The Expat: Sarah Smith

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From: Virginia, US
Lives in: Caballito
Age: 48
Profession: Founder of Neo Language Services
Education: Masters in Linguistics from Louisiana State University
Reading: The Circle
Last film seen: The Incredible Life of Walter Mitty
Gadget: My bike bell

Although Sarah Smith married an Argentine, moving to her husband’s homeland wasn’t an immediate decision and it wasn’t until her twins were aged eight that they moved to Buenos Aires.

She says: “The first time I came to Argentina was with my future husband. We came in 1992 and that was a tourism visit at that point. We were both in grad school and I came to meet his family who live in Córdoba, so we only spent a few days in Buenos Aires. That was long before we moved here.

“After we both finished grad school — Fabián was on a Fulbright scholarship and needed to fulfil his obligation and return — we lived in Córdoba for two and half years. It was provincial and I liked the countryside but it was horribly expensive. We then went back to the US and returned to Argentina about 10 years later, mainly because of our kids.”

A bilingual family
With dual-nationality, bilingual children, the couple decided it was important for their offspring to be able to tolerate both their parents’ cultures. Given that they had lived the first eight years of their life in the US and also Spain, it was time to move on.

Sarah says: “We came here when things were on a positive swing after the 2001 crisis and there was a lot of buena onda in Buenos Aires at the time, a lot of good energy which happens cyclically. There hadn’t been a right time before then but with everything that was going on, it seemed the right thing to do. So we moved across the ocean again from Andalucia — that was eight years ago.

“I was familiar with the city but only as a visitor. I was 40 by the time we moved here, so it’s a challenge to move to such a big place, which is ironically quite anonymous, plus it’s not so easy to establish social networks and make new friends in such a big place.

“I had two eight-year-old kids then and when you’re a freelance worker, contacts come through your kids and their school. There are lots of expats here but not so many international families like there are in Europe. At school I was surrounded by Argentines, and my kids were the only foreign kids so it was a bit like going to a small town, with people who can’t fully relate to your experiences. Of course we found Argentine families we did have things in common with and branched out.”

With time, Sarah has realized she isn’t necessarily made for the big city but sees the pros and cons of everything. And when things become very frustrating, she lets loose on her blog, “Living in a big city has its good and its bad points. I’ve come to realize I’m not a big city person so I prefer the smaller neighbourhoods within it. But people are great as are the accidental things that happen — the negative things that can happen to you are almost counteracted by something good.

“I haven’t been through many crime incidents, but the other day someone did steal my purse at 11 in the morning. The place was packed and I don’t know how it happened. The waiter came over and asked me if my purse had been hanging over the back of my chair. I said yes and he went off running. I followed him and it turns out he had wrestled my bag away from the thieves while being cheered on by the other waiters. Little acts of kindness and solidarity happen a lot here — and that’s in real contrast to where I am from as things don’t happen that way.

“Having been in Argentina for such a long time I’ve learned a whole lot about myself — where I’m from, why I have the preconceived notions that I have and exploring those things, and when things do go wrong, I use my blog. When I write about them I discover things about US culture and the reasons I’m frustrated — it doesn’t give me a solution but it’s very enlightening to write about the cultural issues I face here. And that’s all positive.”

Readers of her blog often reach out to Sarah with questions about parenting in another country, and one in particular crops up frequently. “People often contact me about school choices, and send me long lists of questions. I used to be generous with the answers but it takes up a lot of time! I recently wrote about the teenage scene at night here, and what a huge hurdle it was for me to jump over, as someone who was used to a curfew of 1am. I had to learn to live with that, the pains of coming to terms with totally different rules. I get lots of positive feedback on that.

“The issue of kids who are bilingual from birth can be complicated. The way the education system works here for a kid who has English as a first language means that the school wants them to learn it as as second language, so there is plenty of debate on how to approach a school about that.”

Sarah and her family live in Caballito, but it’s pure coincidence as to how they ended up in that particular neighbourhood. “We were living in Spain and our kids were involved in a musical theatre project and we had brought in a lot of music from Argentine theatre director Hugo Midón. I came to Buenos Aires to scout for houses and the people involved in the school play had asked me to being back more music. As luck would have it I was writing down houses-for-sale phone numbers and I stumbled across his theatre school and met him. We were chatting and I told him we were thinking about moving to BA — we weren’t aiming to live in Caballito but I went to see the house, it was a super deal and I felt there was something providential about it. It’s big and noisy and very crowded but there’s great food shopping in Caballito. I’m used to it now.

“And what I’ve learned from a big city is that I feel very secure in my kids and their decision-making skills — I feel okay with them being out with their friends. It’s much better than driving around in cars as they would be in the US — they look out for each other.”

Sarah is an active lady, and enjoys riding her bike as well as taking on new challenges. “I’m a big swimmer so I do that a lot and try to be regular with my blog. I go to writing group on Wednesday and I’ve learned to give up my car for the most part, so I bike most places. I’m about to venture into something new, cajón flamenco lessons. I live in a family of musicians, so they are all making music while I’m the fan. I told them I wanted to be more involved and I love flamenco music as we lived in Andalucia, so they gave me a really nice cajón flamenco for my birthday. There’s a lot of family jam sessions, my daughter sings, and there’s a percussion instrument lacking in our house so I will be it!

“I also have a new project that’s in the brainstorming phase but I’m hoping to start a writing centre based on 826 Valencia, an NGO writing/tutoring centre that focuses on reading and writing skills for kids in public schools run by writers. The idea is to start the first Spanish language one here and I’m hoping to take advantage of my husband’s recent fame as he won the Premio Clarín and he’s met a lot of other writers through that.”

Heading south
In her eight years in Argentina, Sarah admits to not travelling around the country as much as she’d like, often going back to the US. But she has visited Patagonia several times.

“I’ve been to Santa Cruz as my father-in-law’s side of the family has an estancia on Lago Cardiel. That’s been one of the most authentic experiences I’ve had on a basic human and family level. They are country people from a small town and drive for five hours to get to their sheep. They have a different way of communicating verbally — they are more respectful and let you talk, they are interested in what you have to say and super curious about the rest of the world as they are so isolated. Driving for seven hours to get milk from the store is nothing for them! They are no-nonsense people and I really like going there. His grandmother was one of 13 children, and I was lucky enough to meet three of them — they have these amazing stories of growing up in adverse conditions. And they are really good storytellers.”

Buenos Aires Herald, February 1, 2014
Ph: Mariano Fuchila
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