The last time I lived in Spain, I accidentally started working for the Mafia (happens to us all, right?). Under the guise of a TV channel, they allowed me to fly out several of my broadcasting mates from the UK to instruct them in the finer details of TV production. They put me up in a two bedroom apartment on the sea front in Puerto Banus, just outside Marbella, and treated some of us to many sublime dinners and fine wines. Say what you like about the Mafia, they know how to live (horses’ heads in beds aside).
When it transpired that the whole thing was a money-laundering operation, the dream came to an end, but it really was fun while it lasted. Looking back, my friends and I are mystified that we didn’t see the red flags, but when you’re out filming with real cameras and watching your stuff being edited and played on a TV screen, scam isn’t something that instantly springs to mind. We all just thought that Ukrainians were slightly odd, but hugely entertaining. The first rat I smelled was when the head honcho pulled a gun on his secretary because she returned from the supermarket with the wrong kind of cherries. You live and learn.
This time round, I am in Valencia, where in October I begin a Master’s in Advanced English Studies at the university here. I have an MA from the UK, but Covid lockdown made me crave something different. Why Valencia? I have no idea. A couple of years ago, I visited dear Welsh friends who now live in Alcossebre, just an 80 minute drive away, an attractive town that would nevertheless be too quiet for me.
Craving an escape from the New York bitter winters and humid summers, Valencia spoke to me because of its size (the third biggest city in Spain – I really am a city girl at heart) and its temperate climate. Because of Brexit (don’t get me started), as a UK citizen I am allowed just 90 days out of 180 in what I now refer to as “real” Europe, and I discovered that a Student Visa would give me total freedom, while not jeopardising my Green Card residency in the US.
I had also, for some years, harboured a desire to return to university and resurrect my love of learning. The MA I have chosen is one of the few taught in English, and so here I am. I am renting a fabulous apartment in the Old Town (the 80 sqm terrace is bigger than my NYC pad), and the adventure of a new city and new experiences, beckons. I’d like to share what I’ve learned so far, and hopefully offer some advice for anyone thinking of embarking on the same route.
- Resist the temptation to say “Is that ALL?” at every juncture. Yes, the shock of paying 2.50€ for a glass of wine, compared to $15 in NYC is a constant shock to the system, but it’s not nice for the locals for whom the minimum wage is 950€ a month (that’s 380 glasses of cheap wine, to you and me. By the way, there are places where the wine is 1.80€ a glass (I know! Is that ALL?!), which amounts to 527 glasses on the minimum wage. Just sayin’.
- The supermarket chain Mercadona is laughably cheap. My first grocery bill was 447€, and that included 48 bottles of wine, two litres of brandy, a litre of vodka, gin and whisky, and enough food and supplies to see me through the next two pandemics. Okay, last time: is that ALL?
- Don’t be shocked by the number of dead animals on offer for human consumption; if it has a pulse, the Spanish will eat it. Don’t stand still for too long, because they’ll be working out ways to throw you into the paella, too.
- Get used to church bells; they’re everywhere. If you thought a Harrison Birtwistle opera was the biggest racket you’d ever have to endure in a lifetime, think again. The bells, the bells will have you shuffling along like the Hunchback of Notre Dame if you let them get to you.
- The Spanish are loud. Very, very loud. They weren’t like this in Marbella, but the southern part of Spain is populated by a lot of Brits, who are usually too drunk to shout about anything other than the next round. But in Valencia, I feel I’m going to have to invest in a set of Bose noise cancelling headphones just to visit my local bar. Until I got here, I thought I was loud. This lot make me sound like Marcel Marceau.
- Try to learn the language, but forget about understanding a word of what any real Spaniard says; they speak faster than anyone else in the world. I was very proud when I managed my first telephone conversation arranging for an engineer to come to fix my Intercom. I thought I did really well, until the goat arrived with a beer and a sandwich.
- When dealing with the administration department of a university, expect the process to be way more difficult than the course itself will be. Wading your way through their bad translations will take longer than filling in your forms in Spanish with the help of Google Translate. Quite how they managed to make “certificate” a “licence plate” is anybody’s guess.
- Every tapas menu is the same. Don’t spend an hour pondering your choices, because you will always end up having the meatballs, patatas bravas and the croquetas. Remember those Indian restaurants in the UK, when you spent an age looking through five menu pages, contemplating the chef’s recommendations, before deciding to have the Chicken Madras? Again. It’s the same here. Old habits die hard.
- Expect to be the All You Can Eat Buffet for the very hungry mosquitoes. Avon Skin So Soft really does work wonders as a repellant. I have no idea why the mozzies hate it, but they do. I never thought I’d crave that ring at the doorbell and the cry of “Avon calling!” At least it’s available on Amazon.
- And so, to the most important one, and I cannot stress this enough. Don’t slag off the Virgin Mary in public. Whatever you might think about her having been a bit of a slapper who lied about why she was really missing her periods, it won’t go down well in the Catholic country that is Spain. Adiós! More thoughts coming soon!