Location Valdivia

The Master’s Project

Isla Maiquillahue, Región de Los Lagos, Chile. April 2022.

I am about to start a new writing project as part of my master’s, and I have to decide what it is that I am going to write. Instead of thinking outwards, I think I need to think inwards. I say this because I’m currently reading Sara Wheeler’s Travels Through a Thin Country, which I picked up expecting it to be about Chile and discovered that although the places are Chilean, the writing is disappointingly touristic. It’s not bad writing, but it’s disappointing because I find myself longing for a different texture. I think the problem is my memories don’t align with the writer’s descriptions, not because the book was written over thirty years ago, but because my memories are crammed full of images and Sara Wheeler’s descriptions are not. I miss the small, quirky details that differentiate one place from another.

It’s like describing an English train station. There are often architectural similarities between train stations. The bodyless bins with their clear plastic backs, the strip of yellow marking where to stand, the wrought iron curls that imitate flowers and echoing back to the Romans making a train station, central to any town or city, a peculiar place, especially late in the evening under the fierce electric light. But my memories of English train stations are always different. In York, the train station is on the outside of the city, merely a pause before you cross the fronter into the city itself. If you’re not going to the museum, but heading into the city, you cross the street, pelican crossings seem to hold you up, and find yourself suddenly reminded of death by those gravestones which lie in the verge. My memory says a cholera outbreak, but probably this is my memory playing tricks. Soon you’ll walk through the archway, head under the city walls, amazed when the double-decker buses don’t scrape themselves against as they twist underneath. Then there’s the river to cross. You’ll pass the café on the bridge and think about coffee and something to eat because after all that travelling, you’re already famished even if you’re only just arriving. York is like this to me because I think of York as a day trip, a day off, an adventure. It was one of the first places I travelled without an adult to accompany me.

Of course, like Sara Wheeler, I want to write about Chile, or maybe about me in Chile, or about that process of travelling, and I want to write about being nomadic yet somehow circumvent that frustration with the world of tourism that often paints so many of the stereotypes around me. To write about Chile, I guess I need to write about England, but I’m no longer sure where the differences lie. I’m not sure where the boundary is between being English and being Chilean and as I cook Venezuelan cachapas for my breakfast I realise I’m not sure where that fits either. I pick up a book I bought in Montevideo, written by a Uruguayan woman, and I find myself reading about an autumnal October with the Swedish snow falling thick.

The list of books I’m currently reading is huge. I’m also reading, or was reading before my ebook reader broke, Ariel Dorfman’s Desert Memories, which is another book which involves travelling through Chile. His connection though is one that’s personal and emotional and not always favourable, although his descriptions seem more grounded in a deeper experience. Maybe it’s simply that he writes at a slower pace. Perhaps the problem here is that I like slow and wandering texts more than excitement and action. I’m often torn between writing directly and writing with a more poetic quality. The more I study writing, the more I end up rewriting and the more playful I am with the sentences. Yet, simultaneously, I find myself impressed by sharp, clean sentences.

Whatever I write, it will have to be something personal because that way I’ll remain curious and interested. I think this is what hooks me into Ariel Dorfman’s book: it really is personal. He is biased and unashamedly so. I don’t think there’s any point pretending not to be self-centred, and I like to think that my self is interesting enough to sustain my interest in writing the pieces I intend to write. Writing about myself has sustained this blog for over a decade.

It occurs to me that a difference in this project is that my audience is not you, a fluent reader of English, but my students who are themselves well-acquainted with Chile and learning to speak this language I write. There are crossed purposes here. The content will be chosen by me for me and inevitably just be whatever settles in my mind at the moment I sit down to create that first draft – like all my blog posts. The style though will have to be refined.

This is what lies ahead.

Seasons

Fog. Valdivia, Región de Los Lagos, Chile

My seasons are shuffled like a pack of cards; they’re drawn in a non-consecutive order. A long summer was followed by a short autumn, but this autumn is followed by a summer. Another autumn will follow, but this will be cut short to make way for spring. In any case, what does it even mean to have a season? Some places have a wet season and a dry season. In the North of Chile, it’s always spring. La Serena has warm and chilly seasons, but nothing to the extremes. Valdivia, my current home, is damp. I find myself not wanting to cast off the duvet in the morning. The room is cold and my bed cosy warm. I pull on my big woolly jumper and my woollen socks and fill my hot water bottle to warm my hands while I teach.

I remember listening to a podcast about seasons and hibernating and how we as humans need seasons of activity and seasons of rest. It made me wonder about the rhythm of life, the season-by-season rhythm rather than the day-to-day. It made me think about long-term decisions and how I swing between moments of social and moments of quiet. It takes a season to grow, it takes a season to heal, maybe we bloom for a season, but then need to replenish ourselves. Only you can define your seasons. They are influenced by the weather, by the rhythms of the Earth’s orbit, but they are also in part chosen. We have a say in how our seasons flow. Regardless of the weather, February marks my season of healing and September always feels like the start of a new year.

It’s a mistake, I feel, not to have seasons. In a country like England, the seasons come knocking at the door. In winter, the days are short and the car demands de-icing. In summer, the days are long and you can head out for an evening stroll. May springs up flowers, June the garden is full of strawberries, yet Yorkshire grown tomatoes and rain both seem to arrive all year round. In England, seasons come forced upon us and we take them for granted. Cross the hemisphere and the seasons are flipped. An adjective is needed to define the position of my seasons, or a possessive determiner – I talk about ‘your summer’ and ‘my winter’ to try and locate myself in time. Towards the equator people have warm winters, towards the poles there are cool summers. People here ask me if it’s cold in England, I ask back, compared to what?

 I’m in love with summer, with sunshine, with long days and short nights, with spinning in circles in the garden, arms bare, yet even I acknowledge that in an eternal summer something is lost. I find myself staring out at this Valdivian autumn, deep green, lemon yellow, the red of my favourite scarf. The sky sets in that orange hue of sky-blue-pink and dusk is purple-grey. I stare out of the window at the cars passing, lights on, and I’m happy with my autumn. It’s a short autumn after all. A different texture to the palette. Soon I’ll step back into summer and a season defined by family and home, enriched by the variety.