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  • Daniel Boutilier

Argentina: Connecting Flights

After we had cleared customs, we met with our guides and passed into a massive entrance hall; the vaulted ceilings high above offered our first exposure to the Argentinean sun and, after almost twelve hours of recycled air and fluorescent lighting, it initially felt as if the hall had been left open to the air. Once outside we were greeted with the industrious sounds of traffic, the near-constant whistling of attendants – whose job it was to police the busy flow of cars – sounding every bit like the referees of a particularly spirited football match. Most of us had two large suitcases, looking and smelling the part of beast of burdens after our long trip. I had worn dress clothes thinking that I would save myself from ironing; instead I looked like I had come directly from a custody battle in family court, where I had been smartly denied visitation. Only our overtiredness and undeniable excitement at arriving in Buenos Aires kept us on our variably-swollen feet.

It didn’t take long to realize not learning Spanish was a mistake. We had expected an environment similar to Montreal, where beginner French is greeted with either an understanding smile or roll of the eyes, and then the conversation is immediately switched to English. Instead we began to rely on pointing, smartphone apps, and the timeless ‘smile and nod’ technique. I was able to master a few simple words and phrases without a horrendous accent, which only increased confusion when they began speaking rapid Spanish in response. In an effort to get our point across we often switched seamlessly – and nonsensically – from English to Spanish to French, leaving a small army of confused wait-staff in our wake.

The language barrier heightened the surreal quality of our presence in Buenos Aires, frequently referred to as the ‘Paris of the South.’ We were an anonymous, unexpected feature of the city, and we were free to reinvent ourselves as we saw fit. I’m reminded of a quote from author Chuck Palahniuk: “If you wake up in a different time, in a different place, could you wake up as a different person?”  We weren’t different people by any means, but there was a certain lightness to being in the city – the newness of everything we encountered somehow rubbing off on us.

Divisions between the members of our group began to dissolve in the face of all that we shared in common: language, shared experience, complaints, professional aspirations. North Sydney and Glace Bay have longstanding differences, but appear like identical twins alongside the metropolitan sprawl of Buenos Aires. Traditional and accelerated programs had different assignments, but the same anxieties in the face of licensure exams and job prospects – people that never associated before suddenly had more in common with one another than with the almost three million inhabitants of Buenos Aires.

We travelled to South America, but our true destination was London City. A short, ten minute walk from our hostel and one block from the iconic Plaza de Mayo, we found our go-to restaurant for the trip. It may seem a trivial detail to some, but when you consider that dinner can last up to three hours, it ends up being a significant chunk of your day. Outside a patio area, fenced in with transparent partitions, allows you to enjoy the cooler temperatures of the evening and people-watch along the busy Avenida de Mayo. We soon learned that whenever you began showing signs of defeat in the face of a strong daiquiri or overfilled bread basket, there would be eager hands to sweep it off into the street, surprisingly well-tolerated by a wait staff that, in spite of being excellent at their jobs, often looked like parents waiting up after a broken curfew.

Inside the well-lit room was bordered by dark maple panels halfway up the wall, and the pristine white tablecloths and old-world flooring combined to provide atmosphere University students are far from accustomed to. Waiters in white shirts, vests, and bow-ties take our orders patiently while we attempt to explain the concept or separate bills in broken Spanish. Over hours we rehash the day, the week, the days to come, broken up for the twenty minutes it takes for us to wolf down a meal at 11pm we are accustomed to at six. We eat well. We get to know each other better. In the Paris of the South we eat in London City.

I meet Juan and Jorge in the last room on the right. The window is thrown open and a nice breeze can be felt. This isn’t the first time they’ve shared a room, and they smile while they joke about one another’s incessant babbling and other imaginary insults. We passed several empty rooms on the unit, but they’ve been put together. The beds are not unlike those myself and Jonathan share at the hostel, though the room is quite a bit smaller; the girls can boast more cramped conditions. They are happy for our company, even if they cannot express it to us in a shared language, and they are happy for the company of one another.

Outside the building where I met Juan and Jorge, a short walk across the grounds, is an unassuming statue with Greek lettering; it reads “Nullus dolor est quem non longinquit temporis minuat atque molliat,” another language we know nothing about. It’s a quote from Cicero, a Roman orator, and in English it says “there is no pain that length of time will not diminish and soothe”.  On one of our last days I sneak off to take a picture of it, the only way to include the inscription is to take it against the backdrop of the busy street behind – I take a moment to wonder what it must have looked like when the inscription was first made. Time marches on.

The market was situated on the first floor of an older building, open to the street at both ends, with tables lining either side. A little less than half of the stalls were left unattended, watched by a neighbour while the proprietor carried out some other business. We had been told there was a character there who spoke fluent English, mined his own materials and was eager to demonstrate his metalworking skills. It didn’t take long for us to find him.

His stall had, among other things, a collection of coins fashioned into necklaces or medallions, as well as some more intricate work using the Rhodochrosite – commonly referred to as Inca Rose – which was found in Argentina and only a few other places worldwide. We developed a rapport with the artist but had trouble deciding which piece we’d take home with us. Jonathan, looking through a pile of loose coins the artist had on hand, was able to find a loonie; the artist would accept the commission but pleaded for an advance in order to purchase lunch and Quilmes, a popular Argentinean beer. We laughed, Jonathan passed over the advance, and I purchased an Inca Rose piece that was worth quite a few Quilmes. When we left the store we were in good spirits, Johnny was eager to return that night for his medallion, happy to have purchased something unique that he wouldn’t have been able to find at home – at least not for that price.

When we stopped in on the way to dinner that night, the artist wasn’t at his stall. The looney had been worked on somewhat and haphazardly tied in wire, the man having polished off more Quilmes in lieu of his commission. Eventually Johnny left with an Australian two-dollar coin from the man’s earlier catalogue. It might not have been what he originally wanted – but now he had both a souvenir and a story, and how many pesos is a good story worth anyway?

We find ourselves checking into the Radisson Hotel a short ride from Pearson International.  The rooms are spacious, shower-pressure strong with little chance of scalding, televisions and refrigerators in each room. Those whose hunger wins out over fatigue make their way downstairs for a free sandwich and fries. They’re out of Turkey, sorry, only Ham n’ Cheese; the one thing that will follow us everywhere. Haphazard sleep schedules, confused stomachs, no question of us being able to meet looming deadlines or the ambitious plans some had set out for ourselves. We had fallen out of time.

We land in Sydney 34 hours after we set out from the now-familiar lobby of the Millhouse Hostel. We greet loved ones like soldiers returning from deployment, and before long we are on the road to whatever pizza place, fast food joint, or greasy spoon we couldn’t stop thinking about. We indulge, we sleep in our own bed, the next day we regale family members with stories about the trip, or catch up on whatever favourite program we had missed while we were away. And then…

Our roommates are gone, the privacy we craved begins to feel like empty space – there’s nothing planned for the day. What are you guys thinking for supper – Londo—oh, right, eating in then. We travelled halfway around the world and met a dozen or more new friends, thrown together by circumstance and shared experience, but did we catch the same flight home? I never thought I’d prefer anything other than a single room, but perhaps Juan and Jorge were on to something.

Time, we all know – and nurses especially – is a double-edged sword. It takes from us, instilling grief, but with time that same grief is slowly taken away. It may be that for our group two weeks was not enough to bind us together outside the beautiful, enigmatic city of Buenos Aires. It may be that when you share almost everything in common with everyone else, the small differences are what you come to care about. Still, we privileged what little we had in common with people like Juan and Jorge, the volunteers as well; we magnified similarities over and above the setting out of differences. It may be that two weeks is not enough, time marches on. Perhaps it is enough simply to know that friendship, allies, are only a ways down the road.

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