Thursday, November 13, 2008

Tales from the house of burning snow

One of the Chilean novels I wrote my undergraduate thesis about was Soñé que la nieve ardía by Antonio Skármeta. The title means "I dreamed the snow was burning" and refers to a line in a traditional Chilean song.

A number of the book's principle characters are young people who live in a boarding house in a neighborhood not far from mine. In the evening, they gather in the living room and engage in heated conversations about Allende, proletarian solidarity and the state of affairs at the textile factory where some of them work.

The book left me with a a romantic idea of what living in a Santiago boarding house would be like. Little did I know that I would one day have the chance to do so.

As I mentioned before, I'm currently quasi-homeless and crashing at V.'s student pension. The pension concept was a relatively foreign one to me when I first arrived in Chile, but it's not an uncommon living situation among Chilean students.

For those who haven't been to Chile, living away from home as a college student -- or even as a recent graduate -- is not nearly as widespread a practice here as it is in the States. Students generally study in or close to their hometowns and commute to class every day from their parents' homes. Many stay on after graduation and beyond, sometimes until they get married. Here, living with Mom past the age of 25 is not enough to make a guy the butt of jokes. In fact, it's pretty typical.

Still, some young people are forced to bid their childhood bunk beds goodbye and strike out on their own -- at least when it comes to lodging. These are usually kids who make the trek to Santiago or other big cities to study or work. Obviously, they need somewhere to live. And not all of them are ready to start washing their own dishes.

Hence, pensions. These are houses where laundry and cleaning services and three hot meals a day come with the price of the room. In truth, the only real difference between a pension and home is that the person slaving for you isn't your real mom.

When I first started hanging out at V.'s pension, which is significantly more permissive than most when it comes to visitors, I used to kid him about how easy he had it. I would roll my eyes whenever he tried to stop me from washing my own cups, refusing to believe that eight adult renters could be so pampered and maintain their pride intact.

Now that I've been living here for two weeks, I'm starting to get used to it. Every morning, there's a sandwich with my name taped to it waiting for me in the dining room. Once a week, I leave my laundry bag next to the washing machine in the bathroom and my clothes magically wash themselves. And the home-cooked meals aren't doing much to help me tone up for the summer.

Yes, I'm a little ashamed. As someone who takes pride in the independence she's been able to achieve in foreign countries, it's difficult for me to admit that I'm basically being waited on -- and kinda like it. I want to believe that this is an unsustainable situation that will most likely begin driving me insane by the end of the month. That when I finally do find an apartment, I will cook my own pasta and scrub my own bathroom with relieved contentment. This is why I'm forced to suppress the inkling that pension life is something I could get used to.

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