Food Poise

Dear Street Vendor

I am not one to overindulge in deep-fried foods, but I found your unique brand of Colombian empanadas difficult to resist. I have no doubt that the placement of your empanada cart was strategic: A shady spot outside a popular grocery store, tempting shoppers on their way home to prepare a lunch from ingredients recently purchased. Who can resist the smell of dough cooking in oil? A curious human instinct, perhaps. A throwback to a time when oil and fat, while being dangerously scarce, were essential for human survival.
Your pastry, striking exactly the right balance between soft and crispy, envelopes a generous quantity of perfectly seasoned meat. What’s more, the little golden pocket, at the very reasonable price of one luka, makes for a perfect snack on a long walk home.
You clearly are a master of your craft: Oil boiling in the wok, empanadas cooling on the rack, aged hands nimbly rolling an empanada into wax paper, a square of paper towel snatched up and offered as a napkin. With a motherly “Gracias, cariño,” my 1000-peso bill is somehow switched with the empanada without a break in movement.

I suspect you won’t remember me. You have no reason to. I grant that mine is not the most memorable of faces, and when our paths crossed my clothes were drab and un-noteworthy: Plain shirt, black pants, an extended hand, unremarkable save for the single monetary bill within its clutch. I was just one extra soul in a long line of eager customers, all salivating and ready to order (a promising sign of a worthwhile purchase). For my part, I only thought of you again many hours later, with my knees on the floor of my bathroom and my stomach squeezed into an excruciating spasm, as if struck dead-on with an electrified cattle prod.
Certainly, there is no nobility in bowing to a porcelain throne. It was an inconvenient place in which I found myself after sampling your winsome wares. The embarrassment was exacerbated all the more by the party that my roommate was throwing just outside the door.
“I can cancel, if you need to rest?” she had said before the guests arrived.
“No, no,” I pressed, between intestinal paroxysms. “Don’t let me interrupt your night.”
I really didn’t want to spoil her evening, but certain interruptions could not be avoided: The guttural gurgling coming from the bathroom, my gaunt, pathetic figure slouching across the hallway in full site of the guests, my skin slick with perspiration. It progressed this way all night – back and forth between bathroom and bedroom. There was always a brief lull in conversation as party-goers paused to watch the spectacle, and always an abashed nod from me, as if to say Don’t worry about me. I’m fine.

At intervals that night, your empanada flashed across my vision. It had been a pleasure to eat. But as I lay on my bed, believing myself to be barely moments away from death, trying to trick myself into sleeping away the delirious torment, I wanted nothing to do with that repulsive morsel. I tried to cast it from my mind, but it clung to my awareness. The sight, the taste, the sensation in my mouth – these things would not leave me. From the living room, sounds of Spanish music and rowdy conversation dragged me from slumber and pushed me to the edge of madness.
I lost count of the times I roused that night. It was always the same process: Slamming awake, pulling myself to my door, stomach squeezing, crossing the hallway, the sudden hush and then upswing of noise as party-goers witnessed my shame, the kneeling down, the lurch of the stomach, and then agony.
Even in my more lucid hours I did not think ill of you. Despite the exhaustion in my empty gut and the intense pain in my knees from spending long minutes kneeling on my bathroom tiles, I rationalised that you had simply made one bad batch. It was not your fault. The popularity of your cart suggested that complete gastrointestinal shutdown was not a common side effect of your business. So please do not take offense at this letter. I merely want you to understand my position. You see, Dear Vendor, the smell of oil still beckons, and the thought of your deep-fried delicacy still causes me to salivate. Since that terrible night I have walked past your cart many times, but I have been unable to bring myself to purchase another one of your deeply memorable Colombian empanadas. Unfortunately, although the nightmare is long over, the fear of death remains.

Sincerely,

Empa Nada Mas

Colombian Empanada

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Pros and Concierges

Within the apartment buildings of central Santiago there exists an uneasy truce between tenants and concierges. These gatekeepers are the guardians of our safety, the custodians of calm, the keepers of the peace. No visitor, postal service worker, or pizza delivery person can even get close to you until they have gone through the fellow at the front desk. They are the mediators between you and the chaos outside. They mark your comings and goings, take note of who your friends are, and stoically witness you stumbling in at four in the morning. They say little, but they see all.
I have encountered, and defeated, many concierges in my time here, but there have been none who have filled me with quite a sense of foreboding as the one who guards the narrow lobby of my current building.

Bruce Campbell
At one point, a concierge was Spiderman’s worst adversary

When I first met my concierge, I concluded that he was not long for this world. His sickly pallor and straggly hair gave the impression that he was a man slowly letting go of his earthly body. His hair hungered for a brush. His clothes longed for the laundry. The first time I laid eyes on him he struck me as a filthy man, and beyond that I gave him no thought at all. I simply made myself at home, and waited for him to die.

But he did not die. A few weeks after I moved in, I came home one day and discovered that my concierge had obtained a haircut. The change in his appearance was so drastic that I slowed my pace to get a better view. For the first time I could see his face clearly. The neatened hairstyle, trimmed to a grey bristle along the back and sides, threw his countenance into sharp relief. While aged and lined, his face didn’t look half bad. The thin silver glasses that enlarged his eyes to a ludicrous degree now made him seem academic, intelligent.
A few days after that, I noticed that he had found himself a leather jacket. I would have thought it incomprehensible that a fifty-something man living a sedentary life would be able to make a leather jacket look good, but somehow my concierge was able to pull it off. In open defiance of all the odds, my concierge was starting to look healthier.

Brando
Pictured: My concierge after getting a leather jacket

I soon learned that my concierge was a man of noise. I would enter the building at odd moments and catch him humming tunes that, I surmised, he was composing on the spot. At times he would sing unintelligible songs at a volume far too loud for the small lobby in which he was encamped, his gruff voice sounding like a car pulling into a gravel driveway.
Probably the most distressing aspect of his nature was the cacophony produced by the unnatural machinations of his being. Often as I crossed the lobby from the elevators to the front door, I would hear him heave an exhausted breath from his lungs, stale air scraping phlegm up from a gnarled throat. Sometimes I would hear him clearing his throat for such long intervals that I believed he was timing it to the tune of the Imperial March. Once, as I stood on my balcony on the tenth floor of the building, I heard him sneeze. It was a sneeze to end worlds. It was less an expulsion of air than it was an open-mouthed howl. Moments after he had wailed out that ungodly sound I felt the concussion that followed the blast rattle up the elevator shaft and tremble the ground on which I stood.

Glass Case of Emotion
Pictured: My concierge sneezing

It is my habit to avoid conversing with my concierges. I came into this country not knowing how to speak Spanish, and at that time I fell into the habit of keeping relations with concierges as non-communicative as possible. Even as my Spanish skills have progressed, I cannot shake the quirk of being unable to speak to the man behind the desk. Every time I enter or leave a building, the best I can muster is a feeble “Hola” or “Hasta luego.” But in an attempt to broaden my range I have also taken to echoing the words that concierges say to me. If they say “Buenos días” or “Buenas tardes” then I will repeat that phrase back to them. My current concierge has noted this and, although I cannot prove it, I suspect that he has turned it into a game. He rarely acknowledges me, and when he does he chooses his moments ever so carefully. Some might say that he is simply slow to react, but I am convinced that his comments are timed to fluster me and break my stride.
Sometimes I will be on my way out of the building, and as I pass by the front desk I will tip my head and say, “Hasta luego” without adjusting my speed. I receive only silence from him in return. I reach the front door, twist the handle, and push the door outwards. As I plant one foot outside he calls “Buenos días” to me in a loud, breathy sigh.
In that moment, I am caught off guard. Suddenly I feel as if my “Hasta luego” was rude. It’s like saying “See ya later” when I should have said “Good morning.” So to make amends I turn my body, which is already outside the building, and weakly croak “Buenos días,” but before I can finish saying “días” the door has already swung closed, and my words are nothing but fog against glass. Through the door I see my concierge. He hasn’t even looked up from sorting the mail.

Me and my concierge
Pictured: My concierge and me

Fate Like Potatoes

Give a monkey a typewriter and an infinite amount of time, and it will eventually write the words of Shakespeare. Or, so it is said. On the other hand, give one bachelor his own apartment and a handful of months, and he will inevitably blow something up.
Of course, like any responsibility-denying adult, I cannot take full credit for what happened. I am simple one cog in a vastly complex machine, and it is impossible to know what the other cogs are doing until everything lines up in a way that blindsides your life and sets it off on a bit of a speed wobble.

Monkey Typewriter
Technology has come a long way. Who uses wooden chairs anymore?

When my kettle blew up, my first instinct was to blame the potato, but I believe the chain of causation goes back further than that. I could point my finger at my friend, who was going out of town for a month and had to give away her potatoes so that they wouldn’t be wasted in her absence. Or I could blame my stubborn pan which had become difficult to clean. But if I really give it some thought, I believe the chain of events truly got started when the light bulb in my kitchen burned out.

Light Bulb
I have since replaced the light bulb. There it shines, an angelic halo.

My kitchen is situated in a tiny nook that receives almost no ambient light, so when the bulb blew it was quite a task to get anything done in there. My immediate, lazy solution was to use my space heater as a substitute. The heater has three bars that cast a bright orange light when it is turned on, which was perfect for my temporary needs. The best place for it was on the tiny piece of kitchen counter next to the fridge, where my kettle usually sits. In order to free up an outlet so that I could plug the heater in, I unplugged the kettle and moved it next to the kitchen sink. And that’s where the kettle stayed.

Dark Kitchen
See? Tiny, dark kitchen nook

A few nights ago, I decided to roast a potato for dinner, having developed an affinity for them after my friend had given me some a few weeks previously. The only problem was that the pan I used to roast them had lost its non-stick properties a long time ago, and therefore required quite a scrub to get it clean. For this purpose, I had purchased some steel wool, and after scrubbing the pan clean I left the ball of wool by the sink, next to the kettle.

The next day I arose groggily and put the kettle on for coffee. Once the water had boiled, I lifted the kettle from its stand, poured water into a mug, and moved to replaced the kettle on its stand. As I completed this maneuver I noticed how an errant strand of wool had uncoiled itself until the tiny end of it was resting right on top of the connector that supplies electricity to the kettle. My reflexes were slow, but even as I put the kettle down I thought to myself, “That piece of steel there is probably not safe,” and then my apartment exploded.

Potato
This is partly your fault, Potato!

There was a loud popping noise followed by silence. My fridge had stopped humming. The annoyingly loud extractor fan in my bathroom had stopped buzzing. Even the recently-replaced kitchen light bulb had gone dark, and I smelled fire. I lifted the kettle back up and saw that the tip of the steel wool had caught fire like an environmentally unfriendly stick of incense. I stared at the flame quizzically until it died on its own, and then I careful set the kettle back down on the counter, far from the smoking steel wool, and went to check my fuse box. A few switches had tripped, so I flipped them back up. My apartment remained dark and silent. I felt like Bilbo in Gollum’s cave. In the distance, I could hear my neighbour’s music. Evidently they still had power.
By that point, the sun had come up sufficiently for me not to need light in the living room. Plus I already had my coffee, so for the time being I did not need electricity. I sat on my couch and stared at my laptop which was now no longer connected to the internet because the modem had no power. I ate my cereal, drank my coffee, brushed my teeth, and left for work.

As I went about my day, I considered my options:
1.) I could ignore the problem and live out the rest of my days here without electricity.
2.) I could blow my neighbour’s fusebox so that they would be forced to take the initiative to sort things out.
3.) I could ask my concierge to turn the power back on at the main switch.

Obviously, Option 3 was out of the question. I didn’t know the Spanish words for “switch” or “main switch” or “to switch something on.” It was an insurmountable obstacle.

I was sorely tempted to try Option 2. It had a Tom Sawyer-esque cleverness to it, but I didn’t really know how I would go about sabotaging my neighbour’s electricity. Perhaps I could try disrupting the whole building? But that might cause me to fatally damage myself, or even get into trouble with the police.

Option 1 seemed possible. My oven is gas powered, so I could still cook food. I could turn my phone into a WiFi hot spot so that I could use the internet on my laptop. That’s all I really needed. It would cost a fortune in data, though.

As my day progressed, the options circled around in my head, and I slowly came to the realization that I would have to eventually seek help from the concierge. So when I returned to my building, I greeted the concierge, went upstairs to my apartment, and waited the appropriate amount of time it would have taken for me to put my things down, get changed out of my work clothes, make a cup of tea, and then accidentally blow myself up. I put it at fourteen minutes, which is also about how long it took me to look up and memorise the Spanish words for “switch,” “main switch,” and “to switch something on.” Then I went back downstairs and threw myself dramatically onto the concierge’s desk.

“You would not believe the disaster that has just this very moment befallen me!” I wailed. “Not fourteen minutes ago, while attempting to make myself a cup of tea, a short circuit occurred and knocked out the power to my apartment! I tried switching the power back on but nothing happened. Would you please be so kind as to switch on the main switch?”

Dramatic
Accurate re-enactment of me talking to the concierge.

Actually, what I said was more like, “No electricity. Accident. Switch main switch to switch something on please?” Thankfully, the plucky concierge was able to find meaning from context. He produced some keys marked “Luz” and bade me follow him back up to my floor and towards the electricity cupboard there. It was an awkward elevator ride. To break the silence I rolled my eyes and chummily said, “Main switch, eh?” The plucky concierge remained passive.

After that, my life improved swiftly and dramatically. The concierge found the electricity closet, flicked a few switches, went downstairs again, flicked some switches there, then returned and flicked one final switch which lit up my apartment once again. A problem that had stretched out for five hours had been solved in ten minutes.

I learned two things that day: The first thing is that you don’t need to be fluent in a language to be understood. Most people just need a few key words and a context.
The second thing I learned is that all the micro-actions in our lives are like pieces on an infinite chess board, or the keys of a typewriter being struck by an infinite monkey. Eventually the chaos will lead to macro-actions that will blow your mind.

New Kettle
I also learned how much a new kettle costs.

 

Just Looking

I spend a decent amount of time walking around the city, and at times I feel that I have laid eyes on perhaps every one of the city’s five million inhabitants. For the most part, the figures tend to merge into a white noise of stout shapes ambling along at speeds invariably slower than my own, and generally I pay them no mind. However, every once in a while, someone will step out of the background and engage my attention for a moment or two, and the moment will stay for me for a long time afterwards. This happened a few weeks ago while I was en route to the grocery story. It was in the latter part of the day, when the sun had just about gone down but the cold hadn’t quite sunk its teeth in yet. On one grassy corner, underneath several trees rendered naked and brittle by the season, I spied a young woman walking her dog.

It was the dog that caught my attention first. It was a medium sized golden retriever who had happened upon a large grey branch and had proudly claimed it as his own. The branch was as thick as a man’s wrist, roughly twice the length of the dog itself, and spiked with many smaller sticks and twigs that were growing out of it. This rendered the branch as a whole unruly and difficult for the dog to carry. With every few steps, an offshoot would strike the ground and send the retrieved off kilter. Nevertheless, he refused to let it go.

Re-enactment
Re-enactment with a different dog

Any dog owner will be familiar with the tenacity that a dog can show when it finds an object that it wants to take home, and anyone who has loved another creature dearly will know exactly the look that this dog’s owner gave me when her eyes locked with mine. There was the apologetic smile, the slight shake of the head, and the rolling of the eyes. The message of that look, framed within the small window of a face that was outlined by a scarf and a beanie, was a complex one. She was not apologising for her dog’s behaviour. Instead, she was sharing a joke with me. She was tacitly including me in her conspiracy to treat her dog’s discovery with exactly the same gravitas as the dog was treating it. I loved that look.

I like to watch the way people watch other people, or the way people watch their animals. Especially when there’s love involved. By far my favourite moment in recent memory happened when I went on a hike into the heart of one of Santiago’s national parks.

When I think of that hike I do not think of the cold that has terrorised me throughout this winter, or how my breath was turned visible by the crisp air. Instead I think of how I stripped off my jacket in a warm glade near the summit of a low hill. I think about ducking under thorny branches, and the low chatter of my companions and my measured breathing as I solidly placed one foot in front of the other along the mulchy path of the dead countryside. I think about occasionally stepping aside to be passed by runners and other hikers with their jackets tied snugly around their waists.

Santiago Smog
In the distance: the brown fog of Santiago’s pollution

About an hour into the hike we reached a waterfall, and beyond that, a river. By that river we shed our packs and took lunch. I had not brought much, and as I did not know any of the other people very well I pulled myself up onto a high ledge that towered over the others, and simply watched.

A few meters further down the river, three figures had made their picnic atop a large boulder that squeezed the flow of the stream into a furious hourglass. I recognised in an instant that they were related; they all had the same blond hair, narrow frame, and their noses and cheeks were all relatively identical. It was a mother, perched awkwardly at the very apex of the rock, with a backpack gingerly placed between her feet, and all the ingredients of a sandwich precariously balanced on her knees and in her lap. On either side of her was a teenage son, perhaps a year or two apart in age, but each equally thin and lankly. Their grasshopper-like legs were bent at the knees, pulling their jeans, already too short, up at the ankle revealing both the colour of their socks as well as the speed of their growth.

Family 1
The family on the rock

While the teens regarded nature in silence, their awkward limbs trying to bend themselves into a comfortable position, the mother was engaged in an intricate ballet of sandwich construction. There were many complexities involved in this. Using a pocket knife she had to slice the bread, cut up the cheese and salami, and fold it all into a sandwich while ensuring that nothing tumbled off her lap and into the river. It was a master balancing act, and she carried it out with patience and aplomb.
She passed the first sandwich off to her youngest. Their movements were slow and precise because any reckless gesture would cause something to fall into the river. The mother carefully constructed a second sandwich while the oldest son gazed off into the middle distance, and as she held it out to him he said something to her, and began unzipping his fleece jacket.
Evidently he wanted to remove a layer before eating, so the mother held onto the sandwich while the son carefully pulled himself out of the fleece, his flailing arms making him look like an anemone in a strong current. While he did this, his mother simply watched him, and the look on her face was one of my favourite things that I saw that day. It was love layered on wonder layered on amusement. She was marveling at the fact that she had produced a fully formed human who could carry out the complicated task of jacket removal. It was amusement the the person she had created could act with absolute seriousness without full knowledge of how serious life could be. And on top of that was a deep, unfathomable love. Even if the jacket removal had taken the son hours, the mother would have patiently waited, sandwich in one hand, pocket knife in the other, awkwardly trying to keep her balance. She could have waited like that forever because her son’s comfort was far more important to her than her own.
Nothing quite beats the way a mother looks at her child. Sometimes mothers are tired, or they shout, or they’re focusing on other things. But during those precious moments when a child is just existing, and the mother is just watching… Those are the moments I’d gladly hike into the wilderness to see.

Hiking Group

Jorge of the Concrete Jungle

There is an oft-quote Chilean saying which I’ve just this instant made up, and it goes like this:

“Ask not, ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ but rather, ‘How did the chicken cross the road?'”

Crossing the road in Santiago is a chore. One must admire the audacious town planner who, with a straight face, presented his designs for Santiago to a committee who subsequently approved and funded them. I imagine that this town planner must have hated pedestrians, because he certainly hasn’t made things easier on us.

I say “he” because after years of walking around this city, the person who designed its layout has become very real in my mind. I have dreamed up a fictional figure towards whom I can channel all my rage every time I have to leap a barrier, or wait at three separate sets of traffic lights simply to cross a road.

I call him Jorge. Not only because Jorge is a common name in Chile, but also because it is a name that can be said with menace – Two syllables, each beginning with an aggressive rumble in the back of the throat, like the way a sleeping dog might growl while you attempt to tie a bandana onto its head. I hate Jorge almost as much as I’m sure he hates me. Take for example, my local super market.

My local super market is exceptionally close, perhaps two blocks away as the crow flies. If I stand on my balcony and look straight ahead, I would be able to see it if there wasn’t a building in the way.

IMG_20170317_154258705
I like to survey the city from my balcony while I angrily mutter “Jorge” under my breath.

In order to reach this super market, I need to cross two busy streets which are separated by a wide concrete island. One street takes traffic north, the other takes traffic south. So picture the scene: I leave my building and walk in more or less a straight line until I encounter the first busy road which carries traffic north. I cross easily at a zebra crossing and reach the middle island. I walk across the island towards the street that carries traffic south, but before I can set foot on the tarmac I encounter a fence which forces me to walk about two blocks up in order to get around it, thereby doubling the distance I have to travel.

Now, I don’t drive, so I don’t know what things are like from a driver’s perspective, but I am convinced that the discomfort brought to every Santiago pedestrian is not a result of careless planning. No, Dear Reader, when Jorge sat down to trace out his initial blueprints for this city it was with malicious intent.

The average intersection, for example, offers only two or three demarcated crossings. Usually, the less-busy street can only be crossed from one corner. This means that, if you want to cross a street while obeying the rules, you often have to cross a road three times. If you have trouble visualising that, let me explain:

Let’s say you’re walking north, and you’re on the west side of the street, okay? Now you come to an intersection. But your crossing is on the east side of the street. So you cross the street, going from the west side to the east side. That’s Crossing Number One.

Then you cross legally, going north. That’s Crossing Number Two.

But, although you’re heading in the right direction, you’re still on the east side of the street. Should you want to get back on the west side (to get out of the sun, say), you’ll need to cross again. That’s Crossing Number Three.

Three crossings just to get to the other side.

But suppose you’re willing to play slightly fast and loose with the rules. Suppose that a little jaywalking doesn’t phase you. Well, you may be thwarted yet. If you cross at an un-designated crossing spot you might find yourself confronted with a metal railing on the opposite side, which you need to either leap over or walk entirely around. It’s a hassle.

IMG_20170317_104403770
To the left of this photo you can see Jorge’s freedom-inhibiting fence.

 

And it’s not just the crossings that vex me so. Trees and benches are scattered around the city with with no obvious harmony. For example, there is a street in the eastern part of the city which I often make use of. It runs west to east and therefore gets blasted by the sun in the middle of the day. Fortunately, this avenue is lined with benches and trees, yet these objects are nowhere near each other. So should you find yourself requiring a rest here, you can either sit in the sun or stand in the shade, but you can’t do both. Well, you could stand in the sun if you wanted to, but that would be madness.

IMG_20170103_165308289
Note the benches. Now note their distance from the trees. I call that distance “Jorge’s Constant.”

 

I hope, Dear Reader, that you can understand some of my ire. Jorge is like a child colouring in a picture of a kangaroo – it’s all over the place and the colours are all wrong – except this mess isn’t through incompetence, it is through malice. I know this because I invented Jorge. I’m sure, if the budget allowed it, he’d make you duel a wizard on each corner too.

So, the next time you find yourself in Santiago and you need to get to the other side of a street, simply cross the first lane, go several blocks up, cross the second lane three times, leap the fence, and be thankful you don’t have to fight a wizard.

IMG_20170317_125247759
I tried to take an aerial photo of the city, but I couldn’t throw my phone that high.

Queuing

The word “queue,” often very much like the concept which it denotes, is far longer than it needs to be. In fact, 80 percent of the word is entirely superfluous.

But the beauty of the word “queue” is that it quite poetically summarizes the queuing culture in Chile. Upon first glance, the word seems foreign, messy, and totally un-navigable. All those vowels piled one on top of the other – “ueue” – surely there must be an error with the rendering of this word?

That was how I felt the first time I joined a queue in Chile: I was confused and bewildered. I questioned whether there had been some mistake. I started using vowel language.

This is how it normally works: Let’s say, by way of illustration, that I want to buy some cheese. Perhaps I want to make a pizza. But that’s not important right now. Firstly, I’ll spend a few moments searching for a number dispenser. This is never immediately apparent, but once located I’ll collect my number. When my number is called, I’ll approach the counter and make my demands.

“Necessito queso! Para pizza!”

I’ll then specify the quantity of cheese I desire (“Mucho!”) and the helpful quesador will harvest the correct amount. He will weigh it, and then present me with a receipt. I’ll then have to take the receipt to another area of the room, where I’ll have to wait in a queue. At the front of that queue, I’ll pay for my purchase, and then be given another receipt. With that I’ll return to my original quesador, and show him that I made good on my commitment to pay for his wares. Only then will he give me my purchase. That, more or less, is the way things go, sometimes with fewer steps, sometimes with more.

But the most taxing trials of all are the queues that are found in a government office. These places take the idea of queuing to a whole new level. You could almost say that the task is quite Herculean. Her-queue-lean.

Hades makes a joke
Amiright?

The first time I had to wage this battle was over a year ago, when I made the first steps towards registering as a legal resident of Chile. So yes, it’s an old story, but like I always say, “Bureaucratic stories make the best stories!”

Actually, that’s not true. I’ve never said that before and in fact I didn’t know how to spell “bureaucratic” until just now when I looked it up. But earlier this week I did have to face the queue again, and so all those old, dull, fragmented memories brought visions of the past back to me like a fist full of letters pulled out of a Scrabble bag.

Scrabble tiles
The real joke here is the effort that went into obtaining this photo.

What follows, Dear Reader, is a rather unexciting account of my adventures with bureaucracy. But in an effort to jazz things up a bit, I’m going to make the following substitutions:

Government Building will now be referred to as Beach Party.

Government worker will now be referred to as Velociraptor

Visa (or similar document) will now be referred to as Monster Truck.

The verb To Process will now be referred to as Roundhouse Kick

Queue will remain the same, because it’s a beautiful word.

Dinosaur government worker
In this story, dinosaurs aren’t bad guys.

So here’s how things progressed:

  • I’d finally been given the go-ahead to collect my new Monster Truck, which legally entitles me to stay in the country for longer.
  • I had to go to a Beach Party in the middle of town, which was swarming with foreigners. There seemed to be no recognizable order, but I spotted a Velociraptor at the foot of some stairs, and asked him what to do. The Velociraptor handed me a piece of paper which said 10.00 on it. It was 09.40 in the morning when he did this. He then explained that I had to wait until 10.00 before I could go up the stairs. This was a method of crowd control.
  • At 10.00, I presented my paper and was allowed up the stairs. Thereafter I had to stand in a short Queue to collect another piece of paper with a number on in. My number was 197, and when I got there they had just called 72. After a two-hour wait, I was finally able to collect my Monster Truck. But I was not nearly done.
  • A few days later, when I had time again, I had to go to another Beach Party in another part of town. This time, the Queue stretch three quarters of the way around the outside of the Beach Party. It took me two hours just to get inside.
  • At the front of that Queue I had to pay a small processing fee, and then I had to stand in another line. After an additional hour, a friendly Velociraptor helped me Roundhouse Kick my Monster Truck. I could leave the Beach Party then, but I was still only two thirds of the way done. I still had to go and get an updated version of my Cédula de Identidad Monster Truck, which is basically my ID card here. That meant going to a third beach party, standing in two more Queues, and having another Velociraptor help me Roundhouse Kick another Monster Truck. That whole process took a further three-or-so hours.

If you weren’t able to follow that, then don’t worry. I mean, you missed out on a great story about dinosaurs and monster trucks, but other than that, nothing too important.

But here’s the thing: As messy as the government offices might appear, there is an order to them. Like the word “Queue,” once someone explains it to you, it becomes neat, almost pleasant – /Cue/. Very close to “Cute.”

But not that close. It’s still kind of annoying.

Once you understand the layout and the intention of the all the different queues, you see that it is designed to lubricate the bureaucratic process. Oh yes, it is about 80% superfluous, but it moves with purpose and, ultimately, it gets the job done.

Glowing red sign
This glowing red sign has dominated several of my afternoons.

 

Sanspreading

Come with me on a word adventure.

It starts with the word “portmanteau.” It’s a real word that no one alive today knows how to pronounce. No one.

But our lexicon is filled with examples of them. Brexit is a portmanteau. So is Spanglish. And bootylicious. And Jerseylicious. And Fergalicious. And malware, which is software that is malicious.

New portmanteaux are entering the English language all the time. You’ve probably heard the word “mansplain” being bandied about fairly regularly these days, and if you don’t know what mansplaining is, then don’t you worry your pretty little head about it*.

After a while, the portmanteau “mansplain” gave rise to the invention of the word “manspread,” which relates to the habit men have of spreading out on public transportation and taking up an uncomfortable amount of space.

Now, before this devolves into an argument about how genders see each other, I want to shift my gaze back to Santiago.

See the shining city of Santiago. See it. Look right at it. See this area of the city somewhat to the right of the center. This is the banking district. The Wall Street of Santiago. Shimmering glass buildings climb into the smog, flashing blinding sunlight down into the eyes of pedestrians and motorists alike. The people here wear suits and ties. Their hair is neat. No tattoos are visible. This area carries the nickname “Sanhattan.” That’s another portmanteau. A blend of Santiago and Manhattan. It even has its own Wikipedia page.

Sanhattan
According to a passing local, this building is called, “Ahhh mis ojos!”

 

So far so good. There’s a lot of new content in our lexicon. Lexicontent, if you will. Now I’d like to propose a new addition to our word list – our wist – and that word is: Sanspreading.

 

Sanspreading /ˈsansprɛdɪŋ/ n. The phenomenon whereby people living in Santiago spread out to fill the largest amount of space possible: Get a load of that guy Sanspreading right now.

 

Picture the scene: I slam off my alarm clock moments before it starts beeping. I’m that good. I air-punch my way out of bed and into the shower. Nothing stands in my way. Being the go-getter that I am, I pound down a protein shake for breakfast and I’m out the door. So much energy. I arrive at some fancy building in central Sanhattan. Wait for the elevator? No thanks! I take the stairs. I bound up one and then stop dead because there are two people in front of me who have unconsciously positioned themselves in such a way that bypassing them is impossible unless I announce my presence and ask them to step aside, but who wants to do that because it’s early morning and I don’t want to talk to people.

Escalator
I don’t mind scooching around one person, but I draw the line at slaloming.
The people of Santiago have developed the remarkable ability to block even the widest of walkways. If a sidewalk allows two people to walk side by side, then you’ll find one individual walking dead center. If the space allows for three people, then you’ll find a couple holding hands while strolling along at opposite sides, preventing third party passage. If you try to make your way up a broad set of stairs, you’ll likely be blocked by a foreigner who won’t ask the people in front of him to get out of the way.
Metro entrance
“The best place to have a conversation is at the entrance to the subway,” I mutter to myself as I passive-aggressively take this photo.

This happens in shops, too. Aisles will be blocked by trolleys left by shoppers who are oblivious to other shoppers. The city is plagued by an epidemic of lack-of-social-awareness. The whole idea of “Keep right, pass left” goes almost totally unheeded. And make no mistake, this is not necessarily a Chilean trait. This is a trait of the city, and by far the worst offender is me.

I am always in the way. And this is why: People in Chile drive on the right. Statistically speaking, I am probably one of the only people in the city who grew up learning to always walk on the left hand side of a path, and that habit has not left me. Whenever I encounter people coming toward me while I’m out walking, I automatically veer to my left (the stranger’s right), and the stranger will veer to his or her right (my left). Then we dance about a bit, the stranger mutters “Get a load of that guy Sanspreading right now,” and I climb around the person with much bodily contact and exclamations of “disculpe!”

When I try to quickly and illegally cross a street, I often look the wrong way. Hooting and and tire screeching are all-too-familiar sounds to me, which is why I’ve taken to flailing my arms and screaming as I run across the asphalt.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Accurate re-enactment of me crossing the street in Chile.

In short, Santiago is a place that distorts all sense of space and direction. We are like particles in an endless dance of Brownian movement, constantly climbing over and bumping into each other like bees in a hive, without regard for facilitation, efficiency, or metaphorical consistency. But the real message I want you to take away from this, Dear Reader, is that Sanspreading is a cool new portmanteau that I made up and that I want to popularize.

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*Did I do that right?