Thursday, March 19, 2009

Who really knows Chile?

Every year, on the fourth Thursday of November, like many other families in that somewhat misshapen landmass of a country we call the United States, my family gets together for Thanksgiving. For the first three years I was in Chile I dealt with my weather sickness (November is warm, and nostalgia-rife), searched the Vega (main fruit and veg market) for overpriced hand-harvested sweet potatoes that would still be good at this time of year, and moped. Once year I celebrated it with a bunch of gringos in the basement rec room of a long-since-departed-for-California gringo who was kind enough to host the shindig. Another time I went to a dear friend's house, with her organic garden and her chickens cluck-clucking in the background, and we all sweated and swore and balanced ourselves around the giant table laden with hard-fought goodies like stuffing (you try to find celery in November in Chile!) and cranberry sauce. Strangely, the Brazilian-American put himself in charge of bringing the turkey, by taxi, and fully-cooked, of course. We didn't tell the chickens, but I think they knew.

Over time I decided that if I have one priority time to visit the states, it's on that fourth Thursday in November. Since we are (fairly secular) Jewish, it is our one big family holiday of the year. And like many other families, we like to invite other people to share in the fun and stomach-distending tasties that the family whips up. My brother-in-law would have a spiffy gourmet restaurant if he weren't a programmer, and he spares no effort in putting together an elaborate feast. Everyone pitches in and brings something, which in our case usually means a baked-to-perfection cheesecake or eight kinds of cheese produced from milk gleaned from three-legged sheep clinging to the Cantabrian hillside. We're like that.

Like many other families, we also include people that are not technically family. We have a partner-in-crime family, parents and kids, and grandparents too, who are like our cousins. Then there's the friends of the family we've known for so long that we wouldn't know what to do with ourselves if they weren't there. Part of this inviting-of-others is based on the spirit of the holiday. Another (sadder) part is that our family is so small, and has suffered a serious attrition rate in recent years (see: emergency flights home for funerals and such), that we just have to buoy up the numbers a bit.

Last year we had two new additions, a couple from (I think) California, one of whom, a fast-talking-comedienne and performance artist set to interviewing me about Chile. I found myself strangely embarrased, unprepared, like an ambassador for a country I didn't know. I didn't want to get it wrong. I didn't want to sell Chile like this when really it's like that. I didn't trust my ability to explain Chile tal como es (just how it is), because I didn't want to misrepresent it, perpetuate a lie, spread an untruth.

And the woman kept on insisting. Insisting that I tell her what Chile was like and how people feel and what they think, and what they eat for breakfast and the state of women's rights and what about gay people and the politics and where they go on vacation and what they look like.

And I kept on saying, I can only tell you about my Chile. The place I live, the people I know, the things I observe. But no. She wanted generalizations, pronouncements. I excused myself and went to help in the kitchen. Because no matter what I see, what I feel, the things I eat and drink, the places I go, the people I meet, the things I notice, smell, observe, proclaim, it's only true for one person. Me.

I can open my mind and my heart and let my fingers type my thoughts, but if you want to conocer (get to know, experience) Chile, you'll have to get on the plane and see for yourself. I know an apartment in Barrio Brasil that's free the fourth week in November. But you'll have to miss a hell of a spread out on Long Island. Your choice.

4 comments:

mariposalibre said...

really enjoy your blog, keep up the great work, it keeps me laughing and awake when I work the night shift, gracias

Michelle said...

I love your descriptions of all and sundry who come to Thanksgiving at my house!

planetnomad said...

It's so true! It can be hard for an expat to get much below the surface, try though we may. Ultimately, we are offering others only a slice of our life, a glimpse of a few locals, our own experiences. But I think that's a healthy realization. I can't count the number of times I've been annoyed to be informed how "Americans" think and act, by someone who's read a few articles or maybe spent a year in New York.

pfarnac1 said...

I completely agree! I spent last Fall studying in Santiago and had a similar experience with people wanting to know "what" Chile is. Your writing makes me miss the city more than I already do. Keep it up.