For reasons that are perhaps only clear to the gods of Reddit themselves, I got some 2500 extra hits on my blog over the course of a couple of days, due to (I guess) someone in Ecuador getting fleeced in the food purchasing department, and someone else holding out my blog as an example of what you could get in Chile for the same amount of money. I have a Reddit account, mainly to respond to what people say about the blog, which is a little like buying clothing for your pet, but this is the modern age, where I FB post about tweets and tweet about Reddit and then blog about Reddit and put it on my Facebook page.
One person on Reddit posted that he was not impressed with my prices, specifically apples, because he could buy them for within 20 cents of a dollar, and I had reported paying 400 clp (less than a dollar) for a kilo. That actually means I paid 38 cents per pound (400 CLP = 84 cents, divided by 2.2, which is how many kilos are in a pound) = 38, but whatever. I don’t need to argue with faraway people about whether or not I overpaid at the feria, but I did point out that Chile is not cheap, quoting prices on gasoline and cream cheese (both high, gas is more than $6 a gallon, and cream cheese, when purchased at the supermarket, costs near $5 a brick).
But it got me to thinking, why is this here? What is the purpose of the feria report? (besides fun for me)
1. it allows me to track prices year over year without a pesky spreadsheet. True, I will have to go back and comb through my blogs to find the data, but I was thinking of hiring some minions to do it. I thought of hiring a minyan, but that’s too many people (Haha, Jewish joke, a minyan is 10 above-barmitzvah-aged males, enough to study the Torah). Anyway, the minion thing is a joke. The first thing that person would do is give my kitchen a good scrubbing.
2. It gives a real-life view to people considering moving to Chile, of the prices we pay for food. On gringo forums and fb pages, people always compare the prices of what we eat here to what they ate there. I make no assurances about our produce being cheaper (though most of the time it is), just a real-view look at how much it costs. The Vega is cheaper, but not cheap enough for me to go when I have my local ferias so close, and the people there kind of love me (see: on Saturdays I wake up pretty, Sundays, sometimes too.
3. It gives a shout out to buying from small-business people.
4. It helps me to point out the high prices we pay at the supermarket vs. the feria, or at least give data to people who might be interested in making that comparison.
5. It helps to remind me what we can get in season, and when, though the what we can get has changed quite a bit, especially as there is more Peruvian immigration and Chileans go progressively more cuckoo (in a good way) for Peruvian food.
And so here’s what it looks like. I bought several things this week that I didn’t buy last week, some of which may or may not come to your grocery shelves (thus the exotics). And if they come this time of year, they probably come from here, so bid them a fine hello when you see them, as they have come from far away.
Cauliflower 600 clp = $1.27
Broccoli 600 clp = $1.27
Giant swiss chard 1000 clp = $2.10
Arugula 300 clp = $.63
Parsley 200 clp = $.42
Cilantro 200 clp = $.42
Avocado 500 clp = $1.05
3 Tiny pica mangoes 800 clp = $1.68
8 Pica lemons (similar to key limes) 500 clp = $1.05
2 passion fruit 500 clp = $1.05
1 sweet potato 200 clp = $.42
1 pomegranate 400 clp = $.84
2 pepino dulce (cucumber fruit) 400 clp = $.84
2 persimmons 900 clp = $1.90
Bunch carrots (7) 400 clp = $.84
3 Green onions 400 clp = $.84
Big “cut” of squash 300 clp = $.63
Iceberg lettuce 500 clp = $1.05
(The passionfruit, sweet potato, tiny limes and small mangoes I bought from the same place, so I split up the price how I think it added up, but the total is correct.) These are all luxury food items, for what it’s worth, though maybe less-so the sweet potato.
Today’s impulse purchase were the persimmons, which are soft as room-temperature butter, and delicious. I wasn’t going to buy any, but the pepino dulce woman cut off a giant piece of one she was eating and handed it to me, and I tasted it, and then said the words, “Es un manjar,” which would mean “it is a dulce de leche/milk fudge” if you took it with the common use of the word manjar, but in this case it means “It is heavenly,” or more precisely “this is like the nectar of the gods.” It’s flowery speech, but this is part of the experience of buying at the feria, and those persimmons are darn good.
The total price of all of this, if we trust my math, is $18.30, which is about 8700 pesos, or what an entreé at a niceish (but not necessarily good) restaurant will cost you in Santiago. It is also about 13 peak-hour bus or metro trips, or 2.2 percent of the average monthly Chilean salary (pegged at 390,000 by the last count), and 4.5 percent of the monthly minimum wage for workers aged 18 to 65, which is currently set at 193,000.
Which is to say, me fui al chancho with the fruits and veggies (literally, I went to the pig, but really means, “I overdid it,” and if I were Chilean I not only did that, but also forgot the potatoes, tomatoes and onions.
Everyone wants to be the New York of somewhere. Take Buenos Aires, for example. People want it to be the New York of South America. When I was in Copenhagen, and felt like people were being snooty in my direction, I got the feeling they thought they were the Paris of Scandinavia.
You’d want to be the Paris, the London, the Capetown of somewhere (looking at you, Rio, which some South Africans think of as the Capetown of South America, what with its large hill, and setting on the ocean). But nobody wants to be say, the Tallahassee of somewhere (no offense Tallahassee). If someone told you that a city you’d been to was the Peoria, Illinois of Europe, would it make you go?
What if I told you that to me, Bogotá, Colombia was the Brussels of South America?
Before people get their various undergarments in a knot, I would first like to go down as saying that I generally like most cities, and that I genuinely like both Brussels and Bogotá. But not, maybe, as much as I’d like Paris (if I’d ever been there), or Medellín (which I have, and OMG, you should go).
What’s similar about them? They each have a cool museum. In Bogotá, it’s the Gold Museum (oh my word). In Brussels, it’s the comic book museum, with all kinds of displays featuring Les Schtroumpfs (The Smurfs, who it turns out are Belgian).
They each have at least one cool mode of transportation, trams in Brussels, the Transmilenio busses in Bogotá that you get on at stations, and with a nifty swipe card.
They have very urban, grungy parts that seem like if you could see them in black and white, you’d be in a film from 50 years ago. Lots of street art, graffiti, broken down things.
They have good snacks. In Brussels, I ate many a baklava-type-item (which yes, I know is not Belgian), and in Bogotá, I found (thank goodness, and you will see why), amojábanas, which are salty little fluffy sopaipilla-type breads that have cheese in the dough.
They both have one main attraction that is their shining star. In Belgium, I referred to that thing as the “chose atomique” (atomic thing), which is a scale of a molecule (I think) in a park. It was built for a world’s fair, but when you get there, it’s sort of like just seeing it in a picture, except rainier. The supposedly amazing thing in Bogotá is Candelaria, a colonial neighborhood.
It is true that Candelaria is a colonial neighborhood. It is also true that parts of it are quite (no really, quite) sketchy, much of it is run down, and it is where I had a meal that had a very unfortunate disgusting to taste ratio. It was about one to one, if you must know. There is another colonial neighborhood that is actually in good shape, though it lacks the cathedral with the pigeons and the larger-than-life smurfs and the couple posing for wedding pictures (really). That neighborhood is called Usaquén and it’s touristy, but in the sense that wealthy Colombians go there, not in that everyone has their nose in a guidebook as they trip over cobblestones. And in the interest of full, well-traveled-in-Latin-America disclosure, I am comparing Candelaria to lots of well-preserved colonial towns, from Antigua, Guatemala to Paraty and/or Ouro Preto Brazil, Colonia, Uruguay, Cartagena, Colombia, among others, so I may be holding it to an unfair standard.
It sounds like I’m down on Bogotá, and really, I’m not. It’s a big city, and the distribution is such that you are fairly obligated to take taxis at night, some of which will go past parks and woods that will make you wonder if this is not exactly a taxi to your house, but some kind of shortcut, emphasize on the word cut. But you can also take long, long urban strolls down pretty much any avenue (I chose 7th), and see graffiti and street art and museums and many, many places to make photocopies. I never felt unsafe, never really even felt observed, everyone was pretty much minding their own business, except for one very squeezy ride on the ultrafast bus, with a friend of mine from Russia/London, who used to live in Santiago but was then living in Bogotá. We were speaking English, and one of our fellow squeezed passengers chatted with us, too. To the point where we shook his hand and kissed (on the cheek, me) him goodbye when we left. They close off giant parts of the city for bicycling on Sundays, and people really take advantage of it.
But… it’s got that urban grit, and it was much colder than I expected it to be, and also (and this is important) there are two unrelated terminals at the airport (which was undergoing construction) such that if friend A (me) takes Avianca to Bogotá and friend B (whose name actually begins with an R) takes LAN, despite leaving at the same time from Medellín, they will never, ever see each other in the airport, and no matter how many security guards that they explain their plight to ask them if they can’t just call each other on their cellphones, the answer will still be no, because we do not have Colombian cell phones.
At this point you may have forgotten about the 1:1 disgusting to taste ratio meal. Fear not! I have not! We were instructed to go to La Puerta Falsa, to have some kind of breakfast/teatime treat (chocolate completo). And so we did. We got the works! And the works turned out to be: a buttered wonderbread hotdog roll-type thing, an almojábana (see above, awesome), some other bready items, and the piece de resistance, a cup of scalding hot, watery cocoa, which came with it (or in it, if you like) with a piece of cheese-flavored gum. First we tried the cheese on its own. Oh no, too chewy. Then we tried dipping it first into the scalding, watery hot cocoa. Also not so nice. Then we tried crumbling it up in the cocoa itself, and by crumbling, I mean tearing pieces off, like you might with silly putty, approximately. These pieces sat in the bottom, growing stringy, did not milkify the hot cocoa, and were just the right texture so that when you got one in your mouth as you were drinking your first thought was “spit it out spit it out spit it out.”
It turns out, there are also tamales to be had. These people seemed happy with their snack, and at no point looked ready to spit it out, so perhaps we chose unwisely (though to be fair, neither of us eats meat).
All in all, Bogotá yes, for a day or two, go up the hill, see the city, oooh and ahhh. Eat an almojábana, go to the salt cathedral if you must (must you?), take some pictures (cautiously) in Candelaria, pose with the smurfs if you can find them, and go to La Puerta Falsa fully informed of what the breakfast platter comprises. Also, the correlation I made in my mind between Bogotá and Brussels had nothing to do with the presence of the smurfs (or smurf and smurfette) in this plaza. Nor the llamas.
Check out Usaquén, have some soup. Go to the Spanish tapas place where they lock the door after each customer, and everyone seems to know each other. Go to the upscale supermarket where half the milk is lactose-free, and they have fancy tea, and male couples in their 30s predominate. If you eat at the restaurant Patacones, know that this is a giant stretched “dough” made of fried plantains, spread with any manner of topping, and that there are lots of plantains hanging in the restaurant.
Don’t bring a gun on the bus.
And then go to Medellín.
And by the way, if you think you’ve read the expression “cheese-flavored gum” here before, it turns out you’re right. I have spoken briefly about Bogotá before, in this piece that is so full of snark, I had to read it twice. Also mentioned in more detail, the great airport snafu of 2012.
Several years ago, I was in the locker room at the gym, and I must have left my (second-generation, I think) iPod Nano on the bench. When I looked in my pocket for it later, it wasn’t there. I was disappointed at having been so lax about something a bit pricey, and went back to the gym the next day seeing if, perhaps, some honest soul had turned it in.
And Rose, who worked behind the front desk at the time, said that she had the lost-and-found log, but that I should describe the lost item, and when it had gone missing, so she could be sure it was mine. I had lost it the day before, and in English I would say it was blue, which in Spanish is azul. But I thought about it for a minute, and decided it wasn’t quite blue, it was kind of a metallic bluey-turquoise, and so I said, “celeste.” And she checked the log, and sure enough, someone had found a “celeste” iPod the day before, and turned it in. Yay honest gym-goers. And yay me, for drawing a division between azul and celeste, which are essentially, just blue.
Years later, I have painted my living room walls a color that in English I call teal. You have seen that color in the most recent feria report. And this got me thinking about colors. Specifically, celeste and calipso.
Celeste, as you may have guessed, is a color not unrelated to blue. And I had always thought calipso was mint green.
But blue and green are a bit of a continuum, and it’s not clear (at least to me) where one begins and the other one leaves off. What I think is so interesting about this is that in English, we have extra words to describe different kinds of blue “robins’ egg blue, sky blue, light blue etc” and then we can combine colors, like blue-green, or green-blue. And then we have the broad swath of turquoise, which I think we can all agree lies between blue and green. But in Spanish, I have azul, and I have verde (green), and sometimes turquesa (turquoise) then I am stuck with celeste and calipso in between, and I don’t quite know what to do with them.
I originally started out by asking my non Spanish-speaking FB friends what class of thing celeste and calipso might be. My sister guessed that Celeste was an elephant (apparently Babar’s wife), and the most common response for calipso was “music.”
But then this whole long conversation ensued about what they mean, and which color is which, and when something stops being celeste and is just green (or calipso), with Margaret’s husband playing along (but saying that everything that was not solidly blue was calipso) until he got bored with the game. Another friend’s boyfriend (why are we asking men about this, by the way, as isn’t it said that women have millions of colors when men have more like seven?) said that the two are the same color, and I, ever the information hound, was looking up paint colors called calipso to figure out what it was. And I found out that calipso, in addition to being vaguely greeny bluey (or is it bluey greeny), is sometimes also coral. I tossed that out as a statistical outlier.
If you search around re: vocabulary, you find out (which you probably already guessed), that technically, celeste is the color of the sky (as in celestial), which should make it light blue. But if you show someone something turquoise (at least here in Chile), they will tell you it is celeste. I don’t know about you, but my sky is not turquoise, generally speaking. Hmm.
And if you look up calipso, you will find that it is another name for “aguamarina,” which we can only assume is aquamarine, which one would assume is the color of the ocean, but which in English, we take to mean turquoise when it’s in the Carribean, but kind of a dark angry green on Cape Ann, and inky black when you are floating on it on a glarey day on your way to Isla Damas, where you may or may not really feel like throwing up.
But I still thought of calipso as a minty green, which is not really the color of the ocean, except when you consider the frothy part of the top layer of a wave that crashes onto rocks and when the sun hits just right, where the bubbles whip it into the color of a shamrock shake. To further confuse things, the bike brand Bianchi has a signature mint green color on some detailing on the bikes. That color? Celeste.
Finally, R (who can identify himself, or not) decreed that to him, celeste was blue plus white, and calipso was green plus blue (making celeste sky blue, as it should be, and calipso turquoise, which Margaret’s husband corroborates), but we still can’t get a good agreement going here. Ultimately what’s more important than how a word is defined in the dictionary, is how people use it. And to be honest, I still don’t know the difference.
So for now, whenever I have to describe something (like at Pre-Unic, where you can’t handle the items, but have to say what you want, and then pay for it and pick it up at two different locations, but that is an aside), I will say (when describing the Dove deodorant that I would like to purchase), “ese, de tapa celeste, o sea calipso” (that one, with the light blue, I mean mint-green (or is it the other way around) top. Since it seems like nobody really knows what either color means, certainly they’ll understand that.
Though I have to say, the whole thing seems terribly drawn-out. Like this post. But at least (for now, until I change the background) you get to look at a color I no longer know how to name.
Sometimes you will go to the market when you haven’t gone in a while. I was in La Serena last weekend and running around the weekend before, so I didn’t get the chance. But I made up for it this week. The phenomenon that followed harkens back to the mistaken action of going to the supermarket when you are hungry. What took place was this: (in my defense, I usually go to the feria with my panniers, but my bike had a flat, so I went with my granny cart. Lesson learned. Granny cart holds much more than panniers. As I was saying, to wit:
The goods include (but are not limited to):
iceberg lettuce 600 CLP= $1.26
two lemons 300 CLP= $.63
two oranges 300 CLP= $.63
ginger 150 CLP= $.31
beets 600 CLP= $1.26
extra beet greens (free!)
a passion fruit 400 CLP= $.86
2 ears of corn 500 CLP= $1.05
2 kilos of apples 800 CLP= $1.68
a head of broccoli 600 CLP= $1.26
1 head of garlic 150 CLP= $.31
3 onions 400 CLP= $.84
1 giant box of arugula 1,000 CLP= $2.10
1 kilo of tomatoes 500 CLP= $1.05
squash 500 CLP= $1.05
giant bunch of pastilla grapes, which are going out of season (not pictured) 800 CLP= $1.68
Total= 7,000 CLP= about fifteen dollars
Oh, and in the spirit of that overdone American Express commercial takeoff, I leave you with the following:
The look on my face when the property company sees the color I have painted the living room= priceless
I had to estimate the prices of the oranges, lemons and garlic, as I bought them in tandem with other stuff, and I was high on vegetable fumes so I don’t exactly remember how much they cost. There are still berries on sale, which it seems late for, and my beloved pomegranates are coming in. Brussels sprouts are just showing up, and tomatoes are fading in color, but the squash is deepening its hue.
Oh hey, Reddit people. You like veggies? We’ve got veggies. Various feria reports, by month for your veggie-gawking pleasure.
January 2013 (spent $11.66)
September 2012, spent $14
February, 2012 spent $10
More available, explore away.
Oh, variable payment schemes. How you raise my ire (and blood pressure), and give me blog-fodder. Such a winning proposition.
There is a long back story here about a company that asked me to do some work for them, and it turned out to be unpleasant, and so I did the part I’d started and then foisted the rest back upon them for various reasons, including the unpleasantness of the work.
This company, which I shall refer to as the company, offered me a sum of money for a series of pieces, and I accepted a per-piece payment for the piece I did (after I did the work). The crux of the problem was that after I had done said work (calculating that it was a not completely unfair, if low hourly rate), they asked me to then look for a series of photos to accompany the piece. Hmmm. That was not in the initial deal. Other parameters changed as well, such as “make it more like your blog!” yet there was no stylesheet or sample text to work from. Also, my blog is not commercial. I don’t want to sell you anything. Extremely different tone.
I should say that it’s not that I can’t do work I find unpleasant (though that would be nice), it’s just that if I’m going to do that, I’ll get a real office job and wear actual pants while I work and gather around the water cooler and look on bemusedly while people talk about TV shows I haven’t seen. Because even if I get a real job, I’m still probably not going to watch TV all that much (or at all). But I’d get paid enough to buy several TVs, though I’d probably spend it all on Colombian coffee and ugly shoes. But I digress.
The company also asked me to ferret out other writers who might like to do the project (for free, and by the way, this particular request comes to me more often than you’d think), asked me if I would edit, standardize, compile and otherwise manage the admin side (for some unspecified amount of pay). I balked at the extra photo work, and they balked at my reaction (quitting), and we had a very entertaining “misunderstanding”, which I shall detail below. I think this comes from the fact that this company is dipping a toe into tour sales, in addition to whatever fabulous innovative “platform” they are promising (oy, with the platforms, can’t anyone actually create anything new? It’s all just mashups and copycats these days, it seems). The company wants to hire travel writers to generate copy, but doesn’t know thing one about travel writing. (They also don’t know thing two, but that may be because they don’t read Dr. Seuss, and I will get to that later).
Thing one has to do with letting slip out their beliefs on the relative worth of travel writers. For example:
“We are working with some Lonely Planet writers who are sort of the top end when it comes to travel writing.” (paraphrased, emphasis mine)
What’s wrong with this sentence?
You are telling me I am not valuable. Strangely, I do not like this.
You have no idea how much people writing guidebooks make on an hourly basis (hint: ain’t much)
You make the mistake of overlooking the fact that nearly every travel writer, nay, every freelancer, will take high-, medium-, and low-paying jobs. It depends on workflow, general amount of busyness, positioning, and many other personal and professional factors.
But what am I whining about? I did the work, and got paid. End of story, insults be darned. But then! Oh then, the job comes back offered to me again through my handy network of cross-continental travel writers, and this time it pays much more! It came through the pipeline without the company name, but I recognized the task straight away, and confirmed that it is, in fact, the same company.
That’s a bit suspect, no? Here is a project that we will pay X for. Unless we decide to pay Y for it. Or Z.
Here’s an excerpt from the email that sits in my drafts folder, jumping up and down, and saying “send me!”
I recently heard through the travel writer grapevine (and this one is international) that your same project, “XXXXXXXXXXXXX” about (place I know very well) is once again on offer, this time at $Y per piece, which, it seems perhaps redundant (as I’m sure you’ve already thought of this) is a great deal more than you have offered other writers, and in fact, paid me.
I suggest that as you continue your career, you consider people as more than fungible goods, think about how variable pricing and payments reflect on individuals and the businesses they run, and also consider that the world, despite opening borders and international dealings, is a very small place.
Because the second thing the company doesn’t know about travel writing?
Word gets around.
Some friends of mine who work in video, film and sound production here in Chile have a blacklist of people they won’t work with, because they don’t pay on time, or are just a generalized pain in the ass. I won’t publish my list, but it’s beginning to take shape, boy howdy.
One of the English expressions that made my students laugh, back when I used to teach a whole bunch of people from all around the world, was “to fall asleep.” On the one hand, with any luck at all, you are not falling anywhere. On the other hand, there is this sensation of sinking into a dreamy state. Or maybe that’s because of the words we use. (Which came first, the thought or the words?) Drifting off to sleep also sounds nice, a solid raft under you as waters take you to a land called sleep.
Speaking of words we use, in Spanish, we don’t fall, or even drift off to sleep, though we can “stay ourselves asleep” (quedarnos dormidos), but that really refers to keeping to your sleeping state Read more
I’m tired of hearing about encapuchados, those malfeasor, hangers-on to the Chilean student protest movement. It’s not clever, it’s not interesting. Social discontent is important, and I’m not sure what these two years of protests will eventually yield, but I’m pretty sure that exposing hundreds of thousands of people to tear gas because you can’t keep that rock in your hand from launching towards a police officer, or that bottle of paint in your pocket from flying through the air to land on a guanaco (water cannon), is not the solution.
There’s also the issue of how well the police are trained, they have a befuddling reaction, one that usually leads to chaos, confusion, destruction, and in one case, a photojournalist losing the vision in one eye (for which the sentence for the police officer responsible was just lowered, don’t get me started. Story (in Spanish). In short, they don’t seem capable of isolating the “antisocials,” which many people suspect is part and parcel of an infiltration into the student movement to make “them” look bad, and have the civil society at large reject their demands.
So far it’s not working, and every time I’m out there, I see more confederations of workers, people who have nothing to do with education (other than having been educated themselves) out there with signs. Yesterday on my way to the march I met a tween and his mom. She was wiping some breakfast crumbs off his face when I stopped to ask them who he thought was at school that day, and he said, some kids are, but almost everyone either supports the march (passively) or is actually here.
Want to know what the beginning of a protest looks like? Here’s some video I shot yesterday and edited last night.
This is a building I had/have an unnatural affection for. This photo is from a couple of years ago, it had since been vacated (and the restaurant inside, named for the street it is on, moved, strangely, across the street to the street Farnor Velasco). What you see below is what I woke up to this morning. I was sad in a way I didn’t expect. Tears-on-my-eyelashes (and viewfinder) sad. I’m going out later to see what’s left, but the last I saw, they were hacking at the statue on the right’s head with an axe, and it was hanging by something (rebar, maybe?). Ugh.
Watch the slideshow by clicking on the arrow.
Esto es un edificio por lo cual tengo/tenía una atracción desmedida. La foto de arriba es desde hace un par de años. El restaurante llamado 18 se trasladó, raramente a una ubicación cerca, en la calle Farnor Velasco. Lo que se ve abajo, es lo que vi al amanecer. Sentí una tristeza inesperada. La tristeza de pestañas mojadas, y el visor de la cámara también. Salgo en un rato para ver que queda, pero lo último que vi, los bomberos pegaban la estatua del lado derecho con hacha, y este cabezaba, colgado por algo (chuzo quizás?). Chsssss.
Las fotos avanzan apretando la flecha.
A different kind of feria report
“Here you go, gorgeous!”
This is what my casero (the man I buy veggies from at the Saturday and Sunday market) says to me.
He then turns to the 70-something woman beside me and says, “That will be two dollars, beautiful.”
I have been taught and re-taught what it means to be called pretty. First it was desirable, a way to talk about a baby in a carriage, a toddler in a poufy dress, an awkward preteen with hair that refused to stay anywhere, put or non-put, but who still had a sparkle in her eye. Later I was older, and pretty was what people said to a woman if they wanted something from her. For her to like them, for her to accept an invitation to dinner, to drinks.
And then pretty turned hateful. It was said to women to belittle us. To say that the rest of us wasn’t good enough (such a pretty face), or to categorize women into worthwhile or worthless. Tirades like Katie Makkai’s (which is awesome, thought-provoking, resonating and NSFW), told me to reject pretty. It is a word foisted upon me, not big enough to encompass who I am, a fiction sold to make women feel inadequate and strive to be something unnatural.
And then I go to the feria, the fresh market where I live, in Santiago Chile, some 5,000 miles from my family’s original landing spot in the Americas, migrating west from Poland, Russia and England, before I took the show further south.
Que buscas, linda? (What are you looking for, beautiful?)
Hola preciosa, que vas a llevar? (Hey precious, what are you going to buy?)
Mi reina, tengo tomates a cuatrocientos. (My queen, the tomatoes cost 400 pesos (80 cents a kilo).)
And I find I have to rethink pretty again. This is the feria, in Barrio Brasil, a kilometer bike ride from my house in República, downtown Santiago. It is a Titanic life-boat population, mainly women and children, though not particularly upper crust. I have unwashed hair tied into a sloppy ponytail, not in a purposeful, tendrilly way, just grab and go. I’m wearing jeans, and one too-loose jean leg is rolled up so it won’t catch in my bike chain, and this shows my stripy sock, and I’m wearing a boxy turquoise t-shirt I got free from a bike tour I reviewed in Los Angeles last week. And in beauty-conscious, eyelash curling, makeup-wearing Chile, this is nearly unforgiveable, the equivalent of Crocks and pajama pants at the mall.
Yet I’m pretty. And so is the small, grey-haired, woman next to me, her chauchera (coin purse) in hand, and the woman after her, with a kid sitting on the canvas bottom of the cart she pulls behind her. And the pregnant woman who tastes some honeydew a vendor is selling and then picks one to buy. We are all pretty.
And it rushes through my mind, in rapid succession, like a light flicked on and off.
Boo, you may not call me pretty. I am not allowed to enjoy being called pretty.
Pretty is used to encasillarme (limit me, literally “put me in a box”), to diminish my accomplishments, to reduce me to dateable or not dateable. To convince me to buy fruit and vegetables that will wilt before I have a chance to finish them, because I am only one person, and at these prices, it’s hard not to buy too much.
The caseros call us pretty, my queen, beautiful, precious, because it’s good for business. This is a machista (which is different from sexist in that it involves complicity, in that women participate, too) society, and men calling women pretty is part of it. And women enjoying it (or pretending to) is another.
And then I think about how in an egalitarian society, everyone can and does do everything. And that I don’t live in an egalitarian society, and that is troubling in a million ways, with women’s rights being a small, scoff-worthy smidgen of the conversation. And this is capital W- wrong, but it also makes my role here much clearer. It means that when a new friend offers to walk me to my door because he is a man and I am a woman, he is saying, please, just for a second, let me be a knight. And I am saying, ok. Just for this one second, and then I open the door to my apartment, independent and completely capable of walking home alone, but also capable of letting someone “help,” if only for the time it takes to get to where I live.
One of the roles many women have in Chile (as in many places), is cooking. Your mother (if you are Chilean) makes the best humitas, charquicán, cazuela and leche asada you have ever eaten. She goes to the feria, and she buys food to chop, slice, cut, sautée, simmer, fry, boil and serve. Or maybe it’s your grandmother, or your aunt who goes to the feria. Whichever woman it is, she will be called pretty while she is there. Friends of mine (men and women) call their mothers to get the right proportions of corn to squash to beans for porotos granados, and this resonates with me, because I call my mother (or sister) on the phone, thousands of miles away, to find out how many tablespoons of ice water to put in the pie crust dough, or what the purpose of seltzer is in the matzoh balls.
It’s not that men can’t cook (my father was superb in the kitchen), it’s just that in many places, and especially here, women take care of feeding people. And this is the dynamic we’re part of when we go to the feria and when they call us “linda.”
There are so many things about how the Spanish language works that ruffle my fur. Women alone get their own adjective, but when mixed with men, they/we disappear (only women-ellas son altas, only men- ellos son altos, men and women, ellos son altos, as if the women didn’t exist in the sentence at all). My famous example of my gynecologist asking me “when I took ill” to mean when I had my first period (cuándo te enfermaste?). The fact that I can’t just go out with “a friend,” I have to go out with a “female friend” or “male friend,” as if this bit, the person’s gender must be known, or the sentence may as well not be said. And if it’s a mixed group of friends, they are all magically male, mis amigos.
I have thought about the ways in which Spanish keeps women apart, or maybe down, or maybe just apart, and for a long time, the not-really-flirty piropos (flirtatious comments) at the market came to me aggressive and smarmy, equal to the ones from strangers who saw me running in the park and hissed preciosa in my direction. I still believe that random strangers should keep their mouths shut regarding my appearance because hey, who asked you, I am trying to be alone here, and what makes you think I care? But I also have come to think about the piropos of the fruit and vegetable vendors as meaning something more than “you’re cute.”
What I take from the men at the feria saying that the mothers, aunts, grandmothers, godmothers, sisters, daughters and I are pretty is the following: It means, “I am happy you are here, and buying fresh fruit and vegetables for yourself and whomever shares space with you.” or ” I am glad that the weather is nice, and that you have a smile on your face, and that you didn’t knock anything over with your bike and panniers (in my case).” It means “I remember you from last week, and the week before” or “I haven’t seen you in a while.” It’s shorthand for, “Nice day, isn’t it,” and “Please come again.”
I take it to mean, this shopping, this waking up early, this talking to me about what I’m selling, and telling me it looks delicious, this treating me like I’m a person too, and not just a faceless entity whose early-rising, hard-working hands move the food from field to table, this iteration of you, this facet of you, I find lovely.
And I find that despite many years of teachings that instruct that I should reject the word pretty, I can’t take umbrage with that, because (when I let myself,) I find myself lovely, too.
And I’m not undoing 200 years (or more) of feminism by not screwing up my face and being mean to someone (like my friend who walked me home the other day) who was doing something to be nice.
And the man from whom I bought cucumbers, spinach and cilantro placed it all in my cloth bag so as not to sully the stunning country that I live in, and told me I was beautiful, and the woman beside me gorgeous. I turned to her and said, “I guess we all wake up beautiful on Saturdays.” And she laughed.
And the man smiled, and said, “exquisite. And on Sundays, too.”
p.s. This is absolutely not an invitation to talk about whether or not you find me pretty. I prefer it when you talk about me behind my back. Really.
You may recall that not that long ago, I went to Suriname. I was thinking about this today because I really want to go to French Guiana. If you know your geography, that’s not a free-association, so much as it is a geographic connection.
But despite the capital city of French Guiana being called Cayenne (sounds tasty), the airport is called Rochambeau. Which, as it happens, is also what rock-paper-scissors is called in San Francisco, where my sister and her family now live. Which makes me think, is that how they get to decide who lands first at the airport at Rochambeau? Seems unlikely, what with French precision, and the few air connections French Guiana actually has with anyone, which mainly seem to be through Martinique and France, which, by the way, is going to make my visiting there more complex, though not impossible, I hope.
So I have no idea why rock-paper-scissors is called Rochambeaux (notice spelling difference) in San Francisco. But this leads me to a story about my ex-boss (also a foreigner), and our Chilean coworkers, back from when I worked in the administrative-educational part of a language institute.
One day, there was yet another bizarre request to our small team, this one from a television producer, who wanted us to do language coaching for a live news program. The project came to the institute, bounced to the academic department, and the offer went to my boss. He then sent out an email to the rest of the team entitled: Catchypoon.