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On March 29th two years ago, there was a giant bread conundrum. Giant! People were rushing from store to store, begging for bread. Do you have bread? Hay pan? Only sliced bread. Pan de molde? Yeah, sliced bread. Bueno, es lo que hay. Okay, I guess it will do.

As I have a memory for dates like a sieve (good thing I write so much), it would be noteworthy for me to remember an exact date. Yet I do. This is because March 29th is the Día del Joven Combatiente (Day of the fighting youth, more or less) here in Chile, also referred to less than affectionately by Pinochet-supporters and other diehards for orderly behavior as the Día del Joven Delinquente (Day of the delinquent youth). Ahem.

The Día del Joven Combatiente is the annually observed remembrance day of the death of two young students, martyred in 1985, who are considered symbols of opposition to the dictatorship. Though it’s been almost 25 years, to say there’s a bit of a to do about it would be a grand understatment. Universities (the conflictive ones, like nearby ARCIS) closed, downtown buildings shuttered, in the case of the close-to-my house plazuela (tiny plaza, like a pocket park in NYC), the police booth smashed in. It’s a great time to get teargassed, hold a lemon to your mouth as a supposed antidote to teargas, to take pictures of rioting, get hit in the head with a bottle, and mostly, to just leave work early and head home.

So what’s all this about bread? As I have mentioned before, the national bread of choice is the marraqueta, or pan batido, a fluffy french-bread-with crust, an overgrown dinner roll which Chileans seem to eat nearly as much of as humanly possible. In fact, Chileans are second in the world for bread consumption, losing out only to Germany. In Chile, every man woman and child eats 211 pound of bread per year. That’s 9.25 ounces of bread per person, per day (slightly less in años bisiestos (leap years)). The marraqueta, pictured below is highly prized, deadly delicious, and best purchased fresh, or even warm if possible.


It also, like French bread, has no preservatives. This means that if you buy it in the morning, by the time you get it home in the evening, it’s a bit añejo (old). So people prefer to buy their morning bread in the morning, and their evening bread in the evening.

When civil unrest breaks out, as it occasionally does, on or around Sept. 11th (the day of the golpe militar, or military coup, though this has been less since Pinochet died in 2006), on March 29th and on some other assorted dates I’m probably forgetting about, plus the giant demonstrations that occasionally break out like the amazing one where 900,000 students went on strike for educational reform (called la revolución de los pinguinos for the traditional uniforms the kids wear), people prefer to be home than at, oh, I don’t know, ground zero, La Moneda (the presidential palace). So when protests break out, businesses close, people pour into the street, and everyone is out there looking for bread for their evening meal.

La Moneda, with very nonviolent protesters from the Civil Registry, on work-stoppage (not exactly a strike) for pay raises and better working conditions, October 2, 2008.

So here’s the situation. Your normal post-work routine involves buying bread. You are released from work early to avoid you getting caught in the protests, so you go to buy bread. But since bread is supposed to be fresh, and people usually buy it after work, the stores don’t yet have fresh bread in stock when the you arrive looking for it several hours early. Of course, this is a predictable situation, and maybe the stores could pressure the bakeries to deliver the bread a little earlier, but they sort of have their schedules set and anyway, Chileans don’t generally excel at planning ahead, and yeah, you want bread? We got sliced bread, which is considered inferior in every way.

Which makes you realize just how culturally based some of our expressions are. Try to explain “it’s the greatest invention since sliced bread” in this situation, and watch you don’t get a botellazo (hit in the head with the bottle, my explanation of the etymology here). Because some things just don’t translate.