The Expat: Katherine Thonvold

The Expat: Katherine Thonvold.
The Expat: Katherine Thonvold.
From: San Francisco, California
Lives in: Belgrano
Age: 40
Profession: English teacher and marketing
Education: Economics and Anthropology at San Francisco State University
Just read: The latest Paul Stevenson
Gadget: iPad

Although San Francisco transplant Katherine Thonvold has lived in Buenos Aires for the past six years, a move that was originally meant to last just a few months, it wasn’t until she adopted a sick kitten that she really felt like she could call this city home.

“You can buy a fridge or buy a bed, which you can sell, although they are general steps to commitment,” she says. “But when I got Olaff I realized I was pretty committed to being here. There’s no taking off on the spur of the moment when you’ve got a cat, at least not for me.”

Despite the little black cat being nursed back to health, this interview has been scheduled to fit in with a session at the vet, given that Olaff is suffering from a new blow to his health in the form of kidney failure. And Katherine is obviously a concerned owner, hand-feeding her pet and taking care of him around the clock. But how did the former nightclub manager turned English teacher end up in Buenos Aires?

She says: “Back in San Francisco, I was a bartender, a DJ, everything. And I really needed to change my life and take a break from that nocturnal life. Coming here was supposed to be an extended holiday but I was just too lazy to go home or do anything. The next thing I knew, my life was here. Bit by bit, first you get a refrigerator, then you get a bed. And then you get a cat.

“I’d been to the north of Brazil before but I’d never been to Argentina before. And I decided upon here as my money would go further. I looked around the world, and you’ve got South America and Asia, and the two places were pretty compatible at the time — this was six or seven years ago. I could have blown the same amount of money in a month in Europe as I could have extending my stay here. I’m a single woman, gay and and at some point Buenos Aires become the best choice for me: my money went further, the culture is really liberal, I can blend in easier. So here is where I came.”

Given that this was meant to be a long vacation, Katherine rented an apartment that happened to be in the neighbourhood of Once. “I landed there — and I’ve been moving north ever since — as I rented a place online, site unseen, didn’t quite know about the city. Right before I came, I had broken my foot and fractured the fourth metatarsal, which was in the process of healing. A week after I arrived, I rebroke it. So for the first couple of months, I basically went to Spanish school then went back to the apartment, so I didn’t socialize or go out that much. And in fact Once wasn’t bad! I didn’t mind it so much as it looks like everywhere else where I’ve ever lived.

“After a couple of months, after learning my way around, I moved to Palermo and went on a teacher-training course and I met a bunch of people. I started working, which meant more money coming in. And I just really enjoyed my life here, although with regard to my Spanish I’m like a toddler with an advanced vocabulary.

“I met a bunch of people from Spanish school, and I met another bunch from teaching school, but most of those people have gone home, eventually over the years. And then I started going out a little bit more, and a little bit more as people started going home.”

As time started ticking by, it was becoming more obvious that Katherine was settling into a new life. “My friends were happy that I was out because after a certain amount of time in nightlife, you need to leave it. And my father still thinks I’m a little bit wacky, while my mom thinks it’s a grand adventure.”

In fact, Katherine’s mother moved to Buenos Aires three years ago, after her husband died. “She first came here in the 60s as she was a flight attendant for PanAm, then she came back in 2007 to visit. And when her husband died, she eventually moved here – I’m her only child. It’s really good that she’s close by, and we’ve become closer. She lives in Barrio Norte. We go and have lunch every Sunday like every other Argentine family. Sometimes I go over and cook for her, or we might go out.”

Besides the weekend routine of hanging out with her mother, Katherine also has her Monday to Friday schedule down pat. “I wake up, go for a run, come home, take a shower, prepare for my classes during the day for a bunch of kids to work out what they are doing and how they are doing, print out little lesson plans for them, go to work, come home, make dinner. Then do it again. I prefer this life to my previous one. The country has its ups and downs, and I have my ups and downs in the country, but my life here is so much better, so much more peaceful. I don’t miss my old life at all – in fact, when I came here I set out to be the most boring person on the planet.

“I really enjoy teaching if I have the right balance of students. I worked for some institutes in the beginning that were really horrible, and paid me in counterfeit money or scheduled classes on top of each other, or just didn’t pay me. I once hunted down an institute that owed me 300 pesos for six months. But I’ve also worked for a couple of good ones.”

As for spare time, she says she tries to find it, although she does run the Second Story performance group and cooks up sweet treats. “In winter I make my fudge that I sell at the market. I missed it so much and there is nothing here that compares with it. So I started to experiment with it and a couple of years ago everyone got huge blocks of fudge from me, as I didn’t want to eat everything that was in the pan, but I ended up with so much any way that I gained 10 kilos. But it is delicious! My friend Beatrice, who’s one of the people I palmed off my fudge to, suggested I sell it at the Underground Market, so I have; another grand adventure. It’s something that the me that is here would do, rather than the me in San Francisco as my life is totally different. I don’t think I could have woken up for a market!

“But I won’t be doing the summer one because all the fudge would melt, though I am thinking about going one time to sell jello shots and get people really loaded.”

And with regard to Second Story, Katherine has now taken over running the monthly event after its founder moved back to the US. “I’ve participated in it for the past couple of years. I don’t think I’ve ever had a best story-telling moment there but one was about the worst year of my life. It was 2011, and I was living here. My stepfather had died; then my mom came down here and was in massive grief; I had to have a hysterectomy due to fibroids; across the hall at my apartment I started to smell a not-taken-out trash smell. I hadn’t seen my neighbour for a while and it was getting really stinky. I’d had a fight with my girlfriend of the time and joked ‘I think he’s dead, what am I going to do with a dead body?’ She suggested I denounce it at the police station but I didn’t really want to, given my toddler Spanish. I told the portero in the end, and went to work.

“When I came back, the door had been kicked in by the police and it really smelled. Apparently the guy had been dead for two months. But can you imagine an Argentine not talking to their parents for that long? Anyway, in my worst year ever, there was grieving, I had a hysterectomy, I had the worst girlfriend ever and my apartment smelled like dead body for three months after. That’s when I decided to go to a therapist, which is one Argentine characteristic I have, besides eating a lot of pastries and bitching about buses and complaining about the weather. Hace calor, hace frío.

Buenos Aires Herald, November 30, 2013
Ph: Mariano Fuchila

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