Born: New Plymouth, New Zealand
Education: Masters in clinical psychology
Profession: Writer and psychologist
Book: Wild Swans by Jung Chang
Film: Cars 2
Gadget: My Kindle
Although she is now happily settled with a family of her own, the path that led her to Buenos Aires wasn’t always so simple for Kiwi psychologist Jessica Talbot. After feeling lost in the world but coming across people on a similar kind of emotional journey, she wrote Picaflor, which was published earlier this year.
Talking about her first visit to Latin America, Jessica says: “Life was complicated in Melbourne and I needed a change so I took three months’ unpaid leave to volunteer with street kids in Trujillo, Peru. It was a way to escape from life for a while and from there I went to Cusco, where I met an Argentine surfer in the mountains!
“That set me off on a trip that involved a stopover in Argentina on the way back to Australia. He organized for his friends to meet me at the airport and his father put on an asado, so I arrived for just 24 hours and was so loved by these total strangers – I was picked up really early on a Saturday morning, shown around Buenos Aires, had an asado with wine and I fell in love with something, not just the city but the people. And something was then in my mind about coming back.”
Soul in South America
That was Jessica’s first introduction to Argentina, and from there she returned to Australia to try and pick up where she’d left off with her job. “My soul was still in South America so I sold up all my things, quit my job and went off to find that Argentine surfer, who’d moved on by then! That was the holiday romance that should have stayed the holiday romance. So I ended up alone in South America in 2004, then went back to Cusco where I had some friends to start putting myself back together. I didn’t know what do, whether to go back to Australia and start again and look for a new job, or to go to Argentina which had got under my skin. I kept meeting people who were like me, a bit lost and searching for a place that felt like home, a place to belong, looking for love or some kind of connection. And that was one of the reasons I wrote Picaflor.
“In Buenos Aires I got a job teaching English badly, then did what all people do when they first arrive: try to survive, try to get a house you’re not paying massive amounts of money for, getting roommates, starting to build a life here. Then after nine months, I met my now-husband – and that sealed the deal for staying in Argentina.
“I didn’t have such a very strong connection with my family and was always free-floating. And that’s why I wrote about Argentina and why I felt at home here – explaining what it was about this place and these people that made me feel like I had before, about feeling okay in your own shoes. I found that here out of everywhere I’ve been and this country gave me that despite all its difficulties, and surviving inflation. That was the most important thing, that feeling of belonging.
“Now, I pick up my little boy from kindergarten every day and I get kissed 15 times. It’s not a servicing kiss, they really kiss you and put a hand on your arm – you feel part of something bigger and that makes living through the difficult things here tolerable.”
Back to basics
In the early days, Jessica went back to basics, living wise, sharing her place with a continual stream of friends. She says: “It was hard to find somewhere to live without a guarantee or paying in dollars, but I was lucky that the friend of the mum of a friend of the guy I’d met in Cusco had an apartment she let out to tango people, so it was more reasonably priced. And I filled it with people from my travels! Three people in the living-room, two in the other room, really going back to flat sharing. It was an experience, going from being a professional in Melbourne with my own place and my own car to living on a mattress on a floor in Buenos Aires! But it was worth it, to find out who I am and what I wanted to do.”
Jessica met her husband at Club 69 some months after arriving although she ascertains he wasn’t one of the oiled-up dancing B-Boys on stage at the gay night. “In fact we got married for the paperwork but it ended up being a lovely day with his family. I was tired of doing the visa run, overstaying, but then it was more than just for the paperwork, really! Now I have my little boy, who’s almost five and half Kiwi, half Argentine, and a book, and I’ve planted a few trees in my life: for now this is home and I’ll be sticking around for a while longer.”
Home sweet home
She calls Belgrano home and the family live in an apartment there. “I work in a cultural centre there teaching book groups and conversation classes, which is a really nice way to meet people and teach English in a different way. Argentines are good to have in a group as there’s never a silent member! Everyone talks and has their turn. There are beautiful houses and embassies in Belgrano, cobbled streets and trees that cry. I always thought they were just leaking sap but someone told me the other day they are leaking poison! I had a romantic notion about being under these weeping trees… But it’s a safe neighbourhood and I go to the park with my little boy – we’re lucky to live there.”
Raising a bilingual son is difficult, she says, as the family tend to speak Spanish at home. “I speak to him in English and he replies in Spanish. He says ‘Mummy, I don’t want to speak in English, your people from over there speak English but I speak castellano.’ But when he really wants something, he says ‘I love you Mummy’ – a typical little charmer! He does know a lot of words but his everyday language is Spanish. It’s not until he has more than one person speaking to him English that he will hopefully realize it’s important.”
Claiming she is a poor student, Jessica never took language classes and learnt Spanish on the hop. “I had to learn for my husband, and that was a good thing. Not knowing the language too well has its benefits, though. It’s harder to form an argument because by the time you translate it, you think, ‘why would I say that?’ But then later on in a relationship, you need the language to be able to work out who does what chores at home and how to swear!”
Besides her book groups and conversation classes, much of Jessica’s energy is being taken up with a prestigious event organized by the New Zealand Embassy later this month. She says: “All my spare time at the moment is building up to a presentation due to be held at Congreso on September 23, which is a flukey and lucky event that coincides with the All Blacks coming to play here. I wrote Picaflor as I needed to write my story and understand the journey I went on, plus as a psychologist I thought it might be interesting for other people on that journey. It’s an amazing opportunity to be chosen to be part of a week of Kiwi cultural activities.”
Buenos Aires Herald, September 6, 2014