Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Upside Down

Here it is hot as hot, which is just how a Christmas should be.  Mr Tabubil is is languishing and complains that he can't take the season seriously, but my earliest Christmas memories are of Dad taking my sister and I swimming in a jungle creek while Mum got Christmas dinner sorted without two overexcited children underfoot.  
            And what Christmas dinners!  Christmas was a hot and stodgy English dinner (roast chicken, creamed potatoes, doughy puddings and dense fruit cake) eaten on a hot and sticky verandah, with ceiling fans pushing the heat around and driving rich smells into your face, and afterwards, afternoons spent on the cool grass of the lawn, and children running around with sparklers in the long summer twilight. 
            Over the years we replaced the hot English food with a menu less colonial and more suited to the southern climate, but we embraced all of the other northern Christmas trimmings as a matter of course.  Our Christmas cards showed snowfalls and lantern-light, glittering with sugar frost.  Our dads Ho-Ho-Ho’d in full Santa fig – sweltering under polyester beards and sofa cushion bellies.  Our heads and ears dripped and clinked with tinkling jingle-bells – we, who had never seen a sleigh. We cut Eucalyptus trees and planted them in plastic buckets, raised trees of plastic tinsel, and sniffed the eucalyptus and plastic scents, and satisfied,  called them firs.  When I moved north, a northern Christmas was easy for me. I’d been mentally living one all my life. 
            Mr Tabubil never had the pop-culture guides to tell him what to do with seafood BBQs and carols that, like Australia and Chile, are upside down –
            “The North Wind is tossing the leaves
             

            The red dust is over the town            
            The sparrows are under the eaves –“             
            “Red dust?” He shouts. “Red dust?  It’s blizzards! Blizzards and wooly sweaters and ice-skating and hot chocolate and fir-cones and fireplaces-”
            I try for something colder.
            The tree-ferns in green gullies sway             

            The cool stream flows silently by             
            The joy bells are greeting the day            
             And the chimes are adrift in the sky-”
            Mr Tabubil stamps off into the kitchen to stuff his head into the freezer. And sighs. 
            Merry Christmas, you-all.



Monday, December 23, 2013

Bah Humbug.

It’s the evening of December the 23rd and right now, at this moment , my holiday spirit is pretty much a solid Bah-Humbug.  I have a new niece (Mr Tabubil’s sister's baby) and she is charming and precocious and clearly miles ahead of every other baby anywhere and I am making her a stuffed elephant for Christmas.  Every time I make a stuffed animal I buy the pattern off of Etsy - Why support some multinational corporation like Butterick or Simplicity when you can support a creative individual?  That's how the thinking goes, anyway - and every single time I do this, after I cut out the pattern pieces and have used up all my fabric, I remember that the reason one supports multinational corporations is because they have a history of actually testing the patterns.  One doesn't have to redesign the whole flaming animal on the fly. The picture on the pattern I picked out was pretty cute, so I gave the elephant a very long name, and even wrote a little story about why elephants have such long names, and how my Valentina Euphrasia Trumpet-toes McGonagall got hers -
            This blamed elephant only has four legs, but as of this evening I've sewn on seven feet and redesigned a trunk and a purple elephant posterior.  Mr Tabubil, my dear husband and helpmeet, thinks the situation’s hysterical.  I’ve no comment.  But my story has a brand new chapter.  It's called "Valentina the Elephant visits the La Brea Tar Pits."  It's very short and extremely educational.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Singing Taxi Driver


My morning started very badly.  

            You all know the sort of day - the sort where everything goes wrong right from the very beginning. My alarm didn't go off, so I overslept and rolled out of bed on the wrong side. The water in the shower wouldn't go hot and the yogurt in the fridge was past its date and tasted like stomach-aches later at lunchtime.  There were no clean shirts, my trousers needed a button sewn, and when I threw on a skirt instead and pulled my stockings up, a fingernail popped and ripped a ladder all the way from toe to thigh.
            In short, it was a perfect petty morning storm, with irritation running up and down my spine like needles raining down on a tin roof.  It felt so ground-in I reckoned I might fill those needles up with ink and run that funk right into my skin like a tattoo.
            And then I missed my bus. Of course I couldn't get a taxi -  taxis with passengers inside seemed to pause and gloat as they flew past, and when - at last - a free taxi stopped, it overshot, slamming to halt ten yards farther down the street.  I chased it down and stepped inside - and I was drowned, crushed beneath a wave of sound.  The driver spoke.  I couldn't hear.
            "Turn Your Music Down!" I yelled.
            "______!"
Accordions and violins rose and swelled.  My funk was flattened, crushed, beneath music like a fifty-foot monster swell off of an Alaskan surfing shore.
            "TURN YOUR MUSIC DOWN!"
He nodded and the music shrank in size to something more manageable  - a howling north-sea gale perhaps, and we shot out into the street, crossed three lanes of traffic without a single honk, and settled down to cruising comfortably in the inside lane.
The driver twisted in his seat and smiled at me. I hated him at once.
            "Good Mooooorning Senorita!"
And he rolled his rrrrr's.  With enthusiasm.  I hated him worse than ever. 
            "Where, Sennnorrrrita?"  He said, rolling worse.
I told him. He nodded, and turned the music back up.
            "You mind?" He shouted back at me.
Strangely enough, I found that I didn't.  It was tango music: thumping upright piano and accordion, with lots of sturm and drang.  It suited me and my funk right down to the ground.
            "The music's the best parrrrrt of the job!"  He shouted, clashing the gears horribly and braking sideways into a lane full of big orange buses.
            "Herrrrre in the taxi I can sing all day long.  Tango, cumbia, jazz, bossa-nova, opppperrrrrra-"
He rolled his rrrr's again, but the accordion was thumping and I found I didn't mind.  He twisted in his seat to look at me again, and we shot across a rather large cross-street on the red.
            "May I sing for you?"
            "Sure."  I said weakly. I held tight to the door handle.  "It's your taxi.  Feel free."
Flashing me a splendid smile, he turned back to the steering wheel, nudged the volume dial up to maximum, straightened his back, and sang.
He sang Dejame Asi by Alfredo de Angelis, and he sang it in a loud, clear tenor voice, all the way through to the end.  My bad mood melted away like snow beneath a summer sun, and I clapped and shouted out loud in pleasure.
            "Bravo!"  I cried, when he had finished.  "Wonderful!  Magnificent! Would you do another one?"
            "You mean it?"
            "Please."
So he did. He sang El Choclo - by de Angelis again, and then  he sang another one, and another -
He sang me all the way across town.
At the end of the ride, I tipped him the entire value of the fare.  As he nosed back out into the traffic to drive away, I reached out and tapped on his window.
            "Thank you."  I said.  "Thank you." 
And I reached back into my purse and gave him all the money I had in it.  If I miss my bus again this evening, I will be walking home.  That's all right - there's a big moon scheduled, and a clear sky, and I'll do it singing, imagining piano and accordion going at it hammer and tongs, all the way.

That's how my Friday has gone so far.  How's yours?


Saturday, November 2, 2013

Alice of Wonderland, Scourge of Cobwebs, Despoiler of Halloweens Everywhere




I began sewing this dress a couple of years ago for an Alice of Wonderland party, but I never finished it. I was dressing as the titular Alice - a rather bashy, brutal sort of Alice, with a contract out on the head (complete with frozen glass eyes and a zipper to make a purse) of the Cheshire Cat. On the morning of the party, before the final seams were sewn, Zoe, the party's hostess, called in floods of tears.  She'd found her beloved cat Horse lying in the back garden, dead from a snake-bite.
            We were all shattered. My costume stayed unfinished. There are some things that nice people just don't do. 

           Three years later, Alice of Wonderland, Cheshire Cat Hunter, received her last stitch.  And she was a most appropriately Halloween-y sort of costume - absolutely loaded with horror and dread, and the day after the party, in the cold light of morning, what fifteen assorted people cannot understand is how European Civilization survived half a millennium of hoopskirts. 
            I couldn't pass a decorative cobweb without trying to take it away with me on my pink petticoat - as well as whatever the cobweb had been attached to, which was usually a chair, which meant that whoever was sitting on the chair came too.  I nearly took down the buffet when I leaned gingerly in for a pineapple kebab - the hostess had cleverly swapped out the tablecloth for more cobwebs, and when three people reached out to catch me, i found that the pork platter and a bowl of punch were strung out on a cobweb lead line, teetering on the brink of total party disaster.   

            I was banned from the living room the second time I passed the coffee table - my swinging skirts were setting glasses of punch flying. That second pass had taken out the refills of the ruins of the first, and as I fled, disgraced, the conversation turned from how the hostess had illegally given herself a bye into the semi-finals of the Pictionary tournament, and moved onto candles and farthingales and pocket-hoops and how on earth the Victorians had managed to survive the bustle.  Those inventive Victorians had lit their houses with kerosene lamp and gas burners at the ends of clumsy rubber hoses. Swinging hoops are bad enough, but a bustle you can't see coming or going - the mind shudders.
            I had hoped that the other guests would thank heaven for small mercies and call me back, but instead I was banished to the corner of the dining room and set counting the votes for the costume contest. The seal on my funk was set when I found that people had been writing opinions in the margins of their ballots - my Alice dress had narrowly missed out on the prize for "most genuinely frightening costume" because people were worried that someone would have to present that prize to me in person.

And the evening's true ignominy? The final seal and funk? 
Reader - it was my party.



Thursday, October 31, 2013

Happy Halloween!




We have descended into the dark underbelly of the kitchen construction industry, and are only just beginning the long claw out.  Posting shall remain sporadic.  Eat some horseradish and sirachi sauce off of a skull, and pretend you're down here with us.

Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

My day was AWESOME. With Bonus Electricians.


Posting is sporadic at the moment.  For my laxity, I apologize, but renovations, once begun, seem to keep on happening, and one day you wake up to find that your electrician has interpreted “I want this light and this other light both on the same circuit and both controlled by this switch right here” as instructions to pull the wiring for the second light out of the ceiling and paint and plaster the ceiling up behind him.




My day today was awesome.  It went sort of like this:
            "Hi Julio, my redoubtable electrician friend!  Where is everyone?"
            "Hello Señora Tabubilgirl! The floor people came, but then they went away again.  They seemed worried about something.  They said they were going to call you.  Enrique the plumber is off sick. The kitchen installation people haven't come at all, but that's okay, because neither did the ceramicist, and we can't do the kitchen installation till the he puts the last corner tiles put in, so that's a good thing.  But don't you worry, Señora Tabubilgirl!  Right now I'm just finishing up the kitchen outlets, but after that, I will do all the tiles myself!  And O Look - here are the floor people now!"
            The floor people were worried.  About two things things. The first of which they wanted to show me right away.  And that ended up in a phone call to our general contractor, which went like this:
            "Rodrigo! Where are you!"
            "In the car!  Going places!  Buying paint for the painters!"
            "There's just a little problem with the bedroom floors and I'd like to see you here as soon as possible!"
            Rodrigo is a good contractor.  He knows a client in a tail-spin when he hears one.  He was on-site in less than ten minutes flat.

            "Hel-lo, Rodrigo!  How are you this fine morning!  Remember how we went to rather a lot of trouble to level the floors and take out the hollows and downward leaning slopes?"
            "Yes?"
            "Right.  So why exactly, after all that leveling is there now a great big upward hump in the middle of the master bedroom floor?"
            "Ah. That's just where the old slab meets the new slab. The floor guys expected a little variation.  Anything up to half a centimeter.  Where are the floor guys, anyway?"
            "Rodrigo, this ruddy great hump is a lot more than half a centimeter!  See?"
            "Oooooh. Oh. Yeah. My word, that IS a big hump. Eight centimeters?  My word. Well, it's not that wide... I reckon we can knock that out, no worries."
            And Julio was duly hauled out of the kitchen and handed a hammer and a chisel.
            Rodrigo looked at me. "Where are those floor people, Tabubilgirl?"
            "Oh, they went away again.  That was the second thing.  They've lost the floor."

We went into the kitchen for a tour of inspection.  And a spit-take.  Rodrigo bellowed.
            "Julio!"
            Julio appeared, chisel in hand.
            "Would you care to explain" Rodrigo said, blinking rapidly, "what you are doing to those electrical outlets next to the sink?"
            "Well, Señora Tabubilgirl wanted two of them. I just finished screwing the cases on so that the installers can come in, just like you asked me to."
            "But why aren't they level?"
            "But they are level!"  Julio was stung.  "You've both made such a fuss about level - I even used the bubble level to make sure that they are perfectly level with the floor!"
            "They’re not level."
            "They are level!  I measured them myself! 
            Rodrigo gathered himself visibly. And let it all out with a rush. "They're side by side-" he hollered, "two centimeters apart, and one of them is three-quarters of a bloody centimeter higher than the other one!"
            Julio looked at him and looked at him and there was absolutely no compromise in his eyes. I could see Rodrigo looking back, and deciding that there were some battles that were just not worth the winning.  Fixing this would involve taking off a lot of tile, and a lot of grout – and considering how lucky we were to have those outlets in the first place* I was inclined to agree with Rodrigo.  Under the circumstances, however, I wasn't entirely sure that I was comfortable with Julio finishing up the tile work before the kitchen installers came.
            "Oh, that's not a problem."  Rodrigo looked happier that there was something to be happier about.  "I've just heard from the ceramicist and he's promised to come in today to finish it all off." 
            Rodrigo’s phone rang.  "Speak of the devil -  Where are you? Downstairs?  Fan-tastic."  He hung up and looked at me.  "Good thing those kitchen installers haven't come in yet.  Where are those boys?  Aren’t they supposed to be here by now?  Speaking of where things are – or aren’t - how'd they lose the floor?"
            I sighed.  "According to the floor people, the floors were delivered here on Friday.  They even have a signature on the delivery slip. Only we didn't get them, and there's no record with the building manager downstairs, so now they're off trying to figure out who actually took delivery."
            Rodrigo’s rather rapt contemplation was interrupted by the arrival of the ceramicist.
            "Don't mind me."  The man said.  "I'm just here to get my stuff.  I've got my boys waiting downstairs in the truck.  We've got another job."
            Rodrigo inhaled alarmingly, and I fled back toward the bedroom and Julio and his chiseling. When I came out again, the ceramicist was looking tightly unhappy, and lowering a tile into a puddle of cement with a rather... teenage look on his face. 
            He did not, however, stick around.  The most we got out of him was the rest of the tiles cut to size. 
            "I will stick them in myself" Rodrigo said, sniffing in a faintly teenager-ish fashion himself. "The tiles can be wiped clean easy enough, and the grout tidied up after the cabinets go in - if we can get the cabinets installed…”
            "I'm calling the kitchen people now."  I assured him, and Rodrigo went off to greet the painters, who were arriving in a cheerful mob, and Gods bless them, settling down to do some actual painting.
            I called our contact at the kitchen store.
            "Oh, hello" She said vaguely. 
            "We were expecting the installers this morning..."
            "Oh.  Right.  You mean they're not there?"
            "Nope."
            "Huh. So do you want them tomorrow then?"


* First we showed Julio the detail design specs and he agreed that they were good.  Then I took a sharpie marker and drew little boxes on the wall where each outlet would go, and he agreed that that was a sensible precaution. Then I wrote “enchufe” (outlet) with my sharpie right next to each of the boxes – and he went and plastered the wall smooth over the top of all of it and had the ceramicist start laying tiles right there.  While he went and rewired the switch for the ceiling lights to run the dishwasher.  I'm not joking.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

White or White or White?



The problem with the tiles is, the ceramicists doing the tiles just won't...come.
            When they are here, they do fantastic work, but in the last week they came once to lay 6 floor tiles, and went away again. The came back once more, for a half-day, in which they tiled half of the darned kitchen, but they've refused to come back ever since.
            It's a protest, you see. They refuse to come, then the general contractor calls them up and gives them an ear-bashing, and they are just SO hurt that they have to protest the mistreatment - by not coming.
            This is sort of awesome, really. Only our general contractor is starting to look sort of strained and undernourished....

Today was all about colors.  My mother-in-law and I went off to the paint store to pick out a few nice warm whites for the walls and ceilings and doors.  I had harbored naïve imaginings of a helpful assistant who would study the floor samples we’d brought with us and then spend a pleasant half-hour walking us through pleasing color combinations.  What we GOT was a double arm load of swatch books and the suggestion that we go outside into the parking lot where the light was more natural, because the fluorescents inside the store weren't doing the swatches any favors.
            I like white.  I like walls that are pale and bright and throw back all the light you throw at them.  I just hadn’t realized how many whites there are.  In a house-painter’s imagination, ‘white’ seems to cover everything from a mangy sort of orange-grey all the way to salmon pink and olive.  And the truer whites tend toward the harsh blue-based glare of a porcelain lavatory bowl.  We spent an hour and a half crouched on the tarmac in a corner of the parking lot, paging through what felt like half a thousand spiral-bound swatch sheets, looking for something warm-ish and bright-ish, and more-or less genuinely white-ish, with neither too much butter-cream or duck-egg, and when we’d found a few that looked, on paper, like they might suit, something a shade or two darker, to tone, and paint the doors and skirting boards.
            Without a native guide, there were more choices than a sensible person could assimilate in a month of painted Sundays. The suggested color gradients on the swatch sheets didn’t help – they went right from porcelain-pan to deep-brown biscuit-colored in one hop. 
            We came away with a car-trunk full of sample bottles of whites and almost-whites and delicate shades of cream, and we shall paint them all over the living room wall and see if there is any infinitesimal difference between any of them.


Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Construction Happens, and Happens Some More


After all the wishing and planning and designing and ordering and purchasing was complete, the contractor and his maestros (workmen) moved in and things started happening rather precipitously.  In the past three weeks, we have had:  


1) The demolition of pretty much the whole apartment down to the concrete structural walls.  Floors, ceilings, doors, lintels, non structural walls - you name it, we dug it out.
2) Lots and lots of jackhammers. Tiles don't give up easily.
3) One very seasick apprentice who'd been manning a jackhammer in a small concrete space for two and a half days straight.
4) Electricians.  Everywhere. 
5) Ditto plumbers.
6) The original in-floor heating layer was poured funny, and there’s a seven cm slope differential in the living room floor that needs fixing.  Uh oh.
7) Concrete dust, everywhere.
8) Does anyone else smell that smell
9) An unexpected trip to the ER with probable ripped tendons all over my foot, and a very unexpected diagnosis of plantar fascitis.
10) Crutches.
11) Physiotherapy.
12) More Plumbers.
13) That smell can't possibly be real, right?
14) It's coming from the bedroom end of the flat?  Oh God, now we have to take up the bedroom floors, too.  You mean all of them?!?!
15) Rush shopping for new bedroom floors - on crutches.  And there's an eight centimeter differential that needs fixing in the master bedroom as well? How jolly.
16) More concrete dust.  Everywhere else.
17) Ceramicists laying tiles.
18) A seriously unhappy resident who calls the police because the ceramicists decided to use the spare key to come in on the weekend and make Very Loud Bashing Noises waaaaay outside of allowable-noise-hours, and going in person to yell at the ceramicists apparently didn't work.
19) Damage control. Much abasing. With chocolates.
20) Food poisoning. All Saturday night and all Sunday.  Did you know you can move really fast on crutches?
21) Ceramicists who, sulking about being bawled out by their general contractor, turn off their phones and refuse to come in to work on Monday. Tuesday they aren’t feeling quite up to par, so they don’t come in that day either. Burp.

Today the electrician is wiring up the bedrooms, and the ceramicists are back on the job, moving steadily through the kitchen and down the hallway. They do lovely work, but the noise really is incredible. I think the neighbor showed considerable restraint. If I'd heard them doing that above my head at 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon, I'd have skipped the local cops and called in a S.W.A.T. team. With helicopters.




Thursday, August 29, 2013

Alba and the Carbon


(the telephone rings.)
            "Tabubilgirl! Quick!  What's activated charcoal?"
            "Isn't that the stuff they put in Britta filters?  Alba?  Is that you?"            "You're right!  I have those!  I can take one apart!"            "Why?"            "No time to talk!  I'll call you when it's all over, all right?"
(call ends.)

It wasn't all right.  Not even vaguely.  A question like that needs proper answers. After waiting very patiently for three whole minutes, I called Alba back, on account of how I really really wanted to know why she was taking a britta filter apart to get at the charcoal.

            The answer was pretty good, actually. In between sounds of breaking plastic, Alba explained that she'd cooked pasta for lunch and after eating her way through most of a bowl of it, she'd scraped the leftovers out of the saucepan into a tupperware container and noticed that the lower levels of pasta in the saucepan were evidencing a phenomenon possibly unique in pasta circles -
            The pasta company had put a free gift - a magnet advertising an upcoming animated film release - into the bag along with the pasta.  She hadn't noticed it when she was pouring the pasta into the saucepan, and it appeared that the painted plastic layer of the magnet had melted and boiled off.  The pasta in the lower reaches of the  pot were sort of technicolor swirly, with long, dragging plastic tails, and she was freaking out.
            Alba is good at that.  "On the internet I saw that if you eat like a tablespoon of activated charcoal, you can help cleanse your system. I've already made myself throw up the pasta I ate but what if all the horrible toxic paint - and god knows what it has in it -  has been absorbed into my body already?!   I need to filter it out.  From the inside.  That should work, right?"
            I wasn't so sure.  If the pasta hadn't actually burned going down her throat, it was pretty much inert - sort of like accidentally swallowing a bit of cling-wrap or a scrap of plastic bag.  And even if it wasn't purely neutral, that sort of poisoning generally requires cumulative and repeated exposure to do real damage-
            "I'm not arguing"  Alba said, but she was still making herself a nice cup of activated charcoal tea.  With maple syrup to help it go down.
            "You DO realize that the way activated charcoal works is that it makes you throw up?  You've already done that.  It doesn't actually filter your system from the inside."
             "But not everyone throws up.  I read on the internet that it's like 60% of people.  Tops.  And I'm not really the throwing up sort.  It took a lot of effort last time when I got all that pasta up.  I mean - wow, tickling the back of your throat sure is effective, but boy does it take work.  And even if I do throw up again, well, that's good right?  It means that it's working.  I mean - I mean…. uuuuuuurp.  I gotta go!"
            She hung up.  And five minutes later I got a text saying that activated charcoal really does work that fast.
            The things you learn on a Wednesday afternoon.  In other news, our regular mid-week sketching circle didn't happen yesterday on account of the hostess suffering a bout of self-induced stomach flu.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Apartment Hunting in Santiago de Chile

When we arrived here two years ago, we were told that the comuna of Providencia has two sorts of apartments: we could have a brand new apartment with all mod cons, but it would be the size of a shoebox, and the mod-con kitchen would fit in a closet. Or we could have a larger apartment, but it would be older, and it would be falling apart.  “Literally” our rental agent had told us, her eyes wide.             
            “The larger apartments are in the older buildings and the owners don’t want to do anything and the walls are all falling down.”
            We had no interest in shoe-boxes with kitchens in closet, two years ago or this time around.  So, with no faith in named addresses, subtracting fifty-percent from listed square footages, and assuming that if an agent was talking, there was fibbing going on, I went out in my highest heels to find us a fixer-upper flat.  Something older, a place that needed a little love.  It’s liberating, looking at fixer-uppers to buy, instead of to rent.  You look less sardonically, and more judiciously.  You don’t need to concern yourself with the surfaces of things – past the cracking and peeling and molding and slumping, all the way down to the bones. 

Our ‘new’ place has lovely bones. Everything else, on the other hand - the building we’ve bought into is about twenty years old and all of the former owners have been… let’s be diplomatic and say that they were uninterested in the art of constructive maintenance, and leave it at that.
            When we took possession, there wasn’t a window in plumb or a functioning hinge in the place.  The floating floor listed and boomed alarmingly, the bedroom carpets appeared to have been the last resting place for twenty years worth of incontinent cats, and the cabinetry in the kitchen was in such an advanced state of mildew that they could be pulled apart with bare hands –
            But the bones are lovely. We’ve stripped the place right down to them, and now we are neck-deep in the agonizing, exhilarating process of building her back up. 




Tuesday, August 13, 2013

How I Lost My Innocence


Posting on Tabubilgirl has been somewhat sporadic for the last few months. There's a reason for that. Mr Tabubil and I have bought ourselves a flat - or an apartment, in North-American speak. 
           The flat that we've been renting for the last two years is a wonderful flat.  We love it and we would have lived here forever and ever - were it not for one leeetle issue: 
            The street that runs outside our window is loud. Deceptively pretty, verged with green grass and ancient trees, our narrow little street runs almost all the way from one end of the city to the other. These two lanes are a major cross-town artery, and heavy traffic runs along it from dawn 'til Christmas. Rush hour lasts till ten at night, with all the honking and squealing that go with mile-long traffic jams, and when happily sozzled people, driving with dashing enthusiasm and panache, come back to Santiago from the discotheques in Vina del Mar (a city two hours away on the coast) we have two extra rush-hours at four-thirty every Saturday and Sunday morning. Complete with air-horns.
Sometimes the nicest flat in the world just isn't stay-able.   

            Hunting for a flat to buy is a very different process to hunting for a flat to rent.  The stakes are higher, and the real estate agents are correspondingly more predatory.
            "They'll try anything," my Dad told me. "They'll take you to see places that have nothing to do with what you asked for. They'll guilt-trip you when you tell 'em so - look at you with sorrowful, puppy-dog faces as they explain how they're doing exactly what you asked - only more so, because what they've got right there is better. Don't be buffaloed.  A seasoned estate agent would eat raw puppy dogs for breakfast if it'd help them land a sale. And smile, and offer compliments to the chef."*

After our recent experiences with real estate agents in Australia I wasn't exactly inclined to come down on the side of the real-estate agents, but some of Dad's rhetoric was coming across a wee bit personal - eve bitter. And the very same day that he called me up to talk, a flat showed up on Chile's real-estate website, Portal Inmobilario, that hit every single one of the points on our want-list: it was in the right suburb, situated on the quietest corner of the quietest of streets, and it had a price smack-bang in the middle of our ballpark. There were even photos to go with the listing - not photographs of the insides of bathroom cabinets, or flash-lit corners where ceilings met walls (the people who sell flats on Portal Inmobilario have highly eccentric ideas about what other people want to see) but twenty-six photographs of actual rooms. And the rooms were beautiful
            I called the agent on the listing and made an appointment for that afternoon.  Maybe I had just  circumvented the whole puppy-eating circus and found the place on my very first go. I was so optimistic that I invited my mother-in-law to come with me. Just in case it was so much too good to be true that I needed a strong mind to provide a balancing opinion. The price was low, for what we'd be getting. Perhaps there were problems with the drains? We could deal with drains - a week or two with a good plumber and Bob's your proverbial, right? The place was a gem - there were photos to prove it!   


When we arrived at the address on the listing, we found the agent waiting for us outside a smart, freshly painted little block of flats.  There was even a tightly manicured garden of flowers out front.  It was lovely. 
            The agent smiled warmly and held out a hand. "Charmed"  he said, and turning his back on us, he walked briskly away up the street.  "If you'll follow me -" he called over his shoulder, "we don't want to be late."
            Running after him, I caught his arm and very politely (I like to think) asked him what the heck he thought he was playing at.
            "Oh!" He said. His eyes were very wide and very surprised. "You thought that this was-?  Oh no. Oh dear me, no. We don't give out the real addresses of the places we're selling." 
            He explained to me that in Chile, real-estate agents have to give out inaccurate addresses so that apartment owners aren't bothered day and night by people who've seen the apartment on the Portal and aren't really serious about things. It's the caring thing to do. 
            Four blocks of fast-paced rationalizations later, we came to a stop on the corner of one of the most chaotically noisy intersections in our half of Santiago. There is an apartment building there. It is a building that Mr Tabubil and I walk past almost every day. And when we do, we look up that that building and shake our heads and say "Spare me from ever having to live next to this sort of chaos. Ever." And we shake hands and affirm that we won't.
            So I looked the agent firmly in both eyes and said "No."
            The agent put on a puppy-dog face that would have won a muddy Labrador Retriever a reprieve from a year's worth of bath-times.
            "And I came all this way…" He sighed a sigh. "What in the world are you looking for?"
            Raising my voice to be heard while a fire-engine donged past and six taxis took him on with screaming car horns, I told him what I was looking for-  the whole Tabubil spec: square footage, price-range, wants and not-wants -
            The agent's doleful face cleared like a wet Sunday afternoon before an unexpected ray of sunshine.
            "I understand."  He cried. "I understand. Absolutely! You're so incredibly right. Do you hear the noise?" He swept his hand through the air, taking in the whole honking, heaving intersection. "What you want is quiet! I've got another flat - it's exactly the size you're looking for, just a few streets away. Would you like to see..?"
            And, because the address he gave was on a street we knew - and because it was a quiet street, we said yes. We were practically right there anyway.  

When we got there, the street was empty, as advertised, the building was pretty, and according to the agent, the flat in question was at the back, facing out onto a garden. While he rhapsodized, we were joined by his wife. She had armfuls of forms, and it turned out that to even enter the building I had to fill out those forms in triplicate, hand over my RUT (national ID number), and make written promises of exclusivity and follow-up.
            And yet, we still went inside. After all, we were already there. The flat the agent had praised to the skies was barely a quarter of the square footage he'd promised me - and only if you included the building's emergency stairwell - all six flights of it- and the little cupboard in the elevator lobby where you threw out the trash. The kitchen was a swing-door closet fitted out with a single gas burner and a sink the size of a postage stamp, the "matrimonial bedroom" might have fitted a single mattress if you squeezed and didn’t care to close the door, the 'garden' was a rubbish-filled parking lot, and the rest of it, well - my mother-in-law took one look at the beaming agents and leaned toward me and said, out of the corner of her mouth, "Do I ever wish you spoke Dutch right now" and came down with an acute case of the coughs.

            We couldn't get out of there fast enough. 
            Literally. The agent and his wife had blocked the door.
            "Perhaps" they said, fixing me with two pairs of beady eyes, "your expectations are too high. This place is every thing you asked for. Were you imagining a palace?"
            "I was imagining something that half-way approximated what I said I wanted." 
            Standing with his hands gripping both sides of the door, the agent shook his head. I was the most optimistically optimistic gringo who ever tried to buy a property in Santiago. Did I even know how lucky I was? Why - these two flats I was seeing today were the only two flats in my price range in this half of the city. Double what I was quoting was the bare minimum for a place smaller than this. Why - they were dealing with apartments at triple my price fifteen times a day! 

            Considering that his own agency listing on Portal Imobilario had had no less than sixteen properties in or below our price range, I admired his poker face.  Behind me, my mother-in-law's coughing fit had given up all pretense and turned into full-blown giggles.  Ducking under the agent's arm, I slipped neatly through the door into neutral territory.   My mother-in-law followed me, shooting the agent a rather-too-decipherable look and laughing all the way.
            Back down on the street, we found ourselves back in puppy-dog- territory again. The agent and his wife trailed us all the way to the end of the block, thrusting out handfuls of papers and promising that we'd regret not taking the specs of the best place we'd ever see in a year of looking.       
            We didn’t turn back. Blessed are they, it is said, who have not seen, and yet have believed. Blesseder still, I reckon, are those who come to belief sufficiently far in advance that they might go apartment-hunting in very pointy heels - the better for bringing down on the insteps of insufferable real estate agents! 

*I appreciate that this is painting real-estate-agents with a very broad brush. If anyone chooses to feel offended, go sell your real estate with hearts and flowers and bunny-rabbits laid on, and come back to me with testimonials. We'll talk.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Puerto Natales and Pampas

At the end of April, while our Aussie guests were here, we all flew together down to the far south of Chile.  We were heading into the pampas – the thousands on thousands of rolling kilometers of open southern grasslands, going to Puerto Natales and the Torres del Paine.
We were going tower hunting.





Puerto Natales is the base camp for the Torres del Paine - from here you go out hiking, trekking, white water rafting, and for all of the other reasons people come down to the end of the world - even hang-gliding those stone fingers, if you’re semi-suicidal.


Since my last visit to Puerto Natales, the little town has gone upscale.  The houses have turned into hostels and vegan cafes, and downtown, the shops cater almost exclusively to people needing sports shoes, hiking gear and artisanal chocolates of surpassing mediocrity.
            (After a week in the park, I imagine that any sort of chocolate looks pretty good – especially chocolate that says “artisanal” on the wrapper and comes tied up in little ribbons. Caveat Emptor and all that, but if you’ve been hiking for a week, singing paeans to the wilderness over a smoky campfire and plates of tinned baked beans, any chocolate at all might actually taste just as good as that slab of grade-A Belgian dark that you’ve been dreaming about at night.)
            The shabby little shop where nine years ago I had eaten hamburgers with a view has been gutted and painted white and turned into a temple of southern cuisine – serving up local Patagonian lamb and export-grade salmon like Chileans usually never get. They hadn’t changed the view, though. (an upgrade to that view would require a celestial choir and a couple of seraphim, and the seraphim would send you down to ten thousand thousand years in purgatory for imagining that it might need a coat of paint -)
            This little town currently boasts at least 33 gastronomic establishments of sufficient note to have earned serious reviews across the interwebs, several of whose renown stretches beyond Patagonia.  The afro-chilean fusion cuisine of Afrigonia regularly and reliably stacks up against high-concept palaces of cuisine in capital cities across the world.  We considered it, even stood thoughtfully at the door, and then we went away and ate pizza. It’s the sort of thing you do when one member of your group is two feet high and prefers to spend his dinner hour crawling around the floor underneath the coat rack.
            “We could eat in the other places” Sarah said “but it’s not a very nice thing to do to other diners.  People go to places like that for romantic evenings out.  They don’t want a small child shrieking and banging the silverware to remind them how romantic evenings can end up!”
            “Canoodling with consequence.” I said.
            “Exactly.” Miles reached out and caught a shaker of oregano before it hit the floor of the pizza parlor with a terminal crash.  He raised a wry eyebrow. “Anywhere with real glasses is basically out.  But pizza is good.”
            This pizza was very very good indeed. Wood-fired, freshly made - at the Pizzeria Mesita Grande, on the corner of the Plaza de Armas at Arturo Prat 196, Puerto Natales.


            Sarah, Miles and Laurie left Puerto Natales by boat – catching a ride on the Navimag cargo ferry up to Puerto Montt. Mr Tabubil and I waved them goodbye, and hopped in our car to drive back to Punta Arenas.
            The pampas were blanketed by a heavy frost – the tall grass showing silver, each blade and leaf etched in ice. I asked Mr Tabubil to stop the car and stepped out to bring him sprays of grass, each autumn seed netted with rainbows where the headlights hit.
            We were out so early that we were driving before the truckers were up, before the farmers and ranchers were out, and on all that long road it was only us-
            As the sun rose, low places on the road filled up with mist – pooling there in choking fogs that lifted as we climbed out of the hollows to give shifting views of a world of color beyond the car - red and russet and gold, with eagles wheeling above us in the sky and herds of winter cattle with their heads down, blowing steam into the frozen grass.
            We held hands across the gearstick, and smiled out at the silent autumn world and in toward each other – it was one of the moments, one of the times where you know, even as they happen, that you’ll be coming back to them over and over again for years. One of those Moments,  you know?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Cueva del Milodon

At the end of April, while our Aussie guests were here, we all flew together down to the far south of Chile.  We were heading into the pampas – the thousands on thousands of rolling kilometers of open southern grasslands, going to Puerto Natales and the Torres del Paine.
We were going tower hunting.


 

The Mylodon is an giant ground sloth that inhabited Patagonia up until about ten thousand years ago. They were very large animals – weighing in at around two hundred kilograms and standing three meters tall in their socks, and little bony plates (osteoderms) lodged inside their skin. Not many other animals would have tangled with a mylodon. They were tough customers, and it says something about how very tough the humans of these cold, windy parts were that they managed to take all of them out. One by one.


The Cueva del Milodon is a very large cave, where almost a hundred and twenty years ago, in 1895, the German explorer Hermann Eberhard dug up a cache of Mylodon bones and petrified Mylodon scat.  Five minutes later, the place was overrun by looters and treasure hunters, but one hundred and twenty years later, archeologists still haunt the place, digging fitfully in corners, trying to convince visitors that the potholes and debris piles are just how the prehistoric human inhabitants left it.  
              When I first visited the cave nine years ago, Dad and had I considered the extinction a significant blow for interior design.  I mean, really...  Streaky mud floors, creeping damp, salt damage….
            The cave doesn’t need the Mylodon – its two hundred meters of depth are staggeringly impressive all on their own. But a week of wind makes you punchy.  It drives you to desperation, and when you snap, you break out in chintz.  Dad and I considered something in an oversize floral print.  Maybe a tiki bar in the back, to justify a few prehistoric flaming torches.  And oh, the potential for hi-fi!  At the back of the cave, where the wall curves up against the scree slope, the echoes get really big. 
            Dr Tabubil and and I halloo’d the reverberate fjord.  “Tabubilgirl  -erl –erl is a hottie  -hottie -ottie!)”
            Dad looked at us and looked at us and said dryly how pleased he was to see how far the level of human culture had risen since humans moved into the place.

Back then there wasn’t much there: a car park, marked roughly with logs, and a gravel path up the hill to the mouth of the cave –
            Today the Cueva del Milodon has a café, a visitors centre, a ranger station, and an elevated walkway to take you all the way to the cave while walking six careful inches above the pampas grass. On a natural promontory in the mouth of the cave there is a life-size milodon done up in fiberglass and a plexiglass box holding a mummified scrap of genuine milodon skin, with genuine milodon fur on it –
            We duly marveled and went down into the cave.  It’s still hugely impressive – two hundred yawning meters of dark brown echoes and poetry of the gaping cavernous sort. Today, though, you can’t get near the echo wall.  A gravel path circles through the cave, with chain-link ropes on each side and everywhere, signs explaining that only a fraction of the cave floor has been dug up and priceless artifacts lie centimeters beneath the virgin surface in every single direction, so kindly, gently, courteously please stay on the path.  The signs urged, begged, pleaded and even tried for stern nursery tones, but it was patently obvious to even the most credulous viewer that nothing further from virgin earth had existed this cave at any time in geological history –
            The floor of the cave looked like a major European city center during the blitzes of world war two, after the rescue crews had been through the place and added a layer of shafts and ladder holes to the chaos.
            Chileans don’t much like being told where they can – or cannot - walk, and to my discretely outsize pleasure, every square meter of the cave floor that wasn’t actually vertical had recently accumulated a brand new layer of archeological interest – the overlapping footprints of hundreds and hundreds of sneakers and hiking boots.  All together, they made a rather fetching pattern of interlocking divots and caterpillar prints, vaguely reminiscent of a carpet in a low-rent casino in Las Vegas.  It would have gone great with the tiki bar and torches.
            I took a step toward the echo wall, but Sarah blocked my leap across the chain-link rope. 
            “You have to think about examples, Tabubilgirl.” She said, and looked meaningfully at little Laurie hanging about behind me, round about the level of my knees.
            “Yep.”  Miles nodded sadly. “You’re a role model now.  You want him learning bad habits? Do what the sign says except when you don’t because that doesn’t count, forget you ever saw it?  Really, Tabubilgirl?”
            I looked eloquently at the carpet of footprints, and mouthed a rude word over Laurie’s head.
            “He’s two feet tall.” Sarah said. “He notices people, not the background stuff.  You just spent two days playing patty-cake and spot-the-birds-on-poles with him in the backseat of a car. He thinks you’re the best thing to hit the earth since that first time he heard us singing baa baa black sheep.  He’s tracking everything you do like those great big eagles on poles track sick sheep! Do you really want this for your legacy? What comes next?  Running in the street?”
            Well fine, then.  Nine years since I was here last, and now, no echoes. I loitered moodily, sulking and kicking gravel about with my feet and taking bad photographs of the inside of the cave with no flash lighting until Laurie and his dismal parents had cleared a debris pile halfway to the entrance, and then I grabbed Mr Tabubil’s hand, nipped over the chain-link rope, and made a run for the wall.
            “I don’t get this” Mr Tabubil panted as we climbed and slipped our way up the scree slope.“The cave echoes. That’s what caves do. But the echo isn’t any different over here-“
            “HERE!!!” the cave rang.  “HEREHereherehere Here!”
            “Oh.” Mr Tabubil said, very softly, and the cave whispered back to him. I laughed, and the cave laughed.  I tittered and the sound ran back and forth across the roof, chiming like stone bells.
            Mr Tabubil growled a low “Ho Ha Ho.” Rumbles of sound around the walls of the cave, shivering through the rock.  We laughed at each other and the cave laughed back – high, low, happy, gleeful, heated, cruel – until the air rocked and trembled and little Laurie in the mouth of the cave was crying in fear.
            “Are you happy now?”  An exasperated shout came from the cave entrance.
quake
            “Appy!”  The cave called back.  “Ow?  Now?”
            “For Pete’s sake.”  The voice said, disgusted.  “You’ll be running on roads next.  Right in front of him.”
            Holding tightly to each other, Mr Tabubil and I slithered down the scree back to the path, grinning like loons.  I could walk on the paths for another eight or nine years now. I was filled up.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Lago Grey: A Scientific Explanation


At the end of April, while our Aussie guests were here, we all flew together down to the far south of Chile.  We were heading into the pampas – the thousands on thousands of rolling kilometers of open southern grasslands, going to Puerto Natales and the Torres del Paine.
We were going tower hunting.


 

Icebergs are blue. Electric Blue. Celestial blue. 
            So are the rivers that flow away from glaciers, and the lakes that these rivers flow into, something that has always confused me. I had been taught that the celestial properties of icebergs are due to the way light rays percolate through the ice, and I didn’t see how that could translate to the ice when it melted.
            I have since learned that the vivid color comes from rock flour, ground out of the Torres del Paine by the moving glaciers and suspended in the water.  Nine years ago, however, I heard a different explanation.
            In the summer you can go up to the face of the glacier in little boats –chugging along the ice face, hugging the curves and crags and chipping ice cubes from the glacier and drinking dreadful, three-day old whiskey with celestial ten-thousand year old ice.


Halfway along the lake, we had stopped to pick up a group of campers from a campsite on the lake shore.  That campsite set a new benchmark for blasted, benighted and windswept, but the campers – a group of students from Santiago, were full of enthusiasm.
It was a mixed group, and the girls were inclined to worshipful adoration of the males.  Up against the ice face, one of the girls spoke -
            “The ice in that cleft is so blue it’s almost turquoise. Why is the ice so blue, Hari?”
A student in the middle of the pack smiled and stood tall.
            “Ah."  He said. He cleared his throat. "Ah ha.  You know how water is made up of two H molecules and one O molecule?”
           “Yes!”
            “Well, it’s the H molecules that make ice white.  When ice goes blue like this it means that all the H molecules have melted into the lake.  That ice is there mostly O.”
            “Ohhhh."  The girl looked up at him with doe-like adulation. 
From the back of our little crowd, a voice rose in a distinct Australian drawl.
            “I’m guessing that none of you lot study Chemistry, then?”
            I’m not saying that it was one of us. It might have been, but on the other hand, it might not. There were a lot of people on that boat. It could have been anyone.
            Hari went back to more traditional means of impressing girls – flexing the muscles in his arms (the muscles in his brains having proved pretty much impervious to flexing) and drinking too much whiskey on ten-thousand year old rocks.


Those were some rocks.  That water was the most pure water I’ve ever tasted.  It tasted of theology; you could conceive of a pristine world, where the rain fell on antediluvian man through a sky that had never heard of aerial pollutants.  Sucking on a chip of ice was like drinking explosions of absolute nothing.  Like peppermint without the mint.  Just the explosion.