When I was young, the world was small and beautiful. To you, that may sound trite or simplified, and yet for me, that was just the way things were. My life, and everyone I knew in it, fit into neat little boxes that were easily understood.
The funny thing is, I don’t actually remember much about my childhood. Besides the trivial memories in which my small world was temporarily shaken, my brain remains hazy about those years.
Getting angry with my sister Megan, sticking gum in her hair, and then subsequently smearing peanut butter through it to get it out. Being childishly devastated when I learned that my dad was one month younger than my mom. Feeling guilt when I accidentally overfilled the upstairs bathroom sink, causing our kitchen ceiling to partially collapse. These were the small, harmless (and in hindsight rather comical) events that I considered upsetting enough to destabilize my otherwise balanced world.
It’s telling of the way our minds work that I only remember the details from the memories that I labeled in my head as ‘distressing’. It seems to be a trait of human memory that we can remember and emotionally re-experience events that have caused us distress in the past, while the happy memories slide further and further from our grasp. Is that overly cynical? I’m not sure. But in truth, I’ve realized that my childhood was too good, too idyllic, to remember. It’s no wonder my childhood memories are so sparse.
I used to read the newspaper. It’s funny to think about that now, that a young girl who knew so little about the world would sit down and read the paper. I only ever read the front page and the weather sections, since I couldn’t understand what other information a person could possibly need. And yet, some days, the paper never came. Strange, isn’t it? Yet I never questioned it. My world was whole, and easily understood. If the paper didn’t come there was no blame to be assigned, nothing strange to wonder about. It just was. I was not raised to question, you see. That is only something I learned later, something I am still working on learning.
Years later, I learned that much of the world around me during that time had been carefully constructed by my parents, as if they were trying to build up a big enough wall around me so that the evils of the world could never reveal themselves. My mother confided to me that whenever I was told that the paper hadn’t come, my parents had actually hid it away due to some unsavory headline which my eyes were not ready to see and which my brain was not willing to understand. To this day, I’m not sure what stories were judged too inappropriate, which moments in history I missed because the protection of my innocence was deemed more important than the truth.
I remember coming home from school early on September 11th, 2001, an eight year old confused as to why I had to miss my ice cream date with my old kindergarten teacher. “Your parents will explain everything to you when you get home,” Mrs. Carella said to me.
My mom later told me that she hated that fact that she had to tell me what had happened. As a mother of three young children, 9/11 was something to be resented, not just because of the tragedy in itself, but because it had brought the real world crashing into our carefully built paradise. She was mad because she didn’t want us knowing that planes were actually capable of falling out of the sky, of failing. This was an inconvenient truth to which I was never meant to be privy.
You may shake your head incredulously, reading that. That the thought had never before occurred to me that a plane, a glorified piece of hollowed out metal barreling through the sky, could fall. And yet how would I have known that? My world had never before given me reason to think that was possible. Remember: I grew up not knowing how to question.
I’m not entirely sure when my bubble world began to crack. I used to think it was sometime during middle school, when kids began to talk to each other in hushed voices about secret things that they now knew about yet still didn’t understand. Or if not then, at least in high school, after I had come out of my shell and begun to acquire some life experiences of my own.
Yet now, I’m not so sure.
Something about being here, in this city of twelve million people, five thousand miles away from home, tells me that I have been in my bubble all along. You see, my incapacity to remember specific memories is not limited to my childhood. It continues to this day, and sometimes I fear that if I didn’t write anything down, my memory would be blank.
In short, I got lucky. Like the waves gracefully rolling onto the beaches of Maine, life has been gentle with me. Just like the slightly worn look of footprints in the sand that eventually get washed away with the rising tide, life has smoothed out the path for me whenever things have gotten a little bumpy. Do you resent me for having it so easy? For being the one to pull the lucky straw? Sometimes I resent myself, if that’s even possible.
As I was talking to my mom on the phone the other day, she made a confession to me. “I hope you don’t mind, but when people ask me how you’re doing in Argentina I tell them you love it, but that you’re definitely out of your comfort zone.” At first, my mind instantly rejects this idea that I, the well-traveled and composed person that I see myself as, could possibly be out of my comfort zone here. I want to respond to my mother, “But I’ve never told you that, I’ve never said that was how I felt.”
But then, in that second, it clicks. You see, my mother is right, even though I don’t want her to be. I am out of my comfort zone here, out of my element, struggling to figure out where I belong in a city and country that is so different than my own. My whole life I have known my place in the world around me. Even going to college didn’t faze me, because I knew what I wanted to achieve and knew that college was a stepping-stone for me to get there.
However, in Buenos Aires, I don’t fit neatly into the puzzle. I am a foreigner, an outsider, no matter how much I learn about this beautiful country and the people who live inside it. For the first time in my life, I have made it outside the walls of my carefully constructed bubble world.
Coming here has made me realize that although my parents long ago stopped constructing my pretty world around me, I never stepped outside of it. In fact, I took up the reins where they left off, dutifully building walls up around myself that allowed me to feel in control and confident and safe and comfortable. I didn’t understand that before coming here, because I had never known what it felt like to be anything else.
My mother, in all her astuteness, was more right about me than even she knew. Not only am I out of my comfort zone here, but also my Argentine life does not match up to anything in my previous realm of experience. Sure, people are people and cities are cities and at the end of the day we probably aren’t so different, right? That’s certainly what I believed before coming here, and it may well still be true, yet at the same time my life has never been so different.
Being here is for me is a breath of fresh air. Or maybe, better stated, it’s like a cold gust of wind on a fall day that you weren’t expecting. Chilling, at first, and yet it somehow leaves you feeling refreshed. For me, being here means finally confronting all those newspapers that I never got to read, all the truths I never got to know. Being here means realizing that there are some things in life that will never fall into my realm of understanding, and that that’s okay. Being here is being truly uncomfortable for the first time in my life, and being here is real life, unedited and pure.
Even now, though, I resist this understanding of my time abroad. Despite everything, part of me still wants life to fit into my neat little boxes. Part of me still wants to be the girl who believes that I can be comfortable with anything, to believe that life is easily understood and works out how it’s meant to, as if there were a teleological destiny for all of us.
But reality, I’ve learned, is much messier than that. I have been lucky enough to live a life in which I am able to assert that “everything works out in the end.” However, I’ve realized that saying that is like a slap in the face for all those people for whom life hasn’t gone as planned. The world can be an unforgiving place, and it’s definitely not easily understood. This fact holds true whether you’re in Argentina or the USA or Antarctica. It just took me traveling five thousand miles away from my carefully constructed world to figure out what I had been missing all along.
Cheers to finally being uncomfortable, and appreciating every second of it.
In front of la Casa Rosada (Argentina’s White House)
Finally, a big thanks to these people for everything they’ve done: