I am not yet fluent in Spanish, in fact haven’t yet started formal lessons. I speak a sort of pidgin Spanish, and sound like a toddler, relying heavily on nouns and the medium of dance. Me want (insert noun here) (eg necesita pintura blanco, I go through gallons of pintura blanco) or pointing at things for sale and asking brightly ‘much?’ (Cuánto?) I had cards printed with name, address, telephone numbers, that helped, if I want something delivered I ask ¿transportas? then hand over the card and my NIE number. Everything is driven by the NIE number. It’s the same as the NI number in the UK, but here it proves you exist, while standing right in front of someone doesn’t.
Saying ‘no hablo Espanol’ gets a shrug, saying ‘poco Espanol’ gets sympathetic attention, especially if I then stumble through the phrase I have carefully memorised off Google. The Spanish are very nice to idiots, especially idiots who are trying. I am very trying.
Small town life has lovely advantages – all the shopkeepers are dedicated to teaching me Spanish, and make me repeat the correct name for something at least 3 times before they hand it over. They all chatter away cheerfully for at least 5 minutes during each purchase, and anyone who enters the shop is included in the conversation. Everyone in town – small children through to the oldest residents – greets each other (and me) in passing, without fail. Hola, or buenos dias, or just a barked ‘dia!’ Some of the children show off to each other by greeting me in English. Most people are a little nervous of my portly Frenchie-bulldog cross, and freeze if she looks their way, but a few greet her, then beam at me if she glances at them. Her manners are disgraceful, she rarely greets anyone.
The bread van comes by every morning bar Sundays at around 10.30, and he will wait a few minutes for me if I don’t come hurrying straight out (my order never changes, two plump bread sticks, 90c, muy bien, gracias.) We sometimes discuss the weather if it has dropped below 18 degrees C (frio! Si!) My English-and-Spanish-speaking Dutch neighbour has introduced me to a few of my neighbours, and one of them insists on us kissing (mwah, mwah) in delighted greeting every time we see each other, then she chats in Spanish for a few minutes, pats me forgivingly on the cheek for not being able to contribute anything but comments on the weather, (honestly, how British am I?) and bustles on her way.
There are reasons I haven’t started my lessons, I’m still – yes, six months down the line – trying to sort out this enormous rambling shambolic house. I no longer call it the elefante blanco – the more it shares its eccentricities, the more it became obvious that it is the casa excéntrico. The renovations are not quite single-handed, although I have sworn never to have a Spanish-only builder here again: instead the Herculean task is being accomplished painfully slowly with the help of a semi-retired English builder who arrives every day around 11.00, drinks copious quantities of tea and coffee and cola cao (hot chocolate) and finishes around 6.30. I say with his help – it is of course the other way round, there is an occasional bellow of ‘Biff!’ and I drop what I’m doing (painting walls doors and shutters, or trying to get generations of paint and plaster off floors and skirting boards, usually) and dash off to hold ladders, help carry bulky objects, go to the builders yard to collect stuff, or make what he calls ‘executive decisions’ on matters which have popped up unexpectedly. Things do pop up quite often when one is working on an old house which has had some very odd builders (and inept handymen doing patches) over the decades. He was a friend before the project started and who knows, the friendship may even survive this mammoth task – we do spend a lot of time spluttering with laughter. We also spend a lot of time bickering. It’s companionable.
Another reason I haven’t started studying is that I’m teaching English for several hours a day – I sit at my desk, headphones clamped to my head, and enter a virtual schoolroom somewhere in China, for two or three sessions a day. I’d do more but the 7 hour time difference makes that an impossibility. It does slow down work on the house since Nick can’t drill, or use the disc cutter on tiles or bricks, or hammer at things, while I’m tutoring, and has to turn instead to plastering and quieter pursuits. There’s luckily no shortage of walls needing plastering.
Squeezing a Spanish lesson into the evenings would be do-able and the Casa Cultura is in easy walking distance, but I’m also trying to finish the last book in the Lawns series before I can no longer remember what daily life was like in Scotland – fifteen years, and yet already it seems a distant dream. I suspect I’m also struggling because it is the last book, and I shall miss them so much.
My social life, thanks to Nick introducing me to his lovely local friends, is probably busier than it was in Scotland. I don’t go out alone locally, as I’m so tired by evening, and usually splattered with paint into the bargain but soon after I moved in last October there was a night filled with regularly-spaced gunshots and distant brass band. The local Saint was out and about, and the gunshots were to alert the town. Oh help, I thought, as my dog tried to burrow through my lap to safety, this is going to be fun if it happens on a regular basis.
In fact not yet repeated. The plaster saint in the enormous church does emerge occasionally and proceed around the town, carried on the shoulders of townspeople swaying in eerie unison, but the guns have stayed quiet. I caught up with an outing for Easter (Semana Santa) and made a very inept video of proceedings on Good Friday, link at the end of this blog. It was an unexpectedly moving event – this is not for tourists, it is for the town, and has been rooted in tradition for hundreds of years, a combination of mourning and gratitude for dying for our sins. Easter is very different here – not a hot cross bun in sight, and a small display of chocolate eggs arrived diffidently on the supermarket shelves about a week before Easter.
There are traditional Easter foods, but you are expected to cook them at home. One of them is torrijas, bread soaked in egg and milk, then fried, which I would have sworn was French toast. I must be mistaken, all Spanish food is unique, and by the way they invented pizza. They say so, and they’d know, after all. Their pizza dough is sweeter, and less crispy.
Actually, everything is slightly sweeter. A lot of the baking is based on choux pastry (well, whatever it is called here, where it was doubtless invented) and cream. The Christmas cakes are a million miles from heavy dark fruitcake – roscón de reyes, (a crown shape for kings), choux pastry rings filled liberally with cream and (optional) tiny ceramic figures and garnished with candied fruit. Yummy! Christmas lights in the streets tend to snowy mountains and stars, standing decorations are Nativity scenes, and Santa Claus is conspicuous by his absence – until you look up from street level. For some reason, my neighbours in Velez adore the dangling Santa, clinging for his life to balcony rails. There were 3 in my street alone. Otherwise, apart from the occasional festive wreath on a door, very low-key – Christmas generally is a family day. The main difference I noticed in the beautifully decorated shops was the peaceful lack of Christmas carols – just the usual music, played at usual decibels. I actually rather liked that. Back in the UK by Christmas Eve even Slade gave me an instant headache. There are parties and general gift-giving, but they are reserved for the Day of the Kings, the 6th of January, when the Wise Men arrived with the first gifts and the roscon de reyes is brought out for visitors.
Before then was of course NYE, and I was braced for loud parties, more gunshots, and revelry in the streets – nope. I’d been told to eat a grape for every chime of midnight but there weren’t even local chimes. A few decorous fireworks started a minute or two after midnight, and were over in 15 minutes. Okay, this is a small town, I have no idea what happens elsewhere, but the animals loved it, Hogmanay had always unsettled them.
Moving to Spain in the teeth of Brexit does make the future uncertain, with rumours and counter-rumours flying. There’s a Citizens Advice Bureau for ex-pats on Facebook, and I froze with horror just a few days ago at a warning post about twelve agreed directives coming into effect on Brexit day in March 2019. The CAB said in the preamble that they believed several were discriminatory and they would support anyone who needed help when they fell foul of the rulings. One directive said non-Spanish speakers would have to take an official translator to all official appointments including hospital visits. Another: anyone who hadn’t switched their UK driving licence to a Spanish one by March would have to take a Spanish test. The list was draconian. The 11th said the wearing of swimwear anywhere but on the beach would be punished by law. The 12th said anyone showing signs of sunburn when leaving the beach would be fined . . . now hang on just one cotton-picking minute.
Only then did I realize the date. April Fool . . . ha bloody ha. Nearly gave me a heart attack!
Regrets? None. Last year when I had my house in Scotland on the market I was close to giving up and thinking I would never sell, and getting tiny odd frissons of panic – I have to be out of Scotland by winter. I couldn’t understand it, but of course now I know why – what a winter I missed. Ironically, I was probably colder indoors here than I would have been there (unless the central heating had packed up) because the Casa Excéntrico was designed for hot weather, not cold. It isn’t a sunny house. I suspect, as a redhead, I’ll be deeply grateful for that come full summer, when street temperatures will be making me wilt and I’ll be doing my grocery shopping in the cool of the evening at 9 pm, but its dim and shadowy coolness, plus the fact it has been a building site all winter, made it crypt-cold. When I first moved in I designated the room off my study as a storeroom and bought industrial shelving to put my cases and boxes there until the renovations were over. (I will be offering suitcase etc storage to holiday home owners, so it was an investment in future income.)
As the overnight temperatures dropped to single figures (during the day it rarely dipped below a sunny wear-a-jersey 17 degrees) the storeroom abruptly became the designated winter bedroom, a bed wedged in between the shelves, to share heat with the study. The walls of the house are at least a foot thick, and one radiator did keep both rooms at around 18 degrees. Neither the dog nor the cat could be coaxed out of the winter suite until the sun was on the upstairs patio, then they bolted up there to catch rays until the evening chill drove them back to the heater.
March was wet – the average winter rainfall is 15 inches, but we had 16 inches of rain in the first 3 weeks of March. Not much of it, phew, made it into the house, old as it is, although the hall flooded twice until I learned why my neighbours spread plastic ‘aprons’ across their doors – the step may be 6 inches above street level, but the churning rapids pouring down the street can occasionally exceed that. I learned to stack empty cement and plaster bags either side of the door, weighed down with bricks, when heavy rain was forecast, and kept my feet dry.
Not sure what mañana will bring but there will be tangles with bureaucracy, that’s a given. I came here by campervan and lost track of the months a bit, suddenly realizing its MOT was about to expire. Eek. Straight off to the ITV centre, theoretically to get an ITV voluntaire to sell the van but actually secretly hoping I could go ahead with Spanish registration. Nope. The van sailed through the challenges of the ITV but – shock horror – the logbook doesn’t show the weight. A DVLA clerical error which never stopped it passing over a dozen MOTs over the years, but stopped the matriculation process dead in its tracks. I sold it instead, and waved it sadly off back to the UK. It will be returning at least once a year, but not to this area – the buyer drove 5 hours from Valencia to see it and turned out – small world – to be another former South African.
But back to bureaucracy – I have my NIE to prove I exist but must soon arrange my Padron, registering as a townsperson. My little Toyota IQ will soon have to start the matriculation process, to become a Spanish car. The best part is that it will get a numberplate showing it as a 2018 car – as the shape hasn’t changed since it was actually manufactured, it will be able to strut the streets looking like a new car. I was advised repeatedly to sell it in the UK and buy a left-hand drive here, but I love the car and didn’t. Second-hand cars have no value in the UK – I would have been lucky to get a thousand quid for it. Cars don’t rust here, and hold their value for years longer. The same make and model, same age and low mileage, is at least 6000 euros, and I’d have no idea what its history was. Spending up to 1000 euros to matriculate mine seems a good deal to me.
And back again to bureaucracy. Buying the house was dizzyingly quick – from making my offer to sitting in the notary’s office and taking over the Casa Excéntrico took less than two weeks. Six months later, though, it still isn’t registered in my name. The death certificate of one of the seller’s grandparents was lost during the war, when that records office was bombed and burned out. A gentle wrangle has continued at stately pace since October. The seller is spreading her hands – nothing she can do, and the town council accepted that with the last house she sold. My lawyers are insistent – there must be, I think, a sworn affidavit? Whatever. Everyone is assuring me the house is mine in law, the money was handed over in front of the notary, this is purely a formality, and will soon be sorted. Luckily the registration was included in the fixed fee I paid the lawyer so the delay is costing nothing but frayed nerves. It doesn’t help that friends I have made here bought their house 18 years ago and it still hasn’t been registered in their name. Que sera, sera.
That link to the Semana Santa video – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UHV_VG6f2kU