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A deep wrinkle on a loving face

I have few photos of Catania, so instead, still Sicily, here’s an older photo of Palermo.
Palermo, December 2016

The festival lights are like lacework. Made of pieces of wood, carved up into shapes, painted white and decorated with lightbulbs, they are the frilly collar holding the street together.

These are streets beaten by the sun, splintering apart. Bathed with a sea breeze, the metal work rusts and so, on the skewed doors, hinges either don’t quite close or don’t quite open. Yet the frame of lights gives these streets an ethereal dignity, an otherworldliness – people lean over balconies staring into a distant, undefinable space rather than at mobile phones. As shabby as they might be, the lights offer a tactile, homely, deep wrinkle on a loving face.

We pass under them when we walk down to the harbour, look up and stare. I want to run my fingers over their geometries, instead I step through their stencil of light.

As we passed the cafés and restaurants on the sea front, I tell JT how I made lights like these once. He questions my choice of verb. No, I made them. I carved the wood I sanded it down, I painted it white, and I went with the carpenter, with whom I worked, to a warehouse that had been filled with pallets and wooden boxes and stacks and stacks of lace like street decorations. It was December, the season was Christmas. The lightbulbs were being checked, the warehouse was being emptied and mine were just a few large wooden stars and a bundle of white letters ready to be composed into words, destined to light a narrow street with invitation.

I show JT photos; he thinks I’m a teenager. I was twenty-five when I did carpentry in a valley in Sicily where the dogs always barked and the people yelled at each other in their thick dialects, hands exclaiming. I was twenty-five and hid from the noise with a woman who has since become one of my best friends. I was twenty-five and my life was splintering apart.

Blood oozes from my hand. There are three rock slashes across my palm. Flesh torn underwater. The lick of salty sea. I swim across to JT, who’s half perched on a rock that juts out, a sharp break in the waves. I swim, with my hands clasped together in prayer. Blood mixes with salty water and runs down my wrist, drips into the Mediterranean. A shoal of fish gathers at my feet, nibbles at my toes. I’m being consumed by the ocean. JT gives me his spot, and I perch on the rock, I show him my wounds, the three gently curved slashes like cuts from tiger claws. I hold my palm to the sun because I don’t want to leave the sea.

Why is it that the sound of water is so relaxing. JT tells me that people who live by big bodies of water live more relaxed lives. Maybe conversation to the rhythm of the waves is slower. Maybe it’s the beat of the surf stroking the shore, or the deep heave of weight, crashing forward then back, forward then back, slowing you down.

When I’m not injuring myself, tearing my palms on underwater rocks, I’m reading Deborah Levy’s Real Estate. She’s decided, at the age of fifty-nine, that it’s time to have her perfect house. In the beginning, this hypothetical house had a hypothetical fountain. I’m halfway through the book, and now she’s decided that a house by a river would be a better idea. I agree; the Parents live by a river. A riverbank is a good space to think, a good space to pause and reflect, and space is essential for writing. I seek that unagitated space. Space is on my mind, probably because I’m living out of a suitcase, sharing my working space with the kitchen.

Out of the water, JT and I wander through the glass-strewn streets, stepping around broken bottles, discussing the value of having a separated space for work. We’re planning the house of our dreams. Over coffee, I talk about sheds. Again, it’s Levy’s fault because this personal non-fiction trilogy she’s written is all about space, it’s about ownership of space, spaces where we feel we have agency and voice. Spaces to write.

In a way, The Cost of Living, the second in the trilogy, felt like a personal take on Virginia Woolf’s A Room Of One’s Own. It’s a book about finding a safe space in the after her life splintered apart in divorce. A place for her to live with her daughters, another place for her to write: a shed. I’d like a shed with windows. I like to write and see the sky.

JT and I happen upon a restaurant. A man tends a roaring fire, sweat drips from the dents in his forehead. It’s thirty-something degrees outside. I sweat in the shade. JT can’t believe how much I sweat. The sweat mingles with the blood of my palm, and the oily suncream. I notice another cut on my thumb, like a fine paper cut. This invisible mark hurts more than the rest. My toe is bleeding too. There’s blood on my white towel. Yet there are mussels in my pasta and wine in my glass and I’m thinking about my grandfather, like me, he likes sunshine. I’m thinking of his chuckle the last time I invaded his space with an unexpected hug.

Sunshine, good food, and the sea. By the time I finish writing this post, I’ve finished Levy’s trilogy. A trilogy which finishes by the sea, in a spacious house in sunny Greece, with her squeezing oranges.

Simpler than the lights here in the small towns on the outskirts of Catania, but these ones had my fingerprints all over them.
Palermo, December 2016

Travelling with a Mermaid

Schloss Nymphemburg, Munich, August 2022

Mythologically speaking, mermaids have traditionally been associated with things going wrong – thunderous storms, land-sculpting floods, shipwrecks, deception. Theirs is a dangerous beauty. They are the sirens of the sea, sweet voices drawing you in, hungry eyes patient to devour. They would not make good travel companions.

The Little Mermaid however seems to be pretty good at this travelling lark. Stepping up out of the underground train station she merely looked around and then was off, walking at speed. Her walk is not a loiter and I have to move to catch up. When we reach the pelican crossing and the little man is red, she waits patiently, but the split second that man turns green, her feet are on the road. Not once has anyone beat her off the line. Sometimes she glances back to see where I got to.

We sit down at a restaurant and her eyes flick around taking in all the new sights, reading signs – unlike me she reads German – and she’s encountering that delightful possibility of people watching away from home, where the people are so different, where they walk different, talk different, wear different clothes and embrace each other with a repertoire of unfamiliar gestures. She’s observing, thinking, learning.

It’s possibly worth pointing out that the Little Mermaid is no longer an innocent child. She looks like one of the portraits from the Room of Beauties in the Schloss Nymphemburg (Palace of the Nymphs): a soft rounded face and dangerous eyes. These portraits, painted back when Bavaria was a kingdom, show women from different social circles selected purely for their looks. The collection includes princesses and a shoe-maker’s daughter. The gallery was for the benefit of some king or other who was particularly intrigued by feminine beauty (sometimes it’s best not to ask) and he – someone should make a television series on this – ended up losing his throne over a dancing girl.

We admire fancy ceilings and walk through the park, visit the palatial hunting lodge, the palatial indoor swimming pool, the Greek style temple with its fancy white Corinthian columns. The Little Mermaid likes the Chinese wallpapers imported during the 18th century – a Napoleon era fashion. We walk through the bedchambers of the Bavarian royals; they’re filled with portraits. We both agree that the Queen’s study, with its Egyptian theme, is a good room. The Little Mermaid likes fancy furniture. We admire golden coaches and golden sledges. Lunch is salad in the gardens in front of the palm house. We choose table service. It’s the waitress’s second day at work. I have a rosemary lemonade.

We go to the concentration camp in Dachau. It’s not easy going to a concentration camp. You look at the space where too many people were crammed together in inhumane conditions, dying because they hadn’t enough food, had too much work, had barely anything resembling medical care, had everything worth living for stripped from them. The first crematorium was used to burn 11,000 human bodies. It wasn’t big enough, so they built another that was more efficient. When they ran out of coal for the crematorium, they dug a mass grave. When the camp was liberated, there were a few thousand bodies still waiting to be disposed of. And people kept dying: from malnutrition, from the brutalities their bodies had experienced in the camp, from the long-term effects of some of the experiments that ‘doctors’ had done on them.

The sun shines and we seek shade at any opportunity. The museum includes more information than one could reasonably read in a day, and you have to pause because this is not information that is easy to digest. A tightness forms in my chest. Thankfully, for us, cruelty is hard to comprehend. We cross the yard where the prisoners were forced to line up every morning and evening and where they were forced to witness their fellow inmates being tortured as punishment. We tend to silence.

At night we sleep in a hostel. It’s a while since I’ve stayed in a hostel. In fact, I wonder if the last time was in Copenhagen, on my trip to Finland and back. This one is nice, big and airy with trees growing in the courtyard. I like seeing the Little Mermaid asking people questions, hearing her speaking German, and seeing that she knows what she wants. We cook pasta in the hostel kitchen, chat with the women in the dorm room and sleep in bunk beds. The reduction in privacy is part of the trade-off. Simple accommodation, but there are people to meet whenever you feel like socialising. There’s something nice about being reminded of how many people are searching for interaction with other cultures, other people, other places.

Santiago

Dusk, Santiago de Chile, June 2022.

It’s twelve degrees outside, but there’s no breeze, so at eye level Santiago’s polluted skies are hazy yellow grey. I think of the city as a place to visit, for a short time, to see friends, not a place to breathe freely and easily. I stare out through the window, past my clothes drying on the balcony and watch the ginger kitten in the flat opposite. It plays with the ripped curtain and disappears out of sight.

We’re a week here in a little flat in Providencia, the sort of neighbourhood that has small coffee shops and avenues of trees. I find a little place where they roast coffee and buy 250g, enough to last us until we fly, from a man who I felt probably knew his coffee.

With a friend, I go to the municipal theatre and listen to some Brahms played by the Orquesta Filarmónica de Santiago. Afterwards, we wander down the street, and stumble upon a place to drink Turkish coffee and eat fluffy pastry sweets while debating the merits of self-discipline. I’m highly in favour, but I believe that you learn it through imitation and apply it from within. Otherwise, the benefits are missed. Being forced to behave in a particular way just gets people upset. I’m grateful for my own self-discipline. Without it, I would not be travelling and enjoying myself so much.

As the Turkish shop is closing, we fall into conversation with the chef, who on learning that I am from England asks me whether I like Chile and enthusiastically marvels at Chile’s variety of climates and ecosystems. His expression changes when my friend asks about the effect of the pandemic on the small businesses along the street. We finally leave and wander back, past a bar themes with English-tat, pictures of red telephone boxes and selection of plastic bulldogs. I head off to find JT, who has the key to the flat, and, to my surprise, end the night at a birthday party eating cake and failing to sing ‘happy birthday’ in Spanish.

The ginger kitten has a delightful playful energy. It trips over its own paws and tumbles inelegantly to flop at the feet of its mother. I admire its playfulness, its curiosity. I sip my coffee and allow my mind to wander. I smile, gratefully, not at anything specific, but with the feeling I find in my chest, a soft happiness with my everyday existence.

Cerro Ñielol

The valley below. Cerro Ñielol, Temuco, Araucanía, Chile. May 2022.

We climbed up Cerro Ñielol in jumpers, coats and our strong boots, and the air changed, taking on the damp sweetness of the greenery. Swathes of Chilean bamboo, called colihue or chusquea culeou, filled the spaces between the trees and, as we climbed, we passed from areas of young green to dead-dry clumps which must have flowered not so long ago. Apparently, it doesn’t mind a frost, but after flowering it dies. I can’t help but think its flowering must be spectacular.

As we traversed further up, we came across pink, bell-shaped copihues – the Chilean national flower – and mushrooms. Lots and lots of mushrooms. I felt particularly pleased to be wearing the mushroom earrings I’d got along the costanera, the promenade in Valdivia. Their red and white hues matched the mushrooms we came across. Mushrooms out of a fairy tale. JT wanted to touch them all and feel the textures beneath his fingertips.

“Rubbery?” I asked, keeping my hands in my gloves. “Slimy?”

At one of the many viewpoints, the miradors, we paused at a bench to drink our Ceylon tea. The view through the trees led across the city of Temuco in the wide flat valley below. I’m being spoilt with such sights: forests, volcanos, beaches, waterfalls. Oncol, Puyehue, Huilo Huilo. My 2022 has been filled with the most incredible scenery.

We see a hummingbird in the branches above us and point it out to each other.

“Colibri,” JT says.

“Picaflor.”

I am learning about Chilean wildlife through a strange, childlike repetition. I read signs in national parks. This tree is a luma. Someone points at its gorgeous orange bark; I take photos. Is this a luma? I ask. Don’t know… It’s an arrayán. The same thing, another name, a type of myrtle. In Mapudungun, the name for this tree is temu. Temu as in Temuco.

Temuco

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Above the city. Cerro Ñielol, Temuco, Araucanía, Chile. May 2022.

There is something rather sweet about seeing someone encounter an iced-up car for the first time. JT stood giggling and took photos of the frost covering the windscreen while I insisted that he switch the engine on. It suddenly feels like winter, although, luckily, there’s no snow, just beautiful blue skies and sunshine which falls warmly against your face. This wintery Chile is new for me.

We drive through the surrounding countryside, cross rivers and streams, and I stare at the swathes of trees. I wonder if this is how England looked, before the green and pleasant land was cleared to make way for fields. We’re in a land of trees, of forests and forestry and deforestation. At night, the smoky air catches in your throat. Heating your house through a wood burning stove costs fewer pesos than the alternatives.

Despite the smoke, Temuco itself is surprisingly pleasant. I say surprisingly because I had the impression it was going to be a rather ugly place and best ignored, an impression which doesn’t fit my experience. In fact, it seems a pretty normal Chilean city, just with a few more Wenufoyes, Mapuche flags, than normal. Strangely, and I guess this is what travelling does to you, I find myself reflecting that this fight for respect entails fewer flags than in Catalunya or Northern Ireland. I stare at signs written in Mapudungun trying to decipher them and fail.

Ugly is a strong word, and it leaves me curious. Things clearly can get ugly in Temuco – there’s an official state of emergency here due to the anti-government violence that erupts from time – but I wouldn’t know about it if I hadn’t been told. I apply my usual tactic of observing, I presume that if there are other solitary women calmly walking down the street, I’m probably going to be alright. Occasionally, amid the normal graffiti and locked-up buildings wearing metal shutters, you come across some beautiful street art, images of nature and Indigenous people, harmonious and calm.

This is what I image when I think of a Chilean city: a centre of slammed together buildings, triangular German roofs on one street and flat corrugated iron ones on the next; a carcass of concrete; next door, a delicate wooden hall, church or home, maybe painted pink, but built by carpenters who really knew their craft, that somehow survived the earthquakes; suburban blocks of houses, in rows, box after box printed on the earth in perfectly straight lines; a set of Greek style columns, half hidden from view; a beautiful wooden sculpture of a smiling child. But this is just my image, drawn in my mind. And I am just a traveller, passing though.

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.

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.

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.

Connection

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You want to reach out and touch the trees. Puyehue, Chile. February 2022

From a very small age I liked Henry Moore’s sculptures, and even now, I associate them with childhood. My grandparents would take me to the sculpture park to see them: long peaceful walks, with reverent pauses in the presence of these art-forms. Sculptures many times bigger than me stood beside well-worn paths, like fellow walkers, or lay out, beneath the clouds, in fields surrounded by sheep-nibbled grass. Others hid among trees, surprising the passer-by as they shimmered into view and others peered out over the lake, watching the swans paddle along. Sculptures of bronze shells or stone limbs reminding us of our own bodies, positioning us beside them, exuding and sharing strength with their size, a guardianship, a guide. Sculptures with smooth voluptuous surfaces telling us to touch, skin to skin.

Trees can also be like this, with broad roots bulging from the base, their bark peeling like flakes of paper, layer on layer, branches just out of reach, solid and unmoving, reassuringly still. Grown adults in a forest, when they’re not conscious of being watched, run their fingers along the rough bark. A fingertip trace, reading the world to find a connection.

Interestingly, the benefit of therapy stems not from the words spoken, but from the relationship, the carving out of a safe space, a human contact that is non-judgmental, where forgiveness is not required or solicited. If words sufficed, we could heal ourselves through reading a book. And books are wondrous things, but they are a vessel of human connection, a one to many, not a one to one. Sometimes it’s the being with each other that’s necessary. It’s the presence. Like a tree, the psychotherapist does not move, does not rush. Connection takes time, and time is given with patience.

Meditation is the crafting of stillness, a pause where thoughts are encouraged to flow without sticking, without getting caught, where the body is calmed, and balance is restored to the breath. Time passes, but time is allowed to pass. There is a flow, a curve, an evenness, a beauty in being. Within this pause, there is sometimes clarity, insight. Sit calm and you learn to appreciate your own company. Solitude separates ‘now’ from the haste. Why is haste so frequently harnessed to life? With the harness unclipped, our shoulders lift, we consider the spine and rest in the breath. Listening to our breath unites us with the truth of what we are feeling.

 Connection is not complicated, but does have to be given to, it has to be trusted in, it has to be devoted to. But it’s also what makes being worthwhile.

Children are in the dustbins

The dinosaur park: where parents take their children to see the dinosaurs.
Pica, Región de Tarapaca, Chile, January 2022

Children are in the dustbins across the street from the café where I am drinking my coffee. The sun is warm, it’s summer, so the kids presumably don’t have school. I’m conscious of how easy it would be for my skin to burn, but the avenues are shaded by big old trees, trees whose roots have pushed up the pavements, crumpled the paths. I feel someone planned this city, planned streets wide enough for cars to park, planned broad pavements to place café chairs and heavy green dustbins. I like this corner, where I return to drink coffee most mornings and quite frequently indulge in a croissant. Today I planned to come, to sit here at the crossroads, drink my coffee and read. Yet I am distracted from my reading by the children in the dustbins.


I’m supposed to be reading Tim Park’s book The Novel, A Survival Skill. This is part of my chosen reading for my master’s degree. But it’s not my first book by Tim Parks, a long time ago I read Italian Neighbours, an account of his life in Verona. An account which probably mentioned dustbins. I can imagine Parks writing about waste disposal. I’ve never read his novels, but I’ve been delighted by The Novel, which isn’t about how to write a book, but why people write the books they do. And, it explains why I don’t get on with Borges.

Or that’s not fair. It’s not that I don’t get on with Borges, I feel a polite acquaintance with him and a lack of curiosity in his work, yet despite this, a vexation, a sense that I ought to see something which I can’t, that I ought to be impressed when I’m not, and that it ought to generate meaning for me, it doesn’t. I’m bemused as to why his oh-so-clever labyrinths are so adored.

Tim Parks talks about how writers, whether they intend it or not, write, and rewrite, what feel to them to be the essential conflicts of their lives, particularly those initial childhood family conflicts, which I think fundamentally comes down to self-identity. The same goes for readers. Readers read, reread and recommend those books which have touched on these inner conflicts. Hence, Tim Parks likes to read books with tense moral dilemmas because of his intensely religious and somewhat whacky family. Similarly, he writes novels where morality is played with, tossed around and torn apart. He’s trying to resolve his own unease about being good and being bad through the words he puts on the page.

As for me, your literary likes and dislikes are part of the wider pattern of your relationships, and not unconnected with the kind of family you have, the kind of life you lead.

The Novel: A Survival Guide by Tim Parks

I think a certain intellectual swaggering turns me off. What I want in a book is a glimpse into humanity, I want to see the human condition from a fresh perspective, but I want to see up close. I read from my heart, not my over-trained brain.

While I want to like clever books, at the end of the day, my favourites are those that made me cry, like Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and Carla Guelfenbein’s The Rest is Silence. Books which use language in a clever way, but do not swagger.


But I’m not reading, I’m too busy watching the children in the dustbins. They are scavenging for sheets of cardboard and plastic bottles. I am alarmed by this. One of them wears a baseball cap, the other has had his hair highlighted, maybe imitating some footballer? One wears pumps on his feet, the other plastic flip-flops. I imagine this boy’s feet, there in the bin, coming into contact with… No, I don’t want to think about it. Yet, despite my worries, these teenage boys look healthy. They’re nimble, lithe, coordinated and industrious.

When I later mention this to Latin American friends, they accept my astounded account without alarm. A kind of ‘so what?’. I can see their point. It is a fact that children climb into these dustbins – I later see adults doing the same – and this is part of life. I’m unsettled by the discomfort this brings. Even as a young child, I was aware that I was better off than my peers. Yet I also know that there is nothing I am going to do about it, unless we count my various conversations on the matter or this small piece of writing. To these boys, I too am irrelevant. Just another tourist.

Climate change. Recycling. Children in dustbins.

The boys toss the bottles from the bins, the bottles bounce and scatter across the pavement. Like children in a playground, the boys vault over the lip of the bin, out, back onto the street. One grabs a plastic bag and pops the bottles in, while his friend folds the cardboard flat. Beside them, on the road, beside the bins, is a docile pony and cart. The cardboard is laid in the cart and the bottles are put in a huge green bag tied on the back, the size of a small tent. Maybe there are hundreds of bottles already inside.

The younger generation cleaning up after the old.

My fear for these boys is joined by admiration.


Would Tim Parks be analysing the moral conundrum of this situation? If he were in this coffee shop with me, would he be criticizing this world for having children scavenging in dustbins. Would he be, like me, panicking about the health consequences? Would his thoughts be broken glass and disused needles? Would he notice that these boys are children, barely old enough for a paper-round? Might he shrug it off as just part of how things are here. Would he note that their skin is darker than most of the people who walk past, people who pay no attention to these children, as if children climbing in dustbins were normal? Would he link this to Spanish conquest, ancient caste systems, political dysfunction and the consequent immigration?

And would Parks, like a friend of mine, ask whether the children looked fed? Fundamental survival question. They looked fed, I explained, and showered, and their clothes looked like they’ve been washed. Would the contradiction sit as uneasily with him as it does with me? We might think of such boys as the victims of the system, but they hardly appear like victims. Would it reassure him that this is the school holiday and so maybe they do this for pocket money? Perhaps, when the new semester begins, they’ll be holding pens and writing.

I find myself thinking how if they study with the same attitude as they collect bottles, they’ll deserve to go to good universities.

For the novelist the text is absolutely integrated in his life and circumstances; what he writes comes out and rebounds back on his mental life, his private life, his professional life.

The Novel: A Survival Guide by Tim Parks

Am I admiring them for the display of self-sufficiency and independence? Inevitably, since I am reading Parks’ book, I find myself wondering at my own intrigue. Am I drawn to the situation because it reflects an internal conflict of my own? Do I admire them for their independence, self-sufficiency and hard work because these were values drilled into me as a child?

Is this why am I compelled to write about them?