Today, as I went hunting for a corner shop to get a packet of pasta and a bottle of orange juice, I found myself walking down a familiar street. A wide, tranquil dual carriageway with freshly trimmed palms, reluctant patches of frequently watered grass and persistently sandy walkways. Two workmen were busy grinding the paintwork off the grey metal fence which surrounds one of the condominiums so that they could paint it a cheery yellow, but otherwise the street was pretty much empty. One of those cars with a large speaker attached on the roof, held down with heavy-duty ropes passed by, calling out to the seagulls, blaring out an advert for a garage where mechanics can tend to your needs any day of the week, located where Cuatro Esquinas meets Ruta 5.
There are many things which are surprising about this observation, although from the perspective of the street, nothing special happened. The first observation is that I was there, in La Serena, at the edge of the desert, a quarter of the way around the world from home. It feels like yesterday that I left, and yet it’s been eighteen months. To say I am elated is an understatement. Being here is my teenage rebellion, although I stopped being a teenage over a decade ago. It’s something I selfishly want, for me, without rationalised explanation, probably to prove something to myself. The second observation, and the one which I had never expected, was that I understood the advert.
When I was first in La Serena, doing anything was difficult. My Spanish was a complete mess, childlike and limited to a narrow vocabulary which I’d studiously learned with a heap of flashcards. I was learning the language fast, out of necessity, but you cannot learn a language overnight, it takes time and effort and a lot of discomfort. My lack of fluency meant that even simple transactions led to a shot of adrenaline. After going to the bank – which I always find stressful in Spanish – I would treat myself to a slice of cake in the café opposite. I learnt a hell of a lot of Spanish in those months I spend in La Serena, words like toque de queda (curfew) and cuarentena (quarantine) and a lot of Chilean words (wea, bacán, cuático) which I don’t know how to translate appropriately. Yet it remained a fight.
Within weeks of returning to England at the beginning of the pandemic, my pronunciation had nosedived, and my recall of words felt sluggish. Occasionally, I took out my grammar book and studied for a little while, but I had other things on my mind. I did continue speaking in Spanish, using it to talk to friends and occasionally, when appropriate, with students. But I have no explanation as to why when I returned to Santiago and I spoke Spanish in an imperfect yet easy-going manner, without exhausting myself. I’m not sure entirely how it happened. The language perhaps had settled into a part of my mind where it could be chewed, processed and consolidated into something which, then regurgitated, came out as my own voice.
And although the seagulls didn’t understand the advert, I, for the first time, did.
Chile, my dear Chile. Fancy seeing you again. I’d forgotten, for a moment, how arid your hills are.
It took me a little while to get over here. In Madrid, in that never-ending hall, the one that rolls out to infinity with gates enough for the entire world to visit, I helped a guy who was trying to go to Mexico find his flight. He was confused because the letters and numbers were repeating themselves, the terminal, the subterminal, the gate, the same icons on a loop, like knowing a place by its GPS coordinates but not its name. I was confused because my gate number changed as I was leaping between moving walkways. I was confused because I was tired, and I had a headache and I was clutching a thousand forms: vaccine passes, pcr test results, declarations of the absence of symptoms, the location in which I would stay, all those numbers and words used to identify which country, gender and age group I belong, boarding passes, taxi reservations, evidence that someone will pay if I get sick. But I heard someone say, “Cachai” as we waited at the gate, and suddenly the number of documents seemed irrelevant. Do you get what I’m saying? A blink and I was in Madrid, another blink, gone again. But the Chilean words stuck around, with a reassuring presence.
We came backwards through Santiago airport, coming in through what must be newly built gates, walking through doors designed for the flow to be in the other direction, passing ‘no entry’ signs. I wandered through this labyrinth, following the guy in front. Chileans can queue. Without thinking (and therefore without worrying), I allowed myself to be herded through. I wondered how the Chileans were going to test us all and process all our documents and I imagined that I might be awhile in the airport, but they attacked the problem with many hands, applying parallel processing: countless people siting at countless desks collecting the countless documents in a building constructed like a maze. Fodder for Borges, I thought.
I was given a sticker to identify me as in isolation and sent down the escalator for my pcr test. I keyed my passport number into the machine and then moved into the next queue for testing. My first test, in Berlin, had been a gentle affair and I had wondered afterwards why people made such fuss about it. In England, my pcr test had been less comfortable but in hindsight not so bad. In Chile, I was reminded of those hooks which the ancient Egyptians used to remove a dead person’s brain through their nostrils.
I went up another escalator and followed people through another corridor. We’d made it to arrivals, and I recognized the room where we waited in our lines to pass through immigration. Slow lines, because the open desks could be counted on one hand, discarding the thumb and most of the fingers, and the staff kept wandering off to do other things. I didn’t feel rushed. I’d seen the sunshine through the floor to ceiling airport windows. Peace had settled upon me. In line, I helped a Spaniard connect to the free airport wifi so that he could call his children and tell them he’d arrived. He offered me chewing gum. The lady at the immigration counter stamped my passport with the pretty multicoloured Chilean stamp, and I was in.
Wheeling my jenga tower of suitcases out through the building, I found a bottled water dispenser, inserted my pesos and the machine refused to dispense the water. I tried another machine: it didn’t work either. I wasn’t the only one wanting water, and I shared consolations with a stranger – at least the machine refunded our pesos. We met up again a few minutes later, buying water from a little shop. A woman served me, handing me a bottle of water which was cheaper than those sold in the machine. Perhaps the gods were helping out.
Thankfully, I knew what I was doing because I had clear instructions from Chilean friends. I found my driver, a professional chap who squirted my hands with sanitizer and did all that moving my luggage around, and he drove me to a friend’s flat. The receptionist appeared and these two men transferred my three suitcases into a shopping trolley. I just stood there, while all this happened, with an expression halfway between a sunshine smile and goldfish thinking. I was led into a lift, and left there with the trolley, the receptionist pressed the button, sent me up and phoned my friend to notify her of the guest on her doorstep.
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.
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.
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.
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.