I had planned to do a look back at the program when we had spent equal time in both Buenos Aires and Santiago.  But because I came to Santiago so far ahead of the students I missed the equivalent point which occurred on March 23.  The students were in Buenos Aires from February 5 to February 28 on which day they flew to Santiago.  They thus spent 22 complete days in Buenos Aires.  The completion of March 22 got them their 22nd day in Santiago.  So I’m over a week late with this post.  (For me, I have, at this point, spent 36 full days in Chile and 26 full days in Argentina with three split days for international travel, so I missed my equivalent point as well.  I never was very good at titration).

I also needed to gather some research so I’ve been trying to ask subtle questions about their preferences and comparisons.  If you know me, you know that subtle is not a word often used to describe me except in cases where the word “not” also appears nearby.  Thus, you should take this data for what it’s worth.

Which city is liked best?  It’s an even split and just about everyone I’ve spoken with was reluctant to answer as they like both.  Certainly, when we left Buenos Aires, everyone was very sad to leave.  Preferences then fall to personal taste.  The night life is universally said to be better in Buenos Aires.  But some students aren’t as interested in that.  Students who like nature and outdoor pursuits prefer Santiago.  Problems understanding the local dialect tend to split.  The folks in Buenos Aires and Santiago have their own particular methods for mangling the King’s Spanish and it can cause trouble for someone, like everyone on the trip but one native Spanish speaker, who learned their Spanish from a textbook.

Everyone prefers the weather in Santiago.  It’s drier, sunnier, cooler.  If the air wasn’t so bad, it would be a perfect climate.  Generally speaking, we prefer the empanadas in Argentina and by enough of a margin that it comes up in comparisons of the two cities.  However, one student discovered a spinach empanada near my office that is doing solid work on narrowing that gap.

Despite my effort to ask these questions at a point where we’ve spent nearly equal time in both cities, a direct comparison is difficult because the two programs are quite different.  In Buenos Aires, they took one class.  It was a summer class and despite the professionalism and best efforts of professors everywhere, those tend to take on a different feel.  Likewise, the program in Buenos Aires is crammed with activities.  We really went at the city hard, led by a member of the Di Tella staff who was with us every step of the way.  Obviously, we have UDP staff here helping with activities but 1) there have been fewer activities and 2) the duty is spread over 3 or 4 staff members.  Therefore, we haven’t (yet) developed nearly as close a relationship with the staff at UDP as we did in the short time in Buenos Aires.  I am in an office next to a colleague at UDP and have gotten to know him reasonably well.  But the students haven’t spent much time with any individual UDP staff member.

That isn’t bad, obviously.  And if they hadn’t liked the Di Tella staff member, it would swing things in the favor of Santiago.  However, they loved her and, so, that puts a lot of points in the Buenos Aires column.  In case anyone from UDP has found this blog, I want to stress that everyone really likes the UDP staff.  It’s simply a question of proximity.  In the end, they’ll spend more time with UDP staff and have about the same number of activities.  But it will be spread over several months instead of several weeks.  It will be interesting to see how that plays out.

The biggest factor, by enough to make the other items I’ve discussed nearly meaningless, in a student’s views of the two cities is their homestay.  In retrospect, this should have been obvious.  Who you live with has more impact on the quality of your life than just about anything else could.  Live with people you like, respect and are compatible with and you’ll have gone a long way to being happy.  Live with someone that doesn’t fit those criteria and you’ll be even farther toward being miserable.  We’ve been lucky on this trip.  By “we” I mean, me, the guy who has to field initial complaints and deal with unhappy students.  Fortunately, both Di Tella and UDP provide a homestay coordinator whose job it is to take my call when this happens.  But, still, I want happy students and I don’t like having to make that call.

Generally speaking, all of them have been happy.  Some, ecstatically so.  There are stories of homestay families wanting to come to graduation or to host a re-visit of the student’s American family (expressly forbidden for obvious reasons).  One student has traveled the countryside with her host mom as she, the mom, visits family outside Santiago.  Almost all of them have found a level of Spanish conversation that pushes them but isn’t too overwhelming.  Almost all of them are getting enough to eat and some advice on how to deal with the city.

To date, 34 of 37 possible homestays have either been great or good enough that no one says anything to me about it (I hate to admit how equivalent those two are in my mind).  How do we arrive at 37?  I have 18 students with homestays in two cities.  That is 36 possible homestays.  The extra one comes from one student thus far who has moved.  She basically wasn’t being fed.  Fortunately, she has close to the best Spanish in the group and so she was able to decipher that this was no accident and make her case known to the homestay coordinator without my being terribly involved.  She was moved quickly and easily and seems happy, or at least fed, in her new home.

One of the other two situations is similar.  A student posted to the WhatsApp group a picture of an, admittedly, terrible looking dinner.  I had to be the adult and point out that no one promised them a gourmet homestay and that the proper thing to do when someone cooks you terrible food is to say “thank you” and eat as much as you can stomach and then say something along the lines of “I’m full.”  The conversation went on for a bit and then the student dropped the bomb that, well, at least she got dinner tonight.  No one promises the students tasty food.  But they are promised three squares and, it turned out, this student wasn’t getting one even rectangular meal a day.  That one has taken some work.  We thought we had the student moved but then the new family fell through.  Moving students is hard.  Homestay families that mean to do a good job need time to prepare and be sure they haven’t made travel plans, etc.  A plan was, eventually, hatched to move the student to another homestay that already had a Wake student.  We like to separate them for cultural diversity reasons but this seemed a good solution.

However, the new homestay family seemed very reluctant despite the fact that they had a free room, this would double the pay and they were already committed to the semester.  Within a week, it turned out there was trouble in this house as well.  The head of the house would say “mean” things to the student.  This seemed mostly due to the family not thinking the student’s Spanish was up to snuff.  But it was good enough to get the gist of the things said.  Moreover, the student is dating someone in Santiago (they move quick) and the head of the household has taken to criticizing the student to the significant other.  The students thought this was stupid as, they point out, the SO is clearly going to tell the student what was said.  I pointed out that that was very likely the point.  The head of house is concerned that their insults are not landing and wants to be sure.  For me, it also provides a witness to corroborate the student’s account.

This one makes me nervous.  The student is getting three squares, has free use of the house and likes the location.  The student is tough and says they aren’t going anywhere just because someone doesn’t like them.  I generally admire the attitude and, probably, it’ll be fine.  A few insults in Spanish might be a small price to pay for a decent commute.  On the other hand, if you view the insults in the language of abuse, abuse rarely plateaus.  I was worried a little before.  Writing it all out makes me think I need to keep a close eye on this house.

Ah, yes, the commutes.  Commutes in Santiago are much worse than in Buenos Aires and that is not popular.  Some students walk, bus and metro for over an hour each way to the university.  These students are compensated by their living in the finest (i.e. richest) areas of the city, closest to the mountains.  Still, other students live in perfectly fine houses less than half an hour away.  I’m right at 30 minutes: 12-15 minutes of walking and about 15 minutes on the metro.

The students are also spread over a far larger geographic area, making group activities harder to coordinate.  They definitely prefer the arrangement in Buenos Aires where everyone was within half an hour of the university, some being less than 10 minutes away, and clustered together.  I prefer that as well.

So, in the end, a student’s final answer to “Santiago or Buenos Aires?” comes down mostly to their homestay and what sort of extracurriculars they prefer.  Which is how it should be.  I’m glad to know that, in the end, neither experience will be bad enough that anything other than personal preferences makes one a favorite over the other.  I’ve enjoyed them both immensely.  I’m a country boy so for a long term residence, I’d almost certainly choose Santiago but I learned long ago that true urban living (not that suburban sprawl crap we in the United States call urban) has a lot of virtue.  I had within a block of my apartment in Buenos Aires some amazing businesses and could lead a really nice life without traveling far at all and if I needed to travel someone else drove me for a few dollars.  And it was a city of great beauty and culture.  I’d happily go back anytime and am happy the students feel the same way.

I’m also obviously very happy the students have taken to Santiago.  It would be a long few months, for them and me, if they hated it here.  This weekend we have a group going to do a bike/wine tour where they visit three vineyards via rented bicycle.  We have a group running in a 10K/half-marathon.  We have several students doing well with members of the opposite sex (or so I’m told).  We have some students headed to a volcano.  Hopefully, sometime in there, they’ll consider how nucleophiles add to carboxylic acid derivatives.

On Monday afternoon, I’ll have a more definitive answer to that last question than I’ll ever have to “Santiago or Buenos Aires?”






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