“How hard it is to escape from places. However carefully one goes they hold you - you leave little bits of yourself fluttering on the fences - like rags and shreds of your very life.”— Katherine Mansfield
I think it would be safe to say that I’ve had a cracking last few days in bella Italia.
I’ve spent a good amount of time just wandering around the city over the past weeks. As you might know, I am particularly soppy and pathetic when it comes to a) saying goodbye, and b) getting unnecessarily nostalgic about things, so I really enjoyed just making the most of being here, getting myself lost and found again, and realizing that I can now navigate my way through the vicoli rather well. One evening on my way home, I went for a little wander up to the church above Via XX Settembre just as the sun was going down, was listening to the same playlist that I had on non-stop both just before starting my year abroad, and during the first couple of weeks in Madrid, and may possibly have welled up a tiny little bit. Oh cringe.
My biggest victory over the last few weeks has involved one of my housemates. Ever since I arrived at Casa Carbonara, everyone in and associated with the house has been friendly and kind and lovely, but seeing as I moved in at a time that I was out of the house every weekday from 7am to 9pm, then had 3 non-Italian-speaking friends to stay, then promptly left the continent for three weeks, came back and went South for a few days, combined with the fact that they all have their own lives to lead as well, I’d really spent very little time with them, predominantly because I’d spent very little time with my feet touching the ground at all. My point though, is that while my feet and the floor were in contact, I’d had a dinner or two with the housemates, met a few of their friends, and was generally feeling very welcome, if completely knackered. However, since I’ve been back, and since she’s been back too, my housemate Ilaria and I have got to know each other much better, I’ve spent a lot of time with her and her friends, and have been loving every minute, particularly as she is a fun, chatty, vegetarian who enjoys dancing around the kitchen and watching a similar amount of televised crap as I do, teaches me canzoni dei partigiani, and appreciates my English humour and pronunciation of the word Facebook.
Over the past week we’ve been up to all kinds of fun activities, including showing her cousin around Genova, having a night in with her and two other friends eating Chinese food and watching Trainspotting (which was quite hard enough to follow in English so the Italian certainly added an extra level of difficulty), a few little wanders around town with various friends and acquaintances, and an afternoon trip the other day to Righi.
Ilaria’s been telling me about Righi for a little while and had promised to take me when the weather was nice, so after a couple of times having our plans ruined by big black clouds, on Wednesday afternoon we, along with Zappi and Davide, finally hopped on the funicolare which has a stop conveniently placed almost directly opposite my bedroom window, and went up the hill (although I think calling it a hill may be an understatement) to start our little walk. Ilaria was well prepared with backpack and comfortable footwear, myself less so in my ballet pumps, and we walked for quite a while, singing Bella Ciao like we were on a school trip, and generally behaving like children, finally getting to our destination, La Polveriera, where we sat playing cards in the sunshine. After a pleasant couple of hours sitting amongst the octogenarians of Genova, we walked off on another small trek to catch the bus home, putting my footwear to the test as we stumbled down a steep slope in the middle of lots of trees to take a shortcut. If you’re wondering, they did just fine.
We also made dinner at our house for a few friends, turning up the music and having lots of fun making a good old fashioned carrot cake (a concept which hasn’t quite reached Italy yet, resulting in a bit of confusion at the idea of vegetables in a dessert, and even more at the Philadelphia frosting), and then Ilaria taught me to cook a real Italian pasta course, taking my meal repertoire to a grand total of one dish, and our dinner party guests appreciated our efforts.
One night this week, I stayed for dinner at Sonia’s house (she cracked out the home made pesto again – how could I say no?) and we admired the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen from her living room window – it kills me that I chose that day to not bring my camera – and then sat watching Italy’s version of You’ve Been Framed, followed by Jersey Shore with Italian subtitles which, incidentally, do not do justice to some of the absolute cazzate that come out of their mouths. I really am going to miss having a job like this.
On Friday night, we had the festa chiusura Carbonara. Our house’s contract runs out at the end of the month, so we invited all the housemates who have ever lived here (since it became Casa Carbonara, at least) and had a party. It was a very odd affair as obviously there was such a strange mix of people from the various eras, of whom I knew a grand total of about 8, and there was one particularly lecherous and generally irritating character, but despite him and the neighbours threatening to call the Carabinieri, it was brilliant. The latter was the result of my highlight of the night; a big group of us stood in the kitchen playing assorted real and makeshift instruments (think drums that were lying around the house mixed with boxes of pasta, beer bottles, and hands on tables) and had a little jam session, which despite the photos which make it look exceptionally lame, actually produced some pretty good music, and was definitely a memorable way to say goodbye to the house, Genova, and my year abroad.
We spent all day yesterday emptying the house of all its furniture, and I’m feeling pretty sad, even though I feel I can’t show it because after all the people who are emptying the house have lived in it or at least been associated with it for 4 or 5 years, and I’ve only been here for 3 months so I don’t really have the right to be, but even so I really don’t want to leave it, and seeing it as a shell without any furniture and with all the things that made it so weird and crazy, taken away, obviously combined with the fact that I know I’m going home tomorrow, does not make for a happy Ema.
With one last opportunity for some Genovese fun, I went out for dinner with Sonia, Massimo and some of their friends who I’ve met through previous evenings of debauchery, had an incredible pizza, fell ever so slightly in love with their friends’ 8 year old son, and ended up in a club in Nervi, having a good old dance with them both and coming home at past-5, (That’s right everybody, the year abroad has made me into the kind of responsible adult who comes home after a night out 4 hours before she needs to wake up to go to the airport. Nice one, education) having had a teary goodbye outside my portone and now sitting in my empty bedroom having a final emotional moment, because I really can’t allow myself to express how upset the idea of having to go back to ‘normality’ makes me.
Now there’s just time for a very short nap (although I’m not sure I will even bother, because as much as I’ve been joking about missing my flight on purpose, I really think I’d better not sleep through it) before I take my huge suitcase, for which I hope the weight limit was more of a suggestion than a rule, to the airport tomorrow lunchtime to fly back on the very last one-way ticket to the cold and the quiet of my little Gloucestershire village.
I can’t believe it. It’s actually over. But in the eternal words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, albeit said with a slightly different sentiment; I’ll be back.
At the beginning of this week, I was in work experience heaven, spending the day in Portofino delivering bouquets, decorating chairs and throwing rose petals around at a castle. It was very tiring, as there was a fair bit to be sorted out, and I ended up running around like a total pazza for a lot of the day – especially after we’d been very Italian and missed our first train, arriving later than we’d planned to and surrounded by a whirlwind of chaos. The wedding was lovely in the end though, and everything went to plan, well except that I returned in the evening with a self-diagnosed case of heat exhaustion and looking like I’d been dragged through a bush backwards.
The middle of the week seemed to disappear entirely, merging into a blur of a little bit of wandering around in the sunshine, going to work, and doing a rather large amount of stressing unnecessarily about my YA assignment and frequently cursing the Modern Languages Department aloud, as well as cooing over Persephone, the tiny turtle which Ilaria brought home the other week and is keeping in a Tupperware container in her bedroom. Before I knew what had happened, suddenly Friday, the sneaky thing, had crept up on me again.
Friday was definitely one of those days that remind me what a bizarre life I have been leading. I woke up fairly early to finish my assignment on the day it was due in (the European experience has clearly further reduced my sense of urgency to get things done before they absolutely need to be) and found my housemate cleaning the house like her life depended on it.
It dawned on me that Stefano had mentioned that for various complicated reasons to do with the lease being up on the house at the end of September, a lawyer was going to be coming round on Friday evening. This wouldn’t have been a problem, but before I arrived at Casa Carbonara, there had at one point been about seven people living in the four-bedroom house, a fifth bedroom having been created from a study, and a couple of the rooms becoming shared rooms, with two beds and at least three mattresses in each. Since I’ve been here, there’s been a maximum of four of us, and since I’ve been back from America we’ve been in three, but the problem was that the lawyer and landlady were not supposed to see that the house had been used as an ever so slightly more up-market version of a squat. To cut a long story short, we had to move furniture around, hiding mattresses, turning twin beds into a ‘double’, and transforming Ivan’s bedroom into a convincing ripostiglio – storage room – by throwing all manner of random items into it, by the time they arrived. Ilaria’s Facebook status was something along the lines of ‘cleaning the house as if a murder has taken place’, which pretty accurately sums up what it must have looked like, both of us in our pyjamas frantically carrying furniture around, removing evidence and covering up things we didn’t want the officials to find. We must have done a good job of it though, as nothing was said that evening, and we’ve since been showing off our new junk room to every visitor to the house, with grins on our faces like proud parents.
Later, partly to celebrate our excellent transformation of the house, partly to celebrate not having to do my Year Abroad task any more, and mainly because it was Friday night, we headed off in to the centre of town to meet up with a few friends for a drink and a wander. A drink and a wander somehow turned into an episode of all of us standing in a line in the backstreets of the centro storico, playing the ridiculous Gioco di Michele, which fundamentally resulted in a lot of laughing, silly gestures and eventually Ilaria falling over landing on her back like an upturned ladybird on the floor. As usual, it was a really fun evening, ending with Ilaria, one of the boys, and myself sitting in our house at 3am watching Scrubs in Italian. Super.
The overcast sky scuppered our plans to go and sit in the sunshine yesterday, resulting in a duvet day (minus duvet – not to brag, but it’s still pretty toasty here, despite Italy’s best efforts to acclimatize me to what I’ll be in for in England by bucketing down with rain…) of watching assorted trash on the internet and baking some brownies – not my best due to some necessary recipe tweaking – Carrefour’s specialties don’t extend to vanilla extract, and the oven only has two options: on or off.
And now it’s Sunday, the last one, with only one week left even though I sometimes feel like I only arrived for the first time a fortnight ago, and I can’t even begin to explain how notreadyI am to go back.
Bernard, I’m going to be needing that watch of yours…
Somebody very wise once said, “No one looks back on their life and remembers the nights they got plenty of sleep”.
Whoever they were, they had a very good point, and nothing proved this better than the Notte Bianca on Saturday.
As you may or may not remember, last year at around this time I was in Madrid, where there’s a similar event, the Noche en Blanco. As you might have already read here, we somewhat missed the point of the latter, so when I saw signs around the Genovese streets advertising “La Notte Bianca”with the tagline “nessun dorma”, you can understand why I was excited for the opportunity to give a White Night another crack.
If you didn’t know, these events, which take place in various European cities for no readily apparent reason, involve a lot of people, stalls, music, shops open all night, cultural sights, food, and large amounts of fun to be had by all. You can make of them what you like; some people coming out to see a musician they like playing in a piazza, some just soaking up the atmosphere, and others taking the opportunity to drink a lot and stay out dancing until dawn in all sorts of unusual places. The Italians obviously love this excuse to celebrate nothing in particular (although this year, Notte Bianca was masquerading as part of the Festival dell’Acqua, not that I have the tiniest clue as to why that exists) just as much as I do, but it feels so much more exciting for me, as things like this just don’t happen in the UK. Don’t get me wrong, I do love England, it’s just a shame that this kind of total madness wouldn’t be accepted there in the same way as it is here. Perhaps it’s because we don’t have the same attitude towards spontaneous fun, perhaps our stiff upper lips, bowler hats and briefcases would get in the way, or perhaps (in fact, without a shadow of a doubt) most of the fun would be prevented by health and safety anyway, but the fact of the matter is that the UK could just never emulate this kind of occasion, even if it tried. I’ve got no reason to complain though, as all this means is that next September, I may just have to come back here.
The serata essentially started with myself, my housemate Ilaria and her lovely friend Zappi sitting in the kitchen painting our nails and having a pre-aperitivo consisting of some wine bought using the typically English wine-purchasing technique of choosing a bottle precisely in the middle of the price range, with the nicest looking label, to try to cover up the fact that the only thing I know about wine is that it comes in red, white or pink, and to hopefully avoid purchasing any variety which tastes like vinegar, as I fear the one Euro box-wine may have done; and let’s face it, nobody appreciates wine from a box like the British do, anyway.
We had quite a civilized start to the evening, but this rapidly descended into a less refined affair as we turned up the music and started singing along, standing on furniture, dancing around using a broom as a microphone, turning saucepan lids into percussion instruments and finally sampling a bottle of grappa we’d uncovered which had been in the house for, well, I’m not sure I even want to know how long. If you’re interested, it smelt revolting but tasted infinitely worse and resulted in some rather comical post-drink faces – made even more amusing by the fact that we had consumed the offending liquid from tazzine, i.e. espresso mugs.
We did contemplate celebrating the whole of the Notte Bianca from the comfort of the Casa Carbonara kitchen as we were having a wonderful time, but ended up heading into the centre anyway, joined by Zappi’s boyfriend.
When we arrived, the whole of Genova was there to meet us. Well, only a few people were there to meet us specifically, but most of the rest of Genova was there nonetheless, out in force and bursting with energy. The streets were absolutely heaving, but in a busy, lively, lovely, as opposed to Christmas time in Oxford Street kind of way; and the grappa had gone to my head just about enough to not be bothered that I had no control of where I was being dragged by the current of the crowd, but not enough that I lost track of where my friends were, which seemed like a good balance. I spent the first hour or so feeling a little out of the loop as I was with a group of people who all knew each other very well and my Italian was, as ever, letting me down quite severely on the being a fun and interesting individual front, but within no time at all, I’d forgotten all about it. This nicely coincided with the point when I found myself dancing to reggae with everyone else in a tiny square which I’d never come across before, where a couple of people were sat on top of a VW bus watching whilst everybody else danced around care-free in the open air, and, if you don’t mind me bragging (and you no doubt do, but please bear in mind there are under 2 weeks of this to go) in the 26 degree midnight heat.
There’s something very refreshing about dancing to loud music at 4 a.m., outdoors, in places through which you would walk during the day without giving them a second glance. The entire city was filled with people of all ages just enjoying themselves, eating, drinking, dancing, and exploring in more or less equal measure, and the energy around the whole of the centre of town was incredible, it felt like music, lights and excitement were everywhere, which I appreciate makes me sound like a total hippy, but so be it, because I can’t describe it in any other way.
We spent the rest of the night/early hours of the morning wandering the streets finding all kinds of outdoor concerts and gatherings of people, accompanied at different stages by various groups of Ilaria’s friends as well as Stefano and his dog at one point too. We danced for a while in the Giardini di Plastica which are apparently usually occupied by drug addicts, but on this particular occasion were thankfully instead filled with music, hundreds of other people, and us. We went off to the vicoli and found a bar willing to give us free drinks in exchange for letting the barman go ahead of us in the queue for the toilets, which seemed a more than reasonable arrangement, and also walked around some more, passing through Piazza De Ferrari and Piazza della Vittoria, all the way down Via XX Settembre, seeing as much as possible of what was going on, and eventually ending up back to the Giardini di Plastica for a last hour or so of dancing before heading home.
We got in at 5ish, having wandered, danced, sung, drank and explored to our hearts’ content, and I am so glad that on that particular night I most definitely did not get plenty of sleep.
At 7.54 p.m., you arrive at your regular supermarket looking windswept and flushed having realized, six minutes before the store closed, that you have nothing at all left in the cucina, except for four strawberries, the dregs of a tub of pesto, two litres of olive oil, a curiously large quantity of anchovies, and about eighty assorted teabags.
You walk through the shop door and fight your way through the inexplicable wall of trolleys that blocks your path, grabbing a big green basket from the impossibly tall pile, lowering it gradually to the ground, avoiding the hordes of people who are all standing in the entrance, where management has conveniently placed not only the trolley mountain and the basket beanstalk, but the checkouts as well.
This store, like many others, is set out in the form of a maze, with an unmarked, unspoken, but well acknowledged one-way system. If you pass an item and do not pick it up on the way round, don’t even think about swimming back upstream like a lone lost salmon to obtain it. This is strictly senso unico.
First straight completed. Milk, fruit, vegetables, cereal all in the basket - a far too large, probably cot-sized contraption, which you’re dragging along behind you, snaking it around the aisle to minimize the grazing of other customers lower legs, as it is too awkwardly shaped to hold as a basket, making you question why they even bothered to put a handle on the bloody thing.
Time for the first bend and oh super, there’s an obstruction in the form of a dozen shoppers huddled around the deli counter. Being as the deli is the one stop spot for olives, cheeses and most importantly, focaccia, you take a ticket. That’s right, a ticket. A system that I personally last saw in an English supermarket circa 1995, presumably because we Brits have it instilled in us from a young age that if there is any competition in a public arena such as the supermarket, the most sensible thing to do is form an orderly line. In Italy, not so much, and so you pull #6422 from the dispenser and wait patiently while every other customer is served, and little old nonnas take their time in requesting 14 different varieties of freshly cut ham, after asking the salesperson’s opinion on absolutely every kind available.
All important local delicacies safely in the basket, and with two minutes to go, you push through more shelves of pasta than you ever thought possible, pick up some biscuits and some more tea as you really can never have enough of those, stumble over a woman puzzlingly repacking her trolley just around the blind bend by the detergents, whizz down the home straight, throwing all manner of random objects into your basket as you go, and join a gigantic queue which, as always, does not indicate who will be served first – if there was supposed to be an order, somebody would have installed a ticketing system, after all.
When you get to the checkout, which has taken a while as the customer before you was paying with half a million coupons, all of which she had to sign right there; and it’s almost closing time. You’ve piled your goods on the conveyor belt, received a half hearted “buona sera” from the guy at the till, and the beeping begins. ”Un sacchetto, per favore”, you ask politely. Beep. Beep. “uh… per piacere, un sacchetto?” Beep. Beep. Nothing. “MI SCUSI? VORREI UN SACCHETTO!”.
Cue the launch of a plastic bag and immediate demand of €14.36. You start haphazardly shoving your purchases into the bag, simultaneously rifling through your purse for money, wishing you had eight arms, and finally chucking a crumpled twenty into the cashier’s palm (sorting out that change should buy you some time) and returning to the task at hand. He asks if you happen to have, mica, those 36 cents, because clearly that would make life so very much easier. For him. No, purely on principal, you do not have any change at all, so you continue packing like it’s an Olympic event. Two more items in the bag and he’s handing over a lot of coins. You shove them straight in your pocket; this is no time to be faffing around with a wallet.
Beep. Beep. Oh Jesus, he’s started serving the next customer, and your goods are still in the goods collection zone (incidentally, the case each and every time you visit the supermarket, and not in any way limited to the pre-closing-time-rush. To see that I am not the only one who feels this, please click here)
You shove the rest of the items in the bag as quickly as you can and clear the exit zone as fast as possible, praying that your peaches don’t get bruised and your hastily packed eggs stay intact until you have a chance to publicly repack on the bench outside, away from the chaos.
Shame you forgot the one thing you went in for really, isn’t it?
If you hadn’t noticed, it’s the 2nd September. Again. A whole year has passed since my first journey to Madrid, the much-dreaded first day involving blistered hands from heavy suitcases, total linguistic ineptitude, and the pathetic display of a teary breakdown on the streets of Spain; and since then so much has changed. Yes, my suitcases weigh just as much, no doubt even more; my language skills still leave a lot to be desired; and I am once again on the brink of emotional meltdown, but not because I don’t want to be here - au contraire - because I don’t want to leave.
Yesterday, I booked my flight home. Although I should have just decided on a date weeks ago and booked while the tickets were considerably cheaper, actually setting a date for my inevitable return felt like failure, like weakness, like giving in. Now that I know definitely that by 4pm on the 25th September, I will be back on the cold, muddy island that is the UK, I can’t help thinking that I must spend every minute of every day enjoying myself as much as humanly possible. This next year in Durham, despite there being lots of people who I am very excited about seeing, is probably going to be exceedingly stressful for us, not only as it’s our final year but also due to the fact that it’s been so very long since 9am seminars, oral classes and presentations have been part of our lives. It seems so strange now that I would ever have wanted to count down the days to my YA being over (and let’s face it, to the upcoming year of stress and panic), and 3-and-a-bit weeks seems like such a short period of time to have left on this totally bizarre year-long-partially-government-funded holiday.
Since I’ve been back from America, on what is now a voluntary year abroad segment rather than an imposed one, I’ve already been putting Mission Make The Most Of Italy into action, with a daily diet of at least one gelato (more points for risky flavours and combinations, a double score for ordering a flavour without knowing what it is) and one Italian food which is much less delicious in England (think focaccia, pesto, stracchino – of which yesterday evening I must have consumed about a pound, finding myself feeling too proud of this achievement to even feel unwell…) and as I’ve tried to do since the very beginning, but haven’t been quite so successful at until more recently, the Just Say Yes motto has been in full force, resulting in many a spontaneous evening of food, drink and socializing. I’ve ended up having a much more fun and decidedly more delicious time since I’ve been back, and now want time to go a little bit more slowly so that I can squeeze in as many ice creams, Vespa rides and meals involving real pesto as I possibly can, and not even the delightful summer cold I have mysteriously picked up despite the constant heat (life is so unjust) will stop me. Carpe Diem, and all that. Final weeks of crazy, wonderful, nomadic lifestyle – here I come.
There’s something very nice about going away on holiday when you are already more or less on holiday to begin with. In particular, it makes coming back from holiday significantly less depressing. When I got back to Genoa, despite being extremely irate at the ridiculous organization that is Ryanair, and their shameless con artistry which meant that I had to give them forty more of my pounds to check in my hand luggage which weighed not even 2 kilos more than their measly recommendation… where was I? Oh yes, despite that, I had a warm feeling when I returned, due only in part to the foul humidity and sweltering heat.
When I dragged my enormous suitcase back through the doors of Casa Carbonara, only one of my housemates, Ivan, was home. Lorenzo moved flat while I was away as he’s got a new job, and Ilaria is back in Pisa but will probably be returning at some point soon. Almost immediately, I went to sleep to try to rid myself of the jetlag which was not thanking me for adding yet another hour’s difference for my already highly confused body clock to deal with.
The next day, I was feeling slightly more chipper and wandered down into the centre, which has become a Ferragosto ghost town, as practically all Italians use this week/fortnight/month every year to go to either the beach or the mountains, to get away from the heat and make the most of a holiday, because there are simply not enough of those in Italy already, it would appear…
While I was making the most of good old multinational H&M being open while the majority of shops, cafés, restaurants, supermarkets etc. were firmly closed until the end of the month, I got a call from my landlord/friend/previous inhabitant of my house Stefano, asking if I was up to anything. Obviously choosing a new nail varnish shade does not classify, so I said I could meet him. A little while later, we hopped on his Vespa (sidenote: I’m not sure how much longer I can cope without one of these) and went to his house to collect his dog and his car. It turned out his plans for the afternoon included not only going for a drink and dinner later on, but first taking his dog to the vet to get his prostate examined. As the vet poked his little finger into the poor pooch’s bottom, explaining all along what he was doing, I realized that there are moments when I wish my Italian had not improved quite so much. Thankfully the examination was eventually over, so Stefano, Peter the dog – unsurprisingly looking quite embarrassed and violated, and I hopped back in the car to collect Stefano’s friend Carlo to go for a drink. We ended up having a couple of drinks and then going for a meal of generic Asian food at a restaurant called Sushi Wok, chatted about an array of bizarre topics, and the typically strange but nevertheless very enjoyable day just proved that coming back was the right thing to do, and when I went to bed I was most definitely happy to be back ‘home’.
Not even having unpacked, on Thursday morning, it was time for my next adventure. I packed my overnight bag, trundled off to Piazza Principe, and got on an 8 hour train to Naples, from where I would get another to go to Sorrento for the wedding of two English people, which we’ve been organizing. I was sat on the train in a set of 4 seats with a table in between, next to a girl who was opposite her apparently boyfriend, who spent the entire eight hours either openly declaring their love for each other, snogging over the table with excessively visible tongues (this constituted roughly 85% of the journey), holding each others faces in their hands and pouting at each other, and being on the whole excessively irritating.
After another hour on the Circumvesuviana train, I arrived in Sorrento and was greeted by Sonia and Massimo who took me out to a great pizzeria, which turned out to have changed hands since they were last there and no longer served any kind of pizza at all. Nevertheless, the food was delicious, even though it wasn’t the promised pizza. We had some wine and Massimo befriended the couple on the table next to us, then deciding that we should all go out together. We headed off with our two new pals to a little bar, had some more drinks and then went to a very cool outdoor club in Massa Lubrense to do some dancing.
We ended up staying in a B&B found for us the day before by an – ahem – friend of a friend, if you know what I mean. The room consisted of Sonia and Massimo’s room and an en suite, and then my room off to the side of theirs, just confirming really that I have been adopted as some kind of daughter/little sister/pet. In the morning, I was awakened - very few hours after going to bed - by Massimo who thought it appropriate to tickle my feet to do so. We had breakfast outside in the shade, where it was still far too hot, and then went off to meet the groom, because in case you’ve forgotten – and I admit I almost did too – we had come to Sorrento for the wedding and not just for a mini-break.
After going off to meet the groom and coming to the conclusion that there was very little we needed to do, off we drove to the beach to have some lunch, then headed back to change and go to the Town Hall where the ceremony would be. Calling Villa Fondi a ‘Town Hall’ doesn’t really do it justice. It’s essentially a typical Town Hall style building, but is perched on the edge of a cliff over the sea, has a park to wander around, and looks out over Mount Vesuvius. I’d seen photos of the venue before going, but didn’t really understand the layout well, and was quite blown away that the views in real life were really just like the photos. The wedding went fairly well, although by the end of the ceremony most guests were huddled under a tree in the shade, as it really was ridiculously hot.
While the wedding party went off for their reception, the three of us went for dinner at the restaurant where the bride and groom initially wanted their reception, but which didn’t have space. We chatted with the owner, who had been very… proactive… in finding us other solutions so that the wedding could take place there, but we had decided not to take him up on his various offers involving his, shall we say, contacts. As you can imagine though, we ate very well, had some excellent Sorrento limoncello, and were even given a tour around the restaurant and kitchens, which was slightly odd to say the least, but we ate, drank and laughed a lot and I had yet another hilarious evening with my adoptive Italians.
Coming home was a somewhat less jovial affair. Sonia and Massimo had rented a car from Pescara which needed to be returned to Rome, and I was going to have to change train in Rome anyway, so I decided to hitch a lift with them. Everything was going well until we hit Rome itself; a maze of a one way system, with some of the most unforgiving traffic wardens I’ve ever seen. We were driving around for an hour, windows down with Massimo shouting all manner of vocabulary that I can’t use in my oral exam, and my personal favourite episode was when we accidentally drove down a road made exclusively for trams, not realizing that cars weren’t allowed until we drove through the station, past about 30 quite puzzled-looking commuters. At the end of this road, we could join a road made for cars, but the traffic warden at the end was entirely unsympathetic to our plight, instead making us reverse back down the same street. Two minutes before we had to be at the rental place, we arrived.
Roma Termini station in mid-August is not a great place to be. The queues are extraordinary and trains very full. By some miracle, we managed to get tickets and get on a train without as many problems as we predicted at first sight of the mile long queue for the biglietteria, and got on our train. About an hour into the 5 hour journey, we started feeling quite warm. That’s right, friends, the air conditioning was broken. Not only was the air conditioning broken, but shortly after, the train ground to a halt in the middle of nowhere, stopping for a rather long time, and we were unable to open doors or windows, it being one of those exceptionally cleverly designed trains which rely entirely on the air-con for ventilation. The journey went on for 1 and a half more hours than predicted, most of it without fresh air, stopping sporadically at stations to let everybody off to breathe, and when we finally got back to Genova, we were all slightly fed up, nobody more so than poor Massimo who by this point had decided that it really just wasn’t his day.
In spite of our slightly problematic return leg of the journey, and a stay which was far too short, it was the weird and wonderful experience I’ve come to expect of Italy, and I got back just in time to tuck in to an amazing dinner including mussels and other pescetarian treats with Stefano, Lorenzo, some of their friends, Stefano’s girlfriend, their beautiful baby and their dog.
Having felt so settled in Italy, going away for 3 weeks to America suddenly felt like a very bad idea. Although I was looking forward to going and to spending 3 weeks with Ben and his family - for the longest time I’ve seen him for over a year - packing up and leaving didn’t seem like the right thing to do, and there were so many things to do before I left that I had almost not thought about the holiday itself. Having said that, by about a day into the trip, I was one hundred percent happy I’d gone.
I’ll try to summarize the sequence of events, but I can’t even begin to explain how much fun it all was. We had an incredible holiday featuring lots of eating, drinking, laughing, sunbathing, hot tubbing, road tripping and general silliness.
We started off in Montecito, in a beautiful house close to the beach, relaxing in the hot tub every night and exploring the town and nearby Santa Barbara during the day. Ben tried his hand at surfing on his new surfboard; while I sat on the beach commenting on how many shark attack programs I’d seen which featured the California coastline, then tried myself for about 5 minutes, thoroughly terrified of having a chunk bitten out of me throughout, and obviously failing to even stand. We visited Starbucks – how could you go to America and not? – and also found an incredible cupcake shop, some amazing sandy beaches which were, unlike in Italy, not completely rammed full, although the water was absolutely freezing, especially compared to the warm bath that is the Mediterranean.
Next stop on our tour was Big Bear Lake, up in the mountains in the San Bernardino National Forest, within which some of The Parent Trap was filmed – fact. We were there for a couple of days, exploring a little bit and trying to avoid being eaten by bears, bitten by poisonous spiders or encountering mountain lions, but being quite thankful that there were at least no sharks in the lake.
After Big Bear, we drove down the mountain again and along the coast to Huntington Beach. While we were there, the US Open of Surfing was going on, meaning the whole place was full of people and there were some pretty impressive surfers around, some of whom were, incredibly, even better than me. We had a relaxing week on the beach, risking body boarding in the enormous waves a couple of times, resulting in a lot of bruises and scrapes, and watching the pros. Ben, Hannah and I cycled out for a high class dinner at McDonald’s, and at the end of the week we all went to the beach for a free Jimmy Eat World, Surfer Blood and MGMT concert. Brilliant.
One day, we went to L.A. for the day, to see what all the fuss was about. Los Angeles is enormous, and I wasn’t really aware of how big it was before going there. We drove around doing a tour, stopping off in Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Santa Monica. Hollywood is a very photogenic place; in real life it is nothing like how I imagined it and most names on the Walk of Fame mean nothing to me. The Hollywood sign isn’t visible from everywhere, and looks much less impressive in real life. Beverly Hills may well have some amazing houses, but it is also toured every minute of the day by tourists on open top buses trying to spot celebrities, which did make me wonder why the stars like living there so much. In the afternoon, we walked along the seaside and down the pier at Santa Monica to have a look around, taking some touristy photos by the Muscle Beach sign and admiring some fitness freaks at work before heading back to Huntington, and then moving on to our next destination.
The next and final stop was La Jolla Shores, where we stayed in a gorgeous place resembling a dolls house, very close to the beach which was perfect for beginner surfing so where I finally learnt, despite frequent sightings of stingrays and constant terror of shark attack. Even though the weather wasn’t great, we had so much fun, even going to San Diego Zoo one day for Hannah and I to find the meerkats, along the way seeing polar bears, a slow loris and lots of lovely koalas. After what seemed like no time at all, it was time to come home again, thankfully with all limbs completely intact, well except for my swollen foot which was sustained falling off my surfboard in a wave much bigger than I was competent of surfing on…
The trip went so quickly and it was sad to come home, particularly to a severe bout of jetlag and the knowledge that I won’t be seeing Ben for a while, but when ‘coming home’ means returning to England for a day and then jetting off back to the Italian Riviera, there’s only so much one can complain.
Every day since my last blog on the – ahem – 29th June, has flown past faster than I realized was possible. Here I find myself, on oh good gracious the twenty-flipping-second of August, with not a lot to do besides tidy up what looks like the remnants of a wardrobe explosion, as I’ve still not summoned the energy, or indeed the time, to unpack properly from my various adventures. I have quite possibly no more than five weeks of my year abroad remaining, and frankly don’t even know where to begin, as details have blurred sufficiently by now for the period post-last-blog-but-pre-holiday to seem like a tornado of contented chaos.
29th June – 8th July
The rest of the babysitting/English teaching experience went by without too many problems. There were so many children that I essentially let them run riot whenever the parents were out of earshot, throwing in some games every so often and spending the majority of the time trying to stop the little monkeys from scratching each others eyes out, putting anything toxic in their mouths or climbing over the balcony railings. One of the little girls, Giorgia, was an absolute sweetie, and by the final Friday I did momentarily contemplate squidging her into my handbag and taking her away with me, but a couple of the others were definitely getting more than a little bit on my nerves by then, and in the end I decided to leave them all exactly where they were. I remember the two weeks feeling endless at times, but looking back on them, I now barely remember being there at all. Strange, how that happens.
Amidst the sleep deprived couple of weeks when I had two jobs to go to, I also dragged my many kilos of belongings across town and moved house, into Casa Carbonara, the oddly decorated flat which is almost embarrassingly close to Sonia’s, meaning my daily commute is now about a 6 minute walk, albeit up an atrocious series of scalette. The housemates are lovely – I don’t see them an awful lot as they’re working/off on their own little adventures, but there’s usually someone in the house to talk to if I want, which is nice, and I feel very much at home. Living here also means that I get the amazing view from Spianata Castelletto every time I go into the centre of town, which always brings a smile to my face.
9th – 15th July
Sleep deprived and with a bloodstream comprising at least 60% espresso, I hopped on a plane the morning after finishing with the bambini, to head to England for Cat’s beautiful 21st party. Although when I left, I wasn’t desperate to be back in England as I have been before visits home at other points during the year, I had such fun and I undoubtedly previewed what I’m going to be like next year in Durham; spouting a monologue to anyone and everyone about how I’ve fallen in love with the Year Abroad, very much regardless of whether or not they want to hear me tell them. A couple of days later I returned to Genoa, but not alone. Molly, as well as Charlotte and Rachel, who featured in the Galicia portion of my year, flew back with me to stay for a few days, which happily coincided with my birthday.
Thanks to my flexible timetable, we managed to go on a couple of little trips; to the beach in Bogliasco on the first day, and then to Nervi on my birthday, where Rachel managed to slice her foot open on a rock, resulting in an opportunity for me to practice my ‘medical emergencies’ vocabulary, and a painful few days for her. Thankfully we still managed some dancing, drinking and a whole lot of eating, and were joined by Liv, who shares my love for food generally, and Italian food specifically; and her friend Lottie, who also joined in whole heartedly with our – and especially, my – seemingly non stop gastronomic tour of Genoa, which featured my two favourite aperitivo spots, as well as a pizzeria into whose flowerpot Liv took a little tumble one evening, much to everybody’s delight. Having the girls around was great; I had a good catch up with them all; even watched a bit of Green Wing with Molly like we used to do back in the day; loved going out for a little dance with other people who know the words to the songs to save me from singing along alone, watched by confused Italians mouthing na-na-na-na-na; and I really enjoyed showing people around here, even though I know that other people won’t see the city in the same way; it’s definitely not a very easy place to get to know, and I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what is here after a few months, so can’t imagine how confusing visitors find it when they’re only here for a couple of days.
18th – 22nd July
After a whole two days of relaxing, my next visitor, my Mum, arrived. She’d wanted to visit me for a while, and we’d finally decided that she could come right at the end of my time in Italy in order to help me transport my luggage back to the UK. By this stage though, I’d inconveniently decided that 3 months in Italy was just not long enough, so our careful planning was wasted. However, having her here was great, especially because she and I share the same views on what makes a good holiday, so we spent our days wandering around from café to café, drinking a lot of coffee, and filling the gaps with ice cream from Genoa’s incredible gelaterie. We saw American Ben, had an ice cream and a catch up, and said our goodbyes, as he went back to the States while I was away. I had what was supposed to be my last day at work, feeling extremely bad for abandoning Sonia to deal with the wedding of Bridezilla on her own, but glad I was going to come back. After what had felt like the fastest 3 weeks on record, I hastily shoved most of my belongings into my suitcase and we went to the airport on our way home and it was confirmed that I’d made the right choice to extend my stay…
I spent several hours on Thursday evening with Sonia and a not particularly pleasant Russian bride in the office of an extremely patient florist, while the bride-to-be turned her nose up at each and every one of his suggestions until finally giving in and making a flipping decision several hours later, being altogether less than courteous the entire time.
After that rather unpleasant encounter with the Russian, Sonia invited me for an aperitivo with her, Massimo and some of their friends. An aperitivo turned into a long drink, which turned into dinner, which turned into a small bar crawl until 3.30am. It was excellent, professional boundaries have now been well and truly crossed, and I am not ashamed to admit that I had fun with people who are old enough to be my parents, even if I was referred to as a bambina on more than one occasion.
Now, this one’s the real kicker. At 3.45am on Friday morning, I was getting in to bed, after the excellent spontaneous night out with a lot of grown ups, and had a quick check of my emails. Awaiting me was a message from the landlord/housemate of the house I’m supposed to be moving in to on Friday. Being as it was that I’d just emailed before to ask if he wanted to meet up some time to go over what he wanted as a deposit, when I could move in, getting the keys etc. etc., when I saw an enormous chunk of text as a reply, my stomach jumped promptly into my mouth and I already knew something wasn’t right. Intuition was indeed correct, and the email was sent to tell me that for some very complicated reason involving lawyers and an angry current tenant, I can’t move there. He did sound fairly apologetic, and it was a very polite email and all that, but both of those things did not manage to disguise the ugly truth that I had under a week to find somewhere else to live, as my current landlady has found somebody to move in here on Friday morning. Hmm.
In my panicked state, I decided to make a call to the landlady of approximately 90% of the properties on easystanza.com, good old ‘Sara’ who made me cry on Day 1, when I phoned to ask if I could look at a flat and was shouted at in fast Italian for not knowing the precise address of where I was working, and then for not understanding what she was shouting at me for. Desperate times, though, so I called her back and miraculously managed to arrange a visit to a house in a relatively nice looking area that very afternoon. I arrived at the meeting place and was greeted by a maroon-haired, badly dressed, rather chunky, middle-aged Italian lady who kept starting sentences with “Perche io non sono la signora che….” but then talking so fast that I didn’t know what kind of signora she was or was not. I was, however, about to find out. We waited for another girl to join us, who was being shown a flat on the way to my one. The three of us went inside, and were shown an enormous but extremely sparse 8-bedroom apartment with, as far as I could see, one bathroom… Anyway, she showed us around and prattled on for a while about how she’d evict someone if they left a plate unwashed, and then started saying that if you have a boyfriend, they are most definitely not allowed to sleep over, and in fact that nobody is allowed to sleep over, and that tenants may have friends over in the evening once a week. I, having already decided I wasn’t going to live in an 8 person flat anyway (particularly one owned by this lunatic), asked her if this meant that my 3 friends coming to stay for my birthday would be a problem. She then proceeded to screech back at me with phrases like, “why should my property be used as a hotel?” and, “what do you think the other people living here would think if they woke up in the morning and saw a stranger going in to their bathroom?!”. Well, lady, I’m gonna say that with 8 people already living there, they probably wouldn’t even notice. “And”, she went on, “where would you make them sleep? The floor?!”. I really thought that wasn’t her problem to worry about, and was about to leave anyway when she left me with this gem, “Well, if it’s going to be like that, I’m not even going to show you the other apartment”. Ciao, Sara. Ciao.
At work on Friday afternoon, I was super-dooper-extra-mega lazy. After sending one only ever so slightly important email, I started having a chat with Sonia about the Mafia (as usual, she talked a lot while I found it all very interesting but could only pipe up with little noises of agreement every so often). This chat was then relocated from the table on the terrace to the sun loungers on the terrace, and the topic changed from the quite serious matter of organized crime, to the somewhat more trivial topics of where we want to go on holiday, Gap years, and how I don’t know any Italian grammar. We remained there for a good couple of hours until 7pm when it was decided that the arduous day of work should end. Not a particularly interesting story, I appreciate, but I came out of *ahem* work, feeling a whole lot less stressed about my imminent state of senzatetto, and probably a tiny bit more tanned, which I think can only be deemed a success story.
Friday was also John the Baptist Day or something similar, which meant it was a bank holiday, everything was shut in a way that only happens on Christmas Day in England, that is except for a Carrefour near to work. I popped in to get some essentials (bottles of water, yogurt, fruit juice, cereal etc…) and was about half way home when the handles fell off the shopping bag and I had to carry my goods home in my arms like a particularly angular infant. When I got back, rather irate, American Ben cheered me up slightly by telling me that there were fireworks that night for San Whatever-his-name-was Day, so we walked off to Spianata Castelletto, where there’s a pretty good view over the port and the centre of the city, where the fireworks would be. He’d read on the Internet that they would take place at 11pm, which came and went, but we thought they were probably just being Italian about it, and hung around until half past, convinced they would start. But they didn’t. At all. We got back and checked on the website, and it turns out they were in Voltri, not Genoa city centre, absolutely miles away, just putting the cherry on top of somewhat rubbish day. I did guilt Ben into buying me an ice cream on the way home, though. That helped.
Apartment search, onward. I arranged a couple of viewings for Saturday afternoon, and went off to the first which was in a slightly inconvenient location, but wasn’t down any dodgy alleyways (of which there are plenty…) and was on a good bus line at least. The house itself was very nice, spacious, clean, etc., but I was told by the landlady that the other bedroom in the house wasn’t going to be ready until mid August, so I’d be living alone until then. Not ideal. I mumbled something about calling her and letting her know, and went off to catch the bus to apartment viewing number two, which was about 100 metres away from my current flat. I was greeted by a frizzy-haired, middle-aged lady whom I presumed to be the landlady, until it became apparent that this was her family home. Obviously I couldn’t leave right away, so was shown around by this odd character, who talked to her cat as if it were a person the entire flipping time. Not even just, “what a nice kitty”, but rather, “Why are you not saying hello to the guest? Why? WHY?”… You get the idea. I politely told her I’d ‘let her know’ as well, because I’m too much of a coward to tell people I don’t like them, their homes and/or their eccentric animal-whispering ways, and promptly sulked off back to my flat to ask Boring Ben if he knew anybody locally in whose doorway I could sleep for the next 3 months.
During one apartment viewing, Sonia texted, asking me to come for dinner, and to invite Ben to come along too, so a couple of hours later, off we went. We were in the office (a.k.a. the roof terrace) with its amazing view which I’ve only ever seen in daylight but which is even more beautiful at sunset; ate very well (homemade pizza really is the best kind of pizza) and drank and chatted and socialized with my new middle-aged acquaintances, including the barman, and the daughter of the venue owners, from the party a few weeks ago, both of whom I liked a lot, with the people I’d met a couple of nights previously, and with a somewhat odd man called, as far as I could tell, ‘Jobby’, who gave us a long, detailed, description in broken English of how he thinks humankind is comparable to a sunflower… Once again though, I managed to thoroughly enjoy an evening of grown up company, and stayed until 3am, having not realized how late it was, on the lash with my boss for the second night in a week. Excellent.
To take my mind off not having found a house, I decided to still go to Piemonte with Luca, Francesca, Davide and two of Francesca’s friends, Tiziana and Francesco, on Sunday, as it had been organized before Marco had told me the bad news about the flat. I was picked up in Davide’s car, and was driven to there with everyone, except Luca who was already at his house in the little town called Viola. The drive was beautiful, through an endless number of extremely green hills and stunning views, and after a couple of hours, we arrived and tucked into lots of delicious food, sat around, chatted, laughed, and obviously ate. We spent the afternoon walking around the town, which is very cute and looks almost like a French ski resort except obviously much greener as it is, after all, June, playing in childrens’ playgrounds and being juvenile. I did a lot of laughing along and contributed very little to conversations, but did genuinely have a great time, and understood pretty much everything that was going on, which I was pretty pleased about because I know that a couple of weeks ago this wouldn’t have been the case. It was essentially an afternoon of being silly, making friends and practicing Italian in a beautiful, beautiful place. I don’t think I could ask for much more than that…
I started an additional job on Monday, looking after Massimo’s sister Sabrina’s, and her neighbours’, kids, from 9-2 every day for the next two weeks, as their au pair has gone on holiday. I agreed to do it right when I first arrived, when I was convinced I’d be bored out of my mind and desperate for something to do, but now feel far too busy to be spending 5 hours of my day looking after children… I was anticipating 2-4 of them, but turned up to find a grand total of 5. They’re individually all quite well behaved, but as there are so very many of them, they can be pretty wild. Essentially, they are wearing me out a lot, and I’m kind of just letting them run wild, safe in the knowledge that after next Friday they will not be my problem. The littlest girl, Ilaria, is pretty cute though, and wants to cuddle me all the time, the second littlest girl, Giorgia, is a cutie - quite naughty, but adorable, so I let her get away with it. The littlest boy, Mario, is pretty irritating at times and is an answerer-back, which drives me insane, the older boy, Gabriele, is sometimes very good and sometimes does precisely the opposite of what he’s told to do, and the eldest girl, Silvia, is lovely (maybe I am just destined to have an 8 year old as a best friend?) and well behaved and as a result is probably my favourite. I’ll keep you updated.
After my childcare job, and my afternoon wedding-planning job, completely exhausted, I went to see another flat. It’s pretty close to work, in a fairly nice area, and it’s easy to get to the town centre and to Sonia’s from there. The flat itself isn’t especially nice; the bedroom is bright orange, it’s all a little bit run down, and there’s only Internet in the dining room, but the people living there all seemed very nice, complimented my Italian, and seemed pretty fun, but all work, so it hopefully isn’t like the student flat I had in Madrid. The girl whose room it is is absolutely lovely, we had quite a long chat about various things in Italian, which I love doing just to prove to myself that I can, and I wish she was around to be friends with rather than going home, but the others seem pretty lively and fun, and it costs a lot less than my current flat, so I said I’d take it, and consequently have a roof over my head guaranteed for Friday. I then went for aperitivo with Daphne and ranted on for quite a long time about how much I like Italy. What a productive evening.
Very much like Monday, minus the joy of finding a flat. Tired, because it’s too hot to sleep at the moment, and because of spending my mornings herding children, but oh so awake thanks to substituting several hours of sleep for several espressos. Oh dear.
I spent the morning trying to stop what felt like 9 billion children from destroying a perfectly nice house, and was then picked up (early, phew) by Massimo and Sonia, in Massimo’s fast, shiny, lovely Porsche – and bundled myself into the decidedly unglamorous back seat – to go for a very quick visit to the Eremo della Maddalena near Monterosso, to sort out a few last minute things like fireworks and sound systems for the Russian girl’s wedding, which is annoyingly happening the day after I go on holiday to America so which I won’t be able to see. Everything was sorted out, the venue was beautiful, and the transport there and back was equally so. Yes, I returned looking more than a little bit windswept, but the amazing views, and how cool I felt whizzing around at 170km/h made it worth it, and I now don’t think my life will be complete until I have a convertible sports car.
Despite everything, a weird, wonderful, surprising and amazing week.
Excluding one sole photo of a piece of delicious and utterly artery-clog-tastic focaccia, it’s been a little while since I updated you on my Ligurian exploits.
Life is just plodding along nicely, as life tends to do. Genoa continues to present me with such delights as some of the fattest sausage dogs I’ve ever seen, and gelato so delicious I feel the need to consume a small mountain of it every day and consequently wonder if I’ll even fit through my own front door come September. Despite the threat of imminent and morbid obesity, I’m extremely happy here. I don’t really know what’s happened, but since a couple of weeks ago, it’s like the year abroad and I have resolved all of our issues and are now ready to spend the rest of our lives together, gazing lovingly into each others eyes over a plate of trofie al pesto. Unfortunately a) the year abroad is rather more abstract than that, and b) just to wake me up from my dream of a lifetime of sunshine and gluttony, October, fourth year, and the promise of having to read more intellectual materials than Italian Glamour and write more intellectual content than my Italian phone number on my own hand in felt tip pen seem to be approaching horribly quickly. If I’m honest, I’m already getting quite sad at the idea of YA ever ending, in much the same way as I was just before going to Madrid when I thought it never would…
My espresso addiction is officially back with a vengeance; I’m on at least 2 a day, have also developed a penchant for frozen, coffee flavoured yogurt (don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it), and Sonia now times her own coffee fix in anticipation of my arrival through the door. I think this is what the ‘learning about other cultures’ part of all those year abroad talks was about.
I still don’t have a friendship group in the same way as I did in Madrid and Ourense, but I’m happy anyway (if I’ve learnt one thing this year it’s been to enjoy my own company). My friend Luca who I found in this blogtakes me on little trips in his shiny car, and is generally very nice, introducing me to his friends and providing me with much needed human interaction. I’ve met up with Catherine, my ‘friend-of-a-friend’ and her boyfriend again, who are also very lovely but who I haven’t seen much of, I see my old housemate Daphne occasionally, and I’ve also slightly changed my mind about Ben, my newish American housemate. I think I’ve succeeded in annoying him so much that he has just decided we can be friends now, and when he’s not standing in the kitchen watching the washing machine go round, drinking his Scotch, or telling me it’s way past his bedtime at 10:30pm, he is interesting, and makes me laugh. I would say he’s ‘fun’, but that, he is by his own admission, not.
My job is still super, I still spend my afternoons sitting on a roof terrace having coffee and conversations (she talks, I nod and say ‘si’ a lot), and last week I had my first experience of a party which we (Sonia) had planned. I went down to the venue in Bogliasco – a nice little village, pastel coloured houses, cute little streets, I imagine you have got the jist of Ligurian towns by now – at lunchtime on the day of the party. When I arrived, the venue owner was slaving away over a hot stove preparing all the delicious smelling food for the buffet, the sun was shining, Sonia, Massimo and the rest of the family who own the amazing villa were standing outside having a chat and a cigarette and looking very much unconcerned about the boxes and bags of candles, lanterns, tablecloths… lying around. We started setting things out at a very leisurely pace, and lo and behold a whacking great black cloud came over the beautiful terrace where the whole party was supposed to take place and poured rain all over it until several hours later, just 30 minutes before the guests turned up. Obviously during the rain all we could do was stand around talking about there being nothing we could do, until panic stations were assumed and the three of us and the family had to run around like headless chickens setting everything out, finishing just as all the guests started to arrive. Just to add insult to injury, the waiter didn’t turn up for a good few hours, and there was so much more to do than anticipated, so we all worked our little bottoms off putting out food, collecting plates, cutting cake, pouring drinks, telling guests where to go, and everything in between, until finally finishing at… 1.30am. Even though walking up the famous Genoese stairways the next day was a bit painful after 11 hours on my feet, the whole thing was surprisingly enjoyable (because as anyone who’s seen me the night before essay deadlines knows, I just love the stress) and I’m looking forward to the weddings now!
A few days ago, Ben came to visit, which was great – except I think I spent half of the time he was here endlessly ranting on about how much I love Italy and varied descriptions of the many reasons this is the case, and the only reason this monologue stopped at any point (i.e. the other 50% of the time) it was because I had so much delicious Italian food in my mouth that I couldn’t speak.
We had to go to Portofino as I needed to talk to some restaurants there about a wedding I’m helping plan for work, so that was a pretty good excuse as I’ve been wanting to go there for a while anyway. Despite uncharacteristically horrid weather, ridiculous prices for everything and rather too many American tourists for my liking, I got my ‘work’ done, and it is lovely there. At the weekend we just wandered around Genova for one afternoon as I’ve realized I don’t actually know what there is to do here except my 3 weekend activities: spending several hours in H&M and/or Zara, eating ice cream from every gelateria I come across, and drinking enough coffee that I shouldn’t be able to sleep for weeks on end, but somehow always manage to anyway. On Sunday, we took the train to Camogli – definitely one of my favourite places ever, it’s just beautiful, pastel coloured houses, pretty coastline, blah blah blah – to top up my horrible skin damage cracking tan, and generally do the tourist thing, which I’ve not really done yet what with being on my own and desperately trying to appear to be anything but a tourist. On his last night here, we went out for a nice dinner to celebrate his degree results (wooo!) in a tiny little fishing village (yes, yes, cute fishing village again, I know, but this kind of thing really will never get old for me) called Boccadasse, which is technically part of Genova but feels like another world. I’d been there a few days before for ice cream with my new friends and it was so cute that, just like everywhere else I’ve been in Italy, I just needed to take somebody there to show it off, like a proud mother or something of the sort. We had amazing food, I got some fairly severe food envy at Ben’s chocolate cake (and subsequently ate a significant proportion of it myself) and we were ready to wander home when we saw people putting little tea-lights in cupcake cases, and walking them into the sea (some old men taking off their trousers and trotting on into the waves in their underwear… yum). It turns out this is a little thing they do every year in Boccadasse to end the annual poetry festival – people write a poem down, put it in the case along with the candle, and take it into the sea, so the beach is quickly lit up by hundreds of floating candles. It was so beautiful, and the photos just don’t do it justice.
I’ll stop banging on about what a great time I’m having now as I feel I’ve just turned into the quintessential Year Abroad bore, but rest assured I am now enjoying every last minute here, and am trying to come up with some clever way to squeeze all the fun things I want to do into the next couple of months, or failing that, composing some kind of 5-year-plan incorporating a long stint in Liguria to get this newfound Italy infatuation out of my system once and for all…
This week, I’ve been sorting out my scrapbook. When there’s so much bizarre new stuff happening all the time, I like to stick all my little mementos in a book and write about memorable things which have happened, so that I can look back on it, forget all the times I wanted to go home, and appreciate the good stuff. I made one the first time I was in Italy, and when I lived in Madrid, and the Genova edition is now, a lot of glue and felt tips later, well underway. Anyway, while flicking through some magazines to find things to stick all over my craft project, I came across the perfect thing to sum up the whole experience: La vita è piena di momenti indimenticabili. I guess these unforgettable moments don’t have to be all good, for example, I will never forget the pit-of-my-stomach feeling when I first arrived in Italy, completely alone and clueless, or being stalked twice in as many days, but likewise recently a lot of things have happened which are unforgettable for better reasons.
At the weekend I went to see Liv in Modena. I had a first taste of Italian nightlife, a not so first, but nonetheless delicious, taste of Italian pizza, and we did a lot of walking, sightseeing, eating, drinking and chatting. We visited Parma which, although not unlike a lot of Italian cities, felt so friendly and lovely, and I was quite surprised that more people don’t visit it, because it’s so beautiful. Modena too is very pretty and, especially on a sunny day, those kinds of places remind me why I like Italy so much as a whole. Essentially, it was the perfect weekend away, and great to see a friendly face, especially a friendly face who’s been in Italy for longer than me and who can’t stop talking about what a great time she’s had, and I came back feeling much more cheery and optimistic after what’s been a generally fine, if slightly shaky, first month here.
When I got back, my housemate, Daphne, was moving to her new apartment as her plans had changed and she’d decided to stay in Genova, but our landlady had already found a replacement for her. ‘New Daphne’ is a perfectly nice but somewhat less talkative American, who decided it would be fitting to tell me on our first encounter that he doesn’t like to have fun - his words, not mine. This revelation, so early on, was a slight shame, as I’d been mentally planning all the ways in which my new best friend and I were going to go out into the city and make lots of other fun new pals, but obviously this dream was shattered rather earlier than I anticipated.
My job is still going really well, and despite the obvious disadvantage of not having lots of other people at work to be friends with (and the mountain of paperwork which is still not completed, sigh), I’m really enjoying it. Sonia is brilliant, accidentally teaches me a wealth of Italian bad language, has little chats with me about anything and everything, and even took pity on me this week and had me stay for an amazing lunch of homemade pesto. The cooking situation was pretty sublime as a couple of days before, we’d had a conversation about how neither of us know how to make anything more adventurous than a boiled egg, and yet she was convinced that she could make pesto without the help of her better culinary trained boyfriend, who shouldn’t really be cooking as he’s injured his hand in a, by the sounds of things, slightly outrageous night of football-fans-gone-wild, so up we went to the roof terrace to pick the basil. In the first 2 minutes of the sauce-making proceedings, problem number one: she couldn’t switch the blender on. This was followed by not being able to open an oil tin, which in turn was followed by a lot of laughing and her boyfriend pretty much just making the whole thing, quite literally single-handedly. However, despite a few minor hitches, it was great (how could home made pasta sauce not be?) and both Sonia and her boyfriend have been really lovely to me, which I appreciate a lot.
This week I’ve also, with the help of Daphne, found some aperitivo spots in Genova (one of them unfortunately overrun with the most fearless pigeons I’ve seen in my life), a cute little Mexican restaurant owned by the sweetest little Mexican-German-American-Italian lady, and a great little bar boasting 1€ glasses of (surprisingly) very nice wine, even if the patrons do include the hawaiian shirt clad Creepy Stefano, a character in at least his late 30s or early 40s, who saw a snide comment about English Public Schools as an appropriate conversation starter, before hanging around being somewhat peculiar for quite a while longer.
Yesterday though, I definitely had a small breakthrough. As you are no doubt aware by now, I’ve spent a whole month only hanging out with my housemate, who isn’t even here most of the time, and spending a lot of time thinking of completely unrealistic ways in which to make friends. A number of weeks ago though, I met a friend-of-a-friend, and a couple of friends of hers. She has what sounds like a pretty time consuming job and not a lot of time for a social life, and I was more than a little bit lost when they were all speaking to each other in very fast Italian, but they were all very nice and it’s a bit of a shame that I’ve failed to pin her down for the last couple of weeks. However, one of her friends got in touch and we were planning on going out with some of his friends at the weekend, but plans fell through due to a lack of car space, so he suggested we do something the next day instead.
In the year abroad spirit of making friends with people you don’t really know, ignoring what your parents told you about not speaking to strangers, and forcing yourself to say yes to things that you’d normally be far too sensible to do, I agreed to a motorbike ride. I know, highly out of character and against all my better judgement, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Having stupidly told my mother my plans for the afternoon via text and receiving a frosty and disconcerting reply outlining the importance of well-fitting head protection, my new potential friend and I went (very slowly because let’s face it, I am completely pathetic) off to Nervi, the little seaside village I went to a couple of weeks ago. I actually had a really pleasant afternoon, we had a nice chat and I practiced a very small bit of Italian between much more fluent conversations in English, and it looks like I may finally, at long, long last, have made a friend. And of course, most importantly, I felt very cool on the back of a motorbike…
It’s just as well I know the Italian word for bureaucracy, because there’s certainly plenty of that to do at the moment.
For my internship, which as we all know very well is just the official word for my sitting on a sunny roof terrace with a very nice lady, drinking coffee, chatting, looking at photos of beautiful weddings, and sending the odd email, it appears there is actually rather a lot of official paperwork which needs doing, obviously completely unnecessarily as this is nothing like one of those proper, formal, real-life internships.
Basically, as my ‘boss’, although it feels bizarre to call her that as she’s more like a… cool aunt, or something, isn’t technically registered as being able to have an intern, as the business is hers and only she works there, and for insurance purposes, or something, it seems that she and I have to go to various inconveniently located offices to fill in forms, obtain codes and numbers and, if you’re lucky, clues and instructions for the next step. The process is rather like Fort Boyard - if you ever watched that fantastic example of broadcasting - except loads less fun.
Somewhere in the proceedings, I also managed to accidentally lie on official paperwork. In the first office, while filling in my place of birth, I realized I didn’t really know how to say Northern Ireland, so instead of guessing, I wrote “Lisburn, Ireland”. Not wrong. After my handing the form in, the lady swiftly crossed out “Lisburn” and printed me an official document, my codice fiscale, which said “Stato Estero di Nascita: IRLANDA”. However, it didn’t say Republic of Ireland, and Lisburn is in Ireland, so I decided to avoid yet another hour of waiting in the Ufficio di Whatever-it-was, and leave it. However, today, in another office for the next step of the endless proceedings, they asked me my place of birth, and so that all the forms matched, I had to go with “Irlanda”… As a result, I have a document from the employment office stating “Stato Nase: Irlanda-eire”. Which most definitely means Republic of Ireland. Woops. Hopefully nobody checks these things, or that’s probably in some way not so legal.
Yet, after trips to two offices in two not-particularly-convenient places in Genova, on two consecutive early mornings, the episode is by no means over. Oh no, next up, I get to (more specifically, am obliged to, apparently) go to a four-hour safety in the workplace seminar, on top of numerous other office trips to get things stamped and signed and filled in in triplicate. I think it is safe to say this is entirely unnecessary, as my only real risks, as identified by Sonia while filling in forms for Durham (“Has the employer carried out a risk assessment?” “Um… si?), are; too much sun, a coffee overdose or perhaps a bee sting or hay fever, sustained while we lounge on the terrace.
On the plus side, all this unnecessary administration is giving me a bit of Italian practice, even if all officials will insist on speaking to foreigners as if they are 4 years old. Furthermore, the other day, while feeling particularly proactive on the Italian learning front, I popped into a bookshop and bought a little something to read in Italian. What was it? P.S. I love you, in Italian, ovviamente. I have to say I kind of only went for something so shamelessly trashy because I love the irony that it is actually helping my education, but will be reading it and feeling smug nonetheless.
I will be popping this literary triumph in my bag this afternoon, along with my iPod, fully charged and updated with an album by an Italian girl, which had a nice cover, so which I blind bought and which pleasingly turned out to be quite good, and I will be getting on a train to Modena to see my friend Liv, who’s at uni there. I’m really looking forward to it, mostly because I think it’s going to be really fun and obviously my social life has been pretty much non-existent for a few weeks and I know there will be plenty of fun to be had this weekend, but also in a small way to satisfy my curiosity about how other Italian year abroad-ers lives are, because I’ve not visited any other ones. For now though, I need to pack. According to Sonia, I should be packing for roasting temperatures and swarms of mosquitos, which doesn’t sound like such a treat, but I am so excited about seeing a friendly face that I don’t know how much I care. I will fill you in next week…
Having resisted the urge to produce a totally miserable “I have no friends and I want to go home” blog (round of applause, please) after the sudden departure of my very lovely housemate, and only friend in the whole city, to America for a couple of weeks, and following a whole day of sitting in my bed watching 90210, eating raisins (which were the only food in the house seeing as, to add to the tragedy, I had no idea even where the supermarket was), texting my mother and moping shamelessly, yesterday I decided it was high time I just go out and do something, friends or no friends.
It occurred to me that there are certain things acceptable to do alone. For example, shopping, going for a walk or run, or to art galleries and museums are suitable activities; whereas going to the cinema is borderline sad, and visiting a theme park or going out for a candlelit dinner are absolute no-go’s. In my opinion, zoos and aquariums fit nicely into the ‘museum’ section (it’s like an animal gallery, right?), and seeing as the weather had taken a typical turn for the worse purely because it was a weekend and I was planning on going to the beach, I decided to pay a visit to the vastly advertised and very much guidebook-endorsed Acquario di Genova. Despite feeling like a total saddo in the queue, publicly announcing my solitude in front of a line of people when buying my ticket, I was definitely right that it is not too socially unacceptable to go alone, and amongst the huge crowd of people it wasn’t even too obvious that I was on a solo-tourism trip. I had a nice look at the manatees and dolphins and sharks and jellyfish (and of course, the designated Finding Nemo display – with Nemo and all the fish from the dentist’s tank – for which I had to stifle my joy, and obviously elbow my way through a crowd of toddlers to get a good view) and actually quite enjoyed a couple of hours of fish browsing, even though searching an entire collection of aquatic life to find Nemo is so much more fun with company.
That afternoon though, just as the delirium of having found Nemo was starting to wear off and I was about to get back in my bed with my box-set of rubbish American television programs and wallow in friendless self-pity again, I received a text from a friend-of-a-friend who I’d never met but who I’d been put in touch with by my friend from Durham who felt sorry for me in my current predicament. She asked if I wanted to meet her and a couple of her friends for a drink, which obviously I did. Despite my chronic incompetence with public transport, and many thanks to the omniscient Google Maps (you can get directions to places using public transport, who knew?) I found my way to our meeting place, and finally had some social interaction after a couple of days without. Granted, I did sit there like I was totally socially inept, due to conversation being mainly in Italian, which I inexplicably now understand none of, despite having been relatively competent just a few short months ago. However, they were very friendly and lovely to me, what I understood of what they were saying was very funny, and hopefully I will see them again soon, by which point I hope to have had some kind of epiphany in the language department so that I can make a more interesting contribution to the conversation…
Things, then, in the space of just over a week, have gone from very bad, to very good, to quite tragic again, but now seem to be on the up once more as I realize that I might not be spending the next two-and-a-half months sitting on my tod watching Gossip Girl or being a lone tourist. Excellent.
I am quite possibly speaking too soon, but after some initial hiccups, everything appears to be going very well indeed. I don’t know whether this is because of this being my third Year Abroad stage and I have been somewhat numbed to the bizarreness of mainland Europe so I just haven’t been noticing anything odd going on (except for being actually stalked, but we’ll come to that later), or whether it’s because things really are going to plan, but either way, I’m feeling relatively settled and happy here already (stalking aside).
I had a huge stroke of luck in that the only house viewing I managed to find (quite a concern as my first house viewing in Madrid was to one of the most horrible houses I’ve ever visited) turned out to be a success. The flat is in a residential area rather than right in the city centre, so a bit further out than I was anticipating living, but the bedroom is lovely; it’s big, has a double bed, an enormous wardrobe, and a little balcony, and the flat is only shared with one other person, a really friendly American girl – who’s also vegetarian and who knows how to cook. Win. After my 6-person-apartment-from-hell-right-in-the-very-centre-of-the-city scenario in Madrid, this seemed like a very welcome change, so I just went for it, and moved in 48 hours after arriving in the city. The kitchen and bathroom are not works of particular architectural beauty (ie there are some rather interesting tile choices and some delightfully (read: irritatingly) old fashioned kitchen appliances) but all in all, for 50€ less than I was paying to share a tiny, dirty, smoky, noisy, drug-filled apartment in Madrid, and although it’s a bit pricey by Genovese standards, I’m feeling a bit smug about it.
My only very awful moment of the last few days was the stalking episode. As I’ve said before, there is a particularly large number of dodgy characters in the Centro Storico; there’s one man in particular who I see everywhere and who always tries to speak to me using phrases like “OH, what a lovely surprise” and “So… why are you always alone?” which is somewhat creepy, but I’ve come to the conclusion that he is clearly just a bit of a nutter. There was another man, on the other hand, who was a lot more suspect. For some reason, I sensed that someone was following me, saw a rather sinister looking man following me, but as I was in a really crowded place, decided it was not unusual for a man to be walking in the same direction as me, so put it down to mild paranoia, and carried on. When the man was still following me a little bit further on, I stopped. He also stopped. I took a little detour, he found me at the other end of it. I stopped again, he kept on going, then once he was out of sight, I continued, only to find him coming back the way he’d just gone, then following me again. In the end I headed towards the main square, then stopped, making him carry on, and worked my way to where I was going through a series of complicated alleyways at a slight jog, but when I came out at the edge of the square I saw him standing in the middle looking around. That was pretty scary, but I’m pleased to say that where I live, further from the centre I feel infinitely less threatened, so living a bit of a walk away from the middle of town may actually be a blessing in disguise.
Just to make sure I haven’t got any less British, I must mention the weather. So far, it is great, that’s all there is to it. The best part, in fact, is that it’s sunny and warm outside, but my weather forecast tells me that it is currently raining. I can confirm that it is most definitely not. The one weather-related issue I am having is dressing appropriately. In Durham, where I was last week, people were wandering around with bare arms and legs, whipping out sandals and sunhats. The sun was out but it was definitely only about 15 degrees. Here, yesterday, it was 27, and I ventured out in a summer dress, only to be stared at relentlessly by Italians wrapped up in jackets and scarves. An old lady even stopped me in the street to ask if I was cold. Today I tried to fit in, put on my jeans and a top with sleeves, and almost boiled to death. I think I’ll take the glares in future.
I started my little internship today, and so far it is an absolutely brilliant affair. I’m working for a wedding planner, a 33 year old woman who is very lovely and very cool. She doesn’t actually have an office though. ”But where are you working?”, I hear you ask. Well the answer is: her house, and more specifically, her roof terrace which has the most amazing view over the whole of Genova. It is a brilliant arrangement, I have to say. I’m trying to avoid coming across as a silly little girl, and as such have not mentioned that my favourite programs include Don’t Tell The Bride and Four Weddings, and that I spent the 28th April cooing extensively and unnecessarily over beautiful Kate Middleton and her beautiful wedding, but I suspect I’m not doing very well, particularly as my somewhat limited Italian means that I can only seem to manage appreciative noises when she shows me photos of amazing Italian castles and flower arrangements, so there was a lot of Oohing and Aahing today.
Basically my vita really is quite bella at the moment and my only projects for the near future are the following (not necessarily in this order);
This morning (now yesterday morning) I arrived, more terrified than I’ve ever been, in Genoa.
Unlike in Madrid and Orense, this time I really am on my own. Not only do I have nowhere to live (and no clue about how to resolve this rather major problem), but there aren’t even any friendly faces from the Durham contingent around to comfort me and take me for all-you-can-eat-buffet dinners when the house-hunting gets too much, like in Madrid, and I most certainly wasn’t picked up from the airport and then looked after incredibly well by a lovely family like I was in Galicia. The city – even though I’ve barely seen any of it, keeping my adventuring to an absolute minimum today given that I will potentially have three whole months of aimless wandering all alone to do – is a lot bigger than Orense, and a lot more higgledy-piggledy and confusing than Madrid, as the town planner was clearly rather imaginative. It’s not that I don’t feel safe, but I am conscious that I’m on my own and that there are a few suspicious characters around (today one man came up to me, stroked my nose and told me that he liked it, and then told me he was in love with me before grabbing my hand and tying a friendship bracelet around my wrist…), so making friends is now even higher up on my agenda than it was, purely at this point due to the good old safety-in-numbers theory. I won’t say that I’m feeling lonely, because for the moment, I’m quite happy with my iPod and/or book, wandering around by myself, and the lovely weather made me a lot less miserable than I could have been, but this time around I am just very aware that there’s nobody here to help me, nobody to call in an emergency, nobody to calm little stressed-out me down, and nobody’s house to go and sleep at if I totally and utterly fail at finding my own flat, and that’s a bit of a scary thought.
Things didn’t get off to a great start. I jumped in a taxi at the airport, not fancying braving the bus system with my 5 tonnes of luggage, and gave the driver the address of the hotel I’ll be staying in for the first couple of nights here. He asked me if I was staying there alone, I said I was, and he suddenly looked a bit uneasy and started warning me about how non e’ un bel posto, and told me that I should only go out in the evening accompanied, or not at all. As I traipsed my way towards the hotel, through some back alleys with some shady characters lurking down them, I began to see what he meant, and needless to say will not be braving the night-time scene around this area any time soon.
I quite frankly have no idea where to even start on the flat hunting front. I went into a newspaper shop today and muttered something in Span-gli-taliano at the man about needing to find a house and was presented with Gli Affari, some kind of advertising paper, which I had to pay 1.90€ for and which, from its 55 pages, came up with a grand total of about 3 potentially useful adverts. Great value for money there, not. These 3 adverts are also not at all specific, don’t have addresses, don’t tell you who lives in the flat or how many people are there, and all claim to be ‘central’, as every single housing advert seems to do, whether it’s in the middle of Genoa or half way to Outer Mongolia. They also only give Italian mobile numbers to call, so until I have an Italian phone (and phone shops seem to be a somewhat rare commodity) I shouldn’t really start calling them all.
Probably in part because of last night’s 2 and a half hours sleep, and in part due to the fact that I have retreated to a very un-homely, rather cell-like room through fear of the mean streets outside my hotel, determined not to be the inspiration for some dreadful MLAC alliteration in the next Insurance Presentation (I’m thinking Lynched in Liguria, Gunned-down in Genoa, that kind of thing) and will be unable to publish this until I’m next in the foyer, as the in-room WiFi I was promised was apparently a figment of somebody’s imagination, I’m not in the best of moods.
Genoa seems a lovely place, it really does. Flying over the coast and seeing some pretty beaches really close by did make me excited (and I did breathe a small sigh of relief that bringing 5 bikinis wasn’t a total waste of luggage weight allowance), the city itself is beautiful, it’s perfect summer dress weather, I’ve found Zara, and I know I have some kind of job to go to on Monday morning, but there’s just something not quite right about being here on my own. Even if I see something really great, I have nobody to tell about it, eating meals by yourself is much less fun, getting mildly harassed in the street by creepy men is far scarier when you’re really alone, and I – control-freak that I am – have much less power over things here than I’d like to.
Hopefully once I’ve got at least one flat viewing organized I’ll be a bit happier, but at the moment I’m having a bit of a fish-out-of-water moment and panicking slightly. Don’t get me wrong though, I was looking forward to Italy more than I was to either Spanish stage – if you recall I was dreading going to Madrid more than I’ve ever dreaded anything in my life – and I’m sure that in a few weeks I will love it here, I just have a feeling the first little while is going to be more tricky than I’d anticipated. Right, enormous whinge over, I’m going to watch a film, go to bed, and hopefully wake up feeling a little bit more positive.
I’m leaving Spain really soon. We are going back to the beach house some time today but I have clearly become at least a little bit Spanish regarding my organizational habits, meaning that many things are still not packed; my room resembles what would happen if all the untidiness phrases my mother used to use were all smooshed together into a catastrophic pigsty-bombsite-dump-pit-tip-hellhole disaster; my Erasmus forms remain untouched in a pile at the foot of my bed; the 23rd has been crossed off the calendar by my little girl and therefore no longer exists, but unfortunately I, unlike my 8 year old best friend, am feeling a little less optimistic that putting a line through two numbers actually erases a whole 24 hours of time, and every time I think about leaving I feel decidedly weird.
Three months have absolutely flown by. I am going to miss this family so much, and am feeling a bit numb at the prospect of house-hunting in Italy where I don’t know anybody, let alone have a really fun family to go back to every day, where I am totally and utterly lost at all times and where my language skills are almost nil, it being that I’ve spent the last 8 months trying to block all Italian words from my mind in order to formulate some kind of comprehensible Spanglish.
Even though I’ve really not been here long at all, it’s going to be a bit of a shock to have to snap out of my daily schedule, mainly consisting of consuming large quantities of very cheap coffee and playing with glitter, glue and tissue paper (sadly not at the same time), and out of my weekend customs of consistently hilarious nights out with the girls and day trips with my family to various beaches to do gymnastics, go crab fishing, play ball games, behave like absolute clowns and take lots of silly photographs to prove it to the rest of the world (and of course, document the steady progression of my tan). Despite this routine not making for very exciting blogging, and meaning that whatever I tell anyone about my life is filled with accounts of children they don’t know doing things they don’t care about, it has meant that the last few months have been, for the most part, pretty flipping great.
It’s unbelievable that come tomorrow I will no longer be staring out of my window at green Galician hills, tucking into octopus tentacles for my dinner, and spending my days as I have been, playing dodgeball on the beach, running in (and swiftly out) of the freezing cold but clear and beautifully turquoise Atlantic, crafting tiny animals out of plasticine, baking animal shaped biscuits and getting my Mum hooked on home-made apple crumble, skimming stones, making glittery fairy wings, singing along to kids TV program theme tunes and making up ridiculous acrobatic dance routines resulting in hour long giggling fits, the choreography of which I am then obliged to write down as Word documents, just in case we should need reminding of the next move midway, if all should go to pot and the giggles should get the better of us. Today’s dance was the following;
Sat on floor
Eyén backwards roll
Eyén through legs
Ema forward roll
Forward roll then backwards into handstand
Eyén stand up on my legs
Forward roll off my back
Ema forward roll
Ema backwards roll
Handstand to bridge and up
True choreographic genius, de verdad.
All in all, I’m a bit gutted about leaving. It still doesn’t seem real, and probably still won’t until I’m sitting on my sofa at home, catching up with my Abuelita over a nice cup of tea and some crunchy-peanut-butter-on-crumpet.
I’m not quite ready to say goodbye for good just yet though, so plans are in the pipeline for a flying visit to Galicia in September. In the meantime though, I guess it’s going to have to be chao Orense, hello Suffolk/Gloucestershire/Durham, and then buongiorno Italia for the final stage of this outrageous year-long holiday.
I’ve said all along since I’ve been in Espain that nothing ever gets done, that I could never live here properly because the disorganization all but brings me out in hives, and that as much as I’ve come to love them, I wouldn’t trust the Spanish with important matters if you paid me, but as the imminent prospect of Ryanair draining my bank account due to a supersize, shopping-addiction-fuelled suitcase draws nearer, I have been forced to abandon all logic and trust the Spaniards to a greater extent than my better judgment advises.
More to the point, I have entrusted 8 kilograms of my belongings – not important ones, I’m not completely mad – to the Correos. I must have been in Spain for too long if I trust this company, the Spanish Royal Mail equivalent, the very same which overlooked a small but nevertheless significant syllable on the address of a friend’s packet a few weeks ago, sending it not to Indiana, U.S.A., but plain old India, and I am therefore publicizing my stupidity so that you can all give me a big fat “I told you so” when I never see various items of my winter wardrobe ever again.
I’m back in Orense for the final time, can you believe it, after a 5-day holiday with my visitor, and a very brief tour of Galicia over the weekend. I’m back with the kids playing with crepe paper and crayons for the last full week of my stay here, as it’s looking like we’ll be going to the beach for the whole of Semana Santa, and heading straight to the airport from there.
Ben’s visit was great, weird, but great. It was like the first time you’re innocently trotting around with your parents and you see your headmaster in the supermarket, or your form teacher comes to your village barn dance (and no, that example did not just come from my imagination… cringe); two worlds that you didn’t realize had anything to do with one another collide, and it’s highly confusing. That’s what it was like, except without the school analogy. I had actually been really excited about Ben meeting my family for ages, particularly because they are all I ever talk about, and meeting them would hopefully make him somewhat less bored during our Skype conversations.
It was sort of like him meeting my real family all over again, except with a rather more substantial language barrier. Ben was a little bit lost, but the children are pretty cute in any language; Gael’s little I-have-no-idea-what-you’re-talking-about face does not need translation, Eyén understands everything, even if she doesn’t know how to reply, and it’s pretty clear that they and their parents are wonderful whether you understand what they’re talking about or not. We went out for lunch with them one day; Gael sang him the first two lines of the Winx theme tune in English (over and over again), and Eyén laughed at him when he tried to say some Spanish words; we went to do some acrobatics in the park, cue comment “They’re just like you… only, older… and younger…”, and went out for dinner with them the next day too to sample some pulpo (unexpectedly delicious). Ben made friends with a waiter, who found it utterly intriguing that he was English, and kept talking to him in Spanish, both asking him questions that he quite evidently couldn’t understand, let alone answer, and giving him helpful hints like “don’t eat octopus while drinking water”, much to my family’s amusement. We also went for ice cream, to the Ben & Jerry’s shop in the shopping centre, and got my dad, who for the record speaks absolutely no English, to pronounce all the names of the flavours. Jamaican Me Crazy was a particularly brilliant example. Although it’s hard to sum up, it was a bizarre, hilarious and fun few days with them, and I’m so pleased they got to meet each other, although it’s a shame Ben and my Spanish Dad can’t communicate, because they have so much in common. Maybe one day…
Over the weekend we went off on our travels, managing to scrounge a free bus ride to A Coruña thanks to a children’s weightlifting squad (it’s best not to ask), and spent the day walking about 4000 miles* from one side of the coast to the other, discussing in depth along the way how useful it would be if they’d just build a flipping bridge across, or provide some kind of ferry service. We went up the Torre de Hercules, the oldest working lighthouse in Spain/Europe/the world [delete as applicable, I didn’t hear what my dad said, exactly…], had to search for approximately 2 hours to find somewhere to eat lunch owing to a distinct lack of a map and misunderstanding of where the centre of town was, and ended up thinking we were freezing thanks to the breeze and unusual amounts of clouds, when we were in fact being burnt to crisps on the beach – Ben’s shoe burn line is a sight to behold, as was my little red face. Due to a rather serious oversight/large dose of optimism due to Orense being so roasting hot at all hours of the day and night recently, I only packed tiny little shorts for my weekend away, resulting in lobster-esque legs and feeling like the aforementioned lobster legs were going to drop off from frostbite when night fell.
On Saturday night we popped on a train to Santiago de Compostela, where we found our hotel and headed out to find some food, at which point I realized I had come down with a touch of what I am assuming was sunstroke. Superb. Nevertheless, we had a chance to explore Santiago, which is lovely, take in some cultural sights like the cathedral and old town, and sample the famous Tarta de Santiago (if you haven’t tried it, do). We spent most of the time wandering around fairly aimlessly, as it didn’t really make sense doing anything else as we had such a short time there, but it’s a beautiful place and despite it being a little bit colder than Orense (Read: definitely not warm enough for shorts and t-shirts quite yet, as my mum kindly told me that she’d forgotten to mention…when I got back) I’m so glad we went.
Since I’ve got back, the fact that I’m leaving so soon has suddenly become very real, and I’m determined to pack as much fun, silliness, memories and pieces of photographic evidence of all of the above into these last ten-ish days as I possibly can. My little girl said something very sweet today, on this topic. This year, apparently, the 23rd of April isn’t happening. That’s right guys, it’s cancelled. And why? Because if it doesn’t exist, I can’t go home. I’m not sure how I’d feel about staying here forever, but I definitely don’t want to say goodbye to this family quite yet, and I plan on making sure that my last official week in Orense, and the whole week on the beach with my favourite Spanish family are the best yet.
Some of the things kids come out with are hilarious. In this household, and coming from my 6 year old boy, Gael, they go from the mildly ridiculous, “When I’m older, I want to be a Winx” (Google image that to see what it is if you don’t already know), to the utterly absurd, “My mum’s not coming home tonight because she’s been arrested and put in prison”.
Today though, I had a pretty fantastic conversation with my 8 year old, Eyén. It started off with her saying that one girl at school didn’t want to be friends with her any more. When asked why, she divulged that this girl had told her that Bruno liked Eyén, but that she liked Bruno, so they couldn’t be friends. Eyén told Bruno this, and he said something along the lines of, “Well then, she can’t be friends with you, because I do like you.” Not so hilarious yet, quite petty actually, but it gets better. I then asked Eyén if she liked Bruno too, and she said yes, but that she also liked her boyfriend Leo – he wrote her a valentines love note that she hides in her notebook, and drew her a picture of a house; she has it on her pin-board. He’s good at drawing because his dad’s an artist, don’tcha know? – and another boy called Aron, too. Bruno and Aron are both potential boyfriends now, but she’s not sure whether she’s going to break up with Leo or just have 3 on the go at once. All 3 are in the same class, just to add complications to the 8-year-old love-dramas. A bit later, I asked her what she was going to do about her complicated relationship situation. Turns out, she’s got a boyfriend from her first school too, who she’s been with since primero, he’s called Miguel, and there’s another one waiting in the wings for just in case 4 boyfriends doesn’t suffice, but for the moment she’s keeping her options open, even though Bruno seems to be the most likely choice, because he’s the best looking.
Once more, I come bearing news of a general feeling of happiness and an underlying feeling of sadness and dread about leaving the comforts of my Spanish family in just three and a half short weeks in order to plunge myself into the depths of joblessness in an as-yet-unspecified Italian place. For the moment though, despite a somewhat poor and last minute attempt at a Year Abroad task taking up rather a lot of my time (and which I should most definitely be doing right now), things are still going well, and I am currently busy enough to block my own sorry state of unemployability out of my mind.
Since the last instalment, I received some fairly interesting news. While doing my last minute key check on the way out of the door to teach the Hellbrats, I received a call from none other than their mamá, telling me not to come (cue the world’s best-stifled sigh) because she’d found a new and permanent au pair. Downside: goodbye 50€ per week of income, upside: a big warm welcome back to my sanity, and greatly reduced risk of being incapacitated by a baseball bat to the head (yes, that happened) or from one of many other hazards posed by these monsters. Being as it was though, fifty euros were just not worth it for three lunchtimes of my week to be taken up being physically and emotionally bullied by two kids, so it was smiles all round, until the new girl quit (quite rightly) after just a week, and before the mother was on the phone to me asking for me back almost immediately. The breakthrough point I am getting to however is the fact that I said no – well in reality I lied to get out of it without having to hit the poor lady with some home truths – and since then have felt at least 100% happier. Coincidence? I think not.
The other Sunday the family and I took a trip to the beach near to Vigo, which I can safely say was one of the best days of my Year Abroad so far. In order not to brag too gratuitously, I’ll sum up the key points. Mid-March, twenty-something degrees, bikini, ice cream, picnic lunch containing only minimal levels of sand, beach gymnastics and the freezing cold Atlantic to keep everything in perspective, what’s not to love?
Further bonding with my favourite little girl in the whole wide world has been going on too. We bake one to two apple crumbles per week for my Spanish mum, who is hooked to an almost outrageous degree and bounds into the kitchen with shopping bags laden with cooking apples and boxes of oats every now and then; when the weather is nice we go on little walks, take daft photos and talk about silly things and she judges me for being so childish; we sit in her room and listen to my iTunes on shuffle, pick the songs we want to make dances to and dance around the house; and I do my ‘homework’ – ie. YA task, tidying up of DUO inbox or general computer based activity – at the same time as she does hers, and I really do love her. It’s strange to say because I know she is only 8, but she’s really cool and I’m pretty lucky to have a little sister for a while. Since I got back from England I think we’ve bonded a lot, even though our last dance did almost snap my back in two when she insisted that an overly athletic move of bending over backwards into a bridge was a crucial part of the choreography. I did just read this paragraph back and I appreciate how horribly vom-inducing it is, but I’m afraid I will not apologise.
If news of my on-the-whole very happy existence here is too dull, you will be pleased to know that there have been a couple of slight failures of late too;
My increasing capacity to pretend I understand exactly what is going on when in fact some kind of hold music is playing across my brain while people say Spanish things I don’t understand proved a slight issue the other day. My Spanish dadwas just dropping the kids off at their gymnastics class, and said a long stream of sentences at me as he left the house. The ascending pitch of the words in the last sentence indicated that it was a question, and knowing as I do the way in which questions are frequently posed, I went with the safe answer of “si”, having utterly no idea what he’d just said, but presuming that if it was of great importance that he would have double checked. Off I trotted to teach English to my favourite pupil for an hour, involving half an hour of public transport/waiting for late public transport on either side, and returned back, singing along to my iPod as I walked cheerily up the hill to our flat. As I put the key in the lock, I heard my name, turned around and saw the perplexed expression of my dad. He said something about a key (in my defence, he does tend to speak rather fast) and then explained that what he’d said to me was that he didn’t have his, and that he’d asked me to wait until he got back before I went anywhere so that he wouldn’t be…uh oh…locked out for two hours.
Finally, things reached a new level of painful when one of my students felt the need to discuss his sex life for a rather uncomfortable length of time in a lesson, followed by a monologue about his partiality to whiling away his summers on nudist beaches, including one particularly graphic anecdote about some transsexuals he bumped into. I, being the British stereotype that I have realized that I am, sat there awkwardly, trying extremely hard not to make eye contact or engage in the dialogue in any way besides the odd nod and forced smile, all the while thinking desperately of ways to change the conversation, and mentally planning future lessons which would allow little to no interjections of ‘amusing’ personal tales. Awkward.
A couple of the other girls and I had made plans to meet this morning and go, instead of for our customary coffee, to the hot springs/Termas/whatever you wish to call them, until lunch. To get to the springs, which are slightly out of the centre of town, we would need to catch a tiny fake train, which is bizarrely part of the Orense bus network, and departs from the main square, the Praza Maior. We planned to meet there at 10, which is incidentally the exact time at which the faux locomotive leaves.
Kate, Imogen and I were there on time, but were waiting for the last member of our party, Charlotte, to arrive. As we were standing waiting for her, our transportation started to depart. For some unknown reason, all three of us just stood watching the train disappear from the square at an almost comically leisurely speed, each of us saying that somebody should probably make a dash for it to try to stop it or speak to the driver, or at least just do something, but it took us a good minute or two to realize that seeing as the next train was at midday, catching this one was really our only option.
What happened next is the part that I just wish could have been captured on camera. We started traipse along a fair distance behind the train, which had started to speed up slightly, in a feeble attempt to catch it up. Meanwhile, I was on the phone to Charlotte, telling her that we were just following our transportation, which had already left and which we had missed. Our walk turned into a run however, when we finally clicked that no train meant no pleasant warm baths, and already having put my swimwear on underneath my clothes, there was no way this was being sacrificed that easily.
The three of us started running down the street quite fast, looking like we were making lots of effort but seemingly not actually catching the train; myself in my little, almost-falling-off ballet flats; Kate, sporting a huge, white, fluffy, fox-fur hat, with an actually-in-real-life-broken foot; and Imogen for some reason, although she didn’t even need to catch this train-bus at all. Half way through our run, Charlotte appeared from the road connecting this street with the one parallel, where she had been walking and, seeing us in a frantic run, broke into one as well. Imogen dropped back and went home, quite understandably, leaving the three of us screaming “Run FASTER!!” and running down the road, although we were spread out over about 100 metres as if taking part in some bizarre race.
I’m sure the inhabitants of Orense enjoyed the whole spectacle, as people in this country don’t really understand the meaning of being in a hurry, so seeing people sprinting down the main high street (yes, to top it off, we had quite a few spectators) to catch up a train moving at a fairly unhurried pace was probably fairly amusing.
Finally, and after what could definitely be considered a good bit of exercise for one morning, I caught up with the train as it stopped at a red light and asked the driver if he could wait a minute for my friends to catch up so we could get on. He patronisingly pointed to the bus stop up ahead and told me we would have to embark there. We ran some more, and finally got on this ludicrous toy train and reached our destination, being highly irritating to other passengers on the way as we were laughing so loudly about what had just happened.
When we got there the spectacle continued, as we were reprimanded for taking photos, shouted at by old men soaking in the baths for forgetting to take a shower before getting in, then laughed at as we screamed and hesitated at the heat of the water, and finally stared at and talked about throughout our time there for being so offensively foreign. We were also scolded by an old lady in the train on the way back for laughing and talking, which was absurd, as was her saying ‘Thank God’ when we got out at our stop at the end (followed by an excellent reaction of big-grin-and-wave from Kate) but this was nevertheless an amusing finale to an episode which undoubtedly would have made a fantastic sequence in the movie version of my life. If only I had an entourage of film crew following me and documenting every ridiculous moment of my existence here. Shame.
Everything at the moment is pretty great. The correlation between this and not having taught the kids-from-hell for over a week remains to be seen, but even so, everything appears to be going well. As cheesy as this may be, the more time I spend with ‘my’ 8-year-old girl, Eyén, the more I love her. I could – and in fact, do – spend every single day doing arts and crafts, drawing, face painting, dressing up and dancing around the living room with her. I probably enjoy her company a little bit more than I should too, especially given the 12 year age gap. ‘My’ little boy, Gael, is still very tricky at times, but when he’s being cute and funny I love him to bits too and although hard to deal with at the time, it’s easy to forget the tantrums when he’s being adorable. The English lessons I’m doing are becoming a bit easier, with the exception of the aforementioned kids-from-hell, and I’m making a fairly substantial amount of money when it all adds up, for an on-the-whole fairly small amount of effort. The Spanish, too, is coming along – slowly but surely – and I have non-food-related conversations with my Spanish parents relatively frequently now. I’ve also been going out with the other au-pairs and the American English teacher contingent on Saturdays and have had some incredibly fun nights, all ending up with me walking from the taxi to my front door at ridiculous o’clock a.m., serenaded by birds waking up and with a big smile on my face.
Last week marked my halfway point here in beautiful Spain, and I celebrated it with a little trip to Suffolk. My Spanish family had booked a skiing trip over Carnaval, and as a result I was given five days off, and ended up making a rather mammoth trek – involving an 8-hour overnight train, a few hours stop-off in Madrid, plane to London, then short drive – to Ben’s house. One upside of the huge pilgrimage was that I got to catch up with my friend Jade in Madrid on the way and way back, reacquainting myself with the fantastic lunch spot that is Montaditos (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you really must find out), and going out for a delicious feast of nachos and cocktails on the return leg. The England trip itself was great. Seeing Ben after such a long time was obviously lovely, for one thing because real life, unlike Skype, does not cut off your conversations every 4 minutes due to the lousy internet connection. I was also able to indulge in my favourite English delicacies, including a fair quantity of Yorkshire puddings and tea – not together, just to clarify – and, of course, Topshop. Sitting down and catching up with Ben and his family, and just doing nothing for a few days was such a contrast from my busy Galician life but was a more than welcome break, and being able to pop back halfway through my stay made me able to come back with a positive attitude, ready to make the most of my last month-and-a-half in Spain.
Speaking of the prospect of not being in Spain any more, my year abroad written task has been gathering dust at the very depths of my to-do list for several months now, and is predictably no closer to being finished, or indeed, started than it was when I first scribbled it there in mid-December. My proactive side has managed to wake up from its long slumber on the finding-a-job-in-Italy front though. I’ve finally managed to get my arse into gear and send off my lovingly translated CV and a particularly grovelling cover letter to a selection of exciting-looking companies in a number of sunny and/or sandy locations all over Italy. I will inevitably have to pester a lot to get any kind of job, being as I am hugely under-qualified and over-optimistic about the whole affair, but fingers crossed that I can be suitably annoying that one of them offers me some kind of employment just to stop me from harassing them quite so much.
For now though, it’s getting warmer, and it’s starting to feel more like Summer than Winter, which has given me - a self-diagnosed sufferer of that Seasonal Affective Disorder thing - an altogether sunnier outlook. I’ve convinced myself that everything will sort itself out in the end, and everything here seems better than ever, so for now I’m just going to enjoy myself and make the most of acting like a child again for 6 more weeks.
Thanks to a lucky combination of a friend’s super website-finding skills and Facebook’s knowledge that it would amuse me, a website popped up the other day on my mini-feed – or whatever the cool kids call it these days.
Essentially, it does what it says on the tin. It’s just a big long list of things that are great. Some, like ‘forks’ or ‘the moon’, are pretty important, or at least accepted parts of everyday life, others are just simple things, which happen every now and again and make you smile, #403 Seeing a really happy dog out for a walk amused me a particularly large amount.
I’ve been thinking about the little things that have made me feel happy or proud or just all warm and fuzzy inside since I’ve been away, and here’s some of my list.
#1 Learning a new word.
This week, and possibly the whole year’s, favourite word means cone, as in of the ice-cream variety, and here it is: cucurucho. Isn’t that great?
#2 Hearing the Lady Gaga song ‘Alejandro’…
…and actually knowing somebody called that.
#3 Listening to Spanish people who have Spanglished some of our words…
…and now pronounce them with an entertaining Spanish twang. ‘Yootoobay’ instead of ‘YouTube’ is a prime example.
#4 Chocolate con churros.
…Need I say more?
Good thing: I can almost eavesdrop on Spanish people’s conversations now.
Bad thing: Other people’s conversations aren’t very interesting.
#6 When the bus arrives más o menos when you were expecting it to.
Asking it to arrive bang on time would, frankly, be ridiculous.
#7 When children are impressed by the simplest things.
Colouring inside the lines, cutting out a circle without making it into a hexagon, knowing how to find the end of the Sellotape, and being able to open jars unassisted will all attain God-like status.
#8 Getting post.
I like getting ‘proper’ post at home, but the steady supply of bank statements, boring paperwork from Durham or Student Finance reminders make the whole thing less of a novelty. Getting and writing handwritten letters is actually one of my favourite parts of this year. Snail mail is very underrated, even if it does often arrive half opened and 3 weeks after it was supposed to.
My hectic schedule means I don’t have as much time to do this in Orense as I’d like, but a spare ratito on a nice sunny day is best spent with iPod plugged in and camera in hand, walking around my temporary new hometown, and finding a pretty square or cute little café along the way is a bonus.
#10 Little old Spanish ladies.
Bless ‘em. On the bus, in shop queues, in cafés, they always seem to target me as their new pal, and I haven’t the foggiest what they’re nattering on about. I try to give them the ‘I’d really like to be your friend but you’ll need to speak slower’ look, but it probably just comes across as ‘I’m a clueless foreigner’. Sorry, octogenarians of Galicia.
#11 Being a kid again.
My job, and I repeat, job involves making planets out of scrunched up newspaper, dressing up as a ballerina, watching William’s Wish Wellingtons, making up dances, getting paint all over my hands, clothes and face, and noshing on chocolate sandwiches as a snack. Despite the occasionally very stroppy child, the responsibility of looking after somebody else’s kids, and the constant pressure of coming up with more arts and crafts projects to do, the upsides are pretty great sometimes.
My major failure of the past week was, to put it bluntly, the poisoning of a child.
Now, in my defence, this was an accident, it was not done maliciously, and the child came away from the incident completely unharmed, so I feel that telling the story is acceptable.
Essentially, the other night, I was looking after a rather stroppy 6 year old. He was in quite a foul mood and then announced that he had toothache. I, of course, had absolutely no idea what to do about this as whenever I was ill as a child, my oh-so-sympathetic doctor mother always just told me that there was nothing wrong and to just get on with my life and stop whining. So the 6 year old phoned his mum, asking what I should give him, and she told him what the medicine was called, where it was, and that ‘3’ was the correct dosage. He relayed this information to me and put the phone down. I retrieved the bottle of what I think was basically a renamed form of Calpol, it looked pink and sugary and delicious so we will assume it is similar, and got out the syringe to feed it to him with. I had no idea what ‘3’ was referring to, and keen to prove myself as a competent and adult member of society decided against phoning the mother back to query this, so just sucked some luminous liquid into the syringe to what felt like a suitable amount. After filling the syringe in front of the child, squirting the medicine into his mouth, and after him swallowing it all, he then asked me why I’d put so much in. He continued by pointing to a quantity on the syringe which was, well, much less than what I’d just given him, and told me that was where I was supposed to fill it to. Why he didn’t mention this before ingesting the substance is beyond me, but that’s children for you, I suppose.
He hadn’t immediately dropped dead, so I wasn’t too worried, but I told the mum anyway when she got back that I’d totally messed up a simple instruction and should not be trusted with medical assistance in future, hoping that she would say something along the lines of “Oh it’s just Calpol, don’t worry about it”, but no, quite the opposite. She did tell me not to worry – probably because the look of horror on her face had pushed me to the brink of tears – but then proceeded to call medical experts to assess what damage I had caused by giving him (oh cringe) over twice the recommended dose.
Fear not, dear readers, because all was well, the doctor confirmed that no permanent harm had been done by the incompetent Brit, he ate some dinner, went to bed, and woke up in the morning completely unscathed – and probably incredibly pain-free – so really, if anything, the whole episode can be deemed a success, as it just goes to show that medicine instructions leave room for error, and for maximum effect, one should probably give at least twice the recommended amount. However the ‘incident’, as it is now referred to, would have been somewhat less stressful if it had not taken place a) with a child who is not my own, and b) in a country less renowned for its hypochondria, or indeed, c) at all.
Oh well, lesson learned and first aid duties revoked.
What started as a very relaxed living in a house with a lovely family, playing with the kids every afternoon and having a lot of free time arrangement has, over the last three weeks, become more of a feet never touching the ground because I’m so busy situation. I’m not quite sure how I let this happen, but I think it’s safe to say I brought it on myself.
When I arrived, I was presented with a list of people who had been taught English by the family’s old au pair, and who wanted to continue with me now that she had left. The list was, frankly, enormous, as a few people had expressed an interest who hadn’t been taught before, but I thought, “Hey, English teaching, this can’t be too hard”, and agreed to do some. Together, Maria and I cut down the list to a more manageable number, and phoned the relevant parties to organize my timetable. It soon became apparent that my days would become rather monopolized by my ‘students’ – I use this term loosely because in order to have students, one must be some kind of teacher, and I am just an English person masquerading as one. I only teach five people, two of whom are brother and sister and I teach them together, but I teach my kids English for a few hours every day too, and with those 12 hours of private lessons per week too, I barely have time to catch my breath.
Due mainly to my hectic schedule, often consisting of bus to town -> sometimes coffee with other au pairs, if I don’t miss my bus (which happens fairly frequently, given that I can’t understand a bus timetable in English let alone in Gallego, and anyway, since when does anything in Spain happen when it’s meant to?) -> Spanish lesson or English lesson -> another English lesson -> bus home -> lunch -> yet another English lesson-> one last English lesson -> dinner -> bed, I still haven’t had the chance to do what I did for the first month in Madrid; wander around aimlessly, getting lost, (and, more importantly, getting found again), learning to use public transport and sussing out where my favourite shops/cafes/‘secret’ non-tourist hotspots were. Whenever the family and I venture into town for any reason here in Orense, I am light-heartedly mocked for never being able to orientate myself, and for still not knowing how to get from one place to another, however simple the route might be. Obviously, I’ve found Zara and I know where to get myself a good cup of coffee, let’s not be silly, but other than that, I am completely perdida.
The teaching that I do is a rollercoasteresque affair. One of my students is a dream come true; sweet, intelligent, keen to learn and pretty good at English to top it off; one small boy is practically mute, not particularly offensive, just doesn’t say a word, so whether he is learning anything is completely unknown; another is an interesting case, telling me on our first meeting about every (mainly tragic) event which has occurred since his birth forty-something years ago, and not stopping to let me interject for over an hour, the plus of this being that at least he is good enough at English to do that, so any actual teaching can be kept to an absolute minimum; and then two of the most hateful little horrors I have ever encountered, who most of the time refuse to even speak to me, and when they do, messages are conveyed in deafening screams and shouts, accompanied with hitting, kicking, “I don’t want to”s and door slamming, broken up by the occasional (ok, regular) insult, my personal fave being, “no eres un au-pair, eres una bruja!” (look that one up if you speak even less Spanish than I do). What a charmer.
All in all though, despite a couple of small hiccups, I’m having a pretty great time. Yes, I am a busy bee and, as previously mentioned, have had my personality sucked out by having to speak Spanish, but over the last week I have had conversations straying slightly from my ‘safe’ topics of food and weather – including such gems as how my ‘Dad’ thinks I look like Pocahontas (?) and how ‘simpatico’ my Italian accent is when I speak Spanish, oh dear; I’ve also had another hilarious night out with some fellow English-speakers, dancing the night away as only the Spanish know how, and feel almost completely settled in to my new, hectic Galician life.
This weekend, I visited the lovely Melissa in Vigo. Having somebody fairly close (an inexpensive train ride away, anyway) and being able to pop over for a day or two to see a friendly face is great, and we had a lot of fun being very silly, getting a delicious and delightfully un-Spanish dinner of Dominoes Pizza, traipsing through the seediest of back alleys trying to find a bar which wasn’t crawling with your typical slimy Spaniards and marijuana smokers, eventually finding one fitting the bill; then benefiting from the European alcohol measurements (if they can even be called that) techniques and analysing all its patrons for their interesting attire and questionable dance moves.
One other thing Melissa and I spent a lot of time discussing were our frustrations with the year abroad, one thing sticking out above all the rest of our smaller, and if not smaller then at least more temporary, problems: when translated, personalities are drained of likeable characteristics.That’s not to say that a Jekyll and Hyde type transformation takes place as soon as we cross a border and that all our negative attributes rear their ugly heads, just that being funny, talkative and charismatic is a hundred times harder in another language.
In Madrid, both luckily and unfortunately, I barely spoke any Spanish at all, and when I was forced to practice the ole’ Español, it was in short bursts, in strictly small-talk-only situations, such as with waiters in cafés, porters of buildings, taxi drivers, and, more frequently, Starbucks employees. This meant I could get by with a pre-prepared and multi-purpose script, covering the necessary and expected topics of the lovely/horrendous weather it happened to be that day, what a nice time I was having in Madrid, and a basic outline of my job.
The good thing, and the bad, about living with a family, is that you do talk to them on numerous occasions every single day. The good thing about this is, obviously, that I am speaking and hearing Spanish on a regular basis, learning extremely useful words such as pegatina, pegamento and purpurina (yes, we’ve been doing a lot of arty things, or ‘manualidades’), providing much amusement with my errors, and fundamentally, hopefully, becoming somewhat less of a failure on the linguistic front. The less good aspect is that daily conversations mean daily opportunities to run out of topics and create awkward silences. The family have, now on countless occasions, commented that my Spanish is good, even reaching the dizzying heights of ‘very good’ once, I believe. What they don’t realize is that what they are complimenting is the entirety of my Spanish knowledge. Every sentence I somehow miraculously manage to string together involves using everything that I know. For this reason, I can only ever talk in the present tense, except in the case of a few pre-formulated sentences in something resembling the past or future, which I repeat over and over again, substituting the necessary nouns. Therefore, conversations include such scintillating topics as what we are having for lunch, what the children are doing at that precise moment, how much Spanish drivers terrify me, or, and this is the most frequent and an absolute cracker of a topic, with endless discussions to be had - the weather. And that is it. Whether or not this is without errors is entirely irrelevant, as they now probably think that whilst I may be ‘very good’ at Spanish, I am the most insufferable bore.
Without the subtle nuances of the English language to fall back on, and crucially without the knowledge of any useful Spanish vocabulary, most of the time in conversation, by the time I have thought of what I want to say, the moment has passed and I’ve missed my opportunity to contribute. On the rare occasions that I think of the beginning of my sentence quickly enough to chip in, any anecdotes which I try to translate turn into a mumble of “actually never mind”, but more often than not, I decide it would be safer to keep my mouth shut in the first place, avoid embarrassment and save the poor parents from listening to my pointless ramblings in Spanglish which, for the sake of not knowing the fundamental vocabulary, often circumnavigate the topic so thoroughly that the entire point of the tale is lost anyway.
And the plan to combat this horrendous lack of banter? I’m reading Glamour and Cosmopolitan in Spanish, translating the words I don’t understand, and learning them. Granted, this might result in awkward conversations of a very different nature, but at least I won’t have to talk about the climate any more.
Where to begin? So much has gone on in my first week in Galicia. For starters, I love it here. It has everything that was missing in Madrid; fresh air, a house that feels more like a home than a squat, mountains, rivers, clear starry nights, it really is exactly what I needed. Yes, it does have the potential to become a bit dull as it is a ‘small’ town (more on this later) and my life may get a tad monotonous after a while, but at the moment, I couldn’t be much happier with where I am. One week in, and it feels like I’ve been in Orense for months, except, of course, that I have no idea where anything is, can’t use the buses properly yet and stop at every street corner to whip my map out and check that I’m not as lost as I fear I might be.
I was greeted at the airport by a tiny little bouncing ball of energy called Gael – who’s 5 – his sister, a much more reserved but very sweet 8 year old, Eyen, their very nice Grandmother and their Mum, the lovely, smiley Maria, who complimented my Spanish within the first 10 minutes of meeting her. Don’t you just love ‘em already? After a fairly long car journey, we arrived at a beautiful flat in Orense – complete with real lovebirds – and with a little upstairs part all to myself, again immaculately decorated (and with treasure chests!). The room also has a skylight looking out over the city, a little sofa, wardrobe, TV, cute pink-clad bed, and a desk, headboard and shelf decorated with magazine pages. If these folks were ten years older I’d be asking how they swapped me with my parents’ real daughter.
I awoke on my first ‘real’ day, pottered down the stairs to meet the dad, Alejandro, for the first time as he’d been working the night before, and he asked if I a) liked rollerblading and b) wanted to go and see the natural spas that they have here in Orense. I said yes to both of the above, and he started saying something about how I’d need a swimming costume. I raised a disconcerted eyebrow and popped a bikini and a towel into my handbag. As we got in the car, he asked me if I had a driving licence, and when I said I did, he said it would be best to acostumbrarme, and threw me headfirst (not literally but it may as well have been) into the ridiculous world of Spanish driving. A perilous 5 minutes and one ‘it’s not entirely legal but please do a U-turn here, in the middle of this busy road, against all road regulations, not that you even know what those are here’ later, we arrived at the place we would start our little rollerblading get-to-know session. To summarize, I have not rollerbladed for roughly 12 years, and am not, in fact, as much of a pro as I’d like to believe, particularly not on roller skates without any brakes on them. Therefore, I screamed a lot, fell over once, ripped a hole in my jeans, grazed my knees and had to walk on the grass because I kept almost falling over and it was just getting too embarrassing for both parties involved. What a good first impression. We then arrived at the hot spas. Now, in my mind, I was picturing a bubbling pool in the middle of the river, perhaps with some fencing around it, perhaps not. I’m not sure where this image came from, but there you go. What I actually encountered was a very posh looking spa, with ten or more pools of water of varying temperatures from the natural termas, famous around the area. So in we went, Alejandro and I, for a dip, had a nice little chat, and one of the most surreal mornings I’ve ever experienced. Basic series of events: “Hi, nice to meet you, fancy driving my car, borrowing some rollerskates and heading on down to a hot bath or ten in your bikini with me?” “Um… Yeah, why the hell not?”.
One thing making me feel a little stupid is that whenever I meet new Spanish people, they ask me if I know my way around Orense yet, because it’s a pueblo pequenito. I can confirm that compared to my village of Aston on Carrant – do feel free to Google Map it – it is not pequenito in any way, and almost every time I am left to fend for myself in the endless maze of streets, I find myself totally lost, the other day walking for 20 minutes in the opposite direction to the way I was convinced I was going. The bus timetable is also indecipherable; whether this be the fault of the timetable makers or my public-transport-uneducated self is unknown, but what it is safe to say is that I have been using a lot of guesswork in my bus-catching techniques, which has more than once left me walking the 35 minutes home.
The family, as predicted, are lovely. The parents are quite young, so are easy to talk to, are very friendly and funny and don’t really speak English which is helpful, but has resulted in my life turning into one big game of Pictionary. The little girl is very sweet, quite quiet, understands a lot of English and likes doing arty things, which we’ve been bonding over. The little boy, who is the polar opposite to his sister – loud and funny, almost painfully energetic and with the concentration span of a gnat – switches between being my best friend and not speaking to me at all, I’m not entirely sure why, but that’s five year olds for you isn’t it?
We’ve been on a few trips already, on the first weekend to the beach, and yesterday to northern Portugal, on four hours sleep – not ideal – after my first night out in Orense, with some very lovely fellow English speakers. Once again, Orense is not Madrid, but that’s not to say it isn’t fun. I had a great – and very cheap – night eating Oreos and playing Flip-Cup (at which I am now a pro) and then heading off to have a dance in a little club, despite going home early to get some sleep… at 4am.
The next stage of my European adventure begins with a mammoth trek to Heathrow at 5am tomorrow morning, and involves throwing myself into another minefield of cringe-worthy opportunities, this time far from the world of management consulting and glamorous capital-city-dwelling, as an au pair in a relatively small Galician town. That’s right, I’m hanging up dinner dates, cocktails and party dresses for a potential three months of screaming, tantrums and mess in Ourense, in the north of Spain.
You may remember I made an original plan of going to university in Sicily, well to clarify the situation with that; it isn’t happening any more. Despite enjoying various aspects of life in Madrid, I managed to learn no Spanish whatsoever, so I’m staying in Spain for three more months, in a desperate attempt to not crash and burn when it comes to my 4th Year Spanish oral exam. So dire has the situation become, that I have once again turned to childcare as the only solution to my linguistic incompetence, an occupation which I told myself two years ago that I would rather lop my own legs off than repeat.
I am – I think – understandably sceptical about the next fourteen weeks. My last au pairing experience, at the tender age of 18 in Tuscany, looking after two little girls of 4 and 6, did result in a cracking tan, but also in a fair bit of stress and the overwhelming desire to never have children. In time, though, the memories of wanting to tear my own hair out seem to have faded, and here I am once more, extremely apprehensive and, strangely, more than a little bit excited.
The butterflies in my stomach are being fed by a couple of factors. Firstly, I’ve never met the family before, and the only way we’ve communicated has been via email, as I am quite frankly too much of a girl to try talking on the phone. Subsequently, the mother, Maria, has commented that I express myself well in Spanish. In fact what has happened is that every email has taken me approximately an hour to construct, using 5% of my own Spanish knowledge, 20% of WordReference’s expertise, and 75% of the work has been done by the omniscient Google Language Tools. For this reason, I am feeling a tad ill at the prospect of having to shock and astound this poor lady with my hideous massacre of the Spanish language when we meet in person tomorrow afternoon. In addition, I’ve sent a last-minute ‘Oops, I forgot to mention I’m a vegetarian’ email today. I understand that the Spanish don’t react well to theV word, and I’m desperately hoping that they haven’t formed a bitter hatred for me for my awkward food requirements before I even arrive.
As I said though, I am actually looking forward to this next part of my year, and there is definitely a small glow of optimism in me about the whole experience, in stark contrast to the dread I was experiencing before departing for the first leg, four-and-a-bit months ago. From the contact we’ve had, I think the mother of the family seems lovely, she’s sent a couple of pictures of the kids – 5 and 8 – who both look cute and a little bit cheeky, which I think I’d like, their old au pair sent me an email saying they were a great family, and they’re sporty which will hopefully mean some exercise for me and an excuse to get the kids out of the house rather than watching hideous quantities of awful cartoons. I’m going to have to speak Spanish, even if it is some kind of strange Galician version of it, and I’m not going to have any Durham-ers to fall back on. Even though the latter might make settling in a lot harder than it was in Madrid, it really is what I need in the long run.
Time to stop writing down all the reasons I’m so scared, stop making endless colourful lists and spider diagrams of what needs to be done and get on with the entirely necessary tasks of clothes-packing and boarding-pass-printing as the clock ticks ever closer to my arrival in Ourense.
Tomorrow morning, once again at ungodly O’clock, I will be off to the airport, laden with three times as much luggage as I came with, for which there really is no excuse. This time though, I’ll be flying away from Madrid for the last time.
I don’t want to say that living abroad for 4 months has made me find myself, or any of these other awful clichés, but I will admit I’ve learnt a few things, some of which might help me out on the rest of the bumpy rollercoaster ride that is my year abroad, and some which, well, won’t.
1. Living in a capital city is a mixed bag
Madrid is an incredible place, and I’m extremely lucky to have been able to live here. The shops are great (well that’s the first of my criteria met…), there are so many things to do and see that one can never claim to be bored, the metro is – in the most uncharacteristically Spanish manner – very efficient, the city centre small enough to walk everywhere, meaning I can see all the lovely buildings and enjoy the never-too-cold climate as well as not getting too lazy or grotesquely fat from the great food, the nightlife never fails to amaze, and there is a Starbucks within easy walking distance of my flat, and, indeed, everywhere. But, for a born and bred country girl, the bright lights and the big city also means noise, smoke, rude people in a hurry to get somewhere – although they have nothing on Londoners, seeing as nobody is ever in that much of a hurry here as nothing at all ever seems to be urgent; creepy Spanish men, prostitutes roaming the streets at all hours of the day and night, cramped and overpriced accommodation, paying a fortune for things ‘just because it’s Madrid’, and having to listen to unbearable tourists umm-ing and ahh-ing over gigantic maps at every corner. It really is a swings and roundabouts scenario.
2. Discovering new ‘secret’ places never gets dull
Maybe my favourite thing about this place is that whenever I feel like I’ve got the hang of an area, found the perfect quirky café, adorable little restaurant or cool bar and discovered a trendy backstreet shopping area, I find a new one. There’s something incredibly satisfying about finding a place that only real Madrileños know about, and sitting there smugly, sampling the often very delicious and mainly non-touristic priced goods on offer, and only here could I have gone for a New Year’s Day walk and found myself in a park which I never previously knew existed, with a beautiful view over the city and an Egyptian temple in the centre. Wow.
3. Stereotypes are made for a reason
After four months, I can confirm that most Spanish people and customs are exactly as you would expect. People, many of them called Jorge, Jose and Maria, are exactly as you’d imagine. I’m talking little old ladies with unsubtle dye-jobs and big fur coats on their way to Sunday mass, a good few slimy young Spanish men leering on decidedly more attractive young Spanish women, and familias pijas with their immaculate and almost nauseatingly matching, beige-clad offspring. People really do go to bullfights and live off tapas, sangria and paella, and they really do have siestas. They really are always late, and really do have bizarre timetables, which mean the shops are never open when you want them to be, and nobody has a clue how to make a good cup of tea.
4. The Year Abroad is not a lesson in learning another language
Oh no, it is in fact quite the opposite. If nothing else, I have learnt from my time in Madrid that it is entirely possible to communicate with anybody, of any nationality, using the media of pointing, mimes and facial expressions. Language, in fact, is almost entirely redundant in many situations. The year abroad itself does not, necessarily, allow you to improve your linguistic skills, it simply forces you to learn how to get by as simply as possible. For example, if you learn to say “one of those”, you never need learn any nouns. I’ve learnt that if all else fails, every message can be relayed in some way or other, whether that happens to be in flawless Spanish, or interpretative dance is, on the whole, irrelevant.
5. You can kiss goodbye to your dignity and shame
Arriving in Spain, I naively assumed that I would stumble upon friends and things to do with no problem at all. Millions of people have done this Year Abroad lark before, I thought, it must be easy. When my friend Jacs, older, wiser and with a year abroad behind her, suggested having to find friends on the internet, approach people wherever and whenever and be totally, well, shameless, I scoffed at the suggestion. Four months down the line, I will confess that I had to learn the hard way, and now doing an intercambio or two doesn’t seem like a big deal, and talking to strangers, people in cafes, ladies working in coffee shops, etc., doesn’t phase or pain me nearly as much as it used to.
6. You should try to embrace your inner Spaniard
I will be the first to admit, the Spanish ‘whatever could be done today, should be done tomorrow instead’ attitude drives me utterly insane 90% - ok, maybe more – of the time. However, somewhere in the hectic, disorganized, at times totally hellish, chaos that is the Spanish way of life, I think there might be a lesson to be learnt. This lesson is – and believe me, it pains me to say it – maybe, perhaps, possibly, not everything needsto be done with British punctuality and precision. Even I, the most punctual person I know, can now be a little bit late (albeit an entirely British, planned, kind of late) and not let it stress me out too much, and I know that while I’m here, if something has to be done for a certain date or time, it can usually wait until mañana.
7. Living with strangers is pot-luck
Predictably, living in a house full of people from all around the world who you’ve never met before can be hit and miss. Some year abroad-ers end up making the best friends of their lives; some end up cohabiting with drug-taking lunatics. The less said about that one the better…
8. It’s not, despite all appearances, a holiday
While my first month of aimless wandering, house hunting, tanning, shopping and sight-seeing was exactly the partially government-funded break I was anticipating, being thrown headfirst into the working world has proved pretty challenging at times. Even though my Spanglish is somewhat redundant (probably for the best), I’ve actually learnt much more than I thought I would in my internship, and I think I’ll come away slightly less ignorant and inexperienced at the end of it. I’ve had to work pretty hard on things that I found quite tricky, and I’ve come out the other side unscathed, which can only be classified as a success. Working with people from all over Europe has also made me appreciate that a fairly ‘posh’ British accent will get you complimented and ridiculed in equal measure, that the difference between ‘beach’ and ‘bitch’ must be explained clearly, and that telling non-UK residents that you have actually seen a blue sky before, and that, on occasion, you’ve ventured outside without a big ole brolly and wellies is a complete waste of time. I’ve also learnt the Russian word for ‘bless you’ (budsdorov) and carried out basic mathematical tasks without the use of my fingers. A learning curve all round, then.
9. When all’s said and done, home is where the heart is
I’ve never been particularly sentimental towards home. Even aged 4, on my first day of school, I apparently shooed my mother away, so I think it’s safe to say I’m not one prone to homesickness. Having said that, being more than a couple of hours drive away from home has made me appreciate, and really miss, my quiet rural village, bizarre dysfunctional family, log fires, green fields, hot shower (as opposed to lukewarm trickle) and real cups of tea that much more. I’ve become a model of patriotism too, getting disproportionately excited about Wills & Kate, defending the British pound, banging on endlessly about Boots, Topshop and good old English tea-rooms – nothing would beat a scone right now – and talking about my need for crumpets, Granny’s apple pie and ‘real tea’ on a daily basis. Whatever I may say, I would like to be reminded of this next time I describe my lovely Cotswolds village as ‘too boring’ or ‘too quiet’, because I’ve now realized that I absolutely love it, and inner city convenience has nothing on the beautiful English countryside.
10. It’s true what they say…
This really is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Never again, after this year, will I have to live with a handful of strangers, and never again will I be thrown, somewhat against my will, and entirely against my better judgment into living in a different country (or two) for a year. Never again will I be able to claim nights out in seedy bars, gay clubs and on beautiful rooftop terraces until 7am to be ‘part of my education’, and this is definitely the last time that it will be acceptable – although this one is on the social borderline even now – to make friends from a language exchange website. Certainly nobody warns you about the number of hiccups, problems and stressful moments along the way, and it may sometimes be hard to remember to make the most of it through the more nerve-racking times, but at the end of the day, it’s all part of the experience. Even up until now, with a good 6 months still to go, it’s definitely been, as my mother would put it ‘character forming’.
I never thought that one of the best New Year’s Eves I’ve ever had would be with people I only met a couple of months ago, in a city – and country – that I don’t live in. In fact, I was quite sure that being in Madrid on the 31st December, when less hardened Year Abroad-ers were at home with friends and families, would involve being alone with some rubbish food and a DVD, and pretending it wasn’t happening, but – once again – I have been forced to eat my words.
The day started with having to pack up all my belongings, ready to move out of my flat and into a hotel. Admittedly, in my mind, I had thought of this moving date to just be the last day of the month, just like any other, when in fact it was the most ridiculous choice of moving day I could have made. I went to work as normal, where we had a fairly relaxed day, as at the moment there are only 3 interns, the Spanish man who works there, and the boss. After work, which finished a bit earlier than usual – win – the boss took us for a drink at the Hard Rock Café, and then I dashed back to the flat to start transferring my belongings (including a suitcase I can barely lift, oops) to the hotel. I did a few mad dashes, then had to quickly get ready to go to a friend from work’s house, for the fun to begin.
My two friends from work who were in a similar in another country for New Year, knowing very few people and having no plans predicament, Leonel and Sheke, along with two of Leonel’s lovely Portuguese friends, and myself, had a delicious meal, washed down in true Spanish style with some extremely classy sangria-from-a-box. After dinner, we had planned to have a few drinks at Leonel’s house, then head to Sol – the big Times Square equivalent – at about 11, to get a spot in the huge crowd and then welcome in the New Year by eating one uva de la suerte (lucky grape) with every chime of the bell at midnight – twelve in total, obviously – to get well and truly involved in Spanish tradition. This is not quite how things panned out.
After dinner, we sat for a while, feeling very full and fat, and then concluded that we should have something to drink. We then proceeded to faff around entirely unnecessarily, taking many a photo of ourselves holding the enormous three-litre beast of a vodka bottle. By the time we’d done this, it was already quarter past 11, so we started to decant the contents of the beast into water bottles, to enjoy – in a very sophisticated fashion – on the way to Sol. By the time we’d done this, it was 11.30. Off we trotted to Goya metro station, where we sat waiting for a metro. Sol metro station was closed for the night, so we decided to go to Sevilla, and walk. At eight minutes to midnight, we were three stops away, and the fear of missing New Year and having to scoff our lucky grapes on the tube was mounting every second. We started to pick our twelve pieces of fruit from the bag in preparation (potentially for having to eat them all on public transport…) but at about two minutes to midnight, we arrived. Along with the rest of the crowd, we ran to the exit, up the stairs and into a gigantic crowd of people, also with grapes at the ready. Once we’d trotted forwards toward Sol a little bit to get a view of the clock tower, bangs and shouts and fireworks confirmed that it was time for the grape eating to commence. All in all, the mad dash was probably much more exciting than getting there on time, anyway.
After this, we met up with some of Sheke’s friends, I showed off my newly learned Russian phrases to some (fairly unimpressed) Russian people, held a baby rabbit for a while, but didn’t think to ask the owner why he’d brought this little fluffy creature out with him – I think I may have mentioned that something bizarre happens to me every night I go out in this place! – and then we headed off to a club which was a mere 20 Euros entry, with 3 drinks, compared to 80 for entry to some others. I sweet-talked the bouncer – in SPANISH, may I add – into letting us skip the huge queue, and in we went for a little dance to celebrate 2011, Madrid style.
Executive summary: the company was great, the Mac weather forecast was predictably wrong – it was pleasantly warm and rain-free, we got to Sol in time to enjoy the famous atmosphere, I didn’t choke on my uvas de la suerte and have hopefully got myself some grape-flavoured luck as a result, we got in to a club at a not-too-horrific price, and now, the morning after the night before, I have a slightly sore head from the festivities, and an even more sore face from smiling. Not a bad way to spend my last Friday night here.
Well here it is; the final week of the year, and my final full week in Madrid.
That’s right, I’m back for the last leg, the final hurdle, the home straight. It seems bizarre to say that, because sometimes it feels like I’ve only just arrived, only just settled in, and others, like I’d never get to leave.
Very early on Wednesday morning, I could not have been more excited as the plane descended to a snowy Stansted Airport, after a very sleepless night and early-morning taxi to the airport. I resisted the urge to sing Land of Hope and Glory upon landing,but it was a close call.
First stop – Suffolk, for some quality time with my lovely boyfriend and his lovely family, and for Christmas number one. I have to say that the festive feeling I felt was so lacking in Madrid was more than made up for in my short time in the UK. Chez Forbester, there were Christmas trees a-plenty, fairy lights, candles and many a mince pie baking opportunity, which fulfilled my Christmas spirit criteria nicely. A couple of festive films, lots of delicious food, some lovely presents and a whole lot of love and excitement later, it was time for an evening drive to a midway meeting point on Christmas Eve so that my mum could drive me back to snowy Gloucestershire for the big day itself.
Second stop – Home, for a family Christmas Day at the Brewer residence. The snow outside had started melting, so wasn’t as deep as it apparently had been – although, to be fair, my parents could have told me that for the last 4 months there had been a family of giraffes living in my bedroom and I would have been none the wiser – but still, the Christmas card-esque appearance of Aston-on-Carrant definitely did the trick with making me feel even more Christmassy. This joy was short-lived, however, when it became clear that my mother had not been joking when she’d said that her hatred of all things 25th of December had led to there being no Christmas tree at all in our house. So, at about 5 to midnight on Christmas Eve, I set about tinselizing the house. After a trip out to the spider infested garage – shudder – to retrieve the fake tree and the decorations, followed by a decoration job that would have made Kirstie of Kirstie’s Homemade Christmas proud, my work was done. Christmas Day itself was great, the highlights being; a stocking prepared by Ben’s mummy, crackers, my utterly dysfunctional family – Granny in particular was on top form, Christmas pudding, more food than even I could eat, the Queen’s speech, a snowy walk down the garden and the village, the afternoon so-full-I-can’t-move feeling, and an evening of catching up and film-watching with my mum. On Boxing Day, after a quick visit to Cheltenham with to hit the sales – a brief but successful visit – it was time to come back.
Short and sweet, I think is what this is called.
So here I am again, Madrid. With only 7 working days, and only 10 days in total left here, I’m starting to feel mixed emotions; excitement for the end of my first Year Abroad third and for the Collingwood Ski Trip, sadness about saying goodbye to certain people here, delight to be saying goodbye to others, worry that my baggage will weigh too much (the shopping addiction has in no way improved) and because I still know no Spanish, nervous excitement for the next part of the YA Saga, and utter relief that I will be coming out of the first part of my time living in mainland Europe relatively unscathed.
As a premature New Year’s resolution, I’ve decided that for my last two weeks here, I’m going to avoid complaining, except in cases of genuine catastrophe, and even though I will not be at home or with my friends for New Year, and make the most of being here, in a pretty brilliant city. I’m going to embrace my last days as a glamorous capital city dweller, and try to do all the things I’ve been saying I’ll do ‘one of these days’, so I can leave the big city on a high.