Arriving in Buenos Aires as a 19-year old exchange student

July 6, 2006 – Buenos Aires, Argentina. The day my life changed for good. I had been traveling quite a bit in Europe before, both accompanied and by myself, but never had I crossed the Atlantic Ocean. With all my 19 years of wisdom, today I was moving to South America!

This is a story about how it all began. The birth of my travel madness. After arriving in Buenos Aires as a 19-year old exchange student back in 2006, and at first being frightened by nearly everything and everyone, I soon came to the conclusion that I never wanted to leave.

Impressive architecture can be found all around Buenos Aires
Impressive architecture can be found all around the city of Buenos Aires

At the airport

After traveling an odd 24-hours, I get off the plane, and walk into the arrival hall of Ezeiza airport in my white and light blue soccer t-shirt of the Argentinian national team. Wherever I went, people were enthusiastically shouting, smiling, and waving at me. I, of course, did not have the slightest idea what was going on. What do all these people want from me?!

Both exhausted and excited on my first transatlantic flight to Argentina
Both exhausted and excited on my first transatlantic flight to Argentina… Can you tell? ;-)

[Turns out, the world was captured by the 2006 Soccer World Cup madness, and not only had I been so ‘clever’ to wear Argentina’s national jersey, I was also flying in from Frankfurt, Germany. Argentina’s soccer fans (a.k.a. absolutely everyone) must have thought I had just come back from supporting their national heroes in this insanely popular sporting event. These guys were cheering me on! :) ]

Argentina Soccer Shirt I was wearing upon arrival in Buenos Aires
Argentina Soccer Shirt I was wearing upon arrival in Buenos Aires [photo taken years later]
Pleasantly surprised by Argentina’s extreme hospitality, yet completely oblivious to the events described above, I needed to focus my attention on trying to find the man that was supposed to pick me up from the airport. And pronto.

You can imagine my relief when, after stepping through the characteristic glass sliding doors, I look straight into the eyes of a man holding up a sign that says: “Bienvenida, Marly”.

Communication in Spanish

Happy to have immediately found my personal taxi driver (“remisero”), I try to tell him in my best Spanish how my flight has been. I must have forgotten for a moment that to have a conversation with someone, you must actually be able to understand the person you’re talking with. I mean, until that point, I truly believed that my Spanish was OK. After all, I was the best in my university class, so that should account for something, right?

Wrong. To think that scoring an A+ in Spanish class means you can hold a conversation with a Spanish native, is a BIG mistake. Let alone an über talkative indigenous Latin American taxi driver. Boy, this man could TALK!!

All I could do was nod and smile. Luckily, he was also really good at maintaining a one-sided conversation, so with the occasional acknowledgement and ever so rare question from my side, the hour-and-a-half drive to my new residence had gone by in no time.

First impressions of the city

Roads without lanes across Buenos Aires
In 2006, lanes were hard to find on Buenos Aires roads…

I distinctly remember rushing and twirling through 5 lane highways without any lane indications (what?! we are going to die!), to then start wobbling over cobble-stone streets (this old piece of junk they call a car is going to fall apart!), to finally calm down as I admired the marvelously manicured parks and beautiful purple flowers of the Jacaranda trees in my new neighborhood of Villa Ortúzar.

Busy traffic on 9 de Julio boulevard, Buenos Aires
Busy traffic on 9 de Julio boulevard, “only” 140 meters wide

This lovely man named Atilio dropped me off right at my doorstep. And then he helped me haul my massive suitcase inside.

Miraculously, I had survived rush-hour traffic and made it to my new ‘home’ in one piece. Phew.

Entrance to my first house in Buenos Aires
Dropped off right at my doorstep. Welcome home!
Having gone through every emotion from complete and utter shock about the first impressions of traffic, masses of people, and enormous skyscrapers in this magnificent metropolis, to an intense feeling of bliss when jotting down the very first memories that same night, I felt simultaneously exhausted and more alive than ever.
Good night to me on my first night in Buenos Aires, Argentina
Good night to me on my first night in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Welcome to Buenos Aires, Marly!

You might not know it yet, but this city is going to change your life forever…
Gazing around in admiration, while exploring the city of Buenos Aires
Gazing around in admiration, while exploring the gorgeous city of Buenos Aires

My first days in Buenos Aires

Meet: Couch Potato Me.
Yes, indeed. A much simpler and quieter version of my usual me, who would spent hours and hours on end watching sports and re-runs of popular television series on subtitled channels like “Warner Bros” and “Sony Television”, while slouching down on seemingly 19th century sofas with characteristic flower patterns.
My living room hideout during the first days in Buenos Aires
My living room hideout during the first days in Buenos Aires

I might not have been (fully) aware of my non-activity at the time. Neither did I realize that this in fact immensely improved my Spanish.

Maybe I had subconsciously stopped myself from stepping outside my literal comfort zone in an attempt to avoid having to face traffic conditions so outrageous that I could only describe its participants as positively suicidal.

Either way, my host family must have noticed something was up. One faithful morning, apparently after I had been staring at their TV screen for 3 whole days (!), my host came up to me and took me by the hand. It was time for me to go outside!
Large intersection in Buenos Aires
… and cross huge intersections like these!

He told me he would show me where my new university was located, and how and where to take the right buses to get there.

Hold up! I had to take several buses to get to school from now on? In my email conversations with my host family, they had told me they lived very close to the university!

Buses run 24/7 and take you to every possible corner of Buenos Aires
Buses run 24/7 and take you to every possible corner of Buenos Aires
Barrancas de Belgrano, the bus station in Buenos Aires I went to and from every day for 6 months
Barrancas de Belgrano, the bus station I went to and from every day for 6 months
That’s right.
For a city like Buenos Aires, 30-45 minutes of travel time each way, is less than peanuts.

Universidad Torcuato di Tella

I might have forgotten to mention or elaborate on this before, but the reason I went to Argentina in the first place was the fact that I had somehow gotten into this prestigious private university.

In a similar fashion to my ignorance about the country (am I really this far South?), its population (these people are white and skinny! Aren’t Latinos supposed to be tanned and voluptuous?), and its language (err… are you sure you are speaking Spanish?), I of course had no idea that I was about to attend one of the most expensive and highly ranked educational institutes in Buenos Aires.

Entrance of the Universidad Torcuato di Tella in the neighborhood of Belgrano, Buenos Aires
Entrance of the Universidad Torcuato di Tella in the neighborhood of Belgrano, Buenos Aires
Not that you would ever draw that conclusion from the educational institute’s appearance. Externally, di Tella looked more like an old milk factory than anything else, and ‘sobriety’ – not to say ‘somberness’ – would be the first word to come to mind to describe the university’s interior.*
Sober classrooms at Universidad Torcuato di Tella, Buenos Aires
The classrooms at UTDT. Are you sure I am in the right place?
Library of Universidad Torcuato di Tella, Buenos Aires
Library facilities at UTDT in 2006

[*Don’t judge a book by its cover: Never have I attended more interactive, interesting, and challenging small-scale classes in which students actually paid attention, answered questions, ánd made notes. Absolutely mind-blowing coming from the so-called and unfortunate “sixes culture” in the Netherlands.]

Tilburg University & my personal choice for a study abroad program

How come I was so clueless about this grand adventure?
Well… I was in my third year of an International Business Degree at Tilburg University, and frankly way too busy to have any time to prepare for my upcoming migration to Argentina. I had God knows how many exams to pass before even being allowed to spend a semester abroad, and on top of that I was juggling 2 or 3 part-time jobs to save up some money for whatever was lying ahead on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.Luckily, and thus even more so in hindsight (!), I would only be paying my own university in the Netherlands.
One of the many buildings on the campus of Tilburg University
One of the many buildings on the campus of Tilburg University [photo credit: Tilburguniversity.edu]

When the opportunity came around to apply for a semester abroad, I remember I wanted to go as ‘far away as possible’. Unfortunately, all ties with universities in Australia had just been canceled that year, so I could forget about acquiring a spot at the University of Western Australia.

The next continent on my mind was South America. I had been taking Spanish classes, and absolutely loved the idea of living in a culture that would be so very different from my own. Lo and behold, the BEST university for Economics was located right there in Bogotá!

However, at this point, my daddy dearest felt the need to step in and reassure me I could do whatever the h*** I wanted, but that there was no way on Earth he was going to let me go to Colombia. “OK, fine!” [Imagine me sighing, while rolling my eyes pretending I did not know exactly why my dad wasn’t very fond of the idea of sending his only daughter to one of the most notorious countries for drug trafficking in South America. 😉 ]

Google Maps screenshot of South America
So I had decided I wanted to go to South America. But to what country and which university to attend?
What about Buenos Aires then? Isn’t our crown prince married to a lady from Argentina? 

For reasons I can’t quite remember, I then quickly made up my mind I wanted to go to DiTella. Little did I know that Argentina had become such a popular destination among Dutch students. As it turns out, no less than 35 fellow students applied for a single spot in DiTella’s exchange program!

We waited several weeks for a reaction on our applications forms, CV, academic record, and motivation letter. As faces around me started to light up or fall into despair, I knew the results were in. And there she was, Miss I-won’t-mention-her-name, shining like a lit-up Christmas tree. Oh no! She had applied to Torcuato di Tella! What am I going to do?! :(

After logging into the student exchange program platform, I found the message that I had to pay a visit to the International Office. ASAP.
Nervous yet hopeful look on my face
Nervous, yet still a bit hopeful (?), about having to go to the International Office…

While my mind is doing overtime trying to find the reason of me being summoned here, wondering what options I would still have or be presented with at this point, and shaking like a leaf, the exchange program manager tells me (without any emotion on her face or in her voice) that UTDT is making a unique exception this year. The university will be accepting two instead of only one student into their exchange program.

Huh? What?! Really? Does that mean I am in?
I’m in! I’m still in! I will be going to Buenos Aires after all!! 😀

Obelisk at Plaza de la Republica, on 9 de Julio boulevard, Buenos Aires
Obelisk at Plaza de la Republica, on 9 de Julio boulevard, Buenos Aires

[For the sake of completeness, an FYI if you will, in 2007 UTDT expanded a beautiful and modern new location elsewhere in the neighborhood of Belgrano: the Alcorta Campus.]

 

Have you ever studied abroad? Where did you go?

Would you say the experience has changed your life?
This can anything from a slight shift in thinking patterns to a groundbreaking earthquake and landslide type of epiphany.

Please share your adventures! :)

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