Feeling full on our first Santiago Thanksgiving

Like most people in and from the United States, (a) I ate way too much in the last few days, and (b) I found quite a few reasons to count my blessings.

Our school gave us only Thursday afternoon off to celebrate Thanksgiving, which created widespread crankiness. That abated later in the day when we joined some wonderful people for a beautiful Thanksgiving dinner. Hostess Michelle roasted the most delicious, juicy turkey I’ve ever had (she said the secret was an overnight soak in brine – what?!), and the table overflowed with all the traditional fixin’s. It’s spring here in Chile, so we sat outside in the garden under a big sun umbrella.

Tony and I both felt deeply grateful for new friends who reach out and share such heartfelt hospitality.

Saturday, I headed back to school for Kermess, the annual international festival. Nido de Aguilas International School parents showcased their home countries with more than 30 decorated booths selling food and drinks. Children paraded in their traditional costumes, and performers gave us a tour around the world through music and dance. In my enthusiasm to visit all the places I’ve lived, I made the mistake of kicking off my food frenzy with a big Turkish shwarma. I hardly had room for anything else!

No booth for Laos, unfortunately. I would have happily scooped up some larb with sticky rice. It was fun to chat with families from my other overseas homes: Turkey, China, India, and Chile, plus I picked up a beer at the Germany booth (ahhh… high school memories).
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Looking around, I felt thankful for the opportunity to teach abroad and work in a community comprising more than 50 nationalities. This is our 16th Thanksgiving overseas, and I know immersion in other cultures has broadened my mind.

After four hours of snacking, I hauled my distended belly to meet Tony for another food-centered social event: Nido Newbie Thanksgiving.

We met at the home of fellow newbies, Travis and Laura, who live in a peaceful hillside cabin in the Arrayan Canyon. We ate more tasty Thanksgiving treats, sat in lawn chairs and chatted in the shade of a huge walnut tree, went for a short hike with false historical narration by Craig, ate some more, drank a bit, and shivered to watch some of the kids – and later, some of the adults – jump into the chilly pool.

On our little hike, looking down at the house and pool.
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For the millionth time since moving to Chile, I felt grateful for a group of fun, smart, adventurous people sharing this newbie experience. It’s reassuring to know there are others who get it, who will laugh with you and cry with you and eventually laugh with you again.

We were meant to attend yet another function Saturday evening, but Tony and I had overestimated our social stamina. We both hit the wall and had to send our regrets.

It’s always hard to be away from family during the holiday season. However, our first South American Thanksgiving filled our tummies and our hearts.

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MOVInight: the making of a wine snob

You may think all I do in Chile is ride my bike and drink wine. Not true!

Well, OK, it’s mostly true.

MOVInight on Nov. 11 introduced me to a whole new world of Chilean wine. Up to now, I was more than thrilled to fill my supermarket cart with “cheap and cheerful” Chilean wines. (I have read that phrase on several websites, but I don’t know who said it first.) Ten bucks gets you a pretty great bottle of wine in the grocery store – conveniently located next to the cheese aisle! That was good enough for me.

And then I went to MOVInight, a wine festival featuring independent artisans who shared wines crafted by their own hands and poured with love. These innovative producers comprise MOVI (Movimiento de Viñateros Independientes, or the Movement of Independent Vintners in English), an organization of 32 winemakers committed to making wine “on a human scale.”

According to a 2015 article on the website Grape Collective, three huge winemakers sell four out of five bottles of Chilean wine. MOVI was formed to help the small family winemakers access resources and manage marketing.

MOVI is an important addition to the overall Chilean wine industry. There is something very underdog about them in a country where the big dog is very dominant. How can a wine lover not embrace passionate family winemakers making heartfelt artisanal wines from old vines. Now compare the story of the mass produced industrial “value” wines – which is sexier David or Goliath? When we met with Chilean wine pioneer and President of Wines of Chile Aurelio Montes, he was glowing in his praise of MOVI. While they are not fee paying members of Wines of Chile, Montes was keen to point out that they are invited to press events as their story is an important part of the narrative of modern Chilean wine.

As far as wine festivals go, MOVInight felt particularly whimsical and lively, maybe because the winemakers were so eager to share their stories. At the entrance, we received a wineglass for the myriad samples of vino. Food trucks, peppy music, a backdrop of mountains, and well-appointed port-a-potties contributed to an evening of tipsy laughter.

Look at the setting!
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We waited a very long time for dinner at one of the food trucks, but it was worth it. Yummy gnochi.
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Posing with a rep from Casa Bauzá.
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My favorite wines of the night were Villard Syrah 2015 and Flaherty Red Wine (a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo) 2014. But, hey, it’s a pretty rare wine that doesn’t make me happy.

The only bummer about being a wine snob is that I can’t find these MOVI brands at the supermarket. However, I just discovered La Vinoteca, where I can shop for wine online and get free delivery with orders over 19,900 pesos (about $30). Whew!

For more on MOVI, check out this short documentary.

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Santa Cruz’in for the long weekend

Less than three hour’s drive from Santiago, the world transforms from concrete and glass into mountains and vineyards. The Colchagua Valley dissects central Chile, from the Pacific Ocean in the east to the Andes Mountains in the west, and boasts a perfect climate for growing grapes – particularly red wine varieties.

As it happens, I love red wine. And mountains. And four-day weekends.

Friday after school, fellow newbie Stella and I ditched our families and road-tripped to Santa Cruz in the Colchagua Valley. We encountered heavy congestion on the Pan-American Highway, but I absentmindedly followed the car in front of me, which crossed the median into a lane closed to oncoming traffic and opened to those of us heading south. We whipped past miles of standstill traffic and finally merged back onto the correct side of the highway, breathing a sigh of relief that we hadn’t missed our exit. At a big toll plaza, we waited in line while scores of vendors in fluorescent orange vests hawked drinks, bread, and empanadas.

Finally, we arrived at Vino Bello, a small bed-and-breakfast owned by a former Nido de Aguilas teacher and her husband. Surrounded by vineyards, the 1930s manor house was renovated in 2003 and featured simple but comfortable accommodations. We met the owner, Janine, at the nearby Vino Bello restaurant and enjoyed chatting with her about common acquaintances and her transition from educator to business owner.

It didn’t take long for my usual food-induced joy to surface, and after a pisco sour, a glass of wine, delicious beetroot ravioli stuffed with butternut squash, and an apple crumble de frutas, I was blissfully sleepy.
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The next morning, Stella and I lingered over breakfast and then lingered some more outside with our books.
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The hotel clerk helped us make arrangements for the day, and we eventually headed out to the wineries.

First stop: Viña Estampa, where Fillipe entertained us and poured samples for tasting. He told us that Estampa specializes in blends. According to the Estampa website:

The technique of blending consists of carefully combining two or more varieties to craft a single wine. Each variety contributes its finest characteristics to the blend to create a beautifully balanced wine with unique personality.

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Fillipe tried to explain the origin of the winery’s name, but I didn’t understand until I read the story online. The family-owned winery traces its agribusiness roots to a flour mill called “La Estampa Mill” in what is now the Indepencia neighborhood of Santiago. The mill was named in honor of a legendary estampa – or pocket-sized prayer card – with a picture of Nuestra Señora del Carmen (Our Lady of Mount Carmel). More than 200 years ago, the picture allegedly circled overhead for about 15 minutes before flying across the Mapocho River and landing next to a woman teaching catechism to her children. A Catholic grotto, and later a chapel, was erected at the site.

We tasted three Estampa blends:
2014 Estampa Reserve Carménère-Malbec,
2014 Estampa Fina-Reserva Carménère-Syrah-Cabernet Sauvignon,
and 2013 Gold Estampa Carménère-Cabernet Sauvignon-Cabernet Franc-Petit Verdot.

They were all delicious, but we chose the middle-range wine to take home.
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A stroll through Estampa’s varietal garden…
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… and we were off to our next stop: Montes.
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After a tranquil, tasty lunch overlooking the vineyards and hillsides, we met up with a couple from Puerto Rico and a family from Brazil for the winery tour.
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Our guide, Maria Angel, explained that Montes doesn’t irrigate its vines in this valley. Dry farming yields smaller bunches but higher quality grapes, she said. She took us to the roof, where ladies sort the grapes, and equipment separates the stems before dumping grapes down a hose into fermentation tanks below. She also showed us some examples of feng shui principles incorporated into the building’s design.
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For our tasting, we sampled:
2015 Outer Limits Sauvignon Blanc,
2013 Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon,
2014 Montes Alpha Carménère,
and 2015 Outer Limits CGM (Carignan, Grenache, Mourvèdre).
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Note the pathetic level of pours… not cool, Montes.
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I picked up a bottle of the Carménère and another blend we didn’t sample but I know I like – Montes Twins (Malbec-Cabernet Sauvignon).

Hanging out with one of the winery’s founders, Aurelio Montes. He’s so crazy.
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The cellar holds 800 French oak barrels, arranged in a semicircle. Gregorian chants echoed off the walls, creating a spiritual setting.

Panorama from the Montes patio.
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Our little B&B was booked for the night, so we had to pack up and move across the road to Hotel Terraviña.
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We read and snacked outside until dinnertime, when we walked through the vineyard to Casa Colchagua restaurant. My dinner of pork ribs with quinoa risotto was rich and hearty. I only wished we hadn’t pigged out on the hotel’s cheese platter beforehand.

The next morning, a cold fog had descended on the grape vines.
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After breakfast, we decided to head home a little sooner than planned with one more stop on the way out of town.

We drove to Viña Laura Hartwig, a family-owned boutique winery. According to the website:

In 1966, Laura Bisquertt receives the Santa Laura estate from her father, who had purchased it in 1928. The land, as was customary in the area, was devoted to seasonal crops and livestock. Between 1966 and 1971, Laura’s husband, Alejandro Hartwig Carte, a civil engineer, manages the estate by farming traditional crops and running a diary farm. In 1971, he decides to look for new job opportunities abroad, thus joining the management team of German pharmaceutical Boehringer Ingelheim, in Montreal, Canada. The family lives in Canada for 10 years. During that time and due to multiple trips to United States and Europe, Alejandro becomes a great wine enthusiast and connoisseur. He recognizes North America’s growing demand for classic French wine varieties. He decides to take advantage of the excellent weather conditions of the Colchagua Valley and the increasing appetite for wines from the New World (wines from Australia and California had started to become popular around this time), and develops what he calls his “Retirement Project.”

Stella and I had planned to pick up a bottle or two and hit the road, but it turned out the winery offered horse-drawn carriage rides. How could we not do that? With Geronimo in the driver’s seat, we rolled through the gorgeous vineyard. The fog had burned off, revealing a bright blue sky and a perfect backdrop of verdant hills.
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With the long drive ahead, I couldn’t partake in a wine sampling. The shopkeeper informed us that Laura Hartwig was known for producing 100% Petit Verdot, a variety that was usually used in blends, so Stella sat down with a glass while I poked around and took some photos.
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We both bought a bottle and then we took off for home with slim hopes of finding a restaurant for lunch.

In general, Chile shuts down on Sunday. As we drove through towns and slowed down by highway exits, it seemed nobody was out and nothing was open. Then we encountered Juan y Medio. I almost drove right past, despite Stella’s GPS directions. There was no exit, just the driveway into the restaurant straight off the highway lane (speed limit: 75 mph). The parking lot was already packed. We were fortunate to get a table, and we enjoyed tasty Chilean sandwiches. When we returned to the parking lot, we found all the cars’ windshields had been covered with cardboard to keep the interiors relatively cool in the pounding sun. Crazy.

Back in Santiago, Stella and I were both psyched to remember that we still had two days off work. Santa Cruz was the perfect weekend get-away. Great food and wine, plenty of downtime to read and relax, beautiful scenery, fresh air and sunshine, fun company … did I mention the wine? I have a feeling this wasn’t my last visit to Colchagua Valley.

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Ready to roll! (As soon as the rain stops…)

After five years in New Delhi, this girl is ready to get back on a bike and enjoy some nature.

Here in Santiago, we live just a couple blocks from urban bike trails that stretch across the city, connecting riverside parks in 11 neighborhoods. On Sunday mornings, about 40 kilometers of roads are blocked off to cars and opened to cyclists.

A July 2016 article in The Guardian traces “Santiago’s two-wheeled revolution.” It’s full of interesting anecdotes about grassroots efforts to promote a cycling culture that breaks down social barriers. This little blurb confirmed my belief that I was going to love biking here:

Geographically and climatically, Santiago is kind to those on bikes. The city is backed by some of the highest mountains in the world but is surprisingly and mercifully flat, rising from an altitude of 475 metres in the west to around 700 metres in well-heeled Las Condes and Vitacura. Only in the eastern extremes, where the city extends its tentacles into the foothills of the Andes, does the going get tough. It is a dry city too, with around 280mm of rainfall a year – less than half of London’s total. For a third of the year between November and February it hardly rains a drop.

Check out this screenshot of the Mapocho42K project, a bike path along the Mapocho River. Can’t you feel the wind in your hair?
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After a couple months of chilly weather, Santiago is emerging from winter. It’s time to get back in the saddle.

Life is simply too busy (and traffic is too daunting) for weekday excursions, so we had planned to shop for bikes last weekend. Then Tony got sick and spent the whole day Saturday in bed. Sunday, most bike shops were closed. So we were determined to get it done today! We had heard about “bike street,” a strip of bike shops in central Santiago (and we even saw the shuttered stores when we went to the 2Cellos concert last week). The plan for today was to visit “bike street,” although Tony and I both felt nervous about the language barrier. A quick google search revealed a Trek bike shop just a couple miles away. We decided to check it out first.

With our bike rack in the trunk, we drove to Echard Bike Center and found everything we needed. The family-owned shop featured friendly knowledgable staff, including Jean Claude, who had raced mountain bikes in California years ago and spoke beautiful English. Tony and I both found bikes we loved, and we pimped them out with computers, water bottle racks, kickstands and Kryptonite U-locks. We had brought bike lights and helmets from the States.

Waiting…
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A worker rolls out Tony’s sweet blue ride.
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Good thing Tony was kitted out and ready to go! (Just kidding … it’s only a mannequin. But don’t you think Tony needs tattoo sleeves?)
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The guys let me pose like I know how to fix a bike. I do not.
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Por qué Trek? Because it’s awesome!
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Drumroll, please… Ta da! You can’t really tell from this photo, but parts of the frame are dark purple with sparkles. I love her.
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Unfortunately, it started to rain about the time we got home with our bikes, but as soon as the skies clear, you know where we’ll be!

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Soaring over Santiago at Costanera Center

Wherever we go in the world, there’s an irresistible urge to climb to the highest point for a bird’s-eye view. I started to make a little collage of all the sky-high places we’ve visited, but there were too many! Check out this small sample.

Here in Santiago, I’m guessing the surrounding mountains hold the key to ultimate panorama photos. I’ll let you know when I finally get out of town to check them out.

In the meantime, we rode to the top of Latin America’s tallest building Monday afternoon. The 300-meter-high Gran Torre Santiago, a 15-minute walk from our house in the Providencia neighborhood, is one of four skyscrapers comprising Costanera Center. It offers a 53-second elevator ride to the observation deck on the 62nd floor.

Compared to other skyscrapers we’ve visited, this one was a bit … well … short. However, the 360° view of Santiago really helped me understand the city’s layout. On land, we frequently seem to drive circuitous routes to get from Point A to Point B. Now I realize we are navigating around those gorgeous hills.
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From the observation deck, we could pinpoint some neighborhood landmarks but couldn’t identify our apartment building. Later, I compared my photos with our apartment’s location on google maps and found it.
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Providencia cools off in the building’s shadow.
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Compulsory cheesy selfie with our new friends, Pi, Laura, and Sara.
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A half-hearted attempt to research the building revealed few interesting facts other than how the financial crisis of 2008 stalled construction for 10 months. But a poster at the observation deck said construction of the Gran Torre Santiago involved 6,000 workers, 350,000 square meters of concrete, and 105,000 metric tons of steel.

The Skyscraper Center websites describes the building this way:

Torre Costanera’s design comes from it’s close proximity to the Andes, and the need to distinguish the tower against this dramatic backdrop. It has prompted a simple and clear form. Rising from the northwest corner of the development next to the Mapocho River, the glass-clad tower has a slightly tapered, slender form that culminates in a sculptural latticed crown. The four corners are indented to accentuate its slenderness. The glass surface of the tower strikes a delicate balance between transparency and reflectivity. At the top of the tower is a dramatic steel and glass structure, providing a unique and elegant silhouette. This is a 21st century building, both technically and aesthetically. It is designed with state-of-the-art structural and mechanical systems, including a highly advanced outrigger system to account for Santiago’s high level of seismic activity. The cooling tower draws its entire water supply from the adjacent San Carlos canal.

A visit to the 105th tallest building in the world? Check! Cross that off my bucket list.

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La Vega Central offers up Chile’s bountiful harvest

For the first couple months we were in Chile, I thought disfruta was Spanish for fruit. You see it on posters and billboards everywhere, so I just figured these were people who loved their fresh produce. I now know disfruta means “enjoy,” so it makes more sense how often it featured in ads for restaurants, concerts, and festivals.

I was right about one thing, though. Chileans love their produce, and for good reason. This stuff is top notch. Many locals and expats have told me La Vega Central is the best place to get the freshest fruits and vegetables for the best prices in Santiago. I heard about the market even before we moved here, but the recommendation almost always came with a disclaimer: Hold on to your bag because the crowds are insane!

Shopping mobs + insecurity about haggling in Spanish = anxiety. So as much as I wanted to get my hands on those big juicy strawberries, I chose instead to buy the overpriced underripe fruit at the supermarket.

Finally, my Spanish-speaking friend Sarah and her Chilean friend Ariel invited me along to explore the market. Although some stalls were closed for Monday’s Columbus Day holiday, there was still plenty of mouth-watering produce for the picking. Best of all, we didn’t encounter the nightmarish crowds of weekend lore.

Right off the bat, I saw an old man selling pumpkin on the sidewalk and felt myself drawn to the bright orange glowing in the sunlight. I snapped a photo, and he promptly barked at me, so I apologized and bought some pumpkin. (Back home, I roasted it with some other chopped veggies and ate them over couscous with goat cheese. Yum!)
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Ariel taught me how to ask first before taking photos, which allowed me to connect a bit with the vendors. Puedo sacarta una foto, por favor? Everyone responded with a kind smile, and some even posed.
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I found my precious strawberries and bought a whole kilo for less than $2. It’s not customary to haggle here, Ariel explained.
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I also bought these beautiful little potatoes, which Ariel had never seen. We found out they were from Peru. (Tony cooked the potatoes for me, and I’m sad to say they tasted pretty much like soil and had a strange gag-inducing texture.)
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Sarah found celery almost as tall as she is.
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Pretending to choose tomatoes.
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There was so much more than just fruit and veggies. At one point, a vendor walked past us pushing a trolley towering with toilet paper while I stood next to drums of cat food and dog food, waiting for Ariel to sample almonds at a nut shop. I saw ladies selecting fresh fish from a tray of crushed ice next to a stall hawking spices and tea. Refrigerated meat cases held every cut of every animal you could imagine. Some tiny shops were bursting with a little bit of everything, including the ubiquitous cats.
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I liked this cool sign.
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But the same stall had a creepy display of naked Barbies and baby dolls. I asked Ariel about it, and he said, “I have no idea!” I was relieved to hear it wasn’t a cultural thing.
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Sure it was a holiday and less crowded than usual, but we were all impressed by the cleanliness of the market. Even the public restroom was pleasant with TP, running water, and soap.

Now that I understand the lay of the land, speak a few useful Spanish phrases, know to pay the posted prices, and realize the power of a smile, I feel less intimidated about shopping at La Vega. It’s still much more intense and time-consuming than a trip to my local supermarket, but it is worth an occasional visit.

A few more shots from our recon mission…
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2Cellos: 2Good2Be4Gotten

When our new friends here in Santiago get excited about the nightlife, Tony and I can only nod supportively. We’re unlikely to ever see the other side of midnight again. And yet, this extrovert’s need for belonging sometimes leads to unexpected choices, like saying “yes!” to a cello concert.
Starting at 9 p.m.
On a Wednesday.

The invitation came from one of Tony’s colleagues, Michelle, who is one of our favorite peeps here. We just couldn’t say no.
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Tony and I arrived at Teatro Caupolican about 10 minutes early. The line snaked down the block. Surely these were people waiting to buy tickets, I thought. I confidently pulled Tony out of the line and up to another entrance, where we were told to get back in the line. Slowly, we inched our way inside and up to our seats, which were the equivalent of plastic folding chairs bolted to the concrete floor. The concert had already started. Gentle classical music wafted up from the stage, where Luka Šulić and Stjepan Hauser sat in the spotlight with their cellos.

Michelle and her posse soon appeared, although we didn’t get a chance to say more than a quick hello before the concert took a turn for the crazy.

I had seen this YouTube video of the duo – known as 2Cellos – and expected their music to be a little edgy.

But I hadn’t properly researched them. I was unprepared for the crowd to rush the stage at the first notes of “You Shook Me All Night Long,” and I hadn’t anticipated the strobe lights or strap-on electric cello that enabled Hauser to continue rocking out while he danced across the stage in blinking red devil horns. One lady tossed her cardigan on the stage, which Šulić grabbed and swung overhead sexily. Tame for a rock concert, maybe, but I would bet few cellists can claim such displays of adulation.

When the house lights came up between songs, we could see the 4,500-seat theater was packed.
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Fans waved their phones the way we used to wave lighters, almost in a trance to the beat of the music. Women screamed and shouted, “I love you!” At one point, there was a chant that reverberated through the crowd. “What are they saying?” I asked my seat mate, Kristen. She didn’t know either, but we soon discovered it was a plea for a particular song, and the cellists responded. The crowd went wild.

2Cellos interspersed their playlist with a few classical pieces, but they mostly stuck with rock favorites by AC/DC, Michael Jackson, Guns N’ Roses, U2, Nirvana and Sting.

I had wrongly assumed the two guys were brothers. According to a November 2014 interview in The Strad, the two Croatian cellists met when they were about 14.

“When we were in Croatia, the people following our careers considered us to be big rivals,” says Hauser. “We were always great friends though – as soon as we met we felt a strong kind of camaraderie. There’s still some rivalry, but in a healthy way: we push each other to be better and better. On stage we make each other play to a higher standard.”

The duo’s website, 2Cellos, says their 2011 YouTube rendition of Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” opened the door to fame. They scored a record deal with Sony MasterWorks and an invitation to tour with Sir Elton John, who says in a video testimonial: “I was absolutely astonished! I said, oh my God, I’ve never seen cello players play like this. I’ve never seen cello players rock out. And I said, God, I’ve got to have them in my band straight away.”

The show was incredible, totally worth staying out late on a school night.

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Making Michigan memories in a blink

When we were lounging lakeside back in June, we bemoaned our brief summer break. Accustomed to about eight weeks of downtime in Michigan, we resented having to go back to work in just one month. Our school in India wrapped up June 1, but we had to report to our new jobs in Chile on July 3.

“No fair!” we cried. “We’ll just come back in September when we have a week off!”

Well, that was a stupid plan. I made it even stupider by screwing up the flight reservations. I must have been using last year’s school calendar when I booked the tickets for Sept. 24-30. In fact, the break was a week earlier. When I realized my mistake, I phoned the airline, cried and pleaded, and got the fee waived. However, I still had to pay the difference in the fare, which was about $700 total … and we had to wait till Saturday night to leave Santiago … and our flight back to Chile had two stops. Awesome.

That meant we had a total of four full days in Michigan at the rate of about $700 per day, counting airfare and car rental. Kind of ridiculous.

Anyway, it turned out September was a wonderful time to be there. Trees were just starting the transformation from green to scarlet. The lake was still warm enough for a swim, and the weather was perfect. With school in session, our neighborhood was practically deserted. Sitting on the deck with my coffee in the morning, I watched the ducks frolicking in the lake and listened to the chattering of birds in the willow tree. Maybe it was worth the money?
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We didn’t have internet or phone service at the lake, so we spent a little time each day using the free wifi at McDonald’s. That was the only way to contact my sister Kate to make plans for the day.
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Tony enjoyed pottering around the house, but I spent most of my time hanging out with Kate and 3-year-old Jack. His big brothers were in school, so he got a lot of attention.
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We had a little fashion shoot with Chilean vests, hats and flags.
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It might not have been the most fiscally responsible choice to fly home for less than a week, but it was lovely nonetheless.

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Dieciocho – celebrating Chile (and saving my sanity)

Returning staff at our school have patiently endured new teachers’ whining and crying for the last couple months. They nodded their heads and made empathetic sounds when we griped about banking woes, moaned about school systems, expressed profound confusion about daily-life decisions, and otherwise shook our fists at the heavens with utter frustration. “It will all be OK by Dieciocho,” they said.

I had no idea what dieciocho was, but I heard that message so often, it began to bring me comfort.

Then suddenly Dieciocho arrived. Turns out, dieciocho is Spanish for 18, and on Sept. 18, Chile celebrates Independence Day. According to About.Education:

On September 18, 1810, Chile broke from Spanish rule, declaring their independence (although they still were theoretically loyal to King Ferdinand VII of Spain, then a captive of the French). This declaration eventually led to over a decade of violence and warring which did not end until the last royalist stronghold fell in 1826.

Dieciocho is just one day in a festive season called Fiestras Patrias, when Chileans celebrate Chile with rodeos, barbecues, and parties. All over town, people dance the cueca, Chile’s national dance: Ladies in flouncy dresses wave handkerchiefs coyly while bobbing to the music, tempting the huasas (Chile’s version of cowboys) to stomp their boots and spin their spurs. In a public square, you might see an organ grinder performing with a chinchinero, who uses long drumsticks to beat the huge drum on his back while straps attached to his feet clang the cymbals.

I experienced Dieciocho in a few different ways.

First, our school’s Fiesta Huasa offered up a taste of all things Chilean: food, drinks, games, dances, music, and demonstrations of horsemanship. I even accepted a sip of some potent drink from a cow horn, handed down to me from a high school janitor, who was proudly decked out in his finest huasa gear and parading around on his beautiful horse.
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My friend, Craig, and I volunteered at the guinea pig game without really knowing what it was. We soon learned it was very popular! Kids lined the perimeter of the large booth to buy numbered tickets. Inside, boxes formed a big ring with their openings facing inward. A worker dressed as a mime with a small whistle in his mouth placed a guinea pig under a cover in the middle of the circle. After lots of whistling and dramatic gestures, he lifted the cover, and the crowd went wild. At first, the guinea pig just sat there, soaking up all the attention. Then he scurried for cover in one of the numbered boxes. The child with that number on her ticket won a prize. It lasted less than a minute. And then we started over, selling tickets again (color-coded, so no cheating). I had heard that more traditional parties actually give the guinea pig away as the prize, so I was pretty relieved to see kids instead choosing from boxed toys like baby dolls and cars.
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For more Dieciocho fun, I checked out Chile Lindo, a big party in a park near our neighborhood. I ate my first choripán, a chorizo sandwich. Yum!
I didn’t take any food porn photos, but it looked a bit like this, courtesy of Joan Nova’s flickr page.
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Photos from Chile Lindo.
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Nido students also sang and danced in a Dieciocho assembly, which was pretty adorable.
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Here’s a chinchinero at the assembly.

On the Friday before the weeklong Dieciocho break, Nido’s foreign teachers threw a huge party for the Chilean staff, complete with piles of barbecue, gallons of pisco sours (a delicious and toxic Chilean cocktail), and a show featuring skits and songs performed by teachers. In a tradition bordering on hazing, new teachers were told we would be dancing the cueca. We practiced a couple times, but when I saw the video it looked like I had never seen the dance before. Still, it was surprisingly fun.

My dress collar kept blowing up in my face, and it was really cold, so I kept my jeans on. Go ahead and judge.
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Fun newbie friends.
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So, finally, Dieciocho had arrived. We thought it would never get here. And you know what? Those wise returning teachers were right. By the time we left school after that party, I could honestly say I had turned a corner. Without realizing it, I was coping without crying. I was solving problems without complaining to seven people first. The hot tears of frustration and that tight knot of anxiety in my throat? Not completely gone, but not constantly present either. So that’s something.

I’m sitting in the Buffalo airport on my way back to Chile, and I’m actually looking forward to getting home. Yeah, home. It’s about time.

Viva Chile!

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Snacks for Snakey: Instinct or kitty kindness?

Our cat, Ella, has a ridiculous number of toys, but she has a soft spot for “Snakey.” Every morning, we emerge from the bedroom to find Snakey facedown in Ella’s food or water.
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Lately, Snakey has been getting some company and enjoying a little more variety. Ella used to shove his torn little face into her bowl of kibble or dunk him in the water dish, but now she occasionally lets him play with her egg carton “enrichment toy,” a DIY food dispenser that is supposed to stimulate bored cats. She even drags her other toys to the party.
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Perplexed over Ella’s weird behavior, I did a little research. Apparently, this is not uncommon. Here’s the scoop from Dr. Arnold Plotnick, a New York vet with an informative blog called Cat Man Do.

Transporting non-food items, such as toys, to the food or water bowl is a common behavior seen in indoor cats. The reason why they do this isn’t clear, although several explanations have been suggested. Cats often put their toys away in a “safe” place after playing with them, and cats look upon their food area as a secure part of their territory. This behavior is similar to cats in the wild who often take their prey back to their nest area to hide it from potential predators. Your cat simply might be storing his toy in a secure area to be played with later. (When my cat, Mittens, is finished playing with her fuzzy mice, she likes to store them behind a large flowerpot in the corner of my living room.)

He also speculates that it could be a nurturing behavior.

Another possible explanation is that this is a manifestation of gathering/collecting behavior. For example, cats will transport the toy to the water bowl in the same way that a queen will return wandering kittens back to the nest, or move kittens from one place to another by the nape of the neck.

That’s my favorite explanation. I love imagining Ella, gently holding Snakey’s google-eyed head in her mouth and thinking, “It’s OK baby. I’ll take you back to the nest and get you a little snack.”

Doesn’t this look like a cat with a deep sense of empathy? (Check out the Prisma app for your own photo fun.)
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Adventures in Teaching and Travel