FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS 14: Sweet… but it can get sticky

jamie14. Sweet… but it can get sticky

One of the “jury” assessing my ability to understand short presentations in my languages, and render them in eloquent English, was Leopoldo Costa. A slight, unassuming, charming man, as I remember him, he was bilingual Italian-Spanish, interpreted into both from all 7 other official EU languages, and was studying Finnish, his first non-Indo-European language, to be ready for when Finland joined the EU the following year.

A prize for relaying idealistic platitudes about the future of Europe has since been named in his honour.

He gives me what I later discover is his standard speech for Spaniards who claim to know Italian, but have yet to show evidence of their knowledge. He has native fluency in two languages which have a certain overlap of vocabulary, if not necessarily nuance, in some fields more than others, so it is not much effort for him to knock together an Italian speech which gravitates towards key terms that would be unguessable to a non-Italian-speaking Spaniard. This, I suspect, is designed to catch me out, and expose my subterfuge. “Dick” has remained unflappably polite and generous in his phone calls with me, but his analysis of my situation has clearly been astute. The speech is about basil in window-boxes deterring mosquitoes.

Ironically, because it is a day-to-day subject (herbs and insects have cropped up in my lived experience of the language), I fare better than I would with a speech on politics or economics. The “aptitude test” is a kind of talent competition. A dozen of us start out at 9a.m., but by lunchtime we are only three. After each round, we are either dismissed, or given a simple personalised tip for the next (mine is to stop umming and erring, and wasting time being perfectionist- I remember thinking “Seriously? That‘s all I have to worry about? That‘s easy to rectify!”) I pass, and am told to report for duty on the first of the next month, to receive training from all three languages into English.

The course will be only six months long, with eliminatory tests every two months, a reasonable grant to cover living expenses, and if all goes well, a two-year full-time contract at the end of it, with the possibility of taking a competitive exam to become a European civil servant for life. It sounds fun, and when they find me out in a few months and send me packing, I won‘t have wasted much time, or any money (a very different situation to that facing misguided aspiring interpreters these days). Still, to give myself a fighting chance, I ask to postpone my training by a few months, to go to Italy at my own expense, and knock my more formal vocabulary into shape. I even start reading The Economist, a sure sign of desperation.

I learn a lot: how to look in 5 directions at once for oncoming mopeds, how driving requires an incredibly vivid and contorted sexual imagination (in case you need to pass comment on another road user), how to buy breakfast for a waitress (I ask “would you like a small croissant?”, and she replies “No, it’s all or nothing for me!”), how “business lunches” in restaurants are tax-deductible, so one should always phone one‘s self-employed friends around midday, how the receptionist is correct when he says you really won‘t get any sleep if you stay in the room next to the “Dominican ladies”, and, most importantly, how to interact. Rather than unambiguously sharing facts, priority goes to smiling, inappropriate flirting, and evasion of personal responsibility. I find myself feeling increasingly comfortable with that. A charity worker in vertiginous heels leaps out at me in the street, seizes both my hands, and shoutsCercavo un angelo- e eccolo!!” (“I was seeking an angel, and one appeared!”) If you want to find your way, use a map. If you ask a human, the response will be… well, human. First they will ask you where you’re parked. If they eventually understand that you seriously intend walking, they will send you the wrong way, and become defensive when challenged. Or they may walk with you, and buy you a coffee.

Restaurants, interestingly, are about food and eating. This is an extremely serious business, more so even than in France, and you have to play by the rules. Not only is there profound innate resistance to the idea that the customer is always right, the foreign customer is in fact always wrong, by definition. You cannot have parmesan on a seafood sauce- I mean, really, what were you thinking? You cannot have a cappuccino after a meal. You might do that sort of thing back in Germany, or whatever barbarous place you come from, but I’m not having that sort of nonsense on my premises.

I am even told off for stirring my coffee too vigorously in the station cafe. I order a sandwich. They tell me I should have eaten the sandwich before drinking the coffee. They ask if I want it warming on the grill. I say no. They say it is better served warmed. I say I have a train to catch. They explain why it is better warm. I miss the train. This is basically the story of my time in Italy, with one significant omission: I am in love. Once you get a bit closer to eating like an Italian, thinking like an Italian, and speaking like an Italian (which you must do strictly in this order), there is no going back.

(Your palate has been ruined for places like “Jamie’s Italian”. You stare in disbelief at antipasti called “Jamie’s dance around Italy. The pasta comes with a jumble of strong flavours, as if a four-year-old has been allowed to choose ingredients for the first time. The sad realization dawns that words like “Italian” have no meaning outside the country. In the English language, the phrase “going to an Italian restaurant” has nothing to do with food, and is simply code for inviting low-level sexual harassment from a waiter.)

The Italian relationship with language is just as special. Again, once savoured, never forgotten. Nothing matches the pleasure I feel interpreting from Italian- whatever the frustrations, it unfailingly gives me a thrill. Just the other day:Esiste dunque la possibilità di vivere tranquillamente nel capoluogo toscano e andare a lavorare, ogni giorno, in quello emiliano. O vice versa!” Yes, folks: “You can commute between Florence and Bologna.

I’m not saying emotional manipulation is rife. Life is too much fun for that. But at the next table, the waiter forgets to bring a child’s meal. The mother turns to her 5-year-old and says “Non te lo fanno!” (“They’re not making it for you!”), which causes a tantrum. The child must suffer, visibly, to make the waiter suffer. At the time, I find this perplexing- but I remember this moment, later, when I’m interpreting Italian politicians. It helps me more than many books.

My training in Brussels is given by the interpreters themselves, between assignments. It is very closely focused on the precise job we will be called upon to do (again, unlike the situation for students now). There is no textbook answer to our questions, just a range of personalities to inspire us. They are sometimes mutually contradictory. The head of the French booth gives me a speech which concludes “La culture c’est comme la confiture. Moins on en a, plus on l’étale.” (literally Culture is like jam. The less you have, the more you spread it”, but used to imply someone is a vacuous show-off). I don’t understand the verb “étaler”, let alone the finer nuances intended, and say “Culture is like jam. Sweet… but it can get sticky.” I am praised for my creativity. At my two-month exam, though, I am told “Mr. Perret clearly has the makings of a good interpreter, but must learn not to bluff.” Treading that middle path has been a balancing act ever since.


FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS 13: Formal qualifications


13. Formal qualifications

Oxford was, overall, an extraordinary, nurturing place. Although I had no idea of it at the time, the tutorial system was also an excellent preparation for being an interpreter, since it involved trying to hold your own with an expert, being picked up on for any slip in intellectual rigour, and in a sense giving supremacy to the spoken word over the written. Not only was it based on a tertulia-style dialogue, but whilst in theory one was “reading out an essay”, in practice many was the time I left gaps (such as the entire conclusion) and improvised on the spot.

I applied to stay, and pursue literary research with Eric Southworth, dedicatee of the Spanish novel, and inspirational lecturer of mine. In the middle of my final year, I was awarded a one-year research scholarship to Spain, on the basis of an exam in which I was in competition with doctoral students.

But despite this good omen, I then narrowly failed to get a First Class degree. I’ve been looking through the dozen or so notes I received, via the Hogwarts-style pigeon post, from my tutors and other dons (including supportive poet David Constantine) with their mixture of surprise, commiseration and solidarity. “I really didn’t see that coming”, was a common thread. The British Academy withdrew its offer of DPhil funding, so whilst I still had a well-funded year in Spain to look forward to, I didn‘t actually have anything to research. Constantine, who was appointed my supervisor, suggested I go back to the Muses of Granada, and so another year passed in La Tertulia, writing, translating and performing. I worked with Antonio Muñoz Molina, best-selling author and neighbour of mine up on the hill, who was still barely published in English. My 15 minutes of fame came when he wrote an article in the national press about how invigorating it was to collaborate with one’s translator (probably a diplomatic way of saying I was impertinent, again).

As my scholarship ran out, and the time came to look for a job, the number one challenge was coordinating phone calls and paperwork to ensure everything was in the right place at the right time. A typical day would involve me queuing at the locutorio to place an international call, hoping Mum would be at home in Datchet, so that I could ask her whether a letter had arrived containing a form that I needed to fill in. For one job in Madrid I was told openly over the phone that they wouldn’t give it to me because I lived in Granada. “But I can move to Madrid tomorrow!” “Yeah, you say that, but you’re just some guy on the phone in Granada. You have to come by and meet us.” The first potential employer who would pay travel expenses for my interview was the European Commission, so I didn’t think twice.

I had already considered a career as a conference interpreter, and visited the most prestigious school in Paris. I had bought the key theoretical and pedagogical works in their bookshop. Whilst there, I enquired about admission criteria and was told “Don’t bother applying, you need at least three foreign languages.” (I only had French and Spanish, since Catalan, of course, didn’t count.) I knew one interpreter in Oxford, who lived in Bill Clinton’s former house, and he had offered succinct advice over dinner: “It’s a world dominated by malevolent, self-important, superficial middle-aged women. I don’t recommend it at all. The only thing that might be of interest is the “stage” (traineeship) in Brussels, for which they directly recruit bright young things from all over Europe- now that could be fun!”

But there was some question over my eligibility there too. They also required three foreign languages, so I unhesitatingly put Italian down on the form, on the basis that I had been speaking it for a year with my first girlfriend, a half-Florentine half-Roman au pair in Oxford who learnt virtually no English thanks to me, but gave me a superb crash course in two difficult dialects, blasphemy, superstition, and the problematic relationship between objective reality and expression that lies at the heart of all communication in the language of Machiavelli.

I was told to phone Brussels to clarify my eligibility. The phone was answered in an unfamiliar Northern European style, not with a repetition of the number, but with the speaker’s name, and a slight hint of enquiry: “Fleming….?”

I pursued my enquiry in French, out of politeness (after all, I was telephoning the country of Hercule Poirot, right?) and felt a complete fool when after a few minutes, my interlocutor, whose French had been impeccable, asked if I spoke English, and we switched to that language, in which Mr. Richard Fleming was clearly a native. He told me he had a son just starting at my Oxford college, was an Oxford man himself, and had just spent an agreeable few months in Granada too. From his demeanour, I naturally assumed he was the proprietor of the ubiquitous language school chain “Academias Fleming”, which claimed to teach English to Granadinos with an urbane, sophisticated touch. Then we got down to business:

“I need to check a few things. You don’t have any formal qualification in Italian, correct?”

(I waited for the next question)

“You say you visit the country frequently?”

(I know that one, I thought.) “Yes”.

“When you are there, do you understand the television news? Can you follow?”

(Trickier, since I had hardly watched any TV news while I was in Florence- it had seemed as sensationalist as the chat shows- but surely there was only one possible right answer, here?) “Yes.”

“That’s fine, we’ll set up the aptitude test. Is your current domicile Granada?”

(Completely floored by that one). “Sorry, can you repeat the question?”

“Are you just visiting Granada, staying with friends, or do you have some kind of rental contract?”

“I have a contract.”

“Please bring a copy. We’ll pay your travel to Brussels.”

I remembered Dad’s story about his first job interview in London, just after the war. This was an exciting development for a Brummie, especially when they offered to pay his train fare. He arrived at the swish hotel, slightly early for his appointment. They took his name and sent him to the reimbursement desk first. He handed over his ticket.

“Thank you, Mr. Perret. Second class return from Birmingham, yes…”

“That’s right.”

“Very good. Here is your fare. Thank you very much.”

“Er, where do I go now, please?”

“That will be all, thank you. You are free to leave.”

“But I came for the…”

“We are only interested in people who travel first class, Mr. Perret. It’s a different class of person. Goodbye.”

I felt completely out of my depth, and a fraud, making arrangements to visit Brussels. EU interpreter, from a language that I could only speak in the sense that I could swear colourfully in a regional dialect? Why had I embarked on this?

I had been given a different number, a private line, to finalise the arrangements. A familiar, suave voice answered, this time on first-name terms. I heard, with a tone of long-term expat insouciance, the one word: “Dick…?”

I had to hang up and try again.

FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS 12: A toddler in the boxing ring


12. A toddler in the boxing ring


Previously, I had “done” a thing called Languages, the way other people had “done” History or Politics, as a sort of stepping-stone. Now I am back in England, they have graduated, and I am turning inside out. This process is accelerated by a book I happen to come across in Spain 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, tainted by my time away. It turns out to be set within the university itself. Within the Sub-Faculty of Spanish.

The book is narrated by the Spanish “lector” (a glorified, and, this being Oxford, indeed prestigious, visiting native-speaker assistant), a role now taken by my friend and confidante, the witty and fascinating Xon de Ros. In fact, the narrator lives in the very same pyramid-shaped house where she and I share wine and cheese. I say “the very same house”. In this fiction, the author makes real a house that I think I already know. I can no longer visit Xon without having the impression that I am stepping into a novel. (It is a tribute to her fascination that this is not an entirely new feeling).

There is something deliciously subversive about the underdog (the walking dictionary) turning his gaze on the pompous professors- especially if you have been dismissively called “an impertinent boy” by a flesh-and-blood one, when you tried to argue your case with a hint of sarcasm. Other members of this Sub-Faculty are described with great warmth, which only heightens your own affection for the versions of people you thought you knew on your last visit.

On reflection, maybe I had been impertinent. There was a game going on, about our respective roles. I was fresh out of school, in one of my first “grammar classes”, and, quite simply, I shouldn’t have answered back in front of 20 people from different colleges, while under his authority (he was running the class, like it or not), and on his territory (in a college so prestigious any references to books in its library would be followed, as his eyes scanned the room and noted the presence of outsiders, by the phrase “I’ve no idea whether you might have this in any of the other college libraries”). The fact that my remark got a laugh from my fellow students obviously didn’t help.

Some lecturers enjoy variations on the Socratic dialogue. A friend, recently appointed in Oxford, got a shout from the back row “We can’t hear you”, so he tried to bellow for a bit, and then checked in: “Is that better?” The reply: “Well, it’s certainly louder.”

When I am lecturing post-graduate students or professional interpreters now, I embrace any heckles in the same way I would when performing stand-up i.e. if it hits the mark and/ or is funny, the audience member is figuratively elevated onto the stage, or podium, for a moment. They have helped break the routine, which is a very powerful disruptive energy- it is my role to ensure that their contribution adds to the momentum of the class, rather than competing with it. Since we are now abandoning the script for a different genre, the rules of improv apply: I must do a “Yes and…” rather than a “Shut up! So anyway…”

A heckle may hit the mark either with its deeper truth, or expression of what is silently on the audience’s mind, both of which are hugely valuable things for us all, especially me, to hear, and in this case help me avoid the constant insecure badgering “Is that clear? Is that surprising? Are you convinced? Can you all see how that would work, yes?”. But if it neither hits the mark, nor is funny, I will ignore it, and mercilessly shut it down if it persists. In these cases, I am taking the gamble that the majority are thinking “Shut up and let him get on with it”, and so I try to implement their will.

I felt unjustly shut down by an authoritarian, so I did what most people would do in the circumstances: I performed and recorded a rap in his distinctive voice and posture, consisting mainly of the sample Spanish phrases he used to explain the same points of grammar I had covered with Margalida in The Old Trout in Windsor, but with a mixture of the weirdly archaic (“Si yo tuviera dineros, me compraría un caballo”-a reference to buying a horse that sounds a bit like “My postilion has been struck by lightning”, though I am reliably informed the textbook equivalent of this is “mi sastre es inglés” or “My tailor is an Englishman”) and the downright wrong, given as counter-examples, a practice that, even then, struck me as of dubious pedagogical value, given the way curious-sounding phrases tend to linger in our minds (“Como andaba por la calle” as how not to translate “As I was walking down the street”). (When points of language crop up in my classes now, I try to stick to the motto “Don’t tell people how you don’t say something”).

The upshot was that I earned myself an enemy in a high place. When Xon told him that she was attending a college ball at which I was performing, as my guest (“Just good friends”, remember) he strongly discouraged her on the basis that tongues would wag. She apologetically withdrew her acceptance.

What happened in my first grammar class was symptomatic of a wider malaise: I think a generational change was taking place on several fronts. Firstly, the authoritarian approach, whilst still firmly rooted in Spain, was undermined in Oxford by the potential of the tutorial, that fabulously Socratic enquiry that propelled a toddler into the boxing ring. It wasn’t that we weren’t immediately pummelled and flattened- it was the fact that we were allowed to punch back at all that made the difference. After landing a timid blow on the Goliath whose books adorn the shelves behind you, you cannot take a didactic, out-dated, prescriptive pronouncement from on high without at least throwing in a firecracker one-liner to test its intellectual foundations. Secondly, thinking on “grammar” had moved on rapidly since this particular don had trained. In parallel with the postilion prose, we were receiving linguistics lectures from a dynamic new recruit who had just christened her first-born Noam. Thirdly, for all sorts of other political and economic reasons, the teacher-pupil relationship was changing. This was true of the outside world, and within a decade I was noticing it on all the MA courses in the UK on which I was teaching, but perhaps Oxford has remained impervious to the trend. Anyway, two snapshots of it: a course director whose number one priority is pre-empting, and if all else fails, rebutting, student complaints; and a post-grad student in the early 2000s, who just could not hear criticism. When light finally dawned, I was confronted with the remark: “I get what you’re saying, but I’m paying my fees for you to tell me how brilliant I am, not for this shit.”

She probably felt I was impertinent, too.

FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS 11: No more orange spaceship


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.all-souls



10. Granada Tango

I live in a tiny street above the Moorish tea-houses, and below the gypsy Hobbit-holes, on the hill looking across at the Alhambra. Mornings are punctuated by the cries of hawkers of honey, pots and pans, and canisters of butane for cooking. Large deliveries are made by donkey. When I step out of the front door, I meet a street at 45 degrees. Up to the left is a fountain inscribed with sensual verse, down to the right is a bar whose only food is spicy snails.

Tapas are served the old-fashioned way, free with drinks. There is usually a sequence, so that you do not repeat food with subsequent rounds, the bar staff shouting your ranking to the cook. It is theoretically possible to come full circle, though. Who doesn’t like a challenge?

After lunch, the siesta. On hot and sticky afternoons, windows are left open to let air in, blinds pulled down to keep eyes out. But what reaches the ears in the Spanish afternoon is so much more interesting than the banalities visible to the human eye. The air is already swollen with the life of the internal courtyard. There is a background of snores, with the occasional yelps and groans typical of old age- or is it exuberant youth? A trained ear can track rhythms as they emerge: is that disco music, flamenco or football commentary? All three come and go. There are periodic climaxes to the symphony, during which all of this disappears: a loud, brutish, villager’s voice, insensitive to distance, careless of the proximity of others, summons each family member repeatedly and insistently from a seated position in one corner of the house. Luíííííís. Ramóóóón. Pili. ‘Sabeeeeeeer. Ramóóóón.

Maybe some classes, if it isn’t a week containing a public holiday, local feast day, or religious festival, and the teachers turn up. I’ll probably see them out tonight anyway.

An Argentinian exile, an anarcho-nihilist, and a Communist walk into a bar. No, hang on, they run the bar. La Tertulia was founded by Tato (Horacio Rébora), who was fleeing the “Dirty War” and Videla dictatorship of the late 1970s. In newly democratic Spain, he found a welcoming, politically engaged artistic community in the city of Granada, and in 1980 he opened a bar where he organised poetry readings and book launches (Rafael Alberti and Vargas Llosa were among the visitors), as well as political meetings. He also founded a Tango Festival which has become the biggest outside Argentina.

More importantly, La Tertulia is, well, a tertulia. This means many things to many people. To me it is a place where I can write and talk to writers, read my work and discuss translations, listen to the best and develop comical impersonations of them with a tango soundtrack, and workshop with young students. It’s hugely successful as a cultural reference point, but, unlike anything I’ve come across in Britain before, its people do not measure success in commercial terms. Yes, it sells drinks and books to keep the conversation flowing, and I run up a crippling tab when my first term’s grant runs out. But when I come back after Christmas, Paco tells me he hasn’t kept the accounts book from the previous year. “Fresh start,” he says, with a wink, and draws a sketch of me. I have no debts.

Paco is a great friend, something only made possible by my diplomacy and tact. He is a hard-line Communist, atheist, and fan of bullfighting; interestingly for an atheist, he believes in the superiority of Man over other animals (which until then I had thought of as a Biblical concept), and that their sole purpose is to serve our needs. He is entirely uncompromising in his beliefs, always says exactly what he thinks, and brooks no argument. If I were anywhere near as dogmatic as him, any kind of friendship would be impossible, since I am a romantic agnostic, politically uncommitted, and vegetarian. I can’t help thinking that he is sometimes almost Roman Catholic in his dogmatism, but I never dare tell him.

Alfonso is an even better friend, because as well as being a great poet and social activist, he has subtle self-deprecating humour, and a sophisticated sensitivity to wine and food (in that order). We give poetry readings together, but also explore the back-streets and hatch literary plots in tiny bars run by old men, all of whom he knows well. He takes me to a very brisk anarchists’ meeting, run by another Argentinian exile: he is proud to announce that “What sets anarchists apart from other left-wing activists is our common-sense adherence to practicalities”. When the agenda is exhausted, and action plan drawn up, we adjourn to the filthiest bar I have ever seen. I am by now quite used to customers dropping cigarette ends and paper tissues on floors which are regularly swept, but here there is a thick layer of prawn and snail shells, sawdust, olive stones and spit, with dogs constantly nuzzling through this pungent sub-soil in search of nutrition.

One night, a brick smashes through the window at La Tertulia, and we hear a voice shout “I am a disciple of Adolfo Hítler”. We have just held an anti-racism rally, with poet Luís García Montero, and actor Paco Rabal, both of whom are in the bar. Tato, Alfonso and Paco stop serving and sprint for the door. The bar next door is having work done and there are bricks lying around. Paco picks one up and throws it at the fleeing attacker. Alfonso and I are half-hearted and only make it to the end of the street. The others catch him and pin him to a car. It is Alfonso who calls the police. The man is arrested, but greets the desk sergeant by his first name, and is released the same night. Still, the anarchist did his duty- it was the system that let him down.

I walk back up the hill in the moonlight.fwf-10

FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS 9: Sweethearts through the cat-flap


9. Sweethearts through the cat-flap

On long dark idle winter evenings, as a teenager living at home, you can imagine what I was getting up to, right? Yes, you got it- browsing my parents’ bookshelves in the sitting room. There were lots of Folio hardback titles, some of which Dad had signed up for without meaning to, including a lovely Lord of the Rings with wafer-thin pages, an extraordinary and incomprehensible (to me) set of jokey kitsch pre-war cartoons entitled “Love is…”, Gerald Brenan’s South From Granada, An Almanac of Words At Play, A Pictorial History of Slough, The Birds of the British Isles, A Gardener’s Yearbook, World Airports Magazine Pictorial Supplement, and a dark brown slab quite simply entitled The Last Two Million Years.

I didn’t work my way through all of them. I had a life! I genuinely think all these tomes were of equal interest to Dad, but after the Tolkien, I read only one other volume in full, and a new, exciting, future suddenly took shape before my eyes. I’m referring to World Airports Magazine Pictorial Supplement, obviously.

Just kidding. The book I examined, initially with the same scepticism I reserved for the other worthy, slightly dusty, post-war hardbacks, had a very simple premise: a well-educated but broke young man, aspiring to write, goes to live in a tiny mountain village in southern Spain. He gets help from locals to set up a modest home, has only occasional access to funds (loans from relatives back home), and sets about observing the social interactions, curious rituals, superstitions and eating habits of the people around him, without condescension or romanticisation. Sometimes he has to explain lots of background stuff about the church, politics, and history, so that we understand what he’s seeing. Then his posh friends from London unexpectedly come to visit… with hilarious consequences! It could be any one of a dozen airport paperbacks or a thousand blogs.

Except- this is the 1920s. The Spanish Civil War hasn’t happened yet, gypsies accost foreigners in the mountains and take them to the mayor at knifepoint, convinced that they are mythical monsters. There are no roads. In unruffled, unassuming prose, he moves from lucky charms and thistle soups to his visitors, who happen to be Lytton Strachey (suffering from haemorrhoids, forced to ride side-saddle on a mule alongside a sheer cliff drop to access the village, and on arrival refusing to eat garlic or olive oil) and Virginia Woolf (gabbling poetry as she scrambles amongst the fig trees, and slagging off D.H. Lawrence).

Perhaps his slight sense of inadequacy helped make his voice so young and accessible to me, as I sat on the sofa with a cup of tea, hearing the hum of M4 traffic and the buzz of landing planes through the double glazing. The narrative, whilst edited in a literary spirit, is far from formulaic. It winds up the hillside like a narrow street, reaching dead ends patrolled by cats, and doubling back on itself- it has two consecutive chapters entitled “Almería and its brothels” and “Almería and archaeology”. 

On re-reading, I realise quite how much of an interest he was taking in courtship rituals. Perhaps there’s a reason why this didn’t strike me as strange. I do remember wondering if much would have changed in these small villages of the Alpujarra 70 years on.

Men would crouch or lie in the street next to small windows, or even cat-flaps, in houses, talking to their sweethearts within, and occasionally clasping their hands, until midnight. In towns, they would shout up one or two floors if necessary, for instance if the girl failed to obtain the use of a ground floor window from neighbours, friends or relatives. Only when society became more permissive in the 1930s, and young couples could go out to the cinema together, did customs change, and high blocks of flats start to appear. Before then, they weren’t built because no-one would have rented them- a girl living too high up would never have got married.

There is an extraordinary dowry-provoked dynamic in his village: the most eye-catching young women happen to be from the more modest families, so early courting is a painful, protracted process. The men are keen to seduce them, but never make an above-the-board move because of parental disapproval. The girls cannot get physical with them, because if anyone hears about it, their chances of finding another suitor are done for. So they are all in an unbearable state of tension until eventually the time comes for the young men to settle down, and their parents fix up a financially beneficial match with someone else.

So the poorer girls are desperately trying to catch their men and get them to over-rule their parents, but without appearing overly familiar with them in the meantime for the sake of their reputations, while the “lucky” few young women whose parents have a bit of land for their dowry can afford to play the waiting game, all the time privately seething at the flirting and intrigue they are witnessing, but are personally denied.

If you add into the mix the fact that the street itself, and the afternoon stroll, is, as Brenan describes it, the equivalent of an English ballroom dance for getting to know people, then you have what must be an arresting spectacle for this young man: a street full of women, half of whom are making promises with their walk and their eyes that cannot be seen to be directed at any one man. He mentions in passing that when they do dance, at a village fair, some of them have the “snaky, contortionist’s ripples of a gypsy”.

2 years later, as a student, I discovered that one option for my grant-funded integral “third year abroad” was a year at the University of Granada. Maybe there were some other options on the list, since no-one else came… I can’t seem to remember now. Snaky, contortionist’s ripples, you say? Yes, I’ll write. Bye!fwf-9

FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS 8: I’m SO sorry- he’s not from Barcelona

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8.  I’m SO sorry- he’s not from Barcelona

Catalan had been a hobby-horse for a while, and I leapt at the chance of turning it into a Grand National winner. Well, a Special Subject in 20th Century Literature in my Final Exams, to be marked by the language assistant. So I’ll settle for: a kind of domesticated stallion. It was also one of those languages that tourists in Edinburgh and Oxford expected you not to understand when they were speaking it to each other, sharing their intimate feelings about fun, constipation, and how to make cava. Until they met you, and realised you spoke it. Then they spoke it and quite relentlessly did expect you to understand them.

So at the end of my first year, I used a college bursary to attend two courses in Barcelona: a Catalan course (on which I improved my Spanish, the mother tongue of all my classmates) and a Spanish course (on which I learnt some Japanese, and the lengths to which bearded middle-aged Germans will go to try and sit on the teacher’s lap).

The beard laws in Spain have changed since then, of course. It was partly Helmut’s beard that made him look middle-aged in the eyes of the rest of us. But for Spanish men under 35, ironically, a beard is now a mandatory legal requirement. You’re not allowed to leave the country without one, especially if you’re moving to Kreuzberg, Berlin. And let’s face it, most of them are.

But Helmut was moving in the opposite direction. Recently divorced, he had decided that Spaniards were spontaneous, noisy and tactile, and that therefore his future lay in Barcelona, a place where he could be himself, and let his inner Latin temperament, and indeed hands, run free- interrupting the teacher with smut, sharing too much information with his classmates, and trying to make lavatorial jokes in a language he barely mastered.

Registering for the Catalan course was a daunting bureaucratic procedure for a foreigner. It didn’t occur to me not to use the language to explain my peculiar circumstances to the secretary, so the upside was, when we were finished, she told me I had been excused the evaluation test and could go straight into the top stream.

This meant my classmates were all Spaniards, generally not linguists, who’d been living in Catalonia for a few years, and needed a certificate for some reason, often professional. Everything seemed to revolve around certificates. We had to turn up, we had to hand in projects, but we didn’t really have to speak or understand the language, except to avoid embarrassment in the social interaction sessions.

I sensed these were much easier for my classmates than for me- after all, they didn’t only have about 10 years more life experience than me, they had also had the cultural experience of living in Spain, and Catalonia, which gave them immense common ground. They all invariably spoke Spanish amongst themselves, and with me, in the breaks and at after-class tapas, but could switch between the two languages to describe common realities. If they sometimes slipped into Spanish, the teacher knew what they were trying to say, because not only was she bilingual in their mother tongue, but they were inhabitants of the same city, she was on their wavelength. To say I didn’t quite fit in would be putting it mildly. Each week we would be asked to tell a story about something that had happened to us, and whenever I started speaking, I could tell that they didn’t believe a word. A strange expression would come over their faces, and they would exchange glances. Life in England, especially Oxford, was too far-fetched for them, and the only local anecdote I had was that I had got locked in a nightclub toilet on a beach, and had to climb out over the top of the door, which I relayed as best I could i.e. in slightly archaic and literary language.

In everyday life, I felt I was approaching fluency, but was just not quite on the same wavelength there either. It often turned out I’d said something perfectly correctly, it was just that nobody could imagine that that was what I’d been trying to say. The same thing also happened in reverse.

When the lift in my host family’s apartment block was out of order, I passed a lady on the stairs and greeted her.

“Are you Catalan?”

“No, I’m English.”

“Ah, you said good day very nicely.”

She was approximately half my height, plump, and had a twinkle in her eye.

“Thank you.”

“The English are very bad, aren’t they? Very bad.”

She then seemed to give a sort of karate kick and spin around. I began to fear for my safety, and peered nervously down the lift shaft.

“Except for one,” she said, waggling a finger. “Just the one.” She kicked an imaginary ball of socks up the lift shaft.

Perhaps the exception was me, because I could say “bon dia”. I started to relax.

She seemed to be waiting for a contribution from my side. She willed me to speak.

My lips didn’t move. I froze again.

She fixed me in the eye for a few seconds and then let rip, as if exasperated.

“Leen ache HAIR!” she said, in what sounded exactly like accented English.

“Leen ache HAIR!”

Somehow inspiration came.

“Yes,” I said, “Gary Lineker is the only decent player.”

That lesson would later be helpful to me as an interpreter- whenever you haven’t the slightest clue what’s going on, it’s probably due to somebody’s assumption about the universality of association football. Thinking about it now, I could have learnt a more general life lesson too: when you sense that someone has sinister intentions, it’s probably just a reference to England being knocked out of a sporting event called the World Cup. “Sorry about the double Brexit ha ha ha” Germans had been saying to me inexplicably, and slightly offensively, all last summer.