In a couple of years, I’m going to celebrate an important milestone. I will have spent half of my life in the US.
I was born in Argentina and moved to NY when I was 45 days old. My dad had been transferred and my parents waited for me to be born and to be old enough to travel. A year later we moved to Miami, where we lived until I was 8. At that point my parents decided to move back to Argentina, where both their families lived, mainly because they wanted us to be raised closer to our grandparents and cousins.
By the time I was 31, I was recently divorced, working long hours at a local public relations agency, and the country was undergoing a big economic crisis. My sister Cecilia had moved to Miami with her husband, also Argentinian, a year earlier. Moving to Miami was an easy choice.
The first year was difficult. I missed my country, my parents and my friends.
Not only did I miss the important people in my life, but I also had to get used to the small differences in traditions. Shaking hands instead of kissing. Having my plate taken at a restaurant as soon as I was done, even if other people at the table were still eating. Walking half a block from the entrance of the building to smoke a cigarette. Giving people the right of way when you’re driving (yes, even though Miami is ranked as one of the cities with worse drivers in the US, the traffic is much more organized than in Buenos Aires).
There were also many things I enjoyed of living here. The beach, the weather, my sister and my beloved nephew Benji, the easier access to material things. Overall, however, the first years were not easy.
One evening after going to the movies with a girlfriend, I got lost in thought while I was driving home. I looked up and read a sign that said: Welcome to Miami International Airport. As my Chilean friend Marcela said to me: “It’s easier when your mind and your body live in the same place.” It took my mind longer to get here.
During the first years, every time I traveled back to the US, customs personnel would check my passport and greet me by saying: “Welcome home.” “Thanks,” I said, and felt like adding, “but this isn’t home, this is just where I live.”
In 2003 I met my husband, who is French and does not speak Spanish, and I realized that if this relationship continued, I might never live in Argentina again. It was somewhat of a shock. Although I was not thinking about returning, in the back of my mind it was always a possibility.
A couple of years went by. One day, returning from a business trip, I received the traditional “Welcome home” from the customs employee. “Thanks,” I said, and I thought: “It’s good to be back home.” As I drove to the house I shared with Jean-Marc, I recognized the landmarks of the past years: the building where we lived when our daughter was born, the area where we used to go for drinks after work, the bay where we went boating, the familiar skyline of a city that was slowy but surely becoming mine.
Zoe and I travel to Buenos Aires at least once a year. We count the weeks and days to our trip, and we talk about our adventures in the city months after we’re back. I love taking her to the playgrounds where I played as a child, riding the same merry-go-rounds and walking the neighborhood where I spent part of my childhood and teenage years. Most of all, I love seeing her spend time with her cousins and grandparents. I’m painfully aware that she’s growing up without a day to day relationship with them, and that as wonderful as it is to see them on Skype, there’s nothing like Sundays with the family and sleepovers at your grandparents’.
During my last visits to Buenos Aires, though, I noticed things that used to be too familiar to be noticed. The way cars practically run you over, even if you have the right of way. The empty plate that remains at the restaurant table until everybody else finishes eating. The smell of cigarette smoke in closed environments. The informality of everyday relationships.
Like the day I took my 4 year-old niece Mia to buy bread and saw her eating a piece of chocolate. “I gave it to her,” said the sales woman, “she’s so cute!” “Thanks,” I said, because that’s what people do when little girls ask for chocolate, but for a split second I thought: “Why didn’t you ask me if I wanted to give her chocolate? What if she’s allergic?” My immediate next thought was: “What am I thinking? I’m reacting like an American.”
Another time, Zoe, who was 4 years old at the time, was attending a pre-school in my parents’ neighborhood during the week that I was working from my company’s office in Buenos Aires. She loves her “school in Buenos Aires,” and comes back singing traditional songs. One evening a woman called my parents’ house. She introduced herself as the mother of one of Zoe’s classmates and very kindly invited her to her daughter’s birthday party the following day. “If you call the school and give your consent, I can pick Zoe up tomorrow with the other children and bring them home to spend the afternoon.” They lived across the street from my parents’. I had never met the woman and I didn’t feel comfortable letting Zoe go by herself, but I knew she would love the party so I asked my mom to go.
When I mentioned this to a couple of friends in Buenos Aires, they thought that it was normal to accept the invitation, even without my mom going as a chaperone, but a couple of American friends agreed with me that they would have reacted the same way I did.
There’s no right or wrong, there are simply different ways of interacting and different cultural codes, and today I feel fortunate to understand them both. If home is where the heart is, I know that Argentina will always be home to me, but so will the US.