Wednesday, April 21, 2010

If George Washington had attended the University of Chile

In which Leigh is suspected of attempting to bribe a librarian

Today was my day off, so I did what any self-declared nerd would do when faced with 24 hours devoid of responsibilities: get up early and bike to the library. I don't know if I've established this already on this blog, but I love the Biblioteca de Santiago. Its resources are by no means limitless, but it has a big, sunny room on the third floor that houses a decent collection of contemporary Chilean literature, which is usually what I'm looking for. Today I picked up two books I've had my eye on for a while: Nona Fernandez's 10 de Julio Huamachuco and Alejandro Zambra's Bonsai (the latter can be read in a day and, in my opinion, does not disappoint).

But I digress. While roaming the aisles of the literature room at the Biblioteca de Santiago, I thought back to a recent CNN.com article about the $4,577 late fee President George Washington apparently has racked up at the New York City public library by failing to return two books he checked out in 1789. Specifically, they were due back on November 2, 1789, which means they are exactly 220 years and 170 days overdue.

When I first read this article, I was reminded of the punishment the University of Chile library system inflicts on delinquent borrowers. Deeming fines either elitist or ineffective, administrators instead suspend users' library privileges for three days for each day a book is overdue. That means that if you borrow three books and return them all two days late, you can't check anything out for another 3 x 3 x 2 = 18 days.

I was unaware of this policy when I started out as an exchange student at the University of Chile. Therefore, my jaw literally dropped when I returned some materials a few days late and the librarian informed me that, instead of paying the small fine I was expecting, I was to be stripped of my library privileges for the next three weeks.

"B-But isn't there a fine I can pay?" I stammered.

"We don't have fines here."

"It's just that I really need to check out books."

"You'll have to ask a friend to check them out for you."

"Isn't there any way I can get around this?"

I had been referring to a pardon, a notarized declaration of repentance, imprisonment or community service, but certainly not to a bribe. However, judging by the look on her face -- somewhere between amused and offended -- the librarian had assumed I'd been offering the latter.

"No," she said, and I walked out with my face burning.

So now you know, George Washington. The next time you're 220 years and 170 days late in returning two books to the University of Chile, you won't be able to get off by forking over $4,577. You'll have your library privileges suspended for the next 1,322 years and 8 months.

By the way, I would highly recommend that anyone sticking around in Santiago for awhile apply for a library card at either the Biblioteca de Santiago or the Bibliometro (where punishment is meted out as fines and not suspensions, by the way). Once you have membership at one, it's easier to sign up at the other. You usually need to present your carnet (Chilean national ID card; I'm not sure if they accept passports, but it's worth a try) and proof of address, like a utility bill in your name or a certificate from the police. If I remember correctly, the Bibliometro accepted my visa registry certificate (you know, the one they give you at Policia Internacional with your photo and address on it) as proof of address.

However you do it, though, don't let this country's outlandishly high book prices prevent you from enjoying Chilean literature!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Random thing I love about Santiago: dramatic corner store names

I used to live down the block from a corner shop/liquor store called El Esfuerzo. I always thought the name, which means "effort," was fitting because El Esfuerzo was a lone soldier, a tiny old adobe structure resiliently standing its ground on a street increasingly overrun by concrete giants.

I've noticed that a lot of neighborhood shops in Santiago, including liquor stores (botillerias), have heroic names like this. El Esfuerzo and El Progreso are among the most common. These names probably refer to the hard work of the families who run them or to that of their clients, residents of the middle- and working-class neighborhoods where most businesses with names like this tend to be located (at least I have yet to see an El Esfuerzo in a wealthy area). However, I'm sure shop owners must have considered the fact that some of the beverages they dispense may decrease their clients' esfuerzo and thereby limit their progreso. Maybe that's why some simply avoid the irony and christen their stores with names allusive to sublime states, like El Cielo (Heaven). An (imaginary?) botilleria called El Cielo, dicho sea de paso, inspired the title of a collection of short stories by contemporary Chilean writer Nona Fernandez.

Not all botillerias have epic names, though. While on the bus this evening, I grinned appreciatively at a lighted sign that proclaimed "BOTILLERIA TOO EL RATO." "Todo el rato" (d's between vowels tend to disappear in spoken Chilean Spanish) literally means "all the time" but sometimes is used more like "all the way" or "totally" in informal speech, as in:

Juan: Te gusta La Noche?
Pancha: Claro, po. La Noche to'o el rato!

Too El Rato strikes me as the perfect name for a botilleria because it's a phrase I can see spilling nonstop from the lips of the intoxicated. As for "effort" and "progress"...maybe when the hangover wears off.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

My new commute

Like so many other santiaguinas and santiaguinos, I work far from where I live. This means that one of the first things I do every morning is squeeze myself into a crowded, overheated subway car, then get off some time later and squeeze myself onto a crowded, overheated bus. I love public transportation, but there is very little to love about this commute. By the time I get to work, I feel like I've lost a fight. I can only imagine what it's like for people who don't look up maps of bus routes online for fun.

Needless to say, the routine was wearing on me, and I needed a change. That's when BiciMetro came into my life. For those who don't know, BiciMetro is a recently instituted program that allows Metro riders to store their bikes for the day at select stations around the city. I hadn't used it before because I was afraid that adding yet another mode of transport to my commute would lengthen it substantially, but when I plotted everything out, I concluded that the difference, if it existed at all, would be minimal and well worth the exercise. Plus, a couple minutes would be a small price to play for cutting my Metro time down to a fraction of what it had been before and moving it to a much less congested stretch of track.

My plan was to try BiciMetro on Tuesday, but my tire went flat about two blocks from my house and I was forced to turn around. Things went much more smoothly today, when my new tire and I (my fashionably eclectic bike now has one city tire and one mountain bike tire) set off from home and pulled up about 15 minutes later outside the BiciMetro, a locked room where bikes hang from the ceiling in individual padlocked lockers. Since my work day starts a bit later than most people's, I was worried that all the lockers would be full by the time I got there, but I arrived to find only one other slot taken.

I signed up, got a receipt, left my bike and got on the Metro. On my way home at night, I bought a ticket for 300 pesos (about US$0.60) at the Metro ticket counter and exchanged it for my bike. As I pedaled home, I thought about the positive impact the change had made on my day. Not only had I actually been excited to get out of bed and commute, but I had arrived at work with more energy and a better attitude. Also, it felt great to know that I was getting exercise while communing with the city I love. I have tomorrow off work, but I think I'll find an excuse to use BiciMetro anyway.

I'm surprised that so few people seem to use the BiciMetro nearest me. Of course, it does imply an extra cost (300 pesos per day or 1000 pesos for a five-day pass) that I'm sure a lot of people would rather avoid. Also, BiciMetros tend to be located in outlying areas whose residents have long commutes that they may not be willing to make longer by trading a bus for a bike. Still, the benefits are enough for me to encourage anyone who lives reasonably close to a BiciMetro to use it, even if just for fun every once in awhile. There's nothing quite like deepening your relationship with a city by traversing it on two wheels.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

When pig heads fly

Three new roommates recently moved into the house where I live. This, of course, means that I can no longer walk across the patio in my bra or have an extra bedroom devoted exclusively to watching movies and dancing cumbia. All in all, though, I think having more people around will be a positive change, especially since rainy Chilean winters, one of which is fast approaching, lend themselves to reclusive behavior.

All three of my new housemates are first-year students at a university here in Santiago. The other day, one of them came home and took a 30-minute shower. Afterword, he explained that he had been trying to scrub the smell of fish out of his skin.

For it is indeed the fishiest time of the year. It is also a time of flour-caked hair, torn clothing and the innards of raw eggs. That's right: It's the beginning of the school year, and Chilean freshmen must suffer. Chilean freshmen like my roommate, who got fish heads AND A PIG HEAD thrown at him on one of his first days of school. Freshmen like those who prowl the streets barefoot begging for change so they can buy their shoes back from the upperclassmen. Freshmen like the guy who had chemicals thrown on his face a few years ago or the woman who was hit by a train and killed during a hazing activity in 2000.

I haven't seen the shoeless student beggars out on the streets this year. What I don't know is whether this is because I was out of the country during most universities' first week of school or because the February 27 earthquake has had a sobering effect on would-be tormentors. This would be the perfect time for upperclassmen to follow Universidad Catolica Silva Henriquez's lead and replace hazing with organized community service activities. God knows there are plenty of people in this country who could use help and would be able to put to much better use the food hazing wastes and the clothing it destroys. Additionally, I believe incoming students would bond much more effectively while working together in pursuit of a common goal than while ducking out of the way of fresh batches of raw seafood. However, my roommate's experience makes it obvious that not everyone feels the same way.

Earthquake aside, what maddens me most about hazing (or mechoneo, as it's called here) is that it seems completely and totally incompatible with the ideals many university students profess. I'd be willing to bet that some of the students lobbing fish heads at freshmen have also spoken out in support of issues of students' rights and social justice. How can you fight for increased assistance for economically disadvantaged students one minute and shred their clothes and waste food the next? How can you clamor for increased solidarity while orchestrating an initiation ritual based on humiliation? In my humble opinion, the whole thing is more rancid than rotten fish.