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.
My balcony has filled up with sand. Barely three arm-spans long and one arm-span wide, it’s a space I’d taken for granted, using it only to dust the sand off towels, and take a gasp of air when working up to deadlines. But today, on the balmy fifth day of quarantine, I’m out here, looking at the sea, which continues, in spite of everything.
Five days into confinement, I have never felt so powerless as a human being, and fancy trading in my body for a more avian form. The seagulls, pigeons, and chubby little brown birds, who hop all about this city, and whose name I never bothered to learn, are free to go, gather and take zig-zagging paths, unquestioned. They’re also (as far as I know) completely immune to coronavirus. Their smugness is evident in song that is ever chirpier and shriller: it’s spring, the days are longer, and this time, there are far fewer humans to disrupt the party.
I am an animal too, of the corralled variety. For the first time on my balcony, I’m properly paying attention to the beings living opposite: the man with binoculars facing the ocean, the gym-addicted smoker who wears superhero pyjamas, the older woman in her pink bathrobe, the girl decking out the table-cloth, making the pigeons scatter. We’re all guided by instinct out to the sun, to glance warily at each other, because after all, we’re strangers ( and this is the Basque country, not Andalusía). Every night at 8pm, we clap and cheer for the health workers, and are united by something, that as of a week ago, affects us all. In some ways, we’re forced to copy the birds, who never had any illusion of being in control, and pardon the cliché, flock together. It’s by remembering the others in my species – those who are strange to me, as well as familiar, that I can be accepting of the current restrictions on my freedom, a policeman bringing me back in line; when I take that extraneous step on my outing to the grocery store.
Right now, it’s time to be a roosting bird, and clean the sand off my balcony, which nowadays isn’t just a spot of airy relief, but an extension of my nest.
This is my second post about being quarantined in San Sebastián. As this situation will continue indefinitely, it likely won’t be my last
The first morning, I wake up to the sound of the rain. It’s louder than any human imprint, be it footsteps or motors. The birds are still singing, because talkers will always talk. I’m grateful for their company: it makes the beginning of quarantine less apocalyptic.
When I pull up the blinds, and look out over the balcony, there are amply-spaced figures, holding black umbrellas, on one of a handful of designated missions: work, acquisition of food or medicine, caring for the vulnerable, or taking out the bins. I’ve been saving my own food trail for about 4.30pm, so that it’s not over too quickly, so I don’t run into the panic buyers, because I like the buttery texture of the light. It’s weird to have to choose between one time of day and another. I imagine that my favourite hour – sunset-into-twilight – will have to be sacrificed, for the sake of getting enough Vitamin D, especially as the days get longer, and the 8 pm supermarket curfew takes place in broad daylight. Will it come to that? Most people predict that the current regime will last more than the anticipated two weeks – that it could go for months, even. My morning beauty routine doesn’t account for any of these changes: I’m still putting on sunscreen first thing, even though I’m not sure I have to.
Though I look forward to my outings, and make sure I buy in comically small amounts, so that I’ll have an excuse to go again tomorrow, I don’t exactly enjoy them. They are not meant to be fun, anyway. For one thing, the police have sectioned off not only the beaches, but any part of the promenade that’s purely recreational and couldn’t double up as a route to a primary convenience. Still, yesterday when I was walking on one of those double-purpose roads, there was a strong smell of weed – and given that all I could see in front of me was a police car, the smoker must have been in hiding.
But the most striking thing, in this city of couples and cuadrillas (gangs of 5+), is the solitude of those who walk the streets. Only one person is allowed to walk the dog; enter a shop at a time, and once inside, people must be at least a metre apart. Things which I took for granted, only as long ago as Friday – such as walking down the street, hand in hand with my boyfriend – would now be viewed as germy and suspicious. It’s surreal; at this stage, I’m too overwhelmed by the novelty of it all, to be despairing.
At home, in the nine waking hours before my outing, and the six after, I have no shortage of things to do. There’s the arm-length document of projects, while I wait for my next piece of work to come in, the Spanish grammar I need to consolidate, the limbering stretching sessions I force on myself, every few hours, and my flat, which being white and small, always makes cleaning for me. Also, a friend and my dad, want to add another item to my list: that I figure out how to use my mobile to get internet on my laptop, so I don’t have to do everything on this tiny phone. I’ve told them I will, when I can’t get away with it any more – as if I need more homework! As with before quarantine, I fail to check off all the items on my daily to-do-list, and feel the same anxiety about my lack of productivity/super-humanness. Then I berate myself for focusing on these tiny, selfish things; remind myself that they’re nothing in the face of this global health epidemic, the people suffocating to death. I know that in the grand scheme of things, it wouldn’t matter if I stayed in bed for a while, watching self-isolation memes. It’s just that I can’t allow myself to – in a situation which is completely out of my control, my mind latches onto the things it can shape and invent. It insists on shaping and inventing.
This is the first in a series of posts about being quarantined in the beautiful city of San Sebastián! I did have a life before this, as my previous posts will testify. Incase you’re interested, the above pic is from a Starbucks mural, at a time when I had free movement.
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.
Una tarde lluviosa encontré mi amiga, Carla en un bar en la Plaza de la Constitución. En todas partes la gente estaba bebiendo y fumado, pero nosotras estuvimos allí para algo mas raro, hablar de yoga. Carla es una instructora de yoga de la Ciudad de México. Hice su formación en San Cristóbal de las Casas en Octubre 2018 y se mudo a Donosti en Enero 2019. Yo conocí Carla a Pintxopote en Abril, y pienso que es una de las personas las mas encantadoras y inspiradoras en la ciudad.
¿Carla, como descubriste yoga?
Mi mamá era yogini. Y empecé mi practica copiar sus posturas que me parecieron muy naturales. También me enseño sobre el descanso y la alimentación. Me encantó!
Después de la universidad viví un tiempo difícil y probe muchas terapias distintas. Con el psychoanalysis que es una terapia de palabra, me perdí en mis historias, pero con yoga que es un reconocimiento del cuerpo y mente, encontré un espacio para dejar que el ser se manifieste.
¿Y en tu opinión que somos?
En el nivel esencial, somos todos parte de lo divino. Nuestro cuerpo es un templo y tenemos que respetar este espacio para actualizar lo divino en nosotros mismos.
Donosti tiene una cultura muy fuerte de gastronomía y esta llena de bares. Mucha gente trasnocha y se despierta tarde, algunas veces con resaca. ¿Te parece que sea un buen lugar para practicar un estilo de vida yoga?
Si quisieras alcanzar a una iluminación completa tendrías que vivir fuera de la ciudad y seguir una rutina diaria muy estricta. Yo no querría vivir una vida muy ascética, y eliminar cosas. Soy yogini y otras cosas también en el mismo tiempo, y pienso que Donosti es un buen lugar para practicar yoga, porque tienes la naturaleza en la ciudad. Una parte muy importante de yoga es la respiración, y aquí puedes respirar el aire poco contaminado. También hay muchos productos frescos en Donosti, ye por eso, es posible alimentarte bien.
Cuéntame de la primera vez que estuviste en Donosti.
Hace 8 años que visité Donosti con algunas amigas de México. Me enamoré con la ciudad, con su belleza perfecta. Unas amigas se aburrieron y quisieron ir a Pamplona. Y yo pensé que si estas personas no pudieran ver la belleza de ese sitio, tendría que encontrar nuevo circulo!
Cuéntame un poco sobre tu trabajo aquí en Donosti.
Estoy trabajando en dos ciudades muy distintas en la costa Vasca. La primera es Irun, una ciudad árida cerca de la frontera. Irun hay una población muy diversa con muchos inmigrantes. Allí la gente, a veces, no puede ir a yoga por que les faltan recursos económicos.
Sin embargo, Donosti es una ciudad llena de abundancia. Enseño en el Centro Sherab en la calle Aguirre Miramon. Es un estudio muy cálido y tranquilo y muchos estudiantes se apuntan a las clases.
Me dijiste antes que no viajabas ligero. ¿Que llevaste contigo cuando te mudaste a Donosti?
Me llevo mis libros de filosofía y historia del arte, y también, una memoria con fotos de mi vida en México. Es importante para mi de conocer que puedo volver a la Carla de antes, si lo quiero. Hasta ahora, no le he usado, pero me da tranquilidad que puedo hacer lo.
¿Que planes tienes para el futuro?
En un mes me voy a Bélgica con mi novio, que estudiara un Masters. Allí intento enseñar clases, pero también encontraré otro trabajo para tener mas recursos económicos y vivir bien.
I meet my friend Carla on a rainy Thursday evening in a cafe on Plaza de la Constitución, the closest thing to European-style square in San Sebastián. Though we both have colds we keep our plastic macs on and sit in the sheltered terrace with everyone else. People around us are drinking and smoking and at 9:15, the night is so young it could be a foetus. On Friday the sun will rise late, as it does in this part of the world and those with hangovers even later.
Carla and I have come to discuss a topic that seems a million miles from where we are: yoga. Carla is a yoga-instructor from Mexico City and one of the most fascinating and insightful people I have met in San Sebastián. As she sips her tinto de verano, a mix of red wine and soda water, she tells me that she doesn’t see this party-loving seaside town as an unlikely place for yoga. First of all, she’s not of the school of yoga that prescribes a restrictive lifestyle and has accepted that while some yogis get up to meditate at 4:30 am, here in Spain it is fine to begin her morning routine of tea, yoga and breakfast at the more civilised hour of 8:30 am. Moreover, the key element of yoga is respiration and here, in San Sebastián, she can breathe in clean air and enjoy the experience of nature in the city.
The first time Carla visited San Sebastián was eight years ago, on a European tour with some friends from home. She said that she was enraptured by the city’s perfect beauty and even had the sensation that she was on tierra santa, or holy land. When some of her friends got bored and wanted to move on to flashy bull-fighting hub, Pamplona, she seriously considered changing her social circle; if they couldn’t appreciate the beauty of this place, what on earth could she have in common with them? Being someone who is anxious every time I leave San Sebastián, just in case something happens to prevent me from coming back, I can relate to Carla’s extreme sense of connection with the place. And we’re not the only two people, who without having a drop of Basque blood, feel this way; it’s like the city bewitches certain travellers and makes them want to stay.
Carla got the chance for a longer spell in San Sebastián in January, when she secured a teaching placement in two studios along the Cantabrian coast. One studio is in Irun, an arid town on the border with France, which has a strong immigrant population. There, the space is modern and clean-looking and though the classes are adequately attended, the locals’ main obstacle in coming to yoga, is economic. In San Sebastián, on the other hand, she teaches at the Centro Sherab, a cosy, richly coloured space, complete with Buddhas and wallhangings. The room strikes her as oddly wintry for Donosti’s beachy climate, but she says it feels very secure and protected from the noise of the city.
Carla came to yoga very young, as a little girl in Mexico City, who followed in her yogini mother’s footsteps. Doing the poses felt natural to her and yoga became a staple that she could rely on, when later in life, she hit upon troubled times. Whereas she found that talking therapies such as psychoanalysis caused her to regurgitate the same stories, a yoga practice, which Carla sees as the ultimate union of body and mind, held space for her true being to manifest.
And what is our true being? I ask her.
We are all part of the divine and our body is a temple that acts as host, she replies.
Having felt the benefits of yoga for herself, Carla decided to become an instructor. In October 2018, she trained in San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico, where she gained a more complete understanding of yoga and met masters whose teaching guided her when she set up in San Sebastián three months later. In addition to her acquired wisdom, Carla brought several prized possessions with her, including an album of memories. In its pages, are photographs of her family and of Carla when she was small. She tells me that it’s important to her to have the possibility of connecting both with people from her life in Mexico and ‘la Carla de antes’ (old Carla). However, nearly six months into her stay, Carla has not felt the need to open the memoria. Perhaps that’s because she feels so grounded here.
When I took a class with Carla, I found the practice a nourishing slow-flow vinyasa ( a style of yoga that involves the rhythmic transition between poses). Holding the poses for longer than I was used to, was both physically and mentally challenging, but I left the class transformed – both energised and more relaxed. As a friend, I know Carla as a warm and open person and while this comes across in her teaching, as she adjusts students’ alignment and practices the poses alongside them, you also sense that there is a part of her that is sealed off from the class and in communication with the divine. She tells me that it’s important to have boundaries with students, so that the relationship between her and them does not become an overly egotistical or even sexually charged one. She is there to guide students to access the divinity within them, rather than be a pinnacle for their desires.
Sadly, Carla won’t be in Donosti for long. Her next stop will be Belgium, where she’ll accompany her longterm boyfriend who is doing a Master’s there. Carla intends to learn French and teach some classes, but she’ll also take up other work to ensure she has enough to live well on. She says that it’s important for her to have recursos (resources) as well as her dream job.
This post forms part of a series about my first year in San Sebastián. I fancied a change from writing about myself the whole time 😛 Feel free to like, comment or share! Click here for the Spanish version of this post and here for a wildcard I picked out at random.
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
Catholics have more parties and are better at them. You realise that Luther, Calvin, Henry VIII and other architects of the Reformation, have a lot to answer for in demoting the Saints and depriving Protestant nations of occasion cakes in bakery windows, four-day fiestas and novelty styles of getting tipsy in the evening. Then there are the Spanish national holidays – which are days of protest for conscientious Basque separatists and a break for everyone else; the regional city ferias which are full-on singing, dancing costumed parades. And to crown it, impromptu days of disruption – protests, marches, strikes, the procession of floats, banners and loudspeakers through blockaded streets. Even on a regular day, the light’s stretching out to nine thirty already, the evening won’t begin until eleven and finish before two, if not five. Chicos, I’ve been told that I live in the most reserved part of Spain…
And in all of this, I’m trying to work freelance as a writer and complete a book project. I have to find peace, focus and enough hours, when the current seems to be going another way. My writing, an eccentric, solitary buoy, when my surroundings are screaming at me to be in the moment, to conform. Thou shalt flamenco in the fish aisles at Gastropote on Thursday and fiesta on a Friday night, because your housemates are going to make it impossible for you not to. And even if you had the idea of taking your laptop out to the furthermost rock, it’s a flimsy intention in the face of this new tribal part that’s grown in you, calling you to do what everyone else is.
Control over one’s life, one’s time, is one of the great Anglo-American myths. Work hard, set goals and you’ll get there. And in Britain and America, at least, society conspires to help you: work and play are scheduled and everyone seems to be aiming towards something that is not yet here. It feels okay to not go out on Friday, because you’re working and know that others, behind their walls are doing the same. Having been nurtured in this future-orientated environment, I’m comfortable, if not happy in it. Making lists, crossing items off, aiming and reaching the goal or not. Feeling devastated when I miss and when I achieve, it’s straight onto the next.
Control is really fear in disguise. If I dothisandthisandthis, then that scary thing won’t happen,thisbrilliant thing just might. Here in Spain, the feeling of less control, is double-edged. It can make me panic that I’ll never get anything done, due to the lack of uninterrupted time or cultural know-how. There are also the added responsibilities I’ve taken on, to feel at home here – like learning grammatical Spanish, dancing on my heels and to a beat, rather than on my toes and in my head. All these ‘extracurriculars’ are less about achievement than presence. The art of showing up and being in my body, is something I’ve never mastered, mainly because I’ve been busy hiding behind work and ideas. Here, in the land of the ever-present, I’ve learned that ideas don’t count for anything, if they don’t have a bearing on this moment – or – the time it takes to cook and serve up a meal.
But knowing I have less control of how the days will turn out, how people will react, in a weird way, takes the pressure off. I’m seeing all the elements, besides me, that lead to an outcome and am learning to let myself off the hook. I can relax, aim from a loving place, through encouragement, rather than criticism. And celebrate every ten thousand words written, every passage edited to today’s idea of perfection. I set goals for the week, rather than the day. A week is long and the quiet spaces appear naturally, where you didn’t expect them.
Because to impose an Anglo-American style of control on life here, defeats the point of being here. Because in every single one of these diversions, are things to I have to learn – how not just to think and write, but to connect and be material.
This is one in a series of posts on my first seven months in San Sebastián. If you’ve not read it, have a look at my previous post: Bootcamp with a balcony. Thanks to everyone for all the support I’ve received so far and if you liked this post, feel free to like, share or comment.
San Sebastián is technically a city – it has a cathedral, its own local government and a self-sustaining economy. But in terms of scale, it is more like a small town, having neither the large distances, nor the anonymity of London, my previous city.
Human beings and even dogs, who accompany their owners day and night, are distinct figures here. As you walk about the city, you’ll see a person once, notice them the second time and by the third, their face and habits, will become clear in your mind. As a result, the streets are filled with characters, rather than an animate blur. Things and people enter your consciousness in the singular – the jazz club of Donosti; the other Greek girl in Donosti; the Mick Jagger of Donosti. Logically, you know that there’s likely to be more than one other Greek girl in town, but when two different people have mentioned the same girl to you, she seems like the only one you could speak your mother tongue with. Similarly, there could be 19, 119, even 1119 guys in San Sebastián with a Jaggerish way of getting through women, but the place is small enough to give the one you know a reputation. The same epithet wouldn’t work in London, not least because the real Mick Jagger lives there.
Did I mention that you’re always meeting people you know here? It’s not like London, where your friends are far and you’re losing people as soon as you find them. When you’re new in town, the frequency of spontaneous meetings makes it easier to build on connections. Plans change as a result of these meetings: let’s do something now, or in an hour? But planning for next week? Forget it. Who knows what everyone will be in the mood for so far into the future?
But there are downsides to Donosti’s human scale, like passing the local busybody or the guerrilla grammar corrector (she exists!) when you’re in a rush or just not feeling up to it. For these occasions, it helps to master the travelling Kaixo (hello). I’ve been told that a skateboard helps with this, but if you don’t have one, you can adopt the posture of a skateboarder: snap your head around long enough to deliver the greeting, but keep your feet angled forward and most importantly, moving, to signal that you are not stopping to chat.
Donosti’s not a great place to make enemies. It’s not like in London, where once you cut ties with the arsehole, they get sucked into another orbit and there’s a good chance you won’t see them until three years later, when you’ve both forgotten. No – here you should expect to bump into that person at any time, including the worst time. Be prepared to meet that guy who you blocked, to look him in the face and tell him that you don’t want to receive his desperate messages anymore. And your ex? They’re not just a painful figment in your head, but a three-dimensional being, who passes through the same few streets as you, moves on right before your eyes. Still, as in all cities, people here go out of their way to lower the probability of meeting their ex; they stop going to certain parts of town, sometimes depriving themselves of the only X/Y/Z in Donosti. One man knew that his ex’s movements were limited to the road between home and work. By avoiding that street, he managed to turn the city into a place that didn’t include her. When an ex’s routine is less predictable, though, you have to rely on the travelling Kaixo – see above.
London may be a fashion capital, but there’s less pressure to look good when you’re not constantly running into people you know, or even people who recognise you as a distinct character. As you are seen, so are you judged – this is especially true in towns where people actually see each other. I wonder if this is why pharmacy shelves are loaded down with expensive hair products and everyone looks presentable most of the time, even on occasions where you wouldn’t think it was necessary. I’ve always seen beaches as carefree, let-loose places – the wind will do what it likes with your hair, so why bother styling it anyway? But walking on La Concha boulevard on a Sunday, is a singularly old-fashioned experience – congregations of black, Basque berets, fur coats and glaring shades of lipstick come your way. It’s the kind of scene I’d only previously witnessed in early twentieth-century fashion plates; an attitude that you make yourself beautiful for the Belle Époque surroundings and the people who have to look at you.
After 6 months in San Sebastián, my own sense of scale has changed. Being able to walk everywhere and seeing people I know in the streets, has become a habit. Tomorrow I’m moving to a house in Antiguo, a place I think of as the Monaco of Donosti, for its nearby mountain, wildish beach and grand, witchy buildings. The distance from the centre is about that between Big Ben and London Bridge; in other words, walkable for a relatively fit person. But my feeling is that I’m going very far.