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solo in santiago

Solo in Santiago

By Jody Hanson

soul mates Jody and PatriciaSoul Mates, Jody (left) and Patricia © Jody Hanson

After eighteen months in Casablanca, I decided to relocate to Chile. Now, my version of moving doesn't require all that much planning, as my worldly possessions fit into two suitcases and a carry-on bag. As a freelance writer, I choose where I want to live. And I often quip that my solo-style life isn't cluttered because I forgot to get married, have children or save any money.

Some people find the idea of a woman sauntering around the world on her own too frightening a concept to consider. I find that when you are on your own you meet more people and have more adventures. My family moved when I was 14 years old. It was a traumatic experience, but I learned that if you are on your own you have to put yourself out there. Because if you don't, nobody is going to come looking for you.

A week after I landed in Santiago it was time to go out and mix with the natives, even though my Spanish was limited to buenos dias and six or seven other words. Bars are a natural place to talk to people, so that is where I headed.

Going to a bar alone doesn't bother me and one of my first forays was to The Clinic, an inner-city establishment. In the course of the evening, a waiter there told me about the Don Rodrigo. Then he scratched a map on a scrap of paper and handed it to me. He said that it was a local jazz piano bar without any tourists.

I wandered into the Don Rodrigo, a place where you can cut the smoke with a knife. The piano player hadn't started yet, so the place was fairly quiet. The bar in front of me, I glanced around, hopped up onto a stool and proceeded to make myself comfortable. The only other solo woman sat at the end of the bar, a few stools away. The bartender understood I wanted vino tinto and presented me with a half bottle.

I perched on the chair and, with my granny glasses poised on the end of my nose, peered through the haze at my newspaper and underlined the Spanish words I recognized. Suddenly I heard a female voice behind me. “Excusez-moi, mais il est merveilleus de voir une femme francais assis seul a la barre par elle-meme. Une femme chilienne ne ferait jamais ca. ” (Excuse me, but it is marvelous to see a French woman sitting alone at a bar. It would never happen in Chile.) Fortunately I'd picked up enough French in Morocco to be able to follow the comment. I replied in bumbling French and confessed that I was from Canada, not France.

After a few minutes we switched to English. Patricia Guzman has lived in exile for ten years – eight in Paris and two in Los Angeles – and she speaks English well. She told me she was an actress. We chattered away and agreed to meet for a drink on Saturday evening.

At our second meeting we talked comfortably and openly. I thought Patricia was about my age (57), but she was, in fact, 66, an age she has since recalculated to 60 because she doesn't want to turn 67. Nobody would question her declaration.

We laughed, told stories and talked about how if we were sane, rational women we would be lesbians. But we weren't. By the time I went home I was slightly tipsy and mellow. Who would have thought that I would parachute into Santiago and meet a soul mate? But travel is like that, and it is the unexpected that gives it an edge, particularly when you go solo.

Our friendship continued to develop and we got into the habit of getting together at least once a week. To this day, we always have a lot to talk about. I learned that Patricia grabbed a machete and hacked her own path in life – an approach to life we share. She acted in the theatre, in films and on television. By the time she was 25 years old she had her own television show, "Clap," a political commentary. Then came the coup and she fled to Paris with her four-year-old daughter. Exile was difficult. While it left its scars, it also contributed to making Patricia remarkably strong. A survivor.

Patricia, her daughter Pasquala and I went to a fonda, an outside food court, for the bicentenary celebrations. Later in the year, at a Christmas Eve dinner, I met Ricardo, one of Patricia's friends. On another occasion, we went to a party in the suburbs. I was on an inside track to meeting interesting Chileans. Like me, Patricia can't endure boring, insipid people. “

Yet another time, Patricia's friend, Patricia (same name, different woman), and her husband Rodrigos invited us for lunch at their mansion in Las Condes, an upper-class suburb of Santiago. After lunch, Rodrigo left us three women alone, and Patricia-the- actress sprawled in an armchair and proclaimed, “I want to talk about sex. People in Chile are so conservative about that. ” It was an opportunity to wax eloquently about some of my more interesting personal experiences. My idea of good dinner conversation begins with “So, what are your sexual fantasies? ”

Whenever Patricia and I went out to a bar or cafe, I noticed that people stared at us: her because she is famous, me because I'm a foreigner, as I was to learn. Sometimes people came over to talk to Patricia; I'd ask if she knew them and she'd reply, “No, they just wanted to say hello. ”

It wasn't until other Chileans I got to know started asking, “You mean you know the Patricia Guzman?” that I realized I was hanging out with the woman whom the local press refers to as “the Susan Sarandon of Chile,“ because the two actors bear an uncanny resemblance to each other. When this happens, I just smile. This experience is not new for me, as I have a collection of friends who are suitably famous – or infamous – as the case may.

It's been many months now since I moved to Santiago, and during each visit with Patricia we share our secrets, fears, aspirations and hopes. It is a close, honest, friendship that we both treasure and nurture. There is no judgment. And this is about as good as it gets.

The moral of the story? Ask yourself if I would have met Patricia if I hadn't gone to the bar solo. So instead of waiting for someone to go out with, take a deep breath and venture out on your own. After the first couple of forays you will discover that it really isn't difficult. And then you will wonder why you didn't go solo from the beginning.

Jody Hanson is a Canadian freelance writer and travel junkie currently living in Buenos Aires. She has visited 98 countries, lived in eight and holds passports for three.

The Don Rodrigo Bar is located next to the Foresta Hotel on Avenida Victoria Subercaseaux 355, in front of the Santa Lucia hill in downtown Santiago. The bar doesn't open until 6 p.m. and the piano player starts at 8 p.m. It is a relaxed atmosphere, and there is no problem going there solo as Don Santiago – the friendly bar tender – will take good care of you.

The Clinic is at Monjitas 578, phone (562) 63 99 548. This funky place is just across the street from the Bellas Artes metro stop. The Clinic has a weird and wonderful collection of Allende photos and many of the staff speak English. In the summer, head for the courtyard out back. Check out the Sunday BBQs and the gift shop for some left-leaning presents such as t-shirts that say “Che es tu madre. “ All images © Jody Hanson