April 26, 2011
Tuesday and Wednesday were the first two of three days that I am to spend at la Escuela San Gabriel. We were out the door at the crack of dawn. That’s ten before eight around here. On the way out we said good-bye to the concierge.
A word about concierges. They seem to be pretty common in Chile. It’s a lovely concept. You have somebody waiting for you when you come home to let you in, give you directions (OK, they are not always accurate) when you need them and to see you off when you venture into the vast unknown. They’re comforting and friendly. I think I want one.
As usual, we took a taxi to San Gabriel. I’m getting a sense for the layout of these schools. They are a labyrinthine collection of buildings and courtyards laid out in elaborate and chaotic patterns. These are big schools, usually located in the same neighborhoods as embassies. We’re not talking about your tired and poor here. I get gifts when I come. They set rooms – no - suites aside for the day for me to perform in. I get break rooms. The school grounds themselves are all gated, with a concierge attending the entrance, ready to send you to a receptionist inside the building. The time clock at San Gabriel is a palm recognition device. No asking your buddy to punch you in at this place!
Like in the United States, many of the teachers are women. Being introduced to a woman here means putting cheeks together and kissing the air. It’s charming. But I’m not used to it yet. I never know when to do it and when not.
The English skills of the kids range wildly even within the same school system. As does the discipline. I’ve learned to spend the first couple of numbers that I do gauging what that ability is, and how fast or slow I need to move with the kids. They have a fantastic sense of rhythm and they LOVE to sing. It’s a sure fire way to restore order; bring out a call and response song and they’re right there with you. I need to be spending some time putting more of those in my bag of tricks.
In between shows, I’m able to relax a bit in the break room. Wednesday, Alberto and I took a walk around the school neighborhood (definitely not your tired and your poor) and sampled a neighborhood café. Surprisingly, Chile has very limited coffee choices. Restaurants typically serve instant coffee. In the cafes you can get espresso, cappuccino, and sometimes a mixture called café corta: coffee floating on top of a bed of milk. I wish I knew how they did that. Frappaccinos, Chai, Mochas: they’re all unknown here. They do have a drink called Chocolate Submarino, which is coffee with a piece of chocolate in it at the bottom. I haven’t tried it yet.
Tuesday night, Alberto and I took a Lonely Planet recommendation and dined at El Huerto, a vegetarian restaurant a short walk away from our Hotel. It is, quite simply, the best restaurant I’ve ever eaten at. The décor was subdued hip, with beautiful and carefully chosen colors everywhere from the paintings on the walls, to the walls themselves, to the waitresses aprons. There was wonderful blend of quiet international quasi eastern music flowing from discretely hidden speakers. They burned incense! Which seemed like a counter intuitive thing to do in a restaurant. And, mama mia! The food! I’m going back as soon as possible.
Dinner time around here is late. The restaurants don’t even open until 7:00 pm or later. Wednesday night Alberto and I made our way to the Barrio Bella Vista, a somewhat funky neighborhood chock full of trendy eateries, nightclubs and coffee houses. We got there by walking along the Mapoche River, the main river through Santiago. We passed a lovely fountain along the way, and more “amantes” than you could shake a condom at, snogging each other on benches and lawns throughout the riverside parkway.
By the time we got to Bella Vista we were hungry. In the process of looking for a place to get some distinctively Chilean food we discovered that, on that very night, a local café was presenting the final night of a story telling festival it had been running for the last few Wednesday nights. Starting at 9:00 sharp. Is there a God, or what? So, after a big bowl of fish stew at a neighboring restaurant, it was off to Casa del Aire, a true, old style, counter culture joint, with pictures of Che, Salvadore Allende and Victor Jara – all heroes of my rowdy and rebel youth. The sign on the door welcomed smokers. But, as they say here: vale la pena. It was worth the annoyance. The stories started some time after 10. Wonderful story tellers from all over South America spent the evening not only entertaining a truly appreciative audience but reminding me just how much Spanish I need to learn.
The evening was marred somewhat by a taxi driver who, on our way home, tried to charge us nearly three times what he should have. Alberto was having none of it. I learned some more Spanish and felt grateful to be in such capable hands. We were both tired by the time we made it into our beds, smoky and slightly guilty about a couple of calls we each had thought we were going to be making.