Saturday 25 March 2017

Thoughts in Progress

A fellow parent confessed to me recently that she was struggling with her adolescent daughter. Her behaviour was erratic, she had lied on a couple of occasions and she was lagging behind in her exams. All part and parcel of parenting, I thought. Then, she made a comment that left me scratching my head for a nanosecond before realising what she meant: “You see, I don’t want to be like those other parents”. She didn’t point at anyone in particular, there were no other parents around us and she kept her eyes firmly on the ground as she spoke. Whether she was feeling embarrassed or guilty, I don’t know. What I did know was what she meant by “those other parents”.

Retrospective analysis is a powerful tool. Especially for those with no past in the country to which they have relocated. I came to live in London facing the imminent arrival of my son (my wife was heavily pregnant) and an almost-zero knowledge on parenting on arrival. Whatever I had experienced during my previous stay in Londontown (just the one month) was nothing compared to upping sticks and moving here permanently. Talk about challenges! A new culture, new ways of being, expectations (both of myself and of my future home) and a baby craving attention.

A few of the difficulties were overcome pretty soon. I found a job and I got used to the British accent (especially the London twang) almost immediately. It was the parenting bit that took me longer (has taken me longer, I should write). That is why I was able to understand this fellow parent’s concern.

As soon as I settled in London, I, ever the observant, began to listen carefully to what people said and to watch what they did. The outcome of this gave me a powerful insight into the world of parenting in the UK.

Being a parent/carer is not easy. Along with education it is the profession that almost everyone has an opinion on, whether parents themselves or not. Note the use of the word “profession”. Being a parent is a job, just not a paid one. We are raising little human beings with the hope they will become responsible citizens in the future.

What that parent was telling me on that day corroborated the suspicions I had long harboured about parenting in the UK: it is a much divided element of society with a silo mentality that conspires against the very world we want to create for our children.

Let us go back to that parent for a second. What she was confessing to me would not have made anyone bat an eyelid. In fact, we would all have chimed in with our own anecdotes of stroppy teenagers. Yet, the more I scratched the surface, the more I realised she was being snobbish.

Look at the gates of a modern primary or secondary school in Britain and you will be exposed to a modern urban zoo. Whether a comprehensive or an academy, it is the same spectacle: parents forming their own mini-tribes and clans with very strict rules on who is allowed to join in. Forget The Who singing “the kids are alright”. It’s the adults who are screwed up.

Class, I noticed in those early years when my son was in reception, had an overarching, albeit thinly-veiled, influence on parents’ integration into the school community. The scruffy-looking, hair-up-in-a-bun, chain-smoking parent – usually, a mum – was shunned. The 4x4-driving, high-flying, dapper-looking progenitor was welcome. As I mentioned before, this was not openly done. Like a secret language, the way parents interacted with each other was full of codes and signals.

What this other parent really meant when talking to me was that she did not want to be seen as a rubbish parent. After all she did not yell at her daughter on the street. Or, give her fast food for breakfast and dinner. Or, she was not the type who refused to play with her little one, choosing to be on her mobile 24/7 instead. No, she was the other kind: the one who used to take her bairn to the museum, who always took advantage of free drama workshops or who baked cakes together with her daughter.

Let me say something really controversial: there is no such thing as a rubbish parent. There is, however, challenging parenting. How could there not be? You go from thinking mainly of yourself (OK, maybe, the boy/girlfriend, too) to caring for another human being who, in the first years of their life, cannot articulate clearly what their needs are. It is enough to make someone want to blow their brains off. Add ingredients such as class, race, gender and age and public perceptions of them and you have a recipe for disaster. Furthermore, with the government’s latest announcements on the new education policy, there will be even more division in the school community. The proposed return of grammar schools and the expansion of academies will contribute to the entrenchment of privilege. Those parents with greater means will flood the grammar school a mile away, whilst the local comp, unable to compete, will just die a slow death. Guess whose children will attend the former and whose the latter? 4x4 glamour parent’s and chain-smoker’s respectively.

My answer to my fellow parent’s worries was that sometimes we need to get to know the other parent before rushing to judge them on their appearance. An appearance that occasionally includes a sign hanging from their neck with the caption "Please, touch me with a bargepole". By the same token that parenting is hard, it is unfortunately an opportunity to get up on one’s high horse and point our accusing finger to all and sundry. As Philip Larkin said: “They f*** you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to, but they do”. The trick is in understanding that this is never intentional. Remember: there is no such thing as a rubbish parent. But, boy, is parenting challenging!

As usual, this is my last column before the Easter break. I hope you have a very relaxing time and get to do all the things you have been planning to do but have not found time to. I know I will be doing more cycling around London (if my bike allows me to). I shall return late April. Until then, take care of yourselves.

© 2017

Wednesday 22 March 2017

Let's Talk About...

the good old days. C’mon, you know what I’m on about. We live in times when even people in their early 30s preface their sentences with: “Do you remember when…?” When, what, exactly? When you were born and Thatcher was in power

Let’s talk about a certain epidemic sweeping through these isles. It’s a “selective memory” condition that reminisces about past times, carefully and skilfully leaves the bad bits out and focuses mainly on the good ones.

It is not an ailment that affects solely the Brits. I had the opportunity to see the same phenomenon in my country of birth when I visited last summer. Perhaps, because Castro’s demise was imminent, but I ran into people who went out of their way to romanticise a past they had only slagged off three years before on my previous visit.

The elements that make up this “golden era” evocation in the UK are different, though. We live in times when technology, to mention but one factor, has challenged normal conventions. Social norms, educational practices, human interactions, they have all been transformed. For many, these changes have been for the worse. Loss of manners, addiction to gadgets and lack of social etiquette are some of the side-effects of swiping and scrolling. It is natural, therefore, to look at the emotional spaces carved out in one’s childhood as a comfortable refuge to inhabit.

But beware. Bygone eras do not come all under the same banner and with the same content. Let’s talk about the good old days, but what years exactly? Before the 1910s, you say? If you were a woman you did not have the vote. If you were poor there was no free healthcare and seeing one’s offspring dying was common. 1930s? Rise of antisemitism in Europe, so, if you were a Jew, you were not safe. 1940s? There was a war going on. And whilst Britain fought on the side of what I call “the good guys”, the truth is that when your city is being bombed to bits, you do not look back on those days with fondness but rather with horror. 1950s? OK, I’ll give you that one, but only if you were not gay, you did not need an abortion and you were not black (the racially-motivated Notting Hill riots took place in 1958).

This is not to say that these eras lacked pluses. There were many: outdoor play was part and parcel of growing up; allergies were not as rife as now (as spring time comes upon us, I am already fretting over which allergy will attack me first: pollen-caused hay fever, the tree variety or the grass type?); dieting was mainly the preserve of celebrities and community carried a real meaning.
Say what about my health?

The danger is that as our future becomes more frightening we retreat further away from it. And by moving away we invariably drift towards that “past as a foreign country”. Of course they do things differently there. For starters, they have not got mobile phones. They did, however, cane you. Remember that?

Let’s talk about the good old days. But when we do, let us remember, too, that not everything was rosy pink. Outside toilets, bullying, bigotry, and domestic violence were so normal that people would not bat an eyelid if you brought these subjects up in conversation. That is why I think it is better to think that no era was golden. They all had their pros and cons and idealising them does no one any favours. Plus, at least we have mobile phones now, don’t you think?

© 2017

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 25th March at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 18 March 2017

Thoughts in Progress

Before you carry on reading this column, please, do the following: stand in front of a mirror, preferably a full-length one and ask yourself this question: what am I? Not, who are you? You know who you are, but what you are will pose a different challenge to answer. Then, come back to my blog and post a short, one- or two-line response below.

At some point in the last ten to twelve years I posed a similar question to myself. Before that time, however, I never queried what I was. Or at least, not consciously. If ever the question arose, it came from someone, rather than from me.

I would wager (and I am not the betting type) that your answers included categories such as age, race, complexion, body shape and height. Some might have ventured a bit further and included their sexual orientation and politics.

How many of you started your response with the phrase: I am a human being?

There is no catch in this post. Like you for a long time I described myself as Cuban, male, black, young (still and forever), able-bodied, neither tall, nor short, slim and muscular, straight, leftwing (but not romantic), cynical and pragmatic. Two lines that established what I was. No priority in that list. Yet, at some point the pragmatic has taken over the Cuban. Other times the Cuban has replaced the black as a bigger identity marker.

However, hidden under all these thick layers there was one trait that I shared with every other man or woman on Planet Earth: our human experience. What is it about us humans that compels us to “dress up” this essential feature with countless other elements?

Our starting point in life, barring location and economic status, is similar. We cry most of the time as we come out of the womb; we immediately gravitate towards our mother’s breast, seeking nourishment. We react warmly to affection. We begin the long, arduous process of living, knowing that our individual choices must not hurt others, that we are responsible not only for ourselves but also for the world at large.

The challenge is that at some point in our lives and at a very early stage for some, we also start to layer up our identity. The markers we choose might or might not be of our own volition but the decision to act on them is ours.

The reason why I have been thinking about identity markers and our common humanity is the situation of refugees in Europe. The dangers these people face is threefold. First, their situation back home. Second, the journey many have to undertake to reach what they would consider a safe sanctuary. Third, but by no means least, the new life they have to carve out in a land to which they never thought of emigrating in the first place.

The thinking on refugees is usually framed in terms of economic cost: how much is it to feed them, clothe them, house them and employ them? The discussion very rarely delves deeper into the reasons why people with reasonable life standards would risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean or war zones to get to Europe. If we did, we would probably find an index finger pointing back at us. On the one hand, our military industry demands that more wars be waged. Otherwise, how on earth would we manage to sell our weapons? On the other hand, our economic choices have a knock-on effect on Third World countries and their capacity for self-reliance.

I described myself as a cynic a few paragraphs before. Nevertheless, I have confidence in the world we live. I am also a romantic (not of the “plastic socialist” type, though) and believe that the majority of human interactions involve millions of acts of kindness and co-operation. Part of the reason why I hold these beliefs (note the use of what is commonly seen as religious language. I am reclaiming it) is that many years ago I, too, stood in front of a full-length mirror and asked myself what I was. The first answer I came up with still resonates to this day: human.

© 2017

Next Post: “Let’s Talk About…”, to be published on Wednesday 22nd March at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 15 March 2017

Living in a Multilingual World (The One About Language in our Post-Truth Times)

Perhaps one of the unintended consequences of Trump’s presidency so far is its effect on translators. I know that I’m going out on a limb here, translators being bottom of the heap when it comes to the White House’s incumbent’s chief victims. Nonetheless, it is an issue I feel pressed to raise, being a part-time (and very occasional) translator.

Our work is usually fraught with linguistic booby-traps and idiomatic swamps. One minute, you are on safe ground and you feel confident of what you are producing. The next minute you are sinking in quicksand and even a bilingual dictionary is of no help at all. It is a cruel world out there already for translators. Therefore we do not need Monsieur Trump to add to our calamities.

The problem arises from the president’s (every time I type the words “Donald Trump” and “president of the USA” in the same sentence, I get a mixed reaction. One is uncontrollable laughter followed by endless crying. Maybe I should work on a translation for those feelings and put it on a T-shirt to sell) use of the English language. He very rarely means what he says and he does not say much. Unless you count his constant tautology.

Take the word “bad”. I have enough on my plate with the “yoot” of today using this adjective to describe something or someone as “good”. Yes, you read that right. “Bad” is not “bad”, but “good”.

For Pussy-Grabber-In-Chief, however, “bad” is something he disagrees with, not necessarily something that lacks quality, i.e., not good. Which would automatically qualify the thing or the person as “good” (if you ask me). It serves Trump’s simplistic, binary vision of the world to offer this black and white concept. Agree with the Muslim travel ban? Good. Disagree? Bad.
How do you translate that hair again?

But as a translator, I work on ideas, not just words. That means that a sentence like “A lot of bad ‘dudes’ out there!” is bound to give me sleepless nights. Note how straightforward it is (muchos tipos malos por ahí), and yet, we know that the majority of people Trump targets are law-abiding Muslims. Therefore, I cannot agree with the word “bad” even if my job is only to translate.

The president is not alone. On this side of the Atlantic, former education secretary Michael Gove lashed out at experts just before the Brexit vote, stating that “people had had enough” of them. The translation of the word “expert” into Spanish is “experto/a”. In both English and Spanish it means “a person who has a special skill or knowledge in some particular field. Well, not anymore. I am not sure whether to go for the dictionary definition (specialist), or Gove’s one (conman, especially of the EU-financed variety). What if the translation is for a Brexiteer? What if Trump’s entourage hires me covertly to translate important documents? Highly unlikely, I know, but you can never be too sure.

It is not just those who worry about civil liberties and human rights who are troubled by what is going on in both Europe and the States. It is also linguists, translators and academics who wonder if our language will ever be the same. After all, what is the translation for “fake news” again? “Noticias falsas”, you say? But the other side claims they are part of an alternative facts world. Pass me the smelling salts, will you! At least that phrase is an easy one to translate.

© 2017

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 18th March at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 11 March 2017

Thoughts in Progress

Nancy Sinatra once sang: “Well, these boots are made for walking, and that's just what they'll do/One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you”. It is not just Miss Sinatra‘s sassiness that sets up apart but also what we do with our footwear.
My boots turn twenty this year. Notice the use of “my” in the previous sentence. I did not write “I have a pair of boots that turns twenty this year”. I could have, though. I have more than one pair of boots, including hiking ones. But when I say “my boots”, there is only one pair that counts. My Mexican boots, bought in 1997, end of February or beginning of March after I found out that I had been given my tourist visa to visit London.

Although I have forgotten the month and date, I do remember the day when I purchased my boots. It was a typical winter’s day in Havana with the temperature hovering in the mid-20s. That morning I went to the British embassy in Miramar, western Havana, and after getting my paperwork in order decided to hit the streets of Old Havana, in the east, for a while.

The first shoe boutique in the Cuban capital – to my knowledge – had recently opened on Obispo Street, a pedestrian-only road that was flanked by shops, paladares and crafts business on either side. It was on one of its corners where I first laid eyes on a mahogany-coloured pair of Mexican boots. They were dear, I won’t lie. The fact I cannot remember the price probably tells you how embarrassed I felt at the time at coughing up much-worked-for cash in exchange for such luxury product. The money came from my free-lancing. It was a fruitful period for me; in addition to my interpreting and translation services I taught Spanish to foreign students.

From that moment I put my boots on, winter/spring ‘97 to now, writing this post in the quiet of my house, listening to Beethoven’s Sonatas performed by Daniel Baremboim, my faithful boots have always been by my side. As if to remind me of their longevity, today one of them paid a visit to our local cobbler’s (yes, believe it or not, we still have a cobbler) and it now has its heel glued back on.

James Taylor’s lines “Winter, spring, summer or fall/All you've got to do is call/And I'll be there, ye, ye, ye/You've got a friend” could well have been written with my boots in mind. They are the ones singing the verses. On my feet they travelled to Dominican Republic, Spain (three times), Cuba (twice) and various places in Britain, including Oban (Scotland), Dorset, Cornwall and Woolacombe (England). They have been worn to pedal down the streets of Londontown and I’ve walked with them from Oxford Street, where it meets Charing Cross Road, to Lambeth Bridge via Whitehall and Abindgon Street. I have got hot and sweaty whilst dancing with them on (in fact, that’s how the heel on the right one came off a year and a half ago).

In a world of unbridled consumerism it would be easy to dismiss my unshakeable and unconditional love for my boots as romantic tomfoolery. Well, I’d better come clear then: I am a hopeless, romantic fool sometimes. Only sometimes, mind, the rest of the time I am a romantic with 99% of reality in my head. Occasionally, I tell that 99% to go very far and stay with that 1% that more than makes up for the missing percentage.

Last autumn, for the first time in two decades I looked in a catalogue for a similar pair of boots to my Mexican ones. I guess that in the back of my mind the idea of the inevitable was forming. My old friends will give up the ghost one day and, whilst nothing can replace them, contemplating alternatives did not feel like treachery. However, I got so upset at the thought of losing my dear, old boots that I closed the pages of the brochure in my hands.

Here's to you, my faithful boots!

It is strange to think of inanimate objects, like shoewear, as friends. It is normal to fall for cats, dogs and other pets and see our relationship with them in the same light as a friendship with another human being. Yet, to me, the fact that this pair of tough, solid, well-made boots have endured for so long and have made such a big impact on my life is proof that sometimes friends are not of the chase-the-ball kind, or the roll-over-the-floor-while-I-tickle-your-belly type. Sometimes all they want is to be worn. Over and over again. All over the city, the countryside and near the sea. Now, whether you decide to walk over someone with them on, well, that one is up to you. And I certainly am not that sassy.

© 2017

Next Post: “Living in a Multilingual World”, to be published on Wednesday 15th Marchat 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 8 March 2017

Urban Diary

I set off on my run in the mid afternoon sun. As I close the front door of my house, I listen to two voices inside me: one comes from my mind, the other one from my body. Together they either help me achieve my goal or make me give up half way through. My marathon is in almost four weeks’ time and I aim to complete seventeen miles today. I plan to “break the wall”, that invisible, mental construct that defeats runners of all ages, genders and abilities. Last year as I trained for the same event, the Brighton Marathon, I came across certain features in my personality to which I had not paid proper attention before, resilience and stubbornness being two of them (mind you, the latter has been known to me for several years). The “wall-breaking” moment brought about changes in the way I saw running and the elements I needed to work on in order to succeed.

Today both voices are in agreement: you can do it. Still, I look for mental and visual stimulation. Being well acquainted with the route I will be covering makes my physical effort less demanding.

Massed and compact front lawns announce timidly the arrival of spring. Small, buttercup-coloured daisies stand out amongst the lush green, a green that is the result of heavy downfalls (including Storm Doris) in London in the last fortnight. With the temperature in double figures, but certainly not in the teens yet and a weak sun bleeding orange rays I take the first step.

Up and down I go around my urban jungle. After a while the route becomes flatter and my pace steadies. As if in direct contradiction with my surroundings my energy levels rise as the day slowly dies. By the time I reach mile fifteenth, the sun is but a spark behind the buildings on the high road. I get home submerged in darkness. I check my mileage and I feel pleased about reaching my goal. For some strange reason I think back on the buttercup-coloured daisies, springing up amidst the lush green of people’s front lawns.

© 2017

Photo taken by the blog author

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 11th March at 6pm (GMT)

Saturday 4 March 2017

Thoughts in Progress

The human experience is a moment-hopping journey. Random memories coalesce together in the hope we can make sense of our existence, of who we are, why we are here. We weave a consciously lineal narrative into our voyage through the world and yet our subconscious releases these stories like a bundle of pick-up sticks in a game of Mikado.

Snap! There we are, aged six and our front tooth has just come out. We smile at everyone without fear or shame. The hole in our denture defies ridicule and encourages individuality. Distant is still the feeling of embarrassment that will plague our future years, whenever we are asked on to the dance floor.

Snap! There we are, sitting by ourselves on the cracked wall next to the abandoned, weed-strewn, communal garden. We are the acne-afflicted teenager with pain in his heart and no Plan B on how to deal with it. Yesterday we rose to kiss our loved one. Standing on toes, raised heels. Raised hopes. Dashed now.

Snap! We are the young adult with a frown on our face and a letter in our hand explaining mortgage rates. Our ship moves ever so slowly away from harbour. Soon, we will not have tranquil waters anymore. Instead we will be at the mercy of the ever-changing weather. The letter sits on the table. The mortgage rates fluctuate in the stock market. We are building our monument to Nostalgia.

Nostalgia. Self-lacerating and yet so welcome. One minute you are the mature, decisive adult who handles each child-related emergency with pragmatism and sang froid. The next minute, you are an emotional wreck as memories of that cracked wall flash up in your mind.

Nostalgia. Indulgence in the past or fear of the future? Traps that Time sets for us, unsuspecting humans, or tools to re-imagine easily forgotten eras?

The ball I threw while playing in the park has not yet reached the ground. No, it moved in whimsical ways and continues to move that way. Neither lineally nor predictably, but randomly. Like a bundle of pick-up sticks in a game of Mikado. Ready to be released.

© 2017

Photo by the blog author

Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 8th March at 6pm (GMT)

Wednesday 1 March 2017

Food, Music, Food, Music, Food, Music... Ad Infinitum

 Photograph: Louise Hagger for the Guardian.

Maybe it is the success I had recently with a chicken and avocado salad I made for a colleague’s leaving do at work, but I am getting bolder with my veg and spices. This recipe comes courtesy of one of my favourite cooks, Yotam Ottolenghi. My only addition would be a Scotch bonnet chilli. Just to give the salad a bit of a kick.

Moroccan carrot salad with orange and pistachio

The orange blossom is a lovely addition to the dressing, but don’t buy a whole bottle just for the sake of a quarter-teaspoon. This salad is still lovely without it. Serves four.
650g carrots, peeled and coarsely grated
2 oranges, peeled and cut into 1cm pieces
½ small garlic clove, peeled and crushed
50g pistachios, toasted and chopped
20g coriander leaves
15g mint leaves

For the dressing

3 tbsp olive oil
¼ tsp orange blossom water (optional)
2 tsp honey
1½ tsp cumin seeds, toasted and lightly crushed
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
3 tbsp lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Whisk the dressing ingredients in a bowl with half a teaspoon of salt and a good grind of pepper. Add the salad ingredients, toss to coat and serve.

The music to go with this recipe must have that fresh feel, too. And because it is winter, it must also have that heart-warming quality that this season’s food has. First up are the Four Tops. Just because this song exudes the joy that fills up my kitchen when I’m cooking. Enjoy.

His voice is velvety, smooth and utterly ethereal. Maxwell’s cover of Kate Bush’s This Woman’s Work is as good as, if not better than, the original. It goes hand in hand with our crisp, spicy salad.

We finish with a fine daughter of Africa. Malian singer song-writer Oumou Sangare’s soulful voice is one that suits our aromatic salad very well.

Next Post: “Thoughts in Progress”, to be published on Saturday 4th March at 6pm (GMT)


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