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.

On Solitude

Martina Franca, Italy, 2021

It’s Grandpere’s fault, really. He was the one pouring the wine, conversing about religion and attempting to share his wisdom; he was the one who confuddled my mind with his counterintuitive beliefs and suggested that I read Jung. Jung, whose name I daren’t pronounce because my tongue fights my brain, and it always comes out wrong. It took some time, but eventually, when I was living in Chile, I did read The Essential Jung: Selected Writings and I knew Grandpere had been right.

Such individuals as Jung, who wrote some time ago and whose thoughts are often bound in the language of their field, a field which has developed since they were writing, can be a bit tricky to read. But the book I read was compiled and introduced by Anthony Storr, who made Jung’s writings accessible, giving a context for the development of the idea, an explanation amid the confusion, and holding out a guiding hand so that one was never lost for long.

Hence, when I came across his book, Solitude, I recognized the name Anthony Storr. I didn’t hesitate to make the purchase. It, after all, promised to provoke thought, or that seductive act of thinking, the peeling back, the scrying in the mirror, the steady pondering, the feeling of achieving insight without doing anything or going anywhere. In other words, his was a book written to cater to that need I have, which Grandpere recognized in me, to build complexity within my mind.

As much as being a book about solitude, it was a book about creativity. Imagination, that most precious gift, flows in the space of solitude. Precious, and dangerous. We also fear our imaginations. So frequently do they get carried away and led us into fantasies we should not give credence, and so well they hook us, pull us deep; they tangle our emotions and create a font of uncertainty, where reality and experience blur with dream. Anxieties feed on imagined fears: the preoccupation that someone we care about might judge us as lesser than we would like; that our actions may be seen as quirks; that we may be being tolerated rather than loved; that somehow a minute mistake, like the flap of a butterfly’s wing, might lead to the crumbling of our walls.

We take reality and believe it as fragile as imagination.

But to imagine can be to heal, to believe in a possibility which is beyond the current circumstance, to realize that each moment is transient, that it too will pass, to see that everything around us continues to evolve, to change, to come and go and that there is hope. Storr frequently refers to creatives, who drew sustenance from their solitude, who turned away from the crowd and into themselves to find the order they could not find elsewhere. How frightening, perhaps?

I can hear it sometimes in people’s voices, the urge to connect, to communicate and envelop myself within society. And this makes me laugh. I wonder what terrible thing will happen by my not speaking to a soul for a few hours. Maybe I will disintegrate? I laugh because I do not think myself shy, and although I can come across as sometimes unsure, this is more frequently because I am slow adjusting to a new culture or the dynamics of a varied social group, or the speed of the language flowing back and forth that hits me like a jet.

There are many people who are afraid of striking up conversations, concerned that they might be rejected in some form, or cross an invisible social line they cannot see. They become paralysed in their seats, uncertain of how to introduce themselves. Filled with adrenaline, they might rush through the preliminaries and stumble into silence. All of this is true for me. I might ask the wrong question. I might mispronounce a name. I might give off the wrong impression. Or maybe interrupt something I shouldn’t. Away from the English world, I start sentences I cannot end and fail to understand the answers to the questions I ask.

Thankfully, I don’t seem to care very much. I love people. I love my friends, my family, the students who fill my days with their entertaining conversation, the chap in the grocery store who is teaching me the names of the vegetables, the waitress in the café who insists there are better things than croissants, the Senegalese woman who asks for my money, but shows more gratitude for my asking where she calls home than the coin I give. I love a life full of people, full of conversation. But I also love solitude.

I love reading books which tear at the heart, composing sentences of my own, placing words together and weaving a line. I love listening to classical music I don’t understand and wandering unknown streets. I love sitting on park benches painting in my sketchbook and time alone in a café, notebook in hand, taking the time to reflect and compose my life so that it’s the life I want to lead.

I love solitude, and I need solitude, and with solitude in my life, I feel more loving.  

Anthony Storr wrote a long book. He talked about Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and Isaac Newton and Henry James. But he ended with the idea that:

The happiest lives are probably those in which neither interpersonal relationships nor impersonal interests are idealized as the only way to salvation.

Solitude, Anthony Storr

I cherish both, but to build the skills I want to build, I need the concentration and the space that solitude provides. I need the freedom to go deep, to focus free from everyday distraction. And then I’ll pour that glass of wine, rustle up a meal to share, and with laughter and joy be that social being I also am.

Drifting along through my Italian daydream

Martina Franca, Apulia, Italy. September 2021

Church bells ring for mass, and it seems that people heed their call. Past my window the footfall is generally infrequent, but for a few minutes, there’s a rush, with almost everyone heading in the same direction. I listen to the bells and watch the people, surprised at the activity. I’m struck by the sense of community. It’s nearly time for places to open up, but the chef, wearing his chequered trousers, is playing cards in the park.

The way everyone moves in sync reminds me of Murcia. I observe the rhythm of the street: older ladies staggering along with bags of vegetable in the morning, flat-shoed German tourists staring at guidebooks, Italian women striding past them in their heels, then by afternoon, the streets are pretty much dead, until evening comes with children playing in the streets in spotless trainers and the city wakes up.

You have to learn the unsaid schedule if you don’t want to spend your entire time being disappointed. In Murcia you could identify the foreign tourists by the way they didn’t obey the ritual of the city. They walked on the wrong side of the street, not knowing how to avoid the intense rays of the lunchtime sun. They looked for lunch when everyone was eating breadsticks, and ice-cream when everyone was eating lunch. They were constantly confused and, for the most part, oblivious to the social system. The Italians in England have similar problems. They can’t understand where to get a real lunch in a country that only sells tea and cake and find it weird that the shops shut at 5. To be fair, I’m with them on this one – it’s terribly inconvenient when you stop to think about it.

Drifting along through my Italian daydream, I follow the lights to the town centre, and I’m met with boutique shops and rows of restaurants where people sit, sipping cocktails and eating olives. My head in a spin. People speak to me in Italian and although I sometimes understand them, I can’t respond in Italian. In fact, I fail to respond in English. I automatically find my mouth brimming with Spanish and the words tumble out incoherently much to my frustration. There’s a fight going on in my mind. My thoughts seem to happen languagelessly and then splinter, different words finding different ways of expression. Sometimes people understand. Most of the time they have no idea what’s happening. I think of the trilingual three-year-old I once looked after back when I was an au-pair, and her insistence that I didn’t speak English because when she spoke to me, I didn’t understand. She was speaking Catalan; she just didn’t know it.

Now I understand. Now I can empathise.

I treat myself to pizza. I’ve been awake for way too many hours and I’m hungry. The waiter uses a mobile phone to scan my vaccine pass, which is very 2021, but ‘we don’t pay like that’ is the response to me brandishing my money card. I assume it’s the thick stone walls, but I’m a suddenly aware that I’m going to be going to a cashpoint for the first time since leaving Chile. Later, when I find a cashpoint, it’s run out of small notes.

Unsteady steps

Lambs, Yorkshire, April 2018.

When I travel, it’s inevitable that I carry with me my own ways of thinking. I hold thoughts together with the beliefs and assumptions I grew up with, amalgamated with the various encounters I’ve had along the way. My suitcase looks like it has been rather bashed around, like it’s got into a fight in the aeroplane’s hold and limped into baggage reclaim. My ways of thinking are, perhaps, similarly bashed. I encounter people who do life differently, who find me odd, remark upon what I believe are ordinary habits and good-naturedly try and correct my course. I’m undoubtedly enriched by this attention. I find people who go ‘huh’ at my beliefs, which makes me question my beliefs, which leads to the crumbling of the superfluous and the taking root of the solid. Obviously, for the most part, the cultures I encounter are all shaped by the same capitalism, however, inevitably, they have all taken different journeys, been scarred in different ways and are paying the price of greed (theirs or someone else’s) with varying attitudes. Some struggles are familiar; others are new to me. But even when we live similarly, we do so having arrived with different perceptions.

To travel, open to changing our ideas, means that we can, as much as perhaps is possible, teach ourselves to bend: to travel with closed minds just wreaks havoc on the peoples and places we encounter. Assuming we’re open to learning, travelling makes reframing our situation easier. Or, it makes the reframing harder to avoid. It builds cognitive dissonance. When outside our own bubble, we walk into stereotypes and land flat on our faces. This can be hugely helpful. When we travel, we are merely people passing through someone else’s society, sometimes it’s easier to be honest to a stranger. Strangers ask questions of us, they are curious about our foreignness, our exoticness. It’s also easier for them to ignore a stranger, proving that we’re not quite so important as we might have thought. Either way, people we meet travelling tend to bring attention to our weirdness with eager fascination immune to any idea that we might be embarrassed by their idea of us. Presented with such insight, we can then choose what we do with it.

People often ask me why I’m so desperate to return to Chile, especially Chileans who themselves crave to come to Europe or Canada. I find this a hard question to answer because the motivation is complex. Part of it is anger. I planned to stay in Chile and the fates forced me to wait. Part of it is that I liked being in Chile. I had no idea what was going on around me, but people kept being nice and I woke up in the mornings glad I was where I was. Part of it however is also a sense that I was learning a lesson that’s incomplete. I was building relationships in Chile; I was developing my understanding of the city I lived in (which liked to trip me up of a regular basis); and I was learning I was both privileged and irrelevant. Things that are handy to understand.

I thought, after being raped and going through therapy that I’d learnt a lot about humility. I thought I understood humility. I thought that having visited hell once in my lifetime I’d climbed out of the hole and was back on solid ground. I felt my feet were firmly planted. What I hadn’t realised was that the ground beneath me was artificial, built on a belief in security which, being born into privilege, I have and which, I swiftly discovered, was not so assured for all of my friends. In fact, in Chile, I was the odd one out because my ability to imagine the worst was so undeveloped. In Chile, I found my education a novelty, a mere bauble, and that my knowledge was, in many fields, non-existent.

A flaw, perhaps, was that my own therapy, which I am ever so grateful for, was predominantly about me. I had to change the language I used to describe myself so that I did not focus on what had been lost, or what I had failed to gain (especially in terms of societal status) but instead on what I could currently do. My healing was predominantly (but not only) a process of individual healing. People around me were affected by my situation, but their healing too was predominantly individualised. They learnt how to look after themselves and I learned how to look after myself. The humility I learnt and the strength of that inner core of self-faith which I developed were focused on me and my strength. Therapy taught me about personal boundaries, it taught me to look after myself as an individual and be generous with my own self-respect. It taught me that my strength to analyse was useful in appropriate doses, but that it could also be addictive and damaging to my well-being. It taught me to respect my emotions, but also to stand up to them, look after them and take care not to encourage them to develop into bad behaviours which negatively impacted me. It taught me about me.

In Chile, however, I think my understanding started to grow from this idea of humility as an individual to humility as humanity and that resilience is stronger when it is held in the connections between people rather than in the individuals themselves. I’m not saying that there’s anything particular about it being Chile where I observed this, and I learnt it as much from Venezuelans as Chileans, but that for me, as an outsider in an unstable environment, surrounded by difference, there was an impact.

In Chile I came face to face with beliefs which were not comfortable. They were often softly spoken, but they seemed to challenge me with the opportunity of dialogue, if only I were brave enough to take the opportunity, if only I had the humility to listen and to listen attentively and with affection. In Chile I learnt that I had to start over with humility and that I was no where near done, but also that the world was also much richer than I had imagined and I so much more malleable. In Chile I started noticing how much I take for granted and how much power I have with my choices. In Chile, I constantly failed to ask the right questions. Frequently I tangled myself in my insecurities about my Spanish or simply lacked courage, or other times, I was so in shock that I was unable to respond. Frequently that shock was in response to people’s kindness or generosity. It began to strike me how much I was receiving and how little I was giving. In Chile I was, more often than not, stumped. And I carried on, fumbling through my days, clutching at questions I couldn’t answer, wondering whether my presence was harmful or benign. But then I began to realise I was learning and that through the power of my own curiosity, I’d enrolled onto a course that required more stamina than any academic PhD.

I fought to stay and I failed.

And it felt a bit like running out of time in an exam, with me screaming please, let me finish, I know I seem stupid, but I’m sure given a bit longer, I’m going to understand. And if what I can see of the world, through my Chilean eyes, is incomprehensible then maybe I’ll learn to accept it, but please, more time, more time, more time.

How English of me. How linear my thinking. The resilience is in the relationship, not the individual, and the fact that I am in England is temporary and irrelevant. What I want is not something that can be clung to. There is no pass, no fail. When I come back home, I look at myself amongst my own culture and am grateful. It’s a thank you, and can I share this with you. I’m present and I’m listening. Healing is in the generosity and the gratitude. These concepts are not stationary points, they flow and connect.

Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway

The bull ring at Ronda, Spain, March 2016

My Spanish students were always very opinionated. They seized up at the awkward exam questions but with other topics – the test their Latin teacher gave them, feminism and bull fighting – they were fluid and non-hesitant speakers. Bull fighting, they despised: a cruel sport for machismo old men who ought to wake up to the modern age, morality and manners.

Even in Hemingway’s day, the custom of bull fighting was often considered barbaric. He seemed to predict the slow decline and even to accept the change, with reluctance. His book, which I’ve read and found fascinating, is however not barbaric. It’s odd. Between the dense facts and the strings of poetic description, the nostalgia and the adulation, are tangents on writing and society, parenthood and death. It’s not a book that pretends, but it is odd.

I suppose, from a modern point of view, that is, a Christian point of view, the whole bullfight is indefensible; there is clearly much cruelty, there is always danger, either sought or unlooked for, and there is always death, and I should not try to defend it now, only to tell honestly the things I have found true about it.

Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

My problem with Hemingway is that the first book I ever read by him wasn’t a novel. It wasn’t the Old Man and the Sea which is supposedly admirable piece of literature, but I found a little tedious (perhaps I’m just too young still to get it). It wasn’t For Whom the Bell Tolls, which has in it all that macho, yet defeatist, fighting in it. It was A Moveable Feast, which, published after Hemingway’s suicide, is a memoir of those years in Paris where Hemingway screwed up his first marriage and knew it.

And it’s the self-awareness that I kind of find myself admiring. It’s the self-awareness which I found myself compelled by in A Moveable Feast, and which the glimpses of throughout Death in the Afternoon compelled me to keep turning the page, even if I lost track of which matador was which. More than anything, though, the book was a reminder to be careful. We jump to conclusions so quickly and on so little evidence. We are fast to speak, fast to criticize, fast to cast out moral judgements, yet remain so unaware of what we’re talking about.

It’s easy to attack the visible cruelty, it seems so much more acute. But much harder is recognizing and attacking the silent and invisible cruelty that hides unseen. How many of our own enjoyments result in harm to others, whether they be people working in inhumane factory settings, through the land that’s damaged in the hunt from raw materials or the dumping of waste. How many animals live and die for us in our current lifestyles, how many are affected by our impact on the environment, and how many of them live good lives?

My Spanish students were children, eager to be heard, eager to have the right opinion. Their passion, their beliefs, their insistence that the world must become a better place was heart-warming. In many ways they were much better at expressing themselves than older generations who might wait to check their audience is on their side before opening their mouths. They had lots to say; they had much to learn.

Zeus and I

Monastery in Kos
Zeus suggests Greece, right? Kos, 2015

At some point, in the future, on an unknown date, I’m going to board a plane. I’m going to fly somewhere. That somewhere is preferably Chile, but if the borders are closed there, I’ll settle temporarily for another destination. Temporarily, because even dear Zeus is going to have a hard time keeping me away.

My plans, over the last couple of years, haven’t exactly worked out smoothly. I find myself running a business I hadn’t intended to develop beyond a Saturday job, and surprising myself with my financial self-sufficiency. I’m used to being poor, to dancing through my middle-class existence without the required notes lining my purse, to actually reading the price of a cup of coffee on the menu. Having money surprises me. And it’s less gratifying than freedom.

My plans haven’t behaved themselves. Planes and contracts have been cancelled. The idea of meeting up with friends has become a rather mystical concept. I’m at home, in the same room as when I arrived in England, a year older. One of my students, who had a birthday recently, told me that he wasn’t including the pandemic year in his age. The year has been struck out.

But while my plans mutate, my priorities haven’t. I know exactly what I’m doing and what I want and none of it’s complicated. My sister rings me expecting an emotional outburst at the latest cancellation, but none comes. Instead, I’m calm. I don’t have to fret because eventually I am going to get what I want. Eventually, I’m going to be in Chile. I’ll be immersed in stories, in language, in friendship and life will continue, mutated perhaps, but still resulting in a shape that makes me happy.

For now, I focus on the small things, like suitcases with replaceable wheels, sun-cream which isn’t bad for fish and a handbag that perfectly fits my notebook. The big things, like being honest, writing, and doing good work, have to carry themselves. The big things have to be habitual because they don’t happen overnight. And travelling is there, amongst the habitual in my mind. I might not be able to go anywhere, but I’m packing and repacking in my imagination. I have my stuff organized, ready to leave. Every item I buy is analysed for whether it will travel well. Travelling saturates my conversations.

Being locked down in England doesn’t change the fact that I’m intuitively nomadic. It’s just how I am. Zeus can fling as many lightning bolts as he likes, but that fact is not going to change.

Limiting the input

Posted on 2min
Yorkshire, June 2021.

The other day, I had a long drive. Not so unusual in general, but unusual enough at the moment that I had to plan my journey. For once, I asked my phone to instruct me, only realizing that it was going to do so in Spanish once I was pulling out of the estate. I had my flask with my tea beside me, the bag of dried apricots to nibble on if needed and could have, if I’d wanted, listened to the radio, a podcast or some music. Instead, I chose to limit myself to the rattle and hum of the car.

When it’s overwhelmed, my brain doesn’t work very well. I find filtering hard. I’m not a natural multitasker. If I try to do anything but cook, the pasta boils over and the onions burn. I like my work – the way I teach is focused and intensive and then done – but thoughts linger, phrases get stuck in my mind. I wonder about dictionary definitions and mouth phonemes as I walk down the hallway and inevitably continue analysing my speech as I step into the next task or sit down for tea.

 Overwhelmed me is not a helpful me. Overwhelmed my thoughts are likely to travel inwards. My temper is likely to be shortened. Hence it seems worth making an effort to avoid the point of overwhelm. I would love to be well-informed about what is going on in the world, but all the news stories competing for attention flood my brain with thoughts. Whilst I understand my brain to be an excellent sieve, I also know that if you’re dealing with a lot of flour, you’re better adding it a bit at a time.

The rattle and hum of my thoughts kept me company. To my surprise, I didn’t have any trouble with the Spanish instructions, thanks possibly to my practice navigating a friend around Murcia I did back when I was first learning the language. The standard Spanish voice lacked warmth, but robots aren’t known for their tenderness. I would have felt the same about the English no doubt.

Simplification seems to be my answer to most problems right now. I can’t deal with a complex life. I don’t want to be juggling things all of the time. I want things to be structured and organised. I don’t want to have to go searching for the things I’ve mislaid. I need to know where to find old documents and details. I’m constantly sorting through things, paring back my belongings, limiting my purchases with the exception of books. Thinking ahead.

But this all takes time, and it takes thought. And for my brain to work it needs sufficient quiet. Just the rattle and hum of life trundling along.

Are you learning anything?

Posted on - 2min
Lots and lots. The Netherlands, 2017.

My grandfather asks if I am learning anything. I laugh. Of course I’m learning things, it’s just, I have to admit, that there’s a rather chaotic progression to my learning. For example, I know much more about mining and fish than I did a year ago – I know the words comminuation and leaching and that it’s better to buy trout that salmon because trout are more resilient and therefore their little bodies aren’t flooded with antibodies. And I review presentations and research papers in fields that I’ve got no basis in. I look through email correspondence and brochures. I immerse myself in texts that I would not naturally come across and find myself learning what I had never expected to learn.

This cross-pollination is an amazing thing. My comprehension of life as a whole widens. A Venezuelan friend unexpectedly explains to me 20th century European history. An English friend discusses the English (British I suppose) civil war. A student recounts their experience of meeting an author I’ve just read. I’m taught about bitcoin. I try to explain it to my grandfather – people pay me to listen to them speak about their expertise.

This is the beauty of my work, and of my lifestyle – even my deep in lockdown lifestyle. I don’t mean the money; I mean that people generally seem enthusiastic to educate me. They seem to identify a value in filling the gaps in my education. And my education is like a sieve.

I ask people to explain political movements, policies I don’t understand, and I do so, knowing full well that were all my students in a room together they would not agree. I position them as the teacher, me as the learner, and I interrupt to ask questions and suggest their sentence would work better with a subject, a different tense, an alteration of the pronunciation. I push, prompt and pester until my students look at me with those eyes that say, Catherine I’m trying to educate you about something important here.

I am desperate to travel again. I’m desperate to walk unknown streets, to people watch, to feel totally foreign and awkward and feel the crumpling of my cultural expectations as I try to fit myself into a new environment. I want to realise I’m in the wrong, feel my assumptions shatter, watch as from my discomfort I desperately delve into the depths of what I know to make a bridge, a link, a connection to some of the seven billion people on this planet who are not me.

But grandfather, I’ve never stopped learning.