A Few Things I Have Learned from Chilean Culture

by Liz Caskey on January 20, 2014

Every January, I mark off another year on my expat calendar calling Chile, and South America, home. While I certainly am fortunate to spend a lot of time throughout the year in Argentina, Peru, and Uruguay, for thirteen years (yes that’s 1-3), Chile has been home. Certainly a lot of the local customs have rubbed off on me in that time. In fact, Chile has become so normal to me that I don’t think twice about many things that once seemed so foreign when I arrived in 2001.

So as I reflect on another year here, what are a few things I have learned from life here? I will leave out the obvious ones like the Chilean accent, slang, and pop culture colloquialisms; those exist everywhere and in every culture. I thought about the ways I had changed and what ways of local life I had incorporated into my own, until those became second nature. This list is that “distillation”. It’s a beautiful thing to come from one place and openly embrace another culture as your own. Here’s to another blessed year in this beautiful corner of the world.

Eat Seasonally: This is so intuitive now but when I arrived in Chile, apart from the seasons being reverse to up north, I was constantly missing not having certain fruits year round. Why can’t I have melons and cherries in the middle of winter? Wahh! However, as I became enthralled in the weekly tradition of shopping in the markets, I saw what naturally came to the table through the seasons. I had to learn to embrace seasonality and savoring flavors to the max while they last. It is a special thing to crave them, devour them, and then tenderly bid farewell until the next year. It makes you want to cook them. They taste better, they are at their peak sweetness and ripeness. This is all because nature produces foods for what we need at a given time of year. In summer, when it is hot and we are thirsty, I cannot get enough juicy fruit like watermelon, nectarines, melons, strawberries. In the fall, I eagerly await grapes, persimmons, apples, pears. In the winter, bring on the citrus for my juice and tons of dark greens like chard. By spring, all I do is fantasize about strawberries, rhubarb from the south, and my beloved asparagus, leeks, and artichokes. It’s a different internal eating calendar that I love. If you look carefully at Chilean cuisine, it wholly reflects this, too.

Drink Your Vinito: There’s a lot of wine in Chile. That is a no brainer. While Chileans are still not (yet) statistically imbibing as much as their neighbor to the east (Argentina), there’s always wine at meals. There is also an increasing in interest among consumers in general as the economy does well. There is a garage winery movement called MOVI and wines from over 12 valleys and dozens of styles. There are more wine bars, specialized wine stores, wine clubs and magazines, better wine menus in restaurants than ever before. With so many options, you get spoiled. Quickly. I, at least, have gotten used to ridiculously good wine at a good price point at any price (either a happy hour Sauvignon Blanc or a special occasion splurge).  All I need to do to be reminded of this is get on a plane to Brazil, or even Peru, where a passable glass of wine costs 3-6x as much as Chile, if not more. So I sip my vino and say thanks for the wonderful juice of the vine here.

Take a Siesta—And daily, if possible. Not kidding. Back in the day, nearly everything would shut down over lunch when workers and students returned home for the main meal of the day (more like the North American dinner) and afterwards, rested. Today, most businesses stay open but workers get at least an hour for lunch. At first, I resisted the temptation to take a full lunch hour and stuck to my old ways eating in front of my computer.  After my husband and I got married, I graduated to having a proper sit down lunch together and noticed he would always go rest after lunch, even if it were 20 minutes. One day, I decided to try it. I fell asleep, deeply, in a power nap of 25 minutes. That afternoon, I got so much done and didn’t even need a single espresso. Bingo! A siesta is now key to my productivity.

Enjoy Long Sunday Lunches: Sunday is family day here. At home, it often starts with breakfast in bed reading the paper. By 2pm though, for most Chilean families, the family gathers for lunch. Since my husband and I are often lonesome in Santiago (parents in South, brother in Canada, my family in the US), it’s just us and our cat, Barry, who’s usually asleep anyways. However, I love the tradition of having a nice, long lunch to sit down and talk. Take the time to make a meal together. Take the time to sit down and spend time together.  Have a real, uninterrupted conversation. Sunday lunch can often be hours-long. In fact, long sobremesas, conversations happening during coffee after dessert, tend to linger for hours until tea time (meaning a constant parade of food most of the afternoon). There’s no rush though. There’s nothing else to do. Nowhere else to go. Just enjoy and be with people you love.

Go outside. Often.: In Santiago, we have freakishly good weather most of the year. A mild, sweet Mediterranean climate with abundant sunshine, low humidity, and soft breezes. I get outside a lot here. Even on my errands or weekly shopping, I go to the markets (outside), I walk from small store to small store to procure my fresh yogurt, free range eggs, quinoa crackers, Asian ingredients. I walk downtown to do tramites. I walk to the gym. I walk in the park every evening in the summer when the heat has cooled off and dogs and children play. I meet friends for drinks on a terrace. I walk home from acupuncture and people watch along the way. Some weekends we get away to the campo, countryside, or the beach. But mostly, I find that people use the city. It has life. It has energy. It’s dynamic. Sure, I love rainy days sometimes (especially since I can count them on one hand in a year’s time!), but even when it rains, I still love being outside.

Small Indulgences Make Life Sweet: There’s no hiding that bread and sugar are major food groups in these parts. People here love them. Sweets particularly are worshiped in the form of ice cream, anything with manjar  (milk caramel), meringue or cake form (called “kuchen” often). I am one of those people who has a palate that is hard-wired, mostly, for salty. I often prefer green (veggie) juice to mangos. However, as I lightened up and released some of my guilt around eating sweets (and where all that butter really goes…), I realized I had been living in a state of deprivation for a while. Today, small indulgences are totally fine. They are not an everyday thing but when I really want them, I am fine now. Case in point. I met with a girlfriend for a coffee on Monday. As I ordered my properly prepared espresso, there was a gooey chocolate brownie (with frosting) that caught my attention.  Back in the day, I would have resisted and talked myself out of it. But today, I decided I wanted to that brownie. And I enjoyed every last morsel. And much to my surprise, what has happened? I have not gained weight, I feel better, and am probably happier because I had the brownie.

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