Most of my British friends walk fast.
Some of them walk very fast. All of them walk faster than me. When I came to this country, I became aware I was a slow walker. Until then, walking speed was not a question. My friends and I walked at the same pace: the closer we were, the slower we walked; the more engaging the conversation, the slower we walked. Speed was a concept I had never discussed before. In the distance, I reckon the slowness of pace was deeply intertwined with the level of connection.
Now, as a result of living in London, I walk faster. Not fast, but faster. Not as fast as my British friends, but quicker than many Spanish ones. They walk and talk as if there is no rush, no place to go, no tube to catch. As if life is perambulation without an end.
I am, once again, in no-woman’s-land. A foreigner in my own language. A foreigner at my own speed.
A little kick
After writing my previous post, I have started to think about how much I lose focus on particular situations. When I was little, I used to daydream during exams, and my mind would break free until I realised I had to finish the test. One of my teachers realised it and used to, softly, kick me in the head to help me come back. She probably does not remember me, I was one of many students, but those little kicks meant a lot to me. I have to kick myself softly from time to time to keep going. There are a few situations where I can’t maintain focus for too long:
When writing correlative numbers, there is a moment when I will start going backwards. For instance, in a series such as A49, A50, A51, A52, A53, chances are that the following number will be A52, A51, and so on.
If the numbers go backwards, this will happen way sooner: A99, A98, A97, A98, …
When I am swimming, I try to focus on the act of swimming: is my hand entering the water in the proper position, how far does it get, what side is my torso leaning into, are my legs kicking, how much, how fast, is the kicking happening while my hands are entering the water, how am I breathing, when do I take the face out to breath, can I keep the breathing longer… But this doesn’t last. These thoughts hardly last one lane.
I cannot count lanes. After three or four, I am already lost. I often swim with a friend, and she keeps count not only of her lanes but also mine —we go at different speeds that don’t always match.
Watching movies. There has not been one movie where my brain did not fly away at some point until a little kick brought it back into the story.
When I cycle, or when I walk, I try to go faster, keep a steady fast pedal or a quicker walking pace. But after a short period of time, I realise my speed decreases and its not (necessarily) because I’m tired. If I am not thinking about keeping the speed up, my body decreases the speed to default.
Focusing on something reminds me of my father. He has an in-depth focusing skills. He is more like a chess player, although he doesn’t play chess. He can read and focus and think ahead —he is a retired professor in chemistry. Like in chess, he can think of the next movement, and what can happen after that, and the one after that, and one more, and another one. He cannot, however, have lateral thinking. His focus is one thing and one thing only.
Arabic week 1
I’ve been in a sort of mental (and physical) limbo for the last three months. Nothing worked, both my brain and body did not function. A few weeks ago, I started to colour in maps. It’s a soothing activity that allows my mind to go wherever it wants. It feels like focusing freedom. As I was getting better, I decided to find something mechanic but more challenging, so I thought, why not, try to learn Arabic. I tried a couple of years ago, but it only lasted two months. This time I got a book, and a few pdfs. I am learning Arabic.
There is the writing. Well, so far, it’s about tracing letters. This is as mechanic as can be, repeating the same character again and again. I’ve always found very difficult to focus on one thing only, my thoughts can only focus on the action of writing for a few moments, and after that it’s focus-free mode. Working with type and typography gives you a way of interrogating letters that is probably a bit different from non-type-aware citizens, that is, the majority of the world. I’m not sure it makes the task any easier.
Then there are sounds. This is an impossible task, repeating the sounds, listen and repeat, listen and repeat. Why there are so many glyphs that sound almost the same? Still a mystery, but this is week one, so maybe the answer will be revealed eventually.
Then there is duolingo, to match characters and sounds, and slowly to learn all the positions of the letters within the words.
Then there is a friend from work who sends me audios of words via WhatsApp. It’s so sweet. And what a privilege is working with minded people.
Then the are movies. I searched for Lebanese films on one of the streaming platforms, but somehow I ended up watching an Israeli movie filmed in Germany. Not exactly what I was looking for. Next time there will be better luck.
I don’t usually cry, but I did unexpectedly one morning in 2022, reading a book, not a sad one, but an architectural book. I borrowed Beatriz Colomina’s book, Privacy and publicity, from the college library. I had no previous knowledge about her, other than she had written a book and her area is architecture. Wrongly, I assumed she had a Hispanic background and was from the US, so English would be her first language. It turns out she is from Valencia, Spain, and has been living in the States for a long time. It was the prologue that made me cry.
‘The moment we start writing, language takes us on an excursion of its own. And if that language is not ours, we are definitely in foreign territory. (…) Lately, I have started to feel that way about Spanish. I have managed to become a foreigner in both languages’.
This was a feeling I could perfectly understand, that resonated with me on a personal level and made me feel close to a woman I had never seen or met, a woman I knew little about.
Writing is easy. Narratives are hard.
In 2002 I started writing a short story with a good starting point, but I could not develop a narrative. So it ended up in the pile of unfinished stories.
In 2002 I was sharing a flat in London, and we bought a tv. We didn’t have a car, so we went to the shop and asked for the tv to be delivered. My job was to stay home and wait for the Argos delivery. Now we are so used to online orders and constant shipping, but it was not so ordinary back then. We couldn’t track the shipping, following the driver in a little spot across London.
The story was about this dude, back then my characters tend to be men, who was a journalist covering a horrible death that happened while I was in London — a young woman was killed in Victoria park in plain sight while she was running. My character, David Sacker (don’t ask), went to Oxford Street and bought a 28 inches tv, waiting for a delivery and losing his mind as he waited. The first paragraph (this is a translation from Spanish):
Twenty-eight inches was the equivalent of seven hundred and eleven point two millimetres. That was the diagonal of David Sacker’s new television. But it was also much more than that. It was the distance between his fridge and the oven, the distance from his bedside table to the floor, and the very measure of his madness.
He was waiting in his apartment, but he wouldn’t be able to take a shower, go to the loo, or buy food. What was supposed to be a one-day wait became several days. Alone at home, this wait would be too much for him, turning his brain into madness. He started to measure part of his Hackney apartment into units of 28 inches. Unfortunately, again, I wasn’t able to solve the jigsaw, and I didn’t finish it.
There was always writing.
Since I can remember, writing has been there. When I was about 12 or 13, all the kids in my class thought I would be a writer. It was so easy back then. Words would just get one after the other.
Later, in my teens, I used to go everywhere with a notebook and a pencil. I would go to the park, sneakily smoking cigarettes. There were some rules I had to follow. I would write about what was in front of me, quality was not a goal, but speed and quantity, blank pages were not allowed. A poem about the steps. A tribute to a cloud. A song for an ant.
Back then, all I wrote was fiction and some sort of poetry. Short stories that generally followed the same style of whatever book we were reading in class. I wrote about Castilla when we read Machado, I tried Lorca’s rhythm. There was no style, I was only fifteen.
For the high school literature competition, I sent multiple stories. I got some awards. They loved one of my poems, but they couldn’t awarded it, it was a tribute to a card game (mus, a Spanish popular game, way more popular than poker). They were shortsighted, it was a tribute to friendship.
Then there was journalism. It was the end of fiction. On Saturday nights, I would write headlines out of my friends’ sentences, not the truth, but not lying either. We would read them out loud on hangover Sundays and laugh, it was manipulation to clickbait level, without knowing.
After that, I only wrote two more fiction stories. One for a literature class, it was good, they said, but you need to solve the jigsaw you started. But I couldn’t solve the jigsaw and I never finished it. Years later, on a train to Valencia, an old man jumped under my wagon. He died. As way of coping I gave him a story, a name, and a narrative. I never wrote fiction again.
Writing became professional. Be a professional, I was told at journalism. So I did. I narrowed the topics to design, typography, and lettering. It became academic. And writing became painful.
I want the joy back.