Then there are the elderly ladies. I have to admit I do find them rather scary. Having moved into an awful old flat at eleven o’ clock the night before, I still felt exhausted, physically and emotionally, from the plane and bus trips the day before. I was living with two complete strangers with whom I couldn’t communicate, and my continual effort to speak a foreign language was tiring; there’s a limit as to how many times you can say “hola” (hello), “Qué tal?” (How are you?) and “gracias” to a person. Furthermore, I had no food to eat whatsoever because I didn’t know where the shops were. The only tiny shop I found in the village on my first day after my arrival seemed only to have tins of squid, octopus (revolting) and skinned tomatoes and as I didn’t know how to ask for anything that wasn’t in a tin on a shelf, I walked out in disgust. Moreover, the director of the English academy expected me to start teaching the following day, either walking into the centre of the village and magically finding the academy, or travelling on the bus.
Paquita kindly showed me the bus stop outside our block of flats and waited with me for the bus to come. I vaguely knew when to jump off the bus − when I came to a large square with a strange statue covered in moss in the centre that I’d seen on my arrival. The academy was somewhere around the corner.
Over the next few days, I quickly learnt the bus route. The bus came trundling along and I got on. It was the only one in the village, always with the same driver, so I imagine that, when he fancied a fag or a quick beer and a “tapa” in a bar, there was probably no bus service at all. The bus was red and looked as if it dated back to the time of the parting of the Red Sea, and a bus ride to any point in the village cost twenty-five pesetas (approximately 12 pence). Most of the streets in the village were narrow, the bus just fitting in between the houses with a couple of inches to spare. A lot of street corners had red paint marks on their walls, where the driver probably took the corner a bit too fast, and as we sped along, there was no mercy for any dog or cat that got in the way. Some of the poor animals looked quite stressed as they fled from those tyrannical bus wheels.
What was worse, however, were the old women in the bus with me. I always made sure I sat right at the back so I had them in my sights in case they tried anything funny. They had no qualms about turning around and just staring at me, from head to foot, their faces suspicious of this foreigner who had invaded their village with strange ways and incomprehensible gibberish that was my way of communicating. Whether these ladies were beautiful or not when they were younger, their skin now had the appearance of what I can only describe as a rhinoceros’s bottom. I suppose this is bound to happen when one’s face is exposed to a blazing sun in summer and to ice and snow, freezing temperatures and blasting cold winds in winter (spring and autumn don’t really exist in Spain). They were also rotund, no doubt from years of olive oil, chorizo and copious quantities of fried foods, which was all the more accentuated by their short stature. These days, young people are very tall compared to the older generation whose height reveals the eight-hundred-year-old Moorish influence – some older women and men came up to my chest and I consider myself to be of average height at 5 ft 7”.
Each time I saw these women, their usual garb was an extra-large dress that just managed to cover their rather large bosoms, the material usually a rather dull, 1970’s style pattern, large flowers being quite popular. Flat, sensible shoes or slippers accompanied their dresses and their hair was always short, sometimes adorned with curlers and a hair net. What the majority of Spanish women do insist on, young and old alike, is dyed hair. Indeed, unless you are a nun, they actually find leaving your hair its natural, grey/white colour, once you grow older, quite strange and will stare quite hard at you. In fact, if you are ever in a large town or city in Spain, you can spot the foreign women a mile off because they’re the only ones with grey hair.
The first day, I got on the bus with all these terrifying women and you know, they all seemed so angry. I didn’t understand anything and they were all shouting at each other when they weren’t staring at me, waving their hands about in the air, looking ready to hit each other. It was such a relief to get off that bus that first day.
At least, as the days and weeks passed, they got used to seeing me so didn’t stare quite as much, and as I began to understand more and more Spanish, I realised that, instead of being angry, they were actually quite happy and talking about trivial things like the price of pork, the untimely death of Auntie María de la Santísima Concepción, how María Pilar put a hole in her new pair of tights while butchering the family pig and how old José María’s cat got run over by the gas canister lorry on its way to Isidoro Antonio de la Cruz’s house.