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beating the great anxiety of haste

Hummingbird, Truful Truful, Araucanía, March 2023

I have achieved slow.

Which is not to say I manage to keep every day to a slow rhythm, or that I would want to, but I look at the week, the diary as it is laid out in front of me, and I see wide open spaces, moments where I may read, write or bake a cake.

Rushing has always been one of my greatest anxieties. I find great solace in calm thinking: in the slow turning over of thoughts in my subconscious while I stare through the window. After dinner, when I was a child, I used to sit on my bedroom windowsill and hide behind the curtain, a space that was both at once small, closed, and wide open to the stars in the night sky. A secret peace.

It’s partly about a sense of well-being, but when I’m running fast, going from one thing to another, I don’t tend to be very productive. I lack focus. There’s a self-trust that somewhere dissipates. It occurs me that I’m supposed to be reading, writing, planning classes, managing my accounts, that I should have washed the clothes, cleaned the fridge out and learnt the Spanish subjunctive. I begin to wonder when it was that I last painted, sang, danced, went out for a coffee or rubbed lavender between the tips of my fingers. Simultaneously, I want to do all and none of the above.

But the mother pokes her head around the door, asks if I want a cup of tea. Shall we drink it outside? The summer sun is shining. Yes. I stop what I’m doing and the cluster of disparate thoughts that have gathered like cobwebs are cleared away. The mother talks and her questions circle the big priorities of life. We don’t speak over one another. There’s no fear of not being listened to. The conversation is spacious. What matters is that it is the two of us being together, sat on a log by our river where the trout swim and the kingfisher dives.

Of course, I’m juggling an intercontinental existence. I read far too much documentation about visas and spend an absurd proportion of my income on flights. I drive both sides of the road, up and down the motorway, house to house, desk to desk and occasionally, when I wake up, it takes me a few moments to work out where I am, which country, which season. Sometimes my weeks are a row of dominoes. To find the space, I have to accept that I might not read or write, that I might not learn a single foreign word, that the washing will have to be done later and that for me to be present I’m going to have to stop the flow of new information.

I don’t like to think what would happen if I hadn’t learnt to carve space into my rhythm for just being. Knowing I must calm my brain, I drive three hours in silence. A song can’t just be all high notes. Fast tempo gives way to the slow. Shall we go out for a coffee, sit and stare out at the lake that has risen so high in my absence? The stove is lit, flames flicker, let’s stay a little longer.

And here I am writing again. Create space and the writing always comes. My desk in Chile looks out towards the cathedral, but only now, with the tree branches bare, can I see the white tower. There’s a winter hummingbird in the blossom of the cherry tree. This is not to say that the tree is yet blossoming, only that a few clusters of flowers seem to have opened early. When I see a hummingbird, I stop.

It’s a choice.

it’s a creative ‘and’ not an ‘either/or’

Valdivia, May 2022

The day begins to the sound of water running through the drainpipes. Behind the curtains, the windows are misted. When I finally get up, I pull on two pairs of leggings and under my t-shirt wear a thermal vest. Last week I was living through a wet English summer, this week a damp Chilean winter. There is a similarity in the rainfall, but the perception of it differs depending on whether you are planning a picnic or you’re carrying the shopping home and it’s soaking through your gloves.

JP, being Venezuelan, believes that since I grew up in a place with winters and occasional snow, I should be naturally adapted to such weather. He ignores my retorts that I grew up in a house with double glazing and central heating. Having grown up in the Caribbean, he finds the icy breeze down by the costanera exotic.

Recently, I finished listening to the audiobook of Creativity by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. If my memory serves me well, it’s a book that I originally began reading in a library, but for some reason never had the chance to finish. I have a strong preference for reading over listening, but, ironically considering how much I travel, I am cursed with motion sickness which prevents me from reading on buses or in cars.

Whilst the book is generally interesting, what stuck with me was the analysis of character traits of creative individuals.

We typically apply labels to people using an either/or approach. Someone is introverted or extroverted, generous or selfish, optimistic or pessimistic, masculine or feminine. Csikszentmihalyi is interested in people whose lives exhibit a globally impactful creativity, the sort that is recognised and celebrated. These people, Csikszentmihalyi suggests, tend to exhibit contrary traits. They are an ‘and’. They are introverted and extroverted. Not somewhere in between the two, but both poles. They are masculine and feminine, not androgynous, but swing from one way of being to the other.

It suggests that when it comes to analysing character, we should be open to accepting contradiction. I can be both family-orientated and independent. I can insist on using a butter knife in my own home and not be fussed when in someone else’s place we eat with our hands.

One of the things I love about living semi-nomadically is that I am forced into different ways of being. Or maybe I should say that it gives me permission to be differently. Perhaps I shouldn’t need permission, and yet, experimenting and acting out of character tends to alarm people. Indeed, the challenge perhaps with Csikszentmihalyi’s idea about opposite traits is that it suggests that creative people, by failing to fit neatly in boxes, exhibit an unpredictability that may come across as threatening. Ignoring that his examples are all great creatives, we can still see that creativity requires the freedom to explore such opposite characteristics. It’s not travelling inherently that gives such freedom, but what you can learn while travelling (if you’re willing) that provides both the alternative ideas and the spaces in which to act upon them.

And I’ve heard numerous times that people feel that they have a different personality when speaking in different languages. I wonder if perhaps this comes from having different expectations or because we speak different languages in different contexts. Speaking Spanish, I don’t expect myself to sound anywhere near as intelligent as I would in English. Nor do I expect to sound anywhere near as polite. The effort it takes to communicate in Spanish means that I make different decisions. I have no expectation that I will be fully understood. I’m conscious of the limits of my speech and much more forgiving of my conversation partner.

We bring our faulty understandings of the world into every conversation. While mainland Europe was suffering a heatwave (and England just more rain), Chilean friends asked how I was dealing with the heat. What heat? I asked. When I tell people in England that I’m heading to Chile, they sometimes remark on how lovely it will be in the sunshine. I adjust their assumption with a single word – Patagonia – which brings up images of glaciers and snow. Although it’s generally agreed to be the southern tip of the Americas, Patagonia means different things to different people. Some definitions include where we live as being part of the region, some don’t. It’s a bit like trying to define where The North of England begins. This ignorance isn’t an awful thing. Most of the time, we just don’t have a lot of knowledge about anywhere other than our own home. It’s both a reality and an opportunity.

And however we see the weather, the rain keeps falling

The trout festival at Pitrufquén

Lago Villarrica feeds into the river at Pitrufquén. Summer, 2023

At the weekend, we went to a trout festival in the rather small town of Pitrufquén. An event discovered in the pages of the local newspaper, the sort of newspaper you buy cheaply from an enthusiastic chap who strolls around town hollering. It’s the first paper I’ve read in years. And its horoscope pages are addictively awful.

The festival was being held on the banks of a stony river in a park of pines and eucalyptus beside the town of 26,000 inhabitants, all of whom – based on the five-minute drive through – seem to live in bungalows with pleasant square gardens.

We parked in the woods and I applied sun cream. Our friends sought out their artisanal beers and JT bought me a fresh blueberry juice – one of us would have to drive home. Although Pitrufquén is one of our closer neighbours, it’s still a good 50 minutes away in the car. Kind of demonstrates just how rural this area of Chile actually is. Especially compared to England.

A man with a microphone strode around chatting with the people at the gazebos, street food stalls and tables of artisanal goods. His voice echoed loudly from an empty stage, which had been set up ready for the regional champions of the cueca, the traditional Chilean dance, to perform their choreographed seduction. Including handkerchief waving. As he passed through the stalls, the microphone man enquired what the vendors were selling and for what price. His disembodied voice told us the skewer of barbecued beef was a good price. Very fair. As was the potted succulent. Where are you from? Are you enjoying the festival? He discovered a woman from the exotic country of Spain and declared the trout festival international.

JT bought me some earrings.

Monday afternoon, wearing my new earrings for my online writing class, we debated the definition of contemporary writing. We all had different ideas about what time period contemporary would refer to, and there were comments about it having some relevancy to today, an echo of current life. I couldn’t help but wonder: if contemporary literature is a global phenomenon, then to whom exactly should it be relevant? Would the trout catchers of Pitrufquén have felt represented? Probably not. Probably not even in the Chilean literature I have read.

Any definition of contemporary literature remained a shoulder shrug. We could not conclude an answer, and nor did we really care to. As there is no standard definition, the question felt a tad unhelpful. The academic definition is a shoulder shrug too.

Yet, it did prompt me to reflect on my reading choices. How much contemporary British literature do I actually read? Not much. Even less before the degree. Studying has changed the balance: after reading Rachel Cusk’s Outline, I read the rest of the trilogy, and after reading Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything, I read Hot Milk, and having just finished Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman, I’ve suggested to my mother that we augment the family bookshelves with the rest of Evaristo’s work. My mother’s gone shopping.

I actually read much more Latin American contemporary fiction than British. I guess this is reasonably unusual and I wonder how this exchange is influencing me.

One of my goals when moving to Chile was to read the books produced in Chile. I started off with Isabel Allende because she’s the most obvious, but there are other women such as Lina Meruane and Carla Guelfenbein who I happily recommend. Both are available in translation.

Sometimes, changing our behaviour for the circumstances is part of accepting the realities we face. It’s part of becoming part of a group or belonging to a society. I ask books: where will you take me and how will I learn? I read a lot of Latin American women because I’m a woman living in Latin America, searching for that perspective. It occurs to me that what I’m doing with my reading is earning a right to belong. This place has become my home because I deeply care about it, and one of the ways I care is by reading.

These days, I’m mostly vegetarian, but at the festival I devoured my barbecued trout. Fisherman had been up early to catch it for me, and the chefs ran between the smoking barbecues in thirty-something degree heat. It felt the right thing to do.

Waiting to be reborn

On Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy (Outline, Transit, Kudos)

Storms coming, Coñaripe, February 2023

Night. My head a little fuzzy, not from wine, but from having woken with a migraine this morning. I hope, but nothing fully shakes a migraine, nothing other than a good night’s sleep. Wishing in a cool breeze from the open darkness – 37 degrees outside today – the white ceiling dotted with tiny black flies, I’m waiting for the room to become more accommodating of sleep.

The children two floors up show no sign of going to bed. High-pitched play. They know I exist. They’ve popped their little brown faces around the hedge that borders the garden and seen me, sitting there, reading. Angelic faces with cherub noses; I wish they’d sleep.

Green tea with jasmine. I’ve been reading Rachel Cusk’s Kudos, admiring it without loving it. The third of a trilogy, and probably the one I enjoyed the least (not itself a criticism). The first of the three, Outline, I read for university; not my usual choice because ‘intellectual white British woman’ sits too close to home. I’m trying so hard to push myself into other, less-comfortable spheres.

At first, I disliked Outline. It wasn’t real; the conversations were false, stylised, gossip. Was it all in the narrator’s head? The writing steps back, out of believable dialogue and into a smooth, unbelievable eloquence – Cusk’s voice. Once I accepted its design – accepted the request from Cusk that the reader abandons any expectation for dialogue that sounds like speech – I settled down.

Although, saying that, the passivity frustrated me, maybe because it recalled a timidity of voice I occasionally feel. Maybe, because I get frustrated by people who seem incapable of helping themselves. Creative writing instructors go on about giving ‘agency’ to the protagonist, but the protagonist, Faye, rejects ‘agency’. A sponge, absorbing, barely reacting. Her decision for passivity was her limit.

Surprisingly, suspense didn’t falter. I would have thought it might. Instead, it grew addictive. The narrator holds herself back, restrained, but under the surface, judgement, conflict, anger. A woman’s unsayable, un-permittable anger. The self, destroyed by divorce, ashes of anger.

Despite not being divorced, I have known fire that burns through one’s sense of being, when one’s one narrative, the story of self, the story of being, ruptures. To comprehend myself, my story, I disjoint my own narrative – creating a before and after: I divide into before my loss of self and after I began to reassemble. The space in between too uncomfortable. Faye is trying to identify herself in the ashes, and when she can’t, she refuses to be reborn.

Faye, or Rachel Cusk. An intentionally hazy line. She’s a writer teaching a writing course in Greece, as Cusk has. She’s a writer, divorced, just as Cusk is.

Metaphors hang heavy in the book, giving the impression that the first-person narrator, Faye, reads plenty of poetry. So much, it has sculpted her thinking. At first, I noticed the metaphors, then I relaxed into the rhythm of the writing and left them to my subconscious, now I am going back, looking for them afresh, curious as to their frequency. How beautiful a second reading. Maybe, I am overly self-conscious about using metaphor and simile in my own writing, fearing that such imagery would stand out, maybe I should have more confidence, play more. It would be a declaration of poetic interest in someone who doesn’t read poetry. Then again, Cusk in interviews says how she doesn’t read fiction.

She does, apparently, read philosophy. No surprise then that all three books bloom with the sort of lines that could be underlined, highlighted, used to prompt a journal page or two. Reread and reflect. Apparently, autofiction is often analytical. Cusk’s is a contemplation on passivity and writing; yet writing is not a passive activity. It’s a play with from, creating a character, a narrator, who is merely an outline, but the reader fills the image in, joins dots, creates them for themselves if they don’t exist. What do we know about Rachel Cusk?

Transit, the second book, and Kudos were in some ways easier to read; I no longer expected anything to happen. I read both smoothly and rapidly. Very little happens. Like in the first, strangers, friends and colleagues – none of whom Faye seems to particularly like – offer their monologues.

In a way, these books are like an interconnected short story collection, and each story is like a Russian-doll. I’m weirdly reminded of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, with a story being told of a story. Faye is a frame. And, as in Conrad’s work, where the African characters exist as projected fears, voicelessly, there’s something uncomfortable in the voicelessness of the criticised, ex-spouses, children, alluded to but in a way that pats the particular storyteller’s ego. Everybody is lying. They are terrible liars. Lying to themselves and to Faye. Faye too, lies. Deceiving the reader by not taking responsibility for her own story.

Maybe we only tell such aggrandising tales of our foibles when we are struggling to convince ourselves of the truth of them. When I find myself talking in such a way, hiding key parts of the picture, I always end up feeling guilty. Or maybe we tell such stories when we have a dangerous sense of righteousness.

I had a close encounter with a Cusk-esque character recently. My partner and I picked up a hitch-hiker, a woman, maybe in her early fifties, on her way into town. This is nothing unusual to us. What was unusual was how she spoke: she started telling us about her childhood in a rural Santiago – Las Condes where all the skyscrapers now stand – imagine chickens and corn; her date the night before with a younger man who had reminded her of the importance of having a good time; how more soldiers were needed on the streets to eradicate the criminals; how valuable the military dictatorship had been in building these roads we were now driving upon; and it would have gone on. Her father called. She had to apologise, she’d missed his birthday, she’d been so busy, what with work and everything (the younger man?).

The conversation was in Spanish and, from my seat, I could not see her. She, in turn, had the illusion that I didn’t understand what was being said, an illusion I did not want to break. I found myself reminded of Faye. For once, passivity seemed an active choice.

The breeze on my face. Upstairs, the feet of children. Mama, mama, mama, mama, mama! Squeals and cries and more squeals and more cries. Too much stimulation. These children never sleep.

The wind has got up; the window slams shut. A storm comes. A command for bed.

Soon the schools will open again.


Villarrica, January 2023

My partner and I rent our flat and most of the furniture. On the wall in the living room is a television, which came along with the wooden parrots on the terrace and the broken, dying Jesus in one of the bedrooms. It’s not a particularly large television: I could probably lift it by myself, although not onto the unusual position it occupies high on the wall. If this were my house, which unfortunately it isn’t, I would remove it.

My relationship with television has been one of decreasing tolerance. When I was a child, I would go to a childminder after school, and by the age of eleven I had already consumed more television than is necessary in a lifetime. My grandmother assures me that there is much to be learned on the magical box, but often, when I’ve watched television, I’ve either come away feeling like my intelligence was being insulted or uncomfortably manipulated.

My younger students assure me they don’t watch television, but this is a linguistic misunderstanding. I talk about television, meaning all the series they do watch, along with sport and film. Maybe I’m in the wrong here. I’m no longer sure how to categorise such activities. I don’t particularly care about the categorisation, but I do worry.

Sometimes, my partner really wants to watch a film. He puts on his sweetest, most persuasive face and I feel kind of sorry for him, but he chose to be in a relationship with me and knows that he’ll inevitably fail to convince. Very rarely, I’ll acquiesce, but inevitably this finds us at another wall. I want to watch something gentle, slow, beautiful and in Spanish. He’s looking for action and English. I do not need to watch people being killed. We cannot agree and give up.

Instead, I read. I mostly read books. I believe I would be categorised as an ‘avid’ reader, and perhaps this sounds threatening to some. I see it sometimes, when I express my preference, people apologise or lament their own lack of reading – if I had the time. I doubt it though. In fact, I’m going to say that people don’t read because, for them, reading is harder. It can be uncomfortable. It’s challenging. They find it’s easier to lose themselves in other activities, practised activities, and the less time they spend reading, the more true this becomes.

Reading is better. An entitled opinion?

I discovered flow in reading before my memories begin. As a child, when I was left alone, I would read or write. When I had my bedroom decorated at the age of eleven, my parents installed a wall lamp right next to my bed because they accepted my reading late into the night and preferred that I didn’t strain my eyes. If I had started a book, I would finish it. At my grandparents house, I would read a book each night. What I’d discovered was flow, that sense of losing time and awareness of the wider environment, being drawn entirely into the activity at hand. Flow, or you could call it happiness.

The childhood pleasure though wasn’t simply access to the large bookshelf that stood in our living room, or my aunty’s childhood collection of Chalet School and Enid Blyton, which just happened to be just above my head in my bedroom at my grandparents’ house. It was also solitude. Learning to slip into that happy flow of reading requires a quiet and distraction free environment.

By the time I found myself in the busy university staff room in La Serena in Chile, free to read between work, distraction had become less of a problem. Simply, I took out my book and read. The words on the page were a solace in the madness. No matter that I’d turned into something akin to a zoo animal, a human being who can focus.

What I’m curious about, and what I don’t know the answer to, is whether or not love of reading is something that one can learn as an adult. I presume it is, but I can’t say I know how it would be learnt. My partner reads daily and dedicatedly every morning after breakfast and before he starts work. He is often found reading a few pages from one book before switching to another, often another book in a completely different language. His skill is discipline, whereas mine is attention. For him, reading is equated with being successful, developing the intellectual circuitry and awareness that success demands.

For me, reading is joy.

The blank page

San Pedro de Atacama, December 2022

I’ve a need for a white page. So many things I’m supposed to be working on, to be writing, to be reading, and what I want is the space where nothing is yet said. A voice can appear on such a page, my voice, or a voice that is mine. My god, or a god that is mine. Hardly religious, and yet obedient to the power of the gods who drive me, who speak in my head. Hardly religious, but I’ve been known to walk into church purely because I’m angry with a god who has been playing with my body, I’ve stood there, cursed this god, or that god, and told him, or her, that it’s unjust. I don’t believe in a conscious god. That’s Spinoza, right? I like Jung’s idea of us having a self-generated god, formed around some instinctual archetype, a god that cannot live independently of ourselves, and who can’t really be shared. But reading Jung, I get a sense of paranoia.

My worship is therefore the blank page. A swirl of incense, a lit candle, open the windows, say hello to the plants. The blank page draws me in. Either the ink flows or the computer’s keys patter-patter. Words come where none were before. I can do this in two languages, dos idiomas, nothing changes – except in Spanish I wrestle more with the limits of my vocabulary. I tussle too with the English. To patter-patter is not a verb. I just don’t know how to describe the percussion.

The whole of humanity is within us. Where did I read that? I read so much that I have no idea where to attribute my ideas. I don’t want to claim originality. My thoughts are a cross-pollination sometimes ideas germinate, take root, sometimes they dissipate into nothingness, merge with the air that we breathe. The idea is that by healing ourselves, we heal humanity. Could any one of us heal ourselves? I find it difficult to believe that it is possible to be and not to wreak havoc on our world, for as much as the whole of humanity might be represented within, it exists outside, and we have to live alongside it.

Yet, I like the concept, the idea of ending wars by starting with those we’ve created, tiny wars, emotional wars, wars in the mirror, in the glow of the fridge, in the pain held in our lover’s eyes. Wars that happen on the blank page about the existence or non-existence of gods. Or should I call them imaginary friends, or fictional characters. No, fictional characters and imaginary friends are formed way too consciously, although the energy behind them comes from deeper within, they don’t quite garner the same level of reverence.

The inviolable pull to the page, to the blank space, to the possibility of what words will form, that pull is something sacred and indescribable. Here’s a force, perhaps we could say a spiritual force, a magical force, an instinctual force, godly? I arrive. Blank page – the trench where I sit with myself and face the complexities of humanity that my body holds. The whole of humanity represented within this single being. There is a purpose to all of this, but the purpose is hiding. Wars happen for what reason? I can’t imagine. Power and control. Fear. Territorial claims over resources. I am fighting for my own energy, the finite life which falls like sand in the hourglass. Ever less.

Scarcity drives wars, but my life is full today. I lack nothing because all is within. I can see it there, feel it there, the ink spills over. When the hourglass is flipped, the life will belong to someone new. The sand never leaves. Meanwhile, the page fills with words, entropy on one hand, order on the other. I type with both hands simultaneously; while my right hand grips my pen, my left flattens my page. Coordination. Sand keeps falling, it is the price of the words. I have no idea how much sand remains in the glass. I know I have many words as yet unsaid.

Face the blank moment.

Pages fill. I don’t know if I am any closer to understanding the humanity within or the humanity without, but there are gods whispering in my ear (from the inside or from the outside), gods I don’t believe in, and through them, I know this is where I need to be.

Praying through my fingertips.

Writing time

Huilo Huilo, May 2022

[I found this in the drafts – written in Valdivia, Chile]

It’s just a Tuesday afternoon and I’m sitting here in front of a blank page knowing that I’m going to write something but not quite knowing what. Carving out time for writing like this is something that really matters to me. I don’t understand why I have the compulsion to write, but I know that writing brings to me a peace. I feel settled when I have written, calm. It’s like by putting words into sentences I construct an order in my mind which diminishes any undercurrents of nervous anticipation. And as I’m always changing locations, changing living environments, there is always some nervous anticipation lying around to be swept up onto the page.

Soon I’m going to head out to the supermarket to pick up some eggs and some cheese. There’s a simplicity to this that I quite enjoy. Overcomplicate life and you lose track of what’s important. You miss out on the afternoons dedicated to doing the thing you love.

When I switched from working for someone else’s goals to working for my own, I promised myself that I would spend more time with my family. It sounds odd perhaps that my way of spending more time with my family involves living the other side of the world. I travel slowly and try not to live in a rush, although sometimes my instincts run contrary to this. Paulatinamente, step-by-step. There’s no need for constant haste. What happens though is that when I go home, I put my family first. Having a drink with my parents or grandparents becomes the purpose of the day, or the week, or the month. It’s okay to just stop and be with them.

The kitchen fills with smoky spices and shouts and music and the fire alarm sounds and someone swings the door shut and the father makes a joke about my cooking skills and the mother is throwing things in the sink.

From this Latin American world I live in, there is nothing so strange about spending periods of time living in your parents’ house. And having travelled so much, I’ve discovered that my parents are actually quite easy to live with. They’re accommodating and the fridge is always full of food. We never run out of toilet paper or AA batteries or sticky plasters. The father might get enthusiastic about saving the universe and the mother has a distinctly different pace of action to me, but they have grown used to their itinerant daughter appearing and disappearing.

Writing settles me. It helps me understand what matters to me, what I care about and unsurprisingly I credit it with a lot of my current contentment. If I didn’t write, I don’t know how I would know myself.


Villarrica, November 2022

I guess it doesn’t really matter that the volcano lights up at night, a larva display, a bubble of smoke, charred black lips pointing to the sky on an otherwise icy face. Why not admit that Rukapillan makes an intriguing neighbour. She likes to remind the neighbourhood that there was good reason for believing the mountains to be holy places, places of energy, of spiritual being, of angry gods. Right now, instead of prayers, she’s got the devotion of many seismologists, but if she wanted to make us pray, she could.

Wandering through the town on my way home of an evening, I glance down a street and I see her there, majestic in her snowy cape. I recall how close the depths of nature are to my little home, and I find myself aching to pull on my boots and step out into that wilderness. We paddle a kayak out onto Lago Calafquén and there she is, a head higher than any other peak, absentmindedly smoking.

Somehow, the immensity of nature makes me feel rather more optimistic and rather less in haste to rush around. Plans are delayed by the sight of a hummingbird having its breakfast. Priorities. What’s really important? What’s not? The lake, barely a few minutes’ walk from my door, is bigger than Lichtenstein. I ring my grandma.

In the tourist information office, I am asked to fill in a survey. The room is spacious and there are not nearly enough photos, posters and leaflets to fill it. I am not handed the pen. For reasons unknown, the man I’m speaking with is obliged to ask me my age and write it in the designated box. His pen hovers there. He hesitates. I tell him straight. He looks relieved because he thinks he’s done the hard part. He asks how long I’m visiting for; I shrug my shoulders. The dictionary definition of a tourist is someone who is travelling or visiting a place for pleasure; this leaves a lot open for interpretation.

A bee backs out of a purple fuchsia cup and does a U-turn on the long thin stamen and makes a hop to the pink outer petals. This is the plant in its native land. Taken from America’s Southern Cone, it was planted in English gardens, and over time, became normal there. Plenty surround my parents’ house. The Chilean name for the shrub is chilco, but this type of fuchsia is also known as the hummingbird fuchsia.

On my desk lay a heap of books. This is the first year I have read more books by women than by men. Historically, I’ve read many more books by men than by women. An unconscious bias or maybe a reflection of how women are less published in certain genres, or less frequently translated perhaps. I don’t work with a quota, and I read all the books I want to read, but I put more effort into finding books by women now. I read more blurbs of books by women and hence I read more books by women.

Volcanoes often sit quiet, then suddenly recast the world in a new image with a scream. Volcanoes have a right to scream. But some change is more gentle. It happens when nobody’s looking to those who are paying attention.

A deep wrinkle on a loving face

I have few photos of Catania, so instead, still Sicily, here’s an older photo of Palermo.
Palermo, December 2016

The festival lights are like lacework. Made of pieces of wood, carved up into shapes, painted white and decorated with lightbulbs, they are the frilly collar holding the street together.

These are streets beaten by the sun, splintering apart. Bathed with a sea breeze, the metal work rusts and so, on the skewed doors, hinges either don’t quite close or don’t quite open. Yet the frame of lights gives these streets an ethereal dignity, an otherworldliness – people lean over balconies staring into a distant, undefinable space rather than at mobile phones. As shabby as they might be, the lights offer a tactile, homely, deep wrinkle on a loving face.

We pass under them when we walk down to the harbour, look up and stare. I want to run my fingers over their geometries, instead I step through their stencil of light.

As we passed the cafés and restaurants on the sea front, I tell JT how I made lights like these once. He questions my choice of verb. No, I made them. I carved the wood I sanded it down, I painted it white, and I went with the carpenter, with whom I worked, to a warehouse that had been filled with pallets and wooden boxes and stacks and stacks of lace like street decorations. It was December, the season was Christmas. The lightbulbs were being checked, the warehouse was being emptied and mine were just a few large wooden stars and a bundle of white letters ready to be composed into words, destined to light a narrow street with invitation.

I show JT photos; he thinks I’m a teenager. I was twenty-five when I did carpentry in a valley in Sicily where the dogs always barked and the people yelled at each other in their thick dialects, hands exclaiming. I was twenty-five and hid from the noise with a woman who has since become one of my best friends. I was twenty-five and my life was splintering apart.

Blood oozes from my hand. There are three rock slashes across my palm. Flesh torn underwater. The lick of salty sea. I swim across to JT, who’s half perched on a rock that juts out, a sharp break in the waves. I swim, with my hands clasped together in prayer. Blood mixes with salty water and runs down my wrist, drips into the Mediterranean. A shoal of fish gathers at my feet, nibbles at my toes. I’m being consumed by the ocean. JT gives me his spot, and I perch on the rock, I show him my wounds, the three gently curved slashes like cuts from tiger claws. I hold my palm to the sun because I don’t want to leave the sea.

Why is it that the sound of water is so relaxing. JT tells me that people who live by big bodies of water live more relaxed lives. Maybe conversation to the rhythm of the waves is slower. Maybe it’s the beat of the surf stroking the shore, or the deep heave of weight, crashing forward then back, forward then back, slowing you down.

When I’m not injuring myself, tearing my palms on underwater rocks, I’m reading Deborah Levy’s Real Estate. She’s decided, at the age of fifty-nine, that it’s time to have her perfect house. In the beginning, this hypothetical house had a hypothetical fountain. I’m halfway through the book, and now she’s decided that a house by a river would be a better idea. I agree; the Parents live by a river. A riverbank is a good space to think, a good space to pause and reflect, and space is essential for writing. I seek that unagitated space. Space is on my mind, probably because I’m living out of a suitcase, sharing my working space with the kitchen.

Out of the water, JT and I wander through the glass-strewn streets, stepping around broken bottles, discussing the value of having a separated space for work. We’re planning the house of our dreams. Over coffee, I talk about sheds. Again, it’s Levy’s fault because this personal non-fiction trilogy she’s written is all about space, it’s about ownership of space, spaces where we feel we have agency and voice. Spaces to write.

In a way, The Cost of Living, the second in the trilogy, felt like a personal take on Virginia Woolf’s A Room Of One’s Own. It’s a book about finding a safe space in the after her life splintered apart in divorce. A place for her to live with her daughters, another place for her to write: a shed. I’d like a shed with windows. I like to write and see the sky.

JT and I happen upon a restaurant. A man tends a roaring fire, sweat drips from the dents in his forehead. It’s thirty-something degrees outside. I sweat in the shade. JT can’t believe how much I sweat. The sweat mingles with the blood of my palm, and the oily suncream. I notice another cut on my thumb, like a fine paper cut. This invisible mark hurts more than the rest. My toe is bleeding too. There’s blood on my white towel. Yet there are mussels in my pasta and wine in my glass and I’m thinking about my grandfather, like me, he likes sunshine. I’m thinking of his chuckle the last time I invaded his space with an unexpected hug.

Sunshine, good food, and the sea. By the time I finish writing this post, I’ve finished Levy’s trilogy. A trilogy which finishes by the sea, in a spacious house in sunny Greece, with her squeezing oranges.

Simpler than the lights here in the small towns on the outskirts of Catania, but these ones had my fingerprints all over them.
Palermo, December 2016

Travelling with a Mermaid

Schloss Nymphemburg, Munich, August 2022

Mythologically speaking, mermaids have traditionally been associated with things going wrong – thunderous storms, land-sculpting floods, shipwrecks, deception. Theirs is a dangerous beauty. They are the sirens of the sea, sweet voices drawing you in, hungry eyes patient to devour. They would not make good travel companions.

The Little Mermaid however seems to be pretty good at this travelling lark. Stepping up out of the underground train station she merely looked around and then was off, walking at speed. Her walk is not a loiter and I have to move to catch up. When we reach the pelican crossing and the little man is red, she waits patiently, but the split second that man turns green, her feet are on the road. Not once has anyone beat her off the line. Sometimes she glances back to see where I got to.

We sit down at a restaurant and her eyes flick around taking in all the new sights, reading signs – unlike me she reads German – and she’s encountering that delightful possibility of people watching away from home, where the people are so different, where they walk different, talk different, wear different clothes and embrace each other with a repertoire of unfamiliar gestures. She’s observing, thinking, learning.

It’s possibly worth pointing out that the Little Mermaid is no longer an innocent child. She looks like one of the portraits from the Room of Beauties in the Schloss Nymphemburg (Palace of the Nymphs): a soft rounded face and dangerous eyes. These portraits, painted back when Bavaria was a kingdom, show women from different social circles selected purely for their looks. The collection includes princesses and a shoe-maker’s daughter. The gallery was for the benefit of some king or other who was particularly intrigued by feminine beauty (sometimes it’s best not to ask) and he – someone should make a television series on this – ended up losing his throne over a dancing girl.

We admire fancy ceilings and walk through the park, visit the palatial hunting lodge, the palatial indoor swimming pool, the Greek style temple with its fancy white Corinthian columns. The Little Mermaid likes the Chinese wallpapers imported during the 18th century – a Napoleon era fashion. We walk through the bedchambers of the Bavarian royals; they’re filled with portraits. We both agree that the Queen’s study, with its Egyptian theme, is a good room. The Little Mermaid likes fancy furniture. We admire golden coaches and golden sledges. Lunch is salad in the gardens in front of the palm house. We choose table service. It’s the waitress’s second day at work. I have a rosemary lemonade.

We go to the concentration camp in Dachau. It’s not easy going to a concentration camp. You look at the space where too many people were crammed together in inhumane conditions, dying because they hadn’t enough food, had too much work, had barely anything resembling medical care, had everything worth living for stripped from them. The first crematorium was used to burn 11,000 human bodies. It wasn’t big enough, so they built another that was more efficient. When they ran out of coal for the crematorium, they dug a mass grave. When the camp was liberated, there were a few thousand bodies still waiting to be disposed of. And people kept dying: from malnutrition, from the brutalities their bodies had experienced in the camp, from the long-term effects of some of the experiments that ‘doctors’ had done on them.

The sun shines and we seek shade at any opportunity. The museum includes more information than one could reasonably read in a day, and you have to pause because this is not information that is easy to digest. A tightness forms in my chest. Thankfully, for us, cruelty is hard to comprehend. We cross the yard where the prisoners were forced to line up every morning and evening and where they were forced to witness their fellow inmates being tortured as punishment. We tend to silence.

At night we sleep in a hostel. It’s a while since I’ve stayed in a hostel. In fact, I wonder if the last time was in Copenhagen, on my trip to Finland and back. This one is nice, big and airy with trees growing in the courtyard. I like seeing the Little Mermaid asking people questions, hearing her speaking German, and seeing that she knows what she wants. We cook pasta in the hostel kitchen, chat with the women in the dorm room and sleep in bunk beds. The reduction in privacy is part of the trade-off. Simple accommodation, but there are people to meet whenever you feel like socialising. There’s something nice about being reminded of how many people are searching for interaction with other cultures, other people, other places.