jueves, febrero 23, 2006

¿La hora, señora?

It’s very rare for me to be able to walk down the street in Santiago without someone trying to engage me in conversation. When I first arrived, I had some serious trouble with the accent. I couldn’t understand a word people were saying to me unless they spoke v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y. I had no idea why so many people were approaching me outside. Were they asking for directions? Was my bag opened? Was my shoelace untied? Sometimes I couldn’t walk a block without 3 or 4 people coming up to me, asking for something. It made me very self-conscious. What in the world did they want??

When I began getting a bit more used to the speed of speech, I was amazed to find that nearly everyone who had been speaking to me was asking the same question. What I first heard as something more along the lines of dsdlfhfreng became – Dime la hora m’hija.; ¿La hora, chica?; ¿Porfa', la hora?

Yeah – What time is it? Not a day goes by when someone doesn’t ask me. Now I find this amusing on several levels. First of all, why me? I told this to some students and they asked whether the people asking me for the time were male or female. Apparently, asking for the time is a pick-up tactic with the men folk here – something they resort to when they realize all their cat-calling is not getting my attention? No, it couldn’t be. Old ladies stop me on the street, young women, old men, young men… everyone! My students didn’t agree that this was a Chilean thing. They had no idea why it was happening to me.

Ok, well maybe it’s a Chilean thing not to wear a watch? This would make perfect sense. Santiago is the city behind schedule. Nobody is ever on time. Interviews, meetings, lunches… prepare to wait! Last week I walked into an institute for an interview at 10AM. When did I have the interview? An hour later, 11AM. Happens all the time. And it’s even worse for social arrangements. Arranged to have coffee with a friend? Maybe they’ll show, maybe they won’t. I was supposed to go hiking with a Chilean this weekend. He never called. But I know that one weekend he will make good on his offer. That’s just their way. Chileans are full of little surprises. But why ask for the time if it means nothing to them? Who knows?

Maybe I sound a bit down on Chile. I don’t mean it to be. In fact, I find all of this charming. I still don’t know why people ask me for the time. But I’m glad people seem to find me so approachable. As for no one ever being on time, well, anyone who knows me will not be surprised to hear how little this bothers me. During my first few weeks of work in Singapore one colleague noticed the following: the time on my computer clock was different from the time on my watch which was different from the time on my cell phone which in turn differed from the time on my office phone! The best part - none of these things gave the correct time! He joked, half horrified, that time was some kind of abstract concept for me. Damn straight! Hey Barney, I’ve found my people!