If you want to learn about life, talk to someone who has lived a tough one

By Posted on Location: 6 min read
Conversation with a Spanish Grandmother - Jardín de Floridablanca, Murcia, May 2019
Jardín de Floridablanca, Murcia, May 2019

My Grandmother leant me a book about a nun

In her twenties, the nun in the book went to an interview for a place at the National College of Domestic Subjects to study cookery. In front of the panel, she was asked to read a section from The Times newspaper. Having been born to wealth and educated by her mother to become a lady, she read with what she describes as a ‘cut-glass accent’.

A chap on the panel whispered, “I don’t think Sister Agatha will be much good in the East End of London.”

At which point she realised her error and broke through the ice around them by adding, “Now, me ‘ole Dutch, where we ‘orf tonight?”

Smiles appeared throughout the panel, which decided to accept her. She’d proven she could adapt her tone.

Speaking in an inclusive manner can be rather tricky

Conversing isn’t always easy, especially across cultures, across differences in educational opportunity and across generations. I think those of us who seek out opportunities to converse across such barriers don’t give ourselves enough credit for what we do.

Just the other week I was reminded how hard we must work to get the most out of a conversation.

Imagine a very tidy living room and a stiff-backed sofa

I was sitting upright, body lent forward, alert because I was having coffee with my friend´s mother – a tiny woman with strong eyes. Such a situation can be a little daunting even if you speak the same language, but here I was having to converse in Spanish. Spanish. That language which has me dancing on the edge of my comfort zone on an almost daily basis.

This time, I was talking about France

I have within me a repertoire of short stories to which I have learnt, through perseverance and embarrassment, the relevant vocabulary. Good conversations involve stories or at least interesting examples the other person can connect to. Stories also fill time and make a conversation feel fluid.

What’s more, I quite enjoy trampling over people’s assumptions about me. I enjoy eliciting surprise. You need a bit of wonder sprinkled in a conversation to keep your audience paying attention.

During this conversation, however, I was doing nothing artful with my language

The anxiety that strikes me whenever I must speak to someone new in Spanish had entered my bones, and the cogs in my brain were overheating. The Spanish grandmother didn’t ask complex questions, but her Spanish is drenched in dialect, which frustrated our translator and aid (her son), who desperately wanted me to understand for myself.

I was speaking particularly badly

I was nervous. So out of necessity, the Spanish grandmother was taking responsibility for the structure of the conversation. I hate this, but whilst I can structure a conversation in English, doing the same in Spanish is beyond me.

From the start, she knew I taught English

Like many people, she was curious as to how I’d ended up where I was. I explained how I’d worked in a ‘proper job’ once upon a time. In an office, at a desk, next to a window. And I explained how I’d watched Spring come from behind the glass pane, summer pass by, and eventually autumn arrive. Then I told her about France. I told her about working the land, driving diggers and feeding the sheep.

Now lost between a historic frustration and a series of memories, I described my nostalgia for that physical sensation of labour. I tried to avoid romanticising it because hard physical labour is not romantic. But I did contrast the physical work on the land to the labours of the mind. And all this in broken sentences with the verbs conjugated aloud.

The Spanish grandmother frowned

Her eyes communicated her recognition of my naivety, not in a patronising manner, but in the way that a teacher might look at a child who just hasn’t quite got it. A maternal look, but not a soft look.

Her voice, however, when she spoke, was soft and steady. She said that outside work is both, body and mind.

I felt that she was navigating through some of her own memories

Even now she works on the land and has done I believe for much of her life. Her skin is golden, showing a lifetime of being drenched in sunlight. The previous week she’d been picking flowers. She knows more about the land than I ever will, but when she spoke, her words were more like poetry, describing the relationship between the worker and the land as a form of art.

This was not what I had expected

As I learnt about the woman I was speaking to, I was reminded of how although she had little formal education, she possessed immense wisdom, and it gave me an insight into my own child-like self. In her eyes, I am not much older than a child.

Although, she acknowledged with a little surprise, I have experienced a lot for one so young.

Her school life had centred around the church

Every morning in her school she’d had to start with prayers because her school life had happened under Franco’s Catholic Nationalism. A complete contrast to my upbringing. I declared myself an atheist at the age of 7. The only people who argued the case for religion with me were my father (whose beliefs don’t appear to include an almighty being) and much later, Grand-père (who went to mass every Sunday and brought me back gigantic meringues).

She asked about my religious beliefs or lack of belief

And I fumbled through my vocabulary, trying to find the words to describe something I’m not sure I could articulate in English. All the time she watched me with immense curiosity.

Religion in Spain is a dangerous topic. Some people talk about religion as a pillar holding up the rest of life, whilst others have an audible snarl in their throats when they mention the church. I’m fascinated by these attitudes to religion, but I know I must tread with care. The girls at school describe my Yorkshire influenced accent as being cute, and although I’m sometimes conscious of the childish sound of my voice, sometimes I’m grateful for it.

She listened though, receptive to what I was saying, and I was grateful.

And then just before she was about to leave, she motioned to my ebook reader

It lay on the coffee table where I’d discarded it when she’d arrived. She told me she didn’t read on phones and suchlike, she reads books printed on paper. A literature lover. Despite all the differences we might have, we are fellow bibliophiles. My heart felt lighter.

Which brings me back to my Grandmother’s book about a nun

I started off sceptical. Reading about a rich young lady who gave up her fiancé and dedicated her life to her God, I wasn’t sure how well I’d connect. At first, I found her story a little frustrating.

And then, in her fifties, she decides that she’s going to travel. She doesn’t have much in the way of cash, because nuns don’t, and yet, her passion to travel forced her to find a way. And that I could relate to.

What’s more, when she talked about her terrible driving, I couldn’t help but think of the habit-wearing nun who nearly ran me over the other day.

The book was A Nun’s Story by Sister Agatha and Richard Newman.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might like a reminder of this old post about what I learnt talking to Grand-père.