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Tuesday, 11 February, 2003, 19:06 GMT
Expat e-mail: Chile
Ian Walker-Smith and the Paranal Observatory
Ian Walker-Smith sees two sides of life in Chile - he works for a European astronomical agency, while at home he lives like a Chilean, as he tells in our series on expat readers of BBC News Online.

I work at Paranal Observatory; it's an oasis of science and technology where every night the boundaries of our universe are probed by four of the world's largest telescopes.

Ian works in Paranal and lives in Antofagasta
This region is about 6,670 miles from Crewe
What Ian misses most is greenery
I'm part of a 12-strong IT team which looks after everything from satellite ground stations to desktop support. My role is to make sure the computers run 24/7, for these move the telescopes, the five-storey-high domed roofs of the observatories, as well as process the data captured from the night skies.

As Paranal is in the middle of nowhere - up a mountain in the desert - the sky is truly amazing.

While the sunsets alone make it worth living here, it is a desolate place. We have all mod cons in our dome-like residencia, as the bosses call the staff hotel, but to strike out on your own into the desert would be foolhardy.

Residential dome in Paranal
The dome in which the Paranal staff live
As we're 2,600 m above sea level, I soon get puffed when I'm exercising. The altitude also affects me in more subtle ways - each time I arrive for a week on shift, I lose my get up and go, and feel as if I can't think straight or fast for the first day or so.

I work shifts of eight days in Paranal, and get six to rest at home - in my case, the mining town of Antofagasta, a harrowing two-hour drive away on the coast. It takes a real toll, being so far from my Chilean wife, Andrea. We are in constant contact by phone, but it's not the same - I miss her when I'm away.

New start

I decided to move to Chile four years ago when I was a 25-year-old with itchy feet wanting to get out of the way of an ex-girlfriend.

Ian and Andrea
Ian and Andrea: "We speak in Esplanglish"
I was working for Littlewoods Home Shopping Group, and one day a colleague pointed out a job for a UNIX system administrator in Chile. We both thought it would be a good idea, but I was the one who put a CV together.

Landing at Santiago airport was my first experience of language being such a barrier. I couldn't speak more than a handful of words in Spanish, and would you believe that my baggage had got lost. So my first couple of hours in Chile were spent trying to locate my missing possessions.

Today I can order food in restaurants and argue with mechanics about my car, but I can't really make myself understood on any deeper level.

Although I do now think in Spanish, I can't get my thoughts across as a native speaker could. Andrea speaks almost perfect English, so we converse in what we call Espanglish - at least we can understand each other.

Gem of a town?

Antofagasta, the town where Andrea and I have made our home, was once described in a Chilean advertising campaign as the Pearl of the North. Let's just say that it's hardly a tourist destination, which is pretty much what you'd say about my home town, Crewe.

Richard's new home town
The glaring gap between the haves and have-nots
Antofagasta and its surrounding mines are said to make more money for Chile than any other city, but you wouldn't think that if you lived here. The cinema, for instance, used to be a fleapit - quite literally, as cats with fleas kept the rats away.

During my time here, some money has been put back into the city. We now have a re-vamped municipal beach, and a pleasant walkway along the seafront.

Even after four years, I don't yet feel as if I belong. Over Christmas I went back to the UK for a month's holiday - on landing in Heathrow, I felt at home straight away.

My culture still fits like the winter gloves I left behind when I came out to work in the desert sun. Shame I can't say the same of my old winter trousers...

Every Tuesday we bring you the story of a Briton who lives far from home. Tell us your experiences, using the form below.

I left the Black Country in 1974 to live in Senlis, near Paris. Being married to a French woman, I've lived and worked in a French-speaking environment for years. As a result, my spoken English has started to suffer. I find myself searching for a word in English when the French word is obvious. Do other ex-pats have this problem?
Tony Wiggan, Senlis, France

I agree. From 1994-98, I was an English instructor in South Korea. When I returned to the US, my proununciation of "coffee" and "copy" were indistinquiable. Also, it took a few years to relearn US slang & customs, but I have not forgotten how to write in Korean characters.
Vivienne Sales, Arizona USA

After the ending of a 7-year relationship, and the prospect of spending the festive season newly single, a Swedish workmate offered an escape route; did I want to celebrate the New Year in the frozen North? Nine months later I'd moved permanently. I've been here 3 years now, speak almost fluent Swedish, and believe that to make a sandwich you only need one slice of bread.
Nick, Stockholm

At the tender age of 20, I asked my mother to look after my dog for 6 months, loaded my backpack and headed for a rendezvous with a friend in Egypt. I never made that meeting but 16 years later I've created a life different from anything I could have imagined. I spent 10 years professionally racing sailboats and now put together events in the Americas and Caribbean. Despite having boarded 56 planes in 2002, I take 3 months every year to discover and experience a new place. Today finds me in Patagonia and I am happy to report that my passion for the discovery and curiosity of my world remains undiminished.
TWJ Thornton, Rhode Island, US

Moved to Denmark in 93 with no job, little money but my heart full of love - or so I thought! 10 years later I would say I'm integrated, more than I care to admit. I feel myself still fiercely Scottish but on trips home, I notice more and more how Danified I'm becoming. The learning curve has been demanding, but the rewards of understanding and acceptance are more than worth the effort. If you want to discover the real you, pack your bags and hit the road.
Craig Dickson, Copenhagen, Denmark

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See also:

18 Jul 02 | Country profiles
09 Jul 02 | Science/Nature
04 Dec 01 | Science/Nature
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