All Posts By Catherine Oughtibridge

numbers jumbled

I found myself the most beautiful of places to be, tucked in the corner of an architect-less city, staring out at the sun as it fills the horizon with its yellow. Hidden amid this ordinary, in a block of flats identical to its neighbours, is the little nest I’ve made myself, for a season of a few weeks, a home which belongs to a stranger, a bed which I will soon forget, a view which I will not.

The year swings from one to two. When I write dates, they come out wrong, the wrong months, the wrong years, the numbers jumbled. Often I pick summer months, July, August, to describe this bright December. My body choosing on instinct a reality to fit my circumstances. My body is perpetually upside down and inside out. I fill my rooms with music I don’t recognize and play, on repeat, lists which I will feel fondly for this week and then let fall into the abyss of my memory as I move to explore some other genre. And inside the unknown I find myself and I stop having to be anyone because I already am.

I am living in a dream, but it was a dream I believed into being. I decided I would touch my toes to this sandy beach, and I did just that, as if defying the gods and perhaps in an act of prayer to them, I did just what I wanted to do and delighted myself by the power this act portrayed. Call it being alive. I decided I would write, and here I am writing. I decided I would do work which challenged me and compelled me to care, and that’s what I do.

Twisting my head to the side, I see the waves. Against the sound of Juliet’s death, in the music of the ballet Romeo and Juliet, I hear children playing, chasing each other around the climbing frame. I am the invisible observer, conspicuously foreign. By not belonging, I get to choose how I move. Belonging might be an essential human trait, but not belonging is freedom. I can stand out by accidentally being the only woman in the city wearing a skirt on this hot summer’s day and rather than worry about my lack of fashion sense, know I am merely alien, and hence, my attire does not answer to societal rules to which I do not belong.

If I am a little weird, it’s not easy to explain. I have found no analysis which can dissect a veritable reason for my being this way. I’ve given up trying to hypothesize why. Let’s just accept that following my wild wants makes me happier than denying their existence. And that the sun, setting across the Pacific blue is beautiful.   

On the inconvenience of listening

Lost in the foliage. The Railway Children Walk, West Yorkshire, November 2021

It’s hard to listen. You risk hearing something that you don’t want to hear. Your view of things might get a little crumpled. Someone might say something that doesn’t align with what you wanted or expected them to say or think. People, it seems, have different opinions. Not everyone sees the world quite like me. Maybe nobody. It’s terribly frustrating.

Listening inevitably reminds us of the gap between us. Listen closely, and you’ll hear how clunky our words actually are. We try to express ourselves but our ten of thousands of words create an insufficient digital approximation of our analogue experience. Body language steps in to compensate. Facial expressions give texture to our meanings. But our noisy biases result in erroneous conclusions.

“Slower,” I say. “Please speak slower.”

As a non-native speaker, you work with a smaller vocabulary and all the noise of your own language and culture. Listening in a foreign language takes a lot of effort. Sometimes you might sit and nod, putting all your effort into understanding, following the speaker’s fragmented, straying lines of thought, trying to congeal some sort of understanding from the words you catch. At the end of the conversation, you realise you haven’t said anything at all. There was no time to compose a thought.

“Give me a moment.”

Normally, in our own language, we can compose our thoughts as the other person speaks. It takes a conscious effort to calm our tongue – the words want to escape. We butt in with our opinions. We thrust ourselves into the conversation, spurred on by the essential nature of our thoughts, our words, our opinions, us. In a foreign language, deciphering the sounds into words and words into phrases and phrases into meanings is an all-encompassing task. The cogs whirr. The opinion doesn’t have time to form.

“Sorry, could you repeat that?”

People might mistakenly believe that it’s good listening not to jump in and interrupt the conversation. My Spanish listening is like this: mostly silent. I don’t think anyone would describe my Spanish listening as good. Or, at least, if they did, we can safely assume that they mean ‘for a non-native speaker with only a few years practise’ or they’re trying to be kind. We should be sceptical of such compliments. How many people want to feel they’re speaking to a bad listener?

Occasionally though I do interrupt and ask for clarification of the meaning of a word. A single word. The more confident I feel, the better I listen and the more I interrupt. Lost in a conversation about Queen Victoria and the Chinese Emperor, I picked up on the word knee, I got stuck on the word knee. Why was the word knee in the conversation, why was it so emphasised? Why knee?

Rodilla como knee?” I ask, pointing aggressively at my own right knee. Of course, knee. To go down on one’s knees, the emperor subservient to the empress. It makes sense when you know.

The speaker might feel frustrated at my ignorance, but this interruption is actually better listening than my silence. If I don’t interrupt, I won’t understand. To listen, to understand anything I hear, I need to pause and ask for clarification. Otherwise, I’m just sitting and nodding.

Sí, sí, sí…”

The best conversationalists, for me, in Spanish, are the ones who think about what they are saying and consider how I listen. One of my dear friends actually stops and asks me to wait while he chooses the best to explain his thoughts. He’s one of the few people I feel comfortable having a conversation with, in Spanish, on the phone. He’s not just speaking: he’s gaging whether or not I am understanding and then he’s adapting his language to compensate for my poor vocabulary and need for simple sentences. He allows me to parrot back his meaning in my own words so that we both can be sure that I really do understand what I’m being told. Often though, if I’m being totally honest, I’m tired and lazy and I don’t listen well.

 I say, “.”

I’ve written here a lot about listening in a foreign language but listening in a foreign language is not so dissimilar to listening when you’re distracted, when you’re preoccupied with your own concerns or where the content of the conversation is beyond your ability to comprehend.

We’re all lazy. If the content is technically too difficult, say requiring prior knowledge, we zone out. And if we’re preoccupied with our own thoughts, or distracted by something, for example messages popping up on a screen, the conversation often falls into silences. Divided attention leads us to nod, , but unlike the struggling non-native speaker, we often mistakenly believe we were following and did understand. Maybe you got enough to keep the conversation flowing, but how deep did those words go? Did they just scatter into the wind? Have we missed the clues? Were the words what was being said, or was there a secondary message we were supposed to hear? Are we just guessing?

When the non-native speaker is asked, they can usually admit that they only understood maybe 80% of what was said.

And sometimes we listen blindfolded because we’re on the defence before we’ve had the chance to begin. We assume we know what other people want, what they think and what they believe. We listen to the words, but we don’t wonder what’s not being said. We don’t take time to understand the motivation behind the words. Why does the conversation matter to the other person? Are they trying to sell you something, convince you of an idea, convince themselves? Do they believe what they’re saying, or are they wishing they believed it? Can we tell when someone is lying to themselves?

How are these words serving?

I think often we rush through conversations. It’s hard to listen. We all so busy: thoughts crashing through our minds, places we ought to be, things we should have read, emails that need attending to. The bathroom needs cleaning. We don’t really want to deal with the inconvenience of our routine being crumpled by something we weren’t ready to hear.

Yet I don’t know there’s much anything more valuable than an honest, open, slow and interested conversation with someone who’s attentively listening. A good conversation creates a space in which we grow, it connects us to the world, and to other people’s words. What’s more human than attending to each other’s choice of words?

The loss of everything

This is from a sculpture I think in Ñuñoa celebrating the efforts of the Bomberos, the fire department. The fire service in Chile is made up of volunteers. Santiago, January 2020.

Three buildings had been burnt to the ground, and the putrid smoke of burnt plastic and paint hung into the air late into the afternoon, even though the fire had been put out the night before. The fire service was not fast enough to save the wooden houses with corrugated iron roofs, which had now smouldered into nothing. The bakery next door was also gone. People’s incomes turned to ash.

A young woman stood in front of the corpse of her house whilst around her men dragged the debris from her square of land into a truck. They carted away her walls and the carcass of her kitchen, wearing thick gloves and paper masks. The woman’s eyes were stained red. Smoke most likely, it clung to our clothes. I don’t imagine she’d found the freedom to cry. Her limbs hung limp beside her body. I’d accompanied a friend to bring food, plates, bowels, blankets and clothes, things she would need, but all she could do was stare at the space where her home had been. A weak ‘gracias’ was the most she could articulate. In shock, she could not think. She could not plan ahead and consider where she would sleep or what she would do. She was alone.

The friend I’d accompanied couldn’t understand why someone, faced with the destruction of their home, would stand and stare, so inert, watching the breeze playing with the charred remains.

I could understand.

Because the destruction of a home must be like the destruction of the self, it must be a crumbling of your identity. All those belongings which surround you daily, suddenly gone, must feel like you yourself are being erased from your own plot of land. Power is stolen: the power to tuck yourself into your bed, the power to make yourself a cup of tea, the power to turn the tap and see water flow into a glass. Gone. And I do not know how it is to lose your home, but I do know how important it is to feel grounded as a person, to trust that when you shut the door at night that you are safe, and I know the fear that takes grip when you do not know who you are. When it feels like who you were has crumbled into dust. If you don’t know who you are, how do you know what to do?

Slowing the pace

Humedal, La Serena, December 2021

For once, I don’t feel overstretched. By which I mean, I actually made the bed, I have food in the fridge, I’ve swept the kitchen floor, I’ve no deadlines haunting me, and I am reading almost every day. It’s like I’ve put down a huge rucksack which I’ve been carrying for months. I’m living in front of the Pacific Ocean; I can watch the sunset each evening from my balcony.

There’s a man, a small man with slim limbs, shorter in stature than me, with a dark wrinkled face which makes him look quite old, but perhaps it’s only the sun and he’s not as old as I imagine. He spends many hours each day working outdoors, his horse is never far away, and he sits on the sand dunes and watches over the river basin where his animals graze. I see him with a piece of straw in his mouth and if I’m alone he’ll look away from his animals for a moment and he’ll speak to me, comment on the weather or the beauty of the beach. He has few teeth and a strong accent. One day when I had to apologise that I didn’t understand he replied with genuine surprise, “How?”

It took him some time considering me before he asked if perhaps, I was not Chilean. I switched the sounds around in my mind and concluded that the animal he’d lost sight of was a goat. Although I’m not ruling out the possibility that his dialect has a word half-like the Spanish for ‘goat’ but which means some other animal entirely. I assured him that I hadn’t seen any animals the size of a goat, I’d come straight from the main road, and he looked disappointed.

When more people are around, walking along the path, heading to the beach, he doesn’t turn and pay them any attention and they seem not to see him either. He sits and he watches the animals, and he must do this for hours each day. It’s a wild space, areas of which are roped off to protect the nesting birds. He appears incredibly peaceful.

My peaceful contentment won’t last. Inevitably the world around me will spin back out of my control, it’s so full of exciting opportunities, things to develop, projects to undertake and obligations to attend to, it can hardly do anything else. I’m habitually addicted to our societies call for more.

But right now, there is peace.

Part of this is the light. The room where I work is painted a yellow shade of white and the almost-summer sunshine fills the room. It’s lit up like the inside of the fridge, but with such a clear, fresh light I am awakened in my core. Even mornings are no longer so difficult. The light fills my bedroom well before my alarm sounds and it’s such a warm, friendly, natural light that I can’t despise it.

My father has always said that I have a tendency to commit to too much, burn the candle at both ends and eventually burn out. This is my natural pull, the way I grew up working. It’s learnt from my father who does many, many things, burns the candle at both ends and then fizzles wildly. Luckily my mother’s around to balance things out, but in doing so, she too runs around wildly and exhausts herself. We’re a family of too much at once living in a society of more, more, more.

When I’ve got too much on, I think my brain works against me to slow me down. Like trying to drive with the handbrake on. The more I worry about all the things I should have done, the more my own body resists me. It hides that feeling of calm, cool-headed thought and instead swings between panicked adrenaline and dispiriting lethargy.

When I’ve got less on, when I’ve chosen to have less on, I’m calmer, my thoughts form with less agitation and getting stuff done doesn’t seem like such an ordeal. This is a preferable way to be. But it’s the result of many choices, it does not come effortlessly. To find it, I think you have to learn to value the man’s time, simply sitting there, watching his animals with the sun on his back. You have to learn to value the patience it takes to wait without wishing the time to pass faster. You have to be really clear about what it is you want.

The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave by Esteban Montejo

Sugar

When I visited my sister in the summer, I paid a quick visit to the book barn. By a quick visit, I mean I was only lost in the labyrinth of books for a few hours and came out clutching only a dozen or so titles. One of these books was a slim Penguin paperback, published in English in 1970, entitled ‘The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave’. It was one of those books I picked up because I felt it would be good for me to read, but I was a little apprehensive about what reading such a life would entail.

Esteban Montejo was born a slave and grew up working on a Cuban sugar plantation. He escaped, probably as a teenager, and lived wild in the forest, avoiding contact with society from fear of being caught, punished and returned to slavery. He left the forest when, in 1886, Cuba abolished slavery, although on some plantations, as Montejo mentions, the freeing of the slaves took more time than others. He seems to have been an introvert, a quiet rebel, occasionally incredibly stubborn and clearly, he valued his independence and was willing to act to protect it. He talks about listening to his elders, particularly those who had come from Africa who still remembered their homes and who sometimes engaged in cultural practises (particularly magical ones) which hadn’t been incorporated into the Cuban cultures. He’s critical of the Christian god, who he treats with more suspicion than the ‘witchcraft’ of various African gods.  His understanding of some bible stories is mixed up, but some of his observations about religion and humanity are stunningly astute.

There are some things about life I don’t understand. Everything about Nature is obscure to me, and about the gods more so still. The gods are capricious and wilful, and they are the cause of many strange things that happen here and which I have seen for myself. I can remember as a slave I spent half my time gazing up at the sky because it looked so painted.

Esteban Montejo, The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave

Montejo returned to plantation work, this time as an employee. He describes his tasks and the options for labourers depending on their ethnicity. He mentions too, women’s work, and how hard the women had to work to maintain their families while the men were cutting cane. He talks a lot about dancing and gambling habits of his companions, but he seems to have not been particularly interested in either. His main interest, and he has no hesitancy in stating this, was women. He has a lot to say about women, courting practises and even fashion.

During the 1898 Cuban war of Independence, Montejo became a soldier. He writes about subjecting himself to the orders of his commanders, but he seems to find this difficult. He is a soldier who signs up because he shares the ideals of the cause, he believes strongly in freedom and independence for Cuba, yet, more than once he disobeys a command and finds himself punished as a result.

In the 1960s, he met the anthropologist, Miguel Barnet, who had heard mention of Montejo in a Cuban newspaper and who became fascinated by the centenarian’s story. This book consists of Montejo’s recollections of his first forty years, recorded and reconstructed by Barnet.

It was not at all what I had expected.

And if you want my opinion, it’s best not to die, because a few days later no one remembers you, not even your closest friends. It’s silly to make such a fuss o the dead, like people do nowadays, but it’s nothing but hypocrisy really. It always has been. For my part, I want my fiestas while I am alive.

Esteban Montejo, The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave

Do you need a mechanic?

El Faro, La Serena, December 2021

Today, as I went hunting for a corner shop to get a packet of pasta and a bottle of orange juice, I found myself walking down a familiar street. A wide, tranquil dual carriageway with freshly trimmed palms, reluctant patches of frequently watered grass and persistently sandy walkways. Two workmen were busy grinding the paintwork off the grey metal fence which surrounds one of the condominiums so that they could paint it a cheery yellow, but otherwise the street was pretty much empty. One of those cars with a large speaker attached on the roof, held down with heavy-duty ropes passed by, calling out to the seagulls, blaring out an advert for a garage where mechanics can tend to your needs any day of the week, located where Cuatro Esquinas meets Ruta 5.

  There are many things which are surprising about this observation, although from the perspective of the street, nothing special happened. The first observation is that I was there, in La Serena, at the edge of the desert, a quarter of the way around the world from home. It feels like yesterday that I left, and yet it’s been eighteen months. To say I am elated is an understatement. Being here is my teenage rebellion, although I stopped being a teenage over a decade ago. It’s something I selfishly want, for me, without rationalised explanation, probably to prove something to myself. The second observation, and the one which I had never expected, was that I understood the advert.

When I was first in La Serena, doing anything was difficult. My Spanish was a complete mess, childlike and limited to a narrow vocabulary which I’d studiously learned with a heap of flashcards. I was learning the language fast, out of necessity, but you cannot learn a language overnight, it takes time and effort and a lot of discomfort. My lack of fluency meant that even simple transactions led to a shot of adrenaline. After going to the bank – which I always find stressful in Spanish – I would treat myself to a slice of cake in the café opposite. I learnt a hell of a lot of Spanish in those months I spend in La Serena, words like toque de queda (curfew) and cuarentena (quarantine) and a lot of Chilean words (wea, bacán, cuático) which I don’t know how to translate appropriately. Yet it remained a fight.

Within weeks of returning to England at the beginning of the pandemic, my pronunciation had nosedived, and my recall of words felt sluggish. Occasionally, I took out my grammar book and studied for a little while, but I had other things on my mind. I did continue speaking in Spanish, using it to talk to friends and occasionally, when appropriate, with students. But I have no explanation as to why when I returned to Santiago and I spoke Spanish in an imperfect yet easy-going manner, without exhausting myself. I’m not sure entirely how it happened. The language perhaps had settled into a part of my mind where it could be chewed, processed and consolidated into something which, then regurgitated, came out as my own voice.

And although the seagulls didn’t understand the advert, I, for the first time, did.

At the end of the world

The biggest market I’ve ever seen.
Santiago, November 2021.

Chile, my dear Chile. Fancy seeing you again. I’d forgotten, for a moment, how arid your hills are.

It took me a little while to get over here. In Madrid, in that never-ending hall, the one that rolls out to infinity with gates enough for the entire world to visit, I helped a guy who was trying to go to Mexico find his flight. He was confused because the letters and numbers were repeating themselves, the terminal, the subterminal, the gate, the same icons on a loop, like knowing a place by its GPS coordinates but not its name. I was confused because my gate number changed as I was leaping between moving walkways. I was confused because I was tired, and I had a headache and I was clutching a thousand forms: vaccine passes, pcr test results, declarations of the absence of symptoms, the location in which I would stay, all those numbers and words used to identify which country, gender and age group I belong, boarding passes, taxi reservations, evidence that someone will pay if I get sick. But I heard someone say, “Cachai” as we waited at the gate, and suddenly the number of documents seemed irrelevant. Do you get what I’m saying? A blink and I was in Madrid, another blink, gone again. But the Chilean words stuck around, with a reassuring presence.

We came backwards through Santiago airport, coming in through what must be newly built gates, walking through doors designed for the flow to be in the other direction, passing ‘no entry’ signs. I wandered through this labyrinth, following the guy in front. Chileans can queue. Without thinking (and therefore without worrying), I allowed myself to be herded through. I wondered how the Chileans were going to test us all and process all our documents and I imagined that I might be awhile in the airport, but they attacked the problem with many hands, applying parallel processing: countless people siting at countless desks collecting the countless documents in a building constructed like a maze. Fodder for Borges, I thought.

I was given a sticker to identify me as in isolation and sent down the escalator for my pcr test. I keyed my passport number into the machine and then moved into the next queue for testing. My first test, in Berlin, had been a gentle affair and I had wondered afterwards why people made such fuss about it. In England, my pcr test had been less comfortable but in hindsight not so bad. In Chile, I was reminded of those hooks which the ancient Egyptians used to remove a dead person’s brain through their nostrils.

I went up another escalator and followed people through another corridor. We’d made it to arrivals, and I recognized the room where we waited in our lines to pass through immigration. Slow lines, because the open desks could be counted on one hand, discarding the thumb and most of the fingers, and the staff kept wandering off to do other things. I didn’t feel rushed. I’d seen the sunshine through the floor to ceiling airport windows. Peace had settled upon me. In line, I helped a Spaniard connect to the free airport wifi so that he could call his children and tell them he’d arrived. He offered me chewing gum. The lady at the immigration counter stamped my passport with the pretty multicoloured Chilean stamp, and I was in.

Wheeling my jenga tower of suitcases out through the building, I found a bottled water dispenser, inserted my pesos and the machine refused to dispense the water. I tried another machine: it didn’t work either. I wasn’t the only one wanting water, and I shared consolations with a stranger – at least the machine refunded our pesos. We met up again a few minutes later, buying water from a little shop. A woman served me, handing me a bottle of water which was cheaper than those sold in the machine. Perhaps the gods were helping out.

Thankfully, I knew what I was doing because I had clear instructions from Chilean friends. I found my driver, a professional chap who squirted my hands with sanitizer and did all that moving my luggage around, and he drove me to a friend’s flat. The receptionist appeared and these two men transferred my three suitcases into a shopping trolley. I just stood there, while all this happened, with an expression halfway between a sunshine smile and goldfish thinking. I was led into a lift, and left there with the trolley, the receptionist pressed the button, sent me up and phoned my friend to notify her of the guest on her doorstep.

I had arrived.

How Pinocchio Learned to Read by Alberto Manguel

Pinocchio is Italian, and so was my breakfast… Martina Franca, Italy, 2021.

Today I read an essay by the Argentinian writer Alberto Manguel called How Pinocchio Learned to Read. The Pinocchio who Manguel describes is the original, the Italian Carlos Collodi version, the fairy-tale before it was adapted for modern sensibilities. Pinocchio is brash, rebellious and the cause of anxiety for his creator, yet endeavours to make up for his failings by attending school and learning to read.

I like Manguel’s essays in the collection A Reader on Reading which I am currently going through. Each begins with a quote from Lewis Carrol’s Alice, and Manguel frequently refers to moments from Wonderland or Through the Looking-Glass to reveal his trail of thought. This essay, as the title suggests, uses Pinocchio as a device, as an example, for talking about that tricky process of learning to read, and in doing so, this provides Manguel with the space to critic the teaching of this valuable skill.

Learning to read is hard. I have students who on first glance, look over a text, recognise the majority of the individual words and project onto them a meaning which portends to have sense. They read by intelligent guesswork. They devour something of the meaning, but the meaning is often one created by themselves, and on closer inspection, is a major deviation from the text. Phrasal verbs trip them up, as do nouns that look like verbs, and words which hold multiple meanings. False friends, those which are similar or identical to Spanish words, but which have a different meaning are particularly deceptive – words like ‘actual’ which so many Spanish speakers mistake for ‘current’. It’s not enough to recognise the words, sometimes it’s not even enough to understand their dictionary definition. Yesterday I argued with a student who was happy that a boot was a boot, and a shoe was a shoe, but my walking boots, he adamantly declared, were shoes.

The Latin expression ‘per ardua ad astra,’ ‘through difficulties we reach the stars,’ is almost incomprehensible for Pinocchio (as for us) since everything is expected to be obtainable with the least possible expenditure.

How Pinocchio Learned to Read, Alberto Manguel

When students start learning English, they are full of energy, focused on an illusion of fluency, which they believe they will inevitably arrive at through the process of turning up for classes. Students who have multiple lessons a week start to complain about being tired after a fortnight. They slot classes into their lives, without considering how draining learning a language will be, and exhaustion bleeds out from the scheduled hour into the rest of their day. Their minds start cataloguing words in English, even when they are not in class, and while their life continues in front of them, their brain is playing with English phonemes in the background. Learning a language is difficult, more difficult than most things in life. We don’t remember how hard, or frustrating learning to communicate was the first time around. We tend not to recall the challenge of learning to read. Most likely we burst into tears with tiredness and frustration of a multitude of occasions. We erroneously assume children have it easy.

Bullshit. It’s easier to teach an adult: adults realise that they are responsible for their learning, they understand why they are learning, they are more likely to invest in techniques which suit them personally, they know what they are sacrificing (an hour in bed, an hour with their children), they have a much stronger understanding of the world and so absorb cultural differences more easily, they recognise their strengths and weaknesses and know that they have to work on both. Some teenagers are like this too, but more frequently teenagers have bigger anxiety challenges and aren’t so clear on their goals. With adults, the bigger challenge is keeping their ambition in check. They want to be fluent yesterday.

The rewards, the stars we reach, become obvious over time. Students who study attentively, for long enough, soften in attitude, they become gentler on themselves, as if more aware of the true challenge they’ve undertaken, and they start to strategize. During the first few weeks, a student may declare a vague preference for conversation, but in time this gets replaced with the series of childlike – Why? Why? Why? – questions which centre on the patterns and grammar of the language they’re using (but never pages of grammar exercises). When they are tired – sick children, late nights, stress at work – they revert back to fluid, easy going conversation and ask fewer questions. When they are alert, they seek to develop their skills by pushing themselves towards a slower, more accurate speech and spend more time thinking about the words they say.

Pinocchio will only learn if he is not in a hurry to learn, and will only become a full individual through the effort required to learn slowly.

How Pinocchio Learned to Read, Alberto Manguel

But Manguel has little faith in Pinocchio’s teachers, they might teach him the alphabet, and to read political slogans and advertisements, to be ‘superficially literate’… but what about real-world literacy, what about developing his own understanding, his own opinions and perspective on the world? Manguel points out that although Pinocchio turns into a boy, inevitably his schooling still leaves him thinking like a puppet.

Life is the result of living

Piggies, Italy, October 2021

When I was a teenager, when we were told to begin thinking about our careers, when some large chap with a grinning face mistook his job in careers advice for that of a motivational coach and mistook me for someone without an imagination, when all that happened and the computer spewed out that my ambition in life should be to teach design and technology, I already knew what I liked: I liked sunshine, books and people who were nice to me.

The careers advisor, I believe, saw the design and technology teacher suggestion as a bit of a disappointment; he was on a mission to make me aim higher. The process involved typing personality traits into the computer, hitting enter and then receiving a list dictating what one should want to be… Personally, I think the computer was doing the best it could within the limited selection of jobs available within its database. The algorithm lacked imagination, but that wasn’t its fault. The careers advisor also lacked imagination. He wanted something more exciting for the centre piece of his motivational coach routine, so, because I seemed good at studying, he thought I ought to become an academic.

I have never responded well to a pep talk. I would make a bad academic.


And as I write this, the pandemic is coming to its close. I still keep a mask in my handbag, but as long as I give my cents directly to the waiter or waitress in the café where I have my breakfast, I normally don’t need to use it. It’s sunny here in the south of Italy, where I have escaped, like a bird, free from the cage, landing on a familiar branch to reorientate itself in the world again. Today I have immersed myself in books, seated in the sunshine. I’ve scribbled in my diary whilst drinking a cappuccino. Today’s waiter, a cheerful lad with the lowest voice I have ever heard, guessed my order, knowing me to be mightily predictable, and I replied in first Spanish and then Italian, which is one language fewer than the other day. His trousers were rather short, apparently showing off one’s ankles is the fashion for Italian young men. Ankle socks no more.

“Having a nice holiday?”

No, because I am not on holiday. This is my life. It’s an uncluttered life, one where I live out of a suitcase. It’s easily mistaken for a holiday as many people have holidays with characteristics similar to my life, holidays that involve sunshine and ice cream and smiling at the sheer wonder of existence, but I’ve no tour guide leading me around and I cook more often than I eat out. I might be found staring at the ceiling of the basilica, but I’m also found buying toilet rolls in the supermarket. I have classes to teach this afternoon.

And all this that I have is something that with his good-natured expression and his insistence that I aim higher, the career’s advisor couldn’t conceive. The computer couldn’t get it either, although it recognised that I’m inclined to teach. Both created a gap, work, and then endeavoured to correctly fill it. Yet, as a curious and social human being I’m possessed of an inner determination to give to my community and to partake in it. Work gives life meaning but being told what to do tends to take that meaning away.

I’m teaching the locals to count in English with use of the game ‘piggies’. People who were at my sibling’s wedding reception will know exactly what I mean. How I ended up filling up my piggies score sheets with Italian pensioners…. I am not quite sure. They have never tossed pigs whilst drinking their morning espressini before and are delighted.

Show don’t tell – simple writerly advice. The things that are really worthwhile never require pep talks.


The pandemic has, in many ways, been good for me. The antagonist forces the protagonist to grow. A friend recently said that my stubbornness ought to be studied. I feel like this time, this fight, I have fought with dignity and finesse. I have been patient, incredibly patient, and yet I have kept a narrow focus on what is important to me. There has been relatively little tantrum throwing, few toys shoved out the pram, and I’ve only occasionally stamped my foot. Any doubts I had about what I wanted to do with my life have been eroded away. My plans, while always moving, have had a long-term focus.

The fact that my life doesn’t exist in an algorithm, or in the imagination of any careers advisor, doesn’t really matter. Life isn’t about doing what you’re told to do. It’s not about jumping through societies golden hoops (or iron hoops for some). Life is the result of living.

Settled down

Sunrise somewhere between England and Italy, September, 2021

Many people have ideas about what I might want or what would be good for me. My grandmother believes I would be happier if I settled down. I agree, I just have a different definition of settled down. My settled down does not involve owning a property. It does not involve being stationary, it involves being comfortable in knowing who I am so that when I make a decision I do so with a sense that my feet are grounded on the Earth. It involves having a firm understanding of my roots, knowing where I come from and how I fit within the bigger picture of our globalized society. It involves knowing where my privilege originated, recognizing that even being able to type these words is a gift. It means recognizing my responsibilities. It means putting effort into continuing my loving relationships within my family and long-term friends. It involves not being manipulated by fears of the past, or illusions of the future, but being comfortable in who I am, here, now, today.

Settled down also refers to kitchens and the domestic world, the world where women have historically found themselves spending rather a lot of time. Being itinerant doesn’t mean I’m not domesticated. I might not own a kitchen, but I’m a reasonable cook, I can sew a button on, turn up a hem, sew masks or create a skirt and I can even darn. The Mother has performed her duties to society admirably: my training is complete.* If they certified domestic skills, I’d have a shiny piece of paper to frame. I’m so domesticated that I keep stain remover and a muslin cloth in my suitcase. I am capable of running a household. But does any of this exclude me running my household of one from a variety of kitchens all over the world. Do I really need to own my own saucepans?

But settled down has another meaning. My sister is teaching her new puppy to settle himself down quickly. He has to be able to travel, to go in the car, to be taken on holiday, into cafés and pubs, into strange environments, and in all of these he has to be able to settle himself, be calm and behave. Sobrino, my name for my sibling’s puppy, needs to be able to generate a sense of security and safety from within. He will always be more watchful when away from his familiar surroundings, but he’ll be in contact with humans who love him, and he’ll have learnt to trust in the world on which he depends. His security does not come from his cuddly dragon toy or any other of his possessions, but from the relationships and faith he is developing in the people who care for him.

Familiarity is reassuring, but we shouldn’t mistake familiar for good. There are many things we are familiar with which will be good for us, and there are many familiar things which we don’t spend much time questioning, and which unfortunately are harmful. Familiar can make us feel settled because it’s predictable.

Sobrino will have to accept that sometimes his life is restricted and sometimes that he can’t have what he wants, and the structure itself will help create a non-stressful home, yet to make this a good home, a happy and healthy home, my siblings are putting in a lot of work to critically consider Sobrino’s well-being. They are not merely leaving things up to habit. There is a plan, there are strategies and sometimes hard work. Sobrino is an adorable puppy, but he mustn’t be cuddled all the time. He must also learn his independence. He has to learn to settle himself down regardless of his environment. I’m sure it’s sometimes hard for my siblings to ignore his big, soulful eyes asking for adoration.

My family possess many habits among them which are the way that they do things, and these habitual actions (or moments of inaction) are also how they most frequently hurt one another. I think this is the same in all families. Sometimes patterns of behaviour might serve one generation in one circumstance, but then they are taught to the next, and the next, and the next without being assessed for their actual value. I recall a conversation with the mother about my tendency to have unhelpful emotional outbursts (I use unhelpful here in the most British of understatements). Being wise, the Mother suggested that my outbursts had a resemblance to some of her own, which, luckily for us all, were tamer than my Nonna’s, whom she believed had been tame compared to my great-grandmother. Having travelled, it occurs to me that in another culture, such a display of emotion might be looked on much more favourably than the dangerous silence on the topic of emotions inherent in other parts of my family (which I have also managed to inherit). Circumstances change, and sometimes our habits stop serving us. We grow, and habits stop serving us.

Being settled into our relationships, our environments and our habits reduces the chance that we will critically review how we behave. Doing things just because that’s the way that things are done leads to complacency and a blindness towards each other’s needs. Personally, I think there are times that we are all too settled, too complacent, too used to a hiccup-free life. It’s easy for me to say though, I have fewer responsibilities and hence more freedom to change up the rhythm of my routines. I think that evaluating your habits is much easier away from your own culture because you run into people who point out your habits and ask, “Why?”

To move away from a place we call ours allows us a better sense of our true identity but at the same time distracts us from self-reflection; to sit at a steadfast point helps us unveil that identity in communion with the numinous but also renders the task impossible by blinding us to what defines us in the surrounding, tangible world. We must move to meet those others who provide the shifting mirrors by means of which we piece together our self-portrait.

Alberto Manguel, The Library of the Wandering Jew, A Reader on Reading

My theory is this: To see, we need to engage in critical analysis, we need comparison points and diverse role models that demonstrate alternative options. We benefit from advice from a variety of sources. Books help; teachers help; coming into conflict with the results of our mistakes helps too. But, to be, we also need stability, the arms of those who love us, the trust that what we feel is true and that we belong somewhere, to some tribe, to some people, some community. It’s only with both insight into ourselves and a sense of cohesion through our stable relationships that we learn who we are.

And then we need to be brave enough to make decisions as to how we want to grow.

Which leads me to consider how my freedom to be selfish, to choose to do things in a manner which fits with my individual taste is rather unusual. Historically, decisions were more collaborative. Society worked with the family as the building block. Maybe the man might make some decisions and the woman other decisions, but the overall choice of what any individual could do was much more limited. Generations lived, if not in the same house, in the same street. Your many siblings surrounded you and would saddle you with their children for a while. Children were not a decision, but a consequence of us being human. Survival took up a lot of time and energy. Options were fewer. Whereas my family and friends generally do not try to interfere in my decisions. People hesitate to give any advice further than linking me documentation for border controls and visa applications and stressing that I ought to take care.

My parents erroneously believe that if they tell me not to do something, I will be compelled to do it. I don’t actually have much of a compulsion for high-risk activities. I’m not particularly drawn towards an adrenaline rush. I like being calm, settled with an easy-going existence. I like my routines and my steady rhythm. I love hiking, as long as the most special equipment I’ll need is a pair of sturdy boots. I’m not drawn to danger for the sake of danger. I hate horror films and think jumping out of a plane is absurd. And yet, people fascinate me, most especially when they’re at ease, acting naturally, within their own communities. People of all ages, with their different backgrounds, with their different religions, different assumptions, different conversations. Hence whilst my life is, in some respects, incredibly settled, it thrives on movement and change. For me, these aren’t opposites. Right now, writing from Italy and wearing the jumper my sister knitted me, my life feels pretty settled.

* After receiving feedback, I would like to clarify that I am not stating that the Mother taught me to sew. Merely, in her traditional social role of mother, that she assured it happened. The Father also taught me domestic skills. The Mother definitely taught me to darn. The Grandmother taught me to use a sewing machine.