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All the small things

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All the small things

OK, after nearly three months in Valencia I am going to indulge my British side and write about the Brits’ favourite topic (after drinking stories): the weather. After all, the weather is about 75% of the reason that we moved here. For anyone reading this who has never been in England during the ‘summer’, let me explain.

In the summer we Brits spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to work out what to wear, because summer doesn’t necessarily mean ‘warm’, and it certainly doesn’t mean ‘sunny’. I have had international students ask me at midsummer, “Teacher, when is it the summer in England?” 

“It’s now,” I sigh, “this is the summer.”

So, what you choose to wear on those rare, bright, sunny mornings might be quite unsuitable an hour later, when the rain is pouring. Your pretty sandals and summer dress won’t protect you then. So the next day, you don your skinny jeans, only to be roasting in the midday sun a couple of hours later. It sounds ridiculous, but it can be stressful. You are often uncomfortably aware that you have made the wrong choice; and you’ll spend the rest of the day regretting it. Compare this with Spain, where hot and sunny will last from morning til night. When you get dressed in the morning, you will always make the right decision because the sun will always beam its hot rays rays all summer long.

The sun brings simple, yet stress-easing freedoms. For example, there is no such thing as wet washing hanging around the house for days because it’s too wet or cold to hang it outside. In Spain, put it outside and it will dry the same day, or on a couple of hours if it is summer. There is also the freedom of knowing that it makes no difference if the sun is shining while you are stuck inside teaching or number crunching. It will still be beaming when you finish in the evening, as it will tomorrow, the next day, all weekend and the all the weeks of summer. You will not miss out, as you would in the UK, where it might shine intensely for a couple of hours, then vanish as you leave work, not to be seen for another week. In Spain, there is no rush to get outside because it is sunny. This takes some getting used to, and I am still experiencing ‘good weather guilt’. That is, I feel guilty if it is sunny outside but I want to stay in and watch a film. My inner Brit panics: you should be outside because it’s a gorgeous day!

This is why the British get sunburn, drink copious amounts of alcohol and generally go crazy on a sunny afternoon. It is human nature to over-indulge when one has been denied something for a long time. Drinks outside in the warm, afternoon sunshine are something we rarely  get a chance to enjoy in the UK. The time is precious, and pressured.

And so in Spain, a lot of small things add up to make life easier and more pleasant; and that is why we are here.

 

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So I am alive, after all.

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So I am alive, after all.

With the exception of my magical wedding day in Italy in September, I haven’t felt so alive since… since 2013, when I last lived, briefly, in Spain. This time, however, I am not alone. We left northern England two weeks ago in our VW Camper van and have been in Valencia for around ten days.

It is no secret that I have not wanted to live in the UK for several years now, for various reasons: lack of jobs in my sector (teaching EFL); terrible weather; the ‘work hard, go home and veg out’ ethic; the cost of living; the undercurrent of tension on a night out. Add to that a winter that seems to last most of the year and being a sufferer of SAD; it’s no wonder I’ve been itching to leave for years.

Everyone feels better in the sunshine, there’s no denying that. But as you may have seen from previous, dark blogs, it’s a little more than that for me. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a form of seasonal depression, not yet completely understood, which affects people in countries with little daylight in the winter months. I use a light box, which definitely takes the edge off it, but from October to around May I simply feel miserable and negative, constantly questioning my inability to feel positive about life. Even things which I normally enjoy hold little pleasure; I become paranoid about friendships and generally feel ‘dead’. The constant grey skies, cloud cover and epic flooding of last November, December and January left me feeling crushed, as if the weight of the solid grey sky were suffocating me. So, our escape South came just in time.

The thing about SAD is that it leaves you feeling like this is just you; it’s just the way you are. You’re a dissatisfied, negative character, constantly yearning for something to make you feel alive again. Then, as the days lengthen in late April and May, you start to unfurl like the new flowers in Spring. Suddenly, one day, you realise that you don’t feel dead anymore. The sun shines and literally puts a spring in your step. You are reminded that you are someone who enjoys life; going out, seeing people, having fun. This is who you are, oh yeah! For a few months, anyway.

And that is the thing about living in a warmer climate; it allows me to be a better version of myself. Waking up to blue skies and sunshine gives me the energy and confidence to face the challenges ahead and right now, we have taken on an epic challenge! I feel alive for the first time in years. Yes, this is partly due the fact that I am somewhere new, and I also thrive on difference (not everybody does). Every day I experience new things and my confidence grows. It is so much easier to feel happy when the sun shines every day. I just wish everyone in the UK could feel the benefits, too.

 

 

 

 

But I did it all the time in England!

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But I did it all the time in England!

(From April 2013)

Late April, the first hot day in Madrid. Hot for a northern European; 20C. I take all my CAE marking to the Retiro, along with a sandwich, water and a blanket, and make the best of having marking to do on a Saturday.

A couple of hours later I’ve corrected and ticked and crossed the English papers. Mario and his best friend from Sicily join me and I finally relax with a beer. By 7.40pm the sun is still shining, but I realise that I am supposed to be meeting my eccentric, ginger, kiwi friend at 8pm in trendy, grungey Malasaña. OK. At least 20 minutes on the Metro and I will need to change trains. And I really need to pee. Mario and the Godfather have to leave to play football, but we need to find the loos first in the Retiro. I remember that I’ve seen some near the bandstand, underground.

As we approach, surprise surprise there’s a queue of a about twenty women snaking up the stairs. I’m not just desperate, I am in a rush (this is a totally unknown phenomenen among the Spanish-rush). I do what many girls in England would do in a desperate-to-pee-no-time-to-fanny-about-situation; I start to edge towards the men’s. Mario is heading there, so I lean over the railing to see if it looks busy. A young American guy spots me as he’s heading up the stairs, “There’s no one there, just go in”. That’s all the green light I need. “What! I don’t think you should do it,” Mario protests. But he’s Sicilian and probably in the Mafia. I’m sure worse things have happened than a girl peeing in the blokes’ toilets. 

He’s goes down the stairs, I follow and the aged attendent says something to me in Spanish. I ignore him and rush into  cubicle; Mario goes in the one next door. After relieving myself I exit, wash my hands and go to leave. The barred gate at the bottom of the stairs has been locked, the old man has the key and Mario is arguing with him. What the fuck is going on? Why would an old dude lock two young people in the toilets in the park? Shit, I have to meet ginger kiwi in 15 minutes. Shit, is the old dude going to call the police? Have I broken some local law? I understand nothing, except when he shouts the word puta…

After an intense argument lasting less than a minute, he lets us out, while old men peer down the stairs to see what the fuss was about. Mario is reluctant to tell me what the old bloke said, other than a vague,”He said there’s a place for girls and a place for guys. He said we shouldn’t treat it like our own house.” But it’s clear what he thought: puta means prostitute. The old guy thought I was a prostitute. As to precisely what he imagined we were doing in separate cubicles, I am clueless.

Since then I have discovered that you can use the loos in the cafes in the Retiro for free.  Even so, I had to use the men’s there last week, though only once enough time had lapsed since I had been accused of being a prostitute. Life is short, I can’t afford to waste it queueing to pee.

A Weekend in Stockholm

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Stockholm: the furthest north I have ever ventured. It is also the first European capital city that I have visited was not scarred by either Nazi or Communist rule during the Twentieth Century (except Madrid; but they had fascism). Stockholm was beautiful, but not quite what I had expected… First of all (perhaps not most importantly, but first nonetheless) is that all the men did not resemble Alexander Skarsgard. I know it’s hard to believe, but it is true. Not only did all the chaps not grace the streets with the gorgeousness that is the aforementioned, but the population of Stockholm was not, as several people I know had observed, inherently beautiful. “I felt like I had all the appeal of the back end of a bus in Stockholm,” one friend noted, “EVERYONE there is SO good-looking you’d have to be a super model not to feel ugly!” This, thankfully, was not true. Sure, at the Pearl Jam concert there were many hot young folk to be spied, but on the Metro and in the city the gorgeous people were as numerous as in the UK. Perhaps it was the different kind of beauty that had so impressed previous visitors; I have never seen as many natural, nay, ‘white’ blondes as I have in Stockholm. However, with the exception of Alexander Skarsgard, blondes do not normally attract my attraction.

Secondly, everybody looks the same. I don’t mean physically; I mean in the way that they dress. I am something of a people watcher so I am always interested in the appearance of the general population when I visit a new place. In almost three days in the capital city of Sweden, I saw just two people who stood out; people we’d call ‘alternative’ in Britain. By British alternative/punk standards, they were pretty conservative. Everybody simply looked smart, or smart/casual. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that, but in a capital city I expect a bit of diversity.

Thirdly, the weather was not that different to England in the summer, i.e. disappointing. I know that Stockholm is much further north than York, but for some reason I thought that the weather would be sunny, maybe 20C. No; it was cloudy for most our stay. I was actually cold for most of Saturday and lamented leaving my winter hat in the apartment. To add to the surprise- wait for it- it was sunny when we landed back in Manchester! I am so used to stepping into a wall of heat when I travel to Europe, and unfailingly miserable to return to the rain that permanently drizzles on northern airports, that I expected Stockholm to be warm and sunny in June. After all, you never hear anybody complaining about the Swedish weather, do you?

Stockholm is a calm, beautiful, unique city. Definitely worth visiting for a weekend but beware of the extreme prices: £7 for less than a pint of beer. However, everything appears so smooth and civilised that you might be left wondering where the spirit of this capital actually is.