A yogini in San Sebastián

crystal thumb

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.

carla room
Carla recharges by spending ample amounts of time in her room.

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.

Carla loves to paint in her spare time. Since moving to Donosti, she’s been experimenting with new colour combinations.


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.  






Relearning beauty, Latin-style

A discoball that’s sprung up under the boardwalk in the past week 

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. 

Habladores preparing to samba 

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.

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A little less conversation, a little more action…

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

altibajos: ups and downs




Yankee productivity and the Spanish lifestyle

Still life with cup and lipstick stain

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…

Go with the wind

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 do this and this and this, then that scary thing won’t happen, this brilliant 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.

Czech books, London display, Spanish mood

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. 


Bootcamp with a balcony

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.

When in Donosti, build like the Donostiarras do

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.  

When in Donosti, day drink like the Donostiarras do

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. 

When in Donosti, dance to the tune of the local graffiti – Maite zaitudalako souzen dut

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 .

This is one in a series of posts about my first seven months in San Sebastián/Donostia. For more on moving from London to San Sebastián, see A Change of Scale check out this earlier post on a similar theme, Archetype: The Lady and the Tramp. 


The Mermaid Prescription


mermaid tail sea.jpg

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.

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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. 


A change of scale

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.

Detail of a door, artist Naiara Palacios

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?

Whether you like it or not

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. 

It helps if your ex’s movements are as routine as Lola Flores’

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.

Between me and civilisation

Mind the (Ferrante) gap

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.

Setting the scene

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.

Blast from the past 

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.

This post takes a break from my regular San Sebastián-themed posts, but it reflects my experience of boarding tubes and trains and planes and buses in the past two weeks, always accompanied by ‘My Brilliant Friend.’  To experience the Elena Ferrante phenomenon for yourself, get your hands on the Neapolitan novels, or look out for the recent TV adaptation of the novel, by Italian director, Saverio Constanzo.



5 myths about moving

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:

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Snow White and her unsuspecting dwarf. Consent isn’t an issue when it comes to dressing your little brother for Carnaval.

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. 

Back in the old country I used to think that maraschino cherries were tacky….

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. 

A red theme and its variations

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 of Rule 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! 

Do they make her disfraz (costume) in my size?

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-pote were 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.

I really couldn’t tell if Belle’s prince came as a transformed Beast, or was just taking a break from his mask to eat…

 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? 



Pardon my English

My friend Cristina gets a dreamy look in her eyes when she talks about Luke. Luke is the voice of a podcast targeted at language learners, who want to learn RP (Received Pronunciation) English. Cristina thinks that Luke is a better authority on English than me, because the way I sometimes drop my ts makes my accent ‘a little bit Cockney’ and therefore less exemplary. Bristling from this latest brush with Basque directness,  I demand to hear Luke, half-hoping that he’ll sound like Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, so that I’ll be able to oppose him on grounds of all that is moral and hip.

But to my chagrin, the podcast has updated RP for the Richard-Curtis-watching contingent, because Luke sounds like a cross between Hugh Grant in Love Actually (bumbling posh) and Hugh Grant in About A Boy (cool, North London posh), even dropping a few ts himself, every now and then.*  Cristina is thrilled with Luke, because she understands him perfectly, even if she does wonder whether his accent exists in the real world. I can’t help teasing her that Luke’s speech is on the slow and deliberate side; that he’s maybe in the seventh month of recovery from a stroke.

Staying true to my brew

About five seconds later, I feel terrible about insulting Luke, when he’s only the innocent aide to my friend’s English learning.  But I have a complicated relationship with RP’s clipped tones and long vowels, with how it posits itself as the official accent of Britain and its former colonies, the white light to all other colours of the rainbow. Owing to its longstanding association with royalty and the political classes, RP is instantly authoritative and also, in my opinion, the best accent for fending off criticism or assault.  RP was the standard at my academic girls’ school, a place where having one Welsh grandparent – let alone two Greek parents! – was exotic. When I first heard it, I thought RP had an unflattering intonation that could make blithe young girls sound like cross old men.  And yet, after seven years in that institution, the inevitable happened and I began to sound, well, posh, as the various accents of my parents and carers got filtered out.

Over the years, while RP remained dominant, I saw that my accent could be like water, reflecting back the nuances of people who spoke differently. My rs would roll when I spoke with Europeans, whereas with Northerners, I could hear my vowels flattening. The voice in my head, though, would switch back to RP, not just in accent, but in its concise, sophisticated diction.

Any matching of child and donation box is purely coincidental

Since moving to San Sebastián four months ago, where the main languages are euskera and castellano,  my exposure to RP has dropped.  I hear English often, but it’s tilted through the Castilian phonetics of EFL (English as a Foreign Language) students, the Scouse of the Beatles puppets on the Boardwalk and the mellow drawl of Ashley from Alabama, who is sat with Cristina and me in this discussion of accents. Ashley, who has my favourite kind of US accent,  makes ‘twenty’ more like ‘twiiiinny’ and ‘going to’ more like ‘gunna’; she also prefers adjectives to adverbs, to ‘go slow’ instead of ‘going slowly’. When Ashley’s around, enunciation feels awkward and I can’t help drawing out my vowels and dropping a few consonants. Alas, on me, the result is less Dolly Parton than East End Cockney.

Meanwhile, thanks to my injured ankle, I’ve been hibernating with still another type of English, Hiberno  – which is etymologically appropriate, because the Latin words for cold weather retirement (hibernation) and Ireland (Hibernia), both derive from hibernus (winter).  Now that I’m living in a Catholic, maritime part of Europe, which is undergoing significant social and political change, Hiberno-English novels and podcasts feel more relevant than RP ones and they’re having an effect on how I experience language and speech.  Weeks after reading A Goat’s Song by Dermot Healy and  Milkman by Northern Irish writer, Anna Burns, I find myself thinking in circumlocutory, rhythmic repetitions, of small things as wee, the man in the shop as your man.  Also, after hearing it on several podcasts, shift, an ambiguous term that covers the territory between meeting and mating with someone eligible/ridey, makes me snigger in a way it didn’t a month ago, especially  outside of an Irish context. A New-Age American’s obsession with shifting bad habits, unwittingly makes me think back to an Irish podcaster’s dread of shifting an unidentified cousin at their underpopulated town’s disco. In both cases, something undesirable is being shifted, but with a different result.

Hiber-nation lit

But have these weeks of Hiberno-hibernation had an effect on the way I pronounce my rs? According to Kevin, an Irish English teacher who I caught bullying an EFL student about his inability to say the plural of scientist, my accent displays rogue symptoms of Irish rhoticity, meaning that I emphasise rather than swallow the letter r, especially at the end of words. Oh no, I’m probably imitating you, I told him, I’ve a tendency to do that.  Later, though, when I was reading some work aloud, I couldn’t help hearing my rhoticised rs; but whether they come from the past month’s Irish immersion or from being looked after by a Scottish nanny, as a ten-year-old, I can’t be certain.

In truth, when I’m told I have a Cockney lack of ts and an Irish abundance of rs, I feel a bit funny, as though I’ve lost part of my identity as an educated-sounding British person and the privileges that come with this.  I wonder how that waitress at Gerald’s Bar does it, the one who keeps her accent cut-glass, even after four years of being here.  It’s an accent she carries into Spanish,  one that makes her sound foreign, despite her perfect grammar. Knowing little about her, I  imagine that she received her pronunciation for life a long time ago, that the Queen’s way of speaking is deeply rooted in her. My own English, I’ve decided, is less received than receptive, continually opening to new sounds and expressions.

*Listening to these clips of Hugh Grant again, made me realise just how slowly he speaks.  I mean, it’s like he’s made for export.



Passing with Spanish

Tomato, salt, olive oil a la Donostiarra

What do speaking a foreign language and cooking have in common? Technique, triumph, embarrassment and a ton of substitutions, when you can’t come up with the desired ingredient or word. I’m in the Basque country, a part of the world famed for its inventive cooking  – the challenge being to combine as many flavours and textures as possible in a single mouthful. But, I find that people are just as inventive in the way they speak. Sentences can begin in euskera (Basque), end in castellano (official Spanish dialect) and be bolstered by a couple of words from other Spanish dialects in the middle.

A Handful of Regional Words:

The first language of the Basque country, is of course euskera, an ancient language without Indo-European roots, which means that it sounds nothing like the Spanish and French regional languages that surround it. For example, the basque word for breakfast is gosaria, whereas the Spanish is desayuno and the French, petit dejeuner. Even the name of the city sounds completely dissimilar, being Donostia in Basque and San Sebastián in Spanish. Basque is the official language of schools and local institutions and is therefore on the rise after the Franco years when it was repressed. Certainly Basque is no decorative appendage; amongst youths it’s often the language of gossip and graffiti and I wonder if you’d get mugged in it? But don’t let the cool kids fool you, grammatically complex, with wild regional variations, Basque is difficult to master.  Unless you’re going to enrol yourself in a language academy, you’ll be getting by on a few choice expressions, the kaixo (hello), agur, (goodbye) eskerrik asko (thank you) and the all important, on egin (bon appetit). This might seem a trifling effort, but making it gives you a regional passport. You have, as the graffiti reads, acknowledged that you are in Euskal Herria as opposed to Spain and while you could never pretend to be an insider, it’s important to be interested.

basque gr
‘I think because I love you’

Everyday Expressions:

I’m conscious that I’m passing with San Sebastián’s second official language: castellano. This language doesn’t have the happiest history in the region: it snuck in there with industrialisation in the 1800s and was imposed during Franco’s dictatorship between 1939 and 1975, when euskera was banned and driven underground. Still, despite the efforts made with primary school education in Basque, castellano is the  globalised language  preferred for connection with the rest of the country and hispanophone world.

The more exposed I am to Spanish, the more I see that there are numerous ways of communicating the same concept, the same word, even. It’s like deciding whether to cook with a red or yellow pepper. Or should that be a green? I’m the most indecisive when it comes to the letters c and z– whether  to pronounce them with my tongue between my teeth as Spanish people tend to (thhe) or in a sibilant hiss as Latin Americans do. In the company of older, more proper people, the kind that might call you cielo (heaven), the tongue goes between the teeth. In a freer, more playful mood, I convert c to s, because it’s the way of Shakira and Luis Fonsi.

Sala Equis, Madrid has a globalese feel

I’m not alone in stealing from the Latin Americans, who are prominent in the city both in person and culturally, through their music and throng of salsa academies. Lately, the Argentinian expression ¿y vos?, which literally means and you?, has become a breezier, dare I say, a flirtier replacement for the Spanish equivalent, ¿y tú?.  Spain may have conquered much of the Americas in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries out of a sense of cultural superiority,  but with time and distance, Spaniards have come to view Latin America with a mix of nostalgia and fantasy. It’s funny to me that people in Spain, imagine Latin America quite a lot like Britons picture Spain : a hot mess of violence, sensuality and men who dance when they’re sober.  It’s funny how this fantasy is continually deferred to another place, one that you probably couldn’t live in, but are comforted to know exists. What’s more, you can approach it linguistically.

This is my third post about life and language in Donostia/ San Sebastián. Check out my previous posts on moving to San Sebastián and the city off season. I’d love it if you’d like, share or comment.