Location Chile

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.

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.

The forest in the desert

Cumiñalla, Región de Tarapaca, Chile. January 2022.

Cactuses, or cacti, grow in deserts, not trees

Or at least that’s what I thought. And thinking about cactuses, or cacti, I wondered whether even they would survive in the driest desert in the world. And whether, if they did, they would be green. The cactuses I’d seen in La Serena on the side of Cerro Grande facing the sea were green, thanks to the daily wrapping of mist, but the side facing the mountains were brown or grey, not at all like the green cartoon cactuses which decorate my llama mug, or my father’s knitted cactus which sits on the windowsill in the lounge.

Ariel Dorfman, in his book Desert Memories: Journeys through the Chilean North, made the desert sound empty – a landscape of space dotted with abandoned nitrate towns. Sad towns whose existence was the result of fickle economic greed.

The desert is spacious, but it is hardly empty

Early one evening, when the sun had dropped low enough that his rays no longer scorched my skin, in that magic hour, before the chill of the desert night descended, I asked for a mini adventure, got into the car and, with a friend, drove into the desert. Off the main road, we passed paddocks of solar panels and I wondered if they were self-cleaning, or rather, if they were designed so that dirt wouldn’t cling to them. Dust coasts everything in the desert. It sweeps across the road, swirls, thickens and becomes mini sand tornadoes which waltz across the empty land, unaware that they’re the last at the party and everyone else has gone home.

Sometimes man’s power astounds me – fat, blue grapes grow in neat, tended rows at the side of the track, their roots bedded in imported soil, irrigated with water that’s pumped up like oil from the depths.

Grapes growing in the Atacama, Chile. January 2022.

Human magic defies the desert

Driving slowly, with me gripping my seatbelt as the car laboured forward, off the main road, we came to the abandoned village of Cumiñalla, the sort of settlement Dorfman had described – a single street of roofless houses, doorless doorways and crumbling walls which reminded me of those quiet corners of Pompei.

It’s difficult to tell how big this place ever was, as now it has crumbled into ruins akin to some ancient town, you could have told me that these ruins had been here hundreds of years, although I’m told people were still living her forty years ago. Akin to the living town of Pozo Almonte which had reminded me of images of the Wild West, barren Cumiñalla seems to have existed despite the odds, and as its cards changed, had disintegrated into dust.

Built in the desperation to harvest the rich nitrates from the abundant desert, Pozo Almonte had survived, probably because it sits on Ruta Cinco, the same tarmac road that I crossed many times in La Serena, which runs from the Peruvian border, down through the desert, straight through Santiago and continues all the way to Chiloe. Pozo Almonte offers a point of respite. Migrants cluster in the square where I’d drank a mango juice. Juice drunk, I slide back into the car seat and switch up the air conditioning. The migrants get to their feet and walk south.

People are astounding.

Tins, abandoned. Cumiñalla, Región de Tarapaca, Chile. Jaunary 2022.

The desert is rich in nitrate deposits

In his book, Dorfman describes how once upon a time, in 1910, Chile supplied 65% of the world’s nitrogen-based fertilizers, twenty years later, he states, only 10%. Neither the First World War nor the depression of the 30s helped demand, and competition outpaced production once some scientists in a German laboratory came up with a synthetic alternative. These tiny settlements were built for the nitrate industry, and without it, they all but disappeared.

Camera in hand, I set out to explore. You intuitively know that this is a place where to survive depends on preparation. For me, clambering through the ruins reminded me of exploring empty castles with my grandparents. It was an adventure. But out here, far from the coast and far from the mountains, surrounded by sand, you cannot rely on your phone to have signal. You don’t expect to stumble across water. Here, tinned food had been an essential and my exploration found scatterings of empty tins, to which the desert was entirely apathetic.

A wooden cart, Cumiñalla, Región de Tarapaca, Chile. January 2022.

And as if in a children’s novel, I stepped through a doorway and stumbled upon a forest

Cactuses, I’ve learnt, survive by piercing the morning fog, making it bleed onto the dry ground, drip into their thirsty, shallow roots. Even so, I hadn’t expected to encounter a forest in the Atacama. I’d felt similarly perplexed when I had been in San Pedro – surprised by the green. Trees, it seems, grow here because of the incredible depth of their roots. I’m told the water lays twenty or thirty metres below us. What I wonder is how the saplings survive. How does a tree grow to have twenty-metre-long roots without water? After all, here it never rains. But there were trees.

And amid the trees was a gate, which was unlocked especially for me. And, invited in, I wandered into the terrain of an abandoned house, skipping though swirls of dust, leaving my footprints in the sand. The breeze pulled on my skirt and tangled it between my legs. There had been a great fire, and the house here, built of parched wood, lit up in flames and was gone. The kitchen garden had been reclaimed by the desert, but the rabbit hutches and chicken coops remained, as did a wooden cart, which had once been used to deliver fruit and vegetables. It stood padlocked to a tree.

The blue teapot. Cumiñalla, Región de Tarapaca, Chile. January 2022.

And lodged on a sideboard, an unwanted blue teapot

Abandoning a town when there is no work left is understandable as is abandoning a house when it burns down, or a city when it is no longer safe, but to abandon a teapot? This I could not understand.

And it was easier to ponder the existence of this teapot than imagine the horror faced by all those migrants walking through the world’s driest desert, unwilling to abandon the hope of a better life.

numbers jumbled

My beach, La Serena, Chile, December 2022

I found myself the most beautiful of places to be, tucked in the corner of an architect-less city, staring out at the sun as it fills the horizon with its yellow. Hidden amid this ordinary, in a block of flats identical to its neighbours, is the little nest I’ve made myself, for a season of a few weeks, a home which belongs to a stranger, a bed which I will soon forget, a view which I will not.

The year swings from one to two. When I write dates, they come out wrong, the wrong months, the wrong years, the numbers jumbled. Often I pick summer months, July, August, to describe this bright December. My body choosing on instinct a reality to fit my circumstances. My body is perpetually upside down and inside out. I fill my rooms with music I don’t recognize and play, on repeat, lists which I will feel fondly for this week and then let fall into the abyss of my memory as I move to explore some other genre. And inside the unknown I find myself and I stop having to be anyone because I already am.

I am living in a dream, but it was a dream I believed into being. I decided I would touch my toes to this sandy beach, and I did just that, as if defying the gods and perhaps in an act of prayer to them, I did just what I wanted to do and delighted myself by the power this act portrayed. Call it being alive. I decided I would write, and here I am writing. I decided I would do work which challenged me and compelled me to care, and that’s what I do.

Twisting my head to the side, I see the waves. Against the sound of Juliet’s death, in the music of the ballet Romeo and Juliet, I hear children playing, chasing each other around the climbing frame. I am the invisible observer, conspicuously foreign. By not belonging, I get to choose how I move. Belonging might be an essential human trait, but not belonging is freedom. I can stand out by accidentally being the only woman in the city wearing a skirt on this hot summer’s day and rather than worry about my lack of fashion sense, know I am merely alien, and hence, my attire does not answer to societal rules to which I do not belong.

If I am a little weird, it’s not easy to explain. I have found no analysis which can dissect a veritable reason for my being this way. I’ve given up trying to hypothesize why. Let’s just accept that following my wild wants makes me happier than denying their existence. And that the sun, setting across the Pacific blue is beautiful.   

The loss of everything

This is from a sculpture I think in Ñuñoa celebrating the efforts of the Bomberos, the fire department. The fire service in Chile is made up of volunteers. Santiago, January 2020.

Three buildings had been burnt to the ground, and the putrid smoke of burnt plastic and paint hung into the air late into the afternoon, even though the fire had been put out the night before. The fire service was not fast enough to save the wooden houses with corrugated iron roofs, which had now smouldered into nothing. The bakery next door was also gone. People’s incomes turned to ash.

A young woman stood in front of the corpse of her house whilst around her men dragged the debris from her square of land into a truck. They carted away her walls and the carcass of her kitchen, wearing thick gloves and paper masks. The woman’s eyes were stained red. Smoke most likely, it clung to our clothes. I don’t imagine she’d found the freedom to cry. Her limbs hung limp beside her body. I’d accompanied a friend to bring food, plates, bowels, blankets and clothes, things she would need, but all she could do was stare at the space where her home had been. A weak ‘gracias’ was the most she could articulate. In shock, she could not think. She could not plan ahead and consider where she would sleep or what she would do. She was alone.

The friend I’d accompanied couldn’t understand why someone, faced with the destruction of their home, would stand and stare, so inert, watching the breeze playing with the charred remains.

I could understand.

Because the destruction of a home must be like the destruction of the self, it must be a crumbling of your identity. All those belongings which surround you daily, suddenly gone, must feel like you yourself are being erased from your own plot of land. Power is stolen: the power to tuck yourself into your bed, the power to make yourself a cup of tea, the power to turn the tap and see water flow into a glass. Gone. And I do not know how it is to lose your home, but I do know how important it is to feel grounded as a person, to trust that when you shut the door at night that you are safe, and I know the fear that takes grip when you do not know who you are. When it feels like who you were has crumbled into dust. If you don’t know who you are, how do you know what to do?

Slowing the pace

Humedal, La Serena, December 2021

For once, I don’t feel overstretched. By which I mean, I actually made the bed, I have food in the fridge, I’ve swept the kitchen floor, I’ve no deadlines haunting me, and I am reading almost every day. It’s like I’ve put down a huge rucksack which I’ve been carrying for months. I’m living in front of the Pacific Ocean; I can watch the sunset each evening from my balcony.

There’s a man, a small man with slim limbs, shorter in stature than me, with a dark wrinkled face which makes him look quite old, but perhaps it’s only the sun and he’s not as old as I imagine. He spends many hours each day working outdoors, his horse is never far away, and he sits on the sand dunes and watches over the river basin where his animals graze. I see him with a piece of straw in his mouth and if I’m alone he’ll look away from his animals for a moment and he’ll speak to me, comment on the weather or the beauty of the beach. He has few teeth and a strong accent. One day when I had to apologise that I didn’t understand he replied with genuine surprise, “How?”

It took him some time considering me before he asked if perhaps, I was not Chilean. I switched the sounds around in my mind and concluded that the animal he’d lost sight of was a goat. Although I’m not ruling out the possibility that his dialect has a word half-like the Spanish for ‘goat’ but which means some other animal entirely. I assured him that I hadn’t seen any animals the size of a goat, I’d come straight from the main road, and he looked disappointed.

When more people are around, walking along the path, heading to the beach, he doesn’t turn and pay them any attention and they seem not to see him either. He sits and he watches the animals, and he must do this for hours each day. It’s a wild space, areas of which are roped off to protect the nesting birds. He appears incredibly peaceful.

My peaceful contentment won’t last. Inevitably the world around me will spin back out of my control, it’s so full of exciting opportunities, things to develop, projects to undertake and obligations to attend to, it can hardly do anything else. I’m habitually addicted to our societies call for more.

But right now, there is peace.

Part of this is the light. The room where I work is painted a yellow shade of white and the almost-summer sunshine fills the room. It’s lit up like the inside of the fridge, but with such a clear, fresh light I am awakened in my core. Even mornings are no longer so difficult. The light fills my bedroom well before my alarm sounds and it’s such a warm, friendly, natural light that I can’t despise it.

My father has always said that I have a tendency to commit to too much, burn the candle at both ends and eventually burn out. This is my natural pull, the way I grew up working. It’s learnt from my father who does many, many things, burns the candle at both ends and then fizzles wildly. Luckily my mother’s around to balance things out, but in doing so, she too runs around wildly and exhausts herself. We’re a family of too much at once living in a society of more, more, more.

When I’ve got too much on, I think my brain works against me to slow me down. Like trying to drive with the handbrake on. The more I worry about all the things I should have done, the more my own body resists me. It hides that feeling of calm, cool-headed thought and instead swings between panicked adrenaline and dispiriting lethargy.

When I’ve got less on, when I’ve chosen to have less on, I’m calmer, my thoughts form with less agitation and getting stuff done doesn’t seem like such an ordeal. This is a preferable way to be. But it’s the result of many choices, it does not come effortlessly. To find it, I think you have to learn to value the man’s time, simply sitting there, watching his animals with the sun on his back. You have to learn to value the patience it takes to wait without wishing the time to pass faster. You have to be really clear about what it is you want.

Do you need a mechanic?

El Faro, La Serena, December 2021

Today, as I went hunting for a corner shop to get a packet of pasta and a bottle of orange juice, I found myself walking down a familiar street. A wide, tranquil dual carriageway with freshly trimmed palms, reluctant patches of frequently watered grass and persistently sandy walkways. Two workmen were busy grinding the paintwork off the grey metal fence which surrounds one of the condominiums so that they could paint it a cheery yellow, but otherwise the street was pretty much empty. One of those cars with a large speaker attached on the roof, held down with heavy-duty ropes passed by, calling out to the seagulls, blaring out an advert for a garage where mechanics can tend to your needs any day of the week, located where Cuatro Esquinas meets Ruta 5.

  There are many things which are surprising about this observation, although from the perspective of the street, nothing special happened. The first observation is that I was there, in La Serena, at the edge of the desert, a quarter of the way around the world from home. It feels like yesterday that I left, and yet it’s been eighteen months. To say I am elated is an understatement. Being here is my teenage rebellion, although I stopped being a teenage over a decade ago. It’s something I selfishly want, for me, without rationalised explanation, probably to prove something to myself. The second observation, and the one which I had never expected, was that I understood the advert.

When I was first in La Serena, doing anything was difficult. My Spanish was a complete mess, childlike and limited to a narrow vocabulary which I’d studiously learned with a heap of flashcards. I was learning the language fast, out of necessity, but you cannot learn a language overnight, it takes time and effort and a lot of discomfort. My lack of fluency meant that even simple transactions led to a shot of adrenaline. After going to the bank – which I always find stressful in Spanish – I would treat myself to a slice of cake in the café opposite. I learnt a hell of a lot of Spanish in those months I spend in La Serena, words like toque de queda (curfew) and cuarentena (quarantine) and a lot of Chilean words (wea, bacán, cuático) which I don’t know how to translate appropriately. Yet it remained a fight.

Within weeks of returning to England at the beginning of the pandemic, my pronunciation had nosedived, and my recall of words felt sluggish. Occasionally, I took out my grammar book and studied for a little while, but I had other things on my mind. I did continue speaking in Spanish, using it to talk to friends and occasionally, when appropriate, with students. But I have no explanation as to why when I returned to Santiago and I spoke Spanish in an imperfect yet easy-going manner, without exhausting myself. I’m not sure entirely how it happened. The language perhaps had settled into a part of my mind where it could be chewed, processed and consolidated into something which, then regurgitated, came out as my own voice.

And although the seagulls didn’t understand the advert, I, for the first time, did.