Friday, February 8, 2013

Seven Months Later, I Acknowledge Santiago

I put off writing about Chile for a long time. When we left Japan, our friends were very kind in saying that they looked forward to posts about Santiago, but when we arrived, I found that when I tried to write, all I could do was stare at a blank screen. I told myself a million reasons why I couldn’t think of anything to say. I was dealing with the book, putting off the much-needed editing of said book, dealing with my stupid internet stalker, relearning Spanish, and getting to know my new job.  In truth, these were all just excuses. They should have been reasons to write instead of impediments. It took a while for me to realize why I wasn’t able to conjure up anything to say.
When it comes down to it, I didn’t want to be one of those writers who produce an endless string of first impressions. That might seem silly since half of the travel writing out there is based on first impressions, but that’s a whole different beast. If I’m going on vacation for a week, all I really need for reference is a quick heads-up from someone who has been there. I don’t need the down and dirty on the nuances of the culture unless I do something really stupid and end up in jail. For a quick visit, I just need a map and a rerun of No Reservations that tells me where to eat. However, if I’m going to take the trouble to actually live here, I might as well take advantage of the opportunity to document in a personal way.
We’ve been here for about 7 months now, and I feel like I’m starting to get past the first impressions phase. It would have been silly for me to write about Santiago earlier, since most of the time I wasn’t even sure I remembered where my apartment was. I wasn’t exactly in a position to make deep observations about life here. I remember walking to a nearby restaurant after we first moved into our flat and wondering if it was even remotely possible that this could ever start to feel like home. Now that some time has passed, I do feel like this is where I live. Maybe, just maybe, enough of the overwhelming unfamiliarity has faded that I can start writing again.
Living in Chile is different than living in Japan in many, many fundamental ways. For me, one of the most important distinctions between daily in the two countries is that I speak Spanish. I made a good effort to learn Japanese. I did fairly well but was never fluent. As a result, the language barrier was always frustrating.  It’s different here, though. I’ve had to relearn a lot of Spanish, which hasn’t been a completely effortless process. Chileans are the first to point out that the Spanish here is different than anywhere else.  More than once, someone who grew up here has explained to me in Spanish that Chileans don’t speak Spanish. Chileans call the language here Castellano. It’s Spanish mixed with the language of the Mapuche culture, which is one of the indigenous peoples of the area. Castellano is wicked fast, super slangy, and words are often abbreviated. There’s no s at the end of gracias. It’s just gracia. “How are you?” is “Come stai?” I have no doubt that in the course of those two examples I made about twelve mistakes. There are a million other differences, words that are used only here and such, but that's for another time.
Nonetheless, it’s been refreshing to feel like I can go anywhere, ask questions when I need help, and accomplish daily tasks with a minimum of frustration. More than that, the constant burden of translation has been lightened. It’s not gone by any stretch of the imagination. I still have whole conversations with my face scrunched up in concentration, trying to pick up on key words, and reminding myself to breath at the same time. I have this ridiculous theory that if you tense up, then the words can’t get in. If you try to relax and just let the words flow past you, the odds of actually catching a few go way up. Or something like that.
Anyway, seven months into this adventure, I might be ready to think about it as more than a series of hurdles to jump. We’ll see how the next seven months pan out now that I’m operating at a different comfort level.


  1. A note on Castellano: Castellano = Castilian, the language of Castile and Cervantes. Since in Spain we also speak other languages (Catalan, Basque, Gallego, Bable, etc...) it is not considered correct to refer to Castilian as Spanish as all of the language spoken in Spain are also Spanish.

    Dropping the 's' at the end of words as well as certain other sounds (such as the 'd' in words like cansao - for cansado-, aburrio - for aburrido, etc), and the lack of the /th/ (z) sound is widespread in Latin America, southern Spain and the Canary Islands. To us it's just a difference in accent/pronunciation.

    Chileans do speak so fast and have their own very distinctive pronunciation, so I'm sure it's a challenge! There is an interesting entry about Chilean 'Spanish' on wikipedia:

  2. It's actually not as hard as I was told it would be. In truth, I'm enjoying it. We lived in Costa Rica years ago and traveled a lot in different Latin countries, so I'm used to learning new dialects and forms of the language. I'm still learning why the word Castellano is used here. I've always associated it with a very specific part of Spain. One of the interesting things about Chile is that there are so many layers to answers like that. It will be fun to talk to people and hear about it.


9 AM

So, this morning was like any other morning right up until it wasn't anymore. Up at 5:30. Normal. Trouble getting Maya to stay awake...