The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

Wonderlanded in Santiago with Sally Rose, expat writer, teacher and (above all) learner

Photo credits: Santiago (top) and New York City via Pixabay; Sally in Chile & Sally's Alice in Wonderland  painting by Russian artist. (supplied).

Being Wonderlanded with Sally Rose means going from the City That Never Sleeps to the City of Madhouse Parties. Photo credits: Santiago (top) and New York City via Pixabay; Sally in Chile & Sally’s Alice in Wonderland painting by Russian artist. (supplied).

Welcome back to the Displaced Nation’s Wonderlanded series, being held in gratitude for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which turns 150 this year and, despite this advanced age, continues to stimulate and reassure many of us who have chosen to lead international, displaced, “through the looking glass” lives.

This month we travel
d
o
w
n
the hole with Sally Rose to Santiago, Chile.

At first glance, Sally may not seem to have a strong connection to Alice in Wonderland, having been born and bred in the piney woods of East Texas. But I assure you her life has taken the kinds of twists and turns that would give Alice some serious competition.

First, Sally faced the struggle of getting out of a conservative small town in Texas, which simply didn’t have enough Mad Hatters in it to satisfy her curiosity. As she says in the introduction to her recently published memoir:

At night, I’d lie awake and listen to the whistle of the midnight train as it passed through like clockwork. I always pondered where it might be going. In my imagination, it was always somewhere “exotic” and exciting. Where to tonight? Chicago? New York? Out West?

Once she was old enough to leave home, Sally tried living in the Cajun Country of Louisiana, the plains of Oklahoma, and the “enchanted” land of New Mexico—only to make her way, eventually, to the East Coast and New York City, where she dreamed of writing the Great American Novel.

But even the Big Apple wasn’t enough to sate her restless, adventuresome spirit. Soon it was time to expand her horizons again and go abroad. Having been to Chile on a holiday, she signed up for a volunteer program teaching English in Santiago.

At last she had stepped though the looking glass! From the moment she arrived to live in Santiago, she found herself struggling with both language and culture, along with a whole host of unfamiliar characters—from avaricious school owners to boisterous school kids. She was a “stranger in a strange land.” Would she get out alive and unharmed, with her wallet safe (no joke!). Perhaps if she hadn’t been the recipient of a million sticky kisses, as her memoir is titled, she would have exited her Alice in Wonderland story by now, screaming “Off with their heads!”

But instead she embraced the adventure and has now become a permanent resident of Santiago, a displaced creative. In addition to A Million Sticky Kisses, which chronicles her earliest encounters with her Chilean students, Sally has also produced a children’s book, Penny Possible, about a Golden Retriever named Penny who trained for two years to become a therapy dog for an Iraq war veteran (proceeds are donated to Warrior Canine Connection). It has been a No.1 bestseller on Amazon.

Oh, but wait! A rabbit just darted by. Let’s follow Sally and hear about her Adventures as a Gringa Teacher in the Wonderland of Santiago de Chile…

* * *

Sally Rose: Thanks, ML, and thanks, Displaced Nation readers, for accompanying me on this trip to my special version of Wonderland. As ML mentioned, I was born and raised in East Texas, in a tiny little town. That means the northeast corner between Dallas and Texarkana. I’m not sure why I chose to incarnate in small-town Texas because I always had the feeling that I was a big-city girl, and I’ve since discovered that to be true.

My path to becoming a displaced national went like this: Texas-Louisiana-Texas-Louisiana-Oklahoma-Louisiana-Texas-New Mexico-Texas-New Mexico-New York-Chile.

I’d always wanted to try living in New York, and I’d always thought I’d live overseas. Everything before that was only practice.

“Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle!”

I must have felt disoriented from the moment I was born. Though there were differences in each of the original four states (Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico), my life before New York was fairly homogenous, but nowhere felt like “home.” Now, I realize that most of my moves have been based on trying to find my tribe. Asking myself, “Where do I fit in?”

Though many people become disoriented by being “down the rabbit hole,” I thrive on feeling that little edge of uncertainty, on feeling puzzled.

Living in New York meant getting used to high rent-tiny apartments, walking and public transit vs. car culture, different (read: NY) attitudes, too many choices, and 7,999,999 other people, yet not being connected to any of them.

Once I got into the rhythm and pace of the city, I found it exhilarating. I called New York my temperamental mistress, but I eventually felt less disoriented there than anywhere else I’d ever lived.

In 2008, I came to Chile on a vacation. Call it karma, fate, or the planets aligning—but the moment I set foot in that strange land, I knew the time had come to follow my heart and make my dream of teaching abroad a reality.

I moved to Chile on March 1, 2011, ready to conquer the world and make a difference in someone’s life.

“Curiouser and curiouser…”

Three years before I made the move, I did several stints of volunteer teaching in low-income schools where the students were considered to be “at risk.” Vulnerables. My book, A Million Sticky Kisses, covers that initial period.

I learned so much about myself that, most of that time, I wondered who was teaching whom.

In Santiago, Sally is teacher but above all learner (photo supplied).

In Santiago, Sally is teacher but above all learner (photo supplied).

“But she went on all the same, shedding gallons of tears, until there was a large pool all round her, about four inches deep…”

Once I decided to relocate to Chile, I had many moments of doubt, starting as the plane sat on the runway at JFK. Buckled in and staring out the airplane window, I had a moment of utter, can’t breathe, panic. What in the world was I doing? Leaving everything behind and moving overseas where I knew almost no one and barely spoke the language, what was I thinking?

Most “pool of tears” moments were followed by elation, the “I did it!” moments. Making the move, finding an apartment, getting my residency visa, opening a bank account, finally understanding enough Spanish to have a phone conversation, all counted as triumphs.

“If everybody minded their own business,” the Duchess said in a hoarse growl, “the world would go round a deal faster than it does.”

I haven’t changed my personal clothing style, which tends to be tailored and conservative. I actually enjoy wearing what I think of as the “Chilean granny uniform.” Wool skirt, wool sweater, wool scarf in neutral tones. And let’s not forget the sensible flats.

My short, red hair has earned me some long looks and possibly some judgment.

For young Chilean women, the hair style is long. Period. There are few exceptions. Once a woman is over 50, it’s acceptable to have shorter hair, but not spiky, red hair, like mine. This leads to suspicions that one is a lesbian, whether it’s true or not.

Sally doesn't care what Chileans think of her granny clothes & short red hair. Or does she? (Photos supplied)

Sally doesn’t care what Chileans think of her granny clothes & short red hair. Or does she? (Photos supplied)

“You’ll get used to it in time,” said the Caterpillar; and it put the hookah into its mouth and began smoking again.

It took me a long time to realize that you cannot be direct with Chileans. If you approach things openly and directly, they will often be embarrassed or offended.

This happened to me the first year that I was here. A teaching colleague had invited me to an asado, a BBQ, for Chile’s national independence day, Fiestas Patrias, September 18.

She invited me, but there were no details. What time did the party start? Would it be at her house or at her sister’s? Could she give me directions?

I sent her an email, asking these questions, but it went unanswered. I tried phoning her. She didn’t pick up. I texted her, Facebook messaged her, and phoned again, multiple times. She never responded to me and I ended up with no plans for the biggest Chilean holiday of the year.

Gringa alone on Fiestas Patrias. Photo credit: Bailando en la fonda, by Osmar Valdebenito via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Gringa alone on Fiestas Patrias. Photo credit: Bailando en la fonda, by Osmar Valdebenito via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0); inset: Sally Rose (supplied).

The following week at school, she was polite, but not friendly like she’d been before. When I finally found her alone one day, I asked her what had happened. “I waited to hear from you about the BBQ. Why didn’t you respond to my messages?”

Lo que pasa es…” What had happened is that her baby had been sick and the car broke down. Then, her sister had decided not to have the party, and so on and so forth.

“I understand difficult family situations,” I told her. “What I don’t understand is why you didn’t let me know.”

She couldn’t explain this, didn’t seem to understand why it mattered nor why I felt disappointed.

Our relationship never recovered from this incident, and I was never invited again. She became distant; she avoided me. I lost a friend, but learned a lesson. To maintain Chilean friendships, I had to be less direct, or even silent, about many things, which is not my usual style.

“Well, I’ll eat it,” said Alice…

A Chilean food I love? That’s a strong word. I’ve tried octopus—too rubbery. Cochayuyo (dried seaweed)—rubbery and sticky. No love lost there. I’d have to say that my favorite Chilean dish is Pastel de Jaiba. This is a crab casserole baked in an individual clay bowl. ¡Rico!

Pastel de Jaiba, Sally's favorite Chilean dish (photo supplied).

Pastel de Jaiba, Sally’s favorite Chilean dish (photo supplied).

“Take some more tea,” the March Hare said to Alice, very earnestly.

Since my current home is approximately 55m, and my dining room table seats four people, this would be an intimate party. I would host a traditional Chilean once, with a twist or two.

Once is tea time in Chile. Not everyone observes this tradition, but many still do. Once has its roots in friends getting together for a nip in the late afternoon. In some stories, it was soldiers who began the tradition. In other stories, it was older ladies. Either way, they wanted to keep it a secret, so they called it once. The word in Spanish means eleven, after the eleven letters in aguardiente, fire water.

These days, alcohol is not usually served at once. Traditional once includes tea, bread with butter and jam, sometimes ham and cheese, and on special occasions, a cake. Chileans love sweets, and many cakes here are layered with manjar, a tooth-aching, caramelized milk filling, similar to dulce de leche.

I would use my best tablecloth and my English teapot. Manjar‘s too sweet for me, so I would serve a gooey, dark chocolate confection instead, and since I’m a gringa, I would serve a dry, bubbly espumante, in addition to the tea.

Wearing hats might be involved. Gloves, optional.

Is Sally Alice or the Mad Hatter here? (Photo supplied)

Is Sally Alice or the Mad Hatter here? (Photo supplied)

“I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit-hole—and yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!”

My identity shift began in New York and has continued here in Chile. There is something empowering about moving into the unknown. When you start to have small victories, like navigating the subway or ordering in Spanish at a restaurant, you feel a heady success.

On the flip side, your mettle is tested on an almost-daily basis. Once you have proved to yourself that you can survive, evolve, adapt, and thrive, you get a glimpse of who you really are.

Sally in Disneyland teacup, in the days before she was wonderlanded (photo supplied).

Sally in Disneyland teacup, foreshadowing her experience of being wonderlanded (photo supplied).

Advice for those who have only just stepped through the looking glass

It’s okay to not know where you belong. Change course if necessary. Accept that you may never fit in. If something doesn’t work, be flexible. Try something else. Reinvent yourself. The good news is that you’ve already done it once, and you can do it again.

“Alice had begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible.”

Ironically, I often work best when I am confused, challenged, or depressed. Since none of these is the case at the moment, I’m distracted by life, in general, but I have two specific projects in mind.

The first is an illustrated children’s book. It will be based in Chile, using iconic settings, and the theme will revolve around two of Santiago’s one million street dogs. I call them Bruno and Roger.

I am also in the process of reviewing and editing a former project titled Well, Why Was I Born: The Romance that Never Was. Publication goal: 2017.

sally rose books

Sally’s great works: two in the bag and two to come.

* * *

Thank you, Sally! That was a jolly good trip, both entertaining and thoughtful. Readers, I wonder if you feel like me, that there was something very special about the experience of being “wonderlanded” with Sally in Santiago? Please let us know in the comments. ~ML

STAY TUNED for the next fab post: an example of how Sally writes about place.

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5 responses to “Wonderlanded in Santiago with Sally Rose, expat writer, teacher and (above all) learner

  1. The Nomadic Chica July 16, 2015 at 2:10 pm

    Love this article! I have nothing more than agree with Sally! Being born & raised in Santiago, Chile I’ve always had same issues with my fellow Chileans, I can add: it’s VERY hard for them to say a simple ‘no’, but it is a way of being and people can get used to it..or you can find similar souls who can deal with sincerity😉
    All my best wishes on finding many other great dreams to follow and reinventing life every day!

  2. Pingback: Cryptoquote Spoiler – 07/22/15 | Unclerave's Wordy Weblog

  3. Sally Rose July 23, 2015 at 1:23 pm

    Thanks for the wingback, Uncle Rave.

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