Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Update: La Pensión

About a month ago I moved from the Chilean household where I had been living to a pensión. The pensión, a cross between a boarding house and a hostal, has been great so far. It’s located in Barrio Brasil, a neighborhood in downtown Santiago that, while historically poor, is rapidly gentrifying. Santiago is basically an ugly city and there are not many memorable places, but Barrio Brasil is one of the few exceptions. It is one of the few neighborhoods with character, there are a lot of old buildings, hole-in-the-wall bars and cheap restaurants. There’s also a plaza with street musicians, a fairly size-able Peruvian population, two subway lines and a plethora of bus lines run five minutes from my new place.

Why did I move out of my old place? It just wasn’t working out. Officially I had been living with a “Chilean family.” Nevertheless, that is deceptive phrase. Often times, in an effort to genuinely emerse themselves, travelers choose to live with a host country family. In theory the idea sounds great, but it’s very hard to get a “family.” Many times the host family doesn’t take you in seeking a true cultural exchange, they’re just trying to find some extra cash. Other times it's just a person with a spare room rather than a family.

My situation fell into both aforementioned categories. I lived in Providencia, an upper-middle class Santiago neighborhood, with Chely- an old, grumpy, aristocratic Chilean woman- and her dog Wilburt (I swear to God that was the dog’s name). Willburt, a black lab so big he could’ve taken down a lion, was a great dog. Chely on the other hand was aloof and uninterested in most of life. She rarely left the house and was so fond of Augusto Pinochet (Chilean Dictator from 1973 to 1988) that she had framed pictures of him in almost every room of her home (a few were even signed). We hardly ever spoke for more than two or three minutes at a time and I can count on one hand the times we ate a meal together. Granted, Chilean mores are very different from American ones, but a picture paints a thousand words:

Chely employed a housekeeper, Rosita. There were miniature bells placed throughout the house and, instead of calling Rosita over to help with something, she would just ring the nearest bell. Imagine Rosita’s daily humiliation having to respond all day to a bell... Needless to say, Rosita didn’t stick around too long.

The only benefit to Chely’s place was that it was extremely cheap. But I finally found a different place with a comparable rent, so I peaced the hell out, nah mean?

Compared to Chely’s the pensión is astounding. I now have daily human contact at home. Most of the people there are Chileans from outside Santiago who have come to the capital looking for work. Almost all of them are super cool and everyone has a story to tell. A random gringo tourist or two is usually thrown into the mélange, and I’ve become the unofficial pensión translator (I’ve drastically improved since Legal Aid). To be sure, the pensión’s Crown Jewel, is the family that both administrates and lives there. There’s a mom and pop with their four daughters- ages two, six, eight, and ten- an aunt, and “la uelita,” the grandmotherly matriarchal figure who’s the true mover and shaker of the pensión. So ironically even though I ditched my Chilean “family,” I’m actually living with a real one now.

As food is not included in the rent, I’m also cooking on my own - it couldn’t have come sooner either, Chely’s food tasted like rain soaked five year old cardboard. I never really learned how to cook, so now I’m learning on the fly. It hasn’t been easy, a few weeks ago I messed up rice- don’t ask. But now, after some trial and error, I’m proud to say I’ve mastered pasta. I make my own meat sauce too, take that Emeril!

The only gripe I have is that I’ve been dubbed Martín. My first day there “la uelita” mistakenly referred to me as Martín. “Ummm, it’s actually Benjamín,” I politely told her. “Oh right, sorry,” she said. But she never could get it and kept calling me Martín.

After the umpteenth time correcting her she finally informed me, “look, I’m not young anymore, there’s a lot of stuff I can’t remember, your name being one of them. You look like a Martín, so that’s what I’m going to call you.”

I don’t know what the expression on my face conveyed, but- basically telling me to get over it- she then added, “but don’t worry, I like the name Martín a lot. It sounds really nice.” What could I do? So now I’m stuck for a while with this lifeless, colorless name. ¡Puta la hueá!

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