Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Sunday, June 28, 2009


Mexican Twirlers (for lack of a better term) on a summer day in Valparaiso celebrating Mexican culture and the amistad entre Chile y Mexico.

Three weeks left to live in Chile. I haven't written as teaching and editing has taken most of my time and energy, but before I go I do want to leave some last thoughts to end my blogging about this part of my life.

Favorite Places: The little plaza in the barrio Concho y Torro in Santiago, Ancud, Chiloe, traveling through the desert, watching the ocean outside of my window in both places I've lived in Concon.

People I won't forget: Susana, Pamela, Ximena and her children Paz and Gaspar, nanny Inez,the English department at St. Margaret's, the Junior School staff, Joan in the photocopy room and the rest of the auxilaries, Pia and Carmen in the library, Paula in the library, Sandra, my neighbor . . . and my students, especially my 4th medio girls: the Andreas (A, H and P), Ashley, Romina, Alexandra, Ximena, Fernanda, Paz, Francisca, the Maria Joses J and C), Diana, Pauline, Isabella, and Maria Ignacia.

Most Chilean memory: Riding on the bus from Loncura at night, sometimes standing holding on to the seats when there were lots of people, people sleeping, listening to their MP3 players, children singing, lights from the refinary letting us know that we are almost in Concon, crossing the rotunda.

Strangest thing: The two headed baby girl floating in a large jar of formadehyde at the sad little natural history museum in Valparaiso.

Most distressing: too many swastikas painted on walls, the anti-Jewish grafiti in Valpo, Santiago and coming into Arica. Also, so many people who think fondly of Pinochet and who don't seem to know the role Nixon had in bringing down Allende. Allende wasn't a good administrator and factions got out of control, but he had called for a referendum to see if he should remain as president but the coup happened before it could occur. No one seems to know this, either. There is still a huge class system here, and a person's last name carries way too much importance. Pituto, or the practice of giving "ins" to people, using connections, is lauded here. I know it happens in the U.S., but I think most people do frown on it.

Second most distressing: the street dogs who, on one hand are delightful, but on the other, they break my heart.

Wish I had:learned more Spanish.

Most challenging things: dealing with paperwork and stamps and being told different things depending on which official I talk with.

Best places to walk: Valparaiso, the beach at Quintero

What I'll miss most: dinners with Susana, the fog, my classes at St. Margaret's, the wonderful fruit juice, the seafood.

What I won't miss: finding myself in vehicles without seatbelts, toilets with no seats or toilet paper or lights, and at times all three not present, honking horns, clocking in and out of work, things that don't work like lightbulbs right out of the pack, high prices for paper, toothpaste, lotion, shampoo, etc. etc.

Who I especially appreciate: all the people who have given me rides,and Rosemary Faille for being the fairy godmother of bureaucracy maneuvering. Melanie for making me feel at home,her wonderful voice and our adventures as mermaids.

I haven't been in a writerly mood lately. Perhaps I'll get to here and write another post or two, but something tells me I probably won't. I am thinking of a post I made last year about how I felt there was something in Chile that I felt was missing back home, a love of life, I think I said. I realize that this isn't quite as true for me now as it was. Being here has definitely made me appreciate the U.S. more I think we're all just people, wherever we might live and the life you choose to live is up to you. The longer I've lived here, the lonelier I've become, perhaps the newness washing off. It's time to go home. But Chile has become a part of me, and what a gift it has been to be here.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Notes from the English Department: Easter in Fall

I'm writing as the sun is beginning to get low. A slow afternoon of not much going on. For lunch, we had salmon bought right from the fishmonger. One of them once told Bill he could come to her kitchen and cook anytime. I shared a bottle of wine with Bill. We rarely drink a whole bottle, but today is Easter and the afternoon slow. This morning I went to St. Peter's, the Anglican church in Vina Del Mar, which is very English. I learned that the Gospel According to Mark was written like a best seller, with an ending that leads you hanging and wanting to know more. I like trivia like that. But as lovely as the people are there, I miss St. John's, my church at home in Lake County, California, the place where most of the parishoners support Gay marriage and where Shared Ministry has been practiced because we can't afford a full time priest. That means we get to make a budget and plan the songs (not me because I can' t sing, but I did write the newsletter) and grumble a bit. I miss the grumbling. Before we sit down, most of us do a kind of little bow or curtsy to the alter that they don't do here, and we use the old form of the Lord's Prayer more often, which I prefer. We've kept more to the old forms in general. It's like how Americans still say gotten, but the English don't.

I'm reserved and my personality predisposes me to be one of the Frozen Chosen. There was guitar music during Holy Communion today and it annoyed me. I prefer the old hymns. I feel my English major coming to roost in them. I used to feel my bones were buried in an English churchyard in a past life. Weird. It passed, but the thought stayed with me for a long time as I got to know Episcopalians. I'm a latent one. Not from the cradle, as they say.

In my doubts, which I have many, i found the first church I ever was comfortable at St. John's. Redwood gothic. It creaks like a ship. Motorcycles sometimes go up the street during hymns. We've had bikers come to church. If I'm really in a rush or haven't gotten the ironing done, Iwear jeans.

This Easter, as usual, my doubts seem larger than any belief. I feel Christian because I like Jesus. Not sure I love him; he seems a bit stern at times, but he'd be one of the people from history I'd have over for dinner if I could. I know that with my disposition, had I been born Jewish or Muslim or Hindu, I'd be in just about at the same place . . . probably attending a synagogue or mosque or temple with the same half-faith that I have lived with all of my life. As a child, my parents didn't go to church but would send me to whatever Southern Baptist church that was close by where I'd ask Jesus into my heart countless times, and not feeling he ever got there, kept on asking. I guess I still am in a way.

Mrs. Haines, my Sunday school teacher when I was eight, got mad at me because I went up to an alter call after having gotten down on my knees in her class a few weeks before and asked for salvation. You only do it once, according to her. She told us that the size of our houses in Heaven would be built according to how many souls we saved. Mrs. Haines warped me, and I got in trouble at home because people from the church came to tell my parents the good news, which they would have been just as happy not to have heard.

Bill and I are were in Valparaiso yesterday buying some extra macrame necklaces for our friend Charlene who is back in Canada. While we were talking to the vendors, beautiful young women in sight and soul who happen to be Communists, a couple of ragamuffins came and pulled on Bill's shirt. They wanted a donation for the Judas they had made. Today, many Judases, along with political figures, will be burned in the cerros on Valparaiso. One of the lovely Communistas said that Bush has been burned many times. That's an Easter, if you ask me. A little fire. A little effigy burning . . .now, that sounds like a party.

Last year as I went to St. Peters, a group of about two hundred Pentacostals passed me by, singing joyously, throwing confetti and handing out candy in celebration of the Lord's resurrection. I missed them this year; they must have taken another route. Even though I have my prejudices about conservative Christians, I kind of wanted to follow them because of the music and their energy. I'm not into contemporary Christian hymns. Most of them sound like they are being emitted from a bad FM station. Really bad rock and roll from the 80s, and the like. But I do like gospel music, and though this wasn't it, it had a great beat. They were joyous, an emotion that I have to admit I feel I haven't had my fair share of.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this other than I wish that I could look at life with eyes more open, find fewer barriers in my soul, unloosen a bit. I'm one of the shy people Garrison Keillor speaks of, even if I'm not a Lutheren. I'd love to be a Buddhist, actually. I sometime admire atheists. The dead Jesus thing gets to me. I learned a few years ago that the earliest Christians, those Communistas, would have never thought of putting up a crucifix. It was too real for them, too brutal. It was only after the memory of real crucifictions faded that they started to appear.

Truth be told, I might be a better Christian Scientist or a determined follower of A Course in Miracles, as they make more sense to me. Only the sensory elements don't. Or with the history I've had. I have too many fixed signs in my chart. Maybe that's why a half bottle of wine on an Easter afternoon beats Easter Eggs.

I want to burn effigies and handle snakes and find my mind overstepped by emotion. Forget about creeds. A problem for a Protestant, at least this one, who since Mrs. Haines and before (Dr. Bob at Central Baptist could probably have hosted Fox News) has worried about what to believe. I'm shy to admit this, like how uncool can I be?

Chile isn't necessary a Catholic country anymore . . .( my other influence as all of my parent's friends, retired cops from Detroit, were Catholic. We didn't eat meat on Fridays because we always had one or another of them over. I can still say the prayer from heart where you ask for blessing all the faithful departed may they rest in peace amen after asking for blessings for the bounty we were about to receive). The government made October 31st a holiday last year, the anti-Halloween. There are enough Evangelical voters now to be catered to. Lots of Mormons here. Seventh Day Adventist, too, who are mainstream other than that they eat healthier than the rest of us and have the Sabbath on the right day.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Notes from the English Department

Rosa y Luna, photo credit:Sandra Edwards

Last night we decided to take the coastal route on the bus ride home from Vina del Mar. We got off far enough from the steps that lead up to our house for a chance to walk along the breakwater. The tide was high and waves splashed over the rocks, their last wisps directly below us. The moon lit the clouds, mottled like doeskin, and the rocks held the sheen of water and foam.

We found a path to a rickety staircase. My husband went down and sat on a lower rung that was right above the tongues of the waves. Susana spoke of how she swam naked with a friend a year ago in the sea, how cold the water was, and how much she wanted to do it again. When Bill climbed up to us, Susana said, "My turn," and glided down the steps, stepping on to the top of the rocks. Waves broke over her feet as she balanced above the water. I have lousy balance; I envied her ability to stand there, poised and laughing, as the waves surrounded her. She came back happy with wet shoes and pant legs. My emotions have been ebbing low. What a gift to watch the sea in the moonlight and to hear laughter in the midst of it.

Today has been the first day I've wanted to write fiction again, after nine months (!) of time off. I've worried that blogging might take the place of making stories and novels. It's so immediate. Satisfying. And after a tap of a key, people can read it! Is the purpose of writing to be read? Or does writing itself, most of which stays in private nooks of computers and journals, the gift? These questions are too facile, but writing is lonely, and if you do it truthfully, hard work. With Internet and blogs, we are in a new world. What would the Bronte sisters do if they had blogs? Walk upon the moors, in the heather, and then come home to blog? Would novels be written?

I'm grateful that I have had the opportunity to be modestly published. I'm grateful for friends and relations who have read manuscripts during times I was still learning to believe in myself as a writer. Yesterday I was contacted by one of my most brilliant students, a young woman named Michelle Berger who was writing novels as a fifth grader. She told me she'd read Heron's Path, and it was the type of novel that she loves. A reader. Great joy. And yet, even without that reader, a writer writes.

The ocean is not far from my door. When it's especially quiet at night, we can hear it as we fall asleep. I open my window in my bedroom when I iron and watch small sailboats, seagulls and, on hot days, the usually smooth surface transformed into whitecaps as far as the horizon. I want to put life in words. I need to put my life in words, even if they're about a girl with six tentacles or two sisters who are not sisters, one of whom turns into a bird to take her real family home. Or to write a blog like I am tonight.

I don't know how this time in a foreign country will transform into fiction, but I begin to believe it will. We return in three months to California, and our life in Chile will be a dream: a cloudy night sky over the sea, saying the words for clouds and fog in Spanish, and watching a friend standing in the foam as waves rush past her feet. I will have these words to make it real.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Notes from the English Department

Sandra and Alberto, my neighbors, had their stolen car returned to them by the Carabineros, the official state police of Chile. Unfortunately, the stereo, the ignition, several personal items and some alarms that Alberto uses in his security business (irony, here) were taken, and the windows were broken and the seats torn up. For the Carabineros to pursue the matter, Sandra would have to leave her car with them AND pay for the rental storage, so she's chosen to be philosophical, get her car repaired, use a neighbor's yard (and gate) for protection for overnight parking and move on.

On a happier note, congratulations to Alejandra and Ximena. They gave their speeches today for the teachers and girls of Cuarto Medeo English here at St. Margaret's, along with three other girls with wonderful speeches, and were chosen to go to Santiago on the 15th of April. They will attend the English Speaking Union's annual contest. Students from British Schools all over Chile will come, and the two top speakers will go to London for the international event. The theme of the event is Regeneration and Renewal. Ale's speech is about the transformation that technology is having on the ways we interact with each other, and Ximena's is on recent research into prolonging life, perhaps for as long as thousands of years. Would you choose to take a pill to prolong your life? At what costs? Would it be ethical in light of overpopulation and climate change?

My school is involved with the International Baccalaureate Program. This is my second year with an incredible group of fifteen girls who could shine in any Advance Placement English class in the United States. Unfortunately, school years are different in the northern and southern hemispheres, and I have to be ready to teach in California after Labor Day. Though there have been many wonderful (and challenging) experiences at St. Margaret's, this class has been the highlight of my time here; not being able to finish the year with them is the thing I regret most about having to leave in July.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Notes from the English Department

Our neighbors, a woman with a bad back, a self-proclaimed black sheep of a well-known and wealthy family (they own one of the largest banks), and an old friend who just moved in with her, have called the Carboneros twice today. The first time was because of their stolen car. At 3 a.m., my husband heard the engine start and back out of our pasaje. She always turns the car around and then drives out. He got dressed and banged on her door. No answer. I woke and tried to call her, only to find that I hadn't saved her number on my cell phone. As no one answered, we hoped for the best, that they had decided to leave . . . to get cigarettes, perhaps . . . and went back to bed, not feeling very good about it. My husband wishes now he had made more of a ruckus and woke them.

Because they now have to walk and she can't afford a new car- her black sheep status has left her poor, our neighbors have become concerned about a dog in the neighborhood that we told them about and called the Carboneros again. We actually went to the police yesterday to make a complaint. The dog lives around the corner from us, and acts docile enough as long as his duenos aren't around. If they're there, standing out of their gate or coming in or out with the car, he turns into the Cujo of Golden Retrievers. Yes, a viscious Golden Retriever, the biggest that I've ever seen. He has a scar on his nose, so we've wondered if he's been beaten. The dog goes crazy and the owners do nothing. He almost attacked a good friend walking from the bus to our house on Friday night. Earlier in the day, my husband confronted the owner once after the dog snarled and rushed toward us. Bill picked up a tree branch to fight him off and asked the owner why the fuck he didn't do something about the dog. The owner's response was, "Why do you not respect me?"

So, I guess we'll tell our story again. My neighbors feel frightened and violated and wants to feel secure again; however, we're not really sure what else to say to the cops. Or how to say that they're overwrought and we didn't want to complain again unless it was necessary, as the police told us yesterday they'd speak to Cujo's owners. The survival Spanish we've cultivated so far doesn't go that far.

The Carboneros take pride in that they can't be bribed; it's good to live in a country where the police are honest. Unfortunately, thievery is common here, and growing more so. The son of the dog's owner have driven by in their huge pick-up and have threatened Bill after an earlier run-in, and so we definitely want the police on our side. Our little home feels close to paradise at times as the roses bloom in the garden and we listen to the sea at night. We will be going home to California in four months;things like this are helping us on our way.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Notes from the English Department

St. Margaret's gates, just like Buckingham Palace's.

The last day of summer here in Concon has been foggy and cold. We went to Vina today to eat at our favorite little restaurant (soup, pork and rice for 1,200 pesos, just a bit over 2 dollars a piece) and people were dressed in their winter sweaters and hats, with bufandas wrapped snugly around their necks to keep out the chilly wind blowing on shore from the bay. I've grown to like the cooler weather and the fog. I like the mood fog puts me in, as well as wearing the beautiful sweaters here, especially my fuschia ruana (a shawl that acts a bit like a poncho) I bought in Arica. On the hill where St. Margaret's sits like a palatial English manor, it's even colder, a different micro-climate. The mist down here in the lowlands often becomes rain when I arrive to work in the morning. Teachers have said that for a British school, the climate is perfect.

Several teachers and students went to meet Prince Charles and Camilla while they were here in Chile a week or so ago. The prince was overheard saying that while Santiago is a beautiful city, Valparaiso is cool. They met him at the Prince of Wales Country Club, of all places. One of the surprising things about living here has been learning how extensive Britain's involvement has been with Chilean culture and history. Lord Cochrane, the 10th Earl of Dundonald and various other titles, fought with Chilenos in their War of Independence with Spain in the 18th century. His headquarters in Valparaiso has been perserved as a national monument. The Chilean word for plumber is "gasfitter," a left-over from the English era of manufactoring and shipping that made Valparaiso in some ways more English than Spanish in the 18th and19th centuries. It was a busy port before the Panama Canal was built, a place where ships that went around the Horn had to stop. Today, Cerro Concepcion and Alegre, the hills that were the center of British (and German) culture, are World Heritage sites and tourist areas where the corregated buildings with lots of gingerbread that were left stand in various stages of renovation or decay.

At school, the girls all stand and sing Happy Birthday to the Queen on her birthday. At one time, if girls were caught speaking Spanish at St. Margaret's they were punished. I've met several lovely women from that era who speak the Queen's English and have tea at 4 or 5 o'clock (which now is known as "onces" from the eleven letters of a brandy called Aquardiente that used to be put in tea long ago). Now, from sexto basico (6th grade) on up, all lessons are in Spanish, except for their English class. Standardized testing is requiring emphasis on Spanish literacy skills, especially the PSU, a test all quarto medeo (12th grade) students take. Performance determines what schools and professions students are allowed to go to in universities.

Saying this, there are times that I almost forget I'm in a Spanish speaking country, as I work in the English department. Margaret, the department head who shares her name with the school, helps me with my Americanisms as I make worksheets (my use of "gotten" and "jewelry" this week). I'm insisting on English only in my high school classes, which has proven very challenging. The girls thought I was afraid that they were talking about me in Spanish. I explained that that wasn't the case, I was just using a good teaching practice. My explanation seemed to be what was needed. A reward of a five minute break if they were polite and attentive during our 90 minutes together helped too.