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WONDERLANDED: “Bewildered, Bewitched & Bothered,” by expat writer Sally Rose

bewildered bewitched and bothered

Photo credits: (Row 1) Cheshire Cat, by thethreesisters via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); (Row 2) Alice in Wonderland Cosplay, by Michael Miller via Flickr (CC BY 2.0). Other photos supplied.

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.

AMillionStickyKisses_cover_pm

* * *

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.

"Out of time" street art, which has now been painted over (supplied).

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 perform well (photo supplied).

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.

Metro and evil eye

You have to have an evil eye on the Santiago Metro if you don’t want to be pickpocketed. Photo credit: Metro Universidad de Chile, by Guillermo Perez via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

* * *

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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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.

If you enjoyed this post, we invite you to register for The Displaced Dispatch, a round up of weekly posts from The Displaced Nation, and much, much more. Register for The Displaced Dispatch by clicking here!

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