The Expat: Kelly Brenner

Kelly Brenner.
Kelly Brenner.
From: Boulder, Colorado, USA
Lives in: Palermo
Age: 32
Profession: Graphic designer and co-owner of Adentro Dinner Club
Education: Post-modern aesthetics and popular culture, UC Santa Cruz
Reading: The Picture of Dorian Gray
Last film seen: The Lover
Gadget: My camera

While the original plan was to have a fresh start with her best friend, Kelly Brenner’s possibly now ex best friend bailed at the last minute. Although she toyed with the idea of staying in the US, the graphic designer sought adventure regardless and has lived in Argentina since 2005.

Kelly says: “In college, I decided I wanted to live somewhere else and not the United States — I wanted to live in a Spanish-speaking country, be bilingual and live in a big city. So I made plans with my best friend to move here. We saved up our money and the day we were supposed to buy our tickets, he bailed on me and said he wasn’t going to move as he’d met a girl. So I had to decide whether I would come on my own or not.

“I didn’t have a plan, I didn’t know anyone and I didn’t even know about the basic things like tango or meat! I had high-school Spanish so I knew how to say ‘where’s the bathroom’ plus where I’m from in the US you hear the Mexican accent. But for the first few days I stayed at a hostel that arranged a cab for me and I swore the driver was Italian — so I was in a lot of trouble as I didn’t even recognize the language as Spanish!”

Besides confusing Italian for castellano, Kelly’s first few days were a rather bumpy ride. “It was a rough start as I arrived during a 42º heatwave — it was humid and I remember thinking I hated it. The city didn’t look how I thought it would. In fact, the first day I threw up in a plant pot at the hostel as I was stressed and hot, and didn’t know if I had made the right decision — and I’d left my boyfriend behind. Plus I’d never stayed in a hostel before!

“It was a bad first day and the first week wasn’t that good. Some guy followed me down an avenue masturbating, so there was a lot I was exposed to, literally, that week. I’d lived in smallish cities before so I had to get used to a big city with a different personality.”

Despite the turbulence, Kelly soon moved in with some Argentines and began to find her feet quite quickly. “I rented a room in Villa Crespo with an Argentine woman, her son and a couple of dancers. It was a lot of fun and that first year is when I learned to go out all night, go on to after-hours clubs that open at 8am or go to plays that start at one in the morning.”

Learning on the job
But there came a point when Kelly needed to start earning, and when she didn’t get the job she wanted, she turned her hand to waiting.

“I had a fantasy job in graphic design that I didn’t get so I started working as a waitress at Radio Set; it doesn’t exist anymore. I earned 350 pesos working the 4pm to 4am shift but I learned the language. And that’s how I met Gabriel, who was also a waiter and is my now partner.

“Near the end of 2005, I went back to the States for six months to earn some money — I already knew I wanted to live in Argentina but I felt I should do a proper goodbye with my family. Everyone said our relationship wouldn’t work out — our friends, family, co-workers, random cab drivers.

“ But I came back, went to the same house in VIlla Crespo but it had turned into a hostel so I moved in with Gabriel in Constitución. I’ve been robbed more times in Palermo than in Constitución — there are just more transvestites there. In Constitución, we got our first dog, Gabriel taught me how to cook and I became domesticated. Being vegetarian in Buenos Aires in 2005 and 2006 was a bit limiting. I was basically a housewife for a year — I cooked, I didn’t work that much, I watched Tinelli and soap operas — my major in college was post-modern aesthetics and popular culture so I love that low-brow reflection of society. It wasn’t a wasted year, I learned a lot!”

Besides living in that very un-expat neighbourhood, Kelly also lived for four months in the province of Buenos Aires while the couple looked for a new place to live.

She says: “We lived in Lomas de Zamora, which was a trying situation, being with in-laws in a quiet neighbourhood with one general store and one hairdresser. There’s really nothing to do. But it’s been a real blessing to be friends with Gabriel’s family as they come from such a different background, living in a neighbourhood where no one graduated high school. It’s been a special experience to know them and overcome my own prejudices about what’s right or what’s easy.”

Opening closed doors
After moving back to the capital, an about-turn then came when Gabriel started culinary school and invited two groups of friends from Canada and New York for an asado. Kelly says: “They all said it was the best meal of their trip, and there was nothing like dining at someone’s home. They suggested we set up a closed-door restaurant. That was in 2009 — we thought about it but the place we lived in wasn’t a nice place. So when our lease was up, we looked for a place with a grill and where we could entertain.

“We moved to Oro Street in March 2010, an old dentist’s office and total horror show — nothing had been taken care for 30 years. I thought it was a crappy place but Gabriel had worked in construction when he was 18 and said all these problems could be fixed. So we peeled off paint — he’d come home from his waiting job at one in the morning then we’d fix everything. We didn’t have any start-up capital, we’d buy piecemeal, a few utensils or plates here and there, fabric to make napkins — and the first dinner for Adentro Dinner Club was in January 2012, but we didn’t mean to do it as we weren’t ready to open. We had given out business cards and a couple did book, but we had to invite other friends to fill the spaces and act like customers otherwise it would have been dinner for two at a table for 10. It was amazing to have complete strangers come into your home, and cook for them and they give you money for it. That first 100 pesos is now framed in our dining room.

“It’s been interesting, to balance and start out doing this once a week. We were both working full time but now Gabriel has left his job so we do more private events while trying to figure out how to grow and not change too much. One of the things people like is hanging out with us, that it’s a fun dinner party. Some weeks when we’ve had four dinners the energy changes and it becomes work, so we are trying to work out where we go next with it.”

Heart in art
Besides undertaking graphic design work for clients and running Adentro, Kelly is very supportive of the local arts scene and its entrepreneurial spirit. “At the moment, I’m taking a painting workshop with my favourite Argentine artist Paula Senderowicz and in fact, art is one of the reasons I moved to Buenos Aires. It is very accessible here whereas it isn’t in New York or Los Angeles. The artists are on site and they aren’t full of themselves, maybe because they have to work very hard. I’ve been able to meet some of my favourites, and I can go to Paula’s workshop every week and get her personal critique on my work.

“There’s a lot of funding for the arts, which is something I really respect and admire. But if friends can’t get an exhibition at a particular gallery, well, they’ll rent a two by two space and make their own. It’s a very entrepreneurial space, which is very inspiring. Artists aren’t waiting around for someone to discover them as the next big thing; they open galleries, host workshops or set up exhibitions themselves — and I cherish that.”

The other issue Kelly dedicates her time to is animal rights and she acts as an animal foster home. “I’ll foster sick dogs that need medication or a home, and I’ve rescued a bunch of different dogs before getting them into an adoptive home. It’s not too bad in the capital but in the province there isn’t a lot of education about spaying. If I run into a dog, I take them to vet and see if I can put them into adoption.”

Buenos Aires Herald, February 15, 2014
Ph: Mario Mosca

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