Research shows that a smile is one of those universal facial expressions that is recognized no matter where you go. Though I don't exercise nearly as much as I should, I do like to make sure my facial muscles get a daily workout. In the United States I always smiled at people that I passed on the street; I just considered it a friendly thing to do. Usually (though not always) people would smile back.
When I moved to Argentina, it never occurred to me that my habit of smiling at strangers on the street may not be as well-received as before. In fact, I've found that flashing my pearly whites at a desconocido usually garners one of the following responses:
1) A stone-faced look of indifference
2) That expression that shows the gears are turning as the person wonders, do I know her?
3) Very rarely, a smile (usually from an older woman)
One day I brought up the topic at lunch with Daniel's family. They confirmed that most people here will not smile at you on the street, and if you grin at a stranger, the person will likely think he or she knows you from somewhere. I received an additional warning from Daniel's grandmom: if you smile at a man, he may very well think you are interested in him. I decided that perhaps I should try to kick the habit (easier said than done!), but Daniel's aunt insisted that I stay true to myself and keep on smiling.
On Thursday I boarded an overnight bus bound for Buenos Aires (photos and more stories to come) to spend the long weekend there with friends. As I settled in for the six-hour ride, a soldier dressed in the uniform of the Argentine Army walked down the aisle searching for his seat. I happened to glance up, and of course, I smiled at him (though he didn't return the gesture).
He sat directly behind me, and as I looked out the window I saw a woman standing on the curb waving enthusiastically and blowing kisses in the soldier's direction. We had barely left the station when his cell phone rang, and I overheard a torrent of passionate "I love yous" just before the interior lights of the bus dimmed and I drifted off to sleep.
An hour or so into the trip I was awakened by the jostling of the bus, and I was startled to find that my face was only a few inches from the soldier's. He had not reclined his seat at all, while mine was so far back it was practically a bed (the long-distance buses here are first-rate with seats that go way back). I asked if he was uncomfortable, and I offered to adjust my seatback, but he told me not to worry.
As I curled up with my iPod and attempted to fall back asleep, the soldier reached over the back of my seat and passed me a slip of paper. In my sleep-induced stupor and the near-complete darkness of the bus, I couldn't tell what he had handed me. I cast the light of my iPod on the piece of paper to discover that he had given me his name and phone number.
Then, extending his arm over the back of my seat, he offered me his hand, and in the suavest voice he could muster, he introduced himself: "Soy el capitán." A bit stunned by the whole La Bamba moment (and unsure of whether to laugh in his face or be completely disgusted), I ignored his proffered hand and said matter-of-factly, "Nice to meet you, but I have a boyfriend." Unfazed, the captain pressed on, more or less asking if all was well in the relationship department. Apparently neither the captain's significant other nor my boyfriend was an obstacle for him. I mumbled a response, curled up in my seat, and shut my eyes.
Note to self: No more smiling at soldiers.
[Photo credit: Amanda *Bake It Pretty*]