The Expat: Isabelle Siegrist

Isabelle Siegrist.
Isabelle Siegrist.
From: Basel, Switzerland
Lives in: Colegiales
Age: 25
Profession: Freelance production design assistant
Education: Degree in set design at the Universidad de Palermo
Reading: The Best Short Stories of Modern Age
Last film seen: This Is The End
Gadget: iPhone

Although a turbulent six-month semester abroad saw Isabelle Siegrist living in Puerto Madryn clash from time to time with her host family, it made no difference – she’d already fallen for Argentina.

The Swiss set designer says: “The first time I came to Argentina was on holiday in 2004 with my mum – and that was already after I had decided that I wanted to spend some time here. My mum had some extra days off work and suggested that we went for it, to take a look. I didn’t know at that point where I would be staying, or where my host family was from, it was just about us travelling together.

“We had a mum-and-daughter trip and went to Buenos Aires, visited Iguazú and it was a lot of fun. And I thought that BA was the coolest thing in the world so I expected that for my semester abroad, I would be in Buenos Aires. But as things never turn out as you expect them to, I ended up living in Puerto Madryn… which was an interesting experience! It was really good for my Spanish as down there no one really speaks any English, and I went to public school. But I had a bit of a rough time with my host family as they were not prepared for a 15-year-old teenager girl who wanted to meet boys, party and make new friends. And I also didn’t have the understanding for Argentine families that I have now; my family is pretty liberal and I think there’s a big bond between us but we don’t always need to have dinner together. So my host family didn’t understand I wanted to have friends. And that caused some trouble between us. That was for six months…”

Despite the tender age that she left Switzerland for Argentina albeit on a short-term basis, Isabelle says there was a sense of curiosity within that brought her here. “I really wanted to see the world and felt I was bored in Switzerland – I wanted to have an adventure. I felt it was like now or never. I couldn’t see myself doing much and I wanted a change. Going to the US wasn’t an option; what would I do if I was put with a host family from Iowa who was against abortion? And Spain seemed too close. But I’d read an article about Argentina and knew there was a lot of European migration so I wouldn’t be the weird person. If I moved to somewhere else in South America, I obviously am not Latin but at least here, I felt I wouldn’t attract too much attention.”

After the initial foray of living in Madryn, Isabelle then returned to Basel to finish high school but quickly found herself in the same routine as before, even when she started university. Then the possibility of undertaking an internship in audiovisual location research in Argentina emerged, and the plan was to stay several months once again. That led to something more permanent, and four years on she is still in BA.

“I was only 20 years old but they gave me a lot of responsibility so I discovered quickly that this was what I wanted to do. And after that I thought I should maybe go back to uni. All my friends had already graduated aged 21 and I panicked a little. So I signed up here. I thought it would just be for a semester and that I’d transfer my points to somewhere back in Europe, but I ended up doing it all up here, and I’m just finishing now.

“I tried to sign up to a public school but the degree there lasts eight years and I thought, ‘I’m not going to be a doctor!’ So I study at a private one, as I didn’t want to graduate aged 30!

“Private school is full of super rich kids, and I think a lot of them aren’t used to working. And as much as I struggle with some subjects – musical comedy! Oh my God. I hate it – I still just do it. I don’t like that lazy attitude. On the other hand, a lot of them started at 17 while I was 21; I’d waited on tables, worked in bars and in theatre, so I didn’t like the spoilt rich kids’ attitude. Until last year, I didn’t make many friends there!”

Isabelle says she has always had a connection in BA, although she admits to having a problem with macho attitudes and trámites “or anything that takes forever and is inefficient. But I’ve always felt very at home, and have from the first day, that I can do a lot in this city. I don’t say that I belong here, as I don’t think I’m going to spend my whole life here, but it’s definitely a good spot for me.

And now that all that remains to hand on at university is a thesis next July, Isabelle says she is considering moving on, while admitting it might not go according to plan as per her other decisions. “I haven’t figured out where to go next, but I’d like to be closer to my family, and somewhere where I can earn a bit more money. I can enough here to maintain certain costs but if it’s about paying for a flight home I have to ask my parents for some help.

“But my friends have also become my family in these past four years, and they are a mixture of Argentines and expats. I’ve always felt settled in my Spanish so never had the need to have just Argentine friends. In the first year, I probably had more expat friends but it got more mixed I got sick of the expat thing of people coming and going. And if someone is new in town they obviously come with a lot of dollars, and they live a standard of life that you can’t maintain if you earn in pesos. If you don’t have to study or work, I can’t blame anybody for wanting to party here if they are only here for three months!”

“Buenos Aires is now so like home for me, I feel like if I left I could come back any time. And it’s the same in Basel – things might change, some people might be there while other might not but it’s still home. But I think it’s time to look for new shores.”

Apart from her friends and family, one thing Isabelle misses from Switzerland is a sense of personal safety. “I really miss walking quietly on a street and feeling safe. And cheese! That you can grab an EasyJet to Berlin and Barcelona really easily. The fact that you can earn money easily; here you need to do 500 different jobs. And also the mountains. I’m not patriotic about my country at all but looking and the Alps and breathing clean air. Plus the quietness – it’s hard to find a quiet space in Buenos Aires and that’s why I like to live contrafrente. Though the kids make a lot of noise in my swimming pool. Sometimes I’m just a grumpy old lady!”

Over the past four years, Isabelle has lived in various areas such as Abasto and Palermo. But there are two for which she holds particular affection. “I loved Chacarita as it was the first place I rented on my own and it felt like growing up. The place was beautiful but it kept raining inside and the landlord wanted to raise my rent. I didn’t want to pay more for rain. Then I moved to Colegiales and I love that too. I have everything I need on Elcano, and like the fact it isn’t Palermo. There are more families and shops that sell useless things. It feels like a village.

“My cat moved in with me when I lived in Chacarita. It was a small apartment but I totally wanted a cat. One night I was online and found him on an adoption site – I saw this cat with three legs and thought ‘perfect’, he wouldn’t need too much space. So I went to get him, and this lady gave me this dirt ball with no voice and I did think ‘shit, what do I do?’ I thought she was giving me a cute kitty but it was a three-legged tiger. He turned out to be the sweetest thing in the world and really grateful for having a home. And that’s how our friendship started. He can be obnoxious in terms of demanding attention so friends either love him or hate him– there’s nothing in the middle. He’s called HDR although to my Argentine friends he’s known as Miguel. And when I do leave, I won’t be going anywhere without my cat.”

Buenos Aires Herald, December 14, 2013
Ph: Mariano Fuchila

If you’ve enjoyed this piece, why not meet Katherine, the teacher with a pet.

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