Even though it was set back from the road and obscured by an imposing wall, the official residence of the Australian Ambassador to Chile wasn’t too hard to find. Situated on the busy Avenida Americo Vespucio Norte in the upmarket neighbourhood of Vitacura, there were two features that clearly set it apart from its neighbours. The first was the embossed coat of arms fixed to the wall, bearing the unmistakable figures of a kangaroo and an emu; the second was the small guard’s booth tucked in beside the tall gate blocking off the driveway. It was obvious that this was no ordinary home.

Pulling the invitation out of my pocket, I walked up to the guard’s booth. The uniformed woman inside looked at me and then at the creased piece of paper in my hand before taking it from me. There was a small buzz and a click and the automatic gate slid open. “Through there,” the guard said, gesturing to a well lit doorway in one of two large buildings inside the sprawling compound. I thanked her and walked up the gravel driveway in the direction of the light. It was about 7.25 on a Monday evening.

I was here on behalf of the Santiago Times, an English language online newspaper that operates out of the same office as my writing job. The editor had received an invitation to a reception that was being held for a delegation from the University of Sydney and being the only Australian in the office, she had asked if I’d be interested in going. That was before anyone knew I was a USyd grad. Without any hesitation, I said yes. It was way too good an idea to pass up. I had the evening free after arranging for a replacement at my teaching job and was now looking forward to mingling with the crowd while sampling the wine and nibblies.

When I got to the doorway, I was welcomed by a man and woman in smart uniforms who took my coat, scarf and bag and introduced me to Carolina, whom I’d spoken to on the phone the week before. She ushered me inside the main room and obediently, I followed. It looked as if it had been taken straight out of a 1970s architecture textbook. There was wood panelling, stone columns, an unused fireplace and lots of creams and browns. It was also warm, which in the middle of a Santiago winter is definitely a plus. Spread around the room were small groups of well dressed people sipping wine and pisco sour, while maintaining polite conversation. It was just like the conferences I used to attend all the time back in Australia. The only thing missing was my trusty stack of business cards.

“Let me introduce to Professor Hearn,” Carolina said, leading me over to a short, grey haired gentleman who was chatting to a very tall man in glasses. I knew from the invitation that Professor Hearn was the Vice President of the university’s international division and the head of the delegation.

“Professor Hearn, this is Tim Dixon from the Santiago Times,” she said.

“Pleased to meet you,” said the professor in his soothing voice that carried a hint of an English accent. “Where are you from?”

“Well I’m originally from Sydney but I’ve been living here for about six months. I actually studied at the University of Sydney not so long ago.” Bingo.

“Oh, good,” the professor said with a chuckle. “It certainly is nice to meet you.”

The tall man nodded. “I didn’t think your name sounded very Spanish,” he added. It was my turn to laugh politely.

Before we had a chance to say anything else, Carolina returned to introduce another woman to Professor Hearn. Her name was Connie and she had completed a Master of Strategic PR at Sydney University in 2010.

“And how did you find it studying in Sydney?” asked the professor in that same soothing voice.

“It was great,” she replied. “I really enjoyed my time there.” Connie also spoke English with a British accent.

Before Professor Hearn had the chance to ask her another question, Carolina returned with someone else to introduce him. He excused himself and we moved away.

“So what part of the uni were you studying in?” I asked Connie.

“I was in the Arts faculty.”

“I see. Did you have anything to do with the Media and Communications department while you were studying PR?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Wow. That’s where I studied as well. Do you remember any of the teachers you had?”

“Well the one I worked the most with was Richard Stanton…” Bingo.

“Yeah, he taught me Media Relations in…what year was it? It must have been 2005,” I said as I took the glass of red wine from the tray hovering in front of me. “He had that shock of white hair and he was really into political communications…”

“That’s Richard,” Connie said laughing.

After swapping a few more Richard Stanton anecdotes, we crashed a conversation between two other Chilean Usyd graduates who were standing behind us. Jessica had done a Master of Commerce and her friend, whose name I’ve forgotten, had completed a Masters degree in Education.

The conversation now turned to Spanish and I strained to understand what was being said above the buzz of conversation that was filling the room. As the other three kept talking, I turned my concentration to the just-bigger-than-bite-size canapé in my hand. This was going to be tricky. I waited until everyone else was absorbed in the conversation and then opened my mouth as wide as I could . Wham. Thankfully I managed to polish it off without looking like a complete slob. Mission accomplished, it was time to throw myself back into the conversation.

“So what did you like the most about Sydney?” I asked, turning to Jessica.

“Oh, I loved Coogee Beach.” We all nodded in agreement and began sharing stories about Sydney’s other attractions. The Opera House. The Blue Mountains. Manly. Then the topic of the conversation switched to where the Chilean students had lived while they were in Sydney.

Glebe. Bingo. We talked about the 431, the Glebe Markets and Bicentennial Park. Stanmore Bingo.

“I lived in Stanmore too,” chimed in Jessica’s nameless friend. “But then I moved to Marrickville…” Double Bingo.

Without thinking, I rudely interrupted. “Whereabouts in Marrickville? That’s where I grew up?”

“Near the Subway.”

Subway? I racked my brain, trying to locate the Subway Restaurant on the map in my mind. But I couldn’t locate it.

“Hang on,” said the nameless friend correcting herself. “Not the subway, the train. The station.” Bingo.

“That’s really close to where my parents live,” I said. I grinned as I grabbed another nibbly. “So what did you think of Marrickville?” I asked in Spanish.

All of a sudden, the conversation seemed much easier to follow.

Advertisements