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.
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.
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.
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.
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 .
Get into the sea, breathe in the salty humidity, stick your head under, blow bubbles. Bring up the gloop and spit. No matter that it’s April in Northern Spain. This is Doctora Aczuarte’s prescription for a cough, sore throat and wavery voice.
Doctora Aczuarte’s, is my second water cure in this town: on removing my cast, I was told to undertake baños de contraste and swirl my healing ankle for five minutes in hot water, before plunging it in cold. The idea was that the water’s resistance, would reintroduce mobility to my cast-stiffened ankle. It was a notion foreign to the Anglophone internet, but appropriate for this Belle Époque seaside town, which has traded in the medicinal properties of water, since the nineteenth century, when aristocrats and royals headed here for their health, wearing bathing suits so hefty, it’s a surprise they didn’t drown. You can see a remnant of this aquatic health culture today, at La Perla thalassotherapy centre, where bathers immerse themselves in salt water pools, wearing turquoise cloth swimming caps and severe expressions. Sometimes seaweed or sponge enters the water, but no-one acts like it’s anything extraordinary. The contrast of voluptuous water and convent-like sobriety gives proceedings a ritualistic, medicinal air. A place for jumping around in a jacuzzi, La Perla ain’t.
In literature, water is often used to tame and discipline women of unruly body and mind. Take for example, The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh, where three sisters are forced to perform torturous underwater activities in a pool, in order to be able to withstand an invasion of their island, while Lila in Elena Ferrante’s The Story of A New Name, is prescribed swimming by her gynaecologist, who says that she needs to get stronger in order to conceive. I’m to resume my old hobby, winter swimming to get rid of my cough, a surreal, embarrassing reflex that makes me forget the previous moment, that important thing that I, or someone else was saying. Estoy tosiendo (I’m coughing), I have to tell pharmacists, doctors and everyone I meet – all the while blushing, trying not to think about what English word toser sounds like. I mean, coughing is Anglo Saxon and guttural, almost onomatopoeic, but tosiendo, is more sibilant, like you’re renegotiating your liquids.
So, Playa Ondaretta, the small beach off the famous La Concha, is my destination for health. I approach the water, first from the rocks, where I can see the shape and size of the waves objectively, then the rippled sand, finally the place where the tide meets my toes. The afternoon of my first swim is bright and beamy, with the odd drip of rain that pings off my shoulder blade. Unlike La Concha, which has extensive shallows, Ondaretta will gulp you whole. As the water-level reaches my belly button, I retrieve my hair, which is thick as a muscle and liable to soaking up the entire Cantabrian. On a count of three, I’m in. Everything moves quickly in water this cold. Breaststroke towards Santa Clara island and on my back, to the castlely-looking Palacio Miramar. Flip over again, stick my face in the water and blow bubbles. There’s coughing resistance, a feeling that I can’t breathe and then, at last, air.
This is just one of a series of posts about moving to San Sebastián from London. Head to my blog home page to check out my other posts and I’d love it if you would like, comment or share.
It was Ferrante’s rusted safety pin that did it – the one that could give you tetanus if it pierced your skin while you played with it. The death-dealing prick at the beginning of My Brilliant Friend, is a Sleeping Beauty curse and the same one my grandmother feared. When Elena Greco, Ferrante’s narrator, says that she grew up in a time when children died, lost eyes and limbs – not to mention teeth – it’s a familiar story, even if it’s mine by inheritance, rather than by firsthand experience. Elena’s poor, tight-knit community in Postwar Naples, is one where you live in intimacy and suspicion of your neighbours – they might do you a favour, but they can also ruin you. We grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us, Ferrante writes. No-one in my extended Greek Cypriot family spoke these exact words, but I heard enough iterations of this sentiment to know that it was true.
My cousin, who I saw on a recent trip to London, testifies that Ferrante’s world of fearful convictions existed for our mothers and grandmothers. They’d witnessed not only the fragility of the human body in its poor, undernourished state, but colonial oppression and war. Even when life around them changed, they’d not quite felt the horrors pass, or maybe they saw them take on different forms. As we grew up, the rusted safety pin became a heroin needle, that we’d somehow be tricked into using. (Our grandmother could never believe us capable of direct misdemeanour) These days, my cousin laughs at their fears, though she wishes that they’d allowed her to discover life for herself, rather than telling her what to expect of the world.
My grandmother’s world, her ways, come back to me in flashes. Reading Ferrante, who was my work assignment and constant companion the two weeks I was in London, felt like haunting my ancestors’ minds. Though I grew up with the tall buildings and city grit, the hum of the tubes, I can’t help but feel that Ferrante’s Naples taps into a more essential part of my past. Elena’s feelings about the island of Ischia, could be mine on the Cyprus of my grandmothers: The island faded, lost itself in some secret corner of my head. As the years pass and I grow more distant from my now late grandmothers’ memory, I worry that I have lost their stories; but all it takes to refind them is the trigger of another, complementary narrative.
I’m far from the only person to stumble upon their own story in books. I recently read a New Yorker interview with young Irish writer, Sally Rooney, who says I feel extraordinarily connected to (Henry James‘) novels, like my whole life is there. And I still have so many of them left to read! Makes me feel very lucky. Rooney’s comment, in its allusion to novels, both read and unread, references the past and telescopes into the future. I wonder what she means by finding a whole life in the complex, psychologically acute American writer. Does she mean the actual incidents of her life, or rather, her mental and emotional experiences? Does she expect to find more and more of herself in the James novels she is yet to read? And would it matter what order she’d read them in – if The Portrait of a Lady, a young woman’s story, was left for her to discover at 52 and she’d managed to get to The Ambassadors, a more mature novel, at 17?
For me, Ferrante seems to document a whole life before I existed. The time before their birth is an important concept to Ferrante’s heroines Lila and Elena. The before is an invisible mystery and yet underpins the structures and expectations of their neighbourhood. Lila and Elena’s own tale fills the gaps in my before, helping me to understand and perhaps imagine, things about my family that were never articulated. I am living out my cousin’s wish, discovering and creating impressions, instead of reading obediently.