The Expat: Jimmy Danko

Jimmy Danko
Born: Milwaukee, USA
Age: 35
Profession: Artist
Education: Fine arts degree at University of Wisconsin
Currently reading: When I Grow Up by Juliana Hatfield
Last film: Inglourious Basterds
Gadget: My iPod

When did you come to Argentina?
My partner Annie and I visited for two weeks in March 2008, then moved here that July. We were looking for somewhere with a yoga and arts culture and this was one of the places we’d heard good things about. It had something for both of us.

Where did you stay?
We were in San Telmo and bounced about between there and Palermo. It was a business trip as we were looking at places to open a yoga studio and a home to buy. It wasn’t like being tourists checking out museums — we were scouting about to see if the city would work for our businesses. But I was intrigued as the city had such an energy and vibe that it made a good first impression.

What intrigued you?
Street art stuck out for me as it was political and artistic,and like a voice of the city. It wasn’t just artists doing it but everyone, and I liked that, that the voice was very outspoken. I’ve contributed with some of my own designs, and put up my gorilla logo stickers too.

Did BA have any competition?
No, this was the only city we checked out! We were originally going to go to Italy although South Africa and New Zealand were on the list, but we decided to go somewhere that wasn’t English-speaking. Although it was about setting up a business, we wanted the experience of living abroad and a different culture. The first impression was enough for us to choose South America. I was very gung ho about it.

Those first two weeks sound like hard work…
The idea of going to live in a different country, that it was real, and we were going to have a crazy, awesome experience, was fun. The potential for an adventure was the fun part.

Was the plan to live here long-term?
We were all in. We moved everything we owned down here and didn’t want to have any storage in the States. It could have been for a year or forever, and we left it wide open.

Where did you live?
We’d done the San Telmo experience so wanted to be in Palermo before moving to the apartment we had bought in Congreso. It was basically a big empty room on the 24th floor, no kitchen or bathroom, it was a blank canvas. But that was a crazy experience I don’t think I’d do again in a foreign country. That was one thing Argentina taught us quickly: you can have a plan but you need to hold it loosely. Things will change.
That was one of the American “things” we had to let go of. We came here with a “nothing’s going to stop us” mentality, but that determination started turning into stubbornness and we realized we had to go with the flow. Once that was accepted, things got easier. It’s easy to say that now, but at the time it was hell. I remember sitting on the roof-top, thinking “I want to go home!”

What was the upside?
It was an awesome project to accomplish — remodelling a home in a foreign country. We turned it into the 24B art gallery and it was our home to share with friends, and I could share my art in that space, which we did with a grand opening.

And the downside?
The language barrier. When you learn Spanish you don’t learn what tools are called, or what they do. We also had to understand that how construction gets done, and how Argentines work, are different. Remodelling took nine months. It was frustrating not knowing what was going on, but we survived.
We moved in in December 2008, but it was only a third of the way completed. Our kitchen sink was a five-gallon bucket on the terrace. Concrete dust was everywhere, and no windows, just empty spaces where the glass would go — it was rough but thankfully it was summertime!

Do you feel like an expat?
No matter how acquainted I’ve become, my culture is what I know best so I’ve always felt like a foreigner, despite living, rather than visiting, here. I’ve gravitated most toward other English-speakers, and have always been on the outside looking in.

Did life in BA begin with that opening?
I think so. Once the house was done, our focus totally shifted and we could start to experience the city and the culture. But after that first year and the construction, we started to realize the city wasn’t for us but we still hadn’t had our experience of living abroad as our focus was on getting the construction done.
The ironic thing about the apartment was that it kept us here. I’m sure we would have left much sooner, but we had to sell it and that took almost two years. It was weird being bound by it and not knowing when we could leave.

Not many expats live in Congreso…
In three years I only saw one English speaker in my gym. Living there has been an experience that hasn’t been clouded by an international feel. It’s really authentic and is quite blue-collar.

What’s your Spanish like?
Horrible! Once we decided this wasn’t the place for us, I stopped investing and focused on my art. Study Spanish or bust out my sketch-book? The sketch-book always won, not only because it was more fun but because I had to look toward the future. I’ve picked up enough Spanish to get by.

Why are you returning to the US?
First, I miss my friends and family, and also the market for my art is there, so it makes sense from a business perspective. I miss the culture that made me and I’m looking forward to being a more functional member of society — I’ll know how to communicate in a more sophisticated way! I miss that level of interaction. Annie never got to set up her own yoga studio here although she did teach at home, and she can now do that.

How has the apartment sale gone?
It was on the market for two years and it was weird not knowing when we can leave. It was hard to commit to things, but you don’t know how much to do so and eventually you learn to live with it. Not having that control over when we could go to our home country was a learning experience.

Is the sale a dead cert now?
It’s set. The papers are signed and it’s a formality of the buyer coming here and signing a final paper. We’ve got plane tickets — once it was certain enough we could buy those, we could start planning, shipping. We leave on September 23.

Are you squeezing everything in?
Absolutely. I’ve had the idea of riding every single subte line from start to finish in one day. I went out at 9am last Sunday and rode them all! It took a long time and I wasn’t done until 4pm! I took photos of every train I rode, the circular signs at the end of each line. It was interesting to see the difference between each train, the neighbourhoods and be a voyeur, looking at the people travelling. The wooden A line feels like it’s ready to disintegrate at any time, while the H line is brand new.
I’m also taking photos of typically Argentine things — I’m trying to stay in the moment of living abroad as very soon it will all be over.

What’s your most Argentine trait?
I love the fireworks and seeing them go off all over the city at Christmas and New Year.

What will you miss?
Jay-walking! I’ve gotten used to that lax sense of authority. I’ll also miss mass transit as it’s so cheap and easy and relatively quick to travel around, as well as the people and how they take things in their stride.

What will be the first thing you do in Los Angeles?
Get some sushi or Mexican food! Then that night, go to a bar, hopefully hang out with some friends and have some American beers. Our despedida is our very last night here, the next day we fly out, and it will be “welcome back”. I don’t even know how to process that.

Will you return to Buenos Aires?
Even in three years I’ve seen changes take place, so I’d like to see how the culture and city progress in five, 10 or 20 years.

End of the road
Chatting to artist Jimmy Danko, who has lived on the 24th floor of an apartment block located in Buenos Aires’ Congreso neighbourhood for the past three years and is set to return to his native US permanently at the end of this week, is like taking a trip down Memory Lane.
Given that he and his partner Annie Ory decided after a year that Buenos Aires wasn’t for them, they have been playing the waiting game for two years while trying to close this chapter of their lives with the sale of 24B, and although he is still physically in Argentina, Danko very much refers to his time here in the past tense.
Normally, dialogue with a foreigner who lives here is colourful and positive, someone who has wound their way here for any number of absurd reasons and stayed, found love and reproduced, opened a tango hostel or been able to fill a gap in the market with a business idea. It’s always been a running joke among my own friends that the lunatics end up in Buenos Aires, desperate to escape, or unable to cope with, the real world yet they are able to function and fit in with the Argentine way of life.
So it’s unusual to speak to an expat who hasn’t fallen head over heels in love with Buenos Aires or Argentina, and taken that vow of “‘til death do us part.” Granted, there’s been some flirting, dating, even a short-term relationship between both parties, but as Danko jokes: “We aren’t big meat eaters so the city wasn’t a fit that way, either!”
After scouting out Buenos Aires, interestingly the couple decided to make a permanent move for business reasons, instead of the more usual “ending up here” ones. As it happens, Danko has been able to make a living from his art work while his partner’s plan of opening Buenos Aires’ first bikram yoga studio sadly didn’t come to fruition.
The couple undertook a construction project to turn a top-floor shell into a home, and Danko says life seemed to begin at that point. “We turned the apartment into the 24B art gallery and it was our home to share with friends, and a space to share my art, which we did with a grand opening.”
And it certainly was grand. Filled with an eclectic bunch of foreigners, from authors to entrepreneurs, all were keen to check out Gallery 24B, admire the remarkable views of Congreso and beyond, and see how several months of sleeping without any windows had paid off.
Selling the apartment two years after it went on the market means the couple has finally been able to make some plans. Their return to the US on Friday signifies the end of one chapter and the immediate start of the next.

First published in the Buenos Aires Herald on September 18, 2011.
Photo by Mario Mosca.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *