Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Old faces, new places

I ventured down to Lastarria last night, which is a beautiful neighborhood near Universidad la Católica, to meet up with an old acquaintance from college for drinks. Jillian first came to the city on exchange back in 2008, fell in love with a Chilean boy and eventually made the jump across the Atlantic to start a new life here with him. She now works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and as I'd hoped, has blossomed in her 2.5 years here into a savvy Santiaguina with lots of tips and insider knowledge on how to find ones way. We grabbed a table on the terrace of Casa Lastarria and poured our hearts out over cocktails, ceviche, empanadas and, in true Dutch style, patat met mayo. It was lovely, not only to see a familiar face here, but also to feel so open and relaxed with someone I'd never really spent all that much time with before. It felt like meeting up with a good friend that I'd simply lost track of for a few years.

Monumento Iglesia de la Vera Cruz (Barrio Lastarria).

It's a wonderful thing to be able to listen to impressions of a place from someone with a shared cultural vantage point. Putting experiences into context becomes a lot easier and it's also vaguely reassuring to know that certain perceptions were actually spot on and not just figments of my imagination borne out of insecurity.

For example, within the first days here I had noticed that Chileans seem to do a lot of staring. Not necessarily in the rude, leering sense of the word, but certainly allowing their gaze to rest upon you for extended (and sometimes uncomfortable) periods of time. Granted, I notice it a lot more when in the company of G, but then again a nearly 2-meter tall, blond, blue-eyed Dutchman seems to attract attention just about anywhere outside of northern Europe. But even without him in tow, I often find myself meeting eyes with someone in the metro or passing by on the street, only to lose the staring contest after a few seconds. I found it all a bit disconcerting in the beginning, as back in Amsterdam you basically have to stand on your head, naked and with a whistle in your mouth to draw even a casual second glance.

Jillian, however, assures me that this is, indeed, very Chilean and simply something I'll have to get used to, much like the hoots, hollers and generous compliments given to all women, but especially lavishly bestowed upon foreigners. Bus drivers, butchers, concierges and random, passing strangers won't hesitate for a second in calling you any number of flattering names or clucking their enthusiastic approval as you hobble down the street lugging a load of grocery bags. It's completely different than anything I'm used to, but always seems warm, casual and genuine, never obscene or laced with any ominous undertone.

Another suspicion which received confirmation was that it will remain quite a task to get by with my Spanish in these first few months. The beautiful, rolling Castellano laced with tinges of Andaluz I worked so hard to perfect back in Spain is met here with blank stares or pained winces of non-comprehension. Chilean Spanish is actually very much like Santiago- fast, a bit rough, and loaded with unfamiliar twists and turns in the form of quirky vocabulary and bizarre colloquialisms. Palta, pololo, carrete, cachai? Err, I suppose. I can't even imagine the mess of accents and slangy jargon I'll be speaking by the end of my time here. But as they say- never a dull moment!

The conversation weaved back and forth between here and Holland, now and then, the plausible and the inconceivable, until before we knew it we'd crept past midnight and it was time to part ways again. It's funny how life brings people and places together, then pulls them apart again, only to reunite them at strange and seemingly random moments in the future. Perhaps its way of letting ou see only fractions of the whole so as not to ruin the surprise of the bigger picture. I hope I'll be seeing a lot more of Jillian in the coming months, but in the meantime, we're off to Tiramisu this evening with Sebastian and a few of G's other colleagues. And as nearly every experience here thus far, I'm sure it will be one to remember.

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