The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

RANDOM NOMAD: Antrese Wood, American Expat in Argentina and Artist on an Epic Expedition

Place of birth: Pomona Valley Hospital. I grew up in Claremont, California — in fact, my mother still lives in the house she brought me home to.
Passport: USA
Overseas history: Honduras (San Pedro Sula): 1986; Argentina (San Antonio de Arredondo + Villa Carlos Paz), 2010-11 + 2011 – present.
Occupation: Artist (painter).
Cyberspace coordinates: (art site + blog); @antresewood (Twitter handle);  Antrese Wood Artist Page (Facebook); and Antrese Wood (Pinterest) — see “A Portrait of Argentina” board.

What made you leave your homeland in the first place?
A friend of mine in high school asked me to go with her to an American Field Service (AFS) meeting. I went because she didn’t want to go alone. I had no idea what it was, but after the meeting I thought, “Awesome! I’m in!!” I ended up going to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, for six months. I didn’t speak a word of Spanish when I left. I memorized the three questions I thought I would get asked most: What is your name, where are you from & how old are you? Unfortunately, I got them mixed up. When someone asked “What is your name?,” with a huge smile I would answer: “I’m 15 years old!” By the time I left, my Spanish was pretty good.

I didn’t travel much until after college, and I didn’t practice my Spanish, so I lost most of it. After college, I got bit by the travel bug again. I would go anywhere if I had the chance. I worked in the video game department at Disney for years, and got to travel a lot with them — all over the US, Vancouver, Montreal, London, Paris, even to the South of France. On my own, I went to South Korea. I also lived in Alaska for a short while (not a foreign country but compared to the Los Angeles culture, it might as well be). At one point I decided I wanted to do a semester with NOLS (the National Outdoor Leadership School). I choose their semester in Patagonia, and thinking this was my last chance to see South America, I spent a few months exploring Chile, Argentina, Peru, and Ecuador.

Indirectly, that is how I met my husband. A friend was worried about my traveling alone, so she introduced me to her friend from Argentina (“even though she doesn’t live there, she can at least give you a few phone numbers just in case…”). Years later, my new Argentine friend introduced me to my future husband.

Which brings me to why I left Los Angeles to live in Argentina: I fell in love.

Wow — that’s some wanderlust! So is anyone else in your immediate family “displaced”?
No one else in my family is displaced. My mother and I both travel as much as possible, but my brothers and sisters are happy where they are.

Can you describe the moment in your Argentinian life when you felt the most displaced?
My husband and I first lived in a tiny town called San Antonio de Arredondo. It’s in el campo — literally, the countryside. But when you move from Los Angeles to a town of barely 5,000…you call it the boondocks. Some friends rented us their quincho (guest house) while they were out of the country. It was in a new neighborhood with few other houses and lots of empty lots. Green and beautiful, but no natural gas, no phone lines…and worst of all, no Internet!

I was used to 24-hour access to everything. The Internet, grocery stores, restaurants…everything. Another thing: San Antonio and Carlos Paz (where we currently live), both honor the siesta. Everything closes between 1:30 and 5:00 p.m.

It was quaint and beautiful at first, but I got tired of riding my bike to the next town to check my email. I’m completely dependent on the Internet. It was in those moments when I admittedly thought “Oh my god, what have I done!?” When we moved to Carlos Paz, the first question I had about the apartment was: “Does it have high-speed Internet?”

And does it?
YES IT DOES!!!….yay!

Now that you have Internet access and are feeling more at home, is there any particular moment that stands out as your least displaced?
As I contemplate this question, a series of images and moments flashes through my head: our house filled with friends for an impromptu dinner; the huge smile on my husband’s face when he cooks for a crowd (he loves it!); looking at the clock and being surprised that it’s already 4:00 a.m…. A big cultural difference is that you can call friends for a dinner, and within an hour or two, your house is filled with all your friends and all their kids. There is always room for just one more.

If I had to pick one event where I didn’t feel displaced, it would definitely be our wedding. It was the best of both worlds. Friends and family from the US, along with about 200 of our “closest” friends from Argentina, came to celebrate. We had a huge asado (barbecue), lots of wine, dancing until 6:30 a.m.

Sounds amazing. And now you may bring one curiosity you’ve collected from your adopted country into The Displaced Nation. What’s in your suitcase?
Really? only one!?

I’m tempted to pack some fernet, but I’ll bring my mate instead.

Drinking mate is a national pastime in Argentina. The mate is a hollowed out gourd that you fill with tea leaves called yerba. You add hot water and drink the tea from a bombilla (a kind of straw with a filter at the bottom). Typically, it’s shared with other people — one person serves the mate to the circle. Drinking mate plays an important social role; it’s the preferred excuse to get together and hang out. “Let’s have a mate” really means “Let’s hang out and chat for a while.” Most gas stations have a hot water dispenser at exactly the right temperature, and almost any restaurant will fill your thermos regardless of whether you eat there. They understand the importance.

There are various subtleties to preparing mate (sugar, no sugar, with mint, water temperature, etc.), and the opinions on how to properly prepare mate are strong and sometimes fiercely debated. When a person drinks mate alone for the first time, its like a right of passage into adulthood. When my husband came home and found me drinking mate by myself, he said: “AHA!! now you are an Argentine!!”

Let’s move on to food. You are invited to prepare one meal based on your travels for other members of The Displaced Nation. What’s on your menu?

Now we’re talking! This one is pretty easy:

Appetizer: Empanadas — dough filled with just about anything and then baked or fried. They’re a staple here. A common filling is ground beef, olives, hard boiled egg, paprika, cumin and salt. My favorite is the árabes, which is ground beef “cooked” with lemon and aromatic spices.

Main: Definitely an asado: various cuts of Argentine beef, and lamb. The meat here is so good, people are surprised how much flavor it has. Typically the only condiment used is salt. (Argentina would be a difficult place for vegetarians!)

Dessert: We could have ice cream — call and have it delivered (yes, they do!!); but I think I’d prefer to introduce you to alfajores from Las delicias de Mamushka. An alfajor is like a cookie sandwich: two cookies made from cornmeal, filled with dulce de leche. I never liked them until I tried Mamushka’s. Now I’m addicted.

Wine & after-dinner drinks: A nice Malbec wine. I like Trapiche. A few hours later, after dessert and coffee, an ice-cold Fernet con Coka.

And now you may add a word or expression from the country you live in to The Displaced Nation argot. What will you loan us?
There are so many — again, hard to choose.

Che and “más vale!” are among my favorites.

Che is used all the time here, especially in the province of Córdoba. Depending on the context, it means “hey…” or “umm…” Sometimes, it seems to be used in the same way we Californians use the word “like.” Che Guevara is from this area. He is actually called Che because when he went to Cuba, he used the word so frequently, people just started calling him “Che.”

Más vale is equivalent to “Hell, yeah!!” — and also has a bit of “Let’s do this!!”

This summer we’ve been doing some posts with an Olympics theme. Are you planning to watch the Summer Olympics in London? If so, who will you be rooting for: Americans, Argentines, both, or neither?
I’ll be rooting for them both. In the event that the U.S. squares off against Argentina in a soccer match, I will be wearing a helmet and full body armor — and cheering for the US!

Are Agentines excited about the Games?
In general, Argentines are fanatical about sports. Especially soccer. Messi is a God. During the World Cup, It seemed like every man, woman and child in this country was wearing a blue-and-white striped #10 jersey. We went to a  friend’s house to watch a game. Normally busy streets were completely deserted. The city had literally shut down. There was an eerie silence occasionally broken by simultaneous cheers erupting from the houses and (closed) shops. During national playoffs, you see grown men sobbing uncontrollably after their local team has lost. The first time I saw this, I was flipping channels on TV. As the camera switched from one sobbing man to another, I thought there had been a national disaster. So, yes, I think it’s safe to say that there will be plenty of excitement about the Games!

The Olympics gives me a segue way into your 8-month project to paint Argentina. That strikes me as being an Olympian feat. Can you say a little bit more about it?
Now that you mention it, it is an Olympian feat! The project is called “A Portrait of Argentina.” I will spend eight months visiting the country’s 23 provinces, traversing something like 15,600 miles, painting portraits of the people I meet. I’ll listen to their stories and then paint en plein-aire, the scenes from their daily life. I’m hoping to deliver a cultural portrait of my adopted home.

When did you first conceive of the project?
The idea came out of a period of misery after I left Los Angeles to live in Argentina. The first year I lived here, I saw everything from a touristic point of view. It was quaint, beautiful and…a little quirky. But the second year was more difficult. It was no longer cute and quirky; the honeymoon was over. I made unfair comparisons and was judging everything. My normally optimistic and upbeat attitude shifted to “This sucks.”

I had two obvious choices: go back to California — or change my outlook, appreciate all that is good, and stay. My husband (fiancé at the time) left it up to me (no pressure, eh?). We could pack everything up and head back to Los Angeles, or I could give Argentina another try.

I realized that much of my misery was self imposed. It came from the fact that I had not integrated and was spending the majority of my time alone, working out of the house. You can’t love anything until you take the time to develop a relationship with, and really get to know, it. Here I was, on an adventure of living in another country, and I wasn’t even willing to give it the time of day. What a wasted opportunity!

As I integrated myself more and became determined to learn as much as I could about Argentina, I started taking classes at the university and began developing this idea about painting my way across the country. Painting has always been my way of making sense out of the world. It forces me to pause and really look at my subject.

Is the project having the effect that you’d hoped — is it improving your attitude?
Just by researching the project, looking for “known” and “unknown” people and places, I have a new-found appreciation for this country. I’m realizing how easy it would be to say I know Argentina because I’ve lived here for two years. The fact is, I know a lot about one region in one province of a very large country, and a little bit about a dozen other places. A native New Yorker and a native Alaskan may live in the same country, but they are culturally worlds apart. The same can be said for a Porteño (a person from Buenos Aires) and a person from La Quiaca near the Bolivian border. Same country, worlds apart.

I’m also overjoyed that so many people here seem excited about my project. Obviously, I’m super excited about it (it’s my baby, after all), but when I share my vision with Argentines and their response is equally enthusiastic, it’s just amazing.

I’ve barely started, and already my outlook has changed. I’m owning the project in a way I didn’t at the start.

What do you hope the project will ultimately accomplish?
“A Portrait of Argentina” is both a personal and a professional journey. I expect to be surprised, challenged, and profoundly affected by it. I’ll be seeking out people from diverse backgrounds, looking to honor those who have dedicated their lives to their passion and whose work positively impacts others: scientists, athletes, artists, musicians, teachers, even the abuelita (little old lady) on the street corner. It’s a collaborative project, and I hope to involve as many people as possible. Luckily, the people I’m meeting are quick to offer help and introduce me to others who might want to participate.

Do you ever feel daunted by the scale of the project?
Argentina is a huge country so I’ve set myself a very ambitious goal to cover this much ground in just eight months. When I break it down into small chunks, it feels manageable. When I think about its entirety, it’s overwhelming.

Finance was another daunting prospect. When I first thought about the funds it would take to get me to and from so many places, it seemed completely insane and impossible. I decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign with a $25k goal. Kickstarter is all or nothing, so if I didn’t hit the goal, my five-week campaign would end with $0.

There were days when I did let the campaign get to me and was sure it would fail. To keep going, I would sometimes just think, okay, how can I raise just $100?

In addition to a herculean effort by family and friends, I was fortunate to have some key influencers get excited about the project and promote it. In the end, with just 17 hours to spare, I made my goal!

I’m sure I will have some of these same feelings on the road, but I’ve developed a number of tactics to deal with it. I don’t give up easily. Besides, there are too many people supporting me and cheering me on. I know it will be hard, but am I ready for it? Más vale!!

Readers — yay or nay for letting Antrese Wood into The Displaced Nation once she’s finished her travels for her project? Tell us your reasons. (Note: It’s fine to vote “nay” as long as you couch your reasoning in terms we all — including Antrese — find amusing!)

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s episode in Libby’s Life, our fictional expat series set in small town New England. (What, not keeping up with Libby? Read the first three episodes of her expat adventures and/or check out “Who’s Who in Libby’s Life.”)

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, with seasonal recipes, book giveaways and other extras. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

Related posts:

img: Antrese Wood displaying her intrepid travel skills on the Machu Picchu trail in Peru. Her comment: “I thought the Follow the Arrow sign was hilarious because 1) the trail is so well marked I cant imagine anyone getting lost; and 2) this was the one and only sign on the trail and it was near the end of the four-day hike. The other hilarious thing about the photo, at least to me, is that if you look closely, you can see my knee is bleeding. I had just spent 80 days carrying a backpack two-three times as heavy in seriously remote back country, no trails, no markers, nothing. We had to sign a waiver acknowledging the understanding that if something should happen, it could take a helicopter up to a week to arrive. I made it through without a scratch. Here, on this comparative cake-walk, on a perfectly even trail, I fell for no apparent reason and totally skinned up my knee.”

12 responses to “RANDOM NOMAD: Antrese Wood, American Expat in Argentina and Artist on an Epic Expedition

  1. Matt Krause July 11, 2012 at 2:16 pm

    Excellent interview. I love Antrese’s comment about the importance of letting go of the old, and getting out of the house to experience the new, in adapting to a place.

  2. Antrese Wood July 11, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    Thanks, Matt! I find that it helps to at least be conscious of your pre-conceived ideas. An Argentine friend made the observation that my perspective as a ‘norteamericano’ who is living here is unique, and shouldn’t be ignored. I see his point, at the same time, I don’t want to miss seeing what is, instead of what I think should be.

    You lived in Turkey, what is your take on that issue?

    • Matt Krause July 11, 2012 at 6:28 pm

      My take on that issue is that living abroad is a great way to exercise the “don’t see things as you wish they were, see them as they are”-muscle. That’s a very useful muscle to know how to use, whatever part of the world you are in, including when you go back to your home country. When I keep that muscle in shape, it helps me a lot with my personal relationships and also with expending my energy on the few things I can affect, instead of wasting it on the things I can’t, which by the way is the vast majority of things in this world.

      • Antrese Wood July 11, 2012 at 9:08 pm

        Excellent point. Travelers and expats alike get a crash course in this, but it really does have a broad application. I’m looking forward to this incredible journey, and I’m also excited to see how your trek across Turkey goes! Suerte, Che!!

      • ML Awanohara July 11, 2012 at 9:21 pm

        Interesting! In some ways this discussion thread is reminiscent of the debate we had in response to our last Random Nomad, Melissa Stoey, when I said she might be romanticizing her memories of Britain — by her own admission, she is an incurable Britophile! Antrese, are you afraid that could happen to you, as you go around Argentina — you may end up feeling the hospitality people show to outsiders and hence not seeing the real place? But then, how does one see the real place without becoming a country expert — by that I mean someone who is more Argentinian than the Argentines, more Japanese than the Japanese, etc. I’ve met many such people in my time and, while respecting their expertise, have no wish to become such a person.

        As I mentioned to Melissa in the comments, there’s a debate I have constantly running in my head: do those of us with the itch to travel tend to be romantics rather than realists? Are we always thinking the grass is greener, at home or in the country abandoned? Are we permanent malcontents? After spending so much time on two small islands, England and Japan, I have to say I identify with the romantic camp… I have such nostalgia for both places these days! My realist-muscle has atrophied. 😦

        • Matt Krause July 12, 2012 at 10:11 pm

          Hi ML, my take on that is that we usually think the grass is greener, and we are permanent malcontents, but that those ways of seeing the world are deeply embedded in the genes of all humans, whether they are travelers or not. The best we can do is try to steal momentary glimpses of what the world looks like when it’s not being colored by those lenses.

  3. Kate Allison July 11, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    I got distracted when I got to the bit about ice cream delivery — fabulous! But I’m blown away by the project of painting your way round Argentina, and absolutely love the portraits on your site, especially “Guillemots”, which strikes a special chord for me (no pun intended) at the moment 🙂

    “Yay”, obviously!

  4. Antrese Wood July 11, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    I still can’t get over the fact that you can have ice cream delivered here. How awesome is that?! We had one of those impromptu dinners a week or two ago. We all made fun of my husband when he left the house at almost 3AM to get ice cream. “They wont deliver this late, but I know they are there….” The house erupted in applause when he came back with a kilo of ice-cream. Restaurants close at 1:30pm so people can eat lunch with their families, but you can get ice cream in the middle of a cold winters night. They have their priorities straight!

    Thanks so much, for the vote Kate, I’m glad you like my work! Guillemots is one of my favorites too 🙂

  5. Tony James Slater July 12, 2012 at 1:28 am

    Wow, that does sound like an epic adventure! Kudos on the Kickstarter, that’s an amazing amount of money to raise. It’s keep you in Empanadas for a while :0)
    Good luck with it – I think you might become quite famous as a result! That surely can’t be a bad thing…
    My vote is a resounding ‘YAY!’

    • Antrese Wood July 13, 2012 at 8:07 pm

      Thanks for the vote, Tony!

      Kickstarter is deceptively simple, because the behind the scenes workings aren’t obvious. I imagine it must be somewhat similar to how it must feel on “who wants to be a millionaire” it is so theoretical at first, and then at a certain point it becomes very real. But the campaign was definitely a full time job while it ran.

  6. awindram July 12, 2012 at 9:23 pm

    Re: ‘che’, does that make Guvera a proto-Valley girl?

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