Indian houses? In Asturias? What’s that all about, you might say.
The answer is simply that the so-called Casas Indianas were built in the late 19th Century by poor Asturians who’d made their fortunes in South America, then returned to their homeland to live.
Often these mansions lie in beautiful parkland. Many are open to the public, and once inside, more evidence of the returning immigrant’s wealth is visible in the lavish decor.
However, as a recent BBC documentary points out, ‘there is also a dark past behind how some gained their wealth, one that Spain is only now beginning to confront’ – the fact that some of these returning immigrants became rich through involvement in the slave trade.
‘Desde Alicante al Cielo‘ claimed the advert on the side of our local bus, alongside an image of the Picos de Europa, and one glance at those beautiful mountains and green valleys made my heart leap with joyous anticipation. Because, yes, this summer we were actually booked to go there, along with our son and his family from the other side of the world.
I wasn’t disappointed. The beauty, tranquility and freshness of that verdant landscape washed away months, no years, of living in what is virtually a desert. By contrast, in Asturias we stayed in this remote country house, where the only sounds were those of the birds, the breeze and the cattle on the hills.
True, the beaches were at least half an hour’s drive away, but many were in beautiful coves washed by waves and studded with caves and rock pools. Yes, you might have to walk down a path from the car park, but the atmosphere was peaceful, the waves chilly but refreshing, and even a few goats might join visitors enjoying the pleasures of the seaside.
In the mountains we also came across goats roaming freely, as well as cows and ponies, and even when we couldn’t see them we often heard the distant tinkle of their bells.
We also visited several villages steeped in history, but more of those beauties in my next post.
For nearly a year, now, I’ve been lost in a post-Covid brain fog. It’s hard to explain – not like a loss of memory, where words escape you. Just a blur, a sense of floating around in a daze.
Some days are better than others. A good night’s sleep helps, or time to relax and take things easy. But that’s hard to achieve when day-to-day necessities shoot up like weeds all around to choke you – documents to renew, appointments to keep, a husband with multiple illnesses who needs constant care.
Writing is harder, too. Not so much the inspiration, or even the clarity to put across what you want to convey, but the bothersome business of trying to make what you write available for others to read.
That’s why it’s taken me so long to bring out my second novel, Between Two Shores. I finished it months ago, but preparing it for publication has been an almost surmountable mountain of niggling tasks.
At last, though, it’s available on Amazon, in paperback or Kindle. I swore I’d never use that platform again, but the vague familiarity of its system made it easier than other outlets.
Bored with her job and scarred by a bad relationship, headstrong young Australian Ellie is devastated when her English-born father dies. But he’s left her a challenge – a book, a postcard and a photo of a mysterious little girl. Suspecting she’s his, Ellie throws in her job and travels to England to investigate. Days before leaving, she falls for Josh, a film-maker, but is infuriated by his rigid beliefs.
Set in NSW and southern England, and spanning the 1930s to the present, Ellie’s quest for the truth interweaves with the story of her grandparents, charismatic Jack and shy but feisty Lillian, whose struggles bring challenges of a very different kind. But it’s not until Ellie unravels the family secrets that she discovers the far-reaching impact one person’s actions can have on others — including herself.
If you read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it. And please take time to write a review, so that others can enjoy it, too.
*(Written several years ago, but particularly relevant on the eve of Brexit)
I’m at my bank in Alicante, wondering which queue to join. The one for the teller, or the one for the gestor, who sits at a desk and deals personally with customers’ accounts? I’m not sure, so I hover between them, waiting to see which moves faster.
Yesterday, in another part of town, a cash machine swallowed my card and I caused a bit of a scene. I’d already waited in one long queue, and when I was left card-less and cashless, I butted in to another and asked what to do. I must have raised my voice, because the rest of the customers, waiting patiently, spun round to look at me.
It turned out that my card had expired. Silly me. I was told to go to my own branch and collect the new one. In England it would have been sent by post, well before the old one expired. Determined to remain calm, I told myself that this was yet another of those mysterious norms about Spain which I hadn’t yet mastered.
So, here I am today, standing in the queue for the teller and trying not to get rattled while customers in front of me deal with their transactions – mostly payment of bills which surely they could arrange by direct debit – when the silence is broken by an angry outburst. We all look up. A young man is letting rip at the teller in a torrent of street-Spanish, the gist of which seems to be that he has waited for half an hour, first in the queue for the machine, then in this one, only for the teller to say he can’t help him with whatever it was the machine wouldn’t do.
The teller tries to explain the reasons for this, but the young man grows more and more upset, his voice louder, his gestures more expansive. All the other customers are quietly engrossed by the drama. I watch on, conscious that this could so easily have been me, exploding in front of an audience. I feel relieved, calmer, a bit smug. It’s as though this young man has taken all my frustration and expressed it for me. I have become a detached spectator, like everyone else.
But I’m also a little nervous. Because the young man is black, and everyone else is white. And judging by his Spanish, which is even worse than mine, he has learned most of it on the street. He addresses the teller with the familiar tu, he calls him tio (literally uncle, colloquially dude). I feel for the young man, knowing only too well how often my own language has faltered in frustrating bureaucratic situations. The occasional joder (f*ck) has been known to escape me. But I am a white woman, a pensioner, one of the tribe of ex-pats on whom much of Spain’s prosperity hangs. He is a young black man. Could this turn into one of those ugly racist incidents that I’ve read about in post-Brexit England, with insults and calls to ‘Go back where you came from!’?
I glance at the other customers, middle-aged, middle-class, white-skinned. So far all are calm, listening with interest but making no comment.
But the young man is not calm. He notches up the volume of his voice, and begins to accuse the teller of treating him differently because he is black and an immigrant.
He keeps repeating: ‘It’s because I’m black and an immigrant that you won’t help me.’
At this point a woman in the queue steps towards him, tentatively, respectfully. She is old – even older than me – well-dressed, well-groomed and no doubt well-off. Gently, politely, she speaks to the young man. She explains to him that he is not being treated differently, that the rules are the same for her and for everyone else. The teller is only following instructions. Yes, they, the Spanish think that the rules are ridiculous, too, but there are protocols and protocols have to be followed, and everyone has to put up with them, like them or not.
The young man is appeased. His anger begins to fade. Another employee appears, summoned by telephone, and takes him back to the machine to help him complete his transaction.
The old woman rejoins the queue and she and I begin a conversation about the illogicality of bureaucracy.
‘Sometimes,’ she says, ‘I think we Spanish are still like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, tilting at windmills.’
I’m amused. It’s so true. But I can’t help wondering how this scene would have played out in post-Brexit England.
I designed this visual for the novel I began on the Bath Spa MA, to show where it might appear in a bookshop. Wishful thinking, I fear, but fun all the same. The working title was ‘The Third Sister’, now renamed ‘Between Two Shores.’* It’s finished, but although I didn’t want to self-publish, I’ve reluctantly decided it’s the only way for an old fool like me to give readers a chance to read what one person has described as ‘a novel that knocks the spots off Fragments of a Dream.’
At the turn of the century I taught several summer schools at Country Cousins in the North Devon seaside town of Ilfracombe. Lessons took place in in a beautiful old house behind Bicclescombe Park. The students, mainly of secondary school age, came from all over Europe to improve their English, and most of them stayed with host families nearby.
Ekaterina (or Katya as she liked to be called) was in my class of young teenagers. She was a sweet girl and a delightful student – quiet but friendly, gifted and cooperative. Her great love was dancing. I remember that she wrote about how she adored being in England and what an amazing experience it was for her.
The usual routine was for English classes in the morning and cultural visits in the afternoon. The rest of the day was free for students to do as they pleased. So, on the evening of the 19th of July, Katya and some of her new friends went for a walk up on the coast path above Ilfracombe Harbour. I have a vague memory that a sea mist came up that night, which might have obscured the edge of the cliff.
It wasn’t until the next morning that I heard of the tragic accident. Not long after they’d set out, Katya’s friends had come rushing back to say that she had fallen from the cliff. I don’t know if the inquest clarified exactly how it had happened, but the verdict was accidental death and no one else was implicated.
Over the years I had walked that stretch of the coast path many times, especially when I was writing walks leaflets for the North Devon Heritage Coast Service, so I knew it well. The cliffs are rugged and steep, bitten into by inlets and coves, but the path is clear and well signposted, although if it was misty you might lose your way. But these weren’t hikers, they were youngsters out enjoying themselves. Maybe they were having so much fun that Katya simply didn’t realise how close she was to the edge. Or was she so happy that she was dancing and lost her footing?
I was aware that Katya came from a prestigious Russian family, and as soon as they heard the news, two of her male relatives flew straight over. As her teacher, I was asked to meet them and show them some of her work.They had already been in contact with the Russian Embassy in London, and arranged for her body to be flown back for burial. I believe she was taken on a government plane to Moscow, where the Orthodox funeral took place.
My memory is a little vague, but I think that the following summer, her mother and aunt visited North Devon. They donated an icon and candle in her memory, which are now in the Lady Chapel of Marwood Church.
I don’t know who was responsible for designing or installing the memorial on the cliff, and the script is a little blurred. But it is a bittersweet reminder of a lovely girl whose life was snatched from her that day, but who remains there eternally young, dancing for joy.
A slice of late evening sun brightens the smartboard. Latifa’s marker pen squeaks across its shiny surface. She turns to us, ranged in a semicircle of battered desks, and utters an indecipherable sound.
We stare at her, eight adults of varied ages, with grey hair or pierced noses, balding heads, laced shoes or striped stockings, male and female. I glance around me, see frowns of concentration or bewilderment, the weary smiles of fellow sufferers. After a day’s work we have come to grapple with the rudiments of a new language.
Latifa again makes the sound and asks me to repeat it. I try, but fail abysmally. A ripple of sympathetic laughter breaks out among my companions.
‘No,’ she says, ‘not kha as if you’re clearing your throat. This is ha – like when you clean your sunglasses.’
I huff on my imaginary glasses and she rewards me with a nod of approval. Beaming with pride and relief, I remind myself that to utter strange cries in front of a roomful of spectators is what I ask of my own students every day. Safe in the role of teacher, I extend the tip of my tongue to encourage those who have no comparable sound in their own language to imitate th as in think, or to buzz like mosquitoes for th as in then. Laughter meets those attempts, too. It helps to deflect the frustration of an adult reduced to a linguistic infant.
Only now the roles are reversed. I am here this evening not to teach but to learn.
It’s some comfort that I’m not alone in my madness. My colleague, Rhoda, whose bright idea it was to come here – ‘It’ll help us appreciate what our own students go through’ – sits beside me, looking horribly efficient with her neat list of Arabic letters and example words.
Panic, and the fear of incompetence seize me. I am older than I care to mention, and learning the alphabet. After three lessons I have copied – let’s not pretend that I’ve remembered, let alone understood – a dozen or so letters. All look perplexingly similar – a sort of migraine of dots and squiggles. Their connection to sound is elusive, their combination into units of meaning shrouded with mystique. What’s more – and this strikes me as downright unreasonable – each letter can be written in three different ways, according to its position at the beginning, the middle or the end of a word.
So this must be what Shundor feels like, I realise, when he struggles to distinguish between b and d, or between capitals and lower case, or different fonts or styles of handwriting. Shundor, the chef from the Bengal Tiger restaurant, who can cook a fantastic biriani but is unable to to read or write in English. Is he literate in his native Bengali? I don’t know, but I doubt it. Week after week he attends my beginners’ class, always smiling, always courteous, slightly diffident with other, predominantly European students. They are beginners, too, but their familiarity with the Latin alphabet sets them apart.
For Sundor each word is a struggle, even to copy. His hand seems unused to forming the shapes of letters. Moving from left to right across the page is awkward for him. He can’t keep straight – his words dip and trip higher or lower – Bengali hangs like a row of tangled socks from a washing line.
Now it’s my turn to experience a similar problem as I attempt some elegant Arabic swirls. All I manage is a hesitant scrawl like the path of an inebriated spider. Working from right to left feels like holding the pen in the wrong hand. Even forming letter shapes is beyond me.
‘What we need,’ a fellow-sufferer suggests, ‘is one of those children’s handwriting books to practice with.’
Rhoda and I exchange glances. ‘We’ll ask the lads to get us one when they next go to Dubai.’
For several years now she and I have been teaching groups of young men – charming, with a delightful sense of fun, if sometimes exasperatingly noisy – from the United Arab Emirates. Their level of English is good, because most have been educated in bilingual schools. Our attempts to learn their language have caused an amused interest. That we’d even bother to try intrigues them, even if the only word I can remember to practice with them is the Arabic for rabbit.
But it’s the students in my beginners’ class I empathise with most. Like Shahira, a year out of Kabul and the burka, blossoming in her new white suede coat with its fluffy collar, her dark eyes made up, her lips painted crimson, bent patiently over her notebook, painfully producing short sentences of near perfection.
Or Momo, whose pidgin learned from tourists in Tunis bears no resemblance to standard English. Or Katya, with her degree from Moscow University, (a mail-order bride, or so we suspect) married to a builder – ‘Bah! I don’t talk to him – he is so stupid!’ Or Johnny, kitchen hand from the Hot Wok takeaway, whose borrowed name is his only word of English. Their achievements, small as they are, are monumental compared with mine.
So why am I bothering? I don’t want a qualification. It’s not like French or German which once, long ago, I studied at A level as a step towards university. Or Spanish, which I learned by ear when I fell in love, not just with a person but with the very otherness of his culture.
In a way, I suppose, I’m a little bit in love with all of them. With the boys from Dubai and the au pairs from Poland and Hungary and the Czech Republic, or the South Americans like Lola, who used to sing jazz and bossanova to tourists in Argentina until the Englishman who became her husband walked in one night. Each individual gives me a glimpse of a country, its customs, its alluring strangeness. And, yes, I’m a little in love with all their wonderful and exasperatingly unintelligible tongues, with the whole miracle of language, its myriad intricacies, its patterns of sounds and structures and meanings, its regularities and irregularities – the very mystery of human communication.
Is this a kind of passion? It’s not a word I’d ever connected with teaching before I discovered ESOL. My aversion to teaching, yes. My unsuitability for teaching, maybe. My past avoidance of teaching, definitely . . . .
I can feel a lesson on the use of prepositions coming on, I think, as my mind returns to the classroom where I sit, not as a teacher, but a learner. Maybe language really is a passion. But I’ll still be glad when half-term comes. And, no, I won’t spend it doing my Arabic homework.
(If you enjoyed this post, you might like to follow Rosie’s attempts to grapple with Greek in Fragments of a Dream.)
As my neighbour walked towards me with his supermarket trolley, I stared at him in bewilderment. Why was he telling me it’s obvious I’m English? He already knew that. I’d often chatted with him and his wife walking their dog in the paseo.
He laughed and began to explain.
‘I didn’t recognise you at first. I was down the other end of the aisle when I saw you coming the wrong way, bumping in to everyone, and I thought, Oh, she must be English.’
‘The wrong way?’
‘In Spain we drive on the right so we start shopping on the right. But you’ve started on the left.’
It took a moment for the penny to drop. So that rule applied in supermarkets, too, did it? The aisles were streets that everyone had to negotiate in the same direction?
‘D’you know,’ I said, ‘I’ve been here seven years and that’s never occurred to me before. Anyway, in this supermarket, the entrance is on the left, so it seems logical to go down that aisle first, not walk up to the other end.’
‘Not to us, it doesn’t. Even if we go straight to the fish counter, which is just inside the entrance, we all walk up to the far end to start the rest of our shopping.’
But surely I’d seen people wheeling their trolleys from both directions? True, a lot of foreigners used this particular store. But most countries drive on the right, so maybe the culprits were all English. Had I sometimes noticed impatient looks when I met other shoppers head-on with my trolley? Or was I becoming paranoid?
‘Oh well, people must be used to us English by now, with so many of us here,’ I said. ‘It’s some achievement that I’ve got used to driving a car on the right.’
He laughed and began to tell me of his difficulties when he first worked in Sweden, back in the days when they used to drive on the left. Something else I didn’t know.
While I laughed along with him, my mind battled to remember how we negotiated supermarket aisles in England. Did all shoppers in Sainsbury’s or Tesco’s walk in the same direction, from the same starting point on the left? Or was it a free-for-all? I was no longer sure – it was such a long time since I’d shopped there, and my memory was a bit wonky.
Maybe this was just one more example of a bizarre Spanish rule. Either that, or it was a sign of how much I had left to learn. What do you think?