May I take your purse?

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.

Yes, really.


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.

Purses-400As 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.

What's in the Queen's Handbag

What’s in the Queen’s Handbag, by Phil Dampier & Ashley Walton

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.

28 responses to “May I take your purse?

  1. I’m with you, Margaret. I generally don’t carry a purse, but if I do, I know where it is and have it within eyeshot (TM) the whole evening. And I try to put anything valuable/pricey in pockets. Easier in the winter with bulky clothes, but I absolutely would not abandon a purse into someone’s bedroom. I’ve even been to parties (somewhat recently) where the hosts wonder where some of their stuff has gone. So Emily Post and that other guy be darned, I’m keeping the valuables on my person!

  2. Hi Eileen- well thanks for backing me up on this one! And yes, I’d forgotten that people have told me they’ve had things disappear after a party- like bottles of perfume and especially things from the bathroom, which does actually make some kind of klepto-sense because it’s the one place a thief can rest assured that he or she will not be observed in the act!
    But let me just say (lest we cause any confusion) that this is NOT generally the case–at least among my friends!

  3. Wow Peg….I thought that I obsessed over things, but you take it to a new and oh so eloquent level !
    Also…….your comments actually make me feel “normal ” for the way I have felt sometimes! Thanks so much for your honest and oh so well written piece !

  4. So Jude- Are you suggestion a bit of OCD on my part? (I’ll have to mull that one around for a while!)
    But glad to hear that you too have felt uncomfortable in these situations–as in I am not alone!

  5. No…No Peg, do not take what I said the wrong way…’s just nice to know that I am not alone in the world of ” what the hell did I do that for, if I did not feel comfortable with it “.
    I think that the point that you made regarding the fact that we do not have “Chilean Moms” teaching us the way things work here is so eye-opening for me.
    And that works on so many different details of learning how to live in an adopted country.
    Loved the piece and I love you… the wonderful way that you are !!!!!!

  6. Ha-ha… I was just kidding! But yes, I think there are probably many of us who do things we are not comfortable with just because we want to fit in…
    And um–thanks– I’m blushing!
    Love you too!

  7. Well I’ve lost 3 jackets over the years at parties (not in Chile, though) having left them on the host’s bed so I tend to be paranoid about leaving anything whatsoever at big parties. No way in hell I’d leave a small bag with all my money and documents on anyone’s bed apart from maybe at a small dinner party or lunch.

    And when Allie and I recently went to the US, she wouldn’t let her hand-bag out of her sight in restaurants and bars. She was called paranoid a few times. The whole ‘if you look away for a second someone will steal everything you own, perhaps even your kidney’ thing that’s drummed into every foreigner by Chileans (usually just out of concern and the desire that nothing bad happens to them on their visit to Chile) really gets into your head after a while 🙂

  8. Well, yeah, it gets into your head when you discover that there’s a reason for it! I’m with Allie–better safe than sorry! Losing your purse can really screw up an evening!

  9. Oh Well…
    I rather lose a purse, $10 lucas, a jacket… or what ever I can get or buy again… I feel you are hanging around with the wrong crowd … I had live in Chile for several years, travel and lived in other several countries … I never ever felt so safe with my children in another place other than Chile and Argentina. Meaning my children can go any place, visit any friend sleep over in any home and they will be safe…
    We are living in USA now, last semester one of the male parents at my daughter school was offering drugs not only pot also cocaine to a 11, 12, 13, 14 years old little girls… 3 girls were sexually abused… An my dear I live in a very high class neighborhood … The men still free …
    A purse, $10 lucas, or what ever… “a screw up evening”
    what about to live in a society that still rights, little girls innocence right. “$10 lucas” …
    Do a background check on your friends, before you accept an invitation.
    Get well!

  10. Hi Solange-
    I think we’re talking about apples and oranges. And while yes, I generally feel safer here in Santiago than I would in many other large cities in the world, theft is still common and not pleasant…
    Drug use and sex abuse is something entirely different, and just because I don’t want to lose things that can be replaced does not mean I condone any other kind of abuse!

  11. It is about integrity my dear.
    What do you value the most!!!!
    $10 lucas, plastic, a jacker … you do really build strategy around It?
    No apples, no oranges…
    we are free to choose.
    we are talking about culture, reflections on a culture …
    I express my ” little bit of cultural differences”
    … may I say …
    Sweet heart, drug sex abuse … $10 lucas, plastic, a jacket… they are cultural differences.
    pick pocket, yes … I had the experience … But I had never ever felt that my purse will be violated over a friend’s home.
    Theft are very common in my area also, very common they still souls, future and hope.
    May I say… they are a little bit more than not pleasant.
    Honey, do not take it personally it is “simply a bit of mental musing on yet another cultural difference”
    I hope you can feel safe over your friends parties.
    It all about trust!!!! integrity, values, cultural differences.
    Good luck !!! I need it too, If you can read carefully… We got it worst that you.
    Love and light

  12. I always have my purse with me on the few days it actually makes it out with me and I probably wouldn’t be able to part with it at a party because of what you mentioned earlier, i have chapstick, a cell phone, tissues and gum i’m sure i’ll want at some point.

    And, when all else fails in your fight to keep you purse at a party, reference the Sex and the City episode where Carrie’s shoes are stolen at a party where the hosts make her take her gorgeous new shoes off at the door.

  13. hah! i also just realized that Italo offered to hang your purse up on the coat rack! i think you explained yourself quite well with that one 🙂

  14. Isabel- ha-ha… Yes, I remembered that whole scene when I was writing- but HONEST I was JOKING!! I would not have had a problem in that circumstance because it was just the 4 of us! My problem is when I’m at a big party and don’t know everyone. Never saw that Sex and the City episode… but I can imagine!

  15. Hmm, I have actually never been at a party in Chile where the host has offered to take my purse/coat. Maybe my friends just don’t have good manners 🙂

    And I agree with Peg on this, Solange, you’re definitely comparing apples to oranges. That’s a whole different set of problems to deal with.

  16. Thanks Kyle, although I think Solange and I will just have to agree to disagree on the whole fruit saladness of these issues!

  17. It is just to compare different realities… different values, different experiences.
    We, people that live in other countries have to adjust to another society, another thinking, another set of values…
    I am not agree or disagree, to me it is all about trust and what is more important in our life.
    We can compare lot of thing that are not very usual to us …
    I know that my experience was very traumatic and my soul was touched very deep in side. and I am causing a little bit of commotion… To me it is a basic feeling of feeling safe and trust the environment were I go and the people that is around me.
    Love and light

  18. It’s funny you write this, Margaret, because we went to a small get together in Buenos Aires last week. The hosts are amazing Brazilian friends whom I trust completely, but when my girlfriend took my purse and jacket for the “bed toss,” I had that instinctive bad feeling that I didn’t know the other guests and didn’t want my belongings to be out of eyesight. There were only about 15 people at the party and they all seemed like trustworthy people, so I didn’t obsess too much. But still, like you said, better not to let our guard down.

    I like Eileen’s take. Keep money and cards in pockets.

  19. OK, so it’s not just Chile then–and not just me either!
    About cards and $$ in pockets- the plastic bends and the lucas fall out! I was shooting an event not too long ago and someone came up to tell me that I had several bills dangling out of my back pocket!
    And then there’s the issue about all the OTHER stuff I always seem to want to carry around just in case!

  20. I’m totally with you. There is only so much pocket room.

    I have been known to have Argentine pesos sticking out of my jacket breast pockets when I forget to close them. That’s pretty much a walking advert for robbery. 😉

  21. Ha-ha… a walking money tree!
    And even if someone doesn’t take the money from you, eventually it will just fall out and you lose it that way.

  22. I haven’t heard of this from Spain (but then, as a man, I don’t really carry a purse 🙂 but I am pretty sure that depending on the occasion most spanish women would take their purse with them. If I were carrying something, like a rucksack or anything, would opt for the same as you do: Decline politley and just place it somewhere within eye-sight. And just to comment on the “cultural difference…” After 5 years in Spain I reasonably learned than nobody gives a toss about cultural differences – except for culturally aware Northern Europeans and -americans (like myself). Therefore I just do what I feel is best (for me in the given situation) and even make my spanish hosts and friends happy, by living up to their stereotype as “el alemán cabeza cuadrada”! 🙂

  23. bcnnow- interesting comment on the importance of cultural differences…So are you saying that you think that most people just want to stick with their own cultural assumptions and stereotypes and prefer to think that others are just doing it ‘wrong’ or weird? Hmmm, could be… I’m going to have to mull that around for a while.
    Thanks for the insight!

  24. I just saw this forum post in which a woman says her daughter had $80 stolen from her purse at a graduation party and asks if the host should reimburse. Interesting discussion!

  25. Interesting!
    I live in San Diego California, native surf gal.
    I had never experience robbery from a friend’s home but at my work our lunches had been taken and don’t leave your jacket unattended, you might not see it any more.
    I agree with bcnnow about cultural differences and stereotype.
    Reading your first paragraph tells me a lot. you are trying to cover your self … I am innocent but… there is bar on the windows. There is dogs on the streets. My beautiful blackberry is gone ! OMG!!! I don’t trust my friends. It is hard to make friends.
    We Americans…
    We go to other countries and tell people how to live their lives and criticize their lifestyle.
    No wonder people don’t like us.
    My son and 3 friend left their skateboard out side of the Mac. store Del Mar Ca. when they walk out bye, bye… gone, gone …
    If your were my friend… I wont invite you any more.
    Happy weekend!

  26. Nice article Margaret
    My son and 3 friend left their boards out side Mac store, when they were done and when to pick up their boards bye,bye gone,gone.
    We Americans are really good on criticized other cultures, stereotype societies and races and we do not see our own.
    Bars on the windows, dogs on the street,toilet seats offered at chilean parada, not trusting your guest or guest’s friends, hard to make friends, my beautiful blackberry OMG! … on and on …
    It gets on your head “I will add” It is on your head.
    We (American) are very good on telling other cultures how to live their life. We get on every body business. some people don’t like to see their own.
    Happy weekend!

  27. Hi Sherry- I’m not telling anyone how to live their life… but I do think we all have a right to reflect up0n how things around us our affect our own lives.
    And for the record- I never said or implied that I did not trust my friends–but rather that people open their homes to people not even they know, and I would rather prevent a problem than have to deal with unfortunate consequences later. And why should anyone be offended if a woman does not want to leave her purse unattended? Does anyone expect men to leave their wallets lying around unattended? Of course not.
    Losing the blackberry was my own damn fault for NOT paying close enough attention to my things–it doesn’t work both ways- you’re either responsible for your stuff or you aren’t. I just prefer to be responsible!

  28. Pingback: Cachando Chile: a Year in Review « Cachando Chile: Reflections on Chilean Culture

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