Alpaca and guinea pig are both on the menu

The altitude is making my body feel all a tad disorientated. I’ve got my birthday cards laid out on the desk beside a cactus and a sign which says that should I want any more pillows to call reception. I have four pillows already, all for myself, so I should think that’s going to be unnecessary. I can also request a hot water bottle should I require one, or maybe I could request the filling of my mini-hot-water bottle which remain in the depths of suitcase number two. These days I am a two-suitcase woman. Suitcase number one awaits my return to Chile.

I am very pleased to be able to write that I now have a functioning computer and can write at a sensible pace. I have never been a swift typist on a telephone, I’ve always been a bit awkward with the touch keyboards. On the computer, I’m not fast, but I am significantly faster and what matters more, I feel at ease writing this way.

Through the balcony windows and out across the private garden I can see a fountain, water pouring through clusters of cheerful pink flowers. This is living in luxury and is, I admit, a bit of a contrast to my everyday life where I live on a not a whole lot. In the last twenty-four hours, I have eaten more meat than I would normally consume within a week. Peruvian food is good. It’s full of strong flavours and has a heat to it that Chilean food lacks. At lunchtime, I bit into a sweet potato and my mouth was filled with such sensations that I sat in my seat and stared for a while at what remained on my fork. So much flavour from a potato. And yesterday’s ceviche came with enough chilli that my eyes actually began to water, something which hasn’t occurred since I was in an Indian restaurant near the train station in Leeds.

Alpaca and guinea pig are both on the menu and the Father responds to this with his dead guinea pig impersonation which I used to think of as excessive silliness, but which I realise probably looks tame compared to some of my theatrical (histrionic) behaviour when I’m teaching.

Living with such a marvellous range of experiences, I’m pretty sure that I’m the luckiest person in the world. I get these moments of sweet wonder – I write from a fancy hotel in Cusco – but without living entirely in a money-padded bubble. I could not afford such a hotel, to eat such a volume of food or to be escorted around by a friendly chap called Julio Cesar or the nifty Lima traffic trained private drivers. Normally, I drag my suitcase along using my fierce muscles and get the bus.

And oddly I’m glad that at least at this point in my life I don’t have much money. I love my parents’ world, but I can’t help but feel that having substantial funds would give me a very different experience of Chile right now. In England, I am of course middle-class, even when I’m unemployed, but I’m told that no such thing exists in Chile. In a temporary exhibition on immigration in the human rights and memory museum in Santiago I saw a film depicting the views of Palestinians living in Chile, and one woman stated how in Palestine they have apartheid (based on religion and race) but in Chile, there is also apartheid, economic apartheid.

The teachers with whom I work fiercely declare themselves to be working class.

Because I don’t have much, I find myself overwhelmed by intense gratitude as I accept a refugee paying for my coffee. I bake English cakes in return and introduce my friends to that very British dish coronation chicken. One of my birthday presents is polka-dot bun cases, these are going to get used in my baking for the people for whom I feel affection. My money gets absorbed into airfares so I carry a flask with my tea in my bag and go for picnics on the beach rather than the fancy restaurants that my family can afford.

Right now, I, therefore, feel like I’m living in a fantasy. A cushy hotel in Cusco, a private guided tour of Machu-Pichu, birthday presents of expensive notebooks and quality shoes; it really is dream-like.

Incomprehensible Chile, I still love you

Bunting in the Elqui Valley
Chile

I cycled home from my yoga class this morning, keeping to the roads which, although not smooth, provide a gentler ride than the haphazard pavements. I wasn’t in a rush and even if I had been, I wasn’t going anywhere fast. The city centre was jammed with traffic, the reserved horn-beeping of previous months has given way in the agitation to a cacophony of angry noise. The crossroads fail to function and cars crawl past, winding around each other having to think without the guiding green, amber, red of the traffic-lights. The poor, decapitated green-men, how I miss them.

On my journey, I passed a hotel which has been sacked, looted, pillaged, think broken glass, burnt out rooms, every window above the ground floor open to encourage fresh air in, every window on the ground floor sealed with metal sheets, soldered in place. This isn’t like reading a newspaper. It isn’t happening somewhere else to someone else. It’s different cycling past in person, knowing that people I’m acquainted with were pouring their customers drinks here just a few days ago.

Quietly, I wonder what they’ll do for jobs now.

Back home I let the coffee percolate and try to recover enough energy for the day’s real task. I don’t have work this week, actually, I haven’t had work (expect for the occasional meeting) since the state of emergency was declared, and so I’m making headway with writing my novel. No. Editing the novel. The damn thing has been written for ages, I’m now buried in the line-editing stage and this goes on and on.

The mother interrupted my preparations asking when she was going to get something to read on Happenence. I explained that I was working on the novel. The thing is, I have written things for Happenence, I have a few drafts stored, but I can hardly face doing any more editing. I don’t fancy rereading what I wrote a month or two ago and trying to work out if it fits with my new, more nuanced view of Chile. After all, the Chile I arrived to and the Chile I’m living in are two very different countries.

So here’s what I’m thinking, or perhaps, more accurately, what I’m feeling.

Chile is in a mess. Like me, it’s suffering from a trauma that it has tried very hard to ignore for much too long. It pretends to be fashionable and modern but when you really look you see a sad people in terrible credit card debt. Its people are carrying grief that they don’t seem to understand. I wonder if they know how much they need to grieve still? The sadness is palpable. The people act out, as I did, although I screamed and shouted, wailed and cried whereas there are people here who are inclined to violence. Setting fires in the local hotel for example. Others sink into passivity, drinking too much, dabbling in drugs to feel or to not feel.

I have struggled for weeks to see how to understand the country I’m living in when everything feels so incomprehensible, but the thing is, I know these feelings because they are familiar. I know grief and sadness, I know helplessness and powerlessness, I know how it feels not knowing how you’re going to go on, not knowing what the future is going to bring, worrying if things will ever be normal, or if normal even exists. No wonder it’s incomprehensible, it’s all happening on an emotional level, it’s incomputable. You can only feel it. On paper nothing makes any sense. And I know what it feels like to forget how to laugh. I know fear, real, heart clasping fear.

I don’t understand Chile, but nor do I understand myself. That’s okay though, and I can accept myself, we can accept Chile, as it wrenches with agonising pain, trying to recover from the horrific violation that took place and continues to take place against its people.

It’s a journey of reclaiming one’s dignity. And this is something I can relate to, intimately.

Too tired to think (travel realities)

[Written shortly after moving to Chile.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Internet is a further challenge

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

But amid all this, there are high moments

Like the daily sunsets that I watch from my balcony.

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

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

Working with your hands (Even if you’re not very good at it)

By Posted on Location: 4min read
Doing physical labour on a farm in France
Misty sunrise and time for work.
Fields in France, October 2016.

“… he’s not drearily whacking at the metal like a miner with a pickaxe: Every hit, though forceful, is carefully controlled. He peers intently at the metal, through thin-framed intellectual glasses (which seem out of place perched above his heavy beard and broad shoulders), turning it just so for each impact.”

Cal Newport in his book Deep Work describing the blacksmith Ric Furrer of Door County Forgeworks

Whenever I read about someone doing physical labour with a sense of love I’m reminded of my time on the farm in France. Whilst on the farm in France isn’t the only occasion when I’ve worked the land, it was the most prolonged period I’ve done so, and the most rewarding.

I’d be up early, to share breakfast with the children before Grandmére walked them to school. Fresh French bread and homemade jam. Then, whilst Grandpère was checking his email, I’d head over to the polytunnel to water all the vegetables growing there.

Anything ripe and ready for eating I’d take to the kitchen

Plus, any eggs I’d wrestled from the want-to-be mothers in the hen coop. After this, I’d collect grain from the barn and drive out to the sheep. They would come running at me, the largest, a sheep I nicknamed ‘bully’ at their lead. It would take creativity not to end up rolling down the hillside.

Then I’d go and join Grandpère

By this time, he would have settled on a plan for the day, and would be, you could be sure, wielding some sharp implement. His favourite was the chainsaw. We chopped down trees, chopped up trees and built wood piles great enough to heat the uninhabited chateau if necessary.

I learnt to love stacking logs

There is a rhythm to it: You’re working alongside one another in almost silence. Nothing is happening fast, but you’ve engaged mind and body, and you think, one more trailer full and we’ll finish-up, just a little bit more. You ache, but you’ve got the rhythm working for you and the ache is part of the harmony.

After working all morning, I’d take a solid siesta

I would be exhausted. Not just physically, but mentally too. I was learning something new every day, like sharpening chainsaws and driving diggers.

Under scrupulous supervision, I learnt to prune fruit trees

Including, the apples in a neat espalier style. I’d cut a few branches, with great care, and then Grandmére would appear and point out what I’d missed. I’d trim a bit more, then she’d suggest another branch, explaining each step of the process as we went along.

I fell in love with it.

And whilst I am very wary here of romanticising manual labour, for me, it was a magical experience. A feeling that never came to me when I was working in an office.

Although of course, many people don’t work the land out of choice

I will never need to exhaust myself with full days of physical labour. For me, it’s a choice and came with a guarantee of a good hearty meal. Grandmére being an excellent cook. You can’t go and work on a farm for a couple of months and understand what it’s like to make your livelihood out of manual labour. You don’t have a clue.

When the time came, I could take a flight to my next destination and go try something else.

But there is something about seeing a patch of land you’ve dug or a tree you’ve felled, and saying, that’s what I did today. I did learn something.

Ric Furrer, the blacksmith described at the top of the page, chooses to make swords

Each one is a piece of art, crafted with care. When he thrusts the hot metal into a pipe of oil to cool it, he doesn’t know if it is going to crack, which does happen sometimes with the dramatic change of heat. The oil catches fire and momentarily wraps the sword in flames.

Part of the reward is the process. It’s making something happen with your own hands. It’s having something you can look at when the sun begins to set and say, with pride, that’s what I did today.


From the archives there’s also this post about a day on the farm. You know, should you be looking for even more.

If you want to learn about life, talk to someone who has lived a tough one

By Posted on Location: 6min read
Conversation with a Spanish Grandmother - Jardín de Floridablanca, Murcia, May 2019
Jardín de Floridablanca, Murcia, May 2019

My Grandmother leant me a book about a nun

In her twenties, the nun in the book went to an interview for a place at the National College of Domestic Subjects to study cookery. In front of the panel, she was asked to read a section from The Times newspaper. Having been born to wealth and educated by her mother to become a lady, she read with what she describes as a ‘cut-glass accent’.

A chap on the panel whispered, “I don’t think Sister Agatha will be much good in the East End of London.”

At which point she realised her error and broke through the ice around them by adding, “Now, me ‘ole Dutch, where we ‘orf tonight?”

Smiles appeared throughout the panel, which decided to accept her. She’d proven she could adapt her tone.

Speaking in an inclusive manner can be rather tricky

Conversing isn’t always easy, especially across cultures, across differences in educational opportunity and across generations. I think those of us who seek out opportunities to converse across such barriers don’t give ourselves enough credit for what we do.

Just the other week I was reminded how hard we must work to get the most out of a conversation.

Imagine a very tidy living room and a stiff-backed sofa

I was sitting upright, body lent forward, alert because I was having coffee with my friend´s mother – a tiny woman with strong eyes. Such a situation can be a little daunting even if you speak the same language, but here I was having to converse in Spanish. Spanish. That language which has me dancing on the edge of my comfort zone on an almost daily basis.

This time, I was talking about France

I have within me a repertoire of short stories to which I have learnt, through perseverance and embarrassment, the relevant vocabulary. Good conversations involve stories or at least interesting examples the other person can connect to. Stories also fill time and make a conversation feel fluid.

What’s more, I quite enjoy trampling over people’s assumptions about me. I enjoy eliciting surprise. You need a bit of wonder sprinkled in a conversation to keep your audience paying attention.

During this conversation, however, I was doing nothing artful with my language

The anxiety that strikes me whenever I must speak to someone new in Spanish had entered my bones, and the cogs in my brain were overheating. The Spanish grandmother didn’t ask complex questions, but her Spanish is drenched in dialect, which frustrated our translator and aid (her son), who desperately wanted me to understand for myself.

I was speaking particularly badly

I was nervous. So out of necessity, the Spanish grandmother was taking responsibility for the structure of the conversation. I hate this, but whilst I can structure a conversation in English, doing the same in Spanish is beyond me.

From the start, she knew I taught English

Like many people, she was curious as to how I’d ended up where I was. I explained how I’d worked in a ‘proper job’ once upon a time. In an office, at a desk, next to a window. And I explained how I’d watched Spring come from behind the glass pane, summer pass by, and eventually autumn arrive. Then I told her about France. I told her about working the land, driving diggers and feeding the sheep.

Now lost between a historic frustration and a series of memories, I described my nostalgia for that physical sensation of labour. I tried to avoid romanticising it because hard physical labour is not romantic. But I did contrast the physical work on the land to the labours of the mind. And all this in broken sentences with the verbs conjugated aloud.

The Spanish grandmother frowned

Her eyes communicated her recognition of my naivety, not in a patronising manner, but in the way that a teacher might look at a child who just hasn’t quite got it. A maternal look, but not a soft look.

Her voice, however, when she spoke, was soft and steady. She said that outside work is both, body and mind.

I felt that she was navigating through some of her own memories

Even now she works on the land and has done I believe for much of her life. Her skin is golden, showing a lifetime of being drenched in sunlight. The previous week she’d been picking flowers. She knows more about the land than I ever will, but when she spoke, her words were more like poetry, describing the relationship between the worker and the land as a form of art.

This was not what I had expected

As I learnt about the woman I was speaking to, I was reminded of how although she had little formal education, she possessed immense wisdom, and it gave me an insight into my own child-like self. In her eyes, I am not much older than a child.

Although, she acknowledged with a little surprise, I have experienced a lot for one so young.

Her school life had centred around the church

Every morning in her school she’d had to start with prayers because her school life had happened under Franco’s Catholic Nationalism. A complete contrast to my upbringing. I declared myself an atheist at the age of 7. The only people who argued the case for religion with me were my father (whose beliefs don’t appear to include an almighty being) and much later, Grand-père (who went to mass every Sunday and brought me back gigantic meringues).

She asked about my religious beliefs or lack of belief

And I fumbled through my vocabulary, trying to find the words to describe something I’m not sure I could articulate in English. All the time she watched me with immense curiosity.

Religion in Spain is a dangerous topic. Some people talk about religion as a pillar holding up the rest of life, whilst others have an audible snarl in their throats when they mention the church. I’m fascinated by these attitudes to religion, but I know I must tread with care. The girls at school describe my Yorkshire influenced accent as being cute, and although I’m sometimes conscious of the childish sound of my voice, sometimes I’m grateful for it.

She listened though, receptive to what I was saying, and I was grateful.

And then just before she was about to leave, she motioned to my ebook reader

It lay on the coffee table where I’d discarded it when she’d arrived. She told me she didn’t read on phones and suchlike, she reads books printed on paper. A literature lover. Despite all the differences we might have, we are fellow bibliophiles. My heart felt lighter.

Which brings me back to my Grandmother’s book about a nun

I started off sceptical. Reading about a rich young lady who gave up her fiancé and dedicated her life to her God, I wasn’t sure how well I’d connect. At first, I found her story a little frustrating.

And then, in her fifties, she decides that she’s going to travel. She doesn’t have much in the way of cash, because nuns don’t, and yet, her passion to travel forced her to find a way. And that I could relate to.

What’s more, when she talked about her terrible driving, I couldn’t help but think of the habit-wearing nun who nearly ran me over the other day.

The book was A Nun’s Story by Sister Agatha and Richard Newman.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might like a reminder of this old post about what I learnt talking to Grand-père.

Some photos: Granada and the Alhambra

By Posted on Location: 2min read

Every now and again I spend a day being a real, proper tourist. In the case of my visit to Granada it was an entire weekend, a good part of which was taken up by the Alhambra.

You have to book tickets well in advance so I was all prepared for a crowded space, filled with hot and bothered tourists talking too loudly. Which meant that I was pleasantly surprised, when, having slogged my way up the hill, I found that the Alhambra wasn’t chocker-block with people, but, actually, especially in the gardens, was peaceful.

It’s not to say there weren’t people, yes I had to queue a while to use the ladies, but the space is so large, there’s just so much of it, that you can find yourself in a peaceful corner. And, if it just so happens you find yourself in a crowd, you just have to wait for them to pass by. They come in waves. As long as you move at a different pace, it’s alright.

My knowledge of Spanish history is… improving. The Romans were here, they built a fort. Muslim Emirs with very long names were here, they built the palaces – hence all the stunning, intricate design work – and Catherine of Aragon’s mum was here. That’s Isabel I, Queen of Castile, husband of Ferdinand. The mother wrote an essay on this royal couple at school. Christopher Columbus was here to get his travel documents signed off. Napoleon tried to destroy it and some poets wrote about it.

When you get tired of history and wander back down into town, there are plenty of tea rooms to quench your thirst.

Sometimes it’s good fun being a tourist. Sometimes you need to really holiday.