I was born at La Cruz Roja (The Red Cross Hospital) in the heart of Málaga, a smallish city that is the gateway to the garish Costa del Sol. My mother screamed at the nuns in English as the pains of childbirth took her, obscenities they didn’t understand. My father was around, watching the Spanish Persuaders on TV, while my aunt held my mother’s hand. In the early 70s fathers weren’t welcome in delivery rooms.
The next time I saw La Cruz Roja I was twenty and visiting Spain for the first time since leaving as a child of three. My uncle was driving, and pointed out the hospital in the distance, a non descript whitish building. I had difficulty understanding him – I spoke no Spanish, he no English. But, as I would learn through succeeding visits, you pick up the language somehow, or at least enough to get along in a vague way.
I had to wait fourteen years to return to Málaga, keeping in contact with my Spanish family through letters translated into English by those family members who could speak the language. In between came life in Johannesburg, the city where my mother was born, and where we had settled when I was five.
Saddled with the debts that seem to come with purchasing property, even in the boom times, I wondered whether I was ever going to be able to afford to see family in Spain again. I remembered Spain fondly, a memory made golden by the warm memories I had of meeting my Spanish family for the first time since leaving as a child.
We had had no contact until at the age of 17 when I had written them a letter. Years later I was to learn how overjoyed my Spanish grandmother had been: she had even hired a detective years before to find me, but he had come up empty handed.
At 20, I went overseas by myself, discovering London, and Paris, and of course, Málaga, city of my birth, a city where I discovered this vast Spanish family, was introduced to long Spanish lunches in the afternoons, and ate grapes at midnight on New Year’s, 12 grapes to symbolise 12 good months.
I stayed with my grandmother who connected me to my Salafranca past in a way that had been denied me while living in South Africa. I had the Salafranca second toe; I had the sharp incisors she had once had. I learned to make Spanish omelettes with her; I went out for lunches where she told me to “Apprende espanol!’ (Learn Spanish!) Over six weeks it was inevitable that I would start learning and one day towards the end of the stay I listened to my grandmother and her sister taking about the eating habits of their respective grandchildren and with deep pleasure realised that I had understood. It was like a window opening on a dark world.
I wandered Málaga that first time with my cousins by day; they lead me down busy roads where we had to shout to be heard. An aunt took to me to a warehouse of jeans, floors and floors of them. Flummoxed by the European sizes I simply watched her try them on. The same aunt led me through Málaga’s night streets, taking me to bars and on buses to the beachside bars of the suburb of Pedrealejo. Other nights with cousins were spent at bars, warming up for the night, before going to eat supper at ten at night.
With groups of the family I went to ventas in the countryside. These family-style restaurants boasted paper tablecloths where you could practice your Spanish; an uncle would draw the symbol for fork and then write the Spanish word and so on. In this way did we start to communicate, both straining at the bit, both of us wanting so much to communicate after all the years of silence. At the ventas we would eat large plates of paella ordered for the table, steaming huge platters of yellow rice and seafood and poultry.
Other days, on my own, I strolled through Málaga. I set off from my grandmother’s house near the city centre, walking through the huge pathway that cuts through Paseo del Parque, a green quiet oasis in the city. One night I had my fortune told by a gypsy but none of it turned out to be true. I walked to the department store El Corte Ingles; I walked to change traveller’s cheques in the banks, and I walked to a travel agent to change my ticket so that I could spend a week in Paris.
I walked to the main Larios shopping centre – a pedestrianised street in the heart of the centre, where I could use the cheap phone centres to phone home, telling my mother about discovering the Spanish, the family, the food, a sense of freedom and independence that I did not feel back home in Johannesburg. I think I wanted to stay somehow, although I had no Spanish and grew frustrated as I realised how enclosed in a bubble I was by not speaking the language.
Instead I said goodbye to this city early one morning. I didn’t know when I would be back. I had two years of my university BA to finish. I said goodbye to Europe with a sense of sadness: I had, in a sense, come home. In Spain I was mistaken for a local, I looked Spanish, European, only my lack of words, or badly accented attempts, convinced them otherwise. And yet I knew I wasn’t Spanish either, not really, not even with my Spanish passport and looks and a birth certificate that I had needed to have translated into English when I applied for my ID book at seventeen.
Years later, a press trip was offered. I would go to Barcelona, sail on a cruise ship to Palma de Majorca, return to Barcelona and then fly to Málaga to see the family I’d been writing to since leaving again at 20. In Barcelona I drank in the culture again, the late nights, the churros (doughnut-like twists) served with hot chocolate, the growl of Spanish among the Catalan.
One day I sat on a bench after walking along Las Ramblas, the famous thoroughfare, home to mime artists, pick pockets, flower sellers, tourists and others. I sat, watching the world go by, as one does in Europe. A family crossed the road, clearly from South America with their half Indian features. A Spanish woman and a friend strolled past, chatting animatedly, and I felt that I too should be able to speak the language. I too should be able to trill my r’s, distinguish that a table in Spanish is female as is a boat, (sometimes) but a car is, not so surprisingly, male.
I felt, in a sense, ashamed, ashamed when I opened my mouth and I could not ask for apples or a Coke in a flawless display of fluency. I had never felt this before, this shame at bad grammar or lousy accent, not when learning Afrikaans and French at school, and trying to speak it years later in Paris. But then I hadn’t been born in France, nor had I grown up in an Afrikaans family, it was perfectly understandable that I butchered the grammar in both languages. But Spanish ... I should be able to speak Spanish, after all, I was a Malagueña, born in Málaga.... I thought about looking for a job while I was there, becoming Spanish finally, becoming what I hadn’t been all those years.
I loved Málaga that year ... I didn’t look for or find a job, but instead fell in love with the city, the country and the lifestyle in a deep personal way. I explored the coast, I went to Gibraltar, and revelled in being able to actually ask for things in fluent English instead of stumbling Spanish. I went to Nerja, a small village where my parents had lived once. I loved the small fishing village, and I felt like I was making a kind of pilgrimage for my mother who too could not afford to visit Spain after all these years.
I became a tourist again. I climbed the stairs to the Alcazaba, a fortress which dates back to the 700s, although much of the structure belongs to the mid 11th century. I went at dusk and watched sunset over the sea and the city. I came across a Roman bath, marvelling as always as the palpable sense of history that permeates Europe.
I said goodbye again to Málaga on my last night there, ten days spent exploring the city and the villages, seeing the garishness of the Costa del Sol as I travelled to Marbella. In Frigiliana my family took me to a typical white-wished village, the lanes too small for cars, vines and plants beautifying the white-washed order.
I felt, for the first time, as though I could live in Spain. I could make a life here. Eating supper at ten at night still felt odd and I knew learning Spanish properly would be a challenge. I once more fell into a kind of rhythm of the language and could hold rough crude conversations with my aunt and uncle who didn’t speak English, but I knew that living in a place required more: required dealing with the municipality, or sending emails, or reading a newspaper in another language. But, I was up for it.
I started learning Spanish on my return. I didn’t miss a class, I got to grips with the convolutions of the grammar, I accepted that colours had to agree with the male and female nouns. I dreamed of living in Spain – I imagined my new home, a smallish apartment with a few of the Mediterranean perhaps, or a rough and tumble finca in the country. I would always speak the language with an accent and I would probably have an uncertain sense of the grammar, but in time these things would smooth out. I would discover something there – an Arja who would be Spanish, I would reclaim the person who I would have become if I hadn’t left Spain at the age of three. Spain had its problems – I knew that leaving South Africa for Spain was no easy solution. None of this deterred me. I remembered the relative safety, walking down night time streets with a camera and knowing I was safe, just strolling the streets in a way that has become impossible in Johannesburg. I wanted that. I wanted to be Spanish.
I went back again last year. For the first time I was seeing Europe in the blaze of summer, previous visits had been revealed autumn and winter. But this would be my first time of European summer evenings when the sun doesn’t set too late. I was enchanted by the long nights.
But something wasn’t right this time, something was off. I had been communicating with English-speaking journalists who work on the English language papers and magazines that have sprung up to cater for the huge expat English community. The news was dire. It was hard to make a living, and not only that, it was hard to make a decent living – a thousand euro a month they said and that was hardly a generous wage. One journalist sold houses in addition to her job; another had a job on radio in addition to being a journalist. In the village of Fuengirola, I met an Englishwoman who had married a Spaniard after her studies and was raising two daughters. It wouldn’t be a career move, she said, and I had known that. But moving to Spain had never been about enhancing my career; it had been about trying to find long-lost roots, roots that might not even be there.
This time, Málaga became a place in which I trudged through the hot streets, the air muggyish, hot, summer was beginning, but the temperatures already soared into the 30 degree mark. I spent my time on the internet. I phoned home. I phoned a friend who was going to try and change my restricted air ticket. I sat on a bench on a Saturday afternoon, the city was quiet, the beaches were packed, it was lunch time. And I couldn’t believe I didn’t want to be here. The city had become familiar, I sat on a bench in the Paseo del Parque, the Alcazaba dominated the skyline. I felt utterly alone. My cousin was at home with her toddler; her husband was out buying garden furniture, and I knew that I didn’t want to be here now, that I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to want to live in a country in which I would battle to speak the language, make myself understood, express nuances that came so easily in English. It had taken three days to get my Spanish SIM card to work, all because I hadn’t understood the salesperson and couldn’t ask the right questions. Eventually my cousin had taken it in to a mobile phone shop and been told to dial 333 and it worked. I wanted to weep with frustration, but instead of getting angry I simply felt resigned.
I felt as though the doors were firmly bolted shut and there was no entry in – no entry in to the language or the culture, a closely-knit society in which knowing the right person is your entry, I didn’t know the rules, and felt shut out. Instead of trying hard to improve my language and speak, every reach for a noun and adjective felt like a monumental effort.
Málaga had become a trap, a stranger’s place. A place where I no longer felt at home. I couldn’t even find a small snack to eat at lunch, beyond going into a bar and trying to discover what sandwich I might want the barman to create for me. So I resorted to going to an American-style chain where you could point at the sub you wanted; one day I even bought a hamburger at Burger King.
This time I was considering living in this place, making my home among this largely homogenous society, a society that would only open if I had the keys of language to begin with, but did I really want to enter this society? Did I want to eat supper at 10 every night? Did I want a long lunch, and then go back to the office from five to around eight?
One day I went into a bookshop in Málaga and asked for “Libros en ingles” (books in English). The sales assistant pointed to a pile, a substantial pile, after all I was in a Spanish-speaking country. But I could only look at the bulging shelves of Spanish books, the covers no entry to the worlds within, and imagined having to buy all my books from the internet or on trips to London, or at the villages along the Costa del Sol which have the expat communities and thus English-language bookshops,
I rode the bus home the last day before leaving, watching the blue of the Mediterranean stream past my window, seeing people sunning themselves on the gritty beige beaches. I was going home two weeks early: I wasn’t going to look for a job. I had eaten calamari at a restaurant in the shadow of the Moorish fortress. I had considered going up again, and decided against it, it was too hot.
And so I rode the bus home, eight at night and the sun was blinding white and boiling.
I remain ambivalent about Málaga. On the one hand I remember all the good times: discovering my Spanish family at age twenty, celebrating a Spanish Christmas and New Year’s and then returning all those years later and falling in love with it all over again. But I hadn’t been planning to live there those times and looked at Spain with fresh eyes when I did plan to make a life there.
I have no such plans now. I’m not going back in search of roots that should have been cultivated as a child, and yet I still wander about the other person I would have become, could have become if I had chosen to settle in Málaga all these years later. Would the Spanish persona be any different to the soft English-speaking one I have now; would I be a different person, would I even want to be?
On that last day, saying goodbye, again, to the city of my birth, I stumbled upon a garden, and flashed back on the past.
There are photos of me as a child of three, in a red beanie, posing against black and white bricks, swans gliding on a pond. I had looked at those photos, even remembered the swans, but had never known where this place was. But I found it, and although swans were no longer there, the white and black bricks still enclosed the pond. I asked a man with a child to take a photo, and posed as I had posed so long ago.
“Be careful with your camera,” he told me in a mixture of mime, I smiled back; something at least, had been completed.
(First published in Wordsetc, Number 3)