56 - Getting Into Hot Water
16 May 2013
Posted at 16:41 Comments (25)
It's taken me 54 years, but I've finally learned how to chill. How to really, properly, chill. And it's in the hot tub.
When I set it up, about four weeks ago, I knew I was going to get good use out of it. It was never going to be one of those things that gets used for a fortnight then becomes an expensive white elephant banished to the loft or the garage with the exercise bike, the foot massager and the leaf-blower. I've used a hot tub regularly, and it's always been a favourite sociable activity with friends, chatting and sharing drinks, maybe with music.
So as soon as Lorenzo, the builder, had confirmed that my top terrace was strong enough for it, I unpacked it, plugged it in, watched it inflate itself, filled it, and turned the heater on.
The first few nights, I experimented with what drinks to take up there (a long glass of semi-frozen horchata was surprisingly successful), and sat there in the bubbles sipping and gazing at the stars over the Axarquía mountains.
In the second week I experimented with ways to wedge a magazine on the control panel, played about with some solar lights, and wondered about plugging in some music.
At the start of the third week I got home one night much later than expected, and leapt into the tub without a drink and without a magazine. For a moment I considered getting out and going down two flights of stairs to the fridge. Instead, I leaned back in the hot bubbles, and felt them massaging my tired back muscles and stiff neck. I shut my eyes and sank lower into the water. As the tension left my body, my mind too began to relax. With my ears below the waterline, the sound of the 120 bubble-jets rushed around my head, chasing out the busy-ness and the imagined problems.
It's the 40 minutes of my day when nothing intrudes. Sometimes a smile flits across my face as odd thoughts and images float unbidden through my mind. A Skype catch-up with a friend overseas, a cartoon on that day's Facebook feed, a good memory of the day, a photo or a stimulating IM chat.
A chuckle, tonight, remembering a conversation with Alberto and Arturo in the bar in San Pedro. Switching to English I managed get Arturo to say that he enjoys "getting into hot water" before I gave in and explained to him that in English it has two meanings. It was revenge, albeit directed at the wrong person, for my inter-cambio session when Jose had almost manipulated me into the classic English mistake of saying "Estoy caliente" until I spotted his mischievous eyes and caught the half-grin on his face before falling into his trap.
But mostly, very few thoughts. The odd smile, the odd memory, then nothing. Gaze at the stars, or eyes closed and listen to the bubbles. I'm getting better at thinking less and less in the hot tub. Instead, I'm just chillin'. Just chillin' in the hot tub.
THIS WEEK’S LANGUAGE POINT:
We’re taught that adjectives go after the noun in Spanish, and of course that’s usually true – except when it doesn’t! Adjectives that describe size or quantity often go before the noun, as in gran hermano (big brother) and so do “first /second” as in la primera planta or el segundo plato. But the other time the adjectives goes first is for emphasis or when there’s a strong emotion, such as esta aislada ciudad (this isolated city), or un resonante exito (a resounding success) or in an epithet such as malditos Yanquis (damn Yankees!).
55 - A Blank Canvas
09 May 2013
Posted at 15:31 Comments (4)
A hundred artists descended on Colmenar earlier this month. From nothing, each created a finished painting within one single day. The photographs here were all taken that day.
So. It's the beginning. We have a blank canvas. All the options are available to us - we must make our choices.
First, where should we be? There is time to consider, time to explore different places, the choice does not have to be made straight away. We can start, get settled, then change our minds and move to a different location, searching for what feels right. Though it must be said, constant discontentment, constant changing, may not leave time for fruitful output. Eventually, a decision needs to be made. Time to settle, and then live with our choice.
Secondly, what outlook do we want? There are interesting corners to look into, shadows to peer into, trying to see what treasures are hidden in the gloom. Contrasts, light and shade, chiaroscuro. There are wide open spaces, great vistas. There are close-up views, a detail to study, a chance to concentrate on extraordinary perfection and small imperfections. Perhaps a combination - distance and detail in one, sunshine and shadow, the big view and the close-up.
We can stand in the same place, you and I, yet what we see is different. What I see is only what I see, nothing more. No inferences can be made. What you see is what you see.
So now we are settled and ready for the task ahead. The mind is prepared, we have what we need. Deep breath, and begin. We have chosen our viewpoint, we have chosen our palette.
A false start. No problem. It's early days, we can gloss over the mistake and start again with our blank canvas. Except the canvas isn't blank any more, even though it looks it. It is now covered with a thin veneer which acknowledges our earlier mistakes. Our skin becomes thicker and incorporates but never hides the past. The layers build up, each experience, each attempt, adding something to the finished article.
A re-think, more preparation, perhaps a slight shift to the side. Start again. Don't focus on what went wrong, make a fresh start.
Confidence grows. We can do this. With that confidence our actions become more sweeping, more decisive. We are clear on our overall direction and each step taken is a step towards our goal. Oh! Another mistake, but a small one. Study it. Look closely. What remedial action is needed? Not a disaster, no need to abandon everything, no need to start again. Think. Correct the error. Cover it up if needed. Absorb it. A combination of these. It's OK. Concentrate. Carry on. The eye and the mind are dragged back to the mistake. Stop it! Not productive. Move on. Look at the bigger picture.
Yes, it's coming together. We can be content with what we have done. Tempting to keep adding, adjusting, tweaking. But in the end, it's time to stop. Time to say "That's it. That's what I have done. Judge me on this, this is me."
And so the judges gather, as they always will. Comments are passed, sometimes favourable, sometimes not. There are winners, there are losers. Prizes are handed out. Such is life.
Who will decide if we are winners? Who will decide what the prize is? In truth, it's not the judges. It never is. So who then?It's possibly those who actively took part alongside us. Perhaps those close to us. Probably just ourselves though. Did we do our best? Are we developing, continuously improving what we do? Is that even necessary? Are we content with the choices we made and what we made of our choices?
In the end, contentment makes us winners, and regret makes us losers. Our choice.
© Tamara Essex 2013
THIS WEEK’S LANGUAGE POINT:
I need to remember to use estuve to say I was somewhere in the past, rather than yo estaba which is the continuous tense. Why can’t I remember estuve? Is it because it’s irregular? Estuve en Marbella la semana pasada. I was in Marbella last week. Estuvimos en el bar hasta muy tarde. We were in the bar until very late.
54 - Going West
02 May 2013
Posted at 13:44 Comments (19)
I headed west last week. I didn't like it.
Not far west, I stayed within Málaga province. I'd already been further west and loved Huelva and Cadiz provinces - stunning coastline with some brilliant secluded beaches. And since choosing to settle in the Axarquía region I've obviously explored east of Málaga. But I had reached my ripe old age without ever visiting Marbella.
The opportunity arose when I was invited to a multi-national networking event in San Pedro de Alcántara. It was a chance to visit many places I'd heard of on the way. I drove through Mijas-Costa but didn't like it. I drove around Calahonda, Elviria and Rosario but didn't like them. I drove through Nueva Andalucía but didn’t like it. I didn’t get as far as Estepona. West of Málaga seems to me to be an endless strip of over-developed resorts and urbanisations.
There was one brief respite when I spotted a stretch of sea backed by dunes and pine forests. A pleasant walk through the naturaleza, half an hour on the beach, and then a drink at a beach bar cheered me up and offered a break from the endless urbanisations with their English bars.
At San Pedro de Alcántara I checked in, then found a quiet bar for a media-racion de calamaritos. The networking event was fun. People from 17 nations gathered, mingled, and separated inevitably into clusters. Six of us (two Spanish, one Portuguese, one Mexican, one Russian/Finnish, and me as the token Brit) headed off to find food. I love how an apparently unprepossessing backstreet bar can so often turn out to do the best food. We got to El Candil de San Pedro around midnight, and didn't leave till 2.30, and in between Alfonso brought us plate after plate of delicious hot and cold tapas including ensaladilla rusa, tortilla de espárragos, jamon, ensaladilla de tomate, cebolla y melva, salchichon, queso viejo, frutas secas y nueces, and finally his grandmother's secret recipe for salmorejo, with her special addition of chunks of fresh orange. With a juice, some water and a decent bottle of wine the bill between six of us came to a massive €41.
Next day was the chance for that first ever visit to Puerto Banus and Marbella. The first shock was having to PAY for street parking in Puerto Banus! Half the cars had blacked-out windows, and despite the cloudy day most people were wearing sunshades. There seemed to be two main groups of people - rich people in elegant clothes carrying miniature dogs, speaking German, Russian, Dutch and Italian, and several large gaggles of English girls in sprayed-on shorts and tight tops apparently visiting from The Only Way is Essex. Of course the main point of Puerto Banus is the
shops - oops sorry, I mean the boats. It was nice to wander round the luxury yachts, especially because it appeared to be the week before some owners were due, so there was a lot of furious activity from muscled men stripped to the waist rubbing down woodwork, which was pleasantly diverting! Several tanning shops surprised me – why would one pay? The sun is widely available and free! Fake tans in a fake setting. To visit for an hour? Fine. And that was enough.
On to Marbella. The locals the night before had advised me to skip the sea-front and head for the old town, which was attractive with pretty backstreets, squares and castle walls. Accents were mostly English, American and French. La Plaza de los Naranjos was a highlight, as was spotting a prettily-decorated motor-scooter with a matching owner! Any town with quirky residents has an up-side!. A pleasant town but no big deal, then a glance in an estate-agent's window reminded me that this is meant to be the jewel of the Costa del Sol. A one-bedroomed flat with no sea views was €275,000. Presumably for the address. Up above the town I could see hints of some of the multi-million-euro mansions that apparently make Marbella so special. Overall, I didn't really get it.
Half an hour later I reached the city of Málaga. Stopped for a coffee, pleased to feel I was back in "my manor". Driving north up the A-45 then east into the hills, I passed the sign to enter the Axarquía. I felt a smile creep across my face. I guess I'm just an East-of-Málaga sort of person.
THIS WEEK’S LANGUAGE POINT:
In English we use the gerund (“-ing” form) after “thank you for”, as in “Thank you for calling me” and “Thank you for sending it to him”. But in Spanish we use the infinitive, not the -ing form, so it’s “Gracias por llamarme” and “Gracias por enviarselo.”
© Tamara Essex 2013
53 - First-World Problems
25 April 2013
Posted at 09:57 Comments (27)
"Oh you're SOOoooo lucky!" I get told that a lot. Of course I know I'm lucky. What's more, I remind myself every day. Probably every hour. But it's not because I live in two beautiful places and have the freedom to enjoy them. It's certainly not for the reasons most people mean when they say "Oh you're SOOoooo lucky!"
I was born, through none of my doing, into an ethnic group and a socio-economic group which rarely faces any form of discrimination, attack, or even pressure at any real level. The countries where I spend my time have democratic systems, social security systems, and health systems, all of which not only ensure that I am unlikely ever to be left totally starving and destitute, but more importantly ensure the same for everyone else (to a greater or lesser extent). I was not born in a country ravaged by war or starvation. I have chosen to be an immigrant in Spain, but my ethnicity, education, mobility and finances make that comfortable and unremarkable rather than the dangerous situation that faces many immigrants in many countries.
None of that is of my own making, and only a part was of my parents’ making. The wider systemic benefits which have cosseted me all my life are down to luck - the luck of being born in a good time and in a good place, to parents for whom the same was true. It could have been so different.
With that lucky beginning, the confidence and the work ethic instilled by my parents were able to blossom. After my father's premature death, my first job at the age of 17 was as a cub reporter on the Windsor, Slough & Eton Express. A year later an ethical stand-off (oh the sublime arrogance of an teenager with an emerging moral compass!) led to my resignation from journalism and a move to stage management in the London fringe then repertory theatre around the country, tours, and dance festivals. With the horrific arrival of the HIV pandemic I moved into the social care and support of people living with AIDS, then campaigning around broader social care issues, and eventually into 16 years of successful freelance charity consultancy. All of them have been jobs I enjoyed and which made me feel useful. It never occurred to me that I couldn't have a job I loved. It never occurred to me that I might have to do something I hated just to earn a pittance. Most of that comes from the luck of my birth in a developed 20thC western nation combined with the same luck my parents had in THEIR births, enabling them to pass on to me the education, assumptions, and work ethic that I was lucky enough to grow up with.
So everything is luck. The timing and geography of birth.
And mostly, the people who say "Oh you're SOOOooooo lucky!" are equally lucky. Mostly, they also come from a similar socio-economic group, and were born in western democracies with systems of social security and health provision. It is said that if you keep coins for parking in the car, and if there is a handful of change on a mantelpiece or in a drawer, you are amongst the richest 10% in the world - the rest cannot treat money with such casual contempt. You don't need a mansion, a plasma screen TV or a fancy Gaggia coffee-machine to prove wealth, just a pile of coins that you are rich enough not to need right now.
Everyone reading this has a computer. The majority are probably reading it on an iPad or a decent laptop. Most are in their own homes, from where they are not at risk of eviction. Most will eat well today. We are all rich, compared to half the world who will not eat well today. That alone makes us extraordinary lucky.
What else makes us feel lucky? Clearly family and friends. The people around us who enrich our lives so much. For many that includes animals too. Activities - for some it is their participation in sports, for others it is their art and creativity, the open air, walking in the hills, a rewarding job, reading, travelling, or growing food or beautiful flowers. Special moments when something is achieved.
"Oh you're SOOOoooo lucky!" Yes, I know. I remember that every time I wake, healthy enough to enjoy the countryside I see from the window, wealthy enough to put gasolino into the car and to explore Andalucía and my adopted country. I remember that every time I spend time in Dorset in my cosy cottage, lunching with dear friends, shopping at the farmers' market, and visiting London for friends and culture. I remember that every time a friend from the UK is able to jump on a plane and come out to see me. I remember that every time I turn on a tap and clean water comes out. I remember that every time I go to the Enchanted Place and remember my mother and all that she did for me, all that she made me.
I am so lucky. We all are. Just think how different life could have been for us if we had been born somewhere else, in different circumstances, without the riches we enjoy. Think of that when we are about to moan about a delayed flight, a traffic jam, a new bureaucratic form to fill in, an item out of stock in a shop, or when we lose internet access for a few hours. First-World Problems. So much of the world would love to experience our problems.
If you've read this far, thank you. Now, from you, three things that remind YOU how lucky you are.
© Tamara Essex 2013
52 - Inter-Cambio and Getting to Grips with Grammar
18 April 2013
Posted at 18:17 Comments (14)
It must be extraordinarily difficult to learn Spanish if you think you don't like learning languages, or if you hate grammar, or don't know what the English words are for different parts of speech. I'm very fortunate to find that I genuinely enjoy the grammatical building blocks of a language, and I love practising and improving my Spanish.
I went to my first Spanish lesson about 7 years ago. Dorset Adult Education, evening classes at the school just behind my house, taught by a Dutch woman. After the first, beginners' year, they didn't run an improvers' course, so my friend Hazel and I carried on meeting on the same night, at each other’s houses, and used the superb Michel Thomas CDs to work on grammar. With high motivation, and Michel Thomas' help, we sped along. In year three we felt we needed external guidance again, so drove 30 miles each way to Poole Adult Ed each week to do a GSCE class with the irascible Carlos, a Columbian man with a penchant for teaching slightly risqué vocabulary (though to be fair, he did get the WHOLE class though the exam). Year four and no classes to be found, so Hazel and I had a holiday in Sevilla and carried on with Michel Thomas' Advanced Course. Year five and still motivated, we searched for an advanced conversation class and found we had to drive 26 miles to Salisbury College each week where a very strange teacher (this time Bolivian) imposed her views on art or literature, preferring to get HER point across about an artist, rather than encouraging the flow of discussion amongst the students.
That summer I treated myself to a week-long intensive course in Madrid, coupled with a home-stay in a Spanish family's house. It was an exhausting week but incredibly valuable (and not overly-expensive), and I felt my language was more fluid at the end of it.
Here in Colmenar, as in most towns, the Ayuntamiento puts on free classes. But last year the funding came primarily from the health department, so we had to focus on health-related vocabulary, resulting in repetitive slide-shows of clinic reception areas and hospital departments. Also, the group-leader was not a teacher of Spanish-as-a-foreign-language and was unable to help with complex grammatical questions. A useful service for us immigrants, but it is inevitably difficult for any teacher to deal with a wide range of skill levels and sporadic attendance.
We're fortunate also to have Axalingua in the village. A professional language school run by los hermanos guapos Juan-Mi and Pepe, they offer English and French to Spanish people and Spanish to all the immigrants and tourists. A friend came to stay with me and attended a week-long intensive beginners' course, and rated it very highly. I have attended the fortnightly advanced conversation group and really enjoyed the fun yet rigorous teaching style, and want to attend more regularly.
More recently I have begun a one-to-one inter-cambio with José down in Torre del Mar. So far this is proving to be the best method for language improvement so far. We share the time, half on improving his English and half on improving my Spanish. Through conversation, we establish where each other’s weak points are, and then at the next lesson we each bring a prepared exercise designed to strengthen the vocabulary, grammar, or pronunciation issues identified. José has excellent vocabulary but wants to improve his pronunciation. I am a level or two below him in my Spanish, and he drills me on tenses, as well as helping me use a more natural and colloquial word-order. I'm very lucky to have found an inter-cambio who is as serious as I am, and as interested in getting the grammar right. Other Spanish friends are fantastically useful at correcting me and expanding my vocabulary but of course don't focus on whether we should be using the conditional or the pluperfect subjunctive at any given moment!
On top of that, I try to visit a bar several mornings a week (I know, it's a tough life!) to drink a coffee or juice and read Málaga Hoy, looking at the more formal constructions they use (ridiculously pompous might be another description!) and how it contrasts with chatting with José and others. I have Spanish telly in the lounge and try to watch the news a few times a week, and occasionally something like the Spanish "Quién Quiere Ser Millonario?" can be quite fun. My bedside clock-radio chats rapidly and incomprehensibly to me in Spanish as I fall asleep.
Out of all possible methods, I think my top recommendation for other British people in Spain would be to find a really good inter-cambio language partner (but no, I'm not sharing José!). Or a few private lessons at Axalingua to get you to the level where you can confidently join a class or conversation group. Plus I believe that the Michel Thomas CDs (the Foundation course and then the Advanced course) are unbeatable, whatever level you are. I still keep Advanced CD 4 in the car and just play it over and over, listening to the verb constructions and those awkward "should have", "could have", "would have", "might have" etc etc.
Oh there's an idea! José wants to practice contractions. I foresee a session on "could've" and "might've" coming on!
Deberíamos haber practicado más, entonces habríamos podido entenderlo. We should’ve practised more, then we’d’ve been able to understand it.
Si hubiera hecho los deberes, habría sabido como traducirlo. If I’d done my homework, I would’ve known how to translate it.
© Tamara Essex 2013
51 - Bedding In
11 April 2013
Posted at 19:13 Comments (11)
Springtime. My first Axarquía spring. A year since I came house-hunting in Colmenar. This week my white-van-man brought my final three boxes, some lamps, and the comfy leather chair from mum's bungalow.
Having got through my first winter I understand more about why Spanish people organise things differently in the cold season and move into a smaller part of their houses. So I'm slowly turning the downstairs bedroom into a study / winter room. I've got rid of the twin beds and have put in a lovely metal day-bed, comfortable as a sofa for me to lounge on for reading or writing, and a handy spare bed when needed. The sun streams in all year round, and it's a room that's easy to keep warm all day in winter. It's not finished yet but, as in all things, poco a poco, little by little. That room is my project. The leather chair is perfect in there, and the day-bed is really pretty.
Buying the day-bed didn't go entirely smoothly. I'd picked one in a Segunda Mano (second-hand shop) and paid for it, arranging delivery for a few days later. Then an hour later I saw a prettier one that I fell in love with in another shop - aaargh! I phoned the owner of the first shop, grovelled and apologised and asked if I could change my mind. He was pleasant, and said I could go straight back that morning and have my money back. Phew! But by the time I got there he too had changed his mind and would only offer me a credit note. By then of course I'd paid for the second day-bed. I argued (it's by far the best way of improving your language skills!), but got nowhere and left unhappily with the credit note.
A few days later I met up with my Spanish inter-cambio friend (we meet once or twice a week to help each other improve our language skills). He suggested I use the libro de reclamaciones (complaints book) and checked my draft for accuracy. I plucked up my courage and went back to the shop and submitted my first ever hoja de reclamación (complaint form). It's unlikely to work, because obviously the shop owner is now saying he never offered me the cash refund. Still, as always I turned the experience into an opportunity to practice the language, learning and using different vocabulary in different settings.
Springtime. My first Axarquía spring. The weather is very changeable. The morning walk to the bakery alternates between a sprint in a mackintosh and a glorious languorous stroll bathed in warm sunshine. Slowly unpacking books, putting up hooks and shelves, hanging my print of Zara McQueen’s painting of Castle Hill in Shaftesbury ….. home-making. Thinking about getting the top terrace right. Morning coffee in a bar, reading the Spanish newspaper. Some good beach days. Getting to know the wonderful city of Málaga. Meals in and out with friends. Language practice. Lunch at a chiringuito (beach cafe). An opportunity to think about how retirement might look and feel. Beginning to realise this might be what it looks like.
© Tamara Essex 2013
50 - Semana Santa - The Splendour and the Silence
04 April 2013
Posted at 12:06 Comments (2)
Changeable weather couldn't keep the penitents, the celebrants, the Nazarenos or the tourists away from Semana Santa. In every city, town and village in Spain, people turned out to see the richly-decorated floats and the cofradías (brotherhoods) carrying them.
I have yet to find an area of Spain that does not genuinely believe that their Semana Santa is by far and away the best. Surely they can't ALL be right?
Well maybe they can. They're all so different, yet they're all the same. A full year of preparation, culminating in this most special of weeks and an outpouring of religious (and non-religious) fervour. People crossing themselves and sobbing at the sight of the floats, their long wait finally rewarded.
In the city of Málaga, the largest of the enormous tronos (floats) needs 400 men to carry it. La Virgen del Rocío with her long train is one of the most splendid, while live doves were released to accompany Las Palomas. Hundreds of thousands of people lined the streets, and every day brought out different tronos, each one a favourite for many people. My photos don’t do justice so I’m crediting people who have done a much better job than I did – these pictures from Málaga are by Emma Munck.
Then in Colmenar Viernes Santo (Good Friday) dawned cloudy but dry. Villagers anxiously checked the sky throughout the day until it was time for the procession. All day a trickle of people filed past the two tronos in the cofradia headquarters. By 4pm the church was full for Mass. Then at 8pm the floats were ready to emerge. Silence fell outside as the huge doors were swung open and the band began its solemn march. The first float, Nuestro Padre Jesús Nazareno, followed, carried for the first time solely by women. Behind, María Santisima de los Dolores emerged, carried by the men of the village. As the procession made its way around the village and up to the church, a reverent silence fell in the streets, broken only by scattered applause and some quiet sobs, almost drowned out by the solemn drumming. Four and a half long hours later the tired women and men returned the tronos to their resting place for another year.
From high up here on the hill, we look down into the valley onto the neighbouring village of Riogordo. I tease my friends there, reminding them that we "look down on them" and that they "look up to Colmenar". I'm not sure I can ever use that line again. Because the most extraordinary experience of Semana Santa was watching "El Paso" in Riogordo, with 600 villagers taking part to act out the Easter story. How amazing for their village to put on such a huge dramatic event every year, and of such high quality. Taking over three hours, the story was acted out across a natural landscape of hillocks creating different areas for the scenes. The ex-stage manager in me couldn't help but be impressed with Judas' suicide (he fell dramatically, to hang from the tree apparently by his neck), and of course the crucifixion. The music was well-chosen and the central performances were given with passion, while the hundreds of “extras” took their roles seriously (though the occasional first-century villager did whip out an iPhone to grab a photo!). Again, my own photos paled beside Jo McCarthy-Matthews’ dramatic pictures so she gets the credit for the ones used here.
So perhaps everybody is right. For each city, town and village, their own traditional celebrations are the most important. The Malagueños KNOW that their Semana Santa is the best in Spain. The village of Colmenar KNOWS that whilst theirs is not the biggest it is still the best. And little Riogordo, tucked away in its Axarquía valley, is safe in the knowledge that nobody can ever look down on it again.
© Tamara Essex 2013
49 - Damn You, Joanna Lumley!
28 March 2013
Posted at 11:37 Comments (4)
The score is currently standing at Joanna Lumley 1 : Tamara Essex 0. But I'll even it up some day.
There was just one thing left on my Bucket List. And this month I set off to achieve that final "tick", on an evening flight from Bournemouth up to see the Northern Lights.
It was a Christmas / birthday / Easter / Hanukkah present all rolled into one for my friend Margaret, who has wanted to see the Northern Lights for years. I don't know how I'd managed to keep it a secret for the six months since I'd booked it. I'd told Margaret she had to keep the evening of March 26th free, and preferably not book an early meeting the following morning. She was intrigued, and begged to know what was planned. Indeed, she was so curious that she Googled the date, and discovered that boy-band One Direction were performing a little way along the south coast. She spent the next five months wondering how she could possibly look adequately grateful! Finally I had to tell her to bring a camera and her passport (I told her that security required a passport because I'd got us backstage passes to meet "the boys").
At the airport we were given a presentation on the stars and planets we would see. The astronomers, who would accompany us on the flight, explained that there had been 21 "Lights Flights" so far this season, and good views of "the wall of red" had been seen on 20 of those, a success rate of better than 95%. This is because on a land-based trip to see the Lights, there is a high risk of cloud cover, but on these flights we remain above the cloud so should get a good view as long as the lights are doing what they do to create those amazing walls of green and red. It’s all to do with magnetic polarity – I understood it when he explained it with PowerPoint but the finer details seem to have slipped my mind just now …….
On board there was a long explanation of how to ensure our cameras were set to not flash, and every bit of light from phones and cameras needed to be covered with black electrical tape. The cabin went dark. Even the wingtip lights went out. We all had to hold our cameras above our heads, and on the count of three we pressed the shutters. Not bad, just one person had one remaining orange focus light that needed covering with tape. Then we were in total blackout.
As we reached the site, just south of Iceland, the stars were extraordinary. With no distracting man-made light sources they seemed enormous, and ridiculously bright. The constellations and clusters we'd been told about were there, right outside the windows.
The astronomers pointed out all there was to see. But the real star of the show eluded us. The 22nd flight of the season became the second to fail to see the Northern Lights. We saw a bit of a red dusty tinge, and stared desperately at it, willing it to burst into the amazing light displays that greeted Joanna Lumley in that wonderful documentary. But the polarity refused to reverse itself (which is what would have kicked off the display) and eventually the pilot had to turn for home.
I genuinely enjoyed it, and just being up amongst the stars in a totally blacked-out plane was a great experience. But I still want to see the Northern Lights.
And one day I will.
So then it was back to Colmenar, where in my absence Laura had cleaned the smoke-damage from my walls and repainted the room a bright white. Except for the end wall. I missed out this time on the Northern Lights, but Laura has given me my own "wall of red".
© Tamara Essex 2013
48 - Soy Extranjera
21 March 2013
Posted at 16:43 Comments (27)
Soy extranjera. I am a stranger.
Soy extranjera en una tierra nueva. I am a stranger in a new land.
I am in Spain. I am not of Spain. I tread lightly, fearing to make a mark. I tread heavily, fearing to be disengaged.
The newspapers inform but they do not explain. They do not explain the private impact on my neighbours' lives. To me, the early almond blossom suggests a walk and a photograph, good or bad. To my neighbour it dictates the summer harvest and the winter's income, good or bad.
I hear and understand conversations in which I am involved. I hear but do not understand the rapid buzz all around me in which information is being exchanged, feelings shared, emotions glimpsed. Soy extranjera.
I read, ingest and consider all I can. My mind knows and understands the turmoil of 20th-century history in my adopted homeland. My heart feels for the people, but my heart cannot feel what they feel. I understand why that family does not use that shop. I understand why that man does not visit that bar. I understand, I try to feel it, but I do not share that pain. I was not born with the experience of war, of tyranny, of neighbour turning on neighbour. Their experience is not my experience. Their history is not my history.
Their children grow up with the poetry of Lorca, and the writings of Cervantes, Márquez, Mendoza, and Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Not Shakespeare, Dickens, Enid Blyton or Winnie the Pooh. The universal experience of childhood is divided by twelve hundred miles and a different frame of reference. My heart enjoys but does not stir to the music that stirs their hearts. Soy extranjera.
I can adopt patterns of behaviour, later mealtimes, summer siestas. I can take part, be engaged, walk alongside my neighbours, cheer their sporting triumphs. I cannot walk in their shoes, I cannot live their lives, I cannot leave behind my own history, my own experience.
Expats, foreigners, immigrants. Just words for strangers. Just words for people who previously had been somewhere else. From somewhere else to here. And here we are, strangers in a foreign land, surrounded by people whose shared experience we do not share. Soy extranjera en una tierra nueva.
Over time conversation becomes easier. Groups and higher volume continue to exclude. The larger the crowd, the louder the conversation, the more the words run together and become no more than sounds, noise. A bubble forms around me and the noise creates a cocoon of silence in the middle of the swirl of language. In a foreign land it is easy to be alone in a crowd and allow the stream of words to wash past, unaware of nuances. I discover that this creates more time, more thinking time.
In the past, when I have had foreigners as neighbours, have I been as patient as my neighbours are here? Did I check they had candles in their first power-cut in a new country? Did I call round to explain the notice in the letter-box? As winter approached, did I ask if they knew where to get fuel? Did I offer food and drink in the chaos of their unpacking? Where I may have failed others in the past, my Spanish neighbours did not fail me. Soy extranjera, yet I have not been treated so. My questions have been answered kindly, they have educated the ignorant stranger. They do not understand what it is I do not understand - my lack of knowledge at times amuses them, and at times must appal them. But despite the yawning gaps, we rub along. We exchanged gifts on Kings' Day, the women and I share occasional morning coffee on the pavement in our dressing gowns, and now in a power-cut I too can offer candles and matches. Soy extranjera. I will always be the extranjera in our street. And there's nothing wrong with that.
Because this is home now. This country, this region, this village means the world to me.
I never believed it would be easy. I just knew it would be worth it.
© Tamara Essex 2013
47 - Fifty Shades of Grey
12 March 2013
Posted at 10:53 Comments (17)
I'm definitely a "cup half full" type of person. Just as well, really. I nearly burned my house down ..... but I didn't and I'm turning it to an opportunity.
It was pretty stupid, when all's said and done. I'd been storing some logs around the chimney of my estufa, to dry them, because Francisco had delivered them on a rainy day and it being my first delivery I was unprepared and had no cover for the heaped pallet in the patio. So a few armloads were lugged upstairs to dry around the warm chimney.
So each evening that I lit the wood-burner, I took a few logs off the carefully-arranged stack, and replaced them with more of the damp ones. It looked like a massive game of Jenga resting above the air-vents. What I hadn't worked out (duh!) was that the ones at the bottom of the criss-cross of logs weren't getting used. So four months on and they were dry. Definitely dry. Tinder dry.
Late February. Not using the estufa so much. But then the snow came, and I had friends popping in later in the afternoon. So I lit the wood-burner and the room began to warm up, ready for my visitors, and I looked forward to a cosy evening in afterwards. Ros called, they'd found the square with the fountain, and were waiting by the ayuntamiento. I chucked another of the big logs on and went out to meet them. We strolled round the outer edge of the village - my daily morning walk, the walk I take all my visitors on to show off the wonderful views. Ros and Gareth were fit and healthy so we took the slightly longer walk then cut back into the lanes and home.
Outside my neighbour's house, Isabelle called to me. Her brother Lorenzo was visiting, and I'd asked her to get him to pop in when he was next around. He's a builder, a proper one, and had re-built her entire house. I'd watched his work for my first four months in my house and he was a quick but skilled and careful worker, and I wanted him to quote me for damp-proofing and re-plastering the wall below the window that had some water damage. So my visitors and I, followed by Lorenzo, traipsed indoors. He inspected the problem wall and gave me an extraordinarily reasonable quote (mates' rates, for his sister's neighbour). I had one more question for him, about the top terrace, so we all filed upstairs.
It took me a moment to understand. There shouldn't be this much smoke. A glance towards the wood-burner explained everything. The last big log I'd put on had lit quickly and the flames had grown. A stray flame or even just a spark had flown out of the top vents and had caught the bone-dry logs on the top of the stove. The criss-cross of stored sticks was aflame! One had fallen - only a foot away from the sofa (which would of course have gone up in an instant). Lorenzo and I had got all the windows open and the smoke cleared rapidly. Gareth had gone down for water. I grabbed the rug which already had scorch marks and smothered the remaining logs. With the tongs we chucked the smouldering wood into the metal fire-bucket and took them outside, where Lorenzo hosed it down. Back indoors, now with cups of tea to calm us down (you can take the woman out of England but you can't take her away from her cup of tea in a crisis .....), we reminded ourselves of all the "could have" scenarios and our relief came out in laughing at how the neighbours must have enjoyed the extra warmth they were getting through the wall. Ros suggested that in future I shouldn't dry wood on top of the stove.
I shouldn't have left the dry wood stacked around the chimney, of course. And I shouldn't have gone out and left the fire. Lessons learned. The smell of smoke lingers to remind me.
No lasting damage. The TV aerial cable that ran along the floor behind the estufa was the only thing that needed replacing. Jose popped in, ran a new cable, and after hearing my tale he suggested that I shouldn't dry wood on top of the stove. That evening over spaghetti in front of a friend's wood-burner I recounted the story again (my Spanish getting more fluent with each re-telling). He suggested that I shouldn't dry wood on top of the stove.
No damage, but I now have a lounge tastefully decorated in fifty shades of grey.
While I'm back in the UK running training courses in Devon, Laura will be my life-saver. A young Spanish woman working three jobs and looking after her little boy, she is a painter and decorator with an eye for colour. Instead of just going for the usual blanco
on all the walls, with Laura's encouragement I have bought a tin of dusky deep pink, terracotta, not quite red, paint. Just for the smallest wall behind the chimney. I daren't risk more colour just yet. Poco a poco
- little by little.
Laura is in there now, cleaning off the fifty shades of grey, repainting the white walls, and giving me a brave splash of red on the end wall. Just in case I decide to set fire to my house again, I'm hoping the red will show the smoke stains less.
I can't wait to see it!
And I wonder how many EXTRA readers will have clicked on this blog post, just because of the title. Eh girls?
© Tamara Essex 2013
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