The language of change

An SN&R writer and his family visit Chile to immerse themselves in a different culture—and learn some Spanish jabs, too

The writer and his family's time in Valparaíso has included trips on the city's funiculars—steep trolley cars—and through its colorful, graffiti-adorned streets.

The writer and his family's time in Valparaíso has included trips on the city's funiculars—steep trolley cars—and through its colorful, graffiti-adorned streets.

photos by sasha abramsky

There are, in Valparaíso, many perros vagos. Vagabond dogs. They roam the hilly streets, alleyways, and staircases of this beautiful, gritty, Chilean port, an hour-and-a-half by bus northwest of Santiago, half-heartedly following passersby along the byways, and past the extraordinary street art that festoons practically every public wall.

They shit copiously on the streets, making a walk along the old cobbles always something of an exercise in chance.

But the dogs, many of which appear to be purebreds, don’t seem to be dangerous. In fact, they are semi-domesticated, tended to by local residents and store owners … up to a point. They sleep on the streets, in doorways and under cars; but in the morning, one can see pellets of dog food carefully laid out near them. They belong to no one—the expenses of vaccines, tick removal, flea medicines and so on, being costs no individual wants to take on. But, at the same time, they belong to everyone.

In Chile, pets are called mascotas. And, here, they do, indeed, function something like citywide mascots.

I am in Valparaíso with my wife and two kids; we’ve taken them on a two-month independent study to do immersion Spanish classes in a language school next to the port—at one time the largest in South America—and the Plaza Sotomayor, in which stands the Heroes’ Monument dedicated to lost sailors of a late 19th-century war against the Bolivians and Peruvians to the north.

We chose Valparaíso because we wanted the romance and the grit and the dreams of a great, but somewhat seedy, southern hemisphere city. We wanted something that would contrast with the calm streets and predictable routines and comfortable cars and air-conditioning-on-demand that make up our lives in Sacramento. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but sometimes it’s good to go far from one’s comfort zone, changing hemispheres and seasons, assumptions about life and ways of interacting between people.

We haven’t been disappointed. A city of almost 300,000, built into the hills and divided into a series of cerros, or neighborhoods, the nearly 500-year-old Valparaíso, declared a World Heritage Site in 2003, oozes atmosphere from every graffiti-surrounded pore. Each house, of wood, of adobe, and with sheet metal roofing, is painted its own color; each alleyway, with its hanging laundry and visual cacophony of competing art, tells its own story; each vagabond dog and mangy, piss-smelling cat, roams its own territory; and every cafe and restaurant—with the absurdly tasty and low-priced meals, and the great local wines that cost, for a bottle, what a half-glass would go for in California—has its own, unique ambiance.

Valparaíso’s is a street culture. Locals take funiculars—antique, terrifyingly steep trolley cars (think the Angels Flight in downtown L.A.) that ride the rails up into the hills and down again into the flats by the Pacific Ocean—old electric trams, or micros (informal, small local buses, that go pretty much anywhere in the region for a few cents); but more often, they simply walk. It’s a small enough city that one can go by foot from end to end in under an hour. We do so, every day, on the way from the small three-room apartment we have rented out back of our landlady’s house, up in the hills of Cerro Mariposa to our lessons. We each walk with our own backpacks—I haven’t been a student in near a quarter century, and there’s something infinitely satisfying to me about slinging my bag of textbooks over my shoulder each morning.

Each morning we also stop at one of the many lovely little cafes for an Americano or a hot chocolate; I buy a newspaper and, dictionary in hand, attempt to expand my Spanish vocabulary. And then, at 12:30, we start our lessons. With the exception of a long mid-afternoon lunch break, we’re in language lessons until 7 in the evening. I haven’t conjugated so many verbs since Latin classes in my secondary school in London back in the last millennium.

Afterward, we usually grab an empanada, and then, as dusk begins to fall, walk the streets home. In Valparaíso, the empanadas often contain, in their center, an unpitted olive. Why, I can’t quite work out. Except I think it must be a test of native savvy. Sort of like when New Yorkers cockily ask “how do you pronounce the street spelled H-O-U-S-T-O-N?” If you answer “Houston, as in the city in Texas,” you’re immediately identified as an out-of-towner. If you answer “How-ston,” your bona fides are established. Perhaps the olive is the same. Bite into the pit and yelp in pain, and you’re an extrajanero, a foreigner. Carefully remove the olive and de-pit it and you’re a porteño, a local port dweller.

Until late into the night the streets are crowded—and until late in those same nights, the pastelerias, little pastry shops that sell extraordinary desserts, stay open too; as do the bars and taverns in which, in times past, such literary lights as the poet Pablo Neruda—who built one of his three wondrous Chilean dream homes in town, high up in the hills overlooking the city—drank their fill.

From the better of those taverns wafts the deep-throated songs of guitarristas, local female musicians who take as their inspiration the yearning, heartbreaking songs of Mercedes Sosa.

We have our routine here. Five days a week we study. On weekends, we explore nearby beach towns, or go up and down the funiculars here in Valparaíso. We research our post-Spanish-school travels. The kids are learning how to insult me in Spanish. I am, they say, a viejo, an old man. My daughter, fast approaching her teenage years, says “cualquier …”—I think it roughly translates as “whatever …”—and she rolls her eyes. Sometimes, they react against their lessons—or at least the process of studying together, two siblings in a room with one teacher and a new language—and on a couple of occasions my son, temporarily frustrated, has let me know that he wants to cancel out the entire school thing. But, on the whole, when they are well fed and at least somewhat rested, they seem to be happy and are both picking up many Spanish phrases. They have been taken far out of their familiar world, and, despite the occasional tantrums and battles over homework, their horizons are expanding.

We are here a month. I don’t know how much Spanish we will all end up with; but, whether a lot or a little I do know we are all seeing this world, so many thousands of miles from home, with very different eyes from those with which we usually view our lives.