Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Smoke-free breath in a moonshine jug

One of my more shame-inducing memories of my study abroad experience in Chile involves closing my host family's front door ever so gingerly behind me and shuffling quietly down the hallway toward my bedroom. Just when I was almost in the clear, my slipper-clad host mother appeared in front of me and, eyebrows cocked, asked if I knew what time it was.

I said I didn't, which was a lie. With as much certainty as I know that alfajor pastries are God's gift to gringas, I knew that it was past 8:30 a.m. and that I hadn't called the night before to let my host mother know that I would be staying out really, really late.

Although you wouldn't guess it about me now, I used to party a lot in Chile. By a lot, I mean pounding dance club floors until dawn with the soles of my Converse and -- on one occasion -- running through Estación Central to catch the last train bound for the rural area where some acquaintances and I had heard there was a bitchin' carrete underway.

(Disclaimer: Just as Lonely Planet does not encourage hitchhiking, I do not encourage replicating this behavior.)

Now, just a few years later, my ideal weekend involves watching cartoons, reading a book, riding my bike and catching a movie. I suspect there comes a point in every expat's life when the bass-pounding novelty of the foreign club scene ceases to compensate for the next morning's splitting headache.

Another reason why I now tend to prefer the comforts of home to the strobe lights of subterranean dance pits is that, at least in my own room, I can breathe. This is frequently not the case at Santiago bars or clubs, where my burning eyes and I oftentimes have to step outside more than once during the night to guzzle down a few gulps of air uncontaminated with the cigarrette smoke choking the venue. This -- along with taking halting, shallow breaths the entire night -- is tiring, and knowing that I'll have to do it is often enough to make me turn down an invitation to paint the town red on a Friday night.

Anyone familiar with Santiago nightlife knows two fundamental truths: The party starts late, and it's smoky. I had to put up with even thicker clouds of tobacco fumes during my dance floor glory days than I do now -- statistics show that tobacco use is down among Chileans -- but I seem to have a lower tolerance for it today. Maybe my waning enthusiasm for the bacchanal has made me less forgiving.

In case you haven't guessed, I hate cigarette smoke. I hate knowing that I'm breathing in chemical toxins and hate the fact that I usually have to resign myself to doing so if I want to spend a night on the town in Santiago. Smoking is gross. Period.

Despite my aversion to tobacco, I was struck earlier this week with the desire to find an obscure, seedy bar with a dartboard and cheap beer. So three friends and I hit up the 331 Club, where a family bluegrass band entertained the crowd with instruments that included a saw, a washboard and a giant empty bottle, and Psycho Suzi's Motor Lounge, where we ordered tiki drinks and delicious pizza at midnight. As it turns out, neither of these Northeast Minneapolis bars is a dive.

Still, the night was a success. Sure, I was wiped out by the time I cautiously climbed the ice-glazed stairs to my front door, but I'd made it through the night with significantly more energy than I'm usually able to muster when I go out in Santiago. It didn't take me long to realize why: I could breathe. I was able to catch up with my friends, who now live scattered across the country and the globe, without coughing and sputtering under a cloud of someone else's smoke. I had forgotten that the good city of Minneapolis, in its wisdom, prohibits smoking indoors in public spaces.

To Chile's credit, tobacco laws in my adoptive country are much stricter now than they were when I lived there the first time around. Some establishments have set aside designated smoking sections, while others have banned tobacco altogether. The government has cracked down on tobacco advertising and mandated that graphic health warnings occupy prominent positions on cigarette packs.

While these regulations certainly make eating out more enjoyable, they have done little to clear the air in bars and clubs, which generally remain free reign for smokers. And while a number of my Chilean friends have quit smoking over the past few years, it seems the campaign still has a long way to go. I occasionally encounter situations in Chile that make my jaw drop, like when a young woman at a party I went to a few months ago plopped down next to a pregnant woman and asked if she minded if she lit up. And when the pregnant woman said, "Go ahead; the window's open." Or when I've seen pregnant women themselves start puffing away. I'm sure this happens in the States, too, but luckily, I haven't seen it.

For the record, if you're a smoker, I don't hate you. What I do hate, though, is having my health threatened and my social life smothered by the fumes of a few. This tends to happen much more frequently in Chile than it does here in lovely Minneapolis -- which I'm adding to the list of reasons why my beloved City of Lakes is quite possibly the best place on earth.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Happy Holidays!

Hi everyone! As I'm sure you've noticed, it's been a while since my last entry. It's not for lack of ideas; I actually have an entire cast of future blog entries waiting in the wings. It's not for lack of down time, either; despite all the family gatherings, I've watched each of the Office episodes my mom taped for me -- multiple times.

The truth is that even though this blog claims to chronicle my "adventures in multiple hemispheres," it's pretty much about Chile, a place where I currently am not. It's tough to write about summery Chile from frigid Minnesota, not just because it feels so out of context but also because it prevents me from fully luxuriating in being here. I'm at home in Minneapolis so rarely that it seems like a waste of precious time to write about Chile while I am. Writing about what it's like to visit home while living in Chile is a different story, but I just didn't feel like it today. Hopefully I'll start feeling more creative soon, so keep checking back.

So, there's the explanation. And here's a holiday greeting: Happy holidays to everyone who reads this blog! I hope the last days of 2008 are the best of the year and that 2009 starts out with a bang.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Minnesota Christmas Down Under

I'm sitting in bed gazing out at Christmas lights and listening to the Christmas music marathon on the Twin Cities' own Kool 108. And I'm still below the Equator.

Yes, thanks to the glories of the internet and the cheapest lights we could find at the so-called Chinese Mall on San Diego, V. and I have transformed his little corner of the pension into a slice of Minnesota holiday paradise. With Kool 108 blasting tunes "Let it Snow," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and reports of traffic jams thousands of miles away, we strung the lights up on the patio as the sun set on yet another mild summer afternoon.

Then we got artsy.

Then V. read a book while I pumped up the bass on the Christmas carols and danced around the patio singing for a while. It was the first time I'd truly felt in the Christmas spirit this year.

I'm sure this is nothing compared to how I'll feel on Saturday when my plane lands in a city covered in snow and fragrant with the scent of real Christmas trees. I'm. So. Excited.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Group post: Holidays abroad

I once read or heard somewhere that smell is the sense most strongly tied to memory. I don't know if this is true, but it certainly wouldn't surprise me if it were. I couldn't begin to count the number of times a slight wiff has instantaneously catapulted me back to times gone by. Whenever the scent of wet fallen leaves signals the beginning of fall, I'm back panting on a floodlit soccer field with my childhood team, the formidable Pink Sleeveless Magic Thunderweasels (we were a well-coordinated scoring machine on the field, but we couldn't agree on a team name). Sniffing my once-beloved Victoria's Secret Love Spell perfume now makes me nauseous because I used to spritz it on before stuffing myself on to the brimming, lurching bus that hauled me to class every morning when I was an exchange student here in Chile. Unscrubbed rodent cage is third grade, and something resembling chemical cherry has struck perfect and maddening resonance for years with a childhood memory I still can’t identify.

And then there’s Christmas. For me, Christmas is firewood smoke, simmering turkey and ham, church incense and the empty scent of cold, cold air. And, of course, pine. Of the 24 Christmases I have experienced on this planet, not one has been celebrated in the absence of a real Christmas tree. Last year, when my mom said she could picture herself going the artificial route in the future, I almost cried.

That is one of the reasons why, despite having lived more than three years of my life abroad, I have never once spent Christmas away from home: It just doesn’t smell right anywhere else. Chileans decorate plastic trees. And have Christmas barbeques. And spend Christmas Day under the scorching summer sun.

Since it doesn’t smell like Christmas, it doesn’t feel like Christmas. This week, I bought holiday lights and listened to Christmas music, but I have no more yuletide cheer than I did on the 4th of July. And it’s depressing, because the lack of appropriate scents has robbed me of the anticipation and warm fuzzies I usually feel during the holiday season.

Of course, with a minimal amount of effort, I could scrounge up a pine branch and cook a ham in Chile. But in a way, that might be even worse, because those smells are intimately connected to the people who – much more than the smells themselves – truly make Christmas special for me. And those people are thousands of miles away.

So, you see, a gringa just can’t win. That’s why, in a few days, I’ll be speeding away from summer on a plane pointed north. My nose simply won’t have it any other way.

One could argue that I could retrain my nostrils to associate Christmas with barbequed sausage, sunblock and cut grass. Still, I think the results of such an effort would be superficial at best. Many autumns have come and gone since the disbanding of the legendary Pink Sleeveless Magic Thunderweasels, but the smell of wet leaves reminds me of them – not midterms or Homecoming – to this day. When it comes to scent memories, I’m pretty sure it’s the early ones that stick.

Thanks to Clare for organizing this group post! It made it feel just a bit more like Christmas. Here are a list of other people who have blogged on this topic:



Tuesday, December 9, 2008


Tuesday, December 9 marked a watershed day in the history of my life in Chile. For today, with hundreds of rush hour commuters as witnesses, I was officially inducted into that most exclusive and coveted of Chilean societies: the Bibliometro.

For those unversed in the glories of this hallowed institution, it is a library system located inside Santiago's subway. Actually, it's not exclusive at all: For what currently amounts to less that 5 U.S. dollars per year, anyone can sign up and check out books to his or her heart's content -- and all without having to see daylight.

Well, not everyone. Having always been intrigued by the tome-filled Bibliometro huts clinging to the walls of major Metro stations -- and more than a little envious of the people who clustered around the counters and retreated examining their yellow-paged selections -- I decided a number of months ago that it was time to join the club. With a bounce in my step and a list of titles in my head, I approached one of the counters and asked to sign up.

Was I a legal resident?, the attendent asked.

Well, no, but I wanted to be one. And I had a valid tourist visa. And a pure heart.

Not good enough, apparently. Not only did I need a carnet de identidad -- a Chilean identity card -- but I had to provide proof of address.

I put up a fight for awhile, trying to charm -- and then beg -- the attendant into accepting me as one of her own. Eventually, though, I came to terms with the fact that I would have to fight this battle elsewhere.

With my elbows propped on the Bibliometro counter, I racked my brain for ways to trick the system. Not to lie exactly, but to somehow skip over the necessity to be truthful. After all, I just wanted to read. Wasn't it unjust for such a basic right to be limited to the documented?

It occurred to me that all hope might not be lost. Four days before I left Chile the first time around, a teenage girl stole my wallet at a bus terminal in Puerto Montt. She got about 20 dollars out of it, and I got a copy of the police report I filed -- with my identity card number on it.

The day after my Bibliometro defeat, I headed to the police station to get a replacement copy of the report I'd long since misplaced. I clung to the hope that maybe, just maybe, the powers that be at Bibliometro wouldn't notice that the carnet mentioned in the report had been lost more than three years before. Or that if they did, the fact that I had once been a legal resident would be enough.

As I walked away from the police station with the report in my hands, it occurred to me that if I was going to go to all this trouble anyway, I might as well get off my ass and apply for a visa. Hence, it is thanks to Bibliometro that I am now a card-carrying legal resident of the Republic of Chile.

With my shiny new carnet and stamped address certificate in hand, I strode proudly up to the Bibliometro counter this afternoon and took my place in the computer database. I am now officially authorized to borrow books underground -- and I have another shiny new card to prove it.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Notes on aging and forlorn Latin lovers

Sometimes I think I'm getting old. There are a number of things that suggest this, the most visible being the gray hairs that doggedly sprout like an ever-growing army of undead from a single point on the top of my head. There are other signs as well, such as the fact that I have traded in the all-night club sprees of my exchange student days for quiet evenings that generally involve some combination of movies, sweatpants and pop.

Then there's the music I listen to. The other day at work, I noticed that the radio station I'd set to play in the background was spewing contemporary soft rock the way overhead speakers at dentists' offices tend to.

Before you judge, let me establish that I'm not a fan of this genre -- when it's in English. However, there's something about Spanish love ballads that gets me. It's gone beyond the point of tolerance. I actually like them.

I used to dismiss these songs as the saccharine indulgences of a culture that, to my single-and-proud self, seemed clinically obsessed with coupledom. My view began to change a few years ago, when I went through a sentimental spell brought on by an unrequited crush and an impending departure date from Chile. During the afternoons I spent curled up in bed listening to Alex Ubago and reading my host sister's copy of The Little Prince, I came to the realization that the syrupy lyrics dripping from my headphones weren't doing such a bad job of describing how I felt. Yes, Alex, I too would like a ray of light to make me shine.

From there, everything went downhill. I began humming along as singers wailed about burning passion and begged their lovers to stay. And it hasn't stopped. Today I downloaded a song whose chorus begins, "I won't give up. I want a world with you."

I find myself wondering if this descent into musical sentimentality is part of the gray hair/movie night value pack or if the nomadic lifestyle -- instead of hardening me up -- has made me go soft. When you country-hop, every experience is tinged with novelty and therefore magnified. You meet a lot of people who teach you a lot of things. And you say a lot of goodbyes. And maybe you can relate just a little better to ballads.