FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS
11. No more orange spaceship
In spring and early summer there are many long weekends when there is an exodus of students from Granada. The academic year seems to start winding down from April on, apart from the exams. My classmates look forward to retiring to their second home, for a break from routine, to do their revision away from noisy distractions, and catch up with school-friends, and Mum’s cooking. A stillness descends on the city, and I prowl the streets alone.
I have been trying, unsuccessfully, to set up a student drama group in the School of Translation with English student Susana, a tertuliana with traffic-stopping symmetrical freckles. We have shared many frustrations together, and at this point I must be sounding sorry for myself, because she and her sister take pity on me, and invite me to stay with their family in a village near Albacete.
Their company is wonderful, and as a tourist I appreciate the scenery and food, but I find the small-town gossipy nosiness unbearable. It is recognisable from Galdós and Lorca, but I have already met the reality described in the fiction- I don’t need it rubbing in. Even the small perks, such as jumping the queue at a disco for being tall and blond (without a Jimmy Somerville in sight!) seem scant compensation.
I am treated to all the stereotypes about the English (I must actively enjoy terrible food, whilst also being incapable of showing my feelings). Then, slowly comes the insinuation that I must be the boyfriend or prospective boyfriend of one of the sisters. It reminds me of when my best friend Petra came to stay in the family home in my first year. I had to explain to my parents that we wouldn’t be sharing a room. “We’re just good friends”. “I’ve heard that one before!” joked my father. But I had felt relaxed and open with my parents. If I’d had a girlfriend, I would have said she was my girlfriend- when I said “friend”, I meant “friend”. In Spain, although the courtship rituals no longer involve cat-flaps and dowry-dealings like in Brenan’s day, several female friends tell me that, generally speaking, the only reason for a male friend to meet their parents would be to ask for their hand in marriage. Until then, young women can go out with friends of both sexes, and even sleep over at people’s houses, but everyone is to be described using the same word, and meeting the family is out of the question. So the word “friend” has become laden with the kind of innuendo that makes older men chortle.
Everything I do that attracts attention, or forces people to confront their own habits and assumptions, is because I am English: if I help with the washing-up, it’s because I am English (“there are seven women and an Englishman in the kitchen ha ha ha”); if I wear a seat belt, it’s because I’m English. Yes, yes, you may have rational, objective reasons for your behaviour, but haven’t you realised yet? We just don’t do that here! Haven’t you noticed? They are genuinely astonished, and slightly offended, every time I buckle up.
I am quite looking forward to returning to England. I will be back in my place, with my people.
But when I transfer from Granada to Oxford for my final year, it doesn’t feel like “coming back”. I am acutely aware that what for me has been an interlude, for my friends was the final act. All the non-linguists have already graduated and are starting their lives in the big wide world, or, more likely, London. Those of us who have been away have been altered by the experience, and as fourth years, are given a strange intermediate status with some of the gowned, claret-enhanced privileges of the Middle Common Room, the home of post-graduate students. A couple of terribly fresh-faced second years come to visit me to say that they want to go to Granada, and do I have any advice? One of them has long blond hair.
There is to be no orange spaceship for my final year. I am housed right next to the library and the chapel, like a grown-up, and expected to knuckle down accordingly. I hardly perform any comedy, as apart from needing to swot, I discover that my main partner in crime, Jeremy, is by now off winning awards at The Royal College of Music. He comes back for a swan song we call The Dead Perret Sketch.
I am, in fact, beginning to turn inside out. This process is accelerated by a book I happen to come across in Spain just before leaving. It is a recent novel, set in Oxford, and I think it might be an interesting experience to look at the city through Spanish eyes, as I return, confused by my time away. It turns out to be set within the university itself. Within the Sub-Faculty of Spanish. Through fiction, the author has made a Spanish reality of something I thought I already knew.
So here are my streets, the bells, and the steeple; open the lecture hall, here are the people.