Words Fail Me

The kids have been out of school for 71 days. We have 16 more days of “summer fun” before classes start up again. That’s all I will say.

I was at the Hogar de Cristo senior center on Tuesday when an earthquake happened. It was a small temblor, but it lasted a decent amount of time. Long enough for us to have a debate about whether we should get out of the building or stay put.

We had finished the exercises and stretching portion of the class and were just starting the guided meditation. Nothing like an earthquake to shatter a sense of calm. As I sat with them, I reflected (not for the first time) on what these folks have seen in their lives. They have a healthy fear of earthquakes because they’ve lived through two of the worst: the 1960 quake in Valdivia (magnitude 9.5; strongest earthquake ever recorded) and the 2010 earthquake in the central zone (magnitude 8.8; this one actually knocked the earth off its axis slightly). When the ground starts shaking, they take it seriously.

I found my vocabulary somewhat wanting while trying to calm them down. I said something along the lines of, “Calm down, it’s over” — which was the wrong thing to say, apparently. Because I don’t know what I’m talking about. They looked at me with a mixture of disbelief and dismissal. I’m just a young person from another country. I have no idea what Chilean earthquakes can do. I could be more precise in English, I’m sure.

This is a common theme in my work with the abuelitos. I frequently convey less than the full meaning of what I’m trying to say because my Spanish is okay — but not great.

Leading them in exercises is challenging due to the fact that there are so many different abilities in the room. Some are able-bodied; others are in wheelchairs. There are several blind gentleman, and two adorable ladies who are profoundly hard of hearing. Several are in the early stages of dementia. Many have diabetes. Arthritis is common. Depression, I suspect, is the thread uniting most of them.

I do the best I can. When I don’t know exactly the right word to describe a movement, I show them. Then I remember the guys who can’t see, and I try to find the words. When that fails, I ask permission to help them move their arms or legs in the right way. Then I remember the ladies who can’t hear, and I go over and show them again. Then I realize that the lady with Alzheimer’s isn’t quite sure what she’s doing in the room. And so it goes.

They accept my limitations. I accept theirs. We smile. We get on with it.

A different kind of night out on the town

A different kind of night out on the town

Let me start by saying, I can’t believe I did this nearly two weeks ago. And I can’t believe we haven’t posted anything since mid-October. Two Tuesdays ago, I went on a homeless outreach project with our local chapter of Hogar de Cristo. Every Tuesday and Thursday night, they go on one of their two routes near our community to visit with and bring some food and other supplies to people living without permanent shelter. They head out around 6:00 pm and are back at about 11:00. They take simple fare: tea, soup, hard boiled eggs, and bread, Obviously, bringing some sustenance once a week does not end their problems. By driving the same route and encountering more-or-less the same people each week, Hogar de Cristo can informally keep track of the men. As the coordinator for the project described to me, most of the men they meet won’t seek medical help, and most don’t have anyone looking out for them and keeping track of where they are. So by being consistent in their outreach and connection, they can help them beyond the bit of food and other supplies they bring.

These gentleman are very good friends. They thrilled at the idea of having a group picture taken, and were even more excited when I told them I'd get copies and bring them back. They welcomed me to know them, and for that, I am very grateful.

These gentleman are very good friends. They thrilled at the idea of having a group picture taken, and were even more excited when I told them I’d get copies and bring them back. They welcomed me to know them, and for that, I am very grateful.

I met men who were very clearly drunk, high, sick, and in need of love and attention. The last observation occurred to me because they really wanted to talk to me. Admittedly, the combination of drugs or alcohol, missing teeth, and having a “country” accent made conversation challenging. I smiled and nodded, I agreed, and occasionally asked them to repeat things, even though I only understood about 50% of what they were saying. One fellow had the very helpful habit of ending his thoughts with the question, “Si o no?/Yes or no?” to seek my position on his ideas. Let’s just say I was very agreeable, a lot of, “Si, por supuesto, claro!/Yes, of course, clearly!” They needed to talk, and more importantly, they needed to be heard. Everyone we met was in a group. They had partners in their life on the street right there by their side. I’d guess, though, those partners knew all their stories. I was a new guy, a new pair of ears (albeit attuned to English more than Spanish, ears nonetheless).


Bringing soup, hard-boiled eggs, tea, and bread to the “chiquillos” in Melipilla. With my guide Jonatan, a father of two, who drives this route every Tuesday to check up on these guys, bring them some nourishment, and some connection.

On the drive home, I admitted to my travel partners that I had a hard time catching a lot of what was said. They assured me that it was a challenge for them sometimes, too, based on the drugs, alcohol, missing teeth, etc. But they assured me that the most important thing is listening, and the second most important thing is trying to remember what you heard. When you go back to see those guys the next week, being able to pick up the conversation where it left off or ask them about a story you’d already heard means the world to them. Which got me thinking; that’s what means the world to anyone. You remembered me. You listened to me. You came back to see me again. So although their needs for food, shelter, and medical attention are different from mine, their need for connection is exactly the same as yours and mine, I’d guess.

I hope it’s obvious that I don’t claim to be an expert on homelessness. I certainly don’t believe a few hours on this trip on a Tuesday night will make all the difference in the lives of these men. I thought it was an important experience to share, though, because we’re all human. We all struggle and we all need connection. And I look forward to connecting with these guys again.

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The Complete Hot Dog

A friend of ours who, incidentally, is also moving to Chile soon shared a web series with us. 

It’s called Gringolandia. It’s brilliant.

A Chilean man falls in love with a woman from New York; he comes to the US; highjinks ensue. Those who have been to Chile will understand the beauty of the second episode, “Complete Hot Dog.” Keep watching until he asks for “palt.”

Watching this series both excites and terrifies me. It’s exciting because we will be there soon and terrifying because I can barely understand what the Chilean dude is saying. Thank God it is subtitled. Maybe I can find someone to subtitle my real life. 

Café con…

Café con…

As you know by now, Ryan and I traveled to Chile and Argentina over the holidays to discern whether to return to South America, and if so, where. In many ways, it was a trip down memory lane – seeing old friends, going to our old stomping grounds, and of course drinking a few pisco sours. (I would like to report that the grocery store in front of which we shared our first kiss is now a vacant storefront. Hope that’s not an omen for our marriage.)

We both hold our own in Spanish. In the US, anyway. I’m coming to realize that even the wonderful Guatemalan lady who has helped us with the kids for the past four years and “doesn’t speak any English” actually understands a LOT of English. I didn’t know that I had a habit of slipping into English when I don’t know a word in Spanish, until I got some blank stares in Argentina.

The phrase “language barrier” is actually an excellent summation of what happens when you’re learning to live in another language. The barrier isn’t just between you and native speakers – it’s in your own mind sometimes. I remember going through a particularly rough patch when I was studying Spanish in Bolivia years ago. After a session that left me in tears, my teacher patted my shoulder and said, “Don’t worry. You’re just en bloqueo (blocked).”

Even though we’re functional in the US, it’s probably going to take us a little while to get back up to speed in Chile. I encounter language barriers every day, but manage to just go around them because most people understand at least a little English. I’m not so sure those barriers are so negotiable in Chile.

Take coffee, for instance. I like cream in my coffee. So when we were in cafes, I did a direct translation and asked for “café con crema.” Got some confused looks, every once in a while was asked a clarifying question, and without fail received a drip coffee with a dollop of whipped cream on top.

Café con leche.

That’s what I wanted to order. And of course I made this mistake multiple times. So there I was, drinking my drip coffee with whipped cream, laughing at myself for messing it up again (Ryan helpfully laughed at me, too).

But I think those barriers are much more surmountable for kids. Our daughter, in the midst of play time recently, went tearing around after her brother, screaming “Cosquillas!!!” Tickles. If she wakes up before it’s time to get out of bed, she grumbles to me that the birdies stole her sleep. This is a direct translation of what our nanny tells her about getting up too early – los pajaritos te quitaron el sueño. And one of our son’s words is “nada”, of course (typically said while tossing an almost empty bowl off his high chair tray).

It’s pretty remarkable to think about how much their little brains soak up. I have a feeling we’re going to learn a lot from them over the next few years.