thoughts on food, culture, and community

Archive for the tag “Santiago”

30×30: Lesson 20: Leave it to chance

Santiago, Chile 2012. A standby venture

Santiago, Chile (2011)

My friend Lynn was walking me to my car in Lewisburg, PA, after just having finished eating dinner at a Chinese restaurant. I don’t remember what why I was in town or when this story took place, but I do remember I was carrying the plastic bag that held our leftovers, divided between two paper cartons.

Just before we said goodbye, I exclaimed, “Oh! Do you remember which box is which?”

Lynn picked up the carton nearest to her. “I don’t,” she said, “but let’s not check. Life’s more interesting if you leave some things to chance.”


If you haven’t sensed this from this series so far, I am generally not okay with the unplanned. Some would say my love for organizing my days stems from my perfectionism, but I would also offer that sometimes it’s survival (grad school and living in two cities) or respect (if I want to have your time, I want to make sure that I can give you mine).

But — as Jon Hoey constantly shows me — spontaneity is healthy. So is balance. For the three years that I had the privilege to fly standby due to the graciousness of my flight attendant friend Emily Orner, the days (usually once a summer) in which I arrived at Harrisburg International Airport with the uncertainty of knowing if I would have arrived to Philadelphia or Phoenix or Anchorage by nightfall (or Charlotte, Miami, or Santiago, Chile, as the photograph above shows) always evoked soul-crunching fear.

But spontaneity allows experiences to grow organically and more triumphantly. In being more vulnerable, I have found myself more grateful.

I can no longer fly around the world on a whim, but Lynn showed me that most attitude shifts must start small and exercise daily, like a muscle that needs to be strengthened.

I ended up with her food, by the way.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.


Friday Photo: Roasted fish, spiced lamb, and the philosophy of ‘No Plan B’


roasting lamb, June 2012

It wasn’t long ago that I met up with Ibrahim, a tall, slender man born in Niger, at Cafe Fresco on Paxton Street. We’d met through a French group, a Harrisburg-based social group, made up of everyone from former French teachers to disillusioned college graduates, who met one evening a month to converse in French. But one day over coffee and without the group, Ibrahim faced me with a request I did not respect. He hesitantly slipped a thick handful of handwritten notes, swirled in delicate French penmanship, from a folder and across the table. “Pouvez-vous traduire ça?” he asked — could you translate this?

Eventually, I would translate for Ibrahim one fable as well as two versions of a political screenplay, but it was nothing compared to what he shared with me.

His friendship first came in food: fish roasted whole with the heads still on and eye intact, delivered to my door with slivered tomatoes and onions in an aluminum foil pan; a platter of a dark, roasted meat that I did not recognize, handed to me along with a draft of our project. (When I asked him about the meat, c’est quelle type de viande, ça, his response was a beaming smile: “La coeur du mouton” — lamb heart.) Ibrahim slow-roasted chickens for my boyfriend and me which we ate with our hands and washed down with bitter north African tea; I handed him a tin of Christmas cookies.  Around Thanksgiving, he bought me a turkey for the family, the largest in the supermarket — not believing that Grandma Grove had already purchased one, as she always does, weeks in advance — but he did allow me to freeze it until January when my boyfriend and I could cook it and invite friends over for a mid-winter holiday. When school let out in June, Ibrahim cooked me lamb dusted with an African spice, and with an overenthusiastic “mange, mange, Sylvia!” we gnawed at the bones until they were bare. But by that time, I had understood that the food was a pretense for conversation — that sharing meat and fat and tea opened the venue to talk about philosophy, politics, and culture in kind of a heart, trustworthy way; that two people sharing food meant that we could share life.

Once, when we met at the buzzing African joint called Mariam’s African and Jamaican Cuisine on 150 S. Cameron St. in Harrisburg, where Ibrahim knew everyone including the owner and cook, I forked into a platter of lamb with a ground peanut sauce served over white rice and asked him the same question I ask to anyone from airplane seatmates on international flights to French exchange students: what are the best and worst aspects of America. It’s a pointed question, one where I always try to anticipate the recipient’s reaction but never can. Over the past few years, answers I’ve heard for the positives include our general wealth (as compared to Africa), the structure of the medical systems (as compared to China’s), Duncan Donuts (from a teenage Frenchman), our friendliness (as compared to Montreal). Negatives include the lack of respect for authority, our inability to recognize our privileges, our lack of public transportation, our views on alcohol and gun possession, and our racial tension.

Ibrahim and I have talked at length about what he likes about the US — our educational system — so today I focus on the negatives. Ibrahim sips water and pauses, looking at the ceiling. The hum of African-accented French rises around us and falls. “I dislike that, here, you always have to have a Plan B,” he says finally.

This is not at all what I’m expecting. “A Plan B,” I say. “Yes, of course.” I love Plan B’s. My daily planner is full of them. If a friend is late for coffee at Little Amps in Harrisburg, I will have essays to grade. If I get stranded on a standby flight from Miami to Santiago, Chile, I will have a couchsurfer lined up. I like to know the destination of my attempts to stretch myself, a safety net in case I fail.

Ibrahim continues, “In America — if you take someone out to lunch, like this — ” he gestured to my plate — “you must have at least $40 in your pocket: $20 for today’s meal, $20 for tomorrow.”

I nod, wondering if I’m missing the point. “That’s called being responsible.”

“No,” Ibrahim says, and now I feel mildly insulted.

“Well, what do you call it?”

Ibrahim continues. “In my country, if you take someone out to lunch, you only need to have $20 in your pocket, because you know that tomorrow, if you are lacking, someone else will pay for your meal.”

I’m writing this blog post because this conversation happened a year ago, and I still cannot get the philosophy out of my mind. If a stranger pays for your meal, do you eventually have to pay them back? What if you can’t? Do they get angry if you find you cannot reciprocate? Or is there just a greater brotherhood among people who understand that money comes and goes, for they know that eventually it will be they who must survive by relying on the kindness of strangers? I can barely imagine this.

I was taught very pointedly that I was not meant to be a burden on anyone, overstay my welcome in another person’s home, to replay what I borrowed and to return what was due, but this is type of foresight and responsibility is, for better or for worse, the problem of a developed country, one where we have the luxury of borrowing and returning, hoarding what we feel we have earned. Rather than distinguishing the merited, Ibrahim sees this philosophy has separating our similarities.

Most of us cannot live fully without a Plan B in modern American society, for our system rewards the self-sufficient. Many Americans tire quickly of supporting those who have less — think of the wide-spread criticism on welfare, for example.

But when I traveled to Alaska this summer and spent an unexpected overnight in Phoenix with a friend I’d never met, his response was, “I figured you’d do the same someday.” And when a friend was stranded in Harrisburg from Montreal en route to Tennessee, I was cheerful when he stayed an extra two days.  And I think of Ibrahim as I prepare to go to grad school this fall and try to construct myself an escape route in case all goes wrong — I could still change my profession, I could always transfer — and I wonder, maybe I can figure this out tomorrow. Maybe, for once, I can just be.

Friday Photo: Café con Piernas, Santiago, Chile

Cafe Haiti, June 2011

Cafe Haiti, June 2011

The following is based from my journal from when I was visiting a friend in Santiago, Chile, on a June Friday in 2011. A version of this excerpt was emailed to my boyfriend Jon on Friday, June 24, 2011.

I searched for café con piernas today. Café con piernas, or “coffee with legs,” is a coffeehouse where patrons stand around a bar with no seats to order espressos made by baristas in push-up bras, skin-tight dresses that barely cover their tushes, and stiletto heels. Some of these cafes are skanky, say the guidebooks, but others are frequented by women as well as men — at least according to Anthony Bourdain. So this afternoon, between wondering about Chile’s surplus of hot dog vendors and visiting Santiago’s Memory and Human Rights Museum, I needed a coffee and ventured out to find one. And I did. I found the well-known café con piernas Cafe Haiti on the Paseo Ahumada near the Plaza de Armas. I stared at the entrance nervously for awhile (taking the picture above while I deliberated), weighing the general disadvantages of committing a social faux-pas while abroad (being socially insensitive, being laughed at and publicly ridiculed) with its benefits (not understanding enough Spanish to know if I was actually being laughed at and publicly ridiculed).  The crowd emptied out of the building all at once, and I walked in before I could stop myself.

Inside was a small room completely walled with mirrors (for extra staring?). Dividing the baristas and the patrons curved a counter mounted on stainless steel poles, elevated so you could also see underneath it.  On top of the counter were enormous, diner-strength canisters of pour-top sugar.  On the patrons’ side of the room, there were freestanding ash trays and nothing else except an empty room and my reflection in six directions. Behind the counter were the espresso machines and two women who were not necessarily classy or pretty but who were effectively enhanced by their clothing.

I walked directly up to one of them, exuding confidence, not unlike a pre-teen boy at his first high school dance.  (Okay, an international pre-teen boy who couldn’t speak the language at his first high school dance.) “Café, por favor?”

Rapidly, I was denied like a pre-teen boy at a high school dance and redirected to a woman in the corner of the room who sat at a small desk with a price list, ticket stubs, and cash register.  Apparently in Chile, one does not simply pay/tip/order/flourish at any bar but does one’s underhanded dealings with a similar woman in the corner. That’s intelligent under some circumstances, but as I scanned my eye down the list of drinks, I felt somewhat like I was visiting the principal to explain my behavior at said high school dance.  The woman scowled.

“Buenos tardes, senora…. espresso, por favor, gracias?” My voice rose at the end, and the woman’s frown deepened. I eyed the list again and pounced on the only drink I did not know.  “No, no, frappa crema. Por favor.” The woman scribbled something on a pad and tapped a few numbers into her keyboard, giving me the total and handing me a ticket stub.

“Gracias,” I said firmly.  I waltzed over to the espresso bar where the curvier, skankier, and somehow prettier barista snatched my stub away. She sighed as if to call me out — you found us on page 245 of the guide book, didn’t you.  I met her eyes.

Freo o caliente?” she asked — hot or cold.

“Um… freo,” I said.

Con vainilla, chocolate, frambuesa...” she continued, and the second barista waved her hand as if to say, “Don’t bother, she doesn’t understand.” But I had already heard the word for “vanilla,” so I blurted it out in her pronunciation:



“Si. Por favor.”

She turned her back to me and began making my drink. I slid down the counter near the wall and realized I didn’t know what to do with my eyes. I always watch the barista make my drinks at the Midtown Scholar in Harrisburg, but if I watched my barista here, was it assumed I was checking her out? Or was that the point? In the floor-to-ceiling mirrors, I looked at my reflection: my sideways Grove mouth, the freckles intensified by Chile’s thin ozone layer, my warm scarf for the Chilean winter.  I looked at the floor — cream-colored tile, like a diner from the 1960s.  I looked at the woman: dark-haired, solidly built, generously curved.  I looked at myself again: the antithesis of dark-haired, solidly built, and generously curved.

An old, well-dressed man and woman entered the room and ordered espressos, and suddenly my frappa crema was slammed down with a clatter before me.  It was a frothy, milked, vanilla-hinted, cold (not iced) coffee with a mile of whipped cream on top, dusted with a blend of sugar and cocoa powder. It even came with a little glass of agua con gas (carbonated water). Finally, I thought, a sense of normalcy.  I personally believe that water should be complimentary and served without question when you order a coffee — I get too dehydrated otherwise. In America, I’m always the only person I know who orders one espresso and ends up carrying two cups of liquid to my table.  The Cafe Haiti got it right.

I drank the frappa crema slowly, standing by the wall and leaning on the elevated counter, playing with my whipped cream, and eying the patrons who eventually joined the old couple and me: a man with unwashed hair, a businessman in a suit, a worker wearing a hard hat who suspiciously eyed my auburn hair.  By the time I pushed back the dregs of my coffee and left, calling out “gracias” without pronouncing the “s” because no Chilean does, the cafe was rather full with a sense of daily life, and the beautifully-clad women were tamping espressos at full speed.

I walked blindly into the bright street with the confidence of someone who hadn’t a clue what she was doing, but I realized I’d liked it.  It had been damn good coffee, and I’d survived my Spanish. I’d do it again.

— Thursday, June 23, 2011

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