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.
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.)
I didn’t even know his name. He was the boy I adored from afar, who ran round the playground with his coat flying from his shoulders, like a highwayman on horseback, snatching my breath away. He hung by his knees from the climbing frame, his shirt billowing open to show a pale stomach, while I watched, bursting with adoration, speechless with shyness.
Of course he didn’t know my name. He didn’t even notice me, but something jumped inside me like a spark to connect with him. Perhaps it was that gypsy gene trapped in the skinny little girl with her school tie and cardigan, her plaits tied with bows, who only dared to peep at him so he’d never know the way her tiny heart was pumping. He rushed by with his wild black hair and feverish eyes, nearly knocking me over as he chased after a football and went rolling on the grass in a play-fight with his friend, grazing his knees. When he stood up there was blood, scarlet mixed with dirt, but he didn’t seem to care.
He came from the council estate down at Sturry, a drab sprawl of post-war prefabs and mean little terraced houses on the wrong side of Canterbury where the tourists never went. For some reason that I never fathomed, children from that school had been moved to our middle-class primary, which nestled in a leafy residential offshoot of the cathedral city.
‘Rough children,’ my mother warned me, ‘who play in the street and use bad language.’ She’d been cowed into thinking that this holy city was all lace doilies and processions of robed and mitred ministers. Didn’t she know about Chaucer’s pilgrims and the lewd tales they told? Or how the Cathedral altar was once splattered with the blood of Thomas a Becket, twelfth century Archbishop, slain at the orders of his king? She’d left school without completing her education and wanted better for her own children.
My brother had enjoyed a few months at Sturry School, where he’d learned to stuff his hands in his pockets, wipe his nose on his sleeve, belch loudly at meals and say ‘bloody’ and ‘bugger’. This didn’t go down too well with our clergyman father, although he himself had started life as a village boy and was no stranger to such habits. But here in the hallowed hub of the Anglican Church, our parents had a reputation to keep up. Our mother, whose own mother had been in service, understood how the gentry lived and was anxious not to be disgraced by her offspring. So when my turn came to go to school, she searched out one which would nurture and refine, only to find her plans thwarted by the influx of ruffians from Sturry.
When they first arrived we stood in a huddle like a resident tribe, expecting a fight and prepared to be afraid. But they rushed in with a whoop, made themselves at home, and before we knew it we were all mixed up together. Apart from our curiosity in the way they spoke, their talk of outside toilets and two or three to a bed, we soon forgot what all the fuss was about. Children are attracted or repelled by instinct, not socio-economic factors. And, yes, when this black-haired boy galloped past, he whipped up a wind of recklessness which thrilled me.
Later, much later, when I was studying for my A levels, I heard about him from Mandy, a grammar school girl who lived on the same council estate and had remained my friend. He was working as a plumber, she said, or was it a bricklayer, and he still lived down in Sturry. His sister had just got pregnant, and his Dad had died of some lung disease that he’d contracted in the days when he’d been a miner over at Betteshanger Colliery. My childish passion seemed odd to me now. I was about to go to university and the world was opening up for me, while he was rooted right there, where he’d always been.
‘He’s not your type, anyway,’ Mandy said when I plucked up the courage to tell her that I’d once thought he was wonderful. She moved between his culture and mine and knew more than I cared to admit about incompatibilities between the two. In one way she was right: I didn’t want to end up living on the Sturry Estate. But in another way, no, she wasn’t, because a short while later he reappeared in the form of Pete, working-class to his toes. In this new incarnation he was educated and upwardly mobile, didn’t give a toss what anyone thought of him, was totally at ease wherever he went. Pete sniffed and dropped his aitches, and a nerve in his eye twitched, but he could charm the pants off anyone, dustman or duke. His Dad was ex-army and stood in his vest frying up a Full English in their tiny kitchen. His Mum shuffled up the street to the bookies in her slippers, and left her false teeth on the table. ‘Put your teeth in, Jen,’ his Dad would say to her, ‘The Bishop’s coming to tea,’ and he’d wink to let me know he meant my father.
Then one day out of the blue that same little boy popped up again, cavorting in the turquoise waters of an Aegean island, where he somersaulted and gambolled so easily that the spark he’d once set smouldering burned again more brightly, and something in the way he moved and thrilled to his own movement, took me somersaulting with him. This time he called himself Markos, spoke Greek, and his body had grown brown and strong and handsome. But he was still irresistibly full of joyful exuberance, with a willingness to take risks that inspired and excited me. Like children we fell in love by instinct, but lack of language was our downfall. Without the words to distinguish one who fixes from one who designs, I feared that when he was not on holiday he wore dirty overalls and lived in the Athenian equivalent of the Sturry Estate. By then I had grown pretentious, so I ditched him. Many years later, when I was older and a little wiser, I realised my misunderstanding, but by then it was too late to repair the damage.
The same wild boy turned up again one last time in Carlos. Carlos the rebel, now speaking Spanish, the son of a well-to-do family, who preferred to skip school and learn to be streetwise, giving two fingers to Franco and all that he stood for. By the time I met him he’d embarked on a life of rebellion and reckless adventure, which would lead down a slippery slope to the deep despair of mental illness.
So there he was time after time, that little ruffian from the Sturry Estate, metamorphosed into men from different cultures and countries, whipping me into a frenzy of wonder, only to be snatched away by death, or the gulf of misunderstanding, or psychosis. Again and again that wild highwayman has reappeared, in one disguise after another. Each time, as he dashes past, he snatches another piece of me and disappears with it into the distance, still eluding me.
*If you liked this piece, you can read an exploration of love and its complications in my debut novel Fragments of a Dream
*My childhood experiences in Canterburyweave into one of the threads of my upcoming novel Between Two Shores . More news about this next spring.
La gota fria*. How strange to describe a deluge as a cold drop, I thought when I first heard the term. Was it Spanish irony, or a lack of logic? My husband couldn’t clarify. He’s always lived in his head, not in the world outside.
We’d just moved back to Spain and I was cooking a spaghetti bolognese when its simmer sank to stillness in the saucepan. The butano had run out. No spare. No car to go and buy one. The rain pelting down, the wind howling. Desperate, we phoned a cousin, who came at once. Spanish families are like that. He drove us through a downpour from one garage to another. Sold out. Fear of the gota fria had caused a stampede.
At last, wet and weary, we found somewhere that had one. Back in the kitchen, the spag bol began to bubble again. That was when I remembered that the oven was electric. We could have used that and saved all the trouble.
Now, seven years later, the gota fria has struck again. Red alert throughout the province. Torrential storms, whole towns flooded, cars washed away, people drowned.
Our stretch of coast is in a wide open bay and relatively untouched. Dramatic lightning flashes and thunderclaps, winds whipping up the sand, rain lashing down, soaking into the parched ground, covering the salt marshes. Birds have come to drink again. Plants that were dying might flower next spring. The reservoirs, desperately low, might fill.
Nature has reclaimed the beach, so long tamed for tourists. Wild waves roll in, bringing debris from sea bed: stones and weeds, plastic buckets and bottles, polystyrene and fishing nets. The water sweeps away the board walks, digs channels that spread mud and sand over the promenade. Council machines and workers with spades begin to scrape it into huge piles.
On TV the meteorologists explain the phenomenon.
It occurs particularly in eastern Spain and the Balearic Islands, usually at the end of the summer, when a cold front from the north collides with warm, humid air coming in from the Med (26C in September), generating storms and torrential rainfall. Meteorologists use it as a popular term, because on their charts the cold air is shown as surrounded by closed isotherms, often in the shape of a drop.
*la gota = the drop/drip (noun) not to drop/ fall (verb)
‘A new survey has discovered that older women readers are fed up of being portrayed in fiction as dotty, daffy and either uninterested in, or desperate for, sex. The mega social media site Gransnet polled 1,046 women and found 47% of women over 40 say there are not enough books about middle-aged or older women — yet women over 45 buy more fiction than any other section of society. But the characters they encounter are often baffled by IT and confined to domestic situations.’ (Mslexia newsletter)
All credit, then, to Gransnet and HQ, who’ve launched a competition for a novel with a protagonist over 40, written by a woman over 40.
Why didn’t I enter Fragments of a Dream? Rosie, my protagonist, is well over 40, and so am I. But the competition is only open to UK residents, and I live abroad. It’s obstacles like this that led me, reluctantly, into self-publishing.
So if you’d like to read the novel, whether or not you’re a woman over 40, check it out on Amazon https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fragments-Dream-Ruth-Larrea/dp/1791539084 (Kindle and paperback). Set in Greece and England in the 1960s and the present day, it’s about Rosie’s search for her old flame, Angelos, the mistakes of youth, misunderstandings of language and culture, and her attempt to put them right.
‘Characters with real depth,’ one reviewer commented. ‘A fabulous read,’ said another. ‘I loved it from start to finish.’
It began with a map. A map of a country shaped like a sea creature with tentacles that spread south and east while its body clung to Europe as if the sea threatened to swallow it.
In our geography class we sketched in mountain ranges, wild peaks where eagles soared. We drew pitchers of wine, olive groves, baskets of grapes, a stringed instrument, an ancient vase, a young man dancing.
We coloured the sea turquoise and scattered it with islands, which our teacher told us were the summits of mountains half-drowned when a flood swept through the Gates of Hercules and filled the Mediterranean Basin.
It was a tragic country, beautiful in its brutality, ravaged but vibrant with life, and as my crayons skimmed over it, I yearned to know it for myself.
In blue ink, with my favourite pen, I wrote its name.
*This love of Greece inspired me to write ‘Fragments of a Dream’
Thanks to C.L. Naylor for this brilliant review of ‘Fragments of a Dream’
“If only Angelos and I could rewrite our lives on a blank page equipped with fresh wisdom and insight.”
Describing Larrea’s debut novel as a simple love story doesn’t quite do it justice. Considering the ageing population, marriages that collapse in later years and the need to be loved, it is refreshing that the protagonist is in her senior years, close to retirement. It is a romantic story of people in the third age of life rediscovering themselves and their loved ones.
Rosie Burden is a survivor and the novel has a positivity about it in spite of the setbacks. “A lifetime of sacrifices” is how she described putting Harry first. No tell-tale signs that he would leave Rosie for a younger woman. There were tensions throughout their marriage which affected their offspring, Lisa and Matthew but nothing unusual compared to other families. Rosie had seen her marriage as an insurance policy against the terrors of old age. A “death sentence” makes it a bit melodramatic but it does come as a shock to Rosie as the pessimism sets in for a while: frailty, senility, loneliness and decrepitude. Sounds scary, doesn’t it? Is this what’s in store for us?
Harry and Rosie had been an item during their 1960s university days. He seemed arrogant. In spite of a virginal Rosie, naïve and lacking in confidence she was attractive and was hungry for knowledge which appealed to Harry. It seemed inevitable that they would remain an item, marry and set up home together which is in fact what happened. Rosie’s first holiday abroad to Greece with fellow university friend Maggie Burns coincided with Harry’s climbing club trip to the Alps. Rosie and Maggie chose to visit Hydra, a beautiful island described as Bohemian, unspoiled and picturesque. Rosie fell for a 19 year old Greek Adonis “as gorgeous as a God on an ancient vase.” She had been “instantly captivated” and “mesmerised” by him “frolicking like a dolphin.” So different to Harry. Was this just a holiday romance?
A photograph take in Hydra in 1966 was a reminder of their youth, beauty and love. Her fling had cast a long shadow on her marriage and Harry reminded her of this when he wrote his parting note to tell her he had met someone else. Then walked out on her.
So, you can see where this is leading, can’t you? Rosie yearns to return to Hydra after 43 years to find her lost love. She didn’t want anyone to know the reason for her return because she’d have been labelled an “old fool” pursuing a “mad quest.” Trying to relive the past, for what it was worth, she invites Maggie once again who invites one of their university friends, Mike Knutt known as Knuttsie. Mike had had a crush on Rosie all those years ago and still carried the torch for her having had three disastrous marriages and three divorces. When Rosie feels at her lowest ebb he proposes and is sadly and inevitably rejected. A wonderful friend but not lover material.
Difficult to know what Rosie expected to find returning to the scene of her lustful youth. Hydra was exactly as she had remembered it but there had been changes. The flat-roofed house where she stayed didn’t seem to be there and the beach had been altered with the cliffs eroded and a few trees left. Rosie’s excitement and anticipation soon changed to disappointment. He wasn’t there and it had been a wasted journey.
“It was a mistake to revisit the past, dangerous to dream of the future.” So, whilst Rosie tries to relive her youth we are reminded of contemporary events happening in Greece: unrest in Athens, angry protests, petrol bombs thrown by anarchists, general strikes, airports and ferry terminals closed. Hints of realism.
And what of the enigmatic, misunderstood Angelos? A fascinating character, more husband material than Harry Burden, full of passion. We meet his nephew Nikos who becomes attached to Rosie’s granddaughter, Becca and with the next generation with their level-headedness there is every chance of love blossoming and lasting. What more can I say?
” Grasping at the past was like climbing the wrong way up a down escalator, refusing to believe it was stronger and faster than you.” Love makes fools of us all, regardless of age.
Available on kindle and paperback: ISBN: 978-1-79 153-908-5 Review by C.L.Naylor. Copyright 2019. Permission must be obtained from the writer before any of this is reproduced in any form.
I’ve never been much good at fitting into boxes. Just look at my biography and you’ll see what I mean. Academic qualifications, zany life-style choices. ‘What sort of woman is this?’ you might wonder.
My writing meets with much the same response. A fellow student on the MA once said, ‘I can equally imagine Ruth’s work as a fledgling best seller, or as a candidate for the Booker Prize.’ Now I don’t claim she meant that I’m a genius waiting to be discovered, simply that my writing style doesn’t fit easily into one genre.
‘It’s part women’s fiction, part literary fiction,’ one of my tutors complained. ‘You have to make up your mind which it’s to be.’ Agents and consultants agree. ‘The problem is,’ they say, ‘it’s hard to market a book that blends genres.’
I’m sure they’re right. They know far more about the bookselling business than I do. But I still find it difficult to believe that there aren’t readers out there who have the intellect to enjoy novels with depth, as well as the experience to identify with what might seem bohemian, or even ‘romantic and silly’, to quote one Amazon reviewer.
And yet . . . read on to see where the nub lies.
‘I had to persist with this book, but my persistence was richly rewarded. I initially found it romantic and silly, and I was irritated that men seemed to be so poorly understood and represented. However ………. I gradually realised I had been cleverly drawn in. I became sympathetic to this group of very imperfect characters, recognising in them my own silly and vulnerable humanity. I enjoyed the way events surprised me and kept me wondering where we were going. And why. I didn’t want to finish the book and felt bereft when I did. I hope Ruth Larrea will continue with this story. I think this belongs to an important and evolving genre about the life, loves and opportunities for people of ‘the third age’. It left me feeling younger and more hopeful. Thank you Ruth.’
Oh yes, I forgot to mention that this particular reader is a man. As far as I know, the only man — so far — to read it. Don’t men make mistakes in love, too?
So what about his idea that this might belong to a new genre – dealing with ‘the life, loves and opportunities for’ us oldies? After all, plenty of us enjoy reading. As one survey claims, 70% of Kindle owners are over 40. (https://www.cnet.com/news).
Some time ago I coined a possible term for this new genre. One that reviews the silly and romantic mistakes of youth with the wisdom of old age . . . .
Disclaimer: in no way are my lovely friends in the photos related to the silly, imperfect characters in my novel! I simply include them to illustrate the value of long-lasting friendships which Rosie eventually discovers.
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.
*(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.
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?