I was to share an incredibly shabby, old 1950’s flat with two young Spaniards, a girl from Salamanca, Paquita, who became a good friend of mine, and a lad from Galicia, Leo. Neither spoke any English, apart from “What is your name?”, “people” and “table”, so it was up to me to learn Spanish extremely quickly if we were to live together in that pokey flat for six months.
I also had to learn quickly about their customs and differences in daily life. Soon after arriving, I decided to help out by taking the rubbish out to the main wheelie bin in the street, thinking my flat mates would be pleased. They were studying engineering at the University of Salamanca, but went to the faculty in Béjar. On arriving home, Paquita saw me taking out the rubbish and threw her hands up in horror, her face a picture.
“What are you doing? You can’t take the rubbish out at this time of day! You have to do it after seven o’ clock in the evening!” she shouted at me. I looked blankly at her.
“Because when the weather gets hot, the rubbish will rot and smell if it’s out there all day! Ay, madre mía! Estos ingleses!”
Well, it wasn’t obvious to me. We don’t have that problem in England with the heat.
Another day, as they were leaving the flat to go to their classes, Paquita handed me a large orange canister and told me to sort it out. If I hadn’t understood the word “gas”, it could have been a strange little rocket to fly Tom and Jerry up to the moon. As it was, I didn’t have the slightest idea what to do with it, so was still pondering over it when she came back from her class an hour and a half later. Good job she only had one class, really. It turned out you had to ring the gas man (Me? Ring? And say what? “Hola. Qué? Sorry, I don’t understand but nice talking to you anyway,”) and he would come and take away Tom and Jerry’s empty rocket and give me a nice, new, full one instead so they would maybe reach planet Jupiter on their next trip. It was the look on Paquita’s face that annoyed me more than anything, that “you English, you’re a strange lot, you don’t even know how to get a gas canister filled” sort of look, even though I’d only been to Spain twice before, to the Costa Brava when I was five and again to the Costa Brava (being a true Brit) with a boyfriend when I was eighteen and to a load of how-much-Sangría-can-you-drink-without-pewking-parties, and the beach, where they certainly don’t teach you how to get an orange gas canister filled or what time to take the rubbish out.
While Paquita was very studious and spent a lot of time studying in her bedroom − when she wasn’t out in bars getting gloriously drunk on the enormous amounts of alcohol they serve you in this country at a very small cost − she would surface from her room from time to time, especially to laugh when Leo was playing one of his little “tricks” on me.
A couple of them involved shutting me in my bedroom by jamming the door shut with a broom and throwing a bucket of cold water over me when I had just got into bed at nine o’ clock in the morning and was desperate to sleep after being out partying all night. All my sheets and seven blankets that were on the bed ended up soaked. It was still winter and there was no central heating in the flat and it was like living in an igloo, so I felt furious while Leo stood and laughed at me.
Another time, he got me to drink a glass of what he insisted was special holy water from a famous fountain in Galicia. I strongly suspected it was some form of alcohol and told him no way was I drinking it. This went on for a quarter of an hour, with him insisting that it was indeed holy water, that Spaniards from all parts of Spain went to that fountain to drink this water with its special properties, and was I accusing him of being a liar? So, I agreed to drink it seeing as he was getting rather irate. Once he saw that I was going to give in, he started saying that I had to drink it down in one go, otherwise its properties wouldn’t take effect. Since I had an angry Galician in front of me, I gulped it down to get it over with. It burnt my throat, it was so strong, and almost immediately I felt a warm glow spreading over my face. Leo was already crowing in delight and rubbing his hands together in glee at the outcome of his dastardly deed of having tricked me into drinking a full glass of “aguardiente”, a liquor containing between forty and sixty per cent alcohol. I felt quite drunk and was red in the face for the rest of the evening, and had to put up with several days of mockery for being such an idiot.
There were more of these little jokes at my expense and more than once he went too far, causing a bad atmosphere in the small flat. Once, after drinking all night, he tried to climb a huge, iron gate, fell and broke his ankle. It was in plaster for a few weeks and, amazingly, he expected me to cook all his meals for him, clean up after him and fetch his crutches for him. If I did anything wrong, he would explode into a torrent of expletives with his sing-song Galician accent and wave his arms about in the air. For example, little did I know that he only fried his chips in one particular brand of olive oil. So, after I went out and bought a cheaper brand and poured it into the half-empty deep fat fryer and fried his chips for him (he barely ate anything else), he tested one and his face turned into an angry grimace.
“What oil did you use? This isn’t the right oil! It tastes different! What have you done? You’ve mixed that cheap oil into my expensive oil, por Dios! What were you thinking of? Blah, blah, blah…” Needless to say, I never cooked him any more chips and we didn’t speak to each other for a few days after that.
The memories I have of him are mainly of a young man who spent countless years trying to pass his engineering degree. Years later, I heard from Paquita that he gave up in the end and went back to Galicia to eat his mother’s chips. She would never make such an unforgivable mistake with oil brands as I did. He rarely went to his room to study. Instead, he would sit, all the time that he wasn’t in class, at a wooden table in the middle of the lounge, in his particular armchair (the most comfortable in the flat), wearing an old brown dressing gown, watching television, eating chips and playing cards, while shouting at the top of his voice and waving his arms about if anything didn’t go exactly as he wanted it to. While playing cards, he would shout: “Yo, yo!”, meaning: “Me, me, (my turn)!” Since he had a Galician accent, the “y” came out as a “j” so I thought he was shouting my name: “Jo, Jo!” I could be sitting quietly, watching television or reading, and he would be playing cards with one of the many strangers that often came to the flat. They often came when I was just coming out of the shower in my dressing gown and had to get to my bedroom via the lounge, which I always found embarrassing. He would leap up out of his chair, and shout “Yo! Yo!” at the top of his voice, surprising me every time. I was pretty much a nervous wreck by the time I left that place. It certainly was an experience living with Leo and I flatly refuse to have anything to do with any temperamental Galicians ever again.