The Expat: Jen Peck

Jen Peck
Born: Reno, Nevada
Age: 35
Profession: Co-founder, content and PR manager of
Education: Pyschology and art degree, University of Washington, Seattle
Currently reading: Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan
Last film: Hanna
Gadget: My laptop

When did you come to Argentina?
We came here for a vacation in September 2004 and visited Córdoba and Buenos Aires and were scoping it out. We wanted to flee George Bush and the country. Learning Spanish was a big goal so we decided to move here. We started planning and saving and that took a couple of years, but we moved here in February 2006.

What had captivated you?
It was affordable at the time! We could live on our savings a lot more easily than, say, in Spain. We liked the accent, the onda, the warmth of the people and the vivaciousness.

What did you do on that first trip?
We weren’t very experienced travellers and we were largely trapped in the Microcentro. It was my birthday and we were staying in a hostel that had some intense construction vibrating the entire concrete back wall, so I woke up to the bed shaking in exactly the wrong ways! But it was a taste of what Buenos Aires would bring to the party later…

Was it an easy decision to move?
A lot of it was about the government climate, George Bush and the war and we were very frustrated with the States and wanted to leave. Living in another country and learning another language were things we had both wanted to do although Ty wanted to go to Germany due to his heritage. But we compromised on Argentina as German is apparently the third national language due to the large number of immigrants.

Did you have any long-term goals?
We planned and saved so we could be here for a year, to not work but also study, and if things hadn’t come together we would have returned. But nine months in, Ty got an idea for our current business, a Spanish language platform, I got a job and that was the beginning of our much-longer stay.

What did your family think?
Everybody thought we were crazy to move. But it was funny as we’d have conversations and tell people about our plans. Minutes, or hours later, they’d say “why are you moving to Mexico again?” Anything south of the border is Mexico…

Where did you live?
We were looking to undertake some immersion programmes and spent a month in Recoleta, then we went to Santiago de Chile but we didn’t like it there. We had internships set up in Buenos Aires so we were excited to return and moved to San Telmo. I did a three-month internship with a legal counsel in La Boca defending the rights of women and children, and worked with their psychologists to set up kiosks and leaflets about condom use and STDs.
Then we were robbed at gun point in San Telmo, so we moved to an unfurnished place in Las Cañitas, then we ended up in Almagro, Caballito, and now we live in Barrio Norte.

Can you talk about the robbery?
We’d left the gym when a couple of women pulled out a gun and pointed it at us and told us to give them our stuff. I handed my backpack over and we tried to persuade them not to rob us, but our Spanish wasn‘t good enough at the time.

Other people might have decided to pack Buenos Aires in…
That wasn’t the first time we were robbed… at the end of the first month, we went to check out the site of my first internship in the Mataderos neighbourhood near the slaughterhouse, which has a villa on the other side. Ty and I were a bit lost when he was jumped by two guys and thrown to the ground. But he kicked one of them in the chest, and we managed to get up and run.
A police officer was nearby and when we told him what had happened, he asked: “Why are you here?”

Did you take up the issue up?
I was really upset. I had planned to go there every day by myself and it was dangerous. They said the assignment I had asked for is inherently dangerous and that kind of thing was to be expected. I asked to be reassigned and when I started in La Boca, one of their representatives accompanied me on the first day to show me which routes not to take.

After all that, what kept you?
I think we are both tenacious and hadn’t fulfilled our goals and wanted to stay here for a year. We figured those were fluke circumstances. To be honest, I‘m surprised we weren’t more scared off.

How did one year turn into five?
The fact that Ty had the language platform idea and that I had work at an e-learning company which could sustain us. That meant we could stay and develop this business, as part of the goal was to see if we could find a business opportunity here together. There was a lot of crossover between the idea and my work so we decided to see what happened.

How was working for an Argentine company?
It’s been challenging but I learned a lot. The company was owned by foreigners who gave their foreign employees flexibility, which might have been resented by the Argentines.
One of the differences was the amount of sexually inappropriate talk from bosses, comments which would never fly in the States, such as bikini contests between the female employees or spanking one of the girls to reprimand her.

You’ve lived all over the city.
I loved living in Almagro and it seems like a “real” neighbourhood. It’s inhabited by people who really live there, instead of transitory ones. There are lots of cafés, theatres, live music and it had a lot of good things going on within walking distance. I rode my bike to work. But I’ve had to sell it now that I‘m pregnant.

You probably never expected that to happen in Argentina…
No! People are wonderful and pregnant women get treated like royalty here. When you pay bills, you get ushered to the front of the line or to give you a seat on the bus. I don’t think there’s such an accommodating attitude in the States: when you’re pregnant, you chose to be in that state and so have to deal with it!

How is healthcare for you?
That’s would be a reversal. in the States there are more progressive attitudes. There’s a really medical approach to labour and pregnancy here which concerned me as I wanted a natural childbirth. I wanted to find somebody with a progressive philosophy. I was recommended a team I’ve been really happy with and they are unusual as my doctor was one of the few in Argentina who used to perform water births. He did so out of his home until he ran into legal problems, and as he wasn’t supported by the State to do it, he had to stop. Birthing centres don’t exist, it’s pretty much “give birth on your back in a hospital”.

Will your daughter be Argentine?
Yes, she will be an Argentine citizen with DNI. I want to call her Hanali, and I have to go to the registry office tomorrow to see if I call her that as it is not on the approved names list. Hana is, and Li is, so I have to see if I can combine the names.
We’re leaving Argentina in January and I’ve heard some expat horror stories where a child’s name hasn’t been on the list and the child can’t get a DNI if they aren’t on the approved names list. The parents can leave the country but the baby can’t! Ty and I will be considered relatives of an Argentine and be given permanent residency.

What will you miss?
Parque Centenario on Sundays. It’s a crazy piece of Argentina with the market, book stands and battle of the bands between the heavy metallers and the punk rockers. It’s one of my favourite places. And showing up late, as I’m perpetually late!

Do see yourself as an expat?
I guess, but I’ve never felt like I belong in Argentina. But the more time I spend here, the less I feel like I belong to the US.

What’s your most Argentine trait?
Patience. Being more patient with delays and hitches that life will throw your way in South America. I‘m accustomed to delays and trying to head them off when I can, and not getting aggravated when I can’t.

Living life on a rollercoaster

These past five years have been topsy-turvy for Jen Peck and her partner Tyler Ulrich, ever since they arrived in Buenos Aires with a plan to stay for 12 months. “It’s been a rollercoaster ride,” she says.
The couple is textbook material in terms of ditching carefully laid plans – after all, they had saved up money in order to make it through a year, allowing them to undertake internship programmes during that time while learning a new language, but stayed for a further four and are about to have a dual nationality baby.
But, despite a series of unfortunate events occurring which would put off the most seasoned traveller and send them scurrying for the first flight out of Ezeiza to anywhere, Peck has weathered various muggings, her apartment catching fire and having fire fighters trying to steal some of her possessions as well as suing her company for wrongful dismissal.
After a crackdown on tourist visas at the end of 2009, a trip to Uruguay resulted in a 30-day stamp rather than the 90-day one. “We were told to legalise our situation or we would not be allowed back in,” she says. The following day, she informed her work of that situation, that her FBI report was on the way, but they fired her “for being too much of a risk,” even after working at the company for three years.
“To add insult to injury, they offered me a severance package for the exact same amount as a girl who worked for a month as a project manager and did a horrible job. That wasn’t acceptable.” Peck then successfully sued them, settling out of court. Despite working illegally for the firm, that wasn’t deemed to be her fault and she had plenty of paperwork to prove her employment including a letter stating how much she earned which was used to rent an apartment.
But miserable grey clouds have silver linings, and despite such a tumultuous collection of events affecting, Peck adds that it is a different collection of events that has kept them here. Indeed, she is due to give birth to her daughter next month, although the name she wants to use, Hanali, has not yet been confirmed as being on the official names list. “She will have dual nationality which I believe she can keep forever, and I know she’ll want to come back and visit, given that we are moving next year.
“It’s ironic that we’ve established everything we needed to stay and now we have decided to leave. It’s bittersweet.”

Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on September 4, 2011.
Photo by Mariano Fuchila.

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