All Posts By Catherine

Feliz Navidad

By Posted on Location: 2 min read
Palm tree.
Summer; Christmas.
Limari Valley, Chile, October 2019
Summer; Christmas.
Limari Valley, Chile, October 2019

I have never spent Christmas away from my family. Until now.

It’s been coming upon us for weeks now. I’ve taught small children Christmas carols and had my photo taken in a stupid Santa hat. I’ve sat with friends preparing traditional Venezuelan Christmas food – a ‘mais’ pastry filled with everything but the kitchen sink and boiled wrapped in a banana leaf. And with my housemate, I’ve made origami stars and storks. Like the Christmas stork that brought Jesus to the world amid a night of brilliant stars… or something like that.

And my mood goes up and down. I have an injury to my left shoulder and a stabbing pain which makes me mardy, and if I were at home I’d be pouting and stamping and causing a right fuss, and I’d be laughing and leaping and causing mayhem, but here is not there and as much as I am at home here, it’s summer and Christmas is mid-winter and I am ill at ease with the gods changing the seasons like this.

I tried to explain why Christmas feels so wrong here. First, there are the songs, playing in the supermarkets, which with a something like 3% of the population in La Serena being at a decent level of English are unlikely to be understood by anyone. Second, there’s a colour scheme problem. Christmas, as a winter festival, is done in winter colours: forest green, deep crimson. This is aesthetically weird placed in the middle of a city which is sunny year-round. I’m not saying Chileans should skip Christmas, I’m saying enjoy Christmas but do it in a Chilean fashion. Or go traditional and put Mary in a beautiful blue dress and have wise men arriving on camels from the desert. We do have a desert. Third, people here are stretched for cash and watching the shops mount up with plastic crap makes me want to scream.

But all this is making me think, what is the point of Christmas? And it’s not meant as a cynical question. Festivals do matter. They’re a time for people to step out of the routine and think a little differently, treat themselves to something nice, celebrate being alive, together.

Mine this year will be a bit strange. I’m going to miss home more this week than usual. It’s a quarter of the planet away.

Theatre: Siervas o Prisoneras del Buen Pastor

By Posted on Location: , 3 min read
From a village in the Limari Valley.
Chile, October 2019.

I went to the theatre. My friend asked if I wanted to go, and I said yes. On the way I asked what it was we were going to see. My friend didn’t know but said that it was set in a women’s prison. I considered that it might be a little violent, a tad uncomfortable. Racking my brain, the only theatrical production I could think of to base any assumption on was Chicago.

The production was nothing like Chicago.

You see, I’d missed one crucial thought that really should have passed through my brain, but didn’t. I’m in Chile. This was a Chilean production set in Chile. It was a La Serena production set in La Serena. For the poster they didn’t need to create some fake revolutionist graffiti, it currently decorates every wall in town. They stepped outside.

As I’m far from fluent in Spanish, I thought that I might have difficulty following the play. I didn’t. I understood. Not all the words perhaps, but I understood. Sometimes I fearfully felt that I knew what was being said without being certain. And I hoped I was wrong, whilst knowing I was right. As if I could excuse myself from the truth with a lack of comprehension. As if anyone can comprehend such abuse. No, even when you can relate personally, it still manages to remain indecipherable.

But, I realised, if I could watch Shakespeare, and get it, although I never understand everything that’s said because the language is not my English, I could get the gist of this familiar Chilean Spanish. I did not know this story, but the Chilean story is something I’ve been wincing at again and again over the last few months. I read Chilean authors in translation and I listen to my colleagues and friends. The pain and shame in their faces when they talk about their country strangles my breath.

There is nothing comfortable about the current Chilean misery.

But telling these stories matters. Sitting on the rickety construction that served as seating, that bounced rather when someone moved, surrounded by a local audience pained by a history that many of them had lived through, I laughed and I sang.

And I watched the solemn faces in the audience and wondered what had brought these people here, what made them want to watch such a horrible tale, even a tale woven with moments of sweetness. When I told a friend afterwards, he was amazed that I had managed to find a theatrical production here in the city. It is, I’m told, a rare occurrence. La Serena, he said, lacks culture. He misses the theatre.

The conversation reminded me how valuable the theatre is, how in a country with poor public education telling stories through theatre could teach truths in a more accessible fashion if only there were more productions.

We walked home, after the show, making wishes on the stars, talking about corrupt pension schemes and Dickens-esque orphanages and I found myself thinking about the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights in Lithuania, previously known as the Genocide Victims Museum, where I’d wandered alone down in the underground prison of the old KGB headquarters in Vilnius. Until I couldn’t. Because although the corridor went on, my legs wouldn’t walk any further. I couldn’t step into any more rooms. It felt like their walls screamed at me.

And it’s like someone holds my lungs in their grubby hands and inside I feel the actress’s jerking movements, the shaking of her body and I tense. This is no ‘all that jazz’. I may be foreign and European, privileged in every sense, but as she’s acting, I’m remembering. She’s telling a story that I need to hear. We all need to hear.


Siervas o Prisoneras del Buen Pastor by Héctor Álvarez directed by Juan Diego Bonilla at Casona La Gaviota performed by the Escuela Teatropuerto, La Serena.

Incomprehensible Chile, I still love you

By Posted on Location: 3 min read
Bunting in the Elqui Valley
Chile

I cycled home from my yoga class this morning, keeping to the roads which, although not smooth, provide a gentler ride than the haphazard pavements. I wasn’t in a rush and even if I had been, I wasn’t going anywhere fast. The city centre was jammed with traffic, the reserved horn-beeping of previous months has given way in the agitation to a cacophony of angry noise. The crossroads fail to function and cars crawl past, winding around each other having to think without the guiding green, amber, red of the traffic-lights. The poor, decapitated green-men, how I miss them.

On my journey, I passed a hotel which has been sacked, looted, pillaged, think broken glass, burnt out rooms, every window above the ground floor open to encourage fresh air in, every window on the ground floor sealed with metal sheets, soldered in place. This isn’t like reading a newspaper. It isn’t happening somewhere else to someone else. It’s different cycling past in person, knowing that people I’m acquainted with were pouring their customers drinks here just a few days ago.

Quietly, I wonder what they’ll do for jobs now.

Back home I let the coffee percolate and try to recover enough energy for the day’s real task. I don’t have work this week, actually, I haven’t had work (expect for the occasional meeting) since the state of emergency was declared, and so I’m making headway with writing my novel. No. Editing the novel. The damn thing has been written for ages, I’m now buried in the line-editing stage and this goes on and on.

The mother interrupted my preparations asking when she was going to get something to read on Happenence. I explained that I was working on the novel. The thing is, I have written things for Happenence, I have a few drafts stored, but I can hardly face doing any more editing. I don’t fancy rereading what I wrote a month or two ago and trying to work out if it fits with my new, more nuanced view of Chile. After all, the Chile I arrived to and the Chile I’m living in are two very different countries.

So here’s what I’m thinking, or perhaps, more accurately, what I’m feeling.

Chile is in a mess. Like me, it’s suffering from a trauma that it has tried very hard to ignore for much too long. It pretends to be fashionable and modern but when you really look you see a sad people in terrible credit card debt. Its people are carrying grief that they don’t seem to understand. I wonder if they know how much they need to grieve still? The sadness is palpable. The people act out, as I did, although I screamed and shouted, wailed and cried whereas there are people here who are inclined to violence. Setting fires in the local hotel for example. Others sink into passivity, drinking too much, dabbling in drugs to feel or to not feel.

I have struggled for weeks to see how to understand the country I’m living in when everything feels so incomprehensible, but the thing is, I know these feelings because they are familiar. I know grief and sadness, I know helplessness and powerlessness, I know how it feels not knowing how you’re going to go on, not knowing what the future is going to bring, worrying if things will ever be normal, or if normal even exists. No wonder it’s incomprehensible, it’s all happening on an emotional level, it’s incomputable. You can only feel it. On paper nothing makes any sense. And I know what it feels like to forget how to laugh. I know fear, real, heart clasping fear.

I don’t understand Chile, but nor do I understand myself. That’s okay though, and I can accept myself, we can accept Chile, as it wrenches with agonising pain, trying to recover from the horrific violation that took place and continues to take place against its people.

It’s a journey of reclaiming one’s dignity. And this is something I can relate to, intimately.

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.