guys have any?”.
His reaction is one I can’t read as easily as the woman’s. The best I can come up with is suppressed rage. The kind of simmering anger you’d expect from someone who’s at the tail end of their shift and doesn’t have the patience to deal with a wiseass customer who wants to start shit. He looks like he wants to kick the shit out of me. Instead, he shakes his head twice and quietly tells me to fuck off. Then he walks off, leaving me stunned.
At this point, I’m wondering what the hell is wrong with Argentines, and why everybody’s so reticent in telling me where the guasca is, and why they’re so goddamn protective of their leafy greens. Until I hear “excuse me”, and turn around. An old lady, probably in her seventies, motions me over. I’ve said some mean things about the elderly population of Argentina, but this lady was a total sweetheart. She tells me she’d been standing near and had witnessed the tense exchange. She asks me where I’m from, since she noticed I spoke with a non-Argentine accent. I tell her everything– I explain to her I’m from Colombia, I’m trying to make this soup called ajiaco, there’s this ingredient called guasca, yadda yadda. Then she nods in understanding, and she proceeds to explain. What follows will stay with me forever.
“You see, in this country, the word guasca is used to refer to…”, she stops for a few beats, racking her brain for the right words. When she finally finds them, she says them with hesitation: “… it refers to… the… manly secretions… understand?”.
Manly secretions? Manly secretions. Manly se… OH GOD.
I had just asked two people– two random strangers– for “manly secretions”.
Words can’t quite express the level of humiliation I felt at that precise moment. I held my composure. I thanked the old lady for clarifying this misunderstanding. I put everything I had picked up back in the shelves. I walked back home, tail firmly tucked between my legs, feeling like a miserable failure and also kind of like a sex offender. I swore right then and there I’d never attempt another traditional Colombian meal again, lest I inadvertently proposition more supermarket employees.
Almost seven years later… still haven’t.