Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Impressions of Chile

View of Stgo from Sta. Lucia in 2004

Me atop Sta. Lucia during our August, 2004 trip

My husband and I with the in-laws. August, 2004 Quintay--everyone's favorite "caleta" (little fishing port).

I recently stumbled upon several blogs written by “gringas” living in Chile. They had just done a group post on first impressions of Chile. Reading them brought back so many memories of things that I loved about Chile and things that drove me nuts. Margaret of Cachando Chile initiated the idea to celebrate her 18 years in Chile. She invited to me write a post about my first impressions. You can find links to all the posts on Margaret’s post and read what they have to say. These gringas already mentioned quite a few of the impressions I also had, so I tried to cover a few others.

In 1996, I had recently graduated from college with a double major in English and Spanish. I had exactly 4 months of living “en el extranjero” under my belt—a semester abroad in Guayaquil, Ecuador. That is all it took to get the travel bug—that unique rush that comes from seeing the world from a different perspective. I almost went back to Guayaquil to teach English, but at the last minute I found a teaching job in Santiago and decided to try a new country.

I left the U.S. headed for Santiago, Chile on July 4th 1996. I arrived at about 1:30a.m. July 5th. My first impression was… BRRR! It was raining and much colder than I had expected—even knowing it would be winter. It has been over 12 years since I first arrived in Chile (lived there for almost 4, now married to a Chilean for almost 8 years, with visits to Chile). Some of my initial impressions are nebulous at best, and perhaps even tainted from having so much contact and undergoing that process in which the novel becomes quotidian. But I still have a list of what I consider to be my impressions in those first months.

Water: you can drink it! After living in Ecuador where we were repeatedly warned not to drink the water and I was terrified for the first few days even to brush my teeth, it was a relief not to worry about that. I usually prefer bottled water for the taste, but I have drunk water all over Chile with no problem at all.

Pay to pee: though I had become accustomed to… shall we say, “unpleasant” bathrooms, (and I developed a strange sense of pride that I can “do my business” virtually anywhere) I was not accustomed to paying to use them. In Chile, I was surprised to find that I had to pay (100 pesos) to use a bathroom almost anywhere. If there is a bathroom, there is almost always a bathroom attendant, standing vigilant, receiving your coins, and many times doling out a ration of toilet paper (sometimes not enough).

Plumbing: also bathroom related is dealing with old-city plumbing. I was a little surprised to find that in most places I went in Santiago, you were not supposed to flush “confort” (toilet paper)—no matter what you had done with it. Even today, when my father-in-law comes to visit, I remove the trash can from the guest bathroom. (shhh!)

Egg soup: my first meal in Chile was scrambled eggs, made for me by the owner of the pension where I lived for my first few months. She “cooked” my eggs in literally ¼ cup of oil for literally 30 seconds. I felt so bad trying to explain that I like my scrambled eggs cooked until almost dry. When the gringas from work went for breakfast at a nearby café it took us a few weeks to “train” the café staff on how to cook eggs to our liking. They jokingly called it “huevos a la gringa”. But no, seriously what is with eating raw eggs? (Though I don’t mind the egg white in a pisco sour.)

Peeling: What is up with peeling fruits and vegetables? I can see it from a sanitization point of view—but if you wash produce well, I’m pretty sure peeling is unnecessary... plus it is SO much extra work. Besides, most of the vitamins, minerals and fiber are in the peel. My husband’s family thought I was inept in the kitchen for a long time because it would never have occurred to me to peel the tomatoes for an “ensalada chilena” (tomato and onion) when I offered to help the “asado” preparation. They changed their minds when I made Christmas dinner one year with turkey, breadsticks from scratch, and a homemade strawberry pie.

Prices: While Chile is not the cheap deal that some other countries are, it is still mostly cheaper than the U.S. Especially produce! Here in Texas, our Chilean friends joke about the cost of a red pepper. Paying US$3.00 for one artichoke hurts when you remember seeing a street vendor selling 10 artichokes for 1000 pesos (about US$2). Books, on the other hand, are outrageously expensive if bought new. I remember the pain of paying 20,000 pesos (about US$50, then) for a book by Octavio Paz on Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz that I just had to have (and which I still haven’t read... but whatever…)

Wine: my taste for wine was born in Chile. I like heavy, full bodied Chilean red wines. I am sometimes disappointed by wines from other wine-producing regions. I loved trying new wines in Chile. Even though Chilean wine is more expensive in the U.S. (than in Chile), for the quality in its price range, it is a great deal. My husband and I will soon be making our own Chilean Carmenère.

Eternal Pololeos: Chileans date FOREVER… I first discovered this in one of my classes. I had a boyfriend/girlfriend pair in the same class who had been dating for over 7 years. I would soon come to find that this was fairly normal. They both had good jobs so money wasn’t the issue (though sometimes it might be). They were thinking about marriage, but just weren’t really sure. They ended up breaking up. My Chilean husband and I dated for over 4 years. After about 3 years when he still was still squirmy about taking it to the next level (whatever that was—didn’t even have to be marriage) I told him I was going back to the U.S. for grad school. He followed soon after that on a fiancé visa. I won't flatter myself by saying he couldn't live without me... I'll let you come to your own conclusions.

Psychotherapy anyone? Everyone is depressed. Living in a city where people work long hours, commute on packed buses and metros, deal with smog, lack of green spaces, play spaces etc, it seems logical that Santiaguinos are stressed, but I have never known so many people who are depressed, in crisis, and seeing a therapist—it’s almost a fad. Of course I have never been to NYC…

Idiosyncrasies: every country/culture has its own funny little contradictions, but I was surprised to find that Chile was one of 2 or 3 countries where divorce was still illegal though it has since been legalized (2004). While that was surprising, I was floored to find out that though you could not get a divorce, you could get an annulment, even years later, with kids and all, if there was something as silly as a wrong/fake address on your marriage certificate.

Race: I have heard on more than one occasion that Chileans are not racist (like all people from the U.S. are assumed to be) because… (are you ready for this)… there are no black people in Chile (which is true btw). If you ask Chileans if Chileans are racist they will say no, but (without getting into a discussion of what constitutes race and what issues of power and dominance constitute racism) they will also tell you that they dislike the Chinese, Peruvians, Argentines, Bolivians etc. And if you look Mapuche or have a Mapuche last name, you will be at a distinct social disadvantage in Chile.

Class: though Chileans do not consider themselves racist, they readily admit to being classist. Class is evident in all aspects of life: how you talk, how you dress, what high school you went to, what university you went to, what newspaper you read, what neighborhood you live in etc. While U.S. English has a plethora of words to call some one an idiot, Chilean Spanish has just as many to call someone low-class (rasca, roto, picante, ordinario) or a snob (cuico, pituco, etc.).

PDA: everywhere!

Gypsies: I have a slightly horrifying story for later.

The best thing about finding these blogs is that I don’t feel quite as ambivalent about moving back to Chile (at some future date) as before. There are a lot of things I love about Chile, but I also have had a lot of reservations about relocating there. Seeing how “gringos” have made a place for themselves long-term in Chile has helped assuage some of those fears. (Just don’t tell my hubby--there is still some negotiating to do).


Danielle said...

Wow! What an insight to Chile. It's always interesting to learn anything about a different country. As always, I enjoyed reading your post. Thanks for sharing :)
So are you a picante or a pituco? LOL

Isabel said...

you seem to have covered it all! so, why are you coming back?? no no, just kidding!

i love to read your first impressions that came before many huge changes here in CHile and then think back to my first impressions that came after so many changes--even transantiago!

i am still shocked by how long people date here. I know many people who are together after 6 years and are under 20 and then I know many more people who have had 2 long-term relationships like that and are under 25. I see the merit in it though because they're almost mini-marriages without having the get divorced and since it's Chile, it's most often without having to move out of your house or apartment since both were living with their parents ;-)

mosey along said...

Great glimpse into immersing yourself in a different culture. I mean, I moved from Canada to California (which sometimes can seem like a different planet), but I don't think the culture shock was as extreme. :)

And you KNOW I'm going to keep hounding you til you tell the horrifying Gypsy story.

Really fascinating post.

mosey along said...

btw, I'm really glad you added a blog roll.... I love seeing who other people are following....