I've been teaching English in Buenos Aires all year. It's been a great way to get to know the local people, and hence the culture. My days, although long (most days I worked 14 to 16 hours including transit), are basically spent socializing, as Argentine English teachers are perfectly capable of teaching grammar. Those students lucky enough to have a native speaker as a teacher usually just want to converse as much as possible.
It's given me a fantastic window into how people here view their country, and the world. Although proud of many aspects of their culture, Argentines also tend to ignore very large parts of it. Very few dance, either tango, folklore, rock, or otherwise, despite having one of the most vibrant dance scenes in the world. Also, relatively few drink wine, yet their country produces some of the finest in the world, and at a very affordable price. And as with most countries, very few local people have properly explored regions outside of where they live.
Yet there is also a sense of relativism that the rest of the world could learn from. Due mostly to the number of financial crises the country has endured over the last 50 years, people don't put nearly as high of a concern on financial issues as in other parts of the developed world. Although obviously concerned about their economic well being, they have learned to concentrate more heavily on other aspects of their lives, such as family, sports, or cuisine. After all, so many people lost everything (for many, a lifetime's savings) in period of a few days in 2001, that if they hadn't looked elsewhere, they might well have gone insane. This view has been especially welcome given the current world economic situation. Despite my savings having slimmed considerably, due both to falling stocks and the falling Canadian dollar, and a very uncertain 2009 already underway, I really don't feel stressed. I have no idea how long I'll be able to travel, but people here have taught me to make the most of what we have, and handle whatever the future brings in the best way possible. Argentines have learned to be very resourceful.
An example is my landlord, who, although at an age where he should be thinking of retiring, realizes that isn't likely. Pensions here are virtually non-existent for many people. A combination of financial instability and poor governmental and/or personal management has put many in a very difficult situation. Many pensioners get less than $200 a month. To put this into perspective, my rent, for a very small room in Buenos Aires, is $290.
So, as a way to compensate, he uses what he has: A condominium with 3 spare rooms, left over from when his children were younger, which he rents out to foreigners living in the city. In this way, he makes enough to get by, but not more. Still, he has a very positive attitude towards life, always looking on the bright side. He, and many others.
The attitudes of the middle class are in stark contrast to the government. The endemic corruption and short-sightedness of several generations of politicians have brought the country from one political problem to another, of varying degrees. In the year that I've been here, the biggest was a farming strike which brought the country to a standstill. There was also an abrupt nationalization of a private pension scheme, which wrecked havoc on a banking industry already reeling from the international crisis. The private scheme was in many ways poorly planned, but it would have been hard to pick a worse time to nationalize it. Many Argentines felt it was a money-grab by the government in a time of falling commodity prices, which had severely reduced government revenue. Politicians are often accused of spending pension money whenever they please. Thus the low payments to people who are collecting pensions after they retire.
On a brighter note, something fantastic is the cuisine. Even though the most well-known parts of it involve meat, I've been able to enjoy things like fresh raviolis, which I'd never even thought of before. It's hard to describe fresh pasta until you've tried it. But it will definitely be hard going back to eating the boxed variety when I leave Buenos Aires.
Perhaps even better than the pasta is the ice cream. Argentines have really mastered it. In my neighborhood, there are about 12 gelato cafes, each with between 20 and 40 different flavours, and all reasonably priced. The extremely strong Italian influence on Buenos Aires is the source (almost everyone here has some Italian heritage), but the people here have managed to surpass the teachers, and by quite a bit!
Despite having delicious food, people manage to stay in good shape in general. This does have it's darker side, as eating disorders are extremely common, but at the same time, people appreciate the need to exercise and not over-eat. It's not to say that everyone should have the same body type, but in Canada and particularly the U.S., it's sad when someone can't walk up a flight or two of stairs without feeling like they're going to fall over.
Something else that I find interesting is that there isn't much individuality in terms of fashion here. Everyone could be more or less categorized in a similar way, in sharp contrast to North America or Europe, where people often define themselves by what they wear, especially teenagers. There really aren't many punks, hippies, goths, etc. Whether this is a good or bad thing would depend on who you ask, but people definitely take care in their appearances!