Updated: Oct 16, 2020
The Philosphy Professor
The next morning Jeremy woke up and fled his room immediately. It was a mixture of excitement and claustrophobia that urged him to leave so early. Sure, it was reassuring for Leeds University to arrange his accommodation but Juan’s presence was getting overbearing and annoying. He knew the old man meant well and was thankful for the hospitality; picking him with the car was a massive help, but there was only so much phonic nonsense he could take before confessing his real thoughts about Thatcher, Churchill and Augusto, whoever the hell that pink-cheeked General was. He picked a perfectly round and red apple from the tree in Juan’s garden and left before the old sergeant woke up.
Crumpled in his pocket, Jeremy ferried a document directed to a certain Mr. Dominguez who was to be his contact in La Serena. He also had a map of the city which highlighted the campus with a red ring. What the map did not say was that the University was situated at the top of a hill and that the clambering would leave him confused and gasping for air when he arrived to the top an hour later. The views of the white-washed city were breath-taking as his sight stretched all the way to the Pacific coastline but he was also completely lost. He roamed around like a spaced-out vagabond trying to find the semblance of a reception area. Around him were a series of Spanish colonial looking manor houses scattered around pine trees and wild bushes. Then Jeremy spotted a larger more graceful building with an Islamic looking minaret which he identified as the University library. As soon as he entered the old nineteenth century shaped edifice Jeremy was knocked back by the smell of dampness. He thought he had discovered the smell of time past. Around him hundreds of old books were stacked in cupboards and shelves. Opposite the door there was a small wooden desk guarded by a skinny man with a moustache. Jeremy had never seen such a finely shaped moustache. -Morning. Busco a señor Dominguez- he uttered, struggling to find his Spanish amidst the fogginess of the tiredness in his mind.
The man laughed mockingly and pointed towards the entrance where Jeremy had just come from.
-Oficina? –Asked Jeremy.
He volunteered to take Jeremy personally. His name was Ulises and if Jeremy had ever read the Odyssey he would have probably enjoyed the irony of being guided to a simple office by the most notorious adventurer of antiquity. Ulises was chirpy and good-humoured. He spoke very little English but enjoyed practicing the few words he had picked up from Bob Dylan songs and American Indie movies. He said Jeremy reminded him of Kurt Cobain. Jeremy laughed. No one had ever thought he looked anything like the Grunge junky/prince before. He realised he was on the other side of the world and it was the first time in his life he could re-invent himself, he could be whoever the hell he wanted. Though he would probably choose someone with less opiate addictions. He had gone there to change.
-Do you know Jarvis Cocker? –asked Jeremy.
-I know cock –he replied. Jeremy laughed too. He noticed Ulises was wearing a red bracelet with the words Che Guevara sown in and wondered what his host señor Juan would think of him.
-Who was Augusto? –asked Jeremy shyly again as they walked towards a clay coloured building opposite the library.
Ulises did not answer. His expression changed suddenly and he smirked awkwardly as he moved forward. Jeremy followed him. They entered the more industrial-looking building and Ulises pointed to the door of an office at the end of the hallway. Then he disappeared muttering about the moods of Mr. Dominguez and a fear for his own physical wellbeing. Jeremy knocked on the glass door twice and took a step back. No answer. He knocked again. Nothing. He could hear some noise inside the office but dared not push the door. There was no sign to indicate he was in the right place. His sense of reality took a momentary look at itself. Was he actually at Mr.Dominguez’s door? Was he at the University in La Serena? 8000 miles from home. In Chile itself. Trying to enrol for a semester in a nation whose name he found difficult to pronounce. Wat was it Chill/i/, Chill/ei/Chill/e/?
That morning he could not even find cigarettes on his way to the university. There were no Off-licenses in Chil/ei/. He did not recognise the nature of the shops he had seen on his way to his learning place. Were they Groceries? Or Post offices? Or newspaper agents? Or something else? Inquiring eyes were set on him at every corner. Not necessarily hostile but curious and weary. There weren’t as many foreigners in La Serena as in other places in the country. He felt the massive brown eyes of his nation analysing his clothes, his long hair, the piercing on his nose. He felt removed from the town folk and from the image of himself. Like if he had been transported to an oneiric space designed to keep the experience of walking stamped in his mind rather than in his senses.
Psyches make sure you never forget the first time you walk in a city. They imprint the experience in your subconscious. The first time you walk in a city, especially in a new continent, your mind takes cerebral pictures of the topography. You are overwhelmed with uncertainty and emotion. You question the nature of reality. In Jeremy’s case the hangover of twenty seven days of partying before his departure was also catching up with him. What time was it in Leeds? What were his mates doing? Most of them were either in their final year of university or getting ready to go to prison. Why did he leave? Gone so far? For what? Didn’t that Spanish poet he had studied in the previous semester say that we carry our ruins wherever we go? Or was the poet Greek? Even the air was strange. It was lighter and cleaner and this led to his lungs having to calibrate the new fabric of the atmosphere. He breathed hesitantly and felt dizzy and light-headed. The lack of sleep was probably not helping either. Bloody jetlag! Made the experience even more confusing! Who knew what the hell was going on in those initial moments of encounter with a new continent?!
Why was he even there? Did he even care about the discovery of reality in distant countries? Would he not be better with his cup of tea watching the footie with his drunken father? What had he lost in the other side of the world that made him land there?
He was pondering on his fate outside his tutor’s office when two tall, dark sculpted Chilean girls skipped passed him. They were entangled in each other’s arms and laughed profusely as they floated upon the floor like ice-skaters in the rink. As they overtook his position one of the girls, the prettiest of the two who must have been in her early twenties, turned her head and exerted the most open and scintillating water-melon smile Jeremy had ever witnessed in his life. In Leeds, girls had only looked at him to ask for drugs or cigarettes. It was him who had to pursue them around pubs and clubs like a drunken buffoon. That early morning Chilean smile was different. It was healthy and pure like a bowl of fruit. It renewed him. As the girl disappeared down the corridor, Jeremy designed a quick mental map of her features; thick carmine lips, Egyptian skin, blue sandals/ Greek style, long skinny arms and wide fleshy hips. She did not look anything like the girls he knew in Leeds. A new wind entered his chest pipes. He concluded that his adventure would start there; 17th November, Chile 1997, the resurrection, the awakening, his time, his ascent, his maturity. But who was she? How could he find out about her? Something had shifted in the fogginess of his subconscious. Something he could not describe with language. He pushed the door of the office open with a new rediscovered vigour only to find his excitement give away to a new awkwardness and stress.
-A la chucha! –howled the voice from inside the room.
-Sorry, perdón –whispered Jeremy as he retreated.
Jeremy had never heard the expression before but he felt that no Spanish class was needed to understand the half-naked middle-aged bearded man crouching over the table was asking him to FUCK OFF.
-Perdón, perdón –he repeated.
-¡Chucha tu madre!
In the afternoon Jeremy sat round the table with Juan and his wife Catalina to experience his first ever Chilean tea-time. It was five o’clock and Jeremy expected a cup of PG tips with milk. What he did not realise was that the Chilean version included fresh tomatoes, the biggest tomatoes he had ever seen, a green oval shaped super egg they called palta or aguacate, freshly baked rolls and a selection of different types of cheese and ham. Catalina was a stupendous host. She was graceful and joyful. The table was set with poetry and precision fit for the most expensive restaurants in the world. Not that Jeremy would know anything about table-setting. In his home in Leeds, mum served dinner on a plastic tray in front of the TV set. It was one of the first times in his life he would share food with adults around an actual table. It was a delightful experience. Even Juan was more pleasant at tea-time. He acted different around Catalina. He was quieter and did not mention Margaret Thatcher once. Jeremy sighed with pleasure and relief. -What are you studying here dear–asked Catalina. She spoke with a perfectly refined Cambridge accent with the odd North-American cadence.
-Latin American studies. Going to choose literature and philosophy classes.
-Who is your favourite writer from Chile? –asked Catalina.
-Most of the good ones were communist or homosexual or both –butted in Juan –no use for them.
Catalina glared at Juan with a stare that would have belittled Alexander the Great. Juan receded and stuck half a tomato into his mouth.
-Juan lo prometiste –whispered Catalina.
Jeremy remembered reading some Neruda at university but he could not think of any other writer from Chile. His ignorance embarrassed him and he changed the subject quickly commenting on the surprisingly pleasant weather.
-Chile is the country with best weather in Latin America –assured Juan –especially here in La Serena, it gets cold but never cloudy for too long. At night if you go to Atacama you can see most of the stars of the universe.
Catalina mocked Juan.
-Most of the stars?
-Many –I mean- lots, a lot of many.
Stars. Jeremy had never spoken about the stars. His family conversation had revolved around TV programs and football games. Who the hell spoke about the stars at tea?
-There are no stars in Leeds.
-We don’t speak about them or see them.
-That does not mean they are not there.
-How do you say star in Spanish?
-Estrella. It’s the same word as to crush.
-I know some stars who crashed.
-They often do. Except Augusto.
-Juan you promised. Not in the dinner table.
-I know. I know.