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.


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!



The immigrant, the bank clerk and the old lady

I’m at my Spanish bank, wondering which queue to join. The one for the teller, alone behind a glass screen, 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 the two, trying to see which moves faster.

Yesterday, in a different part of town, a cash machine swallowed my card and I caused a bit of a scene. I’d already stood for ages in one long line, and when I was left card-less and cashless, I butted in to another and asked what I should do. I must have raised my voice, because several people, waiting patiently, swung round to look at me. 

It turned out that my card had expired. Silly me. I was told to go to my own branch to collect the new one. In England it would have been sent by post, well before the old card gave up the ghost. With blood pressure rising, and already weary from other bureaucratic nightmares, I steeled myself to accept that this was one more of those mysterious Spanish norms I hadn’t yet mastered.

So here I am today, waiting my turn and trying not to get rattled while clients 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 in a torrent of broken Spanish, the gist of which seems to be that he has stood for half an hour, first in the queue for the cajero automatico, then in this one, only for the teller to say he can’t help him with whatever it was the machine wouldn’t do.

From behind his glass screen the bank employee, looking pale and frazzled, tries to explain the reasons for this problem and why he’s not authorised to deal with it, but the young man grows more and more upset, his voice louder, his gestures more expansive. The dozen or so other customers, all Spanish, standing in line or resting in comfortable armchairs, are quietly engrossed by the drama. I watch on, aware that this could so easily have been me, exploding with frustration in front of an audience. I feel relieved, restored. It’s as though the young man has taken all my pent-up exasperation and expressed it for me. I have become a detached spectator, like everyone else. 

Despite this I’m uneasy. Because the young man is black. Everyone else is white. And judging by his Spanish, which is even more riddled with errors than mine, he has learned most of it on the street. He addresses the ageing employee with the familiar tu, he calls him tio (literally uncle, colloquially dude). I cringe for the young man, knowing only too well how often my own powers of expression have cracked up in offices with regulations as absurd as anything Gulliver encountered in Lilliput. The occasional joder (f*ck) has been known to escape me. But I am retired, one of the tribe of ex-pats who help prop up this country’s economy. He is a survivor, almost certainly African. Could this turn into one of those ugly racist incidents that I’ve heard about since the Brexit referendum in England, with insults and calls to go back where you came from? 

I glance at the other patrons of the bank, middle-aged, middle-class, prosperous, wondering how they will react. So far all are calm, listening with interest but making no comment. 

The young man is not calm. He is clearly distressed. His voice rises and wavers with emotion as he accuses the teller of treating him differently. He keeps repeating: 

‘It’s because I’m black and an immigrant you don’t help me!’

At this point the woman in front of me 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 that he is not being treated differently, that the rules are the same for her and for everyone else who comes to this bank. The clerk 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 goes with him to the machine to help with his transaction.

The woman rejoins the queue and we strike up a conversation about how hard it is for foreigners to navigate Spanish bureaucracy. I say that it often seems bizarre and illogical and she agrees.

‘Sometimes,’ she says, ‘I think we are like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, tilting at windmills.’

I’m amused, it’s so true, and I nod in admiration. How deftly she’s defused the tension. But I can’t help wondering how this scene would have panned out in Brexit Britain.

Locked in with the locksmith

IMG_0001

‘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 (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.

Life of an Immigrant (2)

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.

Life of an Immigrant

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

El puerto, Alicante

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.