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.
I heard the kettle begin to boil and as I battered my way into consciousness tried to recall where I was, somewhere south of Santiago I thought, but the letters of the name of the town were shuffling around in my mind and I couldn’t focus on the word. I heard the Mother, I knew it was the Mother, and I tried to connect the dots… I struggled, the name of the town seemed important somehow and my mum was there.
What was the Mother doing there?
Surprised, I realized that I was in my parents’ house, which is not south of Santiago in Chile, but in Yorkshire in England. I remembered it was winter. How had I forgotten? Maybe the sun was shining in my dreams. It’s not unusual for me to wake up and not immediately know which city I’m in. But now? Here? I am not just passing through; I’ve been here since May. The kettle finished its boil and I fell back asleep, dreaming now of cheese and pickle sandwiches.
This time last year it was hot
I wandered the streets of Santiago hiding in the shade during the midday heat and always carrying my flask filled with cold water. Last year was a year of two summers, the first was wondrous, the second a constant downpour. Bless England, it knows how to do wet. This year, if I’m lucky, will be a year of two winters, or perhaps I will winter it out here and move into the land of eternal spring. It’s now out of my control.
Some years ago, I read Victor Frankl’s book on surviving the holocaust, Man’s Search for Meaning, and it’s been that book which has frequently popped into my mind as lockdowns are announced, reduced, increased, reduced again. There is good news and bad news, and both hope and fear, but attaching ourselves too strongly to any date or announcement doesn’t serve us well. A new quarantine is announced but we mustn’t despair. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl, who was a psychologist observed that the people who started out positively with the belief that things would be over, and they’d be freed within a matter of months, before Christmas, invariably were less likely to survive. Once Christmas had come and gone, their resilience crumbled.
We just have to hold out until…
The people who, however, had something or someone external to themselves to live for were much more resilient. I have to go back to Chile because I’ve left my coffee pot there. I have to go back to Chile because I owe a friend a hug. I have to go back to Chile because I’m owed a drink. It seems it’s easier to be resilient for a purpose beyond yourself, and when monotony takes hold, where we might not be sure of what day of the week we’re on, having that external purpose matters even more.
For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as a by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.
Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl
You have to let it happen, but you can’t just expect it to happen
When I was in Germany in the autumn, my dear friend, the Glass-blower, suggested that each day we ought to do something for our future selves. This could be something as simple as saving a little money for a rainy day* or it could be an act of studying or learning something that would better equip us to take advantage of future opportunities. A lot of my motivation for doing yoga comes from my desire to have a physically capable body at the point in the future when I can make use of it. Maybe I’m going nowhere today, but on some tomorrow I want to go hiking in some hills and smell the nature all around me.
Today, therefore, I roll out my yoga mat and put the time in
A lot of resilience I think comes from switching the mind from thinking about the ‘done’ to thinking about the ‘doing’. What am I doing today to look after myself? What am I doing to protect myself? What am I doing to grow? It’s not a counting game. There can be no comparison with either yourself or another individual. Measurement is irrelevant because it’s all about how you think and how you perceive your situation. Are you doing what you need to be doing?
The sun may be shining in my dreams, and elsewhere it may be summer, but here it’s winter and time to get up and have breakfast. The Mother’s making porridge.
* In a country where almost every day is rainy, isn’t this a stupid idiom?
When reading about literature I’m sensitive to the author’s gender, particularly because I’m aware of how my reading is disproportionately written by men… men with degrees from either Britain or the USA. Writing isn’t the easiest vocation because it requires a certain amount of self-imposed solitude, therefore I’m impressed by anyone who gets their bum on the seat long enough to create – it’s hard work even if you’re born with a whole silver dinner service in your mouth – yet the disparity on my bookshelf makes me wonder if I need to make some sort of effort to tackle the systematic bias.
Most of the women mentioned here I had never heard of before reading The Penguin History of Latin America. At which point I began to investigate. My ignorance stems from how the English language canon dominates the reading of my British born friends who, for much of my life, have been my dominant source of book recommendations. In reading Hispanic literature, I’m also limited by my Spanish comprehension, although this is improving.
I’m focusing on the twentieth century, and mostly the latter half
If we look back to the older stuff, it was predominantly written by men, only some lucky men had the education and freedom to sit and write. The first woman mentioned in the history text was not a novelist – well-to-do Victoria Ocampo owned a literary magazine in Argentina in the 1930s. But writing at a similar time was a Brazilian novelist called Raquel or Rachel de Quieros. Unfortunately, I haven’t found anything by her translated into English and I don’t have any knowledge of Portuguese.
The next female novelist mentioned – Clarice Lispector – was also Brazilian
However, it isn’t until we reach the section on the decline of the patriarchy in the 1980s that we get into more detail about her. Even here, in the section on literature tackling the Latin American patriarchy, we begin with the men: Mario Vargas Llosa, Augusto Roa Bastos, Mario Benedetti, David Viñas, Eduardo Galeno and seven more until we reach…
Our first Hispanic female novelist, Marta Traba
Marta Traba and Luisa Valenzuela both wrote about the consequences of Peron and those who followed his ‘Peronist’ political movement. This was part of a trend for Argentinian writers to make fiction focused on reality with a documentary character. I admit, when I read that these writers moved away from writing in a complex James Joyce influenced style to ‘novels with an accessible story’ I was relieved.
Another common theme in Latin American literature is magic or marvellous realism. Valenzuela incorporates the magical into the real in her book The Lizard’s Tail. Sorcery and witchcraft appear in the novel set during Isabel Peron’s leadership of Argentina.
Both Traba and Valenzuela stepped onto my to-read list. And maybe reading them will give this British lass a version of Peron and his legacy that differs from his character in the film Evita.
Moving on to Mexico and Elena Poniatowska
She’s a journalist and novelist, who also wrote with a desire to document something real: massacres and earthquakes, inequality and poverty.
From a literary perspective, it seems that her choice to write against the patriarchy wasn’t surprising; many male authors of the 70s and 80s were also embracing an anti-patriarchal stance. What’s surprising is that as a French-born Mexican journalist of royal Polish descent she embraced a socialist outlook and has spent her life fighting inequality. Looks like I’m going to have to read her work, although it may be uncomfortable.
Now for two books which I have read
Isabelle Allende is in the history text, for The House of The Spirits, and Lispector’s The Hour of the Star is mentioned. I’ve read both.
The Hour of the Star is an interesting read not only because of the quirks of Lispector’s style, but because it’s modern. She makes me think that I ought to learn to read Portuguese. The theme of loneliness in the face of a competitive, consumerist society is no less relevant now than when the book was first published in 1977.
Lispector’s style was considered revolutionary
She plays with philosophy and writes a story within a story. There’s a link here to Borges, but this is not the moment to explore that. Lispector breaks rules and yet I find her readable. Her novel is depressing but delightful – a tricky combination to pull off. The history text declares The Hour of the Star ‘explored the reactions of a poor country girl from the north-east to the consumer society of São Paulo’. This is true, but misses the point. This isn’t simply a woman writing about a woman’s experience, if you read the book you might be surprised to find that the narrator is a misogynous fellow called Rodrigo.
Here he is talking about the poor country girl whose story he is trying to tell.
…nobody would miss her. Moreover — I realize now — nobody would miss me either. And even what I’m writing somebody else could write. A male writer, that is, because a woman would make it all weepy and maudlin.
The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector, translated by Benjamin Moser.
So what we have is Lispector playing with perspectives, male and female, with Rodrigo in his attempt to write a story exploring the reactions of a poor country girl from the north-east. The same part of north-east Brazil that Lispector’s family originally emigrated to from what is today part of Ukraine.
Nélida Piñón is another Brazilian author tackling the fickle topic of identity
The only one of her works translated into English is The Republic of Dreams which is from the point of view of two characters, grandfather and granddaughter, and through the generations tells the tale of a Galician immigrant family like her own. Another one for the to-read list.
Which links us back to Chilean lass Isabel Allende
Allende’s book, The House of The Spirits, also a cross-generational novel, started as a letter to her grandfather when she was living in exile. I think Allende sometimes gets unfairly criticised for writing readable work. She’s mainstream and you can find her work in your local bookshop, but she’s also compelling and can hit you hard.
Jorge Luis Borges, in his essay on The Argentine Writer and Tradition (originally a lecture), wrote that compared to English or French literature, Spanish literature requires a ‘special apprenticeship’. He doesn’t explain why, much to my frustration, but the line did get me wondering if cross-culture reading benefits from an apprenticeship read – something that will ease you in. Allende perhaps fulfils such a role for Latin American literature which often seems to have grown out of James Joyce’s shadow. Allende’s writing, for example, accepts conventions like paragraphs and speech marks.
When I have proposed to my friends the reading of Spanish works, I have evidenced that it was difficult for them to find pleasure in these books without special apprenticeship; for that reason, I believe the fact that certain Argentines write like Spaniards is less the testimony of an inherited capacity than it is proof of Argentine versatility.
‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’ in Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges, translated by James E. Irby
Anyway, Allende is already on the to-read list. She’s been there ever since I did my initial search into Chilean literature. She was the first Chilean author whom I read. The non-fiction My Invented Country was my first book and my first introduction to Chile. On my bookshelf you can find La Casa de los Espiritus ready for when I’ve finished my current Spanish-language read. I shall read more.
Here my investigation gets a little confused
The history book suggests that, like Allende, the Uruguayan Cristina Peri Rossi wrote ‘illuminating political issues with fantasy’ in the magic realist genre. The thing is, I can’t find any mention of magic in the descriptions of her novels. Certainly, she appears to have been experimental and creative in her tales, but no mention of magic realism. Peri Rossi has quite a few books translated into English and an accessible tiny fiction titled Rumours. What the history book doesn’t mention is that her novels dominant theme is to question masculinity and sexuality, which may be worth knowing.
We then backtrack. The success of 1980s women to publish made people wonder what had come before.
Such as the Argentinian Ocampo sisters
Victoria Ocampo was a literary critic and writer, but not it seems of fiction. You can read her collections of letters, such as those between herself and Virginia Woolf, which I can only assume would be intriguing to read (what language were they written in, French?), and her magazine, Sur, gave other writers a platform to share their work. She does, however, also have a short autobiography in English. Her sister Silvina wrote short stories which are described as ‘disturbing’ and ‘cruel’. I am less drawn to the sound of them.
And, finally, Rosario Castellanos
A Mexican writer, publishing in the late 50s to early 70s. She wrote of the failure for different ethnic groups to communicate with one another, particularly bringing attention to indigenous peoples. This inability for people to communicate with each other, and particularly listen and understand one another, hasn’t gone away. Conflicts between indigenous groups and those in power remain. She’s added to the to-read list.
Here I conclude this foray into women in the history of Latin American fiction
What do you notice from the list? Brazil and Mexico, the most populous countries are represented, as is Argentina. But in total, including Chile and Uruguay, the list only represents five different Latin American countries. Therefore as all good research does, I hereby propose a further investigation to expand upon the original…
However, as I now have quite a few new books to buy, I’m calling this initial research a success.
What I’ve read and mentioned:
The Penguin History of Latin America, Edwin Williamson 2009
The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector 1977 (translated by Benjamin Moser 2011)
The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende 1985 (translated by Magda Bogin)
My Invented Country, Isabel Allende 2003 (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden)
Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges 1962, translated by James E. Irby
Rumours, Cristina Peri Rossi, https://www.wordswithoutborders.org/article/rumors/
Explain that to me! Cows? I sighed buying time to think. Cows or oxen or donkeys or idiot peasants or whatever you call those damned animals that almost killed us! They didn’t have lights and they were going very, very slowly through an impossible fog. And wait, joder, I can’t believe it, there ahead of us is a truck right across the road, trying to make a U-turn! Are all Chileans crazy?
Lina Merunae, Seeing Red (Where blind Lina and her non-Chilean boyfriend are driving in the dark heading towards Santiago.)
Sometimes I struggle to articulate what I like or dislike about a book or writing style. I love the act of reading itself, the following of the words on the page, one leading gently to the next in a never-ending stream. Sometimes simply reading is the enjoyment – and consideration of the writer, the style or the story comes secondary to the soothing pleasure of seeing a word and holding its meaning, falling into the next and being swept along.
Reading is safe and reassuring. It’s controlled. When reading, I dictate the velocity of the words flowing into my mind and can vary it just as I choose. I can pause mid-sentence and ponder over a single word, or I can skip whole paragraphs if they get too gruesome or tedious. If I stop liking what I am reading, I close the book.
Inevitably, being addicted to both writing and reading, I end up writing about books
Have you ever noticed how many books are about readers and writers? The less literary inclined are probably underrepresented in literature – but is that a surprise?
Yet, as much as I love to write and love to read, I lack a critical tendency when faced with the final page of a book. On closing the cover, I want to give it (whatever the book is) five-golden-stars.
By the time I’ve reached my computer and started to write, I’m more likely to settle at four, not because my heart doesn’t want to give five, but because you can’t give everything five. Six months later, scanning through the list of books I’ve been reading, I may drop the same book down to three stars, figuring that if I have forgotten it so easily, it can’t have been that memorable. The five-star intoxication tends to belong solely to the reading experience. The critical part of my brain demands a certain writerly wonder to give a book five-stars.
If it’s fiction I need to be mesmerized by the poetic skill or the cleverness of the sentences. Should it be non-fiction, I want to be taught something useful (quotable, inaccurate statistics don’t count). But to give the reading experience five-stars, I simply need to be enthralled.
The opposite happened recently with Seeing Red by Lina Meruane
Unsurprisingly the protagonist of the book is a writer. The author in fact started the novel by writing out scenes from her real life and the Protagonist shares her name. I enjoyed the beginning but hated the second half, or perhaps just the last quarter.
I felt betrayed by the protagonist, revolted by the ending and like I’d been caught out being naïve. Yet, it had been a compelling read, so despite its blatant unlikability, I couldn’t totally dismiss it. But the reading experience was at points painful. It made me uncomfortable, so much so that I occasionally skimmed past a paragraph about her eyes… the Spanish title translates most directly as ‘blood in the eye’.
However, I had to admit that I did like the writing
I just wished that the same writer had written a different story (or maybe she had and if so, why couldn’t that have been the translated one). Because I had been hooked. I was pleased to have read it and I loved the way the translator threw in Spanish phrases rather than converting everything to English. (It’s the third book I’ve read by the same translator, Megan McDowell, the other two books both being originally written by the Chilean author Alejandro Zambra.) Yet why didn’t I like it?
Time passed, and the book, which stared down at me from the shelf, began to grow on me. My eyes would flick up to its spine and I would feel guilty for hating it. Perhaps, I thought, I hadn’t been just. Maybe the book was truly an excellent book and the problem was me.
As a child, I had a problem with The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
Not the Victor Hugo version but a tiny hardback children’s Disney version. The book terrified me. Having since grown up, I now have no idea why this one book scared me so much, but I was so perturbed by it that I hid it beneath the floorboards of my parents’ loft.
Obviously, being an adult and full of good sense, I know that books are just books and that they do not sit on shelves watching you. The disquiet within me was not due to the book, it was triggered by the book. The truth was that the book hadn’t been what I’d expected it to be.
The more I read literature by Latin American women, the more I wonder if there isn’t something remarkable that they’re doing with their writing. It feels fearless. Seeing Red is most totally fearless. There was no please-like-me timidity in the book, much like there isn’t in my current read, cheerfully entitled Delirium, and as there wasn’t in Like Water For Chocolate – all notably different styles of story. And Isabelle Allende’s The House of The Spirits isn’t tame either.
As for the Clarice Lispector book I read recently, that book fought against language itself, bending it to its will. No pretence at imitating some stodgy style, nope, dear Clarice had me jaw-dropped before I’d got to the end of the introduction.
Seeing Red haunted me…
…whispering in my ear in a dangerous voice, taunting me with the possibility that what was wrong with the book wasn’t at all a reflection of the book, it was a reflection of me. I started doubting myself and my judgement. I started looking for information on Meruane. Who was the woman behind the book?
I’d set off with an intention to read more Latin American women, but did I really accept what that entailed? Perhaps, I began to realize, reading Latin American women might not be like reading British women with a bit of exotic food and a few different cultural references. It might actually be quite uncomfortable.
Annoyingly, I like to think myself beyond these stereotypes and presumptions, but Meruane elegantly pointed out that I wasn’t. Chile, as always, finds a way to shake out a little more of my ego.
Did I just want to be a literary tourist?
Which is how I found myself leafing through the book again. It’s not that Seeing Red leaps headlong at the scary topics like the dictatorship and the horrors of history that I so often associate with Chilean authors, or that I’m avoiding such topics – Zambra, Skármeta, Bolaño and Lemebel – the men I’ve read who’ve written about that period and its consequences didn’t upset me in the same way (a question here to ponder in its own right). Then again, the women in their stories were often being observed rather than lived through. Lemebel’s beautifully written ‘Queen’ in My Tender Matador was perhaps the real exception and unique.
Seeing Red starts at a party in New York and begins by feeling quite harmless
Which is why I almost didn’t buy the book. I wasn’t looking for another book that talked about the lucky elite going off to study in the United States, I wanted a book that was written about Chile. But finding books written by Chilean women and which have been translated into English is hard work. When my Spanish reading is smoother going, I’ll read in Spanish, but, for now, if I’m going to devour these books it will have to be done in English.
Meruane took on middle-class, educated women (like me) and then threw in the darkness
Seeing Red did not meet with my expectations, but is that not the point of trying to read something different? Has anything so far in my Chilean experience met with my expectations? Are my poor assumptions not continually being bulldozed down? I’d like to think of myself as being quite open-minded, but it’s the walls which keeps giving me a headache.
I became addicted to reading because it was safe and reassuring, a sanctuary to which I could escape. Now that escape clashes with my curiosity. I want to understand a reality that’s not so safe and reassuring. I go looking for a story about Chile, or about Latin America, to get a glimpse into what might be different about those ‘other’ people over there and in the process, I find myself learning who I am.
Lina Meruane has a new book coming out next year, one that is again translated by Megan McDowell… I feel this battle between me and her is incomplete, and so I’m compelled to read it, even if I hate it. Just as I’m compelled to return to Chile, even if that’s hard.
I did, finally, give Seeing Red all those gold stars, feeling that anyone who can so gently tease my ego apart deserves them.
Chileans have chosen to write themselves a new constitution.
Being British I didn’t grow up with the idea of a constitution in my head. Whilst we have constitutional principles, there is no single rigid document that defines them. We do have some important documents – like the Magna Carta written in 1215 – which state how our countries systems function together, but we don’t have a single quotable text.
As such, the word constitution wasn’t one I’d really considered
It’s possible that prior to going to Chile the word hadn’t passed my lips. I couldn’t spell it. Instead, I was focused on the challenge of voting in the British elections, which, when I left, were only a possibility, but since Britain was bashing its metaphorical head against a wall, seemed likely and did, in December, occur. All I vaguely knew about Chilean politics was that it had previously been a dictatorship but was now a democracy.
It wasn’t the first few days of the protests, when buildings were burning, and we were caged under a military curfew that I became aware of the constitution issue. For the first few days my only real concern was staying safe and working out what was happening on the streets. My phone filled with news and fake news and the media gave a side of the story which grasped the scariest parts but missed the core.
When I went out into the streets though, with a friend who had promised to make sure I got home safe and that we would disappear the moment things became violent, I started to really learn. Of course, leaving the house that afternoon I was scared, in the way a British woman wandering around in a Latin American protest ought to be, but I was also excited.
What’s worth noting here is that I might never have gone if it weren’t for the father
The mother jokes that trying to persuade me to do or not do something will just make me more determined to do it. She fears that if she says ‘don’t go to Colombia’ then I’ll go. In reality, the father did say ‘don’t go to Colombia alone’ and I didn’t, I went to Chile. I rang him and told him what was happening. I didn’t want him to be too alarmed, but I wanted him to have the truth.
The father said, “As your father, I’d prefer you to stay at home, but…”
And so, I left my house and went out to investigate
The people chanted songs I don’t know and words I didn’t understand, but in their hands, I could see placards with words they’d painted on. Pieces of card and board stuck together with words crammed on them. Chilean flags everywhere. Profanities everywhere. Hope.
From amid the crowds I read the words and I tried to understand their meaning
I went home and searched the internet, scavenging for understanding, hunting for clarity, but finding more questions than answers. I learnt that the Chilean democracy was shackled by a constitution written by the dictator Pinochet. My weak Spanish frustrated me; it is always so far behind where I need it to be. Then I downloaded books, fiction and non-fiction, and in those weeks without work I begged my friends for explanations and devoured Chilean literature. Before I started to realize that I would never comprehend entirely and would never solve the sorrow for my borrowed country or my fierce anger at the ridiculousness of it all.
After summer, in the new year, I returned to work determined to use the run up to the plebiscite to ask questions and learn as much as I could from my colleagues and friends. I didn’t want one opinion, I wanted lots of opinions.
Then, instead, the pandemic happened, sending me back to England, to watch from afar
I feared for my friends living under considerably more stressful situations than myself. The loss of incomes, the inadequacy of the health services, the step up in authoritarian control – curfews and restrictions all over the place.
It’s not so strange then that I choose to predominantly teach Chileans when emotionally so much of me remains there. I don’t solely teach Chileans, but the majority of my students are Chilean and almost all of my students live in Chile. With their resilience and fear, their boredom and frustration, they have no idea how much they’re teaching me.
Yesterday, the plebiscite took place
My students described the long queues and the excitement of going to the polls. I worried about violence erupting, as it had done earlier in the week. I hoped though, that each of them would use their democratic right to vote and prayed that they would be heard.
While they were sleeping, I awoke and checked the results. Chileans have chosen to write themselves a new constitution.
My mother was making a decision the other day, whilst we were hula hooping, and I asked if she had made a pros and cons list.
One of the characteristics of the decision she threw out was that it is ‘scary’. Twirling around the living room I stated, “so that’s on the pro list.” To which my mother grinned in a silly fashion and concluded that, “perhaps it could be on either.”
In May I took a five-hour spontaneous drive in a hire car, across a desert into a quarantined zone to catch an aeroplane home. I wasn’t sure if I’d make it on time, but I knew I had to try.
Fear didn’t pay much of a part in all this. Or, it did, the adrenaline rushed around my head and while I was waiting for the chap at the desk in the hire car agency’s offices to learn how to use the computer, I paced up and down. Fear came along for the ride, sitting in the back seat, but fear comes along anywhere I go. Fear is an innate part of life.
If fear had had its way, I would have sat on my bedroom floor and cried.
However, although all my fear responses were screaming like sirens, I maintained a focused calm. I’m not trying to pretend that I wasn’t speaking at ten thousand miles an hour or that my body didn’t shake and twitch, but as soon as I decided to drive, my thoughts calmed.
The beauty of being human is that we can make a decision that isn’t solely dictated by our physical response.
I knew that I had to deal with the problem one step at a time. First, I had the get the car, then I had to drive north. At some later point in time I would worry about my lack of boarding card and the police cordons and how to actually get to the airport. Mostly, I had to keep myself together for the next 96 hours because this trip I was doing alone.
When I sat down in the car, I touched the gear stick and smiled to myself that at least it wasn’t an automatic. Never mind that the gear stick was on the wrong side which inevitably results in me bashing my wrist against the car door. I hadn’t driven a car at all in months but for some reason it didn’t seem to matter.
When the midget turned twenty-one, I took her to Europe. In a café in Vienna, after many protests, she ordered coffee with the shakiest of hands. It was a large central café and I was pretty sure that the waitresses would understand enough English to give her a coffee, but the Midget was terrified.
My dad did the same to me when I was a child. He gave me money for a burger in an airport lounge somewhere and told me I could have one if I bought it. The Midget was with me then too, but she was smaller than the counter. Stuck between my dad’s generosity and my sister’s pleading eyes I somehow managed to be brave enough to order the food. We both ate burgers that day, with fries.
By the end of our Europe trip, the Midget was asking at the desk for international rail tickets with more confidence than she’d managed for that first cup of coffee.
Sometimes you don’t however realise how many small steps you’ve taken until you look back at something you’ve just done – like a spontaneous 5-hour drive to catch a plane in a foggy desert – and realise that as a big picture it all looks rather brave.
But bravery is often not something big, but merely a small step against the current. A mere shuffle forward in fact. Shuffle after shuffle after shuffle.
I sat in that car and pulled out of the supermarket carpark and realised that I didn’t need to try and coerce myself into feeling better about the situation. Nor did I need to cry. My sole job was to pay attention to the road and get myself home. And all at once I knew that however ridiculous my situation was, I was going to be able to handle it.
I’ve dealt with worse.
So yes, when you make your list of pros and cons anything dangerous ought to be on the negative side of the page, but just scary… I’d leave that off the list entirely. Fear will always come along for the ride, just don’t let it drive.
In February I went hiking in the beautiful Torres Del Paine National park in the Patagonia region of Chile. My flight back to Santiago was with the airline LatAm. Shortly into the flight, the pilot came on the tannoy system and cheerfully told us that what with it being a really beautiful day, with perfect flying conditions, and a perfect view over the national park, he was going to just take a few minutes and twizzle the plane around a bit so that everyone on the flight could get a good look at the iconic stone towers for which the national park is so famous.
It was quiet flight to Miami with LatAm, but the staff checked we were okay, and they gave us food which to my surprise seemed like real food on what looked like a plate. I hadn’t realised how hungry I was until I started eating. I had the entire row to myself as the staff gave us freedom to sit where we wanted to help us keep socially distanced and make use of the available space.
I don’t remember the food on the American Airlines flight to London, except for that when I got off the flight I was hungry and there was an awkward moment where I had to go to the kitchen at the back of the plane and ask for water because we’d been given so little.
The LatAm staff acknowledged the unpleasantness of wearing masks, but they wore their own mask correctly and set a good example.
On the American Airlines flight, I saw one senior looking member of staff not bothering to wear any mask at all, despite it being an obligation for everyone. He walked up and down the aisle from one end of the plane to the other, mask-less, a number of times throughout the night.
You’ll understand therefore if I now have a bias towards LatAm. I was exhausted, anxious, afraid and alone and the staff bothered to recognised it. No surprise that I slept much better on the LatAm flight that the American Airways flight.
On my return I did write to the booking agent, Opodo, explaining the situation. They have still not responded. There has been no apology for their screw up.
My father called British Airways about the first cancelled flight. Nobody ever picked up.
‘Tannoy’ is apparently, like hoover, a brand. I think it looks ugly capitalised mid sentence.
I hate filling up the car. I particularly hate filling up cars in foreign countries because filling up the car is, like ordering in a restaurant, an occasion where you take what’s being sold before you pay for it. I find that the cards in my purse are much more reliable in England where they belong, and that in foreign countries things go wrong. Imagine my fear of the embarrassment of whatever card is in my purse not working and the inevitable search in the bottom of my suitcase for a spare.
Of course, my Chilean card behaved perfectly
My problem came before that, when the kindly chap who was gallantly offering to fill up my car for me asked me to release the cap to the petrol tank. I had no idea how to do this. I opened the car door and he indicated places where the release might be, instructing me with a friendly polite Chilean Spanish from behind his mask.
It was now dark outside, my brain was flooded with anxiety because I had to be in the airport in the next twenty minutes, I had found the petrol station because I’d just taken the wrong road on entering Santiago. Ramon was waiting for me, somewhere. And I had no idea where the lever was.
Luckily Latin Americans don’t hesitate to mime when the occasion demands such
The situation, with our efforts at maintaining some resemblance of social distancing, required some excellent miming, and eventually, to everyone’s relief, I found the lever.
The chap filled up my car. I paid.
Ramon was waiting for me when I pulled up on the driveway of the hotel where he’d suggested we meet. He suggested I turned the car around and put it facing the other direction so that other cars could leave. I stalled the car. Put it in the wrong gear. Managed to do a five-point turn when none was necessary and turned off the engine.
I got out the car and pulled my mask back onto my face.
Ramon inspected the car
He found it acceptable. I hopped into the passenger seat and Ramon drove me to the airport. Calm, and with a gentle manner he asked me about my journey, my time in Chile and we discussed the quarantine. I knew now that I was going to be on time for my flight. It had taken a team effort, but I was heading to the United States.
Santiago Airport is a building site, and we drove past the carcasses of future airport lounges and pulled up straight in front of the door for international departures. I thanked Ramon. He lifted my case of the boot of the car and I headed inside. It was obvious where to go because there was one flight leaving that evening. The only other scheduled flight had been cancelled.
I walked straight up and placed my bag on the scale
The LatAm woman at the counter helped me to move a few books into my hand luggage to get the weight down, then I headed to security and was waved straight through. I placed my rucksack on the counter ready to go through the process of extracting my technology and liquids, but the security guards waved me through with a clear attitude of don’t stress yourself.
There were no tester perfumes in the duty-free shop, and the lights were dimed in most of the airport, meaning that I walked straight from security into my gate simply by following the light. It was like Santiago airport had been reduced to something smaller than Doncaster Robin Hood airport. There was a single open shop, some toilets and some seats. We spaced ourselves out and waited.
I expected emotion
I messaged that wonderful selection of Latin Americans and Europeans who had sent me messages like ‘ARE YOU OK???’ to assure them that I was alright and that somehow I was now about the head to the United States…
My brain was dead; I was emotionally in shock. Home was a five-hour drive behind me or a few days ahead of me whichever way I chose to think about it. Mindlessly, I followed the person in front of me onto the aeroplane. No emotion came.
I hoped that my housemates were enjoying the bottle of wine I’d bought for us to share that night. I wondered how it tasted.
I pulled into the queue, slipped on my mask and opened the windows so that I would be able to hear what was being said to me.
I speak Spanish
It’s not a particularly wonderful Spanish. I can’t trill my r, my u scoops down a little too low in my mouth and I frequently put the emphasis on the wrong syllable. All combined, this seems to confuse listeners. However, if a Spanish speaker is patient and is willing to be open-minded to my butchering of Spanish pronunciation, then we can converse, and after a short time, with reasonable ease.
The problem for me is that every time I am about to engage with a new Spanish speaker, in Spanish, I’ve no idea if they’re one of the people who know how to speak slowly or clearly, or if they’re like a certain market stall owner who I have never yet once understood and always end up giving the wrong change.
And I was nervous of course because the Chilean police don’t have what you’d call a kind, loving, we’re out here as servants to society to protect society sort of reputation. Plus, the government website suggested that I needed to have my boarding pass on me, and I didn’t yet have a boarding pass – only a flight confirmation.
From the dark, two, cheerful, masked faces popped their heads through the passenger window
I said I was from England and waved my British passport towards them as evidence of my foreignness. Where was I coming from, La Serena, where was I going, the airport. And then? England.
The other problem I have with police officers – and airport security guards (Spain and Egypt I’m thinking of you) – is that I never have any idea what is a general question of polite curiosity and what is a question that required a detailed and accurate response. Whether they liked it or not, these two friendly looking women who marvelled briefly at my being from England had to have my trip itinerary explained to them and the reasons for my previous residency in La Serena. I babbled.
They took my temperature. It was thankfully normal. Then they wished me a pleasant journey, all without checking a single document.
I continued south
It was thankfully no longer foggy, but from time to time I’d see a bashed in vehicle or two on the side of the road with people gathered around. What’s more, cyclists, without lights, seemed to appear at the edge of the road, cycling against the traffic. There was no risk of me falling asleep with the adrenaline rushing through me as I endeavoured to drive quickly without hitting a seemingly suicidal cyclist or adding myself to the carnage that I passed. There were more cars now, and the traffic seemed heavier.
Then police lights and we were ordered into another queue
This time a young policeman came to the driver’s side window and asked in his mask-muffled voice, for my documents. He also eagerly wanted to know where I was coming from, where I was going and what exactly was my business in Chile, but he asked in the sort of way that made me sceptical whether he was requesting only the personal data that pertained to his task. He had a look in his eyes which I recognised from the University’s students. There’s a point where they realise that they can ask this real, live, English woman questions and in their excitement stumble over asking me if I have any brothers.
I had a heap of documents laying on the passenger seat beside me, all prepared for his viewing, but the chap had now decided that this was a great time to start throwing in his high school English. All I wanted to know was which document. I waved them in front of him one after another until he exclaimed, I’d got the right one. He didn’t then scan it, he merely waved me on and wished me a good trip home.
Thankfully, that was the police encounter done
Next, I had to fill up the car and find a chap who called himself Ramon.
When I’m on the outbound stretch of an adventure, I feel somewhat prepared for it. I expect things to be unusual. I know local street food is likely to make me sick. I expect to take ages navigating the supermarket and to finish my shop still not sure what I’m going to eat. I pretend I’m prepared, but, in reality, I never am. Culture shock isn’t merely something that happens in your mind, it also happens physically. Bodies do not like being uprooted. They like the status quo. When you screw around with your habits, your body kicks up a fuss.
I mention my impromptu driving to Santiago from La Serena and people are aghast at what I did, but the drive was not as hard as the moment of body shaking realisation when you realise all you have had to leave behind, all the goodbyes you couldn’t say and those you said but wish you didn’t have to. That is painful. We are social, tribal creatures and the faces of my every day are now thousands of miles away. In a way, it’s like being cast out of one tribe and suddenly finding myself embedded in another. My name changes, the language changes, my role is different. Although I am still me, I am not the same.
And going back, this me that I am is not the me that I was
A student of mine tried to explain to me that there is a huge unemployment problem in Chile. I listened, took notes of his English and thought about how unemployment is ravaging the lives of some of my Chilean friends. Those who aren’t unemployed do not, by any means, take their employment for granted. It creeps into the edges of conversation. People worry about how the pandemic and the inevitable economic impact will affect their jobs. It seems it doesn’t matter how hard some people work, how generous and caring they are, life remains unfair and cruel.
This stands in contrast with my life in England where I live in a house which now feels like a palace. I come back to England and within a week I’m ordering a computer chair so that when I sit at my desk my body is supported and the impact deskwork doesn’t have too detrimental an effect on my posture and long-term health. I have a laptop stand and a separate screen so that I’m not craning my neck to read. I have a separate keyboard and a full-size mouse. I wonder how many of those ‘there-is-no-Chilean-middle-class’ colleagues I worked alongside this year have a similar set-up.
This feels unfair.
The anger that houses itself inside me is proving hard to tame
How do I come to terms with all the privilege that I am suddenly faced with when it stands in such contrast to the realities of the lives of people I’ve come to care for and admire? No, England is not all filled with safety and security. There is poverty here too. There is racism and there is desperation and there are too many people living without a fulfilled sense of meaning, but at least when they get sick there’s a hospital that will accept them and the state education system tries to educate.
I am angry. In my opinion, Chileans often underestimate themselves and each other. Many sighingly see fault in their compatriots, complianing of their materialistic desires, credit card debt and apathy. Chileans are always asking me why I would want to be in Chile when I could live anywhere in the world and I have not yet found an answer that satisfies them. Chile is home to some wonderful, kind, loving, generous people but I believe this truth is dominated over by their fear. I am angry; maybe my anger is sadness strangled by my fear.
I cannot pull all my disparate thoughts and feelings together
My mind is in a state of shock. I am struggling to come to terms with my newfound perspectives and the contrast of these two lives. My stomach churns. The discomfort shows itself in more ways that one.
Inevitably the culture shock on coming back to the United Kingdom hits me with more force than I anticipate. It never seems to get any easier.