Introduction by Pamela Postlethwaite
This diary, written by my late husband, Ernest Postlethwaite, has been published expressly against his wishes, but with the full and hearty endorsement of my family and friends.
He did originally intend the diary, or ‘journal’, as he preferred to call it, to be published. Being a man of fixed ideas but very changeable temperament, I have interpreted his final utterance, “that blessed diary,” as I have deemed most appropriate. The fact that these words were his last, apart from incoherent ramblings regarding documents, goats and relatives, indicates that his sole written work was foremost in his mind until the very end. It also suggests that he may have had a last minute change of heart regarding publication; ‘blessed’, after all, has more positive than negative connotations.
One rather clever family friend considers the diary, or journal, to be a historical document of the highest importance. “An anthropological delight,” I recall him saying. He read it four times and told me that each reading brought more tears to the eye than the last. He suggested subtitling the work, A Study of the Cross-Cultural Aspirations of a Middle-Class Englishman in the Early Twenty-first Century, but I thought it rather long-winded and eventually chose a more fitting subtitle myself.
I leave you with this unadulterated transcript* of the first six months of the diary that Ernest kept diligently from November 2007 and hope that you are moved by it as much as we all were.
* Including all his additional annotations (in parenthesis).
PART ONE – INTEGRATION
Thursday 1st November 2007
I am writing my first journal entry from the terrace of my house in Puebla de Don Arsenio, Alicante, Spain. A solemn moment! Today, I have read on the internet, is ‘The Day of the Dead’ here in Spain, but I myself feel very much alive, having at last cast off the shackles of the commuter’s life. A life, it must be said, that has put me in the enviable financial position of enabling us to sell up and start a new life here at the relatively young ages of 54 (me) and 52 (Pamela). Pamela’s mother dying so suddenly cemented our financial security and I handed in my notice at the office a month after the funeral.
I intend to faithfully record all the details, or minutiae, as Pamela might say, of my new life, with a view to passing on all my acquired knowledge in the not too distant future. I am drinking a glass of Bordeaux that has not travelled well and Pamela is measuring the windows for curtains. We have traditional Spanish shutters, I tell her, to no avail.
We bought this noble old house on the edge of the village in order to integrate more fully with the local people, while still keeping a generous plot of land for growing vegetables. I intend us to become self-sufficient in this respect and Pamela is all for me trying.
We were not attracted to the ‘expat’ life of sun and sangria, but to one of tilling the land, learning the language, and integrating. We are far enough away from the sea to avoid having English-speaking neighbours, I think. I searched thoroughly for the house on the internet and managed to push the price down considerably. I always drive a hard bargain and imagine that the estate agency I dealt with made very little, if any, profit. We got a lot of house and land for our money – far more than had we followed the droves down to the coast – and ‘swimming pool’ are two words that do not form part of my vocabulary – unless I use them separately, of course, or when referring to public bathing establishments or suchlike. Land is for production, not for swimming in.
Friday 2nd November
One hour of Spanish grammar duly studied before settling down with a glass of wine to write my journal. A different bottle but the same acidic taste. I wish I had left my modest wine reserve in the house on Swinburne Crescent now. The man who bought our house ogled it so, that had he not haggled in such a petty manner about the price, I would have made him a gift of it.
A young Scotch person called Andy came round this morning while I was in Villeda, the capital of the borough, sorting out paperwork with the interpreter, whose services I won’t require for very much longer. I hoped that Pamela hadn’t been too welcoming as she knows that I wish to avoid over-fraternisation (look up) with any foreign elements. She said that she hadn’t, but that he had seemed very nice, and I said that I was sure that he was. She still insists on the curtains. I have started digging over the plot of land, as I intend to avoid the use of expensive and unnecessary machinery. It is very hard and dry and I only managed about a square yard. On the upside, there aren’t many weeds to worry about. Sore hands now, making it difficult to hold the pen. I will make a more thorough journal entry tomorrow.
Saturday 3rd November
Raining today. Excellent news for the land! It should also make it easier to dig. The Scotsman called round again this morning with some eggs. When I asked him if he had grown them himself, Pamela burst out laughing. The Scotsman knew that I meant the hens and that I had used the verb loosely. He told me that he had several good layers and a feisty cock. It appears that he lives on a ‘finca’ just outside the village and has been here for eight years. I thanked him and he soon left.
After studying Spanish grammar for an hour, I looked over the paperwork for the house. It appears that the house and the plot are separate entities, although previously owned by the same person. The interpreter, who the Town Hall recommended, says that there are one or two small points to clear up regarding the land, but that I shouldn’t worry. I won’t worry. I’m not a worrier.
Pamela drove into town to do the weekly shop and also purchased a roll of material for the curtains. “Tasteful, but unnecessary,” I said, and was ignored. Pamela is not as diligent in her grammar studies as I, but says that her knowing French will help. I don’t see why it should, it being a different language, but she just said, “Espera y verás.” I looked that up and it means ‘wait and see’. I will revise the future tenses in bed tonight.
Sunday 4th November
Sunny again today and I resumed my digging, using gloves. I had little time for gardening in England and I will harden my hands little by little. The Scotsman called round and interrupted my work. He offered me the use of a small rotavator to plough the land, but I declined. He said it would take me weeks to do it by hand and I must say that yesterday’s rain has not made it any easier to dig. The water must have rolled straight down the slope and onto the track – such a waste. The Scotsman’s parting shot was, “piss on your hands,” which I thought rather uncouth. Another square yard dug over.
After lunch I ventured to the village bar to have coffee, having checked the correct time to do so on the internet. Pamela offered to accompany me, but I insisted that we avoid going everywhere together and being considered ‘that foreign couple’. The bar is very rustic and smoky and the customers, all men, were very attentive, I must say. They all looked at me as I entered and responded to my, “Buenas tardes,”replying likewise or with friendly grunts and growls. They were all still looking at me as I ordered a coffee with milk in the correct manner. The young waiter seemed a little slow to respond – a little soft in the head, I suspect – but eventually produced the coffee, which was excellent. I drank my coffee at the bar, like a local, and noticed that I was still attracting considerable attention. The novelty of seeing a foreigner, I suppose, although I had made a point of wearing my espadrilles. Nobody else was wearing them, I noticed. I failed to strike up a conversation today, but will persevere. One hour of grammar after dinner.
Monday 5th November
Getting up time is an issue which I shall have to address. In my former life I arose at 6.35am midweek and at 7.55am on Saturdays and Sundays and I fully intended to adhere to those times here. I have not retired, but merely swapped the suit of the commuter for the rugged attire of one who intends to work the land and be as one with his rustic neighbours. Having said that, it was chilly this morning and I found myself pacing round the plot to keep warm until the sun appeared. Pamela has determined to rise no earlier than half past eight, which, as she always worked part-time and locally, will be no great wrench to her customs. Until the end of winter I shall rise every day at my weekend hour. This is not sloth, merely expediency.
Pamela returned from the village with our daily bread and told me she had met a lady from Essex. I must have looked downcast, as she then told me that the lady and her ‘partner’ (meaning not married) only use their holiday home two or three times a year. Seeing me cheer up, Pamela then told me that the lady, Tracy by name, knew several more British couples who live in the area. This is not what I desired or expected and made me feel quite low while I was digging today’s square yard. I only managed half an hour’s grammar; prepositions – most confusing. I wish they would stick to the rules. I uncorked a bottle of wine that has survived the move, which cheered me up a bit, and the Scotsman didn’t call round today.
Tuesday 6th November
When I returned from the Town Hall, I heard mechanical noises from the rear of the house and rushed through to catch the Scotsman in fraglanti, mechanically ploughing my plot with Pamela looking on, doing nothing to stop him. I was about to protest, but on seeing his lightening progress compared to me and my spade, I retreated unseen into the house and saved my remonstrations for when he had begun the last run up the slope. My feeble protests were a failure, as my joy upon seeing the beautifully churned up land obviously belied my stern expression. Pamela kissed me and Andy said that I could now stop pissing on my hands. I pointed out that I had never started and went to uncork another bottle of the well-travelled wine. If we must have one foreign friend, I suppose we could make a worse choice than Andy and, as a vote of confidence, I shall stop referring to him as ‘The Scotsman’ in this journal.
I shall now open my horticulture book and see what I can plant tomorrow.
Wednesday 7th November
I was up until 2 o’clock last night, translating unknown words from the horticulture book – about three-quarters of them. After breakfast, I took a cup of tea and a chair out to the terrace which looks onto the plot and tried to decide where to put the garlic, radishes, broad beans and onions that my book allows me to plant here in November. I may seek help from a knowledgeable local person, as I am not sure what part of each vegetable I should plant. The seeds? Little onions? Little beans? The book is not clear about this and I cannot find a local plant nursery on the internet, only ones for small children. Perhaps these people are still sufficiently in touch with the soil to have no need for such establishments. I will prepare my questions and ask the neighbours to our left, who I have yet to introduce myself to and have a well-tended plot. The neighbours to our right; a young, swarthy couple, spend all their time indoors, often with music playing, and have two old cars and other assorted junk on their plot. This is a shame and an eyesore. I will have words with them when I become more articulate in Spanish.
Thursday 8th November
Andy called round with some olives while I was sitting in the sun with my grammar book. I had been finding it difficult to concentrate on my irregular participles, as the beauty of my plot distracted me. The earth is beckoning my seed and I think that I am finding a long lost bondage with the land reawakening in my urbanised soul. (Good sentence, but find alternative to bondage.) I don’t like olives, but I believe they are an acquired taste and I mean to acquire it. Likewise with garlic and olive oil. Also Spanish cheese, cured ham, dried cod, and anchovies.
I refrained from asking Andy’s advice on horticultural matters, as I fear he may have considerable knowledge and impart it all to me in English. I would rather have it from the horse’s mouth – meaning a Spanish peasant’s mouth, and I don’t mean peasant in a demeaning way. I am already preparing the questions that I intend to ask our neighbours to the left.
Pamela has been busy all day making up the curtains. They are of a greeny-white pattern and would certainly look very handsome in an English house. At least they match the shutters.
Friday 9th November
I called on the neighbours to our left this morning, an aged couple. I started in with, “Good morning. I am your new neighbour,” (in Spanish) and they appeared to understand this. I then introduced myself and asked them how they were, using the formal ‘Usted’ pronoun as we are not yet close friends. They then introduced themselves and asked me how I was, and I responded correctly. He is called Nora – a strange name for a man and one which I shall look up – and she Angeles. (‘Anggelees’ – throat clearing sound on the ‘g’.) Angeles then showed me round the entire house, upstairs and down, talking very quickly all the while. I understood her reasonably well, mainly through her gestures and facial expressions. I am discovering that reading Spanish and listening to it are very different things. On returning to the rustic living room, Nora took me in hand and led me through the very rustic kitchen to his plot. I took the list of questions from my shirt pocket and asked him what he was growing on his land. On retrospect, the question was a little foolish, as I could see the tomatoes, peppers, lettuces and cauliflowers from where we stood. He told me anyway, speaking much more slowly than his wife, almost as if I were an idiot, for which I was grateful (for him speaking slowly). He also pointed out where the potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots and something called ‘nabos’ had been sown and showed me his cherry, plum and almond trees. By this time, my brain was hurting through the sheer weight of foreign language being poured into it and I decided to save my specific questions for another day. During our final, somewhat one-way, exchange, I understood that Angeles is rather keen to meet Pamela and I indicated, through single words and arm movements, that she would soon call round.
A large glass of Bordeaux helped me to recover my senses and, once more serene, I smile as I write my journal. This has, after all, been a watershed day; my first real verbal intercourse with the people of my new country! ‘Nabos’ are turnips.
Saturday 10th November
Pamela called round to see Nora and Angeles this morning. I insisted that she went alone, in order to establish herself as herself and not just as ‘the Englishman’s wife’ (‘la inglesa esposa’, I think) and she was more than happy to do so. She returned two hours later with Angeles and gave her a tour of the house. I followed at a discrete distance and listened to Angeles’s stream of unintelligible talk. Pamela responded occasionally with comments and questions, so she must have understood a few words.
I went to the bar for coffee with two conversation-starting phrases written on my hand: ‘El tiempo es bonito’ – ‘The weather is nice,’ and, ‘Tengo 54 anos’ – ‘I am 54’. The same dim waiter smirked from within his smoke cloud when I ordered my coffee in the correct manner. I addressed my first phrase to a man dressed in blue overalls at the bar and I think he said that he wished for rain. I said, “Sí,” because I too will need rain for my plot. On following up with my second phrase, he sprayed coffee from his mouth, had a fit of coughing, and rushed out of the bar. I was so concerned that I went to the door of the bar, only to see him driving away on his tractor, still coughing and bouncing up and down. Pamela pointed out later that ‘ano’ means anus; I had forgotten about the squiggly accent. She was kind enough not to laugh, knowing how much my Spanish means to me, so I also told her how I ordered the coffee. She thinks that a native would understand my question as, ‘Can I possess a coffee?’ but I am more concerned about the anus. I am almost sure that nobody else in the bar heard me. He drove a red tractor.
Sunday 11th November
Today was a better day than yesterday. Nora (short for Honorario – still strange) came round with a plastic bag and ushered me out to the plot. He showed me some beans and made a scrabbling motion. I brought the spade and he shook his head and left. He returned with what I took to be an extremely large hoe and said, “asada, asada” (spelt ‘azada’ I later discovered). He started to scrape out a furrow and gave me a thumbs up sign. I returned the thumbs up sign, but wish he had asked me where I wanted to plant the beans. He placed three beans in the furrow, making exaggerated motions with his hands and nodding. He covered the beans, nodding and smiling at me all the while. He did not speak throughout the process and I still think he thinks I am an idiot. I said ‘bien’ several times to show that I am not. I may turn to Andy for future guidance as at least he will let me choose where to place each item. When Nora left, with a short ‘adiós’, I completed the furrow – approximately twenty-two yards long – and felt like my own man again. I will buy my own ‘azada’, and a trowel too.
Angeles came to help Pamela with the curtains and kept up a constant stream of chatter – quite the opposite of her husband. Pamela says she is bossy, but is good for her listening comprehension. I said that Nora is good for my miming comprehension, which I thought rather funny. One and a half hours of grammar. No sign of Andy today.
Monday 12th November
Andy called round this morning and responded to my, “Long time no see,” with, “I didn’t want you to think I was an interfering f**ker.” When he sees that I don’t swear, he will soon stop blaspheming in my presence, I think. He had brought some beans in a bag and I showed him the furrow. He said it was long but straight. I think he meant too long, but that is a question of taste. We decided together where to plant the garlic, radishes and onions. He said it was a bit late for potatoes, but I will give them a go anyway. We decided together where to plant some trees. He suggested a couple each of cherry, plum and pear trees to begin with, and that he had some one-year-olds I could transplant. I offered to pay him for them but he refused, so it is not true what they say about Scotsmen; not this one anyway. Andy is married to a local lady called Ana, which is good news. He refers to her as ‘Ella indoors’, and it is true that we have yet to meet her.
One hour of grammar, followed by some sentence practice on Pamela. I am astonished at how much Spanish she knows, although she always was a clever woman. Some people have a gift for languages and it is too early to say if I have that gift too.
Martes 13th Noviembre
I will change the date back to English before the journal is published, to cater for uninitiated readers, as well as polishing up my prose and removing this sentence. The Red Tractor was outside my usual bar, so I tried the other one. My saying, “Póngame un café con leche, por favor,” went down very well, although saying, ‘Put me a coffee with milk, please,’ sounds very odd to me. I don’t know how they can justify such a construction, grammatically speaking. It did, however, produce a stream of questions from the fat, friendly young waitress, which I tried my best to respond to. I understood words like ‘casa’ and ‘pueblo’ and feel that I am making some progress, although I still need to make much use of my arms and face to make myself understood. The bar also seems a little more civilised – it has a sit down toilet – and less full of smoke than the other one. I may make it my ‘local’.
I have just realised that Pamela is doing all the shopping and thus benefiting from increased verbal intercourse. She says that I may go to purchase the bread each day from now on. I am getting to grips with the azada and did one furrow gloveless. I planted the garlic cloves as Andy indicated and, by the time it is ready, I will have acquired a taste for it, I am sure.
One hour of grammar (past simple) and more sentence testing with Pamela. I will avoid questions for now, as they produce long, rapid answers which I don’t understand. Even asking the girl at the bar if she lived here produced a torrent of words. It was, I thought, a very simple question.
No Andy or Nora today, although Angeles talked Pamela through two curtains. Pamela says she finds her tiresome but useful. I thought they were becoming good friends, but am rather glad they might not be. Angeles’s voice penetrates all walls.
Miércoles, 14 de Noviembre (sic)
Another sunny day, but quite cold this morning. It will soon be time to try out the wood-burning stove. Pamela had suggested we install central heating, but I felt it was not necessary in this mild climate. Nora called round this morning as I was planting potatoes and shook his finger and grasped his arms around his body to imply cold. He appears to have lost the power of speech, although I heard him talking to Pamela in the kitchen. He disapproves of my long row of beans (shaking of head, arms in the air), but I don’t see what difference it makes. Probably a question of asthetics (check spelling). I hope it will rain soon and water my plot.
Andy called round with the one-year-old trees and invited us to lunch on Saturday. Our first visit and a semi-native one, as his wife is not a foreigner! I planted the plum trees without gloves and watered the beans with the watering can, making several trips. I will buy a hosepipe next time I am in town. One hour of adjectives.
Jueves, 15 de Noviembre
Colder this morning. I went to the bakery to buy the bread; long ‘barras’ of bread; the sliced bread is awful anyway. The bakery was full of women and there was no queue, so I did not know where to stand. Another woman came in and asked a question and several ladies pointed at me. I felt quite self-conscious, being the only man present and not understanding the question. Yet another woman came in and asked the same question and the previous woman said, “Yo,” (meaning ‘I’, or ‘me’). This formula was repeated by each new arrival until I finally deduced that they were asking who was last in the ‘queue’. Pamela, who has more shopping experience than I, says that this is standard procedure. It will take some getting used to, but at least you can move freely around the shop while you wait. It relies more on honesty than on maintaining a fixed physical position and, as soon as you are no longer the last person (‘el último’), you can relax. It wouldn’t work in London.
Pamela has almost finished sewing the curtains and says that her patience with Angeles is also coming to an end. She is now fed up, she says, of hearing about her grandchildren and of her own comments being ignored. Pamela is very patient; one of the most patient people I know, so she must be being tried very sorely. Angeles also walks in without knocking, which may or may not be the custom here, but is unsettling all the same, especially when she is wearing her pink dressing gown and matching flip-flops.
I planted the radishes where Andy and I had decided, and watered them. No rain or any sign of rain on the internet. One hour of adverbs – quite easy.
Viernes, 16 de Noviembre
Cold and sunny again this morning, so I decided to try lighting the wood-burning stove. I brought in some logs that had been left on the terrace by the previous owner, before realising that I had no kindling of any description. The logs were practically weightless and crumbled in my hands, so when I went for my post-lunch coffee in the clean bar, I told the waitress that I wanted some wood. “Quiero madera,” were my actual words, but she looked perplexed, so I did such miming of wood chopping and fire lighting that I felt quite like Nora. She said, “Ah! Quieres leña!” and gave me a card for the wood supplier in Spanish, English and German; most disappointing. So there are different words for wood for making things out of, and firewood, which I consider annoying and unnecessary. Pamela rang the number on the card and, at my request, ordered the firewood in Spanish.
Pamela also pointed out that we have no television. I said that I was aware of this and she said that it would be useful for practising our listening comprehension. I agreed that this was so, but she then gave her true intentions away by telling me that Andy had a satellite dish. Having weaned her off EastEnders, which she is far too well-read to watch, I put my foot down most firmly. I agreed to the television, but not to the satellite dish, and she acquiesced. I hope this is not the thin end of one of Pamela’s wedges. Pamela can be cunning and thinks she knows how to ‘play’ me. I am not as obtuse as she says I sometimes seem.
Sábado, 17 de Novienbre
Sunny yet again. This is fine for the expats, but not for a man, and his wife, wishing to live off the land. I planted the onions and the cherry and pear trees this morning. I made a lot of trips with the watering can and my arms were heavy on the steering wheel as we drove to Andy’s.
Andy’s wife, Ana, is very pretty and greeted us in Spanish, which I appreciated. They live in a lovely bungalow surrounded by land and outhouses, and keep four goats, three pigs, many hens and some cocks. They have an abundance of fruit and nut trees (expand on this when know names of them), olive trees, and a huge vegetable plot.
Ana had made a traditional Sunday roast – on a Saturday – and, although I would have preferred Spanish fare, it was delicious. The conversation moved imperceptibly into English as we ate, and I must say that Andy is a very lucky man; as lucky as I. Ana is a schoolteacher in Villeda and Andy tends the finca and does occasional odd jobs of an agricultural nature. Andy was quiet and well-mannered during the lunch and allowed his better half to host proceedings. He has made a very good match, although I see that I have implied this already.
After lunch, Andy took me on a tour of the finca while Ana and Pamela chatted over the washing up. He said that the goats had names, as they were milch goats, but the pigs did not, as they were ‘for scoffing’. He pointed out the next one to be slaughtered and invited us to attend. He said that Ana’s father would ‘stick the bugger’ and also said that I would find the whole slaughtering and post-slaughter activity instructive. I said I was sure that I would, and accepted the invitation. As a lifelong meat-eater, I cannot be squeamish about such things. The doomed pig was very friendly and seemed to smile.
This is the longest entry so far, and justly so. I must record all significant details for future readers. A journal is not a mere diary. I am sleepy now (6.32pm) after the heavy lunch, but it is too late for a siesta, which I haven’t learnt how to take yet, but will. Commuters don’t take siestas, although some do doze off on the train, always seeming to wake up moments before their stop. Uncanny (and irrelevant).
Domingo, 18 de Noviembre
It hasn’t rained now for two weeks and is becoming a cause for concern. I saw Nora over the wall and he mimed at great length the lack of and need for rain. When we invite them to dinner, which Pamela says we must do, like it or not, I may suggest a game of charades. My manual watering is improving my upper-body strength, but it takes me two hours to get round all the items on my plot, and by the time I have finished, the first furrows are dry again. Am I penetrating to my seeds, cloves, roots etc.? I don’t know. I will get a hosepipe tomorrow when I go into town. Pamela also wants me to look for some curtain rails and gave me measurements. I told her that I doubt that they exist in this country of window shutters, but that I will try. Half an hour of conjunctions and half an hour of horticultural and curtain vocabulary.
Lunes, 19 de Noviembre
I drove into town alone this morning as Pamela will go in to do the weekly shop tomorrow. The internet told me that the ‘Ferretería’ is the place to go for hardware and all sundry things that you cannot buy in other shops. I parked my car – a Spanish model – on a side street and asked the first person I saw for directions to a ‘Ferretería’, remembering to roll the double ‘r’ by making the tongue vibrate. I find that either no ‘r’s or about seven come out. I practise with important words like ‘perro’ (dog) and ‘barra’ (bar, stick) and will improve ‘poco a poco’ (little by little). If this journal were not intended for publication in the English-speaking world, I would probably find it turning ‘poco a poco’ into Spanish!
I followed the directions correctly and found my way to the large ‘Ferretería’. The long counter was like that of a bar and men lolled on it as if it were a bar. There was no queue and, when I asked who the ‘último’ was, one man shrugged and turned his back on me. The four assistants moved very leisurely and listened patiently to the men’s lengthy requests. The old man next to me flourished a small, rusty hinge and talked for an age while opening it, closing it, spitting on it and twisting it. The assistant eventually produced quite a different hinge and the man left happily. My request for ‘railes de cortina’ was not understood and much miming ensued. He finally produced a long wooden pole with some rings on, which I bought. Hosepipe requested correctly and supplied.
Pamela, after spending many hours sewing on traditional curtain hooks, which she says I must have seen her doing, was not impressed by the pole and the rings and immediately sat down at the computer to order some curtain rails from B&Q. The postage would be expensive, I told her, and added that I would find a use, probably horticultural, for the pole and rings.
An hour of present tense – mere revision.
Martes, 20 de Noviembre
Rain at last! I sat under the little veranda on the terrace, watching the rain soak into the ground and preparing some sentences to say to Nora. I intend to confront his miming with a barrage of topical, well-constructed phrases. I ran the sentences past Pamela and we made some minor adjustments. After a light lunch, I returned to the terrace to learn them off by heart. At the time of writing I have memorised seven, which are (in English):
The rain is good for the plants.
Spanish bread is good, but goes hard quickly.
In England I worked in an office.
My friend Andy is Scottish.
I used to play golf, but have given it up.
I like Spanish people.
My wife, Pamela, is a good cook.
This last sentence is to be closely followed by an invitation to dinner on Friday night. I practised reciting my lines to Pamela as she cleaned the kitchen, until she silenced me by saying that she hoped I hadn’t forgotten that she wanted a television. I haven’t forgotten.
Miércoles, 21 de Noviembre
Still raining! Great news, but has made for a dreary day. I revised my sentences in the morning and went to my usual bar for coffee. I was dismayed to find two uncouth, tattooed, bevested (look up) Englishmen drinking beer at the bar and talking at the tops of their voices. I sidled into a corner and picked up the Spanish newspaper, to no avail, as one of them hollered, “you English, pal?” I could but nod, and they were around me in a flash with their beery breath and northern accents. How they knew I was English, I do not know. They – Gary and Mark by name – are builders and are “makin’ a killing doin’ up Brits’ ‘ouses” (Gary’s words, not mine). They asked me if I needed any building work doing and I told them that my house was in first class shape when I bought it (which was true) and that I always dealt with local tradesmen (which is not, yet). I left as soon as I had finished my coffee and am sure that I heard one of them say ‘snotty f**ker’ when I reached the street.
Feeling low as I write this. Not due to meeting riff-raff, but to the fact that they have a lot of work with other ‘Brits’. I will invite Nora and Angeles to dinner tomorrow – we have to start our integration process somewhere.
Jueves, 22 de Noviembre
More rain. I revised my sentences, adding ‘It’s raining cats and dogs’ as an opener, before calling on our neighbours. I wished them, “Buenos días,” and, without giving them a chance to speak or mime, I said, “Está lloviendo gatos y perros.” Their reaction was unexpected. Angeles said, “Gatos? perros? gatos? perros?” countless times, while Nora barked and shook his head. I had no stomach for my remaining phrases and silenced them with my dinner invitation. This was comprehended but refused. We, I understood, are to come to lunch with them tomorrow. I agreed and left.
Pamela thought that it did not rain cats and dogs in Spanish. She looked up the equivalent phrase, which means ‘raining pitchers’ or ‘raining jugs’, and told me that idiomatic expressions are different in each language. She then told me what idiomatic expressions are.
The last two days have not been easy ones for me. ‘Slings and arrows’ seem to have been coming at me thick and fast. I didn’t expect the transition to Spanish life to be easy, so I will grin and bear it. I may be grinning and bearing a lot at lunch with Nora and Angeles tomorrow.
Viernes, 23 de Noviembre
The rain continues. Three weeds have appeared on the plot, but I can’t get at them, as the soil is so completely saturated. I must purchase some wellington boots, something I did not think I would ever need here. The internet informs me that the rain will cease this afternoon. I revised my sentences before going next door. I added ‘the rain will stop this afternoon’ to my repertoire.
The lunch was more a success than a failure. From a culinary point of view, I was able to face and partially conquer my demons. I battled through my share of the oil and vinegar-drenched salad and ate four olives. I ate two slices of cured ham, with bread. Angeles had made a paella (difficult to say properly: ‘payelya’) over a wood fire in the yard, which was very rustic and tasty. I squeezed a garlic clove with my fork and ate the contents to no ill effect. I can still taste it now, despite having cleaned my teeth twice. From a conversational point of view, the lunch was a great success. I doggedly inserted my phrases into Angeles’s babble, and Pamela was kind enough to follow them up and, as she said later, “put them into some sort of context.” Nora mimed somewhat less, but is still unable to address me directly. ‘Poco a poco’ he will come round.
I am feeling much cheered this evening as I sip a glass from the last of the unruined bottles. I can now stock up on Riojas and other fine Spanish wines!
Sábado, 24 de Noviembre
A sunny day and very warm by Spanish, and our, lunchtime – 2pm. This morning I was able to pad across the still soggy plot in my espadrilles and pick the weeds (7). I wanted to do some gardening work, but there is nothing to do but wait. I can almost feel my seeds germinating! My hosepipe is not yet operational, as I forgot to buy the thing that connects it to the tap. I have added it to my ‘Ferretería’ list.
Feeling emotionally strong after yesterday’s successful lunch, I decided to have coffee in the ‘campesino’ (peasant: non-derogatory) bar again. The Red Tractor was outside, but I did not flinch. I entered, sat down next to the tractor owner at the bar, and said to him, “Tengo 54 años” (‘anyyyos’ – to leave no room for doubt). He said, “bien, bien,” shook my hand, and ordered me a ‘café con leche’. I followed up with some of my stock phrases and he responded in an agreeable manner (70/30: speech/mime – an acceptable ratio). He shook my hand warmly again as I left. He was in no hurry to leave as he is probably experiencing the same dearth of agricultural labours to do as myself. This fruitful encounter shows that the forthright, confident approach is the way forward in my quest for integration. ‘Don’t be shy, Ernest,’ will be my motto!
Pamela tells me that she got into conversation with a local lady she met at the bakery, me having forgotten to go, who then invited her back to her house for coffee and more chatter. I don’t feel that I can actually ‘chat’ yet, but I am pleased for her. We each blaze our independent integration trails, which will no doubt intertwine at some point, as the village – of 424 ‘habitantes’, the internet tells me – is small.
Domingo, 25 de Noviembre
A sunny day and the first appearance of a bean sprout! While I was delighting in this, I saw the right-hand neighbour in his plot/scrapyard for the first time. He was talking on a mobile telephone and smoking what I suspected to be a ‘joint’. Despite this, I waved and said, “Hola.” He waved back absently before retreating indoors. I mentioned this encounter to Pamela, who I know partook of the occasional ‘joint’ at university, but not since meeting me, and she said, “Each to their own.” I am still not altogether happy about this revelation and hope he does not consume other more heinous drugs as well. There are only three houses on our row and, if a third of them are already disreputable, I fear the worst. Nora and Angeles will hopefully live for a long time yet.
I have added three questions to my stock of phrases:
‘Have you lived here long?’
‘What do you do?’ and,
‘Have you planted much this year?’
When I feel that my phrases are going down well, I will insert a question and hope that I understand the answer. I spent half an hour eliciting different answers to these questions from Pamela, until she tired of it and put on Beethoven’s Ninth quite loudly.
Lunes, 26 de Noviembre
A cloudy day. The beans are now sprouting in force and I believe the potatoes are breaking through too! The internet tells me that the radishes should also be making an appearance, but they have not done so yet. I removed some new weeds after a breakfast of ‘tostadas’ (toast) with butter and jam. This is typical Spanish breakfast fare and will replace the Weetabix which has run out. We had already finished the Branston Pickle, brown sauce, cheddar cheese and Marks & Spencer salad dressing, and I am glad. I have forbidden Pamela from buying any of these foreign articles on the internet. (‘Forbidden’ is too strong, and inaccurate, a word. Change for, ‘urged her not to buy.’)
I drove into town and made a beeline for the ‘Ferretería’. Before taking my place at the crowded counter, I toured the aisles and began to wish that I hadn’t insisted on the house being restored to the very highest standard; a requirement forming part of the extremely hard bargain that I drove. There are so many things that I would like to buy, doorknobs for one, but cannot justify. I bought the coupling for the hosepipe, a pair of wellington boots, a screwdriver, a torch, and some tape, but I will return with a better list.
Today at the counter an old man was flourishing a small bulb and waxing lyrical. The assistant nodded politely for about two minutes and then bobbed down quickly and produced a new bulb. The old man was cut off in mid-flow, took some coppers from his purse and laid them on the counter, and trudged out. Perhaps there is a time limit for each person. I already had all my items, so I quickly composed a phrase: “These wellington boots are good for the rain,” but only received a blank stare. I will hover near another assistant next time.
Pamela tells me that she has been chatting with her new friend again today. I need a friend to chat to. Ninety minutes of miscellaneous grammar and I also practised my double-Rs in front of the mirror. Pamela asked me why I was calling myself a dog, so I must have been getting it right.
Martes, 27 de Noviembre
A cold night and a cold, sunny morning. Pamela complained of this and, as if by chance, the wood supplier (‘hombre de leña?’) arrived! He brought large logs, smaller logs and kindling, and dumped it all outside the front door. The price was not low but there is a large amount, which I am sure will last us through the short winter. In this respect, it is not expensive. I spent the whole morning carrying the wood through the house to the sheltered part of the terrace. Pamela seems to have resumed bread buying duties, as it is at the bakery where she meets her new friend. She was out for two hours; two whole hours of integration! I am a little ‘piqued’, but must not hold her back. I went to the rustic bar for coffee, but my tractor driving friend was not there. Nobody seemed willing to converse, so I read the paper for a while. I understand more and more, but it is just not the same as speech.
I lit the wood-burning stove this evening after creating a structure of paper, kindling and medium logs, from the bottom up. At the third attempt and the second rebuild, it took hold, briefly filled the ‘salón’ with smoke, and then began to produce a remarkable heat. Pamela was impressed, but said that we did not sleep in the living room. I pointed out that our bedroom lay directly above and would feel the effects. She went upstairs and returned to say that the floor was cold to the touch. These old houses are very well-built! One hour of useful but boring grammar in bed. Pamela said she was too tired to respond to my utterances and that she had had enough Spanish for one day, thus this late journal entry to illustrate the support that I receive from my wife.
Miércoles, 28 de Noviembre
I awoke with Pamela’s last words still lodged in my mind and, while weeding, had an ‘eureka’ moment. Classes! I would pay someone to talk and listen to me, and I told Pamela this as she was getting ready to go on her linguistic bakery outing. She reminded me that I dislike spending money (not wholly true) and suggested that I find someone with whom to have exchange classes. In an exchange class, Pamela says, you listen to someone waffling on in English for half an hour and then inflict the same torture on them for half an hour in their language (i.e.: Spanish). She says it is best to get the English out of the way first, if possible. It turns out that she partook of these classes during her year in Paris; a year which she has told me very little about. She may have smoked ‘joints’ then too, for all I know.
I typed out an advert on the computer in English – they will have to know some English – and pinned up a copy in both bars, the bakery, and a small windowless grocer’s shop that I have discovered. The body of the advert reads:
Englishman seeks Spanish speaker for ‘Exchange Classes’.
You will speak English for half a hour (30 minutes) and I will correct you.
I will then speak Spanish for half an hour and you will correct me.
I am patient and so must you be with me.
Venue to be convenient to both parties.
No monies to be exchanged.
I think this outlines the purpose and the method of the classes to good effect. At the time of writing, no-one has yet responded.
Studied one hour of grammar and did not trouble Pamela with any of my new sentences.
Jueves, 29 de Noviembre
A sunny day after a cool night. I am sure our ten tog (spring/autumn) duvet will suffice for what remains of the winter. After weeding, I reconnoitred the house with my notepad, looking for things that can be improved and jotting down essential items to be purchased at the ‘Ferretería’. I concluded that I require: fire-lighters, matches, a toothbrush holder, spare bulbs, adhesive foam strips for windows and doors, two doorstops, an electric drill, screws and plastic plugs, a hammer, nails, pliers, sandpaper, wood varnish, white, black and green paint, brushes and turpentine. I may divide this into two lists, as I do so enjoy my ‘Ferretería’ trips.
I saw the swarthy neighbour on his ‘plot’ again before lunch. He was smoking a normal cigarette and drinking a can of coke. Today he addressed me and said, “Tú conoces a Andy, no?” which I understood to mean; rightly, I later found, ‘You know Andy, don’t you?’ I quickly replied, “Sí,” and he said, “Buen tío, buen tío!” which I later found to mean, ‘Good uncle, good uncle’. How Andy has come to know that unsavoury specimen, to whom it appears he might even be related, I do not know. He did provide me with a short conversational exchange, though, and I will not reject his advances for the time being.
I had lunch alone, as Pamela had informed me that she was lunching with her new friend, and took coffee in the clean bar. I pointed to my advert and gave a ‘thumbs up’ sign to the fat young waitress.
She said, “En el pueblo nadie habla inglés,” and I understood her!
(For the uninitiated: ‘In the village nobody speaks English.’)
I replied, “No?” and she said, “No”.
I then said, “Y tú?” and she said, “No, no, no, no!”
I was happy to have taken part in a conversation, but disappointed that I may not find a suitable exchange student here in the village.
Pamela was not impressed by my ‘Ferretería’ list, said we did not need the paint and the varnish, and accused me of getting bored. I told her that ‘boredom’ was not in my vocabulary and went off to translate my ‘Ferretería’ list. It is not unusual for us to have these ‘cool’ periods and she always comes round eventually.
Viernes, 30 de Noviembre
Pamela has come round. She tells me that her friend’s husband may well be interested in the exchange classes and that we are to have coffee with them at their home tomorrow. This is good news! I asked her if they were cultured people and she said, “Cultured enough.” I did not enquire further, as beggars cannot be choosers.
Andy called round at midday with some eggs and would not accept payment. I would like to return his favours in some way, but imagine he is more accomplished at all the things that people do around here than I am. I could do his tax returns, but not in Spanish. I now regret not being more ‘handy’, and to having preferred golf to D.I.Y., but I shall soon take to it. Golf, needless to say, is now a thing of the past, being the one activity that would have me labelled ‘expat’! I mentioned that the swarthy neighbour had mentioned him, and he just said that he knew everybody in the village. I did not pursue the matter or comment on his vile habits. (The neighbour’s.)
Coffee in the rustic bar. No tractor man. I alerted those present to my advert and received jovial negatives all round. I expected no less in that bar, but to provoke laughter was gratifying in itself and shows that they are beginning to accept me.
I weeded in the failing light – 6pm – and failed to see any sign of the radishes. One hour of grammar; my first dabble with the subjunctive tense. I don’t think I am going to enjoy it and don’t see any need for it. English does very well without it, and is the world’s number one language, if you don’t count Chinese.
A R Lowe ©2016