The Expat: Bianca Sundell

Bianca Sundell
From: Finland via the US
Age: 26
Profession: Looking in London…
Education: History and fashion at the University of Georgia; History at the University of Helsinki (Erasmus)
Just read: Ignorance by Milan Kundera and Bossypants by Tina Fey
Last film: Midnight in Paris
Gadget: My iPad

Had you visited Argentina before moving here?
No, I’d never even been to South America. I was living in New York working on the international sales side for a fashion designer and people thought I was to move as I had a great job that many people would kill for. But I wanted to learn Spanish and felt that if I should do it, what better time than now? So I moved here with my boyfriend of the time in 2008 and we were here for three months. He left, but I decided to stay! The economic crisis had already happened, so it was more daunting to go back than necessarily stay.

Why did you keep living here?
I’m quite stubborn and after we split up, I didn’t want to think that this was the end of my time here. When I moved here, I didn’t like it. Nothing was working and I was mugged in the first three weeks. But seven months later, I thought “I want to be in this place.” There was definitely something that kept me here. I found a job and everything fell into place.

What was the upside?
It was challenging my core “Scandinavian-ness” which is very efficient and especially in the US, there is a need to “drive, drive, drive,” and not be away from work for too long. There’s an idea of one straight path and something inside me wanted to challenge that. I couldn’t identify it although I was meeting a lot of different people, but as an expat, you are automatically drawn to one another due to your circumstances.
I met people from a wide spectrum, such as writers and chefs to people working in private equity or at embassies. I was getting specific exposure from a variety of people which hadn’t necessarily existed in New York. It was very intriguing.

What was your first impression?
I arrived late at night and was terrified, only because I was meant to arrive at Terminal A where someone was waiting for me, but found myself in B. I didn’t speak Spanish, didn’t have a phone, had no way to get in touch with anyone and couldn‘t find the guy with the car — I was literally crying in baggage reclaim!
I lived in Recoleta in the beginning so it wasn’t like I was thrown into the most South American neighbourhood, but it was louder and grittier than New York. Not speaking the language makes one feel isolated — I couldn’t tell the guy in the kiosco I wanted tissues as I didn’t know the word. I had to force myself to get on with things and not back out.

Brought up in several countries, is it your destiny to move about?
I’ve started to think that in the past few months. When people ask me where I’m from, my automatic reaction is to say “how much time do you have?” Raised in Finland, grew up in Italy and Singapore, then moved to Atlanta, then returned to Finland — I’ve always felt there is something else beyond where I was. And after deciding to move to London, I don’t see a beyond from there. There’s a sense of continuity in the decision-making process of going to London, that I haven’t had in choosing other places.
I don’t want to keep on moving, but I’ve been incredibly lucky to have parents who have wanted us to see the world at a young age, which now I can appreciate. It was strange growing up, but it’s defined who I am.

A different person might have fled after a mugging.
There was a policeman standing right there! And I’ve been mugged since, at gunpoint in broad daylight. But one, it could happen anywhere, and two, if that’s the reason I leave, then what? Run back to mom? So many of my friends have been robbed, it’s like a badge of honour!

Do you feel like an expat after three-and-a-half years?
In the beginning I did feel like a person who was living here short term, and really in the past two years I’ve felt more integrated. Maybe it has more to do with my neighbourhood. When I leave, I’ll be saying goodbye to the Bolivians who sell me my mangos, to the kiosco guy, the guy in the chino supermarket on Thames… I’ve developed a sense of neighbourhood.
I’m an expat and am certainly not mistaken for a local given that I’m five foot nine and blonde! A part of me will always be here, and I’ll always want to come back. I didn’t think I’d be here as long as I have, and I could stay longer, which makes leaving very bittersweet.

Was your job instrumental in your staying?
It definitely was. I was at a point when I knew I wanted to stay, and wanted to be with a company that works internationally, which I could grow in. And working in Argentina, I’ve learned more in two years, wearing so many different hats, than I would in five years in the US. It’s not always that easy to find a job here, but I was very lucky to fall into the circumstances I did.

Do you have many Argentine friends?
I do, and I’ve constantly been proven wrong in a lot of my thoughts about Argentine men can’t be friends with foreign women, that standard stereotype. In the beginning, I mostly befriended expats, and I didn’t understand why locals were so resistant to be close to foreigners. But in retrospect, the longer I’m here, I’m not willing to invest emotionally with new expats. So when locals hear you’ve been here for two years, it’s okay, and they say “let’s all hang out.”

What do you do at the weekend?
I worked from 8am to 5pm so I was often tired, but I’ve realized I love entertaining, hosting weekend brunches, dinners, and and getting people to come to me as I am too tired to go anywhere! Spring days in BA — there’s nothing like them! Everyone wakes up earlier and wants to be outside, and come one come all, the more the merrier. Last summer I went to a plant store with my friend Allie and we sat on my terrace for five hours repotting plants. Cooking, hanging out, sitting outside and relaxing. I’ve never been much of a club girl. My favourite spot in the city has been my terrace!

What have you missed about home?
I’ve missed Finland for its efficiency, and being wonderful and charming. I didn’t realize how much I missed it until my sister married an Englishman and people flew in from all over the world. It was the best weekend of my life and it was the catalyst to think “I love my life, but I miss being in close proximity to these people.”

How do you feel since deciding to leave?
I did start Bianca’s Buenos Aires Bucket List of random restaurants and things to do. But honestly I’ve just been trying to enjoy everything. I feel bad for the person in the plane seat next to me in a few weeks… they’ll have a teary-eyed, red-wine drinking passenger next to them.

What will you miss about BA?
When you arrive, it’s like a crash course for life. Things work in the US, for example. You have to learn to let go and relax when it comes to doing trámites, so I’m not going to miss that! But I go back to the same answer: sitting in a restaurant at one in the morning, not being pushed out by a bell or having them turn tables and that is characteristic of here.

Name a lost-in-translation moment.
The first few months were completely lost in translation! My tip is to make up whoever you are every time you take a taxi, as chatty cab drivers will just ask more questions. Name everything you can — it’s the best way to practise. I did order the wrong dish once — I thought I was asking for mussels (mejillones) and I got sweetbreads (mollejas). Equally delicious but I wasn’t expecting those!

The friend ship sails away
After growing up in very different countries — Finland, Italy and Singapore — Finnish-American Bianca Sundell is bound to have a sense of spirit. After splitting up with a boyfriend she had moved to Buenos Aires with, she turned it to her advantage, calling it a great opportunity to stay here for a new experience: four years on she is set for a new adventure, this time in London.
Having garnered a network of both foreign and local friends in almost four years, Sundell’s perspective on friendship understands both sides of the coin, although it has taken her time to do so. But it is a perspective that “lifers”, or those foreigners who are established with a home, partner, employment or their own business, can easily relate to.
Sundell says: “In the beginning, I mostly befriended expats, and I didn’t really understand why locals were so resistant to be close to foreigners. But in retrospect, the longer I’m here, I’m not willing to invest emotionally with new expats. So when locals hear you’ve lived in BA for two years, it’s okay, and they say ‘let’s all hang out.’ But those invitations were rare in the first six months.”
Considering a friendship as an investment may seem cold, but in this city teeming with foreigners coming and going for so many reasons, where a despedida party is common after a three-month stay or with someone simply leaving town for a month, the average expat with a warm, beating heart needs to build up some protection. Because watching those you love leave, hurts.
The sense of loss felt can be akin to death — you might never see that person again, meaning that relationship changes — and the death of a family member is commonly known to be one of the three most stressful things a person can deal with.
Looking back at her friendships, Sundell is grateful to have made Argentine friends as well as foreign ones. “But I can understand the resistance. It means entering a group that has been established for perhaps 30 years, and so why would a porteño want to befriend a foreigner, not knowing how long they will be here for? I can appreciate that, having had very close friends also leave.
“As an expat you feel that constant sense of loss if your only friends are expats. New people come, people go, but if they are leaving, how much do you want to invest? You build up an emotional wall to newcomers, and it’s sad when someone leaves. My friends here are my family and there’s a handful of people I can’t imagine not seeing every day. Building up a wall probably isn’t the best thing to do, but it’s been to protect myself.”

Published in the Buenos Aires Herald on October 2, 2011
Photo by Mario Mosca

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