The football enthusiast would instantly shout out Maradona and Messi. The movie lover would point to Evita. The wine specialist would endorse the Mendoza wine. What would you associate Argentina with?
Argentina may not be as popular a destination for UK students studying Spanish as Spain, but it was where British student Selina Yasmin headed to last July. She talks about studying in Buenos Aires for a semester, the night life, the people and travelling around Argentina. But although she was excited to be there, her experience was not all rosy.
Selina, who is completing a French and Spanish degree at Queen Mary, University of London, spent the first part of her compulsory year abroad in Argentina. She enrolled for the second semester at the University of Belgrano in Buenos Aires in July last year. Asked why she chose Argentina, Selina says that "it seemed quite different". She had previously travelled through South America, but had never been to the birthplace of the tango.
Selina arranged her semester on her own and it all happened very quickly for her. "By the time I had my UK exam results I was leaving the next month." The academic year in Argentina runs from March to December. Selina arrived there for the second semester, from July to November. She had to sit exams in November. Selina paid $1,600 (£990) for the whole semester which required her to take four modules. "Everything is done in dollars there, not pesos," explains Selina.
The 27-year-old applied for a tourist visa free of charge, instead of a student one, because she only had a month before boarding the plane for Argentina. The Argentinean Embassy in London would have taken two months to issue her a student visas. Once in Buenos Aires, Selina applied for a student visa, for which you need a criminal check, she explains. "They check if you've committed crimes in Argentina, which was funny because you could have committed crimes elsewhere, but they were just interested in Argentina." The criminal record check cost her 40 Argentine pesos (£6), while her student visa amounted to 300 pesos (£45). "It was a lot cheaper doing it there than doing it in Britain," which would have cost around £100. Selina describes her student visa as "very basic". She says: "I was only given an A4 piece of paper and they said, 'just keep it on you' - no stamp in the passport like they give international students entering the UK."
Selina, who is also a make-up artist, lived in Central Buenos Aires, only five minutes' walk from her university. It was not halls of residence, but a flat run by the University of Belgrano, which placed her with other international students. This was not to Selina's liking. She thought she would be with Argentineans; instead she was "stuck with Americans" and so did not get the chance to practise her Spanish at home. "You don't know who you're going to be living with," because the Argentinean university does not give any information, says Selina. "I wish I had requested to be with a host Argentinean family."
What also partly marred her experience in Argentina was the fact Selina had to pay for her accommodation before she even got there. It cost her $1,800 (£1,110) for five months. "I was a bit suspicious," she says, "If I gave my money to a dodgy landlord, I've got no protection." Selina wishes she had more support from her home university in London with getting ready for Argentina.
Another disappointment was Selina's academic experience. She says she did not enjoy Argentina properly, as she had to both study for her exams there and do work for her university back in London. "I could have been doing so much more instead of being bogged down with work." Selina also did not have the chance to mix with the native students. "My whole class was American, with the exception of two French students." She never had lessons with Argentineans. What Selina found even more frustrating was that two months in, the university told her she could have taken classes with Argentineans - but it was too late for that. "I didn't get a feel for the true Argentina." That is why she says she would not recommend the University of Belgrano.
However, this situation did not discourage her. Selina was in Argentina to improve her Spanish, so she took the initiative to find other ways to mix with the natives. She had a Spanish lecturer who taught her about Argentinean customs, the gauchos, etc. Selina also joined the local mosque, the biggest in Latin America, where she celebrated Ramadan. Meeting native Argentineans helped her considerably, she says.
When Selina arrived in Argentina in July, it did not look like summer at all. She had forgotten about the Southern Hemisphere and that the weather was the other way round. "I thought it would be like our spring." She soon realised that was not the case. "Some days it'd be thunder storming and pouring down with rain, and at other times it would be bitterly windy and cold." Spring came towards the end of September, when it started getting warmer, humid and then hot, prompting the mostuiqos to come out.
Life in Buenos Aires
As she set foot in Buenos Aires, Selina had the impression she was in Europe. "The architecture and the style of buildings reminded me so much of Europe, of Madrid and Barcelona," she says. "I loved the fact that public transport was so cheap compared to London - only 16p for a single tube ticket." Despite the low travel fares, it inconveniently stops at 10pm, says Selina.
As for the Argentineans, Selina describes them as "really friendly". But her praise stops there. "The queues are horrendous everywhere," she says, "the supermarket, the bank, the post office." Argentineans are known to take their time, Selina adds. She draws this comparison with England: "When it's lunchtime, you're in a rush to get your lunch; you've got your hour break. Everyone understands that in London and in big towns. But in Argentina, in Buenos Aires, they don't understand that concept. When you need to go because you have a class, it doesn't mean anything to them."
Selina also noticed that Argentina, particularly Buenos Aires, is a very lustful culture. "People aren't afraid to show public displays of affection. They are very open." To her amazement, she found out that "if someone finds you attractive, he will come up to you, even if it's obvious you're on your way to university". Selina continues: "You wouldn't get people saying that to you in England. It was surprising because they are a lot more upfront, compared to English people who are so reserved. We're also a lot more conservative."
This open behaviour did not affect Selina. What she found odd was Argentina's drinking patterns. "In England we've got a very big drinking culture and I was used to that. But in Argentina it was more." Selina was not used to seeing "people drinking till 5, 6, 7 o'clock in the morning and then going straight to work." She adds: "It would have been understandable if they were teenagers going through that phase. But these were people in their late 20s and mid-30s."
Dinner time in Argentina is between 10pm and 1am, says Selina. Most restaurants will be closed between 5pm and 9pm, as they open very late. People start going to bars and clubs at around 2am. "I was used to going out at 8-9pm, coming back at 2am," exclaims Selina. "It was so hard. I did it a couple of times, and then I thought, 'No, I can't do this'."
Despite the late nights out in Buenos Aires Selina could not get used to, the only thing she missed about Britain was Indian food. Selina, who is of Bengali origin, says in Argentina "spicy food does not exist". She found it extremely hard to get hold of green chillies in the supermarket. "Luckily, I'd taken over pickles and chillies from home in my suitcase. I had a feeling it might not be to their liking." What Argentineans are most keen on is meat - steak and chicken - something Selina was forced to live on as it was cheap. "Seafood was very expensive," she recalls, "A can of tuna cost between £1.50 and £2, whereas I could buy three pieces of meat in Argentina for that amount.
Although her workload did not give her much free time, Selina was able to explore some parts of Argentina. She gives away her passion for the country when she starts talking excitedly about going to Mendoza (Argentina's primary wine producing region), where she did wine tasting, visiting San Ignacio and delighting in the Iguazu Falls in Brazil. The Iguazu Falls, which is one of the natural wonders of the world and sits between Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil, was the highlight of Selina's three-day trip, which cost her $300 (£186). "Travelling is expensive in South America," says Selina. But she was so impressed with Argentina she wants to go back in a couple of years and travel. She wants to visit El Calafate, one of the world's southernmost towns.
Selina, who is currently doing a semester in Granada, Spain, wholeheartedly recommends going to Argentina. But anyone who is thinking of studying there should carefully prepare well in advance to avoid disappointments similar to Selina's. The University of Buenos Aires is the highest placed university in Argentina.
Photos by Selina Yasmin
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