Here in Spain, they like to start counting from zero. So we’re currently in Phase Zero of emergence from lockdown, which means that trips to the beach are permitted first and last thing, and visits to the hairdresser are allowed at any time, as long as you wear a mask and agree to have the soles of your shoes sprayed with disinfectant.
After a month and a half of complete lockdown, it’s astonishing to step out of my door and see a conveyor belt of human motion. Masked and bare-faced, Donostiarras are taking up their right to go somewhere that isn’t the bins or grocery store; to cycle, run, and congregate, albeit discreetly.
Since May 2nd, when lockdown was lifted, I’ve been for four swims and counting. The beaches appear different after almost two months’ absence. New rocks have emerged on Zurriola, and green seaweed has grown long and silky over them. The Cantabrian sea in May is cold, but not as bone numbing as it was in March, and I soak it up like a sponge. Then, there’s the night, which is warm, and full of the sound of the waves. I’d not seen the night since March 14th and walking freely in it, makes me feel like a teenager who is just getting to know its possibilities. Even the eleven o’clock curfew that’s currently in place, adds an adolescent appeal.
You could get drunk on the freedom, half-kid yourself that things have gone back to the way they were before. But only half. The boyfriend and I got told off by a policeman each for sitting on the ledge of a stone bridge and leaning against iron railings. The virus travels through metal, didn’t we know? We did, but in that moment we forgot. We’re also not supposed to touch the sand with any part of our bodies other than the soles of our feet. Sitting and lounging on the beach are not yet permitted because there are no conclusive studies about coronavirus transmission through sand.
We’re all aware that a resurgence of the virus is a possibility, and by the end of the weekend, we’ll know how Phase Zero has affected the rate of contagion. My fear of it all being taken away, has led me to organise my days around going out in the morning and evening. Which is a challenge, because whereas at the beginning of lockdown the empty hours mounted, by the end there almost wasn’t a spare moment. I was able to plan and fill whole days without venturing beyond my flat. So this new commitment to going out, is a bit overwhelming, along with the early summer. Boris Johnson’s baby wasn’t the only premature summer fruit, because as of last week, grocery stalls were filled cherries and peaches. These stone fruits, normally associated with the month of June, are my favourites, but I was almost sad to see them so soon. Their early appearance confirms that I’ve missed Spring, the season that ought to most naturally follow a state of hibernation.
Next week, if all goes to plan, Phase One gets underway; clothes stores will open, and groups of up to ten will be able to congregate on terraces. I have to say, I’m not ready for all of that. Not only due to a fear of contagion, but because I’d like to open up my life in a slower, more organic manner. I don’t want to rush to embrace everything that was, but to cherry pick and savour my experiences. I want to retain the license that lockdown gave me to have unproductive time to myself; to not have my inner peace shattered by a sense of social duty and fear of missing out.
This is the latest of a series of posts on my lockdown experience in San Sebastián, Spain. Don’t touch any metal, if you can help it.
In Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, the heroine tries to force sleep on herself by taking a cocktail of pills. Spoiler alert : this updated Sleeping Beauty experiment doesn’t go as planned, and she’s worse off than before. Still, the idea of pure rest and uninterrupted slumber, was so seductive, especially at the beginning of quarantine – which for me, was nearly three weeks ago – when I fantasised about sleeping through this time of isolation, and waking up when the bars and beaches were an option again.
Of course, work was always going to get in the way, as well as my body, which does not have the biological capacity to feed itself or manage its own waste without me being a conscious player. In that first week of quarantine, though, my sleep did change, as my body was responding to increased levels of melatonin from the lack of daylight. It became heavier and more continuous at night, and featured vivid, sometimes frightening dreams of the sea I was missing. One dream saw two giant mating stingrays leap out of the ocean and attack me, while another saw a killer-whale/shark hybrid zooming around La Concha bay like a speedboat, while I watched from the window of GU, the swanky nightclub that looks like a ship. Later, I noticed that the sea creatures took on the navy and white colours of police uniform, and were perhaps an animalisation of the authorities who barked at me when I was walking too close to the sea, on the way back from the grocery store. Dreams of ocean attacks aside, waking up later in the mornings, going to bed earlier, and collapsing onto the sofa for an afternoon nap, was blissful.
Alas, it was not to last – my body’s since become used to the lack of daylight, and now I’m back to having a lot of kinetic energy (it feels like having a spring up my arse) throughout the day, a second wind that gets me out my evening slump, and light broken sleep in the night. My boyfriend’s doing better at rest and relaxation. When I met him, he said that if he were an animal, he’d be a bird, because he’s curious and would like to fly. I was impressed with this answer, especially as previous boyfriends had said they’d be bears – a conventionally masculine choice. Anyway, as it turns out, the current boyfriend has an inner hibernating bear. Quarantine often has him passing half of the day horizontal, either asleep or listening to music and podcasts, until work, the news cycle, or a really good olive oil causes his bird self to fly back.
Though quarantine continues, and some report that they’re losing track of the days, there are enough spectacles to keep us out of bed and on our toes – especially given that Pedro Sánchez likes to spring his life-changing announcements on Saturdays! FOMO, is another culprit in keeping us awake – checking on people and trying to keep their spirits up, is a full time job outside of the usual full time job. So no, those of who are blessed enough to be healthy, can’t sleep through it. Though when unconsciousness comes to give us some relief from our frazzled minds, it’s welcomed.
This is yet another chapter of my confinement diary. I learned how to turn my phone into a Wi-Fi hotspot, so this is a combined phone and laptop production.
Week 3 of quarantine sees me engaging in such antisocial activities as eating out the filling of a napolitana (pain au chocolat) with a teaspoon, and leaving begind the pastry wreckage.
A plastic tray of napolitanas is not something I’d normally have, my habit with desserts being that I buy a specific sweet that can be eaten in one sitting. But my boyfriend brought them, during the first phase of quarantine, when he was allowed to work from his school and stay here. Now, when everyone has to work from the place where they sleep, this tiny room doesn’t have enough space and internet for the both of us. So he’s gone for now, but the napolitanas are still here, and I didn’t want to waste them completely.
The habit of eating the juicy, chocolatey, custardy filling and leaving the soggy base behind, was one I picked up in my family, where there was almost too much to go around, and I had to find some way of limiting myself. Taking what I wanted, and leaving behind the rest, I was able to have my cake and eat it, and gain the unrealistic idea that I had control over my life. Since buying my own food, and having relationships outside of my family, I’ve mostly given up that princessy habit. But now that I’m alone, and the pastry is dry, the chocolate rich and hazelnutty, there’s nothing stopping my extraction procedure.
Ironically, in this crisis, staying at home with my ravaged napolitanas, makes me a not-bad citizen and a potential life-saver. In the new hierarchy of selfish behaviour, meeting people from beyond your household, is obviously at the top, while scooping out the chocolate from leftover napolitanas is a lot further down.
Seeing myself as part of a species, and not as an individual, is new for me. I was raised as an individual, and even now, my parents seem more bothered about my comfort than whether I might catch the darn virus, or be a good citizen. It’s the first time in my life that my needs and desires are truly inimical to the collective good; to my own good, because like everyone else, I have a body susceptible to the virus. Since my last post, a friend contracted a painful case of Coronavirus, which left her struggling for oxygen, and another friend, a midwife, has had her ward turned upside-down. Now that I’m able to put faces to those battling the disease, it seems ten times closer and more frightening. And my part in preventing it is the quietest one – to stay away, to stay at home. Still, there’s things to be learned here, another phase of growing up to do.
This is my third post about being quarantined in Spain. Wishing that everyone who wants a napolitana can get their hands on one, to eat in the manner of their choosing.
When Lina came to the room happy, when she came from just having seen Aidan, those were the nights when the other women drummed their fingers and tried to drown out her glee.
I met Lina in Lisa Taddeo’sThree Women, a book on the private lives and loves of three American women.Aidan is the truck-driving, high-school boyfriend who Lina cheats on her husband with, and the women, participants in her therapy group. The women are at several removes from me, being American, in a different time zone, and in essence, five black squiggles on a flat white page; but their reaction gets under my skin, just the same. Why are they sympathetic towards Lina’s marital sorrows, but intolerant of her glee when she finds an imperfect solution to the problem?
Taddeo’s interpretation is that the women were angry that Lina wanted more than her nice house and family. Lina didn’t just want to tick the boxes of a happy life; she went brazenly after ecstasy and excitement, two transgressive states with origins in the pagan world. Ecstasy, which comes from the Greek,ekstasis, relates to being outside of one’s proper state; while excitement, which derives from the Latin verb excitare, similarly has connotations of being provoked beyond the normal bounds of behaviour. The possessor of ecstasy and excitement can often feel immortal, while those in her presence fret like bewildered pigeons, all too conscious of their impending doom. I wonder, did the women want to bring Lina down, curb her excesses, to be better able cope with her? But we’ll get to their reaction later; first, we ought to turn our attention to Lina’s unabashed joy in the presence of intimates who seemed unable to handle it.
Taddeo, who worked on multiple case-studies of desire, says that she handpicked the three women in her book for their willingness to give complete and honest accounts of their intimate lives; subjects who were cagier, fell away like failed suitors, or were only mentioned in passing. Whereas historically, honest women have been contained, both in behaviour and speech, neither seeking, nor reporting transgressions, Lina’s honesty is synonymous with advanced truth-telling.In a world of subterfuges and highlights reels, Lina’s candid accounts of the kind of sex she enjoys and the gruelling lengths she goes to get it, when her noncommittal lover, is for the most part, spooked by her passion, imbue her with a likeable integrity. Taddeo’s third-person closed narration, which dovetails with Lina’s perspective, encourages the reader to identify with the protagonist, as she reports emotions that are ripe, painful and difficult to articulate. By describing Lina’s experience in unflinching detail, Taddeo enables readers to find parts of themselves in the specifics of one honest woman’s story.
One woman who would have not been honest enough to make it into Taddeo’s book, was her own mother, an immigrant to America from Northern Italy. This beautiful woman, who Taddeo knew more as an object, than a subject of desire, warned her to not let anyone, especially other women, see her happy, because if they see you are happy, they will try to destroy you.Having lived in a climate of political instability and economic precariousness, Taddeo’s mother could see the meanness in others, (and arguably herself), in a way that Taddeo, who was raised in American abundance, could not. Taddeo’s mother’s worldview, was one of scarcity, where every woman was out for herself, rather than supportive of her sisters; one woman’s gain, was the others’ loss. The words of this woman from an older culture than Taddeo’s, sent a chill of recognition through me. Though I’d never heard them uttered explicitly, the people who raised me, acted as if they were true.
In the Greek Cypriot culture of my parents and grandparents, envy, the brutal fact that we don’t want others to have things that we want for ourselves, was kept at bay with a series of rituals. New televisions and glowing school reports coexisted with hanging glass eyes and clay pots of smoking bay-leaf. Older people, especially, moderated compliments, with I don’t want to put my jealous eye on you. I’ve always thought that this statement outs envy before it has time to settle in the well-wisher’s heart, and so kind of lets them off the hook. Still, the recipient touches their hair self-consciously, aware that whatever has been praised stands to be taken away from them.I’ve seen enough sunglasses, earrings and hefty, acoustic guitars go missing, within hours of a compliment, to fear that there’s truth in this. Like Taddeo’s mother, I see how other pendant things – happiness and romantic love – stand to be taken away days, if not instants after someone’s seen you’ve been lucky.
When it comes to talking about love, I’m closer to Taddeo’s mother, than I am to Lina. Even when I know I’m being good and sisterly by sharing; when I experience some relief from unburdening a full heart, it can feel like I’m talking against my own consent. Strangely, this doesn’t only result from a fear of things being taken away; there’s a lively part of me that takes pleasure in discretion. Secrecy around love, is in my ethnic and cultural DNA. I grew up on stories of girls hiding their boyfriends until one of them metamorphoses into a ring-bearer; of window-escapes and clandestine meetings. Don’t get me wrong, much trouble and heartache was caused by hiding, but the stories of escape were exciting, (that pagan word again), and shaped my romantic imagination. The counter-phenomenon on TV, where shows like Dawson’s Creek and Sex and the City discussed and dissected relationships ad infinitum, was entertaining, but not enticing. It had nothing to do with what I felt was a natural way to hold love and desire. Rather than saying I’m happy, I prefer a mischievous glow that travels from inside to out; the extra energy I have for people and projects. The ecstasy is a shift in my internal chemistry, rather than one that comes out in revelatory speeches, which others can scrutinise and drag through the mud.
When a friend recently revealed her flimsy sunglasses affair to me, I was the one who had to try not to scrutinise, to not be like the women who listened to Lina. Inevitably, though, my friend’s blind obsession made me and her other confidantes both stern and matronly. The indigestible panic came out in the guise of looking out for her – concern, mediated with reproaches. The love object was pronounced a suave, two-timing manipulator; which by all available evidence, he was. I even felt tearful at the thought that this man was cheating on his girlfriend, an unknown woman, who was to my mind, being abandoned. I judged the truant pair for the chaos they were causing, for their carelessness towards the unknown woman, who became the primary object of my empathy. However, reading Taddeo’s book made me feel uncomfortable about experiencing my friend’s passion as a threat. Could I not relate to this honest woman as I had to Lina, see that she was like me and not an Other?
I resolved to co-exist with my discomfort, to not banish or ritualise it away, but to see it for what it was, fear of scarcity and loss of control. I’d realise that my friend and I were cut from the same cloth and that her appetite for excess was part of me too. Accepting that the desire to have more, to feel immensely, was part of life, I could search for a healthy outlet. And when I found it, how I’d express my joy and who I’d tell, would be up to me.
Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women was published by Simon & Schuster in 2019
This is not a post about San Sebastián, not even close. You will learn nothing about pintxos, nor fiestas, nor beret-wearing grocers who try to sell you jellied hibiscus and tomatoes that look like arse cracks, when you’re just trying to eat an ice cream. No, sorry, we’re going deep inside my mind, via fairyland – specifically the legend of TheSleeping Beauty.* Which is a different story, when you focus on the fairy gifts at the beginning and don’t rush ahead to the bit where a foolhardy Prince takes a look at a century of thorny weed-growth and says: “I’m not afraid of that […] I shall penetrate the hedge and free the beautiful Brier-Rose.”**
So now that we’re done swooning over our unsqueamish Prince, let’s get back to the presents. At the christening of their long-awaited daughter, the King and Queen set out twelve golden plates, for the twelve young, pretty fairies in the land, in the hope that they’ll cast their wishes on the baby princess. The first eleven fairies do fall over themselves to deliver beauty, nimbleness and even the voice of a nightingale. For me, the first eleven gifts represent the primary virtues of childhood and youth. When someone is still so new to the world and inexperienced in it, seemingly natural charms, such as straight teeth, musicality and a thirst for knowledge, have the aura of divine blessings. The dreams of first youth, such as the wish to be an astronaut, a rock star or a parent of six, are auguries of untried potential and so also go in with the first eleven gifts.
In the Grimm Brothers’ version, this redeemer is known as the twelfth fairy, but I think of her as thirteenth, because she’s the last to speak, after the mean enchantress. She also merits an odd number because she’s exceptional, in that her magic is responsive rather than immediate. She promises that the princess shall not die, but fall into a deep one-hundred-year sleep (and then be woken by a prince, in Perrault’s version of the story). Importantly, the thirteenth fairy can’t take away the curse – not completely – but she can soften it, so it is a temporary, premature death and not the final one. The thirteenth fairy’s gift is ultimately resilience and hope.
It’s hard to know from this passage if the “mischievous gift”, is the spindle’s prick itself or Beauty’s desire for it. As with the ills that befall you and me, is it our fault or the fault of some external, beyond our control? In most cases, it’s difficult to point the finger at either. The Grimm Brothers even write that Beauty “was attracted to the old woman, and joked with her”; which makes me think that the witch was the only one in the castle who was any craic… Anyway, after Beauty’s fall, as with Pandora and Eve and all the other patriarchal myths that punish women’s curiosity, chaos ensues and all that’s left, is hope for a new beginning or just another chance.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about The Sleeping Beauty, the eleven precocious gifts, their extinguishment in a kind of death and the redemption on awakening. These motifs seem to be in the air for me and the people I’ve grown up with, (or am still growing up with, depending on how you look at it). Some of our early gifts, which were granted at birth; some of the dreams and commitments of our first youth, are being taken away. Things that once looked inevitable, are no longer possible, or at least not in the original way. There is waiting; new ways that must be found around thorny obstacles. One image of latter day Beauty has stayed with me in particular: a still-young woman, who has lost her life as she knows it, stroking her loyal, remaining cat and talking about the books on the shelf of her new house. They’re not her books, nor ones she’s chosen, but she can see herself wanting to read them. This is resilience; this is waking up into a different reality and going along with that as though it’s the original plan.
And what of Beauty’s sleep in itself? What does that represent? Mid-twentieth-century psychoanalyst, Bruno Bettelheim found a parallel between Beauty’s sleep and female puberty. Teenage girls, he observed, were introverted and even sleepy, as they underwent a time of “quiet concentration”, while they learned how their changing bodies functioned. Bettelheim’s ideas have an outdated ring to them, especially as female passivity/ sleep is juxtaposed with active pubertal “manhood”, vis à vis the hedge-whacking prince. Needless to say, there are active rites of passage in female puberty and, anyone who has ever met or been a teenage boy, knows how much testosterone exhausts them…
But what’s interesting in both Beauty and Bettelheim, is how after the initial anxiety of bodily or psychic disturbance, a period of rest and passivity follows. Transformation must be allowed to take place on its own, without too much interference or activity. That’s why I’m inclined to follow a practice I saw at my grandparents’ chapel and take all the broken hearts I know, make a mould of them in wax and ask for them to be kept safe while they grow whole again.***
* There are innumerable versions of The Sleeping Beauty legend, but my interpretation of the story comes from a mix of Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm versions. Seventeenth-century, French court fabulist Perrault’s version features a palatial castle, elegant manners and noble rhetoric. On the other hand, in the German authenticity-grubbing Grimm Brothers’ version, speech is cruder and the natural world features more prominently. Best of all, at the beginning of the tale, the Queen finds out that she is pregnant because a talking crab tells her.
** I know, this is grim(m), but it made me giggle.
*** This practice of making a mould of ailing body parts in wax and praying for them to be healed, takes place in both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.
For a while, I looked on the Sanfermínes with hostility. Named for the pudding-shaped Bishop of Pamplona, San Fermín, these 8 days in July have become dedicated tobullfighting and partying. Bullfighting – in case you didn’t know – is a sport in which a matador (read, killer) confronts a bull and with some ritualised swishing of his cape and prodding of his sticks, agitates and fights it to the death. Partying here can be equally brutal – in the féria of 2016, a girl of eighteen was raped by a gang who called themselves as the Manada (wolf pack). Given insufficient evidence that the girl’s relations with the Manada were non-consensual, the perpetrators are yet to be brought to justice. When in Bilbao last year, I heard shots fired into the air to mark the start of the bullfighting season, it only confirmed my prejudice that the Sanfermínes were a celebration of macho aggression.
I never thought I’d actually go, but when a group of friends said they were, I went along, unable to slake my curiosity about this event that I was predisposed to hate. We planned to take the 7:30 pm bus to Pamplona, party all night and leave at 8.30 the next morning, after the running of the bulls. The week leading up to our adventure, I collected more San Fermín horror stories – pickpocketing, brawls that broke out at the drop of a hat and stumbling tourists gored by bulls. As I tied the red pañuelo I brought from the bus station around my neck, I wasn’t expecting to have fun, just to survive.
Contrary to the awaited temper-raising 38 degrees, Pamplona was surprisingly cool when we arrived and there was even a chance of rain. There was time to watch the sunset from a high terrace; time to notice variations on the white shirt, red necktie and belt uniform – most striking were the necklaces of toy monkeys and t-shirts spattered with red paint or wine, to mimic blood. There was even time to go to the main square and seek out the city’s delicate Hemingway motif – the hotels he stayed in, La Perla and the other one, that got turned into a crappy bar. I think Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises/Fiesta, was where I first learned about the Sanfermínes. I enjoyed the book when I read it eight years ago, but it didn’t imprint much and I certainly never thought I’d make it onto the set.
Soon enough, it got dark and I realised that even now, at the beginning of July, the nights were starting to draw in. And what we had ahead of us, was a night that had to last until the 8am running of the bulls. Nights this long become an adult version of Disneyland, where everyone can get their wish, at least when it comes to music and ingestibles. Yes go the long way round that anecdote, follow this marching band and imitate the folk dance; yes, back to the Hemingway square because there’s live music and that’s better than recorded; yes to a TP (tactical piss) stop; yes to finding an ice cream; yes to still another drink, even though its warm and going up in price by the minute. Yes to anything, everything that will wage a war on sleep. We won’t get that till we’re back on the bus to San Sebastián.
After a while, things get grubby, walls stream with human sewage, people are drunk and irritated with craving. It’s advisable to find someone to kiss*, not least because it makes the time go faster and you look up and the one-percent rain prognosis has come true, which itself precipitates – excuse the pun – a discussion of what a one-percent chance of rain actually means…
By which time it’s blue-eyed dawn, swallows are making dizzying circuits around spires, pastry shops are open and people are queuing up to watch the bull run. We stand behind a row that has already formed and the only view of the track is between a stranger’s legs. So I look above for a while, at the sleek, ambassadorial crowd who stand on balconies they’ve paid 1000 euros for. I feel sick as I contemplate what will happen – the people running and the terrified, sacrificial bull set after them.After a while, I see a rash of human limbs, but no quartet of furry black legs. ‘We have to go’, says timekeeper, ‘or we won’t make the bus.’
Two of my friends maintained they saw the bull; two of us didn’t. So for me, it remains as mythical as the minotaur, this charging creature that provokes against its own will. By 8:30 am, sleep-deprived and unnerved by such phenomena as a hot air balloon landing soft as thistledown, an incongruous patch of green in dried yellow grass, I wonder if the festival could function as well with the simple idea of a bull and no animals being harmed.
*Unless you’re the manada reading this, the person you’re kissing should want to kiss you back.
I’ve been looking at my body all wrong. At least for the place I’m in, the people I’m meeting. Thinness and the style of clothes are secondary. What’s first is inhabiting your animal form, speaking and transforming through it.
I’m learning that beauty is more a projection and a feeling than an entity bestowed or withheld at birth. This, after a lifetime of Cinderella stories, which teach that a women’s beauty is intrinsic, an entity to be discovered and declared by others, usually men, but also fashion-arbiters and the media.
According to these myths, any woman who claims beauty for herself is presumptuous, because somewhere along the way, both the despots and the Cleopatras of this world realised that owning one’s beauty was a form of power. If women owned their personal beauty, then they might not have such need for the approval of men, their circle and wider society – they would have fewer doubts and use their strengths, both physical and intellectual, to get what they wanted. And that might just change the world.
Having swallowed the patriarchal juju, I used to think that women who owned their beauty were intimidating and even grotesque, like the evil queens in fairytales or beauty pageants. Wanting to avoid what I considered to be the most complete form of ugliness, I decided that I would only be beautiful when someone told me I was; whatever advantages I had in my body, I would put into the hands of others. I played the Cinderella act well, but with the cost of disassociating from my body and any kind of power I might gain by taking ownership of it.
Here in San Sebastián, a half-sunny, half-wet Basque city with a prominent Latin American population, I’m seeing both beauty and bodies differently. The Latinos who have come here to work and study, have infected both native Donostiarras and those of us from elsewhere with their music, their dance and that untranslatable word, sabrosura, whose meaning hovers somewhere between deliciousness and love. In high heels and low, wetsuits and party frocks, Latinos and those they’ve Latinised, own their beauty. Not in a pretentious way, but in one that means they are comfortable in their own skin, enjoy food, music, movement, contact, display and attention. They have an enviable sense of the body as an earthly home, one that can nourish and keep them safe, but can also express their personality, feelings and desires. Their beauty comes in numerous shapes, sizes and colours and is generous, sunlike in illuminating the attractiveness of those around them.
Of course I shouldn’t idealise Latin culture, where both machismo – the cult of the chauvinistic male and plastic surgery are rife. Like their European counterparts, Latin/ised women bewail the 6 kilos that have snuck up on their thighs since moving to San Sebastián and even men feel under pressure to have that instagrammable tableta de chocolate. But while static bodily ideals exist, the beauty and the hunk are just a starting point. If you’re beautiful, so are others. What are you going to do with your beauty? What are you going to show and share with us?
From my outsider’s perspective, showing and sharing are vital in Latin culture, where people communicate more through the body and its five senses. I used to think of music, food, dance and sports as diversions from the important matter of discussing thoughts and feelings, but now I’m learning that these bodily, being things can themselves be the point of connection. Sensitive and restless, by both nature and nurture, for me, living through the body, is full of altibajos. Sometimes it feels grounding and sensual and other times, I find it limiting or even scary, when I can’t express myself through it, or my personal boundaries are being tested. But little by little, I’m learning what’s right for me, given who I’ve been and who I’m becoming.
This is one of a series of posts on moving to San Sebastián. I’d love to know what you thought of this post and how a change of culture also affects how you feel in your body.
hablador/a/es/as: chatty (adjective)
sabrosura: untranslatable word that hovers between tastiness and love. Somatic intelligence coach Chen Lizra translates it as physical self-love, meaning pride and love of one’s body.
tableta de chocolate: literally translates as a bar of chocolate, although the meaning is more six-pack, abs
How many EU stars does it take to make a bed? Answer: between five and six, depending on your view of Brexit. A Dutch lent her sleeping bag, an Irish his yoga mat, a Romanian a pillow and duvet and a Mexican Hungarian and British Cypriot carried and assembled the parts. What could be the occasion? The visit of Cristina, a friend who shares her name with Donosti’s most monumented royal, a Queen with a park, hotel, bridge and a couple of stores to her name. Unfortunately, Cristina didn’t get to sleep in her namesake hotel, Maria Cristina, but had to make do with the bootcamp conditions in my shared house – hell, at least there’s a balcony.
Cristina was the easiest guest. She was gearing herself up for her Alpha Spanish holiday the following weekend, at the Feria de Sevilla, so Donosti was a strictly Beta destination. She didn’t drag me up a mountain, to a museum or even insist on staying out all night, trying forty different pintxo bars. No, she was more than happy to take pictures, buy organic lipstick and follow her gut towards her Spanish holiday staple – churros and the Acai bowl and bulletproof coffee, that she takes for her health. I smile at these metropolitan traveller quirks, the expectation that the city should meet you half way, rather than adopting a when in Rome attitude. And generally, holiday destinations do meet metropoles half way. Waiters baffled as to why someone would order a dish of butter without anything to spread it on, will no doubt hear the order repeated as guiri (Northern European foreigner) season approaches and by next year, are likely to have bulletproof coffee as a standard on their menu.
Cristina’s attitude reminded me of how I was when I first moved here; how I sought to replicate my habits of yoga, tea and reading in cafes, regardless of what everyone around me was doing. Some things I’ve given up, though, like the expectation that I’ll be able to get my five, or even one a day, from a pintxo bar; that people will be understand my badly-translated reflections; that I’ll be able to attend a social event after 8 pm without drinking. All this, to be able to participate better, to fit in.
Did I mention that When in Donosti drinks more? That she knows local bartenders and includes them in the treasure hunt she makes for her royally-named guest? That she swears? A lot. After seven months in a country where a teacher can get away with calling a twelve-year-old a gilipollas (douche bag) and puta (whore) and coño (cunt) are common currency, I’m no longer holding back. Unfortunately, for me, the c-word comes out in English, where it’s especially taboo. There’s cunt noun, when you’ve stubbed your toe, cunting participle for something you don’t want to do and cunty, an adjective that usually accompanies a noun. Like many well-educated girls, who were told to wash out their mouths with soap after the mildest blooper, I feel exhilarated when I swear. Parts of my psyche that were once blocked off are accessible again; it’s like I’m nearer to my emotions, especially the messy ones.
Another influence on my swearing, are the male friends I’ve made here, none of whom are shy of blue phrases, some of them, in more than one language. Of all the myths about the differences between men and women, I’ve found this one to be the truest: men have an innate sense of entitlement. They take up space, demand respect, expect money, status, satisfaction and infinite second chances. Feeling that because they are born on the planet, they deserve to take from it, they make use of every word at their disposal, both inside and out of the dictionary. Curses accompany their statements, but rarely attach themselves to their personalities; if anything, swearing makes them seem more authentic.
As women, on the other hand, we can feel more liminal and take up less space on the planet we were born to. We ask whether we deserve the things we want, we second-guess ourselves before we speak, we think and we think again. When it comes to vocabulary, we limit ourselves from certain words and phrases, because they are offensive and will cast us in a bad light. It’s like our words can make our reputation; that we won’t be able to recover as fast after saying certain things. As much as I enjoy swearing in the moment, I’d like the reassurance that I can snap back again, have the containment of proper language, the elegance of restraint.
Cristina’s visit prompts me to think about taking up space in a way that’s different from an automatic sense of entitlement. She’s a person who gives off the impression that she deserves to be here, not because she is, but because she cares. In her way of inhabiting, you make an effort, aware that you might not yet pass. You look after the people and land you call your own, you learn the local language and the different kinds of sevillana so that you can better dance in the Feria. And then you jump and say because you care, you will dare to take up space, to make demands, just as you are in this moment .
I’ve been living in Donosti for 5 months now and it feels like time to reflect on the difference between what I thought the experience would be and what it actually is. Prior to moving, my ideas were guided by a number of myths about swapping one culture for another. Some of these myths were travel clichés – gross generalisations that I’d normally think I was too smart to fall for, while others were simply assumptions I’d made because I didn’t know any better. Here are just 5 of them:
Myth No. 1: New place, new me. You’re lying if you’ve moved and say that you haven’t bought into the myth of a new start. Chances are, if home felt like a place of boundless opportunity and contentment, there would have been no need to leave in the first place. But while I think it’s great to plan a better life in your new location, don’t assume that the act of moving in itself will automatically remove old problems and make you immune to whatever was so trying at home. Even though your troubles didn’t buy the Ryanair ticket to Biarritz for September 15th; by October 15th, you’ll be certain that they baeged onto the flight with you.
For about a month, I was under the illusion that I’d become this bold, carefree creature, who worked from cafes, swum in the sea and was constantly meeting new people. Then one by one, traits that had plagued me in the old country started resurfacing: shyness, commitment-phobia and worst of all, anxiety. From these demons, in the end, there was no escape; only a decision to be made: did I want to be challenged at home in a frantic metropolis or here, at the beach? Luckily, for me, that was an easy one.
Myth No. 2: My previous life will vanish from sight – When I went home in December for two weeks, a funny thing happened – I slid into the routines of my old life so seamlessly, that the one I’d been making in the past three months seemed unreal. I picked up right where I left off with friends and family and was worried that I’d feel at a loss when I returned to San Sebastián in January. However, one Vueling flight later, I slotted back into the life of three months, feeling neither homesick, nor sad.
You see, the London I experienced in December wasn’t representative of the city I left in mid-September. It was Christmas and friends who had moved out of town and scattered around all parts of the world, came back to visit; which all meant that I went home to a place that exists fleetingly. Although the London of 2015-16-17 is no longer around, my connections to people from those years are solid. Skype, Instagram and WhatsApp mean that messages can fly back and forth as often as they did in London. These past weeks, especially, when I’ve been convalescing from a broken ankle and unable to socialise as much, I’ve felt that I’ve been living a double life, with one foot planted here and the other in the world of not-here connections. People who’ve lived abroad for longer than me, say that this type of duality is normal, especially in the first few months.
Myth No. 3: I can get away with a basic command of the language. Yes, you can. Get away with a hundred words of Spanish and ten of Basque. Hopefully, you’ll have enough vocabulary to buy bread and talk about the weather. You may even meet some English-speaking locals or British expats (don’t you know that the modern rendition ofRule Britannia is that Britons never never never shall be immigrants?) and form an Anglophone friendship group.
Even with the best intentions you could slip into this culturally evasive state, because learning a new language takes time, investment and energy. I’ve found that just three hours of what is meant to be a fun night out in Spanish, can tax my brain as much as six hours of a dry academic conference in English. Misunderstandings are rife, I don’t understand half the jokes and if I lose focus for even two seconds, I’ve about as much chance of catching up with the conversation as I do with a mustang at a gallop. While I’ve improved through day-to-day interactions and the patience and generosity of friends, I’m coming to accept that if I’m not to sound like a foreigner forever, I need to boost my formal grounding in Spanish and this means one thing – committing to language lessons!
Myth No. 4: I have to say yes to every invitation. If you’re a freelancer/digital nomad like me and you arrive in a city without knowing many people, you’ll be on the look out for language exchanges and hobby-based Meet Ups. Overall this is a good move, because whatever the pretext, you can guarantee that these are places where people want to meet each other. In my convalescence, swimming, yoga and Pintxo-potewere all out, but if I wanted to, I could still go to a language exchange for every day of the week. There are the general Spanish-English exchanges; a French group and of course, my small but select bilingual ‘book-club’.
And yet, because language exchanges can be as chaotic and exhausting as they are social, I’ve learned to apply the advice I once read in a guidebook for Istanbul : you have to be in a good mood for the Grand Bazaar; be prepared to haggle, laugh and in general, make conversation. Just as you have to be pretty relaxed to tell a Turkish spice-seller that you don’t want to buy a bag of cumin with your saffron for the nineteenth time, you have to be feeling sprightly and patient enough to be able to answer the same questions about yourself, every time you meet a new person at a language exchange. Rather than commit to things routinely out of some false sense of obligation, I’d rather do less and give more.
Myth No. 5: Setbacks are a sign that I should give up and go home. Before I made the decision to come to Donosti, I went through a superstitious phase when I kept asking whatever Great Being is out there to give me a sign. Of course, truly desiring to go and only needing that final confirmation, I spotted every shell, horse and star that I asked for. And now that I’m here, I’ve had some wonderful new adventures and I’ve met people I would have never found back home. However, I’ve also had set-backs and disappointments: those I became close to moving away, sponge mattresses, accidentally offending people, misjudging character, oh and that old chestnut, falling off a horse and breaking my ankle. Do these obstacles mean that I should give up and go home or set my sights on some new promised land? For me, the answer is no – because I’ve learned that fluctuations are part of life, wherever you are. Even without having to ask for a concrete sign, I instinctively know there’s more for me here, that the time to go would be when I stopped seeing the opportunities.
Bottom line, after 5 months in Donosti, I’ve learned that you should only move to a new place if you’re excited about the possibility of making a full life there; a life that will have its share of challenges as well as pleasures.
This is now one of a series of many posts about moving from London to San Sebastián. If you’ve moved recently or are thinking of moving, I’d love to know which parts resonated with you? Also, did I miss anything out?
‘It’s in depictions of the monstrous that artists have the most freedom,’ says choreographer Carlos Pons Guerra, after a performance of his work TORO: Beauty and the Bull at Sadler’s Wells on April 25th. TORO inhabits a vulnerable zone where the human meets the animal; the staged meets the authentic. Danced by Marivi Da Silva, the Bull is a male animal in a feminised body. Hair drawn back in a reed-slim ponytail, breasts restricted by a harness, Da Silva’s bondaged torso is counterbalanced by an explosive net skirt, which gives her the surging motion of masculinity.
The Bull and spiky, translucent Emma Louise Walker, who is cast as a configuration of Beauty/ Girl/ Prostitute, are preyed upon by alpha males who seek to conquer and depreciate them. The men – crotch-potent stereotypes – are both lusty and automatic. They gyrate, violate and suppress; they get carried away; crow like the cocks they are. The animal realm is never far away, even for these would-be standard-setters; in the second act, the same dancers are cast as voguing dragimals, harnessed at the face and mouth, their arms wind-frittered wings.
The dance piece’s narrative is inspired by the 18th century French fairytale Beauty and the Beast. However, it’s the fairytale as Pons Guerra has read and dreamt it. Growing into a gay man in Spain, the thirty-year-old choreographer was often made to feel monstrous for his preferences. In his interpretation of the classic fairytale, he identifies both with the Bull and the prostituted Beauty, who is subdued by a sexualisation that’s forced upon her.
Pons Guerra wouldn’t be the first gay male thespian to explore his own experience through the feminine – Tennessee Williams, author of A Streetcar Named Desire, claimed that his heroine Blanche DuBois was him in drag. And yet, when a woman in the audience, who couldn’t help but see Walker’s Beauty as a representative of her own sex, asked about what she truly wants, Pons Guerra admitted himself clueless as Freud. ‘I don’t know much about female sexuality,’ he said with a laugh.
While Beauty’s body has been scripted according to Pons Guerra’s narrative, or at a distance, the original fabulist, Madame de Villeneuve’s; in its passive, feeling state, it is open to as many interpretations as there are viewers. At the beginning of the performance, Beauty is supine, legs apart, in a pose my yoga teacher would call dragonfly. Superficially it’s a receptive stance, open to the gaze of the audience who are still arriving; however, her eyes are closed. She’s asleep; in denial, even as the men pulse about various parts of the body.
It’s easy to read Beauty’s initial sleep, her writhing around, awakening with an ambiguously gendered Bull as non-heteronormative sexual awakening. She’s repulsed by the marital straightjacket that awaits her in the Second Act. The bridal gown is wispy chiffon, but as it alights on her shoulders, it may as well be deadly nightshade.
There’s more to Pons Guerra’s interpretation than explorations of sexuality. As a child Pons Guerra was sent to bed on a diet of bedtime stories where the beasts had non-white features; perhaps those from the Spanish colonies in South America. To Pons Guerra’s richly storied mind, the alpha males are conquistadores and map makers, uncomfortable with ambiguity. A strident brass score highlights their sense of entitlement, gilds their violent struggles. Like a colonised subject, the Bull is an entity they can never fully understand, define or control.
Still, any sense of a linear narrative or morality in Pons Guerra’s work splinters into an erotic carnival of animal movement. It asks us as viewers to define the beautiful and the monstrous for ourselves and then, on a deeper level, to ask whether we have the right or the capacity to distinguish between the two.