Imagine watching your favorite movie on TV. You’ve seen it a million times. Not every line is familiar, and you still notice new details every time you watch it, but you know the plot and the characters inside and out. Suddenly, someone comes into the room and starts flicking through channels on the TV, settling on some for a few seconds, others for a few minutes, and others still for entire episodes of unfamiliar series. Some programs are easier for you to understand; you easily pick up which are cooking shows and recognize certain cartoons instantly. However, the channels keep changing, and even when you figure out a show well enough to follow along, you still lack the background information that can only come from being invested for multiple seasons, story arcs, and characters.
This is the closest analogy I can come up to explain my first two weeks in Chile (!). It’s hard to describe, but listening to and communicating in Spanish has been more and less challenging than I thought it would be. For example, a few members of my host mom’s family joined us for dinner last weekend, and while I was pleased to discover that I could understand most of what they were saying, I had no way of contributing anything to the conversation. My Spanish almost feels like an antiquated version of a more modern language. People can understand what I say for the most part, but the words I use more often are rarely on the tongues of my host family, Chilean classmates, and professors. Naturally, there are some aspects of a language you just can’t learn in a classroom, ranging from how to participate in a conversation that’s moving rapidly to the infamous Chilean modismos. Thankfully, some of the Chilean-specific words have come easily – a few friends and I were hanging out with Nicolás, a student at la Universidad Católica who had given us a tour of the campus a few days before, and he was quite surprised when one of us referred to Sunday as “fomingo”, a combination of “fome” (Chilean modismo for boring) and “domingo” (Sunday). Chilean Spanish also has an accent that makes native speakers from other countries cringe, which was confirmed for me after talking to a few students from Spain this past week at orientation. With the start of classes yesterday, I’m looking forward to establishing a routine, and starting to create a real life for myself in Chile. I’ve enrolled in la Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, a large school with several campuses spread in and around Santiago, partially because I liked the classes offered there, and partially because la Universidad de Chile has had to alter its schedule due to the numerous “paros”, or student protests, that occur often. A student at la Universidad de Chile who I talked to yesterday said that, due to the protests, her classes from fall semester ended over a month later than they should have, and classes for this semester aren’t slated to start until the end of August/beginning of September. For comparison, all “facultades”, or major departments, at la Universidad Católica, started class on August 1st, though there have been rumors of a paro this Thursday…
Coming from a small, liberal arts school in the quaint town of Northfield, MN, setting foot on the San Joaquín campus of la Católica was overwhelming to say the least. Besides the difficulty in locating classrooms, making friends has been the main concern of most people on the IFSA program; Chileans choose their majors from their first terms of university and quickly make friends as they all take very similar course loads. This means that as a foreign exchange student, I stick out instantly, before my strangely-accented Spanish underlines my status as an alumno de intercambio. However, I’m sticking with my motto of trying to worry less; IFSA Butler has done and continues to do a fantastic job of easing us into our new lives here, and during orientation helped us gain confidence in navigating various aspects of life here in Chile. We’ve already had some fun adventures; from orientation, to hiking up Cerro San Cristobal (a large hill in the middle of the city), to taking in the nightlife in Bellavista (a hip sector of Santiago rich in restaurants, bars, and parties that end well after my bedtime), to sampling the wide variety of street food (my favorite so far is sopaipillas, which are circles of fried dough that warm you up instantly – don’t forget it’s winter here!), we’ve been getting to know the history and culture of this vibrant country. I’ve even found myself wondering how I will ever leave Chile, instead of trying to convince myself that I’m really going to be here for five months.