There are few places on earth as romantic as Buenos Aires. At night, in the backstreets, couples dance the tango. Old men sit outside the bars, playing the accordion. Sad music that tells of loss, longing, and the complications of love.
I’d come to Buenos Aires with two prized possessions: my dog-eared copy of the poems of the blind poet, Jorge Luis Borges, and my folded and torn certificate for teaching English.
The day I arrived I placed an ad in the Buenos Aires Herald: “English teacher available for conversation and grammar.” A week later I had six clients. In two weeks I had 14.
We met at Cafe Tortoni—the famous fin-de-siecle coffee-house with elaborate chandeliers, art deco mirrors, and marble table-tops. And the best espresso in town.
It was the favorite haunt of writers and politicians, and some afternoons we’d hear live jazz or tango drifting from the basement.
It was a place full of ghosts. Albert Einstein had sipped espresso there, sometime in 1925. Jorge Luis Borges had spent hours there, deep in conversation with the Argentine literati.
Cafe Tortoni was selected by UCityGuides as one of the 10 most beautiful cafes in the world—and for a whole year it was my classroom.
My students were journalists, businessmen, doctors, and housewives. Mostly, we’d just sip coffee (or yerba mate, an Argentine obsession) and talk. I learned more about Argentina in those months than from any college degree or history book.
Carlos, a journalist, taught me all about Argentina’s “dirty war” in the 1970s. He was an eye-witness. Like many Argentines, he’d had a front-row seat at some of the worst episodes in his country’s history.
Maria, a newly-wed, taught me about gender roles in Argentine society. Alejandro, an entrepreneur, kept me spellbound with stories of his childhood on a cattle ranch in a far-flung corner of Patagonia.
I tailor-made language courses for each student. For Carlos, it was all about news coverage and the language of the media. For Alejandro, it was business letters, accounting, and how to negotiate.
I spent a small sum putting together a course booklet for each student, had them photocopied at the printer across the street, and then sold them for a mark-up.
Between classes, I walked through the flea markets of San Telmo, full of gramophones, clocks, and old manuscripts. Or down to La Boca, with its bright, rusted ships and rainbow-colored houses, and its bars emitting the strains of accordions and violins.
I was making good money—enough for a one-bedroom apartment in Miraflores, a 10-minute train ride from the city center.
I survived (even prospered) by living like the locals. I shopped at local markets, and ate in neighborhoods where there were no tourists. My cost of living was so low that I was able to put 30% more into my savings account than I had the previous year, in the U.K.
I wasn’t even working full-time. I’d start at around 10 a.m., take a long lunch-break, and work until 4 p.m. And my students understood if I wanted to take time off to travel.
Sometimes I’d take the ferry across the muddy waters of the Rio de La Plata to Colonia del Sacramento, in Uruguay. It took five minutes to get through customs.
I’d spend whole afternoons wandering the cobbled streets of this old fortress town—first settled by the Portuguese in 1680. Or I’d sit at a cafe table in the barrio historico (historical district), reading books and marking student essays in the sun.
And often I’d think about the incredible investment I’d made in learning how to become an English-language teacher. It had cost less than the airfare—but it was my ticket to a life in Argentina, and to all the wisdom I learned from my students at Cafe Tortoni.
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