Monday, April 29, 2013

I am Sik

I am a poor unfortunate.  I am home in bed with an autumn flu -  a lady coughed next to me on the plane all the way from Punta Arenas to Puerto Montt last week and it's all her fault.  I started a mild head cold on Wednesday, then languished for days with the sore throat from hell, and just when i decided that it was merely a virus and going away, last night it took a running dive into my chest and did its level best to turn into galloping bronchitis.  And this morning, sinusitis as well. Just to cover every possible contingency.  
            The sneezing is impressive.  It echoes.   Do you remember the old saw about how if all of the billion people in China jumped from chairs at the very same time, the earth would move?
I know that the mathematics are bunkum, but here in my sudafed-fueled daze I'm starting to wonder -  do you think that the mind has a resonant frequency?  And do you think that if we found it, and had everyone in the world hum it all at once, we could crack open every narrow mind - drive big wedges into the gaps and sing them open?  Make people hear the points of view that they don't let themselves see?
            Wouldn't that be nice?
Mr Tabubil calls home every hour to ask me about my temperature , but I don't need to know my temperature.  The whole Tabubil family has an allergy to thermometers; when we see one coming, we hide under the bed.
            It's my mother's fault.  (Isn't that another old saw?)  She suffers from an excess of thermometer-related enthusiasm. If one of us Tabubils ever stayed home sick, we'd find ourselves flat on our backs in bed with at least two - and often three- thermometers in our mouths: a digital one, a mercury one to back it up, and a second digital one to average out the other two.  
              She always forgot about it and left it there.  I'd be in bed with a honking great sinus infection, incapable of breathing through my nose, but she'd beg me - on pain of maternal disappointment - not to open my mouth, so I'd lie there in a haze of headache and snuffle while the world went pink around the edges and she implored me to hold it for just another minute - and right about when I was turning blue and starting to make small squeaking noises, she'd say, from the kitchen, where she'd dashed off to, just for a moment, honestly, I swear I'll be right back -
            "Oh Dear!  How long has it been?"   And it had always been ten minutes longer than it should have been, and she'd sigh and shake her head and tap the thermometer and say "It's been a little too long, I think.  Just one time, sweetie.  Let's do it again." 
            And she'd pop the three thermometers back into my mouth, with a firm finger on my chin to keep the thermometers - and the howling- in.   
            Why Mr Tabubil thinks I'm going to use one is beyond me.


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Dogs in Santiago

Santiago has very little dogs and very BIG dogs. The little ones are yappy and live in apartments and are walked by maids in pinafores. The enormous ones live in houses with very small gardens and boil off their frustration and boredom by barking furiously through the front gate at pedestrians in the street. The effect can be devastating - they time their attack for a moment when the pedestrian has momentarily looked the other way and compare notes afterward, grading for speed and distance, and mostly, how HIGH the pedestrians jump.

Last week I saw a man walking two dogs -  the biggest German Sheppard I’ve ever seen in my life, and the smallest, yippiest, fluffiest white poodle I’ve ever seen. All I could think was “how is it that one of the two hasn't become lunch?”

Daschunds are the loudest dogs in creation. They yell even bigger than beagles. Yesterday I took a new route to work.  The dogs along my usual route were used to me - I hadn't been barked at properly in weeks, and my edge was getting rusty.  I was humming along, with my music going in one ear and walking far too close to the fences, and suddenly all HELL broke loose at a hundred and fifty decibels right under my left elbow. I levitated - straight upward, with all my limbs flailing independently, and - I admit it - I yelled.  I came back down to earth just in time for a massive German Sheppard to come bounding out to join the wretched sausage dog and start snapping a set of slavering jaws about a foot from the level of  my nose. A little grey poodle came out to add HIS noise to the din, but by that time I was long gone.
Horrible things.
I vented my feelings by barking rudely at the next dog I saw, an elderly spotted spaniel, who lifted her head, stared at me with bemusement and went back to sleep.

I do enjoy barking at dogs. Last week I walked past a house and a cocker spaniel sitting on the front stoop perked his ears up and bounded joyously toward the fence, ready to give me the full treatment. Right as it reached the gate I gave a full-throated “RUFF!” and the silly thing stopped in mid bounce, like he’d galloped into a wall. He fell flat on his belly, with his mouth hanging open most unbecomingly, and an expression of total flabberghast on his face.
I WISH I knew what I'd said.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Little Dog Meets Little Dog.

I went for a little walk this evening to buy fresh fruit (apples, peaches, white nectarines and blueberries - even the tail-end of summer is extravagant!) and stumbled into the most LUDICROUS dog fight I've ever seen.
            A teacup poodle being walked up Calle Suecia decided to take on a miniature dachshund being walked down Calle Suecia, and the dachshund perked up her ears and said "Oh, bring it ON-"
            They lunged at each other - yip! yip! yeek! yip! - teeth bared and ears back - and then, simultaneously, they reached the ends of their leashes, discovered that they were only about 12 inches apart (nose to nose, practically! Gosh!) and with one last terrified "Yeek!" threw themselves backward and cowered behind their owners feet with their tails between their legs.
            And from that vantage point, each little dog saw that the OTHER dog was cowering, so each, again, lunged forward, yipping and yeeking and snarling - and came to the limit of their leashes to find themselves nose to nose with something just as big as they were and terrifyingly loud and snarly-
            In total terror, they threw themselves backward and hid behind their owners legs and quivered there, with their tails so far between their legs they were practically tickling their chins.
            And then they snuck a look across the sidewalk, saw their foe cringing, perked up their ears and did it all over AGAIN.
            No kidding - from my perspective, this was serious 'stand stock still in the middle of the road, gawping with disbelief" stuff.

Canine intelligence is frequently overrated.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Painters All Over the Place

Our building is being painted.   For the last month, a flock of painters on bosuns chairs has been hanging all over the building at all hours of the day, painting half of something then going away again for a week or so while they paint a third of something else, then taking three days off, then showing up again at four pm on a Saturday afternoon for an odd hour or two- it's an odd method of working that leaves the building mostly piebald, and the residents live with curtains drawn, just in case the painters happen to show up outside a window when you'd rather they didn't.
            It's been a rather eventful month.  There was the day that the painters discovered that a series of drain spouts had filled up with wasps nests, and one of the painters was attacked by an entire hive - while hanging from a rope, six floors up.  Another day, a different painter forgot to eat his lunch and fainted on the job.  Fortunately, he was only half a storey up from the ground at the time, but it was a near thing.  Three quarters of the residents are not on speaking terms with ANY of the painters after a trivial little disagreement about drying times - the painters were being poetical and speaking in hypothetical absolutes, but there's a lady on the fifth floor whose mother's eighty-seventh birthday party turned out to involve quite a lot of dry cleaning for the guest of honor and several other people on the guest list when they all went out onto the balcony to admire the sun setting over the mountains.
            And the concierges, who have been resolutely neutral throughout the whole process, met me at the door  four days ago in a cloud of angry arms and exceedingly colloquial Spanish, after one particularly enterprising painter painted over all the water meters for all the apartments on building's south side.

Life is a constant adventure, full of surprise and mystery - and so will be our water bill this month; the meter-man was on deadline and didn't stay to wait for the paint to be scraped clear.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Paint and Exhibitionism.

Our apartment building is being painted.  A flock of painters on bosun's chairs hang all over the building at all sorts of hours of the day and the sunny, cheerful yellow that the building was is slowly being replaced by a flat, unutterably dull and deeply trendy whitish beige.
            The thing is - and this is the ranty part, so feel free to skip forward - color theory is difficult.  Color theory is HARD.  What looks good on a test patch two feet wide by two feet tall painted on a side wall of the garage may have little or nothing to do with what looks good all over a building nine storeys tall. 
            People spent years becoming really good at color.  Architects hire experts to play with color and scale, and buildings go up painted to be sharp, and clean-cut and full of personality, and even magnificent, and twenty years later, when the paint is getting scrappy, expert opinions are also scrapped by a majority vote of people with neither taste or discrimination who 'like beige because it's inoffensive' and the lowest common denominator gets exactly what it asked for. And the rest of us have to live with it.
            I've been through this circus before.  In Australia, on the Gold Coast, we lived in a building that was pink, with touches of celestial blue, and other pinks, and slightly darker blues.  The first time you looked at it, you groaned, and then you looked up at the bright tropical sky and thought for a bit, and then as evening came on, you realized that the architects had managed to find the exact colors that happened all of the big horizon every night at sunset - and faded into the skyline at twilight, and by morning you were staring at one of the prettiest buildings on the coast, soft and attenuated, with an elegance of line that just plain WORKS.  And becomes a feature on the landscape.
            And two years ago, it was time for repainting, and the lowest common denominator decided that the architect opinions (which were offered) looked very extravagant and silly on swatches, and voted for a flat, unassuming grey, with trim that is the exact same red-brown color of the rust-proof paint that you use as an undercoat on paintwork, and one of the prettiest buildings on the coast has become a blocky naval battleship that rears up twenty-three stories tall, and is considered, in the opinion of the locals, to now be a blot on the landscape and existing only to spoil the view.
            The actual painting was another circus.  For months we lived with blinds half drawn, because you could never tell  who was going to be painting what, or when -
People grow complacent, living more than a few meters above the ground, out of the sight of passers-by. The things painters must see!  Peering into kitchens, and laundries, and sitting rooms, and bedrooms - Imagine the messes!  The painful neatness!  The fights, the scenes of passion - all of the human condition being played out for the edification of a man on a rope -
Everyone gets got. 
WE got got. 
We had been so very careful DURING the painting, living behind sheer blinds,  drawn tight.  When the building had been made flat and grey and entirely dreadful the painters went away, and we relaxed and opened wide again -  and three weeks later, they came around to touch things up a little, here and there.
            And one morning, in the bathroom, on the lavatory with my trousers around my ankles, a shadow fell across the window and I looked up to see a young man grinning in at me, nose to nose through the glass -
Fifteen storeys up.
It's a very…. specific sort of shock.
The very next I knew, I was at the other end of the apartment, yelling incoherently, with my trousers still down around my ankles. 
My mother and my sister thought that it was all very funny indeed. 
            Three days later, my sister was in the bathroom, brushing her teeth and wearing not much more than a very fetching lace bra, and the young man came back AGAIN.  I was in the living room, reading a book, and heard a scream, and Dr Tabubil and her brassiere came hurtling out of the bathroom yelling something about "awful bloody perverts!" and then you couldn't see her for the dust.
            She went after him later, too, but couldn't find him.  I suspect one of the skills of house-painting is a finely honed sense of when it's  prudent to knock off early and take the rest of the shift off sick.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Christmas Cake Requiem

For a lot of Australians, one of the best parts of the holiday season is the Christmas cake - a fruitcake of gargantuan proportions and grandiose preparation -
             I have written previously about the Christmas Cake  - the deep cultural resonance of butter by the brick, of sugar by the tonne, of eggs by the dozen, of apricot jam, nutmeg, cinnamon, allspice, and above all of dried and glace fruit -
             It is the fruit that makes the cake.   In 2010 I wrote -
"In August or September you gather your fruit. A pound or two of raisins, the same of sultanas, another of currants, candied citrus peel, glace cherries, crystallized ginger and pineapple, glace apricots and peaches and pears and figs and oranges and kiwi-fruit and quangdongs and cantaloupe (if you can get it) all chopped into little pieces no larger than a raisin. When you have a lasagna pan overflowing with sweetly aromatic fruit, you begin to add the alcohol. Slowly, pouring and turning and stirring and resting, over the course of a week you pour in bottle of brandy - and then another. As the fruit swells, you move the overflow into another great bowl and tend to both. The house smell thick and alcoholic - 
            "Like a distillery" Mr Tabubil sniffs ardently, "but in a good way."

I baked a Christmas Cake last year, for our first Christmas in Chile, but Chile doesn't have much of a glace fruit tradition.  Chile's confectionery heritage runs mostly to German kuchen and dulce de leche, or manjar, as it is know locally - a thick, sweet, sticky mess of boiled evaporated milk and sugar cooked into in everything from wafer crackers (alfajores) to croissants (media luna) to layer cakes (torta mil hojas)
             I began looking for fruit in October, just after we arrived in Chile.  Raisins and sultanas came easily, and diligent searching resulted in a single packet of glace apricots from a little Armenian import shop in the comuna (suburb) of Patronato, but as for the rest of it -
             Home-country traditions mean even more when you're an expatriate far from home.  I had the bit between my teeth now, and I wasn't stopping for anything. The Australian shops I'd worked with the previous year wouldn't ship internationally, European outfits would only ship wholesale, and North American offerings were slim. Calling in favors from anyone I knew to be traveling up and down from Canada and the USA,  I shipped myself tubs of glace cherries and candied orange peel and pineapple -
             Christmas had passed by, but that was no matter. This Cake was going to happen.  By mid-January I had collected all the fruits I could, and by mid February they 'd been boozed up till they sweated out an alcoholic haze and the flies that blundered through the window into our flat fell insensible in the kitchen doorway and never rose again, but it was a scant and simple cake that I loaded into our oven -
             And because I was still learning its tricks and temprament, that dearly bought cake came out over-baked: a cinnamon, nutmeg and alcohol soaked charcoal briquette.

I didn't make a cake, this year.  All in all, it didn't really seem worth the fuss.  You can make glace fruit yourself if you're so inclined, but it's a process that takes days of boiling and ends in a perpetually sticky kitchen that sort of leaks into your other living spaces, and I have quite enough of that with Mr Tabubil when he decides he needs home-made marshmallows.  A mixing bowl full of unset marshmallow tends to work its way out of the kitchen into every single room in the house - like silly string, only rather more tenacious, and I've washed the stuff out of my hair often enough this past year that I'm not taking on any more sticky -
           This post, then, is requiem of sorts - the story of the last time we didn't have a fruitcake for Christmas.  That was the year that I was thirteen, the year when the icing on the Christmas cake went wrong. The year we were living in California, and couldn’t find the traditional white royal icing in the local shops.  The year of our really big Christmas party, when all of our expatriate Australian big-talk and honor was on the line.
             You can make white royal icing yourself, if you've sufficient time and masochism. The day before the party, Mum and I set to work. It was a tremendous job; tenting the kitchen in old sheets, we kneaded sugar and egg whites and glycerin until the room was coated in a glistening sheen and we were just unspeakable.
             Nibbling hugely the whole time, we stirred and shaped and molded, and four hours later, we had one fine looking cake  - complete with a little silver mirror on top for a lake and a couple of miniature pine trees around it for ambiance and a border of little silver-painted sugar balls spelling out wishes for a Merry Christmas. Also one kitchen  that looked like it had passed through an icing-sugar supernova, and one empty bottle of glycerin whose label looked, on belated reflection, subtly… wrong.
             We'd found it in the back of the pantry- a battered bottle with the label peeling off - it had looked mostly right and we used it without thinking.  Now, in the bright glow of the aftermath, the label appeared to have a couple of significant spelling errors, and in Big Bold Black Letters, right underneath, a jolly motto reading "If ingested, contact your Nearest Poison Control Center immediately."
             It was all over the cake.  It was all over the kitchen.  It was all over the insides of us.  Burping nervously, we grabbed for the telephone directory and dialed.
             The lady on the telephone at the Poison Control Center was professionally reassuring.  We'd be fine, but did we have more than one lavatory in the house?  She was very glad to hear it, because in about four hours, we'd both be becoming rather intimate with the fittings  for the next day or so.
             She didn't even giggle. Hanging up the phone, Mum sighed and looked at me, and while she showered and rushed out to the shops, I stripped the cake of its gorgeous iced topping and re-laid the floor with fresh sheets.  And we did all of it, all over again. We never did find out where the bottle had come from.
            We were living in California that year, and although we'd stripped the cake bare and even gone so far at to shave off the upper half-inch of cake, just in case, we thought we'd better bow to the local culture and insist that all our guests sign limited liability waivers before they tried it.
             Not one single guest took a single bite of our Christmas cake that year.  Every one of them declined the privilege. 

We found it hurtful.