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Visiting family in Chile

Debbie Leffler • Sep 19, 2019 at 10:00 AM

As many of you who read this column know, I spent several weeks in Chile over the summer to be with my older daughter, who lives there and was having her first child.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how a Chilean man asked me – shortly after the news of the mass shooting in Dayton – why America has such mass shootings. “What is wrong with your country?” he asked me. I didn’t know the answer.

When they found out I grew up in New Jersey, that same Chilean man asked me “Why do people in America make jokes about New Jersey?” I didn’t know how to answer that one, either.

Since I was one of the only Americans around, I represented our country and I was supposed to be able to answer questions such as these – to speak for our culture.

So now, when I tell you what I observed about Chilean culture, keep in mind that I lived with one family and I experienced life for only a few weeks in a medium-sized city called Talcahuano. So maybe my observations should not be generalized to the entire country. But here’s what I know, or think I know, about Chilean culture.

The people there are warm and extroverted. People – even mere acquaintances – are greeted with a hug and a kiss on the cheek. I am a reserved introvert, and so this took some getting used to for me.

The culture there is very family oriented. When I went to the waiting room in the hospital just outside where my daughter was going to have her baby, there were three gigantic clusters of Chilean families – grandparents, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts – all at the hospital, awaiting news about their family member who was about to give birth. While my daughter was in early labor, the hospital’s policy was only one person at a time was allowed to visit in the labor rooms – which made sense, because otherwise each room would have been inundated with 10 or 12 Chileans, all family.

Then there is the food….delicious empanadas (cheese or meat or seafood wrapped in dough which is baked or fried), fresh vegetables and freshly-caught fish. Meals often consisted of plain meat and potatoes. The main meal was served at midday - what we would consider lunch time. What we would call dinner was called “once” (OWN-say) – served late in the evening. It was a smaller meal such as a cheese sandwich. Coffee was made via boiling water and instant powder – not drip or percolated. Milk was mostly of a powdered form. And some food was packaged differently – for example, mayonnaise, instead of coming in a jar, was in a plastic pouch to be squeezed out.

On the food packaging, instead of trying to make the foods sound healthy by saying things like “low fat” or “low salt,” they would say things (in Spanish) like “high sugar” or “high in calories” – as a warning, I suppose, not to buy them. But why would you advertise like that?

Outside, many dogs roamed freely. They belonged to no one. They were never threatening (not having a home to feel territorial about, I suppose). They slept on the sidewalks out in the sun. Who fed them, and what did they eat? I don’t know.

In the area where I lived, there were many small stores, about the size of Dave’s Food Mart here, which carried a variety of products. The big box stores hadn’t become popular there. There were a few bigger stores, called “supermercados” (supermarkets) and there was the Lider store, which seemed a lot like a Walmart. But most people seemed to do their shopping at their little nearby store.

There were many things to try to get used to. The currency, for example. Chile has its own Chilean pesos instead of our dollars. I never did get used to which color of paper money represented what amount of pesos. Their currency does not equate one-to-one to dollars – 20,000 pesos is not nearly as much as 20,000 dollars. One dollar is equivalent to 716 Chilean pesos. And coins are used more frequently than here – there is a coin for 500 pesos, for example. I stood like an idiot in front of a vending machine at the hospital, trying to figure out which coins to put into the slot to buy a candy bar.

Weight is measured in the metric system – so that when my daughter’s baby was born, I learned his weight in kilos (kilograms), not pounds.

Oh, and Netflix is different, too. The most recent season of Grey’s Anatomy was not available there, which was discouraging to me because I could not see the episodes I wanted. Even though I used the same login I use in the USA, Netflix seemed to know I was in Chile and offered me only the Chilean choices. The family there was heavily engrossed in watching “Bolivar” on Netflix – the saga of the man who helped make South American countries independent.

All of this means that it is fascinating to live in another country. How we live in the USA is not the only way to live. However, it also means that it takes a lot of energy and time to figure things out that come to us naturally here. There’s no place like home.

There were more similarities than differences. People are people. A smile is a smile. People there, like here, celebrate, go to work, eat meals, rejoice at births and are saddened by illness and death.

Oh, and my daughter’s newborn baby? Even though born in Chile, the sound of his cry was no different than the cries I remember from my newborns.

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