What do you say to a gringo?

“This is Alex, she’s here to teach English.” I’m introduced to yet another friendly-faced relative of my host mother – maybe a cousin once removed. I no longer try to remember what the relationship is; the game of who’s who got too complex a long time ago. She has the concerned look of someone unsure how to start a conversation with a ‘gringo’, a foreigner like me. I’m told this word originates from the hopeful command, “Green, go!”, shouted at the green-uniformed US military when they ventured south of the imaginary Trump wall. By now, the hesitance of my host family’s friends and family is familiar to me. After all, what do you ask someone about whom you know nothing apart from the distance between you? Almost as a nervous habit, my host mother quickly adds, “She’s vegan”, to avoid the anticipated awkward silence. The routine shock, horror and offence quickly flash across my new acquaintance’s face. Did I mention I was in Argentina – meat capital of the world?

It became apparent that being vegan would be a problem when I received an email from my first host family with the fateful words, “We need to talk”. Were they breaking up with me before I had even arrived? No. They heroically accepted me despite my strange habit.

I first met my host family after being peeled off a sticky five-hour coach ride. I was greeted by two excited, nervous parents, and two reluctant kids – one incessantly playing with his Rubik’s cube, the other avoiding eye contact. They drove me to my new home, where we sat outside on their modern, white-tiled porch, along with their three scruffy, overexcited dogs. As we began introductions, the sunny garden was filled with laughter when I asked what breed the dogs were. All dogs in this town come from the streets and only the most persistent are adopted. These dogs don’t expect pedigree food, they enjoy their human’s leftovers. I felt sorry for them, knowing that they were about to be disappointed by my green foods filling their bowls for the next few months.

I had dared to arrive in the land of steak with no appetite for their sacred meat-filled barbecues – the beloved ‘asado’ -, nor their gloopy, sweet Dulce de Leche. More awkward still, I had been placed in Trenque Lauquen, home of the largest milk factory in the country. The large metal machinery whispered naughty, dairy-filled thoughts to me as I cycled to work every day.

As the inquisition into my refusal of dairy and meat developed, I realised the magnitude of the problem; they genuinely thought I was putting myself at risk of malnutrition. I am not new to this sentiment. Being half-Maltese, I am used to the belief that “chicken is vegetarian”, but even I found their incessant comments on my lifestyle tiresome. I started to get angry every time I was asked “why?” and “but what do you eat?”. I felt guilty knowing that my host families were having to buy expensive vegan-friendly foods for me, especially amid an economic crisis. After a month, I forgot why I ever chose this lifestyle. With no support for this choice in my new community it was hard to stay motivated or remember images of chicks having their beaks chopped off. I wanted to know what Alfajores, biscuits oozing with Dulce de Leche, tasted like. I wanted to experience the sweet-flavoured culture of Argentina.

My inner debate continued until one fateful day, I gave in. I walked into a supermarket knowing my intention. I would be leaving with an Alfajor and the end of my vegan problems in Argentina.

As I walked home, ashamed, defeated, my mouth adjusting to the exuberant sugar level, I wondered whether to keep up the pretence with my host family. Would they think me weak? Would they resent the last month of cuisine induced torture? My pride overruled reason and I became a clandestine regular at the corner shop, choosing a different flavour of Alfajor each time. After all, if I was going to eat them, I was going to find the most delicious one. My secret, at first thrilling, soon felt childish and egocentric. It was time to confess.

What was I greeted with as I finally admitted my treachery? Squeals of delight. They didn’t seem too surprised though; maybe it had something to do with the unknown whereabouts of several biscuits from their cupboard….

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Alex Bartholomew