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. 

Contentment:

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:
 

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:

Hydration station

Hydration station

The last run I set off on before moving to Spain was on a cold, wet morning in May. I jogged around a country park in the south side of Glasgow, and as I was running, I made a special effort to take it all in. I absorbed the sights, the sounds and smells I was so used to – of the woodland, the birds, the cool, damp air, and the muddy terrain underfoot.

Knowing it would be the last time in a long time that I would run in these familiar conditions, I remember thinking things like “I wonder if they have trees like this in Madrid”, “Will I ever run in the rain in Spain?”  and most importantly – “Will it be too hot?”

I had never enjoyed running in the heat, it felt punishing and unnecessary. In Scotland, running is the last thing on our minds when the sun comes out. Instead we go to a beer garden to enjoy a refreshment or head to the coast to bask in the rarity of sunshine.

Even though I had committed to a commute-on-foot from work, I was only faced with a couple of hot July days, when I would struggle home, red-faced and sweating. But the version of heat I knew then was significantly cooler than I know now. Even 18°C was considered much too hot for such vigorous exercise!

So, it was months before I plucked up the courage to go running here in Madrid. My first few attempts were a struggle but, timing is everything in the summer months and I have learnt to pick my moments. Heading out early in the morning when there is still a “chill” in the air or late in the evening when the sun disappears behind the mountains is prime time. It is not uncommon for me to be panting my way around the local parque at 9pm (wondering how it could possibly still be 30°C).

For me, running brings clarity. That’s why I find pounding the pavements a perfect time to practise Español. It’s the only time I seem to remember key phrases and can have semi-fluent but random conversations with myself. Even my pronunciation sounds muy bien (in my head at least).

Other times I count to 100 or just listen to a bit of Shakira – anything to distract from the heat!

In Madrid, it’s not just the heat to contend with, but altitude too. These conditions have got me thinking like an athlete. Mo Farah famously trained at altitude (albeit 1,800m higher than here). And I’ve even considered investing in some skimpy pants and wraparound sunglasses como Paula Radcliffe, but I fear this puts me at risk of becoming the female running equivalent of a “MAMIL” (middle-aged man in Lycra).

Inspired, and once confident that I wouldn’t faint from dizziness or die from dehydration, I started to feel invincible (of course remembering to drink water and replenish with some mean home-made electrolyte drinks after track sessions helped).

I developed a strong admiration for people who exercise in the heat, and this was when I heard about the Marathon des Sables!

A challenge of insane proportions. In short, it involves running 250km across the Sahara Desert, over 7 days (day 4 is a DOUBLE MARATHON), carrying all your own equipment and water supplies. The physical and mental barriers to overcome must be extreme, but I do wonder if the toughest part could be the heat? I mean, it is the Sahara Desert. 

And it’s the original toughest footrace on earth, but I encourage anyone to watch the Barkley Marathons on Netflix to see what stole the crown…

(Spoiler: I did not even consider let alone sign up for this challenge. It simply changed my perspective on the running “extremities” I thought I was facing)!

Just imagine setting yourself a challenge so great and sharing that experience with people from all over the world, camping out under the stars, exhausted after long hard days of scaling sand dunes, and communicating only through runner’s language.

It is a language where often no words are needed (usually due to shortness of breath)! Emotions are evident on a runner’s face – pain, struggle, and sometimes even joy! Injuries can be signalled to, and times can be compared by pointing at your watch.

Most importantly though, displays of encouragement and support don’t need words. It takes no words to give a reassuring thumbs-up, high-five or pat on the back. And I’m sure none are needed to take someone’s hand and drag them up a sand dune…

The Marathon des Sables seems not only to be a challenge of survival, but of companionship and connection too, regardless of language. Maybe this is part of the reason why so many loco people head into the desert each year.

Just thinking about it makes me long for a refreshing run in the rain – the type where you have to relentlessly blink the water out of your eyes to see, trainers heavy from splashing through puddles, and soaked to the skin (but somehow manage to return home without breaking a sweat). It used to take a lot of mental preparation to venture out in the first place when the alternative was a cup of tea on the sofa, but there is not better feeling than having pushed yourself out there. Well, except for the hot shower afterwards!

It can take just as much mental prep to head out for a run in the sun. Except now, it is sweat I blink from my eyes, and the clothes I peel off are just as wet. This time though, the best part is the cold shower!

The next time I have to psyche myself up, I will remind myself that I am not navigating the desert with rationed access to agua, carrying 8kg on my back and don’t need a doctor to deal with my unsalvageable blistered feet, while the hot sand burns my legs.

Nowadays, I live closer to that very desert than I do to the piney forests and damp woodland trails of home.

And although it is hot, I don’t have to get up and do it all over again tomorrow.

But, with all those open, endless days of running and all that clarity it would bring, just imagine how good my Spanish would be…

Language clarity:

Freshly connected

Freshly connected

It took a bit of time to get used to wearing a mask. Initially it was recommended but it soon became mandatory and it has been adhered to very seriously here, with 86% of Spanish people reporting that they always wear one to go out.

There was an adjustment period before it felt like a “normal” part of everyday life, and I was guilty of forgetting the rules. More than once, I pulled my mask aside to speak to someone, aware of how hard it can be to make myself understood at the best of times! It was only when I saw the looks of horror that I realised the error of my ways. After that, la mascarilla stayed firmly on my face.

Not only was it providing protection, but it seemed to be providing me with something else – confidence!

During lockdown, I had started to worry about how my language progress would be affected, amongst other things. Even though I had been receiving extra lessons and studying more than ever, I was concerned that there had been months of lost opportunities. Instead of being out practising in public, I had been confined to la casa, reading articles about coronavirus and learning lockdown-related vocab.  

So, I surprised myself when I first ventured out with my face covered. I headed to la farmacia (to collect more masks), and the encounter was effortless. I seemed to have no trouble being understood and I felt emboldened by my new guise! Afterwards, I joined a long queue for the post office and one by one, we were asked (from a distance) which service we required. Not only did I have to think on the spot and shout out in the street, but I also had an audience. However, with my face hidden behind a mask (and sunglasses), I felt less exposed and more confident than ever. Nothing was going to overthrow my joy and relief of being outside again!

But my confidence was short lived…

Last week, I answered the door to two men wearing masks and carrying tools (side note: one had a ponytail, the other was bald). I spied ID badges and heard the word “Wi-Fi” and before I knew it, they were in the apartment searching for the router!

It had been so long since anyone had been in my apartment, or my personal space, so I was taken aback to have two unexpected visitors roaming freely, looking for wires to wiggle.

I knew we hadn’t arranged this visit but couldn’t think how to communicate this. It was surely the worst time to forget every word of Spanish I had ever learnt, and I frantically searched my internal translator for: “I’m sorry, should I be expecting you?” (How very British).

I put on my mask (you can never be too careful) and we began a broken “conversation” with me trying to find out their intentions and them quizzing me about our provider. Communication works both ways of course and the confidence I once felt behind the mask soon turned to confusion when I struggled to understand a word they were saying! Deciphering their muffled speedy Spanish was impossible!

I loosely gestured at my mask, this time using it as an excuse for my mispronunciations and was waving my hands as I tried to tell them that there must be a mistake. I pleaded with them not to disconnect us, particularly during R’s important work call, which he quickly abandoned to come to my rescue, also trying to communicate that the router was to remain untouched (por favor).

(If only they knew how much effort it took to set-up our internet contract here. R had spent hours stretching out his limited Español over several phone calls, tirelessly translating and trying to spell out our names to the company who insisted they had no English speakers to help. It was an exhausting process but a huge step, and I was so impressed by his efforts so early on)!

Anyway, after about 10 minutes of this highly animated exchange, one of the men (the one with the ponytail) checked his phone and read out a name…

It was the name of my neighbour!

Now this, I could explain. I marched him to the front door and pointed out my neighbour’s apartment, all the while wondering how either of us could have been mistaken for José-Luis…

There was no answer at the door, but I gave them his phone number, glad that we had solved the misunderstanding that it was he, not I who wished to change internet provider during a global pandemic. They commenced their admin from my kitchen, and I hovered, unsure whether to offer café or begin disinfecting.

Eventually, they gave up calling and thanked me (IN ENGLISH) before taking their leave. I presumed they went to wait for my MIA neighbour in a more appropriate social distancing spot.

Con-mask or sin-mask, it wouldn’t have mattered. I decided this experience would have been just as strained and confusing either way.

We had a close call, almost being disconnected from our loved ones when the distance is already great enough. I suppose that’s the risk of inviting two masked hombres into your home without question!

Being unable to communicate what you want to say puts you in a position of vulnerability, and despite what I first thought, wearing masks has made things that little bit harder. But we are adaptable and as we learn to live as a masked society, we will find fresh ways to connect. We might master the art of reading deeper into each other’s eyes or express ourselves more through gestures.

And the muffled words that we do exchange will be precious, in any language (whether we understand them or not)!

Language efforts:

Adaptability:

In need of refreshment

In need of refreshment

It was only a matter of time before I had to talk about the weather! With a fierce heatwave sweeping across Europe, the news reports show Spain turning a deep, aggressive shade of red on the map. And that can only mean one thing – it’s July!

At least this year, I sort of know what to expect. I must have acclimatised a bit, or maybe I just have a better understanding of how to survive summer in Spain!

Last year was an adjustment. Arriving in June, it was already scorching hot. I was missing the beach, and craving sight of any body of water since even the río had almost dried up. Public fountains tormented me. I would hover close, praying that the trusty Madrid breeze would blow the right direction so the spray would provide a quick (and subtle) cool-down. One day I lingered just a little too long, and the light spray I was expecting ended up as a heavy (and very public) drenching!

I remember the first time I felt 40°C here. The temperature had stayed consistently around 38°C for weeks, but I waited for it to rise just a few grados more- it felt exciting, and a little dangerous! The journey home from my dance class coincided with the hottest hour of the day and I was out there exposed, darting between shady spots until I made it on to the air-conditioned metro.

Once home, I slipped off my sandals and stepped onto the cool tiles, which provided instant relief! Then I poured myself a glass of something lemony and plunged my swollen flamenco feet into a basin of icy water. This became my effective body-cooling ritual which I would race home for after a hot day out (and by race, I mean shuffle very slowly).

I had only felt temperatures like this once before, very briefly in Abu Dhabi, where the streets were deserted during the days, everyone living a sensibly nocturnal life.

But this was my new normal, and I started taking stock of my sunscreen supplies and drinking agua like my life depended on it…

Because life doesn’t stop here. People still go about their daily business – working, exercising, eating out. Even moving house and home renovations are surprisingly popular in the summer months!

The public transport still runs, the roads don’t melt and even during last year’s heatwave, when other European countries allowed the public to cool off in fountains (much to my envy), Spain continued as normal, unphased by the sizzling temperatures which brought other countries to a standstill.

The only time Madrid takes a break is between the hours of around 2 and 5pm, when some of (but not all) life pauses. This is just one of the ways the Madrileños beat the heat, or at least deal with it every year. As well as the trusty siesta, other hacks include drinking cañas (because anything bigger than this tiny beer would become warm and unappealing, very quickly), flocking to public swimming pools on weekends, and taking that all-important evening stroll at an hour that we would usually be in bed!

I was reassured to learn that the Spanish like to talk about the weather just as much as the British. Except, instead of comparing inches of rainfall, the focus is very much on the temperature. Weather-related expressions are one of the first things you learn in Spanish, and it is always a safe topic of conversation, or so I thought…

People will fan themselves continuously while saying things like “Hace mucho calor” (It’s hot or literally: it makes much heat). But trying to express that you are feeling the heat is where things get risky. We must use “Tengo calor” (I have heat) because saying “Estoy caliente” (I am hot) means something entirely different altogether…

So, unless you intend on announcing your “state of arousal” to an unfortunate someone (while already sweaty and breathless) then be careful! It’s an easy mistake to make after all and one that can at least be blamed on the brain-frazzling heat!

I have been guilty of glorifying the weather here, sharing the forecast with friends and family back home. The novelty of sunshine in February or a hot day in October is hard not to show off, but June-August can be tough – particularly this year with the compulsory use of masks.

Even now, with the AC blasting and three additional fans circulating warm air around my apartment, it can be impossible to stay cool. I am currently averaging two cold showers and four outfit changes per day (not to mention perspiring in peculiar places)! And the heat can be draining; it is responsible for zapping my appetite, drying out my contact lenses and causing my phone to overheat and crash daily (much like myself, it requires respite in a cool, dark room from time to time).

But I soon realised that I wouldn’t have it any other way, because the fresh food, the good mood, the glowing tan and the healthy dose of Vitamin D are only some of the benefits of life in the sun. Plus, the (once-boring) topic of the weather allows me to practise speaking some simple Español, even if I do confuse calor and caliente (or hot and horny) from time to time…

And when the sun sets behind the mountains, there is life on the streets as people return, revived from their afternoon rest. Chatter and reguetón beats are carried by the warm breeze which is ever-present in this city, and I know that the incomparable vibe of a Spanish summer is the only refreshment I need!

Language success:

Experience: