Two Journeys Crossing at an Asado in Chile

Pelican.
(Phone) Coquimbo, September 2019.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does a language assistant do in a Chilean University

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

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

I ask them what they’re talking about

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

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

Classes here are small and attendance is poor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like the conversation about the motorbike

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

The second role of the language assistant is to speak

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

I do speak differently when I’m teaching

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

The third task is to correct

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes though, I ignore the rules of English

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

A day in the easy life of a language assistant

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

I walk home, listening to a podcast

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

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

I go to class, but I’m not teaching

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

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

Level one English is hard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The next class goes smoothly

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

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

Too tired to think (travel realities)

[Written shortly after moving to Chile.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Internet is a further challenge

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

But amid all this, there are high moments

Like the daily sunsets that I watch from my balcony.

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

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

Delightful tales of the English Subjunctive

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

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

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

But language can be a lot of fun

Yesterday, for example, I looked up Chilean Spanish.

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

“No me gusta,” she replied in Spanish.

“Exactamente.”

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

“Do you do subjunctives?”

“Je ne pense pas que ce soit necessaire.”

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

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

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

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

Our English subjunctive feels quite posh

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

In the present

It is necessary we be on time tomorrow.

I recommend he leave now.

In the past

If he were here.

If I were you.

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

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

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

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

If I were you…

If you were nicer…

If he were here…

If we were happy…

If you all were intelligent…

If they were mad…

Here again, it gets complicated by my dialect

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus.
Region of Murcia, Spain, May 2019.

Jetlag or whatever

By Posted on Location: 3 min read
This isn’t Yorkshire. The Pacific Ocean.
August 2019.

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

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

They drink Celong tea here

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

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

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

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

Talking of madness, we do have dogs

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

My body remains perplexed, but it will adjust

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

Teaching English as a Foreign Language (when you don’t know your grammar )

By Posted on Location: 7 min read
TEFL
The centre of Murica.
Río Segura, Murica, Spain, May 2019

No message.

There was a signal, so I sent a message announcing my arrival at the bus station in Murcia, in Spanish, a language I knew some words of but had never spoken.

“Yo soy aqui”

I intended to say, “I am here”. Translated it does mean “I am here” but, as any Spanish speaker knows, it should have been “Yo estoy aqui.” As it’s the verb estar (to be) nor the verb ser (to be) in such situations.

In ‘Spanish time’ my host arrived and waved me to her car

She spoke some broken phrases of English. More than I spoke of Spanish but that first day, neither of us could construct a sentence.

If you have since met the Casera, the rolling English you heard was not what I experienced that first day. You heard her speaking after months of living with a native English speaker in her apartment.

Therefore, we couldn’t say much, yet we somehow conversed for the next twenty minutes.

This was a swift education. When it comes to conversation, the most important thing is to have faith.

Very soon, I’m going to meet a Chilean man at a Chilean airport

I will have to open my mouth and speak.

Butterflies swarm in my stomach to think of it. We have two common languages, so it shouldn’t be a problem. From his writing, I assume he speaks beautiful English since his style of composition made me smile with some admiration. I speak Spanish, more or less.

He speaks Chilean Spanish; I speak Yorkshire English. Hiding behind the Andes, Chilean Spanish has developed its unique forms. Yorkshire is well, Yorkshire. I’m told my accent is lovely, but at least for the first week, unintelligible.

I speak non-rhotically, which is a pain when it comes to learning Spanish

Rhotic being a technical term meaning I drop my ‘r’. In Spanish this is a problem as every infinitive verb ends in a vowel followed by an ‘r’ and in many forms of British English (non-rhotic English) such ‘r’ sounds are abandoned.

Take the word ‘car’, which I pronounce ‘cah’.

And then apply this to the Spanish ‘hablar’ (to speak) and get ‘hablah’ which more or less is ‘habla’. I.e. he speaks.

You may wonder, ‘what the hell are you on about Catherine?’

Which is understandable. I wouldn’t have known any of this phonetic vocabulary, if I hadn’t spent quite so much of the last year searching to discover what this annoying letter ‘r’ is.

Despite hours trying, I have never been able to trill an r

But even the single r in Spanish is a harder sound than any r in my English. My pronunciation of ‘Gracias’ is wrong, not because I fumble over whether it’s a c or a th sound in the middle, but because my first syllable is fluffily soft.

From the feedback I have surmised from my students, I imagine my Spanish accent would work if you were casting the little sister of a Disney princess. It’s not the sound I was hoping for.

We take speaking for granted

When I speak in Spanish in front of my parents, I expect them to understand. They should understand me. They are my parents. When my mum stares at me as if I am speaking gobbled-gook, I wonder why. It takes me a cognitive churn to understand that she doesn’t get what I’m saying.

When I speak in half-formed mumbled English, they seem to know what I mean. If I mime, they tend to get it. They know me, they know my voice. So, I find it bewildering how when I’m speaking Spanish are there so many blank looks?

But we also take for granted our knowledge of our language

We instinctively know what feels right. Or, to invert that idea, we know what sounds wrong. We feel that someone is speaking our language as a second tongue before we know how they’re mis-forming the grammar or before we can identify where the pronunciation mimics their native language.

My Spanish students stumble at the difference between the ‘b’ and the ‘v’ sounds. A Finnish friend has a wider spoken vocabulary than me but speaks with an odd ‘v’, which gives her foreignness away.

As children, we absorb this language knowledge without realising we’re doing it

Grammar especially. Later, at school, some English teacher tries to explain what a noun, a verb and an adjective are, by which point we’ve been using them for years.

Then we start to study a foreign language. I did French and German at school. At this point, lots more grammar descriptors come into play, like verbal tenses and moods, and we become very confused.

French, German and English might have much in common, but their structure differs.

Learning German was not a success

Despite having had approximately 110 classes in the subject, I can’t say anything useful whatsoever. When I’m in Germany itself, I recognise some words but not much else. I don’t have any innate feeling about German and so, to me, it’s random sound.

When you don’t have any feeling about what is right or wrong in a language, you’re reliant on rules

You use your first language as a basis for the language you’re learning. Then, rather than learning the new language from scratch, you adapt the rules you know to the new language. My Spanish students ‘cook my mother’ because such grammar makes sense in Spanish.

I would say that my job requires some awareness of this grammatical web.

As an English language assistant, they tell you all you need is to be able to speak English

Which sounded like a wonderful way for me to teach and avoid my lack of formal grammar education. The marketing chaps stress how your role is to conduct conversations and focus on speaking skills.

While it’s true that from a feeling we know when a student says something we wouldn’t, it’s insufficient for answering why.

And the best students ask, “Why?”

At first, I figured I must be able to work it out. I’d think of a few examples and the student would nod. A few hours later I would be in the grocery store or cooking dinner and an exception to my supposed rule would pop up.

At which point, I had to hope I remembered which student in which class had asked the question. Then I’d need to admit I’d made a mistake, and then from somewhere work out a satisfactory explanation or the grammar.

After a few such incidences, I took the better line, “I don’t know. Let me check.”

Teaching English is a constant lesson in humility.

The English grammar experts were all around me

They were the teachers, whose English was sometimes odd in its form, but who had learnt grammar first, conversation second. And hence, they knew the rules inside out.

But this is not my only linguistic challenge as a language assistant.

Most native speakers don’t speak standard English

I don’t. When I’m teaching, I try to speak with clarity and standard grammar, but I refuse to adopt my ‘a’ or my ‘u’ into anything but what it is. My ‘r’, as I’ve said, is a hopeless case. I could not fake an accent, even if I wanted to.

It is only through learning grammar though that I can differentiate between my Yorkshire (my idiolect) and Standard English. This is important. I mustn’t trust my feelings. To say ‘I am sat on the sofa’ feels right but it’s not standard. Furthermore, I have no problem with double negatives or double contractions, although I try not to use them.

When a child uses a double negative, which is a common mistake for native Spanish speakers, I smile and tell them they sound like they’re from Yorkshire. I show them their mistake ask them to use Standard English for school. I couldn’t tell them they’re speaking wrong when it’s the same quirk as we have at home in England.

It’s not infrequent that I screw up

And I’ve given classes where I’ve caught myself speaking with non-standard grammar. At this point, I pause the class and wave my arms about a bit.

“You know how here you say ‘estamos’ as ‘etamo’ because it’s your dialect? When I said ‘I am sat on the sofa’ it was because of my dialect. It’s not standard English. Please do not do this in your exams. We should say, ‘I am sitting on the sofa’ as it’s the gerund here.”

But it’s important to recall what is correct varies depending on who you ask

I met one (Australian) English teacher who thought it was abominable to teach children to use contractions in their writing. I bit back the urge to say, ‘You shou’n’t never do what?’.

If a child put some double contractions into a piece of dialogue, I’d give them bonus marks.

I love beautiful language

Books with intricate sentences which wind stylistically in directions you didn’t suppose possible enchant me. Yet, what’s most impressive about language to me is how we can mangle it and still communicate. For eight months the Casera and I lived together. Neither of us fluent in the other’s language, we used whatever language allowed us to communicate. So what if we broke all the grammar rules and pronounced the impossible imperfectly, we conversed.

It all depends on faith.

Learning to see

An experiment in collaboration: this post was written by the Mother.

bee
I felt this post ought to be accompanied by a picture of a bee in the circumstances.
Lacock Abbey, May 2014.

Today there was a large bee trapped in the greenhouse. Well, he wasn’t exactly trapped as he could have left. The window and the greenhouse door were wide open. However, the bee kept going around in circles and hitting itself against the glass becoming angrier and more frustrated, unaware that it was so close to freedom. It just couldn’t see the way out.

When I first had glasses, I hated them

My daughters bought me a chain to hang them around my neck when I didn’t need to wear them (there had been a few tense occasions when I couldn’t find my glasses anywhere). I have never used the chain. It seemed like something an elderly spinster would use working in a dusty library, taking her glasses off temporarily to give a disapproving look to someone who made a slight noise.

I had a feeling that using them would make me age without even having a birthday. Nor did I want a constant reminder of the need to wear glasses.

Now, of course, I need to wear the glasses all the time

Seeing clearly can become quite tricky when I don’t have them on. For example when I am doing yoga. In my class, when someone waves to me from the other side of the room, I wave back in acknowledgement, not certain who the blurry face belongs to.

But of course, just getting a pair of glasses doesn’t mean that you can really see.

Sometimes you need a process to help you

Meditation has been described as ‘polishing the lens’ through which you see life.1 The intention being to gain clarity whilst also understanding that thoughts and feelings that you see are just that – thoughts and feelings. You then have a little space in which (hopefully) you can respond rather than react. In addition, over time, you start to see that there are choices and perspectives.

This process can happen not just to individuals, but also to societies

When I was at school and studying history a student in the year above lent me a book called something like “The Elizabethan world view”. The book set out the changes that had occurred during the reign of Elizabeth the first and the understanding and perspectives the people in England had about the world and their place in it. Things were changing. The world was a lot bigger and different than they previously thought.

I was reminded of the book again this week

I listened as my daughter explained that to her, travelling is about seeing the world, experiencing other cultures and connecting with other lives. Gaining both a view of the world and a world view. What she sees is reflected in her writing and her art.

Learning to really see can take time and effort but sometimes seeing the way forward may be so much closer than you think.

The exhausted bee finally lay down on the shelf in the greenhouse

I carefully scooped him into an empty plant pot and carried him outside, laying him down by some plants. Later, I checked, and he had flown away.

1. Headspace, Andy Puddicombe

Words Copyright The Mother, used with permission.

Cultivating focus (and moving towards craftmanship)

By Posted on Location: 3 min read
Narrowing the focus
Narrowing the focus.
Asolo, Italy, May 2018.

When you listen to teachers talking, in low desperate voices, it’s often about the inability of children to focus. There is a palatable fear of the children who are, at this moment, entering primary school. They are the children who had access to mobile phones and tablets as babies. Giving a toddler a video to watch in a restaurant might keep them quiet, but what is it teaching them about paying attention? Maybe this is scaremongering. The ridiculous idea that the next generation is always worse, whatever.

It’s easy to switch into a blame game, but it’s all of us who face a challenge here. Teachers struggle to get students to focus on the lesson at hand. They also struggle to focus themselves on their endless marking in the crowded distractive den of the staff-room.

For me, cultivating focus has become a bit of an obsession

Or, to be more truthful, the obsession is how I’m not focused. I keep finding myself sabotaging my attempts to concentrate. I want to concentrate because I’m pretty sure an ability to concentrate is essential to doing great work. However, sometimes my mind feels very fluttery. I do think that I am improving but it’s a slow process.

Some factors have a significant impact on my concentration.

First, I know I need a tidy environment

What you’ll find, if you enter my room today, are two suitcases heaped high, paperwork scattered across the surfaces and precarious stacks of books. Hence, I cannot work with any efficiency in my room.

Second, I know I need a routine

And yet, should you look at my calendar, I seem to be doing something different every day. I had this week scheduled as the week to get back on task, and instead found myself on a trip to the Chilean Embassy in London. This took three days.

Third, I know I need to be well-rested and yet I am not

Instead, I’m grumpy, achy and wasting time curbing my desire to whinge. Some people drink a strong coffee and then power through, I am not one of these people. Take away my sleep and I’m like the toddler who’s had YouTube snatched from their claws.

My desire for focus comes from a desire for craftsmanship

To me, craftsmanship is a beautiful word because it immediately brings to mind the engraving of a master carpenter, the smell of sawdust scattered on the floor, dark barns and intricate design. Or mighty wrought-iron gates, their bars entwined and the how flames in which they were born. Then the smell of oil paints drifting through an open window, the grain of a canvas and glistening colours dabbed on a wooden palette. But more than that, time and effort, brought together, create something to be proud of. Craftmanship.

This is not so far from something I noticed when I was tutoring

Having listened to a teenager talk about her schoolwork, week after week, I recognised that projects which took a lot of steady time created a genuine pride. Perhaps because they’re more personal. It’s your creativity showing through. And, it’s easier to share engender enthusiasm about a project from your parents, than another test on irregular verbs.

Pride matters.

After all, I too want to have a life of things I’m proud of

I don’t want slap-dash success or in at the last-minute signs of relief. I want to step back from my work, look at is as something whole and complete and feel something from deep inside me that says it was worth every minute.

So, I need to tidy my space, sort out my routine and get some sleep

And then, once I’ve worked out how to do it myself, I shall return to the question that haunts teachers. How do you teach a child to work?

I somehow feel that scrumpled homework and a cram-for-the-exam attitude fails.

Can you focus well? And if so, how did you learn to do it?

What do I want from a friendship?

By Posted on Location: 3 min read
Walk with friends
Exploring the Portuguese countryside with friends.
More or less near Porto, Portugal, November 2018.

Sometimes friends apologise for not staying better in touch. Perhaps this is because of some sociata idea of what it means to be friends. Sometimes, when they say this, I want to instead thank them for not being too much in touch. If every friend I had wanted to know about the minutiae of my life I’d not have any stories to tell. I’d spend my life glued to my phone and miss out on what’s in front of me. I find myself thinking, please don’t say that you’re sorry when it’s unnecessary and don’t do something because friends ‘are supposed to’. See me from time to time. Smile when you do and share some laughter. Take occasional moments to show me you love me, as I love you.

Yes, it’s true that I’m like anyone else and sometimes fear missing out. Sometimes I hear about a group of my friends meeting up and doing something together. I contemplate for a moment, how, if only I had taken a different path, I could have been there too. Nostalgia grips tight and I shake it off, like a dog shaking off the water after climbing out of a muddy lake. We can’t live all the lives laid out in front of us and I’ve chosen this travel-focused one. It’s pretty sweet. The dog still smells but you can hose it down later. Its tail is wagging.

Each friendship, of course, is different. The nature of some involves more frequent conversation than others. Some friendships work well though instant messages – the conversation is vibrant, funny and natural. Others seem to me to never quite get flowing through on a phone screen and yet, face-to-face they glide, effortless. Some in-person conversations leave me feeling rejuvenated. Some take some time to process. Most though are a mixture of both: a flood of warm feeling towards the other person, the delight of connection, followed by a readiness again for my own space.

As much as I fear missing out, I don’t need to know everything about my friends’ lives. I prefer to know what is devastating them or what they are celebrating. The extremes at both ends. And I prefer to be told direct, rather than through some other person in passing, although I’d also prefer to know than not know at all. I like long walks and conversation. I like sharing good food and bouncing thoughts and ideas back and forth. I like exploring somewhere new: a monument, a mountain, a bookshop or an idea. I like art galleries and museums and slow meanders through airy rooms where conversation flits back and forth in low voices: yes, history, politics, art, philosophy, but gently so.

I like people making me laugh. Hysterical giggling and hula hooping.

I like friendships that look forward more so that backwards. People who suggest places to visit next year and things meanwhile I could read this year, because they saw it, read it, and thought of me. I like seeing photos of job offer emails and chickens.

I love gifts, like hand-knitted socks.

But most of all I love when I can be with someone and feel comfortable being neither more nor less than me.

You all know who you are and I’m grateful for you all.