Valparaíso’s genius loci as the spirit of a place of return
Sitting in the dining area of our hostel at a table with a blue and white checkered table cloth, my travel companions and I take a slow start to the morning, eating our bread and assorted jams, drinking coffee, writing in our journals. My friend suddenly comes out and says: “it’s like, almost stressful not being able to capture this place when I write. It’s just so beautiful and unique and I want to include every detail, but even then I feel like it wouldn’t be enough.” I responded asking whether or not that is the entire challenge of writing, when writing about a place. Sometimes it does feel impossible, especially when there are so many wonderful things surrounding you, so many special experiences detailing one’s journey, and so many to come. I experienced the same stress of wanting to remember everything, every detail, absorbing all the wonderfulness around me within only my first moments of arriving in Valparaíso, Chile, one of my destinations during my spring break.
The city is located on the coast of Chile, and is an important seaport and cultural center for the country. It is known to be the “San Francisco of South America,” and although there are certain parallels between the two cities, I find this to be an unfair comparison. There are steep, winding hills with raised sidewalks made of stone steps, brightly colored houses, and a view of the sea, all like San Francisco, but it’s still so different. Making the hike back up to our hostel on one of these rigid hills, in between the houses you can get a glimpse of the other hills that lie beyond, and the pop-colored rainbow of structures, lingering in the fog from the sea, effortlessly resting on dangerous dirt edges; it seems that only a huff and a puff would be enough to blow them off the cliff. Thus I think it could be easy to say that the genius loci
, the spirit of this place, is embodied in all of these beautiful houses up on the hills, the guardians of the sea. But then I could say that the smell of the sea embodies that the town is a port, or that the people who live in the houses embody the town as a whole. And a loop could continue forever.
So then I turn to look at my own experience in the city, instead of viewing what the entire location has to offer as a generalization, I think of what it offered me in my short time there. And I discover that I think my first inkling was right… it is in the houses. But it’s also in the people in the houses, the smell and sight of the sea, everything… but specifically it is in the hostel I stayed in, ‘my house’ when I was a temporary Chilean living in Valparaíso.
La Maison de la Mer
, or “the house of the sea” in French, is owned and run by a wonderful, spirited old man who originally is from Normandie
, but has lived in Valparaíso for over 40 years now. And his Spanish is perhaps the most beautiful I have ever heard, where instead of rolling his r’s, he uses his natural, closed-throat hack for r’s… an elegant mix of my two second languages, so fluently spoken. He explained to my friends and I that he has lived there long enough to be able to speak perfect Chilean Spanish, but he chooses to keep his strong French accent, just as he said we should keep our porteño
accent, so as not to lose where we come from.
There were days when we would spend hours in the garden (pictured above, with a lovely, little framed view of some houses on a distant hill), relaxing, playing cards, talking, eating. I would sometimes have little conversations with the owner in my lost French, and explained to him I knew more Spanish than I did his native tongue, malheureusement
(“unfortunately”). Upon our departure, I left him a note in French saying that when I come back to this very unique city, I plan on spending my time at La Maison
And so, in the end, I physically and visually consider the genius loci
to be the beautiful hostel I stayed in for those few days. But when I left Valparaíso, I think I realized that the true spirit of the place, for me, was that it isn’t just a city I can say I have visited, and recount my stories for you here, but rather a place where my stories will continue, because that place is a place of return
. And I cannot wait to be back.