Today is my 50th day in South America on this trip and life has started feeling mostly normal. Santiago is a modern city and there is usually wifi – there are certainly lots of people moseying a wobbly line on the sidewalks, head buried in their phones – there is food I recognize, I don’t need to worry about the water, etc. My Spanish is still not good enough for me to follow a Chilean bent on speaking at normal Chilean speed and in the Chilean way of swallowing half or more of every word but it no longer sounds foreign. I hear separate words and often can get the gist of casual conversations around me. Casual conversations here, as in the United States, are pretty banal and repetitive. There is usually at least one bored participant who only occasionally grunts or says, “Yo se.”
The point is, I have a routine and occasionally will forget that I’m a stranger in a strange land. I was reminded three times today. Or four, depending on how you count.
My first “shock” was walking from the Las Heroes stop to my office a little before 9am. That is quite early for Chile and there weren’t many folks out. But there was one guy, in a very nice suit having breakfast. He was eating a hot dog. With mayonnaise. For breakfast. It’s odd enough to see how much mayo the Chileans put on their, otherwise excellent, hot dogs. But I hadn’t really considered it a breakfast food and certainly not for a man who looks like he really should have gotten off at La Moneda.
The second shock was when the cleaning lady came in. I was sitting in my office and I smiled and said, “buenos dias” as she entered. She proceeded to jabber at me in rapid fire Spanish as she dusted, swept and collected the rubbish. She never looked at me and, I don’t believe, ever noticed that I didn’t catch a word of what she was saying. Body language and tone told me she was saying nice things and we exchanged cheerful, happy “Ciao!”s when she left.
I’m going to file another shock under the second entry as it involved another cleaning lady. Friendly bunch. I needed to use el bano very badly but, when I arrived, I found a lady cleaning. We’ve all been there. Cleaning staff cleaning the only restroom within a kilometer. In the United States, of course, they shoo you out and point you on your way. Not here. This lady invited me in and, seeing my confusion, told me she would clean the mirror while I used the toilets in back. Not a McCrory voter, apparently.
Back in the office, I got an email telling me that classes the next three afternoons would be canceled. This is, apparently, so that the freshmen (they aren’t called that here) can run wild around campus. It is also, apparently, a spur of the moment decision. I’m trying to imagine my boss canceling three afternoons of classes because the freshmen needed to burn energy.
So, we’re clearly interlopers here. Which has forced another rash decision. I informed my students that our organic chemistry classroom has diplomatic status and that, in the United States, we don’t cancel classes just because the weather is good and we’d rather be outside. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Unless you don’t want to.