All Posts By Catherine

Post-protest chicken nuggets

By Posted on Location: 5 min read
“My paralised mum gets a pension of 118 quid (a month) for me, her and my brother. ¡¡We eat!!”
La Serena, October 2019

I’m buying post-protest chicken nuggets. I would have chosen something else, but the Chilean fast food restaurant that we’ve found has run out of bread.

I hand over my card and the chap behind the counter pushes it into the machine. This is my Chilean card. The machine is passed to me so I can key in my PIN, which I do. The transaction fails. I’m not surprised. This often happens. And no, it’s not the card. The chap tries again. I read the screen as he does so.

“No,” I say, “es debito.”
“Debito?”
“Si, debito.”

The sounds of spatulas against saucepans.
La Serena, 2019

Because almost every time I go to pay for something the person processing my payment assumes that it’s a credit card. I became very self-conscious of my pronunciation of the word ‘debito’ and wondered what I could be getting wrong.

The truth is, half the time they tap the buttons on automatic pilot, not listening. I’ve concluded that they must be so used to processing credit card payments that the fact that I’m paying with my own money takes them by surprise.

I’m keeping myself occupied this week (when I’m not on the streets) by learning about neoliberalism, bank-deregulation, workers rights and a variety of financial and social crises. The more I learn, the more complex the story becomes. I want to understand how Chile came to have such inequality, but more than that, I want to understand what has occurred that has made the Chilean people so dependent on credit and so tied to consumerism.

So tied to it that they’re now looting the shoe stores and smashing the windows of the banks.

When I first arrived in Chile I was shocked at how European the place felt. The shopping mall here is pretty much identical to any shopping centre you’d find in England. Familiar brands line the supermarket shelves. The high streets have survived better than their English counterparts, and you can pick up some food from any street corner. There’s more litter on the streets here than in England, but less than I remember from Murcia in Spain. I might be the only person who uses an anorak, but I see coats with the same American branding daily.

“No more ‘disappeared’ people. No more deaths. No more abuse. No more AFP (the private pension scheme). No more Piñerismo (Piñera being the president).”
La serena, October 2019

A friend jokingly accused me of cultural appropriation, for wearing a pair of crazy hand-made earrings that I got here, but I just raised my eyebrows and asked him where he thought his flat-cap was culturally appropriated from.

The Chilean reality is not quite as shiny as it first looks. One of the things they shout is that Chile has woken up. I’m reserving my judgment. They shout that they’re not protesting because of the 30 peso* metro ticket rise, but against 30 years of a democracy that has successfully made the rich richer and done not a lot for the average person on the street. Whilst it might have made steps to tackle those in dire poverty, it’s not done much at all for the general poor. Plus, culture has changed. We live in a consumerist, materialistic world where higher education is becoming more and more necessary to get a decent job. And some of those decent jobs are paid a pittance.

Chile might have woken up, but I doubt my students have. One of the hardest things about teaching in Chile has been adjusting to the attitudes of the students. Or, you could say, the lack of attitude. I graduated at 21. The earliest my students can graduate is at 23, assuming they consistently pass their exams. But I have heard about classes where the entire class have failed. Normally I would say that if the whole class fails then it must be the teacher’s fault. And the teacher’s do tell me that they feel some responsibility for the situation. They feel the responsibility, but they have no idea what they need to change.

Why does a class fail? Because half the time they don’t turn up for lessons. When they do they’re reluctant to put pen to paper. When faced with an exercise to do, they stop as soon as the obvious solution proves to not be the case. Throughout any explanation, they play on their phones, message their lovers and friends or have an earphone in one ear to listen to music. They don’t even have the decency to look ashamed of their behaviour.

With the music flags and energy, it might have had a festival atmostphere. But the Chileans weren’t smiling.
La Serena, October 2019

A friend asked me what I thought about the violence on the streets. I replied that I abhor the violence – both by the military and the people. I have a British attitude to guns. Additionally, I want to scream at those responsible for the plumes of black smoke that we ought to not take our anger out on the environment.

Maphuche flags flying high.
La Serena, October 2019

Mostly though, I see the violence as being a child-like tantrum, an ill-directed plea for power, a result of poor self-discipline and a lack of respect for the community. The same missing self-discipline that’s required to pay attention in class and pass your exams. The same lack of respect that the students show by listening to their music whilst the teacher is trying to teach.

This might all sound rather harsh and it doesn’t do justice to those people who have been out fighting for their rights whilst remaining peaceful as most have. Nor does it recognise how incredibly warm, kind and generous I have found the Chilean people to be.

I haven’t got the answers. I can only feel that there is a depth to this problem that I cannot comprehend. And the broken window

Meanwhile each time I step up to the till, I shall keep on repeating that my card is a debit card, with a smile.

Living amid the Chilean protests

By Posted on Location: 9 min read
Militares pass by the supermarket.
La Serena, Chile, October 2019

When I was a teenager on holiday in Greece, I went to Albania for the day. That day remains in my mind, not because of the beautiful ancient ruins we explored, nor the earrings I bought, but because of the contrast between the red Coca-Cola signs everywhere you looked and the hordes of malnourished children begging for our money.

I am reminded of that day now, not because here in Chile the people are underweight, I’m told three-quarters of the population could do with losing some of their squidge, but because of the huge discrepancy between the life that is advertised and the life which is affordable.

For me, it started with the mystery of the price of coffee

It got worse every time I faced the white smiling faces used in advertisements and occasionally my frustration with the education system splurted out in my conversations. I struggle to comprehend the passivity of the students. For the country, the blatant inequality is a norm, but then, on Sunday morning, we awoke to find ourselves thrown into a state of emergency.

I’d known things were a mess on Saturday night when I went to bed, with friends and colleagues warning me to stay home. There were blockades on the streets, people broke into supermarkets and there were many fires, including the razing of a supermarket in the neighbouring city of Coquimbo where many of my students and colleagues live.

Traffic lights.
La Serena, October 2019.

Police officers attacked my housemate as he tried to walk home

The only road between the centre of town and our house was full of people and trying to pass through and come home, he got caught.

Fires were already burning when a friend and I passed down Calle Francisco Aguirre on our way home Sunday afternoon, trying to get home in time for the suddenly imposed 8 pm curfew. Soon after we passed, one of the statues, some pompous looking figure with ruffles, was dragged from his plinth and pulled into one of these fires. I figure that this is true, having seen the video and because the same image is on the front page of the local newspaper.

The truth though is always hard to ascertain

Many stories are being told. Some of them horrifying abuses of power. As always, the ones that spread easiest are those which are the most sensationalist. The average granny banging her saucepan because she believes her grandchildren deserve a quality education isn’t front-page news.

The newspaper also says that there was a death

Sunday afternoon in the mall. A 21-year-old boy. I had warnings that the military was shooting in the mall from one of my WhatsApp groups and then rumours flew back and forth, stretching my Spanish vocabulary and leaving me sad and disgusted.

Afterall, the image I think of when we talk about a 21-year-old boy is a nervous face in a classroom trying to find the courage to reply in English and tell me how many siblings he has. Or the stressed face of a young man fumbling over his calculator, not knowing how to use the bracket symbols.

Casarolaza.
La Serena, october 2019.

Inequality is tied to education

Not just English and mathematics but also self-discipline and the ability to make rational decisions. This educational struggle for the young people here was at the forefront of my mind on Monday, when I met up with some Venezuelan friends. We drank beer and chatted in Spanglish about the challenges that face us. The students have a genuine problem with paying attention in class, they’re passive and disengaged.

I’m told that many schools have large classes with poorly paid teachers

At university, I watch my physics students using a calculator to multiply single digits. They mess with their phones throughout their classes, having passed through a failing system is it surprising that they are disenchanted with learning. They’re stuck in this place for at least five years learning things I learnt at secondary school. No wonder they’re bored. I worry about how they manage their finances. There is an aggressive credit system here which preys on the vulnerable leading to a culture of deep personal debt.

The trajectory is worrying.

“The police officers, of whom we do not approve, are providing the president with oral sex.”
La Serena, October 2019.

Meeting up with my Venezuelan friends proved a calming influence

They know about living in a state of emergency under curfew with the military haphazardly shooting at protesters in broad daylight. If you’ve left your country because of the chaos, then you’re already adept at adapting to changing circumstances and having the military on the streets and a curfew in place is probably not so frightening. For them it’s sad, but unlike me, they’ve seen it before.

Haphazardly is my word

Perhaps it’s all organised and just appears haphazard to me because of the videos I’ve seen and my ‘British’ sensitivity to guns. Or perhaps the military here are mostly kids given guns with too much of a sense of power in their heads but still lacking in some of the same self-discipline and ability to make rational decisions.

The military and police are hated here

Until this week I hadn’t quite comprehended how angry the population are with those who enforce the law. They are despised. A long-term dislike and disrespect for the military and police are part of the culture here. The crowds chant against them. Police cars drive past, their sides dented. Graffiti describing the officers in vulgar terms now covers the city.

Wreckage has changed the city. The building in town have been boarded up. Traffic lights lay on the sandy barren earth. The statues along the main street of Francisco Aguirre hold cardboard signs and wear masks. I wonder though, what lesson is the state teaching the people by shooting at the looters and arsonists? Disregarding the sanctity of their lives (however badly behaved they might be) isn’t going to lead them to respect state property.

It’s all incredibly sad.

I’m struggling to comprehend the situation

An Argentinian friend likens it to Argentina in 2001, a Chilean friend talks about 1973. I read pages on Wikipedia and try to catch up with my history. However, I’m still looking at it from the outside. I still have my European perspective. I’m missing a comprehension of the psychology of the people. Something like this doesn’t just happen, the resentment has been building up for a long time.

Trying to relax and not think about the sadness that permeates the country, I spent Monday afternoon with pink flowers in my hair

They were presented to me by a friend’s four-year-old daughter while we drank our beers and Venezuelan rum, apparently (and believably) one of the top five in the world. Then I was treated to Venezuelan hot-dogs, there was no bacon nor sweetcorn in the hotdog because of the situation with the supermarkets, but there was a whole host of other ingredients, including five sauces.

But what’s the most refreshing is how my Venezuelan friends talk about their country with immense pride and a deep love. I am told I must come back another day, there is so much Venezuelan cuisine I have yet to experience.

Securing the shops.
La Serena, October 2019.

Despite the state of emergency, closed shops and the curfew life continues

I buy vegetables from the same woman as I normally do. My housemate assures me there will be no problem with vegetables, even if the people are queuing to get into the supermarket – the military are standing guard and there’s a limit as to how many people are allowed inside at once. For now, ours is still standing. The shops alongside it are all closed and boarded up having been ransacked over the weekend. The sister supermarket in Coquimbo no longer exists, it was razed to the ground on Saturday night.

Trucks of soldiers pass by as I walk along with my vegetables in my rucksack.

With a friend I walk into town

Crossing the streets without the aid of the green men (they’ve been decapitated), but the car drivers slow down and wave us across. As we walk, I translate the graffiti using my newly learnt vocabulary and understanding of common spelling deviations and, with all my British correctness, suggest that it means that the police officers, of whom we do not approve, are providing the president with oral sex. Chilean graffiti isn’t the most creative.

We have lunch in the usual cafe, walk through the streets where workers are busy boarding up windows and sit in the warm sunshine in the middle of the tranquil park. As we walk back home there are more people about, some bashing pots cacerolazo style but under the watching eyes of groups of soldiers. It’s a simple but effective way for the people to protest at how the life advertised to them just isn’t feasible on their meagre salaries. After curfew, you can still hear the clattering of pans coming from houses further down the street.

“The bread that with blood was taken with blood will be got back”
La Serena, October 2019

The inequality is real

Living in Chile is comparably expensive. A tube of toothpaste, a bottle of face wash and a cup of frothy cappuccino are all more expensive here than they would be back home. Food ends up being a comparable price. I have only bought one pair of shoes, so I’m not particularly clued up about clothes prices, but they too seem similar. Unless you have the ‘meal of the day’ the price of a meal in a restaurant is like back home. My glass of ginger lemonade the other day cost £3.20 which is 1% of the monthly minimum wage here but not an unusual price to have to pay.

Paying for goods in instalments is normal

The BBC might have all these statistics about the ‘average’ income, but few of my colleagues at the university will be getting paid anything like that average. The statistics are swayed because the rich get paid a lot – look at the politicians’ salaries – as do miners, but the typical person on the street is working ridiculous hours to pay their bills and send their children to school. As my father says, averages hide variation and inequality is about variation.

So, whilst Chileans might have the same access to many of the goods we have back home, they do not necessarily have the funds to pay for them nor the education to realise how much big businesses are manipulating them.

Protests.
La Serena, October 2019

However, as much as it’s about money, it’s also about image

On Saturday afternoon, after buying my shoes, I stood in a salon, waiting for a friend to get her nails done. I stared at the faces which looked down at me from the wall and the long white legs and slender white fingers of women with complexions that make my 00 ivory skin look dark. Chilean women have a wonderful mixture of complexions, often even within a single family, but in general they have warmer skin than mine, deep dark eyes and thick, long black or brown hair. This alien, Barbie-like, photoshopped image used in advertising offends me. It has nothing to do with the Chile I live in. I hate that there is such a constant comparison with this globalised image of the tall slender white girl. It makes me angry because it does no service to the people here, nor to those of us who just happen to be pale and blue-eyed.

This unaffordable fake perfection is like a virus

When it comes to skin tone, then at least for me it’s obvious to see. But this dangling of a fake image has infiltrated all parts of life, as has the inevitable disillusion that follows. The disillusion is frightening.

So, am I surprised there are riots? The shock was real, it seemed to happen overnight, but on reflection, is it that surprising? No, not in the slightest.

Protests.
La Serena, October 2019.

And so, taking all that I’ve seen here into account, I wonder today, how are those children I saw in Albania doing? They will be adults now. Fifteen years have passed since I saw their hungry faces, fifteen years in which they will have been bombarded with advertisements showing them a life they will never quite be able to afford. I wonder how they see the world.

I’m now so cool I’m writing about modal verbs

By Posted on Location: 2 min read
obscure grammar
Grammar can sometimes be a bit obscure. Just like the view when you climb, camera in hand, a big hill that supposedly looks over the entire city and the Pacific Ocean. But oh well. We shall keep trying.
La Serena, September 2019.

I often keep a grammar guide in my handbag

It’s a side-effect of my constant war with language.

I mean, sometimes I find myself having coffee and someone asks me an awkward question, like, “What type of word is ‘ought’?”

And I’m like, “Huh?”

It’s a real everyday sort of challenge

As is not always saying ‘like’ remembering I have the letters ‘t’ and ‘h’ somewhere in my mouth, and not greeting people with a friendly ‘How’s thee doing?’.

Of course, until the question is asked, I’ve no idea

When I was asked, in Spain, at one of the outdoor tables in front of the café – the one with the excellent cookies – I blinked. To start, I imagined the ways I use the word ‘ought’ but this didn’t help much.

I tugged out the grammar-guide.

“A modal verb used to convey potential or obligation.”

Grammar guides are problematic because you need to translate them into everyday speech to make their great wisdom usable. I cannot just tell a student that this word conveys potential. Not unless they’re already a bit of a language geek. And if they are, they probably know more than me.

I have to find ways the student can begin to use these modal verbs.

The truth is, a year ago, I had no idea what a modal verb was

When I started learning things like the conditional in Spanish, I didn’t know what it looked like in English. If you don’t know, don’t feel bad. I had to consult my grammar guide and the children’s textbooks to piece it all together.

Unlike English, Spanish has a sweet way of doing the conditional. It’s like my favourite tense, even though it has an ‘r’ in it so I can’t pronounce anything in it. I found that I was using it before I could describe it.

“Me gustaría un café por favor”

In Spanish, you conjugate for every scenario

There are many conjugations to learn. In English, however, you add extra words. These extra words are the modal verbs. They change the mode/tense of the verb. ‘Ought’ is one of them. So is ‘will’.

And if you’re reading this and you speak beautiful received-pronunciation standard English and knew what a modal verb was long before you turned 28, good for you. You probably didn’t need to read all this and you won’t need a grammar-guide in your handbag.

Upside-down or downside-up (the yoga class that didn’t go as expected)

Life in Chile is proving to be subtly different, and it’s not just the yoga. Walking along the beach I came across two South American sea lions. Or sea wolves if you want the direct translation.
(Phone) Coquimbo, September 2019.

Here in Chile, I’ve taken up going to a regular yoga class. It’s a tad more spiritual orientated than what I’m used to, with the occasional bit of chanting or prayer thrown in amongst the asanas. I started with a Hatha class, but, because of my timetable, I’ve been doing Ashtanga yoga where the teacher gives each person individualised instructions, and spends the whole session instructing and correcting rather than demonstrating. Now and then, she’ll demonstrate an individual posture, but it’s on an individual basis. During this class the heater is on, blowing warm air over our sweaty bodies.

There are some ladies with incredible flexibility and strength in my class

They might not look much different from other women, but I am envious of what they can do. I have accepted that I am the only person in the class incapable of doing a decent downward dog. Although we don’t call it a downward dog in class, we use the Sanskrit which I can never remember.

Hence when I arrived at the Hatha class yesterday, with a different teacher, and I explained that I’m English I answered that yes, I could speak Spanish, but I had no idea of most the Sanskrit words. This proved not to be a problem as nobody else turned up for class. It was the evening of the 17th and the 18th here is a national holiday.

This didn’t worry the teacher

She had a calm happy yoga face. Thankfully, when she discovered that I was incapable of chanting, she adapted and taught me to ommm at the same time as her. Even her omming was pretty impressive.

The class commenced and feeling a tad self-conscious I proceeded to do as instructed. When it came to my downward dog she pressed on my back and pulled on my heels and managed to stretch my hamstrings in ways I hadn’t expected. We did some sun-salutations, a and b, which, thank the gods, I know. Some warriors including a warrior for which I didn’t know the English name. And I hung upside down on the wall.

I should explain

The earth, you see, is full of negative energy and the heavens full of positive energy so in life it helps to stick your legs in the air from time to time. Get some balance back in your life. Don’t worry, I haven’t gone mad. Energy is energy. It equals mc^2. There are many types of energy, but I save the positives and negatives for charges. Language fails to accommodate the difference between the emotional and the scientific. This earth and heaven interpretation of positive and negative functions to explain something human. Positive and negative emotions perhaps. But I don’t let that interfere with my very human practice of yoga. Pretty much like I don’t feel that god needs to exist to make prayer a worthwhile exercise.

Hanging upside down, I concluded, did make me feel good.

This though is an achievement

As a child, I was not the sort to hang upside down from climbing frames. I became suspicious of my body’s ability to support itself very early on. Since I couldn’t do the monkey bars then putting my feet were above my head would be dangerous.

However, this was a yoga class and the young super-flexible yoga teacher moved my mat to the wall. She took two, securely attached ropes and proceeded to walk up the wall until her feet were above her head.

There was no deep breath and go

Being yoga everything had to take place with a calm and even breathing. I moved slow, breathed steady and found myself hanging upside down. To my amazement, once I was up there, it didn’t seem all that much like hard work.

We continued this yoga class, with me sitting with my back against the wall, bum secure on the floor, legs stretched out in front of me. Another hamstring stretch which I am useless at, or so I thought. But no. Instead, my yoga teacher now explained that she wanted me to do the same position but to turn the whole thing 180 degrees. Although I understood the Spanish, I couldn’t grasp what she could want me to do. Then she showed me.

Oh.

My mind raced through a few scary things that I’ve achieved

Moving to Chile, reading poetry to my students, singing Frere Jacque to French children at the breakfast table. And I decided that trying a new yoga position, with an expert beside me, wasn’t very scary at all. My body had other ideas. I felt afraid to be sure. But my rational brain knows that fear isn’t always helpful and sometimes has to be noted and allowed to pass, like a thought in meditation.

So I placed my head and hands where my heels had been and lifted my legs, placing my feet upon the wall. The teacher moved them to where my head had been.

When I turned the right way round again, I was laughing

The teacher asked if I wanted to try again. I said, “Si.”

This time I got up into position and she challenged me to lift my legs, one at a time. This is almost a headstand I thought, which wasn’t a helpful thought to think because it made me hesitate, but right foot first, I did it anyway.

After class, she asked me how I felt

My face must have been beaming because I was on a high, amazed at what I had achieved. I told her I felt good, I liked the class and I was learning a lot.

It might be quite spiritual in its orientation and not what I’m used to but this yoga class provides a challenge. I need challenge. I need experiences of not what I’m used to. Otherwise, how would I know I could hang upside down from the wall?

Two Journeys Crossing at an Asado in Chile

Pelican.
(Phone) Coquimbo, September 2019.

Two young women are at a community barbeque, an ‘asado’ as they are called here. They are both speaking Spanish, but neither fully understands the other’s accent. Both wear jeans and a jumper. This is a family barbeque with children running around, splashing in the paddling pool and playing something like volleyball but with a large beach ball, however, neither of these two women have family in the city. Neither have family in the country.

The taller of the two women is English. She doesn’t consider herself particularly tall, but she’s probably the tallest woman here. It took her 32 hours, three planes and three trains to move to this city. To her, this felt like an ordeal.

However, the other woman is from Venezuela. Yes, closer as the crow might fly (if they had crows in Latin America), but it took her 12 days on a bus to get here. She crossed the border into Colombia, continued through Ecuador, through Peru and down through Chile. A journey through the sorts of places the Foreign Office marks in red in its guidelines, these are no go areas. She has come to Chile alone.

Venezuela is currently in a state of crisis with 4 million people having fled its borders. Many of these people have fled to Colombia and Ecuador, but there are many here in Chile too. Chile is currently more economically stable than other Latin American countries. Although it’s revoked permission for Venezuelans to enter for up to 90 days without a visa, the country is now offering visas of ‘democratic responsibility’.

The English woman moved to Chile to improve her Spanish and have a bit of an adventure. For her, travel is fun. It’s a choice. Getting work isn’t ever so difficult because she’s well educated and speaks English as her first language. The work here was all sorted before she even booked my flights. When she landed at the airport there was a chap in a branded jacket waiting to drive her to a furnished apartment.

The Venezuelan woman, however, describes her life as being work to home and back to work again. With moments for doing the washing in between. She’s not only supporting herself but sending her money back to Venezuela so that her family have something to eat. She’s happy, she says, because they were so thin before, now, with her help, they’re a little fatter.

At the barbeque, the two women sit together, eating spicy sausages, chicken drumsticks and plates full of salad in the warm sunshine. Two women who’ve taken very different journeys to get here.

What does a language assistant do in a Chilean University

There are about seven students in the class and they’re chatting away, in Spanish, about something to do with a motorbike that I can’t quite follow. I’ve just arrived. The teacher will be late. The teachers are always late.

This class are learning how to tell me their name, their age and their telephone number. For some of the students, this is ridiculously easy, for others, it’s a major challenge. I have a choice – I could sit and wait for the teacher to arrive or I could speak.

I ask them what they’re talking about

It takes five minutes of back and forth, with almost the whole class participating as no individual has enough vocabulary, but I learn that our resident knight in shining armour, sat in the centre of the front row, helped a guy to safety after he’d fallen off his motorbike and fractured his leg.

Not bad for a class whose spent the last month learning, “Where are you from?”

Classes here are small and attendance is poor

The focus is on enabling the students to speak, rather than read or write. All examinations for English are oral ones. My focus, therefore, is entirely on conversation practice.

The first goal is to make learning English less of an ordeal

Fear might be a good teacher of instinctual response, but to speak a foreign language requires a higher part of the brain. You have to want to own the language. Otherwise, how will you work through the anxiety, embarrassment and humiliation of constantly getting in a muddle?

I pity the students. If my French classes at school had been taught with such a focus on speech, I would have hated it. Speaking a foreign language can be a horrible experience. One of the big appeals of physics is that it’s quietly learnt. Books, paper, pens. But in Foreign languages, your main tool is your voice. Everyone else hears your terrible pronunciation and when you forget a word, everyone else knows.

Yet, from a rational perspective, nobody cares much about you. Most other people in the class are too absorbed in their insecurities to care about yours. But this is a big leap of faith to take.

Therefore I see the first job of the language assistant to be confidence-boosting

Note this isn’t about self-esteem. I’m not talking about gold stars and congratulations for every utterance. I’m talking about presenting a challenge and guiding the students in achieving it.

Like the conversation about the motorbike

When I first told the students to explain what they were talking about, they deemed it impossible. Understandable when you’re in English 1 repeating ‘My name is…’. With time, they started clarifying the facts. There was one person involved, a man. He fell. On the road. Leg. Broken, no, little broken. Fractured. By the time the teacher arrived, we’d got to a whole anecdote.

The second role of the language assistant is to speak

You might laugh, but the English these students predominantly hear is their teacher, and most of the teachers speak with a noticeable Chilean accent. I had one teacher who last year accentuated his Spanish accent when he spoke English to his class to try and help them understand. I’m not convinced that this is a good solution. It’s a bit of a short cut and short cuts don’t always pay off. However, I am sure that it helps to hear many different accents.

I do speak differently when I’m teaching

My word choice is limited. The flow is slower, and I include a lot more t’s and h’s. It takes a conscious effort to speak like this and sometimes when I’m tired, I slur my words, apologise and start again in better English.

The third task is to correct

This is much harder than is sometimes presumed. When you’re listening to English as a foreign language as part of a conversation, what you focus on is the parts that make sense and your brain attempts to fill in the gaps to create understanding. When you’re listening as a teacher, what you need to note is the mistakes. Some mistakes are obvious. Others seem invisible.

You get used to hearing the language in foreign accents and adapt to the poor pronunciation. Some grammatical mistakes don’t disrupt the meaning of the sentence and are therefore harder to spot. Sometimes there are so many mistakes, you don’t know how to classify and sort through them.

It’s much harder to hear the mistakes when you are part of the conversation

Sometimes, therefore, all I do it sit in front of two people who are talking and make notes. This can be disquieting for the students I’m listening to, but does allow me to hear what’s going on. Since we do lots of roleplays, there are plenty of opportunities for me to attend to the oddities of their foreign English.

I’m finding that the teachers are faster at noting and classifying the errors

Probably because it is how they do their examinations. They’re practised at it because they’re used to teaching the same course, over and over. They know what they’re listening for. They’re comparing the mistakes to the mistakes of other students and the curriculum. Meanwhile, I’m comparing the mistakes to my idea of standard English.

Sometimes though, I ignore the rules of English

I let my adaptive ears process vs that sound like bs and the bs that sound like vs. Instead of fussing, I just let the students speak the stuff that’s on their minds. Sometimes this means conversations about motorbike accidents. Other times they ask sweet questions, like do I miss my family?  Although what they seem to want to know is nothing more complex than have I tried the local speciality, a hot-dog?

A day in the easy life of a language assistant

By Posted on Location: 3 min read

Monday happens as expected. Other than I turn up for my yoga class and nobody is there. The door is locked. I wonder if perhaps I’m the one missing something important, or if I’m the only one who’s noticed that the clocks have changed. I walk away none the wiser.

I walk home, listening to a podcast

It’s part of my plan to be less ignorant of the world. I’m taking in history and philosophy. Continuing my Cuban education by listening to a podcast on the Bay of Pigs. Widening my philosophical knowledge with an In Our Time podcast on Authenticity – in which the opinions of Jean-Paul Sarte and Simone De Beauvoir are discussed and I think, oh I know those names, I have just read about them in a book by a chap with the unlikely name of Mason Curry on the Daily Rituals of creative people. I do love it when my knowledge comes together like that. Snap. Connection made.

Like that wondrous moment when I realised that Catherine of Aragon was the daughter of Isabel and Ferdinand and history took a whole new form in my brain. Snap. Connection made. Love it.

I go to class, but I’m not teaching

Instead, I find today I am in the unexpected role of making up numbers. The students do their exams (oral) in pairs, but this class has an odd number of students. I’m brought in to fill the gap.

Student: Hi.
Me: Hi.
Student: How are you doing?
Me: Fine, thanks. And you? How are you doing?
Student: Fine, thanks. What is your name?
Me: My name is Catherine. And you? What is your name?
Student: My name is Claudio. How old are you?
Me: I am 28 years old. And you? How old are you?

Level one English is hard

Every time I open my mouth to speak, I want to say something different. I want to ask “How’s things going?” Or say I’m “not doing too bad considering this horrid cold”.

Eventually, after exchanging the required number of questions, we get to the end.

Student: It’s late. I have to go. Bye.
Me: Bye. Nice to meet you.
Student: Nice to meet you too.

I feel a swell of relief to successfully get to the end.

After a quick check with the teacher that she will be there for the next class, I leave

The check is worthwhile as I discover that on Friday afternoon classes are cancelled due to something to do with the unions. I am not surprised. Tuesday classes are cancelled due to ‘una fonda’ (a barbeque/party). Nobody it seems wants to teach this week and the students claim to have spent the weekend resting in preparation for next week which is party week. The celebration of Chile’s independence (or not quite… but you get the idea).

I call my sister from a bench in the courtyard of the university

We have a good long chat. She explains the discrepancy between two pictures of the same cheesecake I received over the weekend. The first, from my mother, looked stunning. The second was a puddle. Truthfully, (verdaderamente: such a beautiful word but impossible to say), the cheesecake stood for ten seconds before collapsing. My mother sent me the perfect picture, but my sister’s shot gave a more honest story. At the end of the call, the Midget heads to bed and I go to my next class. Time difference.

The next class goes smoothly

I like the teacher’s desire to enable the students to form phrases of their own, rather than just learn to parrot a set speech. He’s enthusiastic and the student’s laugh at his jokes. They like him, this much is obvious. But they look like goldfish when they have to speak. I continue to ponder how one should teach English or any language. I have no idea how I’m learning Spanish. It’s just happening. But how do I learn to teach language to someone else when it seems to be just happening to me.

After, I drink terrible coffee and eat a hot-dog whilst listening to a story about a snake. This is Chile. The sun has set. I wander home, past more hot-dog stalls decorated with fairy lights. Another day is done.

Too tired to think (travel realities)

[Written shortly after moving to Chile.]

Moving to a new country is not easy. All the things you take for granted just don’t happen as you expect. Life becomes a smattering of minor thrills and slogs of perseverance in a swamp of exhaustion.

As you can probably tell from this post, my brain flits all over the place trying to get every box ticked.

If I spoke Spanish with any fluency, I imagine it would be a slight bit easier

I can speak and read Spanish, but like a child, I’m missing much vocabulary and so all my sentences come with gaps that my brain has to fill. My brain churns and churns. When I read in English, my brain slows down and relaxes. In Spanish, reading is work.

I don’t worry about communication. The problem with half-speaking the language is just one of exhaustion. But I have enough to be able to communicate. My struggles are, for the most part, compensated by Chilean friendliness. The Officina de Extranjeros in Murcia could learn a lot from the PDI in La Serena. The latter know how to smile.

In this swamp of exhaustion one of the simple things you might take for granted is food

Here, eating is a challenge. Not because I have a problem consuming Chilean food or a specific diet, but because the supermarket is some distance away and I have no car. This means everything I want I need to carry, or I need to take a taxi.

I’m going to be moving again in a few weeks and so there’s no point doing some big shop. I’d have to work out how to transport everything all over again. As a result, my diet has been simplified and is going to involve eating of the same few ingredients that I have to hand over and over. It’s not inventive, but it keeps me alive.

Don’t let me begin on the absence of a decent sharp knife for cutting anything.

When I moved to Spain, I put off buying a wide variety of spices until a day where I was cooking for someone else and decided that they were necessary. Once I’d done so, I regretted having waited so long. So this time I’ve decided to buy spices now, at the beginning.

I also need to buy other essentials, like powder for the washing machine.

The Internet is a further challenge

My Latvian phone doesn’t appear to be happy with a Chilean SIM. My temporary apartment, provided by the university, doesn’t have WIFI unless you go and sit downstairs in the entrance hall with the guard. The website for looking for more permanent accommodation doesn’t like to be accessed from my English SIM as it doesn’t like my British IP address.

But amid all this, there are high moments

Like the daily sunsets that I watch from my balcony.

And although the language here is a challenge, it’s also a delight. Every Spanish conversation still gives me a thrill, because I find myself proud to have spoken at all. It doesn’t have to be much either, conversation with a chap in the waiting room of the police station or a few lines back and forth with a curious waitress who wonders where I’m from. It’s all precious in part because it is so difficult.

Then there was the moment I saw my first hummingbird, going from flower to flower, nowhere special, an overgrown bush at the side of the main road. I stood and stared in wonder.

Delightful tales of the English Subjunctive

By Posted on Location: 3 min read
Just before leaving Spain I begged the Spaniard to take me to the hill where Jesus stood. He told me it was midday and too hot, but I pouted and he took me anyway. This is a photo from that hill. It’s got nothing to do with the subjunctive.
Region of Murcia, Spain, May 2019

When Rapunzel came to visit the other week, I greeted her off the train in Spanish. She doesn’t speak Spanish, so she replied in French and we flicked through the three languages as if it were a game we were playing.

As we settled back into English – it’s our only common language – the chap following us up into the station gave us both a very perplexed look. Our British accents, neither local to the area, didn’t fit with the flurry of foreign words we’d been giggling through.

But language can be a lot of fun

Yesterday, for example, I looked up Chilean Spanish.

“I’ve spent the last few months learning the Spanish future, to discover they don’t use it in Chile,” I messaged Rapunzel.

“No me gusta,” she replied in Spanish.

“Exactamente.”

We played with language for a few lines, discussing an article that’s relevant to Rapunzel printed in a Spanish newspaper. Then I asked her the question that was on my mind.

“Do you do subjunctives?”

“Je ne pense pas que ce soit necessaire.”

If you want to get a Spaniard to roll their eyes, you ask about the subjunctive

They seem to think that it’s obvious where it ought to be used. And that there’s nothing strange with the present subjunctive having two forms with identical meaning. As far as I can tell, the only purpose of this is to add poetical value of the word within its sentence.

The Spaniards are much fonder of using the subjunctive than us English speakers

Although I’ve never met anyone who’s persuaded me why. I mean, I understand that we do have such a form in English. Chances are, you use it without knowing. It’s a bit like how you know to use a noun and a verb before you learn the labels ‘noun’ and ‘verb’. But how does anyone know where to use it? It’s a mystery.

Our English subjunctive feels quite posh

And because it’s not so obvious and I didn’t know it, here it is:

In the present

It is necessary we be on time tomorrow.

I recommend he leave now.

In the past

If he were here.

If I were you.

I’m not convinced that I use the present subjunctive in my speech

Unless I was caricaturing someone posh. If anyone catches me doing so, can you please point it out to me? I’m curious to know.

Whereas I’m certain that I do use the past subjunctive

It’s simpler to identify than the present subjunctive because it always involves the word ‘were’. In the first- and third-person ‘were’ replaces ‘was’.

If I were you…

If you were nicer…

If he were here…

If we were happy…

If you all were intelligent…

If they were mad…

Here again, it gets complicated by my dialect

In Yorkshire, you may say ‘when I were there yesterday’ meaning ‘when I was there yesterday’. And in the town where I went to school, it’s also common to replace ‘were’ with ‘was’ as in ‘we was eating chocolate’. In standard English, this would be ‘we were eating chocolate’.

Thus, if someone were to say ‘If I was you’, I’m not sure I’d notice that they were in the indicative mood, not the subjunctive. Would you? Or am I blinded by my non-standard English?

Did you notice the ‘if someone were’ in the previous sentence is the past subjunctive?

This doesn’t help me understand how to use the subjunctive in Spanish

And Rapunzel is right. On an everyday basis, it is not necessary. You can get by alright without it. Even if the locals might despair of your ignorance.

But so much of language is not necessary, it doesn’t mean it’s not wondrous. Plus, the idea of conjugating a word for its poetic flavour makes me smile.

Jesus.
Region of Murcia, Spain, May 2019.

Jetlag or whatever

This isn’t Yorkshire. The Pacific Ocean.
August 2019.

It’s five am and I guess I should be in bed, sleeping

Between the intercontinental flight and the bright light outside my bedroom, my body has become confused. Other than the building lights and the street lamps, it’s dark. The birds seem as confused as me as there is a lot of tweeting that I can hear from my bedroom. If I hadn’t heard the tweeting birds, I would have stayed in bed. I got up and had a cup of tea, dehydration is a perfect excuse for not staying in bed any longer.

They drink Celong tea here

Wandering up and down the supermarket aisles, I searched for coffee. It took me a while to find as there is a tiny selection, unless you are a fan of instant of which there’s plenty, meanwhile, I came across the tea aisle. Row after row of shelves stacked deep with boxes and bags, brand after brand, of Celong tea. Beside which, there was a small selection of Twinnings fruit and herbal teas, in tiny boxes that presumably contain only five teabags each, and a decent selection of options for Argentinian Mate, a drink DeepThought tells me is made from the leaves of a plant in the holly family.

I bought a bag of Celong tea leaves and I’m doing my best to develop a love for it by consuming a mug full every few hours. It’s no Lapsang, but it will suffice. I also bought a bag of ground coffee.

My mad plan is to go for a run as soon as it begins to get light

If you’re reading this, it’s because I actually went for a run rather than chickening out. The route I’m planning on taking is easy. I’m going to head straight down the coastline. I saw people taking this route yesterday when I was sitting on the balcony watching the sunset. Because I can sit on my balcony and watch the sunset across the Pacific Ocean. Isn’t that madness? I’m like an odd, off-season tourist in my temporary accommodation. It’s not clear how many people are in the apartment block, other than the doorman, but the answer is not many. There are a few cars parked in the carpark, but most of the spaces are empty.

Talking of madness, we do have dogs

And by we, I think I mean the entire city. The dog situation is one that I’m going to have to learn about further. There are many dogs about, which when you first look, you imagine must be strays, but most look like healthy, friendly strays. They are abandoned. The cars drive slow, I think because of the dogs, which wander around in silence and chase the tractors on the beach. Their coats have a healthy shine associated more with house pets than street animals, and yet, like cats in England, they wander free.

My body remains perplexed, but it will adjust

It’s winter here. A time of coats and jackets, but walking home from the supermarket with my tea, also for taking off my jumper and feeling the sun’s heat on my arms. I’m told there is a drought – is there ever not a drought when you live on the edge of a desert? As the rain didn’t visit for nine months, and then, when it did come, was little more than a mist. More rain is hoped for.