Friday, February 09, 2007

sorry mom: I talked to strangers all day

Having recently reached the five month mark of my time in Santiago, I've been looking back to see what I've learned so far. Besides mastering the 3-step process of purchasing an item at the pharmacy and how to cut the lawn with a manual grass-cutter, I've also managed to buy a telephone card the other day and successfully follow the automated directions to put more credit on my cellphone-- the first time I've ever been able to accomplish this mammoth task without the help of a Chilean friend. This, coupled with the fact that I just finished my first novel in spanish, gives me hard proof that yes, my spanish is improving.

Armed with this boost of confidence, I decided to talk a walk with my camera yesterday. I've purchased eggs from a tiny egg store on the way to Lider before here in La Granja (Lider is a huge megastore similar to Wal-Mart in more ways than just its obstrusively bright fluorescent lights) and I fell in love with it. A nice little grandma with absolutely no gray hair wears a navy smock with little flowers on it over her clothes and carefully places your eggs in triangular pockets of newspaper which she had folded in anticipation of your visit before you showed up. I thought this might be a good first stop, but on my way there I noticed a house older than most in the neighborhood that boasted about its pan y palta on quaint hand-painted signs. Taking the small detour down the grapevine covered front path, I found myself in a small market in the front room of the house being greeted by whom I soon found out is Marta.

First purchasing a bottle of water, I started talking about the heat (a useful everyday summer-in-Santiago conversation starter) but the conversation quickly moved to discussions about the changing neighborhood and the differences between the city and the campo-- not to imply that the conversation moved quickly: we must have talked for at least 40 minutes. Marta soon called in her viejo, Miguel, who explained that he had purchased the house in the 70s when the surrounding area was used to grow vegetables instead being full of rows of apartment buildings and the sprawling, crowded creature that is Lider. Marta is from Los Andes, in the north, and Miguel is from south of Valdivia but had interesting advice for my upcoming visit to the city: eat seafood, and don't hang out with 17-20 year olds because all they do is party. I left the minimarket with kisses and waves and invitations to please come enjoy a cafecito sometime soon.

The egg store is going to take a little more work than I thought. The abuelita showed extreme opposition to the idea of my bringing my camera out, although we did talk about her children and grandchildren for an extensive amount of time. Surrounded by eggs in her little egg store, I made a solemn promise to myself to win her confidence over, even if I just get a picture of her hands with eggs. I know I'll be back. So I decided to take a ride to the city center to the street around the corner from the hogar in which I lived before Domingo Savio. Having walked down this street, which is the best way to get to any bus or metro from the hogar, about a million times over the span of my stay there, I had met several of the store owners and become intrigued by many others. Alejandro, the owner of the sewing machine store, deserved a visit.

After buying a tea from the counter in the market next door-- Alexandro's market, but he wasn't there at the time-- I joined Alejandro on the little red chairs he keeps on the sidewalk in front of his shop. A tiny store, no wider than a couple of meters, it is completely packed with sewing machines at various stages of repair and disrepair. He explained that he learned how to fix sewing machines back when Singer still had a presence in Chile-- I'm not sure what year, but he is now 75. He's been at this location on Libertad in Barrio Brasil for 15 years, collecting broken sewing machines, fixing them, and then selling them. His hands permanently greased and digging deep in some disemboweled machine, Alejandro and his store captivated me with its piles of strange machanical parts and interesting characters hanging out on the red chairs. Amused by my poking around with my camera in search for little details in his shop, like this crucifix tucked behind the electrical wire right above the hiding place for his beer, Alejandro knows I'll be back.

A few doors down Libertad from the sewing machine shop is a Peluqueria I had always watched, but never entered: I never had a reason. It's a barber shop with maybe two chairs, one tv, maybe one customer being shaved or clipped and a friend of the barber sitting in one of the chairs along the wall. This time the friend and the barber, Mario, were just sitting and watching tv, so I walked in and began introducing myself. The friend left soon after, but I had a nice talk with Mario-- it helped that as of yet the only fútbol game I have been to was a Colo Colo game, which you can see won me a lot of points. Mario has lived in Santiago since he was 6 months old, and has had his Peluqueria at this location for 13 years. He began cutting hair at the age of 16, (now he's in his seveties I think) but still smiles when he talks about how much he loves his job. My favorite part about the barber shop is the mechanical clippers Mario uses-- when I first spotted them I pointed to them, lined up in a row under the mirror, asking in general what they were. Mario replied, "Mis pololas!" Confused as to why he would call his clippers his girlfriends, I looked again at the counter and saw underneath the glass a collage of old pictures of half naked women. I think my confusion was Mario's favorite part about my visit.

Strolling through the center, I wandered over to the Plaza de Armas but couldn't find postcards for my family because the street vendors are still trying to get rid of their photos of the "La Pequeña Gigante" which mesmorized the city a short while ago. I headed towards Alameda to start going home on the metro when I heard the old-fashioned tango music like the kind I play when I'm the last one awake at night. A young couple dressed in black made me stop and think again about how badly I'd like to learn the dance. Angela and her brother Andrés dance every day in one of the pedestrian passages near Plaza de Armas. It turns out you have to apply to the city to be able to perform in this area and only the best are chosen and then assigned a place.

A useful trick to talking with strangers is just to ask them about themselves. Many people like to talk about themselves, they just need some prompting. I'd like to spend even more time with some of these new random acquaintences-- but a good string of introductions certainly makes for an interesting day, a makeshift kind of open-ended scavenger hunt with variable directions and certainly no definite end...

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