Category Archives: Expat Life: Valencia 2016

Nowhere and everywhere.

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Nowhere and everywhere.

Last October we returned ‘home’ for four days, staying in York for our friends’ wedding. After a completely packed September which afforded us no time to relax, in early October we felt we could have done without another trip to England so soon after arriving back in Valencia. However, as the trip drew nearer, I found myself becoming incredibly excited about it all. The idea of some real autumn with fiery colours and a chill in the air and cosy, medieval pubs with real ales on tap brought nostalgia bubbling up inside me. The funny thing about England is that for me, it is best lived long distance and through the lens of nostalgia.

A week or two before we were due to fly, we experienced some incredibly English weather here in Valencia: a week of grey skies and ‘low’ (18C) temperatures. I felt sad and and irritated by it, “I didn’t move here for this!” yet it also brought on a bout of homesickness. Perhaps because I felt the way I usually feel in England from October til April: sad and miserable, it reminded me of the things I do miss back home, like family and friends.

Most of the time I do not feel homesick and revel in my life here in Valencia. I love the weather, the city, the food, the lifestyle; I even enjoy my job most of the time. But I have recently realised that I have become a master at not thinking about my family and close friends while I am away. To do so would invite homesickness, longing and nostalgia for times past.  And so I have noticed (for I now consider myself an old hand at living far from loved ones) that when a trip home is approaching, I unconsciously allow myself to think of all those I love the most, whose histories are irrevocably entwined with my own. I think of them and become giddy as a kipper, knowing that we will soon share some precious time together.

When we are back in York, it feels like nothing has changed. This is both the charm and the curse of the place. When we are with friends, drinking in the pub where a the child Guy Fawkes reputedly lived, it is so easy and natural, picking up where we left off. But I am all too aware that if we were to live in York once again, we would not see these friends any more frequently than we do now, living over one thousand miles away. The good thing about living abroad is that everyone is always pleased to see you. There is a curious romance in living far from loved ones. I find myself wondering, when we are back home in York or Cleveleys, or wherever home truly is when you are a wanderer, why we do it. Why is there this random group of us here in Valencia: from England, Australia, Japan, Ireland, other parts of Spain? Why have we come here? Why did we choose to leave everyone we love behind? And why are we so bittersweetly happy to be here?

I think that having a wanderlust is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it drives us to know other cultures and ways of life; it opens ours minds and provides fodder for tales and memories for life. A curse because we are never satisfied. There is always somewhere else to see, another journey to make. There is a feeling of belonging everywhere but of being rooted nowhere. After a trip home to autumnal England, it was strange to return home to a country where the sun still dominates a clear blue sky every day. But here we are. Spain. This is home.

 

 

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Are you missing a place you call home?

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Are you missing a place you call home?

I do not experience prolonged bouts of homesickness. Usually it happens predictably, at one of two times: in the week leading up to a trip home, or when the weather is grey and miserable. As both of these things occur only every two or three months, it’s fair to say that I’m happy as Larry most of the time. I sometimes think that when I cycle to work in the sunshine past the port, grinning my cheeks off, that I look like I belong in the Von Trapp family cycling through the Austrian countryside. There are no hills in Valencia, but man, I feel alive!

The exception to my immunity to/repression of homesickness is the month of December. Valencia is decorated with Christmas lights, trees made from lights, a small ice-rink. The shops are stuffed with turrón, chocolate covered dried fruit and novelty ‘three kings’. We have bought a little Christmas tree and there is one at work too. I have even wrapped some presents and put them under our little tree. Still, I feel as Christmassy as a Jehovah’s Witness at a carol service.

I am no Ebeneezer-Scrooge-Humbug. Although I find Christmas shopping stressful, hoping that people will like what I buy them, I truly love Christmas. It literally lights up the darkest time of year. No coincidence that the Christians imposed Christmas onto the Pagan midwinter festival of Yule; what else is there to look forward to in northern Europe at this bleak time of year? It is the only time that the cold, short days seem appropriate. It is hard to feel festive when the sun is beaming 16C through your windows, obliterating the colourful lights on your Christmas tree. (N.B. NOT complaining about sunshine-never! Just saying…) There is no need for that woolly scarf during the day, much less mulled wine or a Baileys hot chocolate to warm you up. All these things we do back home, in the northern lands; all redundant here.

So here I am in Valencia, still needing my scarf at night. Desperate to return to the north, because Christmas also means family and friends and remembering who you are in another place. We have made some great friends here and always have fun times with them, but old friends are different. The ones who have shared tears and laughter with you; seen the best and worst of you; the ones who welcome you home with open arms and a glass of red wine. The ones you sigh with relief to see. The ones you have chosen as your extended family.

So every day in December I am craving  a night in my mum’s little house by the Irish Sea, with gale force winds whistling down the chimney. I want films and red wine and chocolate on a dark, cold, winter night. I want to wrap up and walk along the promenade, leaning into the wind before going for a pot of English tea and a soft, buttered fruit scone in one of the little cafes.  I want to feel the cold biting, so that my coat and winter woolies are necessary, not cumbersome.

All these small, favourite things that make Christmas christmassy, all back home. Here, we try, with Christmas music and decorations, but it’s just not the same. Of course it’s not the same; it is a different country and we moved here for change and difference. But nothing makes me appreciate England like a journey of one thousand miles.

Have you seen this weather?!

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Have you seen this weather?!

After the past few days here in Valencia, it would be rude not to indulge my British side and talk about the weather. Here we go!

One of the reasons we moved here was for the Spanish weather. Wall to wall sunshine and bright blue skies for most of the year. This has provided massive relief from the strangle-hold of Seasonal Affective Disorder, which I normally suffer from for half of the year. (See previous Winter blogs). Here in Valencia, I cheerfully cycle to work in the Winter sunshine, feeling light and happy to be alive. My only gripe is that as a northerner, I feel I have gone soft. I now consider 10C to be, ‘Bloody freezing! Why didn’t I wear my woolly hat today?’ Yes,seriously. But then, we have spent the summer months living every day life in an almost unbearable, humid 35C. So maybe I’ve toughened up against the heat.

Anyway, it isn’t the heat that I am here to write about today. So accustomed have we become to the predictable sunshine, that when it rains, we literally don’t know what the hell is happening. We suddenly have to consider what shoes and coat to wear; whether we should cycle or catch the bus to work. Gloomy weather also brings mixed feelings: disappointment that the sun is not shining; sadness and lethargy because of the low light; and oddly, homesickness. Grey skies and rain remind us, especially the northerners, of home. So although I am irritated that the sun is not powering me through the day, I am also nostalgic for all the people and places I have left behind.

That is, until last weekend. Never, not even in unpredictable, tempestuous little England, have I experienced storms like we had on Sunday in Valencia. I was rudely awoken at 11am (I had partied until 5am) by crashing thunder which had penetrated both the closed window and my earplugs. I managed to snooze a little but eventually got out of bed to a heavy rainstorm and leaden sky. Late afternoon provided a slight break in the clouds, revealing some less-grey sky. But by 5.30pm rain to rival that which instigated the building of Noah’s ark descended. It did not stop. Lightning like I have never seen before lit up the whole sky for hours on end. I think that the light which warns aircrafts of the high bridge at the City of Arts and Sciences was struck by lightning, as the light went out and hasn’t been on since.

As former residents of York, a city which frequently floods and did so on an epic scale last Christmas, you might think we would be used to such torrential downpours. The rain is obviously reminiscent of home, but certainly not the lightning. However, the piéce de resistance had to be – wait for it – the tornado. Yes, the tornado, just 13km down the coast from us, in El Perellò. It certainly explained all the rain, which is still falling, two days later. It was even raining in the Metro, two levels down. The platform was soaked, a few buckets dotted uselessly under the multiple leaks, along with one wet floor sign. In true Spanish disregard for health and safety, I saw the water dripping through the lights, down onto the electric lines of the Metro while people bustled though as normal.

This a city clearly as unprepared for rain as Britain is for heat. The pavements are all shiny tiles and marble, waiting for you to slip on your arse as you try to dash through the rain flowing in rivers through the saturated streets. That said, you won’t see a Valencian without a brolly when it’s raining (that is, if they even dare to venture out), and I’ve seen several of them wearing wellies. Considering how rare rain  is in this city, there is no shortage of waterproofs. The tornado and torrential rain are not normal in Spain, although the locals seemed less impressed/shocked by it than I was. Maybe this fascination with the wether really is just a British thing. I am sure the sun will shine again soon. That is one thing we can count on here.

 

A first time for everything

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A first time for everything

Yesterday was the day I persuaded a Frenchman to get into a dumpster. Well, not right inside, but definitely half way in. I was surprised by how up for it he was, really.

Here’s what happened. Because, unlike most of the residents in our complex, I am not too posh to carry my recycling to the dumpsters outside, I was doing just that. However, I also had a bag of rubbish, although there are dumpsters for rubbish in our complex. As I flung the rubbish in the stinking summer garbage, the plastic handle on the bag got caught on my keys. Yes, you guessed it; in they went with the rubbish.

Usually a fan of expletives, I surprised myself by simply wailing, “Noooooo!” I pushed my foot on the leaver to lift the lid; several huge flies buzzed up at me, ugh! However, I could just see my keys, almost within reach, the key still caught around the bag’s handle. If I could just lift the bag, I could grab my keys. Or cause them to completely disappear from view, deeper into the rubbish. Hmph.

At just under 5’3″, my eyes can only just see over the top and into the dumpster- if I stand on my tiptoes. Normally, people leave an assortment of things on the street by the recycling point: boxes and other things that I could stand on for a bit of height. Alas, the gypsies who regularly cycle by and collect scrap must have taken anything I could have climbed up on.

And this is where the Frenchman appears in the story. There are several porters who work in our building, and one of them is French. He is our favourite; always chatting and joking with us and making a point of using English when anyone else is within earshot. He was my only hope. “Javi, I have a problem,” I begin in Spanish, “my keys are in the rubbish!” Javi breaks off from pruning the plants, bringing the secateurs with him. After showing him the problem, he instructs me to stand guard by the dumpster with the secateurs while he fetches a stepladder. I thank the goddess that nobody else wants to do their recycling at this precise hour.

Javi returns with the stepladder, chatting away on his mobile. I overhear, “Getting keys out of the rubbish for a very nice English girl.” I open the dumpster, flies buzz in front of our faces and Javi climbs up and hangs down head first to grab my keys. I feel really bad as I look at his smart-casual, clean clothes as he reaches in, but I am delighted that at least the dumpster wasn’t full. Javi hands me my keys and I am filled with gratitude.

If we didn’t already love Javi, we think he’s even more awesome now. Fishing the keys of foreigners out of the rubbish is definitely not in his job description! Today we bought him some special biscuits from Yorkshire in El Corte Ingles to say thank you. He was reluctant to accept them, perhaps because they were from the dark side of the Pennines 😉

As I was recounting this ridiculous tale to one of my new friends, she observed, “These things seem to just happen to you, don’t they?” Well, I guess you could say that. I mean, there was the time I managed to get a nectarine stone irretrievably jammed in the toaster…

 

 

Going up North

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Going up North

So, we have passed six months in Valencia. Sunny,  hot, beautiful Valencia. Next week, however, we are leaving for a month in England. Everyone says that the heat in Valencia is unbearable in August, and I expect that everyone is right. So we will pack up our beloved Victor Hugo (our VW Camper van) and head North for the summer. This is the first time that I have left Spain in the height of summer, knowing that I will be returning to the same place in September. This is a huge relief, as I do not have to contend with the prospect of Winter in England, phew.

If you have read any of my other posts, you will know how alive I feel in a Mediterranean climate; how relieved I feel to see the sun every day and how good this makes life in general feel. So you may be surprised to read that I am actually looking forward to several things about a month in the North of England. Here we go…

  1. Spending time with family and old friends; obviously.
  2. The beach in the photo above. It certainly isn’t a beach of golden sand and clear waters, but I grew up by this beach. I have seen the Irish Sea breach the sea walls; close the promenade in Winter and wash up thousands of starfish in summer. This beach and sea have an energy that courses through my veins. The sunsets are spectacular; unrivalled by any others I have seen. A walk on this beach is refreshing and energising. The same cannot be said of the golden sands of Valencia’s beach, which I also love, in a different way.
  3. More variety in the supermarkets! Terrible though the reputation of English food is, our traditional, bland cuisine has paved the way for creativity in the kitchen. In countries like Spain, France and Italy, which all have their own culinary traditions, there isn’t the same need for the variety and fusion that we have in the UK. However, in Spain, this means that the supermarkets all sell the same ingredients, which can be quite boring if you want to cook something a little more exotic than paella.
  4. Connected to the point above: all the food we eat at home, and out, in England which is unavailable here! Sandwiches, scones, Victoria sponge, tea, quiche, pies, English ham, Quorn, pub food…Ah, bring it on!
  5. A population which is generally spacially aware. I am looking forward to people who look where they are going; who aren’t practically in my back pocket when I am queueing at the supermarket; who don’t stop in the shop doorway/at the top of the escalator/in the middle of the road to have a chat. This irks me no end so I’ll stop now.
  6. Changing skies and weather. After almost six months of blue skies, sunshine and increasingly hot temperatures, I will appreciate some cooler weather and variety; just for a month though! I am also a little apprehensive about what will feel like a huge drop in temperature for us. It has currently been around 32C on average. Back home it’s around 18C, at the height of summer. I really feel the cold, even in summer, so I’ll be packing jeans and jumpers for our ‘summer’ back home!

So, we’re leaving our current home to go back home for a month. When you are a traveller, anywhere you make connections feels like home. Still, wherever you call home, there will always be something, and someone you miss.

 

 

The Philosophy of Hot Drinks

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The Philosophy of Hot Drinks

We British and Irish are renowned for our tea addiction. Who else can remember their mum squashing a box of teabags into her suitcase, even if you were just going on a caravan holiday to Wales? (Because they don’t have tea, or even shops, in Wales). “Better to be safe,” cautioned your mum, in response to your giggles at her packing priorities. Also, the implicit idea that it is ‘safer’ to take teabags on holiday with you, rather than run the risk of your favourite brand being unavailable in the wilderness of Rhyll. You get the idea. In the UK and Ireland, tea is so much more than a caffeine hit.

You might think that this blog is going to be a rant about how people don’t know how to make tea here in Spain; but we already know that, so I’m not going down that route. This is more about the function of the hot drink in general. Not only do the Spanish (and most Southern Europeans) not know
how to make tea, they also have problems with coffee.  This is a fact that every Spaniard with whom I have discussed the issue has disagreed. But for me, seeing Italians in the Valencia branch of Starbucks is a sure sign that the local coffee is genuinely shite.

So, while the Spanish disagree with my opinion on their coffee, I have come to the conclusion that, apart from the fact that I am right, 🙂 the Spanish and southern Europeans drink caffeinated drinks for a very different reason to the British and Irish. The bitter cafe solo (espresso to most of us) simply exists for a caffeine hit, a jolt of energy. If you order a cafe con leche (a smaller, more inferior version of  the Italian cafe latte) you will be given a luke warm, strong coffee made with espresso and full fat, long-life milk. While the cafe con leche carries fond memories of Madrid for me, it is not a great coffee; which brings me to my point.

On our cold, wet, depressing little islands, a hot drink is so much more than a dose of caffeine. Tea is a cure all. It warms our bones when we return from shopping in a downpour. It soothes our nerves after a shock. It provides heat for our hands when we’ve been teaching in a classroom with a broken radiator. It is to be savoured, enjoyed; not downed in one (we save that for alcohol!) Coffee serves a similar function, minus the soothing- only tea can do that. A long, hot latte is an indulgence to sip. Going for coffee with friends is a treat because good coffee shops are usually quite expensive in England. Again, we draw warmth from our hot drink, taking a moment to breathe in the tempting aroma. A hot drink in England is a small comfort in our cold climate; a moment to pause and relax, because you cannot rush a hot drink, you must wait until you can drink it without burning yourself.

So there you have it. For the British and Irish, hot drinks are so much more than caffeine. They are a rare pause in our hectic lives, a moment of warmth on a winter’s day. This is why I can forgive Spain for its bitter, rocket fuel coffee and its watery, tasteless tea. In Spain, they don’t need a hot drink to warm up; nor to cheer up. They have something we don’t have: good weather.

 

 

 

Ten Things I…

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Ten Things I…

OK, so really it’s five things I love about Spain and five things I miss about England. Yes, I managed to find five things I miss about overcast old Blighty. Here goes!

 

Five Things I love About Spain

1. Need I say it? The weather!! Everything looks and feels better in the sunshine; it seems easier to feel positive most of the time.

2. The attitude to drinking alcohol. Alcohol accompanies food; enhances the flavour; is a savoured pleasure. For the majority, it is not a route to oblivion.

3. The children are dressed as children, not as adolescents or even mini-adults. (3A.) The clothes they wear are really cute, 1930s style!

4. The cost of living. Everything is much cheaper than in the UK so we do not feel consistently ripped off.

5. The social life. I don’t need to book an appointment a month in advance simply to go for a drink with a friend. In fact, I can even ask them the same day that I fancy going out! Both the locals and expats are easy-going and keen to live life.

 

Five Things I miss About England

1. This one goes without saying: family and old friends. People I have a shared history with: that takes time to develop and is a huge part of who I am.

2. The English language. Sometimes it is frustrating being unable to express myself and having to plan what I want to say. I am learning, though.

3. Fruit scones with butter and strawberry jam. Despite the plethora of pastries in Spain, there is nothing like a soft, sweet, English scone with a pot of Yorkshire Tea. Aaaah, yes…

4. The English countryside, especially North Yorkshire. There really is nowhere else like it. But unfortunately for me, the copious quantities of rain required to keep England so green have been enough to push me rather far south to sunnier, drier climes.

5. The cosiness of a winter night at home, watching a film while sipping a dark red wine. This is one of the very few things I enjoy about an English winter. However, in Valencia the year round sunshine and warmth obliterates the concept of cosy. Our bright, airy apartment is certainly homely, but cosiness requires the cold and dark. Fortunately for me, the sunlight more than compensates for the absence of cosiness.

So there you have it, a fairly balanced view expat life? For me, for now, Valencia is where I am happiest.