I arrived at the airport, hauling my 20kg suitcase, a small suitcase and an extremely heavy hand-luggage bag. The faces I’d seen on a few photos sent via Whatsapp suddenly became animated in front of me, and I was greeted warmly with the ‘dos besos’ (two kisses). I immediately tried to walk alongside the children, who stared blankly at the pale, foreign girl desperately trying to form an initial bond in broken Spanish. The hour long car journey back to Almansa was difficult, as I’d never had to speak such intense Spanish for so long, but I did feel comfortable. We ate together and laughed over our meal about my first language slip-up: when asked if I liked ‘sandía’ (watermelon), I responded that I don’t drink much red wine (I’d heard ‘sangria’!) After polishing off a burger, some potato salad and some watermelon, they asked me if I liked cucumber. I said yes and, before I knew it, was presented with a whole cucumber to eat there and then! From this, I learned a Spanish notion that was later reinforced throughout the month: live to eat. It sounds clichéd, but I felt like I’d made the right choice and was going to get on well with the family.
The first week was the most difficult in terms of adapting to the Spanish timetable. They have breakfast at 9am, their main meal at 3pm, a large ‘snack’ at 6pm, and their tea at 10pm. This means that often they didn’t go to bed until 1am, which was tiring for me, despite being used to a similar bedtime at home.
We went shopping the following morning and I was allowed to choose anything I wanted, which was lovely, but I tried to just go with whatever the family ate. I also started to have Spanish lessons from the children’s English teacher, which was a nice break and an opportunity to speak with somebody my own age. She took me to a Moroccan tetería and introduced me to her friends. I noticed that the people in these communities are very close-knit; the cashiers would make a fuss over the children and know a lot about the family, and we seemed to bump into friends in almost every aisle.
On Friday, we headed to the grandparents’ house in Zarra for the fiestas. The house was beautiful and we relaxed under a roof of grape vines before going out for the night. We watched a girl be crowned queen of the town, followed by lots of music and dancing. I finally met an English couple who bought me drinks purely for being English, and my alcohol-aided Spanish fluency allowed me to converse with all sorts of people. I returned to the house with the Dad of the family at 7am!
The following day, we went to watch the bulls chasing people through the town. I won’t lie and say I enjoyed this because, although I’m not an animal rights activist, I felt uncomfortable watching the bulls getting so distressed for the enjoyment of the crowd. I much preferred the disco that followed! There was a huge stage with local bands covering songs in both Spanish and English, and the whole community seemed to be out in the streets. Even the older members who couldn’t make it down to the disco were sat outside their houses on deckchairs, chatting until the early hours.
On Monday, the aunty arrived with her two children, who were slightly older and spoke quite good English. She was keen for them to practise with me and I was glad to have them as a link to the children, as they could help to tell them what I was trying to say!
Having spent a week without a mishap, it was time for my clumsy personality to emerge. Whilst showering, I discovered that I couldn’t turn the tap off. My fingers were red and strained as I tried to heave the tap towards the left, with no success. I had to dive out of the shower and run around the house in a towel, trying to explain what had happened! Thankfully, the adults saw the funny side of me making an ‘otra piscina’ (another swimming pool) as we all stood mopping flooded bathroom.
On Friday, we went to Valencia to visit the aunty. I was given an on-foot tour of the sights of Valencia and saw everything from the markets, the cathedrals and the city of arts and sciences to La Estrecha (the world’s most stretched house!) It was great for my Spanish to receive a narration of the city from the local people. Valencia is a beautiful, vibrant city and I’d love to return.
We visited the castle of Almansa on Sunday for another cultural experience involving a walk to the battlefields. Just in case that sounds too idyllic, I’ll expand on the details: 5 miles, south Spain, 1pm. However, I’d vowed to say yes to every opportunity during this month. The Spanish commentary was pretty exhausting, and I really had to pay attention given that only 2 of us turned up to the tour, but I enjoyed learning about the town’s history.
Week 3 was the most difficult for me because I felt like I hadn’t bonded with the children as much as I should have done. The mum of the family didn’t work, meaning that when we were in the house it was all too easy for them to run to her when they needed something. This worsened even more when we went canoeing and I ended up sailing solo as both children refused to come with me over their mum. I put quite a lot of pressure on myself about this and did have a few days of feeling a bit low, which I think is natural. I took to Google in the hope of finding a magic trick to make the children love me, but it became clear that perseverance was key. I tried to introduce activities in which the language barrier didn’t matter, such as spending exhausting hours playing football with the son, doing my best to paint palm trees on the daughter’s tiny nails and pretending to be a shark in the swimming pool.
I began to live for the days that we left the countryside. I did love the family, but spending all day in a house in the countryside together is something that would drive me mad with even my closest relatives. This week we visited the closest larger town: Albacete. The day was spent shopping and I was reunited with Primark, but I didn’t buy anything as I panicked too much about fitting it into my suitcase to go home. I was beginning to notice that each town seemed to make quite a big deal of their ‘ayuntamiento’ (town hall) and I was shown one in every town. Albacete was very pretty and had lots of fountains, as well as more commercial shopping areas.
Friday arrived and it was time for more fiestas! We went to the village of Alatoz and spent 3 nights there. The grandma knew of an English family whose niece was staying with them, so I went out in the evening with her and the Spanish group she’d made friends with. This was an amazing experience! I paid 3 euros to participate in a huge paella made by the group over a campfire and to drink from a huge barrel of sangria. The Spanish group were all so lovely and welcoming and actually made an effort to interact with us, which I found to be a huge contrast from the young people in England.
On Monday, we visited Alcala del Jucar. It’s one of the greener towns in Spain due to the rivers flowing through it, which fascinated the Spanish. The houses here are built into the caves too, which looks beautiful at dusk as the lights outline the mountains. There were fairs and markets along the streets and stalls selling a local favourite snack: corn on the cob.
A particularly memorable night was when there was a full moon, so the dad brought his telescope up onto the terrace, and we took turns looking at ‘la luna’. We spent a while lying on the sunbeds in the mild air and watching for shooting stars, before sleepily returning inside.
Later in the week, we spent a lot of time shopping as the mum was having her 40th birthday party at the weekend. We cut out props for a photo booth, and I made some beach themed cupcakes. On the day of the fiesta, I actually went out for the night with the children’s English teacher as the mum thought I’d be more comfortable there than with a group of Spanish adults. We went to one of the girls’ summer houses to eat pizza and have some drinks, before returning home to get ready for the night out. This surprised me as in England, once you’re drinking, you’re getting drunk. In Spain however, groups of friends eat together before relaxing for a while, and finally going out at about 3am.
The final night was lovely. The children presented me with drawings featuring words like ‘happy’ and ‘I love Lauren’ (perhaps they did learn some English!) and I felt like I’d finally succeeded with them! We also ate together as a family (with the aunty, uncle and cousins) for the last time and they all wished me a lengthy, sincere goodbye said they hoped to see me again. A whole month later, I returned to Valencia airport. I was exhausted and overwhelmed, but so glad I’d taken the opportunity for such an amazing experience. Upon returning to England, I found myself missing my Spanish family and some aspects of the lifestyle. The family are hoping to visit Manchester early next year, so I’m already searching for the best places to show them in order to repay them for the variety of places they showed me!