Inspiration

Putting Los Niños in Charge

How to Speak Spanish in Argentina

It really seemed like a brilliant plan. We would go to a Spanish-speaking country, and our children, who have been in a Spanish immersion school for four years, would be in charge. Finn and Kiki, ages 8 and 10, would grow their prefrontal cortexes, they would overcome paralyzing shyness, they would engage with a foreign culture in a profound, meaningful way. They would transform into engaged, enlightened, well-rounded citizens of the world. Because every detail of the trip was theirs to choose. Neither my husband, Devin, nor I speak a word of Spanish.

That is how, six hours after landing in Buenos Aires, we found ourselves surrounded by bright lights, startlingly loud bells and buzzers, and a hundred people trying to reason with children hopped up on cotton candy. This was the Abasto Shopping Mall. From the outside, the mall is a stunning feat of 1930s Art Deco architecture. From the inside its children’s area is a living parental hellscape.

The thing is situated on the upper floors (the lower floors are a regular shopping mall) and comprises a video arcade slash amusement park that somehow combines the wattage of Times Square with the high fructose corn syrup of Willy Wonka’s factory. I looked at my children, behind the wheels of a racecar game called (something like) Nascar Speedracer Fast & Furious Twisted Nitro, jet-lagged and sugar-fueled, delirium in their eyes. Then I looked at my husband, and saw the slumped shoulders of a defeated man, and wondered whose terrible idea this was.

Oh, right.

Speaking Spanish in Argentina
The Japanese Gardens in the Parque Tres de Febrero are a draw for families. 

We were in Argentina for a week. I have been to Buenos Aires many times, and every time I love it more. The sexy, gritty streets of San Telmo. The leafy, moneyed blocks of Recoleta. The groovy West Village vibe of Palermo Soho. It’s a city of profound character, fantastic food, midnight dinners, romantic, tree-lined avenues, and all of it, remarkably affordable.

Once we extracted our children, my husband needed — deserved — a nap. The kids and I dropped him at the hotel. We were staying at the MIO Buenos Aires in Recoleta — ideal because it has an indoor pool, so the kids loved it, and a fantastic restaurant, so we did. Then we set about exploring the area. Tucked inside a green space, just next to the stunning Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar, is a sweet, manageable trinkets market. And since my children have never seen a trinket they didn’t love, we committed.

Finn paused in front of a table covered in fur pelts made into toys. The man behind the table had thick white hair, full black eyebrows and a warm, crinkly face. He was twisting a small fur pelt into a palm-size stuffed animal when Finn approached. They spoke for a few minutes — the man’s thick eyebrows conveying as much as his words — and then Finn turned around and reported to me that, according to his new friend, we happened to be standing in front of the best place for kids in Buenos Aires: The Centro Cultural Recoleta.

We thanked the Argentine Sam Elliot and walked inside. The Recoleta Cultural Center is a bright, open, optimistic place. After Kiki consulted with the woman at the information desk, my kids decided that we should start our cultural journey at a place called Prohibido No Tocar. A play on “Do Not Touch” in Spanish, Prohibido No Tocar is a series of interactive galleries and rooms where children engage in coding, math, art, music, science, you name it. It was like the world’s most beautiful and captivating school, except the children got to be the teachers.

Walking through the cultural center, Finn came across a room made of undulating waves of gray carpet. A few people were reclining with books or iPads, but my children instantly saw static, manageable surfing: They each jumped on top of a wave, pretended to be on a surfboard. Across the hall was a room full of art supplies — the kind of place my kids have never passed without wanting to stop. For half an hour, they worked on their latest interests — Kiki sketched a wide-eyed Manga heroine and Finn drew what he imagined electrons to look like.

Dinner, and a revelation

That evening, at the suggestion of several Argentine friends, we headed to Narda Comedor for dinner. The restaurant is simple: wooden tables, spare décor and a wall of windows overlooking the park outside. The star of the restaurant is Narda Lepes, the 46-year-old Argentine chef who creates dishes that are vegetable-heavy, incredibly fresh and consistently seasonal. We were assured ahead of time that every bite would be rewarding. It felt like a very safe place to refuse the English menus and let the children take over.

A hipster waitress walked over — hair knotted up in a bandanna, a few tattoos and Janis Joplin tinted glasses. She was warm and friendly and spoke perfect English.

“Would you mind speaking Spanish?” I asked her. “My kids want to practice.”

She kindly addressed them in Spanish, and … nothing. Maybe it was the pressure of ordering their parents’ dinners. Maybe it was a combination of panic and fatigue. Whatever it was, the children froze. They stared, wide-eyed and unmoving, two tiny American deer caught in Argentine headlights.

She kindly addressed them in Spanish, and … nothing. Maybe it was the pressure of ordering their parents’ dinners. Maybe it was a combination of panic and fatigue. Whatever it was, the children froze.

“Me llamo Lucilla,” said the waitress, gently looking at my daughter. “¿Cuál es tu nombre?”

Kiki must have been rehearsing our dinner order silently because, in a voice so small only a mouse could hear, she squeaked, “vino roja?”

Lucilla graciously suppressed laughter, suggested a few dishes, and we spent dinner without speaking another word of Spanish.

But watching Kiki talk to the waitress, I learned something I couldn’t have predicted: I saw firsthand how hard it is to be a child. When you’re a kid, the world basically ignores you. Finn would ask a waiter (in Spanish) for advice on what to order and the waiter would answer me. Kiki would ask the concierge at the hotel (again, in Spanish) what was fun for kids in the city, and the concierge would nod politely, raise her gaze to adult eye level and address me and Devin. Sitting back, observing my own children, opened my eyes: I understood them better. And perhaps I’m just as guilty of discounting their opinions. They order at home; I often reorder a moment later. They speak to their grandparents on the phone; I’ll repeat their point using other words. It’s all a way of taking their power away from them.

But watching Kiki talk to the waitress, I learned something I couldn’t have predicted: I saw firsthand how hard it is to be a child. When you’re a kid, the world basically ignores you.

Speak Spanish in Buenos Aires
Despite its name, Carne Restaurant serves a notably good portobello mushroom vegetarian burger.

Wherever we went, it seemed like there was an invisible plane bisecting the room: There was the serious adult world — the place where conversations were had and decisions were made. And then there was the world below — the lesser, irrelevant space full of dust balls, trash cans, maybe discarded shoes. And the dividing line ran at about four feet eight inches from the ground — just high enough to graze the top of my daughter’s head.

I could see my children giving up, feeling like their opinion was half as important as ours. It’s demoralizing to be told, even nonverbally, that what you’re saying doesn’t really matter. So we soldiered on, Devin and I speaking less and less, the kids trying to find more strength in their little voices.

To the market, and a meltdown

Depending on whom you ask, the flea market in San Telmo is either a true cultural gem full of rare and beautiful antiques or a tourist attraction full of charming Argentine junk. Or both.

But before we could explore it, Finn decided it had been a few hours since his last ice cream cone — a wrong he was determined to correct.

Buenos Aires, I was learning, is an ice cream capital. This isn’t by chance. In the late 1800s, Italians started arriving here in droves, and today, Argentina has more Italian immigrants than any other country in the world. And when the Italians came, they brought their love of dessert. Today, you can’t really walk five blocks without finding a Lucciano’s or Freddo ice cream shop, and over the course of our week, my children would, I swear, sample every single one.

The market in San Telmo spans more blocks and piazzas than I could count. After correcting Finn’s cone deficiency, we dove in. The children were allowed to pick out one thing each as long as they had a conversation with the vendor and learned something about what they were buying. Finn learned that his golden cube of pyrite was from Spain — and also that it had magic powers. Kiki didn’t learn anything about her crystal necklace but insisted I get the same one.

The market in San Telmo spans more blocks and piazzas than I could count. After correcting Finn’s cone deficiency, we dove in. The children were allowed to pick out one thing each as long as they had a conversation with the vendor and learned something about what they were buying.

After a couple of hours, what had started as a curious, engaged meandering — past tables of small tarnished spoons; magic crystals; antique pillboxes; vintage dresses; silver stirring straws for drinking mate, the bitter tea that every Argentine drinks; creepy dolls missing eyes; a curiously large selection of straight edge razors; pinkie rings; nose rings; napkin rings; records; chairs; toys; and at least one very old phonograph — turned into sensory overload.

Spanish in Argentina
Lucciano’s is only one of the many ice cream shops in Buenos Aires. 


Looking at my children’s faces I saw a ticking clock, the kind only a parent can see, the kind that counts down to a complete meltdown.

We rushed back to the hotel as though it were a medical emergency. My daughter threw herself on the bed as if she’d just summitted an emotional Mount Aconcagua. All over the place were reminders of earlier research: maps, brochures, more maps, pencils, pamphlets, notes from the front desk.

“I hate being the grown-up,” she said — then she actually harrumphed.

“It’s not that fun to be in charge,” said Finn

They decided they wanted to go to the Japanese Gardens. There was a Manga exhibit Kiki really wanted to see. No, wait, the planetarium. Everyone has been telling them about the planetarium. No, the gardens. Planetarium! GARDENS! The monsoon was about to make landfall. On the verge of complete pandemonium, Kiki suggested a compromise. What followed was a game that could only be called Rock, Paper, Scissors, Tears.

They decided they wanted to go to the Japanese Gardens. There was a Manga exhibit Kiki really wanted to see. No, wait, the planetarium. Everyone has been telling them about the planetarium. No, the gardens. Planetarium! GARDENS!

And then, predictably (and because ice cream isn’t sustenance): “I’m hungry.”

Devin and I saw an opening. We left the hotel, grabbed cheese sandwiches at the gourmet grocery store across the street, and Devin gently suggested a museum outing. Having eaten actual food, the kids were far more agreeable — and even engaged with the taxi driver on the way.

Travel by taxi is its own mini ecosystem in Buenos Aires. The drivers speak fast, drive faster, and have very strong opinions about where you should — or shouldn’t — go. They became the children’s closest allies in their experiment. Well, Finn’s closest ally. When Kiki spoke from the back seat, her voice was so small and quiet, the driver usually didn’t even hear her. Finn, on the other hand, had his monologue perfected: “Mis padres no hablan español. Pero mi hermana y yo sí. ¿Dónde es divertido ir los niños?”

Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires — MALBA — is one of the most interesting museums in the city. It’s small: Only three floors, a few galleries on each. And the work is fun and creepy and inspiring and occasionally, interactive. In other words, each one of us was transfixed. The permanent collection focuses on Latin American art from 1900 to 1970 with works by Diego Rivera, Xul Solar, Alicia Panalba, Antonio Berni, Arden Quin, among many others.

We forgot all about panicky restaurant orders, the fast-talking taxi drivers, the endless march of “¿Qué?” whenever the children spoke. It was just the four of us and dozens of Latin American masters telling stories and histories with their art.

Back to the streets

The next morning, the kids were reinvigorated. They had a plan. My daughter asked me for my phone. She opened a few apps I never knew I had and within five minutes, she created a Google itinerary for the day. There was a map, several pins and expected walking and driving times. Not only did I not speak Spanish, but evidently I didn’t speak Google either. I felt utterly unnecessary.

Lunch that day was at Carne, a restaurant I came to think of as a high-end Shake Shack — only (and despite the name) serving the best portobello mushroom vegetarian burger anywhere. But we couldn’t stay long. Kiki’s Google itinerary had us on the move within half an hour.

My Argentine friend Astrid, who has an eco-lodge in Patagonia, had told the kids about a store — according to Astrid, the only authentic Gaucho store in all of Buenos Aires. That’s how we came to visit Aux Charpentiers. It was meant to be a browsing visit, but seeing the traditional clothes, the heavy cotton ponchos, the woven belts, the beret-style hats, the famous bombachas (lightweight, high-waisted pants that button at the ankles), it quickly turned into a shopping one. An hour later, the four of us looked like we were ready to herd sheep in the Pampas of 1887: In our linen bombachas, berets set askew and woven pastel belts, we had everything but the horses.

The next item on Kiki’s Google itinerary: ice cream. And if there were one ice cream shop I wanted to see it was this one — Rapa Nui.

In front, Rapa Nui is an elegant dream of a candy store with every beautiful sweet you can imagine (with a heavy emphasis on dulce de leche); in back is full service coffee bar; and if you keep going, you arrive at the sweetest little ice cream bar anywhere. In the middle is a small courtyard, where we grabbed a bench so the kids could sit for a few minutes and minimize the risk of their cones — huge, beautiful, fantastically sculpted cones — toppling.

“Do you realize they have ice cream in their candy in front?” asked Kiki. “And they put candy in their ice cream cones? This is the best day of my life.” Finn probably would have agreed but he was unable to stop eating.

The Galileo Planetarium was our last outing — the perfect place to decompress before a 23-hour trip home. Sitting in the dark, for the first time, I was grateful I didn’t understand Spanish — I could just look at the stars. Finn, however, felt bad for me. He tried to translate as the guide spoke about the constellations. Unfortunately, Finn is not much of a whisperer and people around us were getting annoyed. I told him he was off-duty — he didn’t have to translate anymore. In the dark, I could see his little silhouette breathe a sigh of relief and decompress.

Sitting in the dark, for the first time, I was grateful I didn’t understand Spanish — I could just look at the stars. Finn, however, felt bad for me. He tried to translate as the guide spoke about the constellations.

“Thanks, Mama,” he said. And then: “Mama?” I turned to his fine features, shadowy in profile. “I love Argentina, but can you plan the next trip? You’re better at it.”

By Danielle Pergament ©2019 The New York Times

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