One of my favorite hobbies is something I like to call Obsessive Googling. What is that odd and very Type A-sounding activity, you may ask? It’s easy. It just involves typing slightly differently-worded variations of questions about whatever the Big Thing On My Mind In That Moment is into Google, over and over.
In the months prior to my departure for studying abroad in Santiago, Chile, the Big Thing On My Mind was, predictably, studying abroad. Many of the other students in our program have already spent fairly extensive time abroad: spend a summer in Italy as an au pair, go to a German high school for a year, that kind of thing.
I had no real understanding of what it actually was I was getting into. What was it like? Up-and-leaving your home country and plopping yourself down in another one for a few months? What’s the day-to-day? Obsessive Googling provided me with some information along these lines, but not all that much.
Every day I feel less like a stranger in a strange land, and more just like…a person who lives in Chile. It feels more like home every day.
It’s not hard to find various accounts of people who have moved abroad for some period of time—be it for work, study, etc.—but it’s a lot of “it’s amazing! It’ll change your life! I learned so much!” and somewhat less of “no, really, you will get really tired of salad dressed with white vinegar, but the bread’s really good. Just don’t eat too much or you’ll give yourself diabetes.”
So, in the service of those anxious students about to blindly embark on their own adventure en el extranjero, I shall try to accommodate.
Here is what my life abroad is actually like
My Host Family
My host family is just one person, and she is, as the kids say, the bomb-dot-com. Her name is Maria Cristina Cabrera. She’s a widow as of nearly one-year-ago, after her husband’s battle with Alzheimer’s. (This is just the tip of the iceberg of her life story, by the way. This lady’s been through a lot. Somehow, she’s still cheerful basically always, which is simultaneously inspiring, humbling, and annoying when I’m busy feeling upset about having lost my Bip! card.)
Yes, but back to how great she is. She is great! Did I mention she was great? This, for once, I write without an ounce of sarcasm: she is my favorite thing about being here. She’s extremely kind and welcoming, but also kind of snarky, which I appreciate. She brings me into her life in basically every way. Also, though, she gives me space if and when I need it—which, as anyone who has been forced lucky enough to spend extended periods of time with me will tell you, is occasionally necessary to prevent me from turning into a gremlin.
Although Maria Cristina is my only official host family, she has a network of relatives and friends in the city who have shown nothing but equal kindness towards me. The ones I’ve spent the most time with are her nephew Arturo, his wife Cherri, and his kids Catalina and Nico. Their services include having me over for birthday cake when I had only been here two days and they had literally never met me before, and taking me with them to the beach for a weekend when I basically still said nothing ever because I was terrified constantly.
As far as I can tell, Maria Cristina speaks two sentences of English: “my English is very well” and “no problem, be happy.” She enjoys telling me the story of how once, on the plane to Washington D.C., she tried to order a beer and instead was given a pillow.
Maria Cristina lives in an apartment in Las Condes, an upper-middle-class neighborhood of Santiago. It’s about a fifteen- to twenty-minute walk to the nearest metro station, which is what I almost always use to get around. I love the metro. I really love the metro. I’m not sure how much of my enthusiasm owes itself to the fact that I’ve never lived in a city with a metro, so the concept itself is exciting to me, and how much is that the Santiago metro specifically is great. I have heard, though, that it’s far easier to use than some cities’ metro systems in the US, so that’s a plus.
The metro appeals to basically all aspects of my personality. It’s all laid out in a grid! A grid! With straight lines that intersect in points at right angles and everything! The stops are always in the same place, at the same time! Also, the stations always have names that seem like somebody either threw darts at a Spanish dictionary or chose only from anagrams of the words in Don Quixote. (Pick your favorite analogy.)
Chilean people basically seem to subsist on the meat-and-carbs diet. How they’re not all five thousand pounds, I couldn’t tell you. (Portion sizes are smaller, which I suspect helps.) I will do my best to not come back attached to marraqueta bread, but no promises.
There’s also a lot of ice cream. Everywhere. All the time. It’s all really tasty and there’s a bunch of interesting flavors and it’s cheap. Sigh. Have I mentioned I’m suffering?
Also “not really a big thing” here is water. Chilean people just aren’t, you know, all that into it. “Oh, so you like water?” they ask when they see my Contigo thermos as if water is something one either has or does not have a taste for, like pickles or cilantro. Everyone is very concerned constantly that I will drop dead in a water-related demise, either from drinking directly from the tap (the mineral content of the water here, apparently, doesn’t sit well with a lot of gringos) or simply from lack thereof. “Will there be water?” I hear my host mom whispering worriedly to Cheri as they make plans for us to go to the park that weekend. “Tell Yooli (my Chilean nickname) to bring her water. They won’t have any there. We’ll get another bottle on the way.” People will, however, occasionally try to push Sprite on you under the disguise of agua con gas, because all transparent, fizzy liquids are definitely the same thing. Do not let them do this to you! Fight, gringo, for your H2O!
Our courses are given at the Universidad Andres Bello, one of Chile’s more well-known private universities. (The prestigiousness is flipped here, by the way. Public, generally, is seen as more fancy-pants.) My courses here are as follows: six credit hours of Spanish grammar class, three credit-hours of Latin American Theater, and three credit hours of Latin American Cinema. They’re all only taught in Spanish, which I did on purpose because I am obsessed with language fluency to the point of slightly unhealthy obsession.
My theater professor is a blast, and I’m finally actually getting around to watching all those award-winning Latin American films on my Netflix list. Also, perhaps most usefully, I’m being forced to read in Spanish, which builds vocabulary and opens up a huge world of classic Latin American literature—Borges, Garcia Marquez, etc.—that you can finally read in its original version, which is super cool.
In addition, I have a circus internship! This was probably the most expected and right-up-my-alley opportunity that’s come my way on this program yet. Several times a week, I go to el Circo del Mundo (a Cirque du Soleil offshoot located here in Santiago) to assistant teach aerial silks at a kids’ summer camp. I really love this for a few reasons. First, I enjoy teaching aerial silks. Second, I enjoy children. Third, it’s all in Spanish. This is equal parts exhilarating and terrifying, because if the thought of managing people and teaching stuff that’s kind of hard and also a little bit dangerous in your native language gives you stress ulcers, I recommend trying it in a language where you still occasionally, in moments of panic, mix up the words for “up” and “down.”
But, it’s also great. Not only is it the type of high-stakes situation that your brain really needs to “pick up” a language: kids will also think you’re super cool for speaking English and Spanish, and will constantly ask you how you say various Spanish words in English, then repeat them back to you with an adorable Chilean accent that, itself alone, makes it all worth it. (Also, sometimes they misuse curse words that they picked up from American pop songs. I realize this isn’t the greatest habit to indulge, but it’s highly entertaining.)
I’ve had some ups and downs, but I like it here. I really do. Every day I feel less like a stranger in a strange land, and more just like…a person who lives in Chile. It feels more like home every day. And that’s a good feeling to have.
Julia Nakhleh is a Computer Science and Spanish Language sophomore student from Arizona State University currently enrolled in USAC Santiago.