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Inside of a year

From the outside a year seems like so much time. And it is a lot of time. 12 months. 52 weeks. 365 days. 8765 hours.

It’s long enough to conceive and have a baby. Long enough to buy land and build a house. Long enough to go into remission from a disease. Long enough start a new career, like becoming a realtor. Long enough to plan and leave for a sabbatical. Long enough to learn a lot of language. Long enough to get inches taller. Long enough to forget most everything about home (if you’re three).

But when you’re on the inside of those months and weeks and days and hours, a year can feel like no time at all.

It took five months to get temporary residency organized. Longer to get pay checks fully worked out. It was nearly six months before I could hang laundry outside our tenth story windows in a strong breeze without feeling like I should follow it up with a stiff drink.  Almost nine months passed before the portero casually mentioned that “everyone” knows the water from the garden spigot is the best for drinking. It was ten months before the kids settled into close friends and frequent play dates. At eleven months I found a friend for coffee dates. There are days when, after almost twelve months, it feels like life here is just finding a groove. That we’re just really getting started.

Then there are days when a year feels endless and home is the only place we want to be.

Either way, here we are almost at the very end. Back to the beginning of the calendar, but nowhere near where we started.

As quickly as people here asked, “Why come to Uruguay?” when we first arrived, they now ask, “You’re leaving so soon?”

We will miss being surrounded by Spanish. We’ll miss pastafrola, ice cream, fainá, and pizza. We’ll miss roaring buses that take us almost exactly where we need to go. We’ll miss the Rambla and the wide expanse of blue sky and brown water beyond. We’ll miss the store downstairs where, when we’re running late , he lets us take what we need and pay later. We’ll miss the almost daily find of some new knowledge (that soda moves east in the summer, that alcohol sales are prohibited on election day, that it is illegal for restaurants to have salt shakers on tables, that children’s vitamins just don’t sell here).

The kids will most certainly miss the porteros who chase them, tease them, bring them gifts, and never ever let them feel ignored. They’ll miss their schools where every single person knows their names. And where kids now stop Nathan and I to look up at us with the most forlorn expressions and ask, “Why do you have to leave?” I will miss walking past the boy’s school and catching a glimpse of him yelling and running after some giant six grader, his voice lost in the cacophony of kids at play.

I will miss kissing on the cheek as a way of greeting; that brief, intimate contact that humanizes even a passing exchange. I will miss this even though it often means waiting forever to be served because the person helping you must first kiss every single coworker and acquaintance they pass between them and you.

There are things we certainly won’t miss: dog feces, neighbors fornicating at 4am, the involved process of paying bills, and the sour smelling mold that blooms in our walls.

I think we’d all agree that we’ve enjoyed Uruguay a great deal. In some sense we wouldn’t mind the chance to stay longer, but it’s time to go and so we’re ready.

We’re ready in large part because over there, on the other side of the world, is home and friends and family and community, which I admit I never stopped missing.  Not missing it in the choking way that makes it impossible to enjoy the here and now, but in a way that is comforting and reassuring. And here’s where I get stuck in translating emotions into words. Phoebe is far better at expressing thoughts on friendship and distance.

Look, maybe it’s as simple as this: The experience we’ve had here this past year has been made richer and warmer by the support, friendship, and foundation we have there; and for that we are profoundly lucky.

 

 

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Getting to Santiago de Chile

The Buquebus Ferry from Uruguay to Buenos Aires is like a cruise ship. When the sun catches its perfectly shiny outside as it glides across the river the whole thing seems to glow.  Even its name, Francisco, in honor of the Pope, sounds regal. They require you wear white booties (like those of crime scene investigators) onboard so your philistine shoes do not damage the boat’s pristine floors. Inside it has plush chairs, deep carpeting, sweeping staircases, a well-stocked snack bar, and a duty-free shop the size of a small grocery store. The boat is so large and so weighted with people, cars, luggage, and duty-free Toblerone chocolate that you barely feel it moving.

This was not the boat we took.

No. On the day when meteorologists were predicting 60 mph winds, we took the SeaCat, which is a glorified pontoon boat where luggage is lashed to the deck and covered with tarps. I admit that watching it bounce and skip into the port caused me a low level of panic. Watching passengers around us ready their bright white, plastic barf bags for the journey did nothing to calm me. And when they slammed the doors shut and told everyone to sit tight because while the journey might not look or feel safe it definitely was, I may have turned to Nathan and told him I wanted to get off.  I didn’t get off, mostly because I couldn’t.

The televisions proudly told us that the boat traveled at a speed of 30 knots.  It did not tell us how much air space there can be between your bottom cheeks and the seat when the boat hits waves at that speed.  Several is the answer.  It also did not tell you how loudly people may shriek, in both fear and joy, when this happens. Really loudly and shrilly with the notable exception of the gentleman who just groaned as if he were dying. Our children responded in their usual ways. The boy said he wasn’t pleased, but it certainly didn’t stop him from eating or talking.  The girl spent her time singing and pointing out to our neighbors that we were on a boat! On the water!We made it to Buenos Aires and spent an evening with an Aunt and an Uncle before heading on to Santiago de Chile.

I’m not usually one to get worked up about seeing something just for the sake of seeing it, but have you seen the Andes from 30,000 feet? I felt a little like the girl, wanting to nudge people around me and say, Look! Big mountains! With snow!  Judging by the way the Chilean woman next to me (who I’m just going to wildly speculate had seen the mountain range before and possibly even from high altitudes) kept leaning over to take pictures and videos until the flight attendant told her she really, really had to shut it down for landing, I don’t think I’m exaggerating their awesome beauty. Really, my feelings didn’t change much once we were on the ground. Walking around in the city we’d look up and catch sight of the mountains–sometimes snow-capped, sometimes frosty with fog, sometimes glowing pink in the sunset, and sometimes just massive and brown–and gasp. There is something very humbling about being in a city of 5 million people, of being surrounded by crowds, traffic, skyscrapers, restaurants, and all the fine trappings of modern civilization, and having all of it dwarfed in magnitude and beauty by some ancient rock and dirt. Check yourselves humans.

Montevideo, both in area and population, could fit into Santiago’s  hip pocket, so it’s entirely unfair to compare them.  However, I’m not going to let that stop me. Chile is very different than Uruguay.  That should be obvious, right? They are different countries with different histories, different climates, different cultures, etc. I shouldn’t even need to say it, but both Nathan and I were caught off guard. I think having only traveled between Uruguay and Argentina in the past 9 months it was easy for us to lose sight of the bigger picture.  Argentines and Uruguayans will spend any amount of time telling you about how different they are from each other.  And they are. The accents are different enough that you can distinguish them.  Argentines use a kettle for their mate while Uruguayans tend to use a thermos. Argentines eat lomitos and Urguayans eat chivitos. I’m joking a little of course, because there are real differences between the two countries, but things are also similar enough that both cities feel familiar.

Chile was a different story altogether.  In the airport I heard people talking and briefly wondered what language they were speaking.  We were so accustomed to the lilt of Uruguayan Spanish that the harder and completely distinct sounds of Chilean speech sounded entirely strange.

The Spaniards didn’t manage to kill off all the indigenous people in Chile like they did in Uruguay, so there was a much broader mix of people. In fact, there were people (and foods) from all over the world.

We ate Japanese food (without any cream cheese added!), Indian food, spicy food (oh, spicy food!), Chilean-style ice cream and so many avocados (hot dogs are even served with a thick layer of avocado). According to a PSA we saw, Chile is second only to Suriname in its sugar consumption, which may explain why when we ordered juice we were served uncarbonated orange Fanta.

Ice cream

The streets were cleaner in Santiago. Less trash blew around and there was so little dog poop on the sidewalks that I almost forgot to look down while I walked.

Santiago also felt somewhat less child friendly.  Of course, this is an observation based on limited time and experiences. One of those experiences did include a woman insisting that the girl give up her seat on the subway. I can’t imagine that happening in Montevideo where people practically leap out of their seats to make room for kids. To be fair, Uruguayans are particularly accommodating to and appreciative of kids. It’s rare to make it through an entire outing  in Montevideo without our kids being patted on the head, chatted with, pressed for a kiss, or offered candy by people young and old alike–and that’s even when they are being totally obnoxious. Maybe, though, it’s just a difference of living in a place versus being a tourist for a brief time.

And we were tourists Santiago. More on how we touristed in a bit.

 


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10 Easy Steps to Residency in Uruguay

Disclaimers:

1. This is not intended to be taken as actual advice.

2. We are privileged. So privileged. I recognize that. We speak the language here. We have the ability to pay the fees and eventually absorb the burden of unexpected costs. We have flexible schedules to wait for things. We are applying for a visa in a country that is happy to have us. If things didn’t work out here for some reason, we could leave at any time. There are many, many more things I could list. I wrote this partially as catharsis and it’s meant to be ironic, but maybe take just a minute to think about what this process, or any immigration process, would be like if none of the privileges listed were true.

Step 1: Get a job, preferably one with an institution that will help you through the process of getting your temporary residency. Assume that, like the state run university where Nathan got a job, it will offer no such assistance. Instead, it will act as if no one in the history of the country has ever had to go through this process. It will struggle to even tell you what your salary will be.

You’ll next want to contact the immigration office to find out exactly what you’ll need to do for temporary residency. Don’t bother calling because no matter how many times you call or how long you let it ring no one will answer the phone at any of their many offices around the country. There is information on the website, but the immigration office advises against trusting it. You’ll need to go in person. One hundred appointment numbers are given out per day starting at 9am, but only a fool would show up at 9am expecting to get a number. No, to get a decent number you’ll want to arrive by around 6:30am, unless you can afford to pay a professional placeholder. Once inside, you’ll wait until your number is called. The room is not uncomfortable, which is good because the wait will likely be long. Finally, you’ll get a list of the required documents. Congratulations, but don’t get too excited because chances are that by the time you gather everything that list will no longer be valid and up-to-date. Either way, you will definitely be asked for something that’s not on the list.

Step 2: Gather original copies of your birth certificates and marriage certificate. Look up apostille. Find out that no matter how much it sounds like it should involve a religious body, it doesn’t; though it is essentially getting your documents blessed. It’s form of international notarisation for countries participating in the Hague Convention Abolishing the Requirement for Legalization. Send the original documents back to the state of issuance to get them apostilled. At this point you may, like us, realize that in order to get your documents back in a reasonable amount of time you will need to pay through the nose for registered mail, fedex, tracking numbers, and fast-tracked services. There is no other way. Suck it up. Get fingerprinted for FBI background checks and then get the background checks apostilled by the State Department.

Step 3: Go to Uruguay.

Step 4: Get the birth certificates, marriage license, background checks, passports, and apostilles translated into Spanish by an approved translator. Take the apostilled and translated birth certificates and marriage license to the Records Office where they will be Uruguayanized, registered in the system and then hand copied onto another form. Sure, you may gain or lose a last name in the process, but it doesn’t matter what your passport, the original document, or you say. This is now your name. Get documents from the University confirming you are employed. Get them again when they realize they didn’t put the correct salary. Get them again when this happens again.

Step 5: Schedule medical exams for everyone in your family. Of course, these will need to be done at a specific facility, which will not be anywhere near your house. If you are a woman you will need to also provide proof of having a pap smear in the last three years. If you’re over 40 you will also need proof of a mammogram. Side note: Uruguay now provides pap smears, which are mandatory, to all women free of charge every three years. They also require that employers provide women with a day off in order to get their pap smear. The medical exam requires that you fast for six hours, but because they’re not barbarians it’s definitely ok to drink mate or water. It also requires that you provide a urine sample. You can pick up the sterile cups at your local pharmacy and fill them at your leisure at home. Try not to do what we did and schedule the appointment for the week your child decides to potty train. As if getting a family of four up and out without the luxury of food weren’t complicated enough, I spent twenty minutes chasing a willful two-year-old still not fully in control of her bladder around the apartment while holding an increasingly unsterile cup. It wasn’t until she was finally peeing into the cup that she and I realized she had no idea how to stop, so we both watched helplessly as the cup filled and filled with urine. For the medical exams you will be shuttled through a series of increasingly smaller rooms to have your blood taken, teeth checked, and general health observed. For added excitement try like I did to forget your required photographs at home. This will send your spouse scuttling back home to retrieve them while you try to cram yourself and your hungry, exhausted, and overwhelmed children into the previously mentioned tiny rooms. At the end you will get a laminated card with your photograph showing you have passed the exam. If you’re lucky they will get your name wrong and you’ll have to wait for them to print it and laminate it again. Go to the police station to get your proof of address. Take your favorite two witnesses with ID cards, about 20 pesos, and your address to a police station. It took us longer to find parking than it did to get the form completed.

Step 6: Go back to immigration with all your precious documents. When they tell you that you are missing some previously unmentioned document (like, proof of school enrollment) remain calm and remember it may be that you have more to do and it may be that it is never mentioned again. Sign and pay and sign some more.

Step 7: Wait for six to eight weeks. Eventually a phone call will come saying you’ve been approved. You’ll get an actual appointment to receive your residency. It will feel exciting. It will feel like a celebration. You’ve been approved! It will be an utter let down when you realize that this appointment earns you only a piece of paper that allows you to begin the process of getting your national ID card, which gives you your ID number, which actually allows you to do things like access health insurance. You’ve been approved to stand in another line.

Step 8: Get original copies of your Uruguayan birth certificates and marriage certificate. Get twenty if you can because you can’t have too many. Take your residency paper. Get some money. Head to the Cédula office. Here you will make an appointment for an approximate time of day. They will say the process will take twenty minutes. It will definitely not take twenty minutes. It will not take twenty minutes times four. It will take hours. You will get in line at the appointed time in a building that smells of waiting and resignation. You will do just that and be just that. You will be fingerprinted and photographed and questioned about why you don’t have the right number of last names in the right order. You may be re-fingerprinted and renamed and you will wait again. At the end of the day you will not get a card. There is a law that gives immediate numbers to those under three. You can’t get a number because a newborn might need that number. You will get a piece of green paper that tells you to come back in five days. You will then go back to the beginning to repeat the process for your children because they can’t get ID numbers until you have an ID number, which you don’t have yet, but you kind of do, even though you don’t.

Step 9: Wait. Maybe get a phone call telling you that when they gave you back the photocopy of your passport they didn’t mean to and your only choice will be to drop everything and trek back to the Office of the Ministry of Waiting and Resignation to give them the copy again.

Step 10: Get your cards. Love your cards. Love that you can now get health insurance. You can get direct deposit (eventually). You can put your ID on credit card receipts. You can order tickets online. You can get the kids’ rate at the movie theatre. Accept that, for better or worse, you are now wed to the unrelenting and confusing Uruguayan bureaucracy. Mazel tov.


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Language at Five Months

Around the time leaves were appearing here and Phoebe was emerging there, the boy and the girl were exploding with language. It felt not unlike the long wait for spring. We had greeted every new word spoken and every phrase understood with joy, but fluency never seemed forthcoming.  And then, like with the spring, we looked away. We got distracted by other things only to look up one day and realize our children had blossomed into Spanish speakers. Suddenly, they were speaking to people and all their shyness disappeared.

Now, they are perhaps even bolder when speaking Spanish than English. The boy strikes up conversations with the porteros, asks questions of strangers and teachers, and yells to his friends about bottoms, boogers, and how exactly they should crash into each other. The girl still mostly speaks in shorter sentences, phrases and songs, but it doesn’t stop her from holding court in the apartment lobby to explain the intricacies of the most recent party at school. And it doesn’t stop her from from calling out to her friends’ parents or perfect strangers on the street to share some piece of news. It helps that people here are so obliging. Women of a certain age will sing along with her songs and ask if she means to share the candy she’s showing them. She still has a tendency to speak to us in long strings of nonsense words with a marked Spanish cadence, but every day more and more words emerge from the stream of sound until I start to wonder if the fault lies more with her ability to speak or my ability to understand. They sing pop songs (terrible pop songs), school songs, and made up songs without pause. The girl has things for which she rarely uses the English word for anymore and the boy pronounces some English words and names (thumb drive, Jackson Pollack) with an Uruguayan accent. They both pretend laugh in Spanish (ja, ja, ja) and they both use culturally appropriate gestures to express emotions.

Their grammar is definitely creative and often wrong, but nearly always understood. The boy mostly conjugates verbs as ‘you’ even when he is talking about himself and the girl tends to use ‘I’ even when she is talking about someone else. (Definitely take a moment to armchair psychoanalyze that.)  At home they speak to each other, themselves, and us in this pidgin Spanish. Sometimes they even speak it when they are sleep. Before, no matter how much we spoke to them in Spanish they responded in English. Now, they almost universally respond to Spanish with Spanish, and sometimes to English with Spanish. Often they will be playing together (or likely arguing) in English when one of them will say a word in Spanish and just like that the language will switch and the conversation (or likely the argument) will continue without interruption.

It seems like forever ago that we were reveling in those first few words and sounds. Sometimes it’s hard for us to remember what it was like then when they barely spoke or understood. The boy told us last night he was sure he has always spoke Spanish this well. While it is still amazing to hear their language continue to develop, at this stage there are times when it feels like the sole result of taking them halfway around the world and immersing them in a new culture is that they now have two languages in which to argue and whine. No matter, we’ll take it.