Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Will you be wanting legs with your coffee?

One of my stranger experiences here in Chile...

Walking along one of downtown Santiago's buzzing streets on one of my first days here I was struck with the desire to write. The feeling, much like the need to satisfy an itch or tell someone talking loudly on a mobile phone to be quiet, would not be suppressed, and so being several blocks between both work and home I determined to locate a convenient cafe where I could enjoy a nice cuppa whilst relieving said itch. As convenience would have it, I spotted (or rather couldn't spot anything other than) a giant, neon teacup with the word 'Coffee' (equally giant and neon) flashing underneath it. Hmm, I thought to myself, I must be on the right track...

(Now bear in mind this was some time between 0900 and 1030 in the morning).

I approached the local and attempted to peer into (what I soon worked out were) the large, floor length, tinted windows. I saw nothing. I pushed at the antique wooden door. Nothing. I knocked. Still nothing. I stepped back onto the pavement to contemplate the situation.

Moments later I was still attempting to soothe my confusion when the old, wooden door creaked open and what I can only describe as a character from a Roald Dahl adult novel stepped out, scrappy, tweedy jacket and all. As I was flagrantly the only person on the street at the time, he flashed me what I'm sure he intended as charming but came off as a rather toothless smile. "Consulta... aviso...?"* he mumbled, or something of the like. Now, this was still in my early days here in Santiago, before I had honed the fine art of deciphering the Chilean accent. After a few moments of blank staring on my part, and lecherous leering from his, I decided against this cafe, and pressed onwards towards the high street.

As time went on and I fell into a more comfortable routine I began to take time in observing my surroundings on my walks around Santiago. There seemed to be a lot of giant, neon, flashing 'coffee' signs from the time I start work at 0730 in the morning until just past lunchtime at 1600 in the afternoon. (Yes, lunch here is late!). I'm a bit of a morning person, it only takes me a few minutes to get properly woken up but I can imagine that the last thing a sleep-deprived, possibly hung-over caffeine addict wants to see on their way to work is a giant, seizure-inducing, fluorescent piece of crockery summoning both man and small insect alike to partake of the caffeinated goodness that awaits all who venture inside. Puzzling to say the least.

Weeks later, I happened to point out one such neon sign to my friend M as we walked home after I finished my afternoon's work. He laughed and promised that he would explain the next day. As it happened, the next day rolled on, and, M going one better, I was dragged into a mall, down a spiral staircase (ominous...) up another spiral staircase (confusing...) and into a lugubriously lit and surprisingly well ventilated local littered with leatherette chairs and mismatched glass coffee tables. A few gentlemen were lounging about here and there, with two or three perched at a sort of bar area, all the while (now here comes the legs part) being served by three or four, not unattractive, 30-something women in lingerie.

Suffice it to say I was speechless. As it turns out, so were they, as I soon learned I was the first woman to ever darken the (already rather dark) doors of their, erm, establishment. I've never been to strip club, or even seen an exotic dancer in the flesh, although I had always imagined that such places would reek of stale cologne and give me a slightly sick, churning feeling in my stomach. However, speaking to the ladies who worked there (and ignoring all the the men who soon disappeared off back to the cubicle-farms from whence they no doubt came) was a surprisingly pleasant experience. They were eager to explain to me how the concept worked (an interesting one it is indeed) and defend their career choice as exploiting the ever-present, ever-prevalant Machismo for their own gain (and gain they do!). They were lovely women, mothers each one of them, and without any apparent guise or gimmick. They don't play down their intelligence or lie about their age or background, nor did they attempt to glamorise their line of work. Todo por la plata!"** one admitted to me, laughing unabashedly.

Cafe con Piernas is a purely Chilean phenomenon. Nowhere else in Latin America, or the world for that matter, does this particular concept exist. Although appealing to the same, err, market crowd as chains such as Hooters or the ubiquitous Cafe Caribes with their youthful baristas and their skin-tight uniforms (see my post on Machismo). Cafes con Piernas are open from 09:00 am to 21:00, so no night crowds. They serve coffee and only coffee, so no drunken stag do's or rowdy, letchy customers. They charge around the same for drinks and eats, so they compete with the general cafe business rather than the adult entertainment sector. And the ladies with afore-mentioned legs get to keep all tips they make, which they suggested to me could amount to several hundred thousand pesos in one lunchtime's work. I didn't ask how...

As you can imagine, dear reader, (or maybe you can't, in which case just keep reading and I will elucidate) although fascinated by the human condition in such a place and the possible reasons behind the ladies' choice to work there, the Cafe with legs wasn't really my scene, or M's for that matter. So after the polite and very interesting chat with the ladies with legs, we bid them farewell and scooted off in search of a cafe where the coffee came completely free of any extra limbs. Just the way I like it!

*Help? Advert?
**It's all about the money!

Monday, 4 April 2011

Family Part I

It has been suggested, more than a few times, that the so-called breakdown of moral behaviour and personal values in the "west" is a direct result of the disappearance of the nuclear family. No, not the family living in the shack at the bottom of the garden wearing aluminium space-suits and cultivating Uranium, the other Nuclear family*. Children and young people no longer view their primary care-givers as role models, and the latter do very little to warrant any such respect anyway. Children fly the nest at an ever-decreasing age, and even when still occupying the nest they spend more time with their friends, real or virtual, than with their own flesh and blood. Ask any Southern English youth today what the 3 most important things in their life are, and the idea of 'family' isn't likely to make an appearance in their answer.

Over recent years, with my own development and maturity, the growth of my own flesh and blood and my time being so far away from them, I have come to appreciate certain truths about the family dynamic. The affection, tenacity and endurance of family is one of God's greatest gifts, or at least has been in my life, and anyone who knows me even slightly will know that I do not say that from behind rose-coloured glasses**.

My time here in Santiago has confirmed and inspired my almost all my thoughts and desires about family. Latin America is still very family orientated. There is no Latin American "Super-Nanny" that I'm aware of. Hispanic Youths are not sent away on shows such as "The world's strictest parents". Even drug cartels and crime rings are structured around blood ties, and loyalty (or so I'm told) is to family above all.

Each member is respected. From the smallest baby to the oldest grandparent when somebody talks everybody else listens. Every action is a source of entertainment. Every event is cause for celebration. This week alone I have attended 2 birthdays, a graduation celebration, an acceptance into University cocktail and a retirement celebratory lunch; and all in the same family. And at these gatherings I find all those present are fully up to speed with all the latest goings on in my life. I am peppered with inquiries about my timetable for work, my latest acquaintances, my most recent outings and my general wellbeing and happiness during my time in Santiago. I have been adopted as a member of the family, and my life now forms part of this chain of conversation, where nothing is too mundane or trivial to be left out. Every happening is worth a conversation.

It is true that you do not choose your family, and yes this explains why indeed family can be so hard at times. But even if we do not choose our family, we can choose to jolly well make the most of whatever we've been given.

*To be honest, the nuclear part isn't that important, I would just rather leave out the word "traditional".
**They are distinctly peachy!