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“Las manos arriba, cintura sola, da media vuelta, danza kuduro…”

Sunday, May 8, 2011

“Te gusta Palena?  Ya te acostumbras?”  This question– “Do you like Palena?  Have you adjusted yet?”– is maddeningly difficult to answer.  Yes, I “like” Palena, and yes, of course there are things that aren’t my preference, and things that I miss.  And “adjusted”?  Sure, I pretty much have a routine, and yet I still get flashes of how bizarre my life is here– or just new, I guess.  For example, my laziness on weekend mornings is exaggerated by the fact that getting out of bed means facing the dirty task of making fire, and also being cold for awhile until it gets going– that’s assuming I remembered to bring in wood the night before (but before 7, when it gets dark).  When I come back to the house, the first thing I do is check is the fire, and revive it if necessary.  I often forget if I really had to pee, because I am so concentrated on arranging a little kindling sculpture over a pile of coals.  Have I gotten used to this?  I’ve gotten a whole lot more skilled, but I don’t know if I’ll ever shrug and make fire without thinking, what is this, Sturbridge Village?  And I can promise you I’ll never get used to these Southern Hemisphere seasons– someone changed the date of my birthday, I’m telling you.

When Chileans ask me what it’s like to live here, I want to say, “You have no idea.”– except to the few people I’ve met who have lived abroad.  Sure, many teachers are far away from their families and familiar climate.  But please.  For me, so many little things are different:

  • In the teacher’s room there is no milk or cream for your Lipton or Nescafe (but plenty of sugar!)
  • No one takes their shoes off inside their house.
  • Everyone peels with a knife, not a pealer– I was recently preparing a salad at a friend’s house (she’s from Santiago), and when she passed me a peeler, she said, “You can use this if you want, it’s a special tool for peeling.”  Everyone peels tomatoes.
  • There is no peanut butter.
  • You kiss (well, women-women kiss, men-women kiss, man-man handshake) everyone in greeting and in goodbye, including infants you have just met.
  • A normal-to-good party ends at 5 AM.
  • For most people, dinner is tea and bread and sweet stuff.
  • I am considered blond (rubia).
  • All kids where uniforms to school, and girls aren’t allowed to paint their nails or wear make-up.
  • You say “permiso” (literally: excuse me) before entering a room, leaving a room, sitting down at the table, getting up from the table, reaching across the table.
  • When you sneeze, no one says anything.

I was at a birthday party on Saturday, and at one point I had a big flash of loneliness, as I was surrounded by people who knew all the songs and the right way to dance (always in hetero pairings), people who love drinking rum and coke and pisco, at least half of whom smoke cigarettes.   A little part of me wanted to scream, “You see how funny it is to feel like you never belong!” as everyone sang along to “Loca”  like it’s their communal theme song, the way we (Smith crew) sang “Stronger” sophomore year.  I thought about those college parties, and the feeling that I owned the place– not only did I know the lyrics, but also the tone and the references; I had my friends, my crush, my whatever.  Will I ever feel like I belong that well again?   Yet I also take these moments of alienation to validate myself for what I’m doing– I chose to do something hard, this is what I wanted (and besides, I couldn’t go back to college even if I wanted to, though really, I don’t want to).

So I picked myself up and kept on going.  I stuck to wine and cheese empanadas– what’s not to like about a cheese-filled, deep-fried pastry?  I laughed and tried to sing along to “Loca”– I’ve heard it enough times I can’t help but learn the lyrics, even if it they don’t resonate with my soul.  I was elated to hear something come on we used to sing in Mexico, and I was very amused by the English numbers in the mix: Hot n’Cold, Thriller, I Gotta Feeling, What is love? (baby don’t hurt me), and this classic that is apparently well known in Chile.  I fell in love with “Danza Kuduro” and thought, “God, I am going to miss dancing reggaeton whenever I return to the land of the Puritans.”

In the end, I had a great time on Saturday.  I felt like I was making better friends, and I even met some new guys to dance with (that is, new to me– as I like to say, “Todos me conocen, incluso los que yo no conozco. [Everyone knows me, including people I don’t know].”).  As I looked at the clock when I got home (5:30, would have been 6:30 without daylight savings!), I thought, this is something I’m going to miss about Chile.  As much as it’s sometimes exhausting to me that everything is so late, it is also a blast to dance dance dance and not worry about the time, about work, about how I seem and what other people think.  I’ll bet some of the things that most annoy me now will become what I miss the most when I am gone.  In Mexico, I craved feta and broccoli and anything Asian, but as soon as I returned to icy New England, ah, how I longed for enchiladas and chilaquiles and tortas, even if they are all just different arrangements of the same ingredients.

And despite all the differences, big and small, in some ways my life here is not that different at all.  I moved somewhere new after college, I am making friends, I am navigating the ups and downs of my first year-long, full-time job, I am buying and cooking all my own food for the first time; in other words, looks like I’m a grown-up.  I just happen to be doing it in Palena, which means I’m also cleaning soot out of my wood stove.  When I talk to people at home, it is striking how different our lives are, but at the same, not really at all.  We can all talk about the highs and lows of our day, our frustrations with our jobs, the dishes we’ve been cooking recently.  We all have funny stories to tell (ask me about when I received my first Chilean drunk dial).

So here’s my normal-life update: this morning I expanded my single-serving, no-recipe, one-pan pancake routine from apple-oat to pumpkin-walnut-flax.  Thank you, Argentina (flax seeds).  Well done, Margaret.  Life at 43˚S is pretty good.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Saturday, June 23, 2012 11:35 pm

    Hmm, just spent six months in the jungles of Guatemala and there were some resonations here, despite differences in latitude. A strange attraction to danza kuduro, for one… Hope the year treated you well (:

  2. Sunday, June 24, 2012 6:31 am

    Thanks for your comment! Funny how popular that song seems to be. What were you up to in Guatemala? I am headed to Bogotá soon to teach for another year.

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