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Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Don Francisco National Treasure

 Without Mobiles and Table Napkins,
Chile Eases into New Age

By Richard Carreño
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
Santiago, Chile
Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda.
Author Isabel Allende.
Chilean and South American 'liberatador' Bernardo O'Higgins.
President and freedom fighter Salavador Allende.
President and labour champion Eduardo Frei.
Michelle Bachelet, the first democraticaly-elected female president in South America.

That was then.

In the new Chile, South America's and the world's southern-most country (and, yes, pepper-shaped), the biggest name on the national stage today is none other than native-born Mario Luis Kreutzberger. Mario, who?

To world-wide Hispanic television audiences, that would be, of course, mega-personality 'Don Francisco,' the loud-mouth, blow-hard host of El Sabado Gigante, the hugely popular weekly TV variety show that blankets Latin America from its Miami-based production home like a mushy Ricky Martin singing tour.

The show? Think I-Love-Lucy-'Honey,-I'm-Home-humour combined with curvaceous, pulchritudinous young women in tight frocks. And the somewhat tawdry, salacious over-the-hill El Don as leering jefe-in-chief. But Chilean? Who knew?

For me, not until earlier this month when my mountain-climbing son Justin (he was en route to an Argentine peak) and I visted, on a late spring sojourn, this capital city, Santiago de Chile; Valparaiso, the country's historic Pacific port city; and Vina del Mar, a Pacific beach resort easily likened to the best of Cote d'Azur playlands. (Mid-day temperatures hovered in the 80s). I had always pegged the paunchy 70-year-old El Don as Mexican, as Dominican, even as Cuban, at best. But hardly someone who would mirror the European beau ideal tipo who personifies the suave Chilean caballero.

'Chil-lay,' a land that stretches rubber band thin from Peru in the north to Cape Horn in the south, is, as they say, a study in contrasts. And shares an eerie unanimity. Its citizens, united by a semi-official national slogan, 'Chile. Un Solo Corazon' ('Chile. A Single Heart'), practice a kind navel-gazing solipsism that's almost an art form. Never mind the national obsession with fast food. (More on these topics later).

In all, consider this place a modern, 21st-century enigma: A country hamstrung by a curious history of banana republic turbulence and the physic powers of geographic isolation. (By land, the Andes virtually landlock the country).

Mostly, Chile is a nation that the rest of world hardly ever sees -- unless there's an occasional mining disaster (even the recent month-long epic hardly made a dent in international perceptions or understanding); the unfortunate trope of a strong-man dictator overthrowing democracy (the late General Augusto Pinochet and his military thugs deposing President Allende in 1973); or the infrequent recognition of its literary stature by a faraway country such as Sweden (Neruda's laureate in 1971).

Still, Chile is also a place which prides itself on its strong Spanish colonial patrimony and deep European roots. Immigrants, many from Germany, France, and Italy, flowed into the country in the 19th century when Valparaiso was South America's chief Pacific port city. European Jews came later -- in the diaspora fostered by fears of Nazi terror.

Local arts are also flourishing, including opera, theatre, and symphony, all offered at the Teatro Municipal, and all, oddly, short of world-class stature. Polo, as is the case in neighbouring Argentina, also has a strong following.

Among these strengths, the Museo de Bellas Artes is a stunning disappointment. Though housed in an elegant early 20th-century beaux arts building, the museum's collection is thin and badly curated. (A current exhibit of photographs is, in a de facto way, even 'curated' by the German government. The show, by German photographers, has been mounted by Goethe House, a government cultural agency. How lazy is that?)

Santiago, with a head count of about 5 million, a whopping third of Chile's total population, can tout affluent self-confidence, architectural vigour, and historical grandeur. Since its founding in 1541 by Conquistador Pedro de Valdiva, Santiago has grown from a outpost of Spanish conquest to the dynamic high-rise city of today. Meantime, aligned with Buenos Aires, Argentina, it has become the regional transportation hub of this part of the southern hemisphere.

The city's public transportation system, marked by a sprawling bus and subway system, is arguably Latin America's best. Its rubber-wheeled subway, or Metro, is the continent's largest in number of daily passengers (2.4-million) and in the size of its network -- and it rivals any similar system worldwide.

Getting around is equally safe, efficient, and cheap (an adult one-way Metro fare is about $1), and its 101 stations easily access top spots for visitors (the Moneda, the presidential palace where Salvadore Allende shot himself rather than surrender to Pinochet); the Plaza de Armas, the chief urban square; Santa Lucia, spectacular urban gardens overlooking the city; and the Biblioteca National which, unlike the Museo de Bellas Artes, gets it right.

Innovation is also a hallmark. Metro cars are not self-contained tubes, divided by sliding doors connecting car to car. Rather than this industry standard, the norm in North America and Europe, carriages are open-ended through the total length of the train length, on average about 10 cars. However shameless, even Metro's advertising has flare: Some entire trains are shrink-wrapped. The train I caught on several occasions was the Coca-Cola special. Even all interior ads were for Coke.

Stations, many decorated with art, are spotless.

Not surprising, in that all public spaces in Santiago are groomed, pruned, and immaculate. The city even deploys street cleaners whose duties include chipping away gum embedded in pavements.

For Americans, life in Chile provides an added bonus: Chile is one of the few countries where the American greenback is strong, about 500 pesos to the dollar. The result, even for a skint writer like myself, is that, in Chile, I'm a 'millionaire.'


Yet, despite all of Chile's virtues, there is also something sadly evocative about a national character that embraces the buffoonish Don Francisco, a caricature in himself, as a national model. Francisco is a pervasive advertising fixture, barking everything from a mobile phone company, to a home products chain, to the maker of feminine products. Most telling is Don Francisco's role as the host of the nation's annual televised telethon on behalf of handicapped children. His face is plastered on posters throughout the country, ostensibly promoting the 'teleton.'


No doubt, Francisco's role -- something like that of Jerry Lewis and his Labor Day telethon in the United States -- is a selfless act. But there's also a kind of huckerism associated with the teleton. Even an unseemly festive air surrounding it, as was the case for 48 hours earlier this month, when Francisco and other personalities tugged at the national heartstrings as they sang, danced, and pleaded for donations. Even President Sebastian Pinera, a US dollar billionaire, showed up. He gave a speech. "If not now, when? If not us, who?' (For real. He said that).

The teleton is almost a national obsession, underscoring what I and others I spoke with agreed is a kind of inwardness shared by the nation at large. For two days, Christmas was trumped. A pending strike by Metro workers was thrust off the front pages. Never mind international news. Other than for sports, overseas events get little coverage. CNN is Chile based. Fox is Chile based. During teleton days, both networks were all Don Francisco all the time.

'Chileans are very self-centred,' an Australian educator, in Chile for almost two years, told me. 'To them, Chile isn't part of South America. There's Chile and there's South America.'

In small measures and in significant ways, Chileans -- despite their seeming refinement -- seem to be a people myopic to a larger world. Though diverse in ethnic and racial makeup, hardly any native -- even in the capital of Santiago and in a tourist town like Vina del Mar -- speaks English. My hotel concierge was hard-pressed to do 'Good Morning,' much less offer directions in any comprehensible form of English. Picture Indiana with palm trees.


As remarkable, during my week-long stay, I spotted only about a half-dozen native English-speakers. Maybe. Though I had many conversations and interviews, I had only one in English, with that Australian educator, who I had simply bumped into at a Starbucks near my hotel.

Worse, newspapers and magazines on newsstands are all Chilean.

By now it's a cliche that everyone reads news on the Internet. Yet, there's something unsettling, especially for a newspaper reader of my -- er, older -- generation, about being in a huge capital city (in many ways so otherwise cosmopolitan) with the public reading habits of Akron, Ohio.

Until Santiago, I'd yet to be any Western capital where the International Herald-Tribune wasn't on offer. Moreover, this homey journalistic orientation didn't just exclude Anglophone publications. As far as I could tell, even Argentine and Spanish periodicals don't see daylight.

What this means for political discussion and rivalry in the marketplace of ideas is less than sanguine. I found only one political satire weekly, The Clinic, on newsstands. (It was named sardonically, in English, after The Clinic, a English rehab institution which was Pinochet's home away from home while the British government diddled with his deportation status).

In fact, 20 years on since the rebirth of democracy here, there still seems to be low-grade tolerance of, if not for the overt apparatus of an authoritarian state, at least for some of its trappings. The brown-uniformed Carabineros of Chile, the national police force that had been a bedrock element in the Pinochet junta, still provide an uncomfortable -- even a menacing --presence, something akin to that intangible, creepy feeling that Franco's Guardia Civil used to exude in Spain.

It's not surprising, given the country's singularly mono-linguistic emphasis, that governmental and commercial efforts to accommodate a polyglot tourism base range from slim to none. The main tourism office is located in upmarket eastern barrio, Providencia. (Something like Beverly Hills, with pedestrians). No tourist materials are in sight, however. One requests maps, etc. A satellite, yes, satellite, office, located downtown at the Plaza de Armas, doesn't even stock the maps. A tour I wanted to join had been canceled.

Moreover, it took almost three days of poking about before I found a shop offering time-honoured tourist gear. (A 'I Love Chile' t-shirt and the like).

It took me less than a day to realise that something was horribly wrong when I waded through the mid-day throngs around the Plaza de Armas. Young women were actually talking to each other. Businessmen actually seemed to go to lunch appointments to converse. In other words, also welcome to a world where the mobile phone still has not conquered all.

I never did find anything approaching a decent shopping street, a Fifth Avenue or Walnut Street, say, anywhere in centre city. (There is a Brooks Brothers branch in a mall in Las Condes, a swank neighbourhood of gated communities and villas on the city's eastern outskirts).

What's even more remarkable in a city of 5 million - and a Latin one, as well -- is that restaurants are hard to find. Proper restaurants. With tablecloths. Offering three-course meals. Virtually all restos are fast-food joints, ranging from McDonalds, to home-grown variants like The Coffee Factory, to fast-food dives that just so happen to have waiters. (Piccolo Italia was one of these).

Highlighting Chilean dining is another peculiarity -- no linen napkins. All restaurants -- that is, all restaurants -- provide only paper servilletas, the size of cocktail napkins. If you're like me, figure on about 10 of these for a typical meal. Or, as some foreigners are said to do, bring your own 'linen' napkin when eating out.

I can disspell the truth of one Chilean habit, the country's alledged addiction to instant coffee, particularly the Nescafe brand. I read this 'fact,' in a reputable, widely-circulated guide, while inflight from Panama, and I was instantly levitated from my stupor. 'When ordering coffee,' we first-time visitors were told, 'order the real thing by emphasising, "cafe, cafe" Otherwise, you'll probably be served wind up with Nescafe.'

True, I spent most of my coffee-drinking time at my nearby Starbucks (free WiFi). But even on my excursions to local cafeterias, mostly around the Plaza de Armas, I got the real deal. The exception: My four-star hotel, where my continental breakfast delivered by room service each morning featured Nescafe. (By the way, the hotel's WiFi cost a price-gouging $17 per day. Whither, Starbucks).
I finally figured it out. The Chileans don't really care. They didn't care whether I was a happy camper, or not. And they don't really care if you or any other norte americano tourist eventually shows up.

I should've known that as soon as I touched down at Santiago's Arturo Merino Benitz International Airport. Even before passport control and customs, I was steered to darkened area off to little-used area where I had to pay the tax, a $142 entrance fee. Cash, in dollars, would do nicely, I was told.

Does everyone pay? Not exactly. I could see why the Albanians might be targeted. It was a harmless gesture; they wouldn't be chartering planeloads anytime soon. Americans? Of course. Goes without saying. But Canadians! What in God's name had the Canadians done to bring down the wrath of the Chilean people?

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