One Hundred Weeks of Solitude

My family set foot on American soil in February 2019, which makes about 14 months of Repat Chronicles. Just over a year, so not quite 100 weeks, but we’re keeping with the Gabo allusion from the last post, Love in the Time of Coronavirus.

That post was Uncategorized, which is to say it wan’t really about Latin culture, expat life, the intersection of us and them, the raison d’etre of this blog. But this post will. This post is about my greatest gripe about life in Gringolandia: cold gringos.

“Gringo frio” … how many times did I hear that just in my first year in Latin America? They use the word “cold” as a catchall term for any and all (and more) of the following words: unfriendly, reserved, distant, shy, transactional, inhospitable, disaffected, indifferent, stoic.

Latin culture, by definition, is the opposite of all those things: warm, affectionate, familiar, gregarious, outgoing, excitable, open, genial, sensitive.

That’s not to say there aren’t friendly gringos and cold Latins. People come in all types. But at the macro level, that’s the big difference between us and them: the social disposition. Gringos are cold, Latins are warm.

Nothing new here, but when you’re 10 years removed you have a way of forgetting things. You know how you can “internalize” an idea, or absorb it into your instinct? Well, you can “externalize” things too. Your instinct can forget shit, and I had externalized the “gringo frio” factor.

In fact, I would say things like, “Well, not all of us are so cold.” I always thought about my family parties, which are boisterous, drinking affairs that can go into the wee hours. And I would mention that, while we Anglos are certainly colder than Latins, there is a spectrum and we are not on the opposite extreme. Have you known many Germans? Or Russians? Jesus, we’re like Latins compared to them.

I had my head up my ass to say those things. Or to put it lightly, I had externalized the “gringo frio” factor. I forgot how it felt when I first immersed myself in Latin culture, the warm culture. How every taxi driver wants to know your story, how you say hello to the shopkeeper every day, the general closeness with others in your orbit.

I internalized the Latin way, and I think I subconsciously assumed all of gringo culture followed my lead. But then I moved back to Gringolandia, and embarked on 100 weeks of solitude.

Those fun-loving family parties of ours, they occur three or four times a year. They are still fun, but just look at the numbers, the frequency matters. They occur three to four times a year. We see parents and siblings about twice as often.

I lived in Lima in part to put some distance between myself and my in-laws, and I’d estimate we saw the Arequipa family two to three times as often as we see my family now. And when we visit Arequipa, the first night always features us sitting at the suegros’ house to receive a revolving-door greeting party. Everybody comes by to say hello, and then we’ll see them a few more times throughout our week or two in town.

That difference in socialization doesn’t only apply to family, but also friends, neighbors and every other area of life.

We put the boy into preschool soon after arriving here. On Day 1 he was in with the cool kids of his class, and we started hearing his new friends’ names every day. One boy in particular was his partner in crime, terrorizing the teachers and the girls. So, as you naturally would in Latin America, I got the idea of having a play date and making friends with the parents.

Given preschool’s narrow windows for picking up and dropping off, I would often cross paths with the father of my boy’s friend. And every time I saw him, one on the way out of school and the other holding his boy’s hand on the way in, I would put on a pleasant countenance and prep my temples and cheeks to break into a big grin, a clever quip at the tip of my tongue to break the ice.

But every time, he wouldn’t even make eye contact. It was like I wasn’t there. Sometimes we would both be on our way out, each clutching a boy by the hand, while they would be clamoring to joke together, but they are also acutely tuned in to their fathers’ vibe. And they got the message loud and clear: Eyes straight ahead. Walk straight to the car. No talking, keep your hands to yourself.

Time and time again, and never a conversation with this dude. I may have prompted a word or two in three months, but even after the briefest of verbal communications I would never get a “hello” on the next day. Not one. Preschool is over now, and we never really met, despite our sons being besties for a half semester. They live in a different district for primary, so that little friendship is dust in the wind. I don’t know if anybody cares.

With neighbors, something has changed in American culture. People don’t know as many of their neighbors anymore. That’s me speculating, but what’s undeniable is that the streets aren’t crowded with children like they were in the 80s and 90s.

Children don’t prowl the neighborhood like they used to. I’ll occasionally see a group of three or four, maybe every month or two, but there is no instantly recognizable neighborhood gang. There is never street hockey or other games requiring me to stop the car and wait for the kids to move out of the way.

Digital entertainment plays a significant role in this, but screens aren’t the only game changer. I’m hesitant to call it helicopter parenting, but my generation of parents is different. Where our parents would tell us to go play outside, and leave us for hours to make our own fun, my generation of parents seems to want to control the programming.  

Today’s children have routines and planned activities. Their parents have penned their agendas onto calendars. Little league, the school, the church, the play date with the children of the college buddies who live across town.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s just the screens. But they’re not running the streets anymore. After a full year, we know exactly one boy in the neighborhood, and that’s only because he’s in the same class and shares a bus stop. Impossible not to know him, under the circumstances.

In Lima we had a proper squad of play dates. We met them at the park or at the daycare, and we would hang out regularly. Everybody came to all the birthday parties. “Los Caballeros de Lince,” I used to call them. There were Friday night drinking sessions and Saturdays at the park followed by lunch at the cevicheria. We had a neighborhood gang.

I miss that. Don’t want to sound like a pussy, but life in America is lonely. The solitude is, by far, my biggest gripe about life here. It was so bad in the early months that I couldn’t write about it. It struck a nerve, and it took time to desensitize.

Living here is still the best option for my family for now, but this is the big gripe. Life in America is about solitude. Americans might not see it that way if they haven’t known anything else. But I have, and this life isn’t very pleasant.

I’m not alone in that. One of the few bright spots of our social life is that we’re making inroads with the Peruvian-American community in St. Louis. At a party one night one of the old timers told my wife, and she relayed to me, that it’s common for Peruvians and other Latins to get depressed here in the States. They seek out shrinks to deal with the loneliness, and he said she shouldn’t hesitate to do so herself.

Little did he know, hehe, that she is perfectly content to spend all of her days on Earth only with our family and nobody else. But her repat husband was having trouble dealing.

6 comments

  1. In the time of a potent contagion, Colin, many assumptions are tested, one of them being how a “society” works, what are the structures, mechanisms, psychologies, exchanges (random list of things there) that enable it to function.

    You’re a very honest, thoughtful gent & it’s rewarding to see the depths of your insight & concerns.

    I’ve always felt embraced here, much as you lay out in this post. Thanks for writing it. I’ll do you a PM later.

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  2. I think people in the US have grown colder within the last decade. In the last few years, I’ve played on recreational sports teams where if we went out for drinks after the game, half of the people would have their heads down on their phones. Younger colleagues don’t seem to do much socially. Other people I know only seem to do things “for the gram,” where the main objective is to get nice photos to put online rather than actually engage with people.

    I don’t think it was always this way. Once upon a time I went out in St. Louis, in Soulard, lost my friends, closed down the bar with a random group of people, then went back with them to a house nearby where we talked and drank for a couple more hours. I woke up the next morning on a couch in a house I didn’t recognize, a blanket over me and a glass of water on the coffee table beside me. Unfortunately (or fortunately!) there isn’t much photographic evidence of these times.

    I always thought I was colder and shyer than most but maybe by contemporary standards I’m an extrovert.

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  3. US has it’s benefits, but yeah, the entire layout is normally designed to avoid interaction with others. The Halloween candy could have razors in it. And for the love of Christ, do not talk to strangers.

    On the other hand – you don’t want to be in Spanish speaking South America right now. Pretty soon, if you want to do something crazy, like go for a walk outside, well, there’s will be an app for that. The “new normal”? For them – this is it. So when I think of having to detail with detached gringos vs having to deal with modern communism – the choice is clear. Happy to be in USA.

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