Monday, May 31, 2010

Random thing that irks me about Santiago: no shows

I was so excited to go out Thursday night. I mean, beyond excited. The reason: I had plans to dance till dawn to what promised to be one of the most ridiculously awesome musical fusions ever spun: Balkan gypsy cumbia.

I had stumbled across a flier for the Balkan cumbia event while scrolling through the event listings on Saborizante and had been looking forward to it for the better part of a month. I had rounded up a group of similarly enthused would-be Balkumbia dancers, among them a few actual Balkans. I was so intent on having a blast that I even called the venue earlier Thursday evening to make sure the event was still on. It was.

So you can only imagine my surprise when I skipped up to the front door of the venue with a shivering, anxious group of people behind me and peered onto a virtually empty dance floor with '90s indie rock blaring from the speakers overhead. When I asked where the Balkan gypsy cumbia was, a staff member told me there had been "a change."

A change my ass.

"But I called to confirm!" I wailed to no one in particular as we all shuffled back out into the cold.

"Don't worry," someone else said. "These things happen."

Apparently, they do, because I quickly realized that I was the only one pissed off. Everyone else was disappointed, of course, but they were perfectly content to just head to another bar and order cheap beer.

I suppose it shouldn't surprise me that the others were used to this. After all, Thursday wasn't the first time this had happened to me in Chile. While we roamed the streets in search of a back-up plan, I thought back to the night I'd walked into a certain Santiago concert venue (*cough* Galpon Victor Jara *cough*) revved up to see a band two friends had been raving about. An hour and two underwhelming opening bands later, event organizers announced that the band we had all come to see would not be performing because the venue couldn't pay them: Not enough tickets had been sold. When my friends and I went to get our refunds, we were told that there would be none.

If this isn't robbery, I don't know what is. I'm sorry (actually, I'm not), but if you're a venue and schedule an event, it's your responsibility to promote it if you want it to be profitable. And if you end up losing money, that's just part of the risk you take on. You can't just cancel when it suits you and blame it on all those jerk customers who didn't bother to show up and give you money.

Anyone who moves to Chile from the States (or from a number of other countries, I would imagine) quickly realizes that social arrangements tend to be more fluid here. As every exchange student eventually learns, the fact that those nice kids from history class said you all should hang out over the weekend in no way means that it will actually happen (unless you take some serious initiative). It's certainly frustrating, but it's not impossible to get used to -- and can even work to your advantage if you're looking for a way to get out of plans.

I feel, however, that I shouldn't have to adapt myself to this type of fluidity when it comes to scheduled events. Canceling a concert, book launch or Balkan gypsy cumbia party at the last minute is just plain unprofessional.

I'm not saying this kind of thing is universal in Chile. I've been to plenty of decently organized events here. Still, I've had enough not-so-decent experiences to call my attention. Something I've noticed is that, in these cases, I get incensed while nearly everyone else seems simply resigned. As open as I try to be, I guess there are just some things about Chile I'll never get used to.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Cheap flicks in Santiago

The past few weeks have brought with them the chilly temperatures, gray skies and rain that signal the arrival of winter in Santiago. As a result, I've pulled my wool leg warmers out of storage, begun sleeping with a rubber pouch filled with hot water (my beloved guatero), and given whole new meaning to the term "mismatched layers." I've also found that I can't always rally up the courage to plan a night on the town that involves sidewalk tables or frigid midnight strolls. Therefore, I've been seeing a lot of movies.

If you're like me, you might be feeling the need to hunker down in a comfortable seat in a cozy movie theater instead of pounding back a freezing bottle of Escudo on a pub terrace. And, if you're like me, you're probably feeling the need to do so cheaply. When it comes down to it, going to commercial multiplexes in Chile is almost as expensive as doing so in the States, especially if you choose a theater in a wealthier neighborhood (yep, the prices are different). But fear not: There are plenty of places to take in cheap flicks in this fair city. Below are some of the ones I've found.

1. Matucana 100. This publicly funded cultural center shows movies for 500 pesos in a small but comfy viewing room. I've been there three times in the past two weeks. They're showing Hitchcock, Spike Lee and Coen brothers movies right now and have a documentary series coming up next month.

2. Biblioteca de Santiago. Oh, how I love thee. Located just across the street from Matucana 100, this public library has an underground auditorium that occasionally hosts film series and festivals. Oftentimes, viewers are asked to make a voluntary donation instead of paying an entrance fee.

3. Centro Cultural Palacio la Moneda. This relatively new cultural center is located beneath the La Moneda presidential palace. (Imagine someone suggesting building a publicly accessible cultural center directly under the White House. Ha.) The Cineteca Nacional shows some movies for 2,000 pesos (1,000 for students and seniors) and others (in a smaller room) for free. On the schedule for this month is Te creis la mas linda pero eris la mas puta, a Chilean film which, if you hang on past the first 20 minutes, offers up a lot of good laughs.

4. Centro Arte Alameda. The prices at this theater are relatively low compared to those at the multiplexes. Plus, the movies are generally of a different sort: Centro Arte Alameda shows a lot of Chilean and independent films and socially minded documentaries. If you can prove that you live or work in Santiago Centro, you can get in for 1,000 pesos. If you see a film in Sala 2, be prepared to put up with a moderate level of background noise from the meeting space below.

5. Other cultural centers and institutes. Some independent cultural centers host screenings. Plaza Brasil's Taller Sol traditionally has projected movies onto an outdoor screen in the summer but apparently ran into trouble for unauthorized use of public space (even though they didn't charge). Language and culture institutes like Chileno-Norteamericano, Chileno-Britanico and Goethe Institut also routinely host film series.

6. Commercial theaters on discount day. Wednesday is cheap movie day in Santiago, with most theaters posting lower prices. The Cinemundo at Mall Plaza Alameda in Estacion Central offers a 2 for 1 deal for most 2-D films on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

7. Film festivals. As it happens, one of these, the Festival de Cine Social y Antisocial (FECISO), is going on this week at the University of Chile's Cineteca and in outdoor spaces in Santiago's southern neighborhoods, primarily La Pintana. While the University of Chile has published a schedule of the films being shown at its Juan Gomez Millas campus in Nunoa, FECISO organizers seemed to have dropped the ball over at their own website and blog. If you're interested in going out to a neighborhood screening, I would recommend e-mailing festivaldecinesocial (at) gmail (dot) com for more information. It's a great opportunity to see free movies (a number of which you probably won't get to see anywhere else) and get to know and draw your own conclusions about neighborhoods that are routinely stigmatized in the media. I froze my butt off when I went last year, so bundle up!

8. Special events. Check event pages like Revolver, Saborizante and Estoy for listings.

Happy viewing! I'm off to get my boots repaired...because it's officially boot season.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The next hemisphere

This morning I opened a new e-mail account. This new address, unlike the six I already have, ends in .edu.

That´s right: Come August, I will be back-to-school shopping. Fortunately, this process will not involve replacing last year´s cracked protractor or begging my mom to let me shorten my uniform skirt. Instead, it will involve making the necessary preparations for my big move to...drumroll, please...NEW YORK CITY!

While I don´t want to be too specific right now about what and where I´ll be studying, I can say that I´ll be enrolling in an MA/PhD program in a humanities field. I´m kinda sorta THRILLED -- and more than kinda sorta terrified. More than anything, though, I´m just a bit shocked that it all worked out.

About a year and a half ago, my brain started to itch. It´s not that there´s not plenty here to keep it on its toes -- just finding the @ symbol on a keyboard here is a task worthy of Einstein -- but I found myself missing the academic world. Shortly thereafter, I enrolled in a two-semester gender studies program at a Chilean university. The diploma not only gave me the opportunity to explore issues I´d been interested in for a long time but also served to confirm my inkling that it was time to go back to school. I found I was delighted to sit up in bed reading, roam the world with highlighter stains on my fingers and, perhaps most of all, begin to reclaim the academic Spanish that I felt had been evaporating since I graduated from college. I realized it was all definitely something I could get used to again.

When I began researching academic programs in my area of interest, I was daunted to learn that most of them -- and nearly the only ones that offer financial aid -- are joint master´s and doctoral programs that generally take a minimum of five years to complete. I was confident that my college grades and post-graduate experience would have given me a decent shot at being accepted into an M.A. program, but a doctorate? That´s what experts get, I thought. That´s what people with years and years of work experience get. I, on the other hand, am a recent grad working quaint jobs and having adventures in South America. I knew a Ph.D. would almost certainly be in my future if I chose to pursue the career path that interests me; I just never expected it to be so soon. I didn´t feel worthy yet.

But, after receiving encouragement from some of my former professors, I decided to give it a go. I chose to apply to universities in the States both because that´s where some of the strongest programs in my field are and because I didn´t feel I could commit to another five years (the approximate total amount of time I've been living abroad) so far away from my family and U.S. friends.

The application process was surreal because I felt so removed from it all. While applying to undergrad, I met regularly with my high school's college counselor, attended information sessions, read SAT prep books and went on campus tours. I felt that the information I needed was readily available to me and that I had at least some degree of control over my fate. This time around, though, I was applying alone to schools I'd never visited -- and that were thousands of miles away. Even though I was able to research programs and faculty online and at Chilean libraries, the physical distance involved made me feel like I was sending applications to Oz or the North Pole: Were these places I was dreaming about actually real? Plus, although I received wonderful advice and support from many people, including the professors who wrote my recommendations and gave me feedback on my personal statement, I had the impression of being a lot more on my own than I was when applying to undergrad; there wasn't an entire institutional structure designed to make sure I succeeded.

After I'd sent in all my applications (thank goodness for online apps!), I began mentally preparing myself for what I thought was a very real possibility: not getting in anywhere. I tend to be pretty hard on myself and don't deal especially well with failure, so I figured I should start the emotional beef-up early.

Rather unbelievably, none of this was necessary. When I got my first acceptance e-mail, I whooped and did a celebratory dance around my kitchen. In the end, I went three for four on my applications and was faced with the very difficult (albeit extremely fortunate) task of making a decision. Since I'd only applied to programs I really liked, this caused me no small amount of anguish. It had been easier when all the decisions had been in the admissions committees' hands.

My decision was tough, but I'm happy with it. I'll be part of a wonderful department and be living in one of the most exciting cities on earth. What's more, I'll get to live with my awesome sister, who will be a grad student at another NYC university.

Of course, I'll be very sad to leave Chile. However, I think the fact that I'll be moving on to something new in a dynamic new environment will make it easier. When I left Chile after finishing my year abroad, I was devastated and sank into something of a funk. Looking back, I think this was because I was abandoning a place where everything was new and exciting -- and where I'd changed a lot -- and returning somewhere (college) that I felt didn't hold as many surprises and opportunities for non-academic growth. I may not have been right about this, but it was how I felt at the time.

This time around, however, the situation is very different. I'll be starting an important life project in a city that has just as many new experiences to offer as a foreign country. I'll have something to look forward to and not just something to look back on.

I first visited New York City my freshman year in college. While sitting out on a friend's fire escape at midnight watching the street bubble with activity below, I suspected that I might just be able to get used to this.

You'll have to stay tuned to find out if I was right. Even though I started this blog in order to write about my life in Chile, I think my experiences as a New York City newcomer will certainly be worth sharing as well. So get ready for Leigh's adventures in a whole new hemisphere!

Oh, and if you're a New Yorker and have any tips about making the big move, please drop me a line!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The price of "culture"

I took a trip this week (more on that soon), so I was a few days late in returning some library books. At the University of Chile, I would have been summarily executed, but luckily, I only had to deal with the Biblioteca de Santiago and their 100-peso-per-day fine this time around. After relinquishing a few coins, I was handed this receipt:


Apparently, I had bought myself 600 pesos worth of "CULTURE" (quotation marks included). This could be the perfect catalyst for a culture-as-commodity discussion, but for now, I'm going to limit myself to saying that I found it hilarious.

So watch out, kids. Your taste for "culture" could get you into trouble -- especially if you don't return it to its designated slot on time.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The corner

Those who have been reading this blog from the beginning know that I took this picture of the Santiago skyline from my friend A.'s balcony in 2006. When I wasn't looking, the PhotoShop monster attacked it and made it look like this:


For a long time, I've been meaning to take a camera over to A.'s and snap a shot of the exact same patch of sky to see how much has changed. Regardless of whether or not it would be evident in that particular photograph, the area has undergone significant transformations in recent years. The low rooftops of old houses and modestly sized apartment buildings now hunker in the shadows of towering high rises. When I used to live in the neighborhood, I looked on through narrowed eyes as the most garish of them all -- which I began to refer to as "El Falo" -- climbed higher and higher each day.

You don't have to have been following this blog from the beginning to know that I've been completely bewitched by the soul of Santiago's historic neighborhoods and consider this type of concrete colonization a travesty. Back when A. and I were neighbors, I used to glare at these looming invaders as if they were my personal enemies.

Strangely enough, I never felt any kind of resentment toward A.'s building, which is new(ish) and tall (although, at under ten stories, it is dwarfed by the likes of El Falo). This is probably because I have a lot of fond memories of his apartment, due in no small part to the balcony.

I met A. when I was studying abroad and we were both students in a judo (a.k.a. Leigh gets her ass kicked) class at one of the Chilean universities I attended. After class, we would frequently go over to his apartment and do some homework, then mix up a couple piscolas and drink them on the balcony. All told, we stood out there for hours absorbing nighttime views of Santiago. We would squint out at the tiny lights of the ski resorts in the mountains, try to point out faraway buildings we knew, and speculate about what people were doing behind their drawn curtains. On one occasion, we even bent over backwards and contemplated the city upside down. A.'s balcony was pivotal to the development of my awareness of and love for Santiago; as much as I hate to admit it, I never could have experienced the same perspective from street level.

Recently, my friend F., who used to live in the neighborhood but moved out long before I met her, was telling me about her family's old house. When I asked if it was still standing, she told me it had been bulldozed years ago to make way for a new apartment building. Given recent development activity in the area, this didn't surprise me. What did surprise me, however, was her old address: The house used to stand on the same corner where A.'s building now does.

I'm still struck by the coincidence. There are six million people in this city. What are the chances that I would befriend two who had lived in the same place but years apart? My conclusion: There is a certain street corner in a certain neighborhood in a certain city that tends to produce people who are important to me. I find myself actually believing in the mysticism of it all. This is not the case with A., who told me that I should think instead of all the people who live or have lived there whom I have never met and therefore are not directly important to me. I, however, maintain that I have a special connection to that patch of earth.

Regardless of whether or not I'm right, there is a certain poignancy to it, one that resonates deeply with my current situation. I'll be leaving Santiago soon and don't know how much time will have passed or how much will have changed by the time I return. Maybe my friends' corner will be home to a completely different structure -- or to no structure at all. Whatever I find there in the future, though, I have no doubt that it will be meaningful to me, even if only because I find some way to give it meaning.

Based on the way she's described it to me, F.'s old house was one I would have been enraged to see flattened so A.'s building could go up. If it hadn't been bulldozed, though, I wouldn't know what Santiago looks like upside down. So I guess the lesson is this: No matter how much Santiago changes, there is something about this corner of the world that will always resonate with me.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Language treason

On my way home from work a few weeks ago, I just happened to sit next to a Chilean Metro passenger who got off at the same stop I did. As we were walking down the platform toward the exit, he turned to me and inquired (in English), "Can I ask you something?"

It wasn't that difficult to realize how he'd known I was an English speaker: The entire time I'd been sitting next to him, I'd had the English translation of Stieg Larsson's The Girl Who Played with Fire open on my lap.

Instead of responding in English, though, I answered in Spanish. In the amount of time it took us to reach the exit and go our separate ways, it emerged -- also in Spanish -- that he had seen the movie version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo -- the first book in Larsson's Milennium trilogy -- while living in Norway last year and that yes, I was from the States.

While walking home from the Metro station, I replayed the conversation and pondered my choice of language. It hadn't been the first time I'd responded in Spanish to a question asked in English. Why is it, I wondered, that I tend to avoid my native language?

One could argue that an obvious reason is safety. Let's face it: While being foreign can be an advantage in some situations, it can make you more vulnerable in others. This was the reason I muttered "no" and walked away several months back when a guy approached me on the street late at night and asked if I spoke English.

It turned out that the guy was a lost Israeli tourist. I learned this when he followed me down the street (which provoked a brief moment of panic on my part) and asked me in broken Spanish if I knew where his hostel was. The hostel was just a few houses down from the apartment where I was living at the time, so I offered to walk with him. Unfortunately, this meant I faced a dilemma: His hostel and my apartment were five blocks away, which meant that there would undoubtedly by conversation involved. I had to decide whether to fess up or keep up the act.

I chose the latter because I was too embarrassed to tell him, "Hey, I actually do speak English. I lied to you back there because I thought you wanted to rob me." Looking back, this is exactly what I should have said, but it didn't seem that way at the time. What followed were five blocks of really slow Spanish and really exaggerated hand gestures. With each step we took, I felt even more absurd. Unfortunately, I was in too deep to quit.

But back to the guy on the Metro. Safety was -- as it always is -- a concern, although I was pretty sure he wasn't going to pull a knife on me on a subway platform with a bunch of witnesses looking on. Additionally, all my defenses tend to spring into place when strange men address me in English because it's something that smarmy guys have been known to do to hit on me. I've long since learned that muttering a curt answer in Spanish is usually a relatively effective way of letting a guy know that I'm not digging his "I could be your tour guide in Chile and in love" vibe.

To be honest, it also boils down to a matter of pride. I've worked damn hard to be able to speak good Spanish. While my high school classmates were watching Dawson's Creek, I was biting my nails to Mexican soap operas (even if I was taping Dawson's in the other room). I sought out bilingual summer jobs and read in Spanish for fun. I was a Spanish major in college, and while studying abroad in Chile, I intentionally took hard classes because I knew they would help me improve my language skills. After graduation, I moved to a Spanish-speaking country and have been living in one ever since. In other words, I've invested a heck of a lot of time in learning Spanish and, yes, am proud of the level I've achieved. This may be why I find it insulting when someone assumes I'm clueless just because the way I look or some other detail about me leads him or her to suspect that I may have been born elsewhere. Sometimes I have to remind myself that the people who make this assumption usually have kind intentions or that they may actually not be making an assumption at all; maybe, like me, they've busted their asses learning a foreign language and just want to practice it.

I would like to say that the list of factors behind my aversion to speaking English with strangers stops there, but as long as we're being honest, I have to admit that I don't think it does. Recently, another expat and I were discussing how living abroad has made us more comfortable with being the odd person out. We acknowledged that, no matter how long we live in Chile, we will always be foreign, different, odd. Furthermore, we arrived at the conclusion that this difference does not stay behind at customs but rather follows us home during trips to the U.S.; if Chileans cannot fully relate to us because they do not share our background, people in the States cannot fully relate to us because they do not share our present.

You would think that someone who’s recognized this and accepted it not only as isolating – which it can be – but as tremendously enriching as well would not care about fitting in with the crowd. However, the truth is that being the out-of-place element gets old after awhile. Most of the time, I love being a foreigner in Chile (or, if I’m in Minnesota, a local who has lived abroad), but there are times when the appeal of fitting in is hard to resist; alas, we never truly leave middle school. When a stranger speaks to me in English in Chile, it reminds me that I’ve chosen a misfit’s fate – and that it’s no longer optional.

Perhaps this would not bother me as much if I wore the signs of my otherness more visibly – as blonde hair or six feet of height, for example. If I had no hope of blending in, maybe I wouldn’t want to. Don’t get me wrong: There are plenty of Chileans who have been able to guess just by looking at me that I’m foreign. Other times, however, the evidence lies solely on my tongue. Even though I do have an accent, though, I always feel like less of a curiosity when I’m speaking the local language.

Whenever this happens, I feel as though I’ve somehow betrayed my native language. I love English. Yes, it’s the language of Shakespeare, but it’s also the language of my family and childhood friends and the language through which I learned to interpret the world and express my feelings about it. It seems wrong to deny my affiliation with it.

So here are my questions for you, expats: Do you ever feel that you’ve betrayed your native language? Have you resigned yourself to always being a square peg in a round hole?