The Girl, the Brow and the Ice-Cream
It was the Friday of a long weekend and, in true hobo fashion, two friends and I had purchased the cheapest impromptu bus tickets we could find to take us to the Pisco Valley in Chile. We thought a few nights drinking Chile’s national spirit under the stars, playing ukulele and sharing stories would be the sort of timeless romanticised weekend ABBA might feature in one of their music videos. (Think Fernando minus the war connotations.)
However, 14 hours on a bus later, we ended up in La Serena in the dark. A dusky industrial town, with freezing, ominous narrow streets and a giant shopping mall, La Serena was anything but our idyll. We hadn’t planned ahead. We had no hostel, no map and no idea what we were doing. We had also estimated that our bus would be six hours, not more than double that. As a result, we had packed no food and were starving.
Grumpy and disappointed, we headed for the only place with both WiFi and food: the commercial monstrosity that was the four-storey mall by the bus terminal.
Like all shopping centres everywhere, this “Mall Plaza” had its air conditioning up too high, its lights too fluorescent and too many people shuffling around like livestock eating fried things in bread. Needless to say, our meal of desperation in the food court was not a Chilean culinary adventure to be envious of. Finally, to further aggravate our mental states, not one of us could connect to the free WiFi.
It was ridiculous, hysterical, hilarious. I began to laugh at what felt like our doomed weekend. We would have to stay in the shopping centre — it was, after all, open 24 hours. It was also in this moment of mishap-induced delirium that I forgot that I like to be a conscious and aware human being, and allowed my social decorum to fall away completely.
I had just noticed a little girl with a monobrow.
I lost it. “Lily! Look! That girl looks like a young Frida Kahlo.”
I screeched this. My voice had risen; I had yelled this in English across the food court linoleum at, not to, my friend Lily. I hadn’t pointed, but I really didn’t need to. It was obvious who and what I was referring to.
Lily had turned around, stifled a snort, agreed emphatically and began a heated discussion of whether the correct eyebrow term was: uni– or mono– brow. We thought we were sheltered in a cone of linguistic autonomy. Everyone around us was Chilean — we could say what we liked, when we liked, how we liked and no one would understand us. Our discussions were incoherent and covert, but you should read that as inconsiderate and crass.
Little Frida Kahlo and her mother were eating icecream. Little Frida was oblivious to our presence and our impassioned discussions of her inevitable primary school bullies. We were oblivious to the fact that we were being bullies ourselves. We were wondering if she knew a spitfire caterpillar was growing on her forehead. Frida’s mother, however, stared over at us with protective parent burning in her eyes. She motioned for her daughter to get up and then stalked in her clacky heels towards our table.
She knocked a chair. “Dis-cul-pa,” she hissed, with emphasis on each syllable. To be more emphatic, with each utterance, she twisted her unfinished ice-cream cone into my cleavage. Coffee flavoured ice-cream melted into my bra as she stalked away in her shiny shoes across an even shinier floor.
I laughed because I wanted to cry. I was instantly hyper-sensitive to my actions and the fact that all actions have consequences. It’s something not enough people think of when we consider the environment, or our volume, or when insulting a poor young Chilean girl in a food court just because her eyebrows meet in the middle.
Speaking English doesn’t give us immunity to cultural awareness. Too often, English locks you in a bubble that lets you believe you can say what you like, when you like, without anyone understanding. Globalisation and the increasing spread of English aside, just because someone can’t understand something you say doesn’t always mean you should say it.
Little Frida will probably grow up to be a strong, independent and creative woman. My rude gawking in a Chilean food court will probably be forgotten.
But I will never forget how cold consequences feel as they melt into your boobs and one clean bra.