IS IT BAD to see my life as boring now that that three-and-a-half week odyssey across the continent is now a memory and a string of Instagram pictures? Is it bad that I feel slightly hopeless and aimless without an imminent train to catch, or a metro ticket machine to negotiate, or an espresso to sip outside a café, surveying passers-by, falcon-like, from behind the lenses of my sunglasses?
Yes, it probably is bad, and no matter how much I take myself into my hometown for a ‘continental’ coffee, it isn’t the same when people are walking past you with Primark bags. Saying ‘thank you’ for being served a coffee sounds weird. I’ve also become frustrated with the concept of ordering at the counter and awkwardly telling the eighteen-year-old my name so he can scribble it onto the side of a cup with a Sharpie – misspelt, too. So, as I was sitting and musing the remainder my summer, I thought back to my whirlwind of experiences over the past twelve months. This Year Abroad thing, as great as it is, is very difficult to balance when you study more than one language because you are under an unspoken obligation to divide your time in all three countries so you don’t miss out. It’s like giving two of your children a KitKat and the third nothing; it’s not fair on poor number three. With that in mind, I began looking for ways to nurture my third child, Spanish. Perhaps against my better judgement, and a few hundred euros later, I had enrolled myself on a language course in Cádiz. I don’t know precisely why I choose Cádiz – perhaps it’s because I am eternally tempted by southern Spain, but I fancied the idea of arriving, and sort of living, in a place I only know by name. All I knew of Cádiz was that it is on the coast – one of the linked-up dots on maps of Mediterranean cruise routes in holiday brochures. A Spanish friend of mine told me how old the city was, and about its importance to Spain’s vast empire, which coincided with the majestic images I’d seen of a whitewashed city jutting out into the sea. This was a slightly strategic decision of mine, by the way – a sea-surrounded city would be of great advantage in what are the notoriously sweltering Andalusian summers.
It’s fair to say that that reputation is well-earned. Very well-earned.
Arriving in Seville, I wasn’t bothered by the fairly gentle but palpable wave of warmth that slumped over me at the airport, but half an hour later, waiting for the coach to Cádiz, the region’s infamous climate became quite clear. I spent the next two hours pacing around the area, suitcase in tow, ogling once again at the splendorous Plaza de España. After about ninety seconds of taking it in, I realised it was much too hot to stand there for more than two photos, and so took refuge in the nearby gardens, careful to ensure any sweat patches were suitably hidden from view. Fortunately for me, but not the poor souls who take visitors around the city in horse-drawn carriages, my connecting transport was air-conditioned. That would have been even better had I not spent the journey next to a woman, who, despite her Hispanically-small size, seemed to give off an alarming amount of body heat as she slept peacefully next to me, listening to what I think was Muse through her earphones.
First impressions of Cádiz? As in, very first impressions as I got off the coach? Brighton. Seriously – if you were to close your eyes and block out the Spanishness for a moment or two, and somehow manage to ignore the fact you are standing in 35° heat, the city could pass as Brighton. A strong breeze, laced with ocean salinity, blows uninterrupted over you, taking with it the smell of fried fish, strangely reminding you of an afternoon at the British seaside. This is, apparently, the birthplace of fried fish to go, contrary to what I like to believe my own country’s national dish. Never mind, the fried fish is delicious and much more varied than back home, serving things like cuttlefish and dogfish, all served in paper cones and eaten, dignity out the window, bare-fingered on a beach somewhere. It’s as close as you can get to post-night out food without having to do the ‘night out’ bit. Which is just as well, I suppose, as I’ve learned Spaniards are the only Europeans without body clocks and have the unique ability to survive on what seems at times like twenty-five minutes’ sleep before getting up for work and doing it all again. Most curioso.
A propos de the language course, it was a nice, enjoyable and not-too-daunting reintroduction to academic life, something I was not entirely sure I’d be able to slot back into after month upon month of croissant and buying train tickets in France. It turns out I can, and if university will be like this in September, sunshine included, then I’d start next week. It’s very true what they say, and what I now find myself preaching: the best way to learn a language is to live there. Being surrounded by Spanish – in the streets, on walls, signs, in the voices of local gaditanos – helped me no end, even to the detriment of my French. Do you know how difficult it is to write a text message in French when all you have in your end is Spanish? Very! Trust me, por favor.
Meanwhile in the city of Cádiz, the Brighton comparison melted away when I reopened my eyes, the ancient city (supposedly founded by Hercules when he pushed apart Spain and Africa) was enticing, exciting and inviting. A myriad of pastel-coloured houses and cobbled streets who have spent centuries being eaten alive by the Atlantic winds, stands in aching need of a healthy lick of paint, but giving off an unmistakable charm of being forgotten and unexplored, irrespective of the number of locals thronging the streets with beach towels under their arms, or the old señoras surveying the scenes from their balconies above. Getting lost, or as I prefer to call it – unintentionally waylaid – is part of the experience in Cádiz and going for a walk without a map will invariably leave you unintentionally waylaid, too, especially since the streets all seem to resemble each other and snake off into different parts of town.
A lot of the time, like most of the gaditanos, we headed to the beach for a few hours. Cádiz’s five beaches are one of its biggest draws, apparently, but when I trudged down to one of them for the first time, I was met with a scene which filled me with mild dread. It was rammed. Spaniards of various ages, sizes and degrees of bronze lay spreadeagle on a rainbow of towels, some cleverly under cheap umbrellas, others in full reach of the intense Andalusian sun, their bodies glistening ever so slightly with sweat as they overdosed placidly on vitamin D. Suddenly I felt as white as Moby Dick, and not far off the same size, either, but nevertheless found a patch of sand to set up our umbrella. I soon felt reassured after seeing a pair of white bodies slowly turning pink to my right; I could only assume they were Irish or just very out-of-place locals, but was pleased to no longer be the palest body on the playa. I spent most of that afternoon people-watching, as I normally do, from the comfort of my sand-ridden towel. Although people-watching on that beach was not a normal people-watching experience. The sheer number of toned and tanned torsos filled me with a cocktail of depression of jealousy. Almost immaculate-looking girls lay like sculptures on their towels, seemingly untarnished by the sand, sun and salt water, whilst their male counterparts, all muscle and machismo, played simplistic versions of badminton on the water’s edge. How could one small stretch of beach produce such a concentration of physical superiority? I was indignant. I told myself that these men were probably horrible human beings and stole sweets from children and murdered puppies and had absolutely nothing else going for them.
Being at the beach got me thinking, however. Why do all of these people have tattoos? Almost all of them had at least one, usually some ugly pattern sprawled across their shoulders or side or (pet hate) calf, so much so that seeing a tattoo-free torso was a rarity. And, why do all these Spanish men shave their legs? I wondered why old women looked at my legs in the street, then my face as if to say ‘what are you doing, you gorilla?’ I supposed it was probably for keeping cool in the sun. I asked my Spanish friend, who informed me it was for aesthetics. Hmmm. Perhaps when my legs are as chocolate-brown as theirs, it might look OK, but for now, I would prefer to avoid the pain of waxing and keep the hairs on my legs and get analysed by vexed old Spaniards.
I do quite like the Spanish, however, regardless of their follicular preferences. I find them refreshingly open and tolerant, warm and amicable. And noisy. That, too. Whilst in Cádiz, we lived in an apartment overlooking a peaceful square shaded by palms. For most of the day any noise came from the odd shout or a Vespa engine, but come nightfall the place was alive with the sound of children, dogs, bouncing balls and loud conversation. Nightfall! It stunned me that there were so many children out in the street gone 11pm. I can remember when I was their age, pyjama-clad, looking at the clock with a devilish sense of smugness that my parents, most likely entertaining in the dining room or garden were too tipsy to remember to send us to bed. An 11pm bedtime was a treat. But here, it seemed perfectly normal every night of the week. It is, I suppose, mainly for the same reason as my parents, in that the parents were in the streets rather than the dining room, and thus so were their kids. While I might struggle to adjust my Northern European body to the times of the Spanish, this insistence on being outside is something I already and will continue to accept. With weather as reliable as Andalusia’s, it’s no wonder they spend all their time al fresco. Going to the beach in Cádiz is not a well-prepared, pre-meditated, much-anticipated one-off event with a plentiful picnic prepared the night before as it is back home. It is simply a natural part of the day, and all Spaniards within reasonable distance of a stretch of coastline seem to incorporate a sizeable chunk of time at the beach into their daily routine at this time of year. Yet for many, it isn’t just a chance to catch a tan and emasculate poor Englishmen, it is an outdoor extension of their living rooms. I remember one afternoon, as I lay in the sun, my peace was disturbed by a hoarse-voiced woman shouting.
‘Treinta y dos! La nueve! Cuarenta y cuatro!’
It soon occurred to me that she was the bingo caller for her large troupe of family and friends: at least a dozen of them sitting on collapsible blue chairs beneath umbrellas, paying close attention to the Spanish Dot Cotton as she reeled off number after number. I wondered what the prize was. A year’s subscription to one of those horrible online bingo sites that seem to sponsor everything on ITV?
On the Friday night, a group of us managed to find our way into La Perla, a cavernous bar on the seafront. I am fairly sure we had to pay, but somehow we got through without doing so, taking over a table on the mezzanine. Below and around us in the stuffy, overcrowded room, were rows and clusters of tables of chairs populated with women fanning themselves and families tucking into heaped plates of fried calamari. Everybody was there for one thing – not the expensive drinks – and were waiting patiently, although not quietly, for the stage in front to come to life. Suddenly it did, the lights above us fading out, as a tall woman in a flowing blue and black dress graced the stage to the sound of applause and cheers. Her face was heavily made up, as I could see even from the mezzanine, her lips scarlet and her black hair scraped back into a high and tight bun, decorated with a bright blue dahlia. Behind her was a guitarist, long-haired and scruffy-clothed, and two younger men in black, sitting calmly, beginning to clap to their own rhythm. And then, out of nowhere, the woman opened her mouth, letting a stream of powerful words gush out, sending her audience silent as we listened, captivated. She was angry, then sad, then jubilant, then perhaps jealous or bitter, before springing back into a state of festivity, tainted with mild mania. I had no idea what she was singing, or even if it was Spanish, but the rise and fall of her voice, playing with emotion and tempo, the speed of the men clapping behind her, and the unfaltering loyalty of the guitarist to her left drew my eyes and ears in, unable to pull away. I didn’t want to turn away, either. I wanted to sense every clap of hand, every strum of chord, every deafening stamp of heel. I don’t know long she sang and danced for, marching around the stage and ruffling her dress to the sound of her musicians, but midnight came and went unnoticed. Nobody cared; she was irresistibly powerful to watch, to hear, to be near, and was completely and unquestionably in control of everything in the room. Then she stopped. I waited to see if she really had stopped – she often brought the room down to silence before starting again – but now she had finished. Like a shot bird falling from the sky, she staggered to the front of the stage, drained of everything, I suspected, and curtseyed dramatically to her raucous crowd, all of whom were on their feet. Old, young, male, female – she had her fans. She gained another that night, too.
The following morning, my ears ringing with the distant sound of the night before, I was set to leave the tazina de plata, Cádiz (the little silver cup), since my course had come to an end, and jumped on a coach to my next stop. To enter or leave Cádiz, you are most likely to take the motorway and railway which links the city to the mainland like the last remaining tendon in a messy massacre. Without this thin strip of land, Cádiz would be the Island of Cádiz. We never really left the sea as the coach followed the coast through the beautiful resorts of Conil and Tarifa, to the less-beautiful Algeciras. I didn’t stop there long, only long enough to dump my suitcase in the hotel, since there was another bus to catch across the bay to a very large rock, looming over Algeciras from across the water, marking the point where the Mediterranean Sea gives into the Atlantic.