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Nothing like running errands on a Sunday afternoon to get a crash course in the weekend habits of Chileanos in Santiago. After a four-hour nap I woke up to my trusty shortwave radio blasting bad 1980s hits. I dragged my disconcerted self out of a bed which faces the balcony overlooking the Cerro Santa Lucia where I was already plotting a Monday run. I threw the androgynous parachute pants on, just to play it safe and get the street pulse. Cloth bag over my chest, I mentally prepared to part with any of the goods inside of it should it come down to that.
I jotted a few things: electric plug converter, hairbrush, SIM chip for my cellphone, a hot spot (the Internet was down at the hotel, not surprising), bottled water (the water from the tap tasted like chlorine), and Peruvian ceviche. It was an eclectic mix of needs, but I promised myself a partially successful mission.
Already I had realized from ambling around the Santiago airport and shuttle ride chatting with sleep-deprived locals that Chilenos are in fact, much like the older, more prudent brother. Quiet, tranquil, unswayed by the day to day dramas. The proved to be good listeners. With at Chileno I was starting to feel there was never really a need to shout or lose your cool. They had a quiet hustle, with very little bustle to it and a shrewd paying of attention to the right details.
I had begun to appreciate the Chileno. They were used to tourists, knowing exactly the subtleties of navigating someone through their country’s customs. That became obvious when I tried to order a cappuccino and created a state of confusion between the tightly clad barista, showing plenty of leg in an industry that is more like bartending; the cashier (who takes your money and issues you a ticket for admission to your much-needed drink), and the owner of the cafe carefully reading his Sunday newspaper at the front desk.
It was hot, it was muggy, I wanted an iced cappuccino. I knew I was asking a lot, but I had to do it. I had to know sooner, rather than later, where Chile was with customer service and picky people like myself.
The two women were confused by my request iced cappuccino request. I was quickly ushered over to the owner who raised his eyes from the newspaper. He peered at me over his bifocals. “So what you want is a separate cup of ice and also the espresso and milk?”
Yes, I told him, just a separate cup of ice. It’s true, I had wimped out when his eyes penetrated right through me and made me forget all my two years of barista knowledge back in college. He nodded his head at the cashier behind me. I walked back not daring to turn my back to him. She gave me a ticket and then I quickly walked over to the slinky barista in the spandex black dress. I gave the the stub to her.
“So separate cup of ice and no sugar?” No, I wanted it plain. “Crema?”
Of course, I want crema, milk that is. She moved to the espresso machine with a confidence I had not noticed in her before. The men watched from the corner of their eyes without turning their heads.
She poured the espresso, brought the ice, and the mineral water (compliments of the house) and began steaming the milk. I was in good hands. I relaxed. On both sides of me were two locals – a tour guide and a cab driver. The tour guide lit his cigarette, offered me one, I turned it down. He then asked softly, but not timidly where I was from.
“Guatemala,” I said. “Via the United States.”
“That’s a combination you don’t often hear,” he said. He puffed placidly on his cigarette. It was a standing up cafe, so we all quietly leaned in to listen to one another, conspiratorially. Here was our tryst. He looked over and signaled to me with his pursed lips that the barista was coming. I was aghast when I saw the swirls of whipped cream on my otherwise perfect cappuccino. She noticed it in my face.
“Thank you,” I said reluctantly taking it.
“You don’t like it?” She asked.
“Oh I do, very much,” I said and started scooping the whip cream off. Her face looked beyond confused. She looked over to the cashier and then back to me. “Oh, you didn’t want it with crema?”
“I’m sorry, I just didn’t know crema in Chile meant whipped cream. In Guatemala it’s sometimes used interchangeably with milk.”
She politely picked up the coffee, “Permitame, no hay problema.” She set the lovely frappucchino next to the espresso machine and then returned. “What you really want is a cortado grande con espuma. I will make it, no problem, but you have to get another ticket from the cashier.”
Of course, that was the logical, orderly and sensible thing to do. So I went up to the cashier who then shuffled me over to the owner again who this time put down his paper, neatly folded his glasses and pushed himself off the counter. He opened the barn door to his stall and walked me over to the coffee counter where the barista and my new friends where. I dragged my feet behind him.
“Let me explain to you how our coffee works,” he told me in the gentlest and most patient voice. For the next five minutes he explained their entire menu to me. The entire cafe leaned in for this important lesson. He might as well have had a microphone. When he finished, there was silence. He then nodded his head at the barista. That was her cue. He waited right next to me chit chatting until she came with my new coffee.
He waited until I sipped it and smiled. It was delicious. “Muchísimas gracias.” He nodded in approval to all.
“Disfrute su cafe y bienvenida a Chile.”
And the ceviche you ask? I got that, too, although it proved a little easier at the local Aji Seco:
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