In the latest instalment of our ‘Notes from … ’ travel series, Samuel Rutter returns to Santiago, Chile.
1. Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport, Pudahuel, Santiago. 05:15
It’s cold. It’s darker than a wolf’s mouth, as they say in Chile, and I can’t even see the Andes but that might be because of the smog, not just the darkness. It’s the third time I’ve been here in three years. The first time, I stayed a year. The second time I stayed for three weeks. Today I have eighteen hours.
2. Daniela’s apartment, Avenida Pedro Lautaro Ferrer, Ñuñoa, Santiago. 06:10
I take a taxi to Daniela’s apartment in Ñuñoa. It costs about twice as much as it used to, and the taxi driver blames President Piñera. I used to live with Daniela and her two brothers, Nicolás and Javier, three years ago when I was studying in Santiago. We still refer to that time as la época dorada – the golden age. She opens the door yawning, hugs me and then stands back to look at me. You look old, she says. I’m not even twenty-four.
3. Barrio Lastarría, Cerro Santa Lucía. 09:50
We sleep for a couple of hours, but before I can even begin dreaming Dani shakes me awake and foists upon me a plate full of toast with avocado and a chipped mug of black tea, telling me she’s not going to let me waste a day in Santiago sleeping. Do that in your own time, she says.
Things have changed – she’s been seeing a guy from Santiago who is mysteriously yet genuinely named John Biggs. He’s been sick, apparently, and has left his car with her. None of us ever got around in cars three years ago. I tease her that her boyfriend has a porn star’s name.
We go straight to my favourite neighbourhood, full of grand old decrepit buildings and increasingly trendy cafés, clothing shops and bookshops. It’s my favourite place in Chile because of Cerro Santa Lucía – a colonial fort built on top of a small extinct volcano. There is a walled garden on top, full of shy lovers and melancholy literature students reading photocopied novels. It’s a green spot in an otherwise grey city. When it has been raining the smog lifts and you can see the whole city, as well as the snow-capped cordillera of the Andes.
4. Metales Pesados Bookshop. 10:25
Metales Pesados is probably my favourite bookshop in the world. It’s completely disordered and unabashedly overpriced, but it’s also a small publishing press and they only stock handsome editions from respectable publishing houses. It’s the sort of place where you can ask for a dead, foreign, obscure author and either find the book or spend half an hour discussing her work. Sergio Parra started the store, he says, to find those sorts of books that you want to throw across the room because you wish you could have written them yourself. I love the feel of books in my hands, he says, of the weight of the pages shifting from the left hand to the right as you read on. I ask him where he thinks Chilean fiction is going. He explodes in my face. Have you seen how angry the young people are? All the students are on strike. There is no hierarchy any more. How can they connect to our society? He says the youth of Chile have been left orphans, because the institutions have failed them. This reminds me of something Roberto Bolaño once said: Pero hay que matar a los padres, el poeta es un huérfano nato – ‘But the parents must be killed, the poet is a born orphan’.
For exorbitant amounts of Chilean pesos, I buy three books, all by young Chilean authors: No leer by Alejandro Zambra, Estrellas muertas by Álvaro Bisama and Escenario de guerra by Andrea Jeftanovic. I’ll leaf through them over a coffee.
5. Café Haiti, Santiago Centro. 11:55
Café Haiti is the most famous of the cafés con piernas, or cafés with legs, which are exactly what it sounds like – a café where the coffee is served to you by leggy waitresses wearing nylon stockings and little else. It sounds a lot seedier than it actually is. These cafés tend to be frequented by very old men with mottled moustaches who look like they were probably notaries or accountants for the majority of the twentieth century. They’re more interested in the newspapers than the legs, which are more sturdy and Andean than slender and Parisian. It’s also very cold, so there’s not a lot of flesh on display, but the coffee is reasonable.
6. La Fuente Alemana, Baquedano, Mapocho. 12:30
I meet Dani at the Fuente Alemana, a culinary institution in Santiago. We sit on stools at a bar that encloses the grill in a square. The entire staff is made up of grandmotherly ladies who have been working here since time immemorial. I recognise several from my first stint in Chile. They make hot sandwiches with things like string beans and avocado and razor-thin fillets of pork or beef and then let you wash them down with artisanal beer, brewed deep in the south by the descendants of German migrants brought in to tame the land and lighten the skin of colonial Chile. Frankly, it’s delicious.
Sometimes I felt like the city’s bus system, the Transantiago, was my second-favourite place in Chile. It never stops and it takes you anywhere. It’s not dangerous, but it’s peculiar. I don’t think I ever bought chewing gum from anyone but the itinerant vendors who would board the bus from the rear, bellow their sales pitch (colanders, four-colour pens, earbuds) and then disappear just as quickly. I take the 504, whose route I know by memory, and feel nostalgic as I recognise every street corner on my way towards La Reina.
8. Maria Teresa’s house, La Reina, Santiago. 15:00
La Reina is suburban, leafy. I arrive at Maria Teresa’s house and find that the doorbell has been replaced. It’s now a portion of broom handle attached by a long wire to a bell placed in a tree next to the front door. When I first arrived in Chile I lived with Maria Teresa (Teté), her three adult children and another exchange student from Michigan in a house as mythical as anything written by García Marquez. Part of it was rebuilt after an earthquake; the kitchen is shambolic, the hot water capricious and the décor eclectic. She greets me as only she would, with smothering hugs, cheap menthol cigarettes and an excellent bottle of Chilean wine. She has manic hair and for this I used to call her ‘La Chascona’, like Pablo Neruda’s lover Matilde, after whom he named his house in Bellavista.
I only mean to spend an hour and a half with her, because there’s a girl I was a little bit in love with whom I haven’t seen in a year, but Teté knows me just like a mother and knows how to get me talking, and so four hours later I’m apologising down a crackly line to my friend that time just disappears like water in water, and that I’ll be back in Chile, but who knows when. Teté is reluctant to let me leave and promises to reply more often to my postcards.
9. Alejandro Zambra
‘Leer es cubrirse la cara. Y escribir es mostrarla.’
– Formas de volver a casa, Anagrama, 2011.
(‘To read is to cover one’s face. And to write is to show it.’)
10. Javier & Javiera’s apartment, Plaza Italia, Providencia. 19:20
Daniela’s youngest brother is called Javier, and has a charming girlfriend, who is unfortunately named Javiera. When I lived with him, he had just moved to the city from the coast for university. The three siblings come from a town called Las Cruces, a small beach town on the central coast. They took me there to meet their family several times, before casually telling me it was also the town where Nicanor Parra, possibly the greatest living poet of the Spanish language, lives in a weatherboard mansion perched above the sea amongst nearly a century’s worth of books, where he receives young writerly types and, in a certain manner of speaking, holds court. Just in case I was interested.
To say that Javier and Javiera are living in an apartment would be to grossly over-represent their living arrangements. Their place is to an apartment as a bonsai is to an oak tree. And yet I can see in his face the subtly masculine pride of a young man shacked up with his beloved. I’ve barely entered the hallway (that is to say, the kitchen/bedroom as well) before a glass of pisco appears in my hand and is then spilt all over me as Javier and Nicolás, the elder brother, yell obscenities at me and arraign me for my use of Spanish words from Spain. More drinks are poured, music plays, a few joints are passed around and as I feel the alcohol begin to rise in me I’m happy because it’s almost like the old times. Their apartment overlooks Plaza Italia, where Javier and I went to celebrate Chilean football victories and where we were once tear-gassed by the national police at a pro-abortion rally.
11. Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport, Pudahuel, Santiago. 22:05
Nicolás accompanies me to the airport. We take the rest of the bottle of pisco, mixed into a bottle of Sprite, and stop along the way for a completo, the Chilean version of a street hot dog. He’s a bit older than me, and in love with a girl who has a kid. She’s been on his back about getting his shit together lately – she just made him delete his Facebook account. We converse the whole way and I’m listening but I’m also watching the city go past, as dark now as it was this morning when I arrived. He stays with me all the way through check-in, and actually strolls through the security point, still talking, still laughing at the crap we used to laugh about – the crap we still laugh about – until the airport staff ask him for his passport. I laugh and ask him if he’s even been on a plane before. Nicolás pretends to be offended and says of course, he flew to Iquique once, which is like an hour and a half north of here, so who even cares about your plane to Australia, and come here and give me a hug before this guy takes me away.
Samuel Rutter’s fiction and poetry can be found in Kill Your Darlings Issue Two, Island and The Big Issue, and his criticism has been published in journals in Chile and Venezuela.