Tuesday, July 13, 2010

In which I rent from Janette, who I thought was my friend but then went a little crazy

I moved from Maruja la Bruja's house (Maruja the Witch) to Janette's house. I had met Janette when I shopped at her knitting store. I knit a lot in Chile. At work, we had long meetings (on benches, not even on chairs) about important issues like, "Should our mission be to serve Mapuche women or young Mapuche women?"

These meetings would last eight hours and end without resolution. Knitting during these torture sessions made me feel like I was actually accomplishing something.

Rosa, the director of the agency (La Casa de la Mujer Mapuche, "House of the Mapuche Woman," Mapuches being an indigenous group), told me I had to stop knitting because it was "distracting." Rosa's baby was attached to her boob at that very moment. It was not uncommon to see breasts whipped out at least two or three times during meetings for children as old as four. Yet my knitting was the problem.

Note about my working conditions in Chile:

Our office was in an old two-storey house without heating. Offices upstairs, store downstairs. It would get so cold inside that I had to wear gloves while I typed. We didn't have the money for heat, but my co-workers found money in the budget to buy their lunches. Thank you, U.S. taxpayer, who funded the group via a grant from the Inter-American Foundation.

The toilet paper disappeared frequently. Stolen. I brought my own toilet paper to work and locked it in my desk.

My first week at work, there was a party. (Not on my behalf.) Two men came to the office and slaughtered a sheep in the back yard. They stabbed it in the neck with a sharp stick, let the blood drain into a pan (for later eating - mixed with lemon juice and cilantro and left until it coagulated - I avoided that delicacy), then cut a hole in the skin by the back heel and blew it up like a balloon to separate the skin from the flesh for easier skinning.

Then they butchered it and hung the meat on the stair rail of the office, where it rested for two days until it was cooked.

The barbecued meat was good, but a little odd to walk up to my office past raw mutton for a couple of days.

But my knitting was "distracting."

I went to the knitting store a lot. Janette and I became friends sort of. The kind of friend you talk to only in a certain place, like your gym friends who are your friends at the gym but not outside of the gym. Janette was my knitting store friend.

During the Maruja travails, I asked Janette if she knew of anyone with a room to rent.

She did, she told me. She had a little shed in her back yard with one room and a bathroom. I could rent the room and use her kitchen.

Win/win! Rent a room from someone I already like! But with privacy!

I looked at the place (as if there would have been anything to keep me from taking it). It was a small, sturdy building with room for a twin bed and a dresser. The bathroom, which had a shower but no tub, was tiny but it would be my own bathroom, with only my hair and toothpaste in the sink and my shower dirt and my whiskers in my razor.

I moved in.

Janette and I would chat in the evenings as she prepared supper and I made myself something to eat. I liked her two kids. I made them barbecued chicken and baked beans once, but they didn't like the idea of sweet meat and sweet beans. Nor did they like the cornbread. Corn is not for bread. It is for soup - a half a cob thrown into each soupbowl. This would be good if they used sweet corn, but they used field corn, which is only fit for livestock in my opinion.*

I did not take their criticism to heart because the main flavoring in Chilean food is salt. Fifteen years after leaving Chile, I still salt my food too much because I was forced to eat over-salted meals while I was there. (I will say, though, that the produce in Chile was fabulous. The key was to do my own cooking.)

Janette's husband was not around. He, a university professor, had left her for someone else, but they weren't divorced. Maybe divorce wasn't legal in Chile yet? Chile had one of the highest rates of bigamy in the world then, as in, I won't let the fact that I am not divorced from my first spouse keep me from marrying my second.

The door to my room did not have a lock. Janette hadn't gotten around to installing one. I was not comfortable leaving the room unsecured because I had a camera and cash.

The solution?

I removed the doorknob and carried it with me. Without the knob, the door couldn't be opened. It latched closed and stayed that way until the knob was installed and turned.

I soon tired of carrying a heavy doorknob in my bag, so hid it behind the rosebushes instead.

Hi-tech security.

Things were fine.

Then I met that embassy guy in Santiago. The one with the porn magazines hidden under the towel in his nightstand.

He wanted to visit me.

I asked Janette if it was OK if he stayed. She was not comfortable with the idea of a co-ed sleepover for her unmarried tenant.

Oh! I told her. I don't want to sleep with him that way! I was going to give him the bed and I was going to sleep on the floor. (Which was true - not only did I not want to sleep with him that way but there was not room for two people in the twin bed.)

She suggested that I sleep in the house while he was visiting. Perfect. I preferred that solution anyhow.

I thought everything had been resolved.

He came, we drove around the countryside (the joy of driving in a car and listening to the radio after you have had a year of only public transportation on crowded busses is enormous), we stopped for lunch in Pucon, a town at the base of a volcano, we bought Chilean cheese from a farm stand, which is not All That, we got stuff to make supper and cooked in Janette's kitchen.

The kitchen to which I had been granted access. I thought.

The next day, he returned to Santiago.

Janette got mad at me.

Why? I asked.

You let that man into my house! she said.

What? Yes. We cooked supper. You were already done in the kitchen. Why is this a big deal?

You let him into my house! Into my kitchen!

She was adamant that I had done something wrong. She stopped talking to me, which made cooking awkward and difficult for me. Our friendship was over.

I had to once again find a new place to live, me with the scarlet "R" for "renter" or "K" for "kitchen abuser" or "A" for "maybe adulteress."

* Remind me to tell you my fish-flavored chocolate chip cookie story some day.


  1. Dear oh dear, that is sad. She sounds very unreasonable. Perhaps that is why her husband left?

  2. You paint a wonderful, if not dysfunctional, portrait of Chile. What a country...Ha! In terms of Janette, clearly she had man issues. Hello. She probably was jealous you had a man friend and her husband ran off with another woman. ALWAYS in these situations it's not you, it's the other person. Thanks for the slice of life.

  3. Michaela, maybe that's it. She seemed so nice.

    Michelle, it has taken me a long time to come to that realization: that it's usually not about me.