09 November 2012

Bellas Artes

This afternoon in an area of Santiago called Bellas Artes I was thrilled to find a piece of home. Bouncing from bookstore to bookstore in search of English translations of Latin American novels, I spotted a Spanish translation of Miguel Syjuco's Ilustrado. It was buried under a stack of Allendes, Nerudas, and Fuguets. 

The name of the bookstore carrying the Syjuco is Metales Pesados (Heavy Metals). It's on Jose Miguel de La Barra, reportedly Santiago's version of Castro Street. I was cruising—cruising for books—and it thus pleased me to encounter, for the first time since coming to Chile, something veritably Filipino, something unforeign. The memory of a story I'd read and reread, reasserting itself eleven thousand miles later. There is otherwise nothing here that can be described as being from home or of home: there is not a single Filipino restaurant, a single Filipino work of art, a single Filipino anything. More than once I have wondered if I may as well be living in another planet. 

After asking the clerk the usual question of whether or not they sold novels in English (and getting the usual reply that no, he was sorry, they didn't), I made a point of showing him the Syjuco. “A novel by a Filipino,” I said (in my sorry Spanish), beaming with pride. “You and your customers ought to read it.” I placed the book on top of the stack, took a picture, and felt suddenly less transplanted than I had been these last few months. 

02 November 2012


First of all, fuck you. I hope you both lose at least one testicle someday, in the most horrible way possible. 

You're lucky I'm a foreigner, you know. An extranjero. I come from Manila, a tougher, rougher, harder city than Santiago. Just how much tougher, rougher, and harder? The location researcher for The Bourne Legacy, a film I haven't yet seen, saw it fit to shoot the bowel-loosening climax of that movie not many streets from where I live. Being Manileño, I would have engaged the two of you in an equally bowel-loosening chase scene and hounded you into the depths of Baquedano metro station. But not at all costs. After all, I was carrying my laptop. And my twenty-dollar Bench sneakers weren't fit for running. And the cars that were rolling along Costanera Norte seemed frightfully fast. (In other words, I chickened out.)

I would have at least cried for help so that a truckload of dashing carabineros could come and beat you both up. But I did not know how to say “Help!” or “My necklace!” in Spanish. It's such a shame; I really ought to try Rosetta Stone. Or hire a charming Spanish teacher—someone not from Chile, which even locals say is the worst place to learn Spanish, in the same way that perhaps the worst place to learn English in England is north of England, among the slag heaps. But whatever. Right now, the only thing I consistently remember how to say is, “Perdón, pero no entiendo bien el español.”

Speaking of pardon: you might want to ask it, too. Tsk-tsk, such a bad name you give Santiago. Instead of thinking endearingly of your city as the place where I have turned to some greasy heart attack in a bun—called as completo (“sin mayo, por favor!”)—for sustenance (thereby gaining, according to the scale, fifteen pounds in a month), I'll remember it as the site where I became for the first time in my life a victim of theft. And instead of regarding you as two of the better-looking Chilean twinks I have so far come across—don't be too flattered, I still wouldn't put you in a museum—I am now inclined to look out for your faces somewhere in Providencia, on a bridge over the Mapocho River, before one crosses Avenida Santa Maria, so that I, bolstered by the aid of carabineros, could crush said faces into looking like filleted mackerel. 

Up until this damnable incident it had been a nice quiet weekend for me. Even a nice quiet week. In fact, since coming to Santiago I have come to establish a sort of routine, and there is nothing I do outside of this routine that doesn't help keep me on an even keel. Monday to Friday, I work at Centro Movistar Innova. I start the day with non-Nescafé coffee at Baquedano (the old-fashioned diner, not the station) and when I head out to lunch, I usually end up at Grandma's on Monsignor Müller Street or the empanada store on Rodolfo Vergara. Predictably for groceries I go to the Walmart-owned Lider at the corner of Avenida Rancagua and Seminario. When I need a haircut I swing by Nataly's, which is at the commercial area on the ground floor of Crowne Plaza. On weekends I play basketball at Parque Araucano in Las Condes or do some much-needed reading at Café Literario Parque Bustamante. So genial and undemanding is this routine that portmanteaus like “Sanhattan” and “Chilecon Valley” have begun to sound cute and just right.

In fact, that fateful Saturday at the aforementioned library, I spent a happy couple of hours finishing Bad News, the second novel in Edward St. Aubyn's Patrick Melrose book series. While I am reluctant to liken Mr. St. Aubyn to Evelyn Waugh (whom I adore, by the way), it is easy to see why others have made the comparison, asserting that the former's savage writing and elegant wit are reminiscent of the latter's work. The prose is certainly delicious, and I was still savoring Mr. St. Aubyn's words when I emerged from Café Literario around seven in the evening and started to walk back towards our apartment in Bellavista.

At this time you must already have been in Plaza Italia, surveying the scene and keeping an eye out for anything that glittered. My necklace glittered. It was 24k, a gift from mother, who was smart and kind enough to let me wear a solution should I ever struggle against either emptiness of the pocket or dryness of the soul. Never mind how much it actually was: the necklace made me feel like a million dollars. It included a Mama Mary medallion that I kissed every time I felt happy or sad or on top of the world or disappearing from the world. I am not at all a religious man, but I did find that this regular act of kissing motherly gold somehow helped ease pains and intensify joys.

Friends say I was very stupid for wearing this necklace. I don't disagree. I was stupid. I was incredibly stupid for wearing it, but the thing is that I had not had problems before. (This is exactly what stupid people would say, I realize.) When you ripped the necklace off—as I was crossing the bridge over Mapocho River—the medallion fell to the ground, clinking. By then I had realized what the hell was going on. I picked the medallion up and turned around, ready to pounce, but what happened, really, was that I just stood there, limp and mute, close to crying like a wittle girl, less a Manileño than an extranjero, less an extranjero than a complete idiot. I watched you ugly little rascals escape and disappear while a random middle-aged couple slowly approached me and asked, “What was that all about?”

They were Australians on holidays. The wife was wearing nice earrings. I told them what that was all about, whereupon she nervously took off her nice earrings. Her husband reached out for her hand, and the three of us continued walking and talking until we reached Patio Bellavista, one block from my apartment. Before parting I put a word in for Backstage Experience, where they had to try the pizzas, they wouldn't be let down, or if not the pizzas then the fritto misto. Then I walked back home and kissed the medallion, and for the first time it didn't do anything; you two must have taken more than my necklace—who knows what and why and how—and run away with it, chortling.