My cousin, Déborah, has a new maid starting work this afternoon. Moroccan, she comes highly recommended by friends. OK, I think, I’ll be back only after six, so I won’t get to meet her. Wrong. She’s coming from five to eight o’clock tonight. Of course. Déborah did say afternoon after all, and in Spain afternoon doesn’t end at six or so as it does everywhere else. And neither does work. Spain, especially in Andalusia, still observes the traditional long lunch and siesta. Shop gates shut at two and so the long afternoon begins. Settle down for a lunch lasting several courses and find some Spaniards to pass the afternoon with. They’ve been doing it all their lives, unlike the tourists, wondering bewildered, wondering what to do with ourselves.
And then, come five o’clock and shop fronts go up again, offices open, and workers carry on into what we’d call night, meaning that the Spanish work longer hours than many other Europeans. But it’s summer and it doesn’t get dark till nine or so. Isn’t that really afternoon then, goes the explanation. Don’t argue. Don’t point out that in winter it doesn’t stay light after six and darkness falls when it should. It’s pointless to argue, after all. Spain is a country with traditions and customs stretching back centuries.
A Spanish-born, South African-raised, argumentative visitor who doesn’t really speak the language isn’t going to change things. Might as well enjoy the differences and meet the new maid.
Which you do. Her Arabic-influenced Spanish sounds perfect to you, although Déborah and her husband, Juanmi, tell you it’s grammatically challenged, to say the least. You don’t quite know what to do with yourself, hours and norms turned upside down. But you are adjusting to eating supper at 10 at night, so a maid cleaning the floors at eight at night is just one more adjustment
in the fabric of your time in Spain.
Still, you notice the differences, remark on them, and they are a source of much conversation.
Why does English have such an annoying habit of joining words: “take-out” and “dish cloth”, for instance? New words are created all the time in this way, and it’s a foreign concept to Déborah and Juanmi.
“In Spanish there’s one word for things,” says Juanmi crossly,“you can’t join words together.”
Too true, but doesn’t this lend English a wonderful elasticity and variety?
“I think it comes from the German roots of English,” you say, “I think German does that.”
In fact you have never thought about it, even as you go about joining words with the alacrity all native English-speakers do. Meanwhile Juanmi is busy mixing up kitchen and chicken, but not to worry. Not half as embarrassing as trying to say you’d like the thigh, when asked what part of the chicken you’d enjoy.
When your aunt blushes red and there’s laughter around the table, you know you’ve made a boo-boo. You’ve asked to eat a man’s thing rather than the thigh. Never mind. You’re among family.
You’re also among family as you unwittingly turn yourself into a male by using masculine endings, and it’s your turn to get cross, asking, one dinner, why Spanish doesn’t just have one form for all nouns and adjectives, like English. What’s with this masculine, feminine, tables are female as are chairs, and the beach is both masculine and feminine, depending on whether you’re trying to be poetic or not.
In one of your more tired moments – you’ve been battling to speak Spanish to shopkeepers all day, English seems woefully unknown – you suggest that Spanish change just a little and from now you’re just going to wilfully ignore all rules. You don’t realise such a statement can hurt however.
You’re talking about English again, and how it is bent out of shape by all the billions of people who speak it as second and third languages, Déborah says then she should be allowed to say “buyed” instead of “bought”. Ouch, that hurts and you realise what you’ve done.
OK, you’ll try to get your masculine and feminine endings in order. Language is as close to you as a loved one. You often don’t realise how attached you are to your English-speaking country.
It hits home when you walk into a bookshop in Málaga and ask if they have any books in English. They do, surprisingly, because I mean, you are in Spain. But you realise that you are a typical English-speaker in many ways: you’d probably expect to find some English books to buy in outer Mongolia. After all, the whole world should just speak English, shouldn’t it?
Browsing among a limited selection, you’re surrounded by novels in Spanish by authors you have never heard of. The covers are wild swirls of artwork, and you can’t reach and touch with anything approaching understanding. How frustrating. Even Juanmi’s novel, recently published, is a closed world to you. You translate the title into English but get no further.
Instead you discover a Survival book to living in Spain and read of expats, so many Brits, who try to make a life along the Costa del Sol, and don’t exactly thrive. It’s hard to make friends, they say, it’s hard to earn a good living, it’s hard to integrate.
The Spanish, it would appear, are a closed, homogeneous society. With the number of expats coming and going, not settling, and moving on shortly, it’s no wonder many Spanish often don’t befriend them. Why bother? Then there are the enormous numbers of retirees who buy homes and go about creating a little England in the sun, complete with satellite TV that brings you all the BBC channels, and fish and chip shops serving mushy peas. They often don’t even bother to learn Spanish.
Later you meet an English-speaking journalist who’s lived here 20 years, is married to a Spaniard and has two daughters. “My husband gets incensed when he sees our neighbours and they greet him in English,” she tells me. “Can’t they say hola, acknowledge that they’re in a different country?”
You read in Giles Tremlett’s book Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through a Country’s Hidden Past of expats who retire to the coast. Walking through n “urbanisation” or complex of townhouses, he asks an English ex-pat if there are any foreigners in the town. “No, not really,” he answers, “There is one Norwegian, the rest of us are British.”
You laugh wryly.
Wondering about this friendship thing once more you talk late into the night with Déborah about friends made and lost, and where she has met her own circle of close friends. And then you ask something: she keeps referring to a cousin of Juanmi’s as a friend. Is he a cousin or a friend? Well, he’s really a cousin, she says, but he’s part of their social circle, so he’s a friend. The terms are used interchangeably and you start to get a sense of the close-knit circle Spanish people move in.
“We don’t have people to lunch on Sundays,” Déborah tells me another day. “People spend that time with family, they are not available.”
How odd to this South African-raised observer. Next day is Sunday of course, and family time. Aunts and uncles come to lunch, the table is laid with Spanish omelette and Iberian ham. Family day, but among the differences, there are the other echoes of globalisation. We talk about the Spanish versions of TV shows in which contestants are made to look 10 years younger with Botox treatments, facelifts, dental caps and well-fitting bras.
“I’d never have plastic surgery,” says my aunt in Spanish. “These lines are me, there’s no one else in the world who has this face.”
You have to agree, but your Spanish isn’t advanced enough to also suggest erhaps some people do need the surgery, that confidence levels improve when they’ve had the nips and tucks, and you are, after all, living in a world where youth is prized as a jewel, some things don’t change, no matter what country you’re in.
But it’s the differences that are challenging and tire you after a while. Wandering Málaga’s streets one day, you’d like a simple lunch. Not a full sit-down meal that’s going to cost you an arm and a leg. After all, you’re carrying hard-earned euros in your pocket. A small Coke is R16, you compute, mouth hanging open. A plate of fish and rice and a bottle of mineral water comes to close to R100. So you’d like a toasted sandwich for lunch.
You tramp the streets, there are no toasted sandwiches in this land of the extravagant lunch. And then you do what you swore you’d never do. You go into a mall and order a takeaway hamburger from a Burger King. It feels like failure, but you don’t need much Spanish to point at the order on the board and you do know what you’re getting, more or less.
Back in the streets you walk among a sea of Spaniards, a homogeneous sea of white. Spotting the odd black face is an event, a novelty. You don’t realise how just how multicultural the society you live in has become. It’s evident in the sea of white faces, and the traditional Spanish food on offer at so many restaurants. Back home you eat pasta at coffee shops, drizzle balsamic vinegar on salads in all sorts of restaurants. It's hard work making your way in a country where English is not as widely spoken as you’d expect. With Spanish being spoken by 417 million in the world as either a first or second language, (English is spoken by 508 million), you find Spanish-speakers have the same insularity that so many English-speakers do, many not having seen the need to learn the language. It’s frustrating, but familiar.
Then The Lion King opens in Johannesburg and you watch a snippet being shown on a newscast one night. You don’t understand much of what they’re saying, but it’s a small glimpse of home and you realise it’s time to leave.
As the plane lifts you away, you watch Spain disappearing. The fields patch-worked into farmlands look like Dalí or Picasso creations. The colours are brown, beige and dark greens. The fields are oblong, oddly shaped approximations of triangles, tapering to curved or hooked points.
Nothing is uniform and nothing is as you would expect.
(Published in The Sunday Independent, August 2007)