I’m not sure why at this particular moment I feel compelled to write about how I wound up in the field of sustainable floral design. Maybe, it’s that we are at such an inflection point in our society. Environmentally, economically. The war raging in Gaza is a daily backdrop of unspeakable grief, the impending loss of the majority of coral reefs or loss of one species or another… maybe on some level I need to make sense of how I spend the majority of my time. Maybe it’s because it’s graduation season, when so many young people are beginning their adult lives and careers and it reminds me of my own meandering path. Who knows. Whatever the reason, it’s a long story, so I’ll be sharing it in several posts over the next few weeks.

Twenty years ago, would I have imagined I’d end up as a floral designer? Nope. (On the other hand, this is a profession that was never raised as a possibility, by parents, high school teachers or college professors…but that’s another journal post for another day). However, when I look back on my journey into adulthood and career, I see the interconnecting threads. I’m feeling nostalgic, so I want to share that piece of my journey with you.

Dial back the clock to 2003, the year I graduated college, just months after marching down Broadway in protest over Bush’s bogus war on Iraq. Lacking the clarity that it seemed many of my peers had to pursue graduate school or a job on Wall Street, I was comparitively directionless. I had spent most of my four years deeply immersed in literature - and I had loved it. I was especially moved by, and ended up focusing on what was then called ‘post-colonial’ literature – literature of the diaspora, written by people whose lives and cultures had become determined, defined, deformed and strangled by colonial power. Their writing was a re-telling, a re-claiming of their stories and histories. It was powerful and incredibly eye opening. Think Frantz Fanon, Michale Ondaatje, Zadie Smith, Chinua Achebe, Salmon Rushdie. Reading those stories changed me. It feels important to note here that the term ‘post’ colonial has long been in question - whether we’ve moved beyond or whether we can move beyond the impacts of colonialism. 

Towards the middle of our final semester, a girl who I dormed with announced she was going to move to South America to learn Spanish. For the first time, the prospect of life after college intrigued me. I had studied French since 7th grade, and wasn’t very good, but I did love languages - and traveling somewhere completely new sounded exciting.

I hadn’t really traveled anywhere other than Canada, and parts of Europe during my semester abroad. So, I went to speak with a Spanish language professor to get some ideas about where to go, and where I might possibly find a job. I wound up landing on Chile - somewhat comical in hindsight, if you know Chilean Spanish, you know its Spanish is some of the fastest-spoken, most idiosyncratic in the world. However, Chile (then and now) was one of the more politically stable South American countries, and for complex and complicated reasons, one of the more economically stable. I was told I would likely be able to find a job teaching English there.

Fast forward and I am living in Santiago, Chile beginning September, 2003. I had pre-arranged to intern at an online English newspaper started by a young progressive American who had moved to Chile in the 80s on a Fulbright. I also hit the ground running, week 1, delivering my resume to every English language institute I could find (and there were many), returning to my hostel every night to map out the next day’s job hunt. Turns out it was a bit of a fool’s errand.. After several days, it became clear that I’d landed in Chile at the tail end of their academic year and subsequently couldn’t find any businesses looking to hire new teachers. I didn’t give up though, and I did find some work as an English tutor for families and 30-somethings in business careers through self-advertising. And after several months immersed in a culture where few people spoke English, I had become proficient enough in Spanish to get paid. (The bulk of the job was translating news from major new sources into English; the paper served ex-pats and foreign professionals living in Chile.) I didn’t make much money, but it was enough for expenses - the room in the apartment I wound up moving to cost $75/month!!

I don’t have many photos from this year - mainly because my digital camera was stolen in month six. Here’s one:


Molly Oliver santiago chile barro brasil 2004 parque brasil


Over the year that I spent in Chile, I had several life changing experiences. One, just the fact of experiencing my whiteness, and my privilege as a white person and a US citizen like I had never before. Second, my experience living independently – off a meal plan – and determining what and how to eat on my own terms, in a completely new culture. And third, because of the paper’s critical lens and its founder’s fierce passion for human and environmental rights, I was steeped daily in stories about illegal deforestation in Patagonia, the shrinking homelands of Mapuche indians, the rise of childhood diet related disease, and Chile’s service as a major exporter of vegetables, nuts, fish copper, and other raw materials. I also befriended many working class Chileans with indigenous roots, and we had many intense conversations over those months, all against the backdrop of Bush’s erroneous ‘war on terror’ in Iraq. It was all very humbling. And, I was finally in the world, rather than the halls of academia.  

One of my joys was walking down to the Mercado Central, a beautiful building built in 1872, created as a wholesale marketplace for farmers and fishermen from the region to sell their products. What I remember were stalls upon stalls filled with peppers of every color and shape, glistening ripe red tomatoes, and the smells of many fragrant herbs. The food was so incredibly appealing - so fresh - and sold directly by the growers themselves. I would take home a small bag of tomatoes, fresh farm cheese, and fish each week. I was learning how to cook, though simply and cheaply. The visceral experience of visiting that market would lift my spirits, when loneliness or worries about the future would arise. This reminded me of my connection with food in Paris, where I’d studied abroad in 2002. The affordability, the ability to connect with the people who produced the food, the freshness, the lack of plastic packaging. An entirely different universe.

And, at the same time, across town in the wealthier parts of Santiago - where middle to upperclass Chileans lived and worked - this kind of market seemed to be considered a thing of the past. Shiny supermarkets just like the ones that were commonplace in the US were the norm; large homes and tall office buildings characterized the avenues and streets. The experience of entering one of these supermarkets at one point or another was almost shocking. Rows upon rows of shelving full of packaged, processed foods. Absent were the incredible colors and smells of the Mercado Central. And, the food was much more expensive. Much of it was imported. I remember seeing a jar of processed peanut butter for the first time in many months and being taken aback by the price.

There is so much more I could say about the time I spent in Chile - the theater and art that I saw (which taught me so much about the country’s painful recent history), the visits to Argentina every three months to get my passport stamped, travels to the Atacama desert and northern Patagonia, an endless 26 hr bus ride to Buenos Aires. Tough conversations with Chilean peers about US colonialism, its role in Pinochet’s coup. My constant awareness of the privilege I held. The dinner parties hosted by a dear new Italian friend, the copious amounts of poetry I wrote, and the daily work towards passable Spanish. But that gives you a sense. 

For various reasons, I didn’t stay past a year. I had made a few close friends, enjoyed the work I was doing and my routines, but I wasn’t convinced journalism was my path. I remember I felt at the time I could have stayed forever. Which was exactly why I left. I felt I had some self sorting and figuring out to do; I felt worried about becoming too rooted there.

Click here to continue to Part 2!

May 13, 2024 — Molly Culver

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