The stray dogs say a lot about Santiago. Just like everywhere in Latin america, they have stray dogs here. But unlike anywhere else in Latin america, they are fat.
They’re fat because the people feed them. This makes them behave quite unusually. They’re basically like free citizens of the city.
They seem to recognise and use zebra crossings. This morning one walked confidently into the road, only for the driver of an oncoming car to dutifully stop and let him pass. He had right of way, after all. And Chileans, unlike any other Latin people I’ve ever encountered, respect the rules of the road.
At the pedestrian crossings, the stray dogs stop and wait with the people, then cross like everyone else when it turns green. It is incredibly odd.
The stray dogs are like everything else in Santiago: Latin, but not. In most Latin countries they’re skeletal, traumatised things, clawing a life out of the scraps of food on the street. Only in Chile would this bit of Latin chaos exist, but be smoothed out and made palatable.
They say the Chileans, like the Argentinians, consider themselves europeans in Latin America. If anything, that may be an understatement. In so many ways they seem completely misplaced. Chileans proudly tell you that, as a nation, they can’t dance. “We’re like you guys,” my dinner companion told me last night, rather cheekily. I wanted to argue back, but I knew they were speaking the truth. They also hate spicy food. On this point at least I suffered no national comparison. “Actually, in our Indian restaurants, English people order the spiciest thing on the menu,” I said proudly. She looked at me like I was an idiot.
The young professionals here are worried about the exact same things young professionals worry about in London. They don’t earn enough, wages aren’t keeping up with prices, they’re going to have move further out from the centre. They consider this evidence of Chile’s continued economic hardships. To my ears, it sounded like the comparative privilege of Western economic hardship.
None of them would even look out of place in Europe, either ethnically or in their clothing. Most of them look like characters in a Pedro Almodovar film: beautiful, well groomed, tucked in.
Someone was explaining why there was so much Chilean slang yesterday, especially around sex (their slang for masturbation, rather wonderfully, is ‘five against one’). “The thing is, as Chileans, we find it very hard to say what we really mean. So we have to find our around it.” I mean, they might as well just go ahead and call themselves Brits.
The men in particular are fascinating. The machista culture which poisons the rest of Latin America doesn’t seem to be present here. Or if it is, it is less demonstrative and more surreptitious. Men are less aggressive, women are more confident. A woman could even walk home alone at night here without it being considered suicide.
One Chilena told me about her troubles living with a Colombian flat mate. Everything was a drama, she said – who was friends with who, who was paying for what, even when you chose to go to bed. She had to throw her out in the end. “I couldn’t handle the drama.”
I found this phrase baffling. My only experience of Latin life is drama – endless arguments, over subjects as small as groceries and large as revolution – followed by genuine and theatrical declarations of love and friendship. Saying ‘I couldn’t handle the drama’ in Latin America is like saying I no longer wish to speak to Latin Americans. But not in Chile.
But amid all the European habits, little sparks of Latin life break out. Yesterday I watched workmen put up scaffolding in La Plaza de Armas while singing a song and clambering and sliding their way down the steel bars they’d just erected. Groups of men will walk by with one man singing loudly and his other friends ignoring him in a way you would never see in Europe.
It is undoubtably a much nicer place to live than anywhere else I’ve seen in this continent. You could, for instance, own a car or a TV here without spending every minute of the day wondering when it will be stolen. There is none of the background hum of suspicion you get in Mexico or Guatemala, say, where crime and violence have become so common that they pollute the way peaceful people treat each other.
But Chile also lacks some of the exuberance of Latin countries. It is calmer, but less powerfully, viscerally alive. Sometimes it feels almost docile, much like Madrid, the city it so clearly models itself on.
For me, it brings up strange, contradictory emotions. I’m half Guatemalan, and that part of me sort of resents them. It looks at Chileans and instinctively feels they are not Latin. They’re too calm, too restrained, too professional, too… white, both physically and emotionally. As a white Latino, that’s laughably hypocritical, but there it is.
I suppose there is a sense of inferiority. I never saw this side of Latin America before. All these Almodovar characters walking around in suits and chequered shirts and expensive glasses. If Latin America was a country, they would be the boss class and Guatemalans would be the proles.
But the Brit in me views them from the other direction, like some mad transplant: as fellow Europeans somehow placed at the bottom of a foreign continent, well away from… well from anywhere really.
Or perhaps, as a half-European half-Latino, Chile is just a bit too close to comfort. Sometimes it feels like I’m walking around in my own background.