Canadian gringa Eileen Shea has been reflecting on Chileans and their culture since she first met her husband in Montreal in 1977, and she sure has a lot to say. In fact, she turned her insights into a career and can be found pretty regularly doing stand up comedy around town. Her hilarious routines on national TV and work with Chilean humorist Coco Legrand have earned her plenty of laughs—along with considerable respect—among Chileans and gringos alike. She originally performed only in Spanish, but now also performs in English and French as well.
When we did the group blog on First Impressions of Chile, I asked Eileen (who has been here for 21 years now) to sit down and do what she does best… reflect on her own first impressions of Chileans at home and abroad. I’m sure you’ll want to hear even more—so be sure to check out her next appearances and her own website (listed below).
MS: I know you met your husband in Canada in 1977, but when did you first come to Chile?
ES: I first visited Chile in the early eighties (I don’t remember the exact year—I was raising two small boys at the time—all of the late seventies and early eighties is but a blur). We came to visit several times before moving here in 1988. When you visit, you spend the first half of your trip being invited to welcoming meals in people’s homes and being served pastel de choclo (in the summer) or asados (winter) with lots of pisco and wine, and the second half saying goodbye with lots of pisco and wine, which is very bad for the liver.
I remember that first flight down. The stewardess did her nails shortly after supper was served, so anyone wanting a second glass of wine was instructed to just serve himself while she pointed with wet nails to the various drawers and fridges.
I remember the biblical irony of the deplaning process: people pushing and shoving to be the first off the plane, only to be put on a bus from which they would be last to disembark.
It was my husband’s first trip back to Chile since leaving after a stint in several different detention centres and prison camps. I had half the money and a large photograph of him that I thought could be used if he were arrested at the airport and taken away and I had to hold a press conference, since there was no way to know if he was being sought by the authorities. As we stood in line to show our passports, an official shouted “Sr. Francisco Ruiz, Sr. Francisco Ruiz” and my heart sank, since that was his name.
“Come with me, please,” said the official when Francisco identified himself.
And off they went. Minutes later, he came back for me and I thought I was a goner. “I know your brother-in-law,” the man whispered, “I can get you through faster.” And thus I was introduced to my first “pituto”, a favour done for someone just because you know someone they know. Chile turned out to be a six-degrees-of-separation little world where the magic words “Me mandó el Flaco” could open almost any door. I still say that when I need a favour and have never been challenged to say just what “Flaco” I am referring to, since it is a common nickname and so almost anyone is likely to know someone with that name and let you through the barrier or stamp that document. Many a favour has been bestowed on me since then in Chile thanks to my old friend, Flaco, whoever he is.
When we came out to where people were awaiting arriving passengers, only my husband’s closest relatives were there. All four hundred of them. The guy has 6 grandmothers—and all these years later, it still isn’t clear to me how this could have happened.
We piled in—8 to a taxi. As the guest of honour, I got to sit on the clutch. And off we went, to meet the characters in what would eventually be my new life.
So you finally moved here for good in 1988. Have you found these “characters” to be very different from the characters at home?
Well, just as an example: twice in my life, I have had a close girlfriend call me after discovering her husband had been unfaithful. The first one was Chilean and the second one was Canadian. Both were in a terrible state, weeping and desperate and in both cases, I told them to jump into a cab and come right over. When it happened to my Chilean girlfriend, she arrived with her eyeliner smeared all over her face, bawling her eyes out, lashing out at the philanderer and wiping her tears on her sleeve. When it was the turn of my Canadian girlfriend, she arrived at my door with a family-size box of Kleenexs she had stopped to buy on the way over. I opened the door, saw her looking like she had been run over by a bus, saw the box of Kleenex in her hand, and thought to myself that the box of tissues and the ability to think straight enough to ask the taxi driver to stop along the way somehow embodied an essential difference between gringos and latinos.
When I first got to know Chileans, they were Chileans living outside their country. After meeting my Chilean husband in Montréal in 1977, half my social life took place in the Chilean community. After eleven years of moving in circles of Chileans living outside Chile, we moved to Chile in 1988. Chileans have often remarked to me “You gringos are so cold – you take your old parents and grandparents and put them in institutions rather than allow them to live with you.”
It seems they had seen a documentary about the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic and how the old folk would be set onto ice floes and pushed out to sea, and the Chileans understood this to be a national tradition, but I did my best to dispel the misunderstanding. “After all,” I would argue, “why would I send my poor mother out to freeze to death in sub-zero cold when I could have her with me at home … taking care of my children and cooking for free…?”
Another rude awakening had to do with how Chileans dragged their children everywhere. I once invited a Chilean woman and a Chilean couple for supper and I did not mention their children in the invitation. My people think the whole purpose of a Saturday night is NOT to be with your children. I splurged on a chicken (we had no money). I figured one scrawny bird would feed about 5 adults. When the guests arrived, I counted 13 people … all the extras’ extremely badly behaved toddlers on some sort of caffeine-induced sugar rush, crawling all over my furniture (okay – boards and bricks and a futon), demanding food, drink, and attention. It was the supper from hell.
The concept of a bedtime did not seem to have penetrated Chilean culture. The children whined, fought, screamed, and ate all the food. They were all still awake when the adults left about 2 in the morning. Paying a stranger to care for a child was seen as another example of cold North American behavior… My husband said he hoped we would never have to do something as awful as hiring one ourselves.
I noticed that every single baby had to be greeted with—not words but rather—screams of amazement and celebration, and vowels stretched to the breaking point:
“Pero, qué cosa más riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiica! Mira que inmeeeeeeeeeensa esta guaguiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiita.! Me la voy a comeeeeeeeeeer!”
Every child was judged to be the largest child on record: “¡Pero está enoooorme!” was the standard appraisal. The more the 8-month old looked like a hog, the prouder the parents. If the child was bald, his baldness was celebrated and praised. If child had a full head of hair at birth, this was also celebrated and praised.
Women carrying children were so venerated that people began to rent out babies on voting day so that voters in a hurry could pretend to be the baby’s parent and would be ushered past everyone in the line-up – no questions asked.
I had lived in Chile for over 15 years when I overheard a couple of people talking, and one said to the other “Well, of course, Chile is a matriarchy.” All I could think was Why didn’t anyone mention this to me before? Twenty-six years married to a Chilean and I turn out to be the only woman in the country who is not running her man.
Chilean woman always seem to be sending their men on an errand. “Where’s Jaime?” I ask my neighbor, and she answers “I sent him to buy bread.” Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against this practice. I am just a little put off that no one told me you could do this. In fact, I think it’s a pretty fair deal, when you marry a Chilean: you get to send him out like a radio taxi, but you also spend lots of time doing things you would not have to do if you were married to a gringo – such as buying his underwear for him. I checked the legal books and it’s actually in the Civil Code that once you marry a Chilean man, you are responsible for buying him his underwear. This is a thing Chilean men do not do. You have to schlep down to El Rey del Calzoncillo and pick out the pattern and style you think he looks best in. I notice there are no men in these stores. This can be the only explanation.
The other thing you have to do when you marry a Chilean is make sopaipillas when it rains. This is so different from Canada where, if your basement floods or the entire kitchen gets washed away in a flash flood, you would not feel too great. But in Chile, there is a whole series of traditional dishes developed just for these occasions—and it is assumed that although it is highly likely that it will rain right in your living room, women are expected to hop out of bed and start making pastries.
And just in case you get through the task before sunset, ordinary recipes are stretched out in order to fill any time left – celery, for example, is to be peeled as are tomatoes. Older women will share their secret—boil the tomato for a minute before peeling it—but it still means that a BLT could require a half day’s work. If you’re thinking celery salad, forget it, take the week off and roll up your sleeves.
The traditional Chilean nebulousness is reflected in the literature: I actually read a recipe in Paula for roasted turkey that read “The turkey is done when it looks like it would like to shake hands.”
OK Eileen, it’s time to plug your upcoming shows at Akarana… Spill! Who, what, where, when?
Carl Hammond, a gringo musician-composer will play jazz on the keyboard and I will perform “I couldn’t make this up if I tried” at Akarana on Saturday June 20, and again on Saturday July4. The show is in English and starts at 8 p.m. and there’s a $5000 (peso) cover charge. You can eat a meal or just have a drink.
Check out more of Eileen Shea (which Chileans pronounce CHay-uh) and watch her videos at www.eileenshea.cl.
Reyes Lavalle 3310, corner of La Pastora, Las Condes (behind the Ritz)