Chilean Chronicles, Part V: Our Chilean Day

We had just about finished making plans to have lunch Saturday afternoon with new colleague, intrepid journalist and friend of a friend Alejandra Matus when the latest installation of our Chilean education arrived.

Alejandra asked us whether we had purchased a cell phone yet.

Alejandra Matus and Dunreith share the labors of making a beet salad.

Alejandra Matus and Dunreith share the labors of making a beet salad.

We soon understood that her inquiry had a purpose that extended beyond knowing if we had the country’s most accessible tool for communication; she wanted to be able to get in touch with us on Saturday morning.

Although Alejandra and her husband Alberto definitely intended to have us over, she did not yet want to choose a specific time because many things that could happen between Thursday afternoon and the meal on Saturday.

Because of that, she wanted to keep things open so that we could see where things stood in the early part of Saturday before choosing the precise time when we would meet.

This is very Chilean, Alejandra said. Sometimes it’s like this, and sometimes it’s like that.

Alejandra’s explanation helped us understand what had happened since we had woken: we had had a Chilean day.

It was one that had begun early and seemed slightly off kilter.

We Skyped with Dad and Lee on my computer, in the process missing another Skype call from dear friend and Chilean Marjorie Agosin on Dunreith’s computer in the process.

We tried to reach Marjorie after we got off with Dad and Lee, but she was not available. Instead, she sent us an email saying that she could talk in 30 minutes.

Dunreith and I then had a quick breakfast and prepared to call Marjorie, but by this point our Internet access had dropped.

We’ve found that unplugging, and then replugging, all of the cords in the power adapter generates some success.

But by the time we were able to get onto the Internet again, she was gone again.

Marjorie had written another email, this one saying that she could talk at noon or in the afternoon.

We said that noon worked better for us.

Our noon phone call was a successful one-Marjorie said she would send us all kinds of information about Valparaiso and that her cousin Sylvia was looking forward to meeting us next week-and we planned to set off to the Museum of Memory and Human Rights before meeting Alejandra at 3:00 p.m.

Of course, we needed to have food in order to have a successful museum experience, so marched back up Providencia Avenue to Santa Isabel, our favorite supermarket.

The place was packed with Chileans who apparently were taking their lunch break at the same time.

Dunreith and I gathered the fruit, bread, quiche and Coke we wanted to purchase, then joined one of the lines.

It crawled forward at a pace that would make a caterpillar’s progress seem rapid.

But then we caught a break.

A young cashier named Silvia Padilla who was wearing the trademark red Santa Isabel cashier’s uniform opened the lane next to us.

We weren’t the first customers to jump into the new line, but we were the second.

Food, comfort and museum going pleasure were about to be ours.

Then Silvia’s register broke.

Her approach to the non-functioning machine appeared to be to stare blankly at it until it started working again.

Her colleagues’ best thought seemed to be to ignore the entire situation.

Both strategies met with minimal success.

In the meantime, the lane we had just left appeared to be picking up steam.

Customers who had been us smiled as their orders were completed and they were able to leave the store while Dunreith and I, like our cashier, stared blankly into the distance to avoid further conflict and hostility toward her and each other.

The other people in our line, who had seemed so joyful at their initiative and pouncing on the opportunity, adopted the same look.

Somehow, miraculously, the cash register started working again.

By this point, 50 minutes had passed, and the time we likely would be able to spend in the museum had shrunk from about an hour to a solid 15 minutes.

I asked Dunreith if she wanted to eat upstairs.

As is her manner, she threw her hands up, raised her eyebrows and said, “Fine.”

During our 12 years of marriage and nearly 15 years of being together, I have learned that that word rarely means what she says it does.

So we walked out the door and started making our way back to the apartment, where we would eat before going to meet Alejandra.

The enticing smells of freshly heated empanadas from Castano, a local chain, hit us about three doors down from Santa Isabel.

We walked in and, after some deliberation, decided to order one onion and one spinach empanada.

To go? The woman asked me.

Yes, I said.

To go outside?

Yes, I repeated.

The second answer meant that, rather than getting the empanadas placed in a bag, we were receiving them on plates to consume outside the restaurant.

The meal and its surprise location, like the call with Marjorie, were each a success.

The food was hot and tasty, we witnessed an accident between one of the many black and gold cabs that speed around the city and a Volvo, and readjusted our plans to head straight down to meet Alejandra.

Our stomachs full, we ambled down to the Metro station, purchased tickets to go to the Republica station and instantly got on the train going in the wrong direction.

Fortunately, we recognized our error within one stop-we wanted to go toward Los Dominicos on the way back from, not going to, the university-and reversed course.

We arrived at the stop without incident, but found that we were unable to exit the station until someone kindly explained that we were attempting to leave through the entrance.

We located the University of Diego Portales where I will be teaching.

I introduced myself to the security guard there with what is becoming my standard explanation of my name, my Fulbright affiliation, my wife’s name, the fact that I will be teaching there for five months and that for us it has been a dream for many years to come to his country.

The gentleman listened patiently to my statement, which Dunreith told me later has come down to about two minutes, and then informed me politely that we were in the wrong building.

The journalism department was five blocks away.

We followed the directions he gave us, walked past a host of student bars with content-looking students in them and arrived at the designated building.

Another security guard.

Another explanation.

This time, though, he told me that we were indeed in the correct place.

We waited for Alejandra, who is lovely, generous and fierce, and who wrote an important book in the late 90s about the lack of judiciary independence during the Pinochet era.

The government responded to its publication by seeking to imprison her for five years for violating a law that made it illegal to offend officials.

Alejandra went into exile for more than two years, returning only after the law on which her prosecution would have been based had been changed.

We chatted amiably for about an hour about her time in Miami working for El Nuevo Herald in 1999 and 2000, the year of the Elian Gonzalez raid, the Gore-Bush presidential election, and a city councilman killing himself on the front doorstep of the paper’s office after his corrupt activities had been exposed as having participated in corruption.

Alejandra helped get me oriented on diversity within Chilean society and the students at Diego Portales.

We were just wrapping up when her explanation of the Chilean approach occurred.

Dunreith and I smiled because we understood that what had seemed to be a day full of fits and starts was in fact an absolutely typical experience.

We kissed Alejandra goodbye, pledged to buy a cell phone so that she could reach us on Saturday morning and walked back to the Metro.

This time we took the correct train, got home, witnessed a gorgeous sunset over the Andes from our balcony on the thirteenth floor and continued our daily ritual of each having a glass of wine.

The Chilean day seemed pretty sweet to us.


2 responses to “Chilean Chronicles, Part V: Our Chilean Day

  1. You know… as you were packing and planning, I had a notion to try explaining the mysteries, confusions, bizarre and inexplicable facts of daily life in Chile that stymie people like you and me and Dunreith. Rather than come across like a wet blanket, I realized you’d find out by yourselves. Your Chilean day has been one of many, a deeply embedded and understood aspect of life there. You’ll adjust your mindset accordingly.

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, PT. I appreciate your giving us space to figure out things in our own way, with fresh eyes.


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