Part one of the repatriation ordeal (in which the first flight is cancelled and I fill out forms)

Closed borders and the like.
Elqui river, La Serena.
September 2019.

Last Monday, I awoke to a message from British Airways saying that my June flight to London from Santiago had been cancelled. This wasn’t such a surprise. The Chilean border is closed and the only flights out of Santiago at the moment are to the United States. Although, the British government website advises that there are still flights scheduled from Santiago to Europe and Brazil for June.

I called my father, then called my father again and then called my father again. We discussed the options. Getting home does matter because my sister hopes to be married and well, visas… We contemplated a flight via Barcelona. I went to pay the house bills and then returned and called my father again. The Barcelona flight no longer existed. My father was concerned that any flight we booked mid-May might well be cancelled by the beginning of June. I was concerned that come June I would have nowhere to live (although this would not actually be the case as my Chile-based friends are between them so generous that someone would have rescued me).

My mother had her word. She told my father to get me home as soon as possible. So my father booked me a flight for six-days later: Santiago – Miami – London.

At this point my life suddenly turned upside down

Or maybe it was upside down and simply revolved to point in yet another direction. I was heading to the USA for the first time, planning on doing three continents in three days.

By Friday I had given away or thrown half of my belongings. I’d been to the bank and I’d booked a bus ticket for the Sunday morning to travel into Santiago. On Friday, Santiago went into complete quarantine. To go to the supermarket, you now needed a certificate of permission declaring that you had none of a long list of symptoms. And there I was, planning a nearly 500 km journey by public transport right into the capital.

The certificate proved tricky. It asks you for the address of the residence, hotel or place of lodging to which you are going in Chile. You can only put a location in Chile and I was planning on lodging myself in an un-address-worthy, economy-class aeroplane seat. My housemate and I called the British Embassy, the phone suggested we email, I emailed the British Embassy asking for advice. Meanwhile, I created myself a variety of these certificates pertaining to all eventualities with a selection of possible addresses covering travel by bus and plane. The British government website declares that LatAm flights require such a certificate. The bus company told me I’d need one to board the bus.

On Saturday morning I bought myself two apples and a banana for my adventure

And four additional facemasks. Heading back home, I ambled through Puertas Del Mar in the sunshine trying not to think about the achingly long bus journey, there were horses in the street eating the grass. I had my train ticket from London to Leeds, I’d checked that the London Underground (metro) was running and I knew my route. I even had my ESTA for my planned 12-hour stopover in Miami and new travel insurance as my normal travel insurance covers me for everywhere except the United States of America.

Lawn-mowing.
Puertas del Mar, La Serena
May 2020

In the circumstances, I felt that I was doing quite well

I logged onto my computer and clicked onto the LatAm website to pay for my suitcase. I clicked through, parted with yet more pennies and was about to close the browser when the word SATURDAY caught my eye.

Saturday 16/05/2020 11.10pm

My flight, I thought, is not for Saturday. It’s definitely for Sunday.

I checked my email because it would not be the first time that I have found myself flying on the wrong day this year. The emails definitely all said Sunday. I checked the junk email folder, nothing. I tried to think it through, was it a result of the time difference? If so, why would it still say Saturday. I checked my emails again. It was definitely a Sunday flight.

I called my father

The chaos, it seemed, was only just beginning.

The gods have been playing their games again

By Posted on Location: , 3 min read
Moonvalley, San Pedro de Atacama.
January 2020.

I wake up some days and stare at myself in the mirror. There’s a dull look in my eyes and I think, here we go again. I feel my thoughts being to roll into paranoia. Sometimes my hands shake from the anxiety of living. My skin is a mess; my stomach clenches tight.

This pattern of behaviour is so familiar it seems almost ridiculous.

In sports people talk about recovery time. This is how long it takes your body to go back to normal after you’ve done exercise. Resilience works on the same principle – it’s not a measure of how far you’ve fallen or how damn bad it hurt, but how quickly you can rock back up to healthy.

I wake up and stare in the mirror and I see myself all ghostlike. The energy is robbed from me. I’m lethargic but I can’t rest. The negative thoughts come. I wonder for how long I’m going to need to grieve. I wonder how much I’ve lost. I wonder how long it will be before I feel generous towards life again. And then, because this is my ingrained training, I do something about it.

And sometimes I feel that my life is a woven patten of me falling in and out of grief time and time again. Things nowadays aren’t so bad though. Each weave is shorter, cleaner. Now I’m more skilled at pulling the threads back up, pulling them together. I remember when the time between feeling good about myself and my life was measured in weeks or months not days.

Every time is hard, but you do get quicker at recovering from setbacks as you become more resilient. I only believe that you can become resilient by doing the hard work, by learning to actively accept and grieve what you’ve lost rather than clinging onto a fantasy of what might have been. I believe that as you learn to recognise your defences you can learn to do yourself and those around you less damage each time you fall. I believe that recognising your coping strategies and being reasonable about them is vital for preventing long term harm.

Some weeks you lose your house, your contract terminates and there’s no way you can get a new visa. Some weeks a friend gets upset because you didn’t fall in love with them and it hurts. Some weeks you say goodbye to someone you fell in love with, not knowing how many months it will be until you are in the same continent again. Some weeks your flight home is cancelled and you find yourself with the prospect of an unexpected three days of crazy, mask wearing adventure to get home, passing through three continents with a bundle of certificates and permissions to evidence the necessity and validity of each step of the journey. Some weeks are more difficult than others.

I wake up some days and I look in the mirror and smile. My hair’s a mess and my skin pink and blotchy. Yet there’s a twinkle in my eye. Look, I’m here, I think. I exist in this mess of a world, but I exist and that is a truly wondrous thing. I smile and turn away from my reflection, ready to fight whatever the gods have chosen to throw at me next.

Courage versus comfort (or not as the case might be)

Peering towards that which we cannot see.
Moonvalley, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile
January 2020

We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both.

Brené Brown, Rising Strong

I find myself craving a little comfort

Actually, I find myself craving a lot of comfort.

Instead I find myself trailing the streets trying to find some place of education which is willing to employ me so that I might have a contract and stay in the house which has become my home and in the city where I have made friends. Comfort would be to stay in this odd place on the edge of the world, facing out towards the great Pacific Ocean, speaking my uneven, clunky Spanish and weathering viruses and social unrest.

It’s sad to realize how much of modern life is designed to lull us into being comfortably numb; we’re expected to go about doing what we’re told because it’s easy.

Srdja Popovic and Mathew Miller, Blueprint for Revolution

One plan has me going to a new town somewhere else in Chile

I’d know nobody and be doing the whole thing from scratch, albeit with better Spanish. It’s not an ideal solution but it would keep me learning and teaching and it is at least a plan. It may remain just a plan though, as it depends on much more freedom to travel than I currently have.

Another plan has me in England until this is all over, which would be comfy indeed – there would be Yorkshire tea – but perhaps I would lose something of what I’ve been fighting so hard to have. Not to mention, I have yet to get to England.

The reason that most people don’t possess these extraordinary physical capabilities isn’t because they don’t have the capacity for them, but rather because they’re satisfied to live in the comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it. They live in the world of ‘good enough’.

Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, Peak (read more on deliberate practice)

Truthfully, I am exhausted by the emotional taxation of the changes in my life

Bitterness seeps in. Frustration rests within my muscles, which are tense from the continual strain of the stress that I’m facing. There is a deep anger inside of me. Now I finally trust myself to be able to work and function in a sociably acceptable manner, the situation around me makes doing these seemingly normal things a whole new level of difficult.

Knowing that pretty much everyone is going through a tough time should help. I know talking helps. Although, in a way, I’m overwhelmed by the uncertainty that everyone around me is feeling. Tempers are short – mine included – and I reckon we’re all tearing up a bit more than before. What do you say to a friend who fears her nephew has the virus? I’m a little more equipped at such difficult conversations nowadays (post-therapy), but I still struggle for words of comfort.

Yet, I think it’s the disappointment that hits hardest

People had plans. My sister’s supposedly getting married. I booked my flights and arranged my dress-fitting especially for the wedding. I also planned on doing a course whilst I was in England, which is now postponed. Students, who want to learn, find themselves stuck with online learning and a substandard education that will further divide the rich from the poor. The teachers don’t enjoy it either, teaching a class where you can’t see the student’s faces is a horrible experience. You’d think we could do video, but the internet connections we’re relying on won’t necessarily handle it. Yet, if the classes don’t take place, how will the teachers be paid?

…whenever we venture into the world as travellers, our capacity for wonder, engagement, and growth is directly related to the capacity of our hearts.

Don George in his introduction to Better Than Fiction 2

Today, in the middle of doing yoga, I paused and reflected on the battles I am facing, and the battles that other people are facing around me. It occurred to me that now more than every I need to be clear about what my priorities are.

When you prioritise some things, you have to also deprioritise others

Painfully and achingly, what keeps getting deprioritised is my pride. I’m from a family who rarely admits anything’s wrong and often don’t have a clue how to ask for help when they need it. I am coming to believe that this is partially because they don’t recognise when they need help. We are a family of highly proud people.

And yet I do not have a single plan that doesn’t include a need to ask for and accept help. I am unable to pull myself together and manage independently. You would have thought I’d have learnt this enough times going through my dependent, can barely look after myself phase when I was in therapy, completely reliant on my parents. But no. It seems my dependency is something I must continue to learn.

What I love about travel is how it shows me a different way of living

I’m thrown into situations where I need help. Frequently I have little idea what’s going on and rely on the help from people who barely know me. The other day a Japanese friend brought me a gift of chocolates, face masks, hand sanitizer and sterilizing fluid. It is a simple gift, but thoughtful and well timed. Since at some point I’m going to have to travel a quarter of the way around the world in the midst of a pandemic, I will be needing what he’s given.

The more conversant and comfortable you can be with your emotions, the richer your experience of life will be, and the more capable you will be of forgiving.

Archbishop Desmond TuTu and Reverand Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving (read more on forgiveness)

Humility is not my natural guise

Admitting that I’m overwhelmed by this situation and the uncertainty that I now face isn’t easy for me. I can get angry about it, but the greater fear is that getting back on my feet and have a foundation that I can be proud of, is going to require an awful lot of asking for help. It’s humbling seeing person after person reach out and offer me assistance.

I sit here writing, listening to the neighbour practising his guitar

A close friend told me that I have to remember that although I don’t know what will happen in the months to come, what I know is that right now, I am in Chile, and I’m in the place I want to be. Maybe it won’t last, but I have to remember that today exists and I need to remember to live it.

Brené Brown writes that we can choose courage or we can choose comfort. I think she’s wrong. I believe that comfort comes when we trust that we have the courage to do what is necessary. My discomfort, I believe, comes not from my courage, but from my fear that I don’t have the courage to do what is necessary.

I can be a good, kind and generous person without necessarily being independent. Ain’t that a shocking idea?

El Coronel

The towers of San Gimignano
Tuscany, Italy, May 2018
On route to learning… Spanish.

A little under two years ago, I received an email confirming that from the following October, I would be teaching in a school in Spain. I had worked in Spain before this. I taught English at an immersion camp one summer. Spanish was forbidden. A few years after that I worked as an au-pair in the Catalonian region, a place where the children’s first language was Catalan, not Spanish, and where I was supposed to talk English. I learnt a pathetic smattering of Catalan words and the Spanish phrase ‘café con leche’.

On receiving my job offer for Spain, I went off to Italy for the best part of the following two months and so it wasn’t until the very end of July that I began contemplating that I was going to need to speak Spanish.

As a language teacher, I am fascinated by how we learn languages, or more precisely, how we fail to learn them. Although I was instructed in French for five years at school, and obtained an A grade, with maybe 300 hours of class time, I have remarkably little ability to communicate in French. This is not a unique situation.

I asked the adult students in a physics class here, in Chile, how long they had been learning English, for some the answer was ten-years.

“Perfect, we can talk in English.”

They shook their heads. Whilst they have sat through class after class, they haven’t obtained any skill with using the language. Put on the spot they couldn’t create a sentence. Their cheeks pinkened.

In the school in Murcia, Spain, students in the top classes who have been forced through the intense bilingual Spanish system can express themselves. They are capable of sharing their disgust at the idea that British schools have gender segregation for physical education in English, for example. Once they let go of their inhibitions start to rant about their Latin teacher, unfair exams and each other. The top classes. Teenagers who often go to school in the morning and private classes in the evenings.

Some students are different. I ask for their name and they roll their eyes. A few minutes later they’re interviewing me about British politics, tearing apart my taste in music or asking me about how to travel the world. These students are different. I ask them how they learnt English, and they shrug. With a bored expression they seem to ponder a moment, they had classes at school, yes, but so did everyone else in the room. Then it comes out. Either, they play video games – often online video games against native English speakers – or they are obsessive about music or they watch a lot of television in English. Whichever it is, they absorbed words in context and then actively sought out clarification.

I am not a musical person and I don’t watch a lot of television or play many video games. But I don’t need to, because I have the language in context all around me, every day, and I am forced to actively seek out clarification because, otherwise, I cannot make clear to Loreto when I’m going to be free for her to drop off her fresh-from-the-farm eggs so that I can make pancakes.

Although I teach them, I don’t believe that English classes work particularly well. It’s basic maths. The teacher can listen to only one student at a time. This means that the majority of the students’ mistakes pass by without immediate correction, by which point the urgency of learning the point has drifted away. Or, the students fail to make enough mistakes. If students were listening to each other speak, and learning from each other then maybe it would work.

But even then, by the time Thursday’s class comes around, Monday morning’s vocabulary has been almost entirely lost. Teachers correct the same pronunciation, inject ‘do’ into the same questions and rehearse the same few phrases over and over again.

When I was learning my times-tables we used to practice them every day at school, quickly, a five-minute bout of scary anyone-might-get-asked firing of six times eight, seven times two…

The students memorise what they have to for the exam. Then a week later then put it aside and start the next chapter with contains new vocabulary for them to rehearse for a few weeks and then not use again until the following term. They might be able to spell their first name, but they cannot recite the alphabet.

I think one of the reasons why so many students fail to learn is that they don’t start with a clear goal. For those who are driven by music, video games or film, I don’t think they start with a grand goal of speaking a foreign language. They start by wanting to know what they’re singing. Or they want to beat the bad guy in the game. They want to win. They have something specific that they want to understand.

I would say that not-coincidentally, several of my Spanish teenagers understood elements of Japanese or Korean. Nobody taught them as such, but they’ve filled their time watching and listening to videos. Where they have been curious, their brains have naturally put in the effort to learn.

So what was my goal when I first started learning Spanish? Something more specific than simply survive.

In August 2018 I walked into a bookshop in Leeds, went upstairs to the foreign languages section and looked at the selection of books available in Spanish. I pulled out Gabriel García Márquez’ El coronel no tiene quien le escriba.

Reading it seemed like an impossible task.

Today, nearly two years later, I finished it.

Like fire, storm or thunder… the written word

By Posted on Location: , 4 min read
Summer in rural Peru
January 2020

I cannot read her work, so when a journalist friend tells me that she’s surprised when someone compliments her writing, I cannot judge for myself what she is publishing.

However, I am well-acquainted with her self-possessed use of the English language. You wouldn’t guess that neither of her parents speaks English from the elaborate emails she writes to me. Although, when free from the newspaper word-limit she’s undoubtedly verbose, her words captivate.

Words are magic.

Written words stimulate the imagination as much as any other external reality – fire, storm, thunder – and yet they can express an internal reality – hope, philosophy, mood – in ways which also provoke the imagination, engage with that astounding faculty and set it off to make more words, adding to the visible map of the mind. Writing helps us to see what it is to be more completely human.

Melvyn Bragg, The Adventure of English

I think by writing. My borrowed thoughts and beliefs get tested and made mine by my efforts to commit them to paper. When times get tricky, I reach to the written word. Through the written word I learnt to communicate about rape. My diaries hold the words I often don’t know how to say. Words like love, fear, grief, sex.

Considering that I was born with some mild disadvantage when it comes to the spoken word, it’s unsurprising that my linguistic confidence is so linked to pen and paper. Maybe Freud would say that after a childhood of having my h’s, t’s, a’s, u’s and f’s corrected (ridiculed), it’s of no surprise that I make my living teaching others to speak well. Or proper, as I would prefer to say.

My father thinks it mad that I am an English teacher. His daughter who started life with clogged up lugs and a lazy tongue, who couldn’t work out how many claps to fit in the rhythm of her own name, who, he jokes, learnt to speak after the younger one…

And yet, last summer my increasingly deaf grandfather complimented the clarity of my speech, quite taking me aback. But, he’s right. Not without toil, I am cleaning up my pronunciation: letting my day-to-day English slide towards what we call received pronunciation, standard, BBC or posh. I am challenging my substandard articulation and like a boy, whose voice is deepening, from time to time make sounds that surprise me. Sometimes I cringe to hear myself.

I’m not eradicating my language of the past, just reducing the ignorance that limited it.

I know full well that the way we speak forms and restricts our identities. I have no problem with teaching at the weekend as on the weekend to my Latin American students (even if I think it sounds ugly), but I’m clear that it’s not the way I speak. My students need a consistent, reliable English and there’s no point getting all uppity about one flavour of the language being better than another. Prepositions are tricky enough at the best of times. People are generally insecure enough about their language without having it picked-to-death by pedants.

I would correct their use of I am sat if they ever thought to make such a mistake, with the caveat that it’s not unsaid back home. When I teach, I do not pretend that there is one righteous English. And the more I teach, the more I fall in love. The richness is in the variety, the endless possibilities that tempts and taunts us. Yet I no longer feel at the mercy of the rulebook. My dialectical twists of grammar exist because I choose them to. I know more about English grammar than most native speakers. When someone points out that a word I say doesn’t exist to them, I no longer take it quite so personally.

Chaucer used a different flavour of English for each of his storytellers in his Canterbury Tales. Since then the language has grown, but the idea that we can each have such unique voices is still as true as ever. 

We each have our vocabulary – visible maps of our minds. Mine holds my words, whilst my friends each have their distinct linguistic maps. Idiolects mostly coinciding with the dictionary and grammar guides, but not always. Even within the closeness of family, my mother and I debate across the dining room table with phrases that the other would never say. I rarely invoke any Gordons.

The distinctiveness of our voice lays visible to others and yet we are oft-times unaware of it.

We might be perplexed by the words we do not understand but think little of those we do. We might have the ambition to sound like someone famous we’ve read, and realise we never will. I wonder if my journalist friend knows that Gabriel García Márquez was a brilliant journalist, though terrible at spelling

She listens to her language. During her voice messages, she frequently pauses to ponder which of a few words would be the most apt for her particular phrase. I’ve sat in awe, listening as she muses over regional distinctions between tiny populations in the 5-million-strong country of Finland. Her awareness of language, of identity, of the power of words, is a treasure.

Maybe though, she has no idea how special what she does is.

The uninvited guest

By Posted on Location: , 2 min read
Salt lagoon near San Pedro de Atacama.
This is the desert.
January 2020

We had a visitor to the house. Honestly, it really wasn’t intentional.

You see, I live in a small bungalow with a large German Shepherd. This works out surprisingly well most of the time. He’s a very good-natured dog, however, the other day, as my housemate and I were eating our lunch, we glanced out the window and saw that next-door’s cat was in our garden.

The dog peered down at it, calmly with an air of curiosity.

Now, you should know that this cat is not the brightest kitten in the litter. The other day it entered the garden and spent a long time mewing before we realised it didn’t know how to get home and dropped it back over the fence into next-door’s yard. Luckily, that time the dog was in the house and fast asleep.

This time we weren’t so lucky. This time we watched as the not-so-intelligent cat took a swipe at the rather-large dog’s maw.

The dog registered the threat as hostile and acted as a large German Shepherd in Chile is supposed to. He gave chase.

But of course, the stupid cat still had no idea how to get out of the garden.

So, the dog chased the cat, my housemate chased the dog and I did the stupidest thing possible in the circumstances: I grabbed the cat.

If I could have, I would have dropped it safely over the fence, but the cat fought against me (I have the scars to prove it) and I dropped the cat before I reached the fence. At which point the cat darted past the dog straight into the house, I followed, slamming the door behind me, putting myself in the house with the cat, leaving the manic dog barking in the garden with my housemate.

Now the cat was under a bed, with no intention of coming out.

The game became one of waiting. I cleaned up my wounds and put plasters where the blood still flowed, then, cursing the cat, we finished our lunch.

Eventually, of course, the cat had to come out, and when it did, I was ready. I pounced. Got it. My housemate rushed to trap the dog elsewhere and I gently deposited the cat, over the fence, into next door’s garden.

So to anyone who’s asking, no, I’m not finding this quarantine boring.

Supermarket shopping and flamingos

By Posted on Location: , 5 min read

If you or someone you know is interested in having online Spanish classes, let me know (kate@happenence.co.uk) and I’ll put you in contact with my teacher here whose plans, like so many people’s, have fallen through.

Andean flamingos. Highly relevant to the story I promise.
Wetlands in the Atacama Desert, Chile
January 2020
Photo by the Father, used with permission.

When my friend and colleague, the other language assistant in the city, flew back to England, she left me some curry paste. She explained that all I had to do was add coconut milk and I’d have my curry sauce. Which would have been fine, but I had no tins of coconut milk.

Which meant that I was heading out to go to the supermarket

Now I know we are all supposed to go to the supermarket alone, but I took Lady Patricia with me. Virtually. Physically, she was actually a quarter of the way around the world, safely snug in her apartment with a warm cup of tea.

But together we walked through my very quiet suburb, there was nobody about except a police car with two chaps, and an army truck with six soldiers (not-wearing masks, not 1.5 metres apart), but otherwise barely anyone. Luckily nobody seemed in a shooting mood at 9 am on a sunny Saturday morning so all was well.*

As we neared the supermarket though I noticed a long queue

There was also a long line of cars.

“So, Lady Patricia,” I explained. “There’s a long line of people here, some in masks, some with gloves, some really not seemingly with no idea of appropriate distancing, some risking getting run over in their enthusiasm to stay apart. Everyone looks rather serious.”

And my fellow shoppers did look rather serious. They looked almost panicked. I was aware that my grinning face and occasional spurts of laughter were a little out of place. Not to mention the fact that I was talking loudly and joyfully in a language that most people here do not understand.

I gleefully announced to Lady Patricia that we were being led in

I was going to be allowed to touch a trolley. I thanked the security guard who seemed entirely taken aback by the gesture. His face contorted like he wasn’t quite sure if he had permission to smile back. I think he was trying not to lose count of ho many shoppers her had allowed in.

Lady Patricia mistakenly thought we were in the supermarket. I explained no. The queue before had been to enter the supermarket grounds. This was the second queue: the queue for re-education and actual entry into the supermarket.

Lady Patricia said, “Oh.”

I explained that there was a man with a megaphone

He was playing a special coronavirus recording to different parts of the queue. Lady Patricia said she could hear it but she only caught the end of the reel. That, I said, was the number to call if you have any problems. The bit she missed was on handwashing, the symptoms of the virus and the correct way to behave in the supermarket, how we must remain 1.5 metres apart from one another.

Lady Patricia said, “Oh.”

Other men, dressed in black, wandered up and down the line flapping their hands at us making us all space ourselves out to the allocated social distancing standard. Sometimes it’s 2 metres. Sometimes in the foreign press, its 6ft. In the supermarket, it’s a trolley length and a bit.

Then we waited

I explained how I felt reassured by the multitude of security guards. Lady Patricia thought I meant because nobody was likely to violently loot the supermarket. I said no. And explained that security men in jobs are men in jobs which is helpful because it means that they are people getting paid. My greatest fear is the number of very desperate people there are going to be here in Chile as the economic situation worsens.

We waited to sanitise our hands and enter the supermarket

And I explained the requirements for our shopping trip. First that we were going to buy coconut milk, second lactose-free milk (because it’s always a good idea to stock up on milk), third, chicken for the curry, and fourth knickers.

Lady Patricia said, “Oh.”

We said a happy ‘Gracias’ to the woman guarding the hand sanitiser. Her face did that same contorting thing. And then headed to the clothes department. I admitted to Lady Patricia that all this lining up and being counted made me want to rebel and go charging down the aisles with my trolley. I didn’t. I refrained. But I wanted to.

Normally I wouldn’t buy my clothes from the supermarket, but since the mall was closed and Chile is a bit behind on the whole online shopping idea, I didn’t have much of a choice.

A Chilean flamingo.
Wetlands in the Atacama Desert, Chile
January 2020
Photo by the Father, used with permission.

You see, when I packed for Valparaiso, I had lots of knickers

In Peru I had plenty. In Torres del Paine I hand-washed the same few pairs, and I didn’t have to worry when I was in the countryside near Santiago because there too, I seemed to have enough. However, on moving back into my room in March I discovered that a number of items of underwear and all my trainer socks had somewhere, in some country, disappeared. Now we were in a crisis situation.

The shop’s offering wasn’t exactly exciting, but the more I explained the different designs to Lady Patricia, the more we giggled. The shop assistants huddled together and avoided looking.

After much deliberation, I chose six pairs of not very exciting knickers, except for Lady Patricia’s top choice: a pair covered in pictures of pink flamingos.

Just to prove I also saw flamingos…
Wetlands in the Atacama Desert, Chile
January 2020

I wheeled my shopping through to the checkout, loaded my knickers and my coconut milk onto the revolving counter. The lady manning the checkout re-sanitised her hands.

I said, “Gracias.”

And to my great delight, she smiled back, contortion free!

*It was probably entirely a coincidence that I saw both the police and the army within 5 minutes of each other. When I ran along the beach Sunday evening as the sun was setting in the most beautiful orange glow, there were no officials around to reprimand the few gathering groups…

Trying out different teaching techniques

This post has been hiding in my drafts. I wrote it just before the social unrest flourished into mayhem in October. It was written back when we taught students in real, chair and desk classrooms.


Unearthing a traditional Pachamanca cooked dinner
The connection is that I mention cooking somewhere in the text below…
Ollantaytambo, Peru
January 2020

“Ask her some questions.”

New class, new teacher, the same routine. Silence but for the rustling of backpacks and papers. Two minutes ago they were all looking at me, now the students stare at anything but me.

Then some timid voice dares sound. What sports do I do?

I beam an encouraging smile

It never changes. Every time we do this it’s just another awkward interview.

I gesture at the floor, “Now,” I say, “ I do yoga. I do yoga twice a week.” I gesture behind my shoulder. “When I was a child, I went ice-skating.”

A few more students ask questions, and then one young man asks, “What is ice-skating.”

I write the word on the board and draw an ice skating boot, all laced up. The students find my drawing amusing. I could have just given them a translation, but it wouldn’t have the same effect.

I’m on a mission to learn how to teach well

Teaching, after all, is very different from learning, and although I know something about how I personally learn a language. Teaching one is a constant challenge.

The sad reality is that many of my students won’t ever reach a conversational level of English. Before they get to me, many have spent ten years learning and forgetting the same things over and over again. When I ask them how their weekend was, they still draw a blank.

Although I have limited formal teaching education (for now), I do have a bunch of teachers who keep educating me on teaching theory.

One idea which has invaded my mind is the idea of scaffolding

I hadn’t heard such a word in the language teaching context until a couple of weeks ago when I was reviewing some text for a fellow teacher. He’s all very serious studying for a masters in this stuff.

Scaffolding is giving the student a helping hand that gets them further than where they could get on their own. It’s practical support. It’s what an active teacher is likely to do, frequently on a one-to-one basis, although the rest of the class may well be listening.

To think about what it means to me though, I have decided to take my imagination out of the classroom and into the kitchen.

This weekend, at the English Club where I help out, we’re doing baking with the children

They range from four to eight years old, so have different levels of skill – both in terms of egg-breaking and English speaking

As a tiny child, I used to cook with the Mother or with the Grandmother

There are pictures of me happily baking, stood on a chair in my Grandparents kitchen, and pictures of me sitting on the kitchen floor with the cake bowl on my head as I try to lick out the last of the mixture.

Send a small child into the kitchen with the instruction to bake some buns and leave them to it, and you won’t come back an hour later to the sweet smell of fresh-out-of-the-oven baking.

And yet, with some assistance, a small child can do most of the work

They can measure out the ingredients and mix them together. You might not want them to operate the oven quite yet, but they can load the bun cases with gooey-mixture.

As the adult, your job is to provide a safe environment and guidance so the children can do almost the whole thing by themselves.

The same goes for the classroom

The space we want to be teaching in is just beyond where the student can function by themselves. It has to feel safe. Sometimes we need to just give an occasional prompt, other times we need to say more, like holding the wooden spoon with them to give them enough power to blend the mix. Sometimes the support is visual, as in a drawing of an ice-skating boot, or takes on a physical gesture, such as indicating that there is a change of tense that they should be aware of.

Once the student can do something by themselves, the teacher should stop prompting. You don’t want the students to rely on prompts, you want them to practice creating their own phrases by themselves. When the child can bake for themselves, you can leave the kitchen and just enjoy the cakes once they’re done. No need for fuss.

For me, this is tricky

There is a point where I have to keep my hands still, my mouth shut, or speak lazily, with my accent, at my natural speed and with the vocabulary that I would normally use.

For teachers in general, doing this work is exhausting. It’s active and intense

No wonder many teachers set an exercise and then withdraw. I guess this is where having a language assistant helps. I can go through the class, often pair by pair, listening and correcting and encouraging the students to extend their conversation a little further.

And yet, it’s not enough. Despite my drawings and my enthusiastic pretending to skate across the classroom, the same student may well have forgotten what ice-skating is by next week. If he remembers, it was his question, his curiosity, so there’s hope, the other students in the class are still unlikely to. Ten years of English lessons and they’re still on the basic building blocks of the language.

It continues to bewilder me how some students speak and others don’t. It’s still a mystery.

How The Wise Woman Taught The Power Of Choice

I found this post unpublished in the archives. I don’t believe it’s ever been read so I thought I’d pop it out now for people’s entertainment. It was probably written some time in 2015…

This is me staring at Los Perros glacier. To my horror, our Torres Del Paine trip involved an excess of early mornings.
February 2020.

When the Mother met the wise woman

Once upon a time, the Mother went to America to meet a very wise woman.

It was during the summer. There was no school, no rules and no food in the fridge. The Father was quite incapable of functioning without the Mother, not because he couldn’t look after himself – he can. But he didn’t seem to be able to do anything. He walked around the house, went to work, came home and walked around the house some more.

It didn’t matter. We bought some food, filled the fridge and cooked dinner for the Father. The Mother was busy doing something else, something very important.

She was listening to the wise woman, and learning about choice.

The Mother returned. The Father stopped pacing around the house.

And like the kitchen had taken on a different look, so had the Mother.

Because the wise woman had taught the Mother a tremendous skill. A skill so simple that it’s often over looked.

She taught my Mother to choose.

The difference between goals and choices

When you make a choice, you’re acknowledging the alternative.

If I chose to travel, I am letting go of a lot of security.

If I chose not to travel, what is the price I’m paying?

This is what I see as the big problem with goals. When we write up goals we’re articulating our dreams, not what we’re willing to lose, and it’s loss not gain that we feel more strongly. Inevitably, the loss is what makes achieving our goals so hard. It’s the time that has to be committed, the strain in our legs after a long run, and the bitter cold on our skin before. The loss of options, the loss of comfort.

How choice changed the Mother

The Mother has embedded in her children a sense of awe. However hard we try, we are simply not the sort of girls who can have two loads of washing on the line and dinner cooked before 7am. If either of us open our eyes before 7am, we’re ahead of schedule.*

The Mother is like a whirlwind. As children we would have to run to keep up as she walked down the street.

She’s like a humming bird, whilst I’m more like a tree. Or at least in my eyes. The Midget accuses me of doing to much. The father accuses me of allowing myself to burnout, again.

When the Mother returned from visiting the wise-woman, she brought back with her the simple fact that her exhaustion and inability to sleep was her choice. Just like my ulcers, stressed skin and headaches are my choice. When we keep pushing ourselves the cracks are going to appear.

When we set goals we have to acknowledge the cracks. When we keep pushing despite the clawing tension in our backs, the aches in our shoulders the strain in our fingers from hitting this keyboard time and time again, the cracks widen.

So when the Mother returned from the wise-woman, she slowed a little and started thinking a little more about the consequences of doing everything.

Which is why the wise-woman, who I’ve never met, is my hero.

*Actually, my sister seems to be more than capable of such ludicrous behaviour.

The Hello Kitty notelet method for dealing with overwhelm

Looking down towards the campsite on the second day of our Torres Del Paine trek.
Such a trek took some planning, but at the same time, we had to be flexible because the weather could change at any moment and the John Gardner pass would be closed.
February 2020

The other week, I was lazing out on the terrace of the house of the psychotherapists, with no other company than that of the cat, the occasional stray dogs who came to drink from the swimming pool, and the horses in the field beyond. I figured that it was good to rest and have a little solitude before recommencing my teaching responsibilities at the university.

Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.

– Winston Churchill

So many plans must have fallen through these last few weeks, worldwide, which has possibly left us all reeling in shock. My mother told me about the supermarket delivery man who is struggling because he’d just been about to head off to Greece for a month and re-plan his life. A dear friend had handed her notice in at work and to her landlord (land-person?) and was about to head off of a cycle ride around Europe. I know I am angry about my plans not going to plan. As are many other people. Dreams have been paused. We’re left with tremendous uncertainty.

I was about to learn how to do a headstand with my yoga teacher and then classes were cancelled. I shall have to wait for the opportunity to return. In the grand scheme of things, not yet learning to do a headstand seems a rather ridiculous thing to become annoyed at. There are people losing their livelihoods. And yet, for me, it is a big deal. It was something I had been diligently working towards. Small things matter to us as well as the big ones.

When my mind was having a hard time of things, I would easily get overwhelmed. I think this is true for any of us who had a fixed idea of what we do and what we should be doing and suddenly find ourselves not entirely sure what the hell we are doing. There are so many questions, so many options, so many decisions that we have to make that we simply do not know which way to turn. We believe we should make educated, rational choices about our lives, but we do not have sufficient information and our minds are easily emotionally clouded.

I reclaimed control with a set of hello kitty sticky notes. On each one I would write three tiny tasks at random so that my notes would read something like:

  • Wash hair
  • Draft CV
  • Ring Dentist
  • Clean window
  • Trim lemon tree
  • Outline article
  • Email agency
  • Change bedsheets
  • Paint nails

I would try to avoid any tasks that I was particularly anxious about from clustering together on a single note. Whenever I didn’t know what to do with myself, I would simply reach over to the pile of half-completed Hello Kitty faces and choose something. Then, when I had struck a line through all three tasks, I would crumple up the pink paper and toss it in a pint glass. Over time, the pint glasses began to fill and when a row of them sat on my windowsill, I started feeling like I was making progress. That I had some momentum.

I do feel quite like the whole of March has almost gone by and I have done nothing. This is perhaps the consequence of not being able to go anywhere. One day looks very much like the next. Exercise is keeping my mood reasonably balanced, but I am missing the highs I get from face-to-face social interaction. The truth is I feel much better after teaching a face-to-face class than I do after teaching an online class. Although thank the gods I can teach online as it means I have something useful to do with myself.

So I’ve decided to go back to my pint glasses of Hello Kitty faces approach. Just this time, I have a vase and each time I go for a run, I’m bringing home a single small rock to drop inside it. A visual record of the miles I’ve run.

If you or someone you know is interested in having online Spanish classes, let me know (kate@happenence.co.uk) and I’ll put you in contact with a teacher here whose plans, like so many people’s, have fallen through.