With reluctance, accepting that the sun’s gaze was now facing the other wall of the apartment block and it was only my bare feet, heels resting on the balcony railing, that were in direct sunlight, I decided to come inside. The cat, fast asleep on the concrete block between the balcony and it’s neighbour, was luckier. The concrete block remained sunlit. The cat, twisted on it’s back, one paw in the air, limp, didn’t know how lucky it was. I reminded myself not to close the balcony door behind me.
Inside I switched my skirt for fleece-lined leggings, pulled on a cardigan followed by a hoodie, rinsed the few remaining grains of post-lunch coffee from my mug and flicked on the kettle for a fresh cup of tea. And to fill up my hot water bottle.
This is the south of Spain in winter. Outside the sky is very blue. I know good writing is not supposed to use the word ‘very’, but the sky is a very blue blue. In the mornings, I peer out of the window, crane my neck upwards at the small amount of it framed by the apartment block’s courtyard, and smile to see an absence of clouds. However, when I step out of the apartment building, wrapped up in scarf and coat, I wish I’d worn my gloves.
I’m told that the reason none of the buildings have central heating, or decent curtains, is that it’s not cold here; this week the temperature is set to drop below zero and all I’m armed with is a half sized hot water bottle. I’m glad that when I was packing I thought a hot water bottle was a good idea. It felt like a mad indulgence at the time. I only thought it was a good idea because I write, and writing is one of those odd tasks which results in cold fingers.
We do have a heater, a couple of them in fact, but if you put them on in tandem you blow the electricity. The main one, white, rectangular, you need no imagination to imagine it, makes an awful racket and so I avoid putting it on where possible. Sometimes I want to curl up on the sofa and read, so I position the heater close enough to my body that I can give it a whack if the fan emits a tantrum.
My hot water bottle is silent. It wears a pale blue woollen jumper with an embroidered rainbow and smiling cloud. The cloud is white and fluffy, you need no imagination to imagine this either as its shape is straight out of a children’s cartoon. The cloud has pink cheeks. Its black eyes look up at me from my lap as I write.
Leaning forward I tip my head back and look up at the very blue sky reminding myself that it’s still there. Yes, it’s January 13th and already my legs have seen the sun.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“What is the most important thing you learnt in primary school?”
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.
“No, not emotion… not my emotion, to understand your emotion… more… I don’t know the word… empathetic”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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