Tag Archives Spain

How I worked out what I wanted (once I’d stopped fretting about it)

Posted on 7 min read
The river in Strasbourg

Strasbourg, France, March 2018.
On this day I treated myself to croissants and crepes… It’s important to try the local cuisine, right?

My favourite type of restaurant to frequent in Spain belongs on the edge of a small town. Outside on the road, or in an unmarked parking lot sits a collection of cars with the appearance of being unwashed, although the land here is so dry and the air swirls with so much dust that they could have conceivably been washed that morning.

Every time I approach such a restaurant I feel a little afraid. You can’t see too well inside, maybe older men sit outside, smoking, suggesting an all boys club, but on entering you discover the place to be loud with voices high and low. You take a seat, anywhere you want, and you’re offered the menu of the day: a selection of courses that will be brought out, one after another to be shared between you and your companions, all for a fixed (and very reasonable) price.

This is my favourite type of restaurant because it forgoes all that pesky decision making that comes from having to choose what it is you want.

Here I can just eat.

Sometimes though, life ain’t quite so easy.

“So—do you know what you want?”

This is the question my mother emailed me with after reading my previous blog posts (lessons from the mother), and by the question, she didn’t mean just for dinner, she meant in life. I stared at her email for a moment, considered my lists, my plans and the feeling that floods my heart when I’m doing something that I consider to be important and then my fingertips hit the keys in determined strokes. I wrote back, “Yes, I think I do.”

I thought, for my mother, as well as any other reader, I’d elaborate. I’m going to briefly elude to three stages of how I got here.

This isn’t guide to how to work out what it is that you want, I wouldn’t want to suggest that such a process would be the same for you, this is just a story of how things were for me. But, what with you being human too, chances are you’re going to relate to some part of my journey.

The stages so far:

Stage 1: Recognising I didn’t have a clue
Stage 2: Accepting my long term goals were my long term goals
Stage 3: Writing down the next step

Stage 1: Recognising I didn’t have a clue

Towards the end of my degree I proactively made an appointment to see the career counsellor. I was a few months off finishing my degree and hadn’t worked out what I was going to do after graduation. I had, in one moment, contemplated teaching, but after volunteering in a primary school for a while I came to the solid conclusion that teaching would be a long slog of me against the system.

This chap who was supposed to advise me was probably a great source of information for physicists looking to move into a hedge fund or academic department, but he didn’t excel with hysterical me. It was hardly his fault.

Wisely, in hindsight, he suggested speaking to a medical professional

Although he didn’t express himself very well. Of course I did not feel that not knowing what job to apply for constituted a mental health problem. I figured it was a very common challenge facing many graduates and that it would, in time, resolve itself.

It didn’t.

In fact I didn’t understand that not knowing what I wanted was a real problem until a number of years later when my psychotherapist pointed it out to me. Graciously she guided me into the understanding that my incredible, analytical, rational brain (the one that was at home in the world of quantum mechanics) was a bully, and that my emotional needs were being squished, surfacing only in inelegant spurts of anti-social behaviour.

I needed these two parts of my brain to cooperate

The compromise however would have to be from the rational side of me. The side of me that understands my bank balance, writes my CV and earnt a degree. I really despised this idea, but eventually, after much fighting with myself, recognised that my emotions are impossible to reason with.

Now I had surrendered some of my stubbornness it was time to move onto the second stage.

Stage 2: Accepting my long term goals

It surprised me to discover that what I want is nothing new. The things that make me the happiest are pretty much the same things that made me the happiest when I was at school.

The desire for travelling has amplified rather, and become more nuanced. Painting and drawing have been pretty consistent activities throughout my life. And I whilst my standards have risen, my writing has been prolific since I was a teenager. I might have started my diaries when I was in my twenties, but the Christmas holidays of my sixteenth birthday I churned out 20,000 words. A year later I’d created most of a novel.

My problem however was that it all felt pretty much like playing

I’d written that novel after stopping studying English at school at the grand old age of sixteen, and although I did art at AS-level it became a horrific endurance battle as the department entered civil war.

So whilst other people around me studied to be artists or writers, I played at both and loved both hobbies equally. Meanwhile I was pretty obnoxiously certain that I was going to become successful, well-off and influential because of my incredible analytical mind.

Thankfully, after a few false starts, I ended up amongst the psychotherapists cushions. She helped me think through some very important questions. What will being well-off give you? Successful in whose eyes? Influencing people to what goal?

At which point it hit home

I want to be immersed in the things which require a soft ego, gentle humility and that are driven by listening to the world, not shouting at it. I want to paint, I want to write, and I want to learn by opening myself to all the incredible people around me.

Here steps in the Crabbe and Goyle of my brain

Crabbe says yes, but you are going to have to get a proper job one day, and Goyle says, but don’t you want to be successful like your house-buying, PhD winning, money making peers.

At first I fought them.

Then I realised that they, like most bullies out there, need a bit of compassion. I was rejecting them and therefore they were going through a bit of a rough patch. This time it was my emotions that needed to get to work. It was time to show some compassion, to myself.

I needed to commit myself to doing what I love.

Stage 3: Writing down the next step

So, these fluffy goals of creating art, writing something and seeing the world aren’t exactly your business SMART goals. And I’m sure intelligent goals are very useful for some people, but what I need is a direction. At this stage, it doesn’t bother me that I haven’t got a clue where I’ll be in five-years time. I don’t currently know which continent I’ll be living in six months from now. I’ve kind of made a nest of uncertainty, and whilst it’s not necessarily plastic wrapped perfect, it’s tactile and stable.

I know that in five-years time what I will be doing is creating art, writing stories and conversing with strangers. Therefore, all I’m focusing on right now is getting really good at those three things. I plan on spending the rest of my life continuing to get really good at these same three things.

So all I need to know today is what small step I’m making

Each week, or every couple of days I review my goals, write down the next small step I need to take, and then I focus on doing just that. It’s simple.

In the future I assume I will need to put more emphasis on being more financially stable but I’m practicing my humility. I’m not in the place to do that right now. I’m practicing my generosity, I believe I’ll get there eventually. I’m practicing my self-kindness, I’ve just picked myself up off the ground after a rather nasty fall.

I need to get a stable footing before I try to cartwheel

And so today I wrote this article, and I painted a picture of a photo I took a few weeks back whilst visiting Granada and I practiced my Spanish.

So, yes mother, I know my life goals. And I’m achieving them every single day.

In summary:

  • For me, it’s easy to be so analytical that I forget to follow my gut feeling.
  • My gut feeling, what I like and don’t like, is actually surprisingly consistent. Therefore I pay attention to this and set goals that reflect what I actually enjoy doing.
  • Getting the next step written down helps me keep my mind focused on today, whilst moving along the path of creativity I’ve actively chosen for myself.

It doesn’t mean I know what I want to eat when I’m presented with a menu

So if I’m feeling overwhelmed, I ask the waiting staff for a recommendation.

Spain is a wonderful place for trying new food. You can pick at the food, share it, swap it, taste only a tiny amount of it and this is all considered to be polite. It’s how you’re meant to eat.

Life ain’t so different.

Do you know what you want?

Fiesta Nacional de España

Spanish flag

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.

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.

The hidden secret of the house on the hill

vineyard teia

If I were really rich, I’d be tempted to renovate an old ruined stone house in the countryside of Spain or Italy. I’d have an art studio and a veranda on which I could sit and write.

Of course, I’m not rich.

However, there is such a house on the other side of the main street, which is known as ‘the river’ because when it rains the water is channeled along it. It’s got a gorgeous view as it’s propped up on the hill. The village where I live sits between mountains overlooking the Mediterranean. Further more, if you look towards the village, you have the church and the town hall.

The owners began restoration, but unfortunately (or not so unfortunately) the banks made some mistakes and the economy stumbled. Lack of funds brought progress to a halt. The story could end there. An abandoned house looking out over the sea from behind locked gates, suggestive of a fairy tale or a tale of horror.

But the real story doesn’t just end there. Unable to make progress with the house, the owners came to an agreement with three local men. In return for making sure the house doesn’t go the same way as Sleeping Beauty’s palace, they can use the land and ruined building.

Teia Vineyards

They planted the vines, bought the bottles and got a small machine (pictured below) to insert the corks into the bottles. A new village vintage was born. A local painter designed the labels. They’re now contemplating using the ground floor as an art gallery of his work.

It’s the sort of place you need to know a person who knows a person to get a private informal tour. If you only speak English, then it helps to have someone who can translate the enthusiastic explanations for you. Otherwise you miss out on the stories. You don’t learn they initially store the white wine in a metal container; the red goes straight into the wooden barrels. You miss the joke about not tasting cheese before trying the wine because the wine speaks for itself. You don’t miss the pride.

The hard work bottled and stacked. I’ve tasted the results and they’ve the right to be proud.

bottle-cork

The cathedral with only one arm

Malaga Cathedral

[Malaga, March]

I took a long time to see the cathedral was lop-sided, even if at one point I lived opposite. I have some excuses. For most hours of the day, the winding streets of the old city are closed to cars. These streets disobey any expectation of straight, parallel or perpendicular planning. Surrounding apartment blocks stand close to each other so it’s easy to lose sense of which direction you’re facing. There’s a lot going on at street level. Tourists and locals weave between the other sketchers, almond roasters or craftspeople, twisting insects and trees out of wire to sell. There’s the guy who plays the pink panther theme on the saxophone and the guitarist who strums out Eric Clapton songs.

So I admit, it’s still kind of embarrassing that it took me so long to work out where the front of the cathedral was. The visitor entrance was large, decorative and surrounded by the cathedral garden (garden shown in the bottom picture). I just assumed it was THE entrance. Here, women sat on the ground, wrapped in shawls holding out an empty paper cup for a couple of coins. This wasn’t however the main entrance. That’s around the corner, fenced off. If the great gates were to open, people would walk out onto a large square (above) where I sat and drank cafe con leche and ate salty popcorn which failed to persuade this stingy sketcher to buy more drinks.

Malaga CathedralWhen you climb up to the top walls of the Alcazaba, the Moorish palace, there’s an excellent view of the city, this includes the odd, single cathedral tower. Like all normal cathedrals the architectural plans ask for symmetry. In the case of the Malaga cathedral this would mean a second tower. The architect planned it, but nobody ever built it.

Unlike the Sagrada Familia, here in Barcelona, which is moving towards completion, the cathedral in Malaga is an unfinished project. There’s little hope of continuation. The citizens of the city, and the tourist industry’s marketing people, affectionately call the cathedral ‘La Manquita’ or ‘the one-armed one’.

Building a cathedral is an expensive undertaking. The sort of project that historically took lifetimes. Sometimes when it comes to such big projects people become distracted and spend their money elsewhere. The Malaga people however donated the money for the second tower to the British colonies in America. They supported the fight for independence (according to the sign in the cathedral). And possibly, less excitingly, also on building a road (according to Wikipedia).

Maybe, if it had been completed, I might have forgotten visiting. It would be easy the blend it with all the other cathedrals and churches I’ve visited. There needs to be something striking about the experience to make it memorable.

Yet in March when I was living beside it, I felt a strange fondness for the building. Can you empathise with a building? I don’t know. I can’t forget it. Its asymmetry and story make me smile because it’s imperfect, just like all of us.

Malaga Cathedral

 

A good morning in a rural Spanish town (Bon dia / Buenos días)

Cervera, Catalunya, Spain

It’s half past-eleven in a small Catalan town. An elderly man at the bar of the pink-walled patisserie is drinking a shot of something golden and being daringly affectionate with a woman who must be a generation younger but may in fact be his wife. Duos and trios of lifelong friends lean in over small circular tables and drink coffee. Some of them, like my sister and I, eat croissants too.

I buy a baguette. The lady in front of me starts a conversation and I state my apologies, in Spanish, that I speak no Spanish. She continues talking to me regardless. I wonder about switching to Catalan and saying I speak no Catalan. The woman at the counter sells me the baguette and charges me one euro twenty. She watches my face as I translate either Catalan or Spanish, I can’t quite tell which, and repeats but as ‘one, two’ just as I pull out the correct change. My Spanish is better than my Catalan, but I’m better at numbers in Catalan. Despite the considerable time I’ve spent using euros, I still have to turn the coins over to check that the numbers on the back are what I expect.

At twelve we cause a commotion in the fruit and vegetable stall. The owner is standing in the doorway, a large man with a calm face which looks slightly perplexed. The conversation is either in Catalan or Spanish, I can’t tell which. Again I apologise for not understanding. We step into the store and pick up a courgette and a couple of tomatoes. An old man, stooped shoulders, white hair, mischievous grin watches us from a stool in the middle of the shop floor and talks at us or about us I cannot tell.

The shop owner surmises that perhaps we are French. I interrupt with “English, from England, Inglés.”

The elderly man on his stool understands and repeats multiple times, “Inglaterra.” Although it might have been ‘Anglaterra’ which is the Catalan for England. A few moments later, in the middle of the tomato weighing, the old man pipes up with, “Un avión?”  Just in case my Spanish isn’t good enough to translate, he assists me with a gesture which is clearly an aeroplane taking off, flying above his head and then landing.

“Si!”

The old man looks delighted.

The shop owner, after our purchase has been made, suddenly asks, in English, which city we are from. It’s not a simple question to answer. For one, we are not from a city, we were born in one town, grew up in another and neither of us have lived there for a little while. What’s more, there’s little point telling this man the name of a town he’s never heard of. Furthermore I’ve met a fair few people who don’t know that Yorkshire is in the North of England. Often when I explain I am from the North of England people think I mean Scotland. I don’t, I mean Yorkshire. The obscurity of Yorkshire is, tragically, about football. Yorkshire’s athletes might make a very respectable indent in the Olympic medal list, but its football teams are currently not winning enough for the cities of home to be easily recognised abroad.

My brain has to move quickly and lands on a solution. “Near Manchester. Leeds.”

Manchester, although on the west, does have the advantage of being easily recognisable and geographically above the north-south divide. I’ve had some significant trouble in the past explaining that just because I’m English doesn’t mean I’m a Londoner so I’ve lowered my success criteria. I write Leeds on the back of the receipt when prompted for the shop owner. He asks me whether I’m a City fan or United fan. I mimic my mother if it had been her, not I, responding and make an appropriate array of gestures to indicate that I am unlikely to ever support Manchester United. The shop owner laughs delighted in his foray into conversing in English.

The final stage of the morning takes place at the supermarket, the other side of the train line. I buy a box of PG Tips and a litre of (sin lactosa) milk. The idea that there are other people in this tiny town drinking English tea amuses me. Supply and demand dictates that it can’t just be us. The transaction is negotiated without catastrophe and I request a carrier bag in Spanish.

Walking home it all feels like quite the success.

How can you thank volunteers? (an example from travels in Spain)

volunteering at schoolYou may have read the blog post about how I spent an afternoon in the garden of the local school chasing ants. Well I also went back to school and taught division to a bunch of eight-year-olds. The most striking moment of this second experience happened when I told a boy that his calculation was incorrect. He replied, “What the f**k!”

This blog post however isn’t about swearing or division, it’s about the thank you I and every other volunteer was given on Friday afternoon for the generosity of our time.

Naively, I imagined that the number of volunteers turning up at school to be thanked would be reasonably small. People after all have jobs and other things to do Monday to Friday. What’s more, I’ve been a volunteer in an English primary school (it was part of a ‘Right to Read Scheme’ and took three months to process the paperwork before I could even begin reading George’s Marvellous Medicine). There were supposedly two of us but the other guy never turned up. Therefore, even knowing that this Spanish primary school was well supported by the community I didn’t imagine there’s be that many people at this ceremony.

I was going because I’d been told I was going by one of the kids, and I have to take them back to school for afternoon lessons anyway.

I followed L through the school entrance, here, forming a corridor of bodies that we were guided through were the school pupils clapping, reaching out for high-fives and generally being excitable. The oldest children were closest to the door and as we snaked through the building and out onto the playground the kids got smaller and smaller. Those younger than six were already seated on the playground, holding hands in big class circles.

This village does things differently to anywhere else I’d been. If I were to guess, I’d say there were over a hundred volunteers, maybe even more, maybe over one hundred and fifty.

L led me up onto the stage which all us adults crowded together or in front of as photos were taken. A Catalan song boomed out of the speakers making one of the grandmas jump. The children who had made up the chain to the stage streamed onto the playground and arranged themselves in class groups. An adult, presumably a teacher, made a speech – in Catalan – and then different children came forward to read their thanks – also in Catalan – passing between them the microphone and pausing at regular intervals for applause.

L pointed me to my ant catching class and we both made our way over to them. Stepping over children on the way. It was probably 26 degrees Celsius and brilliant sunshine. Whilst most of the volunteers did the same as us and left the stage to go to those kids that they had worked with, the volunteer coordinators (15 or so people) were presented with flowers on the stage.

The children had drawn pictures of each of the volunteers and as we arrive, leapt up, let go of each other’s hands and excitedly presented us with pictures of ourselves as a thank you gift. L talked to some of her friends and I was surprised at how many of the parents and grandparents knew me and said hello.

The chaos went on a while, but eventually a vague sense of order finally resumed and everyone except me sang You’ve got a friend, in Catalan of course.

Where I write (And why it matters)

Where I write

Where I write today

The bright Spanish sun that forces me to wear the children’s factor 50 suncream on my face when I leave the house, and which has made the left side of my legs darken a little from where I sit on the balcony to read but has so far been ineffective on the right side which typically faces away from the glare, this sun is not present today.

Instead I sit inside, on my sofa, in my room below the main house, peeping out from behind barred windows, past the palm tree that stands in the front garden and a lamp post which feels it could belong in Narnia. Most days, I can see the tops of the mountains, and a statue of Jesus with his arms outspread as if he were blessing the village in the valley below, but today the trees of the hillside hide behind the mist. It might be May in Spain, but the rain is Welsh like, moving left to right across my window in great sheets like GCSE textbook diagram of a sound wave.

To compensate, I’ve wrapped myself in a huge thick fleecy blanket and nestled within the cushions. There are four, two for this sofa, two for the bed with elephants embroidered on them in what look likes an Indian design which I can’t help thinking doesn’t fit with their pastel yellow and purple colours. It’s a fabric haven in a room without carpets or curtains.

Pulled up, right against the sofa is a little black metal table, which rocks precariously as I type. I mustn’t stand too quickly or my mug of tea, made using a microwave and UHT milk, will splash and end up flooding the floor, again.

The temporary nature of the situation is further exaggerated by the music playing out of the tiny tinny speakers on my phone. Spotify has decided I’m Spanish and its recommendations are for playlists of mostly Spanish songs. Occasionally something familiar pops on and my memories drag me to a different place, a club in my home town when I was eighteen, sunbathing in the garden at university whilst mentally chastising myself for not revising, or an argument about my distinctly bland taste in music with a friend who’s own taste involves pirate songs.

Bland music though suits me when I write. Anything too rich can be too much of a distraction and writing required my concentration. It does not involve hoisting the sail on the Jolly Roger.

The importance of variety

The best advice on writing is always to write more and read more. But is it really all that simple? I’m reading How We Learn by Benedict Carey.  It’s a book I wish I’d read before doing a degree, for it has taught me that I never learnt how to learn efficiently. Surprise, surprise but practice, practice, practice isn’t the quickest way to get better at a task. And almost more startling, it’s better not to have a single dedicated quiet study space. Variety promotes learning.

The idea runs like this. If you study the same material in multiple environments, with different background noises, if you mixing up working inside and outside, switch between the bedroom, the study, the dining room table and the coffee shop, you’re somehow providing your brain with more context to the information, which makes finding a way back to it easier. Or at least according to my understanding of Carey’s analysis of the scientific studies on the effect of context.

The same goes for mood. Only studying when you are in a single mood limits the moods that your brain associates with that information. Cleverly they tested this with people who are bipolar and people who were under the influence of mind altering drugs. Mock exams are important because they train your brain to work in the environment in which you’ll have to regurgitate the same information. Laying on the beach after months of stressed revising and exams, your brain probably still contains the same information, but without the cue of mood has struggles to know where it went.

A tangent on sleep

I wonder if the idea can be transferred to sleep. Do people who regularly switch beds have an easier time finding the path to content sleep in a new environment?

There are few places I struggle to sleep. It’s not that silence and comfort aren’t extremely valuable to me, but that their absence doesn’t prevent me resting. For years I slept to the not quite audible drown of Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter in the room next door. I hate sleeping with music on, but sometimes it’s not worth the argument to get it turned off. (Although I admit there is occasionally some music or radio adverts are too aggravating for even me.) I have slept soundly in tents beside loud and drunken festivities and in the centre of London with sirens sounding all times of the night. Hostel rooms aren’t my favourite but their cheap beds and the sound of cheerful chatter at 3am have never stopped me sleeping.

Ideally I sleep in silence on my super soft foam covered mattress snuggled under my own cosy warm duvet. Here in Spain I play a game with the blanket and the window, trying to gauge whether it is going to be a warm night or a cold night. Tonight, will surely be cold after all this rain, but it is a continuous guessing game.

Tomorrow

I switch beds and desks with ease. Travel forces me to keep adapting, for I must write and sleep anywhere. When the children are at school I’ll move my computer out to the dining room, or upstairs to the living room sofa or, should that bright Spanish sun change its mind, I’ll be out in the balcony frantically scribbling into my notebook or down on the high street beneath the parasol of a little coffee shop. And just a few weeks ago, I’d never seen any of these places, and in a few weeks time I’ll take my last look at them. Where I write changes, and that, I hope, gives the end product a little more richness.