The Expat: José Atala

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From: Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Lives: Recoleta
Age: 29 last Thursday
Profession: Second secretary in charge of political, cultural and tourism affairs at the Honduran embassy
Education: Masters in international relations at the University of Bologna
Reading: A Gary Zukav book
Last film seen: The Ice Man
Gadget: iPad mini

When he first visited Buenos Aires in 2006 on holiday, little did José Atala know that he would end up being the right hand to the Honduran ambassador a mere five years later. Not only that, but he helped to re-establish the Honduran mission to Argentina after it was forced to close down in 2009 after a military coup in his homeland.

He says: “I was studying international business in the US in Providence, Rhode Island, and I came to Buenos Aires on holiday for a week with friends. It was a fantastic time, and I totally loved it. And I knew that it was a city that I’d be inclined to live in some day. It’s the Paris of South America, and it’s so different architecturally speaking, from other countries in the continent. It’s extremely different to Honduras.

“I’m from Honduras’ capital city, Tegucigalpa, which has a little over a million people now, but it’s a developing country. It’s also very beautiful with lots of nature that you don’t have in Argentina, of course. There aren’t as many buildings or cars and we have lots of mountains. It’s a smaller country.

“And during that week I went to Recoleta Cemetery and we went to La Boca – all the touristy things I would never do now!”

Between 2006 and moving to Buenos Aires for work, José graduated from his US college then proceeded to work for his family’s companies for a while. Then, in 2009, when the sitting president was deposed by a military coup and political crisis ensued in Honduras, José went abroad to Italy to study international relations in Italy.

“I felt really strongly about what was going on in my country and that Honduras needed international help. My father saw that in me, and with his support he encouraged me to do my master’s degree. So I moved to Bologna, and completed that before coming to this, my first diplomatic post.

“I applied to become a diplomat for the foreign service of Honduras, which is quite small, with around 45 embassies around the world. It wasn’t easy but I sent in my resumé, was interviewed, sat an exam, and you’re also required to speak two languages, and I know four, so that was okay! Obviously you don’t have a choice in where you are sent but I was very happy as this is a fantastic post in a beautiful country in a beautiful city. I had some Argentine friends from when I was studying in the US so I was happy not to go somewhere where I knew no one. I also knew some Argentines from the University of Bologna.

“But the catch regarding the embassy in Buenos Aires was that it had been closed down, following the political crisis. We had a very difficult relationship with Argentina when the new government came into power so it took a while for Argentina to recognize it. So the catch for me to move here was to open the embassy, so everything you see here (in the embassy office) I bought and put in, under the direction of the ambassador.

“We have a very political relationship with Argentina and they have a lot of power within Latin America and Mercosur, which we aren’t part of, so we have to retain a very cordial and positive relation. This is what we’re doing here. Commercially, it’s been tough to bring in our products, such as bananas, coffee and sugar cane, but we maintain strong relations with all the Latin American countries. We’re the third-largest coffee exporter in the world and we’re also big on tilapia, which is a type of fish.”

Obviously it was a challenging experience for José to start an embassy from scratch and it took a few months. “I think it’s bureaucratic here and any expat will know you have to go through so many steps to get something done. It took me a while to get used to that but on the positive side I have the language.

“I had to find a suitable location for the embassy, as well as a suitable residence for the ambassador. Then I had to move everything we had into the apartment, as well as everything he brought from his mission. That was hard. The Argentine government doesn’t really give assistance in setting up an embassy although they follow you in a diplomatic way, for example, if you buy a car they say this is the paperwork you need to get diplomatic number plates’. The Foreign Ministry helps you in everything you can but you have to do everything yourself. So I got here in February 2011 and by the May, we were all settled in.”

Another plus besides finding his feet quickly was that José had lived in several other countries and the Italian experience certainly helped for a smooth Argentine passage. “It was quite easy as I didn’t go back to Honduras and settle back in; fortunately I could sort myself out quickly as I came from Italy with two bags and settled in within a week.

“I did have the idea that Argentina was going to be a little bit more advanced than in Honduras, which is an underdeveloped country but it’s been quite eye-opening to see the bureaucracy that there is. And it took me quite a long to get used to that.”

Although the common denominator between both countries is Spanish, José doesn’t see many similarities between the two peoples. He says: “I think the Argentine is very Latin American with a European flair. Hondurans are more ‘Yanqui’ and look to the north – it’s very rare for an Honduran to look south, which I think is a mistake. Argentina has so much to offer, and it’s so beautiful with a rich culture and a beautiful political history. You study the politics that the Argentines have lived – they are so resilient and brave and the economy is so volatile, which makes it so interesting to study. And it’s a shame that we don’t learn about it in school.”

José has also noted change in Buenos Aires, not only between 2006 and 2011 but also during the two years he bas been working here.

“Take Puerto Madero. It’s completely growing and I love how Puerto Madero resembles Miami. It might seem bizarre but the whole city is bizarre! I go to San Telmo and it remind me of Antigua Guatemala. I go to Palermo Soho and it reminds me of parts of Tribeca in New York. Then you come to Recoleta and it’s like you’re in Paris. I think it’s amazing that it’s so diverse and I’ve never been to a city like that.”

Although he has also lived in Palermo Chico, José lives in Recoleta now, given its close proximity to his work place. “It’s close to the embassy, which is why I chose to live here, and I come here almost every day. I’m also close to the ambassador. Although I think Recoleta is one of the poorest areas gastronomically speaking, I do have a gym very near by and little cafés – everything I need is close by. But essentially I live here as it’s close to the embassy and I like to be able to walk to work.”

In his spare time, he likes to enjoy the great outdoors, given that he used to participate in triathlons in the US. José says: “I run and cycle around Palermo and swim, although the latter is out of the question here. I have done one 5k race here. I’m very active, working out, but I’m also a huge foodie and love to do wine tastings too. BASA has become one of my new favourite restaurants, as has Florería Atlántico, and I can walk to both of them. And once a week I eat at Farinelli, a great healthy place to eat lunch and even have a good glass of wine if I want.

“My most memorable meal in Buenos Aires was at Tô – but it wasn’t because of the food! It was because I was sitting next to Fito Paez, who I love! Adrian D’Argelos, the lead singer of Babasónicos, was also there.”
José’s appreciation of the sacred grape fortunately tied in with an Honduran mission visit to Mendoza. “We travelled there for a summit and they took us to vineyards and the governor’s house. And we had great wine and food every day. But at home, I always have the Gascón Malbec Reserva as it goes with everything.”

Although he has adapted to living in various countries, José misses one thing besides his parents: the Honduras weather. “I also miss the fact that it’s easy to get US products that you can’t get here. I’ve obviously replaced them all with Argentine ones, but I always ask friends to bring me Stash green tea and gummy bears, and hot sauce.”

Buenos Aires Herald, November 16, 2013
Ph: Diego Kovacic
If you’ve enjoyed reading about José, you might like this piece on Iraqi winemaker Labid.

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