It always starts with a little bit of an awkward silence. After all, the passengers are strangers and as the driver the last thing I want to do is annoy them by talking their ears off. I confirm the destination, lock my phone in place, and adjust the radio. My silver Corolla and I have made over 100 Uber trips now, so I’m very at ease with the role. It’s relaxing – mindless, even.
More often than not, riders will initiate conversation, which I appreciate. We talk about the weather, the Bucks and the Packers, weekend plans, music, etc. It’s small talk, mostly. Although there is one question I field far and away more frequently than any other.
“So how long have you been driving for Uber, then?”
It’s a simple enough question that I could answer directly – I’ve been driving for about two months now – but such a quick response causes conversation to fizzle. I’ve learned to frame my answer in such a way that all but guarantees an interesting exchange with my passengers.
“Well I’m a teacher in Greendale, so I really just do this on the side. I started two months ago when I moved to Milwaukee after spending a year in Uruguay.”
Where the conversation goes from there is up to the riders; the two simple sentences have sparked all kinds of interesting discussions.
“Oh, you’re a teacher? What do you teach?“
I teach Spanish at Highland View Elementary School in Greendale, a suburb just south of Milwaukee.
“Wow. Spanish in elementary school?”
Yep. I teach Spanish to Kindergarten through 5th grade students, about 375 students in all. Each student has Spanish three per week, at 25 minutes a crack. It’s amazing what they are able to retain at that age.
And I really, really enjoy it. I’m in a top-notch school district, the staff has been very helpful, the families are supportive, and the students are excited about school. And besides memorizing 400+ names, I don’t think I could possibly quantify just how much I have been able to learn in my first two months here.
I don’t envision myself teaching elementary-aged students forever, but the experience has been unquestionably positive. The students stretch my creativity, grill me with questions, test my patience, and provide me with an endless supply of stories that will make you laugh, cry or both. It is motivating and fulfilling – all you can ask for with a first job, really.
“And what do you think of Milwaukee?”
Milwaukee is great! It’s a fun city that has something to offer everyone. Plus my sister, her husband and their four month-old son, Declan, are in the area. Not to mention the high school and college friends who live close, too.
I mean who wouldn’t wanna see the little guy as much as possible, right?! My family and friends, here, have really gone above and beyond to make me feel welcome and help ease my transition back to the Midwest. It has been so appreciated!
“Oh and did you say Uruguay? Did you really live there?”
Sometimes I find myself in disbelief, pondering those same questions. Uruguay… I was really there. I lived there for eight months. The memories are as vivid and as real as ever, but it’s still difficult to wrap my head around all that I have experienced in the past year.
March 20, 2018 marks the one year anniversary of my arrival in Montevideo. Likewise, today marks three full months back in the Motherland. I’m tempted to say that my time in Uruguay flew by, or that it feels like forever ago that I was even down there. Nevertheless when I really stop and reflect upon the experience, the moments add up quickly.
There was my first glimpse of the rolling hills from airplane window and the ride into the city that first day – the crashing waves of the Rio de la Plata on my left, the dense Montevidean skyline to my right.
Soon came my first chivito, which I enjoyed in the company of my fellow Fulbrighters. Then I had my first taste of dulce de leche, and my first mate coupled with my first taste of a South American soccer rivalry, a clash between host Uruguay and big bad Brazil, our neighbors to the east.
There was my first trip on a Montevideo city bus, my first time listening to cumbia, my first gulps of Patricia, and my first walk down La Rambla. Not to mention my first six hour trek to the country’s northern border, my first Nuñez family asado, nor my first day teaching in a Uruguayan classroom.
The moments add up quick… and that was just my first week. How could anyone possibly expect me to be able to articulate what eight months in Uruguay were like during a seven minute Uber ride across town? It’s impossible.
“So, like what kind of food did you eat down there?”
I could tell you about the different foods I sampled and I could even show you pictures! But I would run out of time before I had the chance to tell you about the times I made homemade empanadas with Daniel, or the pizzas we cooked up for Germán’s birthday, or the churros I picked up from Manuel in Parque Rodó, or the chorripanes I was treated to by the students in Tacuarembó.
“And you were teaching down there? What are the schools like?”
Hmmm… which of the 900-1000 classroom visits should I reference in my answer? Do I start with High Schools 6, 7 and El Pomoli whose students elevated me to celebrity status in the town of Rivera? What about the village school in Tambores, where the kids and I played football and fútbol after a full day of English classes?
I would be remiss not to mention all the incredible teachers and student teachers who were so influential to my experience. And what about the World Culture Fair in Médanos? The group of senior citizens in Tacuarembó, the pen-pal program at Liceo Providencia in Cerro, the military officers in La Blanqueada, the conference in Salto, and in Rocha, and in Rivera, and…
“And were you ever scared or nervous?”
Oh absolutely. I had do a bunch of presentations in front of big crowds. I sweat through a couple of live radio interviews conducted in Spanish. I sang karaoke in front of my host family. I was biting at my fingernails for the duration of an exhilarating Uruguay-Argentina soccer stalemate…
I mean… that’s what you meant by nervous, right? 😉
I guess I also felt nervous when the temperature started getting warmer. When August turned to September, and when September turned to October. When it came time to think about going home I found myself appreciating the bike rides home from school just a little bit more. I savored the poroto, bought more bizcochos, and stayed up talking with Guillermo a bit later.
Uruguay had become home and I wasn’t sure what would be coming next. It was nerve-wracking to wonder if I had soaked up as much as I possibly could have out of the Fulbright experience. Was I going to have regrets? Did I take advantage of every opportunity? Was I going to miss Uruguay?
“So do you miss Uruguay?”
Of course. There isn’t a day that goes by in which something doesn’t trigger a memory from my South American adventure. I hit shuffle on Spotify and all of a sudden I’m singing along to La Vela Puerca. A rainy afternoon and I’m craving torta frita. A quick swipe through Twitter and I’m glancing over the Peñarol box score.
I take tremendous pride in the fact that I know more about Uruguay than probably 99% of people in the United States. I know street names. I can tell you which buses you need to get from Tres Cruces to Punta Carretas. I know what a kilo of queso colonia should cost at the local Disco. I can name all 19 provinces…
And this seemingly “useless” information doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, because of how meaningful it was to me during those 275 days. And I’m left thinking about all those great memories long after my passengers have slammed the door…
The Cuatro Pesos concert, the basketball practices at Liceo 7, the conversations at Plaza de Deportes, the gorgeous afternoon on the sand dunes in Cabo Polonia, the time I rode a horse through the countryside, all the stunning sunsets on La Rambla…
My phone buzzes and a notification flashes across the screen: New rider request… The message brings me back to consciousness, but I know that in just a matter of minutes I’ll get to start telling stories all over again.
A las ordenes.