Category Archives: Personal

Arriving in the UK

Emotionally exhausted by all the goodbyes, I boarded the plane. Was I making a huge mistake? Was I swapping my comfortable life in Bilbao for feeling just as frustrated career-wise in the country where I grew up, without being able to protect my ego from rejection by saying “Oh, it’s because I’m foreign. Poor me! :(“.

Getting off the plane at Birmingham Airport, one I’d never been to before, I found the shuttle (eventually), and was waiting at the train station for a train into the centre to change to Northampton, when I realised to my horror that I had forgotten to pick up my check in bag from the carousel. I almost never check in a bag as I hate paying/waiting for it, and with all the emotional turmoil it had completely slipped my mind to pick it up off the carousel.

I told myself to calm down, that the actual backpack was worth more than the stuff in it, and that I’d just have to look embarrassingly clumsy in front of my extended family, who I was going to house sit for on the other end.

I walked in through the “Arrivals” corridor, and was stopped eventually by the guy who worked on the perfume counter. “You can’t go through there” he said. I felt mildly irritated. Who was this jobsworth to tell me where I could or couldn’t go? Just make an exception just for *me* and let me through for 5 minutes?

I explained to him the silly error I’d made and he was really nice and helpful. He called security for me, and I sat chatting to him, waiting for them to bring my bag. It was weird speaking to someone who was British Asian with the tiniest of hints of a non-native accent; I have one friend in Bilbao who is first generation, but only one, and I’d become used to living in a place where people were either from there, or more recent migrants.

Backpack in hand, I went to the train station again, and when I got the Birmingham Central, it had all changed and I felt really disorientated. I kicked myself about not writing down train times and their final destinations etc. so as to be able to decipher what was on the black and orange screens, but I reasoned that, seeing as my arms had stopped working that morning trying to lift my bag (which wasn’t heavy at all), there was a large part of me that didn’t want to leave and I had done the best I could under the stress that I was under.

I saw two older blokes chatting at the barrier, and I started my question with: “Sorry to bother you but can you tell me where I can get info about the trains?”. I remember this being the way I used to start questions when I was a young woman in my early twenties, but it felt weird (and not entirely feminist) to start a question off like that in a train station. He smiled in a friendly way, and had an indexical knowledge of the system and told me to take the London train from such and such a platform.

I got on the train, checking about 8 or 9 times (thanks anxiety) that it was the one that was stopping at Northampton, and started chatting to a young guy across the aisle from me, much to the probable annoyance of the professional woman working on her laptop across from us. I was briefly annoyed when the train went past the airport station again. I could have just got on there if I’d known! I’d just assumed I would need to get a train to the centre. When we don’t know something for sure we make assumptions from past experience. With the emotional exhaustion of leaving, and the weirdness of being in the UK, I hadn’t wanted to ask, hadn’t wanted to wait in a queue or speak to anyone.

The young guy asked me if I was Irish. I smiled and said that I had lived abroad so long that my accent had gone wonky, that people usually guess that I’m Aussie because of my inflection (going up at the end of sentences), but that I was originally Welsh. “That’s mad that” he said, with a brummy lilt.

I got a taxi from the station as England was playing in the world cup semi-final and everyone in England seemed to be watching it, mispronouncing completely the village I was going to (it’s pronounced “fay-vel”, rhyming with “navel”, not “favel” like “favela”). I noticed the way that all the taxi drivers were South Asian and I felt a prickle of shame; I hoped they earned decent wages to support their families.

The taxi went along a main street, with gaudy store fronts for local fast food chains, hair dressers, and charity shops. It reminded me of Smithdown Road in Liverpool. I questioned my decision to move back to the UK.

I got out of the taxi and plonked myself down to watch the match. My family is Northern Irish, but all the cousins grew up scattered. I grew up in Wales, close enough to spit at the border with England, but my cousin grew up in England. It was bizarre to be in England watching the match, bizarre to be cheering England on. I wondered if it was the first time in my life I had cheered for England.

I mentioned this to a friend from school who lives in London now, and she told me that things like that happen to her all the time still, like when people were singing the English national anthem in the pub after one of the match wins, she found herself not knowing the words.

My cousin showed me around the house, pointing out all the essentials for my house sitting role, like cat food, watering cans, bins, and a bike she had borrowed from a friend in the neighbourhood. When we were in the kitchen, she was explaining to me how to turn on the appliances, and she said “oven”, but she didn’t pronounce it in her English accent, she pronounced it like our parents do, with the flat vowel of the Northern Irish way to say it. It reminded me that, even though we had grown up in different regions of the UK, and had only probably seen each other about 15 times, we are different branches of the same tree, with an Irish core.

 

 

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Moving to and from “Spain”

I haven’t lived in the UK in almost 8 years. I left in 2011, scared that the economic crisis left me minimal job options. I watched the people on my course moan about going home to parents, or listened to their plans to study a masters, do law conversion, or a teaching post grad, and I knew that I wasn’t ready to get another loan, a “real” bank loan, to stumble into a profession that I hadn’t a clue whether I’d like or not. My degree had been more of a way to get a loan to move cities, rather than about studying; in the end, against my parents’ wishes, I had chosen my favourite subject, and studied English Literature. It was an expensive way to heal, to escape my own destructive patterns and being mired in the world of drugs, but I think it was all I could handle mentally at the time and something more practical, more maths based, might have frustrated me too much and caused me to quit mid year again, as I did with the Engineering course.

Time flies. I worked in one school for two years. It took me a long time to realise that the teachers were fascist. I should have twigged when one of my pupils had a family member who was a judge and had been targeted by ETA. I joked that the school had been built on an indian burial ground; I see now I was right in a way. The unresolved conflicts of the violence of the civil war and the retribution doled out by the victors flows beneath the modern façade throughout “Spain”.

My third year, I was going to go freelance, but my mother became seriously ill so I took a job where I could take time off and get paid if I needed to. By the time she was stabilised, I had saved money and went travelling (something she always told me was a waste of time and never to do), helping a friend with a documentary project, seeing the world, and feeling the freedom and loneliness of the open road. Although I went to so-called “dangerous” countries, people were kind and helpful, and apart from my camera breaking or its own accord, getting lost in a dodgy part of town, and unwanted advances from men who “just wanted to share their bed with me”, none of the things they tell you to be afraid of as a lone female traveller came to pass. Thank god.

I moved to Bilbao, and my world was soon on fire, and not in a good way. My mother’s cancer came back and I spent months living two weeks with my partner in Bilbao, two weeks “taking care” of her. I put that in quotes as “taking care” of a woman as independent, strong, and proud as my mother was kind of like trying to take care of a wolf, lion, or other large animal that doesn’t need or want your help at all. I cooked her eggs, as they were the only things she could eat. I watched TV with her. I chatted to her.

Her death is an event that destroyed my life as I knew it, and that marks a before and an after. We had a very, very difficult relationship. When she became seriously ill I had been in therapy for 5 years, when she was dying, 6 years. I’m very grateful for the work that I did that meant that I could forgive her and spend time with her before she died, and show her completely unconditional love, despite a violent argument we had.

I thought that, once she was dead, I would be free, but I felt like I had been literally shot in the head. I had lost everything. My mother, who although for many years had been my nemesis, was someone who had been a constant every year of my life. My home, that I had always run from. My country, the place where I had grown up. My family (as people go absolutely chicken oriental after a death and have stupid arguments that seem very important at the time. This is called “secondary losses” in grief books).

I did a masters, all in Spanish, in Feminism and Gender. It was amazing, and it was terrible. It was like putting your whole life experience into a framework, both historical, sociological, legal, political, with a bunch of dates and stats. I learnt that violence against women goes on a scale, and the more points you have (being poor, black, lesbian, trans…) then the more of a target you are by violent bullies.

It opened my eyes to a million things, and once I had taken a bite of that apple, I couldn’t go back to the garden. It was too much for my then boyfriend. We broke up. I moved out.

I wrote my dissertation. I defended it. And all the while, the people from my uni course who weren’t from the Basque Country left, one by one, even those whose parents were paying for their rent, their uni fees, their food, AND BASQUE CLASS ON TOP (I have a big chip on my shoulder about this. Can you tell? :P). They went home to work as journalists, or social workers; they went back to their parental home to regroup and look for other opportunities in a place where they had the language, the contacts, and certificates.

It took me around 6 months of therapy to realise that, although I love the Basque Country, I had grown all I could grow there. I had done my best to put down roots, but they had encountered rocks, and could only be shallow. The Basque language must be protected, but seeing as I’d worked my arse off to learn Spanish for 8 years and still had to think quite a lot about it before I opened my big gob, I thought that my chances of being able to invest thousands of hours in a language, day after day of being the “lemon” at the party who no one wants to speak to, and not becoming even more insane than I already am, were quite low. Having a foreign accent and making small errors in Spanish makes me basically kind of linguistically disabled in Spanish, and Spain isn’t an economy like the UK that relies on the brain drain of other countries to feed it with bargain skilled labour. Also the güiri stereotype was really getting me down, as my butt had been fondled non-consensually by one to many an old sleaze bag.

It was time to sell, give away, throw away, and generally let go of all my possessions, in order to take the leap of faith back to the UK.

A Case of the Mean Reds

I’m feeling completely not in the mood to see anyone at the moment. Here’s what’s going on:

-I bumped into an older dude who’s been making unwanted sexual advances to me for a while. He apologised but then the next day invited me to a gig, kind of invalidating his apology. Of course, after touching me without my permission and not listening to “no”, it’s not safe for me to accept his invitation, to deliberately go where he is. Sigh. That would give him the green light to do it again.

-A dude at the jam expressing the ever more popular phrase “güiris go home“, not realising anything about our lives, how grindingly hard it is to be foreign every day, how everything you say and do is wrong, how you’re an acceptable target for xenophobia/sexual harassment.

-My housemate hopes that there “won’t be too many tourists” in her coastal town when she goes home. This doesn’t bode well for me being supposed to go there for the day to teach dance, seeing as I have a strong foreign accent, and even though I’m not technically a tourist/güiri, I’m often treated like one. I don’t want to get stuck in Zumaia like I did in Llodio, when a “friend” attacked me and everyone took his side. I feel bad about cancelling the class but I’m just not up to doing it.

-This month is my mum’s birthday.

On the one hand, these are a lot of things, enough to get anyone down. On the other hand, a positive person with more resilience than me would be able to overcome this.

If it were up to me, and money, responsibilities, and logistics were no object, I would leave Bilbao tomorrow, send most of my stuff to the UK, and go through it all there, while going to Al-Anon meetings every day. But I have my job, I have to condense my papers and momentos to make transit/storage cheaper, I have to pare down and pare down to what I actually really need, store that somewhere… Leaving is a process.

But I am at my wits end. I am 100% done with this situation.

It’s not that Bilbao is a bad place. It’s a great place, a wonderful place. But I am tired of not having a voice. I am tired of not being funny. I am tired of a foreign accent invalidating everything I say. I am tired of being sexually harassed.

 

 

Güiris Go Home

Teach me English. / Enseñame inglés

Look how badly they speak Spanish. / Mira que mal hablan castellano

Don’t you know anyone who can teach my kids English? / No conoces a nadie que pueda enseñar a mis niños inglés?

They’re not integrated at all. / No están integradas para nada

All you güiris know each other. / Todos estos güiris se conocen

A friend from here? / Un amigo de aquí?

 

I was sick so I wasn’t at the jam. I think that was fate. I might have said something ugly.

Estuve enferma entonces no fui al jam. Era destino. Es probable que habría dicho algo feo.

 

He said at the end that the jam needed more basque musicians, “güiris go home”. 

Dijo al final que el jam necesitaba más músicos bascos, güiris go home.

 

“But you’re not a güiri!” He told me.

“Pero tu no eres un guiri!” me dijo.

 

I’m a güiri every day. 

Soy un güiri todos los días.

 

I’m a güiri when people give me dirty looks for ruining a bar with my stinking presence. 

Soy güiri cuando la gente me miran mal por arruinar un bar con mi presencia apestosa.

 

I’m a güiri when I make an appointment on the phone and people hang up when they hear a foreign accent. 

Soy güiri cuando hago una cita por telefono y cuelgan el telefono cuando escuchan un acento extranjero.

 

I’m a güiri when I work and pay rent, instead of living with my family or in one of their properties. 

Soy güiri cuando trabajo y pago alquiler, en vez de vivir con mi familia o en una de sus propiedades.

 

I’m a güiri when creepy dudes hear a foreign accent and they try to talk to me as I’m “easy”. 

Soy güiri cuando babosos escuchan un acento extranjero y me intentan hablar porque me perciben como “fácil”.

 

I’m a güiri when some old dude touches my arse in a crowd as I’ve forgotten to stop smiling so I look foreign. 

Soy güiri cuando un viejo me toca el culo porque se me había olvidado no sonreírme y es obvio que soy extranjera.

 

I’m a güiri when my friend tells me that a doctor has given her an unnecessary breast examination because he felt like feeling her up. 

Soy güiri cuando mi amiga me dice que el médico le ha dado una revisión de los pechos porque tenía ganas de tocar sus tetas.

 

I’m a güiri when a “friend” follows me to the bathroom to sexually harass me and all my friends are “neutral” because he’s from here and I’m not and a friend from here is worth 10 foreign friends. 

Soy güiri cuando un “amigo” me persigue hasta el baño para acosarme sexualmente y todos mis amigos son “neutros” porque el es de aquí y yo no soy y un amigo de aquí vale 10 amigos de fuera.

 

7 years I’ve lived abroad for. 7 years of this catch 22. I’m sick of fighting. I have 3 months left. 3 months to sell all my shit, give away as much as possible, do everything to close this chapter. 

7 años llevo fuera. 7 años de este circulo vicioso. Estoy harta de discutir. Me quedan 3 meses. 3 meses de vender mis posesiones, regalar lo más posible, hacer todo antes de cerrar este capítulo.

 

I’m not going to go back to the jam.

No voy a volver al jam.

Great. But…

There’s a part of me that craves economic stability. It annoys me that I work in private education, where I get paid by the hour, and don’t get paid for summers (what is a being teacher without being paid for holidays?) where if I had the EGA (Basque exam) and a Spanish passport I could do the exam, get a civil servants wage, get 14 payments a year instead of 8. Why can’t I be happy that I work in a place where I’m treated like family and where I genuinely like all the people I work with?

Recently, two friends got some good news. One got her dream job. Another got made permanent at his. Both complained to me immediately:

But the people I work with seem so burned out. It’s not a dynamic environment. I don’t want to become like them.

But I won’t have any time off between this job starting and that one finishing.

I do exactly the same, and I had even more extreme thought processes when I got my job online. After getting what I had wanted, I immediately thought: “Well, if they hired me, anyone can do this. Ergo, this is shit”.

Time to go back to gratitude lists, and try to balance the chimpanzee brain that always strives for more.

Cooking

When I met my father when I was 18, after not having seen each other for 7 years, I decided that in order to rebuild our relationship, I would take an interest in his hobbies. After receiving off putting microsexisms in shooting, fishing, and going down the pub, I landed on cooking.

My father loves to cook. He cooks like the engineer that he is. He follows recipes to the letter, reads about chemistry, watches cooking shows. He carefully portions ingredients.

In university, I started cooking and baking. I loved it. Saving money, cooking vegetarian, feeding my friends. I especially liked baking, as, being supplementary, if I made a mess of it, I could hide the evidence, and no one would criticise me, no one would be let down. Low pressure, low stress. Butter, chocolate, jam; delicious.

Cooking, especially baking, is not a hobby for nomads. First, it’s good to know your oven, as some are hotter on one side, others the thermostat might not be accurate. Moving 2 or 3 times a year in university, I realised that I needed to travel light, and that my baking stuff was weighing me down. Also, summers in the states with my father meant that I ended up using different measuring systems there (like cups and imperial instead of metric), which was annoying. I remember after a cooking class, trying to make the cake at my father’s we had watched so artfully prepared, and misreading the ingredients as 1 cup of flour, instead of 1 and 3/4. What came out of the oven was a gooey mess, edible but not what I had intended at all.

Moving to Spain, I came across new challenges. I never knew when shops were open, often ran out of food in my house. Supermarkets seemed so limited to me. Walking into one for the first time, I thought: “So many olives. Now, where’s the curry?”. Due to cultural differences influenced by hot weather and space constraints in the city, flats didn’t even have kettles, let alone ovens.

I had only vaguely realised that in the UK, everything is imported. I had seen ads for organic veg boxes, programs about planting vegetables, but assumed resentfully that this was for smug hipsters, with their free time and their spare cash, and not for someone of my situation, living hand to mouth and working low paid jobs. Living in Madrid, and only having access to food produced in the country where I lived (I void going to big department stores like the plague) was a strange type of culture shock to me. Where was the peanut butter? Where were the spice mixes?

This is reflective in people’s pallets there. Madrid was an extreme example of this, where long-term foreigners end up yearning for strongly flavoured spicy food, where there isn’t salt and pepper on the table. Bilbao, being a port town, means that there is a much wider selection of international food and it is incorporated in the local cuisine as well. Many people regularly eat the spicy alegría riojana pepper, which is completely unthinkable in Castilla. People here are used to excellent, fresh ingredients, and accept nothing less.

Still, in Bilbao and Madrid, people argue for hours about the perfect tortilla, whether it has onion or not. This reminds me that I am from a different culture, where being unfaithful to food is the norm. We seem to be constantly searching for the new thing, flipping and flopping between flavours, why? Because a change is a good as a rest?

People criticised the UK cuisine constantly in Madrid, which I took personally at the time. I didn’t realise that that was due to their own insecurities, feeling like “southern Europe”, feeling looked down upon as they look down upon others. I felt the criticism keenly, and often made more effort than I really had the energy to in order to cook something from the UK, despite all the shops being closed, the lack of ovens, and the cuts of meat being completely different. I tried to explain that the UK had double the population density, that food was imported and expensive, but that there were chutneys, and sausages, and gravies. That there were so many delicious things that that I missed.

My ex loved to cook. He cooked all the time, every day. He cooked so much, that he would use up the ingredients I had especially bought to make my recipes. Everyone says that it’s “so amazing” that he cooks, as he’s a man. In the last month of our relationship, he said that he is a better cook than his mother, who is basically a semi-professional chef, because he “prepares good salads”. Male over confidence at its best.

I now live with a girl who has worked as a cook. She has that gift of opening the fridge and being able to make something nice out of whatever is in there, instead of buying expensive imported products like I used to. I am learning that. I am learning to cook something, adjust, follow the recipe loosely, taste, taste, taste.

My taste is different to people’s here, being from a country where sugar is cheap and fruit and vegetables are expensive. At least twice, I’ve cooked something, and someone has had to spit it out. Raw garlic. Cakes that are too sweet for the pallet here. Complaints about a cilantro butter. Too many fresh herbs. Too much lemon. It used to really annoy me, but then I started to choose recipes that were more classic, or add chilli to my own bowl only. Cooking a classic recipe that everyone knows can be a gamble. It’s like singing a song by a legendary singer; everyone knows how it’s supposed to sound/taste, and they know if you’ve gone wrong.

In the end, I have grown to realise that cooking doesn’t really interest me as it’s always going, going, gone. I don’t want to stay in on a nice day, chained to the kitchen. I want to swim, hike, dance. I want to build things that are more permanent.  I want to build (or renovate) a house, have a garden. I want to write articles and books. Now I tend to eat simple, almost vegan meals (beans, lentils, burgers made out of them, roast vegetables). My aims when cooking are to make something not too taxing on the environment, reasonably healthy, and not too expensive. Except when I go to parties, where I like to bring something. I tell myself that this is because people have cleaned their houses and bought food so I should bring something, but I also know that it is ego driven. I am a bit of a show off.