Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Book launch: Santiago en 100 Palabras 2009-2010

Live in the 56-2? Need a holiday gift for a friend, an enemy, the lady at the fruit stand who always throws in a free clementine, or yourself? Well, get thee to Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral or Metro Baquedano on Tuesday, December 27 from noon onward and snag a FREE copy of Santiago en 100 Palabras: los mejores 100 cuentos V.

Honestly, I would be posting this even if there weren't a bit of shameless self promotion involved. I love Santiago en 100 Palabras. I would pepper spray a crowd, Black Friday style, to get my hands on one of those little books. OK, not really. But I might elbow a little.

I was bummed when the book launch, originally slated for September, was postponed indefinitely. Nevertheless, it looks like something good has come of the delay. Even though I think Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral is pretty neat, I was disappointed back in September when I learned that the distribution of the book would occur exclusively within the building...or at least that seemed to be the plan. It was a departure from previous launches, which had taken place inside subway stations across the city. I loved these subway launches because they seemed to epitomize what Santiago en 100 Palabras has always been about: demonstrating that there are stories everywhere, not just within the confines of the spaces and institutions where we traditionally look for them. Obviously, making people go to a spiffy new cultural center to get the book would have been to completely miss the point. Perhaps the contest organizers came to the same conclusion over the past few months -- or, more realistically, realized it would be next to impossible to get people to go to an event two days after Christmas --because they'll be handing out books at Metro Baquedano now as well. Bien hecho.

So, there you have it. Books on the subway and at GAM. After you grab yours, start writing: December 27 is also the launch date of the next version of the Santiago en 100 Palabras contest!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Santiago en 100 Palabras: Hombres

Hombres

En mi trabajo conozco a muchos hombres. Los conozco en callejones, en los costados de las carreteras, en piezas con olor a moho y sudor. Una vez conocí a uno en un penthouse donde había un tucán enjaulado. Sí, es difícil, pero me las arreglo para que no se note. Por ejemplo, dejé de maquillarme después de la primera noche, cuando conocí a un cumpleañero adolescente con cachetes de querubín. El rímel trazó surcos negros en mis mejillas cuando escribí en el expediente: “sobredosis fatal.”


**A few years ago, I submitted this to the Chilean short story contest Santiago en 100 Palabras, which I love almost as much as I love a giant spoonful of peanut butter. Nope, it didn't win. The upside? I get to publish it here instead of laboring over an original post and falling asleep at the keyboard.

Ever dreamed of seeing your words emblazoned above the doors of a subway car? If so, you're in luck: Santiago en 100 Palabras will be launching their 2011 contest any day now. (Not so) Coincidentally, they will simultaneously launch a little book of stories that there's a super secret special reason why you should snag.

Anyone else have a story to share? Please link or share in the comments section! Don't post anything you're planning to submit this year; you won't want there to be any exclusivity issues when you win!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Local tourist: Brighton Beach


My grandfather sailed to the States from Russia as a toddler in 1912. Unfortunately, he died before I was old enough to ask him everything I now wish I could about our ancestors and his experiences growing up as an immigrant in Detroit. I don't know exactly why his family left the Volga basin; I was once told they were ever-so-politely ushered from the premises due to involvement in clandestine political activity, but I recently began to suspect that this story may have been concocted to tickle the imagination of a preteen with an unhealthy thirst for novels set in war zones. Surprisingly (or perhaps not), the question was left unanswered in a brief family history written by a relative I never met. Said document did, however, inform me that a few of my relatives learned the hard way that stealing wood from the tsar's forest would get you shipped off to Siberia. Something to keep in mind.

Even though I'm aware of very few of the specifics of my own Russian heritage, I've always had a very romantic -- and very amateur -- fascination with my grandfather's homeland. I have a small collection of matryoshka dolls that occupies a shelf in the computer room at my house in Minneapolis -- the very room where, back in middle school, I harnessed the power of dial-up internet to learn how to scrawl out my name in Cyrillic letters. Years later, my Bulgarian friend V. joined the literacy effort, a move I'm sure he regretted every time I attempted to stammer my way through one of his newspapers or books. At one point, we got it in our heads that we were going to learn Russian, win the lottery, and ride the Trans-Siberian Railroad out into the sunrise. We ordered workbooks.

I never made it past Lesson One. (If you ever need to know how to say "this is a modem" in Russian, I'm your woman.) Nevertheless, I still firmly believe that one day I will learn Russian -- or at least enough Russian to book a ticket on the Trans-Siberian. In the meantime, I have Brighton Beach.

Brighton Beach is a neighborhood in southeast Brooklyn known for its large Russian-speaking community. I've been wanting to explore the neighborhood ever since I caught a glimpse of a few Russian storefront signs during a recent visit to Coney Island. Yesterday, with finals at last behind me (!!!), I had my chance.

A few blocks after stepping off the subway at Avenue X, I began spotting Cyrillic on store awnings and bus stop ads. Pretty soon, I was hearing Russian everywhere. I wandered into the Black Sea Bookstore at the corner of Coney Island and Brighton Beach Avenues and, after flashing an apologetic smile at a staff member who addressed me in Russian, asked to see books for children learning to read. Although it immediately became clear that even the most basic Russian kids' books were beyond me, the very friendly and patient staff dug out this cheery animal flashcard set, for which I gladly forked over $4.99:


My new menagerie and I set out for a stroll along Brighton Beach Avenue, a bustling commercial artery lined with specialty food stores, European shoe shops and lots and lots of pharmacies. I stopped in at M & I Specialty Foods, where the upstairs buffet was nothing to write home about but the bounty of Russian edibles was delirium inducing -- especially the extremely well-stocked candy mezzanine. Next was the enormous St. Petersburg, where I browsed long aisles of CDs, vintage Soviet posters, and books; the children's selection was, predictably, just as intimidating as Black Sea's.

Afterword, I took the animals to the boardwalk, where we strolled past beachside Russian restaurants


and visited the most elaborately decorated public bathroom I've ever seen.

When I got home, I flipped through my new flashcards and encountered a problem: It's hard to learn a word from a picture if you can't tell what the picture is. Most of the animals on the cards are your garden variety tigers and hippos, but this one, on the other hand, had me puzzled:

My guess was "evil fish," but a translation website tells me that "pike" is more like it. Which raises another question: How copious is Russian preschoolers' knowledge of fish species? Call me a sorry excuse for a Minnesotan, but they're all still just "fishies" to me.

In addition to making patent my woeful ignorance of all things scaled, my trip to Brighton Beach rekindled my urge to get serious about learning Russian. To be honest, I doubt this is a very realistic goal at the moment -- but I did pull out my old workbook this morning. So, if anyone out there knows of a Russian book in which a pike and a hippo discuss their new modem, please pass along the title. I just might be able to read it!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Esquina

Los citaron por ingerir alcohol en la vía pública. Miraban con los cuerpos paralizados y los ojos en grande mientras un carabinero vaciaba la botella en la calle. Él era estudiante de intercambio y ella temía que lo echaran del país.

Cuando los cabos los dejaron con dos citaciones escritas y un par de miradas reprobatorias, el terror se trizó en risas frenéticas y después en besos con sabor a piscola. El saberse cómplices en la transgresión los subió a una ola de euforia que los depositó en un cuarto de motel donde pasaron dos horas comiendo maní salado y besándose entre carcajadas.

Durante los años siguientes marcaron el aniversario de su iniciación delictual compartiendo una botella en la esquina de la citación. El día de su matrimonio se detuvieron rumbo a la recepción y le pidieron a la fotógrafa que les sacara una foto ahí. Después la enmarcaron y la colocaron en el velador: él le pasaba una botella mientras ella se reía con la cabeza echada hacia atrás y el viento le levantaba el velo blanco.

Cuando llegaron los hijos dejaron de visitar la esquina. La foto seguía en el velador, recuerdo de un tiempo prístino que no conocía ni deudas ni ojeras.

Una noche de verano se pelearon. Los niños andaban en la playa con sus tíos y las paredes de sus piezas vacías vibraban con la fuerza de gritos en dos idiomas. Él miraba en silencio por la ventana de la cocina cuando ella lo cogió de la mano y sin pronunciar palabra lo guió al auto.

Se demoraron veinte minutos silenciosos en llegar. Se estacionaron frente a la botillería, donde compraron una Coca de tres litros y una botella de pisco barato. Caminaron dos cuadras y se sentaron en la esquina que no habían visto en años.

Echaron un poco de bebida a la calle y la reemplazaron con pisco. Pasó muchas veces entre ellos la botella sin que la acompañaran palabras. De vez en cuando, le echaban un poco más de pisco y la revolvían suavemente mientras se sonreían. En algún momento, el silencio se derritió en risas.

Al amanecer, él miraba por la ventana de la comisaría con el cuerpo paralizado mientras un carabinero tecleaba conducir en estado de embriaguez. En una sala aséptica y fría, ella miraba el techo con los ojos en grande mientras el examinador médico firmaba un certificado de fallecimiento.


~~~

The back story: This semester, I've developed the dirty little habit of scribbling stories in Spanish in the back pages of my notebooks when I get bored in class. This one was inspired by a certain three-liter concoction some friends and I may or may not have mixed up one night on a street corner in Santiago. Hey, I never said I was classy. Spanish is not my first language, so please be kind!

However, please do not hold back your constructive criticism! The blogosphere is brimming with great writers and readers, so I would love to hear your thoughts and suggestions. I'm particularly curious about whether you found the ending confusing. It strikes me now that the use of the word "paralizado" could give rise to befuddlement.

What about you, gentle reader? Have you ever felt the urge to write about your adoptive city in your adoptive language?

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Coney Island

I've been wanting to visit Coney Island since before I moved to New York. I've never been particularly enamored of theme parks (the Minnesota State Fair Midway being a notable and obvious exception), but something about devouring cotton candy on the boardwalk while watching aged but luminous carnival rides light up the night sky has always held a certain mystique for me. This past week, nearly nine months after arriving in NYC, I finally went. Unfortunately, end-of-semester insanity didn't allow me to spend much time immersed in the bright lights, but I was there long enough to confirm that I'm getting old: The legendary Cyclone made my neck hurt like no roller coaster ever has. In any case, my Coney Island dream was fulfilled, cotton candy and all. Maybe I'll even make it back for the Mermaid Parade next month.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The earthquake jacket

One year ago today, Chile shook.

After the earth stopped moving, my Chilean roommate told me to put on "evacuation clothes," a phrase I'm guessing means more to seismically schooled Chileans than novice gringas. I figured he was referring to something that would protect me from the elements better than bare feet and pajamas, so I threw together an outfit that included this jacket, pictured here in Central Park:

In the end, we didn't have to evacuate, but I kept the jacket on as we sat around the radio in the dark and listened to the first news reports and, after the power came back on, swept up the chunks of plaster that had fallen from the walls. I kept it on after the sun rose and began to shine through the blanket of dust that hung over the city; I kept it on when I went out to survey the damage around the neighborhood and felt the summer day begin to heat up. I wore that jacket for the better part of the next few days; I even slept in it sometimes. When I wasn't wearing it, it was usually close at hand.

Of the people I know, those who suffered the most anxiety after February 27, 2010 were those who had been on the upper floors of tall buildings when the quake hit. In Chile, tall buildings are designed to dance; the fact that they're flexible that makes them less likely to suffer serious damage during an earthquake. Ironically, what makes these buildings safe is precisely what makes them terrifying places to be when the earth starts to shift. "I had completely accepted that I was going to die," a resident of one of the upper floors of a Santiago apartment tower told me at a Chilean independence day celebration in New York last September.

After the earthquake, many of these people tried to feel safer by staying with relatives in one-story houses or by making sure they were never in their apartments alone. I was at ground level when the tectonic plates did their dance and am therefore convinced that my experience was not nearly as frightening as that of those who were higher up at the time. Still, I was rattled, and I think the jacket was what made me aware of it. I realized that the jacket made me feel safe; I was like a two-year-old with a blankie that had snaps and a zipper.

Interestingly, I wasn't the only one who looked for security in clothing. Over the next couple days, I noticed that people were walking around bundled up in the middle of summer. Maybe we wanted to ensure we were prepared in the case of a violent aftershock; maybe the 8.8 experience had simply left us all feeling chilly. Whatever the reason, a lot of santiaguinos tried to wear safety in the days following the earthquake. It may have looked strange, but it made a whole lot of sense.

For me, it's easy to talk about the Chilean earthquake as if it were a thing of the past, but there are still so many people -- like those who lost loved ones or saw their homes crumble around them -- for whom last year's disaster is a living daily reality. Here's hoping they feel some warmth today.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The language bomb

We all have vindication fantasies. For some people, they involve telling off a loathsome ex or showing up smokin' hot to a high school reunion and breezing past former rivals with a triumphal strut. Call me strange, but my vindication fantasy involves dropping a language bomb.

You know, a language bomb. Leaving someone numb with surprise and embarrassment when you reveal that yes, you speak their language and yes, you understood every nasty word they just said about you.

Looking back, I'm surprised that the nearly five years I spent living in South America didn't provide me with more opportunities to indulge my fantasy. If people were talking smack about me, they were considerate enough to do it out of my earshot. While I was frequently afforded the satisfaction of firing back in fluent Spanish at people who addressed me as they would a toddler, I was never able to experience the supreme vindication of looking the owners of vile tongues in the eye, cocking an eyebrow and saying, "Careful with the assumptions you make."

I was given the opportunity to do so today. On my way home from class, I stopped at a deli to buy a sandwich. Several feet away at the other end of the counter was another customer who was talking with someone who appeared to be a deli employee. I only saw the customer from behind, and we didn't acknowledge one another.

Immediately after placing my (hefty) order, I heard someone say (in English), "That's breakfast, lunch and dinner!" I assumed it was the customer at the other end of the counter, but my first thought was that he'd been addressing the person he'd been talking with before, not me. My second thought was that he may have been alluding to my order and that, if he had, the comment hadn't exactly been a polite one. My third thought was that, in actuality, he may have been addressing me directly. My fourth thought came in the form of a decision to adopt my habitual modus operandi: When it comes to unsolicited comments from strange men who may or may not be speaking to me, I opt to ignore and await further evidence.

My doubts about the comment's intended recipient were dissolved when the man launched into a tirade -- in Spanish this time -- about how insulted he was that I'd ignored him. Addressing the person he'd been speaking with before, he indicated who I was, what I'd ordered (this part involved an impressive abundance of detail), what he'd said, and the fact that I hadn't responded. The diatribe culminated in a declaration: "They're racist."

Of course! Not responding to random comments that someone shouts down a deli counter at me clearly makes me racist. Never mind that I hadn't seen the color of the customer's skin or had the slightest idea what languages he spoke. Never mind that I hadn't even known he'd been talking to me. Never mind that he'd been the one to make ungrounded assumptions about what I could and couldn't understand based on my appearance. I'm obviously racist. And not just me. I and whoever else falls within the scope of they. People with my skin tone? Women? Panini lovers? People wearing leg warmers? The mystery remains.

I was incensed. And damn it, I was going to tell him. In Spanish, so there would be no question as to the fact that I'd understood everything he'd just accused me of. At the time, I didn't see it as the fulfillment of a vindication fantasy but rather as simply setting things straight.

"I didn't know you were talking to me," I called over to him in Spanish.

Alas, the record was not to be set straight, because he didn't hear me. Or perhaps he did and decided to give me a taste of my own medicine by ignoring me. In any case, he continued his conversation and made no indication that my words had registered. I tried to get his attention again when he passed me on his way out, but he didn't appear to hear me then, either.

As I stood fuming by the counter, waiting for my giant sandwich, it occurred to me that I'd just witnessed the implosion of my vindication fantasy. I'd experienced the rage of having been wronged while being denied the satisfaction of vindicating myself. At the same time, I realized that the other customer -- still under the impression that I'd ignored him because he was Hispanic -- was probably also seething and contemplating all the things he wished he'd said to me. If the issues underlying the misunderstanding weren't so socially, politically and emotionally charged, there would be humor in the situation.

Looking back, the following things occur to me:

1) If the deli customer had previously been discriminated against because of his ethnicity or language, it's understandable that he might attribute my lack of response to prejudice. That doesn't change the fact that he jumped to some very hasty and incorrect assumptions about me, though.

2) I could have stood to have lightened up when it came to the "breakfast, lunch and dinner" comment. The guy probably meant it to be funny, not offensive. If one of my friends had said something like that to me, I probably would have laughed.

3) Everyone at the deli probably thinks I'm racist now.

What about you? Do you think I had the right to be pissed at the guy for trash talking me in Spanish? How would you have responded? Have you ever dropped a language bomb? Did it detonate?