Recently, while visiting a museum exhibit, we suddenly found ourselves flanked by twenty Chilean school children and their teacher. The teacher approached us cautiously and asked us where we were from. Upon hearing that we were visiting from the US, he turned to his students and stressed how far we had traveled in order to see this exhibit. Essentially, the message was: Look, kids. Strangers from far, far away are visiting your museum! Now appreciate it, and stop goofing off! Twenty faces continued to stare, perhaps trying to understand why these foreigners would ever waste a Saturday afternoon voluntarily touring an exhibit on the life and times of Gabriela Mistral (Jeff, incidentally, was wondering the same thing). However, those stares, with no attempt at subtlety or discretion, made us feel like we were on display, like zoo animals.
One of our objectives for this year abroad included learning more about and assimilating, as best we could, into Chilean society. For us, that meant leaving the safety of Spanish-language classes and participating in activities where we were likely to be the only foreigners present, ranging from yoga to running clubs and most exciting of all… “Flair Bartending School!”
During our cocktail-making classes, our bartending instructor, Rodrigo, likes to give each student an opportunity to show off their skills (use of flair is encouraged) by demonstrating how to make a certain drink. Rodrigo calls Jeff and me to the front of the class seemingly twice as often as any other student. Is this special treatment to ensure that his American friends feel that we are getting our money’s worth? Maybe, but the more cynical side of me believes that this is not unlike making a dolphin at Sea World jump through hoops and punch a beach ball with its dolphin snout. Imagine that dolphin is slightly uncoordinated and accidentally clips the hoop with its dorsal fin. Even more entertaining! I am that dolphin in the world of bartending, desperately trying to mix drinks with my rubbery flippers. My clumsiness, somehow brought on by a lack of language comprehension, becomes apparent when my front-of-the-class demonstrations rarely resemble the original intent of the drink. But it’s fun to watch a clutzy dolphin that doesn’t speak Spanish well, so we keep getting called back for encore performances.
Jeff attends Krav Maga classes, a self-defense method of Israeli origins, that leaves out all of the posturing and wax-on/wax-off moves found in other martial arts, but keeps the head-bashing and knee-to-the-groin techniques required to thwart would-be attackers. Communication is limited to basic grunts, with no real need to construct full sentences, so Jeff is in his element. And, being the only gringo, Jeff is naturally the favorite test-dummy on which the instructor (a damn scary man) likes to demonstrate the best ways to immobilize a bad-guy. At least one part of each class usually entails Jeff getting thrown to the ground repeatedly, while getting his hair pulled, his shins kicked, his arm contorted, and his face punched or elbowed. The instructor doesn’t land real blows, drawing back any kicks or punches upon initial contact, but even his “demos” leave one a little worse for the wear. But everyone is extremely nice, always asking “¿estás bien?” and it’s easy to bond with your classmates while exchanging knowing glances of what it’s like to be clobbered by the sensei.
Zoo animal spotlight opportunities abound. They’re at the yoga classes at the local community center where the median attendee is aged 75 (hey, you can’t beat a free yoga class) or at Jeff’s soccer tournaments where kids ask to have their pictures taken with him. Depending on how well we can articulate in spanish on a given day, some days we feel like swans and some days like horned toads, but we’re always having fun and are glad to have been invited to the party. Ribbit.