Sue has some new students arriving today for a session of English speaking practice, so I’ve done the enlightened, supportive, modern-man thing and buggered off in case I’m given a job. That’s why I find myself in my usual cafetería but at the wrong time of day; instead of half-asleep workmen exchanging their grunts and nods over breakfast, this time those around me are the younger, noisier, late-lunch clientèle, each with one eye on his or her conversation partner, and the other on the incoming SMS or email messages on their now indispensible “es-mart-fonn”.
“So how are things in sunny Spain? You don’t want to be back here in the UK, it’s miserable” my old colleague observes, his on-screen lips not quite moving in sync with the words.
I tend to agree with him, though probably not in the way that he means. A few minutes ago I had to turn off the UK news – not for the first time recently – because it was just too disappointing. Not the news itself, though that was grim enough. What really brought me down was the way attitudes seem to have changed, from talk of aspirations and ambitions to an incessant clamour about rights and demands, all fuelled by hysterical media channels whipping up irrational outrage and perceived entitlement.
In addition to stuffing the hire car’s glove box with paper maps, this time we’ve brought on our house-hunting mission a laptop PC and newfangled (for this time in 2006) route finding software. It’s the Lite version, given away free with some magazine or other, so on launching the program it’s always keen to remind me that some features may therefore be ‘missing, or limited in performance’. Maybe that’s why it drew a blank at breakfast time when we asked it the way to a small village called La Puebla de Sancho Perez, where we have a room reserved for tonight. The low-tech paper equivalent gets us there without incident, however.
I’d been optimistic that the drizzle would lift at some point and allow me to get out and about, but I’ve run out of day before that dismal blanket sulking above the mountain has run out of water.
I could read, I suppose, or tackle one of my hoarded crosswords – but those activities would mean sitting under the glare of neon light (I must get a reading lamp), and that doesn’t appeal. Let’s see what’s on the telly.
My first instinct is to reach for the daily newspaper, but experience kicks in and reminds me how futile that would be. For those unfamiliar with Spanish television, let me try to explain; television scheduling, like so much else in Spain, is not exactly formal.
The neighbouring village has a street market each Tuesday morning. I often enjoy passing an hour or so there, even though I rarely buy anything. Today, instead of walking or cycling there, I’ve decided to drive, as rain has been forecast – I like to take exercise, but at heart I’m a lightweight. The heavy sky and erratic gusts back up the weatherman’s words, and I’m satisfied that on this occasion my laziness is justified. Sure enough, as I pass the poplar trees and white walls of the cemetery and head out of the village the first heavy drops splatter the windscreen and patter and pop on the roof.
The days are discouragingly short at this time of year. At the moment we’re enjoying a run of bright, sunny days and chilly nights; when the breeze drops you’ll usually find me on the terrace, soaking up as much warmth as possible before the darkness descends, while either reading a novel or indulging in another favourite activity:
6 down. “A diversion in daddy’s day (7)” PASTIME (pa’s time).
There have been one or two posts recently in the Spanish expat blogosphere asking what people miss from their home country. For me, not a great deal – but if there is one thing in particular, it has to be the cryptic crossword. A regular source of entertainment when I lived in the UK, that infuriating fifteen-by-fifteen grid was the perfect refuge when I’d bought the paper but couldn’t face the actual news just yet.
“What time does the bus go to Mérida?” I ask a middle aged lady standing in what I hope is the bus queue.
It’s an easy enough phrase to get right, even with my less than perfect Spanish. Still, she looks at me as though I’ve just asked her to reupholster my tortoise.
“Well … it’ll be … the same as always … ” she stammers.
Clearly she has never heard the question asked outright. This common knowledge is as deeply engraved into the local world-view as though, sometime on the sixth day, the almighty stopped fooling about with Adam’s ribs for long enough to create the morning service from Guareña to Mérida, calling at La Zarza and Alange.
As I cycle slowly back into our home village of Alange I pass, as I would in many an Extremeñan pueblo, a row of elderly men sitting on a shady bench. Same men, same seats, every day that the weather permits. Due to the order-arms drill of their walking sticks and the judgemental gaze with which they greet every passing vehicle, Sue and I have come to refer to them as the Firing Squad. I wouldn’t call them that in public. Some of these old boys have already seen enough of such things.
Clouds have built steadily through this September afternoon, but the pavements and buildings radiate the heat they’ve been collecting all through the day. It’s still unmistakably summer weather, though the equinox has come and gone. My few companions on the road have been ancient, asthmatic tractors moving barely faster than I do, their battered trailers packed with melons or the last of the grapes. I decide to stop for a moment and take an unrewarding slurp from the water bottle, the contents now warm as bathwater. A nod is offered to the assembled company with a self-evident “hace calor, no?”
My morning cafe con leche arrives as I sit, as I do most mornings, on the terrace of my local cafe bar.
A slight sigh prefixes the “Thank you, caballero”.
“Oh. Yes …. sorry.”
Even after seven years, I can’t lose the ever-so-British habit of constantly giving thanks or apologies. The local camareros don’t really understand why we do it – especially when we’re the customer, for goodness’ sake, why are we thanking them? But they are used to me by now, and ignore it as just one more guiri eccentricity. I still can’t bring myself to summon their attention as their countrymen would, though, with an abrupt “oiga!”, even though I know it will cause no offence whatsoever. Somehow it’s just not cricket.
My old Mum, may she rest in peace, loved history. Not dinosaurs, Piltdown Man or the tombs of the Pharaohs, but the sort of costume history that the BBC does so well. Always with her nose in a Jean Plaidy or Georgette Heyer novel, she could recite England’s royal lineage, including the date of every birth, marriage and death, right back to Eldrich the Flatulent (or somebody; OK, so I wasn’t a great student). She desperately wished that she lived in Bronte’s world, not Whicker’s.
When I felt strong enough, I used to point out that life back then wasn’t like it appears on TV. It was hard, cruel and usually short. Even if she could travel back in time, she wouldn’t be able to take with her any home comforts like Tetley Tea, Swiss Roll or Breakfast With Wogan.