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The trout festival at Pitrufquén

Lago Villarrica feeds into the river at Pitrufquén. Summer, 2023

At the weekend, we went to a trout festival in the rather small town of Pitrufquén. An event discovered in the pages of the local newspaper, the sort of newspaper you buy cheaply from an enthusiastic chap who strolls around town hollering. It’s the first paper I’ve read in years. And its horoscope pages are addictively awful.

The festival was being held on the banks of a stony river in a park of pines and eucalyptus beside the town of 26,000 inhabitants, all of whom – based on the five-minute drive through – seem to live in bungalows with pleasant square gardens.

We parked in the woods and I applied sun cream. Our friends sought out their artisanal beers and JT bought me a fresh blueberry juice – one of us would have to drive home. Although Pitrufquén is one of our closer neighbours, it’s still a good 50 minutes away in the car. Kind of demonstrates just how rural this area of Chile actually is. Especially compared to England.

A man with a microphone strode around chatting with the people at the gazebos, street food stalls and tables of artisanal goods. His voice echoed loudly from an empty stage, which had been set up ready for the regional champions of the cueca, the traditional Chilean dance, to perform their choreographed seduction. Including handkerchief waving. As he passed through the stalls, the microphone man enquired what the vendors were selling and for what price. His disembodied voice told us the skewer of barbecued beef was a good price. Very fair. As was the potted succulent. Where are you from? Are you enjoying the festival? He discovered a woman from the exotic country of Spain and declared the trout festival international.

JT bought me some earrings.

Monday afternoon, wearing my new earrings for my online writing class, we debated the definition of contemporary writing. We all had different ideas about what time period contemporary would refer to, and there were comments about it having some relevancy to today, an echo of current life. I couldn’t help but wonder: if contemporary literature is a global phenomenon, then to whom exactly should it be relevant? Would the trout catchers of Pitrufquén have felt represented? Probably not. Probably not even in the Chilean literature I have read.

Any definition of contemporary literature remained a shoulder shrug. We could not conclude an answer, and nor did we really care to. As there is no standard definition, the question felt a tad unhelpful. The academic definition is a shoulder shrug too.

Yet, it did prompt me to reflect on my reading choices. How much contemporary British literature do I actually read? Not much. Even less before the degree. Studying has changed the balance: after reading Rachel Cusk’s Outline, I read the rest of the trilogy, and after reading Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything, I read Hot Milk, and having just finished Bernardine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman, I’ve suggested to my mother that we augment the family bookshelves with the rest of Evaristo’s work. My mother’s gone shopping.

I actually read much more Latin American contemporary fiction than British. I guess this is reasonably unusual and I wonder how this exchange is influencing me.

One of my goals when moving to Chile was to read the books produced in Chile. I started off with Isabel Allende because she’s the most obvious, but there are other women such as Lina Meruane and Carla Guelfenbein who I happily recommend. Both are available in translation.

Sometimes, changing our behaviour for the circumstances is part of accepting the realities we face. It’s part of becoming part of a group or belonging to a society. I ask books: where will you take me and how will I learn? I read a lot of Latin American women because I’m a woman living in Latin America, searching for that perspective. It occurs to me that what I’m doing with my reading is earning a right to belong. This place has become my home because I deeply care about it, and one of the ways I care is by reading.

These days, I’m mostly vegetarian, but at the festival I devoured my barbecued trout. Fisherman had been up early to catch it for me, and the chefs ran between the smoking barbecues in thirty-something degree heat. It felt the right thing to do.

Montevideo

Plaza Independencia, Montevideo, Uruguay. (Phone)

I run along la Rambla as the sun is setting. Past people holding fishing lines, waiting for the hook to catch on something far down below in the pale green-grey Atlantic sea. They’re talking, smiling, chuckling at each other’s quiet stories. The sea wall has become a long park bench where couples sit, sipping mate (mah-tay) through their stylised metal straws. The drink is an infusion of a bitter leaf and an acquired taste, a plant somehow related to the holly, but the Uruguayans drink it with a frequency reminiscent of how the English drink milky black tea. And like tea, it’s a caffeinated drink. Although perhaps they sip when we gulp.

And English tea is drunk when seated, whereas the Uruguayans drink mate while standing at the bus stop or crossing the road. Glance down at any passer-by’s hands, and they’ll be carrying a flask and their cup, perhaps in a special mate bag (these are so popular you can buy then in the corner shop).

I pass a park where a couple of young men are doing exercises with the outside gym equipment. They look like they work out very frequently. Two dogs bound back and forth, barking playfully. Children run around chasing each other while parents and grandparents lounge nearby. A car drives past with white and blue balloons floating in its wake. The police officer pulls up at the petrol station to fill up his car. A guy doing interval sprints overtakes me, then I overtake him, and then he powers past.

 I am in Montevideo. It takes me by surprise to wake up here. I’m living, albeit temporarily, in the beautiful Palacio Salvo, a 1920s hotel on Plaza Independencia. If you do an image search for London, you get Big Ben. If you do the same for Montevideo, you get the Palacio Salvo.

But I wake up here, teach a class, wander down to the café on the square, or café idoneo which is my current favourite – the food is good, and the staff look like they enjoy their work – and I have a cappuccino or splash out on a second breakfast while reading with my fountain pen cocked in my hand. I cross the square, pass José Artigas’ mausoleum, and sometimes pause to read a chapter of my book while sitting on a bench. I return home, teach some classes and cook some food. Sometimes I head out for a run. Sometimes I wander through the city and see couples dancing on the street.

I am in Montevideo by myself, which, even ignoring the complications of the pandemic, is no small achievement. It’s a fact that I was reminded of recently when a friend said that he hadn’t needed to be told to know that I’d fought a battle. He said that it showed through the bravery of my lifestyle, though this attitude to life. From my perspective, I’m cautious, focused on my safety, classifying as tiny moments, such as when I ask the waitress the difference between a media luna and a croissant, as courageous acts. I receive a thousand messages about my safety in Latin America, but not living is also a danger, not seeing, not experiencing. And I say this less naive than I would like to be.

I’ve sculpted a life that follows my whims, unconstrained, curious of the world, introspective and calm, but full of delights. Not so long ago, this felt impossible. So, every time I pause, look out at the sky and see the sun settling down beneath the horizon, out on some great sea, when my cheeks are rosy and my mind alert, I am beyond grateful.

A Romanian plait with green and gold ribbons

When Francesca and I looked at photos together, she saw a picture of me with my hair plaited. If there is a god, he was feeling very generous when he gave me my hair. It’s dark, strong and grows long easily. Francesca loved my hair, and seeing me with it flowing around my shoulders one morning asked if she could plait it. I, of course, said yes. Francesca brought out grips and ribbons and before long her gentle fingers had weaved my hair into a colourful display. I felt like I should be skipping some folk dance.

The plait that she saw in the photo we looked at was streaked with gold. My hair – which I almost always wear up – is easily bleached in the sun. (A fact which amazed the black haired Egyptian women I befriended when I was in Cairo.) It’s a natural gift.

“Who did your hair there?” Francesca asked pointing at the photo.

“Me.”

“But who plaited it?”

“I plaited it.”

She looked at me, as if trying to work out whether what she heard was right.

“How?”

Because Francesca comes from a world where girls plaited each other’s hair, where mothers taught daughters, and where you’d help your sisters and friends. Ribbons were shared freely. Me however, I taught myself to plait my hair because generally, there’s nobody to do it for me. And what’s more, if you wanted me to plait your hair, I’d struggle. I just don’t know how.