The Expat: Brenda May

Brenda May.
Brenda May.
From: New York
Age: 61
Profession: Human resources professional at Kenexa
Education: Psychology degree at SUNY Albany
Last book read: Black List by Brad Thor
Last film seen: Despicable Me 2 with my daughter and grandson
Gadget: Vitamix

Living in San Telmo with her daughter and grandson for the past four years, Brenda May says there is a great sense of community spirit and a family feel in the neighbourhood, something that she’s not truly experienced in other cities.

The New York-born human resources professional says: “This is the first time I’ve had to live in a big city, although I’ve lived in the suburbs. In San Telmo, I don’t feel like I’m in a large city. When I first used to visit several years ago, I got to know all the shop and restaurant owners, so I feel like I’m part of a community here. When I walk down the street, I bump into people I know or if I’m at a café, someone will walk past then come and join me — I like the family feel that San Telmo has.

“I know a lot of people feel it is more dangerous than Recoleta or Palermo, but truly all the people I know who live in those neighbourhoods have had more issues with purse-snatchings than here. I also like the fact it’s close to Puerto Madero as I love the parks down there. It can be a bit inconvenient as it’s not as centrally located as Palermo but it does have great public transport. If I had to make the decision again on where to live in Capital Federal, I’d still choose San Telmo. But then if I spoke better Spanish, I’d rather live in the province, perhaps in Lobos or Pilar, or even in a smaller city like Mendoza or Córdoba.”

Brenda’s daughter Maya, who was on on a prolonged vacation from a poetry Masters degree, was the reason for an initial two-month visit in July 2006.

She says: “It was interesting as it was the first time I’d visited a South American, Spanish-speaking country. Maya rented me an apartment in Palermo, and she told me to go and explore, so I had to go off and use the transport system without a lick of Spanish. But she said the best way for me to learn was to go out there on my own. I remember getting lost somewhere — I don’t remember where the hell I was at! — I think it was somewhere around Puerto Madero. It was scary!”

Although she was thrown in at the deep end, Brenda also went to Spanish classes during the two-month stay. And so when her daughter became pregnant, moving to an already familiar Buenos Aires was a no-brainer.

“I had just sold my five-bedroom home in Las Vegas and it was a real transition. I knew things would be changing in my personal life. I was tired of corporate America, I had trained to be a masseuse and I also realized the real-estate bubble was about to burst. Then Maya became pregnant, at which point I was visiting every four months or so, and so Cassius, my grandson, is what brought me here. I didn’t want him to not know me, and it was very important to have a relationship with him and not just be a voice on the phone.

“Things were changing and a lot of financial uncertainties in the States at that time, and it seemed my savings would go further here. Plus Maya was starting her company Spanglish Exchange so I decided to move here — to help her out and because I needed a change. Everything came together.”

Thanks to a beneficial exchange rate, Brenda was able to make the most of the social scene for a good while, combining that with lots of essential time with baby Cassius.

She says: “Who would have guessed I’d have an Argentine grandson? In the States I come from a diverse family, so it’s not just the fact that Cassius is bilingual, as I have bilingual nephews and nieces. But it can still sometimes be difficult to wrap my arms around the fact that he is Argentine.

“The last time we took him to the States he was old enough to notice the differences. We had a family reunion, so he met lots of aunts and uncles. When we left New York, every time he saw a black person, he’d ask: ‘Is that my cousin too?’ No Cassius, but I can understand where he was coming from. He has an abuela, and he has me, whom he calls Grandma, but I don’t think it’s that unique. I know other expats in the same situation with Argentine children who also have US or British sides.”

Once her grandson became a bit older and inflation began to rear its ugly head, Brenda realized it might be time to return to work.

“The first two years were a piece of cake. I was just hanging out, meeting new people, and I was having a big party! Plus I was building a relationship with Cassius. But after two years I started to get a bit bored and saw that my money wasn’t going as far, which is when a company requiring English-speakers found my profile on LinkedIn — I’ve been working for them ever since. At first they weren’t going to sponsor me, but it worked out beautifully even though I was to earn in pesos, and now I have permanent DNI.

“My biggest adjustment has been working here compared with working in the States even though Kenexa is a US company. Really and truly, it wasn’t until I started working that I was forced to interact within the Argentine culture. I feel like when I first got here, that I wasn’t interacting with Argentines and I had a sheltered view of what it was like living here. But when I had to start working and commuting, it was an interesting experience.

“I feel more integrated now as I’m forced to interact with my Argentine co-workers. It’s been an eye-opener listening to their views, and one of the biggest is that there are two classes within Buenos Aires — the ones who love what happens here from a political perspective, and the ones who don’t. I listen to conversations in the lunchroom and I think ‘wow, do they live in the same country?’ Their views are so diabolically opposed! I’m now getting a better grasp from a cultural perspective on why these differences exist, and why some people don’t talk to others.”

Besides getting used to the Argentine method of working and understanding to her colleagues’ political opinions, on a personal level Brenda says she is more socially active despite the fact that her friends are transitory.

She says: “One of the biggest challenges is having consistency of friendships. Right now, my circle of friends would be people I’ve connected with at work, and friends from Buenos Aires International Newcomers group (BAIN), which was my main social interaction for the first two years. In the beginning, I met lots of interesting people but then they started to leave, as their husbands’ assignments were up, for example. But now that I’m working and interacting more, I’m starting to make connections again. It’s something you deal with.

“But truly, my social life is more active here than it was in the States. When you get to my age, you don’t want to go to nightclubs and there aren’t a lot of activities for older people. Even in Vegas, I rarely went out. And even though people come and go, the ones you meet here are more interesting as they are here for so many different reasons. You interact with individuals you might not have met in the States, for example, I met the wife of the ambassador to Australia. Besides having my family around me, my life is richer from a cultural perspective here.”

Buenos Aires Herald, August 3, 2013
Ph: Mariano Fuchila

If you enjoyed this piece on Brenda, check out this piece on Colombian Liana Neal.

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