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.

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.