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Saturday, August 31, 2013

House Hunting in Valpo: A Modern Day Horror Story

When I first came to Valparaiso, renting the temporary house of my dreams seemed like an attainable fantasy. There were room rental signs dangling from every telephone post in a 5 mile radius, spectacular views of the ocean and the surrounding city from almost every point in the city, and the university-centered city is no stranger to transients who rent and disappear. I found my current place within a week, signed the contract, and moved in.

Note: this is not where I live, but it qualifies as one of those
Long Term Ideal Fantasy Houses. Also I frequently go to this
yellow house and drink wine on the terrace. 

I've been living in my current apartment since April, and in this time I've come to realize that the next phase of my Chilean Living Situation is ready to begin. The reasons are varied.

At the risk of sounding whiny and totally hashtag firstworldproblems, let's look at a summary of Why I Want To Move Immediately:

1. This place receives no direct sunlight. Not a big deal, until winter hits and sometimes the frigid outside air is warmer than your bedroom.
2. Things break on a mysterious schedule. Once the shower stops leaking, the calefon is down for a week (re: no hot showers), then the toilet starts running, followed by lights that just...stop working.
3. My landlord makes things up as she goes along. No, really. She does. When I signed my contract, I was told verbally that gas was included, to find out two months later that I had to foot the $100 gas bill myself, only to be told 2 weeks ago that gas IS included. That's just for starters.
4. New rules appear out of nowhere. Most notably, in the form of a framed list that greeted me when I came back from the United States, including rules prohibiting the use of space heaters. The other day I was told we can't have people over after midnight. It continues to get progressively dictatorial.
5. I want a friendly, private space. The setup of this apartment and it's ever-increasing amount of rules creates a non-friendly, walking-on-eggshells environment. The energy of a special home space is important to me, which means not feeling like I'm going to be scolded at every turn for having a friend here at 12:03am or because they caught me using the space heater. Furthermore the landlord enters our house all the time, without knocking, without warning, and this tends to present problems when I'm either in a towel on my way to the shower or using the aforementioned illegal space heater.

All in all, renting rooms in Valparaiso is wildly utilized and the easiest option, but it means that you are first and foremost living in someone else's space. Not just 'borrowing' it while you pay for it, like in the US, but honestly occupying someone else's space with no real sense of inhabiting it. Back home, renting an apartment is like getting the only set of keys to a house and the landlord turns to leave and says, "Well, this is yours for a year, have fun! I'll check back in 12 months" and then they disappear into the sunset and you only talk to them on Rent Day each month.

 In Valpo, my experience has been more like the landlord peeks her head in every couple of days to make sure the sofa still looks good and the desk isn't being used for bread-making, and any infraction on her idea of how the space should be used is corrected via More Framed Rules. It reiterates the underlying theme: THIS IS NOT OUR SPACE. I am paying for my room -- only. That means that my *cough* ridiculously overpriced *cough* rent allows me omniscient governance of my bedroom. Common areas are indeed governed by the Eye of Sauron landlord, however she sees fit, no matter how much my roommates and I agree that we like the table better over there or prefer to use the electric oven as opposed to the gas oven.

Hence the new and urgent search for a house. I began skimming classifieds several weeks ago, pleased at the amount of houses available in the area. This will be a breeze, I thought. Wrong.

My expectations aren't that high, I swear. I'll take the shanty on the right, even.
 Just as long as I have room for my yoga mat. 
Oh, and a patio and a view of the ocean. 
And spacious rooms. ....And lots of sunlight. 
(On second thought, I'll take the yellow house pictured earlier.)

It seems Chile, at least in Valparaiso, has developed a lackadaisical renter's culture. The U.S. is much more straightforward: see listing, visit apartment, sign contract and talk deposit, move in on set date. Here, the process is similar, but imbued with a lot more ambiguity and a ton of un-returned phone calls. I'm not entirely sure the house visits aren't just a discrete psychological evaluation on the part of the landlords. I'll go through each experience we've had and explain each frustrating and confusing demise.

House 1: Two story, master bedroom with balcony, 2 other bedrooms with panoramic sea view, huge kitchen back yard, asado area, beautifully remodeled, safe neighborhood, easy access to everything, and, the kicker, it came with a dog named Lola. AKA: Shannon's Valpo Dream House.
Why it ended poorly: The landlords seemed happy with our situation and income, and we made a plan to meet Monday and sign the contract at noon. SCORE! Monday comes and they ignore our phone calls until 5pm. When we finally get them on the phone, they say they've decided not to rent the house. BUT LOLA IS WAITING FOR US!!!

House 2: Four bedroom, well-lit, brightly painted, no patio, wood floors, even closer than House 1, excellent safe neighborhood, and with a fun view of the downstairs neighbor's bathroom.
Why it ended poorly: The house didn't convince us; we kept it as a back-up option. Watching the downstairs neighbor take a piss seemed like a selling point at first, but we thought twice on that.

House 3: Very high up in the hill but doable, ridiculous amount of sunlight, amazing view of the sea, no patio, enormous living room and office area, 2 bedrooms, huge kitchen, safe neighborhood, huge rooms in general.
Why it ended poorly: The landlord was extremely kind and friendly. We left all our paperwork with him, in an effort to seal the deal and prove to him how responsible and serious we are. He assured us several times, enthusiastically, that we were first in line for the house. SCORE! We planned to meet Thursday and show the house to the other two roommates who couldn't join us on the initial viewing. Thursday rolls around and he can't meet up. Friday rolls around and he's MIA. Finally we coax it out of him via text that he's had a family emergency. We collectively feel bad about pestering him. Then later we find out he's waiting on the response of a foreign family. We collectively feel slighted and bitter. We'd been demoted from first place without being informed, waiting to make other important housing arrangements based on this response. We are still waiting final word on this one.

House 4: Tucked into a little alleyway off of a fun, artistic road about halfway between House 2 and House 3, safe area, two bedrooms with good sun, 2 bedrooms with no windows, big kitchen/living area, indoor patio with sunlight, comes with artwork already painted onto the walls and an abnormally tiny entryway to the bathroom that opens up into a regularly-sized bathroom.
Why it ended poorly: To be determined

House 5: Right next House 4, a smallish but wildly stylish renovated apartment, stone walls, cozy kitchen area, 1 bedroom, and a huge terrace that made my knees go weak, also with a fantastic view of the ocean and ample sunbathing opportunity.
Why it ended poorly: To be determined

Houses 4 and 5 are currently up for grabs. The landlord seems great, and we once again have a plan to send him all our documents and await a decision. We are supposed to know by Wednesday. While we are excited and hopeful, we are all very aware that this could end poorly.

A friend in Valpo once told me, after learning about our search for a house, that it was a nearly impossible feat. I almost didn't believe him, fully confident that the amount of listings I'd found online had to be indicative of an easy rental process. Furthermore, I thought the straightforward and relatively transparent rental procedure was common practice among first(ish) world countries.

But he's right. Houses 4 and 5 may not be the end of the line, or anywhere close to it. The tapestry of confusing landlord behavior continues to grow evermore complex. Who knows when we'll find that house that finally sticks to us. Until then, we are prepared for any amount of frustrating dead-ends, creative wheedling and incomprehensible disappearances on behalf of the landlords involved.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Valparaisan Debut

Friends, family, lovers and others!

I present you with my very first ever creative reading in any hemisphere on the planet!

That's right. That's my name on there.
Also it's spelled correctly, which doesn't tend to happen in Chile.

In Cerro Concepcion there is a tiny little cafe (Cafe con Gracia) that has become something of my favorite haunt. Not only do they consistently have creative and entertaining guests, they also serve hummus. And a variety of other scrumptious snacks. And wine. Can an ex-pat ask for more??

I was honored to be asked to read for this event tonight. Matias (or "Matto" as it reads on the flier) is a poet who I met several weeks ago after his poetry reading. We've been in communication ever since, and when he asked me if I'd like to share my creative output, I seized up, paced my patio for a half hour, ate all the existing nails on my fingers, mentally re-read everything I've ever written since I was 15, and then finally agreed.

I'll only be sharing one piece tonight, something I wrote for an NPR contest recently. However, I'm beyond thrilled to be sharing energy, space and words with lovely people in something akin to my South American debut. I suppose this is just one more step on my path to Taking Myself Seriously As A Writer.

To celebrate this, I'm going to save room in my belly for some Short-Story-Sharing Reward Hummus. And maybe a glass of Public-Speaking-Contentment/Post-Hummus-Consumption Wine. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

De Vuelta: Chile

Hey readers – I’m back in Chile! This means that:
  1. Chilean Immigration Officials let me into the country without issue (this is always stressful, even though I am not smuggling drugs, do not intend to overstay any visas, and am extremely compliant when it comes to international law)
  2. I have an ample supply of red beans and Mr. Smith’s coffee to tide me over for a (short amount of) time, and
  3. I’m back to ex-patriot living!

Coming back to Chile presented an interesting internal conflict. I was sad to leave home, my family, my friends, the SUMMER, the excessive amount of To-Go coffee available and the ease of acquiring hummus (see previous post about Ex-Pat Livability Standards); but at the same time, I was re-energized and excited to embark upon continued South American Adventures. My time at home was a nourishing and much-needed break for me. I am totally invigorated and bursting with motivation and ideas for not only continuing life down south, but making it unbelievably great.

That being said, Chile was a bit salty about my Winter Avoidance Tactics. So upon my return, it had a few surprises planned for me. Just so that I didn’t forget what I had left in the southern hemisphere. Sure, fly home and go north for “the summer”, Chile muttered. But when you get back, I’ll make sure you remember how it really is down here.

Not actually Valparaiso, but, I mean,
sometimes it feels like this. And maybe I'm living 
naked and half-frozen on that island.
(I should quit complaining -- I'm from Ohio for god's sake)

Things Chile Passive-Aggressively Reminded Me Of Since Returning:
  • The freakin’ gas. My roommates and I have had a number of issues with the gas here at our apartment. There once was a week-long period where we bathed using the hot-water contraption (like, for warming up water for tea) and a crock pot. When I left, I thought the latest potential-gas-leak issue had been resolved. Upon my return, I found out that the gas leak issues had multiplied. We only had to go outside to turn on the pilot light for showers before – now, we have to open and close it for cooking as well. And if we forget to close it, the gas smell gets so bad that the neighbors come knocking. This makes me think twice about turning on the stove for re-heating my coffee. The landlord keeps saying someone will come to fix it. BUT WHEN?
  • The freakin’ winter. Yep, I’m wearing parkas again. And my hands and feet are frozen all the time. The daytime sunshine is lovely and conducive to wearing only a short sleeve t-shirt. But, lest you all forget, our apartment doesn’t receive direct sunlight. And since my return, I found out my landlord posted a new set of “house rules” that expressly prohibits the use of space heaters, which was my only link to sanity prior to leaving. *cough*………*looks around*...Sorry, but…I’m using my space heater.
  • The freakin’ water. Washing dishes and hands and faces with warm water is such a luxury. The country is very resource-conservation-minded, which is awesome. But when you’re already walking around as a relatively solid American Block of Ice, the thought of applying any of that frigid water to extremities is terrifying. Even if it’s just to rinse a glass.
  • The freakin' Spanish. That's right, my Chilean Spanish Skills dwindled ever-so-slightly while I was cavorting about in the northern hemisphere. Even a little rust on the ole Wheel of Spanish Comprehension is a dire forecast, especially in this country. But don't worry, my ear is adjusting. Slowly.
All this might just be the whining of an American girl who left summer at its high point and is now back to wearing parkas in August. My return has been nothing short of spectacular – this first week back has been more jampacked with fun, events, activities and new people than my entire time in Chile prior. I made a conscious effort to start getting involved in Valpo, and the returns have been amazing. The amount of art, gatherings, communities and more in this city is incredible. Since I’ve gotten back, I’ve mingled with Chilean poets, seen impromptu live music sessions, seen a super chileno Musical Comedy that made me laugh so hard I cried, been to a yoga class, went to a wallet-making upcycle workshop, attended a Couchsurfing meet-up event where I met a whole slew of lovely people, and have been host to several group meals/asados in my home (the good energy and cooking helps warms the place up, too).

A group lunch featuring America, England, Germany and France.
Also featuring carrot ginger soup, garlic flatbread, 
avocado/tomato salad and Chilean wine.

Me and couchsurfer Karen went to a workshop and made 
some of these (ours are in the mix above).
They're made out of old milk cartons, tape, 
glue, random decorations and love.

And of course, daring cats mixed with street art. 

It feels really good to be back, Chile. Thank you for receiving me with metaphorically-warm-yet-technically-very-cold arms. I am looking forward to spring, and maybe, just maybe, I can take off these winter socks sometime soon.

In the meantime, I’ll keep enjoying all these awesome people and energies. Deal?