The Expat: Bernd Buchholz

German teacher Bernd Buchholz.
German teacher Bernd Buchholz.
Name: Bernd Buchholz
From: Cologne, Germany
Age: 45
Profession: Head of department for all subjects taught in German at Instituto Ballester
Education: Masters in history and Spanish Phonology from University of Cologne
Last book: ‘Wakolda’ by Lucía Puenzo
Last film: ‘How I Killed My Mother’
Gadget: Kindle

After spending his gap year in Argentina in 1990, Bernd Buchholz was curious about the country two decades after his first visit. Now in his fifth year, he says he felt more at home in Mexico although the experiences are very different.

When he came to Buenos Aires as an eager banking intern in 1990, Bernd Buchholz never considered his future would see him teaching at a German school in Argentina 20 years on. “I first came here to do an internship at Deutsche Bank. I’d had an Argentine Spanish-language teacher in Germany and she put me in contact with a friend who was supposedly a director of the bank. I came over with all my suits and ties, and my good trousers, they picked me up at Ezeiza airport, and I asked ‘when will I start work?’ And they said ‘you can’t work for us because you don’t have a work permit. Didn’t she tell you that?’

“During my first two weeks I was running around immigration and of course, it was impossible to get a permit. I wanted to spend a year here, six months working and six months travelling, so in the end I just did the travelling part. I worked in some bar in San Telmo and I was also an English teacher — the German academies wouldn’t accept me because I didn’t have any diplomas — then I travelled to Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay.”

BACK IN 1990
Twenty-three years ago, Argentina’s peso was suffering hyperinflation and Bernd arrived just before the currency was pegged to the US dollar. He remembers the high costs at the time.
“It was so expensive, I lived off empanadas, and occasionally, when I could afford it, milanesa. I really loved it. It was my first real experience abroad, I was learning Spanish and I still cherish the experience as it helped me to grow a lot. And 20 years later, I came back and the country was totally different.

“It’s funny when you come back after so many years as you have certain ideas in your head, and I find it fascinating. For example, I lived in San Telmo in 1990 and it was a nice place. But when I came back, it seemed very rundown. I remember going to Palermo back then and thinking, ‘this is a dodgy place to be’ and now it’s really upscale. I wouldn’t want to live in San Telmo now.”

After a year of eating empanadas and opening litres of beer, Bernd returned to Germany for university. “My lecturer was from castille in Spain. Obviously I started to speak Spanish with my new Argentine accent, and she was totally shell-shocked. She asked me where I was from and I explained I was in fact German and had just returned from Argentina. She said: ‘You have to change your accent’ and she sent me to Salamanca to get rid of it!”

Before taking on a five-year contract in Buenos Aires, Bernd worked in Mexico. “It was a very different experience. I only had Mexican friends so I really soaked up the culture whereas here, most of them are from the expat community. A girl from the US introduced me to these circles, and it’s still interesting for me to meet people from New Zealand or Australia, as well as some Argentines from time to time! I’ve met some nice Germans too, but I wasn’t really looking for them. There’s a monthly Stammtisch (gathering at a set table) — I went once but it’s not really relevant to me. I speak quite a lot of German in my private life and at work, so I don’t feel the need to go.

“I feel more like an outsider here, more than I used to in Mexico. I have a fantastic life here but in Mexico I felt more like I was Mexican. The culture is very vivid, including the indigenous side, and I even learnt Nahuatl (Aztec language). I was very into it. But Buenos Aires is a big city and it’s a different lifestyle. I do love my international life here. But I still feel Mexican due to my accent! Once, I went to buy some razor-blades from the pharmacy and asked for a rastrillo, the word in Mexican. Of course, they laughed at me it means ‘rake’ in Argentine. But it was my way of speaking Spanish! In my first month I tried to adapt but it didn’t feel right.”

Once the Mexican phase began to reach its conclusion, other options became available in South Africa, Beirut and Peru. But Bernd decided to return to Argentina, and now lives in Colegiales. “The German government has a very intensive programme and runs 140 schools abroad. There were several openings and I thought it would be nice to return and see what it’s like. I love Colegiales, the neighbours are so friendly and I like being greeted by them on the street.”

It might come as a surprise that there are 20 German schools in Argentina that receive some financial help from the German government, with four of those based in and around Buenos Aires and the province. He says: “There was a huge immigration in the 1920s so people back then thought it would be a good idea for their children to learn the language, and they founded these schools. Then, after World War II, they started to send teachers abroad, to make amends of course, but it’s also vital for our economy. If you attend a German school, you know about the language and culture, and later on you might want to give a job to a German rather than an English person. It’s an interesting system and there’s a lot of support from Germany.”

Although Bernd clarifies the educational experience in Argentina is different from what a student would get in Germany, he says: “The idea is to combine the two cultures and languages, respecting, of course, the Argentine side but also giving some pushes from the German side. It’s a compromise that opens up horizons. I work in the province and many of these children don’t come to the capital frequently, so it’s interesting to see how they react to different approaches to life.” In 2013, some have German surnames, he adds, and while others might speak it at home, it is not the norm. “It’s the fourth or fifth generation by now so these children have lost a lot of the culture and customs.”

Argentina is proud of its German-founded towns such as Villa General Belgrano, but for a Cologne-born man, the experience has proven a little unsettling. Bernd says: “I’ve been to Córdoba, but it’s rather bizarre. I don’t want to criticize it but it’s not Germany to me — it looks like it did in the 1950s. I grew up in a big city with lots of different cultures, but here all you see is tall blonde girls with their hair in braids! It’s like a flashback! It’s cool that they are trying to conserve their tradition, and I respect that, but it’s not how it is.

“As I’ve been sent abroad, I represent my country and it’s my job, so I’m like an ambassador. What’s interesting about being a German in a foreign country is that you are always confronted by stereotypes. You see how others see it, but it’s so different from my experience as a German! I understand, but it’s not Germany any more — maybe a forlorn southern village, but it can’t be compared. I often have to explain that it has changed a lot and it’s an interesting country to get to know, but a lot of Argentines want to stick to their old contexts.”

At school, Bernd has tried to enthuse his students with distinctive ways of being involved with the language. As he is training to be a yoga teacher, he holds a class for his pupils in German, while a regional debate contest and poetry slam have helped open young minds.

“As soon as you hear the words, you then have to exercise it, so yoga classes has been interesting for my students. Meanwhile, the debate contest is now in its second year and it’s helpful for them to understand why they are learning this language. I organize it, so obviously it’s been a huge success! But this year the embassy is supporting it and besides the language benefits, it also offers camaraderie between pupils from four countries.”

As for his private life, Bernd says he loves Buenos Aires’ cultural offerings. “There are a lot of great restaurants in Colegiales, so I eat out frequently, and I like going to off-off-off Corrientes theatre. Take the Danish film festival — I could never see those films in Berlin!”

Buenos Aires has recently been touted by international media as the Berlin of the South. Given that he lived in that capital, what does he think about the comparison? Bernd says: “I do get it. It’s because of all the alternative movements, and good-quality theatre in dodgy areas, for example. There are so many people trying to build something so there’s a certain energy here, like a designer selling clothes in their living-room, which is also comparable to Berlin.”

Buenos Aires Herald, July 6, 2013

Ph> Diego Kovacic

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