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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.