It’s twelve degrees outside, but there’s no breeze, so at eye level Santiago’s polluted skies are hazy yellow grey. I think of the city as a place to visit, for a short time, to see friends, not a place to breathe freely and easily. I stare out through the window, past my clothes drying on the balcony and watch the ginger kitten in the flat opposite. It plays with the ripped curtain and disappears out of sight.
We’re a week here in a little flat in Providencia, the sort of neighbourhood that has small coffee shops and avenues of trees. I find a little place where they roast coffee and buy 250g, enough to last us until we fly, from a man who I felt probably knew his coffee.
With a friend, I go to the municipal theatre and listen to some Brahms played by the Orquesta Filarmónica de Santiago. Afterwards, we wander down the street, and stumble upon a place to drink Turkish coffee and eat fluffy pastry sweets while debating the merits of self-discipline. I’m highly in favour, but I believe that you learn it through imitation and apply it from within. Otherwise, the benefits are missed. Being forced to behave in a particular way just gets people upset. I’m grateful for my own self-discipline. Without it, I would not be travelling and enjoying myself so much.
As the Turkish shop is closing, we fall into conversation with the chef, who on learning that I am from England asks me whether I like Chile and enthusiastically marvels at Chile’s variety of climates and ecosystems. His expression changes when my friend asks about the effect of the pandemic on the small businesses along the street. We finally leave and wander back, past a bar themes with English-tat, pictures of red telephone boxes and selection of plastic bulldogs. I head off to find JT, who has the key to the flat, and, to my surprise, end the night at a birthday party eating cake and failing to sing ‘happy birthday’ in Spanish.
The ginger kitten has a delightful playful energy. It trips over its own paws and tumbles inelegantly to flop at the feet of its mother. I admire its playfulness, its curiosity. I sip my coffee and allow my mind to wander. I smile, gratefully, not at anything specific, but with the feeling I find in my chest, a soft happiness with my everyday existence.
We climbed up Cerro Ñielol in jumpers, coats and our strong boots, and the air changed, taking on the damp sweetness of the greenery. Swathes of Chilean bamboo, called colihue or chusquea culeou, filled the spaces between the trees and, as we climbed, we passed from areas of young green to dead-dry clumps which must have flowered not so long ago. Apparently, it doesn’t mind a frost, but after flowering it dies. I can’t help but think its flowering must be spectacular.
As we traversed further up, we came across pink, bell-shaped copihues – the Chilean national flower – and mushrooms. Lots and lots of mushrooms. I felt particularly pleased to be wearing the mushroom earrings I’d got along the costanera, the promenade in Valdivia. Their red and white hues matched the mushrooms we came across. Mushrooms out of a fairy tale. JT wanted to touch them all and feel the textures beneath his fingertips.
“Rubbery?” I asked, keeping my hands in my gloves. “Slimy?”
At one of the many viewpoints, the miradors, we paused at a bench to drink our Ceylon tea. The view through the trees led across the city of Temuco in the wide flat valley below. I’m being spoilt with such sights: forests, volcanos, beaches, waterfalls. Oncol, Puyehue, Huilo Huilo. My 2022 has been filled with the most incredible scenery.
We see a hummingbird in the branches above us and point it out to each other.
“Colibri,” JT says.
I am learning about Chilean wildlife through a strange, childlike repetition. I read signs in national parks. This tree is a luma. Someone points at its gorgeous orange bark; I take photos. Is this a luma? I ask. Don’t know… It’s an arrayán. The same thing, another name, a type of myrtle. In Mapudungun, the name for this tree is temu. Temu as in Temuco.
There is something rather sweet about seeing someone encounter an iced-up car for the first time. JT stood giggling and took photos of the frost covering the windscreen while I insisted that he switch the engine on. It suddenly feels like winter, although, luckily, there’s no snow, just beautiful blue skies and sunshine which falls warmly against your face. This wintery Chile is new for me.
We drive through the surrounding countryside, cross rivers and streams, and I stare at the swathes of trees. I wonder if this is how England looked, before the green and pleasant land was cleared to make way for fields. We’re in a land of trees, of forests and forestry and deforestation. At night, the smoky air catches in your throat. Heating your house through a wood burning stove costs fewer pesos than the alternatives.
Despite the smoke, Temuco itself is surprisingly pleasant. I say surprisingly because I had the impression it was going to be a rather ugly place and best ignored, an impression which doesn’t fit my experience. In fact, it seems a pretty normal Chilean city, just with a few more Wenufoyes, Mapuche flags, than normal. Strangely, and I guess this is what travelling does to you, I find myself reflecting that this fight for respect entails fewer flags than in Catalunya or Northern Ireland. I stare at signs written in Mapudungun trying to decipher them and fail.
Ugly is a strong word, and it leaves me curious. Things clearly can get ugly in Temuco – there’s an official state of emergency here due to the anti-government violence that erupts from time – but I wouldn’t know about it if I hadn’t been told. I apply my usual tactic of observing, I presume that if there are other solitary women calmly walking down the street, I’m probably going to be alright. Occasionally, amid the normal graffiti and locked-up buildings wearing metal shutters, you come across some beautiful street art, images of nature and Indigenous people, harmonious and calm.
This is what I image when I think of a Chilean city: a centre of slammed together buildings, triangular German roofs on one street and flat corrugated iron ones on the next; a carcass of concrete; next door, a delicate wooden hall, church or home, maybe painted pink, but built by carpenters who really knew their craft, that somehow survived the earthquakes; suburban blocks of houses, in rows, box after box printed on the earth in perfectly straight lines; a set of Greek style columns, half hidden from view; a beautiful wooden sculpture of a smiling child. But this is just my image, drawn in my mind. And I am just a traveller, passing though.
I run along la Rambla as the sun is setting. Past people holding fishing lines, waiting for the hook to catch on something far down below in the pale green-grey Atlantic sea. They’re talking, smiling, chuckling at each other’s quiet stories. The sea wall has become a long park bench where couples sit, sipping mate (mah-tay) through their stylised metal straws. The drink is an infusion of a bitter leaf and an acquired taste, a plant somehow related to the holly, but the Uruguayans drink it with a frequency reminiscent of how the English drink milky black tea. And like tea, it’s a caffeinated drink. Although perhaps they sip when we gulp.
And English tea is drunk when seated, whereas the Uruguayans drink mate while standing at the bus stop or crossing the road. Glance down at any passer-by’s hands, and they’ll be carrying a flask and their cup, perhaps in a special mate bag (these are so popular you can buy then in the corner shop).
I pass a park where a couple of young men are doing exercises with the outside gym equipment. They look like they work out very frequently. Two dogs bound back and forth, barking playfully. Children run around chasing each other while parents and grandparents lounge nearby. A car drives past with white and blue balloons floating in its wake. The police officer pulls up at the petrol station to fill up his car. A guy doing interval sprints overtakes me, then I overtake him, and then he powers past.
I am in Montevideo. It takes me by surprise to wake up here. I’m living, albeit temporarily, in the beautiful Palacio Salvo, a 1920s hotel on Plaza Independencia. If you do an image search for London, you get Big Ben. If you do the same for Montevideo, you get the Palacio Salvo.
But I wake up here, teach a class, wander down to the café on the square, or café idoneo which is my current favourite – the food is good, and the staff look like they enjoy their work – and I have a cappuccino or splash out on a second breakfast while reading with my fountain pen cocked in my hand. I cross the square, pass José Artigas’ mausoleum, and sometimes pause to read a chapter of my book while sitting on a bench. I return home, teach some classes and cook some food. Sometimes I head out for a run. Sometimes I wander through the city and see couples dancing on the street.
I am in Montevideo by myself, which, even ignoring the complications of the pandemic, is no small achievement. It’s a fact that I was reminded of recently when a friend said that he hadn’t needed to be told to know that I’d fought a battle. He said that it showed through the bravery of my lifestyle, though this attitude to life. From my perspective, I’m cautious, focused on my safety, classifying as tiny moments, such as when I ask the waitress the difference between a media luna and a croissant, as courageous acts. I receive a thousand messages about my safety in Latin America, but not living is also a danger, not seeing, not experiencing. And I say this less naive than I would like to be.
I’ve sculpted a life that follows my whims, unconstrained, curious of the world, introspective and calm, but full of delights. Not so long ago, this felt impossible. So, every time I pause, look out at the sky and see the sun settling down beneath the horizon, out on some great sea, when my cheeks are rosy and my mind alert, I am beyond grateful.
My seasons are shuffled like a pack of cards; they’re drawn in a non-consecutive order. A long summer was followed by a short autumn, but this autumn is followed by a summer. Another autumn will follow, but this will be cut short to make way for spring. In any case, what does it even mean to have a season? Some places have a wet season and a dry season. In the North of Chile, it’s always spring. La Serena has warm and chilly seasons, but nothing to the extremes. Valdivia, my current home, is damp. I find myself not wanting to cast off the duvet in the morning. The room is cold and my bed cosy warm. I pull on my big woolly jumper and my woollen socks and fill my hot water bottle to warm my hands while I teach.
I remember listening to a podcast about seasons and hibernating and how we as humans need seasons of activity and seasons of rest. It made me wonder about the rhythm of life, the season-by-season rhythm rather than the day-to-day. It made me think about long-term decisions and how I swing between moments of social and moments of quiet. It takes a season to grow, it takes a season to heal, maybe we bloom for a season, but then need to replenish ourselves. Only you can define your seasons. They are influenced by the weather, by the rhythms of the Earth’s orbit, but they are also in part chosen. We have a say in how our seasons flow. Regardless of the weather, February marks my season of healing and September always feels like the start of a new year.
It’s a mistake, I feel, not to have seasons. In a country like England, the seasons come knocking at the door. In winter, the days are short and the car demands de-icing. In summer, the days are long and you can head out for an evening stroll. May springs up flowers, June the garden is full of strawberries, yet Yorkshire grown tomatoes and rain both seem to arrive all year round. In England, seasons come forced upon us and we take them for granted. Cross the hemisphere and the seasons are flipped. An adjective is needed to define the position of my seasons, or a possessive determiner – I talk about ‘your summer’ and ‘my winter’ to try and locate myself in time. Towards the equator people have warm winters, towards the poles there are cool summers. People here ask me if it’s cold in England, I ask back, compared to what?
I’m in love with summer, with sunshine, with long days and short nights, with spinning in circles in the garden, arms bare, yet even I acknowledge that in an eternal summer something is lost. I find myself staring out at this Valdivian autumn, deep green, lemon yellow, the red of my favourite scarf. The sky sets in that orange hue of sky-blue-pink and dusk is purple-grey. I stare out of the window at the cars passing, lights on, and I’m happy with my autumn. It’s a short autumn after all. A different texture to the palette. Soon I’ll step back into summer and a season defined by family and home, enriched by the variety.
Children are in the dustbins across the street from the café where I am drinking my coffee. The sun is warm, it’s summer, so the kids presumably don’t have school. I’m conscious of how easy it would be for my skin to burn, but the avenues are shaded by big old trees, trees whose roots have pushed up the pavements, crumpled the paths. I feel someone planned this city, planned streets wide enough for cars to park, planned broad pavements to place café chairs and heavy green dustbins. I like this corner, where I return to drink coffee most mornings and quite frequently indulge in a croissant. Today I planned to come, to sit here at the crossroads, drink my coffee and read. Yet I am distracted from my reading by the children in the dustbins.
I’m supposed to be reading Tim Park’s book The Novel, A Survival Skill. This is part of my chosen reading for my master’s degree. But it’s not my first book by Tim Parks, a long time ago I read Italian Neighbours, an account of his life in Verona. An account which probably mentioned dustbins. I can imagine Parks writing about waste disposal. I’ve never read his novels, but I’ve been delighted by The Novel, which isn’t about how to write a book, but why people write the books they do. And, it explains why I don’t get on with Borges.
Or that’s not fair. It’s not that I don’t get on with Borges, I feel a polite acquaintance with him and a lack of curiosity in his work, yet despite this, a vexation, a sense that I ought to see something which I can’t, that I ought to be impressed when I’m not, and that it ought to generate meaning for me, it doesn’t. I’m bemused as to why his oh-so-clever labyrinths are so adored.
Tim Parks talks about how writers, whether they intend it or not, write, and rewrite, what feel to them to be the essential conflicts of their lives, particularly those initial childhood family conflicts, which I think fundamentally comes down to self-identity. The same goes for readers. Readers read, reread and recommend those books which have touched on these inner conflicts. Hence, Tim Parks likes to read books with tense moral dilemmas because of his intensely religious and somewhat whacky family. Similarly, he writes novels where morality is played with, tossed around and torn apart. He’s trying to resolve his own unease about being good and being bad through the words he puts on the page.
As for me, your literary likes and dislikes are part of the wider pattern of your relationships, and not unconnected with the kind of family you have, the kind of life you lead.
The Novel: A Survival Guide by Tim Parks
I think a certain intellectual swaggering turns me off. What I want in a book is a glimpse into humanity, I want to see the human condition from a fresh perspective, but I want to see up close. I read from my heart, not my over-trained brain.
While I want to like clever books, at the end of the day, my favourites are those that made me cry, like Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and Carla Guelfenbein’s The Rest is Silence. Books which use language in a clever way, but do not swagger.
But I’m not reading, I’m too busy watching the children in the dustbins. They are scavenging for sheets of cardboard and plastic bottles. I am alarmed by this. One of them wears a baseball cap, the other has had his hair highlighted, maybe imitating some footballer? One wears pumps on his feet, the other plastic flip-flops. I imagine this boy’s feet, there in the bin, coming into contact with… No, I don’t want to think about it. Yet, despite my worries, these teenage boys look healthy. They’re nimble, lithe, coordinated and industrious.
When I later mention this to Latin American friends, they accept my astounded account without alarm. A kind of ‘so what?’. I can see their point. It is a fact that children climb into these dustbins – I later see adults doing the same – and this is part of life. I’m unsettled by the discomfort this brings. Even as a young child, I was aware that I was better off than my peers. Yet I also know that there is nothing I am going to do about it, unless we count my various conversations on the matter or this small piece of writing. To these boys, I too am irrelevant. Just another tourist.
Climate change. Recycling. Children in dustbins.
The boys toss the bottles from the bins, the bottles bounce and scatter across the pavement. Like children in a playground, the boys vault over the lip of the bin, out, back onto the street. One grabs a plastic bag and pops the bottles in, while his friend folds the cardboard flat. Beside them, on the road, beside the bins, is a docile pony and cart. The cardboard is laid in the cart and the bottles are put in a huge green bag tied on the back, the size of a small tent. Maybe there are hundreds of bottles already inside.
The younger generation cleaning up after the old.
My fear for these boys is joined by admiration.
Would Tim Parks be analysing the moral conundrum of this situation? If he were in this coffee shop with me, would he be criticizing this world for having children scavenging in dustbins. Would he be, like me, panicking about the health consequences? Would his thoughts be broken glass and disused needles? Would he notice that these boys are children, barely old enough for a paper-round? Might he shrug it off as just part of how things are here. Would he note that their skin is darker than most of the people who walk past, people who pay no attention to these children, as if children climbing in dustbins were normal? Would he link this to Spanish conquest, ancient caste systems, political dysfunction and the consequent immigration?
And would Parks, like a friend of mine, ask whether the children looked fed? Fundamental survival question. They looked fed, I explained, and showered, and their clothes looked like they’ve been washed. Would the contradiction sit as uneasily with him as it does with me? We might think of such boys as the victims of the system, but they hardly appear like victims. Would it reassure him that this is the school holiday and so maybe they do this for pocket money? Perhaps, when the new semester begins, they’ll be holding pens and writing.
I find myself thinking how if they study with the same attitude as they collect bottles, they’ll deserve to go to good universities.
For the novelist the text is absolutely integrated in his life and circumstances; what he writes comes out and rebounds back on his mental life, his private life, his professional life.
The Novel: A Survival Guide by Tim Parks
Am I admiring them for the display of self-sufficiency and independence? Inevitably, since I am reading Parks’ book, I find myself wondering at my own intrigue. Am I drawn to the situation because it reflects an internal conflict of my own? Do I admire them for their independence, self-sufficiency and hard work because these were values drilled into me as a child?