Coffee & Legs With The Spy At The End Of The World
“I can see the mountains”, said T, once or twice.
You never know who you’ll meet outside a McDonald’s. J, the former spy waits under the Golden Arches with S, his wife. It’s a hot mid-summer’s day in downtown Santiago – the city at the end of the world (as the residents call it). J’s dressed for warmer weather and frail. As we approach he turns to slyly grip S’ elbow – something he’ll do over the course of the next few hours. S will rarely leave his side, she knows he’s been sick, knows that for him to meet us has meant at least two bus rides. Not that he would accept us making the trip instead.
J is T’s contact – a living link to an incredible period of Chilean history. In the last decade it’s J who helped T piece together the backstory of Salvador Allende’s premiership of Chile – a brief run of three years that ended with a coup. J knows everything because he was there. There are things I could say, but it would be unfair. It’s still sensitive. Just imagine your wildest espionage dreams and J will better them. By the way, that’s not his real name; it came from a headstone. If you’re interested, there’s an amazing book that touches on some of his deeds.
T and J talk, but my Spanish can hardly stretch to his fast Cuban dialect. Instead I try to strike up a conversation with S, but all I can grasp is she’s a big fan of Downtown Abbey and Kate Middleton. We hand over the Royal Wedding edition of Hello magazine she’s asked us to bring.
At my most German
As they chat, I look at the city. I can see San Cristobal Hill. The next day we’ll take a cab up to the top, to the public swimming pool we visited on New Year’s Day. We’ll burn as we swim. Under the pergola, I’ll watch teenage boys impress their dates by executing elaborate swan dives. They’ll launch their squat stocky bodies, leap and hit the surface with a thud. Broad shoulders will bring them to an absolute stop underwater so I can read the tattoos: crosses, the Virgin Mary, the name ANGEL. Later at dinner some friends will say Santiago has a hole in its ozone layer. There’s more UV raining down here than on Death Valley.
I catch J checking me out. I realise I’m quite tense. I’m being judged in a small way. J is quite protective of T and even though he’s a good twenty years older than her Dad, I’m pretty sure he can’t pull the moves this guy has to offer.
But he’s an old man right? What can he do? S mentions their family is worried about him. On their last visit, J slipped into his tradecraft when a couple of muggers challenged him at a city bus stop. They didn’t expect J to disarm and throw them to the ground. J doesn’t say anything. It never happened.
We walk between the tall buildings looking for lunch. Santiago is studded with skyscrapers, viewing platforms and plazas. Most of the buildings are modernist blocks that give the centre the peculiar quality of resembling a set from a Gerry Anderson television show. But these structures look good for their age. Buoyant vegetation falls from the balconies, there are bright, simple blocks of painted colour to break up the planes of unfinished concrete.
Across town, new buildings erupt. Two developers – rumoured rival families – are fuelling the boom. This year one will trump the other by opening the Gran Torre Costanera, which at 300m will not only be the tallest building in Santiago, but Latin America too. Interestingly, the city’s architects are not above a little plagiarism. Gustavo Krefft rebuilt Philadelphia’s One Liberty Place as the Edificio Cruz Blanca building. Overlooking the Palacio de la Moneda, is the Edificio Simon Bolivar – a perfect copy of Philip Johnson’s AT&T building in New York.
These buildings tower over another peculiar local business. Between the shops you’ll find branches of Coffee & Legs. But this ain’t no Starbucks to lounge in and update your tumblr. Instead, Coffee & Legs is a quick pit stop for the city’s men to grab a cappuccino from a barista in a skimpy skirt. They serve from behind a sparse bar with no modesty panel and for these baristas there seems to be a distinctive career path. The young and pretty get the city centre and high hemlines. But move to the outskirts and the skirts stop just above the knees. In these branches, a cigarette is often between their lips and the hands that serve you look like they’ve twisted the bed linen of the city’s maternity unit a couple of times.
I never got the nerve to go in, but why stop at legs when you can have everything? Yes there is Coffee & Everything, and that means everything. There is no window to peer through, so I couldn’t see how nubile women serving highly caffeinated drinks to middle-age men actually functions as a business without killing them. All I can guess is they have a crash cart behind the counter. Perhaps you can see it, once you’re in there.
My favourite place in Santiago? That would be the bandstand in the main square where the old men play chess. It costs 50p to rent a set for the whole day, so these dudes sit in the sunshine with a cigarette in one hand, frantically bashing out chess sequences. More coffee is served to fuel them on. Our match drew a few onlookers, not because we’re any good, but because I was playing T – a woman! At first we were a curiosity, and then we were an annoyance as demand for tables outstripped supply. Eventually a pair of crinkled men suggested a series of manoeuvres to bolster T’s defence and push for attack. Or rather, they left her Queen open for me to take. Checkmate. As we walked away, I swear they took our table.
And the worst? Lunch with J and S in an Italian restaurant. There are good restaurants in Santiago, but they’re few in number and this wasn’t one of them. Imagine Fettuccini a la Pesto and I’m sure you don’t picture half-cooked spaghetti swimming in a pesto/cream soup. As J walked to the bar, he gripped my shoulder and I’d like to think, looking back, it was some form of tacit approval. Yeah, who am I kidding?