After two months living abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina, you begin to notice routines. Each day, my host family grumbles about President Christina Kirchner, the kiosk worker praises the genius of or, depending on a recent result, bemoans the lack of effort of Lionel Messi, and the neighbors yell Spanish obscenities at each other outside my bedroom window. On Thusday through Saturday nights teenagers go to the bars and the boliches, or dance clubs, until 6 in the morning or later, traveling in packs of inebriated friends. Each night, television pundits argue passionately about the future of Argentinian football, about the success of the most recent transportation worker strike, about the upcoming presidential election in October, and about the most recent meeting between Pope Francis and President Kirchner. All these rituals patch together a framework for the Argentine identity, and it is the most ubiquitous national tradition that unites the disparate cultural elements of the country: the Argentine dinner.

It is during dinner where the news of the day is reviewed and picked apart, and when points of contention are found, opinions are argued wholeheartedly. Underlying most dinner conversations is a tone I have rarely observed in my home country, the United States; whether criticizing the corrupt politics that are embarrassing the country, touting the world-renowned players that are returning to the Argentina Football League, or comparing the great musicians of tango and Argentine rock, every Argentine I spoke with exhibited an intense pride in their nation. With a history of autocratic and nationalist governments (e.g. the Perón regime and the current Kirchner government), World Cup victories (in 1978 and 1986), and a rich culture of music and literature (e.g. tango and Jorge Luis Borges), Argentina holds itself to an impossibly high standard of greatness and distinction on the global level. The tension between the idealistic expectations Argentines hold for their country, and the reality that almost always falls short, sets the tone for the unique dinner conversations that I grew to know so well during my time abroad.

While breakfast is often no more than a factura, or a pastry, and a cup of coffee, and lunches are spent casually in the cafes that populate the street corners, dinners are customarily carefully prepared meals that are attended by all members of the family. The meal begins late, typically between 9 and 10 PM, and the conversations often extend late into the night, as the meal moves through several courses, including soups, salads, various cuts of beefs, wine, and a small dessert (often accompanied with dulce de leche, a sweet caramel-like sauce that is omnipresent throughout the nation). Argentines rarely like to spend much time talking about their careers, as jobs seem to hold a more secondary role for the identity of the people, especially when compared to those of Americans. Instead, dinner is typically spent discussing the most prominent current events in the country, mostly in relation to the global image of the nation. Generally in Argentina, the individual ego is replaced in importance by the fragile ego of the nation.

Argentine TV shows often mimic the dinner conversation setting, with round tables, old family photographs on the wall, and glasses of wine in front of the pundits. Talk shows typically spend an hour and a half discussing the same topic in a level of depth that would astonish the average American. The television talks are not limited to political experts or talk show hosts; in many cases, roundtables include actresses, singers, and athletes, all well-educated enough on Argentine current events to hold their own in marathon arguments on live TV. Unlike in the United States, the spheres of cultural interests are not segregated in Argentina; from music to sports to politics, all aspects of the Argentine lifestyle unite to form a distinct national sphere, bonded together by a feverous patriotism. It is at the dinner table each night where Argentina’s cultural milieu is enlivened, and the national ritual of the dinner conversation glues together the country’s social fabric.