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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
On reflection, I feel that my reading had been a tad different this year.
My thinking has changed, mostly due to a combination of therapy and time. I have less anxiety that needs soothing. Lots of sadness still, but less anxiety. I used to think of books as the solution to anything I felt uncomfortable (read anxious) about. You can read non-fiction that tells you what to do and think, or fiction that gives you a place to escape. Or non-fiction that gives you a place to escape and fiction that gives you clues on how to live. Nowadays I’m much more aware that books don’t solve problems and I use them as a prop. They might be great for learning too, but mainly they’re a distraction or an illusion of a solution. Some weeks back I raced through five in seven days, six if you include me rereading of my own novel. This last week my reading has been sparse.
Books fill my mind with words, leaving less space for negative thoughts. I like books filled with eloquent phrases that push language to its boundaries. I find the woven texture of a scene, the colours, smells, shadows and rhythms get closer to my actual emotions than a statement declaring an emotion. Good books give me something to relate to. Maybe my excessive use of metaphors during therapy is a consequence of how much I read.
“How do you feel today?”
“Like a cat locked in a basket on its way to the vets.”
What would I do without books? Would I watch more television?
When I’m struggling, when I’m exhausted, I sometimes revert to hiding in an episode of something captivating. An episode swiftly becomes a series. And then, without warning, I become bored. Books I can take at my own pace, I can entwine myself in them, I can pull back if one gets overwhelming. I can pretend to myself that all the reading I do is good for me, and good for my writing. I can be reading six, seven, eight books simultaneously, and that’s okay. Television on the other hand still feels passively indulgent.
That said, I don’t have the jolliest reading list so far for this year. Thankfully it’s a lot less ‘how to sort your life out’.
I’ve read Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, which struck me as a very sad story. In case you were under the illusion that it’s a great romance, it’s not. It’s a book about domestic abuse and destructive obsession. Love is absent.
It’s a book I’ve been meaning to read for some time. I have, after all, walked (and run) the same moors as the Brontë sisters. Yet, for whatever reason, I’ve put Wuthering Heights off until now. The writing, I admit, is rather pretty in places – less archaic than I imagined. It’s not one of those tedious books where you can’t follow a sentence from beginning to end. The reading itself is easy. Except when the manservant Joseph speaks in a thick Yorkshire accent (translations in the footnotes). There is a glossary of Yorkshire terms at the front of the book, of which I knew only one: lug. Yet, as picturesque as the writing was (and as wonderful as the setting is), I couldn’t like any of the characters. They’re miserable sods.
On my trek through literature these last few months, I also read Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I read it not knowing the ending, although it seems the ending is common knowledge. I also had no idea how long the book was because I read it on my e-book reader (nearly 900 pages). If I had known, I wouldn’t have leaped in with such enthusiasm, but when it finally reached the end, I was disappointed that it wasn’t longer. To me, with my limited grasp of the ways of literature, it seemed to prove that you can write a good book without obeying the so-called rules. I am so enamoured with it that I have this idea that I will even re-read it at some point… or maybe even War and Peace.
Then there was Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. My intrigue of Hemingway developed from watching the film Midnight in Paris. Recognising the name, I’d picked up his account of his time in Paris, A Moveable Feast, from a bookshelf belonging to the library of my Sicilian travel hosts back in 2016. The autobiographical account was fascinating, and heart-breaking. He writes of his marriage falling apart with a reflective sense of regret and responsibility. It left me with little idea of what to expect from his novels, but a strong desire to read them. I went on to read the neighbouring Hemingway’s On Writing, which is more a quote collection than a book but intriguing none-the-less. He’s disciplined but not pushy when it comes to making himself work. When he’s not working, he’s not working. He’s not even thinking about working. My diary for that week recalls that ‘this is the kind of attitude that I want to develop towards my novel’.
For Whom the Bell Tolls had my attention from beginning to end. I loved the way Hemingway moved through each of the characters stories. As a reader you start out with a bunch of odd people who are thrown together by the Spanish Civil War. As the story progresses and you’re led through each of their individual histories you develop sympathy for them, one by one. The women were interesting characters, which brings me to a bit of a tangent. I guess it’s inevitable that when a character portraying trauma takes stage, especially one who’s been raped, I pay closer attention.
This isn’t to say that I read with a critic’s eye. I become so well immersed in any good story that I’m reading that I fail to analyse. Yet, the moment in which rape appears in a novel, I’m forced to confront it. The narrative jolts me back into my own past. I am stopped. Sometimes I feel a sense of disgust for the writer. For example, when I read Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle recently, I found such a scene jarring and the character unbelievable. The references to rape in the beginning of the book felt so disconnected from the actual event when it was told. I couldn’t put it all together. What’s more, the language changed. Like the author* felt that ‘rape’ was too ugly a word and that he needed to soften the experience and make it more magical as it got closer to describing the act itself. Yes, I get that the book is magic realism, but the weirdness of it made me feel worse not better. I wasn’t relating to the characters. I was getting angry at the author.
I cringe at the need to portray sexual abuse for dramatic effect. Yes, Murakami manages to incorporate elements of dissociation and such like, but he seems to forget that within the victim is a young woman. Her trauma is told as if it is known and understood, whereas my experience of trauma is that there is always more unknown than known, and little can feel understood.
I guess to me it’s always going to be personal.
Sometimes something in what I’ve read resonates and lodges in my mind for good reasons. In For Whom The Bell Tolls, there is a young woman called María who suffers atrociously when her town is taken. Hemingway, consciously or unconsciously I don’t know, does something different with María’s story. Whilst each of the characters seem to take turns in telling their stories, or the stories of each other, María’s story is repeatedly glossed over. She brings it up time and time again, causing a discomfort to others. She gets asked to speak of it no more. The characters go to great lengths to protect her (to feel like they’re doing the right thing), whilst failing to listen to her (and so avoid acknowledging their own insurmountable grief, or hers).
Hemingway sticks with her. She’s small, weak, feeble and obedient to those around her, making her seem like anything but a strong, independent woman. And yet, when I read her she is the strongest of all the characters. Pablo drinks, Robert works, Pilar bosses everyone around. María keeps on bringing up her story, her fears, her hopes. In the dire situation that unfolds, she has the ability to believe in a nicer life, to plan for a future and a different way of living.
María takes control of her own story. She’s not naïve. She’s pragmatic, carrying a razor blade with which to end her own life if she is captured again. I can understand an exaggerated need for control. She refers to her sense of being broken and vocalises her fears of now being an inadequate lover. As someone who feels the need to issue a warning statement before allowing herself to be kissed, I understand this too. She continues throughout the novel to speak her own truth, forcing those around her to open their eyes and start to see her as more than a serving girl, more than a victim, a fellow combatant.
Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, although a book that fascinated me (I love his writing), was spoilt by the references to rape because he never made Creta, the victim, feel human. To me this felt like an insult.
Rape is useful to a novelist. It’s dramatic. It’s a moment of conflict that forces characters to change. Rape and sexual abuse is also, unfortunately, much more common that we’d like to think, and it would be bad to not to acknowledge these crimes through literature. But, in my opinion, if you want to write it well, you must also write the social silencing that comes with it and show the humanity of the victims. Murakami made me uncomfortable in the way reading sensationalised newspaper articles used to. I’ve stopped opening newspapers. Hemingway made me feel heard in the way that talking to a good friend does.
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.
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’.