I shall never forget the day I travelled to Béjar, the village where I was to spend six months doing work experience for my university course. I landed in Madrid and lugged suitcases and bags that contained half the contents of my bedroom at home in England, including a tape player, out of Barajas Airport and into a taxi. Following instructions scribbled on a piece of paper from a university colleague who had just finished her six-month stint in the place I was going to, I managed to get the Spanish taxi driver to understand that I needed to go to a particular bus station in another part of Madrid.
The only way to describe the taxi ride is “hair-raising”. The driver went at a terrifyingly fast speed along the M40, the motorway circling the capital, dodging in between the others cars. There were no seat belts in the back and seat belts in the front seemed to simply be hanging ornaments to decorate your car. I was literally thrown from one side to the other and had to grip the seat in front of me as well as the hand rail/coat hook over the rear windows. Each time the driver overtook, which was far too often, he would zoom up behind the car in front until he was a distance of some five inches from it and then suddenly swerve out and overtake it. All the while, he chatted to me − I have no idea about what, my Spanish was non-existent at the time − gesticulating madly with his right hand so that all the swerving was done one-handedly. I tried to pretend I understood, doing the fifty/fifty method: nod your head, smile and say: ”Sí”, and if they look dumbfounded or horrified at your reply, quickly shake your head, look sympathetic and say: “No.” (Can also be done vice-versa. This method held me in good stead for quite a few years.) The only problem was that I could barely concentrate on the Spanish language, such was my fear that that day was to be the last day of my life, and was unable to take my eyes off the road and all the number plates that kept looming up in front of me.
Going on what I was charged numerous times after (yes, I repeated that delightful experience!) and considering it was such a quick journey, the man totally overcharged me − easy to do when the customer doesn’t understand the lingo and is not accustomed to pesetas − attempted to chat me up and get me to go to a bar with him for a drink and goodness knows what else. It was probably a blessing that I didn’t understand all of it.
I finally escaped, shaken up, legs trembling, and managed to drag all my luggage up the steep steps (no ramps to be seen) into the bus station, which was thick with cigarette smoke and full of Spanish men lolling about, staring at me while I struggled first to buy a bus ticket and then go down the stairs to the lower level where the buses were, with about nine pieces of luggage. Not one person offered to help. This would be the same later, with babies, buggies and suitcases.
I was hot, red and very stressed by this stage and despite having asked for instructions on where to find my bus, I had no idea at all where I should go. I did find out that there was only one bus going to Béjar that day – at four o’ clock, so if I missed it…I dreaded the thought of sleeping rough in that bus station, my radio cassette for a pillow, lying in a cloud of thick Ducados cigarette smoke and being observed by swarthy Spaniards as I slept.
I walked round and round that bus station, dragging all my luggage with me, as heavy as two dead bodies, until I was perspiring and absolutely exhausted, as well as totally stressed because it was now three fifty-nine in the afternoon.
I stopped and asked the nearest person if he knew where I could find the bus to Béjar. He removed his cigarette from his mouth and pointed. Following his finger, I saw a large coach over the other side of the station, making its way towards the exit. “Oh nooo!”, I cried out loud, very close to tears, and must have looked desperate because somehow the coach stopped, after a couple of shouts and loud whistles. I stuttered “Gracias,” to no one in particular and dragged all my things the hundred metres or more to where the bus and all its passengers were waiting for me. I saw about thirty faces all looking out of the window, following my slow progress as I struggled − still without help − towards the bus. I have to admit I’d had enough and started to sob. The boot of the coach was opened and a man finally took my luggage from me so I was left with my handbag and my trusty cassette player to take on board. I continued to sob quietly as I showed my bus ticket to the driver and then looked for a free seat. Of course, the only one was right at the back of the bus, so I made my way to the back, along the narrow aisle, accidentally banging into a couple of people, while they all sat silently, staring coldly at this foreigner who was making them late.
Maybe some of them did feel sorry for me, but since they all had such stony expressions on their faces, I shall never know if they did. The relief − and embarrassment − I felt was enormous and I was glad I was able to sit right at the back, away from curious glances and withering looks from other passengers. When the bus stopped half way at Ávila bus station, we were allowed ten minutes to have refreshment and go to the toilet. I had to go, but I have to say I have never relieved myself so quickly in my life, terrified that when I got back, the bus would have left without me.
On arriving in Béjar in the evening, after a three-hour bumpy bus ride through a beautiful expanse of countryside splattered with huge rocks and boulders, olive-green oak trees and ancient, abandoned stone houses, through valleys and up and down rolling hills and mountains, my luggage and I were met by the owner and director of the English academy where I would, somewhat nervously, begin my teaching career. Knowing she had been teaching English in her academy for several years, I felt relieved that I would be able to talk in English to her. However, I soon discovered that she couldn’t actually converse whatsoever in my language, and she looked at me helplessly and shrugged.
“En français?” she asked, somewhat sheepishly, while I wondered briefly about her class content when she taught. Interesting, to say the least.