I have lots of conversations, but really not very many. By that, I mean that there are lots of instances, but only about six topics. Invariably, Chileans want to explain their special expressions to me. They want to talk about learning Spanish, learning English, what I think of Chile, and what I think of George Bush. Sometimes I don’t want to talk about the differences between Spanish and English; sometimes I just want to talk about the weather.
It’s funny how prevalent these topics are. As many as three times in one hour, I’ve been asked, “Is it difficult to learn English?” Or frequently, “Are you accustomed to life here?” “Do you like Chile?” I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told that, in Chilean slang, re means “very,” cachai means “get it?” and huevón means “dude” or “jackass,” depending on how you say it. I am grateful that people want to talk, but you can only tolerate the same conversations so many times.
So when new topics come up, it’s a welcome change of pace, though that presents its own problems. The other day I was visiting the nursing home when one of the caretakers there engaged me in conversation. “Brazil is big—it’s the largest country in the world,” he told me.
“Ha-ha,” I laughed. “No it’s not. Brazil is the fifth largest country.”
“No,” he insisted, “Brazil’s the biggest.”
“Hmm. I’m pretty sure it’s number five after Russia, Canada, the U.S., and China.” Having memorized the list for situations like this, I remained unconvinced.
“But Russia is made up of lots of countries.”
“Not anymore.” Changing tack I tried a different comparison, “Brazil only covers two or three time zones and Russia covers twelve of the world’s twenty-four.” (Having checked after the fact, I was mistaken—Russia covers eleven time zones. Perhaps that’s why I was unconvincing.)
Abrupt topic change.
“But you know the richest person in the world isn’t from the U.S.,” my conversation partner continued.
“He’s from Chile.”
“How much money does he have?” I asked, somewhat skeptically. I know that the position of world’s wealthiest individual changes with the tides of the stock market, but I hadn’t ever heard of it occupied by a Chilean. As a statistics monger, that seems like something I would have remembered.
“He owns most of this country and has cars of pure gold.”
I was impressed by the idea of golden cars, but still unconvinced.
Abrupt topic change.
“You know, if the U.S. and Chile had a war and you couldn’t use your bombs or missiles, just hand to hand, we’d win.”
This brought a lot of things to my mind like, how does a country with 16 million people win a hand to hand war against a country with 300 million? Or who wins wars these days, really? Putting these thoughts aside, I asked, “Why do you say that?”
“Well, we love our brothers so much. I would fight—fight—for my brothers until I died.”
“Well,” I said, trying to end the discussion, “war’s a nasty thing. Let’s hope nothing like that ever happens.”
“Oh, I know. I would die before I fought in a war.”
And we continued interchanging randomly firing neurons for a short while more. Crazy, you say? Maybe, but it beats telling someone if I like Chile or not another time.