Mar Menor and the calamity of Maggie

Posted on 5 min read
A sponge or a pinecone… what do you think?

The week before last, at breakfast, one of my colleagues told me it wouldn’t rain again until September. I couldn’t quite keep the disbelief out of my voice as I expressed my surprise at such a statement. It had, after all managed to rain almost every day for the previous fortnight, and the sky still looked cold and grey. I said it would rain tomorrow, which got me a surprised look back as a response.

Now, it did rain the following day, for about three and a half minutes early in the morning, but it hasn’t since. The clouds have cleared revealing a bright blue sky. After work on Thursday I sat in the park and basked in the sunshine, soaking up the warmth.

On the final day of November my parents and I decided to head out to the beach. This was not to sunbathe, although there was one couple on the sand in their swimwear, but for a walk in the sunshine. The sun felt gorgeous on my skin. The beach was almost deserted. In the sea we spotted a couple of divers, emerging in their black wetsuits, unhooking their flippers from their feet.

The beach we chose faces the sea, but behind it stand the salt fields at the north tip of the lagoon known as the Mar Menor. This name translates in English to the ‘smaller sea’ which is wat the Mar Menor is. It’s Spain’s largest lagoon. The area we ventured to was a national park, with soft sand, which piles up in dunes, a haven for birds. Although pollution is having a serious, and unignorable, toll.

That is one large heap of salt. The Father worried about what would happen if it rained, but since it’s not going to rain until September…

From the beach we headed to the port, and in the sunshine, facing out towards rows and rows of sailing vessels, we found a small restaurant. It was, according to Maggie, the cheery woman who played hostess, new. The chef was French. I asked what the best food was, and said yes to it. Wine was brought out.

Now the word of that last paragraph that you should most definitely have noticed was the word ‘played’.

As the afternoon progressed, in a sedate Spanish, sun-saturated pace, it became clear that Maggie was having a delightful game. In her high-heeled boots she sprang from one table of customers to another. Her confident, bright English ignited smiles on the customers faces. Every now and again she’d head back to a table occupied by her handbag and drink another glass of wine.

Abandoned building by the beach.

The first mishap was that Maggie, in all her excitement, forgot that she actually had to pass the food order to the kitchen. I sipped my rather large glass of wine, took some pictures of the reflections in it, and discussed fancy-dress costumes with the Mother. As other tables received their food, I began to feel hungry.

Then, seeing my perplexed face, Maggie tottered towards us, exclaiming that we needed to kill her, and asked us what we’d ordered. This time, thank goodness, the order did make its way back into the kitchen.

The wind however was getting up. Maggie appeared, tottering back towards us. In her hands was a board laden with bread, cheese and potatoes, accompanied by lettuce. The lettuce made a break for freedom. Maggie, who has never worked as a waitress in her life, squealed.

Playing with the camera. Wine at Mar Menor.

Despite the lack of lettuce, and the breeze, we were grateful for food. It was like heaven to tuck into the sweet roasted potatoes and dipped the crusty bread into the gooey baked camembert. The chef knows how to cook. The fish that followed, some time later, was also stunning. By this time Maggie was trying to persuade me that I needed more wine. She was on her fourth glass and couldn’t quite understand how one glass of wine in the afternoon might be quite enough for me.

She didn’t fall over, as she cleared away two of the boards that had come out with the fish. I thought she might. The pavement was uneven. But not actually being a waitress, or a person who works in any role in a restaurant, she’d decided to limit herself to carrying two boards at once.

My parents looked stuffed, so I asked what deserts were available. Maggie didn’t know, so she headed inside to investigate. The answer came back that it was a surprise. I said that sounded excellent. Some time later, a huge board arrived. It was laden with custard tarts, tiramisu and little cream cake things. These were like tiny cheesecakes, with an intense, fruit jelly top layer: lime, mandarin and raspberry. As we feasted on these deserts, coffees appeared. I understood that the coffee came with the desert as we hadn’t ordered coffee.

We had decided to go to lunch before two, and by now it was getting close to five. I asked for the bill, but told my parents that I suspected that the restaurant staff would not be able to recall what it was that we had eaten. This was the case. A French man, speaking to us in a mixture of Spanish and French, brought out a piece of paper and a pen. He took note as I explained what we’d consumed. The coffee, was, as assumed, included, however, it came with the fish, not with the desert. I sat and stared and blinked in confusion as I took in the word pescado again and again before accepting that it made no sense.

I didn’t care. The father paid. The total amount being more than reasonable for the quality and volume of the food. And with the winter sun low in the sky, bathing the orchards, lettuces and arid uncultivated fields of dust in a warm, golden glow, we drove back home.

Practicing for the Cambridge First Exam (or something like that)

Posted on 4 min read
A striking wall in Cartagena. A bright burst of colour in a city of crumbling buildings held up by scaffolding.

“What is the most important thing you learnt in primary school?”

Blank.

That was the look of the teenagers faces staring back at me. After a second or two, they asked me to repeat the question.

They understand the English, but they were not sure that they had heard right. It was afterall a bit of an odd question. Not typical small talk, nor even the sort of question you might receive in a job interview. It was a practice exam question, and some of the exam questions are plain weird. To answer them you don’t only need language skills, you need an imagination too.

Take a question I had to ask today about a photograph

It was in reference to a picture of a smiling girl stacking supermarket shelves. She wore a green apron and had her blonde hair tied high in a neat pony-tail.

“What do you think this girl enjoys about her job?”

I smiled at the teenagers who looked up at me and blinked. It’s an expression I am becoming rather familiar with as I reach the odder questions of the Cambridge speaking exam list.

“I know, it’s a ridiculous question, use your imagination.”

They concluded that the girl in question did not actually enjoy her job, it seemed implausible that her career ambition was to stack shelves. However, she was smiling. So, my students hypothesised that she had plans for after work, a party perhaps.

I let my imagination go wild when I was faced with a picture of a man in a black t-shirt singing with great enthusiasm. I needed to encourage the students to spew out English words. Sitting dumbfounded by the awful photography won’t give them a mark that reflects their language skills. I pointed to a dower looking woman in the audience. This, I suggested, was the singer’s sister. I suggested that she would have preferred to be in bed, but instead she was at a rock concert supporting her brother. Furthermore, the event had come about as a result of a mid-life crisis. The man, fearing the best of his life was behind him, had decided to take to the stage. One of the students pointed out a nearby member of the concert audience, who wore a grimace, and suggested that this was the brother-in-law. We all laughed.

But back to the primary school question

Some students gave answers involving academic subjects.

“I think that the most important thing I learnt in primary school was basic maths.”

Others focused on describing their language skills. Particularly their foundation in Spanish and beginnings in English.

However, the ones who had more time to think tended to vie away from the subject orientated answer. They prefered something that was more orientated around social skills. One explained primary school had taught him to behave and equipped him with the skills to study. Others mentioned working with others.

Then there was the pair who decided to explain what, in their opinion primary school should have taught them.

“Emotion”

“No, not emotion… not my emotion, to understand your emotion… more… I don’t know the word… empathetic”

“Empathy?”

“Yes, empathy.”

The student’s concern was that there are too many extreme views in the world. People causing problems because of a lack of empathy and understanding of others. Empathy, she believed, was something that needed teaching at primary school. They should be learning to relate to one another and develop more moderate views.

I asked for an example

“I am,” she told me, “a feminist.”

And she proceeded to go on to explain that some people thought that by this word she meant that that she thought women were superior to men. She was adament that this was not her belief. Her tone was calm, but had an edge to it suggesting that this was personal.

Gender equality, and tackling gender based violence is a big thing here. The other week, the students went on strike as part of a campaign for gender equality. On Sunday I cut through a march against gender based violence as I headed across town with my parents.

In the school corridor we talked for a while about the word feminist

I explained how my father (I quote him often) is a feminist but that he avoids the word. He prefers, I explained, to choose a terms that are more obvious in their promotion of the equal value of both sexes and all genders.

The more I speak to these teenagers the more I find them remarkable

I’m lucky that I get to have this odd, privileged opportunity to hear the individual, intriguing, complex beliefs of these young people. Often, they fight with the limits of their English vocabulary to express themselves and their opinions. It’s impressive. I’m tired when I come home from work, because it’s not a job where I sit back and let it happen around me. That wouldn’t be within my character and the teenagers deserve more than that. They deserve empathy.

Fish, lost in the chaos. Cartagena.

Murica (con mis padres…)

The region of Murcia, taken on the train between the city of Murcia and Cartagena.

Murcia is still a city short enough that from a distance you can see the cathedral.

It’s an elegant cathedral, built in the 1400s with the later addition of the bell tower, the tallest in Spain, which houses twenty-five bells. The square in front, suggested in the Lonely Planet guide as one of the best places to visit in the region, is useful as an easy to find, obvious, meeting spot.

In our first weeks here, this was the central location where us English teachers used to convene for coffee. We needed to compare notes on our schools and rants about Spanish immigration procedures. It’s the most touristy location in a not particularly touristy at all city. But here, in the cafés on the square, there are menus and the menus are available in English. For me, this is a tad easier to deal with (or at least explain to my parents) than the behind the bar blackboards.

The cathedral in Murcia

Yes, this weekend my parents are visiting

Which means I’ve been thrown from the role of odd English woman in a group of Spaniards, to the role of ‘the only one who speaks some Spanish’. The pressure is on.

Whilst my Spanish is improving, to understand the meaning of the words on the boards behind the bars you need to order and eat the food. This will take me some time. The more words I learn in Spanish, the more I realise that you can’t use direct translation and maintain the same connotations and meaning. It’s way more complex and nuanced than that.

For now, I’m dealing with basic vocabulary

My ability to ask for an onion might be useful in the market, however isn’t so useful at a tapas bar.

I had to find stereotypical Spanish food that my parents were both happy to eat. One item on the list of starters didn’t involve an anchovy, but I persisted in explaining that anchovies are worth trying here, at least once. I did manage to persuade the Father to try an anchovy, as part of the typical starter called a marinera, despite his lifelong hatred. The Mother’s resolve is intact. She is against them.

Being a tourist is always an interesting experience

I am familiar with some stereotypes of us Brits. The binge-drinking, lobster-skinned party goers who occupy the bars at Alicante’s airport requesting beer as part of their pre-flight breakfast home. The retired folk, who live in clusters along the coast, learning Spanish at a snail’s pace. Content to continue their lives in the glorious sun, but in English. This perhaps the Spanish could all forgive if they could get their heads around the concept of a glass of beer that doesn’t make your hand freeze to hold it, but they can’t.

Then they think we’re weird when it comes to food

The feeling’s mutual. I find the Spanish strange when it comes to food, because of how they all eat the same thing at the same time. Ordering isn’t done based on individual desire, it’s done based on what the table wants. There’s a collective process, but one that I often find I’m not required for. With the exception that someone will remember I’m foreign and double check that I eat shellfish and octopus. Those things the British don’t eat.

I never used to eat octopus. It’s suckers always kind of creeped me out. And I admit, when I’m faced with a shell I am not nimble as I remove it with my fingertips like my Spanish friends. For me it’s an operation demanding my full attention. Otherwise I get fish goo everywhere. I want to say that I’m getting better at this, but that would be lying.

The gastronomic peculiarities of the British returned to conversation at lunch on Friday

In another country, mid-afternoon on a Friday people would be working. Here in Spain, it’s lunch time, and because of a broken swimming pool and some odd hours, my adopted Spanish family gathered for lunch.

It was my willingness to eat rabbit paella that was remarked upon. The Spanish belief is that us Brits don’t eat rabbit. A young Spaniard remarked to me that if you walk down a meat or fish aisle in a supermarket in England, everything is plastic wrapped and filleted. I nodded. Then added that there are people in England who buy meat from a butchers. Plus, in some restaurants, particularly some of the restaurants which are trying to seem a little more posh, people do eat rabbit.

Good work considering our limited language skills

This conversation happened in a mixture of my A1 Spanish combined with the A1 and B1 English of my companions. There was some hand waving and gesturing, but I didn’t have to do my rabbit impersonation. My rabbit impersonation is saved for school as the twelve-year-olds are doing animals in biology.

There was laughter at the idea of rabbit being a posh dish

Here they stick it in stew or paella as a cheap meat, something that is typical to the region. The main industry here is agriculture. The region was one of the last holding out against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and as such wasn’t high on the list for investment during his long regime. Then there was the financial crisis which hit the whole of Spain but has been particularly hard in the south where property prices crashed. Many of the fruits and vegetables grown here are exported to England, and my acquaintances here include people who work for the British brand Tesco.

Walking through the market this morning however I was a little unnerved by the eyes looking back at me with their dull, dead stares. I think if you’re going to eat meat, it’s best to not waste the parts of the animal lacking visual appeal. And I don’t have a problem cooking any piece of meat I’m given, but I do feel uncomfortable being watched by a row of skin-less, soul-less rabbits. The Mother strode on past, refusing to look at anything, whilst the Father lingered. He wants rabbit, but I’m not sure he knows what exactly to do with one if he had one. I know I’d have to google it.

It wasn’t all dead animals

We went upstairs to the fruit and vegetable section of the Mercado de Veronicas, an architectually proud building. Built between 1912 and 1916, it stands beside some archaeological ruins, the remains of Arab fortifications, across from the river. In the seventies, an additional floor was incorporated into the design to increase the number of market stalls.

Away from the flesh of dead animals, the Mother breathed a sigh of relief. She slowed her pace and after gasping at the size of the cabbages proceeded to buy fruit and vegetables. Including some amazing, fresh dates from the nearby town of Elche.

What I like about the people here is how hospitable they are. This is not a rich area, but the people guide you and show you and try to help you. Their English is, for the most part, no better than my Spanish. Yet I am well looked after. When the greengrocer at the market sold us the dates, after first encouraging us to try them, the expression on her face was, for good reason, pride.

It’s a strange experience showing my parents around this peculiar little city, which is for now at least, my home. It’s rough at the edges, impoverished in places, but it’s growing on me.

Hablamos muchas…

Artwork passed on our walk to the sanctuary.

This morning I’ve gone back to talking to the pupils at school is a naturally fast pace. I’m not sure anyone has understood anything that I’ve said. The reason for this is that I’ve been holidaying this weekend with the Molecule-Artist. Other than when she woke up one morning (or looked vaguely like she had woken up) and proceeded to talk to me in German, it’s been none-stop English. Intense English.

We’re both people who use words, lots of words, to express ourselves. She however also managed to do things like take photos… I took my camera with me and proceeded to leave it wrapped up in the room.

We mostly sat in coffee shops or on park benches and talked, every now and again shifting in search of sunlight or food. However, we did:

  • Visit a market
  • Walk up to the sanctuary
  • Eat traditional food

I however don’t need to write anything about this because the Molecule-Artist already has done.

Sancturio de Fuensanta

Teaching the verb: to fall off (and other language challenges)

Posted on 2 min read
A boat depicted on tiles on an ugly graffiti-sprayed wall in Cartagena.
Taken with my camera Sunday afternoon.

After resting for at least some of this last weekend, I am feeling much better.

And having freed up so much time and energy previously spent feeling sorry for myself, I can now speak Spanish.

I admit, it still involves a lot of waving my arms, but I’m speaking words without translating first from English. They spew out my mouth, sometimes nonsensically, often in a higgledy-piggledy mess, but they are vocalised. This I take to be a major achievement. It takes a certain willingness to make a fool of yourself to speak a foreign language.

Of course, I reserve my best acting for teaching my English classes. Today I was trying to explain to the twelve-year-olds how Guy Fawkes fell off the gallows and broke his neck… All I can say is that I blame my mother who has been my story telling mentor. I still have much to learn from her, but I’m putting in the hours of practice.

But back to Spanish. I’m fed up with my miniscule vocabulary and so I’m on a mission to learn the most common words in Spanish with great urgency. I need to learn everything twice because nobody here speaks like a textbook. I don’t blame them in the slightest. However, for a new learner the unique character of the local accent (and sometimes additional dialect words) provides an extra layer of challenge. For example, the textbook chapters on plurals are unnecessary for this region and studying them has been a waste of time. The people here don’t bother with the letter ‘s’.

Adios’ becomes ‘Adioh’.

So, whilst I can make myself more or less understood on an increasingly frequent basis, I still know nothing of what is being said around me. Occasionally I understand a few words. For example, I understood the other night that Charles Dickens had become a factor in the conversation, yet, all the same, I had no idea whether those around me who were passionately discussing him actually liked him or not.

But I’m learning, and I’m healthy again, and my students know that attempting to kill a monarch is a very serious crime. So everything’s good.

More thoughts about wanting cake

Lorca
The dusky dry landscape in this southern corner of Spain.

The packet of flour has a picture of a cake on it, but according to the translation app on my phone, the label reads as biscuit flour. I thought it said biscuit flour, but I wasn’t so sure which is why I’ve been stood looking blankly at the shelves of flour for the last few minutes.

Finding flour in the small-town supermarket wasn’t easy. It’s not that it’s a big shop, it’s not. It’s just that this supermarket isn’t laid out in the same style as the supermarkets I’m used to back home. Back home it’s simple.

First in front of you are the flowers, then the fruit and vegetables. This is a technique supermarket chains use to give the impression that all their produce is fresh. Milk and bread are typically at the back of the shop, because everyone in England needs to buy milk and bread and so putting them at the back of the shop forces the customers to walk past the aisles of things that they might otherwise not think about stocking up on. Like flour.

Flour lives in the home-baking section alongside things like chocolate chips and dried fruit.

Except here, when it lives beside olives and across from crisps.

I buy the biscuit flour deciding to go with the picture of the cake. I crave something hot, stodgy and English. I move on to find eggs. These I know are opposite the almonds next to bananas. I have no idea how you’d go about translating the phrase ‘free-range’ and so simply pick the ones with the grass in the photo. I’m in luck as I later discover that they are genuine free-range eggs. I have learnt that if you look at the code printed on an egg, the first number will be a 1 if it’s free range or 0 if organic. The numbers 2 and 3 are reserved for eggs laid by less happy chickens.

I crave cake. Not necessarily for the sugar rush, but for the stodginess. I also want hot custard.

Vanilla I discover above the fridge of chicken by the jars of what I am going to assume is chilli paste. By now I have ten euros worth of produce in my basket, enough to fill my ‘Yorkshire Tea’ shopping bag, and enough to try baking a cake. I head for the till.

Outside the sun has set.

Feeling ill in a foreign country (and generally being tired and irritable)

Un animal.
Un animal.
(Honestly, no idea what.) Prevost’s Squirrel.

I remember the night when I was first homesick. It was a summer evening, reasonably warm but not hot. I was nine-years-old and for whatever reason I had decided that I did not want to hang out with my close friend and tent companion who was, for whatever reason, that night annoying me. We hadn’t fallen out exactly. I’m so anti-confrontation it has always been rare for me to fall out with anyone. However, that evening I just wanted to be left alone. In fact, I wanted to be at home and alone, not in a huge field of hundreds of kids supposedly having a jolly good time.

It sucked.

What’s more, I felt like I couldn’t really tell anyone as it didn’t fit the image I had of myself. I’d already decided that I wasn’t the sort of person who was homesick, and yet I felt that deep longing for being wrapped up in my own duvet. Being nine, I didn’t have to worry much about what I was going to fill my remaining hours with. There was a stage show that evening, and I sat quietly and picked at the grass waiting for it to end. But it did end. We went to bed, and the next moment I awoke hungry for breakfast and eager to enjoy the day, safe in the knowledge that I would soon be home and I had survived the dreaded weakness that is homesickness.

Perhaps homesickness is an inevitable part of travelling

It happens, I think, when the demands of your environment bringyour base line stress above a certain point. For some people it happens soonerthan others. Mostly I think, depending on how much you rely on your environment for comfort.

I’ve had a busy few weeks

Last weekend I went out to a concert, then played pool with a friend and her friends in a local bar, drank tequila with slices of orange, sprinkled with cinnamon and gummy sweets (because that is what one does here apparently) and collapsed into bed at five in the morning. In England this might be considered a wild night out, here in Spain it’s early. The next day was an alternative paella (pasta instead of rice but cooked in the traditional paella fashion) to celebrate a birthday. The next day was a pre-lunch drink, which turned into a rather extended cheese and wine tasting afternoon.

It’s autumn, the weather is changing, and I work at a school in a foreign country. Unsurprisingly, I’m now tired, grumpy and have a streaming cold which is developing into an aggravating cough. My nose glows.

Meanwhile, life goes on

I’m battling the need for clean clothes, multiple meals a day and am still chasing Spanish bureaucracy. Understandably, I crave my own feather duvet. There’s something comparatively dissatisfying about layers of sheets and blankets. Even if they are your own sheets. I also crave the vocabulary to whinge about this cold, as my Spanish hasn’t yet developed as far as illnesses.

Whilst I’m being grumpy at myself, I’m wondering if it’s appropriate to ask one’s parents to vacuum pack one’s duvet and bring it in a plane, and I’m craving custard.

My highly analytical brain believes this to be ridiculous

There is a part of me, which having had quite so much therapy, points out that custard and duvets, like shopping and chocolate, aren’t really the solutions that they might initially feel like. What I need is some self-soothing. I need to come to terms with the reality that I’m tired and ill and living in a far-off land which means my body’s stress level is uncomfortably high.

I buy a cork board and pin pictures of people from home on it, entwining my little lights around the coloured pins.

But that ever so English taste of custard…

I buy eggs, the ones with a picture of a hen surrounded by grass in the hope that this means that they are free-range. And then I proceed to make custard. You can, I discover, make a chocolate cake in a mug using only the egg whites. It takes less than two minutes of microwave time. I mix up the batter whilst the lactose-free full-fat milk comes to a simmer, filling the kitchen with the scent of vanilla. What I’m going to do with the rest of the carton of milk I have no idea, I haven’t planned that far ahead. I couldn’t find cornflour in the little local supermarket, and so I beat self-raising flour into my bright orange egg yolks. At least, I think it’s self-raising because there’s a picture of a cake on the packet, although it reads as ‘biscuit flour’.

I measure nothing, and yet, miraculously, it all comes together

Curled up on the sofa, I eat chocolate sponge and home-made custard, nose still dripping, but feeling reasonably content with myself. I am, I know, feeling a little homesick. However, I also know that it’s okay to feel this way, and soon, I’ll be back to learning more about this crazy, wonderful life I’m living.

Adding a pinch of salt to some well-meant advice

Lorca Castle (Fortaleza Del Sol)
One of the towers of the castle that stands staring down over the town of Lorca in the region of Murcia. The Fortaleza Del Sol, the fortress of the sun. I ate a roast pepper and tomato salad here that was not quite as I expected.

A hall, with plastic chairs and a projector. A short, smiling Spanish lady fiddles with the computer controls as she tries to make the presentation show. It starts late. We’re in Spain so no apology is deemed necessary. Patience is expected. The first presentation begins with a man who speaks a challenging form of Spanish. Here they drop the ends of the words, particularly anything with an ‘s’ and speak ever so fast. I don’t catch a single word.

The heavily-abridged English translation, joltingly forced out by another Spaniard who’s uncomfortable with having to translate, could be summarised as ‘welcome’.

Then the men disappear; the cheery Spanish lady takes over. It’s an improvement of sorts. It feels like a meeting that’s convened because having such a meeting is the done thing. She informs us that on moving to a new country it’s useful to adapt to your new culture. I agree, to a point. However, in my opinion, this isn’t something you learn by being told.

In my opinion, it’s an uncomfortable process where your habits are wrung out of you. You cling to your old ways of doing things but are squeezed into something new. Round peg, square hole. Little by little you come to realise that there’s more than one possible way of living. Maybe you get there quicker intellectually, you know you have to adapt, but physically and emotionally, I think even the most seasoned traveller has norms they fight to cling to.

We were advised that sticking rigidly to dinner at 7pm would result in a very limited understanding of Spanish culture. And here I agree. Food is everything. If you are going out for dinner and you turn up at 7pm, you’re only going to find people eating in the most touristy locations. It was a message intended for those people who would later complain about Spanish food, but it missed the point. The same people will still complain.

To fit in with the Spaniards you need to show willingness to do things like them so that they understand you want to join in. But it would be silly to think that all Spanish people do things in an identical fashion, or that eating a meal at 7 o’clock in a restaurant with friends who were happy eating at such an hour would be a problem.

We eat breakfast at half eleven here, toasted baguette with tomato, olive oil and salt. This suits me because after three classes I’m hungry. I’m told it’s the traditional Spanish way of doing things, but not everyone eats breakfast. One teacher has tea and toast without tomato, I have a café americano and another teacher has a glass of orange juice.

What’s more, when I arrived home from work at one o’clock this afternoon, my Landlady was finishing her lunch. Lunch here is typically a three o’clock affair, but that’s not always convenient.

One Spanish lady I met, who had been a nurse in Manchester told me that eating at English hours had been the hardest thing about her placement to England. She explained to me that in her opinion, you have to listen to the needs and habits of your body at the same time as embracing a new culture. I think I agree. I’m easy going and have tried a variety of different food here in Spain. But I can’t deny I miss my mother’s cooking and Indian food. On a week night, if I’m heading to bed shortly after ten, I’m not interested in eating at nine. If I’m alone I eat when I’m hungry. The children at school inform me that in Spain you have five meals a day. When you want to eat, it’s probably time for one of them.

When I ask my classes how many of them would be willing to try a Yorkshire pudding or toad-in-the-hole I’m faced with only a few courageous hands. Fish and chips fares a little better. Not everyone is adventurous when it comes to eating. Food has a lot to do with nostalgia and comfort and a sense of home. Just because you’re living in a different culture doesn’t mean you don’t still have these same needs, albeit maybe they’re less strong.

I think that the advice to eat at nine, not seven is misguided. I think that time is not the important factor. I think that the advice should be if you choose to live like a Spaniard, and it’s a choice, you need to surround yourself with Spanish people and invite them to share with you their culture so that you can learn. And that when you decide that there’s something you don’t like, politely say no. You get to choose how you adapt, and when and what you eat.

Fiesta Nacional de España

Spanish flag

There was a demonstration outside of the town hall last Friday evening. A gathering of people waving Spanish flags and making noise whilst a couple of older, wider police chaps watched on. It wasn’t a large demonstration, but nor was it a mere handful of people. Furthermore, each individual carried a passionate, joyous, voice that lifted high over the spray of the fountains.

We were drinking summer wine in the seats in front of a nearby café. My arms were bare, and I wore only a light scarf over my shoulders. Here, although early in the morning the weather knows autumn is coming, by midday the season has forgotten it-s changing and our evenings belong to a pleasant summer dream. Nights here begin warm. Despite the noise, my companions and I were still able to hear ourselves, and for the most part we ignored the commotion going on around us. We were busy in gossip. Each of us wanted to compare our schools, classes and living arrangements to everyone else’s. 

However, from time to time we paused to take an intrigued glance towards the gathered crowd. Even if I had spoken fluent Spanish, then that unintelligible sound of someone forcing words though a tired speaker that wasn’t up to the job would still have confused me. From their flags and posters, I understood that they wanted a united Spain. Was this some sort of nationalist rally going on? A backlash against some Catalonians trying to break from the country? Or what?

To me, the flag-wavers seemed a peaceful jolly bunch, singing their songs and enjoying themselves in the roar of passionate belief. A delighted roar, like the synchronised breathing at a football match which leaves goose bumps on my skin. Crowd behaviour can be exhilarating, terrifying or alienating depending on where you stand.

At a table in the restaurant, just beyond ours, sat a solitary man drinking a glass of white wine. His tense, hunched-up body language suggested an equal intensity of passion, but for differing beliefs. As time went on he got more and more agitated. At first I pitied him, having his evening interrupted. Then, I began to suspect that he might have chosen his location, in front of the town hall on Spain-s national day, because of its proximity to the protesters.

He seemed, to me at least, to be wanting a fight.

As the protestors began to disperse, angry shouts erupted between the chap and those who passed his table. They were on the verge of heading off for dinner. Young, gun wielding, riot police turned up to calm the situation down. The waiter scowled at everyone and if I were to guess (I can only guess), told them to take their arguments out of his restaurant.

A flag pole was struck against the angry chap, who in return raised his chair above his head. For a moment, our table was speechless. Our chairs no more than a couple of metres away. Within seconds there was a wall of riot police dividing the street. The protestors moved back towards the cathedral heading towards the inner city, taking a different route for dinner. The angry chap sat down and took another sip of his wine.

I returned to my wine and the conversation that myself and friends had been enjoying. We had got around to complaining about the immigration process we are all undergoing. This is another blog post yet to be edited and amended with politeness. When I looked up again from our ranting, the angry man was chasing some protestor across the square wielding a chair like a mace. The older police chaps had to intervene this time, the riot police having wandered off. Again, calm was restored, and the angry chap returned to his glass of wine.

We returned to ours, but with an increased awareness of the tensions that live here, under the surface, all around us.

What is it like working in a Spanish school?

Sunset across the hills behind the town where I live.

I may not always know at what time I’m supposed to be where, and it’s unlikely anyone else will have a clue where I’m supposed to be either, but I am pretty much guaranteed to be met with a grin and a warm welcome. This is my first impression of working in Spain. The teachers only seem to get stressed during the mid-morning break, and that’s because it’s only for half an hour which is much too short a time to drink one’s café con leche and eat one’s tostada. That’s drink coffee and eat toast. The Spanish only get around to breakfast at quarter-past eleven, but that kind of suits me, although I have a hard time calling it breakfast and not brunch.

Despite not knowing where I’m going, or whom I’m about to be teaching I feel remarkably relaxed. You can’t get too stressed in the heat because you’d explode. You’re forced to slow down. In the classrooms, we often have the shutters down, with just enough of a gap for some air to get in. The sun is too intense. There are also fans high on the walls, circulating the air around the classroom, but if you’re in a room where the sun shines directly on the windows it’s uncomfortably warm. As I’m teaching I’m conscious that the more excitable I get, the more I’m going to sweat, and so I try to stay calm.

I am not so self-conscious here. My sensible brain thinks that doing an imitation of a dying sheep to a bunch of thirteen-year-olds would be most embarrassing and not a good idea. In practise, I am describing the North York Moors, I ask what animals you might find up in the hills, this develops, I find myself saying that it is very important to drive carefully in the moors because there are no fences and the stupid sheep wander across the road. You can see where this is going. Dead sheep impression occurs whilst my embarrassment is taking a doze.

The catholic cemetry.

And it’s bad enough that I’m demonstrating sheep dying (sword fighting, jousting and paddling in the sea at Whitby) to the children. I’m also in the classroom with my new colleagues, the actual English teachers. These sensible looking adults occasionally provide translations for the trickier words, but thankfully, mostly I forget that they are there. It’s hard work keeping the attention of a class of thirty children and keep an eye on the teacher, so I tend to forget the teacher and focus solely on the children. I only remember that they are there when I need to write a word on the blackboard. At this point I forget how to spell.

And at the rate I’m going, these children are going to know nothing about England, and everything about Yorkshire. I should be paid by the Yorkshire tourist board for my humerous sales pitches of our fine Yorkshire cuisine, exotic landscapes, fascinating history, and beaches that unlike the dozy beaches of sunny Spain make you feel truly alive. If you’re going to tell good stories, you have to tell stories that are about things you care about.

The sun in the evening makes the hills behind the town look orange.