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.
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?
There is something about the water that other places just do not have. And then I do not care if it is a lake or an ocean, a place at the water just always feels like a room with one wall less. So imagine what an island feels like. (Extra advantage on an island: the humidity is bearable due to the breeze.)
I am not sure how many times I have been to Zanzibar in my life. And throughout the years I made the transition of booking backpacker places that offered a weak excuse for a breakfast to five star hotels, with the stage of decent average places in between.
So when this time around, my brother decided to join me and my family with his family, we decided to go all the way: a full week and five star places and extra excursions. (See pictures below)
Tulia Zanzibar was the revelation of the trip for me. I had never been there. It boasts about having the only pool slides and fastest wifi on the island so because we had kids and teenagers with us, that seemed like a great fit. I was not expecting the food to be excellent, I never really book a property for the food, but my word it was exquisite! Something that guests sometimes complain about in Zanzibar is the tides, and the huge distance between them. Tulia did not only have 2 pools anyway but they cleverly made an extra artificial beach for when the tide is high.
This does mean I had my water-island-beach fix for a while now..
Six Degrees Restaurant
Lunch at The Rock
Spice Tour (the picture shows nutmeg by the way)
Today, I will be dropping my girls at the airport, for their flight to see the family and have Christmas with their father. I have dropped them at Kilimanjaro International Airport more than 20 times in the last years. And even though it is never a particularly joyous occasion for me (I am happy for them of course), I do love airports. I guess since an average visit to the airport means you are going on holiday, I am not alone when I say I love airports.
I find it interesting to just sit there and imagine where all these people are going and where they come from. Everybody has a story, right? And I am always intrigued to hear the story. And usually I leave it up to my imagination but sometimes it happens you end up talking to someone for hours during a layover and some of them do have such an interesting life story. I actually have facebook friends that I met in an airport. I guess sharing a gate created a certain bond 🙂
I have to admit I already did the imagining-thing when I was a kid. I remember sitting in a Quick-restaurant (Belgian version of McDonalds) and trying to imagine everyone’s life story. I would go as far as to imagine what some people’s living room would look like. In an airport, the possibilities are of course limitless. And who doesn’t love a world that is limitless?
Today is Thanksgiving. I am not American so I do not celebrate it. But I have to agree it is a good tradition to be thankful once in a while.
I personally get quite annoyed when people act entitled. When stuff is – or worse: when people are – taken for granted. I mean, marriages break up over this stuff, no? Not trying to be corny, but I find it important to teach my children to stop and think and realize these things occasionally. Maybe it should even be easier for them, when living in 3 continents, to notice positive and little things?
In an effort to motivate them to do so, and to make it a habit, we have a gratitude journal. Every evening, we write together but in our own journal what we are thankful for. And it does become a habit, something you then develop an eye for and think of during the day. After writing, the girls are free to share what they wrote or keep it to themselves. On the same day, I heard the following:
A: “I am grateful for showers and how clean they make me feel when it is dusty”
C: “I am grateful for the tree that holds the swing”
And I am grateful for how wonderful those entries are.
When my children were born – and I assume this is the same for everyone – I slowly but surely tried to teach them how to speak. The first time they then actually used the right word for the right thing, it was followed by applause. My eldest was a stubborn one though, she would say “opa” 15 times when pointing at his chair, but she would refuse to say it when he was actually there (yearning to hear it, I am sure).
Then of course the second one comes along and you are surprised how they develop totally differently. It is as if every child walks through a room full of shelves and chooses from the shelves whatever skill they want to focus on first. Number one made two word sentences at a young age, number two has incredible eye-hand coordination. They also seemed to treat vocabulary differently. Number one associated table cloth with sheet but number two named the table cloth an apple because it was green.
I recall the first time my daughter came home from school and used words she did not learn from me. I remember that exact moment, because I realized she would now be exposed to every single word out there. In the past, she obviously heard words from other people aswell but I was there. Maybe it makes more sense that I remember that moment because my children are raised in a multi-lingual environment. So when the gardener was tending the flowers and gave them water, she repeated after him “maji” and we all beamed with pride. But when she came home from school and said (in an accent more English than the queen, I must add) “water“, it was.. well, weird.
(And don’t get me wrong, it is not as if I think they will pick up bad words from the outside world. They pick those from me. We have a swear jar in our house and all the money in it, comes from me. We could go on an annual holiday with that jar. Although I do my best, I use ‘flipping heck’ and ‘shoot’ and that sort of thing. )
And now we have come to the stage where my kids throw my words back at me. Also a pleasure. (Not) Where I lecture them on something and by God, I have to admit they listened to every word and have actually registered what I said fully because a couple of days or weeks later it is thrown right back at you, and you have to admit they are right and you should practice what you preach. But hey, who am I kidding, I am still beaming with pride when they do that (don’t tell them though).
I work in a holiday destination, and I am usually the one to read the feedback from guests after their holiday. Luckily, 95% of what I get to read is fantastic, full of praise and tells me guests are over the moon. Great. A perk to the job even.
But you can imagine that the remaining 5% consists of a wide range: from totally legitimate complaints, to a tad naive remarks, sometimes even rude notes, and then all the way to downright ridiculous comments. The totally legitimate complaints I can work with, gladly even, appreciate knowing them. In the category naive, it sometimes seems guests leave their brain at home when they travel. One lady told me she did not brush her teeth for a full week because our packing list did not tell her to bring her toothbrush. Right.. whatever. A rude comment I found in a written questionnaire, saying: “the driver did not smell!”. I immediately wondered if I should be worried that we did not meet her expectations? But it is of course the ridiculous ones that make my job such fun. When I heard “we couldn’t sleep at night, it was quite annoying the animals made sounds all night”, it is very hard to bite my tongue and not reply “oh god, did they forgot to turn the feature off again?”. Or when someone complained there was an animal on the path to the room, I so wished I could say “what do you mean? Do they not put them back in their cages?”
A common one I got very often, was the one where the guest wrote “the Maasai were not very authentic”. Well, it is not as if we got a Chinese rip off in wholesale for her. A colleague and myself even started drawing cartoons based on these comments.
Not only the feedback but also the strange requests inspired us. When we received a parcel of toiletries in the office, addressed to the mobile camp in the Serengeti, clearly the guest thought DHL would deliver it at his tent? Which would probably look something like this..?
Clearly, people’s trust in DHL is limitless because when a Chinese millionaire’s daughter summited Kilimanjaro, she told us “you can take me and my luggage down now” and she was appalled by our suggestion she should walk it down. She insisted. We explained planes and helicopters cannot really land where she was. So she said “you can carry me on the stretcher and you can DHL the luggage down”. The worst part? The porters actually did carry her down on a stretcher. And carried her luggage. (I hope she tipped well.) And I made this.
But my favorite – and it has not been topped yet – is this one: “the beach was very sandy and there were fish in the ocean”. Which I thought was a huge compliment, talking about a great experience, right? But no, I misunderstood, it was a complaint: the beach was TOO sandy and since there were fish, she did not dare to swim in case they touched her.