travel

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.

Yo soy británico (and other form filling challenges)

In case you were bored with red pandas, here are some sociable lemurs. ‘Lémur’ en Español.
Children are playing in the park outside my window. There’s something comforting about the sounds they make. A mixture and squeals and delights. They chase each other in circles around a pole that holds up the slide, wave their arms like windmills and skip or run where an adult would walk. Their mothers, grandmothers, aunts and occasional male relative sit on park benches, leaning forward, elbow to knee, in deep conversation. The swings swing alone in a pendulamic motion. Javier Marías, I believe, has such a window in Madrid, one that looks out on the world with a birds-eye view. I look out upon a giant rubber tree. En España usted dice <planta de caucho>. I know this because I own a small rubber plant back home, and it’s one of the many things I gave a masking-tape label to when I began learning Spanish in July. Yes, July. Julio And the very end of July to boot. Which I don’t think is a particularly long time to be learning a language before you end up in the justice office trying to get a criminal background check. In case you were wondering, the right thing to do is pick up a form from the desk and a ticket from the machine, fill in the form and wait for your number to be called. Then you take your documents to the person everyone else is pointing at in a desperate plea for you to get a move on, since they haven’t got all day and and didn’t intend playing this game of sardines. The room smelled of deodorant. The scowling look I received, as I feebly handed over my passport and semi-completed form, I’m going to put down as the justice chap’s problem not mine. Today I learned the word ‘británico’. Which, in case you didn’t realise it means British. I needed this word for the form I filled in at the library as well as the form in the justice office. ‘Reino Unido’ is United Kingdom. I needed that one when I got my Spanish mobile phone number because it was a drop-down box on a computer screen. Luck was on my side in both the library and the phone shop. The librarian gave me a tour of the library and helped translate the form I needed for a card, then she advised me on housing. When I returned from the bookshelves a little while later, her colleague was incredibly patient as I failed to spell my surname with the Spanish alphabet. El alfabeto. The lady in the phone shop didn’t speak a word of English, but she spent an hour going through exactly what she was doing in simple Spanish and using Google translate. Then she called the service supplier to activate the card, put a limit on the amount of money I could spend so that I wouldn’t go over, switched off the answerphone and told me that if I needed any further help whatsoever with my phone, to come right back to her. The best part of this was her wonderful pronunciation of my surname to the person at the other end of the phoneline. If you know any Spanish pronunciation, just try it. (u is oo, i is ee and e is eh) Oug-tib-rid-ge Anyway. Today has been a great success. Not only do I have the certificate to say that I don’t have a criminal record, I have a bus pass (bought from a tiny shop in a corner of a square that’s nowhere near anything else) and a Spanish keyboard. I can now write mañana and ádd ás mány áccénts ás Í líké without hassle. This makes me very happy, albeit exhausted.

Flamenco dancing (and other mishaps)

Yes, another picture of a red panda because I still haven’t taken any photos in Spain. Unless you count my many photos of bus timetables.
If you ever find yourself dressing for you first ever flamenco dance lesson, and you’re anything like me and unable to keep count of what you’re doing, and added to that, the lesson is being taught in a language that you don’t yet speak, I suggest you were rubber soled shoes. That way nobody hears when you get it wrong every time. I signed up to a salsa class. Then something Spanish happened and the salsa class became a flamenco class. Now I’m not saying I would have been able to follow a salsa class either, but as our flamenco teacher explained: Flamenco es muy técnico. And if flamenco is very difficult, by the time I’d gotten to yesterday evening, my brain had overloaded with really thrilling questions like – do they sell those biodegradable organic waste bags in the supermarket? Very difficult was not within my remit. However, there was at least one other woman as incompetent as me, and I admired her for she excelled in having a good time regardless of the complexity of the situation. Plus, I learnt how to elegantly stick cash in my bra whilst dancing. And that was a good giggle just by itself. Uno billete por el autobús por favor. Somewhere in the city I’m assured is a place where you can buy travel cards for getting around. I haven’t yet worked this out, but I’m looking forward to doing so because once I actually have a travel card I’ll be able to swipe my card when I get on a bus and won’t have to have an awkward interaction with the driver where I try and pronounce the place where I want to go and they raise their eyebrows and say the same thing as I have just said in an eighth of the time and then wait for the money. The last one helpfully waved a two-euro coin at me with a ‘you need a coin like this’ look. I was trying to be helpful and find a five-cent piece so that I could give him the exact change, but I gave up and gave him two euros instead. I miss the ‘thanks love’ that you get back home. Gracias. If I don’t sound Spanish, I really don’t look Spanish. Women’s fashion here, as far as I can tell, is simple. It’s a white t-shirt. I’m not kidding, I’ve seen hundreds of women in a variety of white t-shirts. There might have been a dozen on the bus. They look like a washing powder advert. Now it’s time to go and tackle another day. Wish me luck.

Moving to a country where you don’t speak the language (and other great ideas)

I haven’t yet taken a picture of my new home, so instead you’ll have to settle for a confused red panda.
Yo tengo sueño. I am tired. Something to do with waking a few hours after laying my head on the pillow last night. I had a plane to catch, and inevitably didn’t sleep well. Does anyone ever sleep well when they’re waiting for a half-three alarm? Like the temporary Spanish citizen that I am, I caught up on my sleep when I finally arrived at my temporary apartment, but I’m still drained from it all. Sleep does not necessarily equate energy although of course it helps. My energy however is lost in a whirlpool of change, there’s so much to catch up on that I feel like I’m floating in a daze. I am here for eight months or so. Not in this apartment as such, but in this city, in this country and in this language. A language which I do not speak. Somewhere I once read that there’s no better way of learning a language than completely immersing yourself in it. I guess I’m about to put this to the test. Ahora, yo vivo y trabajo en España. Now I am living and working in Spain I’m going to have to master the language. Prior to my arrival, I communicated with my landlady in written Spanish. I can write a decent text message if you give me time, google translate, a dictionary and a notebook to write my many drafts. When I’m stood at a bus stop trying to write a message quickly to say where I am so that said landlady can find me, my Spanish reaches its limits. Soy aquí. Which anyone who’s listened to Shakira knows should be ‘estoy  aquí’. By the time I was in the car, and my landlady was explaining that she was sorry for being late, my brain was overheating. It didn’t help that temperature wise we’re in the thirties here. Once I settled into the passenger seat of ‘el coche de color negro’ though, I discovered that my landlady had a few words of English and I had a few words of Spanish, and we proceeded to chatter for the next twenty minutes; sometimes we understood each other. Interestingly, my first lesson was that the people from around here don’t only treat ‘h’ as a silent letter, but also ‘s’. Yo soy de Yorkshire, y en Yorkshire no decimos ‘t’, por ejemplo, decimos ‘water’ como ‘wa’er’. Now, for the important news. I have a bed, it’s comfy. I have found the Mercadona supermarket and have stocked up on necessities like sun-cream and shampoo – all those liquids which are too heavy for fussy airport weighing scales. I have Lapsang Souchong tea, which is the tea I drink, in my own mug and enough food to last me until lunchtime tomorrow. Tomorrow’s plan is to wander, explore, and chill. Yes, it’s going to be a day for working out things like buses. But mostly it’s going to be a day to catch my breath. Settle down into where I am and listen in to how my body is adjusting. There is no rush. I’m not here for a week, I don’t need to try and make to most of it, I’ve got eight months to learn.

Observations from a French café up North in Sweden

March 2018 – Sunday afternoon in Luleå.

It would be a pretence to say I know anything about this Swedish town that I’ve arrived in, other that it’s the location from where I am getting the Stockholm train. I am anxious about taking the overnight train – my first alone – and acutely aware that outside the temperature is well below freezing.

I arrive onboard a double decker bus, stocked with coffee, tea and bottled water for a price. The lady who comes around offering to sell me these things looks at me with a comforting motherly air. I’ve wrapped myself in my scarfs, kicked off my boots and had my e-book reader, cross-stitch and notebook lying on the seat beside me. There are other passengers today, which adds a little distraction, but also brings a sense of security. I was a whole lot less comfortable when I was riding across cold rural Finland in a bus as the driver’s only passenger. Especially with us having no common language.

From the border to Luleå the journey took us through small towns, tall forests of snow laden firs and along the edges of flat white lakes, whose cover of snow looked untouched by man. I had hoped to see the sea, but the route took us too far inland.

There’s a brand of bus here called ‘Busgods’.

Sunset in Luleå.

Other than dragging my suitcase through the snowy streets, and the gorgeous sunset that I witnessed chasing me over the hill to the railways station, my experience of Luleä is decidedly French.

Café Metropol has a warm inviting look to it, with its old-fashioned lamps glowing in the window, and although it was rather late for lunch but early for tea, I went inside to warm myself and eat a meal. There would be no evening meal for me, just a muffin, yogurt, bread roll and an apple picked up from a corner shop, which would have to last me the thirteen-hour overnight journey into Stockholm.

Normally I would feel disappointment at a café for using fake flowers on the tables, but since nothing seems to be growing outside, it’s much too cold, I’m surprisingly cheered by the colour. Five fake yellow sunflowers stand in the window, alongside a box of fake pink and purple tulips. Inside I do spot an orchid, not in flower, the rare authentic plant.

Tiny portraits look out of ornate frames, alongside old peculiar instruments which I cannot name made in an elegant pale wood. They are part of a collection of paintings, which represent a multitude of times and styles. No wall is left bare. Behind a metal bull (maybe there’s a Spanish influence too?) are stacked bottles of wine. Each wooden table top balances on a central, wrought iron leg. Wood is the material of choice, the bar is wooden, as are the floor and ceiling, although there’s a diversity of varnish which makes it look like it’s all been put together over time.

After serving me, it’s the post lunch sit down for the two chefs. They’re joined by two, dark-haired young girls who have been contentedly playing in their corner by the window and all four of them eat burgers. There’s a definite family comfort about the way they listen to one another and the way the girls loll against one of the men. I imagine their father.

I find my nerves softening.

I’m still there, still drinking my post-lunch coffee when a smartly dressed, and well wrapped up, teenage boy arrives for an interview. Of course, I don’t understand a word that’s said, they’re speaking Swedish, but they’re seated at the table in front of me, the boy with his back to me, and I see the nervousness in his posture and smile at his willingness to please. I imagine this as his first ever interview. One his mother has made him rehearse for. The chef is relaxed, patient, listening, and I develop the feeling that if the boy does get the job, he’s going to be in safe hands working here.

So much beautiful white snow!

North Yorkshire: A Yoga Retreat with The Mother (part 2)

North York Moors, North Yorkshire
The stunning beauty of the North York Moors.

One of the challenges with yoga (other than the obvious physical challenge) is that it sometimes comes a bit too close to sounding like nonsense. It’s mostly the terminology that is used. Sometimes it’s not very western, and it’s not that of a scientific nature and so I become a little bit unnerved. I do have my reputation as a physics graduate consider. I am, I guess, sceptical of a lot of the phrases used, although I feel that this has as much to do with my lack of biology knowledge as much as my lack of Buddhist or Hindi terminology. I had to ask the mother where my kidneys were, and had no idea what a session of activating my kidney meridians was supposed to achieve. I still don’t.

Anyway, I was contemplating this as I sat on the sofa arm, balancing in that self-assured way that one does after hours of yoga, reading the peculiar titles of the books on the bookshelf. At this point I was wearing my third-eye chakra infused oil between my eyebrows because I’d been gifted it and had no idea what else I was supposed to do with it. I’ve got a multitude of chakras apparently, although I’ve no idea what or why they are. How the oil helps them, or me, I’ve no idea either. It smells like the upstairs of my nanna and grandad’s house did when I was a child.

Most of the rest of the group, there were sixteen of us participants, slowly made their way into the living room, placed themselves three to a sofa, found a beanbag, stood propped against the wall, or sat with upright-spines, cross-legged on the carpet. By this point everyone was hungry waiting for breakfast and in a cheerful chatty mood. The awkward silences of the first day had been replaced with an eagerness to speak and be heard.

The conversation paid a moment’s attention to the retreat owner, Edward. I hadn’t seen him and imagined him to be an older chap, small and bendy who looked like he’d live forever. The fifty-something year old women therefore surprised me with their enthusiasm for learning everything about him, little was known other than he would be willing to deal with spiders as 3am if anyone had a problem. Someone claimed to have a magazine article in their bedroom about him, and everyone wanted to see it. They also wanted to know more about the place itself, how it had come to be a sought-after retreat location, and what else went on there.

Our yoga teacher suggested Edward was a very dedicated man, going so far as to even leading silent retreats. Julie can still give you a massage, but she does so silently as not to break the practice. And then of course, all these women were discussing what would be difficult about a silent retreat and asking how silent exactly silent was. At this point, the chap (remember there were fifteen of us women and one chap) launched into sharing his knowledge. He’d shared a room once with someone who’d completed a ten-day silent meditation retreat somewhere down south. You can imagine the voices of the women, still wearing their patterned leggings and all in bare feet or socks, because shoes weren’t allowed in the house, trying to advertise themselves as the least capable of staying silent for ten days.

What is it with people saying that they can’t do things they’ve never actively tried?

Anyway, I turned around from the bookshelf. The Mother looked at me from across the room with one of those all-knowing looks and I looked back at her. I waited for a sensible pause in the conversation feeling that sitting smugly knowing the answers to their questions but not saying anything, especially when they were so curious, would not be fair.

“I’ve done it,” I said.

Cows in North Yorkshire.
Cows. To break up the monotany of the text.

The chap wanted to check that my silent retreat was the same super serious silent retreat that he was talking about. Initially I think he was sceptical. It was. How exactly, everyone seemed to want to know, do you stay silent? Can you write notes?

“You can’t write,” I said. “Or read.”

Their faces looked pained. I tried to explain that the peer pressure of being with so many other non-talking people really did help make the silence easy. Plus, you went in having agreed to the silence, including silence of eye contact.

“But,” I said, “The silence is easy, compared to sitting still.”

Luckily, a few minutes later, the gong sounded, summoning us to breakfast. We didn’t need much summoning. Gracefully and graciously everyone was on their feet and racing towards the dining-room. I was left worrying that everyone was now going to think of me as the weird one, wearing potpourri-scented third-eye chakra oil and doing strange, gender-segregated, vegan-eating, silent retreat.

Just before lunch I finally laid my eyes on the mysterious Edward. He came to give us a gong bath. Don’t worry, we were all fully dressed and most of us were wrapped in blankets too. I realised that he couldn’t have spent 20 years in Indian monasteries and couldn’t have spent time in a cave in Nepal, because he simply was not old enough.

And I suddenly realised why exactly the fifty-something year old women were so enamoured with him. In his shorts and t-shirt, I heard him described as ‘a bit of alright’.


Our teacher was Elizabeth from Lemon Tree Yoga and the retreat was held at The Tree.