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Little Memories of a Year Past

Time August 30th, 2016 in 2016 Spring, Chile, College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Not long ago my family welcomed me back to Minnesota after another five months in Santiago, Chile. As I unpacked, I piled the souvenirs on my desk. They needed to be sorted out, and a desk is basically a station to sort things out.

In Spanish, souvenirs are called recuerditos or little memories. I prefer the Spanish word because, for me, “souvenir” conjures images of Chinese-produced plastic featuring meaningless iconography at best or offensive stereotypes at worst. Plus, the items spread out before me actually do carry memories of the people and experiences most dear to me during this past year.

A sense that something important had yet to be recognized compelled me to physically arrange these recuerditos. I can only call it an impromptu altar to the existence of the last twelve months. Writing is usually my way to make sense of things, so this was out of character.


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Higher Ed in Chile Pt. 3: Campus Party Politics

Time June 20th, 2016 in 2016 Spring, Chile, College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Although all Universidad de Chile campuses are non-residential, on certain Fridays I’m at Campus Gómez Millas from eight o’clock in the morning until midnight.

What keeps me and hundreds of other students students entrenched in the same square kilometer where we spent the whole week when we could spend our Friday night at home, yelling at the soccer match on TV, or at a bar, drunkenly yelling at the soccer match on TV?

There are at least two reasons: Parties and politics.


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Higher Ed in Chile Pt. 2: Majors as Communities

Time June 20th, 2016 in 2016 Spring, Chile, College Study Abroad | No Comments by

In the United States, liberal arts college students apply to an entire school, sample various academic departments for a year or two before picking a specific major and even then continuing to study a minor. In contrast, higher education in Chile (and most of the world) is a system of earlier specialization in which even elite university students apply to a carrera — nursing, law, publicity, chemistry, etc. — within a university, study only that subject for the next three to five years and, if all goes according to plan, emerge with a professional title.

In short, whereas I spent my first two years of college dipping my toes in the water, my Chilean friends dived right in.

Dive Right In

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Higher Ed in Chile Pt. 1: La U vs. La Católica

Time June 20th, 2016 in 2016 Spring, Chile, College Study Abroad | No Comments by

This week I’ve been asked to describe higher education in Chile. I’ve broken it up into five sections, starting with this profile of Chile’s most (in)famous universities.

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Chilean Food vs. Food in Chile

Time June 6th, 2016 in 2016 Spring, Chile, College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Food: It’s the reason we wake up every morning.

In lieu of exhausting my thesaurus in search of sixteen synonyms for “yummy,” I’ll take a more sociological approach to analyzing the Chilean foodscape. Fair warning: you’ll see terms like “culinary imperialism” more often than nonsense phrases like “tantalizing garnish” or “a filling salad.”

Let’s start with a Chilean anthropologist’s definition of food:

Los alimentos son algo más que nutrientes, son signos mediante los cuales las distintas comunidades comunican sus sistemas de prestigio y poder, sus creencias, así como el sustrato valórico que legitima las jerarquías y estatus de las personas y de las cosas. — Prof. Sonia Montecino Aguirre, “Conjunciones y disyunciones del gusto en el sur de Chile

In short, Montecino says that food is more than nutrition. It’s an expression of a community’s beliefs as well as a system of prestige that legitimizes the status of people within that community’s hierarchy. So what does the food here say about Chilean society?

Doña Maria

“Preparing an authentic Mapuche meal.” Photo: Daniel Bergerson, 2015.

Well, there is a difference between Chilean food and food in Chile. The first is the canonized cuisine of a colonial society blending indigenous (mostly Mapuche) and European (mostly Spanish) traditions, while the second is the modern-day menu that one can actually find on supermarket shelves and in the streets of Santiago.

Most travel writing describes Chilean food rather than food in Chile, so I’ll start with the former and leave the culinary imperialism for dessert.

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Molotov O’Clock: Photos of a Campus Tradition

Time May 23rd, 2016 in 2016 Spring, Chile, College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Campus Juan Gómez Millas, Universidad de Chile.

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016.

12:00pm — Third block begins. I shuffle into 19th Century History of Latin America, surprised to find the professor cueing up a movie. Normally he lectures the whole hour-and-a-half. Rarely does a man who loves the sound of his own voice willingly step down from a podium. I figure the film must be important.

1:00pm — I was wrong. It’s an Argentinian period piece heavy on cliché romance and light on historical insight. Class gets out early because the professor must get going. I head straight to the study room.

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The (Study Abroad) Spanish Test

Time May 16th, 2016 in 2016 Spring, Chile, College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Welcome to my study abroad Spanish test. Carefully read all instructions before beginning.


Photo: Mirtha Alcayaga, 2016.

This test will measure your ability to be a vocal citizen of the Hispanophone world. It will take place in universities, discos, bakeries, terminals and bedrooms. You will be tested during first dates, popular assemblies and soccer games. There are no multiple choice questions and no blanks to be filled. True and false are but a matter of perspective. Please respond to all questions thoroughly. If you do not know the answer, guess. Or get homesick and cry. Use Spanish and, only when necessary, the miming equivalent of stick figure drawings.

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The Genocidal Rick-Roller: Ethnicity, Racism and Being Visible in Chile

Time May 13th, 2016 in 2016 Spring, Chile, College Study Abroad | 1 Comment by

“¡Justin Bieber!”

“¡Cara de ángel!


The Chilean students were pointing and giggling like they had never seen a blondish, blue-eyed white guy this close before. As soon as I had slipped through the classroom door, the tenth-graders slammed their books shut and loudly described my body, often comparing it to something they had seen on TV.

Though some of these schoolkids were as pale as me, I’m from the United States, and that makes me visible. Extremely visible.

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Replug: Technology in the ‘Raw Abroad’

Time May 12th, 2016 in 2016 Spring, Chile, College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Unplugging is like using sunscreen: I know I should do it, I often don’t and maybe that’s why I’ll die of cancer.

Even though it is generally good advice, I tend to roll my eyes whenever someone tells me I spend too much time on my laptop. So earlier this month when Inside Higher Ed published “Digital Cocoons and the Raw Abroad,” a plea by two U.S. professors for study abroad students to unplug from their “digital helmet,” I rolled my eyes so hard I felt like I was thirteen again. Here’s an excerpt:

Today’s study abroad explorers may leave their home country but not leave home at all. Thanks to cheap international data plans and smartphones in their pockets, millennial Americans seldom say goodbye to familiar friends, family and online comforts as they set out to experience life in a different country. Can a digital native ever go native?

What does it take for a digital native like me to “go native” in Santiago? Well, considering how many of my Chilean friends also grew up glued to a Game Boy, I would have to plug in, Santiago-style.

“Don’t unplug. Replug.” Photos: Daniel Bergerson, 2016.

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My First Day Back and the Water is Fine

Time March 16th, 2016 in 2016 Spring, Chile, College Study Abroad | No Comments by

When I was a floaty-wing-wearing, seaweed-fearing toddler swimming in the lake for the first time, I learned a universal truth: Water may feel cold as you dip your toes in, but it can begin to feel warm if you tread water for long enough. In fact, the water can become so warm that the air actually starts to feel cold by comparison and you never want to get out.

Now that I’m a young adult who needs no floaties (but still fears seaweed), I am finding that this principle of relativity and adaptation applies to more than natatorial temperature.

Take, for instance, study abroad. Last August I waded into Chile and now, after a winter break in the cold Minnesotan air, I’m diving right back in. This time, there is no shock nor breath to be caught. Binge-watching late-night U.S. television to pretend I’m back home has lost its appeal. The water is fine.

Like waves lapping on the shore, familiar moments wash over me one by one.

The peck on the cheek from my host mother. The fist bump from my host brother. The bark of an airport official telling us to get a move-on. The rolling hills beyond the highway billboards. The rolled R’s on the radio. The beep of the automatic toll transponder. The crunch of pebbles in the driveway. The triangular seating arrangement at the kitchen table. The first mouthful of charquicán. The five-minute walk to Plaza Ñuñoa. The animalista slogans spray-painted on bank facades. The embrace of a friend who exchanged audio messages with you all vacation. The screech of two chairs being pulled up to a curbside table. The bite of pisco sour. The thrill of having a three-hour debate about university politics in a language you just learned. The clumsy calculation of pesos owed. The two o’clock walk home. The fleeting chill of loneliness. The warmth of a bed that is yours. The host brother’s snores. The surreality of the reality of it all.

(Click on photo below to view slideshow.)


Packing Advice: Leave the Guitar, Bring the Song

Time February 24th, 2016 in 2016 Spring, Chile, College Study Abroad | No Comments by

With less than 24 hours until my flight, I am still not worrying about what to bring to Santiago. Having already lived there for a semester makes packing more of a chore than a stressor.

Instead, I’m thinking about what to bring from Chile (as well as what I will leave behind) once I finish my second and final semester of study abroad in July.

The first one ended in December with tearful farewells to my Chilean friends, teachers and family. I left behind thank-you gifts, wrecked boots, an alternate personality specific to Santiago, and much more. I brought back a bottle of wine, two notebooks full of field notes, enough motivation to attend the Minneapolis Board of Education’s public meetings and much, much more.

There are plenty of lists telling travelers what to leave and what to bring, so I have a different kind of answer to the packing question. I want to explain the there-and-back-again story of study abroad via guitars. Yes, guitars — you know, the things that I strum to seem more creative and deep.

We’ll start with this one.

Like most acoustic guitars in Chile, this fine specimen is a Spanish guitar. It has six nylon strings, twelve frets that clear the body and no strap — typical for guitars of the modern classical build. Let’s call it Ramírez.

I first met Ramírez in September. One day I came home from a comparative education seminar at Universidad Alberto Hurtado to find him sitting in my spot at the kitchen table next to my host mother and brother. Knowing I write songs (and overestimating my skill), they had asked a friend to lend us her dust-collector of a guitar.

Or at least that was their story. Little did I know they had bought Ramírez used. (And that’s just one of many times my host family went out of their way to make me feel at home.)

Though my host mother had hoped for living room serenades on par with her Whitney Houston CDs, I could only stumble through chord progressions and hum half-forgotten melodies in my off-pitch, nasally voice. What else would you expect from a shoddy musician playing an unfamiliar instrument?

The frets had no markers, so my eyes learned to recognize chord shapes on their own. The string tension was low, so my muscles learned to press hard without bending notes. The neck was wide, so my pinky learned to stretch into what used to be an easy position.

Despite all of Ramírez’ idiosyncrasies, I adapted. Come December, my repertoire included several classic Chilean songs, including “Paramar” by Los Prisioneros. That particular song took a week to learn — a week of morning bus rides spent listening to the track on repeat, memorizing the melody, mouthing the lyrics with just enough restraint to not make my fellow passengers uncomfortable, plus a week of evening “study breaks” spent studying the song, first playing along with the recording, then by myself with the guitar. Mimicking the song forms and rhyme schemes of Chilean artists, I even drafted a few ditties of my own in Spanish.

And somewhere along the way — somewhere between acquiring the Victor Jara songbook and finishing “Choca Puño” (my first Spanish-language song) — I started to forget, at least sometimes, about my other guitar in Minnesota.

Sure, it has six strings and a soundhole just like Ramírez, but the similarities end there. The frets are marked, the strings are tight and the neck is half as wide. What’s more, as each guitar should, it has its own name: Martin.

When Martin and I were reunited during winter break, we played the songs I had learned with Ramírez, but it took a bit of practice first. Just as I had adapted to Ramírez’s idiosyncrasies, I  adjusted my technique according to the particular contours of Martin’s fourteen-fret, non-cutaway, Sitka spruce body. Of course some songs sounded hollow without that original Ramírez flair, but others came alive thanks to Martin’s unique twang.

Last semester I learned so many songs while sitting in my spot at the kitchen table (not to mention while interviewing teachers in the schoolyard and marching in the streets of Santiago) that it would be a shame to not bring them back stateside. “Paramar” by Los Prisioneros is just one example. Other “songs” of mine include Chilean idioms and a critical analysis of free market education reforms. Sure, I change the tune to suit a U.S. audience, but the songs are still worth singing.

So, if you’re a study abroad student or a traveler of any stripe willing to listen to a guitar noob like me, here’s my advice: When you must leave the guitar, remember to bring the songs.