A couple of days ago we were Wonderlanded in Santiago, Chile, with American expat writer Sally Rose. She nearly had us twirling in teacups as she took us on a tour of the curiouser and curiouser aspects of her adopted home.
Today we have a chance to sample Sally’s writing and its distinctly wonderlanded quality with this excerpt from her recently published memoir, A Million Sticky Kisses, which recounts her early days as a volunteer English teacher at a not-so-well-off school in Santiago. How does Sally write about being a stranger in a strange land? NOTE: For the purposes of this post, I’ve titled this passage “Bewildered, Bewitched & Bothered” as that seemed an apt way to describe the scenes Sally depicts.
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Bewildered, Bewitched & Bothered (Part 2, Chapter 7 of A Million Sticky Kisses, by Sally Rose):
I got up early the next morning because the supervisor had granted me permission to attend the meeting which started at 8:00am. I was at the Metro station by 7:30, where the free newspaper hawkers were setting out stacks of papers. As I walked by, I started to take one from a stack. The male hawker slapped his hand on top of the paper to hold it down. I looked at him as he let out a rapid stream of Spanish, but I had absolutely no idea what he was saying. I tugged again at the paper. “¡No!” He would not let me have it.
“No entiendo. ¿Por qué?” I don’t understand.
From the corner of his eye, he glanced at me. ¡Gringa! I saw him almost relent for a second before tightening his stance as he started explaining again. I listened hard, but without success. He was one of those Chileans that I could not understand at all.
Finally, the woman, who was guarding the other free paper, came over to me and, like she might explain to a 5-year-old who was just learning how to tell time, she pointed to my watch and made a quarter circle with her finger. I understood her, but couldn’t believe it.
“¿Ocho menos cuarto?” 7:45? I had to wait until 7:45 before I could take one of their free papers? She nodded her head.
I realized that it wouldn’t do any good to try and finagle it. This was one of those mysterious Chilean customs that made no sense to a gringa, especially a gringa living in New York, where the papers sat in huge stacks and you could take as many as you liked.
As I walked away, bewildered, I noticed that there were several people already forming a line, willing to wait 15 minutes so that one of the hawkers could hand them a newspaper. They watched our exchange closely to make sure that I didn’t get a newspaper before they did.
I couldn’t wait 15 minutes, not if I wanted to be on time for the meeting. Not that I expected it to actually start at 8:00, but She-Who-Can-Never-Be-Late didn’t want to risk it. I descended the Metro steps without getting my newspaper after all.
Sally may be in Chile but she doesn’t want to be late! Photo credits: “Out of time” street art, which has now been painted over (supplied); Suivez le lapin blanc, by thierry ehrmann via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Incredibly, the meeting started at 8:05. The supervisor was a no-nonsense Chilean who spoke excellent English. I mostly just listened, but Marisol [Sally’s colleague, a Chilean English teacher] told me later, “I think she was nervous around you.”
Then, she added, “Jacqueline [another gringa English teacher] would really like it if you went to her classes today. The supervisor has given her another bad mark. She has received bad marks all year. Without telling her that they will not have her back next year, they have interviewed three other people to replace her. Yesterday, BAY-ACHAY-ESSAY [nickname for Victor Hugo Salinas, head of the English volunteer program] knocked at her door and told her that someone else would be teaching her classes that day. Then, a job applicant took over her classes while poor Jacqueline had to stand and watch.”
Her teaching skills needed improvement, but I almost could not comprehend the cruelty of this. I trudged off to find Jacqueline. Her classes, and now her career at this school, were a lost cause.
After school, I was invited to go with the chorus to the annual Christmas concert at a nearby cathedral. Students from each of The Network’s schools participated. My kids were partnered with girls from the adjacent high school.
We left in a large van from the school, zigging and zagging down narrow backstreets to arrive at the church just in time. We hurried the kids in to find our pews. In the 90-degree heat, my clothes clung to me, but inside the church, it was blissfully cool and smelled of candle wax and furniture polish.
I sat with one of the mother chaperones and kept an eye on the kids. In our chorus were eighteen girls and one boy. They were the only ones wearing their “every day” uniforms, the same gray sweat suits that they wore to school. Choir members from the other schools had on school uniforms, as well, but they were cleaner, dressier, and more expensive.
White shirts, navy pants for boys and white shirts with navy jumpers for girls. I had never seen my kids in any uniform except the sweat suit and I wondered if my school might be the poorest in The Network.
Behind me, I heard commotion and turned to find little girls pushing off and sliding from one end of the well-buffed pew to the other. I gave them a look that included an arched eyebrow and they settled down again, giggling.
The concert began with “It Came upon a Midnight Clear,” in Spanish. My kids were next. I didn’t recognize their song, but it was beautiful with their voices echoing strong in the vaulted cathedral. They accompanied the song by clapping their hands in flamenco-style rhythm while the youngest girl pinged on a triangle.
Sally doesn’t mind her kids being in sweat suits when they sing beautifully (photo supplied).
Out of the twenty or more songs, I only recognized five. The rest were traditional Chilean Christmas songs.
Afterward, going home later than usual, the train was crowded. A man entered after me and moved past me. Then, he called attention to himself by bumping into me as he moved in front of me again. “Permiso,” he said as he circled around. I thought he would be getting off at the next station since he stood by the door, but instead of facing the door, he turned around to face me.
All this moving around put me on guard. I was holding my purse, my school bag, and my sweater when I felt something funny going on with my purse. I looked down and saw a sweater hanging over the top of it. His sweater. Then, I felt something fiddling with the zipper. His hand?
Quickly, I moved away to the middle of the car, out of his range. Keeping my eyes on his, I felt around inside my purse to make sure everything was still there. I glared at him with mal de ojo, the evil eye, until he jumped off at the next stop.
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Thanks, Sally! I love it, especially the section where you descend into the Metro muttering the equivalent of: “I’m late, I’m late, for an important date.” And your mal de ojo (evil eye) powers must be on a par with the Queens of Hearts’s “Off with your head!” Also, I’m glad your version of Wonderland includes children’s music.
Readers, what do you think? Has this excerpt from Sally’s book made you want to read more? If so, you can order A Million Sticky Kisses from Amazon or Good Reads. You can also visit Sally’s author site, where she keeps a blog and/or stay social with Sally by following her on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram. And of course you can also express appreciation for Sally in the comments below. ~ML
STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.
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