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!