How Argentines Know I’m From Somewhere Else

During my semester abroad in Buenos Aires I often had moments where I was not recognized as a foreigner. This may be because I was simply walking on the street and there was no way for passers by to tell, or perhaps because I was saying very little and trying to act inconspicuous. I am lucky to have an Argentine physique and complexion – my hair is a light brown, but still passable, I am extremely short, have brown eyes and European heritage just like so many Argentines – so I do not stick out immediately as an extranjera. Sure, my accent often gives me away, or confusion over simple procedures such as checking out at the grocery store (who knew you have to weigh your fruit before getting in the check out line?!), but what really blows my cover is the 32 ounce Nalgene that I carry with me at all times.

Travel Expat Culture

It seems so innocent!

In my family, we always drink tap water. Except for locations where the tap water is unsafe to drink (such as in Morocco and Peru), I have never been willing to pay for water. In addition, I really like to drink water. I’ve heard you’re supposed to drink 8 cups a day – well I drink that and then some. And then some more. So it is useful for me to have a water bottle with me at all times, because a thirty minute bus ride without a drink of water can be torture, and you can always refill.

I’ve also used my Nalgene with great success for years at soccer practices, sports games, movies, hikes, and more. Moreover, in the United States, especially for young people, this is an entirely common occurrence. In my college classroom back in the U.S. more than half of the students will have a water bottle out on their desk, and more often than not it is an (unnecessarily) large Nalgene (even I can’t drink 32 ounces in an hour).

But here in Argentina – and most likely many other locales – this is not at all the norm. My host siblings have commented more than once: “It’s practically a pitcher!” and “You drink that all by yourself?” and “But, why?”. One of my UBA tutors observed that all the Americans he had tutored owned one of these things and expressed surprise when I told him how common they are on college campuses.

It’s really just a question of taste and habits (well, what isn’t?), for Argentines may not understand my affinity for tap water or large containers, but no Argentine would ever question the huge amount of maté – the herb tea that has its own special preparation and traditions – that many consume on a daily basis.

In the meantime, every time I pull out my Nalgene for a drink on the bus, I am very aware that I have betrayed myself to be a foreigner. And in spite of that, the water bottle stays with me.

Is there a product that has betrayed you as a foreigner when traveling abroad?

__________

For more on Freedman’s semester abroad in Argentina, click here.

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119 comments

  1. This was fun to stumble upon. I’ve been living in Buenos Aires for 3 years and like you, I too fit in with the hair, skin and eye color…it’s my just not quite right Spanish that gives me away. After living here for so long, a favorite past time of my roommates and I (who are from the States) is “spot the American”. Fun times. Hope you enjoyed your study abroad experience!

  2. Hmmm… The North Face coat, Camelbak, small unusual handbag (like, really small and not of a ‘popular’ brand) give me away… IN MY HOME COUNTRY! I don’t necessarily stick out physically, though I certainly don’t fit the norm for looks, but some people still stare at or question me for my demeanor and the aforementioned accessories. I guess it’s confusing to see someone not so different, yet different. When in the U.S. or even Europe I guess it’s the not wearing sunglasses when it’s all hot and bright, as most do. I was told such is the case in Cyprus, too.

  3. Freedom betrays me everywhere I go.

    But, that is a product won by the blood of many men, women, and children. And one Palestinian Carpenter not many remember is the reason for this Christmas season.

    Enjoyed your blog!

    Ghost.

    But, about Nalgene? Is it really a great water bottle? Or, just a great marketing campaign?

  4. Aside from curly white hair, Harry Potter glasses, and inability to learn a new language, I can’t imagine why people think I’m not a local. After all, I always try to drink local beer!

  5. I do love my Nalgenes. I started using them 10 or 11 years ago when I was doing lots of climbing and hiking. They survive tumbles and drops that would usually put a leak in standard plastic bottles. Guess I was ahead of the curve when I’d use them in high school? Haha

    1. You probably were – and congratulations for that! I remember receiving my first nalgene when I was about 8 or 9, but I didn’t consistently use one until high school. I only became a fanatic recently though!

      1. Nalgene is great, I have just bought two cantene shaped ones for camping. They fit much better in your backpack and if you have a military cantene cup they fit perfectly. Also I freeze my bottles and place in the cooler so I get double duty, keeps my food cool and when they melt I have some ice cold water. In the winter you can put hot water in Nalgene bottles to use as you would use a hot water bottle!

  6. Even if I am an American citizen, I grew up abroad with Salvadoran parents. So when I briefly went back to the US, everytime I was invited to a party I liked to dress up and wear a skirt or dress and maybe heels. In Ohio, people were wearing nike shorts and sneakers and the same tshirt they had been wearing earlier the same day. I would like to note this is a college crowd I’m talking about.

    1. Interesting! Is it pretty common where you grew up for people to get dressed up before they go out? As a college student myself I know that I put very limited effort into my appearance when I’m going out – but I think it depends on the college campus.

  7. While I’m an obvious visible minority in Japan (blonde hair, blue eyes, heh), recently one of my Japanese friends told me I’m “such a foreigner” for carrying a travel mug around in the morning. I was a little surprised – Japan has the 2nd most Starbucks in the world, after America – then I realized she was pretty much right. At the morning staff meeting in my high school, I am the ONLY teacher holding a travel mug, or really any mug. I can’t verify this but I imagine coffee mugs are quite common in teachers’ staff rooms back home, heck, most of my teachers carried their mugs to class in the morning when I was in high school! It’s a small thing, but still I couldn’t believe it took me over two years to realize it!

  8. Sweatpants. When I lived in Spain if I even stepped out my front door in them I gave myself up as a hopeless sloppy American.
    I guess something stuck though because I’ve been back in America 6 years now and I only leave the house in sweat pants if I’m running. Or if I just can’t get out of my PJ’s for that Saturday morning cup of coffee….but I can still feel my Spanish friends staring and wondering what’s wrong with that weird American…

  9. I don’t need a product to give me away. I’ve been in India for 10 years and I often forget that the reason people still stare at me is my skin color. I feel like I blend in because I’ve been here so long and I can get around easily, bargain with auto drivers, often wear local clothes, etc. But white skin sticks out when you live in a place where most people have very dark skin.

  10. I never blend in for style, not even at home :)
    But I usually get asked for directions wherever I am (a part from Japan), so I guess I have a way of blending in, without actually mimicking… Interesting experience: I never thought a water bottle could make such a difference!

    1. Hmm, I’ve never owned a nalgene bottle but I saw lots of yanks carrying them. When I lived in Mexico, I was often called an American but more often Puerto rican or accused of having Hispanic parents, neither which are true for me. It was curious at how readily people were to categorize you. Human nature I guess.

    1. I somehow can’t reply on your reply, freedman, so it hopes it makes sense anyway if I reply here. Sigg is a swiss company and their bottles are mainly made from aluminium. Very durable, suitable for hot and cold drinks, for carbonated drinks as well as coffee or tea, without the taste going into the material.

      1. That sounds great! I only put water in my nalgene because I’m worried about the taste lingering from other drinks. I don’t know if I could switch though, I’m pretty loyal to my current water bottle…

  11. On my first work day in Ireland I made everybody laugh… Back in Germany the system of bottle and can deposit had been introduced long ago and I had totally forgotten that you can indeed just bin them if you haven’t paid a deposit. So on my first day, after drawing a bottle of water from the vending machine and emptying it, I asked my work irish fellows, where I could bring the bottle back and how I would get the deposit back. The whole concept seemed quite new to them and with shaking heads they where still making fun of “those weird germans” (thinking they would get money back fot rubbish). Well, this did not actually betray me but I felt pretty dumb :-)

    1. It always takes at least one day to learn from our mistakes and blend in better. Practice makes better – unfortunately what is fine in one place doesn’t necessarily translate to another so it can be a slow learning curve.

  12. Great post. I would say anything that is slightly different from the norm, or anything that betrays local consumption – clothes, camera, brand of book bag, travel size Kleenex, wipes, triple antibiotic cream, carmex, Vitamins, Emergen C packs and the like and book reading in an attempt to blend in or hide. Most folks can instantly spot a gringo from gringolandia or a European tourist.

  13. Hi! Im from Argentina, Buenos Aires. The main reason we don’t drink tap water it’s because since we where born doctors told our parents that it’s better to drink the bottled one…and the confusion goes on and on, besides, the taste of it it’s very different.
    Anyway, I think that carrying one of those it’s great, if you think in a eco-friendly way.
    Hope you enjoyed Argentina.

    1. That definitely makes sense. One of my main reasons for carrying the nalgene is certainly for the environment – not wasting plastic or my own money on bottled water! And thank you, I’ve been enjoying Argentina immensely.

  14. I brought a Bobble with me to the France and Spain because I wasn’t sure about drinking their water. I have some stomach issues so I just wanted to be sure. Granted, I always got weird looks when I pulled it out of my purse to take a swig.

  15. In UK we have a green-man for cross the street and a red-man for stay where you are. I betrayed myself as Brit when I hung around waiting for the US grey man to turn green, but that was only the first time as I got off the bus from LAX at Santa Monica. It is all to do with that “turn right on red” rule. I took only one time to learn. Now it is my mid-Atlantic accent (a result of listening to AFN as a teenager in the 1950s) that reveals my English roots. Excellent Post.

  16. So true! If you’re trying to blend in trade the nalgene for a thermos and it’ll look like you love you some mate. I studied abroad in buenos aires also. Enjoy it. Truly one of the best cities in the world. How is the good ole UBA these days?

    1. Good point. Though the thermos’s that people here use are huge – much bigger than even my nalgene. La UBA is great! Still pretty disorganized, but some professors are taking the initiative to streamline what they can, which is nice for us American students.

  17. Hi – great blog post.

    Yep, sticking out like a sore thumb…I can empathise with that. It’s usually when I am in warmer climates and people take note of my “skin that is like milk”. I’m from northeast England, so my skins starts off a blue translucent colour, moving to Lobster red in the heat. I literally look like a sore thumb :-)

    I was interested to read about your 8 cups of water a day…you may be a victim of an urban legend. You can probably half that intake and more with a proper balanced diet. See here for on of many articles on the topic: http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/story/2012/06/08/water-eight-glasses-myth.html .

    So, you may be able to down-size after all ;-)

    Happy travelling!

    Charlie

    1. Thanks for the link! Urban legend or not, I am a big fan of my water. I’m not sure if it’s necessarily the healthiest option out there, but I am pretty positive that Argentines do not drink enough, so I’d rather err on too much!

  18. Nalgene!! I’m teaching English in Germany and the students are always curious about my giant plastic jar. I was groomed by the Utah desert to drink water whenever the opportunity arises. Now I’m just the camel girl.

  19. I love this blog post! I’m an overseas traveler too, but it reminded me of a funnier situation that happened in America. I’m from Milwaukee, but went to do relief work in New Iberia following the Rita and Katrina hurricanes. I went out dancing one night. I met some other women in the ladies room, and we chatted as we waited together. One girl said, “You’re not from here, are you.” At the time I had very long dreadlocks; a hairstyle that I never saw in Louisiana. I pointed at my hair and said, “How can you tell?” The girl said, “Your shoes.” I looked down. Everyone around me was wearing cowboy boots (a style that would look so strange in Milwaukee!) and I had on my dancing sandals. : )

  20. When I was young, I went ‘hiking’ through Europe. That’s what we called visiting London, Paris, Rome, Madrid … I didn’t need the heavy big lace up hiking boots I bought at home in Canada. They absolutely marked me as a tourist. lol

    1. So true! Other people have mentioned the fashion and shoes in particular as being a give away. If you’re walking around one of those cities in hiking boots you can’t help but stand out. But they are so useful on the mountains!

  21. I’m guilty of lugging a huge Nalgene everywhere. Although I recently bought two smaller 16oz., one to keep at work, and one for every other time I go anywhere.I was in Iraq for a total of 3 years and in the army, you’re required to have water on you at all times. Thus developed my water-carrying habit. So don’t feel bad. Anyway, I’m pretty sure a fanny pack or floral shirt would wave the foreigner/tourist flag for anyone.

    1. One of my friends has a 16 ounce nalgene that she has named “Baby Nalgene” – I’ve been thinking in investing in one because they are more portable, but that seems like quite a change. I like being able to share!

  22. Hello! First and foremost, congrats on being FP’ed :)
    I bumped into your blog as I was giving a perfunctory look at the PF ‘board’ here on WP. Being an Argie myself, I couldn’t help rushing the link open to see what was inside.
    It’s always interesting to see how the little things give us away; even, as you well say, as one goes around the place quietly. I’ve been living in São Paulo (Brazil) for over three years now, and there are still things by which you can tell me from the locals ;)
    Just a question: what’s with being “extremely short” making you look like an Argentine? Did you think our women are that small? Funny.
    Cheers!

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I have definitely noticed that Argentine women are shorter on average than American – but the point that I was trying to make is that I am not extremely tall, which is a huge indicator for being a norteamericana, and thus I tend to blend in a little better than my friends who are over 5´7¨.

  23. I’ve read that most Americans hate water and love sodas like Pepsi and Coke. It is refreshing to read someone that actually likes water. I like water. I hate sodas.

    But I do not drink as much water as you do. A bad habit on my part, I think.

  24. Nice post!
    Well I’d say for me my number one betrayal which screems out ‘i’m a foreigner the BACKPACK! I’ll actualy be visiting Argentine next and debating whether to take a backpack or a suitcase with me… Not because I’m trying to disguise myself (like that would ever work!) but because I need extra space to bring back lots of alfajores!!

  25. Ah yes, the ageless Nalgene bottle. I’ve had a few of those myself, as I’ve traveled the world wide. A more true companion on the trail, I do not know of. Nor comrade of hydration in lands so dry. Good to see a piece pay homage to the bottle, even if it cost you your anonymity. Nicely done.

    1. Sometimes it`s the clothes, but often it`s the behavior. You may think you`re blending in, but more often than not you stick out like a sore thumb without even knowing why! I`ve been in Buenos Aires a few months and I`m sure there are plenty of times that has happened to me, nalgene out or not.

    1. Sounds like it made for a good story though! I only advocate for nalgene use when the tap water is potable – otherwise definitely stay safe and pay for a bottle! Not worth the sickness that seems so inevitable…

  26. Funny! When I spent a summer in France back in 1997, they mostly said they recognized Americans by cargo shorts and tennis shoes. Years later I read a joke in my husband’s GQ: “How do you say ‘cargo shorts’ in French? – You don’t.” Ironically they’re what my husband probably wears most :)

  27. I am studying abroad in Italy right now and the same thing has happened to me here when I carry around a Camelbak. I think people are just so accustomed to buying water bottles here, it struck me as strange too because I would never pay 1 euro for a water bottle a day when I can refill my own for free and the tap water is safe to drink. I have also been to Peru twice and experienced the same thing there even though the water is unsafe to drink!

    1. I completely agree! When the water is safe to drink it`s practically immoral to pay for bottled water, in my opinion. I´ve never tried a camelbak, though I own one – I use mine more for hiking than for just traveling around a city. But I can see why that might make you stick out in a crowd of locals!

  28. Funny how one little thing can tip off cultural differences! Haha, I’ve also experienced this when I traveled back with my family to my mom’s home country of Indonesia. Most of the locals assumed I was Australian (maybe by the way I dressed?) while they thought my brother was a native Indonesian! It still boggles me to this day how he got away with looking like a local while I exuded “foreigner”…who knows!

  29. I love that! My family members have been Nalgene carriers for years. We even have a camping photo of about 20 Nalgenes lined up on a portable table. I’ve now converted over to Kleen Kanteen (and rather feel like a traitor :P), but water always goes with me!
    I wore flip flops during my backpacking trip to Europe. I know, terrible, but they were soooo comfortable I couldn’t give them up just because people would know I “wasn’t from there!”. Plus, they pack SO light! :D

  30. At the summer camps I’ve worked at (in the US), Nalgene’s are the mark of a true, hardcore camp counselor. During the first day off, all the new counselors realize the error of their water bottle and go to a sports store and get a Nalgene. When returned, the experienced counselors demonstrate the indestructability and hardiness of the Nalgene bottle – which still holds up post BPA. We’ve dropped bottles from at least two or three stories. While it may be out of place in Argentina, it’s right at home at summer camp.

    1. Thanks! The women really do wear their hair really long in Argentna, even older women. Especially compared to the United States where it seems to me that hair gets shorter as you get older, it took a little getting used to for me.

    1. I know what you mean! Fashion in Buenos Aires was a really big deal. Whenever I walked around in my soccer clothes I felt like I was definitely missing out, and most of my friends bought trendy black peacoats for the winter months to blend in a little better on the street.

  31. My stiff Scandinavian hips will give me away on any location with a night club where people wear can wear open-toe high heels in the middle of damn winter. London excluded. Pneumonia and frostbite here does not seem to bother people as much.

    1. Yeah I can only imagine! Like I said, I don´t stick out necessarily as a foreigner physically in Argentina, but I know a lot of other American students who struggled with that. Nothing you can do about it! I wouldn´t want to give up the dry-fit shirts either.

  32. Not a product but my accent. I looked like the locals, but the moment I opened my mouth to speak (even in the local language) my accent was a dead give away that I was a foreigner. This didn’t help when trying to bargain with the street vendors!!……..Although I’m surprised at the water bottle experience for you in Argentina, I wonder if perhaps it is a dead giveaway for foreigners travelling abroad in almost any country?

    1. It´s definitely possible. I think my extended stay in Argentina gave me a chance to notice it much more than I might have in other places that I have visited, even if it´s equally strange.

      Accent is always a dead ringer!

    1. Those are certainly typical tourist behaviors. I still peer closely at street signs after a few months in the city – and the same in New York where I grew up! It´s all about your confidence in the peering, I think.

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