On days like this you remember why you moved to another country.
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.
At 7 am I joined the queue outside the police station. Storm clouds threatened but at least it wasn’t raining. A couple of dozen people lined the building, North Africans mainly, leather jackets, jeans, hunched against the wind, smoking and chatting. A couple from Slovenia, studying pharmacy on an Erasmus scholarship, chatted to me in English. They’ve been here a month and picked up more Spanish than most tourists learn in a lifetime.
At 8.30 a policeman unlocked the gate and handed out tickets. Mine was K13. We filed inside, passing through the security scanner and into a huge room with palms and rubber plants reaching to a high glass ceiling. Rain started to lash against it as we collapsed into the seats.
At 9.00 they started calling people. K1 went in and came out at 9.20. In the seat next to me a Portuguese guy told me he’d come to escape the crisis there, but still hadn’t found a job. By 10.30 they’d reached K9. Behind me a Mexican, fluent in English, French and German as well as his native Spanish, talked in English to the Slovenians about his business trips. Two children, one African and one South American, jumped excitedly in the base of a dry fountain.
It was past 11 when my turn came. ‘Ah,’ said the young officer, ‘if you’re a pensioner you need an S1 form from your government before you can get the authorization that you’re a member of the European Union and access services here. In the meantime you can apply for an NIE (pronounced nee-ay – numero de identificacion estranjero) But first you have to go to a bank and pay 10 euros. Once you’ve done that you come back with the receipt, a photo and a copy of your passport. Then tomorrow at 1 o’clock you return to collect your number.’ The reason it’s so busy here, he said, is that all the Moroccans come across on the ferry to buy houses, now the prices have fallen.
By the time I left the building rain was lashing down and my umbrella flew open. Finding a bank wasn’t easy but when I did I had to join another queue. Then to a shop with a photocopier. A cafe con leche – hair-raisingly strong – perked me up a bit before I headed back to the immigration centre with the documents.
I then made a quick visit to the British Consulate to see if they could help me with the S1. The Union Jack was dripping in the rain from a first floor window of the building in a back street. No signs, just a staircase to a security door with intercom, and inside soft-spoken diplomats,courteous but unable to help. ‘You’ll have to phone the Overseas section of the Pensions service in Newcastle.’ Ha ha. On a mobile from abroad. Imagine how long that will take to get through all the menus and muzak.
A quick dash through the rain to a bar across the road, a copa of Rioja and a pinchito of goat’s cheese, grilled pepper and lomo, and the world seemed altogether a more hopeful place.
You’ll get fed up with me gloating about how wonderful the weather is – so hot this November morning in Alicante that I was gasping for water by the time I’d visited four different offices in
an attempt to register me as a resident.
Spain is certainly living up to its reputation of tiresome bureaucracy. The ayuntamiento is where you have to register but after waiting in a long queue I was directed to another building a few streets away. Off I went, only to discover that as a member of the European community I first have to get an identification number from the police station. Another walk in the hot sun. ‘Oh no,’ said the fearsome looking officer on duty, ‘this service has now moved a mile out of town.’ So back to the car I went.
At last I found it, only to be told that I’d come too late. You have to be there at 8.00 in the morning to join the queue. If you’re lucky you’ll get one of the 40 tickets to see someone later that day. After that I have to go back to the ayuntamiento to start the process all over again.
Oh the joys of being an immigrant. Still, at least the sun is shining. Next week they’re forecasting rain.
If you think Somerset’s roads are a challenge, just wander a little off piste and try its rural footpaths. Fingerposts and waymarkers tempt you forward then leave you in the lurch. Rusting gates groan on a single hinge or are fixed with chains and a padlock. Broken stiles see-saw precariously on rotted supports, and once you’ve wobbled across them you’re just as likely to land in an abundant crop of nettles or ankle deep in mud.
Each twist in the path, though, turns a new page in a fairy tale. Ancient stone cottages tucked in the folds of the hills. Cider orchards, the trunks steeped in lush grass where the fallen apples lie until they’re vacuumed into a cart or collected in a basket by an old man with a bushy beard. Medieval barns and manor houses with integral chapels. Copses of oak and ash and chestnut, conifer forests so black and silent that the babes in the wood might still be sleeping there.
When the path leads upwards the slopes might look gentle, but don’t be deceived. On a humid summer day they sap your energy, but by the time you reach the top, the view makes it all worth while. A rolling landscape of tiny pastures pieced together with hedges and dotted with farms and villages. Hazy hills in the distance. The clouds making their way across the open sky.
I thought I’d got the delights of the Somerset road system sussed. Bruton to Newton Park is 26 miles, so an hour and a quarter should be plenty to get to my tutorial. But I hadn’t reckoned with roadworks on a z-bend, on a hill, just below a busy 3-way junction. It took the best part of half an hour to inch forward to the point where I could see one of the two poor men operating Stop and Go signs in the lashing rain.
On the way back I got clever and tried a back road. Fine as far as Paulton. Then the signs disappeared. Which way was Shepton Mallet? Take your pick. I had a nice little tour of the hamlets of the Mendips before seeing a road I recognised.
Then there’s the Shepton Mallet showground to avoid. Tesco’s was full of bright young things in wellies, stocking up for a fun-filled weekend.
I won’t be going anywhere. I’m too exhausted!
For all three of us it’s been an emotional experience. Stirring up the past can be painful . You have to confront memories that you’d rather forget. The times that people have hurt or rejected you. The fear of being hurt or rejected again. You’re forced to acknowledge your own mistakes and weaknesses, too.
But when you start to see things from others’ point of view – what they’ve suffered, not only what you’ve suffered yourself – somehow your perspective shifts. You no longer want to apportion blame, but simply to understand. That we’re all human. We all make mistakes. And mistakes have consequences for ourselves and others.
But the story doesn’t have to end there. Understanding the past can free us to move on. And in the process we’ve gained more than we’ve lost.
In my case I’ve gained another sister – my little sister, Alison. I’m not the baby of the family any more. Now, that feels good!
Since I moved to South Somerset, shopping has been a bit of a puzzle. Where do people go? Bruton is fine for bread and milk and a few other basics, but don’t ask for a printer cartridge. Oh no, for that you have to go somewhere big like Frome. But actually Frome isn’t that big and it’s a good 12 miles away and once you get there you might wonder why you bothered.
Shepton Mallett is nearer and smaller, but at least it’s got a Tesco’s and a Boots, though not much else. The high street shops are mostly boarded up. Wells is a 15 mile journey and once there you might be forgiven for thinking you’ve arrived in a shoppers’ paradise. There’s actually a Waterstone’s and a few decent clothes shops, East for example and Fat Face. But not much else.
To find a Monsoon or a PC World or a Body Shop (of the human rather than the automobile variety – there are lots of those) you have to go to Bath or Taunton or Yeovil. Now they may not look far on the map, but via Somerset’s wonderfully windy roads, used by everything from heavy lorries to tractors, bicycles, learner drivers and elderly retirees, you’re talking about a good hour’s journey. Not to mention parking once you get there.
So I decided the best option was to shop online. Not ideal because you can’t see colours or try anything on, and although you can send things back it’s a hassle. And you might not be in when they’re delivered. But better than spending all that time in a car when I should be writing. So I ordered a pair of trainers and a Craghopper’s waterproof jacket and yes, they may not be quite what I wanted but they’ll do. But when it comes to Body Shop, online just doesn’t work. How can you choose foundations of lipstick or blushers from those little dots of colour?
And then suddenly it dawned on me. Street. The Clark’s Village. They’ve got a Body Shop. It may be 20 miles but at least there’s easy parking and I can get there in 40 minutes, more or less. I hadn’t been there for years, so I’d forgotten just how many shops there are. A shopaholic’s paradise. And guess what – there are whole shopfuls of trainers and Craghopper waterproofs much nicer than the ones I’d just bought!
And on the way back the traffic on the last roundabout was at a standstill. There must have been an accident. So I had to take a detour. Never mind, only another 5 miles and 15 minutes!
I used to moan about Barnstaple. But now I see that I was mistaken. In comparison with South Somerset, North Devon is truly a shopper’s paradise.
I’ve just been for a walk from Bruton to Milton Clevedon and Batcombe Bottom. I set out in high spirits – beautiful crisp winter’s day with sun and not a breath of breeze. Views over the Somerset levels and back to King Alfred’s Tower and Stourhead woods. Then I got terribly lost despite having OS map and route instructions. Went off-course round three sides of a pheasant enclosure, came to a dead-end by a deep stream, and had to scramble through brambles then slide down a bank on my backside. Lost my woolly hat in the process and grazed my hand. But with the aid of the compass I got back on track and came out as planned at Spargrove. It’s a small hamlet with a wonderful cluster of medieval buildings: farm, chapel and manor house with moat and mill leat. Who says there aren’t steep hills in Somerset? Am now totally knackered and relaxing with my feet up and a cup of tea.