In Chile, good manners and proper hosting etiquette stipulate that not only jackets are placed on the host’s bed, but women’s purses too.
Note to all past, present, and future hosts: Please do not take what I am about to say personally. No offense is intended—at all… What you are about to read is simply a bit of mental musing on yet another cultural difference and my attempts to make sense out it all.
Here’s another one of those little things about life in Chile that I should be used to by now but that still takes me by surprise over and over again. The first time a charming new friend said upon my arrival at her birthday party, “Let me take your coat and purse,” I was stunned but still in the “when in Rome mode,” so I handed over my jacket along with all my cash, credit cards, checkbook, ID, and date book (no cell phone in those days)… basically, every portable thing of value I owned and watched it all disappear into her bedroom.
As the house filled up with guests and the ratio of people I knew vs. those I didn’t increasingly widened, and as I realized that not even she knew everyone wandering about her house, the triple double dragon knot in my stomach (or was it a lark’s head hitch? or a Portuguese bowline?) just wouldn’t ease up: My Purse Was Unattended.
The evening ended well, and I recovered my purse with all its contents intact, but I kept wondering what I would have done if something had indeed disappeared. I’ve since heard many stories of the credit card that slips away during a party, that one check that goes missing from the middle of the checkbook (and later turns up cashed for some budget-devastating amount), the wallet that ends up $10 lucas lighter (and the accompanying feeling of doubt—did I really have that money when I got here? Very uncomfortable.
How embarrassing would it be to have to tell someone that something was stolen from me at their house? What is the proper Manual de Carreño (Latin America’s Emily Post) response to that situation? How should the host respond? Or maybe it would be rude to tell the host? But wouldn’t s/he want to know? Or would s/he feel like I was making some kind of accusation? Who is responsible in these situations? I always figured it was my responsibility to take care of my purse and its contents, so if I abandon it on someone’s bed for 6 hours, wouldn’t that make it my own damned fault? Too many uncomfortable considerations.
Please don’t think it’s a case of hanging out with shady characters. Not at all. I certainly trust my hosts, and I’m not so paranoid that I worry in small groups of friends. But parties, especially birthdays, tend to get very large here. People show up with unknown friends in tow. Teenage and college-age kids of the household often make an appearance with a gaggle of friends and friends of friends. It’s not at all uncommon to see 50 or more people troop through a house during the course of a 6-8-hour birthday party. And at every one of those celebrations, the host’s bed will be heavily laden with purses.
I admit that my inner purse GPS has become far more advanced since moving to Santiago—a large city in which pickpockets and purse snatchers are pretty common (see Bye Bye Blackberry). In fact, when I go to visit my family in small-town America, where windows don’t have bars, cars don’t have alarms, gas caps don’t require keys, and purses dangle freely from restaurant chairs, they accuse me of rivaling Queen Elizabeth for purse-related paranoia, but honestly, I’m sure my purse has more valuable contents (are far less security) than the Queen’s handbag does!
Maybe there’s some secret Chilean purse-toting knowledge that gets passed down from mother to daughter; but the fact that I never had a Chilean mother would place me cluelessly dawdling behind the proverbial door when that information got passed along. Maybe all those purses contain no more than lipstick and keys, so their location is a non-issue. Maybe I need to check for a “Purse Content 101” course with a good section on party-going.
It is also true that I will usually want to get something out of my bag over the course of the evening. Although I will probably have no need for cash, check, or plastic, I just might want to get my hands on other practical items like tissues, cough drops, a pen, a date book, a business card, a cell phone, a small camera, etc. at some point during the evening!
So here’s my strategy. I hand over my jacket and politely decline the purse-relieving offer by stating, quite truthfully, that I will need to get something out of it during the night, and then I set it somewhere out of the way but within reach and get on with enjoying the party.