Thursday, December 30, 2010

Love and the post-apocalyptic city

I know, I know: It's been a while. I'm so much taller than the last time you saw me. Unfortunately, finals, papers, travel and the holidays (hope yours have been happy!) have come between this blog and me of late. This means that I've had a lot of time to accumulate ideas for this post and become indecisive about which one to roll with. For example, I'm tempted to uncork a bottle of palabras reguleques about this charming development, but I'll restrain myself for the time being and turn instead to something I've been thinking about for a while and would be interested to hear others' take on.

A few weeks ago, a friend and I were talking about breakups. We discussed how the death of a relationship not only breaks hearts but also spills ink over maps. Faster than he or she can say, "It's not you, it's me," your ex sinks a scalpel into your city. Amputated are the place where you met and the restaurant where you had your first date, summarily extracted your favorite movie theater and the park where you used to people watch on weekends. As if watching an air raid from above, you stand by helplessly as entire patches of territory vanish into blackout. Simply put, there are places you can no longer bring yourself to go.

My friend and I agreed that this is nothing short of a travesty. Your ex already took your heart/your sweatshirt/the best three and a half months of your youth; he or she should not be able to take your city as well. So what do you do when you find yourself squinting into the smoking post-apocalyptic wreckage of your rose-tinted urban paradise? In my opinion? Reclaim it.

See, when I was studying abroad in Santiago, I liked a boy who took me to a plaza. My crush never amounted to much, but that plaza -- which I neither could nor wanted to avoid -- remained haunted by the Ghost of Infatuations Past. Until the day when I decided I'd had enough and ceremoniously crisscrossed the plaza on my bike. And just like that, the plaza was mine again. As silly as it sounds, the debris strewn across that bombarded square reassembled itself into a lovely fountain and one of the city's most breathtaking churches. The plaza was back on my map. In time, I introduced it to new people who helped me create new memories there. Take that, apocalypse.

It strikes me that making a conscious effort to reclaim lost territory may be especially important for those who are new to a city. Relationships -- romantic and otherwise -- are key to recent arrivals' mapmaking process: When you're a newcomer, you see what people show you, and your experience of your new surroundings is strongly mediated by the paths your guides map out for you. If one of these guides decides to leave the tour early -- carrying your pride and your favorite DVD -- chances are you'll simply never retrace your steps. Your map will spread like vines around an obstacle, creeping around the edges of the blackout zone without ever venturing inside. When you find yourself heartbroken in familiar territory, on the other hand, your roots may already penetrate too deeply into the fallout zone to be torn out completely.

Then again, maybe not. What about you? Have you ever exorcised a haunted plaza? How do you return stolen spaces to your map? Do expats/newcomers face a specific set of challenges when confronting the post-apocalyptic city? Which is worse: for someone to trample the landmarks you've known since childhood or to grind a sprouting map back into the ground?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Missing unicorn

New York City is a living bulletin board. The announcements, ads, posters and graffiti with which people adorn the walls of this city are enough to make even the shortest stroll fascinating. At first, I thought this flier posted by someone requesting live bedbugs took the cake.

That is, until I saw this:

I called, of course. About the unicorn, not the bedbugs. I mean, how could I not after spotting her waiting for the La Guardia shuttle bus with a sleazy guy and overhearing them mention Vegas?

Friday, October 29, 2010

Becoming an anecdote

Kyle's recent post about her dance party of one reminded me of one of my favorite moments from the nearly four years I lived in Santiago. (The biggest excitement I've had here in New York over the past several days has been trying out a new reading room in the library, so unfortunately, you're stuck with nostalgia this time around.)

I'm guessing that everyone who's ever lived in a city with a subway system has a favorite station. It might be the station closest to your apartment, the one with the prettiest tiles on the walls, the one where you and your significant other met up before your first date or the one where peoplewatching is at its most fascinating. Within the Santiago Metro system, there are a few stations particularly close to my heart. One of them falls at a point on the line where the track travels above ground.

A good friend of mine lives right next to the station and can see onto the platform from his bedroom window. After visiting him during one of my last weeks in Santiago, I crossed the street, swiped through the Metro turnstile and, once I was down on the platform, looked up to his window and, per tradition, waved goodbye.

However, a simple wave didn't seem to suffice this time around. I was leaving Santiago in a few short weeks, making this one of the last times I would set foot in my favorite Metro station. Plus, there was a really good song playing on my iPod. I was going to go out with a bang.

It started with a general rock-out: hips swaying, hands in the air. Then came the robot, the Egyptian and Saturday Night Fever. Across the street, my friend was breaking it down just as hard in his bedroom window, but very few of the waiting passengers who were casting curious glances my way could see him; to them, I was just a crazy, vaguely foreign-looking woman who apparently believed she'd stumbled into the world's most poorly choreographed iPod commercial.

I was disappointed when the train pulled up and cut our dance party short, but I rolled away satisfied that I now had yet another reason to love my favorite station. It had become -- and forever will remain -- the site of the most badass dance party the Santiago Metro has ever seen.

Around the same time, I etched my initials into a square of wet cement. Unfortunately, "wet" in this case meant "half dry," so the result wasn't nearly as aesthetically pleasing as I'd hoped. Still, I relished the idea of leaving a permanent mark on the city that had left such an important mark on me. My interest in nostalgic vandalism had actually been sparked a few years earlier, when I'd accidentally planted my foot square in the middle of a patch of wet cement on a sidewalk in Santiago's Recoleta neighborhood; it was my first taste of the thrill of altering the urban landscape. (I've been back to the area many times since but was never able to identify the imprint of the bottom of my flip-flop. I choose to believe it's because I haven't looked hard enough and not because they smoothed the cement over after I marred it.)

When I think about it now, though, doing the robot in a Metro station may be an even more effective way of accomplishing urban immortality. Cement can be recast, but memories of people acting like lunatics in public last a long time. If even just one of my dance party witnesses now associates that Metro station with spontaneous rug-cutting, I've done my job. I've done it even better if my friend and I contributed to the belief that the Metro and public spaces like it are just as open to the absurd as to the everyday.

In class, we've been giving presentations that are supposed to end with discussion questions, and I've gotten into the habit. Plus, I'm genuinely interested in your answers to the following: What's your favorite subway station and why? (I can't name mine here because I don't want the world -- I'm probably overestimating my readership just slightly -- to know exactly where to stand in order to see into my friend's bedroom.) Where's the strangest place you've ever had a dance party? Do you feel that being foreign (if you live in a place where you are) makes you more or less inhibited about going nuts in public? Have you ever tried to leave your mark on a city or place, through vandalism, vogueing or otherwise?

Friday, October 1, 2010

Reactivating the beast gene

Back in August, my mom came out to New York to help my sister and me move into our apartment. One evening, she came across me sitting on the living room floor surrounded by wooden planks and piles of screws -- put simply, in the throes of Ikea despair. Her words of encouragement? "It looks like when God was handing out the beast gene, he stopped after he got to me."

My mom isn't the only one who's implied lately that I'm a wuss. While chatting on Skype the other night, V. and I started reminiscing about the time we hauled his furniture down the street in Santiago when he moved to a new house a few blocks away. (Two days later, his new room was rendered uninhabitable by the earthquake.) He admitted that my endurance had surprised him that day because, and I quote, "you don't do anything."

Anything in the way of exercise, he clarified.

Come on, V. That's not entirely true. Back in Santiago, I rode a bike, walked a lot and had a job that kept me on my feet (literally) for nine hours each day. In Minneapolis this summer, I walked around the lake occasionally and paid a few visits to the elliptical machine. It's true, however, that it's been a while since there's been anything systematic about my exercise. In other words, I don't have a fitness regimen.

I think I need one. At first, I thought fitness would take care of itself in New York. (I also thought I would paint my entire apartment before moving in and have a thriving herb garden up on the rooftop. Alas.) I would, after all, be walking everywhere, right? And wouldn't the plethora of health food options available inspire me to master some healthy recipes?

Not exactly. Sure, I could walk everywhere and spend hours each week chopping cabbage and cooking quinoa. However, the truth is that I'm frequently either too exhausted or in too much of a hurry to do either. There are many days when my only exercise involves hustling to the subway and my only meals are those I can grab on the go. The result: I've been feeling crazed and out of shape. I need to exercise, and I need a routine.

So I've decided to try running. Again. I made my first attempt freshman year of college. I figured that if my roommate could make it to crew practice before dawn each morning, I could at least do a few laps around the neighborhood. Easier said than done in a neighborhood full of hills, treacherously uneven sidewalks and trees that drop softball-sized seed pods everywhere. My career as a runner lasted all of two weeks.

My second try took place halfway across the world. My family and I were on vacation in Spain, and I'd decided that taking morning jogs would be an invigorating way to see the sights. Unfortunately for me, a record-breaking heat wave hit Europe that summer. The one time I actually rolled out of bed early enough to catch some cool air, I got so lost amid the steep, tangled streets of Granada that I had to take a cab back to the hotel. You know, like seasoned athletes do.

Here in New York, it's not as easy to blame my failures on a sinister conspiracy between urban planners and climactic conditions. There are plenty of flat, well-paved and attractive places to run here. Among them is Central Park, where I decided to give running another go this week. Surprisingly, I started off OK. What's encouraging about Central Park is that for every intimidating leave-you-in-my-New-Balance-dust marathoner, there's a novice runner like me. On the day of my first run, there was also a woman who was at least seven months pregnant and put me to shame.

I guess I still have a long way to go.

Any tips, seasoned runners? How can a flojita like me get in the habit without burning out or getting injured?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Half a decade of Dieciochos

I just got home from celebrating Chilean independence (to be referred to henceforth as el Dieciocho or las Fiestas Patrias) in New York City. Paying homage to my adoptive country required graciously accepting a free pisco sour refill, so I apologize if the writing in this post is rather uninspired. As for the story of my night out, it will have to wait for later this week; some of the events that transpired were quite unexpected, and I'd like to be able to do them justice. Also, I'd like to combine the story with a restaurant review, which I think will take more time than I'm willing to stay awake right now.

As an appetizer, I leave you with the Tales of Dieciochos Past. Tikitikitiii.

2004 - My first Dieciocho was, sorry to say, anticlimactic. I'd arrived in Santiago less than two months earlier and had been too busy trying to find my way home from all the places where I'd gotten lost to make a real Fiestas Patrias plan. A fellow exchange student's host family had clued her in to the fonda (public Fiestas Patrias party) being held at Parque Intercomunal de La Reina, now called Parque Padre Hurtado, so a group of us boarded a big yellow city bus (those were the days) and headed up there. Since we weren't exactly sure what one was supposed to do at a fonda, we spent most of the afternoon waiting in line for anticuchos (meat shishkabobs) and plastic cups of chicha. Since the La Reina fonda was a family affair, we were left with a thirst for mischief but -- as is the way of college students -- didn't get organized in time to go anywhere other than the Empanadium in Las Condes.

2005 - Back for my senior year in the States, I bought a horrifically overpriced bottle of pisco at the seedy yet beloved liquor store near campus and tried to make my roommates drink it with me. They hated it, although they were too polite to say so. My mistake was starting them not with the cocktail-style pisco sour but with Piscola, a low-budget favorite that involves mixing pisco with Coke or Sprite (the latter is my favorite). The thing is that piscola, in my opinion, is not very good in itself. Piscola is good if you associate it with good memories, which it is particularly skilled at evoking. It's a drink that's made and shared at backyard cookouts, impromptu gatherings, and university concerts, events that leave you thinking back warmly on the company and -- yes -- on that warmly tingling burn your drink left at the back of your throat.

2006 - I was living in Quito and, as I recall, did nothing special to celebrate. I may have sought out a Chilean empanada, which are easier to find in Quito than you might think.

2007 - I had just returned to the States in Quito and was too busy wallowing to do much of anything.

2008 - This was the year I learned to dance cueca. A friend had happened upon an instructional DVD that we replayed until we had it down. Of course, cueca -- like Spanish -- is a lot harder in the real world than in the classroom, so my grand premiere at one of the infamous Parque O'Higgins fondas was more than a bit fumbling. Still, I'd dared to get out on the floor, which was more than I'd been able to say in the past.

V. and I both lived within a few blocks of Parque O'Higgins at the time and, as a result, spent more time at this fonda than we ended up wishing we had. If you want to party with the crowds, have your choice of low-cost fondas and drink chicha from the barrel, this is the place to go. After a bit, though, the teeming activity can get overwhelming, especially if you go at night. I wish I'd gone during the day, when kite-flying on the green is the activity of choice.

2009 - Another busy year. This one involved failed kite flying and an Andean dance party. Details here.

2010 - Coming soon.

Felices Fiestas Patrias, everyone. I hope you have a wonderful weekend celebrating (or not celebrating) however you choose to. If you happen to be in Chile, fly a kite and drink a glass of chicha for me.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Canciones pa'l recuerdo

In which Leigh dates herself

The other day, my sister, Q. -- queen of both Latin pop and bursting spontaneously into song -- busted out a superb rendition of "Angel" by Mexican singer Belinda. I hadn't heard the song in ages, but it immediately transported me back to the days when I was an exchange student in Santiago and the then-teenage pop starlet's voice chirped from what seemed to be every speaker in the city. I've heard that smell is the sense most tightly tied to memory, but if my response to "Angel" is any indication, hearing is right up there with it.

I began compiling a mental list of other songs that could act as trans-hemispheric time machines. Most of them are lip-smackingly cheesy. Not all of them are in Spanish. Hardly any of them are Chilean. They are, however, the songs that consumers of mainstream Santiago media heard during that time, whether on TV, in the Metro, on pop radio stations or at dance clubs. If you lived in Chile at or around the time I studied abroad there -- which I think a sizable slice of my blog readership did -- you'll recognize them and, I hope, have a little laugh.

So, here you have 'em: canciones pa'l recuerdo.

What songs take you back?

Create a playlist at

Monday, September 13, 2010

The world's most awkward bookmark

This weekend, I spoke with someone who had recently read an article that affirmed that yes, people actually do judge you by what you read on the subway. Instead of pondering ways to conceal an Us Weekly inside a New England Journal of Medicine, I immediately wondered if people were also judging me by my bookmark.

My bookmark looks like this.

That's right. These days, one can enjoy an absorbing work of literature while simultaneously learning which of his or her moles are cancerous. And, thanks to this party favor from my dermatologist, now not even reading can distract me from the fact that my skin is a ticking time bomb.

Not only can I not avoid contemplating my impending death by mole, but it's impossible for me to make it through my commute without feeling some very befuddled stares creeping over my shoulder. I tend to read with my bookmark marking the page I'm on, so if a fellow passenger happens to take a glance at what I'm reading -- as I almost always do if the person next to me has a book open on his or her lap -- he or she comes face-to-face with an illustrated guide to melanoma.

"Why not just flip the bookmark over?" you may ask. Fair enough. If I do, curious fellow passengers get to look at this

and draw their own conclusions about why I'm keeping my place with what appears to be a comic strip of a naked man examining himself with a hand mirror.

Since I don't have plans to replace a perfectly good bookmark, I'm trying to make peace with it. I don't try to cover it up on the subway anymore. In fact, I'm trying to embrace my role as a walking, reading public service announcement. The truth is that I've probably been more conscientious about applying sunscreen since I began spending prolonged periods of time staring at Mr. Hand Mirror; maybe my fellow passengers will be, too.

If you recognize any of the moles on my bookmark, get yourself checked out by a dermatologist. Don't forget to ask for a free bookmark.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The huacho convention

In Chile, "huacho" is a potentially derogatory word for a child born out of wedlock. Strangely enough, it's also a term of endearment, regardless of the target's parents' marital status. I call my ex-boyfriend "little bastard" to this day, and we parted on completely amicable terms.

The word figures prominently in the song "Me quieren en Chile" by the California band Los Abandoned. The verse in question goes like this:

Yo no soy de Chile, no soy de Francia
Yo no soy de España ni de L.A.
Por la puta que soy huachita
Puta madre, no más
Por la puta que soy huachita
Puta madre, no más

Or, roughly translated and shortchanging the multiple meanings that Spanish speakers will pick up in the last line:

I'm not from Chile, I'm not from France
I'm not from Spain nor from L.A.
Damn it, I'm a little bastard
To hell with it all
Damn it, I'm a little bastard
To hell with it all

It's not hard to see why this song resonated with me when I stumbled across it a few weeks ago. I could just as easily call myself "huachita" (like my ex-boyfriend does) and substitute Minneapolis, Quito and New York for the last three places mentioned in the song. I might even have to add another slot for Washington, D.C.

I am from Minneapolis, of course. I have a "City of Lakes" poster hanging in my entryway and an "I Love Mpls" print framed on my bookcase. Minneapolis was and will always be my first home. It's the place where my family is based and where I absorbed and internalized the values and customs that characterize me to this day.

However, I think many other people who have spent significant periods of time living abroad would agree that you never truly go home. While I'll probably always call Minneapolis "home," it will never be as invisible to me as it was before I left it. When I was growing up, I hardly ever noticed my surroundings, much less analyzed them, because they were what was and had always been. I didn't stop to ponder the lakes or the parkways or my favorite spots around town any more than a bear stops to ponder the woods. I was in my habitat and didn't know another one.

This changed somewhat when I went off to college in D.C., where I pined for Minnesotans' relaxed pace of conversation and virtually unfailing willingness to hold doors open for others. Nevertheless, the true shift came after I'd spent a few years living in South America. Whenever I visited Minneapolis, I was able to see it with the eyes of an outside observer. How lucky we are to live in a city brimming with water and trees; how wasteful we are to crisscross through it in cars. Simultaneously, I realized that I was not a regular Minneapolitan anymore. During the time I'd been away, my city and its residents had experienced things together -- snowstorms, a catastrophic bridge collapse, years of pop culture -- to which I would never be able to fully relate. Similarly, I'd lived things abroad that no one who'd never experienced anything similar would ever truly understand, no matter how hard I tried to explain.

And my homes away from home and I have shared a lot of things. Quito and I watched thunderstorms roll down the mountains the same time every afternoon. Santiago and I felt the earth shake beneath us. I care about these cities and a lot of the people in them, which, I suppose, makes them homes as well. I'm sure these places have shaped me in more ways that I know.

But, of course, they'll never be home for me like they are to the people who grew up there. The latter have shared so many things that I never will and have a relationship to their cities and cultures that I had to learn like a second language.

Which brings me to another component of expat bastardom: We are linguistic huachos. As a gringo friend and I once discussed in Santiago, one language is no longer sufficient. We talked about how, after years of living in Chile, there were certain concepts we felt we couldn't adequately express in either English or Spanish alone and that those who were in the best position to be able to communicate with us were gringos who had lived in Chile or Chileans who had lived in the States. I mean, sometimes you just need to be able to say, "Puta la weá, it was so awkward, but me dio lata irme" and have someone understand you.

The Los Abandoned song perfectly illustrates the plight of the linguistic huacho, because "puta madre," an expletive in Chile, can also mean "awesome" in Spain. We would have to know where the singer is from to know for sure whether she thinks being a huachita is sh*tty or the sh*t, and since -- by her own admission -- she is from nowhere, we can't know what she means.

In Chile, kids who can't identify their fathers are labeled "huachos" by the insensitive. I'm hereby expropriating the slur and applying it --as a term of endearment, of course -- to those of us unable to define ourselves as the offspring of a single place and a single language. I would hazard the claim that this includes many expats, although we obviously don't experience it in the same way children raised bilingually or in immigrant communities do.

I, for one, am happy to be a huacha. Multiple homes and languages mean a lot of goodbyes and a lot of stammering, but they also mean a lot of unique relationships and a lot of ways to express oneself.

I suppose it would have been more accurate for me to say that I'm happy being a huacha most of the time. There have been moments when I have doubted my ability to relate to or express myself to anyone. However, I take comfort in knowing that there are a lot of other huachos out there -- and that they probably feel the exact same way.

Take my new classmates. After our first department meeting last week, a group of us went out for dessert. As I listened to the others talk about their lives between bites, I realized that I was in the midst of people just like me: people who had bounced from place to place and taken a part of themselves from each pushpin on their personal maps. Paris, Philadelphia, the Dominican Republic, New York, Miami, Minneapolis, Santiago de Compostela and Santiago de Chile: All made their presence known through tales and through language. In the middle of New York, city of huachos, a tableful of huachos were eating pie.

I think we're going to get along just fine.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Letters from Gotham

If I haven't posted for a while, it's because I've been frozen into the icy cistern at the bottom of the ninth circle of Ikea hell. I've been in New York City for more than a week now and can honestly say I know my way around the labyrinthine Swedish superstore in New Jersey better than around my new neighborhood. Luckily, Q. and I -- with the help of our lovely mother, who turned out to be a beast with a power drill -- now have a couch to sit on and beds to sleep in. We even have some pictures on the walls courtesy of this up-and-coming Minneapolis artist, whose City of Lakes print is the first thing you see when you walk in our apartment door.

Since I've spent the past several days on the floor doing battle with products with names like Linnarp and Micke, I haven't had much time to get my bearings. This goes for both the city and my university, the latter of which seems to think me more self-sufficient than I really am. Unfortunately, I was absent the day they handed out the get-your-grad-school-life-in-order instinct. If I hadn't stopped by my department to speak to one of my future professors the other day, I would have registered for all the wrong classes.

To the university's credit, they hosted an ice cream social for us newbies. They also held an orientation meeting in which they made it clear that there's a support system in place to lend us a hand if we ever need it. Still, I couldn't help feeling a bit disoriented on my way home. And that's when it happened: As I was leaving the subway, a woman stopped me and asked me for directions. And -- get this -- I actually knew what to tell her.

I would feel a rush of self-satisfaction whenever this happened to me in Chile, and I felt it again here in New York. I may be disoriented, but I guess I hide it well!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

My virtual paranoia

You've probably noticed that the anecdotes that appear on this blog include quite a bit of self-deprecation (or self-congratulation, as the case may be) but hardly any personal detail. For example, I've posted about nasty clients I encountered at my last Chilean job but refused to indicate what type of job I had. I even deleted comments that alluded to it (sorry). I wrote a fair amount about my neighborhood in Santiago but didn't say which one it was. (What up, Estación Central?) And, of course, it's not a coincidence that nearly all the photos I post of myself don't include a full frontal view of my face. I'm not just being emo.

People might wonder -- with good reason -- why I'm so paranoid. It's not like I'm a celebrity or anything. Why would anyone want to waste their time stalking me online?

I'd like to ask the person who tried. I don't want to get into the sordid details, but a few years ago, a person contacted my employer in Chile seeking information about me and claiming we'd had a class together when I'd studied abroad. To make a long story short, I corresponded with this person for a few days online, all the while feeling guilty that I didn't remember her. The reason for this soon became obvious: I'd never met her at all. I realized this person had found sufficient information about me online to track me down and was now posing as someone she wasn't in order to achieve who knows what.

So I became paranoid. I wasn't that I was particularly afraid of this person, who dropped off the radar -- except for a minor Facebook incident -- when I cut off communication. The experience, however, made me aware of how easy it is for strangers to use the internet to both investigate and deceive you. The truth is that if anyone truly wanted to stalk me online, he or she could almost certainly find a way to do so; I decided, though, that I wasn't going to give potential stalkers any extra help by posting personal details on my blog.

This has made it impossible for me to share things about my life that I really would have liked to. I can't tell you how many times I wanted to blog about the outrageous experiences I had at my last Chilean job. Every time, though, I had to hold back: Even if I hadn't given the name of my company (which, needless to say, one should never do on a personal blog), the rubric I worked in was small enough that it would have been easy to guess where to find me from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day. The same goes now for the Ph.D. program I'm about to start. Although it will probably become pretty obvious what I'm studying and where, I'm not comfortable publishing that information just yet.

Honestly, I wish I were, because -- call me voyeuristic -- I think learning details about other people's lives is part of what's so fun about reading blogs. Still, I think it's necessary to maintain a filter. I've seen blogs in which people have written things like, "Hey, friends and family! I got to India last night and spent today getting all my stuff organized in my new apartment. Here's the address so you can write me." I probably should have posted a comment along the lines of, "Are you insane?! Get your home address OFF THE INTERNET!" I've also read posts by people who identify their companies by name and proceed to bitch about their jobs. Bad move, amigos.

What do you think? Where should bloggers draw the line when it comes to sharing personal information? Is there any aspect of your life you would never consider making public?

Monday, August 16, 2010

A Ph.D. in crayons

In about a week, my sister, Q., and I will be moving into an apartment in New York City and starting our respective school years. At present, said apartment is completely empty aside from basic kitchen appliances and a few ceiling fans. Therefore, last week we decided to make that greatest of twenty-something pilgrimages: a trip to Bed, Bath & Beyond.

We piled our cart high with pillows and bedbug-proof mattress covers and struggled to maneuver it around displays of such enticing items as University of Minnesota Snuggies, butt-lifting underwear and something called the Pasta Boat. We must have looked lost (or like prime targets), because every employee we passed asked us if we needed help finding anything.

"Are you shopping for college?" one of them asked.

My mom, who was with us, explained that my sister was getting her master's and I my Ph.D.

The employee looked at me aghast. "A Ph.D. in crayons?" she demanded.

I'll admit that I can look young for my age. I don't say this in a "look how well I withstand the signs of aging" way; apparently, there's something about my face infantile enough to have made people assume I was in high school during and well after college and that I'm too young for big grown-up tasks like buying alcohol in countries where the drinking age is 18 and getting advanced degrees.

I'm sure I'll end up being grateful for this a few years down the line, but right now, being babyfaced sometimes results in people not taking me seriously – like the client at my last job who told me I “wouldn’t know anything about” a topic I wrote my undergraduate
thesis on.

It wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t feel like a child sometimes, too. I was pretty good at keeping things running smoothly in Chile and Ecuador, but the fact that I’ve lived so many of the past several years abroad means I don’t really know how to be an adult in the U.S. I went straight from the protected island of college to a series of adventures in destinations south, and although I got jobs, opened accounts and rented apartments, everything seemed too transitory and precarious to fit into a stereotypical portrait of adult life. While some of my friends in the States were buying and decorating homes, I was renting furnished rooms in other people’s houses or – in the case of Ecuador – filling my apartment with cheap furniture I hoped to be able to resell when I left in a few months’ time. While some people my age were advancing along the hallowed road of “building a career,” I was working quirky jobs that, although rewarding, were more like tiles in a mosaic than rungs on a ladder.

Of course, I don’t subscribe to the idea that stasis is the key ingredient to adulthood. I would also hazard to claim that my unconventional experiences have made me more self-reliant than going a more traditional route would have. In other words, I’m prepared to take on adult responsibility, but I just don’t know how to do it here yet. I could tell you all about talking down your rent in Ecuador and could show you the statements from my Chilean retirement savings fund, but I still get nervous whenever I have to write or deposit a check in the U.S. And it is a bit unnerving to know that this new educational endeavor falls completely under my responsibility, both academically and financially: My fellowship is mine to keep or lose, and a lot more independence and self-discipline are going to be demanded of me than when I was a perennially sweatshirt-clad undergrad who spent hours in the cafeteria getting sugar highs from the impressive array of frozen-yogurt toppings. All of this makes me wonder if I'll be able to prove myself any older than the employee at Bed, Bath & Beyond assumed I was.

So stay tuned for my adventures in crayons, alternately titled “Little Leigh does Big-Girl Things.” No posts about writing checks: I promise.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Tips for exchange students in Chile, Part 4: Say yes

That’s right: more tips for exchange students. In case you haven’t noticed, nostalgia for Chile has coincided with excessive amounts of free time to create very favorable conditions for blogging. Below are links to previous posts full of unsolicited advice:

Tips for exchange students in Chile, Part 1: Stick around

Tips for exchange students in Chile, Part 2: Academics
Tips for exchange students in Chile, Part 3: Go extracurricular

Today’s tip: Say yes. I have to admit that I didn’t think this one up on my own. “Say yes” was actually a piece of advice given to me by a coworker in Ecuador. She was also from the States and explained that in order to meet people in her new country, she had decided shortly after arriving that she would say “yes” whenever a friend invited her out. As a result, she said, she made a lot of Ecuadorian friends – among them the man she eventually married.

I hadn’t met my coworker yet when I was an exchange student in Chile, but looking back, I operated according to a similar logic while studying abroad. I had arrived in Chile determined to make Chilean friends and integrate myself into local life, and I knew that this was going to require me to “put myself out there” – as my mom likes to say – more than I was accustomed to doing. See, I’m not the world’s most social person. In college, I much preferred staying in with my roommates to making a half-day production of going out to the neighborhood bars a lot of my classmates packed into once they turned twenty-one. To this day, any social outing that involves a significant amount of preparation and energy investment awakens in me a vague sense of foreboding.

I knew I had to get past this while studying abroad. Not only would avoiding situations in which I felt socially awkward prevent me from making Chilean friends, but I quickly learned that it would prevent me from leaving the house at all. (Unpleasant but necessary news flash: Being an exchange student is AWKWARD with capital everything.)

So I started saying yes. When someone invited me somewhere, I tried to repress my concerns about how out of place I would feel and just go. And it actually paid off. One particularly illustrative example is the story of my first judo barbecue.

It was my second semester in Chile, and I had decided to lower my stress level a bit by taking a judo class at one of the universities where I was enrolled. A few weeks into the semester, I was having a great time getting my ass kicked but had yet to reap the bounty of social benefits I had hoped getting involved in an extracurricular would provide me. I had become friendly with only one of my classmates: C., one of the only other female judokas.

When the upperclassmen in judo announced they would be hosting a barbecue for the entire class, C. and I took an “I’ll go if you’ll go” approach. Both of us enjoyed the company of the other students, but neither of us knew them well. We figured going as a pair would shield us from the uncomfortable prospect of not having anyone to talk to.

The afternoon of the barbecue, I boarded the bus with my violin case in hand (at the time, I was taking lessons with a music professor kind enough to put up with my chronic lack of practicing) and set off in the direction of what I thought was going to be the beginning of my new and improved Chilean social life. However, just after I’d arrived at the designated meet-up spot – I was one of the first, as gringas and gringos almost always are – C. called me and told me she wouldn’t be able to make it after all. (Another unpleasant but necessary news flash: This WILL happen to you in Chile.)

So there I was, a solitary gringa with a violin case standing around waiting for a bunch of people I didn’t know to show up. I felt extremely awkward and wanted to leave. Luckily, I managed to remind myself why I had gone in the first place and decided to stick it out.

It ended up being a blast. My classmates were much more inclusive of me than I had expected them to be; I even ended up performing an impromptu violin solo. To be honest, I don’t think I would have been nearly as sociable if I’d had C.’s shoulder to lean on the whole time.

That first judo barbecue ended up marking the beginning of a few important long-term friendships. The barbecue itself wasn’t enough: I knew that if I wanted to keep the ball rolling, I had to keep saying yes. That’s why, in the coming weeks, I found myself going out dancing until dawn with my new judo friends and, once I knew them better, running panting with them onto the last outbound train of the night in order to make it to a party in the country. Each time, I could have come up with a million reasons to say no: I was tired; I wasn’t dressed right; I wasn’t going to know many people. In spite of it all, I went the spontaneous route and have never regretted it.

Several years later, I went to a birthday party in honor of O., a classmate with whom I’d initiated a friendship at that fateful barbecue, and mentioned to him how happy I was that I’d decided to take judo. “We wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t,” I said.

“You mean if you hadn’t been social,” he corrected. “If you hadn’t gone to that barbecue, we would have just been classmates, not friends.”

He was absolutely right. As it turned out, “being social” that one afternoon had consequences that were much more far reaching than I’d ever imagined. A few years later, I was strolling near the Santísimo Sacramento church in downtown Santiago with my then boyfriend when it occurred to me that I would never have met him – two and half years after the barbecue through that classic chain of friends of friends – had I decided to take my violin case and go home.

“What are you smiling about?” he chided.

And I told him the long story that had brought us to where we were.

As you can see, embracing spontaneity worked well for me. I’d like to emphasize, however, that spontaneity is not the same as recklessness. I would never advise you to hop on a midnight train with people you didn’t know and trust or say yes to anything you felt would put your safety at risk. I would also maintain that, under some circumstances, you should say no to an invitation: The idea of study abroad isn’t to wreck your health or fail out, after all. I would, however, advocate pushing your social boundaries a bit: for example, by going salsa dancing even if you have two left feet or going to a party with your host sister even if you’re afraid of making embarrassing errors in Spanish. I think most of the people I know who have studied abroad in Chile would agree that, when it comes to making Chilean friends, the exchange student usually has to take the initiative. And you certainly can’t do that if you’re sitting at home.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Tips for exchange students in Chile, Part 3: Go extracurricular

This is the third of my series of tips for exchange students in Chile. Here are my previous posts on the subject:

Tips for exchange students in Chile, Part 1: Stick around

Tips or exchange students in Chile, Part 2: Academics

Part 1 includes a disclaimer you should read if you plan on taking any of my advice seriously. Here’s the short version: Everyone has different goals when studying abroad, all equally valid. The tips I offer on this blog are things that helped me have a fantastic experience and are directed primarily at people who arrive in Chile with objectives similar to my own. In other words, my advice – like that erectile dysfunction pill you just saw advertised on TV – is not for everyone.

Last time, I offered some pointers on how to have a successful academic experience in Chile. In this post, I’ll make a case for what I believe is one of the primary ways to have a successful non-academic experience in Chile: signing up for an extracurricular.

Even if doing so earns you a giant bruise. I spent several weeks of my second semester in Chile with a rock-hard purple knob under the skin of my shin. I remember wincing as my host father, a physical therapist, palpated it for a few seconds before diagnosing a hematoma. The thing hurt – but it was worth it.

My multicolored injury was the direct result of one of the best decisions I made while studying abroad: enrolling in a judo class at one of the Chilean universities where I was studying. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’d overburdened myself academically my first semester and was hoping that signing up for a sports class would help me lighten my load and be more social. I’d never done judo before. I chose it because it fit comfortably into my schedule, not because I had any reason to believe I would be particularly good at it.

And I wasn’t. I spent four hours a week being slammed onto the mat and held there in a lock. My one advantage was scrappiness; I couldn’t take anyone down, but I could wriggle as if my life depended on it. It was during one such struggle that a particularly bony classmate ended up smashing an elbow into my shin.

Luckily for me, I was permitted short breaks between ass kickings. Between waiting in line to tumble and setting up and disassembling the mat, my classmates and I had plenty of time to get to know one another. The fact that nearly all of us were stumbling home in pain every night provided a good conversation starter.

We continued developing our friendships off the mat. We went out for beer after class and organized barbecues on the weekends – a few of us even hit the dance floor at Santiago’s notorious Blondie night club.

I doubt any of this would have happened in my dialectology course. The laid-back dynamic of the judo class fostered this kind of interaction – and it ended up making my semester. The hematoma was a small price to pay for all the laughter I shared with my partners in pain, one of whom remains a very close friend of mine to this day.

A year or two ago, the university bulldozed the gym where my judo class convened. I teared up when I heard.

It was actually a desire to write about how important judo was to my time in Chile that gave me the idea to write these “Tips for exchange students in Chile” posts in the first place. The afternoons I spent getting slammed convinced me that participating in some kind of extracurricular activity is key to having a successful study abroad experience.

The fact that clubs and sports aren’t as visible a presence on university campuses in Chile as they are in the States – you probably won’t find bulletin boards plastered with neon fliers for bhangra dance workshops and beer-fueled kickball tournaments – doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty to become involved in. Below are just a few of the activities that will help you explore your interests, meet people who share them and become part of a community in your host city.

1. Recreational classes. Many Chilean universities offer courses in sports, dance, art and even mountaineering. The latter, along with Latin dance, was particularly popular among my fellow exchange students at the Universidad Católica; a lot of Chileans sign up, too. Not only do classes like these allow you to relieve the stress you’ve accumulated while hunching over books, squinting at maps of bus routes and trying to teach baristas how to spell your name, but they provide an ideal space within which to make friends.

Whether or not you’ll receive college credit for these classes depends on your home university’s policies. My school didn’t give me credit for my judo class – I was only able to convince the registrar’s office to allow me to enroll in it because I was ahead on credits – but other colleges may have.

If you can’t find a class you like at your host school, check out those offered by cultural centers, the local municipal government, or independent groups. Tiny grassroots cultural collectives are renowned for offering an array of free or low-cost classes. For example, a gringo friend of mine in Santiago recently made the (downright badass) decision to enroll in an independent poetry workshop – in Spanish. A few years ago, I took photography and co-taught an English class at a squat (okupa).

A brief note on okupas: They provide a range of critical perspectives and can bring artistic learning and performance within the reach of those whose access would otherwise be limited. They are also technically illegal. Police raid them sometimes. Additionally, they tend to be housed in structures that aren’t subjected to routine safety checks. While I encourage exploration of grassroots cultural initiatives, I would advise you to think twice before doing anything that would put your immigration status or physical wellbeing at risk. If you feel uncomfortable or get bad vibes anywhere, leave.

2. Sports teams. Some Chilean schools participate in inter-university and intramural sports leagues. For example, I have a Chilean friend who plays for her department’s team in the Universidad de Chile’s intramural women’s basketball league. I never joined any sports teams while in Chile, but I know some former exchange students who did. (Could one of them please expand on this in the comments section, please?) There are also some neighborhood soccer leagues in Santiago, but I don’t know much about them and am not sure what kind of opportunities they offer for female players.

3. Volunteering. There’s a plethora (love that word) of ways for exchange students to participate in volunteer projects in Chile. Organizations like Cruz Roja, Un Techo Para Chile and Hogar de Cristo – to name just a few of the big ones -- rely heavily on college students to fill their ranks. Additionally, student federations – like the Universidad de Chile’s FECh and the Universidad Católica’s FEUC – organize community service trips during school breaks. I went on one such trip a few years ago (after graduating from college) and found myself wishing I’d had the good sense to do something similar during my summer break (December through February) the year I studied abroad. Not only did I get to know a new area of the country and lend a hand there, but I also met dozens of students passionate about making a difference.

If you’re not going to be around during break, find out if your host school has a group that does volunteer work on weekends. One such group is Remolino, an NGO run by Universidad de Chile students.

These days, Chile needs volunteers more than ever. So get out there and do your part – and meet other conscientious people in the process.

4. Religious organizations. I have to admit that I don’t know much about these – taking an Arabic class at an Orthodox church was as close as I got – but I do know they’re around. A number of students from my exchange program got involved with a citywide campus ministry group and made a lot of friends that way. The Universidad Católica organizes mission trips during school breaks.

When it comes to religion, Santiago is more diverse than meets the eye; for example, it has a Jewish community, Greek and Arab Orthodox churches and at least one mosque. Finding communities that are neither Catholic nor Protestant just takes a bit more looking.

One more word of advice: Don’t just go by what I have to say. Check out the tips Heather, Andrea and K (can I use your full first name?) – all of whom have studied in Chile or are currently doing so – have posted on their blogs.

Former exchange students of the world, unite in the comments section!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Tips for exchange students in Chile, Part 2: Academics

This is the second installment of my new series of tips for foreign exchange students in Chile. You can read my first entry -- and a disclaimer -- here. Other former exchange students have left their own tips in the comments section, so be sure to check them out.

Since being an exchange student typically involves studying, I thought I'd offer some tips on how to handle academics in Chile. Before I start, I'd like to reiterate the word of caution I issued in my previous post: What I'm about to suggest are things that worked for me when I was an undergraduate exchange student in Santiago a few years ago. I was a Spanish major, and one of my goals for my study abroad experience was academic growth. Not every exchange student has -- nor should have -- this same goal. For example, plenty of exchange students decide to minimize their academic load in order to have more free time to explore, travel and -- yes -- party. Students who wish to go this route may not find the following tips useful. However, those who want to have academics be a (relatively) significant part of their study abroad experience might benefit from them.

I see a number of benefits to the latter path. Virtually no one wants to spend all of his or her time abroad locked in a library -- I certainly wouldn't recommend it -- but there are important reasons to take school seriously while in Chile. First of all, many exchange students have immediate access to Chile's top-ranked universities, among them the Universidad de Chile and the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. These schools have great professors who offer quality classes; in other words, you can learn a lot. What's more, many Chilean college hopefuls would give their right arms to get into the selective schools that exchange students are accepted into automatically. So respect them and their professors by acknowledging the opportunity you’ve been given and make an effort. You don’t have to spend every night studying till dawn: Just take things seriously and be willing to learn. If you show up to class and don’t blow off your assignments, you’ll give your fellow exchange students a good name and help prove that “los de intercambio” can be a positive -- as opposed to irritating -- addition to campus life.

Additionally, Chilean university students do a lot of group work. This gives you both the obligation to pull your weight and the opportunity to make Chilean friends. I myself became good friends with a Chilean student with whom I worked on a few group projects; had we not been committed to working hard together, this probably wouldn't have happened. Plus, it goes without saying that involving yourself in group work with Chileans -- in addition to going to class, doing the reading and completing your assignments -- is a great way to improve your Spanish skills.

Finally, putting in a decent academic effort while studying abroad in Chile can help you out in the future. The effect your grades will have on your final transcript depends on your home university's policies. My university printed my Chilean grades on my transcript but did not factor them into my GPA. Other universities don't differentiate between grades earned at home and grades earned abroad: All of them end up in your average. Regardless of how your school does it, it's obvious that decent grades -- and the possibility of getting a recommendation, if need be, from one of your Chilean professors -- can't hurt when it comes time to apply for jobs or to grad school. I honestly don't think I would have gotten into the Ph.D. program I'm about to start had I returned from my year abroad with nothing to show for myself academically.

I don't think I would have applied, either. I finished my sophomore year in college (relatively) convinced that I wanted to go to law school. Only after taking some challenging courses in Chile -- and challenging myself to do well in them -- did I recognize that I was more of a literature person after all. Had I not arrived at this realization, my post-college life probably would have been very different: no Ecuador, no Chilean redux, and a lot less writing. A lot of people expect their study abroad experience to have a profound effect on their world view; if you take it seriously and are open minded, it can turn your life plans upside down as well.

Convinced? If so, I humbly submit the following recommendations:

1. Directly matriculate if you can. Direct matriculation means enrolling in normal classes at Chilean universities as opposed to taking courses offered by your exchange program or designed specifically for foreigners. Not only will you probably be more challenged in regular classes, but you'll meet more Chileans and get an idea of how a Chilean university works.

Obviously, this isn't always feasible if you don't speak much Spanish when you arrive in Chile. This is all the more reason to study abroad for two semesters: After spending the first term getting your language level up, you can directly matriculate the second.

To be clear, I think courses offered by exchange programs can be valuable too. My program offered a great service learning class that I'm very glad I took. However, directly matriculating provides you with a chance to expand your Chilean world -- academically, socially, culturally and geographically (see #4) -- that I believe should be seized.

2. If you choose to directly matriculate, don't limit yourself to "gringo classes." You know the ones. They have titles like "Chilean history and culture" and "Pablo Neruda and Gabriela Mistral." In theory, they're open to both Chileans and foreigners, but you don't see many of the former there. I'm not saying you have to avoid these classes completely: After all, they deal with material that interests a lot of exchange students. I've also heard foreign students say they can offer a welcome break from an otherwise challenging course lineup. No shame in that. However, they are, unsurprisingly, full of other exchange students, meaning interaction with Chileans will be minimal and the temptation to revert to your native language strong. Therefore, you'll probably want to make sure that you don't fill your schedule exclusively with classes like these.

3. But don't stretch yourself too thin. After all, school is just one part of what Chile has to offer. You'll want to make sure you have enough time to explore your host city, do some traveling and make new friends. You know, to have fun and what not.

My first semester in Chile, I took on a bit too much. Not only did my U.S. university require me to take five classes, but -- as a Chilean classmate observed and pointed out to me -- I felt I had to prove something. I wanted to show everyone that the stereotype of the perennially partying, rarely present exchange student was off base; I wanted to show everyone that exchange students were capable of anything. As you might imagine, this required a lot of studying. Don't get me wrong; I was finding time to have fun, but I found myself wishing I could have found more.

While planning my schedule for the following semester, I made sure not to overburden myself. The main way in which I did this was by taking a sports class, which I'll post about in detail in a future entry. Not only did I have less homework, but I was socializing and relieving stress at the same time. Highly recommended!

4. Careful with campus hopping. The physical organization of universities in Santiago is different from that of many U.S. colleges. Instead of concentrating nearly all departments on a single campus, Santiago schools (with a few exceptions) are divided into a number of campuses scattered throughout the city, sometimes very far from one another. At the Universidad de Chile, for example, health sciences majors study in Independencia, on Santiago's north side, while veterinary and agriculture students have class in La Pintana, on the city's southern edge.

Many exchange students have the opportunity -- uncommon among their Chilean peers -- to take classes at any of their host university's campuses. Some are even allowed to take classes at multiple universities. This gives them the chance to experience the often intriguing differences between campus and schools -- and to see a lot of the city while they're at it. If you plan to take advantage of this possibility, be advised that a significant amount of travel time may be involved -- and plan accordingly. Don't leave such a small window between classes that you won't have time to check out a library book or talk to your professors or classmates before sprinting off to the bus stop.

Also, keep in mind that most Chilean students take the vast majority of their courses within their department and, as a result, spend most of their time together in one place. If you're constantly commuting between campuses, it can be difficult to integrate yourself into this dynamic. If you're interested in a particular department and want to get to know its students and professors, take a couple classes there and schedule them in such a way that you can stick around campus for a while. Even though Chilean students don't live on campus, there's a lot more to Chilean campus life than classes. Don't miss out on it because you're spending all day on the bus!

5. Make the first move. While exchange students may have been a novelty at Chilean universities several years ago, this is no longer the case. At the campuses where most exchange students end up, Chilean students are used to having foreigners around. In most cases, your classmates will have seen dozens like you before (no offense), so you won't exactly be a curiosity. They also will have noticed that many exchange students tend to stick together -- sad but true -- and limit their interactions with Chileans. As a result, they won't necessarily approach you to give you an unsolicited warm welcome and ask if there's anything you need.

But there obviously will be things you'll need. You'll need, for example, to have someone explain where you can find Thursday's reading, how to get photocopies made (essential knowledge for any student in Chile), and -- of course -- what the professor just said. Chilean students, in my experience, are usually more than willing to help. In most cases, though, you'll have to make the first move. It's nothing personal; they just won't know you want to talk to them unless you do. So don't be shy about asking a classmate to accompany you to the photocopy machine after class; you're not being a nuisance. He or she is probably heading there anyway. Not only will you learn how to get your copies, but you'll also have an in when group project time rolls around.

And as long as you've got the whole copier thing figured out, don't be ashamed to ask to photocopy a classmate's notes if you missed a class or didn't understand it. If you'd prefer an explanation, ask for one, either from a classmate, a T.A. (very common) or your professor. No one's expecting you to be perfect, so be assertive and ask away!

6. Be patient, keep an open mind, and have a sense of humor. Chilean universities are different from those in the States (and from those in other countries, I would imagine), so there will almost certainly be times when you'll feel a) frustrated b) confused c) overwhelmed or d) frustrated, confused and overwhelmed. Don't worry: If you're willing to laugh and ask for a hand, it'll pass before you know it.

Like before, I'd like to invite other former exchange students to leave their opinions and tips in the comments section. It's been great reading your feedback on my previous post, and I'm sure readers will appreciate your good advice. Please keep it coming!

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Tips for exchange students in Chile, Part 1: Stick around

I've been wanting to blog my tips for exchange students in Chile for a while now. If people out there are anything like me -- who's been googling phrases like "my NYC apartment search" for months now -- they do at least a mild amount of Web scouring before moving to a new place. I'm guessing that a number of future exchange students in Chile -- who should be packing up and shipping south right about now -- are currently doing this very thing. It's in honor of them -- and of anyone else who happens to be interested -- that I present the first of my tips for foreign students in Chile: Stick around.

Before I get into what I mean by this, I'll start with a disclaimer. I spent two undergraduate semesters studying in Santiago a few years ago. I loved it. This leads me -- correctly or not -- to believe that I did something right and am therefore entitled to give advice.

I was so happy with my study abroad experience because I was able to meet the goals I set for myself before leaving home, which included the following:

- Deepen my knowledge and understanding of Chilean culture and history.
-Grow academically by taking challenging courses that would allow me to achieve the previous goal and advance as a Spanish major.
- Experience and integrate myself into -- to the degree that such a thing is possible -- the daily life of a university student in Santiago. If we're going to get rigorous, I should acknowledge that there is no such thing as a uniform "daily life of a university student in Santiago" since Chilean students, like students everywhere, come from a wide variety of backgrounds and face unique sets of circumstances. Still, I believe many of these students share certain experiences as a result of being inserted in a specific educational system inside a larger social and cultural context, and I wanted to have these experiences, too.
-Make Chilean friends.
-Have a blast.

Of course, the fact that these were my goals does not mean that they will or should be shared by other exchange students. I met plenty of foreign students who were much more interested in the Chilean wilderness than the Chilean classroom, which I find perfectly valid. Had these students done the things that made my study abroad experience so marvelous for me, they probably would have been miserable. In short, the tips I give on this blog will probably only be useful to those who have study abroad goals similar to my own. I'm not saying these goals are better than others; part of what's so great about being a foreign student is that you meet a vast array of people with different backgrounds and interests. I'm just clarifying that my advice is meant to help foreign students in Chile meet objectives that might not be shared by everyone.

If you plan to study in Chile and share one of the goals listed above, I recommend you stick around -- in a number of ways. First, if you can, try to stay in Chile for a full academic year. I know this isn't possible for everyone, especially for students in prerequisite-heavy programs like premed (although I do know a premed student who pulled it off). I also know that plenty of exchange students leave Chile enriched and fulfilled after one semester.

In my case, however, staying for a full year was the best decision I could have made. I feel that I truly hit my stride in Santiago -- in terms of being comfortable enough with the language, city, culture and education system to feel I was living there instead of simply visiting -- about a month and half before the end of my first semester. Things just clicked. I raised my hand to comment in class, zig-zagged confidently through the city aboard its speeding yellow buses, and noticed that my conversations with Chileans were much more spontaneous and animated than when I'd first arrived (although I continued to make my fair share of mistakes and by no means understood everything!). As far as my social life went, I wasn't surrounded by thousands of Chilean friends, but I was becoming close to those I did have. Knowing that I would be around for a while allowed me to invest the time and effort necessary to begin building long-term friendships. Additionally, the fact that I was feeling increasingly competent linguistically and culturally made me more confident in social situations involving meeting new people.

I would have been devastated to have had to leave Chile just a few short weeks after all of this fell into place. Luckily, I had another six months to put everything I'd learned to work -- and it was worth it.

Whether or not you can stick around in Chile for a full year, you can decide where to spend the time you do have. I humbly suggest that you spend a great deal of it in the city where you're studying. Yes, this contradicts the commonly held belief that exchange students should take advantage of any and all opportunities to travel. After all, it's not every day you're within bussing distance of Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil, not to mention all the phenomenal natural and cultural attractions Chile has to offer, right?

Some of my fellow exchange students in Santiago traveled outside of the city almost every weekend. If your goals for your Chilean experience include maximizing travel and bonding with the other members of your exchange group, you should do this. If, on the other hand, you're more of an "integrate into daily life" type and are looking to make friends with Chileans in your host city, you should try to stay in town -- at least some of the time.

There are a few reasons for this. First of all, if you're gone every weekend, you're limiting your possibilities for social interaction with Chileans (unless, of course, you're traveling with them). Chilean students who are from the city where they go to school tend to stick around most weekends, and you'll have more opportunities to socialize with them if you do, too.

Second, leaving your host city every weekend can warp your perception of it. If you study in Santiago during the week and flee from it as soon as your last class gets out, you're diminishing your chances of associating Santiago with anything other than weekday stress. If, on the other hand, you use some of your weekends to explore and experience Santiago -- by visiting its parks, markets, museums and neighborhoods, peoplewatching at its sidewalk cafes or dancing at its salsa clubs -- you might just begin to see Santiago as a place to work and play.

I'm not saying exchange students should never travel. I think they absolutely should if they can. It was by traveling with other exchange students that I discovered some of my favorite places in Chile, Chiloé being the reining champion of them all. However, I spent the vast majority of my weekends in Santiago and, as a result, got to know my host city and befriend a number of its inhabitants. When it comes to studying abroad, I would recommend that the same policy be applied to traveling as to drinking pisco: Do it in moderation.

This is especially important to keep in mind, I think, for exchange students in Santiago, who are exposed early on to the notion that the "real Chile" -- the only Chile worth experiencing -- lies outside the capital. While I agree that exchange students -- and all visitors -- should make an effort to see what the rest of Chile has to offer, I think the idea that Santiago is little more than a bland jumping-off point is completely absurd. Santiago is interesting. Santiago is fun. You just have to give it a chance. And it's hard to do that if you spend all your down time elsewhere.

Finally, if you're staying with a host family, I recommend sticking around there, too -- at least a couple nights a week. When you're in a new city in a new country -- especially one where eating out is substantially cheaper than it is at home -- it's tempting to skip your host parents' homecooked meals in favor of bar or restaurant fare. And, by all means, you should go out. I would be contradicting my previous point if I didn't encourage you to explore your host city's culinary offerings. But make sure you eat some meals with your host family, too. As awkward as your interactions with your host family may seem to you, chances are that they're hosting you because they want to -- there are other ways to make extra cash, after all -- and are genuinely interested in hearing about your experiences in their country. If my interactions with my own Chilean host family are any indication, they're also eager to have a positive impact on your stay. So at least let them try by spending some time with them. You could learn a lot about Chile in the process.

I've seen it happen: exchange students leaving Santiago disappointed because they felt they hadn't forged a connection with the city and its residents. Maybe they just didn't like Santiago. That's fine. But I think a great deal of this disappointment could have been avoided had these people stayed stationary long enough to appreciate what was around them. The entire concept of foreign study is based on mobility, but it's impossible to drink everything in if you never allow yourself to stand still.

Most of the foreigner-in-Chile bloggers I know were exchange students at some point, so I hope they'll comment on this entry to let me know whether or not they agree with the views I've expressed here. Former exchange students in Chile, do you have any other tips to offer those who are about to embark on the same journey? Please share!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Volunteer for earthquake relief work in Chile

After the 8.8 earthquake that struck Chile in February, I received a number of e-mails from readers interested in volunteering in affected communities. I was touched to see how many people, including some who lived thousands of miles away, wanted to help.

Months later, there's still a lot of work to be done. One of the groups that has continuously participated in the recovery effort is the University of Chile's student federation, the FECh. Immediately after the disaster, the group mobilized volunteers to collect and distribute aid; since then, FECh volunteers have made weekend trips to affected areas. Now that winter break is coming up for Chile's students, the FECh is planning a weeklong trip to Region VI's Paredones. From July 24 to 31, volunteers will work patching up emergency housing -- a very necessary task now that the cold, rainy season is at its height -- and participating in a number of other activities, such as workshops for local kids.

If you're in Chile and have some time on your hands, this would be a great way to make a difference. I think it would be especially ideal for exchange students who have a break between semesters. Looking back, I wish I'd signed up for trabajos voluntarios back when I was studying abroad: Not only is it a great way to give back to the country that's taken you in, but it's a perfect environment within which to make Chilean friends.

Most FECh volunteers are Chilean undergraduates. However, you don't have to fit this description to participate in their volunteer activities. I've joined up twice -- once for a two-week summer project in Region IV's Canela and again for earthquake relief work -- and was neither a student nor Chilean at the time. I've found that meeting the general description of "young person" works.

More information on the trip, including sign-up instructions, is available here.

Monday, July 12, 2010

My Quito apartment

In my last post, I mentioned that I tried to be quite thorough while reading and signing the lease for my sister's and my apartment in New York City. I also promised to share the story of the horrendous Quito landlord who made me the fastidious monster I am. Here it is.

The summer after graduating from college, I moved to Quito, Ecuador to teach English. Throughout senior year, I had watched my classmates spend hours visiting our university's career center, combing through online job listings and primping and preparing for interviews -- and decided I wanted nothing to do with it. Call it Peter Pan syndrome, but I was not ready to enter a world that would require me to wear collared shirts. Fresh off my year abroad in Chile, I was certain I was destined for more adventure in far-off lands.

So it was that I signed up for a program that offered teaching certification and job placement services in Quito. A few states away, my soon-to-be-roommate, C., was doing the same thing. The program placed us with Ecuadorian host families for the first month of our stay: C. in La Gasca, a neighborhood that creeps up the foothills of the volcano that towers over Quito's west side, and me in nearby La Granja. For us, it was a good area in which to live. It was easily accessible by public transportation, yet its corner stores, quiet streets and hidden parks lent it an air of peaceful seclusion. It was calmer and reportedly safer than the colonial city center and the teeming streets of the touristy La Mariscal district. It was, in other words, a true neighborhood, one we could easily envision ourselves becoming a part of. Plus, its slight elevation provided gorgeous views of the rest of the city.

When it came time for us to find our own housing, we decided we wanted to stick around. We devoted a pair of wet, foggy afternoons to trudging up the area's steep streets visiting apartments we'd found listed in the paper. There were a handful that we liked well enough, but the instant we stepped into the first floor of a duplex in the Las Casas neighborhood, we were in love. Hardwood floors and a large built-in bookcase lent the apartment a distinct vintage charm. The crowning glory of the place was the fireplace that promised to warm our guests at the gatherings we pictured ourselves hosting in the enormous living room.

On top of it all, the owner of the house -- a sweet older Ecuadorian man who lived upstairs -- seemed like he would be an ideal landlord. He offered us peppermints and even agreed to allow us to pay a lower rent until we got established at our teaching jobs. The fireplace, he assured us, was in perfect working order. A few days later, we signed the lease and enthusiastically began setting up our new home.

Almost immediately, there were signs we should have run away screaming from this stranger with candy. About a week after we moved in, I awoke to the sound of pounding outside my bedroom window. When I pulled back the curtain and peered outside, I saw our landlord hammering wooden planks together outside the doorless shed where he kept the washer and drier. Befuddled, I stepped outside to ask what he was doing.

"Building a wall in front of the washer and drier," he replied. "You used them, and that's not OK. So I'm building a wall."

I was taken aback. When C. and I had first visited the apartment and expressed concerns about not having a place to wash our clothes, the landlord had said we could use the machines in the shed. "But you told us we could use them," I said.

"No, I didn't."

"Yes, you did," I protested. "I remember it perfectly."

At this point, a strange thing happened: The landlord's eternally silent wife -- whom he always shooed away, claiming she was too deaf to understand a thing -- took my hand and gave me what I can only describe as a permeating knowing stare. It was a gesture I would soon come to understand.

The landlord refused to cede. We didn't know if his repeated denials regarding the washer and drier were due to a memory lapse -- he was, after all, over 80 -- or to the fact that he had made a promise he had never intended to keep. Unfortunately, we had taken him at his word and hadn't insisted that a clause about the washer and drier be added to the lease, so we had no written proof that he had ever given us permission. In the end, we buckled down and started taking our clothes to a nearby laundromat.

If our problems had ended there, things probably would have been OK. Unfortunately, our landlord had more surprises up his sleeve (or tucked away under the sweater vests he always wore). C. and I would arrive home to find our porch light bulb -- which we left on for safety reasons when we went out at night -- unscrewed and sitting on the windowsill. When we confronted our landlord about it, he claimed our safety precautions were running up his electricity bill. Then don't rent out the first floor of your house, I seethed silently.

At first, we assumed we were being subjected to the inexcusable but understandable whims of a possibly senile man with an unpleasant disposition. We realized we were wrong the night we invited two friends over and finally put our beloved fireplace to use -- and saw the entire apartment fill with smoke before our eyes. When we asked our landlord about the problem, he suddenly remembered that the chimney of the fireplace he'd assured us was in working order -- the fireplace that had sold us on the apartment -- had been covered over years before. It was now obvious that we'd fallen into the trap of someone who had knowingly deceived us in order to secure our lease signatures.

And things only got worse from there. According to our contract, our rent was due on the fifth of each month, a date we never missed. This, of course, didn't stop our landlord from ringing our doorbell at the break of dawn on the first and demanding that we pay up. On one occasion, he even held his finger over the bell -- without letting go -- at 7 a.m. until I stumbled out of bed, opened the door, told him never to treat us this way again, and promptly closed the door in his face (not my best moment). Early another morning, he began pounding on my bedroom window when I didn't answer the door.

The straw that broke the camel's back was when C. arrived home from work one afternoon to find her mother, who was visiting from the U.S., mopping up an inch of standing water in our bathroom. Our landlord and a neighborhood car mechanic -- the former could never be bothered to hire actual plumbers or home repair workers -- had come in earlier to fix our malfunctioning toilet and had proceeded to flood the bathroom and track a trail of mud through our living room. Incensed, I went upstairs to our landlord's apartment, which was plastered with images of the Virgin Mary; apparently, he'd skipped over the "love thy neighbor" part while crafting his brand of devout Catholicism. I calmly told him that we appreciated the repair but that, if one were necessary in the future, we would expect him to leave our living space in the condition he'd found it.

"Why should I clean up when there are two young women living downstairs?" he demanded.

That was it. We were done. We were no longer willing to live under the same roof as -- and pay rent to -- a person who routinely harassed and disrespected us. I went downtown to Inquilinato, a government office charged with protecting renters' rights. When I explained our situation to an official, he recommended we break our lease and be done with it; the law would be on our side.

This is exactly what we did. Shortly thereafter, we moved into a cozy apartment just two blocks away (although we, wishing to break ties completely with Sir Lies-a-Lot, practiced a bit of dishonesty ourselves and told him we were moving out of the neighborhood). The night before we left, I went to the corner store across the street to return some recyclable soda bottles. The store owner, whom we'd befriended during our months of residency in the Ninth Circle, confided to me that not one of the renters she'd seen move into our house had stayed the full length of his or her lease. Apparently, we weren't the first people our landlord had scared away.

C. and I spent the rest of our time in Quito living in an apartment and neighborhood we loved. I can't imagine how different our experience might have been had we elected to tough it out at the duplex. Looking back, there were signs that our first landlord was suffering from some kind of mental illness; whether or not this disorder was associated with his advanced age, I'll never be sure. Whatever the cause of his behavior, however, I see no reason why we should have put up with the treatment we received. Leaving that apartment was the best decision we could have made.

As much as I resented him at the time, that nightmare of a landlord taught me to be damn assertive, a quality that has served me well during the years I've spent living abroad. He also taught me the importance of putting everything in writing, as unnecessary as it might seem. Had we insisted that he give us written permission to use the washer and drier, the onset of hostilities may have been delayed somewhat.

So take a lesson from me: If you're planning to sign a lease abroad (or anywhere), make sure everything is written down. And if a sweet old man offers you a peppermint while pointing out the working fireplace in a spacious first-floor apartment in Las Casas, don't believe a word he says.

Monday, July 5, 2010

My NYC apartment

Just a few days after arriving, exhausted, in Minneapolis from Santiago last weekend, I slumped, still exhausted, onto yet another airplane. The fatigue was worth it, though: Within 24 hours, my sister, Q., and I had signed the lease for the apartment we'll share in New York City starting in August.

Unfortunately, I wasn't as involved in the apartment search as I would have liked to be. While I've heard many people gripe about the tedium of sorting through listings and making appointments, I actually enjoy house hunting. I've even toured apartments I have no interest in renting simply because the writer in me can't resist imagining all the possible lives that could transpire within their walls . Therefore, I would have liked to accompany Q. on her marathon run of apartment visits, but I wasn't able to make it to New York in time. By the time I arrived, essentially all that was left for me to do was approve the apartment that had emerged as Q.'s favorite.

Luckily, I really liked it. It met my two primary aesthetic requirements: hardwood floors and plenty of natural light (call me impractical, but I couldn't care less about the number of bathrooms). Even better, it's located in an older building (we all know how I feel about new apartment towers) on a pleasantly leafy street and has views that actually include trees.

The apartment has another feature which, like the bathrooms, doesn't rank high on my priority list but constitutes a surprising benefit all the same: a dishwasher. Unless you count my family home in Minneapolis, I haven't lived in a place with a dishwasher since I moved to Ecuador in 2006. During the fourteen months I lived in Quito, I never once saw a dishwasher in a private home. I saw a few in Santiago, including at my host family's house, but the vast majority of people I know in Chile rock the sink after dinner. When I expressed doubts as to whether we really needed such a luxury, I was told that many New York City building owners are installing dishwashers in an attempt to curb rat and cockroach infestations; apparently, not everyone washes the dishes.

When it came time to sign the lease, I tried everyone's patience by reading very carefully through all the articles of the contract and asking a slew of specific questions. The reason for this is pushing 90 and, as far as I know, still terrorizing tenants on Quito's west side. One of these days, I plan to devote an entire entry to the duplicitous landlord who made my life a living infierno until my roommate and I had the good sense to move. Despite the anguish this man put us through, I am grateful to him for teaching me the value of being an assertive renter, requesting clarification and insisting that everything be put in writing.

Up next are furnishing and decorating -- quite the tasks when you consider that neither Q. nor I own any furniture. Oh, well. At least we have somewhere to wash the dishes.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Northern disorientation

My being back in the States means my mom and I can now sit down together to view one of our favorite types of television programming: true-crime episodes of Dateline. Last night, I felt exhaustion began to sink in as we watched a report on the murder of a former professional athlete. Just as an investigator was beginning to express doubts about police's conclusions about the culprit, I sank into a syrupy fog of semi-consciousness that didn't end until the show did and my mom wondered aloud, "What did they conclude?"

"Que no sabían nada," I murmured through the haze. After a few seconds, I sat bolt upright. "What did I just say?"

"I don't know," my mom replied.

"Was it in Spanish?"

"I just know that I didn't understand it."

It's not the first time my mom has had to put up with episodes of linguistic disorientation. After arriving home after my junior year abroad in Chile, I promptly fell asleep on the couch. My mom told me that when she tried to wake me up, I started babbling in Spanish with a terrified expression on my face. Over the next few weeks, she occasionally had to ask me to clarify what I was trying to say because I was unknowingly importing grammatical structures from Spanish.

Of all my returns from South America, the one I made after study abroad was probably the rockiest in terms of language readjustment. I had lived with Chileans all year and had had relatively limited interaction with other English speakers during my second semester. Since I had been one of the last of my exchange group to leave Chile, I had spoken hardly any English at all during my last two weeks in the country. The result was that when another passenger offered to help me with my (grossly overweight) suitcase at the baggage carousel in Minneapolis, no words came out when I opened my mouth to thank him. My brain knew that I had to speak English now but hadn’t yet unearthed the necessary vocabulary.

The language transition wasn’t too difficult when I returned after fourteen months in Quito; I’d been working as an English teacher and living with an English-speaking roommate. And aside from last night’s Dateline stumble, things haven’t been so rough this time around. I lived with Chileans in Santiago and worked a job that required me to speak Spanish about 95 percent of the time, but I hung out with English-speaking friends from time to time and had home internet access – which I hadn’t had in Quito or while studying abroad in Chile – that allowed me to consume a fair amount of English-language media. Who knows? Maybe writing this blog even helped ward off English atrophy.

I suppose the real test of the health of my English will be when I start grad school in the fall. I’m actually a bit concerned about this because nearly all of my recent academic work – both at college, where I majored in Spanish, and in the diploma program I completed last year at a Chilean university – has been in Spanish. Let’s hope I show enough dexterity in my native language to produce written work that doesn’t resemble a high school essay. And that I stop scaring my mom.