It’s not the destination…

It’s not the destination…

…It’s the glory of the ride!

Just when I thought a change of direction was in order, here I am again, writing about the unavoidable topic of language. 

But it’s a theme that creeps into every single aspect of daily life. We (expats and locals alike) are always thinking about it, talking about it or experiencing it. Or at least it feels that way. 

This time, it was the daily commute that left me pondering.

Yes, I’m one of those still “lucky” (hmm) enough to leave the house every day for work. Mostly, I am super jealous leaving R in bed until 5 minutes before his 9am meeting starts. But when I step outside onto the streets slowly rousing into weekday life, I do feel lucky. It helps that those dark winter mornings seemed pretty short lived. 

When asked what he missed most about “the commute”, it wasn’t the congestion and torrential rain on the M80, unsurprisingly. Nor was it the walk to the bus stop in 40ºC, which saw his light blue shirt turn a few shades darker by the time he reached the office. It was the “bridge” between getting up and starting work, that separation between home and office.

My transport survey (conducted with my one semi-willing participant) also found that on balance, the 30-second transit between bed and desk was favoured overall and given the choice, he would never commute again!

For so many, it is a thing of the past, fin. That 2x daily, 10x weekly routine where the thought of a crammed underground, delayed train, traffic jam or fear of being knocked off your saddle brought on a daily dose of the dreads, has been replaced by a new way of working. 

After a few months of living carefree (see: unemployed) in Madrid, I longed for a commute. For somewhere to go every day, for routine. I was prepared to travel just for this experience but was lucky enough to land a job only 35 minutes from mi casa (roughly the same as my old one sin the connection at the infamous Glasgow Central low-level).

I don’t have a car so navigating the maze of narrow streets and impossibly tight parking spaces is one less stress. Instead, I have a range of cracking public transport options at my disposal. 

Being a super walkable and runner-friendly city, a home-bound commute on foot is my favourite at any time of year (except July and August when I am guaranteed to perish). 

Walking home late one night on the phone to my brother, he asked if it (I) was safe. I hadn’t given it a second thought. Notoriously late finishing times here mean that the streets are buzzing at this time of day, with shops still open and bar terraces packed at 10pm with most of Madrid out enjoying a post-work drink and tapa, under AC or heaters depending on the season, but never undeterred from enjoying life outdoors.

Alternatively, I would hop on the bus home on crisp winter nights, through the city centre to see the dazzling Christmas lights on Gran Vía. 

But overall, the Metro is my preferred choice to travel to work. It is reliable, quick and…interesting.

5 stops. Just enough time to listen to a language podcast or complete a few exercises on Duolingo. But when I take out the headphones and look up from my phone momentarily (careful to avoid eye contact with the busker belting out a Spanglish rendition of “Let it be” much too loud for this time in the mañana), then the real learning begins.

Tuning in to a snippet of conversation here or a phone call there, just picking up a few words without context (then making up the rest in my head)! 

Then there was the announcement. I must have heard it every day, but this was the first time I really listened. 

Every morning for a week, I tuned in: “¡Atención! Estación en curva…” 

It became an obsession. But try as I might, I just couldn’t piece it all together.

So, one day, I started typing it on my phone (super sad, or super smart, eh?)

“…al salir, tengan cuidado…” 

The next day, a little more: “…para no introducir el pie…” 

On the Friday morning, full of weekend anticipation and glee, I completed the sentence:

“¡Atención! Estación en curva, al salir, tengan cuidado para no introducir el pie entre coche y andén.” 

Roughly translated as: “take care when putting your foot between the train and platform”. We’ve all seen what happens to the wee stick man on the posters.

WHAT a sense of achievement to see it written down in the notes section of my phone, where it remains should I ever wish to quote a public transport announcement to my new amigos. Ha! It’s also a phrase loaded with juicy complex grammar, so that helps justify the ridiculous amount of time it took for me to nail it.

There and then I discovered that the commute is an opportunity for learning, for appreciating, for understanding society wherever you call home. 

It’s also a huge opportunity to feel involved in that society.

I was once told that you never feel truly settled until you live AND work somewhere. In the early days, I couldn’t understand this. Before I got a job here, I explored the city every day until my legs ached. I covered kilometres, getting my bearings and discovering things I would never have a chance to if I spent all day in la oficina.

But now I get it. Every day I meet new people, from all over the world. And I have colleagues who have been accommodating, helpful and lovely. It’s not the strangers on the street who tell you about the bra shop where they give out free cava with every fitting, or who invite you for weekends away to small towns in rural La Mancha (because that would be weird).

And every morning I get off the metro and walk for 15 minutes up Calle Serrano – the most prestigious street of barrio de Salamanca – with its tree lined streets, designer shops and glamourous people. One day I followed a pair of red soles past the Gucci shop where Cristiano Ronaldo and Georgina Rodríguez first locked eyes. Meanwhile, a homeless man with missing limbs sat outside playing ‘Despacito’ on the accordion. 

Understanding society is a work in progress. 

I got the commute, for which I’ll always be grateful. And while the destination may always be the same, it doesn’t have to be mundane. 

Do it right and you learn something new every single day. Do it wrong and it can change your mood quicker than when the postie leaves the wee red card without even trying your doorbell. Grr.

Learning aside, it’s also prime time for precious family catch-ups and lengthy voice notes to and from my bestest amigas.

Anyway, the next time you find yourself navigating a European underground transport network where the announcements are not translated, just remember…

Mind the gap.

(please)

Learning opportunity:

Here and now

Here and now

This just in. My pleasurable (and until now, personal) pastime that is writing has officially transitioned into my professional life. 

Once I got over the initial excitement of telling family and friends that I had a side-gig where I was allowed to CHOOSE MY OWN JOB TITLE and then updating my LinkedIn profile accordingly (more about this later), I realised that I still had a longgg way to go in keeping this dreamboat (raft of reality) afloat.

A quill, ink pot, peace and quiet and a respectable intention to change the world is an outdated writers toolkit, sadly. A few centuries late to the party, I have discovered that there are deadlines to meet, a virtual world to engage and the pressure of being contactable round the clock (does anyone go offline these days)? 

Gone are the days I can wistfully type and edit at my own pace. There are people waiting, expecting. I am no longer writing for me, or you it would seem *shamefully checks date of last blog update*. Although I vow to be back once I’ve “found my flow” which means, when I’ve discovered how to speed up the process.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to challenge myself. I’m going to bash out some quick and vastly unedited posts on a semi-regular basis and then lay them bare for you, dear readers of Lemoní. Of course, I am entirely uncomfortable with this since, when it comes to sharing my personal posts, something as minor as the late discovery of a typo or thinking up a better descriptive word post-publication has the ability to unhinge the inner perfectionist in me.

My uber-efficient German colleagues have instilled a “fill every second of every day with something productive” mentality in me and it’s sure rubbing off: Can’t. Sit. Still. Must. Get. Up. Earlier. Must. Write. Faster. Not being a qualified speed-typist isn’t the problem, nor is being short of ideas. But with screen time at an all time high, there’s only so much I can give.

Back to the day I updated my LinkedIn. I had two key updates that I was excited to jazz up my page with: One in the employment section where I revealed the writing gig, and the other in the languages section where I now boldly claim to have “Professional working proficiency” in Spanish (Ha)!

Excited as I was, I was busy too. So, I quickly made these amendments on my lunch-break alongside other life-admin tasks. A couple of clicks and the screen froze, the app shut down and I got irritated. I was in such a rush to tick another thing off my to-do list that I didn’t stop to realise the enormity of what I was actually doing: I was sharing my successes (of which I was immensely proud) whilst opening a door to a whole other world – of potential opportunity.

I recently read that you can be so focused on what’s ‘next’ in life that you forget you are now exactly where you once wanted to be. And while there is nada wrong with striving for more, what ever happened to stopping to enjoy the moment?

I’m sure we’re all guilty of this.

I am living now what once seemed like an irrealizable dream. Within 18 months, amidst a global pandemic and thanks to some very generous new amigas, I find myself with not one, but two jobs as well as the first traces of a writing portfolio: the birth of my blog and some published articles too. And now…paid to write!

Not enough to give up the day job, let’s be clear. But nevertheless I am amused by the (almost mythical) creatives who frequented Paris in the 1920’s, the “Lost Generation” of writers who pleaded glamorous poverty i.e. too poor to buy books, but who always had enough for champagne, who were unwilling to give up the dream and who were generally just having a real-good time.

What I am trying to say is that I realised it is so easy to lose sight of the thrill of the journey while racing towards the “end goal”, which is what exactly? Your memoir? 

While we’re striving, are we really thriving? 

And there we have it – attempt número uno. Composed in 23 minutes on a commuter train platform. Lightning fingers.

*editing time undisclosed. Poco a poco.

Screen time:

Creative satisfaction:

Let the good times roll

Let the good times roll

Life outdoors brings its obvious pleasures. Here in Spain, the sunshine and bright blue skies make it hard to stay inside, and for the first time in my life, my weekend plans are not dictated by the weather forecast threatening a ‘chance of rain’. Now, I leave home confidently without an umbrella most days of the year, and choosing appropriate footwear is much less of a challenge.

As a result, my mood is lighter and my outlook brighter!

Outdoors, there is life, and it is not only the mild temperature being enjoyed. On the streets and in the parks, people of all ages can be found participating in all sorts of weird and wonderful pursuits. Socially or solo, I have seen it all. From group martial arts classes for the elderly, to people using benches and trees as gym equipment. I even saw a couple practising some casual tightrope walking in my local park. I am in awe of this world of activity that I am sure can only exist because the good weather allows it.

Inspired by these people and their confidence to try new things, I was quick to jump on the band wagon. And so, I boldly ordered myself a pair of roller blades! As I waited eagerly for them to arrive, I shared news of my purchase with family who asked, without hesitation: “Do you have a helmet?”

Undeterred, I headed for the Madrid río where I strapped myself in for the first time in 20+ years and effortlessly glided down the busy walkway, weaving in and out of walkers and runners in the bright winter sun, thinking how lucky I was that this was my life!

At least that’s how I imagined it.

In reality, after 10 minutes of navigating the web of straps and laces, I rose tentatively from my bench and inched forward, unsteady on my wheels and waving my arms for balance, questioning whether this was really such a good idea after all.

But I had confidence that my elbow and knee pads would protect me from the inevitable scrapes and scratches I was sure to endure as an adult beginner. I felt as prepared as could be thanks to the useful YouTube tutorial I watched on “How to fall”. And looking around, it seemed that I wasn’t the only one who had ventured to their local Decathlon for cheap and cheerful protective gear before taking to the pathways of the Manzanares.

All around me, people were skating, scooting, running, and rolling; some with confidence and frightening speed and others, holding on to each other for dear life.

I watched them all in admiration, thinking that one of the many things I love about this country is the trait of not caring what people think.

Hailing from a society where it is drilled in from an early age that it is “rude to stare”, it takes some time to allow yourself the freedom to look for longer than a millisecond when you see something a little bit different. It also takes time to adjust to being stared at too!

Yet weirdly, no-one bats an eyelid at a couple performing circus tricks in the park, but God forbid you would don your summer wardrobe and flash an ankle any earlier than June. THAT will not go unnoticed.

And whilst I previously argued that it is the reliable sunny weather that allows for this broad range of activities to be practised, something happened earlier this year which made me question that theory.

When the heaviest snowfall in a century blanketed the country in January and brought the capital to a standstill, it won’t only be the buried cars or the number of inches that I will remember in years to come.

While the Madrileños who would normally anticipate a mid-Feb break in the Pyrenees were only too glad of the chance to dust off their skis and snowboards and take to the hilly parks, dodging fallen trees and broken branches, others had to channel their creativity to enjoy this once in a lifetime opportunity.

My personal highlights include seeing a whole family sledging on an air mattress and a man rowing himself down my street on a snowboard fashioned from a piece of wood.

[Scenes like this reminded me fondly of Glasgow – when some nutter would take advantage of extreme weather conditions to try something bold and ridiculous, make the headlines and give the city a laugh].

But the fun was short-lived and once the snow had melted, the runners, scooters and skaters returned to the streets once more (although a surprising amount of people can still be spotted with walking poles…)

Under normal circumstances, the Spring months would have been prime preparation for ‘operácion bikini’ when the race is on to get fit fast for the mass migration to la playa in the summer months. But it would be a misconception to think that outdoor life here just revolves around vigorous exercise since I am sure that this dedication to fitness we see must only exist to balance the good life of eating out and drinking.

When the people of Madrid are not pounding the pavements, you will find them on bar terraces before noon on a weekend, sipping a cerveza before la hora de vermouth, followed by a three-hour lunch shared with friends and family.

And beyond the buzzing terrazas and plazas, picnic blankets form a patchwork in the numerous parks of the city, where friends and families spend hours chilling, reading, eating, and socialising (and couples in shady spots often doing a lot more than that…)

So, it goes without saying that having such freedom taken away and locking up a nation so accustomed to being outside had a profound effect on this society. Cooped up for months in tiny apartments, many found themselves wondering how they had allowed their ski equipment to occupy so much square footage of their now limited home-office space…

And like most of life’s pleasures, it’s not until something is taken away that you appreciate it even more. For months, I, like many others, gazed longingly out of the window every day, desperate to share space with nature once more.

The return to life outdoors for some brought peaceful normality; for the older generation who could once again take their ritualistic evening stroll before dinner, and for the children who could once more play long after the sun sets while their parents enjoy late and lengthy meals. For others, like me, it provided the opportunity to get out there and try something new.

And for us all, the recipe of vitamin D, gentle exercise, fresh air and socialising makes for an intoxicating cocktail which boasts benefits of a healthy and happy mind, body, and soul.

Even for the most hardcore of fitness fanatics, this year has been about more than ‘operación bikini’. It is about feeling good, feeling free and feeling fortunate to be part of a society where time outdoors doesn’t just represent a way of life, but a love of life.  

These days, I have opted to ditch my headphones in favour of some sensory running or rolling, taking the opportunity to soak up the sights, sounds and sunshine. And while I am often guilt-ridden for not using the time to squeeze in a Spanish language podcast, I am conscious of being in the moment. 

And so, with this in mind, I strap up my skates and let the good times roll.

A healthy dose

A healthy dose

Today marks my 30th blog post!

Thirty times over the past year, I have clicked ‘publish’ and shared one of my stories. And if you have been following my musings, you will know that the theme of my writing so far has been about languages and my own personal experience of learning Spanish. The reason for this is because it has reflected so much more of my journey since moving to Madrid, and I’ve never been short of material! Documenting the ups and downs of language learning has allowed me to draw parallels with other aspects of life here and made it possible to express myself as I have adapted.

Moving abroad to start the next chapter of life, and fulfilling a life-long dream in the process brought on a cascade of emotions. And they were mostly overwhelmingly positive ones, like when I first arrived and would get up every morning, open the shutters, have a coffee and feel the sun on my face. The small lifestyle changes have often had the biggest impact, and I still have to pinch myself most days.

But, as new and exciting as it all was, there was an initial period of adjustment, as I tried to get my bearings, make friends, find work and generally get “set up” (whilst trying to fathom the popularity of ‘shelf milk’ in the supermercado). Naturally, there was a feeling of vulnerability, which I now realise was not solely due to my inability to communicate with little more than a few basic words of the lingo.

Wondering if I would ever shake this feeling, I once read that when you live in another country “you will always feel a little uncomfortable”, but that this should be viewed as a good thing, because this is what you thrive off. The adrenaline not only keeps on your toes, but it keeps you excited, and striving!

The flustering, floundering, little-lost-sheep moments which I have described just became part of my normal daily life and while I still have them, they are fewer as I become more “established”. Because two years on, I do have my bearings, I have made friends AND found work. I have explored endlessly and learned deeply and whilst language has been the common thread weaving through all aspects of life here, it hasn’t been the only thing tying it all together.

This became apparent recently when the first symptoms of coronavirus started being spluttered around our apartment. With no outdoor space and the air-con circulating the germs on high power mode, I accepted my fate, “in sickness and in health” and all that! Even two doses of trusty AstraZeneca couldn’t protect me from the fifth wave which is sweeping across Spain as fiercely as the July heatwave.

We didn’t have a COVID “action plan” and suddenly faced with the reality of the situation, we started scouring the notoriously hard to navigate government websites for information on what to do next.

Times like these are when the familiarity of ‘how things work back home’ is sorely missed – you know where you stand with the NHS, for example. On more than occasion, I have woken in the night panicking that once again, I had forgotten the emergency number here in Spain (which is 112 for reference), and before drifting back into a deep and peaceful sleep, I have already imagined a range of scenarios where I might need to call. Is there is an option in English when you connect? Afortunadamente, I have never had to find out, but I am curious.

Anyway, the initial phone appointment from the doctor didn’t have me as flustered as expected. She was patient and calm and I didn’t feel feeble for not understanding one or two of her questions. Going for tests, receiving results, following quarantine instructions – the process was surprisingly slick and simple.

It was only later when I relayed the whole experience to my mum that she asked “…and that was all in Spanish”? Pues, sí. And that’s when it hit me that the last week of “survival” has not been about which language I have spoken.

Yes, the anticipated daily check-in calls from the medical centre have involved a bit of prep – like learning the vocab for all the síntomas experienced that day, and between cough, headache, fever, chills, sore throat, loss of taste and smell, there has been quite a lot to learn! Of course, I wasn’t able to fully express how I really felt, which would be like waking up after drinking a full barrel of Rioja Gran Reserva, which you couldn’t smell, or taste (what a waste) but which you thought might help to ease the heaviest head-cold you were already suffering from, since not even the ridiculously large and hard to swallow paracetamol was helping. Instead I told the doctor: “Tengo tos” (I have a cough), which was also true.

So, as you can see, I am not trying to claim to have become suddenly fluent! But, I have accepted that this way of communicating has just become a part of life. And with that realisation, I view these situations differently, like exciting challenges spicing up daily interactions instead of as an obstruction that slows the process of anything I try to do.

And with this important attitude shift, along with a little bit of isolation-reflection, I realised that this is no longer just the beginning; this is the 2-year checkpoint, the “look how far I have come”. My sense of achievement and personal growth has been worth every moment of sweaty-palmed discomfort, but with so much of this amazing city and country still to enjoy, maybe it is time to stop overthinking verb tables and pronunciation techniques.

So, what will I write about instead? It is possible that this might be some sort of mad, rambling epiphany brought about by the virus or the heat (it is very hot), so I don’t feel best placed to make any commitments right now, but rest assured that any funny moments, flounders and fails won’t go unreported.

I hope it has been entertaining. It has been for me! Not only have I made myself laugh with some of my antics, but I have provided myself with some cracking writing material, whilst discovering a passion for language that was right under my nose the whole time. Behind the scenes, I will still be working hard on my progress because I still have goals. In the short-term, our first Spanish wedding of some wonderful friends, and the much-anticipated arrival of visitors for the first time since 2019, and in the long term, well, there are countless important linguistic milestones still to hit. But all with one key difference – sin pressure. From here, it will be one podcast, one language class, one Netflix show, one Penelope Cruz film, and one chapter of the grammar textbook at a time.

Furthermore, I hope you will try it. I encourage you to download the Duolingo app or listen to a Coffee Break languages podcast or watch a film with subtitles or tune into someone’s conversation the next time you are travelling. I hope you will embrace the dialects of your own country or learn more about the structure of English. Listen to the national anthems of other countries being sung with as much gusto as the Italians at the Euros or read aloud the Gaelic on road signs as you staycation in Scotland, or spot how many ridiculous metaphors Boris can use in one speech. Because it is captivating (not the Boris bit). And above all, be sympathetic and encouraging towards English language learners.

Mil gracias for coming on my journey so far, a journey which is faaar from over. And I hope you will come with me as I skip off down a different path through the lemon grove, in search of fresh content. And with inspiration in plentiful supply, I will continue to thrive and grow, embracing this dream come true as though mi vida depends on it!

Progress:

Refreshing retreat

Refreshing retreat




Ah, the joy of travelling again. Travelling to holiday-type destinations that could only once be reached after a few hours at the airport and a few more in the sky, but can now be reached leisurely by train– and an extra speedy one at that. It’s a novelty, and one which I feel very grateful for.

Hopping on the high-speed AVE from Madrid Atocha station at 09:40 on a Friday morning, with a coffee and croissant in hand (consumed sneakily behind the mascarilla once on board) – it was all very civilised. I had overloaded my bag with reading material to pass the 1 hour 40-minute journey including three books about Spain and the latest National Geographic travel mag, featuring Spain on the cover. To fellow passengers, it must have looked like I had just touched down in the country for the first time and was frantically trying to cram everything there was to know, but really, I was just so excited at the prospect of exploring again so a refresher of all there was to see, do, eat, drink and visit wouldn’t do any harm!

Just as I was deciding which to start first, the film “The Witches” started showing on the small screens suspended from the roof. I loved that film as a child and now I was torn between watching for nostalgia (but with the added “complication” of Spanish subtitles), working through my selection of “must-reads” or staring mindlessly out of the window at the fields and fincas whizzing past, as we sped from the heart of Spain to edge at a rápido 300 kmph.

I chose the latter. With each kilometre that passed, the anticipation was building as we got closer to the famous coastline, visited and loved by so many, and closer to the real holiday I craved, having not left Madrid for almost one year.

Note that none of my entertainment options were tailored towards brushing up on my Valenciano…

The community of Valencia, including the city itself and nearby Alicante and Castellon, share this unique language as their mother tongue. Spanish comes secondary on all notices and announcements, followed by French or English. I was secretly dreading exposure to another language so “soon” into my own linguistic journey. Of course, there was no pressure to learn this regional idioma and I gently reminded myself that every trip I make within this diverse country is not primarily for language practice. There are as many important cultural and historical things to absorb which are just as relevant for sense of belonging and sometimes, something as simple as ordering a coffee and watching the world go by is enough of an achievement for one day.

Valencia (meaning valant or brave) was originally a swamp before the Romans transformed it into a retirement town for their soldiers. With the ruins still visible to this day, it is easy to get lost in the romance of the past. And while I don’t imagine that I work quite as hard, or voraciously as the Romans, I couldn’t think of a better place to wind down in later life. I can see why the Azahar coast features so frequently on “Place in the Sun” as likeminded people search for somewhere to settle, surrounded by sparkling seas and year-round sunshine.

So, it was hard to ignore the looming grey skies as the train approached Valencia. ¡Qué mala suerte! I thought I was escaping the thunderstorms expected in Madrid this weekend but at least here, when the clouds clear, a frescito sea breeze will replace the hot, sticky air that had started to dominate the capital every day since June arrived.

With skies grey or blue, I thought Valencia was beautiful regardless (much like my beloved Scotland)! On Saturday morning, families gathered on the steps of many of the city’s blue-domed churches and cathedrals, deciding where to take el aperitivo after celebrating the holy communion of wee María or Manuel. Several bells rang out in unison at 12 o’clock, and as a result of poor-planning, this coincided with exact moment that I was half-way up a bell-tower (of all things). Following recommendations, I was scaling the narrow stone steps in anticipation of the famous view across the rooftops and my first sighting of the sea but I ended up closer to the bottom than the top after that scare!

Except for one or two orange trees which I was quick to photograph for the ‘gram, it wasn’t the right time of year to see the city in all its scented glory. But, *top tip* lining the streets at Christmas time will be branches bulging with bright oranges, ready to be collected for juicing. The holy trinity of a Spanish breakfast wouldn’t be complete without the freshly squeezed OJ enjoyed alongside a café and tostada or something sweet – which I have come to appreciate for its simplicity.

Leaving Valencia behind but vowing to return soon, we travelled on up the coast to the beautiful “rock” of Peñíscola or Peniscola (depending on your Valenciano, Español, or maturity level).

Featuring in ‘Game of Thrones’ (season 6 apparently), the XIII castle dominated the view from every direction. It resembled a Greek Island with its white-washed walls, cobbled streets and crystal-clear water and the significant lack of tourists enhanced the feeling of isolation. I quickly got carried away with the idea of snapping up a holiday rental or better still, a writing retreat to escape to on weekends.

There was something about being by the sea again, the calming influence of the waves and the beauty of the quiet life that had me lingering outside every estate-agent window for a little daydream. Best of all, it was only a few hours from “home”.

While the return train journey was spent dreaming up the next adventure, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that that returning to Madrid did feel like returning home. Not in the comfy, nostalgic, heart-burstingly proud way that the feeling of returning home to Scotland evokes, but arriving back to 30°C and a summer buzz in the city quickly eliminated any trace of holiday blues!

I was glad of the reminder of how accessible this beautiful country was becoming once again, and under these unique and temporary circumstances, I was excited at the prospect of discovering the undiscovered and having it all to ourselves. Ok, I was also just as excited to share it again, when the time comes!

There is still so much left to see and do and I told myself again that there is no time limit to this great adventure. So, while the search for the dream writing retreat continues, the inspiration is ever-present.

Realistically, how much writing (or studying Español) would really get done with that distracting view of the sparkling turquoise Med, the glorious sunshine, lengthy lunch breaks, sleepy siestas, and crisp white wine disrupting the creative flow…

Maybe it’s safer to stay put.

At least for now!
 
 Dreams:
 

Cultivation

Cultivation

The cultivation of a new skill is a process – a long, difficult, beautiful process – which is worth the short term (ahem) effort for the long term gains…

…I kindly reminded myself after a particularly stressful encounter at work left me suffering from a familiar bout of self-doubt.

A telephone call for what should have been a simple appointment cancellation left me confused when the (non Spanish) lady on the other end of the line launched into a full-blown telenovela in rápido Español. Identifying the words for “dog”, “kids” and “confinement”, I tried desperately to navigate around the unnecessary details she was bombarding me with, wishing that she would cut to the chase to ensure I understood the main purpose of the call (which was, as suspected, to cancel an appointment).

But before I had time to react, she suddenly switched languages and said (and I’m sure I detected a sigh): “You’re the one who only speaks English right?”

I was outraged.

It wasn’t even strictly true (although, in comparison to my polyglot colleagues then I suppose that narrows it down).To her, it was a simple observation which helped her distinguish between the staff, but it struck a nerve.

Because, this is how you are defined in an international workplace – by the languages you speak, not by the ones you are trying desperately hard to learn.

What she failed to see was the effort being put in behind the scenes to promote me from the “unilingual” category she had placed me in. Somewhere out-with the 40 hour working week, the maintenance of an exercise regime, a social life and a home, between regular and precious contact with family and friends, and the writing of a blog *pauses for breath*, there are the weekly Spanish classes, the attendance of intercambio events, the meetings with native friends, the stressful encounters AND the complicated phone calls to contend with…But this didn’t enter her radar – why would it?

“Ha” I answered, wondering if she herself had emerged from the womb fluent in four idiomas.

But why was I so offended? She was proud of her own linguistic achievements (and deservingly so), as I would be too. Correction: I WILL be too, only I vow to be sympathetic to the efforts of others.

Thoughts that it might be easier just to give up and accept that I have tried but I will never be Spanish and never sound Spanish enter my head frequently. Except this time, I spiralled.

Evidently affected by the remark, I made a quick life assessment, and decided that if I only had a time short time left in this world, the first to be culled from my list of hobbies and pastimes would probably be the learning of Spanish, which is ironic considering the blood, sweat and tears I have poured in so far. But I imagine that being bi-lingual has more use in life than it has beyond the grave…

At the end of the day, what you are left with are experiences and memories. One day, I will remember this beautiful chapter of life, not by the hours spent with my nose in a grammar textbook, but by the quality of life here, made richer only by the effort invested into the adoption of a new culture, the making of friends, the willingness to try new things, and of course, the learning of the language.

Despite having made a choice to dedicate hours, days, years to the latter in order to make life in another country easier, the process requires work. And while it may be 10 years before I allow myself to relax in the sun with a foreign language book (sin highlighter pen) and a celebratory cava, I know it will be worth it.

Because by then, the skill that I will have been cultivating over time will be practised and polished but probably never perfect. And it won’t even matter, not when I will be able to effortlessly navigate my way around the complex bureaucratic system, defend myself if and when required (an important linguistic milestone I am told) and chat freely and fluently with locals.

So, on the days that I confuse my tenses or ignorantly use a ‘n’ instead of an ‘ñ’, I will kindly remind myself that it is not a matter of life or death, and the things I stress about or think are so important have some fresh perspective once more.

One year on, despite writing with a strong focus on my language learning journey, this blog has been more than that. It is a documentation of experiences of life here in España so far – a different kind of cultivation – not just of a new skill, but of memories that have been created, collected and captured. Using the highs and lows of learning a language to mirror the highs and lows of learning a whole new lifestyle is the truest reflection I can offer.

But as long as I am living here in Spain (or living full stop), then I had better crack on.

Because if I stand any chance of shedding the undesirable reputation of being “the one who only speaks English” and impressing my multilingual European associates, then I had better start ripening PRONTO.

Determination:

Space to grow

Space to grow

It’s hard not to keep referring back to the first experience of “lockdown”, especially one year on from when it all began. It was a time that we will never forget; it changed the way we think, communicate, prioritise, and live. Health, mental health, education, and relationships were all affected, as well as our daily routines.

At a time when we were urged to maintain distance from everyone, we were brought closer together, with frequent video calls helping to maintain vital communication with family and friends. For me, while living in a different country, under different restrictions during these times was one thing, spending confinimiento in a traditional Spanish apartment block was a whole other experience.

I gained a unique insight into the lives of mis vecinos that otherwise, I would never have had. We shared our daily lives in such close proximity, since no one could actually leave the building except for a closely monitored trip to the shop.

As a result, I learned a great deal, which has ultimately changed the way I live here.

It didn’t take long for the days to become structured by the sounds and smells of Spanish living, which drifted up through the shared internal courtyard and into our apartment.

As March turned into April, and April into May, the days got warmer. Every morning, shutters and windows opened almost in unison, everyone eager to entice the cool morning air into their homes to regulate the temperature for the heat that was sure to follow.  

Washing was then hung out on lines that spanned window to window across the courtyard, sheets and towels dried in record time with barely a breeze, whilst creating welcome shade for the floors below.

Lunch – the main meal of the day – would be announced by the smell of garlic, meat stews, seafood and fresh bread wafting in through open windows in the middle of the afternoon. Having already eaten my “lunch” (a sandwich) hours before, the tempting smells prompted me to start prepping our next meal early, thus, falling even further out of sync with the rest of our neighbours.

It takes time to realise that you are living out of sync with an entire building (or society), but I won’t forget the day that it was brought starkly to my attention…

Unlike other countries, Spain had no daily exercise allowance. There was no precious hour to spend outdoors, breathing in the fresh air and stretching our legs. The only way to save my sanity was to get creative and start a hot and sticky home workout regime. And so, substituting weights for jars of chickpeas and lentils, I laid out my mat 3-4 dedicated times a week, turned the music up, and did what it took to loosen my limbs and clear my head.

One day, during a particularly tough session, I heard some commotion outside. I looked out into the courtyard to take a breather and have a nosey, only to see our downstairs neighbour hanging out her window, waving her fist and shouting – at me!

Still dizzy from tuck jumps but suddenly very aware, I tried to tune in to what she was saying. I panted an apology, sure that either the music (or my jumping) was the cause of her distress.

And so, I sheepishly continued with a gentler adaptation of the workouts and weeks passed before I felt bold enough to chance a burpee once more. I had already sacrificed all forms of cardio and the walk from kitchen to the couch just wasn’t enough…

Mid-workout there was a bang on the door. No visitors (except the delivery man) had frequented since pre-lockdown. Through the peep hole, I could see the angry little woman from downstairs standing in the doorway, with her hands on her hips.

I find it very difficult to grasp “expression” in Español, particularly with the addition of masks. I can’t tell if someone is apprehensive, angry, annoyed or amazed and the number of situations I have blown out of context as a result is frightening! But this time, I got the jist. A sweaty culprit, I opened the door and had nothing to offer in way of explanation, so I apologised profusely once more, and she retreated, mumbling something about “guiris”.

I felt desperately disappointed to have been denied the last opportunity to release the pent-up energy and tensions from weeks and weeks of confinement, and to have even more “restrictions” placed on me. But I was also upset to think I had been responsible for annoying one of my neighbours, so much so that she had to come and hunt me down. This was no time to be making enemies!

Could I really be that loud? I tried to reason it, maybe she had a chandelier or something. And then it dawned on me…

Everything goes quiet in the afternoons and when the only sound that can be heard is the sizzle of heat rising from the ground below, it must be la hora de la siesta. I realised with horror that I must have been the only person jumping up and down on wooden floorboards whilst the rest of the building was resting post-lunch!

It made me really tune in to all the other noises that can be heard day and night in our shared habitat, and I had to wonder if I was really the worst. Spanish apartments are full of LIFE. From the old lady singing along to songs of worship religiously every morning, to what our neighbours watch on TV. I know where the musicians reside and what songs need more practise than others. I hear the students upstairs partying far too late into the morning, I hear couples arguing, and often doing a lot more than that too…

After all, the windows are open, the walls are thin, and we live within breathing distance of each other. Yet now, we are still scared to share an elevator or touch the same door handle.

In the evenings when we opened our window for the nightly clap of appreciation, we would use this opportunity to make small talk (albeit limited) with our neighbour who was leaning out of hers, barely a metre away. We lived our lives just through the wall from her, day in, day out but it was moments like this which helped to connect us.

In time, we adapted. As noise resumes once more between 9 and 10pm, I am no longer the only one in the building boiling the kettle for a pre-bedtime cuppa when everyone else is tucking into their evening meal. Our mealtimes and bedtimes started to shift (as did the workouts), and this new schedule has become the norm. It fast-tracked us into the way of Spanish life that may otherwise have taken years to observe and grasp.

As always, it wasn’t the guidebook cultural immersion experience that one dreams of. There have been adjustments to make (including to our alarm clocks and digestive systems) and awkward encounters to navigate, but this is the brilliant reality. It was more than just a space we shared with our neighbours; it was an experience. An experience unique to every person but undeniably similar in some ways..

Of course, when the time came, I was overjoyed to leave the cramped apartment and take my thunderous tri-weekly jumping routine to the park where the grass had never looked greener.

But it is only then that I realised, that even when constricted, I had still found space to grow.

Cultural immersion:

Address to a…lemon

Address to a…lemon

In the late 1700’s, Robert Burns, the man who was later to become Scotland’s most celebrated national figure was in his prime.

He was busy working the land, seducing women, and most importantly, writing. Inspired by anything and everything, his poems and songs, packed with action, romance, charm, and humour are still internationally recognised to this day.

The annual ‘Burns Supper’ is held to acknowledge and celebrate our beloved Bard – usually on whichever Friday falls closest to his birthday (not death) – the 25th of January – presumably because consuming that much whiskey on a school night is even too much for any hardy Scot.

I recently tried to describe the event to international friends here, but it soon became apparent that the unique traditions that form the itinerary were hard to explain. You have to experience it for yourself. And even then, it only really makes sense if you grew up to learn and dread (and then love) the expressive, transfixing poetry recitals, romantic ballads, the spine-tingling shrill of bagpipes, the traditional dancing, the swishing kilts and of course, the haggis.

Enjoying the event is easy, but understanding it is another. And that, I think, is because of the language.

Robert Burns transformed the way many thought about the Scots language, which became widely used and more importantly, proudly spoken across the country. Some say that it was our pride in Burns that gave us the pride to talk in a dialect that was once perceived as “inferior” English.

Thanks to our annual celebration of Burns, the Scots language has been not only preserved, but has influenced generations of writers, poets and songwriters.

As children, we were exposed to it every year, when schools in every region of the country encouraged (or forced) their pupils to recite these poems in “Burns competitions” run by the Robert Burns World Federation or some such entity. Some kids had a flair for it, revelling in the performance. Others (like me) used to dread it and certainly won no medals for my pronunciation of “beastie” and “breastie”.

But even if Scots poetry recitals didn’t make it into your school curriculum, you will surely have linked arms with friends (or strangers) and swayed along to a rendition of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ on some occasion or other, like many others across the globe. You may have even sang along, for the chorus at least. And never have the words held more significance than they do now (translated English version available online).

This year, I celebrated our national Bard virtually, with family all over the UK. In-keeping with the traditional running order of a Burns Supper, we all had a part to play. In turn, we recited, sang, and even jigged, while I watched on in envy as everyone else tucked into plates of haggis, neeps and tatties.

I was asked to read a little something from the perspective of being “A Scot abroad”, which was a great opportunity to express how it really did feel to be far from home, on a day when our beloved Scotland is at the forefront of our minds, and hearts.

So, I channelled my inner Rabbie and scribbled a few lines. And while I think my career as a poet may be short-lived, I can proudly say that I belong to yet another generation of Scots, who continue to celebrate the young, influential writer who, in his 37 years of life produced nearly as many songs and verse as he did children – some 500 (only a mild exaggeration) and who, essentially just wanted to give up the day job to write…

And so, I will leave you with these badly rhymed words which still wouldn’t win me any school poetry competitions, but which I shared with my family as we raised our glasses more than once across the miles for a good-hearted and wholesome celebration at a time when “…seas between us braid hae roar’d”:

It’s not the haggis that I miss,

Or the annual recital of ‘Ae Fond Kiss’

‘Burns Day’ at school I used to hate,

The Scots language fussy and out of date.

But now I have a new appreciation,

For the language that influenced our nation.

The way they thought, and felt and spoke,

And for the emotions Burns work can still evoke.

Here, they don’t know the words we speak,

Or about the haggis they think we always eat 

But while our accents may be hard to understand,

They are in awe of our ancient, mystical land.

Oye! Just like ‘Outlander’”, they say,

I suppose it is, in a way.

There are hills and castles, and glens full of heather,

Whiskey, kilts and really shite weather.

It’s true, I know what you’re thinking,

We’re also renowned for deep fried mars bars and heavy drinking.

This country where we are so proud to be born,

Where our national animal is a unicorn…

And time may have taken us away for a while,

To try new things and a different lifestyle.

It doesn’t mean we love Scotland any less,

Calling it home makes us very blessed.

Even Burns had a brief plan to leave,

Which would surely have made the nation grieve.

The prospect was exciting and a little scary,

But he popped the question to Highland Mary,

Eager to escape or keen to explore, he said:

“Will ye go to the Indies, my Mary and leave auld Scotia’s shore?” 

(Which is not dissimilar to what Russell said to me,

When he secured the job at ING)

It could have been morality that made Burns stay,

Or the fact that he had 3 bairns on the way.

2 by his wife, and one by his maid

In the end, he never set sail for the Jamaican slave trade…

But I wonder what works he would have produced,

Or how many more lassies he would have seduced…

No matter how much of the world you choose to roam,

Scotland stays in the heart and will always be home.

This year, we’ve swapped haggis for chorizo and whiskey for wine,

But seeing you all is affa fine.

Kenny has brought us all together,

For tradition and music, a laugh, and a blether.

And to celebrate Burns across the miles,

After a tough year of tribulations and trials.

And we may not know his work by heart,

But we’ve all been able to do our part.

So, here’s to family, health, good times old & new,

To Scots at home, and Scots abroad too.

Language appreciation:

Fresh reflections

Fresh reflections

Small spaces, big ideas…

It was while stuck in a cable-car on Boxing Day that I began reflecting on this crazy year.

Halting unexpectedly on the return leg of a short and seemingly safe ride on my local teleférico, I found myself hovering 40 metres above Madrid in a small cabin, bouncing gently in the breeze. Once I had finished playing out all the potentially terrifying scenarios of what could happen in my mind, all I could think was: This is going to make a great story.

And so, I revisited the question I have asked myself many times in 2020: just how influential is our environment to spark creativity?

Back in March, Spain entered one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe. And suddenly confined within four walls, I was more inspired than I had been in my life…

The opportunity had finally arisen to launch a life-long dream of writing that was always going to be set in motion “one day”.

Unable to get out there and continue experiencing the Spain I was just getting to know, I sought inspiration elsewhere. And I found it – from my memories of the short time I had spent here. And not just the romanticised ones of olive groves, dazzling blue skies, and hypnotic flamenco, but I found it from my experiences – of the culture, the language (and from a fruity and frequent glass of Rioja). And I started to write.

The idea of theming ‘Lemoní’ on my language learning journey was my way of documenting the highs and lows of starting a new life abroad, sharing the successes and outpouring the language struggles I faced on a daily basis. From doctors’ visits to dance classes and everything in-between, these seemingly simple interactions have not only challenged me, but have given me something great to write about.

But there is a certain vulnerability in writing – you expose yourself in a different way, and unlike posting sunny snaps on Instagram, I was determined for my words to be unfiltered.

And so, in May, shielded behind my citrus-themed pseudonym but overwhelmed with encouragement and words of support, I published my musings and misfortunes (garnished with humour) to put a smile on the faces of family and friends.

And from the comfort of my own home, I continued to write and write.

I realised that maybe where you write isn’t so important after all, but instead, where you let your mind go – another lesson learnt this year.

And as I remained suspended in the sky over-looking the Spanish city where I spent the most “unprecedented” year of all, I was freshly inspired once more.

I have no doubt that 2021 will see me continuing to stumble and strive through many more encounters in Español but that’s ok, because every experience is one to appreciate and learn from (at least now I can blame la mascarilla for my mispronunciations!)

I vowed then, that if I made it safely back down to the ground in time for Nochevieja, (without plunging into the Río first), then I would join in with the Spanish custom, and with every chime of the bell at midnight, pop each of the 12 lucky grapes into my mouth and make a wish for each one:

For good health, for family, for friends, for safer times, for freedom and for making dreams come true. For being forever grateful, for happiness, for learning always, for loving, for living…

And for escaping cable-car rides unscathed.

Feliz año nuevo!

And lang may yer lum reek!

Variety

Variety

In order to keep up to date with what’s going on back home, I regularly tune in to the BBC news to catch the Prime Minister delivering one of his elaborate broadcasts. But try as I might to stay focused on the lengthy slideshow of stats, I find myself distracted by the peculiar language he uses to address the nation.

I sympathise with those learning English who may have been under the false impression that a Bo-Jo speech would make for a good listening exercise (what could be more authentic than the PM of the UK after all), only to be discouraged by the extravagant metaphors and Olde English that spills forth from his lips.

His recent quotes have left me amused, confused, and cringing more than a little. In a recent attempt to boost morale, he announced the “distant bugle of the scientific cavalry coming over the brow of the hill” (in reference to the COVID vaccine), whilst warning that even though ‘tis the season to be jolly, “it’s also the season to be jolly careful”.

*eye roll*

And I still have no idea what “social lubricant” means…

Complicated and stuffy, it confirmed for me that there is a lot to be said for simplicity. And while I don’t dismiss the fun you can have with the English language; I believe there is a right time to play with it (and delivering a crucial message during a global pandemic is not it).

But simple often means direct and there is a fine line between the two. The “directness” terrified me when I first landed on Spanish soil (Oh Boris, what have you done to me?), but I appreciate now that it can be more than a little helpful for understanding culture, and language.

But like most experiences, I learn the hard way.

During one online Spanish lesson, just as I was getting into the grammar groove, the buzzer in our apartment sounded. Conscious of being on camera, I stood up to reach for the receiver, composed myself and answered with my finest “Hola”.

It was just the postie needing access. I let him in and returned to my lesson, relieved not to have been put on the spot with additional conversation, only to find the teacher laughing.

Worried that I must have a ‘hole in my leggings’ scenario, I nervously asked what was funny.

“You answered the door and said ‘hola’” he said, smiling.

I was perplexed. What could possibly be wrong with that?!

“Why, what would you have said”? I asked, defensive but curious.

He advised that if I wanted to sound in the least bit like a local then answering with “?” or “Dime” would be better alternatives (the same goes for phone calls too apparently).

No, no. I explained that in English, to answer the door or phone to someone and say “Yes?” or “Tell me” would be considered cold and unwelcoming, not to mention well, rude.

He looked amused, and smug.

“So, you say ‘hello’, and the other person says ‘hello’, and then you say ‘hello’ again and you just keeping saying ‘hello’ to each other until someone leaves?”

Not exactly, although it was a fair observation. I agreed to consider changing my method of meeting and greeting and we moved on. But it got me thinking…

All my life, the rules of good manners have been drilled into me, and this ‘British politeness’ is a characteristic universally renowned. And now here I am, suddenly experiencing a shift.

Here, por favor and gracias are not dished around in any given interaction the way I would use ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ (note: the waiter does not expect to be begged and thanked four times for bringing you a Fanta limón) and saying “sorry” is saved for things you really are sorry for.

These are hard habits to break. But if I am ever to sound like a local, I must embrace the idea that the things I would generally consider rude or impolite, are perfectly, perfectly normal.

Because it is not rudeness, it is merely cultural and linguistic differences. It is variety. And it is practicality. Why use three words when you could use one? Why say “hello” when you answer the phone when you could cut straight to the chase? (I remain unconvinced about this one).  

Of course, the Spanish language has its own formalities. There are two types of “you” for example. The formal, respectful ‘Usted’ is reserved for addressing an elderly person, or your boss. And then there is ‘Tú’ which is for your friends, family and everyone else. This distinction of respect is something you really don’t want to get wrong…

There are new rules to learn, and old ones to set aside.

So, I took the advice of my Spanish teacher on board, determined that the next time anyone rang my buzzer and caught me unawares, I would demand (albeit politely) for the purpose of the caller.

But no matter how many times I try, a cheery “Hola” is always on the tip of my tongue.

Old habits die hard. Sorry.

Adaptation: