21 September 2011


National holidays offer a condensed and exaggerated version of a country's self-perception, and given that I only spend a limited amount of time in Chile, I was grateful to be able to witness its fiestas patrias. Before you ask: No, the plural is not a sign of my poor Spanish skills, but testimony to the fact that Chile indeed has two consecutive national days: The first one, el dieciocho, marks independence from the Spanish crown, 201 years ago on September 18, whereas the following day is officially known as the Día de las Glorias del Ejército.

Now, in a country which has lived under a military dictatorship for 17 years, you would think that the public sees its former oppressors with a bit of apprehension, to say the least. And you would be wrong, for the armed forces are very much present during the annual celebrations. When I arrived at the city park in which the fiesta de la chilenidad was held on a sunny spring Sunday, I was handed a schedule of events packed with various army presentations, from historical battle reenactments to demonstrations by paratroopers and special assault forces. Being used to two countries in which the armed forces are usually told to stay camouflaged, seeing the troops show off clearly marked a change. Benefiting from an enthused crowd, roaming recruiters even handed me a glossy enlistment brochure (I did not qualify, and not just on nationality grounds).

Thus shocked and awed, I was relieved to find that chilenidad was not limited to goose-stepping. Another important dieciocho tradition, also frequently celebrated out in the countryside by families, are lavish barbeque feasts. At the venue I visited, the air was think with woodsmoke, as copious amounts of beef and pork were roasted over fire, often entire animal halves rotisserie-style or on a spear. I was thrilled to parttake, and enthusiastic asadores were proudly explaining the various cuts and preparation styles to me. Stuffed, it took serious effort to stumble over to the sweets vendors, where the piles of hand-made alfajores con manjar prove just too hard to resist.

Unsurprisingly, between the meat, sugar and a treacherous concoction called terremoto, I was in a bit of the daze by the time I struggled past the petting zoo with exotic animals such as peacocks, llamas and alpacas, circled around the rodeo arena, gazed at the countless Chilean-flag kites in the skies and eventually decided to head home for a nap - which turned out to last until the next morning. Rumor has it, indeed, that it is this feeling of merry satiety, rather than the army's countless glories, which explains why September 19 is another day off. Viva!


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