Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Gringa Observations, or "Please don't call me fat!"

I’ve decided to celebrate this April Fool’s Day – which they blessedly do not observe in Chile – with a list of things they DO have. I just got Internet access from my darling neighbors upstairs, so I'm ready to blog at will. (Instead of paying them I’m giving the French boyfriend English lessons. I love the barter system.)

It’s hard to believe I’ve been here more than 4 weeks, which is 1/10th of the total time I will spend here, which seems like a lot. Here are a few of the observations I’ve made during the last month.

First, Chile seems to be a fairly rude culture. Everyone here stares with reckless abandon. I have gotten into the habit of staring back, which seems effective, but it also makes them uncomfortable because they don’t even realize staring is rude in the first place. Also, an alternately amusing and annoying characteristic is that Chileans love to cut in line, especially old ladies.

People here are not necessarily considerate of feelings. For instance, a common nickname here is gordo or gordito (gorda for women) which literally means “ fatty.” My personal favorite example of the rude gene was when I went to pick up my Chilean ID card. As the woman handed it to me she told me the picture was ugly and made me look 10 years older, neither of which I think is true but that’s Chile for you. It doesn’t help that working at the Civil Registry is akin to working at the DMV in the states…

Second, this country is completely plastic happy. Every single grocery store trip results in an abundance of plastic, and no matter how hard I fight it I always get double bags, which I promptly remove and leave at the register, though I’m convinced they just throw them away. So far, bringing my own bags has not been a very welcome habit. Alternately, buying something from a department store not only results in excessive plastic bags, but they obsessively cover every square inch of the bag’s opening with security tape, rendering it completely useless as a garbage sack, for instance. One excellent characteristic of my building is that I can recycle here, and I do take some sick comfort in watching the wretched poor sift through garbage every night retrieving recyclable items (it’s a living?) but for the most part Chile has some work to do on the recycling front (not to mention the class divide).

Speaking of buying things… this is something I actually find pretty hilarious. Any time you go into a small store to buy something - a bottle of water, avocadoes, or an empanada, for example - you have to order from one person, who gives you a tiny receipt, which you then have to take to the cashier’s box, who stamps the receipt indicating that you paid, and then you have to finally return to the original person to present the receipt and retrieve your items. I have dozens of tiny slips of paper cluttering my purse for amounts less than a dollar, which I must say doesn't go so far these days.

On to fashion… or, that is, lack thereof. Chileans seem to be surfing the same fashion wave that swept Europe about 6 years ago, which if you were in Europe during this time period, you know was dominated by gypsy scarves and, you guessed it, mullets. I love the Euro mullet and it is everywhere here. I went to get a haircut the other day and the woman actually asked me if I wanted it ‘shorter in front, longer in back.’ I've never gesticulated "no" so wildly in my life. They also have the leggings / general 1980s theme going on, which I can’t fault them for since the U.S. is suffering the same trend.

It has to be said, Chile speaks its own language. I have an entire book of “Chilenismos” and even people from other South American countries have a hard time following the natives' speech. Sometimes it’s frustrating because Chileans aren’t necessarily good at speaking slowly or clearly in the presence of a foreigner – even when you ask them to. Also, they have this interesting habit of adding “bo” or “po” to the end of anything and everything – actors, news anchors, and even politicians do it! So, for example, si becomes sibo, no becomes nopo, and even something like te llamo (I’ll call you) becomes te llamopo. It’s a strange thing to get used to but it always makes me smile.

I know I focused a lot on food before, which led some people to be concerned about my cholesterol / weight / health in general. What I neglected to mention is the fabulous agriculture, and that I eat my weight in fruits and vegetables every day. Next time you go to the grocery store, check the fruit stickers and count how many come from Chile. Unfortunately the greenery is being threatened with a severe drought, which is also leading to an energy crisis that makes the nightly news. (For as much as I hate the local news in the states, I never miss a Mega Noticias program on my fuzzy TV.) I can’t tell you how much electricity costs down here. If you turn on a light in the daytime and someone sees you, you can be sure that light will promptly be turned off and you will be scolded. The government is even encouraging everyone to unplug their appliances when not in use (which use up a surprising amount of energy). However, this drought hasn’t really led to any reduction in watering as far as I can tell; every day, in peak sunlight hours, I see gardeners watering plants, grass, and even tiles and sidewalks – always with hoses, as the sprinkler system has yet to make its way this far south. (I think it’s a method of employing people, actually.)

It may seem like I’ve focused on the negative here, but most of it isn’t positive or negative – it’s just different. And, to leave you with a more fair and accurate depiction of the locals, here are a few of their more sellable features. First, they are uniformly generous. Everyone donates to everyone else in the street, from panhandlers to street performers to volunteer firemen, and even to boys begging for money to go to the stadium to watch their fútbol team play (though I should note that people only give to boys who support the same team they do). Also, they are kind and patient, which I’ve witnessed over and over firsthand as I’ve struggled through the language, and countless times secondhand as a feral dog sprawled in the middle of the sidewalk during rush hour has delicately been stepped over and around by hordes of people.

It is also a notably affectionate culture, where kisses on the cheek serve as greetings and people who have been married for half a century still neck in the parks. (Don't get me started, however, on the many teenagers doing the same.) It is likely this affection - not to mention the fact that something like 90% of Chile is Catholic - that has led to what can only be described as a perma baby boom.

Finally, it should be noted that anyone my age or older lived during a cruel and terrifying dictatorship, and for that alone should be pardoned many misgivings. This is part of why I let old ladies cut in front of me in line. The other part is that I don’t yet know how to say “I was in line first” in Chilean Spanish.

1 comment:

Renée said...

OMG - this post totally made me laugh. You are writing about all of the little things that bother me in Santiago from day to day. Just today I was at a Lider express and they bagged my bottle of water in one bag by itself and then my carton of milk in another bag by itself. WTF? And the old ladies cutting in line - I've just given up on that.