Living Abroad in Córdoba, Argentina
La Vida Tranquila
Article and photos by Mary MacKenty
| Drinking mate along the river in Carlos Paz.
My Cordobesa host sister passes me the gourd and its heat seems to penetrate into my hands. I stare down at the silver straw poking out from the now wet yerba mate plant leaves, unsure of how to proceed. I slowly suck on the straw, being cautious not to burn myself, but it comes up too quickly and a bitter tea stings my tongue. My friends laugh at my reaction and wait for me to continue until the water is gone. I oblige to be polite. I return the gourd to the server, where it is refilled and passed along to the next person in the circle we have formed on the half dead grass in the Plaza de La Intendencia. When it comes around again, I am unsure how to decline without offending them, so I fiddle with the straw. A collective freak out in Spanish ensues since apparently moving the straw clogs it. I sip with apprehension but this time it feels slightly better.
|Students sharing mate during a break in the Plaza de La Intendencia.
Within a week, drinking mate had become one of my favorite rituals.
Many “Yankees,” meaning people from the USA otherwise known as Yankeelandia, ask me, “But don’t they pass germs sharing a straw like that?” According to my host mom, illness comes from the cold, and you only get cured through drinking tea and wearing a scarf. Besides, in Córdoba, sharing is essential to the culture, especially food and drink. Drinking mate exemplifies this because it symbolizes an excuse to spend time with family and friends.
Why Córdoba, Argentina?
“Córdoba, isn’t that in Spain? I thought the only city in Argentina was Buenos Aires.” To be fair, one third of the population of Argentina lives in the city of Buenos Aires, another third in the province of Buenos Aires, and the last third in the rest of the country. Buenos Aires is a modern city with big buildings, parks, statues, museums, tango, and culture. It has everything a student could want; however, Córdoba has an undeniably friendly atmosphere. It is for good reason that Córdoba is nicknamed “Corazón de mi país,” meaning the heart of my country. Everything is an excuse to be social, be it a cumpleaños (birthday party), despedida (going away party), bienvenida (welcome party), an all day asado (barbecue), or just drinking mate. There are few foreigners in Córdoba, so locals are intrigued and excited to befriend them. It is also in their nature to invite everyone, everywhere.
During study abroad experiences, a student’s time in country is limited. If you want to actually experience a culture and learn the language, it is critical to befriend locals. Not a problem in Córdoba.
In Córdoba, most students live within the city center of Centro and Nueva Córdoba. You can walk across the center in 30 minutes, rendering the confusing bus system unnecessary. This makes it easier to drop by on friends or meet up in the plazas.
The abundance of nightlife will top off your social world. Typical nights start at 10 p.m. with a previa. The preferred drink of Córdoba, fernet with coke, is drunk from makeshift plastic glassed which are passed around the party. Around 2 a.m., the group slowly migrates to a boliche (club) to dance to cuarteto, cumbia, salsa, reguetón, and popular music until dawn. Córdoba may not have the splendor of Buenos Aires; however, with its social atmosphere of 300,000 students providing endless opportunities to practice Spanish, there is no better place to study the language than Córdoba.
Choosing a Program — Study/Volunteer/Internship
Córdoba isn’t exactly on the map yet as a study abroad destination, largely due to the fact that Buenos Aires attracts most of the attention. This is a pity, because 300,000 students study in Córdoba. The Universidad Nacional de Córdoba is ranked 22 in USA Today’s list of the best universities in Latin America. Due to the relative absence of foreigners, it is the best place to properly integrate, learn Argentine culture, and learn Spanish. As far as programs go, unfortunately there are not many options. There are some European universities that have agreements with the Universidad Nacional de Córdoba. In the US, the Center for Cross Cultural Study and ISEP have semester and summer programs, which are probably the most organized study abroad options. There are a few American universities with bilateral agreements with the Universidad Siglo 21 or Universidad Blas Pascal, which are private universities. There are also Spanish schools and volunteering opportunities; however, do your research before choosing one of these.
Getting There and Getting Around
Córdoba is smack in the middle of Argentina. Its location makes travel to the main tourist attractions in Argentina quite straightforward. The airport is a 30-minute bus ride from downtown; however the best way to get around is by bus. The main bus terminal is on the fringe of the city center. The comfortable “cama-cama” bed seats make overnight travel to Buenos Aires, Mendoza, Salta, and Jujuy easy. By traveling on an overnight bus not only do you save two nights in a hostel, but you also don’t feel the length trip at all. Traveling to Patagonia or the Iguazú Falls is more of a haul, being about 22 hours away. For the less ambitious, there are many towns, mountains, and rivers in the sierras of Córdoba. From the Mercado Sur bus station downtown you can catch minibuses that will allow you to be in nature in 1-3 hours time. There are towns to visit such as Carlos Paz, Villa General Belgrano, and Mina Clavero; mountains to hike such as Cerro Uritorco and Cerro Champaqui; and campsites for summer camping or day trips along the Rio del Oro (River of Gold) such as Cuesta Blanca, Cabalango, and Mayu Sumaj.
|Hiking in the Sierras.
Customs and Practicalities
Visas: As far as visas go, Argentina is quite relaxed. If you are going to be there more than 90 days, then you can leave the country. Some people making a visa run head to Chile or Uruguay, and upon your return they will stamp you another 90 days. Since it is inconvenient to reach Chile or Uruguay from Córdoba, it is more practical to go to immigration, stand in line, get a slip to pay at the bank, walk to the bank, stand in line, pay 300 pesos (35 dollars), walk back to immigration, give them the receipt, and they will stamp you another 90 days. It’s your typical bureaucracy and is much easier than it sounds. Some universities, such as the Universidad de Córdoba, require a student visa. Study abroad programs generally will help you with the process once you are there by getting a date for your immigration visit, etc.
Cordobés: In Córdoba, few people speak English, so it is good to have some basic Spanish beforehand. It is quite distinct from the Mexican Spanish taught in the USA. Y’s and ll’s are pronounced with a “sh” sound. All of a sudden the basic words you thought you knew, like llamo or ayer, now sound foreign. The pronoun used for “you” is “vos” not “tu” or “usted” and has its own set of conjugations. Not to mention they have a colorful vocabulary filled with slang even other Spanish speakers cannot comprehend. It’s a definite curveball upon arrival; however, the high level of immersion in Córdoba makes it easy to pick up. Even between foreigners, the primary language spoken is Spanish, because the majority of them come from within Latin America or Europe.
Customs: It is essential to know how to properly saludar, meaning to greet someone. One kiss on the right cheek is customary. This goes if you are meeting one person or 50 people. You will be considered mala onda (bad vibes) if you do not properly saludar someone. Also, if anyone gives you a gift, it is customary to give another kiss on the cheek. Birthdays are highly valued and therefore you should be extra enthusiastic in saying “feliz cumpleanos” and saludar again. This may sound like an exaggeration, but since people are so friendly that if you do not reciprocate this by at least greeting them properly, it is offensive. It’s also probably a good idea not to refuse mate even if you don’t like it at first. If someone invites you to drink mate, their real intention is to invite you to hang out, so just go anyway. As long as you are flexible, social, and remember to saludar everyone - then it won’t be difficult to be considered “buena onda” (good vibes/cool).
Living: The weather is quite warm all year except June through August, in which it dips to maybe 40-60 degrees Fahrenheit during the day. Be prepared to enjoy clear skies, almost no rain, and 100 degree dry heat (which are surprisingly bearable). As far as housing is concerned, there are plenty of shared flats in which you can find a room through websites such as Roomgo.com.ar, or speaking with other students and the international relations offices. A room each month should cost around 4,000-8,000 pesos ($100-$200, but due to inflation, costs may vary, as does the exchange rate, so please check this out before arrival).
Food: The food in Córdoba is influenced by their Italian and Spanish ancestors combined with their famous meat. The main foods are empanadas, pasta, gnocci, pizza, tarta, milanesa, lomito, locro, pastries, and of course choripan and asado.
Empanadas come in all shapes, sizes, and forms filled with spiced mixes varying between ground beef, ham, cheese, onion, vegetables, and corn.
Tartas are essentially one large empanada that takes the form of a pie.
Milanesa is thinly cut and breaded chicken or beef which is baked or fried.
Lomito and Choripan are the less healthy choices, however they are delicious. Lomito is a sandwich of fried beef with egg, tomato, lettuce, cheese, and sauces. Choripan is chorizo in a hot dog roll with salad and chimichurri sauce.
The most famous food of Argentina is the meat. An Argentine asado consists of chorizo (sausage) and morcilla (blood sausage) to start. The main cuts of meat are vacio (the hind), costillas (ribs), and matambre (the muscle above the side ribs), which is my personal favorite. The innards of the cow are considered delicacies, and most people either love them or are put off by the texture. Served along with the meat are: grilled bell peppers filled with a mixture of eggs, spices, and cheese; onions, which are thrown into the coals to caramelize; salad, and potatoes. The asado takes about three hours to make but generally is turned into an all day event either for a party at night or for Sunday lunch with the family.
Reverse Culture Shock
Culture shock in Córdoba is minimal as the people will adopt you quickly into their culture, allowing the positive aspects to quickly overpower any feelings of confusion or homesickness. Reverse culture shock is where it gets tricky. Upon arrival home, you may feel offended that people are “too busy” to socialize, are uninterested in drinking mate, and do not saludar you. I have attended many despedidas just to find that a month later the honoree has returned to Córdoba. Personally, I have left Córdoba “for good” five times during eight years and cannot escape longing for the slow, stress free, and family-oriented life. The only advice I can give is to let the people change you through their tranquila (relaxed) way of viewing life. Remember that Córdoba will always be there waiting for you, unchanged and as welcoming as ever.
Mary MacKenty is currently a student of the Erasmus Mundus Euroculture Master Program at the Universidad de Deusto (Spain) / Universita di Udine (Italy). She graduated from Syracuse University in 2009 after participating in three study abroad terms; however, none were in Argentina. Mary participated in the Rotary Youth Exchange short-term exchange program when she was 16 to Bell Ville, Cordoba, Argentina and moved back to Cordoba Capital between her Bachelor and Master's programs. There she worked for Translation Back Office as a Project Coordinator.
Mary grew up in Easton, Massachusetts and attended school at Moses Brown in Providence, Rhode Island. She majored in International Relations focused on Latin America and Spanish and minored in Economics at Syracuse University. She studied abroad in Spain, Ecuador, Chile, and Italy and has worked in Argentina, Brazil and Portugal. Mary enjoys learning languages while exploring the world. She aspires to work in international education while still living abroad.