At times, when I walk in my apartment, and I pass that corner where the corridor curves in such a way that I can see straight out of Celeste’s room, my eyes lock on the line of skyscrapers outside, a thousand lights blinking, as they do in a big city. My steps stop, my mind pauses, my brain processes, and while I slowly come to terms with the view not being the small village in Belgium I grew up in, or the rolling hills of Africa where I spent the second half of my life, it dawns on me: I live in Santiago. I still find it a bit eerie. Out of this world. Into this world.
The expat adjustment curve. I learned about it when I followed a course designed to prepare you for leaving your home country. Sixteen years ago, I went through it. And I think it is safe to say I do not remember it all. The past couple of months I went through phase one: the holiday, the honeymoon. I was lucky enough to visit Patagonia, the Lake District, the coast.. it is not that hard to feel like you are on holiday when you have the opportunity to do all that.
I have now reached phase 2: the culture shock. The phase where you realize that you are here to stay and you will need to adapt, integrate. There is only so much you can do to prepare. And then there are the things you never could have guessed. Yes, I am learning more and more Spanish every day. Yes, we know where our favourite bakery is and I have a regular supermarket. Yes, we have established some routines and habits already. Yes, we are getting used to the time zone. And yes, we even had our first bug and were down with a fever for a week. But that was all to be expected. And then there are the things we did not think of.
This may sound different than how I want it to sound but my children grew up with staff in the house: a housegirl in the house, a gardener outside, a driver to take the kids to school. I did not grow up like that, and for 16 years I never really quite adjusted to it. In Africa, running a household also entails a bit more and other things than in Europe so I welcomed the benefits of having help but it never became natural to me. I just assumed it was the same for my kids – now teenagers. Until we moved here. It is clear they are very used to someone else picking up their stuff. I now reluctantly realize they either do not see work or they consciously chose not to do it. I have been hammering on them to learn to see it – and then, of course, to do it. They are of course teenagers, I am sure they couldn’t care less if their shoes are in the middle of the living room. But I have now resorted to a chores list. I am giving them the benefit of the doubt because I too was a teenager once. I am guessing this is not so much the expat curve but the teenager curve.
In many other ways, this society offers us much more convenience than what my girls are used to. Coming from the third world, it is sometimes mindblowing to all three of us what you can find in the shop. Let alone online. I will honestly admit it can be overwhelming. But is also something that you can easily adapt to, too easily and with pleasure, and even become very lazy. If I wanted decent french fries in Tanzania, I knew I had to buy, peel, clean, cut and fry (twice!) potatoes. In Chile, I order them with Ubereats and watch tv while I wait for them to be delivered. It feels totally decadent but we also totally indulge. My main concern is not even that we are becoming lazy but more that this sort of lifestyle is unhealthy. Overall I am not worried. We adapted to life in Africa, we are now adapting here and we will adapt in whatever other part of the world I might ever end up. So lazy now is not lazy forever.
Another small – but in a way significant – thing that caught my attention is sugar. Tanzanians like everything sweet but in order to have sweet tea or sweet chapati, they have to add a spoon of sugar – and they do, 8 spoons even. In Chile, a lot of food is just sweet, manufactured sweet. Especially drinks and desserts. And while in Tanzania many people suffer from self-inflicted diabetes, in Chile there is a lot of awareness and people buy zero-drinks, with aspartame or stevia. But they still all taste sweet. I crave bitter and sour drinks. Or lemon meringue for dessert, or dark chocolate. Is it because I was brought up in Belgium? I really just prefer sour and bitter: a cold beer and very dark chocolate anyone?
I also have to get used to seasons again. We were really thrown in the deep end when we arrived here in winter. I even had to buy winterclothes, since I no longer owned any. But even now, I am writing this when it is spring, and the weather is unstable. The one day I wear a skirt and the next I need a coat. I am not used to checking the weather forecast – and even then you better wear layers because it can change any minute. But it sure beats Belgium where you need to carry an umbrella at all times.
The silliest adjustment is the presence of stairs. In Africa, I could count the buildings with more than one story on one hand. Good thing because I would not have used an elevator in a country where the power goes off all the time. In Santiago, there are so many high buildings, how else can you fit 7 million people in one city? So I work on floor 9 and I live on floor 5. Thank god for elevators. At times, I am forced to take the stairs, my daily subway stop, for instance, counts 4 flights. Not that I mind. But it is a silly realization when your calves hurt and you think ‘oh yes, that: stairs’. And some people refuse to take an apartment on a high floor because of the earthquakes – and yes, as adjustments go: a swaying building during a 5,5 quake, is a big adjustment!
Subways are also an adjustment. They are extremely convenient and after city trips to London, for example, I used to find it charming that you can come above ground and be somewhere else. But in Santiago, I find it especially confusing because I never see how I get anywhere and the ultimate goal is to get to know this city. I usually come above ground and I need to use google maps and use the Andes to try and regain my orientation.
Missing my friends is one I knew would hit me. I just never even considered that the time zone would add to it. When I sit on my coach in the evening and I want to chat, most of them are asleep. And when I wake up, I have a number of messages. But this way, communication is limited to WhatsApp monologues from me in the evening and reading the monologue of replies in the morning. Not ideal.
And allow me to finish with a bit of a philosophical contemplation. This is a fleeting thought I had the other day while sitting on a bench and I was just randomly thinking.. If I would stumble, trip or fall while walking the streets of Santiago, I would still feel embarrassed. I assume it is an innate feeling. But why? I do not know anyone here. I will probably never see the bystanders of that moment again in my life or not recognize them. No one knows me. No one recognizes me. No one I meet in a bar will say he went to school with my cousin or that he used to live next to my best friend. That is a weird thought. But also a nice one. I could totally re-invent myself if I wanted to. Luckily I am relatively happy with myself and mere adjustments will do. They call it integration, I am told.
Some places are worth more than one visit. (And if I had heaps of money and time, that would be the majority of places.) Some places are also worth going back to show them to someone you care about. And so I planned a long weekend in Valparaiso with the girls. The stress to do the sights was gone for me (yes, I am that person that makes lists and frantically tries to do it all) and I knew that the girls would take homework and would need to sleep in at least once, so there was no plan. (If you know me, you will be surprised: me without a plan.)
So we wandered around, walked the colourful streets, took a funicular, gave our honest opinion about the street art to each other and took snapshots of each other too..
I did book one thing: a city tour. But the guide was excellent: knowledgeable and accommodating. He was very flexible and was trying to give us a feel for the place, instead of ticking a list. So when Celeste said ‘can we go on another funicular’, the guide took us to one, a prime example of a modern refurbished one that still showed us the old design and system. And I do enjoy hearing about the history of a place, it does give vital insights. It turns out that after a glory period for Valparaiso, it was destroyed more than once, and after the people of Valpo rebuilt it more than once, the Panama Canal was built, making it a less important harbour. Making it unnecessary, to be frank. After the city tour, the girls and I were even able to recognize some street known artists due to their typical style. Our Valparaiso education had paid off.
We even made a quick pit stop at Viña del Mar for ice-cream. I was glad I saw the neighbouring town because I have never seen two towns this close by that are so different. The colourful charming chaos on the hills next to the modern, neatly arranged coastal town. It must be nice to live in one and always be able to jump into the next one for a distraction.
This time around, I also decided to try a restaurant that a colleague suggested. And I am glad he did because what a good suggestion that was! I had also been given the advice to go early because I would be turned down otherwise, and indeed: 90% of all the tables were reserved when we arrived and after we took one of the few empty ones, people were turned away or had to wait. We decided to indulge with seafood, champagne and desserts. Totally worth it. Every bite of the meal and every second of the weekend.
I knew when I moved to Chile, that I would definitely try to see the country but also explore the rest of the continent. It is not only affordable, it is also relatively easy, logistically speaking. High on the list was Buenos Aires, a city that definitely speaks to the imagination with its world-renowned steak, tango and colonial grandeur.
I will not go as far as to say that I was a ridiculous looking tourist with sunglasses and a big camera, but I wasn’t far off. Actually no, that is kind of what I looked like. We even took the hop on hop off bus, which is always a good introduction to a new place. And I know that Buenos Aires is often dubbed ‘the Paris of the North’ and I see why, but I do not necessarily like comparing things and destinations too much in order to not forget looking at what makes it special. So yes, wide avenues, neo-classical buildings, some art nouveau, indeed very similar to Europe and the history is apparent. At some point, this city must have been the epitome of elegance, and the ultimate exotic destination for wealthy Europeans. But once you add grilled steak, a tango show, love for soccer, and Spanish locals to the mix, Buenos Aires definitely has its own very special, very beautiful personality.
We did visit a tango show. And while buying the tickets online, I was worried it would indeed be a bit of a tourist trap. It was not! Not at all. The show already started with 2 horses, standing on their hind legs, acting out a battle. The stage was definitely set. I think we were the only family present with teenagers but my youngest was already convinced this was a great idea. Horses. On a stage. Then the spectacle followed: seductive dresses, sultry moves.. I am sure you think you get the idea but it was better than what you can imagine, it was impressive and enthralling, compelling. The finale comprised of all dancers and singers holding the Argentine flag, singing ‘No llores por mi Argentina’ while black and white images of Evita were projected on the wall. I had tears in my eyes. Seriously. Tears.
I also loved the liveliness of the city. A colleague advised me to visit the San Telmo market and that was great. Street-markets, stalls, vendors, atmosphere.. they are clearly just an ongoing bunch. We also accidentally walked onto a parade with dancers and a band. A random parade, you got to love it. It just totally confirmed my bias that this might be a people that had a tumultuous past and big revolutions but they still eat, sing and dance.
I have tried to find a dancing school in Santiago that teaches tango, I want to have some lessons now. But most schools advise you to show up as a couple. That rules me out. But the most important thing I learnt in Argentina is that I want to go back. So planning my next visit will be in the back of my mind.
What could I possibly say about Patagonia that has not been said before, or that my pictures won’t say with more power? It is as wild and rugged and impressive as you probably imagine, and as it was hundreds of years ago. In that way, it is definitely humbling. You definitely feel small when standing here (see picture).
Patagonia is big, and legally it is not even really a region with official borders, it is more a common term used in tourism. The term covers Chile and Argentina, but we went to the Torres del Paine National Park. A bucket list destination for sure. The lodge, Explora Patagonia, was bam smack in the middle of the park, with gorgeous views from every room.
We were very lucky with the weather. Apparently, several hiking paths had been closed before we arrived (and some would close again after we left, as it turns out). On our first day, we did a long hike alongside Lago Grey, and in the middle of the walk, the guides radio to the ferry service to check if they can estimate the chances that we can come back with the ferry because it has happened more than once that guests had to make the 5 hour hike back. But again, lucky us, not a gust of wind, just clear blue skies, a grey like (that turned turquoise in the right light), and white ice (that also turned blue when reflecting sunlight). The hike had the most amazing views and the ferry brought us close to the actual glacier, impressive sights if ever I saw some.
The next day, we witnessed the diversity of the park by heading the other way. While Lago Grey and the glacier we saw up close are in the western side of the park, we now hiked towards the eastern side, crossing the pampa. The hike was focused on getting a good view of the towers, an iconic image. But for me personally, I was happy to see some wildlife: guacanos, amazing birdlife (yes, condors but much more), a fox.. Quietly, I harboured a very strong wish to see a puma but I realized chances were slim – and that is of course part of the attraction of seeing one. Once again, lucky me, we saw two! I was stupid enough to have brought only my short lens because my god that would have been one good shot with my long lens. But hey, we take what we can get and count our blessings: 2 pumas on my first visit! And I have a blurry picture to prove it. And more than one reason to go back. What a place. What.a.place.
For everyone that thinks I travel a lot because I work in tourism, I need to tell you I have an office job. I work office hours. Behind a computer screen. I can maybe tell you the facilities and check-in time of every hotel but not because I have stayed in all of them for a full week. And then sometimes, you have the opportunity to visit a property, and those are perks yes. But when it is an andBeyond property, you know you are in luck, and it is going to be an amazing experience.
A quick geographical intro. Everything in this country is new to me too so I am telling you merely what I have read. So – very roughly speaking – Santiago is in the middle, Atacama is in the North (think desert) and the Lake District is South of Santiago. I guess you could say that this is the gateway to Chilean Patagonia, which is even more South. Patagonia covers both Chile and Argentina.
Vira Vira is in Pucon. The main attraction in Pucon is the lake and the volcano, both called Villaricca. Not only is this region breathtakingly beautiful, it also lends itself perfectly to adventure sports: hiking, rafting, horse riding, skiing… You get the idea. Not surprising: the landscape is defined by lakes, mountains, volcanoes, forests, and national parks. (And if you are not into sports, it lends itself to digital detox too.) It was a bit colder than Santiago but the winter in Chile is slowly making way for spring. We had one day in the snow, on the Volcano Villarrica, and I actually got sunburnt.
The lodge itself is gorgeous. The minimalist, natural decor with big windows turns your focus outdoors, which I cannot praise enough. And just when you are taking in that perfect view, ten minutes later the light changes and a whole different perfect sight appears. I could not stop taking pictures. Without unnecessary frills, the lodge is luxurious. Fire crackling, we had a wine tasting with Chilean wines followed by a 4-course gourmet dinner, with ingredients from the organic farm on the premises. We told ourselves we deserved it all since we had gone up a live volcano in snowshoes. We deserved the glass of bubbles while taking a scented bath too, in case you are wondering. A special mention has to go to the food. What an amazing chef. Granted he has wonderful ingredients to work with but still, what talent, what amazing and wonderful food. At hotel inspections, I often tell myself I need to skip a meal and not over-indulge but that was merely not an option at Vira Vira, it would have been blasphemy.
And I know I have said this about more than one destination but it remains the holy truth of hospitality: the experience was made by the people. The impeccable service of the wonderful people at Vira Vira made the experience what it was. Perfect.
This post dates back several months, I travelled to Portugal around Easter but since a certain Tanzanian president all of a sudden decided you had to pay to write a blog, I temporarily stopped posting. (The temptation to write he is a paranoid dictator was also very hard to control so I just bit my tongue for a while.)
With a strange mix of excitement and embarrassment, I have to admit that I had never been to Portugal before. Having grown up in a family of 7, we limited ourselves to holidays in driving distance and thus we usually did not go further than France, Italy or Spain, which was far enough considering I had to share a vehicle with teenage brothers, some of whom had gorgonzola feet. (I am expecting come back after this post.) And after college, I developed a taste for intercontinental travel so poor Portugal was ignored by me. My loss, it turns out, because I was very happily surprised.
It was still a tad too cold to enjoy the beach, sun and sea but luckily that is never my priority when I travel. Meditteranean lifestyle and food, however, I will take a flight for that. And Portugal delivered. I was even very surprised with the level of English that the locals speak. I guess the Portuguese are a bit like the Belgians: at a certain point, you have to admit you are the minority and learn other people´s language. The service was also much better than in your average tourist destination, people seemed genuinely happy to welcome tourists. And isn’t that so often the case: the people make or break your experience? Total hit with me, the Portuguese 🙂
In case you want a suggestion on where to stay, I did love where we were: close to Faro, Carvoeiro: Casa Tuia, on a quiet hill. We had the choice between a house or a tent (glamping), and there was a beautiful pool. The atmosphere was very chill and casual and the bar was definitely the place to be – as it should be. I was there with family and friends so you might think I am biased but I am quite sure the atmosphere there is always this relax, and the owners were extremely accommodating.
When you travel, you can prepare yourself in many ways. You google the location, you talk to people that have been there, you buy a travel guide, you learn some words in the local language. So when you move abroad, basically you do this tenfold and plan long term.
- I took Spanish classes. Okay so I admit this is decades ago so I downloaded an app to revive my limited and long lost skills.
- I spent hours on google. And if you know me, you know that when I say hours, I mean hours – but hey, that is how I found my apartment.
- I bought a Lonely Planet. I love my Kindle but not for a travel guide.
- I am a member of an expat-site. Always an ambiguous one: it is handy to learn from them but you of course want to meet locals and not live in a bubble.
- I read about the weather – and thus I bought a coat.
- I have a currency converter on my phone and I am getting used to the money.
But what one can never really prepare for is culture.
First surprise: a normal greeting is accompanied by a kiss. And even though it is a very kind and warm gesture, it takes some getting used to. Especially when it is a pediatrician or someone else you have little connection with. And yes, the French speaking part of Belgium has the same custom. I am sure many countries do. But I am just not used to it. I have to stress that Chilean people are genuinely warm and welcoming, so the kiss just adds to that I guess. In Tanzania, some people had the habit of giving you a handshake and during the entire conversation they do not let go. That was always odd. But no, I never pulled my hand back in case you are wondering (some conversations can be very long though, especially when you have to go through the customary list of 12 greetings). And in a group of expat friends, it has always been a gamble whether to kiss once, twice or 3 times. I go for 3. Greedy me. But with friends I expect to be forgiven.
Second observation: Chileans speak quickly, swallow half of the word and use slang. So basically I could have studied Spanish beforehand until I was blue in the face, I need to learn it here, in the street, in the shop, at home, with real people. (Or so I tell myself when I feel bad that the language thing is going so sloooooow and is frustrating me.) I am waiting for the moment that I am in another country and someone comments that I sound Chilean. That would be success. (A girl needs to set goals for herself. I´ll keep you posted.)
The Mediterranean lifestyle. I have heard the remark once – from an American – that I am so European because I eat late. If it were up to him, we would have had dinner at 6h00. Now, I do not think you can generalize this anyway but I do not eat at 6h, but then again, I also do not want to eat at 22h. Belgians do not take a siesta during the day, and anno 2018, I think less and less countries or people do? Now, when I was in secondary school, I think we had our lunchbreak at 12h. So eating at 13h in Tanzania was already a small adjustment. But since it was a warm country, it didn´t bother me all that much. I have noticed in Chile that most people eat at 14h, and some even only at 15h. By that time, I am starving. Especially because it has been winter, my body needs to warm up and I definitely need to burn some food to do so. But I have horrible eating habits so I realize I am not a reference. But it goes way beyond meal times. I was very surprised to read in a school document that parties usually run from 23h to 3-4am. Like seriously? I felt really ancient, and just – but barely – bit my tongue when I wanted to say ‘what about 20h to midnight’ to another parent. I mean, I went out and partied my fair share when I was a teenager but this was a school pamphlet. I am also always the first one in the office. So I guess I just have to switch my biological clock to start doing everything 2 hours later?
People are animal friendly. I was surprised to see so many street dogs but in the beginning I actually often wondered if they really were street dogs. They all seem healthy and fed. When I think of street dogs, another image comes to mind, in Africa I always said to the girls they were not allowed to touch them, and since they moved around in packs, I stayed away from them with a fair amount of fear. But here, I have the feeling the dogs are taken care of. By random people. On top of that, many people live in an apartment and have a pet. Which means they have to walk it more than daily, which they do. Heartwarming. Overall, I feel there is a lot of respect for animals, even the government pours oodles of money in conservation and pioneering initiatives. I was happy to read that a billion dollar deal to drill for oil was rejected in order to protect the habitat and breeding place of the penguins. Bless.
Santiago is of course a city city. I share these streets that I walk daily with 7 million other people so I should and cannot generalize too much really. I shared a flat with a Colombian lady, work with an Argentine girl, had dinner with a Peruvian couple, had coffee and kuche with a (half) German family… But that is also Chilean culture: an interesting mix of people in a place full of contrast.
I am either really naive or I had a very good upbringing – or both – because I never really stopped to think what I was eating until I had to start paying for it and preparing it myself. Actually, come to think of it, since I came out of a big household, I also never tasted sour milk until I lived alone.
So when I started travelling and living abroad, I was in for a surprise. Firstly, there were the things I had never eaten before. Daunting and exciting at the same time. Spoiler: blue Fanta and seaweed cookies are both equally revolting. But going to a local market and trying fruit is to this day one of my favorite things to do in a new country. Guava in Martinique, dragon fruit in China, different kinds of mango in Tanzania. I realize these things are available in Carrefour Belgium these days but they were not when I lived there. Besides, having a banana in a tropical country without it having been shipped on a boat, is a totally different experience. And I have to admit I never really stopped to consider that there are different types and varieties unknown to me of a product that I knew in only one version. For years, I tried to make real Belgian fries in Africa, but the potatoes are just not the same.
It was only when an engineer friend of my husband came to visit, that I also became aware of labels. He asked us questions such as “does this milk have the same amount of magnesium? are there additives in the yoghurt?” I had no clue. He gave me awareness 101, I started paying a bit of attention. Do you know how much sugar there is in ketchup? Or in tonic for that matter? In Africa, you have the added complication that a product can just stop being imported, or a container doesn’t arrive, and you have to buy what is available so reading labels is not a bad habit. And I started buying my milk and yoghurt fresh from the farm. Still not sure if that was a good decision but I am sure that the opinions about that will change per decade or person you ask.
So when I arrived in Chile, I made rookie mistake number one: I thought I knew things. Ha! It was totally back to the drawing board, getting used to everything again, and I do not just mean I was trying to find my favorite brand of coffee. But it was humbling and that is always good. It was after I accidentally bought honey that was not honey, that I started reading labels again. I of course had to look up some words in Spanish, you do not learn what ‘eneldo’ is in Spanish class. Thank god for scientific names and Latin. I very deliberately stay away from everything that says aspartame for example. (Chileans seem to love sweet.) We have been doing this for 2 months now and I still do not have many favorite products. And if you think that global brands are the same everywhere, guess again, even Coke was different in Tanzania. The girls have started a process of trial and error with school snacks. Notes on where we bought what and how high they rate it, are being made. But discoveries are made too. And that is what it is all about, no?
The Chilean wine tradition dates back centuries, with the Spanish conquistadores bringing vines into the country during the colonial years (16th century). And the agricultural history should not surprise you when I say the first vineyards were situated in warm areas, close to a major river, thus in central valleys. Maipo Valley, for instance, close to Santiago, with the river Maipo running through it, and is the oldest wine valley of Chile. At first, these wines did not exactly possess award winning quality but a lot has changed throughout time and Chile has become a producer to be reckoned with on the global stage, in numbers as well as in quality.
Casablanca is, all things considered a very young and modern wine area. It is closer to the coast and thus the temperatures are on average cooler. And with the region not having a major river ruining through it, it is not the self-evident choice for a farmer to go. But with the combination of a pioneering spirit to try and farm in cooler areas anyway, and of modern technology such as irrigation, some vineyards were started in this area. And with success, with the soil and climate even contributing to some unique and great tastes.
And because stories like these are incredibly interesting, I did not only read about it earlier, but I was also extremely enthusiastic when the office organised an exploration of the area in the weekend. The program listed 3 wineries, all 3 with their own different product and approach. We were able to enjoy the beautiful scenery, some sun, insightful tours, tastings, time as a team and we visited 2 guesthouses for inspection. For me personally, the lack of product knowledge is the gap I am trying to fill as soon as I can by reading and studying, but a day like this helps tremendously. Also the Spanish language bath a day like this offers, is extremely useful. Getting to know the team better is of course always a good thing. And you know what, the rolling hills and endless views even reminded me of Africa once or twice.
Casas del Bosque
Matetic winery and guesthouse