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The Danish are Changing my Life: The Art of Cozy Living

I’ve found my perfect life philosophy. And I don’t even know how to pronounce it: Hygge. The Little Book of Hygge: The Danish Way to Live Well defines Hygge-a word with no translation in English-as… “the art of creating intimacy,” “coziness of the soul,“ “cozy togetherness,” and “cocoa by candlelight.”

Hygge is about homey, down-to-earth lifestyle. It’s about taking life slow and easy. Savoring the simplest, woolly sock pleasures. It’s the feeling you have on a snow day, while watching movies inside. Or hanging out with your best friends in a small apartment kitchen with cheap wine. It’s the feeling I felt as a kid on family road trips to Canada and Alaska, half asleep and safe in the backseat, the intimidating, night wilderness rising on all sides.

Hygge is the freaking chicken soup in your soul, you feel in the company of good food and people. It’s the warm, honest fuzzies of life. And I think it’s my new religion.

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My favorite Hygge activity: getting lost in a used bookstore.

When I first read The Little Book of Hygge, I was living with Mati’s family in Chile, about to move to the U.S. in just a few weeks. It was a stressful, strange time, as the anticipation of the move and unknown built. At night, I’d sleep under three quilts (one electrically heated), and read about the happiest country of 2017, Denmark, and their Hyggelit ways: rustic wood houses, unscented candles, cookie bakes with spiced wine. It was like reading about the land of Elves.

And it was like a salve to my moving anxiety. As I read my Hygge guidebook, I started to see ‘Hygge moments’ everywhere with family and friends. Moments like sitting on the porch to watch a thunderstorm in my driveway. Or stopping by a road coffee shop with my sister in 100 degrees for cherry pie plus ice cream.

When you’re stressed or have 1,000 things in your mind, these small moments can seem like just filler to the BIG life moments, those important destination points in the vague future that I catch myself sprinting to out of bad habit.

Today Mati and I booked our road trip across the U.S. of A.  We’re traveling through four major national parks on a two week whirlwind from Virginia to Washington. I’m full of buzzing excitement for the future. My heart is doing a jumping dance for all the things ahead-

and yet I still want to hold onto Hygge. The savoring of the small moments leading up to the big stuff. I don’t want to just remember the first time I saw the Grand Canyon or Californian Coast-I want to remember all the Hygge-ing in between at diners, camp grounds, pull overs and middle of nowhere towns.

Happy Hygge, wherever you are!

 

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Reawakening Yoga Dreams-Orca Whales and Cedar Trees Included

A year and a half ago, I left my yoga teacher training with bright-eyed visions. I imagined myself in hardwood studios with soft lighting, beautifully crafted playlists and people just sweating out their toxins to my yoga guidance. Instead, I realized that trying to launch a yoga career as a newby was tough. And in a foreign country that doesn’t even speak your first language? Hella hard.

As I sat in a park in Chile after another no-show class with my yoga notebook and speakers set out (student protests, drumming circles, pot smokers and persistent ice cream vendors, ‘HELADO HELADO HELLADDDOOO’ in the background) I thought, ‘This fucking sucks.’ Not very yoga, I know.  Teaching didn’t feel good. I wasn’t in the right place-mentally and physically-and so I took a break.

I recently started teaching yoga for the first time in the U.S. as a summer sub. My mom, of course, came to my first class. She even helped me set up the mood lighting and essential oil diffuser in the empty room. ‘No one is going to come,’ I kept saying. ‘That’s your pain body speaking,’ my mom said, ‘And if no one comes-you are doing a full yoga class for me. I’m a paying member.’  My mom and I sat in brief silence to the sound of heart mantra chanting, when suddenly the room started to fill. Oh my God, people are actually coming.

It took me a moment to find my voice and my groove that class. But once I did it felt wonderful. Like coming back to an old passion or hobby after a long time of neglect.  A fire in me was rekindled.

Years before my teacher training, I always had this secret dream of being a yoga teacher. I didn’t even verbalize it to my friends. I stored it with my other private day dreams of being a champion surfer, feminist spy or  wildlife activist who rescues wolves and bears (and…nurses them to health in my park ranger cabin).

I remember when the idea of being a yoga teacher first came to me. I had finally found a teacher that I loved. I was freshly graduated. The recession and my millennial anxiety were like…WOAH. But when I went to Suzy’s class, I experienced brief tastes of empowerment. And in one of those moments, I thought, ‘What if I became a yoga teacher?’ I almost asked her about teacher training after class, but at the last minute decided not to. Me? A yoga teacher? Forget it. That’s as likely as my park ranger/grizzly bear cub rescuer fantasy.

But the dream stuck, and eventually I applied to teacher training after a year of agonizing over it. Now, that I’m actually teaching, it feels really good. Because this idea first came to me as an insecure seed years ago. And now…I’m doing it.

This has given me an extra lemon zest to life. A fire boost. I still feel the anxiety and struggle of the job search, waiting for immigration bananas to wrap up, moving, etc. But it feels more manageable. It feels more like: this shit is a struggle, but I got it.

I’m not sure how yoga will continue to be part of my life, when we move to Seattle. But I really want it to stay.  Maybe it will be a a small, sweet slice. Or maybe it will be big. Maybe I open an insanely gorgeous retreat center in the Pacific Northwest with misty evergreen forests, cedar wood floors and Orca whales jumping in the waves, but….no attachments, right? (Uh…but can you smell those cedar floors?!!)

OK, so I’m working on verbalizing dreams and visions. No jokes, aside, I would love to open that insanely gorgeous retreat center one day. I don’t know when. I don’t know how.  But as Moana says:

See the line where the sky meets the sea? It calls me
And no one knows, how far it goes
If the wind in my sail on the sea stays behind me
One day I’ll know, if I go there’s just no telling how far I’ll go

Namaste.

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Feeling like a Tourist at Home

Last week I found myself at a BBQ festival that was even too gringo for me. There was a water dunking tank and a huge inflatable pig blowing in the wind with the capitol building in the background. National champion BBQ teams smoked up pulled pork to ‘Staying Alive,’ with signs above their head that read: North Carolina Champ 2006, Fried Oreos, Deep Fried Pickles, People’s Taste Award Texas. (Me: FRIED Oreos! Oh my GOD. Mati: HA! I’m sending a picture to my family).

We’re in Virginia for the summer, as we organize paperwork y mas, before our final push to Seattle. It honestly feels a little weird to be in Virginia this long. It’s like catching up with a best friend from high school after years and years apart-still familiar, but also a stranger.

For a long time I used to tell people, I was from D.C. I’m from thirty minutes outside the nation’s capitol (an hour and half in rush hour). I just thought D.C. sounded cooler, when I moved to New England. When I did tell some hippie Vermonter or Bostonian I was from Virginia, I’d sometimes get an imitation of a twang twang guitar.

As I’ve been touring Virginia’s green, rolling hills and insane D.C. commuter traffic, here’s what I’ve noticed about my home state.GREAT FALS.jpg

  1. Virginia is a JUNGLE. If you go out into the Virginia woods in July and close your eyes, it sounds like a tropical jungle. I’ve taken Mati on lots of wooded walks, and we keep saying the same thing, ‘It’s so GREEN.’ ‘It’s so LOUD.’ Our first week here was the biblical birth of the CICADAS: A bug that is born out of the ground every decade. For an entire week the forest is humming with the orchestral sound of the cicadas, so loud you can even hear it from the highways. Combine the cicadas with 100% humidity, blinding green, mosquitoes and snakes swimming in creeks and you have a Virginian jungle.
  2. The countryside is beautiful (and endangered).  A few years ago, my little sister after years of being a D.C. hipster, went ‘country.’ Like, realllll country. She rented an apartment on a horse farm. Last night, she made Mati and I sing folk songs, while she played two notes on the cello and her boyfriend played guitar. After visiting her the other night, we took the cheap-man’s road home (i.e. not the toll road), and found ourselves on winding roads past old barns, stone wall lined fields, forest canopies so heavy they block all sunlight. But creeping around this dreamy countryside are massive new developments, encroaching on this slice of sweet campo. Every time I see new construction in what was once the ‘boonies,’ it makes me a little sad.  I want to see Virginia keep its country-country. It’s my favorite part of my home state.COUTNRY.jpg
  3. Piggy asados are a thing here.  Prior to Chile, I was on my way to becoming a vegan. And I was doing so well. And then…well, the Chilean Asado ruined me. When I was in Chile, every single asado, Mati’s parents asked me about gringo BBQ. Since my parents aren’t meat eaters, for me an American BBQ has always been supermarket hamburgers on Memorial Day and the 4th of July. Now I see there’s a whole Barbeque World and Culture I didn’t know about.  A few weeks ago, I took Mati to a brewery out in Leesburg, where he had pulled pork for the first time with cornbread and coleslaw sides (too gringo, even for me). When the waitress came by, and asked how everything was, Mati burst out: ‘Oh my God, this is the BEST thing I’ve had in the U.S.!!’ He was SO enthused, they introduced Mati to the chef, who told us the pork was slow roasted for about 12-14 hours. Damn. Last night we went to the local BBQ joint, Monks, where we had Blackberry Whisky and Angry Texan sauces with this platter of joy….BBQ.jpg
  4. Everything is historical (and probably haunted). There’s these signs that pop up everywhere in Virginia: Civil War Heritage Trail. I literally NEVER noticed them growing up. And now they are every. where. Every fence, piece of grass, stone wall is a civil war heritage site. ‘What’s with the Civil War signs?’ Mati asked me within two days of being in Virginia. My inner nerd is actually loving the history. Also, most places with history are usually haunted, which is charming and creepy at the same time. Like the old mansion next to my sister’s house, where you can hear ghosts clinking glasses and laughing (I’m not making it up).

Being in Virginia, I don’t feel like a ‘local.’ Sometimes I feel like I’m in similar shoes as Mati, looking at everything with totally new eyes, ‘That’s SO gringo!’ And then I take a photo and send it to the Chilean family whatsapp group, who respond with: Que gringo! (Exhibit A: Bluegrass band below with Birkenstocks and Banjos. Que. Freaking. Gringo).IMG_0168 (1).JPG

While I feel part-tourist, all these places I’m taking Mati are full of childhood memories for me. Every place has a story to it: (‘Oh see that restaurant. Sarah accidentally lit the table on fire there on her birthday.’ ‘Oh this park, we used to come here to look for baby fawns everyyyy June.’)

After a total of five years away from Virginia-two of those in Chile-it’s fun to show Mati the old haunts of my childhood and high school years. And in a weird way, I enjoy feeling like a tourist at home. I’m seeing and appreciating things I always skimmed over, like how old and cute the towns are out in the countryside. Or that you can take cheesy ghost tours everywhere. And damn, that pulled pork is really good.

Before we leave for the hip, cool West Coast, my family and I have decided Mati must experience the cheesiest, nerdiest Virginia experience of all: Colonial Williamsburg. A place where people dress up in petticoats and trifold hats from the 1700s. A place where all the ‘tavern’ waiters ask you, ‘What ya think of ol’ King George?’ It is a tri-effect of Virginia awesomeness: historical, campy and creepily charming.

 

 

 

 

 

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What I’d Say to Today’s High School Grads

It’s graduation season in the U.S.  The yards in my neighborhood are staked with, ‘GRAD LIVES HERE!’ signs.  Balloons are being tied to mailboxes in college colors, and Target has super-released all their college dorm goodies: squishy laundry baskets, scratchy duvet covers and window fans.

I watched my cousin graduate in a massive indoor stadium this past week.  As I sat in the stands, families surrounding me with poster boards and cameras, I texted my whatsapp group of besties: ‘I feel like such an old auntie right now-at my cousins’s HS graduation.’ ‘Uh so innocent and naive!’ the ladies joked back.

I remember being innocent and naive.  I was seventeen years old.  I remember moments after my graduation being released into a storm of black caps and gowns in the parking lot, the Virginia humidity and heat overbearing. For a moment I couldn’t find my family and friends, and I felt a panic about the next step I would be taking.

When I tell my Chilean in-laws that many U.S. teenagers leave home at eighteen to live in dorms, they’re a little flabbergasted. In Chile, most college students live at home well through college. Meanwhile in the U.S., after an entire life living at home, you are suddenly sweating in a parking lot full of strangers, as you watch moms and dads unload mini-fridges and TVs out of SUV trunks.

Looking back on who I was at seventeen years old, I wish I could have given myself some good advice.  As I watched students and teachers speak at my cousin’s graduation, I couldn’t help but think: What would I say up there?  Well, none of these words of wisdom will bring tears to your eyes, but here’s what I could have heard after graduation:

1. Let your passions change.  In high school, maybe you were a killer soccer player.  Or you rocked the high school choir.  For me, it was rowing.  I defined myself as a rower in high school.  When I quit the college rowing team after just a month, I had a little identity freak out.  And then I signed up for 100 clubs with all that energy I had not having to get up at 4:30am everyday.  Newness was flying into my life. It felt like the world had opened up to me, and I couldn’t learn enough new stuff-solar panels, women’s rights, poetry-what!! Make way for new passions.

2. Learn about Real Life Shizz-nazz.  While I was gaining excellent knowledge about the tribes of New Guinea who eat bat heads in Anthropology 101, I was not learning the following at a liberal arts college: how to negotiate a salary,  sign up for health insurance, spot a Craigslist Scammer, bleach a toilet bowl and still be a GIRL BOSS.  Try and learn as much RL Shizz-nazz before you walk the stage four years later.

3.  Beware of Coffee Addiction.  My college roommate introduced me to coffee (Lena Moses-Schmitt).  In high school, I drank fake coffee (you know, strawberry chocolate lattes).  Soon, I was drinking coffee eight times a day, burning holes in my stomach and stopping all my friends on campus walk to explain how ENERGIZED I FELT.  I couldn’t get enough of that nutty, warm coffee that left you pleasantly productively buzzzing all. day. long.  Well, you’ve been warned.

4. Study abroad, study abroad, study abroad.  For the first two years of college I was in the cozy bubble of bricks, oak trees and coffee shops.  And then! I was living in a four story house in seacoast Brazil, dancing in the street (literally), and having all sorts of colorful, bizarre adventures-like getting food poisoning from pig ear stew.  If you can…go, go, go!  Choose somewhere that challenges you, that excites you, that makes you thirsty for the world.

5. Learn to Self-Care.  In college,  I suddenly had access to a 24/7 pancake bar.  And everyone was drinking on Tuesday nights and having casual hanky-panks (I was the one hitting my ceiling with my Swiffer Duster to SHUT UP).  In the whirlwind of jello shots and all nighters, learn to take care of your self. Eat your greens. Take a modern dance class. Have Me Time.  Know when you need space.  Go on a walk. Get good sleep.

6. Buy earphones, download white noise apps and wear an eye mask. My soul is a forty-five year old Soccer Mom. I like quiet. I like Norah Jones. I like sleep. My freshmen year, I went to the bathroom to find a trash can full of cheese whizz leaning against the door in the middle of the night. My first-year roommate was also an extremely aggressive typist. And an insomniac. Who lined the room in creepy German dolls at Christmastime with really…wide…eyes.  If you like your sleep: earphones, Simply Noise App, Eye Mask.

7. Be bold. In college, you are in a beautiful nest of dreamers and learners. Fly, baby, fly. College is one of the most supportive environments to try something totally wild.  I watched my fellow UMW Eagles start non-profits to build schools, win research grants to study off-beat topics in Prague and more.  I had an amazing community of students and teachers that pushed me to do things I never, ever imagined myself doing in high school.  This is your time to be a little out-there, a little cray, but mostly just beautifully bold.

On that note, congratulations to all the  birdies flying their nests this summer.  Go out there and write your own rules!

 

 

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The Job Hunt: They’re Just Not that Into You

When I was single, I used to hide my phone.  I’ll explain the vicious cycle (I’m sure a few of you are fah-miliar): First, I would tell myself, I was not going to text The Boy.  I’d throw my phone into a pile of dirty laundry.  Then, I’d distract myself all day, meanwhile my fingers itching, my brain spinning.  Finally after a few distracted hours, I’d pull the phone out of the hiding place, and before you knew it…my fingers were possessed, as I sent a not-playing-it-cool text.

One night after this cycle, I stomped out to my car in the snow in -10 degrees to lock my phone in my car trunk.  My logic was if I put my phone in the car trunk during a snow storm, no matter how pathetic and low I was feeling, I wouldn’t leave the warmth of my bedroom to get a phone in freezing temperatures in the middle of the night (Oh…how I underestimated myself).

When I found Mati, I never locked my phone in the trunk.  I never had to wait anxiously for texts, worried that at any moment, he would change his mind.  It’s how I knew it was probably the person I was going to marry-I felt at ease.  When we got engaged, I couldn’t help but smile back to the memory of me shuffling out in my  slippers in the freezing cold and snow with my phone in hand.  Because those days were over-

WRONG.  They’re back.  Just in a different uniform.  It’s not the texts of space cadet millennial boys that are driving me crazy.  It’s the U.S. job search.  I’ve been applying for jobs since the winter.  I recently went through an intensive interview process, my hopes lifting, the way they once did after three promising dates (‘I felt like we connected SO well!).  And then I was…ghosted.  

Ghosting (according to Dear Sugar Radio) is a millennial phenomena.  It’s when someone just stops all communication with you or disappears from your life when you’re not quite sure why.  If you’re out in the dating trenches, the ghosting move is maddening.  But this phenomena isn’t limited to the dating world, it’s also happening in the job hunting world.  Employers are losing the class and courtesy to give final candidates an honest No.

Rejecting someone is hard, whether it’s in love, friendship or work.  It’s messy.  It makes you feel bad.  But after dating and job-hunting, I appreciate when someone just tells me the truth.  I’ll take a hearty, direct rejection over cowardly ghosting any day (just some advice, employers and lovers of America).

For the past two days, I was like me at twenty-five: checking my phone every five seconds, turning it on and off, then texting my friends for their insights and analysis: their responses sounding like echoes from several years ago (‘Maybe they’re just really busy!’ once was ‘Maybe he’s just really busy!’).

Yesterday, in the Whole Foods parking lot I was so engrossed in an all-out texting convo with my West Coast bestie that I almost walked into several cars and somehow knocked my glasses off my face with my phone.  When my glasses fell onto the concrete, I looked up at Mati. He shook his head. Oh, I’d hit a low.

This morning I woke up and realized I didn’t want to feel  like twenty-five year old Rachel, tortured by the silence on her phone.  So, I made my coffee.  I put on my backpack, headed to the library and started the hunt again.   A part of me wanted to Google, ‘Why You Don’t Hear Back after the Interview.’  OK, which I did for like a nano second.  But then I stopped, because I felt like 25 yr. old me Googling (‘Why He Really Isn’t Texting You Back).  And then I Viking charged into the job boards like a freaking Lagertha.

The job-hunt sucks. Just like dating-a lot of time-well, sucked.  But by bearing the dating trenches, by being patient and sticking it through, I found one kick-ass, amazing life partner.  And I will remember that, as I go into the dark corners of every LinkedIn and Indeed website for the summer.

P.S. Animo to all the job hunters and dreamers out there!

 

 

 

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The Chilenismos I Brought Home

It’s a strange feeling.  I no longer have to speak Spanish.  Errands are done smoothly without language barriers and frustrations.  My brain no longer frazzles and frizzles with the challenge of living in a second language.  And yet-

‘MOM! Mati and I need to do lots of tramit-‘ I want to say, ‘Tramites,’ the Chilean word that means, ‘annoying, inefficient errands,’ because there’s no word in English that fits so perfectly the mountaintop of U.S. Immigration paperwork we have to do except: tramites.  An errand is picking up milk.  Adjusting your immigration status is a mother-loading TRAMITE.

I’m still waiting for my reverse culture shock (it’ll come, it’ll come), because so far I’ve slipped back into home like a warm sweatshirt pulled out of the dryer.  It’s old and comfortable. My language brain, however, still has one foot in Chile. It appears my brain has been permanently wired into two languages: my Native English and my messy Chilean Spanish.

For all my complaining about Chilean Spanish for the past two years, here I am in the US of A, shouting ‘Yaaaaa PO!’ in Target parking lots.  I no longer live in Chile, and yet Chilenismos are falling out of my mouth every minute.  Those damn expressions have officially wormed themselves into my heart.

Here’s a list of the Chilean expressions I’m using on the daily:

  1. Tramite: Explained above.  An annoying errand that always, always ends up being more challenging and tedious than planed on (and I repeat: always).
  2.  Cuica/Cuico: In Chile a ‘cuica/cuico’ refers to an upper class person, thing or place.  It’s usually said with a little cheeky attitude, like ‘Vegan almond butter? Que cuico.’
  3.  Lata: Literally ‘A can.’ Que lata: What a pain in the ass. As Mati and I have been running around doing 1,000 paperwork tramites, I can’t help but say, ‘UH! Que lattaaaa,’ as we drive from Court House to Fedex to back and forth again.
  4. Cachai: Even when I’m talking in English, I like to tag this Chilean classic on, ‘Cachai?’ Understand?
  5. Taco: A huge ass traffic jam.  The D.C. area, where I’m from has some of the worst traffic in the country.  A ‘taco’ is just a more appetizing way to describe it.
  6. YA, PO!: I almost didn’t include ‘Ya, Po!’ because it’s just too obvious. But the amount of times that, ‘Ya, Po!’ comes out of my mouth per day is embarrassing. When I moved to Chile, two years ago, I told myself I’d never pick up the irritating habit of ‘Po-ing’ every damn phrase.  And here I am….’Ya, Po!’-ing twenty times a minute.
  7. Pucha/Puta!: Pucha means ‘damn!’ And Puta means a prostitute.  I try to keep it clean, but more often than not, I’m saying, Puta! Instead of Pucha! Working on it.
  8. Dejate!: Leave me alone/Cut it out.  I’ve already said this to my family at least twelve times, and they don’t know what I’m saying.  ‘Rachel, make sure you-‘ ‘Yaaaa Dejate.’

I like that these Chilean Spanish words have made themselves at home in my vocabulary.  For months and months I felt like a fraud using them, like I was trying to sound ‘Chilean.’ After a long uphill battle of learning a new language, I came to the place of-I like speaking two languages.  I like having a bigger menu of words to choose from.  Adding a new language to my life has added challenge and vibrancy.  I don’t have to speak Spanish anymore to move through daily life.  Now, I’m home.  But I’ve packed a trunk full of Chilenismos with me.

 

 

 

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First Week in the U.S.: A Whirlwind

After two days of non-stop goodbye parties, Mati and I made the surreal drive to the airport in Santiago last Monday.  We had been planning this move for a year.  We had gone through endless paperwork and emotional roller coasters.  And now we were standing in a circle of family at the security point saying goodbye.

Ten hours later, I was passing through immigration and customs with Mati.  It was 5am, the airport was practically empty, and my palms were so damn sweaty with travel anxiety.

‘Where you coming from?’ the officer asked me.

‘Chile.’

‘What were you doing there?’

‘I was actually living there for the past two years.’

‘Oh cool, OK, OK, OK-so are you sad you left or happy to be home?’

‘Uhhh…’  I was caught off guard by the question from the customs officer, and still spinning with the fact that we were in the U.S, ‘Good to be home.’

The next few days were a whirlwind of wedding preparation, unpacking and jet lag.  We walked around my suburban neighborhood at night, buzzing with bugs in the green trees, the yards perfectly square and ungated.  ‘I feel like I’m in high school again,’ I kept saying, ‘The smells….and everything.’  While Mati kept saying, ‘It’s sooooo gringo.’

On Friday, We got married in a small, perfect garden with my family.   In Chile, Mati’s family was holding watch parties for our live streamed ceremony.  With both our families (one on a screen) we uncorked champagne after we said our I Dos.

Yesterday, we threw down with a backyard wedding.  My mom turned the house into a three tent wedding venue/live action Pinterest Board.   It was one beautiful blur of cake cutting, slow dancing under twinkle lights and screaming songs with my friends.  Right now, I have almost no voice.  My calves are shot.  And my body is dead tired from the past week and wedding whirlwind.   And yet I woke up this morning feeling happy-exhausted.  We’ve now really started our U.S. Chapter.

Coming home feels strange and comforting at once.  It’s been so fast-paced, since Mati and I have landed, that I haven’t had many quiet moments to process the change.  It’s too soon to see how Chile has changed me.   Up until now, I’ve been on sensory overload.  A sort of awe-gaping tourist in my own home town.  The jumbo box stores, my old running trail by the lake, the neighborhood pool.  All these places are so, so familiar to me, and yet I’m visiting them with new eyes (‘Why do they only have basketball shorts for really tall people in Walmart?’ ‘It’s SOOOO green here!’ ‘You’re right, there is something creepy about the perfect gardens.’ ‘There are so many flavor options.’) My most frequent commentary: ‘WHY is the AC so high?!!!’  Mati and I are always wearing thick fleeces in the restaurants, while my friends and family are saying, ‘They should turn up the AC.’

When I first met Mati, he was my tour guide.  He lead hiking tourists through the Torres del Paine trails.  I was one of those tourists.  When I first came to Chile, Mati kept being my tour guide.  In fact, he never stopped.  He tour guided me through culture shock, Chilean Spanish, visas and tramites and the daily challenges of living in a new country.

The other night, we were walking the wooded paths in my neighborhood.  I’ve ran and walked these paths a million times.  I smelt the green of spring, and it brought me back to being an innocent, awkward high schooler.  As we kept walking, Mati said, ‘I think we turn back there to get to your house.’  I stopped and almost laughed, ‘You’re telling me how to get back to my house? Oh I see….you’re not used to being Tourist.’  I told Mati to follow me.  We turned onto another wooded path that looked like all the others.  After a moment, Mati admitted he would have gotten really lost without me.

Soon, Mati and I will drive across the country to move to a new city: Seattle.  Then, we will both be tourists again.  But until then, I’ve crafted a genius list of Virginia activities (that I had time to design in Chile, when I was homesick).  The plan is to see the best of my old home before we start our new one out West.

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Devil Horns & Confetti: A Surprise Chilean Despedida

Two Saturdays ago, I wound up at a karaoke bar wearing a pale pink banner that said: 100% Virgin.  To my left was 100% Easy and to my right was Party Girl.  That night I’d left my in-laws house in La Florida expecting to meet up with a girlfriend for a low-key cheese board and wine date.  I almost left the house in my favorite baggy sweater and glasses.

A half hour later, I was surprised by the girls from Mati’s high school group of besties at the metro, wearing black dresses and Hawaiian leis.  Earlier that day, one of the girls asked me to wear a white tee-shirt for a potential glow party.  I told her I was feeling a ‘chill’ night instead.  Now, I stood in front of a pack of little black dresses at the metro platform. Someone handed me a hot pink bag with a gift.  Surprisssssseee! Wait- you’re supposed to be in white, as LA NOVIA.  The BRIDE.  

Confession: I’m probably one of the least likely people to have a full-on Bachelorette-party  on this planet (the kind with penis hats and necklaces).  Night clubs and crowded bars give me an embarrassing amount of anxiety. And hyper-girly things sometimes make me feel like I’m in 8th grade again, desperately figuring out how to be a Abercrombie & Fitch-wearing, Herbal Essences-shampooing girl.

So, when it hit me on the metro, while I rode with a group of HYPED Chilean ladies that I was having a Bachelorette party, I had a mini panic attack, which increased when the group leader said, ‘Put this on,’ handing me hot pink horns with a wedding veil and my virgin banner.

At first, I was embarrassed to put on my party outfit, afraid people in the metro would stare (and they did).  But when the girls around me beauty-paginated up with their ‘Easy, bitchy’ banners, I felt like I’d entered some sacred and ridiculous initiation of my gender.

After suiting up in Bachelorette party gear at Baquedano metro, we power walked to Plaza Italia with two gigantic bottles of confetti.  With the ladies cheering me on and two police trucks across the street, I uncorked the plastic champagne bottles, and let. it. rainnnnnn.

In the past months, my brain has been on such overload with the upcoming move that sometimes I’ve forgotten to celebrate one of the most exciting changes of all-getting married.  So, when I let the confetti fall on Plaza Italia, I felt a punch of giddy. Hey! I’m getting MARRIED!!

When we entered the karaoke bar, there was another tribe of girls, tossing back shots from a bucket of Pisco on ice. Their hair was in high ponytails, their 80s leotards tight and funky, and they all wore matching silver hoops.  They were on a girl-power trip.  And it filled the bar.  When we came in, their eyes popped at the site of another Bachelorette crew: ‘WOOOOoooooOOOOOOOOOooooooO!!!!!’

We pushed our tables together, and I met their Bride.  She hugged me, and twenty minutes later gifted me with three gold balloons tied together to look like a penis and huevos.  When she handed me her balloon penis, I was like, ‘This is for me??‘ and felt weirdly moved.  Engagement makes you wicked emotional.

I’m not exactly a Bachelorette party star.  There were no Magic Mikes.  And I dropped my 100% Virgin banner on the bar floor twice on the way to the bathroom, which I had to pick up in front of everyone.  And I couldn’t handle more than a margarita y a half. Although. I did drink from a glow in the dark penis straw.  And I danced at a night club full of high-schoolers in Forever 21 miniskirts, and remembered how fun it is to dance in a circle of ladies with your purses thrown in the middle.  I even sang ‘Hit me Baby One More Time’ by Britney Spears on stage.

Since I’ve been engaged, I’ve challenged a lot of wedding traditions.  Today’s wedding industry has become inflated and out of control, and the social pressure to empty your savings on Bachelorette/Bachelor parties, wedding venues, a dress, etc. is pretty intense. If it were up to me, I probably would have never had a Bachelorette party.  And yet, when the girls brought out the confetti, the glow-in-the dark dick straws and the devil horns, I couldn’t help but feel pretty damn special. Like a bride.

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Chile in Three Photo-Poems

Patagonia Region

The Legend of the Calafate Berry

On our first days, we hiked in lines,

but I pushed ahead and came into

a burnt forest with branches-

the trees holding wind-bent poses

like dancers.

Ahead laid  blue berries

of cold summer, named Calafate

after the chief’s daughter,

who ran away, eloped and turned

into a flower that blooms the yellow

of her eyes in summer.

The legend goes, you told the line,

if you eat this berry, you’ll return.

Hungry-I ate a handful.

The Central Region

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Santiago

How rushed we are

In the morning and the night-

we forget to look at you.

The snow on your shoulders

turning a rose fire went unnoticed

by me, as I was late again,

after pushing too many strangers’

elbows.

On the stray dog streets of

sopaipilla carts are balconies

with white floral crests, chipped

brimming over our heads.

You used to be the fresh air for

silky parties with pianos, I muse.

And the grass behind the winery

owner’s house in old centro-

Closed and gated on all sides,

I imagine once stretched

all the way to the foothill vines.

The Atacama Region

stars

Stargazing in Atacama

I stay in the car-

my anchored ship to planet Earth

while you try to zoom closer

to the violent white burning

of stars, of black holes and all that

Unknown.  I wrap myself in a blanket,

peer out the rolled down window.

Come out here, you tell me.  I follow

your voice on the road,

look up for the first time,

the sky so intense in its beauty

and infinity,

I curl my toes to the ground

to root myself

just in case.

Photo credit: Matias Faundez

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Goodbye to the 20th Floor

Two days ago, I stood on the balcony of our empty apartment.  Many times, when the city was loud and crazy, I told Mati I couldn’t wait to move into a house one day-somewhere with space and quiet.  But in the moment, I was standing in my cleared out apartment after a week of non-stop packing, it was oddly quiet for a weekday night, the highway below less honky than usual.  And all I could think was how much I was going to miss this tiny one-bedroom apartment that I’d slowly made home for the past two years.

Up until last week, I’d done the ‘feeling’ part of moving for months.  The week before moving, three best friends came to visit me, and we talked, talked, talked about all the emotions of leaving over white wine (it was amazing).  But when Saturday came, and Mati told me we needed to start loading a car with boxes, it was like a reality smack. Wait. It’s actually time to move shit.

There’s something that feels so irreversible and definite about packing that first duffel bag of stuff.  Then, slowly you watch your apartment physically breakdown into some unrecognizable explosion of mismatched socks, Christmas decorations, ski poles, body lotions…

‘How did we get SO much STUFF?’ I kept asking Mati on our last moving day, wading through unpacked things, ‘WHERE is it coming from??’  It’s amazing the amount of stuff we accumulate without knowing it.  How our sentimental side, tucks away brochures and gifts in random corners.  Every time I move, I make a promise to myself to become a staunch minimalist.

As we were packing the stuff, there was no time for feeling sad about leaving our apartment. We just wanted to get it the fuck over with.  After ten hours of moving, our hands and legs numb with organizing and packing, our motivation to recycle every plastic and glass bottle in our fridge waning, we were focused on the single goal of getting the moving day over.

That was us on Thursday at 4pm, when we sat down on the couch to eat a supermarket bag of fries and roast chicken, because no one felt like cooking.  And it hit me, once we left the apartment that night, Mati and I would begin to live in a place I call…Limbo Land. The next months, we will be floating, trying to get on our feet.  It may be a little while before we have a home that is ours again.  So with supermarket fries in my mouth, I of course, cried.  And it was real salty.

Later that night, after packing up the car, Mati and I took the elevator up to the 20th floor to say good bye to the apartment, which would be someone else’s home just the next day. I have full faith that Mati and I have some beautiful surprises ahead of us, and also a new home waiting to be filled with sentimental stuff and quirks.  But still it was hard to say goodbye to the Centro apartment.  It was my oasis, my landing point, my safe zone in a foreign country for two years.

Now, we have entered Limbo Land.  We’re currently at Mati’s parents’ house, our bags scattered in the bedrooms, still asking ourselves, ‘How did we get so much stuff?’ Not all of it can go.  Only the essentials.  The first night was odd, sleeping in a different bed, not waking up in my apartment.  But I’m not sad anymore.  Now, I feel the best feeling that comes after moving, the one after you’ve cried and felt weird.  It’s that giddy excitement of possibility, of new homes to come.

P.S. Pinterest watch out. I’m vision boarding all over you.

Photo credit: Matias Faundez

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My Spanglish Journey

There is a pharmacist on my block, who really tests my Spanish.  She looks like a stern grandmother, small and petite with a severe bob.  She has those gold-framed reading glasses with the granny cords (picture clear?).  And she does not understand my Spanish. Even if I’ve conversed, debated and laughed in Chilean Spanish at a BBQ the night before, there is Señora Cruz Verde, just waiting to cut my confidence down.   No matter how clearly I speak, she squints her face like she just bit into a lemon: ‘Queeeee? No, no, no entiendo.’

Learning a language as an adult is humbling, because you know that you are a smart, independent being, but to the outside world you feel like you sound….well, like an idiot. Your verbs are wrong, your thoughts simple, your conversation topics limited.  You want to shout to the world: I have so much more to say than, ‘I like!’

I had a realization in Chile.  For most of my life, I’ve been very privileged to grow up in a country that spoke my first language.  I was blind to the bravery it took for so many English learners to simply speak, knowing someone may shake their head and say: ‘WHAT?’  The word, ‘WHAT?’ when you are trying your best to communicate in a foreign language can be jarring.  Hearing it over and over again, makes you want to go quiet.

Before Chile, I worked as an AmeriCorps soccer/writing coach at a bilingual school in Washington D.C. When the kids came running out onto the soccer field everyday, it was a cluster-f$%  of Spanglish. Spanish from all over Central America and the Caribbean collided with English.  I noticed students had different reactions to Spanish.  Some students rejected it or didn’t even understand it.  Others proudly shouted it up and down the soccer field, used it to plan secret shanningans behind teachers’ backs (like mine).  And some, recently immigrated, spoke an uncomfortable mix of both, not knowing which one was ‘right.’

I once made the mistake of trying to connect with the kids I coached, by speaking in my rusty study abroad/university Spanish.  I thought I was very cool, when I asked the kids who they liked better, Ronaldo or Messi.  Their response: ‘MISS Rachel, why are you speaking Spanish to ME? Don’t speak Spanish to me!’  Other kids starting laughing or looked uncomfortable.

This moment stuck with me for a long time.  It would be awhile before I finally got it. And that was in Chile.  Memorable Language Shame Moment Numero 3: I was buying a speaker at an electronic store in Santiago.  At this point, I’d been in Chile for over a year. I’d put a lot of work into learning Chilean Spanish, and finally felt confident. As I began to explain to the salesman what kind of speaker I wanted, he interrupted-‘Better in English?’ I continued in Spanish, but he interrupted again, ‘I speak English-maybe easier.‘ At the cash register, he hovered over the cashier, translating everything she said to me, even though I understood it all, ‘She said, debit or credit?’ As he continued, ‘She said, slide your card,’ I silently fumed.  I left the store feeling angry, replaying the situation in my head, and thought, I was speaking clearly, right?!

Maybe the salesperson was really excited to finally use his English.  Just like five plus years ago, I’d been really excited to show off my Spanish to my students.  But when you are learning a new language and finally gaining confidence, it can be disheartening to hear someone say, ‘Oh, let me switch into your first language.’  Because what you, the language learner, may hear is: My English/Spanish wasn’t good enough.

Even though, I grew up with Spanish all around me in the D.C. area, I rarely spoke it.  It’s because the U.S., while incredibly diverse, is in so many ways very segregated. While Spanish was close to my ears in restaurants, in schools and on the metro,  I stayed in my English language bubble.  And when I tried to cross those divides, by forcing a connection through Spanish in D.C., it sometimes came across as the breaking of an unspoken rule, unasked help or an intrusion.

After living in Chile, I understand now, why my attempts at Spanish-connection weren’t always met with friendliness.  In Chile, nothing gets under my skin more than when someone asks me immediately, ‘Do you peak English?’ When you move abroad, you put a lot of work into fitting in.  So, when your Uber driver or someone you just met asks, if you speak English, it makes you feel like an outsider. Yes, I have blonde hair and I wear fugly Birkenstocks that no Chilean woman would be caught dead in, but, hey.  Give me a chance.

As we get ready to return to the U.S., I keep thinking about how I will use Spanish at home. In the U.S., speaking Spanish is not the same as speaking it here in Chile.  One. There are many, many variants of Spanish in the U.S.  Chilean Spanish could be as good as Greek to a Dominican, Mexican or Honduran. Two. Not all Latinos in the U.S. speak Spanish.  Don’t assume by someone’s last name, accent or appearance that they speak Spanish/are open to speaking Spanish with you.  Because I’ve made that mistake, and I ate a big slice of humble pie (‘Como estas?!? ‘I…don’t…speak Spanish, so ya.’ ‘Oh…sorry.’)

Now that I’ve gone through the boot camp of learning a language, I’ve realized how tough it can be to put yourself out there and be misunderstood.  Even laughed at.  But I’ve also learned how empowering it can be to learn a new language.  And how dis-empowering it can be, when someone keeps pushing you back to your first language, when you’re finally learning.  So,  this is my conclusion, when it comes to speaking Spanish in the U.S. I will speak Spanish in the U.S. when invited.  Just like I’d wait for a new friend to invite me into their home, I’ll wait for someone’s cue to speak their first language with them.  Because in Chile, I’ve learned I liked having the choice to try first.

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Moving to the U.S.: All the Feels

Currently, I am living with a BIG-ASS butterfly in my stomach.  And it is constantly flapping its wings.  In one month, Mati and I will make the move we’ve been anticipating for almost a year. We will pack up our apartment, fly to the U.S., pray for a smooth customs experience, and arrive in Virginia.  One week later, we will get married in my parents’ backyard with a wildflower cake, Beyonce dance moves, champagne toasts and all.  It’s been a journey getting to this point-full of anticipation, excitement, and dealing with the big unknowns.  Here’s the Stages of All the Feels.

Stage 1: Let’s do this!  Once Mati and I made the decision to go to the U.S., we became paperwork, city researching, job hunting machines.  Those first few weeks, we powered through visa paper work, analyzing each comma and accent.  Filling out U.S. Visa paperwork makes you question even your own name, ‘NO ACCENT OR ACCENT!’ ‘I DON’T KNOW!’ Those are the things that keep you up at night.  Your weekends become reserved for printing evidence photos, text messages, emails, shared expenses.  And meanwhile, you keep saying, ‘Let’s not get our hopes up.’

Stage 2: What! This is (maybe) happening! As I said in an earlier post, Mati and I got news of our petition approval, on the way out to my best friend’s wedding in October.  It was one of the best mail deliveries I’ve ever received.  That was the moment things started to feel real.

Stage 3:  Where to live? Exhaustion.  The U.S. is gigantic.  And deciding where to live can be exhausting.  We created fantasies for each U.S. city: us in cliffy, sunny California, in rainy Portland, Oregon with used bicycles and a kale garden, in Colorado rock climbing on red rocks.  I’d wake up early, in the middle of night, ‘What do you think about Portland MAINE.’  After feeling so ‘foreign’ in Santiago, I became obsessed with finding that deep sense of home.  In February I went to my cousin’s wedding in Seattle.  On our second day there, my family and I drove out to West Seattle, and walked on a rocky beach looking at the Cascades.  I called Mati and told him I’d found our little home for now.  Seattle reminded me of Southern Chile.

Stage 4: The Tipping Point.  Moving without waiting on a visa is stressful enough.  Add in a visa, you’re gonna need to start taking a lot of salt baths and listening to podcasts like, ‘The Anxiety Coaches’ (no shame) and ‘Dear Sugar.’  After all our planning and all-night conversations, it wasn’t real, real until the day of our fiance visa interview.  We prepared all morning (‘What do you LOVE about your fiance? Babe-this could be a question, come on.’), walked to the embassy and sat in a Starbucks nervously fifteen minutes before the interview.  I made Mati Google image pictures of National Parks scenery to soothe my nerves.  While Mati was in his interview, I waited for two hours in 90 degrees on a small piece of grass outside the U.S. Embassy.  The security guard kept sticking out his head like the man from Wizard of Oz, ‘Estas esperando algo?’ ‘Mi novio!’ For two hours I watched people come out of the embassy: one woman cried happy tears, another guy hung his head, and another one actually skipped across the street.  When Mati came out, I knew from one look:  He’d passed.

Stage 5: Love-Rejection of your current home.  Once shit gets real, and you have plane tickets, you will go through a love and hate cycle with your home.  First, I thought of all the ways that the U.S. would be so much better.  I felt myself rejecting Chile more than ever.  I had a running commentary of all its flaws 24-7 in my head (why so many wedge heels? uh SLOW service.  Another BBQ? This party is still going).  And then as we posted our apartment up for rent and began the packing logistics, I started to feel very attached to Chile, my apartment, Sunday lunches.  Maybe Chile drives me crazy sometimes.  But Chile has become part of me, and I’ll be sad to say goodbye.

Stage 6: Logistics, Logistics, Logistics.  Thinking of all the things you have to do, gives you serious stomach indigestion.  It’s time to download more meditation podcasts. And binge on Gilmore Girls, while drinking $3.00 red wine (because it’ll never be this cheap and good again).

Stage 7: Acceptance.  I’m slowly arriving to this stage.  I’m accepting that moving to the U.S. will be a wild ride, full of growth and transition.  But I moved to Chile, terrified and wide eyed and survived.  We can day dream about change, yearn for it, and when it arrives on our door step, it can be really scary.  But everything beautiful in my life, happened when I accepted and faced change.

Stage 8: Finding comfort in stories like your’s.   Lately, I’ve been seeking out stories of other couples, who’ve gone through similar experiences.  I will probably never meet the people I listen to talk on radio shows, like StoryCorps, about their experiences navigating two cultures in a marriage and family, but I feel comforted by them.  When you’re going through an experience, like a big move or visa process with your life partner, sometimes you can feel like you’re floating on a very lonely island.  But you have to remind yourself there’s thousands of people on that island with you, who have gone through the embassy waits, the paperwork, the excitement, the sadness of saying goodbye.  Take comfort in being part of that community.

These are the stages I’ve been through up to this moment.  More will follow, each with their ups and downs, as I get ready to leave Chile and start a new chapter in the U.S.

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You’ve been Served: U.S. vs. Chile Restaurant Service

Nothing brings the gringo in Chile more rage and frustration than…slowwwwww customer service.  Sometimes to amuse myself I read gringo reviews of restaurants in Chile.  The heat, the red face emojis, the passionate: WHY IS SERVICE SO SLOW IN CHILE? question makes me laugh (and yet, I’m also that person).  I’ve read reviews about restaurants in Santiago that made it sound like the gringo was being denied a human right: drinks served in under 10 minutes. 

I’m going to come clean.  I love efficient customer service.  It’s in my cultural DNA.  It took me a full two years to adjust to the slower pace of service in Chile.  But that first year, as I waited and waited at a restaurant for someone to just notice me, I felt an actual anxiety rising, as I thought things like: Would I ever eat?!! This is of course ridiculous. And it’s the byproduct of coming from a culture that gets aroused by words like: efficiency.  Meanwhile, my Chilean partner would remain relaxed and calm, as I whispered passive-aggressively, ‘I feel like we’ve been waiting awhile for our drinks….’ 

When Mati and I made our first trip to the U.S. together, I was so excited to show him it all: my childhood home, the Lincoln memorial at night, Yellowstone National Park and…fast customer service.

Mati and I sat down at a restaurant on one of our last vacation days. As soon as our buttcheeks hit the seat, a waitress zoomed to our table side, ‘Hello! Welcome! Can I get a drink order started for you folks today?!?’ We ordered our cocktails, and in three minutes they were placed on our table cloth, ‘Any food to get started for you folks?’   Not yet, we said, just enjoying our drinks.  ‘You know how I say American service is so good?’ I began.  Mati leaned forward (he sensed a Chilean compliment)

‘There’s something nice about Chilean service,’ I admitted.  Mati encouraged me to expand, ‘It’s like they give you space,’ I said.

‘Like, you can stay at a table drinking until four in the morning.  And they do notttt care.’’

‘They leave you be.’

‘But come on, sometimes it’s really annoying, babe.’

‘No it’s not. If you want something, you just…raise your hand,’ Mati defended.  

All right, I’ll be real with you.  Sometimes Chilean service still drives me up the wall.  And sometimes I actually appreciate the cool apathy and wordless intrusions at a street bar in Bellavista.  Both the U.S. and Chile have totally different service styles that reflect our cultures.  In the U.S., when I’d go out with friends at a bar in D.C. or Boston, a waiter would zoom up, ask us what we wanted to drink, and shortly after, put in our food order. Why is U.S. service, even in pubs and bars, often so much faster than here in Chile?

For one, U.S. bars close way earlier.  At the time most Chileans are touching up their makeup and hair to head out, bars all across American are shouting, ‘Last call!’ So, with way less time to get tips and tables, U.S. waiters want to get your order moving. Restaurants close even earlier.  If you linger too long at a table in the U.S., you  may here the following passive aggressive phrases: ‘No rush, but anything else for you tonight?’ ‘How’s everything coming here? Could I get a check for you?’ ‘No rush, but a check?’ And sometimes, the check will just appear telling you, it’s time to go.  I can’t imagine this happening in Chile.

I’ll never forget, when I went out with a good friend to a wine bar in Boston.  We poured ourselves a bottle or so, and had an epic heart to heart.  We’d been lingering at our table, in the middle of a deep conversation about relationships and marriage, when our check appeared. And then, ‘Sorry ladies, but can you take this conversation to the bar.’  This also would never happen in Chile.

Unlike the table-turning style of U.S. service, Chilean waiters have surrendered to the fact that when a big group of Chilean amigos sits down….they are not going anywhere for the next ten hours.  Do not even think about placing a check near them, or pushing them out the door with a dessert menu.  When you sit down at a table in Chile, it’s yours.  The waiter feels no pressure to hurry, no pressure to turn a table, and so the service is…well, slower.  But sometimes you have to ask, what’s the rush anyways?

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6 Books for major life transitions (like moving overseas)

Nothing comforts me more than walking into a bookstore.  Because books are my healing balm, my comfort-soul food.  When I moved to Chile, I went to book stores that were full of books inaccessible to me: there were all in Spanish.  It was like smelling food you couldn’t eat. So, I bought a Kindle.

I took my Kindle everywhere, like a beloved pet.  Living in a country, where the culture and language were so different from my own, made me turn to books more than ever.  These are books that brought me big doses of comfort and guidance when I needed it in Chile.  I hope they do the same for you.

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Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl Strayed.   My mom gave me this book to read on a flight home.  I was crying in my window seat by page 10.  This memoir follows the story of Strayed’s solo 1,100 mile hike of the Pacific Crest Trail after losing her mother to lung cancer and divorcing her husband at 22.  Read for: Female power, overcoming grief, addiction recovery, solo adventure inspiration, Instagram-worthy quotes.

Quote: ‘How wild it was, to let it be’- Cheryl Strayed

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The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is the story of a Mexican-American girl, Esperanza, growing up in a Latino neighborhood in Chicago.  Each chapter reads like a long poem, grappling with the pain and hope of the Latino immigrant experience.  Read for: U.S.-Latino identity,  first-generation families, growing up bi-cultural, Spanglish, beautiful writing.

 Quote: ‘In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting.’-Sandra Cisneros

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The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein.  This is one of those books that leaves your soul fed. And you will never look at a dog the same way.  The story is told through the eyes of an aging family dog, Enzo, who desperately wants to be reincarnated into a human. Enzo’s owner, Denny, is a professional race car driver.  Denny and his family are blindsided, when his wife becomes sick.  Read for: Animal lovers, a wise dog’s life advice, loss and illness, race car metaphors, a dog’s philosophy on reincarnation.

Quote: ‘I’ve always felt almost human. I’ve always known that there’s something about me that’s different than other dogs. Sure, I’m stuffed into a dog’s body, but that’s just the shell. It’s what’s inside that’s important. The soul. And my soul is very human.’-Garth Stein.

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Brooklyn, Colm Toibin.  Eilis Lacey leaves her mother and sister behind in Ireland, when a priest in Brooklyn sponsors her to come to the U.S.  I found this book really powerful to read my first year in Chile.  Even though Eilis is from a totally different time period and culture than me, I could relate to the duality of homesickness and creating a new home.  Read for: Homesickness, Irish immigrant experience, Cross-cultural love, 40’s flashback.

Quote: ‘Even though she let these thoughts run as fast as they would, she still stopped when her mind moved towards…the thought that she was going to lose this world for ever, that she would never have an ordinary day again in this ordinary place, that the rest of her life would be a struggle with the unfamiliar.’

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Rising Strong, Brené Brown.  Rising Strong is the Brené Brown book to read, if shit has hit the fan, and you’re wondering how to get back up.  It’s your post-grad, post-breakup, post-quarter life crisis, post-loss book.  And Brown’s style isn’t like most ‘self-help’ books, full of new agey, positive exclamations about the ‘universe.’  Instead, imagine a straightforward Texan mom/professor sitting you down at the kitchen table with some coffee and giving you a loving pep talk.  Read for: Relateable author, warm and honest voice, resilience, cup o’ comfort. 

Quote: ‘People who wade into discomfort and vulnerability and tell the truth about their stories are the real badasses’-Brené Brown

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Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan. While some books on this list deal with the heavier side of culture shock, this book is just over-the-top and hilarious.  And escapist. Rachel Chu and Nick Young met in New York, and dated like a typical young couple.  Now, it’s time for Rachel to meet Nick’s family in Singapore.  Little does she know Nick comes from one of the wealthiest families on the island.  Read for: A Gossip Girl vibe, mouth-watering descriptions of dumplings, in-law horror stories, culture shock.

Quote: ‘I don’t understand. How can a credit card ever be rejected? It’s not like it’s a kidney!’-Kevin Kwan

Happy reading, wherever you are in your life and in this world, readers!

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A love letter to Chilean food

I’ve always believed, one of the best ways to understand and fall in love with a culture is through your taste buds.   When someone leaves home, one of the first things they miss is food.  And with a passion.  I’ve had  many conversations with gringos here, where we describe in explicit and graphic detail the foods we miss from Superbowl Sunday nachos to a summer fruit pie (‘And the nachos are heavy but not soggy-‘ ‘No not soggy.’ ‘And there’s the sour cream with the olives-‘  ‘Uhhhhh sour cream, yesss.’  ‘With shredded meat-‘  ‘Stop.’)  But when you stop fantasizing about your home food, and start craving your new home’s food, a bond has been made.

I fought Chilean food for awhile.  I criticized it for being too plain, too repetitive, too heavy.  But then, I found Ñam and my taste buds had a change of heart. The Ñam festival starts with a curving line of food trucks, showing off everything from traditional Chilean plates spiced up by foodie hipsters to newbies like Thai ice cream (there was a long line for that one), upcoming craft breweries, Peruivan ceviche bars and taco stands.  After the food trucks, comes my favorite part.  Farmers, cheese makers, chefs and wineries show off Chile’s flavors from the windy and wild Patagonia to the stark beauty of the Northern deserts. This for me is the heart of Ñam.

The starlette of this year’s Ñam was cochayuyo, a thick ropey kelp found in Chilean seas. You can often find the dried kelp being sold on the streets of beach towns without glamour.  This year, cochayuyo, was sold by ‘Premium Cochayuyo’ vendors, and being used in food truck sausages to cut on fat and sodium (we tried it, it’s pretty tasty).

‘I’m feeling very Chilean,’ I told Mati, drinking from my plastic red wine cup, hunting for free cheese samples.  Ñam always does that to me (or the wine tastings)- it makes me feel connected to Chile.

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Food truck selling artisan sausages (or ‘Choripans’) at Ñam this Friday.

When I lived in Boston two years ago, I was probably the loneliest I had ever felt. Boston, while beautiful on the outside, can be a cold beast on the inside.  It is not the friendliest city, and in winter, when you’re living in a rickety (probably haunted) Victorian looking at another blizzard cover your car, it’s hard to feel love for the city.  The solution? Learn to love its food.  I drove out to fishing towns, like Gloucester, and hunted for the perfect bowl of Clam Chowder.  I went out with girlfriends to oyster bars and a Halloween brew fest in Salem (yes, the Salem of the witches),  and I developed a little soft spot for Boston.

I did the same with Chile.  I learned to love Chilean dishes.  To appreciate them for the history and culture behind them.  I became more curious, wanting to try and learn more.  And through food, Chile and I got a little closer. Eventually, I stopped craving my American dishes so much.  Instead, when I was hungry, I actually craved…Chilean food.

Like on our third day of camping in Parque Congillo, where we’d eaten nothing but pasta and canned beans for three days. I asked Mati on a rainy hike, ‘Describe your perfect Chilean meal right now.’   ‘Well, first it would start with a Kuntsmann beer. Then papas rusticas-‘ ‘With merken mayonaise. ‘Ohhhhh, ya.’ I was getting very hungry on that hike, ‘Then, a fresh caught fish,’ I said, ‘Like fresh, fresh with lemon, olive oil and salt-‘ ‘Some tomatoes and salt.’ We were quiet for awhile imaging our perfect meal.

The next day, we drove after a breakfast of canned tuna on crackers to Valdivia, a city famous for its river walk and seafood markets.  We sat down at a restaurant at 3pm, and opened the menus.  Thirty seconds later, we ordered, ‘We’ll take the empanadas, the machas, some papas rusticas with mayo merken, the fish of the day and…a side of the crab pie.’  With two Kuntsmanns.  It was the meal I’d been craving.  A Chilean feast.

So, if you’re new to Santiago, and you’re longing for your favorite pizza joint or your family’s Sunday football nachos, take a walk to Ñam and start to fall in love with Chile through your stomach first.

Photo creds: Sarah Mason (front photo)

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Expat Nostalgia & the Ghosts of Home

This week my mom called me exasperated, ‘Do you want your textbooks?’ ‘My texbooks? No, I don’t want my textbooks.’ ‘Well, dad’s not talking to me because I threw them out.’ Currently,  my mom is in the depths of a massive house purging for our upcoming backyard wedding.  While I did not mourn my mom calling 1-800 Junk to throw out my 8th grade textbooks, I am like my dad-too sentimental and nostalgic.

Moving to Chile activated my nostalgia to new levels.  When I first moved to Chile, I didn’t know when I was coming home.  I talked about childhood and high school memories like a grandmother, weaving sepia-toned stories of the ‘homeland.’ My memories could be triggered by the slightest smell, song or movie clip.

But nothing triggered my nostalgia more than my best friend, Lena, getting engaged.  One of my biggest fears, when I moved to Chile was that after missing lots of small things, I eventually would start to miss the big things-like my best friend’s wedding.  So, Mati and I got tickets to come to Lena’s wedding in October.  That same weekend was my dad’s 60th birthday.  Finally, I wouldn’t be missing out.

The morning Mati and I left for Lena’s wedding, we were jet-lagged and dragging our bags, when my mom came running down the driveway with a big envelope, ‘It’s HERE! It’s HERE!’  She slammed the U.S. government packet on the counter, ‘Your petition is approved!’ The first step of our U.S. fiance visa had been approved in just five weeks.  As I was out the door to my best friend’s wedding, my mom was already planning our wedding, ‘I’m thinking September, fall time, Woodlawn-’ ‘Mom, we gotta go-‘ ‘Intimate, evening, Pisco Sours-‘

The next day I saw Lena get married on a Virginia farm, surrounded by the Blue Ridge mountains.  The rain had stopped just for the ceremony.  Our friends sang, ‘Here Comes the Sun,’ as she walked down the aisle with her mom and dad, and14606298_10100481891063501_1609556937900138836_n when a rainbow appeared, the reverend said, ‘I think the Big Guy has sealed the deal on this union.’  We were laughing and crying.  The night of Lena’s wedding, I was transported back in time and also so sweetly present. That night  I danced and sang with my friends like we were an old band, playing one wild, reunion concert just for a night.

The next day I was hungover with post-wedding blues and wine.   But it was my dad’s 60th birthday, and we were surprising him with a party at Woodlawn Manor, a house that our Quaker ancestors held onto during the Civil War.  My dad has been writing a book, Sons and Daughters of Woodlawn, since I first heard about the Civil War from Mrs. Carey in 4th grade history.

All suited up in the car together, my dad thought we were headed to his birthday dinner in D.C., until Mati and I pleaded to see Woodlawn Manor for a wedding venue, ‘You have to do that now?’ my dad asked.  ‘Bill, just do it,’ my mom said, turning around to wink at us in the backseat.  ‘I’m really going out of my way, Donna. We are going to be so late-goddammit.’

My dad zoomed so angrily past Woodlawn Manor, gravel flying behind our wheels, that he didn’t even notice our entire extended family standing in the windows, ‘I’ll just wait in the car,’ my dad kept saying, until I had to beg him to go into the house.  When he went into the house, we opened the door to a room full of family.  My dad went from muttering and huffy to teary eyed  and a hand on his heart, saying, ‘You really got me, you really got me.’

birthday cake

The room was full of family, 70’s folk music, champagne and ghosts.  No, not metaphorical nostalgia ghosts.  Real ghosts.  Woodlawn Manor is famously haunted.  When I was a kid, I bought this book in the gift store called Ghosts of Woodlawn, with gray watercolor pictures depicting the hauntings.  This book terrified and fascinated me, because my family was in the book (Peg-legged Captain John Mason).   I was scared of ghosts.  Except one-my great, great sailor uncle, Peg Legged Captain John Mason.

It had been ten plus years, since I’d been to Woodlawn.  As our family took pictures with my dad, and servers refilled wine glasses, I left the party room to wander the house with Mati.  The rooms in Woodlawn are old with sparse furniture and tall windows.  ‘This place feels haunted,’ Mati said to me. ‘Doesn’t it?’ I smiled.  Somewhere in the house was the ghost of my great-great uncle, making peg-leg sounds that would creep the hell out of some historical preservation intern or gift store cashier.  But for me, it wasn’t creepy.  It was comforting.  I could live at the end of the world, leave this house for ten years and still come back to the good ghosts of the past.

That weekend was full of ghosts: ghosts of college days and childhood days.  There were real ghosts too, haunting the same rooms they had when I was a kid.  But I wasn’t living in the past the entire weekend.  Because beautiful things were blooming in the present: my friend getting married, Mati and I’s visa coming through, my dad being surprised to tears on his birthday.  For a weekend, nostalgia and the now were one, and I felt whole.

Questions for readers: What makes you feel nostalgic? Have you become more nostalgic after a move abroad or to another city?

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The Social Endurance of Chileans

The first night, Mati and I had an American couple come over to our apartment, I was really excited.  We’d been in Santiago for a few months, and our social life had been puro Chileno.  To get ready for our first double date with the Minnesotans, I  rushed to the grocery store to get the cream cheese and pepper jelly (the cocktail staple of any dinner party at my house in 1998) and some red wine. I had a great time, laughing openly about Chilean/U.S. differences, and just socializing with friends from the homeland.

A little before midnight, the couple wrapped up with the classic gringo goodbye: ‘Well, we should get going.’  Mati looked at me a little alarmed.  What was happening? They were leaving, and I was letting them?  In Chile, even if it is 4:00am, even if we’ve been together for twelve plus hours, the goodbye is always met with resistance.  The host puts up a fight, ‘Leaving already! No stay! Come on, stay! Un rato mas!’  Un rato mas (a little longer) could be anywhere from fifteen minutes to three more hours.

In the US of A, when the guest says they ‘should get going now,’ the host says, ‘Ok, thanks for coming over, Jimmy’ and walks Jimmy to the door.   But in Chile, you have to fight for your guests. Let them know how much you enjoyed their company for seventy-two hours, and how much you would love to just have one more drink.  To just let your guests walk out the door without a protest is almost insulting.  Here’s me trying to leave any family event:

Me: We should get going.

Family: Pero, porque?

Me: Porque….

Family: Quieres un te?

Me: No, no gracias.

Family: Serio?! No quieres un cafecito, un pancito, un pastelito, un

Me: Serio, estoy llena (rubs full belly).

Family: Bueno. Entonces. Como tu quieres

So when I peacefully closed the door on the Minnesotan couple at 11:45, Mati wanted to know if something was ‘wrong.’ I had to explain that gringos get sleepy early, and we love to fall asleep in our beds at a healthy 12:30-1:00-yes, even on the weekends. If you leave a party in Chile before 3am, you may be seen as a little anti-social.  Or you better have a really good excuse.  But before midnight?  That’s when most people will be arriving with their Lider Express bags of Lays chips, olives and pisco liquor and three over-sized bottles of Coca Cola.

Confession: I’ve never gotten used to the Chileans’ social endurance.

The social endurance of Chileans is truly impressive.  In the U.S., we socialize efficiently.  If you meet for lunch, you meet for lunch.  If you go to a barbecue, you eat your hamburgers and have your three beers and head home, when you start to feel ‘sleepy’ (8pm).  Weddings end at a prompt 11pm.  And at 10:30 the venue you paid $20,000 for will be flickering their lights to let you know you have exactly a half hour of fun left.  At a wedding in Chile, they’re just finishing their first cocktail at 11pm or maybe, maybe they’ve made it to the salad course.

I’ve been here for two plus years, and I’ve accepted my limit like a runner who can only run the half marathon.  Never the full.  I’m still amazed how a Saturday lunch can last until 6am, or guests are still arriving at a party until 2am.  In Chile, it seems that life is built around spending time and building relationships with others.  And there’s beauty in that.  You have close-knit families, deep lifelong friendships and social circles that are really extended family.

In the U.S., we’ve become more nomadic than ever, bouncing around to new jobs and cities every few years.  The friend groups I’ve made after college have been temporary and fleeting, with close bonds broken, as soon as we move.  Thankfully, I’ve stayed close with my girlfriend circle,  keeping up to date on each other’s every reaction to Gilmore Girls (the Revival) and Monday morning feelings.  But unlike my Chilean partner, Mati, my close friendships from high school and elementary school have long since faded with moves to grad school, new jobs, and the end of the Earth (Chile).

We are restless and nomadic, many of us U.S. millennials.  Moving from home makes you more independent.  But sometimes lonely and isolated.  I’ve grown up in a culture, where the individual comes first, where ‘me’ time is encouraged.  Introverts even have their own movement, lead by Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.  I can’t imagine this book being a best-seller in Chile.

Last year, we held New Year’s Eve at our apartment. I knew NYE  would test my social endurance training of the past year.  If a Saturday night cookout is a social marathon in Chile, then NYE would be their Iron Man.  At 5am, I was still standing.  After hours of dancing and drinking with the family, I was eager to start drunk cleaning the silly string and funfetti  all over our apartment.  Everyone was talking on the terrace,  smoking their digestive cigarettes and finishing their drinks.

As I began to wash the dishes, I saw my mother-in-law turn on the oven.

‘Oh, what are you doing?’ I asked her.

‘Cooking the empanadas,’ she said.  Endurance, ladies and gentlemen.

Photo Credit: Sarah Mason (Check out her work at:  https://www.flickr.com/search/people/?username=sarah%20mason)

 

 

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Meet the Padres

For any couple, introducing  two families can be a stressful event.  Because every family is its own little culture, even in the same country.  If Mati and I were a couple, who’d grown up in the same city or even state, our parents would have probably met for the first time at some shopping center tapas restaurant.  It would have been a little stressful, but casual. Instead, the meeting of our families was an international event.  It happened, when my family flew down to visit me six months after I’d moved.

When my family first arrived at the International Airport in Santiago,  they were surprisingly rested.  I had to explain to Mati that my mom has been giving the family Xanax strong enough for ponies on flights, since the family vacation to Australia ten years ago.  My family claimed they were, ‘Ready to tour!’ No, they didn’t need a nap. Just coffee.

We went with my family to the Marriot Hotel, where we excitedly caught up, raising our voices louder and louder, drinking more and more coffee in the breakfast bar, until my family said, ‘Let’s go!’

Fifteen minutes into our tour of La Moneda Palace, my parents spotted a Starbucks, ‘Oh! Rachel get us coffees! TWO Ventis ONE Grande!’  ‘Didn’t we just have coffee at the hotel?’ Mati had asked me.  After drinking doll-sized cups of coffee for the past six months, it was shocking to see my mom carrying ten-inch  tall Venti cups  out into the centro streets. After recharging with coffees,  I took my family through Mercado Central, Plaza de Armas, and The Clinic for tablas of empanadas and meats paired with Kuntsmann beer.  My family loved Santiago.  We mostly ate, drank and walked our way through the city.

Seeing their reaction to the city was a changing point for me.  I’d built up a lot of angst in Santiago as I adjusted to the grueling pace and chaos of daily life.  But seeing my sister jump back, as she saw sea urchins thrown on ice at Mercado Central, or my parents eating Miel de Ulmo and Dulce de Leche icecream in front of Emporio de Rosa like kids, shone Santiago in a fresh light.  It was a pretty cool city sometimes.

The day before the lunch with Mati’s parents, I briefed my family on cultural customs (kiss on the cheek, expect ‘lunch’ to last until at least 8pm, and you will be asked to eat and drink more than you can humanly digest, so Pace. Your. Selves.)   ‘And one more thing, just don’t…you know,’ I kept saying to my parents.  ‘What? What?’ my mom challenged.  ‘You know.’

Everyone was nervous.  But when we came through the doors of Mati’s house, there was an outburst of immediate hugs, kisses on the cheeks and greetings that didn’t need translating.  The two families had met.  My family was greeted with a round of Pisco Sours to start.  I shot a side glare to my mom and sister, ‘Go slow,’ my eyes said, ‘This is just the beginning.’  Surprisingly, my family, who can throw back like college linebackers, sipped their Pisco Sours. Because I had prepared them.

‘Now the wine! We have more bottles!’ Mati’s dad placed a bottle of white wine to pair with the ceviche, before the pisco sours had even been finished, ‘Red wine with the meat!’  Pace yourselves.

By the time the meat was ready, the language barriers had melted, and my sister had slipped into the kitchen and taken the pisco sour mix  off the blender to bring back to the table.  At that point, it flew.  Our parents took turns, standing up at the table to give emotional toasts, which I loosely translated, while squeezing Mati’s hand under the table too tight, until he had to tell me to, ‘Reeeelaxxxx.’ It was going well.  Mati’s aunts and cousins popped in throughout the night, coming to see the gringa family.

Our families are different.  Mati’s mom crochets lace curtains for the house,  my mom glue gunned on my Girl Scout patches.  Mati’s parents make big, homemade lunches on Sundays, where we sit for five, six hours, until my legs are asleep and my mouth is dry from talking.  My family, as my sister said, inhales their food and washes it down with gulps of beer like Vikings (it’s actually really impressive).   Mati’s family never raises their voices in public.  My family’s voices shouldn’t be near avalanche risk zones.  We are two very different families, but for one night we brought them together.  And we didn’t always need to translate.

Photo credit: Sarah Mason (check out her work at: https://www.flickr.com/search/people/?username=sarah%20mason)

 

 

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Two Years at the End of the Earth: Lessons Learned

Today at breakfast, I asked my fiance, ‘After two years, do you think I’ve become more ‘Chilean’?’  This question is always followed by a careful pause and the question,‘Is this a trap?’  I asked this question every month after moving to Santiago.  I was always waiting for the magical day, when I would wake up walking, talking and moving like a Chilena.

Two years ago, I did the scariest, bravest thing I’ve done yet.  I moved to Santiago, Chile to give a relationship a chance.  I quit my job at a small nonprofit in Boston, packed up my apartment in one night after a goodbye party, and landed in a foreign country.  Two years later, I’m getting ready to pack up another apartment.  This time with my fiance to move to the U.S.

When I first moved here, I started a blog called ‘From the 20th Floor.’  I tried to write fun, quirky articles about living in Chile with travel-bloggy titles like, ‘5 Cheap Things to do in Santiago.’  Most of these blog entries were drenched in homesickness and culture shock, even the ones about where to get good ice cream (MO by Bellas Artes Metro, P.S.).

Now, I’m back, two years later.  Preparing for the next big move, and loving the lessons Chile gave me.  Here are some of the best lessons and insights, I’ve learned living here.

1.Farmers markets don’t need to be cute: You know how U.S. farmers market are so freaking….cute?  There’s someone playing a cello, and too many dried bundles of lavender.  When I went to my first ‘farmer’s market’ in Chile, it was nasty and functional: dogs under lettuce tables, vegetables being violently machete chopped and dozens of Chileans shouldering each other out for the freshest, cheapest produce.  Once horrifying, now a weekend highlight. I love how affordable it is to buy fresh fruit and veggies to experiment with, and how easy it is to be healthy here.

2.Bitch & then accept.  Sometimes, I just need to get it out: all the cultural differences that challenge me everyday.  When I first moved here, bitching was addictive.  But then I learned, bitching was what was keeping me stuck.  It wasn’t moving me forward.  So, I learned to bitch, accept, and move on.

3. Love what’s local. When I first moved here, I could only see the holes.  The things that were missing in the grocery store. Where was the ______?  As time went by, I stopped missing maple syrup and peanut butter so much, and started seeking the local gems: great wine, the smoky Merken spice, floral honeys, bright lemons and more.  I got curious about Chilean food, I wanted to celebrate and cook the fresh things from our street market.

4. You can have two homes.  ‘I’m going home.’ Which home?  Virginia, where my family and friends live, where every street and park is layered with memories from childhood and high school?  Or is it my apartment in Chile, where I cook dinner with my partner every night and have popcorn Netflix marathons?  I don’t think they’ll ever be one, clear home.  Instead, we’ll carry around two countries, two cultures, two histories with us, wherever we go.  You know, when you get married, they say you also ‘marry the family.’ Well, we’re also marrying into each other’s countries.