Born: Oxford, UK
Lives: Palermo Viejo
Education: Spanish and Portuguese Literature at King’s College London
Profession: Clear communications expert
Book: Los enamoramientos by Javier Marías and The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker
Film: Begin Again
Gadget: My Kindle – a lifechanger!
While her first visits to Argentina were in the name of romance in the early 1980s, Joanna Richardson made it a more permanent move by 1985. Having lived most of her adult life in Argentina, the British clear communications expert resided in Salta for several years before making Palermo Viejo her home.
Joanna says: “It’s kind of embarrassing when people ask me why I came to Argentina but I came here for a man – and it’s embarrassing because I consider myself a feminist. I met my husband-to-be at a neighbour’s house in Oxford, where he was studying for an MPhil in agriculture.
“We started dating in 1981, then I started university in London and Luciano went back to Argentina. The first time I came here, we went to Salta. We drove all the way there in a huge truck that broke down. The fan belt broke and I had to do the rustic thing and fix it with my tights. Then he wanted to show me some mountains in Catamarca, but of course it was dark. And it didn’t stop raining for three weeks; it was like 100 Years of Solitude and Salta was just like Macondo. It was the journey from hell and I said I’d never do that again.”
After four years of long-distance dating, Joanna finally took the plunge to be with Luciano in Argentina. She says: “After my degree, I hummed and hawed about moving here, but I came in 1985 and went straight to Salta where Luciano was working on a family farm. In the beginning I used to say I was French, rather than English, until things got more relaxed.
“Porteños are always horrified if you live in the ‘interior’ but if you’re foreign, it’s an amazing way to get to know a country. I also learnt great Spanish as no one spoke English. Once you make one good friend, then their whole group immediately opens up to you and I think it’s harder to meet new people in Buenos Aires.
“Salta was small then, totally different from what it is now. We lived in the centre and Luciano would travel out to the farm. I taught English and set up an institute, called St John’s, which is still going, and we lived there for six years.”
Moving to Buenos Aires in 1991 was rather more of a culture shock for Joanna, and it took a while to adapt to living in the capital for several reasons. She adds: “As I’m from a small town, I could get my bearings in Salta – I had a bike, then a motorbike then a car – and was introduced to people fairly quickly. But in Buenos Aires I felt like I didn’t know anybody apart from my husband’s family. I was dropped in at the deep end as it were, and I have to admit I didn’t feel settled in Buenos Aires until I had a job. I found it harder to adapt to the capital than to Salta.”
Joanna has two sons, one of whom is currently studying in the US and she says she undertook some research on the topic of having bilingual children. “It was important for me that they felt comfortable in both languages and I‘ve always made an effort to speak English to my sons as I felt they wouldn’t be able to understand my family otherwise.
“They went to bilingual schools and what I’ve noticed about bilingualism is that you don’t spend your whole time in one language or the other but in fact it’s topic based. For example, if we’re seated around the table talking about football or politics it’s going to be in Spanish. But if we’re talking about science, we’ll probably chat in English.”
With regard to her professional life, Joanna has worked for Argentina’s largest law firm for 14 years. She says: “In 2002 I was asked to work in clear communication at Marval O’Farrell Mairal to teach their lawyers to write in plain English. I continue to work there but have also expanded my interest in clear communication into teaching people public speaking skills too.
The old Palermo
Following her move from Salta to Buenos Aires, Joanna and her family considered various neighbourhoods before settling on Palermo Viejo. She says: “When we moved here, it wasn’t fashionable, in fact people would say ‘where do you live’? but we liked the plot of land that was unusual, so we went for it. Our block is still relatively unscathed by gentrification. We still have two mechanics and a carpenter who lives next door, so they are resisting trendiness.
“We don’t really go out in the neighbourhood and at the weekend I hide because I can’t bear it! But on the other hand I’m glad people have jobs and the place has come up in the world but it’s not easy being a resident in Palermo Viejo. One advantage to it being trendier is it’s a lot safer. In the old days, you’d come home at 1am and there was no one on the streets. And we now have a proper bus that goes through our neighbourhood – the 39.”
In her spare time, Joanna enjoys going to book club, and sits on the board of an organization in Rosario that helps people with mental health issues, among other activities.
“I’m in an English-speaking book club with expats who are, in general, married to Argentines. But I don’t consider myself an expat, more of an ‘expatigrant’ – I don’t have an expat lifestyle and have definitely made my life here. I’m also a member of the University Women’s Club which is basically a social club for any university-educated woman who enjoys speaking English. We published a book two years ago, while I was president of the club, a guide for people coming to live in Buenos Aires whose proceeds go to Apaer, an education charity.
“I’m also on the extended board of The Clubhouse in Rosario. Everyone is a member and has a job to do and will ultimately get a job. It’s a very interesting and empowering project.”
“I’m also working up to doing some running – I’m much better at walking! Other hobbies include creative writing: I was in one very active group for three or four years, a strong and lively group of seven women. And I recently undertook a creative writing course with Rachel Engleman at The Walrus bookshop in San Telmo. I also quite like making chutney – it’s quite therapeutic, chopping things up.”
Joanna has retained close links with friends she made during her Salta days, but in England she has more friends who used to live here and gone back than she does university ones. “People who’ve remained in the same place their whole lives don’t get someone like me, and you have a scratched-record conversation – you can’t have a real friendship so I have relatively few friends in England now. You move on and change and they haven’t, and they can’t imagine your existence, though there are exceptions obviously.”
After almost 30 years, Joanna is now an Argentine citizen, a decision she took in 2013 to be able to vote. But her most Argentine characteristic is with regard to her caffeine habit. She says: “I’m probably a little more touchy feely than most English people! But one habit I have is drinking a cortado – no one else in the world has that. My sisters always tease me, saying ‘Joanna needs her cafecito’ – I definitely enjoy that!”
The Oxford native returns to the UK once a year and says it’s a lot easier to keep in touch these days. “I used to send a fax to my mother every Sunday and it was a nightmare arranging phone calls. The fact that communications are better makes it a lot easier. And British Airways has a direct flight – that’s really nice.
“But I do miss a good curry – I’m not quite convinced by any of the curry houses here. And I do miss a certain quality of light you particularly get in the summer, that slow gentle light. The weather is amazing here, in general, but the light is harsh. I’ve heard other people say they miss grey days – but I’m not that masochistic. I enjoy having good weather here.”