So there I was in Madrid; the second European country in as many years, that I had moved to more or less by accident.
I spoke no Spanish, had done a TEFL course in the equivalent of The Danny Dywer School of Higher Learning and apart from a frayed sheet of paper with some scribbled email addresses, I was on my own.
I was to move in with Marina, a spindly Spanish girl I had become friends with on the Comedia Dell’Arte course. I thought she was amazing; she drank her coffee black, smoked roll ups and promised to teach me how to eat healthily, flirt with men and walk like a whughhhman. Most importantly, she thought I was adorable and I’d already cast her as the wise Spanish sister who would bestow valuable life lessons.
I had never met anybody like her before; her wiry fidgety street smarts, made my middleclass friends back home seem plump with suburban safe choices. Her eyes had the dark flintiness of someone who had to look after themselves from an early age. I was in equal amounts in awe and slightly terrified of her, but reassured with the knowledge I was in her gang. She had just broken up with her boyfriend and was looking for someone to share the rent; it all seemed perfect.
Her flat was a tiny badly made wardrobe of a place, with a kitchen that looked out onto the inner courtyard; washing the dishes became a romantic Juliet balcony experience, a tiny living room with a fold out bed and Marina’s bedroom, where I would sleep. In the kitchen was a rickety old gas heater, don’t get me wrong, I love crotchedy old things, it’s just not what I look for in gas heating appliances; every time I looked at it I heard Michael Burke’s voice narrating my movements in my head. Not that we ever used it, it was August and the heat was a dry, heavy, overwhelming presence. The entire city felt like a communal sauna.
Marina never seemed to eat and came and left the flat at the strangest hours. All the shopping trips and pavement lunches together I imagined never materialised, in fact I hardly saw her outside the flat at all. Straight away there was always seemed some bill I had to pay, things were always running out just after I used them; printer cartridges, olive oil cans, gas cylinders, purchases that I needed to share.
Marina’s decorating was interesting too. Along with the porn, filed neatly along wit her dvds on top of the cd player, there were least three framed black and white pictures of a naked Marina with only a pearl necklace or cigarette artfully hung around the flat. So this is what sophisticated bohemian life was like I told myself; I was terrified.
The entire flat opened out onto a balcony overlooking the street below. We lived in Lavapies, Madrid’s most colourful/dangerous neighbourhood. I console myself that it’s now a soulless overpriced area with media types and over privileged trust fund brats, whereas when I lived there it was a crime scene with a Metro stop.
Along with the heat there was the continuous wall of sound; from the first beeps of frustrated cars in the morning to the last squeals of children running around worryingly late at night, interrupted by the constant shrieking drone of scooters. It was a battered notice board of student cafes, Moroccan bars and shops selling cheap electrical goods.
Everyday I went to the Supermarcado and had the same breakfast of a yoghurt drink and almond biscuits, prawns and lemon juice by the kilo for lunch and lost about a stone in a month. Every stroll about the area was accompanied by a Greek chorus of men, shouting “Eh Guapaa”. This was not something I took personally; this was a gift to everywoman leaving their house. It became like a verbal mosquito bite, sometimes accompanied by a hiss, inspiring an involuntary hunching of ones shoulders, and scurrying further head down. Say what you like about Irish men, but one cannot accuse them of being over demonstrative about their appreciation for the fairer sex. Two days into my time in Madrid, I began to look back nostalgically on their tongue tied inability to even make contact let alone emit noises. It didn’t make me feel sexy or attractive, I felt like bringing a loud klaxon hailer with me every time I left the house.
Despite this I was beginning to feel a strange combination of spine tingling terror and bullish excitement.
Not understanding the language made every journey outside my flat overwhelming. I felt like I jumping into a foreign sea, any moment I would be swept away in a tide of strange smells and vowel sounds. But beneath that was also an exhilarating rush, I would learn Spanish, become fluent, study physical theatre in a funky underground school, hang out at the cool bars, the illicit thrill of real change was seductively putting it’s arm around my waist. In a rush I signed up for a month of Spanish classes, bought my books, insisted Marina only spoke to me in Spanish. Not only that I devised a timetable for my year in Madrid, everyday I would spend an hour writing, an hour drawing (some landmarks to begin with then move on to sketching the people I saw in cafes at night) an hours physical exercise (running to begin with then possible yoga) an hours Spanish study and then an hours drama class. And get a job. And make friends, and get a boyfriend. I had a lot of work to do.
I began to meet up with my other Spanish friends and try to follow their conversation, but it was different to when we were in Italy. There, the common language was English, so that was spoken in our group. Here in their home country, I felt a bit betrayed by their return to their home tongue. They wanted to stay out late, drink more, go dancing but it was just so hot, even at night. The clubs were sweaty and loud, a zoo of confusion. After about an hour or two I’d feign tiredness and return to the coolness of my bed, the blessed tones of Radio 4 online, like a lighthouse beacon, reminding me of my own world.
My first Spanish class consisted of me and six other Asian girls in a hot classroom in the city centre. My mind wandered as she slowly went through some grammar rule, while the girls tapped away on a little translator handset that looked like a calculator. I tried to concentrate, I think I did, but I’ve never been very good at languages. In general if I’m not really good at something immediately, I quickly, very speedily loose interest. That’s the thing with learning a foreign language, it’s not really good for show offs. Think of the foreigners who spend years and years studying English- do we congratulate them on their excellent use of irregular verbs, their grasp of idiomatic phrases, or do we just take it for granted that they can speak it? Well every culture is like that. The idea of spending months, years, learning a language just so I could be an average Spanish speaker made my mind baulk. How long would it take before I could make jokes, word plays, puns for crying out loud? What was the point? Does the world need one more average Spanish speaker? I then genuinely began to worry that if I did indeed master a second language that other parts of my brain would begin to suffer. What if my new Spanish vocabulary started pushing out my English words? Boring block words for table or meat, muscling out the wimpier, whispier words at the very end of my vocabulary spectrum. My vocabulary was something I jealousy prided myself with paranoid regularity. If I was worried I was getting early dementia or had finally given myself an alcohol induced brain injury I would test myself to see if I could remember my most obscure words. He spoke loquaciously to the timid girl, with obvious lascivious intent…That was who I was, the thought of losing that made my head spin.
And why was I learning it in the first place? Everybody else in the class seemed to have a clear reason: Jobs in Madrid, partners in Spain. My only reason for being there was that it wasn’t Navan and that felt like shaky reasons for concentrating on all that grammar. Learning a language felt like a big sign of commitment, one I wasn’t ready for, If I learnt it properly they might make me stay here - sorry Latin countries don’t get too comfortable, this one’s moving through… I was the jittery boyfriend of foreign tongues.
Marina was throwing herself back into single like with admirable gusto. Walking gingerly past her fold out bed to get to my bedroom, I nearly took part in accidental threesomes on several occasions. She walked around the flat naked, once taking her inhibition to applause inspiring lengths by sitting spread eagled naked, waxing her castanet on the living room couch. Nights in we’d chat in halting Spanish about our love lives. Who was I fucking she’d ask, who did I want to? I blinked back at her confused; I’d been in Madrid three weeks, how on earth would I have time to get to know, let alone like someone, let alone go on the requisite amount of drunken sessions before that lucky fumble occurred? She sneeringly questioned if I had any experience with men at all? My Spanish was terrible but happily, judgment is a universal tongue. We were both mentally putting each other categories and neither were coming out well.
I ate wrong at well. One night, in protest at her diet of chickpeas and onions I provocatively came home with a bag of chips. My greasy unhealthy deep fried carbs, in her skinny Spanish uninhibited sex with stranger’s apartment. She sat down beside me on the couch and began to delicately help herself to some. Shy nibbles quickly speeded into greedy snatches as unselfconsciously, her hand clawing from plate to mouth, ignoring me the entire time, she finished the entire lot in silence. I couldn’t put my finger on why at the time, but something about it turned my stomach.
I was getting lazier with my Spanish classes. There was homework I could not understand so I decided to wait up to ask Marina to help me with it/ do it for me. She finally arrived in late, with strange men, brandishing a bottle of whiskey she proudly declared she’d found on the street. Sensing me uncomfortable, her eyes glinted back darkly, silently challenging me to say something. I searched for my sassy Spanish big sister but she wasn’t there. I saw myself through her eyes; a pudgy spotty middleclass Irish girl in her pyjamas clutching a grammar book, she was subletting her flat to. I took her in and wondered if she wasn’t Spanish, if she was Irish, would I want to be friends with her, would ever have even known each other? Her friends made a joke in Spanish and I felt the room to their laughter.
I finally went along to a performance at the theatre school I was planning to join. I hated it. It was like something you’d see on a world culture section on an international news station late at night. I yearned to have someone to turn around to, someone I knew, someone I could take the piss out of it but there was no one, I was on my own. I felt a jolt of homesickness. Like a dog with an electronic lease, I felt a jolt. I had gone as far as I could. I could change and assimilate no further. I stopped going to the Spanish classes and the next week I had got a job in an Irish bar. Walking into the cool, dark bar, after the eye stinging heat and brightness of the Spanish street,I could have wept with gratitude.