Culture Between Culture

“What is South Africa like?”

This is a question I get asked often. The most recent occurrence was when I made the acquaintance of an economist from Spain a few weeks ago. He had recently become my student, and he was interested to know more about me and my origins.

Upon hearing the question I leaned back in my chair and looked wistfully at the wall, which was sadly lacking a window, and pretended to conjure up happy childhood memories. Ideally I would have lit up a cigarette just then, but I don’t smoke and we were in a sealed, windowless room. After a pause I took a breath in preparation for the speech I always give on such occasions.

Smoking
South Africa? Yeah, I could tell you stories about South Africa.

“South Africa is beautiful,” I said, oozing smugness. “If you get the opportunity you should absolutely go there.” For lack of a cigarette I tented my fingertips in front of my lips and continued. “South Africa has everything. Everything. My home country has some of the best beaches in the world. We have deserts, and forests, and farmland, and some mountains. We have cage diving, and horse racing, and safaris. We’ve got trekking, and cycling, and one of the biggest running cultures on earth.”

I paused, as scripted, and turned to lock eyes with my student. “Does it rain, in Spain?” I asked, pointing an accusing finger.

“Yes,” said he, almost cowering, “but mainly on the-”

“I’d wager you’ve never felt anything like a Highveld storm,” I interjected. “Those summer torments will roll through your core. The thunder cracks will shake you to your very bones!” If I had a mustache I would have twirled it.

“And what is the capital of South Africa?” asked my eager student.

“A fine question,” I replied, going off script. “See, unlike your country, South Africa has, in fact, three capitals.”

My student leaned forward, intrigued. “Three capitals…” he whispered.

“Yes. Pretoria, Cape Town, and… and a third one!”

“But why would a country need three? What is the purpose?”

I shook my head in mock pity, but it was mostly to buy time to think. “My dear fellow, each capital serves a very special purpose. You see you have Pretoria, which is the capital of… law, and then you have Cape Town, which is the… the political capital. And then you have the third one, which is the capital of… diamonds! We have diamonds, you know.”

I had hoped that the mention of diamonds would continue to mesmerize, but I suspected the spell was breaking.

“What is the population of South Africa?” queried the man.

“Millions,” I said. “Absolutely millions. Did you hear what I said about the storms, though?”

“And the GDP. What is the GDP of your country?”

“Oh, you know, the… usual.” I was losing ground fast. “But perhaps we could talk about South Africa another day. Right now I want to talk about gerunds and-”

“Sorry, one last question-”

“Darn!”

“-but what percentage of the country is made up of white South Africans?”

“Yes I’d love to answer but I think we’re out of time. The first class is only eight minutes, after all…”

Leo Angry
What’s with all the questions anyway?!

The truth is, Dear Reader, that there’s an awful lot I don’t know about my own country. I haven’t properly lived there for some time, and now it feels as if South Africa is in red shift, moving further and further away from me into the void of memory. I am more in touch with the news in Chile and the United States than I am with what’s going on in South Africa, and when it comes to geography, you can just forget about it. At times, I will meet another South African, and inevitably I will ask them where they’re from. If they say something like Ellisras I will draw an immediate blank and change the subject. I know nothing about South African geography.

On the other hand, if I meet someone from the United States I will inevitably ask them where they’re from and if they say something like Missouri I will say “Oh that’s the ‘Show me’ state, right?” I know more about North America than I do my own country.

General knowledge aside, there’s also my general outward behaviour. More recently I have noticed a certain inter-nationality in my personality. My accent has certainly changed. I say “Yeah” a lot, and I notice that I say words like “job” and “hot dog” with an American accent. I forget how South Africans spell things like tyre, cosy, and specialise (although as I write this, these words are underlined in red, so I’m pretty sure I’m on the right track). These days, when I say “braai” I am conscious that it is an affectation, because my first impulse is to say “barbecue” or “asado.” When I accidentally bump into someone, my first reflex is to say “Ay perdón!” I’m trying to hold onto “Shame,” though, mostly because no other word quite fills that gap. But I am aware of when I do say it, because non-native English speakers might become self-conscious if they think I’m literally shaming them.

So I fear that I may be slowly oozing out of the mould of a South African, and I might not be able to slot right back into place when I return. But if I’m changing away from South African, then what am I becoming?

Snow
Here’s me in snow. That’s not very South African at all.

I’m certainly not Chilean. Gosh no. I battle enough with just the language, let alone the popular culture and the politics. I am friends with expats who have lived here for years, and they still haven’t been able to craft a comfortable expat-shaped hole for themselves. Sure, they’ve got comfortable lives, but some of these friends have told me that they don’t quite feel as if they have been accepted by the culture. I have many friends from the United States, but I don’t believe the US is a place that I could call home. For one thing, my accent sticks out. They all think I’m British.

So I’m starting to think that I don’t fit in anywhere, and funnily enough, many of my friends feel the same way. Those of us who have chosen to live outside of their home countries tend to agree that going back home is not easy, and neither is forging a new life in their new environment. But where we do fit in perfectly is among each other. I tend to get along well with other expats. The jokes are similar, as are our perspectives. I also have a pretty good idea of our collective population and per capita income.

Culture can be a difficult thing to pin down. Not everyone can be classified according to their country of origin. Look closely at any society and you will find running through it a shadow culture. A culture that flows between the rocks of nationality and race. A group of people who find familiarity within each other, but who have trouble defining who they are. I don’t have a name for it, but I guess this is the group that I’m a part of. So I’ll never stop telling people that I’m a South African, but at least for the time being I’m happy being a part of the culture between cultures.

Corner Shop
Life in another language.

 

Breaking the Bond

I’ve always admired James Bond. He’s everything I aspire to be: Smart, athletic, Sean Connery, witty. Sure, the face of James Bond has changed over the years, but there are some traits that have persisted in every iteration of the man, and which have come to embody the heart of manliness: Never show weakness, get the girl, be the alpha male.

James Bond is the ideal man, the man’s man, and in my quest to be like him I have fallen far, far short. I have failed to capture the spirit of masculinity that the man’s man encapsulates, and I think the reason for that is because I’ve started to realise that being James Bond isn’t very fun at all. In fact, unless you really are doing Her Majesty a secret service, I think we could do with far fewer James Bonds in the world. It strikes me that being a man’s man must be quite restrictive. It is my recommendation, then, that men should have a go at stepping out of their masculinity, at slackening their grip on the idea of what it means to be a “real man.” And here I make my case in a list entitled:

Six Reasons to Step Out of Your Masculinity

1.) It’ll make you more creative

A man’s man has always got to be thinking on his feet, but he can’t allow his thoughts to wander into the realm of whimsy. When a man’s man encounters a problem, he thinks about how a real man will overcome it. He shies away from ideas that could challenge his manhood.

But allow the masculine mind to journey into non-masculine territory, and suddenly the mental walls begin to soften. Previously-uncomfortable thoughts are given the freedom to clash and merge and produce brand new and interesting ideas.

Picture the scene: The man’s man is running late to a dinner party, yet his tuxedo is covered in blood, and he lost his backup blazer when he unexpectedly had to jump from an aircraft to avoid certain death. What can he do?

Well, the man’s man would surely sneak up on another dinner guest on the way to the party, pacify him with the butt of a revolver (or a well-timed judo chop to the trapezius), and steal his clothes. While this is effective, it’s unnecessarily aggressive for a dinner engagement.

But a man who is comfortable enough to relax his masculinity might fashion a toga out of a table cloth instead, arrive on time with a grin on his face, and regale the other dinner guests with the hilarious tale of how your tuxedo got ruined while you were unsuccessfully trying to figure out how to make beetroot salad. Oh dear. How embarrassing. You’re not the deft gent everyone thought you were, but now you’re the life of the party and everyone likes you, and no one gets their vertebrae damaged.

Indiana Jones
“Did you… did you just take a swing at me? Also, why is there blood on your clothes?”

 

2.) It makes you more empathetic

James Bond is famous for always following the A, B, Cs: Always Be Cmanly. A man’s man always needs to dominate the room. He is the alpha, and he cannot afford to slip up lest he loses his social standing. One misstep, one wrong word, and his peers will judge him poorly. His mind is always at work, and with any social interaction he must be aware of his manliness at all times. But as soon as the effort of Always Being Cmanly is relaxed, the preoccupation with oneself is no longer of tantamount importance, and a man can start to mould himself into his surroundings.

Picture the scene: The man’s man is attending a dinner party to gain intelligence on a wealthy Middle Eastern oil baron. He has brought along a woman to act as his cover. Not only is she a highly trained assassin, but she is also a former supermodel. Normally she laughs at our man’s quips, but tonight something is off. She’s not talkative, and she seems moody. When she doesn’t touch her pâté de fois grois, man’s man asks her what her problem is. She mumbles something about stomach cramps. The man’s man knows what to do, and he springs into action. Unnoticed by the oil baron, our man of action leans over and whispers into her ear: “Just man up, okay?” The assassin-model clenches her jaw and flawlessly completes her part of the mission. The plans for the nuclear bomb are obtained, and a few anonymous guards have had their lives silently cut short. After completion of the mission, the assassin-model is oddly cold towards the man’s man, despite his helpful advice.

However, a man who is less concerned with his own social position, and more interested in the lives of others, might have taken a different course of action. He might have approached the oil baron’s wife and surreptitiously beseeched her for some chocolate and a copy of her favourite magazine. The wife would quickly cotton on and lead the assassin-model into her private room for better care, which is exactly where the plans to the nuclear bomb are kept. The mission is a success, the assassin-model has made a friend for life in the oil baron’s wife, and no one lost their lives. All thanks to empathy.

Shaving Legs
Shaving your legs helps you understand other people who shave their legs.

4.) It makes you a better conversationalist

Mr Bond is a master of persuasion. He can keep any villain talking while he manages to pick the lock on his handcuffs and swiftly incapacitate the guard holding a gun to his head. It’s pretty impressive stuff. Yet in the real world, a real man’s ability to talk about imminent death has only limited usefulness.

Picture the scene: The alpha male attends a barbecue with his new girlfriend. The girlfriend’s kid brother goes over to talk to him. The brother is in art school, and he’s talking about a musical called Hamilton which he wants to see. While the kid’s words wash over the man of action, he is scanning the area for potential threats. When he notices a lull in the conversation, he looks the kid dead in the eye and tells him about the gun that he’s got strapped to his leg. The girlfriend’s family kindly ask the man’s man to leave.

But had the man’s man been less shy about engaging in new and unusual experiences, he might have spoken at length about the musical, as well as it’s socio-political significance in contemporary society, or about musicals in general. The conversation continues, and suddenly he’s bought tickets for himself and the kid brother, and then before he knows it the girlfriend is asking him if he wants to spend Christmas with her.

Departed
“Excuse me sir, they’re singing about the founding of America. Could you please stop yelling ‘I’ll never fall for your tricks’?”

 

5.) You cry, and it feels wonderful

Real men don’t cry. They only seek vengeance. A real man feels only two emotions – anger and justice. When a man’s man becomes overwhelmed, he crushes bad guys and pounds his emotions down, down, down into a dark place inside himself where emotions go to die. And if that doesn’t work, he turns to expensive scotch and disposable women. It’s a dark spiral of self-destruction which might add an element of drama to an action film, but it does not do any favours to the man’s man in everyday life.

Here is a true secret about myself: My favourite thing to do on a Sunday is to curl up on the couch and watch movies with emotional triggers, and then cry. It’s terrifically cathartic. I become weepy at the drop of a hat. Even a well-made commercial can set me off, or a 40-second dog video. But by the time I slide into bed at night I feel fantastically refreshed and I sleep like a baby. I don’t claim to be particularly adept at talking about my feelings, but it’s something I’m working on. And allowing myself to cry on occasion is a big help when it comes to introspection.

127 Hours
This scene, at the end of 127 Hours, absolutely finished me.

 

6.) Your confidence skyrockets

You will hardly find a more confident man in popular culture than in James Bond himself. The man is so self-assured. He always knows what to say, who to talk to, and where to go. He never simply throws up his hands and says “I just don’t know.” It’s one of the many characteristics that makes Bond so attractive.

But it occurs to me that James Bond hardly ever finds himself in unfamiliar territory. Even when he’s at the mercy of his nemesis, on the brink of being dropped into a shark tank, he is still firmly within the realm of espionage and intrigue. This is a language that Bond speaks fluently.

But picture the scene: Bond is off duty, and has developed a budding romance with a school teacher. Not his usual type, but she’s attractive and he wants to see where this will go. One day, Bond tracks her down at the school where she works. It’s an elementary school with crayon drawings on the noticeboards. Bond steps into the classroom and greets the small patch of 6-year-olds who are all seated quietly on the floor while the teacher-girlfriend reads them a story. Bond leans down and whispers something profoundly smooth into the teacher’s ear. Something like, “I got us a reservation at El Bistro Sophistique at six o’ clock.”

The teacher flushes, and swoons, and needs to leave the room to splash some water onto her face, leaving Bond alone with the small patch of 6-year-olds. As soon as she’s gone, one child steps up and violently blows his nose directly into the fabric of Bond’s very expensive tuxedo jacket. I don’t know why he’s wearing a tuxedo jacket to an elementary school, but now he is totally flummoxed. He can’t very well strike a child. And besides, the damage is done. More children begin to fling paint onto him, and Bond finds himself completely out of his element. He’s angry but doesn’t know how to handle his emotions because he taught himself never to cry. He wants to break things but he doesn’t want to look weak in front of his new girlfriend. He wants to impress her with the way he handles children, but he doesn’t know how, and his life has suddenly become a shambles.

I’m not saying that stepping out of your masculinity will give you an instinct for handling absurdly naughty children, but it will definitely make you feel comfortable in every new environment. When you stop trying to conform to the idea of a real man’s man, you become open to experiences outside of your comfort zone, and you learn to handle them with grace. Having the courage to look vulnerable is admirable, and, (to me at least), it can be seen as a form of confidence.

Purple Dress
Also, you get the best stories when you drop your agenda.

 

The benefits of moving away from conventional ideas of masculinity are numerous. This list is hardly comprehensive, but it is highly subjective. To me, the idea of conforming to society’s expectations of manliness is claustrophobic. It’s like squeezing myself into a coffin. But when I act outside of these expectations I feel marvelously free. Also, people tend to like me, so I think I’m heading in the right direction.

I think that jealously clinging to conventional ideas of masculinity carries with it a certain level of fear. The fear of stepping outside the oppressive coffin of masculinity is dangerous, and not just to the manly men within it. June is LGBT Pride month, which means that celebrations and marches are happening all over the world. In a lot of progressive countries, these events are celebrations of pride and diversity. But, sadly, in most other countries, these are marches for basic human rights. Now, I don’t belong to the LGBT community, so I’ve got no place speaking on their behalf, but I do think it’s important to at least extend a hand across the divide. If one side stops being scared, then the other side won’t need to be.

James Bond Drag
It’s important to remember that James Bond is played by an actor who went to drama school, and who makes a living by dressing up and being silly.

The Bridge Builder – A Bureaucratic Fable

A man stepped out into the wild and surveyed the world at large

He knew what needed to be done, because he was the Man in Charge.

His shoes were polished perfectly, and his hair was cut pristine,

His tie was neatly in its place, and his jaw was shaven clean.

His shirt was tailored to his build, his suit was grey and bland,

And he wore expensive sunglasses as he gazed across the land.

He saw a separation, that couldn’t be denied,

Two towns were being kept apart due to a great divide.

The Man in Charge knew what to do, and he began to sing,

If we put a bridge right here, then that’ll be just the thing.”

Volunteers came from far and wide, but no one had the stuff.

They said that they could build a bridge, but they just weren’t good enough.

Then out the shadows stepped a man who had been standing by,

I know what you want,” he said, “and let me tell you I’m your guy.”

The man was strong and able, and his hands were rough and worn.

He’d been building bridges ’round the world since before you or I were born.

The Bridge Builder demanded that the bridge be strong and thick

He wanted reinforcement in every pillar, and quality in every brick.

Money was no object, only the very best would do,

He demanded the plans be double checked, and he interviewed the crew.

The Man in Charge, meanwhile, didn’t want a single penny gone astray

So he employed an Overseer to keep embezzlement at bay.

The Bridge Builder set to work, in the best way that he could.

He cleared the land and dug some holes, and planted stone and wood.

He’d done this a hundred times before, he was a master of his craft

He had intimate knowledge of every screw, and bolt, and shaft.

He was careful with his calculus, he measured every foot,

And at the end of every day he was satisfied with his output.

As time went by The Overseer began to be afraid,

He wasn’t doing the very thing for which he was being paid.

There was no corruption that he could see, which made him kind of nervous,

The Man in Charge had put him there to perform a special service.

So as time went by the pressure rose, and the Overseer had to act

He found a problem that wasn’t there, and with it he attacked.

One day he found the Bridge Builder, and whispered in his ear

The blueprints call for three supports, but look what we have here,

If my eyes are to be trusted, you’ve planted only two.

That goes against the plans, my friend, and I’m afraid that just won’t do.”

The Bridge Builder nodded once, but he was entirely unfazed,

Your eyes do not deceive you,” he said, “your observation should be praised.

For according to my calculations, three pillars would be excessive

I’ve reduced the cost by vast amounts, which I think is quite impressive.”

The Overseer saw his chance, and he pounced with all his might,

But you haven’t followed the rules we set, and I don’t think that is right.

You’ve deviated from the plan, so I’m giving you a fine,

You’d better sort this out right now, else I’ll continue to malign.

So the project came to a halt, as the Bridge Builder went to court.

The delay was quite expensive, and his budget came up short.

It was a convoluted process which the Bridge Builder couldn’t comprehend

But he filed all the paperwork and saw it to the legal end.

No corruption was discovered, and no fine was to be paid

But by then the bridge in question was hopelessly delayed.

The due date was approaching fast, and he took all the help that he could find

The Bridge Builder pulled out all the stops, but still he fell behind.

And when the deadline came and went, the bridge was not completed.

The Overseer pounced again, saying, “Our agreement is deleted.

You failed to keep your word, so we shan’t pay you a cent,

All I can do is reimburse you for the money already spent.

The Bridge Builder shook his head, for there was nothing to be done,

The time wasted was priceless, the money gained was none.

So with heavy heart he packed his things, and went back to whence he came

His pride had been quite tarnished, he’d lost most of his fame.

 

The Man in Charge stepped into the wild to survey what had been done,

An incomplete bridge lay decaying in the sun.

His money had been wasted, but what was he to do?

The only logical solution, was to start the bridge anew.

He put the call out once again to find a builder with some skill

A new contract would be drawn up, the townsfolk would foot the bill.

And as builders from far and wide were vying for a place

The Man in Charge was satisfied, he had a smile upon his face.

For although some time had been lost, and some money had been spent,

Everything was in its place, he’d kept track of every cent.

The people in the towns could sleep peacefully tonight

Knowing that the Man in Charge had done exactly what was right.

Everyone had done their jobs, and honesty was key

Business was conducted openly for everyone to see.

In the end, the two towns remained distinctly quite divided

But the Man in Charge was confident that his decisions hadn’t been misguided.

Bridge

 

 

 

 

Call Me Crazy

I’m not much of an army man, but I did own a pair of camo pants back in the nineties. I’ve also read a few books about the army. Maybe seen a war film or two. I’ve also killed more people in computer games than I’d care to think about. Point is, my army experience has taught me a lot. Above all, it has taught me a little something about insanity. I’ve read about men driven to death by their madness, who died gazing boldly into the abyss of the human heart, muttering about what a horror it is. But I don’t want to talk about the extreme edges of the mind. I want to talk about the insanity of the everyday. I want to talk about the madness that lies in you. And if, when I’m done, you want to go ahead and call me crazy, then I’d very much appreciate it.

Catch-22

One of my most immersive militaristic escapades involved my reading of the book Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I was too young, then, to fully understand what I was getting myself into, but that book did teach me the meaning of insanity.

I’m sure you know what a catch-22 is. But if you don’t, I’ll tell you: A catch-22 is a conflicting situation out of which there is no escape. The whole, “needing a job to get experience, but needing experience to get a job” thing is a common catch-22.

In the novel, Heller outlines the definitive catch-22:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to.

What this means is that a sane person knows they’re crazy. A crazy person doesn’t. So calling yourself crazy is the sign of a sane mind.

Kids these days. They say things like, “I’m crazy, I know.” But the truth is, we’re all at least a little bit crazy. I don’t think any of us truly has the capacity to self-diagnose our behaviour as “crazy.” The best we can do is to realise when things outside of ourselves, such as situations or other people, deviate from our expectations of “normal.” Carly Rae Jepson comes to mind. She’s the one who sang that catchy song, Call Me Maybe. I guess Carly Rae Jepson was being a little bit reckless when she gave her phone number to someone she didn’t really know, but at least she had the wherewithal to identify it as such. I mean, she’s right, her behaviour was outside that of what might be considered normal. But what is “normal”? Another thing I learned from my time doing army things, is that “normal”, literally, does not exist.

Call Me Maybe
That twist at the end, though…

 

The Jaggedness Principle

My second military lesson was something I picked up in the US Air Force in the 1940s. Or, rather, when I learned about something that had happened in the US Air Force in the 1940s. There was war on the wind, and the Yanks needed a way to cut costs and increase efficiency. One way to do this was to design one standard cockpit that could accommodate the average fighter pilot. That way, important tax dollars wouldn’t be wasted on calibrating each cockpit to each pilot’s physical dimensions. A slurry of measurements were taken from a group of over 4 000 pilots in order to determine the perfect shape of an average fighter pilot. And do you know, Dear Reader, how many of those measured pilots were able to comfortably fit within the newly designed one-size-fits-all cockpit?

No one. Not an one.

This curious phenomenon is known as the Jaggedness Principle. Despite the cool name, it has almost nothing to do with the Rolling Stones, and everything to do with maths. Take a collection of measurements from a group of people, and no single individual in the group will match all the measurements. The average person does not exist.

Mick Jagger.jpg
Sir Mick Jagger doesn’t fit in anywhere. And that’s okay because neither do you.

I’m thankful that I came out of the army alive and more knowledgeable than before I went in. For one thing, my military experience has taught me that no one is normal, and everyone is at least a little bit crazy. But I guess one thing the army hasn’t taught me is what to do with this knowledge. I suppose we need to stop trying so hard to fit in, because the maths tells us that we never will. At the same time, be content to be crazy, because it’s the sane thing to do.

It feels wonderful
Rose Darko, my favourite cinematic mother.

Lost in Traducción

I was uncool today.

You see, in protest against the cold I’d bought myself a hot water bottle, and in celebration I texted my friend to tell her about it. I was caught up in the moment and decided to use the Spanish word guaton instead of “water bottle.” My friend was quick to point out that guaton means “fat person.” The word I was looking for was guatero.

Guatero
This is a guatero
Guaton
This is a guaton

As most of my readers will know, I am quite a cool guy. Too often, my friends will approach me in the street and say, “Hey Michael, you’re quite a cool guy.”

It happens everywhere: When I’m at parties, when I’m on my way to work, when I’m leaning against other people’s parked motorbikes. However, there is a specific time when I’m decidedly uncool, and that’s when I try speaking Spanish. As a grownup, I realise that the most important detail to keep in mind when learning a new language is to make sure you don’t look silly when practicing the target language. Children have yet to learn this.

But I think the uncoolest thing I’ve ever done in Spanish was when I unfairly accused a Chilean man of something terribly unjust and un-called for. It was such a far-out bit of miscommunication that to this day I haven’t been able to bring myself to make reparations.

First of all, let me explain the situation (somewhat simplified for the sake of brevity): Earlier this year, I discovered a single bedroom apartment that was available for rent, and at a stunningly low price too. Until then, I’d always lived with a roommate, and I wanted my own place desperately. So I staked my claim and won the keys to the apartment. Problem was, I couldn’t move in on the first day of the month, and I had to move out of my other place at the end of the previous month. That meant that there were going to be a few days when I’d be in limbo.

A very good friend of mine offered me the use of his single-bedroom apartment while I waited for my new place to become available, and I accepted his offer graciously. It was going to be cramped, but it was only for a few days.

After some searching, I found the details of a flete, which is what Chileans call movers. I have just this moment learned that flete is Spanish for “freight.” The mover in question was named Pedro. He was friendly and he spoke some English. He also really seemed to know what he was doing. He helped me to load my cumbersome possessions onto the back of his flatbed truck and take them over to my friend’s apartment. It was a swift procedure, and Pedro and I parted as friends, with the agreement that he would return in a few days to help me transport my things to my new apartment.

Pablo
This is Pedro, shrouded in darkness. Much like our friendship.

A day or two later, I received a message from Pedro. He’d strained his back while moving someone’s furniture and he wouldn’t be able to help me on the agreed-upon date. Was I willing to wait a few more days for him to recover?

I liked Pedro, and I did want to use his services. At the same time, however, I was sleeping on a couch and was totally invading my friend’s space. I didn’t want to wait for Pedro to recover, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings either. I explained to him, using a messy kind of Spanglish, that expediency was of the utmost importance. I told him that I would search for a more timeous mover, and in the event that I couldn’t find one, I would wait for Pedro to get back on his feet.

Possessions
When John Lennon said, “Imagine all possessions,” I actually could.

Well, that very day I found my man. I don’t remember his name, but he was slightly more expensive than Pedro. Still, I was impatient, so I hired him. In a way, I was kind of glad that he was more expensive. I could use that as a way to smooth things over with Pedro. I intended to explain to him that the guy I found wasn’t nearly as good as he was. And, what’s more, this other guy was more expensive! So of course I would procure Pedro’s services again in the future, and even recommend him to my friends. I wrote all this out to Pedro in a Facebook message, and it was mostly in Spanish. Pedro accepted my explanation in a way that seemed cold to me. He wasn’t as chummy as he had been before, but I couldn’t blame him – he was losing a client, after all.

Aside Number 1: When learning a new language, it’s often helpful to learn new words along with their opposites. When I learned the Spanish word for boy (niño) I also learned the word for girl (niña). I also learned “long” and “short” together (largo y corto), as well as “expensive” and “cheap” (caro y barrato). This last one is important, because not only were these words that I was using with Pedro, but caro and barrato are also words that I sometimes get mixed up.

Perhaps you can see where this is going, but I assure you, you don’t.

Within my message to Pedro, I started writing “I have found someone who is more expensive than you are…”

In Spanish, it goes like this: “He encuento algien quien esta mas caro que tu…”

Aside Number 2: When learning a new language, it’s not uncommon to confuse words that tend to sound the same. For example, when I started learning Spanish, I would get confused between the word for “sixty” (seisenta) and “seventy” (setenta). I would often (and I still do) mix up “fifty” (cincuenta) and “five hundred” (quinientos). But my downfall with Pedro came about because, to me, the word for “cheap” (barrato) sounds very much like the word baracho, which is the Spanish word meaning “drunk.”

So my final message to Pedro wound up saying, “He encuentro algien quien esta mas baracho que tu…,” which of course means, “I have found someone who is more drunk than you are.”

I sent off that message without batting an eyelid, and slept soundly that night secure in the belief that Pedro and I were still on good terms. It was only about a week later, when I overheard someone say the word barrato in conversation, that thought back to that message to Pedro. I knew with certainty that I’d gotten “cheap” and “expensive” mixed up and resolved to rectify my error. I didn’t want Pedro to think I’d found someone better. I fully intended to go back and explain what had happened. It was a temporary lapse. My Spanish wasn’t so good, after all. But when I reopened the Facebook message and spied the word boracho instead of barrato, I knew that I was beyond redemption. My two-fold mistake was far to complicated and uncool to explain. I don’t think I even had the Spanish vocabulary to explain what had happened.

So I dropped the matter. I suppose it doesn’t matter really. I’m cosy in my own apartment, with my fat man keeping my tummy warm, and somewhere out there a really decent Chilean man thinks that a foreigner once accused him of being an alcoholic.

Fat man
I might have lost Pedro as a friend, but at least I’ve got my fat man.

 

Are you under duress?

A few weeks ago, when the weather was still warm, I happened to walk past two young lovers who were deep in an intimate conversation. The boy was wearing a baggy, sleeveless shirt which hung carelessly off of his gangly frame, exposing more of his flesh than I needed to see. At the farthest end of one skinny arm, between two tweezer-like fingers, he held a cigarette. He was using his other arm to keep his girlfriend in a solid headlock.

The boy’s lankiness gave length to his arm, which was wrapped completely around the girl’s entire neck. He had used what scant strength he had in order to bring her ear closer to his nicotine stained lips, which were enthusiastically forming words of, I’m almost certain, indescribable banality.

The girl, for her part, did not seem to be putting up any protest. Her delicate hands were rested on top of the boy’s forearm, presumably to moderate the pressure that was being applied to her trachea. She had a serene smile upon her face, which I judged as being a result of the words she was hearing, and not due to imminent death through asphyxiation.

At that moment, a familiar sentence popped into my head:

“Do you think she’s under duress?”

The girl was not, in fact, under duress. Despite the aggressive body language, I had come to learn that physical interaction in Chile is on a level I had never seen before. The phrase, “Do you think she’s under duress?” was a throwback to a game I used to play with a friend of mine when I first moved to Chile. It was our way of coming to terms with the terribly distracting body language of lovers in this country; of pointing out a pattern that, to us, seemed so absurd yet so commonplace.

Now, there is not enough blog space in the world to address the complex and politically fraught dynamic between men and women in Chile, and I am not nearly involved enough in the culture to be able to understand this kind of behaviour, so it’s not my place to condemn it. It seems to be the norm, with women being just as comfortable with being physically subdued as the men are with being physically overbearing. All I can do is witness it with bewilderment.

Somehow, the young woman interpreted the man’s stranglehold as a show of affection. She was unfazed by the claustrophobia and the restriction in her movement. She found no offense in being breathed upon, at point-blank range, by a mouth that had just taken a youthfully arrogant drag on a cheap cigarette. I can only assume that, to her, this was an intimate expression of true love.

Admittedly, that was one of the more extreme examples I have seen while I’ve been living here. The more common practice is the clamping of the neck from behind, like a bank robber leading the bank manager towards the vault. The stance is one gun shy of a hostage situation. And it’s not only teenagers who act this way. I’ve seen the same conduct adopted by people all along the age spectrum, but all with similar levels of tenderness.

Under Duress
In a way, it is quite sweet. But there’s still that voice at the back of my head asking, “Do you think she’s under duress?”

 

To be fair, it’s not only Chileans whom I’ve seen acting in this way. I’ve spotted this maneuver in other countries as well, and among different cultures. I think perhaps I’m just more aware of it in Chile because of how awkwardly intimate the public displays of affection are here.

Ellie Goulding
In the music video for “I Need Your Love,” Calvin Harris shows Elli Goulding that he loves her (and also that he owns her).

Love is good, and I’m happy to see it celebrated. However, I like to see love celebrated happily and freely, and not in a serious, us-against-the-world kind of way.

Edward and Bella
Remember that scene in “Twilight” when Edward and Bella just laughed and laughed and laughed? Me neither.

But I must stress that this is all just personal opinion. The touch of a loved one can lift the spirit. A hand at the back of the neck can be pleasurable. Sometimes the best moments of loving someone are just in reminding them that you’re there. It’s a way of communicating affection, and I think that’s very important. But still, I’d prefer not to use my partner as a leaning post.

Holding Hand
I’m all for holding hands, though.

Dog Daze

I used to talk to dogs in the street all the time, but lately I’ve been feeling increasingly more guilty about it, and here’s why:

A dog will do everything in its power to please a human, and this means being able to listen to a human’s worries with a sympathetic ear. The problem is, I don’t know how much English the dogs in Chile understand. This became evident to me the other day while I was telling a street dog about the mystery novel I’m writing. He’d followed me for a couple of blocks, and I’d really gotten into my story. In fact, I was hardly aware that he was there at all, but I was grateful to have someone listening. I’d come to a halt, and he sat obediently at my feet, fully attentive to my words. After about five minutes, I noticed a look of concern pass quickly over my companion’s face. It was ever so brief, a mere moment of distraction, a twitch of the eyes. The more I spoke, the more distracted the fellow became.

“But what the detective doesn’t know, see, is that the old man is really a robot who faked his own death…” I was saying. I was really getting into the swing of my tale, but it was at that moment that a nearby pigeon took flight. My companion glanced at the flutter, and then back at me. There was guilt on his face. “I’m sorry,” he seemed to say. “Please continue.”

I was unperturbed. “But, then,” I continued, “the old man’s ship crash lands on another planet, and he’s got to disguise himself because he’s famous, right? And he’s supposed to be dead!”

I waited for my companion to marvel at this plot twist. Instead, he just shifted his weight. He didn’t want to be there. He was clearly the wrong dog for the job. He really wanted to be able to share in the conversation, but he didn’t know what “planet” meant. Or “robot” or “crash land.” Besides, I was talking quickly and I think most of it was going over his furry head.

Dog
This guy made sure I crossed the street safely.

 

My friend must have felt miserable. He was failing to understand me, and as a result he was letting me down. It wasn’t his fault, but of course he wouldn’t understand that. Any dog that cannot make a human happy counts itself as a failure. Poor guy. I hadn’t thought about that. Instead, I was thinking about how I was going to get the detective to discover that the old man was really the victim of a bigger plot. It was a twist I’d been stuck on for some time, but talking to my companion was helping me to process my thoughts. I felt like I was close to a breakthrough, but then I noticed that my buddy was looking forlornly at the ground, his floppy ears almost covering his eyes. He’d admitted defeat and he was ashamed. Little did he know that just by being there he was helping me a great deal, but I felt bad for the guy. How could I make him understand that it was okay to not understand? In deference to the dog, I changed the subject, and spent a few minutes telling him how handsome he was. This much I’m sure he understood, and when we eventually parted ways I believe he was happy.

Running Dog
A dog will be your strongest supporter, even if it means running for miles.

Still, though, I lie awake sometimes and think about how uncomfortable I’d made the poor fellow. Few things make me sadder than the confusion a dog feels when it just doesn’t understand.

“Why are you leaving the house without me? I don’t understand.”

“Why is this person putting a needle in me? I don’t understand.”

“Why are there explosions in the sky? I don’t understand.”

As much as dogs want to please humans, I feel that humans should work just as hard not to take advantage of their inherent kindness. It’s cruel to abuse their genetic coding.

Dog 2
This is my favourite dog in the whole city. He was hit by a car a few years ago and now he is blind. He spends his days sitting on this street corner, trying to understand the noises.

 

The second reason I feel guilty about talking to dogs in the street is because I feel like it’s tantamount to cat-calling. And while cat-calling is always awful, in some ways it’s worse to cat-call a dog, because a dog is a dog, not a cat.

Dogs 3
These guys live a few blocks from me. They’re waiting for their human to buy snacks.

Fortunately, I’ve found an outlet. A few weeks ago I was given a chili plant, and now I can talk to that. Plants, I believe, don’t feel the need to understand what you’re saying, they’re just happy to be talked at. My chili plant serves a duel purpose now: It gives me an outlet, thereby saving street dogs everywhere from the anxiety of listening to me, and it probably puts my neighbours at ease knowing that I’m not talking to myself. You’re not crazy if you talk to someone, even if that someone is a plant.

Chili Plant
I hope my plant doesn’t find me boring.