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.
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?
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.
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.
Last Monday, I awoke to a message from British Airways saying that my June flight to London from Santiago had been cancelled. This wasn’t such a surprise. The Chilean border is closed and the only flights out of Santiago at the moment are to the United States. Although, the British government website advises that there are still flights scheduled from Santiago to Europe and Brazil for June.
I called my father, then called my father again and then called my father again. We discussed the options. Getting home does matter because my sister hopes to be married and well, visas… We contemplated a flight via Barcelona. I went to pay the house bills and then returned and called my father again. The Barcelona flight no longer existed. My father was concerned that any flight we booked mid-May might well be cancelled by the beginning of June. I was concerned that come June I would have nowhere to live (although this would not actually be the case as my Chile-based friends are between them so generous that someone would have rescued me).
My mother had her word. She told my father to get me home as soon as possible. So my father booked me a flight for six-days later: Santiago – Miami – London.
At this point my life suddenly turned upside down
Or maybe it was upside down and simply revolved to point in yet another direction. I was heading to the USA for the first time, planning on doing three continents in three days.
By Friday I had given away or thrown half of my belongings. I’d been to the bank and I’d booked a bus ticket for the Sunday morning to travel into Santiago. On Friday, Santiago went into complete quarantine. To go to the supermarket, you now needed a certificate of permission declaring that you had none of a long list of symptoms. And there I was, planning a nearly 500 km journey by public transport right into the capital.
The certificate proved tricky. It asks you for the address of the residence, hotel or place of lodging to which you are going in Chile. You can only put a location in Chile and I was planning on lodging myself in an un-address-worthy, economy-class aeroplane seat. My housemate and I called the British Embassy, the phone suggested we email, I emailed the British Embassy asking for advice. Meanwhile, I created myself a variety of these certificates pertaining to all eventualities with a selection of possible addresses covering travel by bus and plane. The British government website declares that LatAm flights require such a certificate. The bus company told me I’d need one to board the bus.
On Saturday morning I bought myself two apples and a banana for my adventure
And four additional facemasks. Heading back home, I ambled through Puertas Del Mar in the sunshine trying not to think about the achingly long bus journey, there were horses in the street eating the grass. I had my train ticket from London to Leeds, I’d checked that the London Underground (metro) was running and I knew my route. I even had my ESTA for my planned 12-hour stopover in Miami and new travel insurance as my normal travel insurance covers me for everywhere except the United States of America.
In the circumstances, I felt that I was doing quite well
I logged onto my computer and clicked onto the LatAm website to pay for my suitcase. I clicked through, parted with yet more pennies and was about to close the browser when the word SATURDAY caught my eye.
Saturday 16/05/2020 11.10pm
My flight, I thought, is not for Saturday. It’s definitely for Sunday.
I checked my email because it would not be the first time that I have found myself flying on the wrong day this year. The emails definitely all said Sunday. I checked the junk email folder, nothing. I tried to think it through, was it a result of the time difference? If so, why would it still say Saturday. I checked my emails again. It was definitely a Sunday flight.
I wake up some days and stare at myself in the mirror. There’s a dull look in my eyes and I think, here we go again. I feel my thoughts being to roll into paranoia. Sometimes my hands shake from the anxiety of living. My skin is a mess; my stomach clenches tight.
This pattern of behaviour is so familiar it seems almost ridiculous.
In sports people talk about recovery time. This is how long it takes your body to go back to normal after you’ve done exercise. Resilience works on the same principle – it’s not a measure of how far you’ve fallen or how damn bad it hurt, but how quickly you can rock back up to healthy.
I wake up and stare in the mirror and I see myself all ghostlike. The energy is robbed from me. I’m lethargic but I can’t rest. The negative thoughts come. I wonder for how long I’m going to need to grieve. I wonder how much I’ve lost. I wonder how long it will be before I feel generous towards life again. And then, because this is my ingrained training, I do something about it.
And sometimes I feel that my life is a woven patten of me falling in and out of grief time and time again. Things nowadays aren’t so bad though. Each weave is shorter, cleaner. Now I’m more skilled at pulling the threads back up, pulling them together. I remember when the time between feeling good about myself and my life was measured in weeks or months not days.
Every time is hard, but you do get quicker at recovering from setbacks as you become more resilient. I only believe that you can become resilient by doing the hard work, by learning to actively accept and grieve what you’ve lost rather than clinging onto a fantasy of what might have been. I believe that as you learn to recognise your defences you can learn to do yourself and those around you less damage each time you fall. I believe that recognising your coping strategies and being reasonable about them is vital for preventing long term harm.
Some weeks you lose your house, your contract terminates and there’s no way you can get a new visa. Some weeks a friend gets upset because you didn’t fall in love with them and it hurts. Some weeks you say goodbye to someone you fell in love with, not knowing how many months it will be until you are in the same continent again. Some weeks your flight home is cancelled and you find yourself with the prospect of an unexpected three days of crazy, mask wearing adventure to get home, passing through three continents with a bundle of certificates and permissions to evidence the necessity and validity of each step of the journey. Some weeks are more difficult than others.
I wake up some days and I look in the mirror and smile. My hair’s a mess and my skin pink and blotchy. Yet there’s a twinkle in my eye. Look, I’m here, I think. I exist in this mess of a world, but I exist and that is a truly wondrous thing. I smile and turn away from my reflection, ready to fight whatever the gods have chosen to throw at me next.
We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both.
Brené Brown, Rising Strong
I find myself craving a little comfort
Actually, I find myself craving a lot of comfort.
Instead I find myself trailing the streets trying to find some place of education which is willing to employ me so that I might have a contract and stay in the house which has become my home and in the city where I have made friends. Comfort would be to stay in this odd place on the edge of the world, facing out towards the great Pacific Ocean, speaking my uneven, clunky Spanish and weathering viruses and social unrest.
It’s sad to realize how much of modern life is designed to lull us into being comfortably numb; we’re expected to go about doing what we’re told because it’s easy.
Srdja Popovic and Mathew Miller, Blueprint for Revolution
One plan has me going to a new town somewhere else in Chile
I’d know nobody and be doing the whole thing from scratch, albeit with better Spanish. It’s not an ideal solution but it would keep me learning and teaching and it is at least a plan. It may remain just a plan though, as it depends on much more freedom to travel than I currently have.
Another plan has me in England until this is all over, which would be comfy indeed – there would be Yorkshire tea – but perhaps I would lose something of what I’ve been fighting so hard to have. Not to mention, I have yet to get to England.
The reason that most people don’t possess these extraordinary physical capabilities isn’t because they don’t have the capacity for them, but rather because they’re satisfied to live in the comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it. They live in the world of ‘good enough’.
Truthfully, I am exhausted by the emotional taxation of the changes in my life
Bitterness seeps in. Frustration rests within my muscles, which are tense from the continual strain of the stress that I’m facing. There is a deep anger inside of me. Now I finally trust myself to be able to work and function in a sociably acceptable manner, the situation around me makes doing these seemingly normal things a whole new level of difficult.
Knowing that pretty much everyone is going through a tough time should help. I know talking helps. Although, in a way, I’m overwhelmed by the uncertainty that everyone around me is feeling. Tempers are short – mine included – and I reckon we’re all tearing up a bit more than before. What do you say to a friend who fears her nephew has the virus? I’m a little more equipped at such difficult conversations nowadays (post-therapy), but I still struggle for words of comfort.
Yet, I think it’s the disappointment that hits hardest
People had plans. My sister’s supposedly getting married. I booked my flights and arranged my dress-fitting especially for the wedding. I also planned on doing a course whilst I was in England, which is now postponed. Students, who want to learn, find themselves stuck with online learning and a substandard education that will further divide the rich from the poor. The teachers don’t enjoy it either, teaching a class where you can’t see the student’s faces is a horrible experience. You’d think we could do video, but the internet connections we’re relying on won’t necessarily handle it. Yet, if the classes don’t take place, how will the teachers be paid?
…whenever we venture into the world as travellers, our capacity for wonder, engagement, and growth is directly related to the capacity of our hearts.
Don George in his introduction to Better Than Fiction 2
Today, in the middle of doing yoga, I paused and reflected on the battles I am facing, and the battles that other people are facing around me. It occurred to me that now more than every I need to be clear about what my priorities are.
When you prioritise some things, you have to also deprioritise others
Painfully and achingly, what keeps getting deprioritised is my pride. I’m from a family who rarely admits anything’s wrong and often don’t have a clue how to ask for help when they need it. I am coming to believe that this is partially because they don’t recognise when they need help. We are a family of highly proud people.
And yet I do not have a single plan that doesn’t include a need to ask for and accept help. I am unable to pull myself together and manage independently. You would have thought I’d have learnt this enough times going through my dependent, can barely look after myself phase when I was in therapy, completely reliant on my parents. But no. It seems my dependency is something I must continue to learn.
What I love about travel is how it shows me a different way of living
I’m thrown into situations where I need help. Frequently I have little idea what’s going on and rely on the help from people who barely know me. The other day a Japanese friend brought me a gift of chocolates, face masks, hand sanitizer and sterilizing fluid. It is a simple gift, but thoughtful and well timed. Since at some point I’m going to have to travel a quarter of the way around the world in the midst of a pandemic, I will be needing what he’s given.
The more conversant and comfortable you can be with your emotions, the richer your experience of life will be, and the more capable you will be of forgiving.
Archbishop Desmond TuTu and Reverand Mpho Tutu, The Book of Forgiving (read more on forgiveness)
Humility is not my natural guise
Admitting that I’m overwhelmed by this situation and the uncertainty that I now face isn’t easy for me. I can get angry about it, but the greater fear is that getting back on my feet and have a foundation that I can be proud of, is going to require an awful lot of asking for help. It’s humbling seeing person after person reach out and offer me assistance.
I sit here writing, listening to the neighbour practising his guitar
A close friend told me that I have to remember that although I don’t know what will happen in the months to come, what I know is that right now, I am in Chile, and I’m in the place I want to be. Maybe it won’t last, but I have to remember that today exists and I need to remember to live it.
Brené Brown writes that we can choose courage or we can choose comfort. I think she’s wrong. I believe that comfort comes when we trust that we have the courage to do what is necessary. My discomfort, I believe, comes not from my courage, but from my fear that I don’t have the courage to do what is necessary.
I can be a good, kind and generous person without necessarily being independent. Ain’t that a shocking idea?
A little under two years ago, I received an email confirming that from the following October, I would be teaching in a school in Spain. I had worked in Spain before this. I taught English at an immersion camp one summer. Spanish was forbidden. A few years after that I worked as an au-pair in the Catalonian region, a place where the children’s first language was Catalan, not Spanish, and where I was supposed to talk English. I learnt a pathetic smattering of Catalan words and the Spanish phrase ‘café con leche’.
On receiving my job offer for Spain, I went off to Italy for the best part of the following two months and so it wasn’t until the very end of July that I began contemplating that I was going to need to speak Spanish.
As a language teacher, I am fascinated by how we learn languages, or more precisely, how we fail to learn them. Although I was instructed in French for five years at school, and obtained an A grade, with maybe 300 hours of class time, I have remarkably little ability to communicate in French. This is not a unique situation.
I asked the adult students in a physics class here, in Chile, how long they had been learning English, for some the answer was ten-years.
“Perfect, we can talk in English.”
They shook their heads. Whilst they have sat through class after class, they haven’t obtained any skill with using the language. Put on the spot they couldn’t create a sentence. Their cheeks pinkened.
In the school in Murcia, Spain, students in the top classes who have been forced through the intense bilingual Spanish system can express themselves. They are capable of sharing their disgust at the idea that British schools have gender segregation for physical education in English, for example. Once they let go of their inhibitions start to rant about their Latin teacher, unfair exams and each other. The top classes. Teenagers who often go to school in the morning and private classes in the evenings.
Some students are different. I ask for their name and they roll their eyes. A few minutes later they’re interviewing me about British politics, tearing apart my taste in music or asking me about how to travel the world. These students are different. I ask them how they learnt English, and they shrug. With a bored expression they seem to ponder a moment, they had classes at school, yes, but so did everyone else in the room. Then it comes out. Either, they play video games – often online video games against native English speakers – or they are obsessive about music or they watch a lot of television in English. Whichever it is, they absorbed words in context and then actively sought out clarification.
I am not a musical person and I don’t watch a lot of television or play many video games. But I don’t need to, because I have the language in context all around me, every day, and I am forced to actively seek out clarification because, otherwise, I cannot make clear to Loreto when I’m going to be free for her to drop off her fresh-from-the-farm eggs so that I can make pancakes.
Although I teach them, I don’t believe that English classes work particularly well. It’s basic maths. The teacher can listen to only one student at a time. This means that the majority of the students’ mistakes pass by without immediate correction, by which point the urgency of learning the point has drifted away. Or, the students fail to make enough mistakes. If students were listening to each other speak, and learning from each other then maybe it would work.
But even then, by the time Thursday’s class comes around, Monday morning’s vocabulary has been almost entirely lost. Teachers correct the same pronunciation, inject ‘do’ into the same questions and rehearse the same few phrases over and over again.
When I was learning my times-tables we used to practice them every day at school, quickly, a five-minute bout of scary anyone-might-get-asked firing of six times eight, seven times two…
The students memorise what they have to for the exam. Then a week later then put it aside and start the next chapter with contains new vocabulary for them to rehearse for a few weeks and then not use again until the following term. They might be able to spell their first name, but they cannot recite the alphabet.
I think one of the reasons why so many students fail to learn is that they don’t start with a clear goal. For those who are driven by music, video games or film, I don’t think they start with a grand goal of speaking a foreign language. They start by wanting to know what they’re singing. Or they want to beat the bad guy in the game. They want to win. They have something specific that they want to understand.
I would say that not-coincidentally, several of my Spanish teenagers understood elements of Japanese or Korean. Nobody taught them as such, but they’ve filled their time watching and listening to videos. Where they have been curious, their brains have naturally put in the effort to learn.
So what was my goal when I first started learning Spanish? Something more specific than simply survive.
In August 2018 I walked into a bookshop in Leeds, went upstairs to the foreign languages section and looked at the selection of books available in Spanish. I pulled out Gabriel García Márquez’ El coronel no tiene quien le escriba.
I cannot read her work, so when a journalist friend tells me that she’s surprised when someone compliments her writing, I cannot judge for myself what she is publishing.
However, I am well-acquainted with her self-possessed use of the English language. You wouldn’t guess that neither of her parents speaks English from the elaborate emails she writes to me. Although, when free from the newspaper word-limit she’s undoubtedly verbose, her words captivate.
Words are magic.
Written words stimulate the imagination as much as any other external reality – fire, storm, thunder – and yet they can express an internal reality – hope, philosophy, mood – in ways which also provoke the imagination, engage with that astounding faculty and set it off to make more words, adding to the visible map of the mind. Writing helps us to see what it is to be more completely human.
Melvyn Bragg, The Adventure of English
I think by writing. My borrowed thoughts and beliefs get tested and made mine by my efforts to commit them to paper. When times get tricky, I reach to the written word. Through the written word I learnt to communicate about rape. My diaries hold the words I often don’t know how to say. Words like love, fear, grief, sex.
Considering that I was born with some mild disadvantage when it comes to the spoken word, it’s unsurprising that my linguistic confidence is so linked to pen and paper. Maybe Freud would say that after a childhood of having my h’s, t’s, a’s, u’s and f’s corrected (ridiculed), it’s of no surprise that I make my living teaching others to speak well. Or proper, as I would prefer to say.
My father thinks it mad that I am an English teacher. His daughter who started life with clogged up lugs and a lazy tongue, who couldn’t work out how many claps to fit in the rhythm of her own name, who, he jokes, learnt to speak after the younger one…
And yet, last summer my increasingly deaf grandfather complimented the clarity of my speech, quite taking me aback. But, he’s right. Not without toil, I am cleaning up my pronunciation: letting my day-to-day English slide towards what we call received pronunciation, standard, BBC or posh. I am challenging my substandard articulation and like a boy, whose voice is deepening, from time to time make sounds that surprise me. Sometimes I cringe to hear myself.
I’m not eradicating my language of the past, just reducing the ignorance that limited it.
I know full well that the way we speak forms and restricts our identities. I have no problem with teaching at the weekend as on the weekend to my Latin American students (even if I think it sounds ugly), but I’m clear that it’s not the way I speak. My students need a consistent, reliable English and there’s no point getting all uppity about one flavour of the language being better than another. Prepositions are tricky enough at the best of times. People are generally insecure enough about their language without having it picked-to-death by pedants.
I would correct their use of I am sat if they ever thought to make such a mistake, with the caveat that it’s not unsaid back home. When I teach, I do not pretend that there is one righteous English. And the more I teach, the more I fall in love. The richness is in the variety, the endless possibilities that tempts and taunts us. Yet I no longer feel at the mercy of the rulebook. My dialectical twists of grammar exist because I choose them to. I know more about English grammar than most native speakers. When someone points out that a word I say doesn’t exist to them, I no longer take it quite so personally.
Chaucer used a different flavour of English for each of his storytellers in his Canterbury Tales. Since then the language has grown, but the idea that we can each have such unique voices is still as true as ever.
We each have our vocabulary – visible maps of our minds. Mine holds my words, whilst my friends each have their distinct linguistic maps. Idiolects mostly coinciding with the dictionary and grammar guides, but not always. Even within the closeness of family, my mother and I debate across the dining room table with phrases that the other would never say. I rarely invoke any Gordons.
The distinctiveness of our voice lays visible to others and yet we are oft-times unaware of it.
We might be perplexed by the words we do not understand but think little of those we do. We might have the ambition to sound like someone famous we’ve read, and realise we never will. I wonder if my journalist friend knows that Gabriel García Márquez was a brilliant journalist, though terrible at spelling
She listens to her language. During her voice messages, she frequently pauses to ponder which of a few words would be the most apt for her particular phrase. I’ve sat in awe, listening as she muses over regional distinctions between tiny populations in the 5-million-strong country of Finland. Her awareness of language, of identity, of the power of words, is a treasure.
Maybe though, she has no idea how special what she does is.
We had a visitor to the house. Honestly, it really wasn’t intentional.
You see, I live in a small bungalow with a large German Shepherd. This works out surprisingly well most of the time. He’s a very good-natured dog, however, the other day, as my housemate and I were eating our lunch, we glanced out the window and saw that next-door’s cat was in our garden.
The dog peered down at it, calmly with an air of curiosity.
Now, you should know that this cat is not the brightest kitten in the litter. The other day it entered the garden and spent a long time mewing before we realised it didn’t know how to get home and dropped it back over the fence into next-door’s yard. Luckily, that time the dog was in the house and fast asleep.
This time we weren’t so lucky. This time we watched as the not-so-intelligent cat took a swipe at the rather-large dog’s maw.
The dog registered the threat as hostile and acted as a large German Shepherd in Chile is supposed to. He gave chase.
But of course, the stupid cat still had no idea how to get out of the garden.
So, the dog chased the cat, my housemate chased the dog and I did the stupidest thing possible in the circumstances: I grabbed the cat.
If I could have, I would have dropped it safely over the fence, but the cat fought against me (I have the scars to prove it) and I dropped the cat before I reached the fence. At which point the cat darted past the dog straight into the house, I followed, slamming the door behind me, putting myself in the house with the cat, leaving the manic dog barking in the garden with my housemate.
Now the cat was under a bed, with no intention of coming out.
The game became one of waiting. I cleaned up my wounds and put plasters where the blood still flowed, then, cursing the cat, we finished our lunch.
Eventually, of course, the cat had to come out, and when it did, I was ready. I pounced. Got it. My housemate rushed to trap the dog elsewhere and I gently deposited the cat, over the fence, into next door’s garden.
So to anyone who’s asking, no, I’m not finding this quarantine boring.