Presence presents

We are still in the simple present tense only. When we try to talk about the past or the future we make mistakes. We learn that there is more than one way to be.

There is the verb “ser”, which you use when you talk about a permanent state. The teacher gives an example. “I am a woman”, “Soy una mujer". Even when these days you can be born as a man and turn into a woman (but probably because you always were, even when you were labelled differently). If it is a temporary state we use “estar”. “Estoy casada”, I am married. Even when you promise your partner that you will stay with him or her forever (but you won’t, because even if you never get divorced, one of you will die earlier than the other). 

Learning a new language brings up many questions. Maybe that is what I like most about it. What is permanent and what is temporary? How do you say “I am alive?” It is a temporary state so it must be “Estoy viva”. But how about “I am dead”? Is that a temporary state? I would say no, because I don’t believe in an afterlife, but that is a personal opinion. And I hope I am wrong there. This language tells me I am. “Estoy muerta”, I am dead. Simple present tense of “estar”. Temporary being.
We learn how to possess and what you possess. We learn to be afraid. To have fear, “tener miedo”, which is a wonderful way to put it because if you have it, if you possess it, you can also decide to get rid of it. In my own language we don’t have fear anymore, it sounds old-fashioned to put it like that. We are afraid. It has become part of our being.

After class I try to be in the present a bit longer. The sun shines. I sit on the bench where the homeless man was sitting yesterday, who today sits on the bench where I was sitting yesterday. We look at each other from a distance. Everything is different today although it seems to be just a reorganisation of elements, a change of shapes. The angelic man in bright white with the baby in a white blanket on his chest is replaced now by an Indian woman who walks the same route he walked yesterday, dressed in brightly coloured waving garments, a sleeping baby in even brighter colours wrapped in a blanket on her back.

Nothing much happens. More people appear and disappear. The homeless man objects when a taxi drives into the square. A man fetches water for his dog from the fountain in the middle. A street cleaner sweeps up a dead pigeon.

All in the simple present tense.

(Spanish class, day 4)


Miedo y felicidad. Fear and happiness.

Yesterday in Spanish class we did an exercise with names of famous people. We had to say if we knew them, who they were, if we liked what they were doing. I knew Penélope Cruz of course, actriz and Alejandro González Iñáritu, director de cine. Leo Messi, futbolista, Rafa Nadal, tenista, Shakira (none of us liked her), Gabriel García Márquez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Javier Bardem. I never heard of Zoé Valdés, writer.

Today I walked to the language school and saw some books on top of the container just next to the door. One in particular caught my eye. “La nada cotidiana”. The everyday nothing. Written by Zoé Valdés.
I put it in my bag and after the class, which we ended by having to write down five reasons for being happy, I sat outside on a bench in the small square a few hundred meters down the road. It was sunny and opposite of me some other people were enjoying the sun. I thought of the reasons I gave. Porque el cielo eres sempre azul aquí. Because the sky is always blue here. Porque ser infeliz es una pérdida de tiempo. Because being unhappy is a waste of time. Porque no ser pobre y tener un lugar en la vida. Because I’m not poor and I’ve got a place to live.

A homeless man was enjoying the sun as well, getting warm, and two elderly men who seemed to know him joined him, one of them reading the newspaper, from time to time exchanging some words with the other two. It was cold in the places the sun didn’t reach and people walking by were dressed in winter coats, dark colours mainly, grey and black and here and there a touch of dark blue. But then a young man entered the square, walking in the sunlight, dressed in immaculate white. White jeans, white boots, a white leather jacket with a white fur colour. On his chest he was wearing a newborn, a tiny baby, wrapped in a white blanket. I thought he looked like a modern angel.

I opened Zoé Valdés book. It started with a quote by Marguerite Yourcenar. Tener miedo del futuro, eso nos facilita la muerte. Fear of the future makes death easier.

Until yesterday I didn’t know what “miedo” meant. But I saw the word in the newspaper after class when I read about Zygmunt Bauman who had died, about his concept of liquid modernity, applicable to all aspects of life, “desde el amor líquido al miedo líquido”, “ranging from liquid love to liquid fear”.

Only three days of learning Spanish and fear is everywhere. I am afraid that “miedo” is a word I will never forget, unlike many other ones I am learning these days. But somehow it will always be connected with the image of this man reflecting the sunlight, carrying his child through the city. And being happy, sitting in the sun, aware of having a home to return to.

Adding to my vocabulary in the simple present tense

I learned - or sometimes only tried to - learn a lot of languages in the last 44 years. I don’t remember being taught my first one and I have vague memories of how the two second ones entered my life, my grandfather watching German tv programs and English songs being present on the radio. There were English classes in primary school and German, French, Greek and Latin in secondary school. Old and modern Irish and Welsh in University and Hungarian when I lived for a while on the border between Slovakia and Hungary.

Some of them I forgot, there are no traces of the Welsh and in Hungarian I only managed to figure out when one word ended and the next one started in those never-ending poetic lines I heard people say. It is handy to be able to read the Greek alfabet when I am there on holiday but we never learned to speak in the classic Greek or Latin, just read and, speaking for myself, getting lost and confused. I speak English well though, good enough to feel comfortable writing in English. My German is pretty good and I can make myself understandable in French. It goes without saying that I don’t master any language as well as Dutch, but I don’t use it a lot and prefer not to.

I’ve been wanting to learn Spanish for a long time and postponed it for almost two years. This week I finally started and although I’ve spend many weeks and months wandering around in the language, speaking it is something different altogether. You need time and attention to learn something new and I couldn’t find it before. 

During the day, in class, I learn Castilian which is Spanish but only one of the four Spanish languages. I try to tell the time and to remember the year I was born in. I fail often. My memory plays tricks on me when at home I put verbs in my mouth but don’t know how to conjugate them. I still don’t manage the simple present tense in this new language but I do manage it in my being when I sit on my balcony in the darkness.

It is these quiet hours of the night that teach me most. About something that shimmers through all languages I ever learned. The hours when it is darkest outside and the birds are singing, birds that clearly don’t need daylight to sing but if they are robins, as I suspect, they appreciate the streetlights. They sing as if daylight is arriving soon and it will, in only a few hours, an instant in a lifetime, interchangeable with other offshoots of the night on other days, in other months.

During the night I leave my grammar books closed. I try to read El Principito and random Spanish articles of which I merely grasp the general meaning. I read Wallace Stevens in translation, two languages side by side, and I suspect it would be more efficient to stick to the grammar book if it would be only about being able to feel at home in the conversations of Spanish friends as soon as possible.
But I need to feel at home in my new life as well.

So I read this.

Prologues to what is possible


There was an ease of mind that was like being alone in a boat at sea,
A boat carried forward by waves resembling the bright back of rowers,
Gripping their oars, as if they were sure of the way to their destination,
Bending over and pulling themselves erect on the wooden handles,
Wet with water and sparkling in the one-ness of their motion.

The boat was built of stones that had lost their weight and being no longer heavy
Had left in them only a brilliance, of unaccustomed origin,
So that he that stood up in the boat leaning and looking before him
Did not pass like someone voyaging out of and beyond the familiar.
He belonged to the far-foreign departure of his vessel and was part of it,
Part of the speculum of fire on its prow, its symbol, whatever it was,
Part of the glass-like sides on which it glided over the salt-stained water.

As he travelled alone, like a man lured on by a syllable without any meaning,
A syllable of which he felt, with an appointed sureness,
That it contained the meaning into which he wanted to enter,
A meaning which, as he entered it, would shatter the boat and leave the oarsmen quiet
As at a point of central arrival, an instant moment, much or little,
Removed from any shore, from any man or woman, and needing none.


The metaphor stirred his fear. The object with which he was compared
Was beyond his recognising. By this he knew that likeness of him extended
Only a little way, and not beyond, unless between himself
And things beyond resemblance there was this and that intended to be recognized,
The this and that in the enclosures of hypotheses
On which men speculated in summer when they were half asleep.

What self, for example, did he contain that had not yet been loosed,
Snarling in him for discovery as his attentions spread,
As if all his hereditary lights were suddenly increased
By an access of color, a new and unobserved, slight dithering,

The smallest lamp, which added its puissant flick, to which he gave
A name and privilege over the ordinary of his commonplace -

A flick which added to what was real and its vocabulary,
The way some first thing coming into Northern trees
Adds to them the whole vocabulary of the South,
The way the earliest single light in the evening sky, in spring,
Creates a fresh universe out of nothingness by adding itself,
The way a look or a touch reveals its unexpected magnitudes.

Wallace Stevens (from: The Rock)

Prólogos a lo que es posible


Había una comodidad mental que era como encontrarse a solas en una barca en el mar,
una barca empujada por olas semejantes a brillantes espaldas de remeros,
apretando sus remos, como si conocieran bien el camino para llegar a su destino,
doblándose e irguiéndose del todo sobre las asas de madera,
regados de agua y relucientes en su aunado movimiento.

La barca estaba hecha de piedras que habían perdido su peso y, al no pesar ya nada,
solo habían dejado un brillo, de desacostumbrado origen,
así que quien estaba en pie en la barca, inclinado y mirando el frente,
no pasaba tal como alguien que parte y viaja más allá de lo familiar.
Pertenecía a la partida de su nave en el lejano extranjero y era parte de ella,
parte del speculum de fuego de su proa, su símbolo, fuera lo que fuese,
parta de los cristalinos laterales por los que resbalaba sobre el aqua salpicada de sal,
al viajar solo, cual hombre espoleado por el señuelo de una sílaba carente de significado,
sílaba que le parecía, con señalada seguridad,
que contenía el significado en el que él quería entrar,
un significado que, cuando entrase, arrasaría la barca y dejaría a los remeros callados,
como en un punto de llegada central, un momento de un instante, mucho o poco,
retirado de toda orilla, de todo hombre o mujer, y sin necesidad de ninguno.


Le inspriró miedo la metáfora. El objeto con el que él era comparado
estaba más allá del reconocimiento. Por eso supo que su parecido alcanzaba
solo hasta cierto punto, no más allá, a menos que entre él
y las cosas más allá de la semejanza estuvieran esto y aquello pensado para ser reconocidos,
el esto y el aquello en los recintos de las hipótesis
sobre las que los hombres especulaban en verano cuando estaban medio dormidos.

Qué yo, por ejemplo, contenía él que no hubiera sido aún soltado,
y gruñera en su interior por ser descubierto mientras sus atenciones se extendían,
como si de repente todas sus luces hereditarias hubieran aumentado
por un acceso de color, una nueva e inadvertida ligera turbación,
la más pequeña lámpara, que su pujante fulgor sumara, al que él diera
un nombre y privilegio sobre lo ordinario de su lugar común …

Un fulgor que sumara a lo que era real y sy vocabulario,
igual que alguna cosa primera al ir entrando en árboles septentrionales,
les suma todo el vocabulario del Sur,
igual que la primera luz solitaria del cielo vespertino, en primavera,
crea un nuevo universo de la nada cuando se suma ella,
igual que una mirada o un toque revela sus imprevistas magnitudes.

- Wallace Stevens (La Roca. Traducción de Daniel Aguirre)


In the beginning

First Spanish lesson today. Me llamo Monique. But I knew that already. The teacher advised us to keep our iPhones on the table to look up words we didn't know. "Because nobody uses dictionaries anymore." I put my dictionary on the table. I don't have an iPhone. I am nobody. Soy nadie.

It is an intensive course so we are supposed to be studying at home. I am reading El Principito, "por que todas las personas grandes han sido niños antes. (Pero pocas lo recuerdan.)"

"Un día, vi ponerse el sol cuarenta y tres veces."
Y poco después agregaste:
"Sabes? .... Cuando una está verdaderamente triste son agradables las puestas de sol .....
"Estabas, pues, verdaderamente triste el día de las cuarenta y tres veces?"
El principito no respondió.


The old and the new

“I hope 2017 will bring you beautiful things” I wrote to a friend on the first evening of the new year and he answered “2017 will be what we make of it”.

Earlier that new year’s day, when I was walking home through the city I chose to live in for no other reason than that it makes me smile to wake up in it under a blue sky, I found the first present of the year (not counting the wonderful start with old and new friends of course) lying on the side walk. It was covered in dirt and maybe that is why it was thrown out but I could see the beauty of it through the layer of filth.

First rough cleaning revealed the hidden patterns and after some love and care I will be able to house my collection of gifted, bought and orphaned single cups and glasses on it, among them a delicate moon bowl made by an artist who went on a journey to deliver it to me personally, a golden rimmed cup and saucer I found in the trash and reminds me of a special person, a Double Phoenix Japanese cup which was a birthday present from a dear friend, a ceramic cup I bought from an artist who’s work I like a lot and two orphaned pieces I picked up from the street, an engraved glass and a small cup depicting a house I wouldn’t mind living in.

2017 already brought me beautiful things and I will make it a year I feel at home in. A new year where the newness will be in looking at old things with new eyes. In cherishing old connections and making new ones. A year of staying and sinking in before undoubtedly there will be leaving and wandering once more. A year of using this new old tray and serve coffee and tea and wine and whisky to friends and strangers as often as possible.

Our life is what we make of it but we make it with the things and people we find on our paths. And the most interesting finds are the ones that seem to be plain or unattractive even but show a hidden beauty buried under layers of proper or improper use, layers of history and memories and traces left by others.

Nothing is really new. Or maybe everything is new all the time because we look at it from a changed perspective and a different constellation every moment. And of course this thought isn’t very new either. Marcel Proust already said it far more eloquently: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” It makes me realise that although my eyesight is getting worse, I start to see better through the years. It must be the continuing newness of getting older.