Wednesday, September 30, 2009

In which "Vitacura" and "bargains" appear in the same sentence

This evening, I went to a book fair in Vitacura, a part of Santiago I rarely visit. In fact, before today, I'm pretty sure it had been five years since I´d last set foot there.

I suppose it's all for the best, because, as the municipality with the highest per capita income in Chile,* Vitacura is out of my price range. I confirmed this today while walking up Alonso de Córdova, were I passed Louis Vuitton, Salvatore Ferragamo and Armani boutiques on my way to the fair. By the time I arrived at the tent that housed the event, I was convinced that the prices of the books were going to be just as exhorbitant as those of the designer bags in the shop windows.

I wasn't entirely torn up about it, though, because the primary reason I had come to the fair was to attend a book launch -- which, I learned when I arrived, had been suspended until further notice because "the authors couldn´t make it." Thus, I was left to wander around the tent and be tempted.

The Ferial del Libro de Vitacura -- yes, that´s Ferial -- pleasantly surprised me. It´s smaller and much more manageable than the gargantuan Feria del Libro de Santiago. Sure, most of the merchandise is marked down just slightly from bookstore prices, but good things come to those who dig: I strolled out of the tent with three books that had cost me a grand total of $4.990 pesos, or under US$10. So, it would seem that there are bargains to be found in Vitacura -- at least until Sunday. Also, the fair is set up on the edge of the lovely Parque Bicentenario, where I´d never been before.

The most humorous moment of the night was when a salesman tried to pitch me an English course. I jumped slightly when he appeared out of nowhere and intercepted me as I rounded a corner.

"Can I ask you a question? Do you speak English?"

I´m used to people asking me if I speak Spanish, so this threw me off a bit. "Yes," I replied apprehensively, hoping I wasn´t about to be drafted into translation duty. The last time that happened, I was stuck in a police station until midnight...but that´s another story.

"Would you like to perfect it?"

I grinned.

*According to the 2006 CASEN survey, if anyone wants to get rigorous.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The monophonic symphony

Back in the days when Santiago city buses were yellow, many passengers engaged in an activity that oh-so-efficiently accomplished two things at once: keeping them entertained during the ride and aggravating the caca out of everyone around them. These considerate individuals took it upon themselves to treat their fellow passengers to a medley of five-second snippets of the contents of their ringtone libraries.

Bear in mind that this was a few years ago, so we're not talking symphonic masterpieces here. We're talking the Nokia jingle and monophonic tunes with names like "Summer Breeze." In other words, abrasively, unbearably obnoxious. I would tense up every time I saw a cell phone emerge from a a pocket or purse, praying its owner was not responding to a sudden urge to take ringtone inventory.

Fortunately, this custom seems to have disappeared with time. I can think of a few possible explanations for this. First, mp3 players and iPods have since provided Chileans with much snazzier ways to entertain themselves on the bus. And why flip through a list of ringtones when you can take photos, play Tetris and send e-mails on your cell phone instead? Also, Santiago's new buses have very few seats, meaning most people are too concentrated staying upright to get extremely bored. Who said Transantiago doesn't have its benefits?

Just when I thought I was in the clear, I went to the immigration office (Extranjeria)* last week to address what ended up being unfounded visa-related hysteria. I was sitting in the waiting room when I heard it: Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture -- about four seconds of it. Then the opening stanzas of the theme from The Simpsons. Then the chorus from Good Charlotte's "I Just Wanna Live." In all their monophonic glory. The DJ: the guy seated in front of me.

Apparently, the public ringtone roll call is alive and well in other countries. Or at least at Extranjeria, where the wait is longer and more eyeball-twitchingly boring than the vast majority of bus rides. And when you're sitting in a hard plastic chair waiting for strangers to decide your future, there's nothing like fragments of high-pitched electronic melodies to calm your nerves.

*Some tips about Extranjeria: Go early, go with a book, and -- when in doubt -- go in person. The information I've received over the telephone has rarely been correct.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The List

When my sister and I were (not so) little, we used to watch the Nickelodeon show Hey Arnold! (when we weren't watching Mexican soap operas, that is). In one episode, Arnold resolves to complete every activity on a list that supposedly consitutes a recipe for a perfect Saturday. As one might expect, misadventures and life lessons ensue.

I set out to complete a list of my own this past weekend, when Chile celebrated its independence. As those who have lived here know, saying the Fiestas Patrias are a big deal in Chile is an understatement. And since I never know which September 18 will be my last in Chile, I try to live it up each year. This time around, I had compiled a mental checklist of activities that, in my mind, stood to make this year's Fiestas Patrias memorable:

1. Spend time with friends. OK, kind of an obvious one. Part of what made this round of Fiestas Patrias so enjoyable for me, though, was the fact that I was able to spend it with a wide variety of people: workmates, new friends, old friends, friends I hadn't seen for months, and people I met along the way. The marathonic nature of Chile's September celebrations lends itself to this. This and severe hangovers, which -- luckily -- did not afflict me this year.

2. Eat ungodly amounts of food off a grill. Mission accomplished. Twice.

3. Drink chicha. This sweet alcoholic cider isn't something I would necessarily keep in my fridge year round, but it is just as much a Fiestas Patrias staple as empanadas or meat kabobs. I also had the pleasure of ingesting navegado, which is red wine boiled with sugar and orange slices -- a tasty and efficient way to warm up when the coals under the grill start burning low.

4. Fly a kite. OK, I'll admit it: V. and I didn't actually fly kites in the strict sense of the world. We yanked furiously on their strings in a completely fruitless effort to keep them from nosediving into the ground. Never mind that the seven-year-olds next to us were enjoying some success; we blame lack of wind and faulty kite mechanics.

5. Dance cueca. In all fairness to the cueca, one or both of the previous two words should be in quotes. I know the basic steps and the order in which they come, things I learned on the "Learn to Dance Cueca" DVD a friend sometimes busts out at barbecues. When it comes to dancing with style, however, I'm pretty sure my cueca skills are on par with my kite-flying prowess. Still, if the lights are dim and there are enough people on the dance floor, I dive in. I did so on Friday night at a fonda (public Fiestas Patrias party) in a small (and smoke free -- yay!) bar near downtown Santiago, where two of the four invited bands got heels stomping and handkerchiefs spinning to the beat of Chile's national dance.

If my life were a Nickelodeon cartoon, I would have learned that no list makes for a perfect Fiestas Patrias. In real life, though, I had a pretty damn good time. Tikitikitiiiii!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Terror rides the bus, and I use Neutrogena

Chilean writer José Donoso was once given morphine after undergoing a medical procedure. He had an adverse reaction that brought on a series of paranoid hallucinations, or so the story goes. They say this drug-induced delirium inspired the nightmarish narration of El Mudito, protagonist of my beloved El obsceno pájaro de la noche.

When I was in seventh grade, I was given morphine after having ankle surgery. Instead of writing a master work of literature, however, I consumed an entire box of orange Popsicles and had a pizza delivered to my hospital room at midnight. The following morning, I was unable to produce a coherent protest when a troika of clowns appeared in the doorway brandishing a giant pair of plastic scissors and announcing it was time of cut off my cast.

As you might imagine, this experience only exacerbated my preexisiting fear of clowns. It´s not that I´m convinced they´re going to murder me in my sleep...although I wouldn´t put it past them. What distresses me about clowns is exactly what gives them such great potential as social critics: Safe behind layers of facepaint, they shine the spotlight on others, exposing and manipulating them as they see fit. To put it dramatically, they draw you against your will into a game they control.

This is precisely what clowns do when they perform on busses in Santiago. They incorporate the captive passengers into their routines, even those passengers who, like me, stare fixedly out the window and try to will the plastic seats into absorbing them. Of the people who laugh, I wonder how many actually find the routines funny and how many are simply relieved not to have been singled out...yet. I think it's safe to say that these situations are even more distressing for those of us who, due to certain linguistic factors, may find ourselves at a disadvantage when it comes to witty banter.

So you can imagine how thrilled I was when I got on the bus a few days ago to find a clown standing in the aisle, patiently awaiting his audience/victims/next meal. "There's a seat here!" he called out to me as I passed, patting his lap.

Oh God.

I hunched down in my seat, arms firmly crossed and gaze firmly diverted. The clown's routine began with mother-in-law jokes, then progressed into an analysis of the relationship between cleanliness and gender. When he started asking female passengers what brand of soap they used, I knew I was screwed.

"Neutrogena," I replied when, inevitably, he got around to me. I pronounced it "Neu-TRO-he-na," the way they say it in Ecuador, silently praying that it was the way they said it here, too. I learned that not all dialects hispanisize foreign brand names the same way when I asked for a tube of Col-GAH-te in a Chilean pharmacy and the attendant arched her eyebrows in disdain and asked if I meant COL-gait.

"What?" the clown demanded.



"Is that a Peruvian soap?"

(Passengers laugh.)

"No." Just say as little as possible, Leigh, and he won't notice your accent and be suddenly inspired to perform a routine about gringas who use Peruvian soap and can't stand their mothers-in-law.

"Where is that soap from?"

"I don't know."

I held my breath until the clown turned to someone else and the crisis could officially be declared averted.

When the clown walked up the aisle asking for coins at the end of his routine, I didn't give him one, convinced that looking his way would be tantamount to offering myself up as a target for whatever else he may have had planned.

"Quit causing problems," he muttered.

(Passengers laugh.)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Send in your stories!

Just a reminder to all you writers out there that tomorrow is the deadline to send in your stories to the Santiago en 100 Palabras contest. As has been previously established, I'm something of a fan. This year, the organizers have made what I think is a wonderful change: You no longer need a Chilean RUT (identity card number) to participate. Who says only legal residents have something to say about this city?

Speaking of Santiago en 100 Palabras, does anyone else think it would be fun to create an English version (without the contest aspect) in the blogosphere?