short essays from Santiago: series 1
A Guide for the Fearful
I often imagine that I would like to write a sort of travel guide for those who are perpetually afraid. I am well-qualified to do so: I am afraid of everything. For a long time I was afraid of cars, people, dogs, crowds, public speaking, fine breakables, hard work, guns, knives, family members and fireworks. Finally, I decided to simplify, and also to tell more of the truth. Thus: I am afraid of everything.
I suspect that there are others like myself. And I would like to say to them: It is all right. You can be afraid of everything. There is no reason to stay home.
Of course, choosing to act in spite of overwhelming fear does not in any way excuse a person from the necessity of making sensible, judicious, and pragmatic choices. As indeed I fully intend to make someday.
As it is I have landed here, in Santiago de Chile, in the house of a man I barely know. I have no job, no Spanish, no pretty face. I don’t have that marvelous thing called confidence, that fabled positive outlook that Americans are supposed to come equipped with. I am very much afraid. And that is all right. I would have been afraid, too, if I had stayed home.
Learning to Say Ola
Late yesterday afternoon -- which, in Santiago, may mean as late as 9 -- G. announced that he had located the root of the problem. I could not say Ola. In fact I was absolutely awful at saying Ola. My Ola sounds like the squeak a schoolgirl would make if she woke to find a grizzly bear in her small tent.
G. says, “I see you in the shop when one man come in. He say Ola to you. Your shoulders go bad. Your head go bad. And you say Ola. Your Ola is terrible!”
He insists I must stand up straight. I must open my chest. I want to explain to him that I couldn’t possibly. Not in the first six weeks.
“You stand straight! Like man! Say, Ola!”
“Ohmygod, no. Not like that. This is the very worst Ola I ever hear in my life.”
G. winces. “You are a big strong man. You see this in the mirror sometime? Iz true.”
I try to explain to him that I am only 45 kilos, 4 foot 11. The muscles, beard and 5’11’ are only decorations. Like clouds seen out an airplane window. He’s not having any of it.
Over and over again we say Ola. It is remarkable how many ways I find to a small thing wrong. G. can’t decide what is worse, the way I say ‘O’, or the way I say ‘la’. In particular, he despairs at my tendency to turn suddenly into a high soprano.
“You do this in front of my father he will look at me like ‘what you bring into my house?’”
Again and again we say Ola. I squeak. I bow like the Japanese. My Ola comes out singsong, or does not come out at all. Ola and ola and ola all over again. The neighbors, presumably, are exchanging quizzical looks.
No doubt G. is asking himself why he ever extended an open invitation to such a self-evidently loony person.
“Ohmygod,” he says. “Now I have new job. I just teach you how to say Ola.”
The War Between Fear and Enthusiasm
Fear and enthusiasm are perpetually at war within me. I am vastly and comprehensively afraid and would no doubt spend my life in a secure institutionalized setting if not for the fact that I am also brimming over with entirely immoderate enthusiasm. An enthusiasm so vast and exaggerated, hovering always near hysteria, that I frequently forget my terror long enough to leave the house and sometimes even get as far as the airport, which lands me in situations like this one.
Alone in Santiago for the first time, I scuttle awkwardly along the sidewalk, darting among pedestrians who are all as dazzling and put together as neon billboards. Crossing the street, I am hampered somewhat by my disbelief that cars, which stop for other people, will stop for me as well.
Arriving at the curb, I stop and admire the Andes in the distance. If the Andes are unavailable, I pretend to be engrossed in the contemplation of a radio tower. I wait for an upright citizen, someone whose life is really worth saving. A mother with a stroller is ideal. I then attempt to shadow that person across the street without them noticing. I repeat this routine at every intersection, at the end of every block.
I suspect that I am as subtle and inconspicuous as one of the Marx Brothers.
Economy / 1
I brought a small suitcase to Santiago, the kind that works as carry-on if you don’t pack it too full. I also brought a small backpack full of books. I unpacked my bags in G.’s apartment and now I have more things in his apartment than he does. Of course he has larger things: a sofa, a dining table, a CD player – but I think I have more actual items.
My first thought was that this was some elaborate set-up, he didn’t really live there, that I would now be a middle-aged gay princess held hostage in Santiago.
I almost never watch TV. And still I get these ideas. Perhaps they are floating in the air?
G. explains that he does not like to have too many things. He only keeps what he intends to use that week. The rest he gives away. He doesn’t see anything elevated or holy about this.
“It is easier to think,” he says. “And easier to clean the house.
Cell phones, it is reported, make life simpler and more convenient. But not always. And not for everyone.
G. has two phones, but cannot make a call from either one. If he wants to talk to his sister, he sends her a numeric page and she calls him. If he wants to call someone else, he pages his sister, she calls him, and he asks her to make a call on his behalf.
For some reason, this system does not always work. Then he must page his mother. When she calls, he asks her to walk across the street to his sister’s house and ask her to call him so he can tell her to make a call for him.
To me, this system seems likely to result in homicide, but I cannot find any evidence that any of them mind it. G. says, “When I can make calls, I make calls all the time! It is very expensive. This way it is better.”
G. is similarly disciplined in other areas of his life. For breakfast he blends fruit in the blender and adds raw oatmeal. To his tea he adds only stevia, which friends bring him from Peru. He never drinks coffee or alcohol or smokes cigarettes unless he is at a party.
How fortunate therefore that there is always at least one birthday party a day, and sometimes two. Birthdays are considered extremely important in Chile – to not attend the celebration is to jeopardize the friendship. Thus he is able to maintain strict discipline, and also to take breaks from it every day.
I have not yet been able to discern if everyone in Chile has five hundred friends, or if Chileans simply celebrate their birthdays six to eight times a year.
Cures for the Rash
Living in a city where you do not speak the language is like having a rash. A pink and minor, itchy rash. All over your body.
A rash which lands you in a perpetual state of low-grade irritation, which makes you shy away from every contact. Which means that you are cast forever in the role of the idiot and appear always in a cloud of apology and irritation, with a deplorable tendency toward self-pity. Unable to ever appear dignified or settle down. Because you have this rash, this officially non-serious, non-life-threatening, misery-making rash. This rash all over your body and your face, even in your voice, your stance, the way you wait in line. This pink and unpleasant rash of not being able to speak the language.
What can be done? Options include limiting activities so as not to induce irritation – to stay as much as possible within five star hotels and sightseeing buses, in faux Irish bars around the world. You can attempt being so drunk and/or horny you don’t care you have a rash -- and are a total ass.
Another option of course is to learn the language – a total cure, but very slow and requiring, in the beginning, the willingness to make everything drastically worse. Before you were quietly the idiot, sitting in the corner, signaling for the bill – now you are the idiot jumping up and down!
Other options? One more. You can be so submerged in wonder that you couldn’t care less, like a very old woman, heedless of pain, at home in her garden. The tourist has forgotten his camera, his charge card, the word for bathroom, the fact that he is again today an entirely ridiculous fool.
Walking past a newsstand I see the face of Pablo Neruda. The headline underneath contains the word ‘asasinado’. The family, it is reported, now suspects foul play and wants the body exhumed. Until now it has been said that Neruda died of prostate cancer, or of a broken heart after the assassination of Salvador Allende.
“Assassinate Pablo Neruda!” I say. “Who could even think of such a thing?”
G. gives me a look. “Not everyone reads poetry,” he says.
This clear morning looking out on Cerro San Christobal, this morning with birds singing, with a hairy neighbor in the window across the way padding around in his underpants, with bright sun and the last of the jacaranda blooming, this moment (please remember) is sponsored by Tokyo. It’s Tokyo I’m burning now.
The misery I piled up for years, along with stacks of ichiman-en notes, my appalling Tokyo layer cake: work, porn, alcohol, work, porn, alcohol. With isolation for a crust, with lovelessness for frosting.
What makes Cerro San Christobal so lovely? It is the jacaranda, the shadows and the birds, and it is the memory of the platform at Meguro station in Tokyo, the lines of black- suited commuters staring into their phones, the memory of evenings so exhausted I would only just get inside the door, and lean there, in my dull wrinkled suit with my head against the wall, shuddering until I finally got a beer from the refrigerator and sat down at the computer.
Thich Nhat Hanh says, “We should live every day like people who have just been rescued from the moon.”
I spend much of my time here in Chile as I assume all newcomers must, astonished and humbled by the discovery of how much extreme pleasure, ungodly ecstasy and unbridled voluptuousness it is possible to undergo, simply by eating an avocado.
Amongst all my conquests (darlings I adore you all) the avocados of Santiago de Chile hold an honored place.
Now, mind you, the avocados of California are nice enough. The avocados of Tokyo are particularly fine, if your assets are such that investing in one is a possibility for you, but the avocados of Chile – it’s something spiritual really, Saint Teresa in ecstasy before a small bowl of avocado, mashed with a little lemon and a little salt, the texture that of homemade whipped cream, the richness surpassing anything found in the Old Testament.
I fully support you in coming to Chile simply to eat avocados. It is enough. (The mountains also are nice.)
Up to now, I have only eaten from the market the cheap and medium-priced avocados. The expensive ones would no doubt prove perilous – both to my fragile nervous system and to the peace of my neighbors, who assume, no doubt, that I spend my afternoons being ravished by incredibly spectacular lawyers, or abogados.
Economy / 2
On my second day here in Chile, G. took me to a friend’s birthday party – old friends from when he worked in advertising, pretty girls unafraid of whiskey, chainsmoking Lucky Strikes. They fed me sausages and pisco sour; everyone was overwhelmingly kind.
When we returned to G.’s apartment I asked if I had done all right, as a cancer patient might after a PET scan, or several cups of barium. G. said, “Everybody they like you” and, true to form, I cried inconsolably for several minutes.
Everyone had been so kind and still I had been so frightened the entire time, as though I’d been given the job of replacing the bulb on a skyscraper.
G. was patient with me, patting my back and cooing to me exactly as he would to a beloved elderly relative he was visiting in the asylum. I tried to explain my fear of everything, which conveniently came equipped with a universal sense of shame, like a razor you can plug in anywhere.
When I was finished he said, “When I have a problem it is because somebody is sick, or maybe somebody is die.”
The Wall of Glass / The Dais
Funny how I misremember the name as Receptivo. The map reminds me that, of course, the street I mean is Recoleta, which runs down the edge of the neighborhood of Bellavista and intersects with Dardignac, and which I had just crossed when I looked at the neat and proper workers hurrying to work through the enormous open square at the neat and thought, “I am going to be all right.”
My fear shattered all at once, like a sky-high wall of glass, and left me standing there, on the corner of the open square, feeling as if I would never be scared again.
In fact I had perhaps ten minutes, tops, before I found the ceiling-less wall of fear miraculously reconstituted, clear and hard as ever. But in the meantime I had this opening, this gap, for liberty and looking out.
Have I ever been so entirely wrong about a place before, or found something so totally contrary to that which I imagined? As I confessed to G., “Please forgive me. Everything I know about South America, I learned from reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez and watching porn.” He was appalled. Deservedly so.
How surprised I would have been if someone had told me that, in imagining Santiago, I ought to think of a city like Stockholm. or perhaps Singapore. A green and flowering city of commerce, control and good manners. Without the army of students studying and protesting and remaining liplocked for remarkable lengths of time the city might well feel two sizes too tight, buttoned up and sensible to within an inch of its life.
It is no exaggeration to say that the city in the U.S. from which I departed to come here seems nearly barbaric in comparison.
G. explains to me that the center of Santiago is meticulously maintained by the government and the police and may thus be accused of being a false front. Still, that appearance involves the cooperation of hundreds of thousands of people and would be the envy of nearly any city on Earth. Who can be blamed for valuing beauty, cleanliness and safety?
However, as I was numbered for many years among the undead of Tokyo, I cannot be relied upon to gush rapturously about the glories of convenience and order.
On Sunday afternoon G. and went out to the park beside the Mapuche to visit the ‘Gourmet Fair’. The park was lush in the gentle late afternoon light, the people beautifully put together and the food stunningly devoid of flavor. There was not a single item that would have appeared out of place in a supermarket in California: organic jam, Irish stout, avocado oil, flavored honey, pimento pickle with cream cheese on a Ritz cracker. No spice but in the sauce for barbecue.
That evening I read in Neruda’s Memoirs: “The absurd ‘racial’ pretentions of some South American countries, which are themselves the results of many national origins and mixed breeding, are a colonialist vice. They want to set up a dais where a handful of snobs, scrupulously white or light-skinned, can appear in society, posturing in front of pure Aryans or pretentious tourists.” (Memoirs, 163.)
It seems possible to me that Neruda may have had central Santiago in mind. (“Blue eyes are only in the city center,” G. tells me. “So much money for blonde hair! So much for skin white cream!”)
At a party on Via Italia, drinking champagne to celebrate the opening of a new jewel-box row of boutiques in this the up and coming part of town, I had an interesting talk with two sisters.
I admitted that I was surprised to find Santiago’s center more wealthy, clean and well-maintained than that of any city in the U.S.
The older sister spoke proudly of her city, which was wealthy and safe, where poverty and trash were not often in view. The city was a symbol of country and a region that was gaining prominence in the world and, best of all, it was simply a delightful place to live.
This seemed to me undeniably true. As did what the other sister had to say.
The younger sister was a student of anthropology and, though she understood English well, was uncomfortable speaking it. Nonetheless, I watched her consider her opinion and gather her words. She stretched out her arms as much as she could in the crowd of champagne drinkers. She beamed.
“This is all fake,” she said.