Saturday, October 24, 2009

Culture Shock

I´ve been thinking about this post all week. Last Saturday I saw an awful event that made me really feel that I am in a different culture, but it took me a whole week to come to terms with it enough to write a post about it. I´m warning you now that it´s terrible..............................................................................................................................

Nick and I were headed to the mall or something to do some looking around for the apartment and we came to a busy intersection that we´ve passed a thousand times. All of a sudden I heard a loud bang and instantly realized that a truck had hit a passing dog in the road. I screamed and couldn´t avert my eyes from the poor creature laying in the middle of the road. The truck didn´t stop. Nobody stopped. We were stuck behind a red light and I was frantically trying to undo my seatbelt to go try to help it. Before I could get out, though, we saw a pedestrian heading toward the dog and I realized he was better off dealing with it than I was (it was a big dog... I´m a small person, no cell phone, not a clue as to whom to call). So I sat back a bit but I could not look away from the poor dog with its life literally running out onto the street and a thousand cars passing it by as though nothing happened. I was horribly shaken up for the rest of the day and it really stifled the good mood I had awakened in.

I suppose this could have happened anywhere, but the thing is that it happens here all of the time. I don´t think we´ve made a single trip to the farm where I haven´t seen the poor body of a dog laying on the side of the road. It´s really macabre. And it stems from a huge cultural difference-- for one, dogs here aren´t fixed as often in the US and the result is a large feral population. This probably contributes to the cold attitude that people take here in regards to animal death. There are so many and they aren´t family members here that it´s like seeing a squirrel on the road. But for me it is very very hard to take and has been the most shocking difference so far; the thing that I suspect will never become any easier here for me.

The other unexpected difference is in a much more benign realm, although likely equally as difficult to overcome. Chile is a very class-oriented society. I don´t really know what the terms are to describe the classes, but there are working class people (maids, cleaners, maestros, manual laborers) and higher class people (wealthy people, business people). I am not exactly sure where the line of demarcation falls but there is a line. We are considered upper class people (which to me is hilarious because we are very US-middle-class and by no means wealthy) and interacting within our class is fine, no problems. But interacting with people of other classes, as we do at the farm or working on our apartment, has been uncomfortable at times.

It feels weird even typing this to Americans because the concept is so foreign, but the attitude among the working class to the higher class is one of submission and service. You can´t really expect to develop a friendly relationship with employees, for instance, because there is always that distance there. Our apartment even has a separate, miserable little bedroom and bathroom for a maid, but it´s not a room I´d expect a human to live in. I imagine that upper class people generally act condescending toward the working class as well, but Nick and I have made it a point to treat them as well as anyone. I feel like this could cause us some problems with other upper class people because this attitude is relatively uncommon. Even middle class people often have domestic workers, so there is not as much of a true middle class here as in the US.

Nick and I have resolved to be, in his words, unabashedly American in our attitude toward class differences; that is to say, we´ll act as though they don´t exist. Americans have a well-known reputation of being somewhat obnoxious and self-righteous, and I generally do not want to perpetuate this reputation while abroad. But being on this side of things made me think: would I compromise what I consider to be a core American value in order to fit in and keep from being a beligerent American? After some consideration, my answer is No. The idea that all classes are equally deserving of respect, opportunity, and so on, is too innate to us. I would rather stand out as a self-righteous American than submit to classism because it´s the local way.

I´m not sure how this will affect us at all. Perhaps we will just be the quirky Americans. Perhaps it can encourage others to break down some of those walls. I don´t know. What I do know is how surprised I am to find such a level of classism in a country nearly 200 years past colonial rule.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Wool Soup

Those of you who know me well know that I am a fairly adventurous eater. I am willing to try most things at least once and often find that indeed I like them. Since I have been here, I have indulged in things such as corvina ceviche (raw fish in a citrusy dressing), queso del campo (raw milk cheese made on the farm... you all know I am squirmish about milk being left out, so this is a big one for me) and octopus. Octopus was actually quite good and possibly my favorite out of those. It tastes sort of like scallop. Not as chewy as one would expect.

So, you see, I was not expecting this one that drew the line for me, that said, "No more! This is too crazy for me!" It was lambs' tail soup. The name actually sounds enticing. Lamb, mmmm. Soup, mmmm. There is one small problem, and that is that the tail contains a LOT of wool. So much, apparently, that it's nearly impossible to remove it all, and even the best cooks have bits of wool remaining in the soup. "Bits" is somewhat extreme... it's more like a piece here and there which actually makes it all the more disturbing to me. I have tried it twice now and twice I have lasted about 3 bites. Wool soup I just cannot do.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Great Escape

Sunday was a pretty good day. Nick and I took it very easy, having gone to Marchigue the day before for the fair, which is an hour's drive plus standing around in hay most of the time. It was cold, but we curled up by the fire for a good portion of it, and made a nice dinner together. At bed time, we went through the usual routine of locking up the farm house. Just after I pulled all of the keys out of the doors (they lock automatically), I remembered that I thought the porch light was still on, so I opened the door a crack to look and to turn it off. Mister appeared suddenly at my feet and tried to slither out the door, so I grabbed his tail hard, terrified of him slipping into the darkness. Unfortunately he is very smooth and shiny, and he slipped right through my hands, and bounding off into the black night. I screamed after him and the last thing I remember of that moment is his bunny-like body escaping from the dim light of the porch into god-knows-where.

The night here is very dark without a full moon. Once off the porch, screaming my head off for Nick and a headlamp, I couldn't see more than directly at my feet. I panicked, and Nick came running out in his boxer shorts and a quickly-aquired sweater with the headlamp that barely illuminated a 3-foot space in front of me. He slammed the door in fright, as scared as I was. Mister is his favorite cat. I feel bad saying it, but it's not as though Shady might read this blog, I suppose. And as we don't have children, we pour all of the love a couple normally reserves for offspring into our cats. We really do love them.

Nick chased Mister around the house. Mister's greatest faults are that he is easily tempted by fields and fields of grass (and what is the farm right now but miles of grass?) and is prone to running when he is scared. At a few moments, I thought I had him when he ran back onto the porch, but he's very slippy and the porch has lots of escape hatches. Finally I got the idea that he might come back for his food, so I headed inside to get his bowl to rattle so he'd hear it. Only.. wait.. the door... was locked. We were Locked Out. In the black, cold darkness with our cat probably running to Argentina by now.

I thought I had been freaking out before, but the real freakout started now. I started hyperventilating. My stomach churned. I became hot and tears streamed from my eyes and nose. Nick was like an atom bomb, loaded onto a plane and ready to drop. I didn't know how we could get back inside. Nick informed me that Juan, the main stockman, had a spare key, and he went off into the black with the headlamp and in his shorts to find him. I felt awful. My cat was gone. Nick had to get up in 4 hours for the round-up, and now he was locked out with only thin cotton shorts and had to go wake the only neighbor in the middle of the night to half let us out of my stupid predicament.

At this point the only thing I could do was stand on the porch and hope that Mister felt like coming back. I tried to listen--the night is so quiet here you could hear a pin drop, but I couldn't hear a single rustle of a lithe cat slipping through the brush. I was positive that he had run so quickly and so far that he was in open grass and I'd never hear him. He was never coming back. It was a cruel blow just three weeks into my life here, and my mind began to race: with images of his black and white body bounding away, with worries of wild dogs, wilder cats, barbed fences and other farm terrors, with the thought that maybe Mister had always wanted to leave us. In between my hyperventilating breaths, I let out whimpering cries of "Mister...Mister...Oh God, Mister, come back..."

It took nearly twenty minutes for Nick to get the key and return, the farm being even bigger and more widely spaced when you can't see in front of you. Mirages of Mister had crossed my eyes while he was gone, but no sign of the real thing. He came onto the porch and grabbed my shoulders and told me to get it together, that we had to act together to find him. I firmly resolved then to stay up all night looking for Mister, until the sun could elucidate possibly hiding spots under the porch, the bushes, the scrub.

I pushed my head up and we went inside quickly for our provisions. Mister's food, more dim flashlights, clothes. As quickly as I could, I ran back out and shook the plastic bowl of kibble into the darkness. A shadow. I shook again. The shadow moved. He was on the deck! Still in the darkness, but I could SEE him. He hadn't run to Argentina yet! But he also wasn't in my arms.

I kept shaking, and thank heavens he was hungry. He thought food was a fantastic idea, having not found anything worth eating in the bushes in the last hour (and there really isn't anything). I put the bowl down and silently pleaded him to come to it. He did. I jumped. I snatched him into my arms and faster than a mother leopard had him in the house. He Was Home.

I collapsed on the bed with him, visions of his demise still dancing in my head, he crying from being held, maybe from fright as well. It was ok. I hadn't lost one of my only pillars here (for although they are just cats, they are the only thing that really define my own space right now... wherever the cats are is home). But something had changed about the darkness. Before when I went into it and watched the twinkling stars, I could drink it in, a refreshing emptiness that didn't exist back in Ohio. A blank palette onto which I could project any dream, thought, wish. But now it had been soiled in some way. It was a cruel envelope, waiting to steal things I love, hiding monstrous enemies in its shroud. I hope that the change is temporary, but I can't go out right now without pictures of Mister slipping away flashing through my mind.

Which reminds me of my other thought. Has he always been wanting to go? Am I cruel for keeping him in here? He does have a warm place and enough to eat and drink, but would he be somehow more fulfilled outside? The logic of my mind says no, but my heart can't erase him running off into the brush...

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

On Baking

For some reason I agreed to take on the task of baking desserts and cookies for La Esquila. If only all of my belongings had arrived, this would not be a big deal, but I am faced with cooking in the glorified camping kitchen. No baking tools whatsoever save one springform pan pinched from the Santiago house. So far this morning I have made a Bourbon Walnut Tart. Here's how it went.

First I put the pastry crust in the springform pan. This was an easy task. Yes, I cheated and bought a premade crust. No, it's not as good as homemade or even the Pillsbury kind. But we had it from my last baking experiment and it seemed a shame to waste it. I won't buy it again. (It's chewy... I'd like to know how pie crust becomes chewy...) Next in the recipe, I spread chopped nuts over the bottom of the crust. Faced with a cutting board the size of my shoe and a knife the size of my arm, I realized that chopping wasn't going to do it. I decided that crushing the nuts in their packaging would be the best solution. I found the biggest crushing device I could: a wooden spoon. The farm is so devoid of industrial noise that apparently my whacking could be heard all around. I got several inquiries as to what in the world I was killing while I finely crushed the nuts. "Oh just some walnuts!" It took about 15 minutes to effectively smash the walnuts.

Next, one must mix brown sugar and softened butter. Fail on both accounts. The butter was nearly frozen and the brown sugar doesn't exist here. Instead I have a brick of chancaca, which is something like muscovado sugar, but very close in taste to brown sugar. And texture, once you grate it. So I set the butter next to the fire and set about grating chancaca. Chancaca is not like, cheese, where it easily caves to grating. No, chancaca fights the whole way. Like a fist-sized nutmeg. I thus spent a half hour grating enough chancaca for the tart, and very occasionally nearly grating my hand too.

The butter never did soften, so I decided to make a sort of double-boiler to soften it. Meantime, realized that the fire in the other room was dying so I had to run back to stoke it a bit (I am really terrible at keeping a fire). Finally the butter did soften enough and I managed to get the filling together. Into the oven went the tart and I went back to work grating more chancaca for later. Shortbread cookies this afternoon....

I really do think the chancaca is actually superior to traditional brown sugar. Brown sugar in the US is refined white sugar with molasses added. Chancaca is unrefined and so retains a bit more flavor, a bit more character then brown sugar. It's very hard to find in the US, so I think an adequate substitute would be adding a bit more molasses to brown sugar or just using muscovado.

All of that said, you might like the recipe for this glorious tart, which normally takes about 10 minutes to prepare and is quite easy and VERY delicious. Here it is.

Bourbon Walnut Tart
1 pie crust
1.5 c chopped walnuts
1.5 c brown sugar or grated chancaca or muscovado sugar
0.5 c softened butter
2 eggs
2 T bourbon
2 T whipping cream
1 T very good vanilla (don't bother if you only have imitation)
1 T flour
0.5 t salt--only if the nuts you use are unsalted

Spread the walnuts of the bottom of the crust which has been installed into a tart or pie pan. Throughly blend the remaining ingredients and pour over the nuts, moving them around a bit to make sure there aren't any air bubbles. Bake at 350 F/170 C for 35-60 minutes (really depends on the oven and ingredients) or until the tart doesn't jiggle anymore when you move it. Let it cool and enjoy with unsweetened whipped cream (trust me it doesn't need any more sugar!)
Recipe (c) 2009 Stefanie Niery Party

Saturday, October 10, 2009

5 surprising things I miss about the US

1. Instantly hot water--the calefon is awesome for its endless hot water but it takes forever to heat up. Sucky for washing hands.
2. Chicken--specifically awesome Amish chicken.
3. Cops--Specifically the traffic enforcers. I don't even know where to begin about how terrible Chilean drivers are. There are No Rules on the road here and no one enforcing anything like, oh, a speed limit or rules about changing lanes or, I don't know, driving on the curb.
4. Chewing gum--I can only find dinky little packets of 8 tiny pieces. I need a big hunk of bubble gum!
5. Weather forecasts--No one writes a weather forecast for the farm area so every day it's like "Hmm, what should I wear today? How about everything and I'll just take off what I don't need." One day it's 85, the next it's 60.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sicky McSickerson

Blah, I'm sick. I've been sick since Wednesday. Being sick sucks in the first place, but it especially sucks when you're away from home, which I still feel like I am. If I were back in Lakewood, I would have spent the last 5 days curled up on the couch with Shady at my head and Mister at my feet, with my computer and one of my myriad books, and bowls of Joe's chicken soup (or better yet... Dad's chicken soup). I'd have whiled away the hours in comfort and warmth, often snuggling up to my "hot stick"-- ie the bean filled bag you toss in the microwave for a few minutes and it stays warm for over an hour.

Instead, Nick and I have been at the Farm since Friday with no central heating and exactly one book. (I could only fit 5 in my luggage so I have to limit myself to one book a week, and even then I'll have to find 1-3 more here to fill up the rest of the time...) I'd make my own hot stick except there's no microwave here either. Aaaaand the kitties are back in Santiago. So it has been a bit rough. The best part, though, is the bed warmer. Whoever invented such a device deserves a Nobel Prize for Comfort. While staying at the Farm can sometimes be like glorified camping, the bed warmer keeps it just within the realm of civilization and is the saving grace while I have been sick here. And actually, being sick gives me a reason to stay in it all day :)

What would a good blog be without a recipe? We devised a tasty soup today to help soothe my throat and clear my sinuses, so I thought I'd share it. It probably tastes good even when you're not sick.

Spicy Mushroom Soup
1 pint mushrooms (we just used white but I bet shiitake would be amazing)
1 onion
1/2 liter chicken stock
2 T paprika (we used spicy)
Cayenne pepper to taste
A bit of butter/oil mix for sauteeing

Chop the onion into little bits and begin sauteeing in a tablespoon or so of butter with a drop of oil on it to keep it from browning. Brush off the mushrooms if necessary and then cut into 1/4" cubes. Add them to the onion and continue to sautee everything until it begins to brown and the mushrooms have reabsorbed their liquid. Add the paprika and sautee for another 2-4 minutes. Add the hot chicken stock and simmer for about 10 minutes. Voila! Add the cayenne to taste, although if you use spicy paprika it may not be necessary. You can also serve with a dollop of cream in it.