Time for a transition: Mistakes I’m about to make

Cliché for you: It’s all about the journey not the destination. But on a road trip, it’s undeniably true.
European Road Trip, The Italian Alps, Summer 2018.

Feeling ill this week I took to the sofa and immersed myself in Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. It’s a book that I’ve been meaning to read for a while. One that I see recommended in various places and given praise, but at the same time I was a bit wary. I expected a rather dark book.

Victor Frankl was an Austrian psychotherapist. His personal experience in a concentration camp during the Second World War forms the backbone of stories for his psychological theory that is shared in the book. I read it front cover to back cover in one afternoon. I found it surprisingly optimistic.

As well as being an autobiographical account of his ordeal in the concentration camps, Victor Frankl’s book dealt with the transitions that framed his imprisonment. He wrote about the initial humiliation and the shock, and then, at the end, he wrote about the vast unease that came following liberation, and how the psychologically, this didn’t happen in an instant.

And transition periods fascinate me. They feel like something we don’t pay enough attention to. Too often we concentrate on the big reason for changing and miss the details of the change in the process.

Not quite yet, but soon, I’m moving to far and distant lands

Already I can feel the tension in my body increasing. I say that, and I haven’t yet got back home to England. I’ve got two steps ahead planned, multiple transitions, and as much as I love novelty, my body does not.

Before therapy I described this as a change funk. Now I’m a little more attune with what is going on. I know that my hunger is all or nothing. I know that my sleep is lots or little. I know that my skin is about to object in the only way it knows how, and that the chances are that within the next month I’ll have mouth ulcers.

It they were only spots, I could ignore them

But with stress there’s an emotional side to too. The extremes of my emotions are more likely to raise their heads these next few months as I switch countries and continents.

After all this moving around is not a holiday; holidays come with less admin. This is a restructuring. It includes everyday things like:

  • Where and what food I eat.
  • Where I wash myself.
  • The bed in which I sleep.
  • The weather (and season).

And what’s going to happen is that many of my wonderful habits are going to get shook up. They won’t feel quite so automatic, so habitual. I’ll find myself swinging off-course, which is not where I want to be. Therefore, I’m writing this article to get my head around how much effort it’s going to take to rebuild my routine.

So why am I going to struggle here?

  1. Fear
  2. Lack of energy management
  3. Absence of triggers

There are many fears that influence how we structure our lives

The fear of missing out is one of these, but when we think about the fear of missing out, I believe we often skip a step. The truth is that when I’m joyous and focused I don’t have this feeling. If I’ve spent the day loving what I’m doing I don’t worry that I didn’t happen to go with some friends to see some film. I’m content.

It’s when I’m not content that the fear of missing out comes into play. So, if I have this fear arising in me then I know what I do. I need to look back a bit at what I’m doing with my time, and recognise that there is, somewhere in the mix, a lack of self-satisfaction. I need to self-soothe. I need to take time and care for me.

When I first landed in Spain, finding friends was a priority

I felt very much like I needed to pour a huge amount of effort into my social life immediately, or that I wouldn’t have one. After all I was going to be living in the country for eight months.

At the time this seemed to make complete sense

When I look back, that’s bullshit.  Hindsight is a good teacher. Looking back, I can see that although those first weeks introduced me to some people I go out for coffee with, my social life isn’t built around them. The meaningful conversations and relationships I’ve built came from investments of time I made much later, at my own natural pace.

The fear of missing out also drives me when I’m back home

Moving back to England, for a few weeks, I know what it is that I most fear. It’s not having enough time for all the people I love. This there-is-not-enough-time belief comes from the fact that the number of days is short. Such a belief instils me with fear and puts me at risk of doing a very typical Catherine screw-up.

I’m going to try and do too much.

You see, I am still an introvert

Sometimes people who have recently met me find this funny. What with my broad grin, direct eye contact and enthusiasm for hearing my own Yorkshire voice I don’t always come across as an introvert. But I recharge alone. People exhaust me. My energy builds back up when I am quiet, working on my own projects, writing, reading, tidying my bedroom. It can be frustrating, since I love being with people so much, but it’s important for me to recognise that this is how I work.

For me, although my time is short, energy management is more important than time management.

But you know what I’m going to do the moment I reach far off lands… I’m going to forget how exhausting new colleagues, new students and new house-mates are. I’m going to say yes to every invitation to coffee I get.

You see, moving to a new country is all very exciting

Meeting new people kicks out a burst of adrenaline. I underestimate how much energy gets sapped seeing someone can be. Long-term friends who you haven’t seen in a while are a perfect example of this.

The excitement builds, I bounce, my speech gets to almost the same speed as a Spaniard, my mind goes wild as it tries to connect everything together. It feels like the past, so familiar, yet also new. It’s a precious sort of conversation.

All this excitement acts as a mask for how tired I am

Unfortunately, even the everyday becomes more exhausting when you move about.

Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort. Left to its own devices, the brain will try to make any routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to ramp down more often.

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

But what I’m doing is upsetting my routine

My brain has energy saving routines well engraved into it, but I’m going to change things up. Eating breakfast takes more energy when you have to decide what to eat. Shopping for food is more effort when you don’t know where the pasta isle is. Getting money out from the cash point makes your mind spin when you’re remembering different codes for different accounts and paying attention to avoiding currency conversion fees or ATM charges.

Everything I do takes more energy that I presume.

There’s a lesson in quality over quantity that I should pay attention to

I pretend to myself I know it. Most of the time I’m pretty good at abiding by my belief that it’s not seeing someone a lot that matters. What’s important to me is having a genuine connection when you do. However, prolonged absence, or a bout of loneliness, tends to make me question this belief.

The mixture of adrenaline and anxiety comes together and… boom!

So I’m going to fall flat on my face because I’m inadequate at managing my energy.

But now I want to talk about habit triggers

When you twist your life around and change things up, you lose some of your routines and habits.

Whilst I sit on my bed each morning and have my breakfast, I practice my Spanish flashcards. But in England I have breakfast at a table because we’re all very proper like that in my family.

Lunch time here is about three on a weekday, because I finish at school at half past two. But lunchtime at home will be after twelve… where therefore does a siesta fit into my routine? Not at half past three for sure… And it’s not that I always sleep in my siesta time, but I do tend to take a moment to relax. Sometimes I write in my diary, paint or read, but I make sure I’m not rushing into the next activity.

Then there’s exercise. Here, I have combined riding my bike into my life by making it part of my commute when I’m teaching in town. In England I tend to run or cycle, but in all honesty the hills of home, after the flatness of here, are quite intimidating.

Part conscious, part unconscious, these triggers are built into my routine

At home it is inevitable that I will settle back into an old routine. The triggers of the past are still wired into my brain. I have some good home-habits and some bad home-habits. Here I wake up at half six. At home it used to be more like eight.

My wonderful luck means I have a mother who will knock on my door and say something helpful like “When are we doing yoga?”

Maybe I will have breakfast in the kitchen, but maybe I can do my flashcards there instead? A siesta at half one, or two is plausible, especially if it’s collapsing on the sofa with a book (this is how I read so much). But the environmental triggers aren’t the same.

The harder challenge will be in far and distant lands

I have more space and more options. What form does exercise take, what does my diet look like, what hours am I working, is lunch eaten at home or at work? But this itself is part of the challenge, it’s part of the fun. It’s the time where you get to start over, test out a new structure, consider what is important and then make your days the evidence of those values.

There you are.

That’s what’s swirling around in my brain right now

That’s my teaspoon of awareness that I’m stirring into a whole lot of unknowns. I’m going to react too much to fear, I’m going to mismanage my energy and I’m going to have things that seemed easy, habitual, become a whole lot harder.

And reading Victor Frankl’s book has given me something to think about. Transitions are hard. Change doesn’t come easy and there’s always a cost.

But overall, my transition is a beautiful opportunity, a gift, and something I shouldn’t complain about but should be grateful for.

Where am I going to screw up?

  1. Where I let fear dictate
  2. Where I don’t manage my energy
  3. And where I don’t compensate for an absence of triggers

Which means I’ve got some planning to do.

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Some photos: Jueves Santa

By Posted on Location: 1min read
Jesus on the cross.

The children at school instructed me that I had to see the Easter processions. It’s not necessarily that the children are themselves particularly religious. A few are definitely so, more are kind of uncertain, a significant number seem to be solidly atheist. As far as I can tell though, of those from a Christian background, they’ve all been baptised and many confirmed. The church plays a significant role within the community here.

Let me tell you that it’s a spooky experience seeing the people weilding torches, wearing masked faces in rich robes. Some off them suddenly broke rank and leapt towards me. A voice spoke out to me, teasing me in English refusing to give their identity but rewarding me instead by putting their hands inside their robes and pulling out…

… huge handfuls of sweets. Yep. They might look like their wearing cushions around their middles, but it’s actually millions of sweets. I came home with my pockets stuffed full.

Things like this, however absurd them might seem to me, remind me that community rituals have a value. What do you think of such processions? Have you ever taken part in one?

A wintery Sunday afternoon in Southern-Spain

Not my window, but you get the idea. Murcia, December 2018.

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.

Mar Menor and the calamity of Maggie

A sponge or a pinecone… what do you think?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abandoned building by the beach.

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

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

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

Playing with the camera. Wine at Mar Menor.

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

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

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

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

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

Murica (con mis padres…)

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

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

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

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

The cathedral in Murcia

Yes, this weekend my parents are visiting

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

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

For now, I’m dealing with basic vocabulary

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

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

Being a tourist is always an interesting experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good work considering our limited language skills

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t all dead animals

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

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

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

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

Hablamos muchas…

Artwork passed on our walk to the sanctuary.

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

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

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

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

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