How to present Scandinavian culture

I just had to share a couple of photos from two different institutes that teach Swedish (and other languages) here in Buenos Aires. I think the first one is kind of annoying; does everything Swedish always have to be promoted by a photo of sexy girls?

suecasThe other place, which I totally recommend, has tasteful photos and nice design. Go ISA! (Instituto Sueco Argentino. Check out their webpage and Facebook page.)

noruego 2Screen Shot 2015-01-25 at 8.54.41 PM


Posted in Buenos Aires, Comunidad noruega, Language, Norsk i Argentina, Noruega en Argentina | Leave a comment

#EstoNoEsNoruega – You’re Not in Norway Anymore

IMG_20150110_193249I don’t have a large following on Twitter but I am trying to make this hashtag trend: #EstoNoEsNoruega, i.e. this is not Norway. I thought it would be fun to point out certain things are very different from Norway! Here’s a couple:

Power cuts are a common occurrence in Buenos Aires in the summer. From what I understand it is mainly due to lack of maintenance and expansion of the network, not so much any lack of electricity production. (Long story short: power, gas etc. are heavily subsidized and the companies are not really able to invest much in infrastructure. New buildings are going up constantly and the grid just can’t keep up.) I recently moved, only four blocks, but I think I am now in an area that is more susceptible to cuts, unfortunately. Thursday we were without power most of the day, and Friday night it was cut around 20:30. And where was I? In the elevator, between floors. Great! The elevator is tiny and old schools, with an outer and inner door, both of which you close yourself. I had no cell phone reception and the little light coming from my phone was not enough to see how I could open the second door. The inner door is easy to open, but the outer one only opens when the elevator stops in the correct spot. I was feeling hot (it has been very hot and humid lately) but not too worried; I had just been to the supermarket and even had a selection of cold drinks handy. But when a few minutes passed and nobody came, I was getting a little nervous.

After five minutes, a neighbor came along, and while she had no idea what to do, she kept me company for another five or ten minutes until a second neighbor came along. He brought a flash light and was able to explain to me how to open the second door from inside. With the door open, I jumped down to the ground floor, about 1.5 meters. Of course, if power had come back right then, it would have been dangerous, but we all knew that the power cuts usually last a looong time so I was not worried. Then I dragged my groceries up six flights of stairs, before heading out to a restaurant a few blocks away to eat dinner, drink something cold and charge my phone. Power came back around 3am, ah! AC is really nice…

A second example of #EstoNoEsNoruega: This weekend I translated at a Norwegian-Argentinean wedding, which was fun. It was cool to see the two families come together, and it was particularly fun to see the reaction of the Norwegians, as the party was quite different (more decorations and probably more fun) than what they are used to. For instance, it was funny to see how they reacted to the priest’s joke! The other thing that made me laugh was when it was time for the Carnaval Carioca. This is a tradition in many Latin American weddings; later in the night, people pass out different dress-up objects, such as masks, hats, mustaches, lights etc. and dance away, often to Brazilian music (hence the name – Rio de Janeiro style Carnaval.) From what I have heard, it became popular at the time when Brazilian music really exploded internationally, but now, people often simply use the dress-up stuff and take silly pictures while they keep dancing “regular” music. Anyway, it was so funny to see the faces of the Norwegians when they were handed masks, mustaches etc. They were all like what?? Clearly, not in Norway anymore! (It actually reminded me a little bit of the reactions people have when they hear about the russetid in Norway – a disbelief and “what in the world is this for??” kind of puzzlement. But I’ll write about that another day!)

Posted in Comunidad noruega, Norsk i Argentina, Noruega en Argentina, Norway in Argentina, Work | 8 Comments


Posted in Buenos Aires | 2 Comments

The Typical Mistake – Radio Palermo

la fotoHappy new year! Feliz año! Today I had the pleasure of participating in an English-language radio show here in Buenos Aires, The Typical Mistake. The show was about being a polyglot, i.e. multi-lingual, and it was super fun! Thanks to the wonderful hosts, Esteban and Guillermo, we had a great time and I also enjoyed meeting the other guests.

Check out their webpage and their FB-page. The program will be available online soon, under the Archives section. Gracias a todos los que escucharon!!

Posted in Buenos Aires, Norsk i Argentina, Noruega en Argentina, Norway in Argentina, Personal, Travel | Leave a comment

Driving While White (in Argentina)

This is long and serious – not my usual practical tips or snapshots of horses – but that is the beauty of a blog; if I want to say something, I can post it here. I originally wrote this back in January, after some discussion in the Norwegian media about every day racism. I never posted it on my blog, but now, after what has happened in Ferguson, I feel that I want to share this. Long story short: White people, whether European or American, why don’t we stop being so ignorant about racism? Let’s try to educate ourselves and validate other people’s experiences. That’s all!

I am writing this in English, because I don’t have that many readers and I want all of them to understand, but it is really a comment to a debate that took place in Norway a month or so ago. [And now, almost a year later, on the no indictment of Darren Wilson.] I think it started with a discussion on whether Sweden or Norway were more racist, and then with a commentary article in one of Norway’s paper saying that Norway really isn’t that racist. Immigrants in Norway, or people with an immigrant family background, then started tweeting using the hashtag #hverdagsrasisme (every day racism) to show that well, there is actually racism in Norway. (@somalieren the first to start this I believe and came with some excellent examples.) I was fascinated by the fact that people would even argue that there is little or no racism in Norway, so I followed the debate with great interest. After having lived in the US, I feel that I have at least some experience in talking about racism and in many ways, the Scandinavian countries are quite new to issues of race and racism, so the debate can seem pretty behind.

The debate made me think of a few things that I think some white people in Norway don’t consider, and it also made me reflect on my own situation as an immigrant or visitor in Argentina. (Immigrant, guest worker, expat – I am not sure what to call myself, as I am not a typical expat in any way, but I also have a much more sheltered and privileged life than someone from another Latin American country who comes to work here.)

Here are a few things my fellow white Norwegians need to think about:

Racism exists. Almost everywhere. In the US, African Americans still experience racism (the title of this posts comes from the expression “Driving while black”, which refers to the fact that black men are many, many times more likely to be stopped by the police while driving.) In Argentina, Bolivians, Paraguayans and Argentines of indigenous background are still discriminated against. Once I went to a big box store and asked if a membership was needed or if it was open to the public. The security guard told me that anyone could enter – Bolivians, Peruvians, Paraguayans, they all come here, he added with a disgusted look on his face. In Norway, people with foreign-sounding names are routinely excluded from job interviews and rental viewings. So, well, racism exists. We can’t pretend it doesn’t, either by a liberal “everyone has the same chance as long as they work hard”, or the more leftist “I am colorblind” attitude. Studies show that even small children notice race and can react negatively to people of a different race, even with no real input, so it makes no sense to pretend it doesn’t exist. What makes sense, is to educate ourselves and our children about race from an early age, to show that yes, we are different, but we are all just as important and as much worth. Trying to shush little kids who point out that someone has a different skin color or hair texture or eye shape does no good, it only makes them ashamed and confused. (For more reading on this, I recommend the blog Rage Against the Minivan, who writes eloquently about children and race. Her recent post about the decision not to charge Darren Wilson is a great starting point: A short excerpt: “If the anger around the decision made yesterday is confusing to you, it’s time to listen. It’s time to research. It’s time to pull your head out of the sand and face the cold, hard facts about racial bias and police brutality. No one is saying that all police are racists. In fact, it’s quite possible that many of the cops who have slain black boys weren’t themselves racists by the general definition of the word. But they were living in the context of systemic racism . . . in a country that socializes us to be afraid of black men. Whether we like it or not, society conditions our impulses. We can try to counteract the systemic racism we’re living in, and many of us do, but research indicates that racial bias infiltrates our first response, before logic takes over.”

Reverse racism is not a thing. I do not use the expression “reverse racism.” From lots of reading and discussion on the topic, I believe that racism is a system of oppression and discrimination based on skin color and/or race, and that it is directed from white or whiter people towards people with darker skin. This might sound simplistic, but in most of history, that is true. Yes, there are examples of lighter-skinned people being discriminated against, but on the aggregate, the other way around is true. A very good example of this is that almost all over the world, white features, such as straight or wavy (not curly) hair, blue eyes and white skin are seen as “good” or desirable. In Asia, plastic surgery to get whiter features is big business, and for centuries, tight curly African hair has been seen as bad. This does not mean that white people cannot experience discrimination; for instance, in Oslo there are many examples of white kids feeling discriminated against for their religion, or for not wearing hijab, by Muslim kids in school. This is bad, of course, but I would call it discrimination or bullying, not reverse racism.

Mixing discussions on immigration and race can often confuse the topic at hand. In Norway, these two invariably get mixed up, and it takes something away from the discussion. Personally, I am skeptical to the large-scale immigration we see in Norway, because I don’t think our system can handle it. We either have to change the system, scaling back on the many social benefits we have, or scale back on the immigration. I don’t think it is OK that Polish workers in Norway can collect children’s benefits after just a short stint in Norway, and take it back to Poland indefinitely. I don’t think it is OK that certain immigrant groups have very low workforce participation. But that doesn’t mean that I feel that Poles or Somalis are less worth than Norwegians. I recognize that I can have racism latent in me, and recognizing this helps me confront it and try to move away from it.

White privilege is real. In the US, I felt this concept was at least somewhat well known. The actual expression comes from Peggy McIntosh’s excellent essay, which everybody should read, and refers to the fact that as white people, we don’t even notice our own race or our privileges, because to us, white is the default. We have the privilege to not think about race, because we are seen, and see ourselves, as the norm. Often we ignore other people’s experiences because we cannot imagine that they can be true – “you don’t really get followed around in a store, do you?”, we might say, because our default experience is NOT being followed around. McIntosh explains very well the importance of being aware of this privilege, and also what life in America is like for those who don’t possess this privilege. It is easy for white people to say that there is no racism when they don’t experience it! It is also easy to forget that we benefit from a lot of privileges in our public and private lives. The brilliant essay states: “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”

The majority or privileged group should not get to set the agenda or decide what is OK. This is a personal pet peeve of mine, and something I feel I hear a lot more in Norway or Argentina than in the US. To me, if a member of another group says that such and such word should not be used, I respect that. If an African youth group in Norway explains why “neger” is not a great word to use, I take their lead. What drives me crazy is when white people say things like “But I don’t mean anything bad with it!” or “I know one person who doesn’t mind it” or “Political correctness has gone too far.” WTF?? My life does not get any poorer by not using those words. I do not feel that my freedom of speech is restricted because I am asked to not use terms that someone finds offensive. It is my responsibility, as a member of the majority or the privileged group (they are not always the same!) to listen to others and respect what they say. (This also applies to people with disabilities – I try to follow the consensus of the group in question. What I feel about the word shouldn’t matter. I know very well that most Deaf people prefer the word Deaf, so I use that, never “hearing impaired”. Blind people on the other hand have more of a diverse use of words, some prefer blind, others visually impaired, others low vision. Fine with me!) So when people of color in Norway say that they experience racism, I believe them.

Driving While White in Argentina: And now, to the title of my post. For over two years now, I have been la noruega en Argentina; the Norwegian in Argentina. I experienced plenty of white privilege in the US, I’ll give you just two examples: In the whole time I lived in the US, I never had to do a credit check for an apartment. Working at the IDB, it seemed that every one of my Latino colleagues had to do it whenever they were looking at an apartment. Secondly, I am the only person I know who got a DC driver’s license for ten years when my visa and contract were only valid for another six months. (According to DC rules, the driver’s license can never be valid longer than one’s G4 visa.) I had friends on three-month contracts that had to renew their licenses every three months. What a pain!

Here in Argentina, I feel that I am a prime example of someone from a minority but privileged group. This ties in with what Peggy McIntosh says: “As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something that puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.” So this is why I think it is important that I point out some of these advantages.

I constantly get the benefit of the doubt, and sometimes my friends and colleagues are very surprised at what I am allowed. I seem to get credit whenever we shop places after just a few times. Our chef has been purchasing meats and sausages at the same place for three different estancias for maybe six years, but was never allowed to shop on credit until the worked with me. Now, they wave him out of the store with thousands of pesos worth of meat. In some places, they offer me credit even when I have the cash with me. I am allowed to take products and test them and then return them. If they don’t have change, they tell me to pay the remainder next time, rather than the other way around – that they will owe me the change. And when you ask Argentines, they say that nobody trusts each other and that everyone is skeptical or everyone else.

But the biggest white privilege moment (or white Nordic foreigner privilege moment) happened a few weeks ago while driving in Buenos Aires. I am legally allowed to drive the car, since I have the cedula azul, a card that designates who, other than the owner, is allowed to drive it and insured to do so. I drive with my US license and my Norwegian passport, although I should have gotten an Argentine one by now. Anyway, I was not driving, the chef was, as we were going to Makro in San Justo and I really don’t like driving in that part of town. Shortly before arriving, we were pulled aside by the gendarmeria. I have been stopped by other kinds of police before, once without a license, but talked myself out of it; another time driving the big truck that I am not designated to drive – I had to pay a bribe to get out of that one. But the gendarmeria are considered to be a very serious police force, you can’t bribe them, and they will take you to jail, as our chef pointed out to me when we were pulled over.

They were serious and asked for our documents. The chef didn’t even have his license with him, and he was driving! I then explained that he was driving because I had a bad cold and a fever (which I did, although it was not the reason I was not driving.) I handed over my license, my passport (in which it is blatantly obvious that I have been in the country well over my allotted three months) and my cedula azul. They took the documents and went away for what seemed like an eternity. The chef was literally prepping me on what to do if we were taken to jail, he was that sure that we would not get out of this one. When they came back, they asked me if I needed a doctor, and told the chef to get his license in order. We then sat there looking at each other and the chef said he had never experienced anything like this. We had talked about white privilege before and I think this is the star example…

So what is the point of all of this? To show that white privilege exists, that racism exist, and that as members of the privileged group, people like myself need to be open to listen to the experiences of people of color or other non-privileged groups, because otherwise, we seem like a bunch of idiots with no compassion or understanding of other people’s experiences. Let’s recognize that racism is real and that unless we talk about it, it won’t get better. What black people in the US are experiencing is very, very real, and when whites negate these experiences, it is both very sad and extremely ignorant. As a white European immigrant, I should recognize that I have privileges and benefits that other immigrants don’t have, and try to speak up for those who are discriminated against.

Posted in Personal, Politics | 19 Comments

The Absence of Trust

When I was in university, I took a few classes in Italian history and loved every single one. Some of the books I read then I still come back to, and of one of them is Edward Banfield’s seminal work on southern Italy: “The Moral Basis of a Backward Society”. His work is heavily referenced in Robert Putnam’s books “Making Democracy Work” and “Bowling Alone”. Putnam talks a lot about social capital, defined like this by Wikipedia:

In sociology, social capital is the expected collective or economic benefits derived from the preferential treatment and cooperation between individuals and groups.

Banfield himself didn’t use the term social capital, he wrote about trust instead, but the concept is the same: when there is trust between people in a society, it encourages transactions and investments in the future. You might lend me a tool, because you trust that I will give it back, and that allows me to build a house, for instance. I might employ someone from outside my family, because I generally trust that people will do a good job. Trust breeds trust – one trusting action leads to another. (I am paraphrasing heavily since I haven’t read the book in ten years, but this is the general gist.) People will associate with others and start self-organizing.

Front CoverIn southern Italy, Banfield points out, this trust is almost non-existing. People only trust those in their inner circle, usually the family or the clan. This means that it is difficult to set up organizations or start improvement projects for the community, because nobody believes that other people will have good intentions and are just doing it for the greater good. Banfield shows how, for historical reasons, southern Italy has developed this lack of trust almost to an extreme. While his book was written in 1956, unfortunately a lot of this still rings through, and southern Italy is still way behind the north on all economic and social indicators. And on a very prosaic level, many southern Italians will only go to the butcher de fiducia, the one they trust.

So what does this have to do with my blog, and with Argentina? Well, I believe that one of the things that the Italian immigrants brought to Argentina was exactly this lack of trust. (I am of course simplifying here – there are many other reasons to why people in Argentina are reluctant to trust others.) I am time and again struck by the lack of trust that people in Buenos Aires have towards each other. (And, the corollary to this: the almost overabundance of trust that they have towards me – this idea that as a foreigner and a northern European I am different and trustworthy.) It’s weird, because at the same time I see actions of solidarity and giving a helping hand – someone paying for another passenger’s bus fare, or helping someone carry a heavy load. But when it comes to any kind of transaction, the lack of trust is very obvious. Here are a few examples:

– As I wrote about in my post on housing for foreigners, the long-term rental contracts are quite complicated. For instance, they require a garantía: a guarantee granted by a friend, family member (preferably) or employer who has to be a property owner, and who promises to pay rent if the renter does not pay, and to intervene if the renter does not vacate the premises when he or she has to. The contracts themselves tend to be very detailed, and from what I hear, it is very common not to get the security deposit back. Some renters solve this by simply not paying the last month’s rent. I think this is the perfect example of how lack of trust breeds more lack of trust – I don’t trust that you will uphold your end of the deal, so I act on this assumption and withhold the money. In general, it seems to me that the relationship between landlord and renter has a lot more animosity than other places I have lived. (Luckily, I have a great relationship with my landlady!)

– Something very small, but that I still think has roots in the same cultural heritage: dinners, outings with friends, or meetings are confirmed and reconfirmed several times – it is like people don’t believe that you will show up unless it is reconfirmed over and over again. Weird!

– A general idea that any grouping, whether it is a political party of a building owners’ association, does not have the best interest of the collective in mind. This of course is tied in closely with the long history of populism in the country, but I also think it is linked to the lack of trust.

– Work contracts: Labor law in Argentina is complicated, and I see a real Catch 22 here: The unions are very strong, and can create a lot of problems for employers. Of course there are historical reasons for this, with worker exploitation etc., but now it means that employers often are reluctant to put people in the white, because if they want to fire them, it is very difficult, and employers often end up paying large sums to people they fire, either because they are mandated to do so by the convenio, or because the worker sues their employer. One scenario that happens often is this: an employer pays a worker in the black for two months, and then hires her officially. After nine months, the employer is no longer happy with the worker, and decides to fire her. The worker then goes to the union, who helps her sue the employer for having had her work in the black. So there is just so much lack of trust here – the strong laws and the strong unions are in place because there is and was exploitation of workers. But because nobody trusts that the other party has their best interest in mind, they are trigger happy when it comes to suing and taking advantage of the laws. Employers therefore constantly mistrusts their workers. Agh!!! (The solution, to me, would be a flexible system of short-term or trial contracts, so that the employer could hire them on trial for two or three months, with no repercussions if the contract is not extended after the trial. It could also help close the gap between the privileged workers in the strongest unions, and the really bad conditions of many of those who work in the black and are not unionized.)

It is quite obvious that all these examples create obstacles for people in many parts of their lives, and I really wish it wasn’t so. I find Argentineans to be creative and open-minded, and I wish that so much of that wasn’t stifled by lack of trust and difficult laws. But at the same time, I don’t really see how it could change. These societal patterns are difficult to change, unfortunately. Most Argentineans celebrate their Italian roots, but this is one area where old structures should have stayed back in the old country.

(Speaking of southern Italy, I have to mention maybe my favorite book about the region: Carlo Levi’s “Christ Stopped at Eboli.” Read it!!)

Posted in Books, Daily life, Politics, Work | 5 Comments

Abierto Argentino de Polo 2014 – The Argentine Open

The world’s best polo tournament is well underway, and I enjoyed the first two weekends of games (there are games both Saturdays and Sundays, but I have just been going Sundays.) This weekend it will be decided who goes to the final on December 6, should be exciting! I love going to the polo grounds in Palermo, it is such a beautiful oasis in the middle of the city. It’s also very nice to see friends and just hang out after the games. Also, it has been great to introduce non-polo friends to this beautiful game. Unfortunately my pictures are crap so I am sharing one from Nacho Corbalán, of the Alegría polo team. Hope they beat Ellerstina! In the high-goal tournaments, it always seems to come down to Ellerstina and La Dolfina. Since 2007, they have won the title every other year each. However, last year Ellerstina was not in the final; they lost to Alegría in the semis and shook things up a little bit. I would love to see a similar final this year!

Posted in Campo, Polo | Leave a comment