Chicks, Biddies and Breaking Boundaries

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 put forward 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 ‘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 . . . .

Biddy Lit.

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.


Dolor y Gloria

A fascinating interview on TVE this week with Pedro Almodovar about his latest film, Dolor y Gloria, thought to be his most autobiographical yet.

The story draws on events from his formative years.

‘I had to look into the darkest part of myself,’ he said.

‘Although it starts from myself, as I was writing, it transformed into fiction.’

Yes! That’s what I love in novels, too. Stories that grow out of the writer’s experience of life, yet evolve their own reality.

You can keep all your fantasies and thrillers with their cleverly contrived plots. What move me most are stories that sink their roots deep into real-life events, yet stretch their branches towards the sky.

Elena Ferrante? Gabriel Garcia Marquez? Tim Winton?

In my own small way I, too, love to weave fact and fiction in my writing, and find it uniquely fulfilling.

As Almodovar says, ‘Writing is the only therapy to forget the unforgettable.’

Pain and glory, indeed.

FREE OFFER!

My debut novel Fragments of a Dream is the story of Rosie’s search for lost love, set in Athens and the Greek island of Hydra. It’s a bittersweet tale that will make you laugh, cry and reflect on life’s complexities.

Click the link above, or go to the Home page and sign up to receive the 1st chapter FREE!


My new author website!

After an obstacle course of technical hitches, I’ve at last managed to update my author website, complete with new layout and photos!

As well as this blog, there are now pages on my debut novel, Fragments of a Dream, (set in Athens and the Greek island of Hydra), other novels in progress, writing courses I’ve attended, the joys of ESOL teaching, and some – but by no means all – of my life experiences.

On the Home page you can read all about Fragments of a Dream: a book description, reader reviews, and even sign up for the first chapter FREE!



Locked in with the locksmith

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‘Get the lock changed,’ my brother-in-law said. ‘And fix a new security bolt as well since you’ve lost the key.’

Times are hard, and this place has been robbed before, even if they did only take a pile of old blankets. But a poor pensioner with a sick spouse can’t afford to lose the little she has.

I prepare the new vocabulary so I can call the locksmith. Bombin is the lock, cerrojo FAC the security bolt. Never a lover of telephones, I brace myself to explain what I want in Spanish. Serves me right for forcing my ESOL students to make all those phone calls in their speaking exams, I suppose.

After just one ring, I’m through. ‘Of course,’ says a very nice woman, politely overlooking the fact that I’ve said bombon (sweet) instead of bombin. ‘I’ll send the chico. If he can’t do it, my husband will come.’ Like many here it’s a family business, cousins, aunts, brothers, all playing their part.

I give her my address, being careful to pronounce numbers and letters correctly. How well I remember the Spanish students who tripped up on English vowels. It’s hardly surprising when the English letter ‘A’ sounds like the Spanish ‘E’ and the English ‘E’ like the Spanish ‘I’.

But my rendering of ‘E’ doesn’t convince her.

‘English or Spanish?’ she asks.

‘Spanish, Spanish,’ I say, and we laugh. With thousands of British ex-pats living on the costas, she’s clearly come up against this problem before.

We agree a day and a time. Right on the dot, the chico arrives, toolbox in hand, muscles rippling, beaming a beautiful smile.

Communication is fine. We discuss what he should do and he sets to work, removing a long screw from the existing lock. At this point he realises that he hasn’t brought a vital part.

‘I’ll be back in a moment,’ he says and goes out, shutting the door behind him.

A few minutes later I hear his footsteps coming up the steps. He knocks at the door and I go to let him in. The handle won’t turn. I wriggle it this way and that, but without the screw nothing moves.

‘The door won’t open,’ I say.

‘What? It won’t open?’

I try again. Nothing.

‘I’ll pass the key under the door and see if you can unlock it from outside,’ I say.

But he can’t.

‘If I had my tools here,’ he says, ‘I could do it.’

But his tools are on the floor beside me, and there’s no way those will go through the small gap.

Now this is a dilemma that I hadn’t foreseen. I’m locked inside my own flat, with the tool-less locksmith outside.

‘Is there another way in?’ he calls to me.

‘Only through the window. And it’s rather high up.’

I cross to the balcony, slide open the window, and the chico’s head appears below me.

‘Oh, I can get up there,’ he says confidently.

‘Are you sure? I don’t have a ladder.’

I have clearly underestimated him. Even before I finish speaking, his hands grip the rail, his head appears, his shoulders and his torso, and he propels himself inside and onto the floor. Now I know what those muscles are for.

‘Blimey,’ I say, ‘if you can do it, than so can a burglar.’ Mental note: remember to shut all windows when you go out.

Inside, with his tools, he changes the lock in no time and – hey presto! – the door opens.

One job done. Now to the security bolt.

‘Since you’ve lost the key,’ he says, ‘I’ll need to order a new cerrojo FAC. So I’ll come back on Tuesday.’

Sod’s law, I suppose. Not long after he’s gone, we discover we’ve got the key after all. Never mind, we’ll change it anyway, just to be sure.

Of course it might all be a waste of time. If there’s anyone else around who combines the skills of a locksmith with those of a cat-burglar, all the locks in the world won’t save us. Better get that insurance policy sorted.

How to play the idiot foreigner (2)

  1. Misread your Spanish calendar (which is laid out from Monday to Sunday). See from the colour code that the second day is a dia festivo. Take it for granted that the second day is Monday (as it would be on an English calendar).
  2. Assume that everyone will be back at work on Tuesday. Plan accordingly how you will get your tarjeta sanitaria from the relevant local health centre now that – miracle of miracles – you have all the necessary papers.
  3. Make a list of the other things you need to do – bank; photocopies; shopping. Congratulate yourself on being so well organised.
  4. Work out how to travel the 3 miles from your urbanizacion to the designated barrio and back again with the minimum delay, now that the local authority has taken off most of the buses.
  5. Make yourself presentable and go to the bus stop punctually at 11.00 a.m. Think it odd that no one else is there, but when the bus arrives, board as normal and get off at the appropriate stop.
  6. Walk through the quiet residential barrio to find a bank. Don’t worry when you see that it’s closed – it’s probably bitten the dust because of la crisis. Get money from the machine, making sure it comes in €50 notes.
  7. Search through the streets for somewhere to make photocopies, noticing that not a single shop is open. Assume they must be on strike.
  8. Go to the supermarket – a big Mercadona.  Expect a sinking feeling when you find that it’s tightly locked and shuttered.
  9. Walk to the health centre. Resist being too hopeful when you see a gentleman limping from an ambulance. Note that he’s going in the opposite direction, and that the doors of the health centre are firmly closed. Conclude, reluctantly, that today is also a holiday. Suppress sarcastic thoughts about mañana.
  10. Consider your options. As there are no taxis in this residential area, and the shops in the distant town centre will also be closed, return to the bus stop. Be prepared to see what you suspected – that there is no bus back to your urbanizacion on dias festivos for nearly three hours.
  11. Reject the idea of spending three hours in a cafe over a €1.50 beer which you will have to pay for with a €50 note.
  12. Resist the idea of having ten or twelve beers.
  13. Decide that the best option is to board one of the ever-active buses to the airport, getting off at the stop nearest the turning for your urbanizacion. This will mean a 1-mile walk after crossing a major road and a railway line, but be thankful that you are fit and healthy and that the sun is shining.
  14. Wait for ten minutes or so until the bus arrives. Establish with the driver where the nearest stop will leave you. Get out your tarjeta de autobus to pay for the fare. Try not to be sarcastic when he tells you that it is only valid when the bus goes right to your urbanizacion, not if you get off before.
  15. Ask to pay with a €50 note. When he refuses, resist the urge to throttle him. Get off the bus, if possible without tripping.
  16. Begin your 3 mile walk, together with the happy families promenading in the splendid palm park. Take the narrow pavement alongside the exceptionally busy 4-lane highway, and when the path peters out, notice that local people and fisherman cross to the rocks which run alongside the sea. Do the same, dodging the traffic.
  17. Climb up onto the railway line and over the single track, being thankful that a train is not coming. Proceed in the direction of home, trying not to stumble in your best shoes on the loose stones alongside the track.
  18. Despite your handbag and unsuitable attire, adopt the expression of a hearty seasoned walker when you encounter the local fishermen.
  19. After two miles of clambering on rocks, arrive hot and sweaty at the open scrubland and heave a sigh of relief that you can walk along a broad, level albeit sandy path beside the sea. Rejoice in the glorious day, along with the dozens of family trippers.
  20. Arrive at the urbanizacion, fight your way through the holiday crowds, and go straight to the tiny convenience store to order a pollo asado for lunch.
  21. Once home, check your calendar and see that – with the aid of your glasses – Tuesday is clearly colour-coded as a dia festivo. Realise that the circle around Monday indicates a link to the weekend, hence the popular term puente (bridge) for this type of extended holiday. Mentally rap your knuckles that this is a commonplace word which you have known for years, and will certainly never again forget.
  22. Collect your pollo asado and some beers, put your feet up in the sun, relax and enjoy. Reflect on this, the day’s second lesson.

From the sublime to the ridiculous

The idiot foreigner’s been on holiday, playing at grandmas down in Oz. Oh, the simplicity of a well-ordered society. But now it’s back to reality and another dose of life as an immigrant.

At the local health centre, the receptionist tells us to come back another day. Her colleague’s off sick and she can’t cope with any more people. The truth is they’re all working to rule, because the public services are in crisis. Making life as difficult as possible for the public they serve is becoming a national pastime.

The next day we brave her fearsome glare and manage to get some answers. As a foreigner I can’t register with a doctor until I have a Spanish medical card. Ah, but I can actually phone the social security office and book an appointment! That beats queuing in the street. What’s more they send you a reminder by text. Wonder of wonders, we’ve entered the age of technology.

Buoyed up with optimism, I set off for my appointment, taking with me the documents that the health centre told me I’d need. I’ve even thought to get photocopies – oh yes, I’ve wised up to that one – originals AND copies of all documents are ALWAYS required – and they won’t do the photocopying for you. You have to visit a seedy little shop in a back alley and pay 60 centimos.

When I get to the social security office, the long queue throws me slightly. Don’t we all have appointments? Oh, of course, you still have to get a ticket with a number. Silly me. Anyway, the queue’s moving quickly, as are the numbers being called on the screen. Only five or ten minutes late, mine appears and I make my way to desk 9.

A weary looking woman asks what I’ve come for, and I explain that I want a medical card.

‘Have you brought your S1?’

‘My S1? But I gave it to the police.’ At least, I think I did. I’ve been to so many offices (not to mention Australia and back) that I can barely remember. But yes, I’m sure it was the police – I had to queue for a second time at 7 a.m. to give it to them.

‘Oh no,’ says the woman. ‘We’re the ones that need it, not the police.’

‘But they wouldn’t give me my certificate of residence without it! And they told me that the certificate was all that I needed to get my medical card.’

She shakes her head. ‘We can’t give you a medical card without the S1. The police shouldn’t have kept it.’

I can see she’s not going to back down so I try another tack. ‘The health centre didn’t say anything about the S1 either. They just told me to bring my UK health card.’ (Which I don’t have, because as far as I remember paper cards went out years ago with the advent of computers. What a brilliant idea – a computer data base – have they thought of that here?)

She’s not impressed. ‘Well,  if that’s what the health centre told you, they’re misinformed.’

‘Look,’ I say, launching into surprisingly fluent Spanish, ‘there seems to be a breakdown of communication here between the various offices. Each one tells you something different.’

No answer. She turns to my other documents. My certificate of registration with the local council took several visits to obtain but she’s not happy with it.

‘It’s dated November,’ she says. ‘That’s quite a long time ago.’

‘What?’ I can hardly believe what I’m hearing. Of course there’s no point saying I’ve been away in Australia.

‘We consider these certificates to have a life of 3 months,’ she explains.

‘3 months? You mean I’ve got to go back every 3 months and get another one?’

She must sense that I’m angry because she begins to back down. ‘Don’t worry, it’ll probably be all right. But we must have the S1. You can’t have a health card without it.’ She embarks on a monotonous spiel about reciprocal agreements between countries in the European Union.

I can see I’m getting nowhere. ‘So I’ll have to go back to the police station,’ I say. ‘Or ask for another one from the UK.’

She gives me a nod. ‘It might be quicker to get one from the UK.’

‘Yes,’ I say, ‘I think it might.’ Going to the police station would either involve another early morning queue, or throttling a policeman. Which might get me arrested. Or deported.

I wonder what papers you need for that?

How to play the idiot foreigner (1)

1) If you have no car or printer, walk to the pueblo and find the cybercafe. Chances are it’s a tiny room in a back street, pitch black inside, with half a dozen people waiting to be served.

2) Use your best Spanish to make your request. Don’t be offended when the reply is ‘Preeent?’  as if you’re a child or a half-wit. Remember your accent is a giveaway.

3) While you’re waiting to log on, open a bottle of what you think is water, making sure it explodes over clothes, desk and floor. Realise too late that the label says gaseosa.

4) Forget your glasses so that, even with the economy lights on, you can’t read the keyboard. Where have they hidden the @? Feel pleased with yourself that you know it’s called the arroba. Smile at the customers watching you learn how to find it. Ah, it’s up with the 2, selected with Ctrl + Alt. Nod wisely.

5) Realise you need a semi-colon and squint at the keyboard. Hold it up to the light in a vain attempt to distinguish between punctuation marks. Ask for help again. If you don’t know the Spanish word, request pen and paper. Smile apologetically at the audience of waiting customers. ‘Ah, punto y coma.’ Of course.

6) Log onto gmail and realise you’ve forgotten your password. Make several attempts at remembering and give up.

7) Start a migraine so that the visual disturbances interfere with your eyesight. Don’t even ask for a farmacia. They’re on strike due to la crisis – the government hasn’t paid them since May.

7) Succeed in printing documents from other websites and log off. Leave your jacket on the back of the chair so they have to remind you to take it.

8) Count out 80 centimos  in small change, rejoicing that it’s so cheap. Don’t be offended when they stop you at 77 – they probably think that it’s worth 3 centimos to get rid of you.

Ex-pat living

Life as an immigrant has metamorphosed into ex-pat living. Gone are the early morning queues and long waits in government buildings. It’s the weekend and everyone is off-duty.

Sitting in the sunshine on the terrace of the beachside bakery, I sip cafe con leche and nibble at a delicious ensaimada, a crisp coil fresh from the oven, dusted with icing sugar, meltingly soft inside. I’m playing at being a lady writer, scribbling in my Mslexia notebook, earwigging on the conversations.

Six Spanish women of a certain age keep up a loud and lively conversation at the table next to me. They have tinted hair, wear sunglasses and sweaters or quilted jackets (it’s November after all), silk scarves looped or knotted round their necks. Their table is littered with empty coffee cups, plates with crumbs, cigarette stubs and screwed up paper napkins, but they show no sign of moving. A rat-like dog of indeterminate breed, fed up with waiting, starts yapping under the table, trapped by their boots and trainers.

‘Caillate ya,’ says one, but it takes no notice.

‘Give up smoking?’ says another, lighting a cigarette. ‘Why? The stuff they give you to stop is far worse than tobacco.’

A third woman blows a cloud of smoke. ‘To give up you need willpower. You have to decide you want to do it, and ya esta.

At the table next to them is a grown-up family of four, or could it be parents with their son and his same-sex partner? The two young men are well-groomed and handsome, with dark curls and expansive smiles. One in a v-necked sweater, the other in a soft sweatshirt, they sit with their jeaned legs spread, knees apart, feet crossed, dipping in and out of the conversation, laughing at the mother’s jokes. She is plump and prosperous with freshly coiffed hair, painted lips and fingernails, designer sunglasses and gold earrings. The father quietly presides at the head of the table, his crisp blue shirt open at the neck, but it’s Mama who is the centre of attention, entertaining them with her anecdotes. Their breakfast has still not appeared, but they are leisurely, relaxed, in no hurry. Life is too good to rush.

A grey-haired man and woman appear on the terrace and hover by an empty table. How do I know instantly that they’re English? By the way they creep to the seats and settle there in silence. When they speak, their heads move closer, their voices are subdued and the snippets of conversation punctuate long pauses. No hairdresser has touched the woman’s hair, and her cardigan is a little crumpled, and shapeless.

They are ex-pats, like me. Enjoying life on the costas while the Brits back home battle with floods. Trying to feel relaxed and outgoing like the Spanish but not quite making it. Their days of queuing for residence permits are probably long gone, but mine, alas, are due to begin again once Monday morning comes. In the meantime,Viva the weekend!

Life of an Immigrant (3)

The gas ran out on Saturday, just as I was preparing lunch. The spag bol simmered and sank. My order for a new bombona of butano had failed to materialise. With no car, and the nearest supplier a couple of miles away, it seemed like a good excuse for eating out.

Not such a bad solution with several beachside restaurants just a short stroll from the apartment. Mmm, esparragos followed by a tasty paella-style arroz with plenty of cool beer and a view of foam-crested waves whipped up on a turquoise sea. But knowing that we’d have to survive for a week until the next delivery of gas spoiled our appetites. It looked as if we were in for days of cold food just as the weather was turning nasty.

What do you do alone in a strange country where you know no one? Luckily we have family with numerous brothers and sisters. Ivan lives nearby and he has a car, but a quick call to his mobile set our hopes tumbling.

‘I’m in Madrid for the weekend.’

Nothing for it then but to go out for lunch on Sunday, too. Oh well, I could get used to this. Tapas of calamares, gambas, mejillones and patatas bravas with a bottle of vino tinto. While we were eating, the family network sprang into action. Pilar in Madrid put us in touch with a cousin who lives just up the coast from us: Jose Manuel, who has a daughter who’s a dancer married to a Russian, also a dancer. They run classes in salsa which I’m hoping to join once I can work up the energy for them.

A few texts later and we’d arranged for him (JM, not the Russian) to come across that evening and drive us to the nearby gasolinera to collect a bombona. When siblings can’t help, primos are the next on call.

By the time Jose Manuel arrived it was dark and a gale-force storm lashed the palm trees. His comfortable Mercedes glided through floods to the petrol station while he entertained us with tales of his grandson. Hope was glimmering.

Butano?’ said the dour attendant in answer to our request. ‘No queda.’

They’d sold out, and so had every other garage for miles around. I know, because we spent the next hour or so visiting them.The onset of the worst weather that most people in Alicante can remember had sent everyone scurrying for supplies.

Defeated, we drove home. Jose Manuel suggested that we should ring the supplier in Alicante first thing the next morning and ask for a delivery.

Oh that life were that simple. Monday morning dawned with an uncanny stillness. We phoned the number he’d given us.

‘We don’t deliver your way until Friday,’ they told us.

Back to square one. No point in bothering Jose Manuel until we were sure that supplies at the gasolinera had been replenished.

By the time I set out to walk the couple of miles to El Altet  the wind had lifted and rain was falling. ‘So what,’ I told the elements, Lear-style. ‘Do your worst to me. I’m English, I can stand a bit of rain.’

As I reached the village the heavens answered me with a downpour of tropical proportions. I dashed into a couple of shops, tramping over their clean floors in my muddy boots, then crossed to the petrol station, dodging the floods.

A different attendant this morning, but equally expressionless.

Claro,’ he shrugged in answer to my question. ‘We always have butano.’

‘You didn’t last night.’

‘That’s because it was Sunday.’

Must be some local logic that I’m not up to speed with, but no point in arguing. The happy truth was that supplies of gas were now abundantly evident.

‘Could I reserve one and come and collect it later this afternoon?’ I asked. ‘Of course I’ll pay for it now.’

The way he looked at me made it clear that this was a preposterous suggestion. ‘At two o’clock the shifts change,’ he said. ‘We’re two different teams.’

Sod you. How d’you say that in Spanish?

By now I was feeling bullish. I battled back through the rain, dodged into a kiosko for a cafe con leche, and as I finished it, the rain began to ease. With a new spring in my sodden boots I walked home over the wasteland past the flooded oasis of palm trees and texted Jose Manuel.

A couple of hours later his car drew up and we revisited the gasolinera and stocked up with two bombonas, just to be sure. The spag bol tasted delicious, and with a celebratory bottle of tempranillo (1.50 Euros and quite drinkable) life as an immigrant was looking distinctly rosy, despite the rain.