When Isa found me at the airport I had been waiting for just short of an hour. Apprehensive and jetlagged after a full day and night of travel, I was eyeing another group of Americans parked in the same meeting place designated by my Institute for Study Abroad program. Their posse kept growing, laughing pale luggage-toting kids who were most definitely also studying abroad, and yet I had asked two of them if they were part of the IFSA program and they’d given me blank stares. I was indulgently entertaining the suspicion that they had mislead me and I’d made the first two enemies of my study abroad experience when suddenly Isa—IFSA’s program director!!!—appeared to rescue me from my fantasy. Jovial and welcoming, she ignored the first and last handshake I’ve tried to initiate here and went for the ubiquitous chileno kiss on the cheek.
While we waited for other kids to show up, I made conversation as best I could in my shell-shocked Spanish. I asked her about my name, as has become my habit. When I worked in southern Mexico two summers ago I learned that willa was a slang word for a crazy woman. The most truthfully blunt of my friends there told me that it wasn’t a big deal; I should probably just change my name. Since then, I’ve found different slang-meanings for my name even within Mexico: in the north, una willa is a female turkey (or possibly the loose skin on a turkey’s throat?); in Michuacan it’s a species of colorful bird.
Here, Isa tells me (after patiently listening to my story-turned-joke and laughing at the poorly-executed punchline!) a willa is a piece of loose thread hanging from an article of clothing. In the past five days I keep returning to this image, and it seems more and more apt: soy Willa, not dangling by a thread but the thread itself!, suspended, trailing, careening around a continent and culture and clima…
& so here I am, on day five of five months here, attempting to find my stride. More than anything else, venturing sola—on foot or or on public transportation—has left me breathlessly and expansively happy as I begin exploring Santiago. It’s a joy to observe the seemingly mundane moments that constitute city life. Yesterday I watched a woman and her tiny puppy on the metro. The woman draped the pup across her chest and glared out at the world with an expression that seemed unhappy and bored as if by habit; yet the tiny dog could have been on the front of a hallmark greeting card: I swear to you this pup smiled so blissfully it felt like dog satire.
My host family here—a family of four like mine—has welcomed me into their life in a flooringly gracious manner. I feel I can wholly participate in their daily life, tagging along grocery shopping and organizing school supplies because—as my eleven year old host brother bemoans—summer is over down in this hemisphere! My tiny room connects with the kitchen and I leave the door open as per Isa’s suggestion during our orientation: in chilean culture, a closed door indicates a matter of urgency and might result in a family tiptoeing around to avoid disturbing the occupied occupant.
My host sister Laura is four, and though so far she is polite in her social conquests (always knocking) she comes knocking at all hours of the day. Laura loves the color pink, Hello Kitty, and me, the latter of which is coincidentally one of my favorite traits in a person. She cuts shapes out of play-doh while absentmindedly watching youtube videos dedicated to reviewing children’s toys. These videos, in Spanish and English, represent a truly bizarre corner of the net. Adults self-consciously try out McDonald’s happy meal toys while describing exactly what they’re doing, which is generally just getting the toys out of their plastic packaging. Laura squeals with glee when the disembodied hands pull a new product out to review, and she is astounded when I tell her yes, I have heard of My Little Pony.
This morning when I woke up Leonardo DiCaprio’s big Oscar win was at large, rippling its way across all social media sources. This evening, my host mom tells me that Chile also won its first Oscar last night, for an animated short by Gabriel Osorio entitled “Bear Story.” I sit on my host brother’s bed and we watch it on his iPhone, occasionally waiting for the video to buffer; the wifi is slow here but existent (!!!)
The video is ten minutes long, and when we’re done my host mom calls from the other room, “do you know what it means?” and I say yes, because I do: the story is a gentle and beautifully constructed metaphor for the political violence that occurred here in the seventies and eighties. This is the first time my host mom has mentioned this era in conversation with me; it constitutes all of her childhood. “it’s important to have a collective memory,” she says, and I think, that’s a poignant point on which to end a blog post.
So here’s to looking to the past to shed light on the present; to striking that precarious balance between honoring memory and valuing presentism. Cheers from South America—I hope to stay connected with friends and family back home as I struggle to find a definition for Willa that can fit anywhere.