it’s my party and i’ll cry if i want to…

I have had butterflies all day: what if nobody comes? What if nobody eats anything? What if they stare at me with that twisted pre-emptive expression that says: ‘I’m not going to understand a word you say.’  What if they come and then ignore me?

I think back to Manchester in the 1980s and my own childhood, to Shagufta, Tayuba and Muneera my first generation school friends. They never had birthday parties, or not that I was invited to, and we were good friends. Was it easier to keep it in the family like we have done up until now? It’s my son’s 7th birthday party. We are immigrants; the children were born here but the blonde hair, the freckles, the going to bed at 8.30pm mean that they are and will always be foreign.  This is the first party we’ve attempted with his school friends and there are so many ways to get it wrong.  We must be more Spanish than the Spanish if we are to pull it off, so everything is shop bought which kills me because I love cooking especially for birthday parties (time spent preparing as an expression of love and all that) but the collective wariness of anything foreign makes this a no- no; today we must blend in. I have my own body weight in the universally applicable currency of crisps and sweets and as I shovel them into bags, I remember Mrs Naeem practically force feeding me packets of red hoola hoops when I went to play with Shagufta; it never occurred to me that perhaps she wanted to blend in too.

I buy wine, beer and cider in the hope that parents will stay. Custom dictates that at least some of them socialise together in one corner while the children run about dangerously in the others. Perhaps this is accounts for the butterflies, my Spanish is good but there’s nothing like a group of tipsy natives clattering on to bring out the self conscious language-klutz in you: please don’t let them look at me, please don’t let them look at me.

The party time comes, the sun is shining and I set up the tables with food and drink, smiling at the smattering of locals who have gathered to see what was going on. I needn’t have worried about making conversation because no parents stay; their cars circle us from a distance dropping children off.  It feels vaguely wrong; tipping children into the middle of all that foreignness, like letting them swim with sharks when you’ve stayed in your cage. It wouldn’t be like this back home, I think to myself; back home parents would have come in at least and asked what time we were finishing. I think this to myself a lot these days: that we do it better back home.

The concession I make to our culture is games: I brave it and push through with pass the parcel, musical statues and the walnut and spoon race and almost cry with relief when the kids love it; clapping and squealing as they unwrap a layer from the parcel. And of course in the Spanish tradition, my son is overwhelmed with presents: good stuff too; thoughtful and appropriate and when I ask him if he is having a good time, he says it is his best birthday ever.

It is us who made the decision to move away from all that is comfortable and known  in pursuit of a better life, whatever that means, so it’s right that the ‘Is it because I am foreign?’ cloud should only rain on us.

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acclimatization

Sometimes I think I’ve acclimatized, sometimes I’m not so sure. This morning, on seeing the customary spider the size of a bus looking at me impatiently from the bottom of the bath, its face all, ‘what time d’you call this? I’ve got places to be, you know’, instead of scooping it up and tipping it reverentially out of the window, I chased it down the plughole with a vicious jet of hot shower water, local style. I was, however completely freaked out by its strength and determination not to die. It scrabbled and clawed its way out of danger for a long time, turning my moment of callousness into a a battle of stamina; I was determined not to lose.  I did win, obviously, but it left me feeling really guilty, not to mention constantly checking my ankles just in case it crawled back out while I was showering. I will be back to the glass and post card extraction method for tomorrow’s visitor.

In the last of the weekend September sun, I went off alone on a blackberry jaunt. I parked the car in front of an old barn on the side of the deserted road to nowhere, got out with my gloves and empty margarine pot and scanned the surrounding shrubs for their blue violet gold. A constant mewing punctuated the silence, but that is not unusual; most of the barns here have kittens we wouldn’t dream of separating from their mothers, undergoing some kind of tortuous solitary training shut in the dark ready for when they can usefully catch vermin. Ignoring the sound, I carried on impaling myself on brambles, stinging myself on nettles and collecting very few blackberries. As my eye swept the horizon for more possible bushes, the source of the mewing revealed itself: a pile of three new-born kittens, the bottom two already dead, the top one feebly nudging at the other’s head trying to reanimate it. I stood watching the scene, flicking through possible responses and their consequences in my mind.  I don’t want a cat, this one would probably die before I get it home, but I can’t bear the thought of it up here alone all night; if I get it home and then it dies, then what. I walked down the road half-heartedly looking for more blackberries. The truth is I didn’t want to pick the kitten up from the pile of dead siblings, I didn’t want to sit up all night feeding it milk from a dropper. On finding no more decent blackberries, I walked gingerly back to the barn, hoping I wouldn’t have to turn my back on that noise and go home, and my wish was granted because by the time I got back to the car, it was dead too. So maybe I am more acclimatised than I give myself credit for.

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September 18, 2013 | Posted in: Uncategorized | Comments Closed

the rules are there are no rules

Apart from the fact that people always recognise you, always remember your face because it is big and red and freckly and different from every other face in the village, the great freedom that comes with being different from everybody else, is that it gives you absolute eccentric-old-person level carte blanche to do whatever you want knowing that you are already insured under the umbrella of different. I never need to worry about what the neighbours think, ‘cos they already think I’m mad. Ha ha.This weekend our village held a party to celebrate opening the first barrel of cider. It’s basically a pop-up out door restaurant where you drink cider and eat traditional food. But there are rules and there is etiquette. One of the things you can only really know if you’ve lived here for a while is that for the Spanish, there’s safety in numbers. They all do the same things at the same time (which means that if you time it right, you can have Ikea all to yourself on a Saturday) and nowhere is this more apparent than in their eating habits. A large coffee, for example, is only to be consumed between the hours of 10 and 11.30am, order it any later than that and you will draw disapproving looks from barstaff and regulars a like. Wine is only to be drunk with meals, it is not a suitable evening drink. Lunch is to be eaten between 2.30 and 4pm. 12-2.30pm is the vermouth hour when one ought to be sipping vermouth and nibbling olives. One must sit in full sun. Children and parents are not to be seated together, parents sit with other parents sipping and chatting as the children participate in the ancient tradition of running between tables screaming and throwing things. This much I know is true.  So when we arrived at the party at about 12.30pm and ordered hot food  and chips 2 beers and drinks for the kids and sat in the shade all together, full table cloth and cutlery  lots of our lovely neighbours raised the their eyebrows in knowing greeting: no explanation needed, they’re foreign.

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i am a stranger …

Is it a bit like having Asperger’s living in a foreign country? Wikepedia’s definition of Aperger’s is a person with significant difficulties in social interaction (along restricted patterns of behaviour and interest) . Outside of Foreignland, I am the living opposite of Autistic: I like mess, things that match make me uncomfortable, routine makes me want to chew my own leg off, I am constantly checking out non- verbal communication for signs that I’m boring the living hell out of someone, and if a child so much as scrapes its knee within a 2 mile radius of where I am, I can sense it and am immediately there like a kind of very low level superhero.

But here it’s different. I’ve learnt to communicate in a prescribed way, I can deal with set situations, but if I’m thrown a curve ball, my world comes crashing in and my inability to cope is completely exposed, the linguistic version of coming out of the toilet with you skirt tucked in your knickers. Last month I took my husband to the hospital to have the last of three scans to find out if anything is wrong with his brain following an epileptic fit in a supermarket 20 miles from home. Bearing in mind this scan had been delayed three times and re-booked by telephone, there was precious little paper trail. After the scan, we were sent to reception to book a time to meet with the consultant and discuss the results. I asked the receptionist for an appointment, all smiling and open gestured (foreign, but friendly and capable- nothing to hide, see?) She asked me for the paper referral and I tried to explain that there wasn’t one; that the whole 6 month process had been carried out on the phone. She became increasingly aggressive, shouty and repetitive and I became increasingly panicked and jammed like a broken photocopier (doesn’t she know you have to ease the paper out gently to avoid a complete breakdown?). I couldn’t process what she was saying, the shouting and pointing short circuited me.

When my neighbour very first offered me eggs, she shouted at me, ‘You don’t want eggs? Don’t you like eggs?’ I was very confused. She was shouting and waving her finger at me, but at the same time it was possible that she was offering to give me something. Argh! How to react? Am I being told off? Do I shout back? Do I just wait for her to give up? (but I really want the eggs) In the end I waited it out, smiled politely and told her a good 4 or 5 times, that yes, I did like eggs, then just like that she walked off leaving me on my doorstep a little shaken up looking around to see if anyone had witnessed the egg tyrade or if I’d made the whole thing up. I stood for a few minutes not sure how to play it before she came back, with a dozen delicious eggs all scuffed up with poo and feathers, handed them to me without ceremony or eye contact and left.

Significant difficulties with social interaction.

But I at least I have the sensory oasis that is my house, where I can read every gesture, marry the tone of voice with its situation and speak without thinking it out and getting lost 3 times first. But even that is slowly seeping away from me as my kids, by osmosis, leak through into the other world. Sitting at the kitchen table taking biscuits out of a tin for their snack,  the other day, the eldest one did the double tut head shake which in Spanish means, ‘Thanks for the generous offer of biscuits mum but I’m full.’ But which in English means, ‘Call that a biscuit? You should be ashamed’, which in turn brings out my feelings of ‘you ungrateful little shit’ and so it goes on.

I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be a long 15 years or so.

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the here and the now

My husband is so optimistic that if, one day, you flushed your wallet down the toilet then accidently cc’ed your boss into an email calling him an incompetent fool before backing over your cat on the way home, he’d probably say, ‘well never mind, it might do your boss some good, the cat was old and anyway, this time next month we’ll be millionaires.’ He can’t help it, it’s in his genes. It’s infuriating.  I, on the other hand am a born pessimist, I can’t help it, it’s in my genes. It’s infuriating.  My husband blames it on my ‘churchy upbringing’; the constant affirmation of failure in your formative years. I can’t help but see the negative in everything. This month we’ve scraped through, but I’m already fretting about not being able to pay next month’s bills.  It’s a fraught way to live when you’re both self- employed without a guaranteed income between you.  But in my favour, I am trying. I’m trying to keep in the forefront of my mind pictures of the here and now; of the good stuff.

On Sunday we drove to the border between Asturias and Leon 1,600 metres up, to where there was more snow than I’ve ever seen before, to take the children sledging. Walking up hills falling up to our thighs in snow, the children thankfully too light to fall so far, screaming and whooping down the hills, my husband throwing himself at the kids’ sledge to stop them  flying off the hillside into the road below. The kids, red faced and glittery eyed saying, ‘this is the best day ever’ in between falling over and hooting with laughter.  We built a 5 foot snowman, ran until we fell face first into the snow, made snow angels and planted a tupperware full of chocolate biscuits at the top of Biscuit Mountain, and then sat exhausted, gloves off, fingers tingling, stuffing them into our mouths. There were only a handful of people there, but on turning a snowy corner, we were completely alone; brilliant blue sky, snow saturated peaks as far as the eye could see, with only the sound of the wind, dipping briefly into complete perfect silence; the sun on my face and the slight sting of cold on my back as I lay looking up at the sky.

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it’s been a long cold lonely winter

When I was a child, we had a tortoise: Tilly. And every Autumn, we packed her into a large cardboard box filled with shredded newspaper and a couple of slices of cucumber in case she woke up peckish, and tucked her into a shady corner of the shed for a really good long sleep.  March the 7th is a day for thinking about things for me and today I thought of her and her clever ancient body. She went to sleep just as the nights were starting to shorten and missed all the grey loneliness of winter. She knew it would pass; she just didn’t want to be awake during the process. And today, i feel like it has passed. The sun is shining, there are glimmers of pink peeping out of the tips of the peach tree, the daffodil (!) is up and the phone has started ringing, friends want to visit and guests want to book.

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Time to get myself out of hibernation.

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sometimes i love my house, sometimes i hate my house

I’ve spent a good deal of my adulthood dreaming- about writing a best seller, fostering a raggle tag of loveable kids, buying and doing up a house in a beautiful village. Dreaming, I find is much safer than actually going out and doing anything. But then, here I am, with a beautiful house in a beautiful village…and sometimes I hate it.

 

My favourite place to sit and look at what we’ve done is in the corner of the living room next to the fire; that corner with the blue and white striped window seat, contrasted with a long golden cushion making the stone sparkle, a circle of family pictures hung around a pale blue map of Britain, the 200 year old stone basin raised from underground and now sitting in the corner nursing a large aspidistra, the flash or turquoise wall that makes it warm and homely. This part of the house makes me proud. But then each time I go up, I look at the 200 year old stairs- rotting and gnarly, falling apart, new holes appearing daily in which all manner of bugs and grimy things live, if only in my imagination. The glass in the windows is paper thin and cracked in places and the cold gets in your bones, freezing your brain. There are still naked light bulbs in our bedroom, the tri colour wooden ceiling, peeling with paint, stained by damp, home to the many dangling threads of woodworm make me want to fling myself at the mercy of the home makeover god and ask, ‘when will it be over, let some magic team come in and finish it all while I’m eating cake somewhere warm’. And, of course, nothing is helped by our next door neighbours’ winter tradition of moving 2 cows into the barn next door and saving all their kuxu (shit) up over a 5 month period (it really does get the potatoes off to a flying start). The smell seeps in through the walls and lingers heavy and vaguely embarrassing all over the house, but particularly under the stairs, which is exactly where we have our posh coffee machine and home-made cakes for the guests to help themselves to.

at times like this, i like to recall the serenity prayer: grant me the serenity to accept the things i cannot change, the courage to change the things i can and the wisdom to know the difference. (at the time of going to press, still waiting for wisdom to be granted.)

 

 

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i didn’t get where i am today without….

I didn’t get where I am today without a certain affinity for humiliation.

Coming home on Thursday night exhausted after another evening  of what feels like trying to teach thai chi to cows I reflect on one more  humiliation in a long line of humiliations that comes from mixing teenagers and a foreign language.

Standing at the blackboard, chalk in hand 4 teenage girls close in on me shouting and screeching excitedly in ‘Bable’ youth speak.  For me to understand the Queen’s Spanish, it must be delivered at a sedate middle aged pace in an otherwise silent setting, ideally supplemented with a white board and a stick for ease of following. In short, I didn’t stand a chance. Add to that the simultaneous talking of which the Spanish are particularly fond and I decided to sit tight till the whole episode had run its course. Out of the melee one girl in particular reared her head, bringing her khol smudged eyes level with mine shouting loud clear and slow, as one might to an elderly relative temporarily confused about where she’s left her boiled sweets, her fingers jabbing in the direction of a  boy at the back, ‘He… prest…yey…ball…or’ …? What could I possibly say?  I said nothing. Another girl rolled her eyes to the heavens and said as if I were not there   ‘ Ves? que no habla espanol. (See? I told you she doesn’t speak Spanish’ .) Tenemos que Speak- English- yeeaas?’

The flaw in our great plan to teach young people stuff, is that we are fighting against their very essence, which depending on the developmental stage, seems predetermined to either skidding on the floor whooping or running round hitting members of the opposite sex whilst looking at you as it you were dog poo.

It is one of life’s great tragedies that I as my 40th birthday looms, I can think of little better than sitting in a cosy room being told stuff, interrupting the teacher only to say, ‘ fascinating- just a moment while I jot that down’ and yet I remember all too clearly spending a great proportion of my actual school life in an on-going contest with my friend to see who could crawl the furthest  around the  classroom without the teacher noticing.

 

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getting the axe

A recent conversation with my husband went like this:

Me- You know when you were younger did you ever use to work out until you felt sick?

Him- (withering look) No…

a short while later…

Him- You know if you hadn’t met me you’d be one of those mad women who goes to the gym every day and regimentally counts out the number of raisins she has for  breakfast?

 

I’ll admit there was possibly a time in my past when I relied a bit too much on the gym. Sadly those days are over, so now I look at any physical activity as potential exercise and will do it to its maximum. Am I the only one who does a few bicep curls with the shopping on route from car to kitchen? Anyway, a little bit of heaven came to me in the form of 14 mature trees dumped on our front yard, less than 48 hours before our first British bed and breakfast guests arrived, needing to be split and piled neatly to dry. The chain sawing had been done (by a nice local man with a massive vertical scar on his chin), so all that was left was the axing.

 

On the first lift, the axe nearly took me back with it. In the proper rural world, this is man’s work. Woman is to be found in the kitchen or vegetable patch. It’s all about technique (and summoning someone who’s wronged you with the subborn ones) my husband told me, and once I got it, I was good. Our lovely neighbour, a man made sturdy from years of chopping and piling wood, smiled at me at first with warnings of how I was going to chop my foot off. On seeing me still there 2 hours later, dripping with sweat with a nice pile of well-split wood, said with a more respectful kind of smile, that he would contract me to help with his wood from now on!

 

We cleared all that wood in one morning, readied ourselves for winter and got that exhausted but satisfied feeling that only comes from real graft.  How to explain the shaky hands to my students that afternoon was a bit of a problem.

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home

You know you’ve not been home for a long time when on your arrival the cats freak you out. There were enormous glossy coated, pet insured, scaled down tigers prowling the streets of London confidently lolling on pavements inviting passers by to ruffle their ample stomachs. I am used to cats, skinny and wary like Dickensian workhouse children scurrying about in the shadows looking for scraps; a raised voice sending them skittering off giving you the evil eye. Once over the cat shock, I sank into the sense of comfort that comes from being instantly understood, from only half listening to the news but still taking it in, from the welcome distraction of other people’s lives. The number of people who described us as living the dream-I don’t know, right now my dream is to have someone to talk to; hills and mountains only count for so much. So for the first time since moving to Spain, I came back from England reluctantly.

Then on the third day back, my eldest son at school, my husband and youngest out doing the shopping, I got one of the phone calls that we all dread: the emergency services explaining that they had my unconscious husband in an ambulance and had left my 4 year old son in the supermarket 25 miles away. My husband had suffered a fit and remained unconscious for a long time.  In the end, after various tests, he’s home and until we see the neurologist, it’s just one of those freak things that can’t be explained, but it brought home to me how vulnerable we are. Thankfully, the staff in the supermarket were good enough to whisk my son away from the worst of it, thankfully they had the smarts to phone around the area looking for an English family of our description, thankfully it didn’t happen while he was driving and thanks to the lovely student who, on her second visit to my house, drove me 25 miles to the supermarket and then to the hospital. Thanks to all those people- but it doesn’t help my recent feeling of wanting to go home.

 

 

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