The hardwood floorboards are stained with playful shades of green, pink, yellow, and purple. The colored glass window in the kitchen glows cheerfully with daylight. Though the apartment came mostly unfurnished, an ancient armoire in the bedroom isn’t going anywhere and probably had to be built in the apartment itself. Eight foot tall double doors in the bedroom lead out onto a streetside balcony and sunlight floods the room, reflecting off the hardwood floors to reach the ten foot high ceiling.
The Llama and I found an apartment that we find beautiful and inspiring. On the top floor of a city mansion built in 1906, we have our own kitchen, bathroom, balcony, antechamber, and massive bedroom, full of natural light.
We live in Barrio Brasil, a neighborhood of Santiago that has been called “up-and-coming” for decades. Mostly built in the Neoclassical style in the first part of the 20th century, the facades ooze nostalgia and glory-gone-by. At eye level every surface is painted with graffiti or street art. Looking up, wrought iron balconies and aged window panes capture my imagination. The neighborhood was built to accommodate a cosmopolitan upper class between the 18th and 19th century; by the mid-20th century it was abandoned for expansion to the then-suburbs of Providencia. Many of the old buildings were rocked by an earthquake in 1985, and subsequently abandoned or demolished. This home was practically untouched.
Our first night in our new place, the Llama and I planned to sign our contract, pay the deposit, and rush out to the mall to buy a bed. Fifty minutes later, I found myself swinging from a wooden platform built in the living room of the ground floor, belly warm from laughing and a 2004 Carmenere, begging the Llama between giggles to help me dismount gracefully and safely as our new landlord gleefully looked on, encouraging and enjoying our youthful energy.
The house is owned by Palolo Valdes, a fairly well-known Chilean sculptor. He contributed to the reconstruction of a few other 20th century homes in the neighborhood, but in this house he established his workshop. He converted half of the home into individual apartments where we and two other couples live, in addition to a small apartment for himself. The other half of the home serves as a sculpture gallery and workspace, leaving plenty of rooms to indulge in other house projects that suit his whimsy and sense of fun. The result is stunning.
The swing in the original living room is just one example of this. He showed off the strength of his creative iron shelves by climbing up onto them with his entire body weight and encouraged us both to do the same. He delighted in our fascination with the way he has installed painted glass into the floorboards of the building, so one has the sensation of walking on air while seeing through to the room beneath, a quality featured in our apartment as well. The house is labyrinthine, like a Neo-classical fun house full of his and his mother’s paintings, heritage furnishings, and of course, plentiful and epic iron and natural stone sculpture.
As you can imagine, the reality of living in a mansion built in Chile in 1906 and refurbished by a sculptor is more than a little quixotic. We did not buy a bed that first night, nor for many nights after, so we spent a month in our sleeping bags on camping pads in the kitchen, the only room we could begin to keep warm. There is no source of heat, and we moved in at the start of winter in the southern hemisphere. Though the daytime sunshine is warm, evening temperatures often fall to 40 or 30 degrees Fahrenheit, and the insulation is miserable. But it sure is pretty!
I couldn’t have dreamed up a more perfect place to live at this stage in our lives. As newlyweds, we cuddle up close to stay warm and offer each other gifts of hot tea. I hover over the oven to make our dinner, and the Llama warms his hands while washing the dishes (when the hot water works, that is). We are deliriously happy with the sound of rain as it patters on the roof or when the organ grinder passes below our balcony on lazy Sunday mornings. We live a block from the efficient metro system, have three grocery stores within a couple blocks from us, and a feria that pops up on Tuesdays and Fridays for fresh fruits and vegetables. We can walk to an incredible outdoor climbing gym in less than 15 minutes. Hard to believe, but we didn’t even know it existed when we moved into the neighborhood!
Life isn’t always easy in our beautiful apartment, but it sure is good. Though we worry about bills and try to use just enough gas to stay sane, rent is low and we don’t complain. We have space to be creative together, do yoga, invite friends over, and spread out if we want to. But we know we’re lucky in more ways than one, and often start and end the day the same way: side by side.
Barrio Brasil: Located just west of el centro and the Plaza de Armas, Barrio Brasil is one of the coolest neighborhoods in Santiago. There have been some gentrification projects, and I see occasional press clippings about how young professionals (like us) are moving into the area. But it still has a great down-on-its-luck vibe that feels distinctly Chilean in a not-made-for-tourists way. Small independent shops sell fruits and veggies out of crates along with cigarettes, toilet paper, and $3.00 bottles of wine. Haitian and Peruvian immigrants moved into the area not too long ago, which means happy music coming from workshops and apartment buildings and more tropical foodstuffs like coconut milk and plantain chips found in the area markets. From home, we can walk to chic Barrio Lastarria to go to work or meet up with friends, or head in the other direction for a pensive afternoon at the Museo de La Memoria y Los Derechos Humans. Ideal!
Paolo Valdes: Our landlord. You can see images of his work here. He is a very cool guy!