We left Llifen on a grey and ashy morning. During the night Puyehue had gone bang again, and a new layer of fallen ash had made the world flat and grey. It had clotted, soft and thick as thistledown and snow, on decks and window ledges and pathways. The garden was two-dimensional. Monochrome. Walking across the lawn to the car our feet stirred up puffs of ash that drifted and hung in the air around our legs, and cars drove through small grey whirlwinds, spun up off the road by their wheels.
Two hundred kilometers away in Frutillar (translation: Strawberry) the air was sharp and clear.
Frutillar is a town of German extraction - built by Germans from Hamburg and other northern metropolises, who recognized in its alpine climate something reminiscent of their own homes. For the German immigrants of the 19th Century, Southern Chile was a paradise -the snow capped mountains, the crisp, rushing rivers, the long, sun filled valleys and blue snow-fed lakes. They forced out the Mapuches and built houses trimmed with cuckoo-clock fretwork and painted them in red and blue to match the water and the wildflowers. (We shall make no allusions here to the Post-WW2 German emigrants. The Chilean authorities haven't come across any suspiciously well ordered villages with barbed wire fences and arms caches buried underneath the buildings of civil government for decades now.)
Frutillar Alto (Upper Frutillar) is a bustling little Southern Chilean town - cheerful, colorful, busy, distinguished by the odd German BBQ house and painted gable, but mostly indistinguishable from other small, cheerful towns in the South of Chile.
Frutillar Bajo (Lower Frutillar) where the summer visitors come, is a bucolic village dreamed up out of clockwork houses, flower gardens, wrought iron balconies, wood-frame barns and fretwork cafes that sell kuchen and bratwurst and 'artesanias' (fridge mangnets, postcards, lederhosen and ceramic butter dishes shaped like cows) -all of it strung out along the shore of a long low bay of Lake Llanquihue.
The summer visitors come for the lake - because the lake comes with an incomparable view. Volcan Osorno , an eight thousand foot tall snow-capped active cinder cone volcano - lies directly across the lake, and the sight of it, framed squarely in the center of the bay, is extraordinary.
Nine years ago, I spent a weeks holiday in Frutillar. We - my parents, my sister Dr Tabubil, myself and Abby Conroy- stayed at a small hotel that climbed up a hill at the north end of the lakeshore. We shared a small and rickety log cabin with two bedrooms at the top of a hill, tucked into the corner of a fir wood. It wasn't the newest of places - the cabin door warped and stuck, and when you opened it, the entire cabin slumped sideways. Dr Tabubil and Abby and I shared a small bedroom with two deeply wobbly and suspicious bunk beds. On the second night, their bunk bed collapsed while they were still in it. Dr Tabubil (top bunk) rolled over in her bunk. There was a sudden, ricocheting Crack! and a hoarse shout of "Get! Out!" and simultaneously, with one splendid athletic movement, Abby (lower bunk) rolled her legs up over her head and Dr Tabubil, a mattress and three 4x6 oak beams came crashing down onto where most of Abby had been lying.
We dragged my mattress out into the cabins' small common room, and the two of them took over my bunk. The living room made a lovely bedroom - small and musty and sneezy, but at my feet was a darling little pot belly stove that glowed rose-red and pumped heat into the semi-Patagonian night. That evening, I lay awake and mentally calculated everything in the cabin - starting with the collapsed bunk bed - that was past repair and could, in a pinch keep my lovely fire going. When I fell asleep the entire place- but for the wrought iron sink and bathtub, was, hypothetically at least, in ashes.
Every evening after that, we played poker with a mental bank of wallboards and floorboards, and burned symbolic matchsticks in the stove as our stakes rose.
Outside our cozy little cabin, Frutillar was a garden. A tribe of barn cats had colonized the pine-wood, meowing outside our door at breakfast time and pressed their noses politely against our trouser cuffs, and every morning in a cottage at the bottom of the hill we were fed slabs of home-made kuchen with deep buttery shortbread crusts and filled with fresh raspberries and blackberries and apricots. After breakfast we'd jump into our rented 4x4 and ride out to swim in mountain lakes and ride zip lines down the flanks of Volcan Osorno, and, in tiny hanging valleys blanketed with spring flowers, ancient German women with braids twisted around their heads would serve us kuchen and cookies in their own kitchens.
Eight years later the world was still freshly painted and drenched with sun and spring flowers. This time we ate raspberry kuchen and chestnut torte in the garden of small a kuchen-haus with painted gnomes standing on the front stoop. We sat underneath a huge white umbrella with our backs to a wall of purple and magenta fuchsia bushes. Fat black and yellow bumblebees tumbled in and out of the flowers. Couples strolled up and down the lake shore, hand in hand, squinting in the sun. Small children shrieked and splashed in the water, and the world was very good.