Laying down roots

Laying down roots

I used to daydream about living abroad – of having sunglasses permanently fixed on top of my head and eating fresh watermelon for breakfast. But even when that daydream became a reality, it still never felt “real”.  

Until now. 

Because it’s only when you start to call somewhere home and erm, get yourself a mortgage (!) that you know you’ve taken more than a fanciful leap of faith.

As first-time buyers in any country, the process was never going to be easy. But taking the toro by the horns in a different language, well it has been an experience for sure. 

We celebrated our 3-year Spainversary surrounded by boxes in 37°C, arms heavy from the booster vaccine. (Note to self: never again move house during a heatwave).

Gathering up the last rogue sheets of plástico de burbujas (that’s bubble-wrap to you and me), which were blowing uncontrollably under the air-con, I took one last look around at our first Spanish home. 

The one where the smells of delicious lunches and sounds of siesta snores mixing in the courtyard gave us our first feel of local Spanish life. The one where we would greet our elderly neighbours on the stairs as they sauntered for an evening paseo in the park. And of course, the one where we spent an intense few months indoors under one of Europe’s strictest lockdowns…

In other words, the one we’ll never forget. 

Then, with the help of several sweaty friends, we loaded a van of our worldly treasures, stopping for frequent cold beer breaks. Driving across a city that we love, to a home that we own, with a bunch of super amigos, my smile was as wide as the sol.

Only 20 minutes away, our new piso is close to the airport, which gives me the feeling of being closer to HOME, as loco as that sounds. 

But of course, being your own landlord comes with new responsibilities. No sooner had we walked through the door did I fire up a YouTube tutorial about “How to maintain your air con”.

And as is always the case, teething problems presented themselves purposefully – just to test us. “Completely normal”, I was reassured by the more experienced veterans of moving-home. 

But I am happy to report that any out-dated stereotypes of the “mañana, mañana” attitude that Spaniards are unfairly labelled with were instantly broken, and any problems reported were fixed rápido.

I go around, picking out perfect places to showcase my collection of ceramics, which have been chosen with love from our travels across the country; an olive oil jug from a market in Sevilla, tile coasters from a rural Andalusian farmhouse selling the wares of local craftsmen, some outdoor pieces from the ceramic shops in the backstreets of Valencia. I go outside to our little balcony and measure up. 

Then I turn my attention to potting my lemon tree. I’ve waited a long time for this moment. 

Blessed with the morning sun, she is going to thrive. I read up on how to care for her and my olive tree, planted with elation the same day, whilst appreciating how much better that first coffee of the day tastes with the sun on my skin. 

And so, broken pleasantries with the neighbours exchanged and obligatory ‘new home’ announcement posted on the socials, we finally settle down to toast the next chapter with a chilled cava. 

The next chapter, which will see us (and our little citrussy shrub) continue to live and thrive in the Mediterranean sun. How could we be ready for the adventure to be over when it is only just beginning? 

And to those family and friends planning a visit, well… 
“Mi casa es tu casa”.

So, this is how it feels to lay down those roots. 


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:

Taking the wedge off

Taking the wedge off

Approximately one year after my journey of language learning began, and 10 months spent in the native country, I had a small eureka moment!

Day 26 of the national lockdown evoked the usual cycle of emotions; brief boredom, quickly followed by guilt for feeling bored, then a surge of positive thoughts to overcome this and ultimately relief that everyone I knew, was safe and well. Exhausting!

It was also the fourth day of the Easter fiesta, and we should have been in Valencia. But there was no point pining for paella with a sea view when we couldn’t even leave the apartment. So, when in doubt about how to spend our abundance of free time, we resorted to some geeky Spanish practice. Naturally.

We plucked a “fun” translation quiz from Week 6 of ‘Learn Spanish in 3 months’ – I must have been feeling ambitious, or just a bit naïve when I bought this book! Anyway, it was my turn to translate aloud some random sentences like: “Carmen likes to sit in the garden” and “I’m going to a party tomorrow, and I need a new dress” (Both of which were slightly cruel examples under the current circumstances, I thought).

I worked my way through the exercise, nailing verb tenses and correctly placing object pronouns, when I clocked the genuinely impressed look on R’s face (it could also have been one of surprise)! I had already been feeling secretly pleased with myself, but when he told me how much he thought I had improved, it was all I needed to hear. Two days later, my Spanish teacher (who is notoriously shy of praise) cemented this once more when he commented on my progress.

I felt great! I had to keep going, what better motivation was there? I began daydreaming about 6 months from now when I would be skipping down the street, chatting to my compatriots with ease and asking questions just for the sake of it – imagine! On the verge of an ego trip, I even allowed myself to glimpse 5-10 years down the line, when I would be working in Spanish, effortlessly translating documents, chatting with colleagues and having finally “made it”.

I was getting carried away. It was only a small step in my journey, but it had a big impact. How can it be that whilst confined within four walls, the world seems like an even bigger place? The opportunities awaiting me on the other side of this experience began to seem endless, and possible.

So, was there a secret behind this awakening? Or was it enough to simply lock yourself in your casa for weeks on end, practise your chosen language for at least one hour every day and then impress your partner, your teacher and above all, yourself, with your glowing progress!

Let the world feel big and let yourself believe that you have a big part to play. Now, let me get out there before this glimmer of hope and confidence fades (along with my tan, and sanity)!



Hot water and lemon

Hot water and lemon

(Language learning in the time of corona)

Well, this is a strange one. We had just returned from two glorious weeks away celebrating my ancient husband’s milestone birthday…the BIG 30! He needed a bit of convincing that he really wasn’t THAT old, and he didn’t have THAT many grey hairs. I reminded him that he should be grateful for his health at least. Oh, the irony!

As we boarded a near-empty plane back to Madrid on the eve of the national lockdown, we hoped that good health was one thing we did have on our side.

Mild fear was setting in. We had been travelling around Cuba, using every form of transport you could name (save this for a quarantine game).  A beautiful and fascinating country, but not renowned for its hygiene standards and we soon got used to paying $1 for the pleasure of washing our hands in public! Then on to Miami where we arrived bang in the middle of Spring Break (WOO)! Hygiene standards here may have trumped Cuba, but so did the number of people, excitedly breathing over each other around the hotel pool while deciding where to brunch.

One night, in a South-Beach restaurant, a super enthusiastic waiter (read: American) began to drip feed us horror stories of hotels beginning to shut down, flights being cancelled, and restrictions on travel to Europe. We thought he was being dramatic, thriving on the growing media hype. Afterall, we had just spent a blissful Wi-Fi-free week in Cuba, shut off from information and free from worry. (But yes, of course we left a tip).

“Luck” had been on our side so far. We saw Miami Heat play the last game of the season and hopped on one of the last flights back to London to continue the big birthday celebrations with the family! Then we made it home to Madrid, as mentioned, just hours before the official lock-down began. It was a tense flight. R made the grave error of clearing his throat during take-off in an attempt to dislodge a stubborn piece of popcorn, and received a glare from a fellow passenger, who was both masked and gloved (a look that was soon to become the norm but at this point was terrifying)! As soon as we were high in the sky, a member of the cabin crew approached to check if R was sick. I quickly confiscated the popcorn and silenced him for the remainder of the flight. Too risky.

And here we are, 8 weeks into el confinamiento. We have enough food to make some much missed hearty dinners, but not so much that we could be accused of stockpiling. After all, we need an excuse to take an occasional outing to the supermarket, and there is only so much you can hoard in a rucksack and a bag for life! We learnt the do’s and don’ts along the way. On Day 2, still foggy from jet lag, we boldly ventured out together but soon discovered our mistake when an army guard shouted at us from across the street to move apart. And they say romance is dead…

Just a few months ago, we were travelling around Cuba without a care in the world, exercising a freedom that we took for granted – even holding hands! We had the invaluable opportunity to practise our Spanish and at times, felt elated with our notable progress and level of understanding. The mild surprise and encouragement from the Cuban people when we “tried” was a great incentive.

With weeks ahead confined to la casa, what better time could there be to improve even more? Now, I sign in for two Skype classes per week (looking semi-presentable from the waist up), then work my way through a free trial on Babbel for around one hour per day and listen to a range of language podcasts to help me drift off to sleep (I haven’t dreamt in Spanish yet but I am lead to believe this is a pivotal moment).

Last night we even watched ‘First Dates’ in Spanish! It’s amazing what you can learn from following the subtitles of people’s awkward first encounters! I currently have no one to practise my hilarious newfound phrases on, but my Spanish teacher could be in for a treat during our next online date… I mean class!