The Bad Punchline: A Priest, a Missionary, and an Outspoken Gringa Walk Into a Language Institute…

People have been asking if I’m going to take any vacation this summer, and I have to tell them that I’m actually on vacation. The joy of being a teacher–seven weeks of summer vacation. The tricky part is that I like being in Santiago in the summer because everyone else leaves the city, and I like the fact that I can get places without sitting in traffic for hours. As a result, I decided to spend the majority of my summer vacation back in advanced language classes.

I’m the worst language student. When I know the answer, I interrupt my classmates and blurt out the response. I caught myself actually squirming in my seat and covering my mouth today because I so wanted to provide the word that my classmate was struggling to produce. On the other hand, when I don’t know the definition for “mácula,” I roll my eyes and say, “Yeah, but why don’t you just say “mancha” instead?” Heaven forbid I actually learn synonyms!

This week I have two classmates: a Franciscan priest from Italy and a protestant missionary from the U.S. As I don’t know when I’ll get to chat with an Italian Franciscan priest who serves a parish in Chile, I pepper the poor man with questions. Today I asked him whether he thought allowing priests to marry would help address the lack of priests in the Catholic church. Yesterday I asked him if he thought the Catholic church could ever overcome the lack of trust that resulted from so many cases of abuse and corruption within the Catholic church in South America (and specifically, Chile). I’m pretty sure the patience required to sit next to me at language school is something Father Mateo considers a test of faith!

The Circus Sideshow

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Guess which one is not related to all the others?!?

When I lived in the US, I was a “regular” at all the family events of a good college friend. There are countless photos of her family at baptisms, holidays, birthday parties, and school events with grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles. And me. Eventually her kids stopped asking what I was doing at their family events and just got used to me being there. This was good practice for me because I’m well-accustomed to being the person in the photo who causes people to do a double-take and ask, “Wait, who is that?”

The Christmas holidays this year featured being “the Gringa” on both Christmas and New Year’s Eve. I decided to up the ante this year, and add a fainting episode to Christmas (good thing one of the uncles was a doctor!) and three grandmas to nag and critique me on New Year’s Eve. I’ll share some of the highlights:

Highlight One: I Decide to Pass Out 10 Minutes Prior to Dinner

Imagine, if you will, that it’s Christmas Eve. My friends have a beautiful, formal Christmas dinner planned. The table is picture-perfect. My friend decides that the plastic pitcher holding her specially-flavored ginger-cucumber water is not fancy enough, and I fight off her husband for the right to wash a crystal pitcher to put the water in. Only, I break the crystal pitcher and cause a deep gash in my finger. As I hold my bloody finger under the faucet, two thoughts come to mind:

Thought One: Man, I hope they don’t insist that I go to the emergency room. I don’t know how to handle emergency rooms in this country. And it would be so embarrassing to disrupt their fancy dinner by asking for a ride to the hospital.

Thought Two: Uh oh. I’m starting to feel weak and now I can’t see anything.

The next thing I remember, my friend David is holding me up while I sit on a stool and a strange man is telling me to march my feet.

Thought Three: Man, I’m too tired to march my feet. This man is nuts.

Thought Four: When did this stool appear?

Thought Five: Ooh, that was close. It would have been so embarrassing to pass out.

I’m guided to a bedroom to lay down and regain some sense of normal blood pressure. As I lament to David that it would have been so humiliating to actually pass out, I’m informed that I did pass out. I’m also introduced to the man telling me to march–David’s brother, a cardiologist at one of the leading hospitals in the country. After a few sips of Coca-Cola, I regain my feet and head outside to introduce myself to all the guests who arrived while I was busy fainting. “Hi, I’m the gringa who passed out.”

Highlight Two: Not Knowing How to Use Water

According to the three grandmas who watched me wash strawberries on New Year’s Eve, I am going to kill the whole world with germs. I wash strawberries in a colander. They informed me that I have to wash each strawberry individually. Otherwise, everyone will die.

At the same time that they insisted that I pour water over each individual fruit, they also informed me that I am killing the country. Don’t you know that Chile is in the midst of a deep, devastating drought and I waste far too much water when I wash dishes?!? (It’s a good thing they didn’t see how much water I used when I was running water over my bleeding finger on Christmas Eve!)

Despite the fact that I apparently don’t master extended family events perfectly, I’m okay with being the tall, pink-faced gringa that cause all the cousins and aunts and uncles to pause and ask, “What is she doing here?” The answer: I’m here for the food and I’ll stay for the nagging.

But Miss…

Every Tuesday through Friday from 12:00-12:28PM, the first two words of every sentence directed towards me starts with those two words:

  • But Meess, I want to be on yelloo.
  • But Meess, they are so many.
  • But Meess, I want to be arbitro.
  • But Meess, I want to be with my friends.
  • But Meess, he pushed.

The soccer pitch at 2nd grade recess is serious business. When the bell rings at 12:00pm, there is a line of 24 kids waiting to be put on a team. Some of them come with their own goalie gloves. They look calm and organized. That’s the last sign of calm before 30 minutes of chaos and 30 minutes of whiny voices.

It’s chaos because 24 kids want to play soccer on a small pitch. It’s chaos because I don’t care who is on which team, so I randomly pass out jerseys. It’s chaos because it never works to make 3 teams of 8 and rotate. They often reject my jerseys. More accurately, they take the jersey and then trade it with another kid, so I also hear, “But Meess, he changed his color.” If the score becomes 2-0 quickly, I just start handing jerseys in the opposing color to random kids so that a game that started as 12v12 becomes 12v16. And then about 6 kids eventually just quit in the middle of recess to go play tag, and it becomes 11v11.

The other teachers tell me they used to have panic attacks thinking about manning the soccer pitch at 2nd grade recess. The principal tells me she wants the college basketball coach in me to revolutionize the soccer culture (i.e., the whining and emphasis on winning) in 2nd grade. I haven’t told her that empathy was not my strong suit and that very harsh tones of voice and scary eyes were my most motivating tactics.

There is only one time when I get cheers…when the ball gets stuck on the tarp that hangs over the recess area to block the blazing sun and only a person of my height can knock it back onto the pitch. My efforts are rewarded with a chorus of cheers and I feel like a hero. For about two seconds. Then my revelry is interrupted by some 7 year old pulling on my sleeve and launching into a whiny, “But Meess…”

Awkward Adjustments

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This photo was taken exactly two seconds before one of the students (very sincerely) asked me if I was a clown. This seems to epitomize how people make sense of me here. 

Let’s begin with a very honest fact: I am not very good at change. I have worn the same exact brand and model of running shoe for nearly 10 years. If I needed to buy a car, my first choice would be the exact same car I drove before I moved to Chile–a black, 2012 Honda Accord with a pasta sauce stain behind the driver’s seat. I use the same kind of shampoo that I used in high school. Shoot, I still use the same Hotmail email account that I created in college.

Somehow it seems appropriate that my last week of work at my current job wouldn’t actually be a week of work. Circumstances in Santiago caused my typically full week of teaching to become a week of suspended classes. Instead of nice, tidy closure, my students received a WhatsApp message reminding them they would have a new teacher next week.

Equally awkward, of the two classes that I actually taught this week, the last class was scheduled immediately following an all-staff meeting at work that ran long. I slipped out of the meeting before it ended to run to teach my student and managed to escape saying goodbye to all my co-workers.

This is probably a good thing. I had one student who knew he would not be able to attend classes this week, and I said an official goodbye to him as his teacher last week. However, in my typical “smooth” manner, I started to launch into a speech telling him how thankful I was to be his teacher for the past 19 months and how much I have learned from him during his classes. He interrupted me about three words into my speech with a massive eye roll and asked, “Why did you have to make this formal and awkward?” I explained that I had a full speech planned followed by a farewell interpretive dance and intended to formalize the end of my teaching relationship by bowing deeply and walking backward out of his office in some symbolic ritualism. This earned me another eye roll and he concluded the class by saying, “I assume I’ll see you soon.” He was right…I happened to run into him a few days later.

So there are changes coming. I don’t think I was looking for the changes, but they appeared. The chaos of the past week has provided a distraction from processing it all. And in many ways, things aren’t changing. I’m still tall. I’m still a lady (although many would probably debate whether I deserve the term). I still wear pants. I’m still in Chile. And I’m still teaching. We’ll see how things go on Monday…

It’s all so surreal

I had tea with Abuelita Luz on Monday. We scheduled it for 7:30–I gave myself 30 extra minutes to get to her apartment because of rush hour. After impatiently surviving an hour in the micro (bus), I finally hopped out when we reached a Metro (subway) station, and decided to take the subway the rest of the way. It was rush hour so I didn’t think much of the long lines at the turnstiles. The platform was crowded, but I just figured it was due to rush hour. A subway train pulled up, but it was a short train, so I didn’t make it into the already-crowded cars. I heard whistles and shouts at the other end of the platform, but was irritated simply because it meant I had to turn up the volume of the podcast I was listening to. Didn’t they realize that I was listening to Bloomberg Business AND late to tea with a 90-year old ex-apartmentmate?!? So when the next train pulled up, I shoved my way onto the subway car–even though it mean ungracefully yanking my leg through the closing doors. I was irritated.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was turning up the volume and tuning out the beginnings of protests that have persisted all week, shut down the entire transport system in Santiago, resulted in a state of emergency, and provoked a curfew for the entire city.

I can’t process it all. I can’t process it because I managed to somehow escape the brunt of the protests each day. On Tuesday the protests shut down the subway stations that I used to pass through regularly months ago. On Wednesday the protests shut down the subway stations that I passed through earlier in the day. On Thursday the protests shut down the subway stations that I used on Wednesday. And on Friday the entire subway system shut down and several dozen were destroyed–on the one day when I walk to and from work. As millions of people walked hours and suffered tear gas to return home from work, I felt very few effects–and just a tad of tear gas.

I can’t process it because I heard the explosions and watched the black smoke billow from burning buses from atop Cerro San Cristobal Saturday afternoon. A high school friend was unexpectedly in town, and we found ourselves watching the protests from above. “See the white smoke there?” I pointed to a location below us. “That’s tear gas. Look over there. They’re setting something on fire near Cerro Santa Lucia.” I pointed another direction. “See all those vehicles in that traffic circle? Those are military tanks.” We took selfies and then searched for lunch.

We walked along quiet streets to a wine tasting. I tried to remember to hold my glass by the stem and pretended to know what tannins are; my cheeks got rosy with carmenere, merlot, and cabernet sauvignon, and when I checked my phone 20 minutes later I had 73 messages informing me of a city-wide curfew and asking about my safety. The entire transport system was shut down and Ubers were going to be impossible to find, so we power-walked back.

I can’t process it because my walk took me past restaurants with people calmly eating (the curfew was about 45 minutes away) on eerily quiet streets. At the same time, I was accompanied the entire time by people banging on pots and street signs while walking along streets, standing on street corners, and watching from apartment terraces. People who saw us walking reminded us to get home quickly before the curfew. The synchronized banging seemed like celebratory sounds–the kind of thing that would happen at midnight on New Year’s Eve–not defiant protests. It seemed like moments of solidarity and community–not emergency.

Today has been more of the same. My walk to and from church took me past lines of cars waiting for an hour to get gas from one of the few stations that is still open. There were lines of people stretched around buildings waiting for bread from the few independent panaderias that were open. But those were the only signs that something was different–except for the military tanks that drove by armed with machine guns to counter the sound and image of the children playing in the park on the other side of the street. If I sit on my front terrace I can hear families in the park below, and if I look out my bedroom window in the back I can see black smoke billowing from about 10 blocks away. I’m guessing they burned another supermarket. The juxtaposition of these things makes it difficult to process these things as well.

On one level, the city is protesting increased subway fares. A large portion of the population spends 16-23% of their income on public transport. But the protests go beyond subway fares. I don’t fully understand protests. I don’t understand how burning property or looting stores relates to societal ills. But I understand it’s expressing frustration. I also understand that I am among the privileged. I can watch the news and read texts. I can even get a bit of tear gas in my eyes. But I watch the majority of the events from afar, blink away the tears, and wonder what is real.

Today is Saturday

But yesterday was “one of those days.” Oh, I’ve had far worse, but let’s just say that I was sitting on the 411 bus at 5:30 yesterday evening hoping that the guy next to me didn’t realize that I was crying. The tall gringa with pink skin already doesn’t fit in, but the tall, pink-skinned gringa who is crying really stands out. There were more than a few reasons for the tears, but one was my complete gringa moment about an hour earlier.

I arrived at my 14 year old student’s apartment building for class and found her waiting for me in the lobby. She was locked out of her apartment but told me that we could have English class in her best friend’s apartment in the same building. I knew her best friend, but I’d never been to that apartment. So we trooped up to the 11th floor where I encountered a woman (the best friend’s mother) frantically rearranging chairs and plugging in electric heaters so that we’d be comfortable. Gringa mode kicked it: I felt badly for inconveniencing this woman with my unannounced presence.

Usually I teach my student in her apartment and we’re the only ones there (other than rare occasions when a parent or a cleaning lady or a best friend hides in a back bedroom). So I was not fully prepared when about 15 minutes into class the best friend and her mother appeared at the dining room table where we were studying with placemats, a tea tray, and snacks. The following took place:

Best Friend’s Mom hand’s my student a juice and asks if I want anything to drink.

Professional Gringa doesn’t want to inconvenience the woman and says, “I don’t need anything, thank you.”

Best Friend’s Mom (holding a tea cup): But tea? Tea? Maybe tea?

Me (realizing my error but not knowing how to backtrack): Um, no, really, nothing.

Best Friend’s Mom gives her daughter a confused look as if to say: What is she talking about? No tea?!?

Best Friend’s Mom’s face relaxes: No tea. Okay. Water? Juice?

Me (trying to recover from my earlier mishap of refusing a drink): Water would be lovely.

Best Friend’s Mom: Flavored water? Water with gas?

Me (realizing another error…I had chosen an option with more options): Just water without gas.

Best Friend’s Mom: But I have flavored water. Do you want flavored water? Water with gas?

Me: Just water without gas.

Best Friend’s Mom: But I have flavored water. Do you want flavored water? Water with gas?

Best Friend’s Mom gives her daughter a confused look as if to say: What is she talking about? No flavored water?!?

Best Friend shrugs and they go to the kitchen.

Best Friend’s Mom returns with a bottle of juice and a bottle of water with gas: Would you like one of these?

I admit defeat and point to the bottle of water with gas.

Best Friend’s mom was not in the apartment when class ended, so I as I bid Best Friend goodbye I asked her to thank her mother for the kind hospitality. Best Friend then admitted that her mother had not understood what I said during the above conversation because (in addition to my gringa cultural faux pas) she didn’t understand my gringa-accented Spanish. Yes, I literally slapped my palm to my forehead at this point while two middle-schoolers laughed at me.

So it was with this sense of failure (among other things) that I boarded the 411 bus and spent the 30 minute bus ride pondering my mounting failures and difficulties in living in Chile. This of course leads to me pondering the value of living in Chile and what I’m doing here. And then sunset happened.

I was riding the 411 to spend the evening with a friend who lives in an apartment building with spectacular rooftop views. I see all the things above on a daily basis, but I don’t notice how parts of the city connect because my perspective narrows what I can see. Likewise, I discovered basketball courts (and mountains) that I’d never seen before because they were blocked by walls, buildings, or smog. I think there’s a metaphor in there.

It may be shallow, but the sunset also answered that deep probing question of what I’m doing here. There are piles of piles of failures, mishaps, deficiencies, and insecurities in my days. They’re often followed by that question: What am I doing here? But the meaning of that question differs depending on what word you stress. I sat on the rooftop in wonder and gratitude and asked the same exact question: What am I doing here? But it was with a tone of awe and appreciation rather than failure.

And in part, here’s the answer to my question. G.K. Chesterton wrote:

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown up does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon…It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. 

My Google Drive is full of photos of Chilean sunrises and sunsets. I don’t tire of them. The sun set last night, and I wanted to hit rewind and watch it again. And again. And again. Tish Harrison Warren elaborated on Chesterton’s idea:

We have sinned and grown old, and become dulled to the wonders around us. Though it may be counterintuitive, enjoyment takes practice. Throughout our life we must relearn the abandon of revelry and merriment.

I have mastered the practice of sin and dullness. I want to relearn (or perhaps learn in the first place) the fierce and free spirit of pursuing and delighting in God, One who creates with apparent tireless abandon.

The Difference in a Year (and a half)

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Looking my utmost gringa (but definitely not cuica) this weekend

I went for a run after work today, and realized that I was running the same route I used to run when I first moved to Santiago. Back then, I kept my bearings by giving myself directions like, “Turn left at the street that sounds like Elizabeth Vargas (Antonio Varas). Go past Sugar Street (Sucre) and turn left at the Peruvian currency (Simon Bolivar). Keep running until you think you’re lost. Then keep going. Turn left again at Holland (Holanda), but it’s not the Holland that you think it is. Wait, maybe it is. Nope, it’s not.” Now when I run there’s context to all of these streets. I know which cross street follows the next and that there’s a grocery store on the parallel street or terribly cracked sidewalks on the next block.

Similarly, today I got tapped on the shoulder while riding home on the bus. The guy behind me asked to confirm that the bus was going to Providencia. 18 months ago I would have shrugged and grunted–largely because I had the same doubt and partly because I didn’t want to misinform him if I was wrong. Instead, I assured him that it was indeed going to Providencia and then proceeded to tell him the exact route it would take. I was about to launch into a list of each of the stops it would make along the way, but he must have noticed I was full of information and quickly said thanks and turned away.

Before you wonder if I have life figured out here, I should probably add that I also stood at a bus stop for 40 minutes this morning wondering where my bus to work was. (Then again, I was joined with several dozen other people who were equally delayed and perplexed…and several transit employees.) Sometimes I have no clue what I am doing.

My confusion about where exactly I fit into this society also continues. After returning from vacation in the U.S., my students asked me to tell them about my trip. As I told them about stand-up paddleboarding on the lake where my parents live, I noticed their perplexed faces. I showed them a picture of a SUP to help them understand the concept and they responded with, “Oh, that’s a totally gringo thing. We’d never do that.” I reminded them that I am a gringa and I was in Gringolandia for vacation.

The next day, another class commented on the bag that I was using to carry my things. It wasn’t my typical over-stuffed backpack (which was still overstuffed with things I hadn’t unpacked from my trip to Gringolandia). They took one look at my bag and said, “What are you doing with a cuica bag? You’re a cuica today!” [Cuica is the not-so-loving term for the privileged upper-class.] I looked at the bag that I’ve had for nearly 10 years since living in Gringolandia and tried to explain to them that I’m far too gringa to even know how to be cuica.