Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Mi Vida Chilena (I)

It wasn’t part of my plan to go to Chile. The fact is that I was scared out of my life to go to Chile.

I hadn’t planned to be a Rotary Fellow either. But some members of the Rotary Club in my hometown in California persuaded me to apply. They were keen for a student from the local community to get a fellowship, and they figured I was one of the few locals who would have the academic and language credentials to have a shot.

So I applied for a Rotary Foundation Fellowship. I was required to list five universities in at least two different countries that I would be willing to attend. Priority would be given to candidates choosing non-English-speaking countries. As I recall, I listed two in France, two in Mexico and one in Spain. The fine print specified that the Foundation reserved the right to send the Fellow to any university, or even any country, that it deemed was suitable, even if it was not on the candidate’s list.

Sometime later I received a letter. It informed me that I had not been awarded a fellowship but that I was a first runner-up, meaning that, if a designated Fellow was unable or unwilling to accept his or her fellowship, I would be the next in line. Not much chance of that happening, I thought, and so I figured that was that. I got on with my life and with graduate school at Ohio State University.

Then another letter came. It congratulated me, saying that a fellowship had indeed opened up for me. And that I would be attending... the University of Concepción in Chile. My heart stopped.

The year was 1975. Two years earlier, the democratically elected government of Chile had been overthrown by the military. More than 2,000 people had been killed during and after the coup. Tens of thousands had been arrested. Many people were never accounted for and became known as los desaparecidos (the disappeared). Two of them were Americans, Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi. I was already quite familiar with Horman’s story, and people everywhere would become familiar with it in 1982 when the celebrated Greek-born director Costa-Gavros would make a movie about him, starring Sissy Spacek as his wife and Jack Lemmon as his father. It would be nominated for four Academy Awards, winning one for the screenplay by Costa-Gavros and Donald Stewart.

So the last thing I wanted to do was to go live and study under a military dictatorship that had such a recent and violent history. I was not the sort who was drawn to danger. So my first reaction was to refuse the fellowship, which is probably what the first guy they offered it to did.

I don’t remember exactly what changed my mind in the end. I suppose it was a case of youth overcoming caution. I really wanted to try living somewhere else outside of my own country. (I had already spent a year in France a couple of years earlier.) I had been studying Spanish since I was six years old and had majored in it (as well as French) at university. And my career plan was to be a journalist. Not taking the opportunity to go abroad out of fear would not be a very auspicious beginning to such a career. Besides, I wasn’t likely to get into trouble for political speech or activity. One of the conditions to which I had to agree in order to receive the fellowship was to avoid all political discussion or engagement while I was abroad under Rotary Foundation auspices. In this particular case, that seemed like a very prudent policy.

Because the academic year in Chile began in March (autumn in the southern hemisphere), I had nearly a year to wait before I went—time I used to acquire a master’s degree in journalism from Ohio State and to work for a few months at a weekly newspaper in California. Finally, the day arrived and I was off on a long plane journey from Los Angeles to Lima and finally Santiago. I made my way from the airport at Pudahuel to the train station in the city for the final leg by rail to Concepción.

One of the Rotary Clubs in Concepción was designated as my host club, and one of its members was designated as my counselor or, as I liked to think of him, as my surrogate father. As it happened my counselor lived just a couple of blocks from the university and his house had a room that was rented each year to a student. He offered me to rent the room to me, and I happily accepted.

I have often joked that I experienced more culture shock in Ohio than I did in Chile, and in a way it was actually true. The Buckeye State’s frozen winter, Midwest culture and focus on sports and fraternities was very foreign to me after the laid-back beach school I attended in Santa Barbara. Chile’s climate and landscapes, on the other hand, where not unlike California’s, the people were warm and friendly as Californians tend to be, and they were into things like barbecue. The language was a challenge at first, but I had been hearing Spanish spoken all around me my whole life. To top it off, the family I was living with were the children and grandchildren of German-speaking immigrants—the same as my own family.

My immersion into Latin American culture was going to have a definite Teutonic tinge.

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