Bella was in a mood that day. I’d struggled to lead her all lesson and we shouldn’t have insisted that she canter round the ring that third time at a broken pace, when she  wanted to stop and have her lunch. Still new to cantering, I was on her back, drunk on exhilaration, fear and love, so far beyond my comfort zone that I was past caring. When she tossed her head suddenly, I  lost my balance and already falling, tried to roll off her, but my foot was so far in the stirrup that it contorted. Bella stood docile while I was being rescued, her big mare eyes full of mock sympathy. She had gotten what she wanted, the lesson was over and she’d soon be munching through a pile of hay.

Un esguince, a sprain, is what everyone at the stables thought I had, when my ankle purpled and swelled. Un esguince, something that could pass in about a week.  I held onto the hope in the hospital waiting room as I chatted to a similarly afflicted patient and read the first sixty pages of my fat Irish novel, quite calmly, wondering how much more alcohol Dermot Healy is going to pour down Jack Ferris’ throat and expect me to believe he’s still alive.*

Oh the suspense…


Then, I was taken into a room and seen by Doctor Number One. He said he wanted to feel around my ankle,  before looking at the X-ray,  so as not to be influenced by sight alone. Doctor Number One was handsome and just so you know how shallow I am, his good looks and charm made me brave and smily. While he couldn’t see any fracture on the X-ray, the swelling was unusual for the hoped-for esguince, so he sought the advice of a traumatologist, aka, Handsome Doctor Number Two.

Handsome Doctor Number Two’s specialisation meant that he could spy out a fracture and a broken ligament in the X-ray, which were invisible to Handsome Doctor Number One. When this diagnosis meant a cast, crutches and an excruciating daily injection in the stomach to prevent blood clotting, I bawled, thinking that Doctor Number Two wasn’t so handsome after all, that I couldn’t speak medical Spanish and that I’d have to be in a cast and crutches for six weeks. I felt utterly helpless in that moment, knowing that I’d have to rely on an unfamiliar medical system and the kindness of  friends I’d made in three months, as opposed to a lifetime.

Wobbly, one leg on the crutch vantage

I have to admit, I was eased into the transition when my mum came to stay for a few days. When she left and life returned to normal,  I felt fragile going back fully into Spanish. It’s like my maternal and linguistic crutches were removed and now I’d have to rely on whatever resources I had gathered in the short time I’d been here. Luckily, I had enough knowledge of the city to know where I could hop to in small, breathless increments and my friends of three months were ready to help me in the form of car-rides, medical translations and company.

I feel that I’m convalescing in Spanish too. Whereas in London, people either mind their own business or try to cheer you up, here is different. Strangers in the street offer assistance and advice, some of it confusing. How, old man, am I meant to avoid planting my foot in front of my crutch and go forward at the same time? Then, there’s the gallantry without harassment – a hobbling woman turns your average tipo  (bloke)  into a caballero (gentleman).  And finally, there’s the pity. Which takes some getting used to.  No-one is trying to cheer me up, a bad thing has happened, so I’m meant to feel miserable and a little afraid. Povrecita; It hurts me to see you like this, the grocer next-door says to me, life is hard.  No, it’s temporary, I say defensively, it could have been far worse; No need to look at me like that – I’m smiling; I’m fucking Pollyanna

Rosé- coloured glasses

Truth be told, I fear pity because the open, despondent look that accompanies it feels like the transmission of a curse. It’s like someone recognising that your misfortune is real, which to my emotional mind, makes it feel heavier and less transient than it is. But maybe, as part of my Spanish convalescence, I can learn to see pity differently, as a form of compassion, a common recognition that we’re all human and vulnerable.

*I always compare literary bodies to my own. While I love Jack and can understand that he drinks booze like water to cope, it’s hard to imagine this state in my own body, where the mere smell of wine makes me fall off a bar stool.

This is the fourth of my posts on moving to Donostia/San Sebastián. You can check out my last post about navigating the city’s linguistic scene here. Feel free to like or share. 


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.