Friday, June 29, 2012

The worst roommates I've ever had

Posted By on 06.29.12 at 01:39 PM

The apartment building on Monjitas, from Parque Forestal
  • Julia Thiel
  • The apartment building on Monjitas, from Parque Forestal
I’ve had my fair share of roommates. (Though in most cases they’ve technically been housemates. Or apartmentmates, but that’s a mouthful. I’ve always liked the British term “flatmates”—much easier to say—but I don’t live in England. So roommates it is.) For most of my college years, I shared houses with anywhere from three to seven other people, after which I moved to Santiago, Chile. In the two years I lived there, I had six apartments and 14 roommates.

The fourth place I lived was a big, old apartment on the top floor of a building in the Bellas Artes neighborhood, right next to the wedge-shaped block where Monjitas and Merced streets merge. My room overlooked Parque Forestal, and every time I tried to take a nap, a roaming one-man band would start up below with drums and tambourines. I shared the place with five other people, mostly young foreigners like me—temporary expats working and living abroad for a while. The sole Chilean was Feña, an alleged student in his mid-20s who never attended a class or did any homework that I could see.

Santiago_map.jpg

This left plenty of time for hanging around the apartment doing nothing, and since the English classes I taught to Chilean professionals all took place before they began work, at lunch, or after work, I had chunks of time during the day in which to join him. We’d talk for hours—about what, I have no memory—always in Spanish. I became fluent, though I continued to make mistakes, which Feña refused to correct because he thought they were funny.

The other roommates were around in the evenings and on weekends, which made for a handy built-in social group. There was almost always a handful of people in the living room watching TV or talking; sometimes we’d go out to a bar, make dinner together, or have parties. Feña had a few friends who were over all the time, and who quickly became our friends as well.

In addition to being the center of our little social circle, Feña was the one who dropped off the rent for our apartment each month, along with what are called gastos comunes (shared expenses), which went to cover costs in the building like electricity, maintenance, and paying the doorman. Or he was supposed to.

I was in Chiloe, an island in the south of Chile, helping with research on birds for a few weeks, when I got a phone call from my roommate Jackie. The electricity in the apartment had been cut off, after which it came out that the gastos comunes hadn’t been paid in about six months. Since Feña was the only one who had any contact with the landlady, none of the rest of us had any idea that she wasn’t getting paid.

The missing money added up to more than US$1,000, more than we could have come up with by pooling our resources, even if we’d been so inclined. And the landlady wasn’t likely to forgive the debt, not after Daniel, a Chilean who’d lived in the apartment before I moved in, had unexpectedly disappeared almost a year earlier with several months of rent money—which she did forgive. Feña had been scathing in his condemnation of Daniel, saying he couldn’t understand how anyone could do that to friends.

So we all moved out. I was still in Chiloe and was afraid the landlady would change the locks before I got back, so a friend and her boyfriend picked up my stuff one night and moved it to her spare room. When I got back, I went to the apartment to check whether anything of mine had been left behind. I’d never seen it entirely empty of people before. All the furniture was still there, the sink was full of dirty dishes, and it looked a little like the people who lived there were just out for the day. The bedrooms, though, were empty and a little eerie.

When I told the Chileans at the ceramics studio where I took classes what had happened, they seemed unsurprised. “Chileans steal,” said one. “It’s too bad, but it’s just the way it is.” Another said she'd once seen a sign in a store in another Latin American country warning people to be on the lookout for Chileans stealing things. (Earlier this year, a Chilean was even arrested for stealing a glacier.) They weren’t talking about themselves, though. These leisure-class women would never steal. They’d never need to. They were perfectly comfortable making generalizations about their country, knowing it didn’t apply to them.

Through Craigslist, I found an apartment less than a block away on Lastarria, and Jackie, who’d already found a new place, went with me to check it out. We liked both the apartment and the two Chilean girls who lived there, Angela and Maria Jose, so I moved in.

The outside of the apartment on Lastarria. Its the nondescript one to the left of the pink building.
  • Julia Thiel
  • The outside of the apartment on Lastarria. It's the middle building.

Being a foreigner in Chile without a work visa means there are certain things you can’t do. Rent your own apartment, for example, or open a bank account. It makes getting paid for working tricky too; when I was teaching English I had to “borrow” the identification number of a Chilean in order to get paid (the taxes that were automatically deducted from my pay would later go back to that person). I’d cash the check and keep the money in my room.

While I was living with Angela and Maria Jose, I did a big translation project for which the payment method was especially odd: to avoid high taxes for employing a foreigner, the organization that hired me asked me to find a Chilean to whom they could pay the money I was owed, who’d then pass it on to me. None of my friends were able to do it, though, so it ended up being a friend of a friend; upon completion of the project, $800 was deposited in his bank account.

If you’re thinking this is where things go wrong, it’s not. He very obligingly withdrew the cash from his account and handed it over to me. I took it home, where it immediately disappeared from the drawer beside my bedside table.

I filed a police report, knowing that they wouldn’t be able to do anything. I’d been inventing scenarios in my head where a masked thief rappelled in through the open window beside my bed, but the practical police officer who came out to investigate thought it was more likely to have been one of my roommates. “Would you leave a bird in a room with a cat?” he asked. I didn’t tell the people at my ceramics studio about the theft.

A few days later I moved in with Mauricio, a friend of a friend whom I’d gotten to know a few months earlier when he hired me for private English classes. He was sharing his place with a Colombian named Alfredo, and there was an unfurnished third bedroom. On short notice, Mauricio gave me the bottom part of his trundle bed to sleep on and even bought a dresser for me to use.

In Chile, most people live at home until they get married. If they don’t marry, they may never leave home. My roommates in the third place I lived in Santiago had been two women in their mid-40s who’d only moved out of their parents’ homes a couple years earlier. Mauricio and Alfredo had both recently left the nest as well, and being men in Latin America, they’d never had to take care of themselves before. It didn’t occur to them that when a pot boiled over on the stove, they should clean up the aftermath. Still, they were open to suggestions. I mentioned one day that the refrigerator smelled terrible and ten minutes later I looked up to see them scrubbing away at the inside.

I trusted both of them entirely, but I also divided up the cash that I had and put it in various hiding places. As far as I know, none of it disappeared—but I can’t say for sure because I had a tendency to forget where I’d hidden it. I returned to the U.S. a couple months after I moved in with Alfredo and Mauricio.

Three years after that, I visited Chile again for the first time since I'd left. Mauricio picked me up from the airport and took me to a barbecue with his family, where his grandmother kept telling him to “give the gringa more food, she’s too thin.” (In Chile, “gringo” isn’t considered derogatory.) He arranged a welcome party for me with Alfredo and a few other friends the night after I arrived, and a few nights later, a going-away party. And I had a little extra cash to spend on the trip—sorting through old stuff a few months earlier, I'd discovered $80,000 Chilean pesos (around US$160) tucked into a folder I used in Chile.

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