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Because Margaret asked, and because I am a simple marionette that responds to such requests, minus the weird chin joints and freaky strings and a giant T above my head, I will now write, as requested, something that I remember from my first days in Chile. I highly suggest that out-of-country bloggers write their first impressions of their home country, and tell me, so I can link to you. If you’re in Chile, Margaret will link to you, too.

Go forth and blather!

Me: First, you can go here and read musings about the early linguistic challenges in general. But here’s a very particular thing that happened to me on my first day that represented a unique linguistic challenge, where the problem was more “I don’t speak cellphone” than “I don’t speak Chilean.”

I had arrived in Chile, been picked up by my future employer and deposited down at my hostel on Cienfuegos in Barrio Brasil, the same neighborhood in which I now live. Later in the day, I took a (very) long walk up to my future office, over Cerro Santa Lucia and up into the easternmost reaches of Providencia. While I was meeting everyone in the office, it came up that they would like to have a way to get in touch with me, and that the best way (for them) would be for me to get a cellphone, specifically one from the company Bell South (now Movistar, and the change happened while I was away one summer and when I came back, I kept on reading my phone as saying Moviestar. And I wondered when I’d become so popular).

Ever the overachiever, I went to Movistar right that day, my first in Chile, to purchase a phone. I decided on a pay-as-you-go, a term I’d vaguely heard in the United States before (this was 2004, and I had held a cellphone once at this late juncture in time, and had never owned one). This, I discerned was a “pre-pago” (pre-paid) phone. Fair enough. So I talked to the sales rep, chose the cheapest phone and then began to quiz him on issues that might come up with the phone. Since I had never had a cellphone in the states, I didn’t get that the price might be different to call from one company to the next, or to a landline. I also didn’t know how to say landline in Spanish.

Well, he explained, you’re Bell South. If you call someone from Bell South it costs this much (insert crazy high price here) If the other person has a phone from Entel, it costs this much (insert even wickedly higher price, something like 50 cents a minute), if you call someone from (name of other company, no longer remember what it would have been), it will also cost that. I had seen these other companies, so I knew what he was talking about. But, he said, if you call a (sounded like) “refija,” it only costs this much. Wow! I want to call a “refija,” I thought to myself. But what’s that? He hunted down an office phone, yanked its cord out of the wall and showed it to me. I wrote down in my little notebook “refija=office phone.” He looked at my scribbles, grabbed my pen and put in a tiny d in between the e and the f. “Red fija,” or “fixed web.” Oh! a landline. I scribbled out “office phone” and wrote in “land line.” “Lan lean-ay, he said.” Right, I said, “lan lean-ay.”

Later came the issue of voice mail, which I also didn’t know how to say in Spanish. So I started my elaborate scenario. Okay. So I buy the phone, I charge it, and I make friends, and they call me. But me? I don’t answer the phone. What happens?

It rings, he said. Then you get a llamada perdida. (which I translated as “lost call” for months until I was told that in English we say “missed call”)

No, I said. It rings and rings, and my friend’s don’t hang up.

Why don’t they hang up? He asked.

Because they want to tell me something, I said.

and I paused, hoping he’d figure out what I was getting at. But there was silence.

So I tried, Is there like a voice, a lady, something in my phone so my friends can say something and later I can hear it?

Buzón de voz? he said.

Bingo! Voice mail.

I later found out that Chileans pretty much never leave voice mail, preferring to let you know that they called by the “llamada perdida” message you get on your phone. This was part of our disconnect. Part linguistic, and part cultural.

We had a long game of charades and circumlocution the guy and I, and I later realized that that was probably the hardest he’d ever had to work for his paltry commission. At the time I didn’t realize how scarce really good, patient customer service is here in Chile (or anywhere, really), but I had to say, it made me feel like an absolute Moviestar.

Until someone stole my phone out of my backpack as I walked down the street and I had a whiny fit, and called the person who had it, and claimed to have just paid about 20 bucks for it, and wanted me to pay her the same to get it back. It was experiencing technical difficulties by that point, and first I recommended that she go out and find a rubberband to hold the crappy battery in place, since it often slipped from its contacts and the phone lost power. Then I beseeched her to please return it to me, out of the goodness of her heart (and because I suspected it was she that had stolen it, and had never actually paid the 10,000 CLP) and she demanded the cash again. And then I suggested she do something very impolite with the telephone, and hung up.

Because by that point my Spanish had really improved.

Postscript, because now I see how this is done:

And read these other participants too, if you will! (and still gunning for non-Chile entries if anyone is willing!)

Read more…
Margaret at Cachando Chile: First Impressions of Santiago Chile (Santiago, 1991)

Clare at Clare Says: First Impressions (of Chile) (Rancagua, 1996)

Vicki at Futalandia: Chile September 2006- First Impressions (Santiago and Chile’s deep south, 2006)

Lydia at Just Smile and Nod: First Impressions of Chile (Santiago and Valparaíso)

Emily at Don’t Call Me Gringa: First Impressions (arrived in Santiago, June 2005)

Abby at Abby’s Line: Thoughts on my First Day in Chile (Santiago, January 2007)

Sarah at whatsarahsays (Santiago, August 2007 (I think))

Still live at stilllifeinsouthamerica (Santiago, 2009)