After a month in Santiago, I’ve learned that I speak Spanish like a hillbilly and that I don’t own nearly enough Iron Maiden tee shirts.

From literally my first day in Santiago, I’ve had Chileans first complement my Spanish, then tell me I speak incredibly slowly. I originally considered this a sort of backhanded compliment, but have since decided it’s more like a compliment, followed by a piteous pat on the top of the head. The slow speaking, however, is not entirely my fault.

Street Band in Santiago

 A street band celebrating a soccer team’s win..I think

Chileans speak the fastest, most mumbled, unintelligible Spanish I’ve ever heard, and constantly use slang words unique to Chile that they nonetheless expect you to understand. Coming straight from living in Panama off and on throughout this year, and having traveled extensively in South America, I did not expect to have a problem with the language. In Panama, and in my travels, I almost never had problems understanding people, or expressing myself. In Chile, it’s almost felt like I’m learning Spanish all over again.

Chileans are quick to admit that their Spanish is difficult. I’ve heard many Chileans say that they “speak horrible Spanish” and praise Peruvians in particular for speaking more clearly and cleanly. Apparently, when Chileans interact with other Spanish-speaking Latin Americans, they get impatient and feel compelled to finish people’s sentences for them, or try to draw the words out faster. Caribbean and Central American speakers are evidently the slowest, which I absolutely believe.

Barrio Lastarria in Santiago Chile

Barrio Lastarria

The best comparison for Americans I’ve come up with is the way us north-easterners feel when we speak with southerners. We feel that their English is sing-songy and slow, and they feel ours is nasally and unnecessarily fast. It’s funny now being on the other end of the speed-of-speech preference spectrum – I’m siding with the Central Americans and asking, “what’s the big rush?”

When I spoke Spanish in Panama, I was more often labeled Spanish (i.e. from Spain) than American – in Chile, I am instantly recognized as a gringo, though at least credited with better Spanish than most white Americans. It’s a definite drop in status, and part of me wants to master Chilean Spanish in order to better communicate and blend in, but then part of me worries if I start speaking Chilean Spanish, no one else in Latin America will understand me. If I don’t speak, however, people here are so white, that I could easily pass as Chilean. And I would look totally Chilean if I wore an Iron Maiden tee shirt.

I’m not yet sure why, but Chileans seem to love classic metal. I have never, never seen so many 80s and 90s metal band tee shirts in a general public. Twenty-somethings consistently dress the way I did in middle school, which makes me feel at least a little validated, though doesn’t make memories of middle any fonder (I had a looot of acne).

Without facts, and with only a month of casual observation to support this claim, I attribute the ubiquity of metal-heads to a general cultural swelling in Santiago. Walk around anywhere downtown (particularly in and near parks) and you’re bound to pass a group of break dancers, or goths, or hippies out flaunting their identities. Walk the main bar streets at night, and you’re bound to pass three or four places with live music of different styles. The performances I’ve seen so far are generally raw, sometimes strange, and always passionate. Just a couple nights ago, I saw a woman with one hand playing piano and singing, accompanied by a violist. The singer seemed near tears at several points in the performance, and I don’t think the violist opened her eyes once.

Giant Wall Painting in Bellas Artes Santiago

 Giant wall painting in Bellas Artes

Every major city has its cultures and subcultures, but to me, Santiago’s seem to be emerging and discovering themselves. Brooklyn, for example, is famous for its alternative cultures, and for housing the most extreme examples of every hip movement. But that embrace of the alternative and the hip is entrenched, expected. In Santiago, when you turn a corner downtown, you are about equally likely to see a couple dressed head-to-toe in black leather, a hippie juggling torches, or simply a pair of businessmen eating sandwiches on their lunch break.

It’s an exciting atmosphere, though I definitely need to stock up on Maiden tee shirts, and I still have no idea what people are saying to me.