Tuesday, June 24, 2008

COUNTRY GRAMMAR


Poor South America, so misunderstood. In the minds of many of my fellow North Americans, there's Rio, there's Buenos Aires, and then there's the rest of the continent. They pretty much lump it all together without realizing that there are vast differences among South America's off-the-A-list countries. When I visited Lima, Peru, in January, I was surprised to discover that the people were so sophisticated and cosmopolitan--much more so than the sheltered, provincial porteños who populate my adopted hometown of Buenos Aires, some of whom had never had any real exposure to black people before encountering me. The reason why Peruvians in the capital city are so tourist savvy? Cusco and the drop-dead-gorgeous Incan ruins of Machu Picchu are nearby, so the people of Lima have been fielding visitors for years, while in Buenos Aires, tourism is still a relatively new phenomenon.

Two weeks ago, I returned from 10 days in Santiago de Chile, where I'd experienced a similar tinge of culture shock. The people there weren't as savvy as they had been in Lima, but neither did they stare so obviously at the strange black man in their midst as do their Argentine neighbors. And although Chilean Spanish is notoriously difficult for non-native speakers to understand (Chilenos string their words together and drop consonants), for me, it was easier to communicate with them, and I started to catch on to their dialect after a few days. Part of this is because Chilenos are less aggressive with the language than Argentines, who, like the French and--to be totally honest--people in the U.S., can be incredibly arrogant with a fierce national pride that extends to their unique brand of Spanish and their resistance to foreign tongues and accents. Ask an Argentine (in Spanish) to slow down or speak clearly, and they seem to instinctively talk even more rapidly. Accent the wrong syllable of the street El Salvador when talking to a cab driver (it's El Sal-va-DOR, not El SAL-va-dor), and he'll look at you like you have three heads. Chilenos are more likely to break out the broken English when they see you struggling. With some of the pressure off, communicating in Spanish actually becomes less daunting.

Interestingly, whenever I mention my trip to any of my Argentine acquaintances, they have the same seemingly pre-programmed response: "Me caen mal los Chilenos." (Meaning: They hate people from Chile. With a passion.) It's that national pride again. A friend explained to me that the hard feelings stem from Chile's support of the U.K. during the '80s standoff between Argentina and Britain over the Falkland Islands. Tellingly, the hard feelings appear to be one-sided, as the Chilenos I met didn't appear to harbor any significant anti-Argentine sentiment.

Don't get me wrong. As much as I enjoyed my time in Santiago and as easygoing as I found its inhabitants to be, ultimately, it was a meaningless fling. Passive to the point of inertness, the people there couldn't hold my attention for long. I actually started to miss the Argentines and their bold assertiveness. On my second night in town, my dinner date insisted on meeting me in the lobby of the building where I was renting an apartment (see the view from my 17th-floor digs below) because he was uncomfortable walking into a restaurant alone. I didn't know whether to laugh or cancel! My love affair with Buenos Aires and its beautiful, maddening citizens is far from over. The two cities, Santiago and Buenos Aires, are like apples and oranges or Boston and New York. Boston, like Santiago, may be cleaner, and the people may be more polite, but nothing compares to New Yorkers and Buenos Aires porteños in all their brash, overbearing glory crowding their mean, dirty streets. It's good to be home.

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