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.