Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Almost Perfect Day

We don’t exactly hit the ground running but fuelled by our combined appetites for culture, arts and shopping we strike out by astonishingly smart and efficient metro to downtown Santiago.

The modernity and uber-cleanliness of the stations and trains is momentarily alarming, used as we are to the rackety transport systems of New York and London, but not nearly as alarming for me as the fact that most platforms are furnished with multiple flat screen TVs regularly showing Susan Boyle giving us her rendering (here I remind readers that ‘rendering’ also means to melt down) of ‘Perfect Day’.

I am delighted that my Instituto Cervantes-learned ‘que bruja fea’ gets nods of approval from passing Chilenos.

First stop the Cathedral where we’re thrilled to find a Christmas Day mass in full swing and enjoy the wonderful flowers – immaculate white gladioli and lilies contrasted with bitter dark red roses - and casual atmosphere of a congregation enjoying itself. It’s a beautiful building with some lovely painted decoration but not as over-gilded and domineering as a lot of Catholic architecture, and when I find an order of service and am able to join in with ‘Silent Night’ in Spanish, it’s enjoyable for me for the music and the sense of theatre, and if the faith aspect seems to work for the locals, good for them.

Among the statuary is an elegant modern sculpture of a newly-canonised priest, installed in the last three months. The figure has his hand on the shoulder of a young altar boy and you feel that the distance between them and the lightness of touch has been carefully calculated to defuse the obvious charges.

We fan out to spot other important buildings but everything is closed for Christmas so we wander more or less at random and are pleased to sit down for a cooling juice in the Plaza de Armas just as a Peruvian marching band capers its noisy way past with the brilliant sunlight glinting off the instruments and costumes.

They're stupid beasts, does it say Plaza de LLAMAS ?

By late afternoon the sun has beaten us back to the hotel for some pool time and a siesta. In the bar Rhea spots one attractive half of a two-doctor gay couple from East Hampton, and since his partner is unwell, invites Dr Jim to join us for dinner. He’s a psychologist and perceptive company although as the evening proceeds and he gets further down the red wine the game becomes one of analysing the analyst since he has a tale and a half about a romantic adventure in London which climaxes with him being hunted down by the secret service and puts our various affaires truly in the shade.

Boxing Day and many more things are open so we subway again (Susan Boyle still at it in the stations) and enjoy the Las Domenicos craft village and funky bohemian Bellavista neighbourhood, before heading back to the hotel to brace ourselves for a ‘meet the tour group’ cocktail party.

We had been trying to ‘spot’ members of our tour party in the hotel on and off for two days but our hunting skills are poor and we don’t accurately identify either a promising looking middle aged gay couple or the most overweight man in the hotel who would certainly require two coach and aircraft seats.

We develop a strategy of not becoming too friendly too soon, as Curt had been buttonholed at breakfast by a female predator in polyester plumage asking if he were travelling alone, and among the routine fiftysomething couples from states with square corners there are a couple of more interestingly exotic families, one based on Czech parents and two attractive daughters one of which is married to an English boy, and another mixed American/Korean five piece troupe, which makes us a more cosmopolitan bunch than I’d feared.

Under the tutelage of our resolutely Costa Rican tour director - the looks-like-Lucy-talks-like-Ricky Carla - we have to stand in a semi-circle and introduce ourselves and when it comes my turn and I announce my name and provenance a diminutive couple pounces on it saying that they had been looking for me ... but don’t explain why so I am somewhat cautious.

The following day at lunch it turns out that he is an academic working between Oxford and Texas and that in a year or so they plan to relocate to London and would like some advice on where to live. This comes charmingly wrapped with an invitation to High Table at Balliol, so I am quite happy to help.

It also amuses me that the woman who styles herself ‘an educator’, an English teacher and vice principal of some institution which can barely spare her for the holiday is unaware of any of the Oxford colleges, or the meanings of ‘High Table’, ‘Dean’ and most glorious of all since I am impressed when George uses it in a casual sentence ‘subfusc’. Since despite her literary background she’s clearly never read any C.P. Snow, or G.K. Chesterton, or even Tom Sharpe, we explain it to her in Harry Potter terminology and feel very smug.

Dinner was pretty ropy, and we have to have one of those ‘conversations’ with management which is still paying dividends as platters of chocolates and macaroons and complimentary bottles of Evian keep appearing in our rooms, as well as free cocktails in the bar, and the staff try hard to bring us everything we need.

The tour began in earnest this morning and following a whizz round the city we’re taken to the Maipo valley and the boutique wine estate of Tarapaca with its handsome great house where after a short walk through the cellars with the equally handsome Diego we’re lunching al fresco under huge parasols and even more huge trees and I’m pinching myself to recall that it’s the Monday after Christmas when everyone I know is getting ready to go back to work, and I’m getting sunburned in a vineyard that could easily be Burgundy if it weren’t for the backdrop of the Andes.

Saturday, 25 December 2010

Welcome to Santiago

I’m awake at ten to seven on Christmas morning.

Either I’ve regressed to the second childhood I’ve been promising myself for some time now, or it’s jet-lag.

Outside the window of the solidly American-vision-of-English-Country-House Ritz-Carlton bedroom sprawls the beating heart of Chile, Santiago. Except it’s flatlining today with everything closed for the holidays and besides it looks nothing like the old colonial capital of a banana republic. With its new but not quite excellent modern architecture, and the buildings reflecting in each other’s mirrored facades, Santiago reminds me of Atlanta. An early empty bendy bus bowls down the six-lane street, a lone sweeper in bright blue coveralls tends the immaculate pavements and planters of the shopping centre. Its six million people must be elsewhere.

It was touch and go if I’d get here.

The atypical mid-December snowfall in the UK and its ability to paralyse our transport system has been well documented and indeed slavered over by the press, so I turned up at the airport with a pillow, a coat to use as a blanket and a couple of sandwiches in case the tabloids were right and I might have to spend two nights on the airport floor invoking the spirit of the Blitz before getting a plane. I’d even prepared a couple of Vera Lynn numbers in case I was called upon to lead community singing. It was, of course, massive exaggeration – two minutes to check-in and two more to be through security and I’m in the Star Alliance lounge with a G&T wondering what all the fuss was about and why I’ve got two hours to kill before boarding.

TAM Brasilian – on whose wings I have flown courtesy of air miles – turns out to be a perfectly competent airline, and whilst their crew don’t speak the conversational English of BA (nor, thankfully, do they address paying passengers as ‘mate’) everything’s lovely. If I was their time and motion expert I might suggest it’s not necessary to perform a fawning at-seat attendance with a wooden boxed display of tea bags every time a customer wants a cuppa, but I’m not arguing.

The personal movie screen was bigger than my laptop although that served to make Julia Roberts appear with even more teeth than usual, in a simply dreadful film wherein she’s a divorcee who first overeats in Rome, then visits an Ashram where she can suddenly read Hindi before giving the benefit of her worldly advice to a holy man in Bali until after spending two hours telling us she’s sick of people telling her she needs a man, ends up with Javier Bardem. Solace-for-shopgirls rubbish from beginning to end, but such predictable and easy rubbish I was able to watch it without the headphones reading the Portuguese subtitles. Even in Portuguese, Julia, this is facile crap. Make a decent movie.

Changed planes in sticky Sao Paulo where the early morning warmth heralded what’s to come and then dozed fitfully for another four hours on the sector to Santiago, waking only for a glimpse of the high narrow ribbon of the Andes as we descend.

The rather classy American travel company with whom we booked this junket has sent not just a driver but also a uniformed host to collect me, and in some state we progress to downtown Santiago where it's great to be enveloped not just by the embrace of a good hotel but by two of my most delightful friends Rhea and Curt who flew in earlier this morning from Baltimore. As they're famished for late lunch I have the quickest of showers and enjoy the kiss of clean pants before we stroll in the sunshine to a smart place specialising in New Zealand cuisine (well, it's all in the Southern Hemisphere) and some rare tuna and glorious Chilean Sauvignon Blanc.

All is suddently well with my little world.

Happy Christmas, more when I can ...