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.
At some point, in the future, on an unknown date, I’m going to board a plane. I’m going to fly somewhere. That somewhere is preferably Chile, but if the borders are closed there, I’ll settle temporarily for another destination. Temporarily, because even dear Zeus is going to have a hard time keeping me away.
My plans, over the last couple of years, haven’t exactly worked out smoothly. I find myself running a business I hadn’t intended to develop beyond a Saturday job, and surprising myself with my financial self-sufficiency. I’m used to being poor, to dancing through my middle-class existence without the required notes lining my purse, to actually reading the price of a cup of coffee on the menu. Having money surprises me. And it’s less gratifying than freedom.
My plans haven’t behaved themselves. Planes and contracts have been cancelled. The idea of meeting up with friends has become a rather mystical concept. I’m at home, in the same room as when I arrived in England, a year older. One of my students, who had a birthday recently, told me that he wasn’t including the pandemic year in his age. The year has been struck out.
But while my plans mutate, my priorities haven’t. I know exactly what I’m doing and what I want and none of it’s complicated. My sister rings me expecting an emotional outburst at the latest cancellation, but none comes. Instead, I’m calm. I don’t have to fret because eventually I am going to get what I want. Eventually, I’m going to be in Chile. I’ll be immersed in stories, in language, in friendship and life will continue, mutated perhaps, but still resulting in a shape that makes me happy.
For now, I focus on the small things, like suitcases with replaceable wheels, sun-cream which isn’t bad for fish and a handbag that perfectly fits my notebook. The big things, like being honest, writing, and doing good work, have to carry themselves. The big things have to be habitual because they don’t happen overnight. And travelling is there, amongst the habitual in my mind. I might not be able to go anywhere, but I’m packing and repacking in my imagination. I have my stuff organized, ready to leave. Every item I buy is analysed for whether it will travel well. Travelling saturates my conversations.
Being locked down in England doesn’t change the fact that I’m intuitively nomadic. It’s just how I am. Zeus can fling as many lightning bolts as he likes, but that fact is not going to change.
Having no travels to go on other than to the dentist or the supermarket, I am occasionally flicking back through the past, jealous of the sunshine that once pinched my skin. I have kept a journal for many years and I vary in what fascinates me enough to be worth writing about. On my walk in Portugal along the Rota Vicentina with the Grump for company, it’s clear that there was one thing on my mind: food.
These extracts are taken from my journal covering March 2017. They begin early into our trip when I still had faith that the Grump knew how to navigate. He’s an excellent walking partner as he’s always willing to carry more than 50% of the weight, is willing to walk at my slow and steady plod and tolerates me even when my feet hurt and I’m blaming him for everything going wrong. He’s also much more organized than I am.
Italics are my commentary.
Breakfast was very enjoyable
… bread, ham, tomato chutney and apricot jam. I presume I didn’t consume the jam and the chutney together. The coffee machine provided a little challenge but a kindly lady provided assistance and I had both an americano and an espresso, making up for the previous day’s lack of coffee. Today I would be more adept at the coffee machine, I have learnt a few tricks over the last four years. I would also be better prepared; how did I get myself into a situation where I didn’t have coffee for a whole day?
It is wonderful to be surrounded by green
We debate the benefits of being out here in the open in contrast to the grey city and its pollution. I bite my tongue and try to say: The environment which surrounds you is your own choice. Sometimes my tongue becomes quite sore. I eye-roll too. With age, you might have thought I’d grow more tolerant of the human tendency to ‘gruntle’ along rather than act. I haven’t.
The evening is recorded in food
Salad, bread, olives, bread, pate. Beef, rice, grilled pineapple, black beans and homemade vegetable crisps. But the account is written as a backwards glance the next day during a breakfast of a croissant and a half, coffee and orange juice. In the village, nobody seems to have realised that it is morning. The shops have not yet opened. Time wanders free, only occasionally called to attention by the chime of the bells in the church tower. Maybe we should have asked for toast. The lady sitting near us has toast and a latte or something similar. Although the croissants were brioche, not pastry. Hopefully we’ll be able to get a proper lunch in Rogil.
Rogil doesn’t fulfil all my desires
… a long, straight and uninspiring street. We bought bread, ham, fruit and a replacement packet of biscuits since I’d almost finished the packet I’d bought in Faro. No doubt this is a true use of the singular pronoun and it was I, not we, who ate all the biscuits. Normally I’m reasonably controlled about my diet, but when I’m walking I tend to simply eat. If pudding is on offer, chances are that I’ll want it.
The way out of Rogil continues along the irrigation channel and so we stepped up from the path into a crop of pine trees and sat ourselves down on a trunk of a fallen (or felled) tree to make and eat our sandwiches. We’d upped the quantity to three each which was probably a good thing seeing as how long it was before we got to the hostel.
From Rogil we walk to Aljezur
You might think that this meant that I ate nothing until I reached the hostel, but no. In Aljezur, I had a sweet potato and coconut roll. Somewhat like a jam roly-poly. And I drink coffee and we visit a supermarket. Then we took a walk up to the castle to admire the view before finally setting off to Arrifana at 4 pm.
At this point, it’s worth pausing because the map and the address for the evening’s accommodation didn’t all add up and things got a little stressful…
I’ve just got back from Berlin and a friend is curious. What is it like to fly at the moment?
Well the airports are pretty much deserted; the toilets are cleaner than usual and there are many signs and instructions. Wearing a mask is compulsory, as it is in many other locations where you come into close proximity with the public, but security is delightfully much faster to pass through.
Being seated for a couple of hours, my legs ached a bit, and when I finally ‘alighted’ from the train at the end of my journey, I felt relieved to be able to remove my mask. Truthfully though, the familiarity of being on the move and the odd solitary state of flying alone soothed my nomadic need. I was glad to be in the air.
There is a limit to how helpful worrying can be
As analytical thinking creatures, we’re pretty unreliable at recognising the severity and likelihood of the dangers we face. We underestimate and overestimate on a daily basis and all of this effort can be exhausting. To avoid it, we delegate to the media who are financially incentivised to provoke our emotions, and to the government, whose job is to manage the whole of society rather than just us, the individual.
Going with your gut feeling is all very well if your gut feeling has a history of actually being right, and by this I mean actually right, not just all right enough that you could rewrite a storyline to make it feel not so bad. I don’t ignore my gut feeling, going against my stomach’s intuition is generally a bad idea, but nor do I think I should be led by my stomach. If your stomach’s twisting and turning in fretful motion, you probably need to do something (although it might just be something you’ve eaten). You should listen to it. However, that first inclination of how to act may well be wrong.
But from a practical viewpoint, who’s to say that my voyage to Germany is any less safe than spending a day working as a waitress? And who can analyse that with any accuracy, certainly not me.
The siren of warning emanating from your insides is just that, a warning. Your stomach is saying it’s unhappy. Most likely a decision needs to be made and action needs to be taken. It doesn’t excuse the analytical mind; it’s a sign that the analytical mind needs to be used. However, the analytical mind is limited and fallible. No wonder we are confused and overwhelmed.
Some people are much more risk averse than others
Sometimes I feel guilty for my lack of risk aversion. I’m not the sort to seek high adrenaline adventures just for the sake of it. Yet, I’m sceptical of fear. I want to live my life as I want to, not dictated by unfounded and uncertain fears. This isn’t just the post-trauma effect, it’s part of my character, although perhaps the post-trauma reclamation of life has added to my stubbornness. It’s certainly added to my scepticism.
Sometimes I do things that other people are afraid to do, although perhaps slowly as I build up my confidence, but the conclusion is the same. I’m focused on what I want. I’m not driven by the adrenaline, I’m driven by my curiosity, but often fulfilling one’s curiosity comes at a price. It asks that you dare.
Not daring has huge consequences
When I arrived in Berlin and stepped out of the airport into the cold, grey of cityscape autumn I felt lighter. I’d been stabbed in the throat with a cotton bud by a chap in a plastic gown, and I’d rubbed excessive hand sanitizing gel into the crevices of my hands, but I’d arrived. I breathed in the German air and relished in the selfish choice I’d made. It brought me a sense of glee.
It’s really difficult to decide what is best for us, the individual
We face a whole lot of confused messaged and contradictory thoughts, suggested to us by governments and news agencies who focus on their needs to manipulate the population as a whole. Nobody is quite sure what behaviour counts as dangerous. Some people flaunt the rules on masks or mixing households and some don’t leave the house. The psychological cost, being invisible and uncountable, is generally feared, but ignored within the risk assessment.
For me personally, the psychological threat is the one with my attention
It’s a danger I know from up close. When I look at my friends, I’m looking for the light of life in their eyes. I’m listening to the threads of negativity and I worry. I worry about the effect of a general reduction in laughter over the year. The lack of excitement about future plans and the dent in ambitions. It’s all rather saddening.
Psychologically, letting myself unfurl my wings for a brief moment was a precious balm. When I booked the flight, I had no idea whether regulations would let me fly or whether the aeroplane would even take off, but I felt it was worth the risk. Travelling is part of who I am.
“Did you feel comfortable on the flight?”
Yes, I’d go as far as saying that actually I enjoyed it. But I can assure you washed my hands thoroughly when I disembarked.
Things I remember about my tiny adventure in the airport hotel in Miami, the United States:
The food was terrible.
Everything was plastic wrapped.
There was a lot of rubbish floating along the river.
The hotel flooded due to the excessive rain.
But I curled up in bed and watched the film The Two Popes – on my phone due to not having a plug converter as I’d never planned on visiting the United States…. The hotel didn’t have one either, neither for a British or European/Chilean plug. How ill-equipped!
And the film being partly set in Italy made me even hungrier for real food – those Italian pizzas – and a bit nostalgic for the Latin American life I was leaving behind – those crowded Argentinian streets.
Mostly though, I slept and thought about real food and real coffee
I needed the sleep as on the American Airlines flight home – in which not all the staff obeyed the rules about masks – I really failed to sleep. I wish I hadn’t thought so much about food as the meal on the flight was pathetic and just made me think of how much better the LatAm pasta had been. When breakfast came, I was so hungry and so disappointed that my stomach began to growl with frustration. I had no food on me as I didn’t want to get into trouble again for crossing borders with illicit apples – and I’d eaten all my remaining biscuits.
In summary: I left the United States inspired not to return, but to visit Cuba.
The next adventure was Heathrow and I found myself suddenly recalling my 2016 trip back from Egypt. During my Egyptian travels I’d covered my arms and used scarfs around my neck in respect of the customs there. It had become somewhat of a norm for me there although in England I’m the sort of person who if I have long sleeves, I roll them up.
Now I was travelling back from a city where we wore masks or got fined
In Heathrow, the only people wearing masks seemed to be the new arrivals. I stared down at the people unloading the planes in astonishment and mild concern. My stomach rumbled. I’d been wearing masks continuously for the previous 12 hours, and I was still feeling annoyed by the staff member who sauntered up and down the aisles with his posh clip board mask free.
Both on the return from Egypt and the return from Chile I found myself unsettled by the sudden onslaught of bare skin. It was like my internal norm had been somehow set to something non-British. Something more conservative.
Heathrow, being empty, proved surprisingly easy
I walked through immigration, picked my bag straight from the conveyor belt as it passed me and solitarily headed down to the tube. One other chap joined me on the underground platform, and we spread out, taking the opposite ends of the same carriage. A few stops later he departed, someone else got on, then off again. I had a shouting chat with one passenger – only the two of us were sharing the carriage but both wore masks and we social distanced with a dozen chairs between us – we remarked upon the absurdity of the situation. Then he got off.
I passed through central London however entirely alone
In Kings Cross station the cafés were shut, and my stomach was about to despair when I saw the little supermarket shop was open. I went in, bought water, a sandwich and pastries, pastries and more pastries and then sat down on the bench outside and feasted upon the food. Never has a shop bought, plastic wrapped British sandwich tasted so good. Unsurprisingly, given my homesickness, it was a palta, sorry… avocado sandwich. I wondered if the avocado had been grown in Chile and whether, like me it had been flown across the Atlantic.
I also desperately needed a cup of coffee, but none presented themselves. I sought out a helpful member of the station staff and explained my issues with tickets and things not downloading and after showing her my email confirmation was waved through the barrier with the assurance that there would be Wi-Fi on the train.
Finally, I boarded my train to The North and sat in a crowded carriage
There were three of us in it. A couple who sat at the other end of the carriage and me. Busy compared to the tube. Nobody came to check my ticket but I did find the WI-Fi and I did manage to message the father and beg him to bring me a real cup of coffee when he came to collect me from the station.
And then, a few hours later, there my parents were: stood the far side of the station one-way complexity. I bound through the gates and leapt into the arms of my loving family, still wearing my mask.
Finally, hesitantly after hours and hours and hours I removed my own mask
We walked to the car together, me with adrenaline pumping through my system, giddy on sleeplessness and my parents seriously relieved that I’d actually arrived home.
And waiting for me in the car, in a small flask, real coffee.