Our summer vacations had been cut short. We had arrived mid-way through the school year – the Southern Hemisphere scholastic calendar runs generally from February to December - and had to catch up with the regular kids. Summer had now been pushed back to Christmas. The loss of the season was harder to take than the shorter vacation. My catching up on cartoons and building forts for my G.I. Joes would have to be put on standby. Dad went back to work as usual, but now to a new address in downtown Santiago. My mother, the proven brilliant multitasker, was left scrambling for last minute uniform purchases, receiving our shipment from Venezuela and enrolling us into a school. It is easy to take for granted the degree of difficulty to register your children and purchase new uniforms halfway through the school year. Props to my mom! She managed to enroll us into the Alliance Française de Saint-Exupéry, located on Avenida Luis Pasteur. We really did not have much time to settle in as a family with all the running back and forth but remaining in a French curriculum would help the transition as it had been the only constant thing in our lives for Brian and I.
I was really nervous about starting school this time around. Sure it was the French school, but everything about it had been changed on me. This time I was much more self-conscious about every single moment I was going through. All the possible 'what if' scenarios were running through my mind. My stomach was tied in a million knots and butterflies in there were managing to get through these somehow. The route to the Alliance would be the same every morning, but our first drive there engraved an everlasting memory in my mental chip. Just before reaching the major intersection of Vespucio Norte with Apoquindo, we would take a side road taking us by the General Bernardo O’Higgins Military School which I noticed right away out the right window of our family the car. Every morning, rain or shine – or sleet on some occasions – the military students would parade in impeccable Prussian-looking uniforms. They appeared as if they were preparing for a full-scale invasion of France. Watching them march completely synchronized was both a thing of beauty but also extremely intimidating. As I watched on, it seemed almost as if I could see all of their routine in slow motion. Absolutely flawless. I began to hope that the French did not exercise this level of discipline in their Alliance. Images of military parades and uniformity continued to dominate my thoughts as I rode the back seat next to my brother. What did we get into this time?
When my mother, Brian and I arrived to the alliance, morning classes were already in progress. We were by no means late. We were delayed as Brian and I had to attend interviews in the morning with the cigarette-smelling proviseur – the principal – who held our fate and future in the school with just a stroke of a pen. After successfully obtaining the approval of this principal, one of his minions was going to escort me to my new classroom. I was not looking forward to bringing all kinds of unwanted attention on my first day. I walked down the cold hallways following Inspecteur Mario - the equivalent of a prison guard for me at the time – to the classroom where I would be spending most of my days. He knocked on a heavy green metal door and a lady with glasses and long, salt and pepper hair answered the knock. She introduced herself as Madame Jasmine and suggested I enter the classroom - not like I had much of a choice. My first task as the new kid was to stand in front of the class and say a few words about myself to my new peer. My best attempt to briefly explain my story, my life in Venezuela, my father working for the Canadian Embassy and my family being Canadian seemed complicated for most of my 8 year-old colleagues to grasp.
After my awkward self-introduction, I felt really out of place and made my way to the back of the classroom, sitting next to a chubby-looking kid. This was a perfect hiding place now, as all students were expected to face forward while Madame Jasmine did her thing. No more attention drawn to myself! The kid I previously mentioned, my back-row neighbour, appeared to react positively to my arrival. He mentioned that his name was Stéphane Simon, he was French and had not been in Santiago very long either. I gained more confidence as my new cellmate and formed an unspoken agreement to watch out for each other. I was off to a good start. Next thing I knew, the sweetest sounding liberty bell rang. I thought to myself, already recess? I actually walked out of the room - as opposed to the Olympic style sprinting I had perfected from my days in Caracas - and many of the other kids from my class were waiting on the other side of the green monster of a door. To my surprise, they were not waiting for a traditional welcome hazing of some sort. I am still surprised to this day that they actually waited for me to introduce themselves so I would feel welcome and meet the gang.
They were mostly Chilean kids. They spoke to me again in that melodious Spanish I had heard from Osvaldo and I replied in my best Venezuelan. They thought something was wrong with my linguistic skills and took it upon themselves to coach me on how to speak like a proper kid. The basics of normal language were “al tiro”, “cachai”, “despelote” and of course my all-time favourite, “ya po”. These lads became my good friends throughout my time in Chile. The names I can recall were those of Alfonso Barneche, Allen Rosemberg, Cristian Salinas, Felipe Olate and Felipe Schapira. Everyone also had a respective nickname, so I had to remember that as I was now part of the group. Schapira was the one with the hook-up for recess. He explained that he always brought his soccer ball to school and the game would begin as soon as the bell rang. We would play until the next bell would go off and go back to the classroom. After this explanation, another follow-up yet logical comment followed: do you like football? This was the perfect time to share my stories of the Venezuelan clásicos in Colegio Francia which helped in creating a new bond. Football - soccer for North Americans - was my tool to bridge the cultural gap and perhaps because it has been a strong common interest for many kids, has always been another one of my life long interests.
(For more info on the General Bernardo O'Higgins Military School, uniforms, pictures and videos check this link out: http://www.pickelhauben.net/articles/South%20America.html)