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Catalonia

The kids don’t have to love you and other thoughts on being an au-pair

Being an Au-Pair
I believe a street in Cervera, Spain, 2016.

The kids don’t have to love you.

They do, typically, become very much attached, but you can’t force it. There’s a certain sense of discipline that’s required. You’re not their best friend, you’re the responsible adult. An overdose of flattery isn’t going to help, nor is allowing them more sweets, TV time or access to a tablet.

Sometimes they are adorable, wanting cuddles and happy to quietly play a game. Then some very short time later, they can be causing a commotion by sticking their tongue out at you when they thought their parents weren’t watching. Tears ensue. You wonder what you did to deserve such a change in character. Where did the nice kid go?

The truth is, you’re a temporary wall between the child and their parents. When things are going good, this is a wall that gives the child a bit of private freedom from their omnipotent gods. When things are not so good, they are going to play bulldozer or try scrambling over the top of you.

Parents love you of course, while they’re enjoying their moment of space. Peace and quiet is a luxury. But when they panic that they no longer have complete control, they act all sorts of unpredictable. Those I’ve lived with have generally been very good at demonstrating their gratitude, but I’ve known numerous au pairs whose families constantly have au pairs, and so feel taken for granted.

The kids, when they love you, see you as theirs, a precious playmate. But when they hate you, you’re a second-rate commander. You’re an adult, but unlike teachers and parents you’ve failed to be omnipotent. Younger kids follow the stance of the older kids. Saying no to their requests can fire you from best friend to evil overlord in an irrational second. You have to not take it personally. These are kids, they lack empathy or perspective. They don’t know if their words and actions will hurt you, but they’re curious. So, guess what, they’re going to do all they can to ignite a reaction. And then, if successful, perhaps they’ll laugh.

But some days, they’ll curl up on the sofa and ask what you’re reading. And they’ll listen as you talk of philosophy in a language they don’t understand. Some days, they’ll take the drawings you do to school, and you’ll realize that their teacher knows your name, as do their friends and their friends’ parents. This sweet child who refused to put their shoes on has told everyone they know about you. Occasionally, when the school gates open, they’ll scream your name and run, leaping at you with a hug disproportionate to their size.

And then, one day, in a final act of betrayal that somehow feels crueller than any middle of the street tantrum a five-year-old could throw, you’ll pack your bags and leave.

Kids

The hidden secret of the house on the hill

vineyard teia

If I were really rich, I’d be tempted to renovate an old ruined stone house in the countryside of Spain or Italy. I’d have an art studio and a veranda on which I could sit and write.

Of course, I’m not rich.

However, there is such a house on the other side of the main street, which is known as ‘the river’ because when it rains the water is channelled along it. It’s got a gorgeous view as it’s propped up on the hill. The village where I live sits between mountains overlooking the Mediterranean. If you look towards the village, you have the church and the town hall.

The owners began restoration, but unfortunately (or not so unfortunately) the banks made some mistakes and the economy stumbled. Lack of funds brought progress to a halt. The story could end there. An abandoned house looking out over the sea from behind locked gates, suggestive of a fairy tale or a tale of horror.

But the real story doesn’t just end there. Unable to make progress with the house, the owners came to an agreement with three local men. In return for making sure the house doesn’t go the same way as Sleeping Beauty’s palace, they can use the land and ruined building.

Teia Vineyards

They planted the vines, bought the bottles and got a small machine to insert the corks into the bottles. A new village vintage was born. A local painter designed the labels. They’re now contemplating using the ground floor as an art gallery of his work.

It’s the sort of place you need to know a person who knows a person to get a private informal tour. If you only speak English, then it helps to have someone who can translate the enthusiastic explanations for you. Otherwise, you miss out on the stories. You don’t learn they initially store the white wine in a metal container; the red goes straight into the wooden barrels. You miss the joke about not tasting cheese before trying the wine because the wine speaks for itself. You can’t miss the pride.

The hard work bottled and stacked. I’ve tasted the results and they’ve the right to be proud.

bottle-cork
Cork machine. Spain, 2016.

Maybe I’m just getting old, but…

getting old
Child’s horse. In the garden, Summer 2016.

I took the two girls I look after to their grandparents this afternoon. It’s an old house with a large garden, like somewhere you might find an unusual wardrobe. The grandparents grow their own vegetables – I’m a great fan of their peas – and have two large friendly dogs. I stood by and watched the girls compete for attention with handstands and roly-polys on the immaculate lawn, with the plastic horse and two bags of swimming kit.

The house has an old fashioned dining-room with high ceilings and paintings of the children, when they were children. Of course, I’m entranced by the artworks. It’s rare to see someone’s house with painted portraits on the wall. It echoes back to a time when people had houses with picture rails. The magic continues with a collection of holiday treasures: Kenyan wooden heads, African masks, glass dishes and a puppet witch that hangs from the lampshade and had something, although I’m not sure what, to do with chocolate. Shelves heaped with travel books line the walls in the basement.

Young and fashionable was my first gut feeling. My brain questioned if this were possible. I describe the couple as young, but what does it even mean to be young? In spite of their appearance, the numbers don’t add up. However much they might want to feel young, we can’t both be young. And yet, they certainly seemed young as they rushed around the house getting ready for their trip out to Barcelona, hopping over the Playmobil pirate ship when necessary. To my surprise, delight and envy, these grandparents have recently come back from climbing Mont Blanc. Next week they’re going on a kayaking holiday. I’m in awe. There are many people my age who could benefit from a little more such youthful zeal.

Sometimes you don’t see a door until your nose is pressed up against it.

open minds open doors

I live, temporarily, on the side of a mountain, just north of Barcelona in Catalonia. It’s a beautiful mountain. Although I have fallen and scraped my knees on it, it is not a rugged place. Stone markers indicate the boundaries of the villages and those villages take responsibility for the mountain. There are benches to rest on, a cabin for hikers to sleep in and water fountains to provide cool refreshment. Cacti and wild asparagus grow here. It smells of rosemary.

mountain-4

I’ve been away from the village for ten days and have missed the mountain. Living here, I’ve stared out at it from the balcony as I’ve munched my morning cereal, admiring the dark green of the foliage against the bright blue Spanish sky. I have glanced up at it, through the window from the sofa as lightning strikes and a thick mist blurs its edge. I have run, time and time again, up the steep paths, slowly building a courage to push myself. It’s been a safe place to practice self-belief.

My first run back in the village was a gentle one. The footpath weaves up the side of this mountain towards a statue of Jesus – his arms stretch out as if blessing, or laughing at, the village below. For me, he is a touch stone. I reach him; I’ve done a good job. At that moment he and I are equals.

Beside me ran S. We met at the local paella cooking competition and for the next three weeks she has kindly undertaken the job of feeding and providing a home for me. Her wish is to improve her English and for her young daughters to have the advantage of speaking English without thinking about it. My challenge is to instigate a desire in them to master the challenge of becoming bilingual. Being bilingual opens closed doors.

I talked as we ran, providing a conversation that was valued on multiple levels. I rambled a bit as I had to focus on not falling over, again, and try to talk in sentences that are coherent and whole. It’s amazing how difficult speaking slowly is. It’s crossed my mind that clarity of thought may be tied up with the rhythm of speech. I wonder if anyone has tested this? S asked questions, smiled, laughed and on occasion dispelled wise advice. There’s something special and free about talking to someone who is only temporarily invested in your life. Their judgement carries less weight, and they often offer fresh insight. The advice is more likely to be philosophy orientated than results orientated because they know they will never bear witness to the outcome. Our run reminded me how lucky I am to have such a strong network of these temporary advisors.

Family friends came over for dinner and asked me if I am studying.

I laughed and with a smile told them “I’m deceiving you with my face, I’m older than I look.” I explain not only do I have a degree, but also I have been a traditional employee. The question always comes though, what’s next.

open minds open doors

I think of the sugar packets my mother once brought back from Italy in a gesture of acceptance. Each had a word on the back: ‘Think’, ‘Draw’, Love’. At dinner, I explain I will write, in the sunshine and I will be happy. I used to say such things with hope, now I state them with a belief that makes people lean forward intrigued.

And then?

“Be happy.”

I’m told if I’m looking for a job, there in Spain, using my education, to say.

In my life I have been given many open doors. Right now I’m in a great place. Not only am I free from responsibilities, but I have this fantastic combination of education and experience which makes me atypical and therefore able to see in ways other people are not. I have some really great people supporting me, even though they struggle to understand me at times. What’s more, I have faith in myself and my ability to adapt. Despite whatever the future throws at me, I believe wholeheartedly I’m going to be able to smile.

The secret, perhaps, is to embrace the uncertainty of what might happen next. I have to select my doors with care. If I’m walking through, I need to believe it leads somewhere that fits with my values and life philosophy. Sometimes you don’t see a door until your nose is pressed up against it.

Originally, I didn’t go looking to move to this village, I was invited here. I was so unsure about it that when the first offer came up I was hesitant about committing to staying six weeks. By the time I go home I’ll have been in Catalonia for three months. It doesn’t feel long at all.

Staying so long was not planned. In this second part of my trip I’m living with a family I met at an event that I went to because a friend I’d made a few days earlier had suggested I came along to see what was happening. There I could have spoken to anyone, but I ended up briefly speaking with S. In the short conversation that we had that day, S asked my thoughts on her quest to find an au-pair. As I was leaving, I suggested we swapped numbers. The chance of everything lining up was slim. If the dates hadn’t worked out right or if I’d already had booked my flight home, I wouldn’t have ended up offering to stay for a few weeks.

Discovering doors is a beautiful thing.  Initiating and nurture the conversations by which you find them takes an open mind. Walking through is a risk. But, if you don’t have the courage to say yes, you stay between the same walls you always have.

open minds open doors

I am so grateful that I have the courage to smile and say, “Yes, thank you.”

A good morning in a rural Spanish town (Bon dia / Buenos días)

Cervera, Catalunya, Spain

It’s half past-eleven in a small Catalan town. An elderly man at the bar of the pink-walled patisserie is drinking a shot of something golden and being daringly affectionate with a woman who must be a generation younger but may in fact be his wife. Duos and trios of lifelong friends lean in over small circular tables and drink coffee. Some of them, like my sister and I, eat croissants too.

I buy a baguette. The lady in front of me starts a conversation and I state my apologies, in Spanish, that I speak no Spanish. She continues talking to me regardless. I wonder about switching to Catalan and saying I speak no Catalan. The woman at the counter sells me the baguette and charges me one euro twenty. She watches my face as I translate either Catalan or Spanish, I can’t quite tell which, and repeats but as ‘one, two’ just as I pull out the correct change. My Spanish is better than my Catalan, but I’m better at numbers in Catalan. Despite the considerable time I’ve spent using euros, I still have to turn the coins over to check that the numbers on the back are what I expect.

At twelve, we cause a commotion in the fruit and vegetable stall. The owner is standing in the doorway, a large man with a calm face which looks slightly perplexed. The conversation is either in Catalan or Spanish, I can’t tell which. Again I apologize for not understanding. We step into the store and pick up a courgette and a couple of tomatoes. An old man, stooped shoulders, white hair, mischievous grin watches us from a stool in the middle of the shop floor and talks at us or about us I cannot tell.

The shop owner surmises that perhaps we are French. I interrupt with “English, from England, Inglés.”

The elderly man on his stool understands and repeats multiple times, “Inglaterra.” Although it might have been ‘Anglaterra’ which is the Catalan for England. A few moments later, in the middle of the tomato weighing, the old man pipes up with, “Un avión?”  Just in case my Spanish isn’t good enough to translate, he assists me with a gesture which is clearly an aeroplane taking off, flying above his head and then landing.

“Si!”

The old man looks delighted.

The shop owner, after our purchase has been made, suddenly asks, in English, which city we are from. It’s not a simple question to answer. For one, we are not from a city, we were born in one town, grew up in another and neither of us have lived there for a little while. What’s more, there’s little point telling this man the name of a town he’s never heard of. Furthermore, I’ve met a fair few people who don’t know that Yorkshire is in the North of England. Often when I explain I am from the North of England people think I mean Scotland. I don’t, I mean Yorkshire. The obscurity of Yorkshire is, tragically, about football. Yorkshire’s athletes might make a very respectable indent in the Olympic medal list, but its football teams are currently not winning enough for the cities of home to be easily recognized abroad.

My brain has to move quickly and lands on a solution. “Near Manchester. Leeds.”

Manchester, although on the west, does have the advantage of being easily recognizable and geographically above the north-south divide. I’ve had some significant trouble in the past explaining that just because I’m English doesn’t mean I’m a Londoner, so I’ve lowered my success criteria. I write Leeds on the back of the receipt when prompted for the shop owner. He asks me whether I’m a City fan or United fan. I mimic my mother if it had been her, not I, responding and make an appropriate array of gestures to indicate that I am unlikely to ever support Manchester United. The shop owner laughs delighted in his foray into conversing in English.

The final stage of the morning takes place at the supermarket, the other side of the train line. I buy a box of PG Tips and a litre of (sin lactosa) milk. The idea that there are other people in this tiny town drinking English tea amuses me. Supply and demand dictates that it can’t just be us. The transaction is negotiated without catastrophe and I request a carrier bag in Spanish.

Walking home it all feels like quite the success.

How can you thank volunteers? (an example from travels in Spain)

volunteering at school

You may have read the blog post about how I spent an afternoon in the garden of the local school chasing ants. Well I also went back to school and taught division to a bunch of eight-year-olds. The most striking moment of this second experience happened when I told a boy that his calculation was incorrect. He replied, “What the f**k!”

This blog post however isn’t about swearing or division, it’s about the thank-you I and every other volunteer was given on Friday afternoon for the generosity of our time.

Naively, I imagined that the number of volunteers turning up at school to be thanked would be reasonably small. People after all have jobs and other things to do Monday to Friday. What’s more, I’ve been a volunteer in an English primary school (it was part of a ‘Right to Read Scheme’ and took three months to process the paperwork before I could even begin reading George’s Marvellous Medicine). There were supposedly two of us but the other guy never turned up. Therefore, even knowing that this Spanish primary school was well supported by the community I didn’t imagine there’s be that many people at this ceremony.

I was going because I’d been told I was going by one of the kids, and I have to take them back to school for afternoon lessons anyway.

I followed L through the school entrance, here, forming a corridor of bodies that we were guided through were the school pupils clapping, reaching out for high-fives and generally being excitable. The oldest children were closest to the door and as we snaked through the building and out onto the playground the kids got smaller and smaller. Those younger than six were already seated on the playground, holding hands in big class circles.

This village does things differently to anywhere else I’d been. If I were to guess, I’d say there were over a hundred volunteers, maybe even more, maybe over one hundred and fifty.

L led me up onto the stage which all us adults crowded together or in front of as photos were taken. A Catalan song boomed out of the speakers making one of the grandmas jump. The children who had made up the chain to the stage streamed onto the playground and arranged themselves in class groups. An adult, presumably a teacher, made a speech – in Catalan – and then different children came forward to read their thanks – also in Catalan – passing between them the microphone and pausing at regular intervals for applause.

L pointed me to my ant catching class and we both made our way over to them. Stepping over children on the way. It was probably 26 degrees Celsius and brilliant sunshine. Whilst most of the volunteers did the same as us and left the stage to go to those kids that they had worked with, the volunteer coordinators (15 or so people) were presented with flowers on the stage.

The children had drawn pictures of each of the volunteers and as we arrive, leapt up, let go of each other’s hands and excitedly presented us with pictures of ourselves as a thank-you gift. L talked to some of her friends and I was surprised at how many of the parents and grandparents knew me and said hello.

The chaos went on a while, but eventually a vague sense of order finally resumed and everyone except me sang You’ve got a friend, in Catalan of course.