At 22, I thought a career in diplomacy would be my way to make a mark on the world. Propelled by vague dreams of joining the foreign service, I moved back in with my parents to save up and spent the next year planning my trip. Then at 23, I boarded a plane for Buenos Aires. After enrolling in a Spanish immersion course, I quickly landed a gig teaching English and later scored an internship at the Embassy.
On the surface, this post-collegiate sabbatical sounds exotic, but apart from happening on the other side of the equator, it was your typical 20-something's tale of life in the big city on a thin budget. You buy a one-way ticket to anywhere, pick up a few jobs, have some fun, make some mistakes and plot your next move.
You also learn about priorities, like whether to spend four pesos on an empanada or splurge on steak frites for 15. And when the money runs out, you learn to like Ramen noodles, grateful for the stash left behind by the Korean exchange students. Such were the learnings I absorbed at the time, although it would take years to recognize the real lesson I got out of Argentina.
Writing under the pen name Isak Dinesen, Karen Blixen shared more eloquent reflections on life abroad in her book Out of Africa. Opening her memoir about running a coffee plantation in British colonial Kenya, Blixen began, "I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills."
And I had a year in Argentina. As with Blixen's quest for independence, this crucible would test my mettle, but as the months wore on, teaching inspired me less than tourism did. My funds dwindled as I combed the beaches in Punta del Este, watched polo in the pampas, and rode horses through the Andes. But eventually my time ran out, and just as Blixen's great escape to Africa led her right back to Denmark, mine brought me back home to Dallas.
I tried to think of ways to get myself back there, but slowly realized that for me, running off to Buenos Aires meant getting away more than going forward. In retrospect, chasing the fantasy had been easy. Facing the future is what took courage. So, accepting that a rare season was over, I decided to forgo graduate school (and the debt it would entail) and find a job instead. And on letting go of that adventure, I was also able to start a new one: I soon met my husband, started my consulting career and eventually we started our family.
From the vantage point of 20 years later, I wouldn't go back to that fork in the road and take a different path. The life I have now is worth more to me than what might have been. But the memories linger, and I'm surprised how events that seemed important at the time have faded while small details grow more poignant.
Not all of the memories are good, either. Like Blixen, I began my journey by hanging my hopes on the wrong man, and the loneliness of being abroad magnified the pain of the break up. But the highs made up for it. Not the highs from the Mendoza Malbec and Marlboro reds, but the thrill of landing jobs with nothing but my own two feet and a resume, of mastering public transportation in a foreign metropolis, and of finding love again when I thought I'd lost it for good.
Beyond these fleeting moments, what endures is the growth that happened through contact with so many different people. People like Carola, my Italian study partner and friend for life. And Georgina, the senora who taught me the value of dressing for dinner, giving gifts and being charitable to starving students. Even the people I once hoped to forget remain in my mind because they were part of my story -- and because of that, they have a place in my heart.
As Blixen concluded in Out of Africa:
When in the end, the day came on which I was going away, I learned the strange learning that things can happen which we ourselves cannot possibly imagine, either beforehand, or at the time when they are taking place, or afterwards when we look back on them.
Looking back, what I got out of Argentina had little to do with going abroad and everything to do with coming home. Now at age 42, I know that adventure is more a state of mind than a destination, and there are many routes to making a difference. Also, dream jobs you pass up can manifest in unexpected ways later in life. Whether pursuing international diplomacy, running a home-based business or doing something in between, whatever impact we have on the world is most likely to happen through relationships.
Influence comes not only from what we do, but also from how we make others feel in our presence, especially when they most vulnerable. I don't recall a single name from my days at the Embassy, but I still remember Claudia, who gave me a teaching job and a warm winter coat to survive that freeze in June. And Beatriz from Liechtenstein, who would accompany me to the Hard Rock Café in Recoleta to eat nachos when I got homesick. And Tomomi, the Japanese student who took pity on me for my poor diet and stuffed me with her delicious ratatouille. Twenty years later, these random acts of kindness are among the memories I cherish the most.
You never know how much you may change somebody's life just by showing up in it. Beneath the inconsequential interactions of daily living, there is an energy we exchange that can't be measured or understood, but makes an imprint on us just the same. Even temporal connections can leave a lasting impression.
I used to cry over Argentina, but I now smile that it happened at all. I may never get to see those people again, but they are still with me. Our moments together are woven into the fabric of my life. They had an impact -- not because of what they accomplished, but because of who they were, and who they helped me become, too.