De Vuelta: Chile

Hey readers – I’m back in Chile! This means that:

  1. Chilean Immigration Officials let me into the country without issue (this is always stressful, even though I am not smuggling drugs, do not intend to overstay any visas, and am extremely compliant when it comes to international law)
  2. I have an ample supply of red beans and Mr. Smith’s coffee to tide me over for a (short amount of) time, and
  3. I’m back to ex-patriot living!

Coming back to Chile presented an interesting internal conflict. I was sad to leave home, my family, my friends, the SUMMER, the excessive amount of To-Go coffee available and the ease of acquiring hummus (see previous post about Ex-Pat Livability Standards); but at the same time, I was re-energized and excited to embark upon continued South American Adventures. My time at home was a nourishing and much-needed break for me. I am totally invigorated and bursting with motivation and ideas for not only continuing life down south, but making it unbelievably great.

That being said, Chile was a bit salty about my Winter Avoidance Tactics. So upon my return, it had a few surprises planned for me. Just so that I didn’t forget what I had left in the southern hemisphere. Sure, fly home and go north for “the summer”,Chile muttered. But when you get back, I’ll make sure you remember how it really is down here.

Not actually Valparaiso, but, I mean, sometimes it feels like this. And maybe I’m living naked and half-frozen on that island. (I should quit complaining — I’m from Ohio for god’s sake)

Things Chile Passive-Aggressively Reminded Me Of Since Returning:

  • The freakin’ gas. My roommates and I have had a number of issues with the gas here at our apartment. There once was a week-long period where we bathed using the hot-water contraption (like, for warming up water for tea) and a crock pot. When I left, I thought the latest potential-gas-leak issue had been resolved. Upon my return, I found out that the gas leak issues had multiplied. We only had to go outside to turn on the pilot light for showers before – now, we have to open and close it for cooking as well. And if we forget to close it, the gas smell gets so bad that the neighbors come knocking. This makes me think twice about turning on the stove for re-heating my coffee. The landlord keeps saying someone will come to fix it. BUT WHEN?
  • The freakin’ winter. Yep, I’m wearing parkas again. And my hands and feet are frozen all the time. The daytime sunshine is lovely and conducive to wearing only a short sleeve t-shirt. But, lest you all forget, our apartment doesn’t receive direct sunlight. And since my return, I found out my landlord posted a new set of “house rules” that expressly prohibits the use of space heaters, which was my only link to sanity prior to leaving. *cough*………*looks around*…Sorry, but…I’m using my space heater.
  • The freakin’ water. Washing dishes and hands and faces with warm water is such a luxury. The country is very resource-conservation-minded, which is awesome. But when you’re already walking around as a relatively solid American Block of Ice, the thought of applying any of that frigid water to extremities is terrifying. Even if it’s just to rinse a glass.
  • The freakin’ Spanish. That’s right, my Chilean Spanish Skills dwindled ever-so-slightly while I was cavorting about in the northern hemisphere. Even a little rust on the ole Wheel of Spanish Comprehension is a dire forecast, especially in this country. But don’t worry, my ear is adjusting. Slowly.

All this might just be the whining of an American girl who left summer at its high point and is now back to wearing parkas in August. My return has been nothing short of spectacular – this first week back has been more jampacked with fun, events, activities and new people than my entire time in Chile prior. I made a conscious effort to start getting involved in Valpo, and the returns have been amazing. The amount of art, gatherings, communities and more in this city is incredible. Since I’ve gotten back, I’ve mingled with Chilean poets, seen impromptu live music sessions, seen a super chileno Musical Comedy that made me laugh so hard I cried, been to a yoga class, went to a wallet-making upcycle workshop, attended a Couchsurfing meet-up event where I met a whole slew of lovely people, and have been host to several group meals/asados in my home (the good energy and cooking helps warms the place up, too).

A group lunch featuring America, England, Germany and France.
Also featuring carrot ginger soup, garlic flatbread, 
avocado/tomato salad and Chilean wine.
 
Me and couchsurfer Karen went to a workshop and made 
some of these (ours are in the mix above).
They’re made out of old milk cartons, tape, 
glue, random decorations and love.
And of course, daring cats mixed with street art. 
It feels really good to be back, Chile. Thank you for receiving me with metaphorically-warm-yet-technically-very-cold arms. I am looking forward to spring, and maybe, just maybe, I can take off these winter socks sometime soon.

In the meantime, I’ll keep enjoying all these awesome people and energies. Deal?

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Helped and Hindered

Life in South America has proven to be just like life anywhere else, except that it’s in South America instead of North America. And everyone speaks Spanish. And there aren’t that many blondes wandering around. And it’s hard for me to find a size 9.5 shoe. And the culinary culture isn’t that refined. And people aren’t really that into spices. And everyone kisses each other on the cheek when they meet, even when they’re strangers.

Okay, so life in South America is a bit different than life in North America. (Oh yeah — tons more stray dogs!) But since I’ve been able to re-acclimate to life north of the equator, I’ve noticed a few ways that my life overall has been helped — and similarly hindered — by my jaunts down south.

Let’s investigate some!

1. My brain learns, but in order to do so, it must forget. And this involves forgetting English. My handle on idioms, cliches and other parts of speech is at an all-time low. This doesn’t bode well, as I am beginning a venture to brand myself as a language consultant *cough cough*. Hey — who knew they were called speedbumps? Roadbumps is just as effective at getting the point across. And my future language consultancy clients will understand this. (syn: road acne)

2. I now have measuring cups for eyeballs. That’s right, I see in 3-D AND in 1-tsp increments! Due to the absolute dearth of measuring tools in the kitchen (is it just because of where I’ve lived and who I’ve lived with? Or is this an invention that really never made it past the Andes?), I’ve been forced to eyeball, size up and otherwise scrutinize every recipe I’ve ever loved including in my eating lifestyle. Thanksgiving 2012 was a prime example, and my forays into Vaguely Healthy Cookie Creation were met with varying results until I finally pinned down the non-specifically-measured ratio a couple months ago.

Well, close enough. 

3. I am a tad more resourceful. Now, I don’t want you all thinking that I’d be able to fend for myself in the wild, because I certainly can’t, nor can I start a fire, always operate doors or change the gas tank for that damnable space heater in my Chilean living room. However, I CAN think around certain situations where common household items are lacking. For instance, are you making mashed potatoes? Were you scouring your new kitchen for a potato masher, only to find out that not only do you not have a potato masher, you also don’t have anything resembling a bowl in which you’d like to mash? No problem! Find one of those drinking glasses with the uneven bottoms and get to work! Serve AND eat the mashed potatoes out of the same pot you cooked it all in, and to top it off, don’t use napkins (because nobody buys them) and just use the dish towel. Hey, you might be asking, that’s a pretty good idea with the dish towel. Where did that come from? The Argentinians!

4. I speak great Spanish now. Finally. Also, I can understand almost any Spanish you try to throw my way. Thanks, Chileans.

5. I speak hodgepodge Spanish. As in, Mexican-Chilean-Argentinian Spanish. My accent shifts between all three, freely utilizing vocabulary and expressions from three distinct cultures. Someday, this will get me into trouble.

6. I am losing my grasp on normalcy. Some might argue this has been a long time coming, but I assure you, taking the leap has hastened this demise. I suppose ‘normalcy’ is a term that can be argued until the alpacas come home (what?), but living life this off the grid has certainly shifted (re: completely destroyed) my paradigm. In losing my grasp on normalcy, I am finding more expansive happiness, plentiful creativity and penetrating gratefulness. More things seem possible, life feels limitless, and joy lurks around every corner. This doesn’t mean life is some effortless, non-squeaking joint that operates perfectly at every moment. But rather, I’ve come to appreciate and laud the aches and groans and squeaks and eventual functioning of these joints, because these limbs are carrying me to places — both physical and emotional — I’ve always dreamed of.

7. Questionable metaphors, like the one found in item 6, tend to be more predominant. I don’t know why, or how to fix it.

8. I will probably only ever wear black leggings for the rest of my life. No, seriously — bury me in leggings and a slouchy shirt, because that’s all I ever want to wear.

A beach in Huron, OH, complete with sunset, lake,
slouchy shirt and leggings. 

It’s up to you, reader, to decide if these items have helped or hindered!

Between Here and There

Argentina and Chile are close neighbors: in the time it would take for me to travel by car between Sandusky and Cincinnati, I had moved from one country to another. Being such close neighbors I had assumed there would be small differences but not many.  I also had assumed that, generally speaking, they would be friends. I was wrong on both accounts.

If my childhood, elementary school experiences and general politics of the world have been any indicators at all, I would have realized that those living in close proximity are usually the fiercest of enemies. Maybe enemies is a strong word here, but it’s safe to say that there exists a certain tension between Argentines and Chileans. As a matter of public opinion, both Chileans and Argentines have choice words regarding the other. Most of the things they say are the same on both ends. Both claim to have invented the asado and perfected it. Both regard themselves as slightly if not indisputably superior. I’m speaking in general terms here, the overarching stereotype of public opinion, and don’t mean to proclaim any of these things as facts or even my own opinion. However, it exists, just as unsavory opinions and undercurrents run rampant in the U.S. and every other country of the world. I’ve met as many Chileans who talk down on Argentines as Chileans who don’t give a crap and have tons of Argentine friends

Argentina, however, has a different feel. Like the Portokalos family house in My Big Fat Greek Wedding serving as a painfully obvious physical tribute to Greece, Argentina almost feels like the beacon of Europe within a continent dominated by energies more associated with “typical Latin America”. The people have lighter skin, are taller, trendier. The order and energy of the city here remind me more of Italy and Spain. Distance between countries may not be great down here, but the differences in culture, language and customs can be as different as if they were on opposite ends of the world. Chile’s neighbors alone are the perfect example: third-world Latin America to the north with Peru and Bolivia; trendy, upscale Argentina to the east; and then Chile itself, a blend of Latin America and Europe with a booming economy and first-world standards of living.

Some Notes about Argentina:

  • They chill their red wine. I’m not kidding. Isn’t this the biggest no-no of wine connoisseurs everywhere? I had thought so, until I met Argentinians who put ice cubes in their red wine. And then I came to WINE COUNTRY in Argentina and am finding both regular and chilled red wine. My palate is appalled, but being the open-minded gal I am, I shall continue the wine-tasting until I acclimate.
What you can’t see in this picture is that 
THE WINE IS CHILLED.
  • The Spanish is more musical. Being that this was a haven for Italian immigrants at some point in the past, the Argentinian accent is as melodic and enchanting as Italian. Get a group of Argentinians together and sit back and enjoy. 
  • Argentinian Spanish has its own set of frustrating peculiarities. “Si po” is replaced by “Si che”; “Weon” gives way to “voludo”. The most confounding part? Argentinians utilize the vosotros verb tense. Anyone from Perkins High School’s Spanish Club will recall that we specifically did not learn that part of speech because “it doesn’t get used that much anymore”.  Sigh. Luckily I know enough Spanish to know what I’m being asked/told/shouted/repeated for the fifth time. 
  • Purchasing one, tiny item in a store does not require four different employees and four unnamed, unadvertised steps. Chile is famous for the Check-Out Hassle; most common stores (apart from the big name chain stores) utilize the four-step checkout, which entails the following: one employee to select your item from the wall of available items, another employee to hand you your ‘check-out ticket’ which you then take to the caja (register) where another employee will handle your money, who then gives you another receipt to take to a final counter where a fourth employee will re-find your items, package them, and hand them to you. The pattern of steps and shuffles this creates across the floor of the store would look like a drunk hectagon. Phew. Learning this was irritating and confusing, to say the least. Argentina’s system is less bureaucratic – I can just wak into a store and buy what I want from one employee –  but then again, less checks and balances might be the reason why their economy is suffering at the moment. Who knows. 
  • Argentinians are physically unable to consume a meal without bread. Also, there exists a vaguely unhealthy obsession with mayonnaise. 
Plaza de Independencia at dusk.
This has nothing to do with bread or mayonnaise.
Editor’s Note: For as long as I can remember, there have been discussions, disputes and full-on linguist wars about which term is more appropriate: Argentine or Argentinian. Do I have any idea which is technically correct? No. Have I used both terms wantonly and interchangeably throughout this post? Yes. For those who would like to opine, feel free to chime in. 

The Art of the Asado

Asados (BBQ’s) are a big deal in Chile. On any given day there is sure to be at least one asado going on somewhere, within some circle of friends. I resisted them at first – being a definitive “not meat eater”, I felt the asado to be useful only as far as a social gathering tactic. When I first got here I shirked the call to the asado – I was busy establishing my routine here, testing the waters as a bonafide self-employed entrepreneur of sorts, but furthermore, I couldn’t stand the thought of standing around with a bunch of people celebrating and reveling in the slow-cooked flesh of animals.

But as time wore on, and countless invites to asados had come and gone, I decided to go to one. It’s a cultural thing, I told myself. If you don’t go to one, it’s as bad as not trying the coshari in Egypt, or the pupusas in El Salvador. I just needed to go to one to try it, to say I did it, and to participate in one of the few scraps of “true Chilean culture” in these parts. As I look back on it, I was probably more afraid of the potential of the asado ending up an addiction as both coshari and pupusas have since become, but the moral conundrum still weighed heavily on me. I just don’t like to eat a lot of meat (excluding seafood), and I certainly never purchase or prepare it myself. However, when I’m around it, I’ll try it. And if it’s good, I’ll eat a lot of it.

And here we see the inherent Conflict of the Asado: these Chileans really, really, really know how to cook meat. I am by no means a well-educated consumer of meat products, but holy crap hell god pants, this meat is GOOD. I am a believer of the idea that Chilean food is mostly tasteless, bland, and otherwise uninspired – but this belief does not extend to the food at an asado. Chileans cook exclusively with carbon – charcoal – and the art of the asado is as much a social gathering as  a richly delicious food journey.

Asado in the sun.

It took us awhile to acclimate to the pace and procedure of the asado. There were several important cultural differences, which I will explain below:

1. The Asado Never Starts On Time. If the asado is pegged to begin at 8pm, plan to eat around 11pm. Chilean time is much the same as time anywhere else in Latin America: severely lax, and more of a suggestion than any sort of binding commitment.

2. The Food Preparation is as Important as the Consumption. I got in trouble once with one of my Chilean friends when he told me to be at the asado by 7:30pm and I asked, “Well, is that when we’re eating?” The process of preparing the grill, cutting the meat, arranging the kebabs (if there are any) and engaging in all of the social activities around this process is as important as eventually eating the food. My American friends and I all shared this same outlook: in America, you show up when the food is ready, not hours before you eat. I suppose the act of cooking and preparing the meal is regarded far differently down here, and I can’t say I haven’t come to appreciate and perhaps prefer this approach. Preparing a meal to be enjoyed by your family tends to be a solitary and laborious process in the States – why is that? Think of Thanksgiving, or July 4th, or any birthday gathering you’ve had recently, and how was it prepared? Most likely by one or two people laboring quietly for hours before the event begins, where the start time of the party signals the beginning of the eating. We’ve since learned down here that you never go to an asado hungry, because you will be starving for hours sometimes, waiting for the first slab of meat to be ready.

3. Plates are Not Necessary. One of the other big differences between Chilean and American BBQ’s is the fact that the meat is consumed literally fresh off the grill, piece by piece. Once one steak or lomo is ready, it gets sliced up and everyone grabs a piece with their fingers. No utensils necessary. And then when the next piece is ready, the same thing happens. The eating takes place around the parilla, or grill; in fact, this was another hard lesson we had to learn. Luckily, one of our culturally-aware Chilean friends Ignacio was sensitive to this difference of eating behavior and brought pieces of meat to us when it became apparent that we Americans were waiting for some sort of procession to a dinner table or clearly-defined “Eating Time” during our first asado.

Because we are now medio-chileno (half-Chilean), we held an asado for Amanda’s 24th birthday this weekend. By this point, we’re all pretty skilled in the preparation for and execution of a Chilean asado, so it went off without a hitch. There was plenty of filete, lomo, salmon and papas (potatoes – not fathers) to go around.

Some friends on the terraza,
while we prepared the parilla and food.

It was a beautiful day for a birthday asado.
Happy birthday, Amanda!

And then afterward, per the tradition 
of all males in every part of the world,
we watched sports. Soccer, in this case.
The viewership was just as raucous and noisy
as if we were watching a Browns game back home.

I can say without hesitation that I am now a firm and perhaps lifelong fan of the asado. This is something of an embarrassing confession, especially given the fact that I’ve spent so many years eating little to zero meat. But at the end of it all, I regard my participation in the asado de carne (meat BBQ) as a cultural journey – I will enjoy it while I’m around it, though I do not plan to continue the frequent and all-too-delicious meat consumption permanently. The art of the asado, however, will stay with me. Friends and family back home: get the charcoal ready, because when I get back you can bet on frequent vegetarian asados, complete with group preparation, unclear start times and a whole lot of fun in the sun. 

Important Update

“Oh Shit” Moment for the week: Mexicano comes into my bar last night, we get to talking, I’m extremely excited to be using my Mexican Spanish and share that mode of connection and communication, and then in response to our comments on accents and language acquisition, he says, “But you have the Chilean accent now”.

Oh shit.

A Grateful Check-In

Here are some of the things that I am grateful for on a daily basis. We Americans love to count our blessings on Thanksgiving, but I am guilty just as much as anyone of not reflecting frequently enough upon the delightful and lovely and delicious aspects of my life. Let me begin:

1. I am grateful for the fact that Leslie convinced me to bring my winter jacket to Chile. Back in mid-October, I was stressing over the amount of luggage I’d amassed prior to our departure. I knew I had to leave something, but what? I begged her to agree with my rationalization for leaving the enormous green parka. “It’s going to be summer,” I reasoned, “I mean, one or two cold nights is fine, but then it’ll be SUMMER.” I don’t remember what the persuasive argument was that changed my mind, but I brought it along (I ended up leaving a fair amount of beads and bead containers behind – good choice) and I thank the heavens above for this everyday, because I literally wear that jacket EVERY DAY. Yeah, it’s spring here, but it’s certainly not like Spring in Ohio. The nights are still cold (though not as cold as when we first arrived), and the daytime temp swings from annoyingly sweltering in the sunlight to annoyingly cold in the shade. There was a hot spell only once, and it lasted three days. I was able to wear my shorts in the daytime on those days, but I’m not sure what happened because that weather has not returned (maybe the hole in the o-zone layer? Seems like a good excuse for any strange behavior in these parts).

2. I am grateful for Chilean Spanish. I never thought I’d say this, but I am indeed very grateful for the fact that Chileans speak too fast, use too many incomprehensible slang words, and barely enunciate anything. Why? My Spanish is getting better at an unprecedented rate, and I can only thank the mumbling locals for this. Once I can understand Chilean Spanish, I can understand anything. But I’m still working on understanding the Chilean stuff…it is by no means at a “mission accomplished” status yet!

3. I am grateful for the basic goodwill of people everywhere.Without all the kindness and generosity of countless strangers, acquaintances and more, I would not be where I am today in this country. People are always willing to help, whether it be with directions to a city, how to find a taxi,  assistance in looking for jobs/office space/apartments, and more. Once you put the word out here, it starts to circulate, and fast. This is exactly how the three of us have come to find our various employment and office space opportunities. There’s always a hand to be lent, no matter how long you’ve known someone. And that’s another aspect of it too – once you greet someone for the first time, there is a familiarity and a general sense of loyalty that extends far beyond the concept of “acquaintances” in the US. That’s not to say that every person you meet is your instant best friend, but acquaintances here tend to be more personal and more giving right off the bat, no matter who you are or where you come from.

4. I am grateful for the lax standards of business. I have never held a job in which so little was expected of me. My job duties at the Garage, the bar I started working at a couple days ago, include the following: show up at 10pm, serve drinks when asked, occasionally empty an ash tray or wash a glass, and have fun. In fact, our boss Keko tends to prefer doing most of the work; he has stopped us on countless occasions from washing dishes or tending to customers. We might just be eye candy there, but that’s okay. There’s good music and I get paid essentially to bump to the music and pour beer.

Amanda and me with Leo, the French DJ.

Furthermore, the other night I responded to a call for help from a friend here, Robert, whose sister owns a local eatery. They were hosting a late-night party for a group of businessmen from Santiago and needed help, stat. Robert and I ended up being the servers for this event, which consisted of Kareoke and an open bar. The owner was very impressed by me, but all I was doing was being a server according to American standards. American standards are intense and over-attentive; think about any time in a restaurant when you’ve had to call the server over to you and the irritation that results from not being well looked-after. Well, that lax standard of service is the norm here. I was going about my business like a typical American server and the Chilean guys seemed confused, even a bit put off. I was being pushy, in their eyes. I had to reel it back, big time. Which means more standing around, enjoying the environment, and being sung to by tipsy salesmen (one of which actually came over and sang to me, causing me to turn 200 shades of red as the spotlight focused in on just us in front of the room of raucous and hooting businessmen). Very good times, indeed! I have found that my American breeding in the job market leads to anxiety about my job performance (Am I doing a good job? Will  I get fired? Does the boss think I’m being lazy?) and a sense of obligation to consistently “prove” my worth in the workplace. These things are useless here, and just don’t exist. It was interesting to realize this difference in work standards. In adapting to the Chilean norm, I am probably unraveling any chance for success in an American workplace in the future. Oops.

5. I am grateful for the internet. Without Al Gore’s classic invention (that’s for you, Dad), I would feel inconsolably disconnected and lost down here. I am able to keep in touch with so many people in almost every hemisphere of the world, and it is this connection that keeps me invigorated and refreshed and in-touch with my home and roots. Being with Leslie and Amanda down here has been a blessing, as the first thing to bother me while being abroad tends to be the lack of someone who “gets me”; but furthermore, having such constant contact with my family and friends back home has proven to be a necessary fountain of rejuvenation for me.

6. I am grateful for Now. Enough said!!