Hablamos: we talk
Nearly seven months after landing back in the UK Andy and I still talk about our trip every day. We’re immensely proud of ourselves for having had the bravery and resourcefulness to even set off, and very pleased that we had developed a reasonable ability to communicate in Spanish. At some point during our stay in Peru we had transitioned from effortful translation into just understanding. So, although I felt that I had very much got travelling out of my system for the time being, in November Andy anticipated the toll five months of solid British gloom would have and booked us a week in Nerja, Andalucia, and so I’m saying goodbye to my Science classroom and we’re heading off to the language classroom.
No estaban hablando : they weren’t talking
We flew at the tail end of Storm Dennis on what could be described as a Very Bad Day for Heathrow. Trying to work their way through the previous day’s cancellations, beset with difficulties. As we queued in a melée for bag drop – normally a swift and efficient process – it became apparent that the baggage carousels weren’t working. We were eventually asked to take our bags through to first class. We wondered why those were working – perhaps in first class the bags are carried by little men in white gloves instead of trundling down a belt? We also discovered that travelling first class means you can help yourself to a free apple after checking in. Why? Through to security – more queues: the barcode scanners have gone down. Into the concourse… and a steadily increasing crowd staring hopefully at the display boards – but the information is hours old: the boards aren’t updating. Periodically an entire family charges past at top speed, tugging bags frantically through the stationary crowd. We choose a departure gate more or less at random to get out of the way, and hunker down for what turns out to be a four-hour wait. Memories of our quality three-day family holiday at Gatwick Airport one snowy Christmas of yesteryear inspire us to chat with the kids while we wait: it occurs to them to look at our flight info on the internet and thus we discover that our flight is boarding: the Heathrow PA system has also gone down. Still, Heathrow even at its worst is a fabulous example of multi-cultural Britain, with every member of staff we encountered smiling and in command of their role.
Hablad: talk, you lot!
On day one I’m seated next to Hugh, a twinkly-eyed silver fox, and language class begins with ice breaker ‘introduce yourself’ conversations. The trouble with this is that until your brain powers up you only have access to the limited vocabulary that chooses to rise to the surface. This results in personal revelations that you wouldn’t necessarily choose as your starting place with a total stranger:
Hugh: I’m divorced but I have a girlfriend!
Me: My favourite hobby is drinking gin and tonic.
Happily, coffee breaks and beachside paella lunches facilitate some more normal getting-to-know-you conversations: and in class our language skills come on swiftly, so that by the last day we’re constructing a ‘hotel complaints desk’ role play that we’ve turned into a Fawlty Towers hommage (“What did you expect? A herd of wildebeest? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon?) which is almost certainly lost on the highly serious German and French class members, but we are finding ourselves very entertaining.
Están hablando : they are talking
Nerja has for many years maintained a seasonal population of grey-haired people escaping the grey skies of England, and the background chatter in the cafés and restaurants reminds me of Alistair McGowan doing his ‘tour of Britain’ accents. It seems ironic that we’ve come here specifically to learn Spanish whilst so many who have come to live here refuse to attempt to do so. I wonder whether the people who complain about immigration into the UK ever think about the impact a population of healthcare-consuming cerveza-swigging retirees might have on a country. There’s also a rather classier winter-resident population from Sweden, so much so that corner shops stock FinnCrisp alongside pasta and tomato sauce. Southern Spain is slowly waking up to the idea that a diet of meat and fried things might not be the best, but I suspect they are still bewildered by the existence of rye bread.
Hablarémos: we will talk
Nerja has a monument to the European Union formed from 16 blocks of stone fetched from each of the (then) member nations, commemorating Spain’s entry into the EU and symbolising the unity of Western nations. It’s simple, beautiful, and poignant: the block labelled ‘England’ sits firmly attached near the bottom of the column. I want to shout “Stay where you are! Hold on!” at the rock. I realise that one of the motives behind my ongoing Spanish study is a tiny one-woman protest against Brexity isolationism: I want to declare, even if only to myself, my broader allegiance to the wider world.
Hablábamos: we were talking
Hugh drives us up the hill behind Nerja to show us the old mill complex he bought/ inherited from his parents: he’s taken stewardship of this group of buildings and is working to finish the job of rescuing them from dereliction. Having not felt especially inspired by Nerja itself, we’re both entranced by the views from this height; the steep hillside studded with olive trees and skyward-pointing cypresses; gleaming white-washed houses splashed with geraniums, harmoniously topped with uniform terracotta tiled roofs, draped with bougainvillea and flanked by lemon trees; in the distance, the sparkling sea stretching out towards Africa, and behind you, the Sierra. Hugh’s retirement project would have been a worthy subject for a Channel 4 programme, and his love for the place is infectious. He shepherds us gently further up the hillside to Frigiliana, a quaint narrow-streeted town, where we eat award-winning tapas and discuss (inevitably) potential consequences of Brexit – without the concession afforded to EU citizens of offsetting property expenses against tax, Hugh can’t see how he can balance his books. He offers an educated viewpoint that Brexit will leave us poorer, but less complacent, which might be a good thing.