En noviembre, iré a Chile. Estará en un avión que llegará en Santiago, con mis maletas y mis preocupaciones. Cruzará la calle y tomar mi prueba PCR a certificar que no tengo COVID. Estaré mi tercera prueba de COVID en un mes. Hoy tampoco tengo COVID: tengo una certificación a decirlo porque necesité otra prueba porque acabo de volver de Italia. Me siento como mi vida está una colección de papeles.
Iré a Chile, y entonces, ahora estoy pensando del estado de mi español, que no he estado estudiando estos meses. Por supuesto, hablo español frecuentemente, y envío mensajes a amigos en español. Aún hablo en español en Italia cuando los italianos no hablaron inglés (mi italiano está muy limitada). Pero, no está igual a mejorando mi español con intención y con libros y escritura.
Por eso, he decidido que necesito escribir por lo menos tres cientos palabras, hoy, esta noche. También, he encontrado mi libro do la gramática de español… es un libro pesado, denso y púrpura, pero un libro muy bueno para entender la diferencia entre español e inglés. En mi esfuerzo a entender el subjuntivo he leído capítulo veinte, y cuando estoy en el momento de leyendo, me siento como estoy aprendiendo… pero cuando cerro el libro, necesito admitir que el subjuntivo queda un misterio. Realmente, tengo mucho para aprender de capítulo uno que está sobre el género de los sustantivos, porque yo sé que hay muchos de estas palabras que no sé.
Por ejemplo, conozco que la palabra ‘alma’ en español significa ‘soul’ en inglés. Y eso he aprendido que lo toma ‘el’ aunque ser femenina. Pero no sabía que normalmente los sustantivos con una terminación ‘ma’ son masculinos.
En la misma página, leo que la llama no solo significa el animal, pero también parte de un fuego. ¡Qué raro! En inglés tenemos un dicho ‘an old flame’ que se usan por una persona con quien ha tenido relaciones románticas en el pasado. ‘Una llama vieja’ no podría igual…
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.
We all wondered what the Mother would do when she retired, but none of us imagined that she would become an exercise fanatic. It was inevitable that she would become a fanatic of something, she isn’t someone to do things by halves, but exercise… It’s not that the Mother didn’t exercise, she used to cycle to work every day, but it wasn’t an obsession like it is now.
I am very grateful for the Mother’s current enthusiasm. If I lived alone, or with just my father, I would probably be a lot less fit than I currently am. It’s not my great self-discipline. It’s not my immense will-power. Nope, it’s down to the presence of the ever-yogaing Mother.
By the time I wake up in the morning, she has done three yoga routines
This is because instead of occasionally changing up her routine, the Mother merely adds to it. She started, reluctantly, with a single yoga class when she was still working a normal everyday kind of job, in a normal fashion, as normal people who get advised to strengthen their body or tackle their inflexibility or posture… and then time passed until now, in lock-down, she has become an index of yoga classes and other Eastern traditions.
I have this great idea that one day I am going to wake up energetically and do ten sun salutations as I used to when I lived in Spain, and it rarely ever happens. But I mention it to the Mother and lo and behold, she does them. When I mention them again three months later, she’s still diligently doing them.
It’s very important to not constantly compare oneself to other people
We all have different bodies. We have different skills and abilities and strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes though, I look at the Mother and instead of thinking ‘I hope I’m in as good a shape as you when I’m your age’, I think ‘why can’t I do that?’ as sometimes I’m the one on my knees in a plank arriving to it late and leaving it early, while she’s holding a beautiful full plank, looking the picture of serenity.
But I am seriously grateful that she’s there, enthusiastically suggesting more videos to do and coming up with stretches and activities that I find myself doing, and therefore find myself becoming capable of.
At the age of 12, I couldn’t touch my toes
And I mean by some considerable distance. But under the Mother’s influence, I can sometimes get my hands flat on the floor. That’s with my legs straight. It’s amazing what you can change with a huge amount of persistence (or a mother like mine).
I might drive the Father mad with all my constant talk about sitting up straight, elbows off the table and can I please have a cake fork? He’s doing remarkably well given the circumstances; I cannot be an easy person to live with. I will most likely become one of those elderly folks who, having seen things and done things, have stubbornly decided that they know best. Although, I figure if our biggest arguments are about the butter knife, maybe with all these months of confinement in these walls, we’re doing pretty well.
I guess most readers will agree with the Father that the butter knife is not an essential implement and its use does not make our lives measurably better. I accept that my preference for the old-fashioned method for avoiding crumbs and jam in the butter dish is unpopular. The Midget probably doesn’t get why we’d use a butter dish, and I’m guessing she would hold the majority view on the matter.
I am similarly obsessive about posture
It’s not that I have perfect posture, far from it, I have somewhat flat feet, am pigeon-toed, a little knocked knee-ed, have a lordotic tilt to my pelvis which exaggerates the curvature of my spine, in addition to its minor curve of scoliosis, oh and my head tilts to the left. In other words, I’m pretty normal for a human being. I’m just a human being who has been measured and advised and told I was doing it wrong, then further confused and unexpectedly educated. Most of the postural education came from my Chilean yoga teacher who instructed me how to stand, but a significant proportion has come from the Mother who is nearly as obsessive as me.
I think that bad posture gives me migraines
The tension mounts in the back of my neck and shoulders and then bursts out in the form of pain in my forehead. Bad posture makes me feel tired. It’s a vicious loop, the more tired I am, the more I slouch and the more I slouch the more tired I feel. Bad posture feeds bad posture, ingraining it as habits, over-exerting some muscles while letting others get away with doing nothing and therefore cementing an in-balance.
I don’t know at what point I really understood that so much sitting down, desk work and a sedentary lifestyle was bad for my body and its posture. It’s knowledge I assume I have known forever, although obviously this isn’t true. It’s now embedded in our modern societies collective knowledge bank. We know things are bad for us and do them anyway because it’s what everyone does and doing differently would be hard work. Although I knew it and I complained occasionally about it, I did very little about it.
I sit down to write; not writing isn’t an option
Plus, when I was working part-time teaching, I was prancing about classrooms with occasional histrionic re-enaction of Guy Fawkes falling off the gallows which kept me moving. Already conscious of how I stood and making an effort to not slouch so much, I vainly felt my posture to be better than the average anyway.
The pandemic happened
I returned to my desk, hunched my shoulders and slumped. Sometime in the autumn, however, I had a bit of an awakening. One evening, the Father, wanting to talk about video quality, pulled up a remastered video of a streetcar trundling along the main street in San Francisco, filmed in 1906. I was surprised at the incredible amount of advertising along the street, in my imagination such advertising shouldn’t have existed in such ancient times, but I had been to Herculaneum and there you can see the evidence of old Roman advertisements painted on the walls, so I should have known better.
Mostly though, I stared at how people stood
They stood so straight that they looked like they had splints on their spines. I hadn’t known that a crowd could all be so upright, that people could run so elegantly and dart so graciously across the road between the horses and the trams.
Today my posture may be considered reasonable but take me back a hundred years, and they’d think I had some serious medical issues. I realized, in thinking about what my posture should be, I was comparing myself to the wrong groups of people. Of course, mine although not exactly an ‘unpopular opinion’ is an opinion that many people take decisive action on. They may supplement their day with a few stretches or take an occasional call while standing up instead of sitting down at their desk, but these are minor adjustments with minor impact.
A little is better than nothing.
Which takes me onto Paulo Coelho’s Like the Flowing River
Reading this book, I was amused to find an essay entitled On Elegance which spoke straight to me and my cake-fork-loving, posture-obsessive self.
Elegance is usually confused with superficiality and fashion. That is a grave mistake. Human beings should be elegant in their actions and their posture, because the word is synonymous with good taste, graciousness, balance and harmony.
Paulo Coelho, Like the Flowing River
Does moving in an elegant fashion not make you feel better about yourself and your body?
And please do not confuse it with arrogance or snobbery. Elegance is the right posture to make our every gesture perfect, our steps firm, and to give due respect to our fellow men and women.
Paulo Coelho, Like the Flowing River
I think it comes down to respect and dignity
How you carry yourself matters. My posture is a symbol of my self-respect and my sense of inner dignity. Maybe this is one of the reasons why I value it so dearly, I have had to work hard to repair the relationship between my mind and my body. Fundamentally, it’s what all the therapy came down to… Was I caring for my body? Was I showing myself respect? With all I’ve learnt, I’m led to believe that if you stand up straight and move with grace then it’s much easier for all those difficult things like setting boundaries and staying true to yourself to fall into place.
This text was written and edited at a standing desk.
I can see why Paulo Coelho might be an author that people either rate one star or five. He is, perhaps, a bit didactic. He comes across as knowing that he knows things. That’s all very fine, you might think, for someone as ‘enlightened’ as Coelho, but what about me. He regurgitates ideas which strike one at once as both simple and complex: in that they strike one as being simple, his voice might hit as a little patronizing; in that they are complex, he is frustratingly vague about their application. His language is neither flowery nor poetic, or if it is poetic it’s a modern style made up of everyday words that reads something like a shopping list. If this leads to many harsh criticisms (and you can find many criticisms of his work online) then so be it. The world needs variety. And, when you’re on your commute or in the family living room where nobody manages to remain quiet for more than five minutes this plain accessible text is readable.
As to whether his claim to all this wise knowledge is true, a brief scan through the biographical section at the back suggests that much of it was earned first-hand through that old-fashioned form of education: suffering.
His book, Like the Flowing River, is a collection of anecdotes and thoughts, like feel-good slogans scribbled on post-it notes and stuck on the bathroom mirror but with a little more context. For me, I felt a lot of it was too short and could have been further developed. There’s a risk that if you tell things too straight the reader doesn’t pause to think and reflect but skips from one section straight to the next.
Sometimes though a section sets off a spark
In one anecdote, the author meets a happy lady and asks her the secret to her joy.
“I have a magic calendar. If you like, I can show it to you.”
The following day, I went to her house.
The woman invites the author back to her house and shows him a calendar filled with good things that happened on the same date of previous years.
“Right, today is the day they discovered a vaccine against polio,” she said. “We must celebrate that, because life is beautiful.”
Paulo Coelho, Like the Flowing River
Within my family, this solved the problem we had to do with our advent calendar. Our calendar is one of those with little pockets which you fill and then day-by-day open throughout advent. The problem was that we hadn’t got anything to put in the pockets. Serendipity intervened and just in time I realized that what we could do was place little notes in each pocket, making our own ‘magic calendar’.
I took the odd dates, the mother the even ones, and we went off to find feel-good facts. As we counted down advent each day, at lunchtime, we unrolled the scraps of paper and read out something splendid about the world.
Small talk: the poor thing’s got a poor reputation despite being a vital part of our social dynamics. It gets classified along with gossip which doesn’t do it much good. After all, small talk doesn’t necessarily mean unkind whispers behind someone else’s back, nor even the more well-intentioned rather preachy words said because we care, but because we also have a sense of self-righteousness, and well… she did bring it on herself, didn’t she? If only she hadn’t…
A distinction must be made.
I’m not sure gossip adds value to our lives, but I’m pretty sure small talk is essential to them. Conversations typically begin with small talk.
If you don’t believe me, imagine this situation. You’re the language assistant in a big university, who started work a few weeks into the term. It’s your second day of work. You enter the staff room uncertain of where to sit. Nobody looks up at you because people are correcting their students’ assignments, preparing their classes or deep in conversations which you feel to listen to would be to infringe on their privacy.
Someone looks up, says hello, asks how you are
If you can’t do small talk, if you can’t navigate the social signals which are so often conveyed by these seemingly meaningless words, you don’t get as far as the more meaningful conversation that we all need to feel properly listened to.
Here’s an experiment
Think of a few different people you know and consider who among these people seem the most comfortable around strangers. Now when you meet* each of these people, note how long it takes before they ask a direct small talk question about you and your life. Do they comment on the weather or some common knowledge? Maybe it’s something simple like how are your parents/children, or what are you doing for the holidays. It’s a ‘safe’ question with no particular transactional purpose.
People who don’t find social interaction all that easy often take a long time to ask these questions and when they do ask these questions feel hellishly awkward about doing so, like they’re aware they’ve missed the beat of the conversation where the question might normally be asked and now don’t quite know how to the rescue the situation. Sometimes they suddenly become aware that they’ve been conducting a monologue for a while and then don’t know how to rebalance the conversation. These same people might love silence within their intimate relationships, but find it excruciating elsewhere. They may spend the conversation thinking about themselves either because they’re feeling a tad awkward or they’re busy answering the other person’s questions and focusing on what to say next.
Small talk, can be really hard but without it, how do we go from meeting for the first time to becoming friends?
I think that sometimes we develop idiosyncratic small talk repertoires
Being English, mine involves the weather. One student, after asking me three times a week at the beginning of each class, ‘how are you?’ commented: When I ask how you are, you always reply by telling me what the weather is. Until that point, I hadn’t realized that I use the weather as a technique for moving the conversation on.
“How are you?”
“I’m okay, how are you?”
“Fine, but it’s been raining all day and the sky is so grey.”
Some people can manage this small talk business with ease, but then get stuck in it
If I’m spending an hour on the phone to someone, I’d rather have a conversation that branches into the emotional, the ethical dilemmas, the political, scientific, historical causes and consequences. I love discussing society as a concept because I struggle to understand it. I want to understand your discomfort with your own ideologies because I’m learning to critique my own. And I want the conversation where you wrestle with your own beliefs because it forces me to wrestle with mine. And, thanks to my lifestyle and my work, I get the opportunity to have lots of such conversations.
But occasionally someone mentions to me how such a conversation can be difficult to get into. They become fed up with small talk or talking about meaningless matters because they seem to go on and on in a circle. They don’t want to offend (small talk is entirely about social bonding) but their intellects aren’t being stimulated. Then they get bored and don’t know how to take the conversation forward.
I have found this happening to me more often during lockdown because there is such monotony to the day and so little that is new. There is only so much conversation about grammar my parents can stomach.
I can feel it happen sometimes in class
If I have a new, intermediate level student then there is a pause somewhere in the second or third conversation class where we have exhausted the small talk that they are comfortable with, and rather than skim across a subject we need to switch to going deeper into a subject. It’s the point where I switch to trying to entice the student to tell me a story. Tell me more? But why? How come? Maybe a few classes later, we might hit on something that they deeply care about. A sense of emotion colours their stories. Their grammar slips, and they might physically seem to shake off the bounds of grammar because they’re determined now to make their point or tell their story. They lean forward and repeat phrases, this is the point that the student becomes the teacher. What we’re talking about is more important to them than the English. My job is to subtly prompt the correct grammar and supplement their vocabulary as is needed without upsetting their flow of thought. It’s a challenge I adore.
In a class, I have the power to push for more depth because I’m the teacher, and they have the power to say no because they’re paying. In a purely social environment, it can be trickier. When you’ve landed in a different culture and don’t have a huge amount of background knowledge, it can be terrifying knowing whether you can ask a question or not. You may make assumptions which then cause you embarrassment – like making a joke about marriage to the couple you’re living with… who it turns out might have two children and religious parents, but who aren’t themselves married. Or you might not dare make any assumptions whatsoever because you’re frightened of putting your foot in it. That said, in a foreign culture, you’re also afforded a tad more forgiveness when you get it wrong.
Small talk builds the relationship
But at some point, you need to ask the question that takes things a little deeper. On this topic, a friend of mine recently defined deep as having an emotional aspect. This makes it a dangerous step. Take for example the middle-aged man who wants to criticize feminism without causing offence, or the person who wants to make the connection between social inequality and race and just as they are about to state something about skin tones realizes, they don’t know the ‘right’ words.
It’s me, every time I open my mouth on the subject of colonialism. It’s the question of the impact of scientific inquiry and tourism in the area where a total solar eclipse is visible, an area which happens to be the indigenous heartland and the indigenous peoples believe fiercely that such a wonder represents a time for deep silence.
Sometimes, the beginning of this unravelling is to show my confusion and discomfort. I want to say that I don’t understand, but I’m trying to. It’s to position myself as curious, open-minded and non-judgemental. Nobody is going to tell me anything if they don’t feel both safe and listened to.
“I can see that a three-pence rise in a metro fare is really important to people here, but I don’t get why.”
“Because it’s not about three pence, it’s about a history of aggressive social inequality…”
If you don’t dare ask the hard questions, you don’t get to see beneath the surface.