“This is real, so take a chance and don’t ever look back. … Let’s go all the way tonight. No regrets, just love.” ~Katy Perry
I arrived at Atlanta’s airport without incident. My friend had been right – the air reeked of fried chicken. They also keep their floors nice and waxed. I almost wiped out within minutes of exiting the plane, as my drug-free boots continued to forsake me.
After riding a subway to get to my next gate – how big was this airport? – I sat down to get some work done. As the initially empty waiting area filled around me as the three hours until the flight elapsed, I had my first encounter with Buenos Aires.
First, an older woman started speaking to me in Spanish. No time to be shy and remembering my goal for the trip, yo respondí en español. It came out better than I’d anticipated. I even remembered to pronounce “yo” with the “j/sh” sound they use in Argentina instead.
But my self-satisfaction quickly shattered as I started to understand what several friends had meant in their warnings about the differences in the way Argentines speak Spanish. I could only pick up bits and pieces of what the woman said, but I did glean that she was also flying standby – probably because she used the English word “standby.” We entered the waiting game together.
As more Argentine women wandered into the waiting area, two trends stood out. They all wear colorful sneakers and have really long hair – even the moms.
For the fourth time that day, I cursed my boots. I’d been dying for a pair in Spain and they’d served me well at home, but now it seemed unclear whether they’d translate to Argentina. I hung my head and resigned myself to looking like a tourist. What else did I expect? I can’t even keep up with fashion in my own country, let alone worldwide.
But then I reconsidered, as I recalled how my grandma and dad had once told me that I didn’t dress femininely enough. I had been only mildly offended since the comments were coming from a pair who thought dressing up meant wearing socks with open-toe wedges and a Canadian tuxedo.
But maybe now my apparent lack of femininity would work out for me, as Jess had informed me that the uniform for girls in Buenos Aires, “porteñas,” was skinny jeans and converses. Maybe, just maybe, Buenos Aires would be just my style.
But the hair part devastated me. I had cut mine off just days earlier.
I had absolutely loved my long hair, but by U.S. standards it was dead and flat. I apologized to the hairdresser as she cringed while she brushed it, and multiple people commented after I got it cut how “healthy” it looked.
But now I was headed for a place where split ends were in. What could’ve been my passport to passing for a porteña was now gone and would continually haunt me until it grew back.
As boarding time drew near, my new Argentine abuela and I exchanged nervous glances as, once again, people packed the waiting area, reducing our chances of getting on the day’s lone flight to Buenos Aires. Who were all these people flying to Argentina on a Monday night? She winked at me from behind her glasses, though, which made me feel better.
As herds of people boarded zone after zone – did the plane have a subway too? – I eyed a row of payphones to my right and pictured myself calling home to my mom to tell her I didn’t get on the flight and would be spending the night in a KFC.
I was just starting to recall the survival strategy for sleeping in an airport that I’d developed a few years back in Rome:
1. Office chairs from behind the gate desks are the first to go, so be prepared to race and fight people off for them.
2. When it comes to the warmest bedding: Carpet > conveyor belts > tile floors.
3. Late at night, the maintenance staff lines the garbage cans with fresh trash bags, which add insulation.
4. Pizza boxes double as dinner and a pillow.
I was just about to tweet @katyperry to see if she had any room aboard her private jet when the debonair man manning the gate desk started calling standby passengers forward. He read the last name on the list:
I’d never been so happy to hear my name mispronounced in my life.
With the next level of my travel video game in sight, I used all of my Mario mushrooms to race to the desk and snatch my boarding pass. I checked my seat number – “Prem D1.” I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I had a sneaking suspicion …
As my suspicion proved true, I felt like Kevin McAllister in the first “Home Alone” when he wakes up to realize that his wish had made his family disappear. I had done it. My optimism had not only secured me a seat on the flight to Buenos Aires, but it had also landed me in the business elite section. That or my aunt who’s a flight attendant.
As I boarded the plane, I surveyed the passengers packed like sardines in coach before letting my eyes slowly devour the palatial business elite section where I’d magically acquired a seat. I fast-forwarded to “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.” Christmas bells started ringing in my head as I slowly walked up the aisle and found my seat in the Plaza Hotel of airplanes.
Not only did I have a window seat – I’m like a puppy dog on planes and glue my face to the window during takeoff and landing, the sights and speed of which are among my favorite feelings in the world – but I had my own private window unit area with no one around me. Amenities included: a massive seat with a massage setting, a consul with a mini table inside, my own TV, noise-blocking headphones, a thick blanket, a full-sized pillow and a toiletry kit housing all of the essentials – even socks.
And then came the best part of all. When I set my carry-on down at my feet, the flight attendant recommended I store it in the overhead. I was leaning against it because I wanted to celebrate having so much foot room that I didn’t even need the overhead. But then she told me the floor space needed to be open, since when I wanted to go to sleep, my seat would slide 180 degrees into a bed.
Bed > seat > carpet > conveyor belt > tile floor. I immediately threw everything into the overhead. I almost jumped in too I was so excited.
But a quick survey of my fellow passengers muted my excitement. I was one of only four women and the youngest by far. The section was like a microcosm of the world – taken over by white, middle-aged men. Their sexism and ageism nearly burned holes in my youthful and well-moisturized skin as they eyed me with disdain, as if my entrance into their world discredited the souls they had all traded in to get there. I’d need all the blow-up clowns I could find to fend them off.
I tried to channel the smoothest imposters I had seen in movies to act as if I flew business elite all the time. Having already plugged my Talkboy into the USB port the instant I sat down and with my “Cool Jerk” cassette ready to go, I had Macaulay Culkin down. I tacked on Matthew Broderick from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and Leonardo DiCaprio in both the first-class dinner scene of “Titanic” and the entirety of “Catch Me If You Can.” Today’s New York Times? Don’t mind if I do. Steaming hot towels? No idea which body part these are for, but I’ll take two.
I had to sneak a glance at the businessman across the aisle to figure out they’re for your hands. I also couldn’t get the little table out of the consul, so the flight attendant had to help me. I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the overhead light, so I pretended I preferred reading The Times in the dark. And I still can’t figure out why they were serving champagne OR orange juice at 8 p.m. The only time I’d seen this pair was for mimosas, but no one else seemed to be mixing them together.
As my insecurity mounted, I canceled my speech about flying on the grandest ship in the world and called off my dance number through the aisles to “Twist and Shout.” Although, in retrospect, I think the old boys club could’ve used some loosening up.
Regardless, I was about to. A flight attendant handed me the night’s menu – a four-course dinner planned by Michelle Bernstein, a guest judge on “Top Chef,” one of my favorite TV shows. I’d always wanted to eat a meal prepared by someone on the show, but I had no idea it’d happen so soon – or at 3,000 feet in the air.
I luxuriously perused the night’s wine offerings with my chair massage on. Finally, a place where I could order wine, my drink of choice, without being mocked for being “classy” or asked how the view was from my ivy tower. I could get used to this. I recalled how I was supposed to be in an alcohol time-out, but this was a special occasion.
To think that all day I’d have been lucky just to sneak into that overhead compartment. If only Bulent could see me now.
Sadly, the meal turned out to be standard airplane fare, with the menu much more appetizing than the food itself. But dessert catapulted me back to “Home Alone 2,” the scene when the room service waiter asks Kevin if two scoops of ice cream will suffice.
“Two? Make it three. I’m not driving.”
Tucked into my cozy little bed with a hot fudge sundae, I felt like a 10-year-old blond boy. Only instead of “Angels With Dirty Souls,” I was watching “Bridesmaids” – perfect timing for its OnDemand release.
The “Hold On” scene at the end of the movie felt particularly appropriate.
“No one can change your life except for you.” ~Wilson Phillips
Overly excited about the floss in my new toiletry kit, I went to the bathroom afterward to brush my teeth for bed. En route, I peeked behind the curtain and was appalled at the conditions in coach. Passengers were sleeping upright with the lights on, and I think a few of them were even shackled together. I couldn’t see my Argentine abuela, but I hoped she’d made it aboard OK.
I crawled back into bed, slipped my sleep mask on and didn’t wake up until breakfast was being served the next morning. The omelet was practically inedible, but it didn’t matter. Lifting the window shade, I was satiated as my eyes devoured the green fields below and drank in the morning sun rising on my new life. I could even hear birds chirping, courtesy of the relaxing spa sounds under the TV’s musical offerings.
But as we neared our final destination, I switched to a haunting CD that one of my best friends Cara had dropped off in my mailbox back in April. It was the morning after I ended my first long-term relationship, which is significant because this eventually pushed me to finally pull the trigger in chasing my travel dreams.
Having never called him more than twice in a row – drunk dials aside – or going to his house without an invitation for nearly two years, I had snapped, called him 36 times and made Cara stay on the phone with me while I broke into his house like a psychopath. Now I know why boys think girls are crazy.
But I’d also argue that we’re driven to it. And I couldn’t continue for another minute a relationship in which two fantastic and – normally – normal people who still care about each other a lot were driving each other, rather noticeably, insane. Nothing was really wrong, yet it wasn’t all right. I just needed it to be over and to say goodbye.
Since prior to that I’d put my relationship with my dad on hold because we apparently had different definitions when it came to gender-based violence, in one month I’d lost two people I used to talk to every day.
Alarmed at my mental state after the break-in and break-up, Cara brought in the big guns the following morning – Adele. For weeks, I lived between tracks 1 and 11. Grateful to be working from a home office in Phil-Adele-phia, I’d start off strong singing (screaming) “Rolling in the Deep” before bawling to “Someone Like You.” I was beginning to seriously doubt my decision to end it, although I was feeling better than ever about my karaoke skills.
So as I pressed play on this day, six months later, I could barely believe I was listening to “21,” not only without having an emotional breakdown, but also about to land in South America – confident, composed, clear. I could feel my heart swelling in gratitude, and I teared up ever so slightly as I marveled at the profound growth leading up to this moment. I silently thanked all the people who had helped me get there. My guru especially would’ve been proud (point for Team Peter).
With this sentimental moment aside, excitement electrified my insides. I had made it to Buenos Aires in time for the Katy Perry concert. Taking advantage of my final business elite perk – not having to turn off your music during landing because it plays through the TV – I turned on “Teenage Dream” before pulling up to the gate to “California Gurls” – coincidentally the same songs she would open and close with that night.
“Was 10.5 hours over already?” I asked a flight attendant, before tipping her in gum. “I could’ve spent days in this baby.”
Inside the airport, I paid my entry fee – only applicable to people from countries that charge them to enter, thanks U.S. – cleared immigration, collected my bags and headed toward customs. As I scanned the sign of illegal items while waiting for my luggage to be X-rayed, I thanked God I’d decided last minute to leave those vials of semen at home.
After a 45-minute drive from the airport, which came with fantastic Spanish practice with a gem of a driver named Juan – best money I’ve ever spent on a cab – we pulled up to my new home. But as I dragged my five bags to the tall, beautiful wrought-iron front doors of the building, I realized l had no idea what apartment number I was and, therefore, no idea which button to press to get buzzed inside. After the time I left for Oktoberfest in Germany without any idea of the name of my hostel or its location in relation to the train station, I had just been proud to have remembered to write down my new departamento’s address.
I debated whether to try my luck pressing all 40 buttons or cart my luggage to the nearest café until my friends returned from Spanish class. But that wouldn’t be for hours. Calling to mind Juan’s one warning about being alert at all times, I wondered whether it’d be more likely for me to get mugged or trafficked.
Then, four miracles occurred. Old Man Marley exited the building, and I dove to catch the door. John Candy entered and carried my luggage up the stairs, and the Pigeon Lady knew which apartment belonged to the woman I was renting from.
Second observation about Buenos Aires: Everyone was a lot friendlier than they had been in Spain, namely the sociology profesora who used to make fun of my name. I also didn’t have the phone number to let the girl in charge of our apartment know when I’d be arriving. Enter miracle No. 4: The final girl living in the apartment happened to be home to unlock the door.
I thanked God in every religion I could think of, dumped my bags, unclicked my money belt and surveyed our new apartment. It used to double as the owner’s art studio and looks like a mini museum meets a quaint park. Everything has character: from the towering, white wooden doors that open up into the high-ceilinged bedrooms, to the tall metal doors with teal glass circles under their windowless frames that grace the marble steps up to the kitchen, where a streetlamp sits under wall-to-wall panels of frosted glass windows that you can slide open to let in the sun or the moon. Even the old-fashioned brass apartment keys are beautiful or “lindas,” a word you’ll here 10 times a day here – and for good reason.
After reuniting with Jess and meeting her friend Angie (love!) when they returned home from class a few hours later, we got down to business. What time and where was Katy Perry playing? We got ready and set off.
Third observation about Buenos Aires. It’s a lot bigger than I thought it would be. If you haven’t already noticed, I’m naïve, lack common sense and research skills and rely for important decisions on ideas that I’m not quite sure how they arrive in my head. While I had been imagining a quaint little city, the sights from the bus taking us to the concert looked strikingly like New York.
The revelation reminded me of the time I told Erin, my older sister blogging from Zambia, upon leaving for that exchange program that I was looking forward to getting away from Philadelphia for the winter for the surely warmer weather in Detroit. I stowed my bathing suit after the night I saw –3 on the car dashboard.
Or when I showed up in Vienna during my semester abroad and my oldest sister, Kelly, who had been backpacking through Europe at the time, asked me why I’d suggested we meet there since I didn’t have one thing on my to-see list. Apparently, the song “Vienna” by the Fray; Vienna Mocha Chunk, my favorite ice cream flavor at Friendly’s; Viennese crescents that my grandma bakes at Christmas; and Viennetta ice cream cake from my childhood weren’t sufficient reasons to visit a city.
But my naïveté seemed to be working out. As our optimism paid us one final favor, the concert was not yet sold out. As we packed into the stadium, it was the perfect first night in Buenos Aires and perfect cap to my self-designated Concert Month aka September, in which I’m proud to say I made it to nearly 10.
After “DJ Skeet Skeet” took more than his 15 minutes of fame, Katy Perry descended from the stage ceiling to the beginning notes of, just as I’d predicted because it has the ideal tempo for an opening song, “Teenage Dream.” I looked around at the flashing lights and the surrounding Argentineans, who enjoy jumping up and down and knew more of her lyrics in English than I did, and couldn’t believe I was actually here. It was one of those highly symbolic moments that you’ll remember for a long time.
The song will always remind me of – last mention, I promise – my previous relationship, and not because we’d ever built a fort out of sheets in a California motel. For someone who out of nowhere once said to me: “Born this way,” and when I looked confused, he responded, “What? Weren’t you going to ask me how I got so cool?” it never failed to amuse me how much he loved the “Glee” version of “Teenage Dream” and showing it to people on YouTube. The weekend after we had broken up, the song came on at a bar in DC and reduced me to tears.
Now in a perfectly peaceful place with one another, I told him the night before I left for Argentina that he had, in retrospect, healed me of and helped me grow a lot through our relationship. And I’ll always be grateful to him for helping me get to this next chapter.
But for no fault of our own besides diverging personalities and life paths, the time had come where I had to heal myself and grow in new ways. And as I listened to the same song that had triggered a waterfall – Six months later. Live. On another continent. Smiling – I realized I was doing it.
“Todo lo que puedas imaginar es real.” ~Pablo Picasso