Reading Isabel Allende in Chile
Cecile and I were big fans of Isabel Allende long before the thought we might live in Chile entered our lives. If you visit us in Peoria you’ll find several of Allende’s books on our shelves, and we don’t buy many books though we’re voracious readers. (You will find a nearly complete Barbara Kingsolver collection, but that’s a different story.) One thing we hadn’t read previously, however, were any of her non-fiction/autobiographical/semi-autobiographical books. But lucky for us Sarah had one which she loaned us, My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile. The title kind of says it all: it’s not a strict linear autobiography, though it is certainly autobiographical. It’s more about her relationship with Chile through the years, which is somewhat complex. What was interesting to me, however, was how much of it rang true after living in Chile for about a month when I started, six weeks when I finished. Below are specific parts I remember that I read and said to myself, “oh yeah,”, or “oh, that’s not just me eh?”.
Chilean Bureaucracy: It’s Not Just For the Government
Cecile & I have already written about our travails in the Civil Registry office trying to get our cédulas, and Allende spends some time talking about how the Chileans love bureaucracy. It is so very true. From the multiple steps required to get our visas to the multiple steps we’ve had to go through twice (especially for Cecile) to try and get our cédualas (we’re waiting with baited breath to see if they show up at the end of April as they’re supposed to) and many things in between it seems that for some reasons Chileans love their bureaucratic government. Or at least they seem unable to rein it in.
But it’s not just government bureaucracy, it shows up in other aspects of Chilean life as well, especially in the purchasing of things, especially at smaller shops like the panaderias and smaller local markets we often frequent. In the U.S. when you’re shopping, generally you collect or order what you want and then you pay. Well that’s far too simple for Chile. Here, depending on the store, you:
- Order what you want;
- The person you order from gives you, generally, two receipts. one of which will have the amount hand written;
- You go to the caja, hand in your receipts & payment, get one receipt stamped & both handed back to you;
- Go to a third place, hand in your receipts, get your purchases and one or two receipts back
Now again, not everyplace is like this; some only have two stops with someone doubling up on duties, and in larger stores & supermarkets things work as we’re used to. But having read Allende’s take on Chilean bureaucracy, this just seems like a natural extension of government planning.
Cecile has written some, I believe, about the local buses here. They aren’t public, there are instead several private companies that run them. So basically they are all running the same lines, with each driver competing for passengers as the companies obviously make money based on how many passengers they carry. Allende has a very funny passage describing the antics of the micro drivers and how they do their best to avoid carrying old people & students who pay less. Well her descriptions of the driving and competition, buses cutting each other off, the constant honking if one is too slow to leave a stop, waiting for more customers, and crazy driving as they try to get from place to place as quickly as possible are all try. We haven’t seen them try and run down or avoid old people or students as she describes, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
I’ve written before about how I love the Chilean bread, and it’s something Chile is known for. There is, however, a downside. Apparently Chile has the overall highest BMI in South America, and to be honest I’ve kind of noticed that. Living in the United States you get used to the fact that as a country we’ve gotten disgustingly fat (although it appears trends may be slightly changing). So you expect going to different countries to see people in much better shape. Now I’m not saying that Chileans are anywhere near as fat as those in the U.S., but overall I’ve noticed people aren’t in as good a shape as I would have expected for people who seem to walk and ride bikes at a much higher rate than back home.
Allende talks about this, and places the blame squarely on the diet, especially the bread. It’s just so good, and relatively inexpensive (although apparently prices have been going up). She also mentions eating dozens of eggs, and we’ve certainly upped our egg consumption, partly because cereal is so expensive. She mentions eating beans at every meal, and I haven’t noticed that as much in our diet or even in restaurants, but eggs and bread, definitely. And it’s had the same effect on me; I haven’t weighed myself, but I know I’m doing a lot more walking than usual and am pretty sure I haven’t lost any weight, which I expected to do. I only hope I haven’t gained.
And In Conclusion
Those are the things I can remember offhand, there may be more coming but that’s what happens when I don’t write things down. It’s been a very interesting experience reading a book about a country that you’re living in that isn’t your home country. I knew I’d enjoy it because she’s such a great writer, but I didn’t expect to have such a personal connection with many of the things she was saying. As last quick note, she also talks about the large class division in Chile between the rich and powerful and the poor and powerless. While we certainly have the same thing in the United States, and it’s gotten worse over the last thirty years, what’s different here is the relatively small size of the middle class. It may help explain the seeming conundrum that while Chile is one of the economic bright spots of South America overall, it doesn’t seem to show up in benefits for those outside of the upper crust. For all the modern conveniences that can be seen around the country, we all agree with our Elqui Valley guide (and Chilean native) Cristobal’s assessment that Chile seems in many ways 20-30 years behind Europe and maybe 40 years behind the U.S. (although I might argue with the U.S. being ahead of Europe economically).
And now, for once again putting up with me, have a picture. This was our nemesis church in La Serena, as it was right on the corner near us and the bells rang at 7:35, 7:45 and 7:55, 75-91 times each, except, oddly, on Sunday.