Chapter 1-6

INTRO: No Hay

With a loud BANG our television give its last breath. Pfff, since our emigration to Spain last year we haven’t exactly had a lot of luck with our furniture. Earlier this month also our dishwasher and my bread baking machine died. Our TV isn’t young anymore, but we’d still like to check whether the old box can be fixed or not. Because of some fiesta (party) in honour of saint number 101 everything’s closed, though, for at least three more days. So the nights we don’t work, we spend reading on the terrace and we go to bed early, which isn’t bad either in this busy high season and our long, hot days in our new restaurant. After a two day survey it unfortunately turns out that our colossus can’t be repaired anymore and the friendly technician only charges five Euros for his work. Five Euros! A price is so low, I thought the good fellow was joking. But anyway, we still do  need to buy a new one.

With Spanish or Chinese brands we haven’t had a lot of good experiences, so we decide to choose a Philips. We methodically search the internet to find out which current model is best tested for quality versus price. Unfortunately, though, they haven’t got it on stock in the two electronic shops in Nerja. “No hay” (We don’t have) is what they tell you in this case, a classic Spanish phrase we get to understand rather quickly. “Ordering?? But that will at least take three weeks”, is the surprised response of the lady in the store. Well, we aren’t real TV junkies, but that long we don’t want to wait either. And there’s also the fact that three Spanish weeks normally correspond with six ones in reality. Actually we’d hoped to lie on our couch with our favourite TV show already this very evening. Monday is our only day off and we could really do with some relaxing time. So we quickly drive to the modern shopping mall twenty kilometres from Nerja into the direction of Malaga.

Our chosen one has a prominent position in the showroom of the hypermarket and we can see: it’s already smiling at us. “What good luck”, we say to each other, relieved, with the assumption we’ll be home in about an hour. Impatiently we wait over fifteen minutes before we spot someone that might be able to help us. “HEL-LO! We want to SPEND MO-NEY!” It turns out that walking up and down to the storage is the main activity of the employees of the shop. This stock room is situated at the opposite side of the huge hypermarket and it appears that the stock isn’t registered by the central computer system. Not too convenient. They of course could have placed just one co-worker in the storage with a phone, but well. This kind of logic might not have landed here yet. After twenty minutes our sales person returns with the simple notice: “No hay”. Period. “Eh…, but why do you have this model displayed, if we can’t buy it?” we bluntly ask. The employee pulls up his shoulders with a sheepish look. Ordering? No, that’s something they really don’t do in this store. And by the look on his face we get the impression we’re actually the first persons to ask this question… “It might be here next week”, he then adds optimistically. With this kind of advice we haven’t had any luck yet. For our professional restaurant blender we’ve already returned to this shop about eight times and the damn thing still hasn’t been delivered!

It’s very obvious the sales person doesn’t feel the slightest bit of responsibility for the service of the store. Even more: He really doesn’t see a problem at all. Normally I’m quite patient, but now I do get a bit irritated by the notorious Spanish service. We’re talking about a half month’s salary! By the meantime it’s another half hour later and we don’t feel like buying the showroom model, because it already is scratched a bit. Docile we get in our car to drive to the next shopping mall where the same story more or less repeats itself.

It’s already late and I have to get up early tomorrow because I need to go shopping for groceries before my shift. Therefore we decide not to waste any more time on clumsy Spanish discussions and drive to Malaga during rush hour. I love it that in Spain all the shops stay open until nine or ten in the evening. This morning I read on the internet that they ought to have this TV model in a hyper modern new electronic store close to the airport. The website seemed up-to-date and this fills me with some new hope. Not bad either: this TV was even advertised a hundred Euros cheaper! The sales lady is a real guapetona (beauty), but she’s occupied with everything else besides helping her clients. She just rattles on the phone, while stoical observing her perfectly manicured nails. By the tone of her voice it really sounds just like a private phone conversation and more and more people in line, impatiently sighing like we do. There are five more employees in the store and it’s obvious they’re bored to death. But hey… television just isn’t their department.

After one quarter of an hour the high-heeled sales bimbo finally finds a minute to attend us. She tells us they indeed have this model in stock. We suppress a loud JOOHOO! “But…, you can’t buy it for the internet price”, she declares without any emotion. “¿Perdona?” (Excuse me), we ask not-understanding. “Well, you didn’t buy it through the internet, so there for you can’t have it for the internet price”. Hombre (man), what a service! Ok, we understand this franchise wants to stimulate its website visits -all honours for that, by the way- and that’s why they offer their products for a lower price. The stupid thing, though, is that once you order online, you still need to pick your goods up yourself in the store and you need to wait at least three days before you can do so! Delivering is something they don’t do… But we are here now in this very moment and we can already see our freshly baked flat screen waiting for us on its shelf. I feel tired and frustrated but for the lady on the other side of the counter it’s a closed case. So we grumbly pay. Battle-weary, but at least we do have obtained the exact ‘best-buy’ product we wanted.  

This kind of unimportant but still annoying situations we experience on a regular basis. And the Spanish definitely aren’t clueless or lazy, which a lot of foreigners here seem to think… They’re just not as critical and -no secret- this is just the general mentality. Teachers aren’t fond of discussions with their students and doctors are less used to critical questions from their patients. I don’t know if this has anything to do with the hard Franco regime that still has its influence on society, but hierarchy is taken in with the mother’s milk. In business life it therefore isn’t appropriate to offer your boss some well-meant suggestions to improve the service level, not even to a colleague. He or she might interpret your suggestion as critics and this -of course- you don’t want to risk! This goes especially for state employees. There’s a big chance that you keep the same job until your pension, so you stuck with each other quite a while more. And so the things remain as they are, although everybody know it could be better organized.

When finally my adrenaline has returned to normal level, I remind myself that on the other hand I shouldn’t be too negative. It’s a bit ridiculous to emigrate from your own county because is too hectic and too perfectionist, to come and live in Spain and then complain about the way things are organised here. There’s simply always two sides to every story. Most of the time this easy-going attitude is rather relaxed and in these kinds of situations I just shake my shoulders the same way the Spanish do.  Actually, I even strongly dislike these structurally negative foreigners that just seem to nag and whine about the Españols. Go and live somewhere else then. Living under the Spanish sun is just way too good!

We’ve missed our TV-show now anyway, so we decide to make a virtue of necessity. With a roaring appetite we stop at a cosy restaurant in the always vibrant centre of Malaga. We order gambas pil-pil (shrimps in boiling hot garlic oil), one of my favourite local dishes. The delicious Mediterranean smells from the kitchen make my mouth water. The trendy gum chewing waitress returns from the kitchen after ten minutes without any food and says -sure you’ve already guest right- “No hay”. She looks at us with surprise when we walk out of the place with a mumbling “Oh, never mind, just forget about it…” .

Goodbye colleagues!

I try to look cool, but from the inside I feel like I’m beaming. Finally the story that I’ve kept to myself for over one year now, is allowed to be told. “I just quit my job, because I’m going to emigrate to Spain!”. My marketing colleagues look at me with justifiable surprise. There’s a lot of contrast between my sunny comment and the surrounding we’re in: the eleventh floor of a modern sky-scraper with a spectacular view over the town’s skyline. The surrounding buildings seem to get swallowed up by the grey November clouds and I can see the permanent traffic jam on the highway. A lot of people dream about it, but we’re really going to do it! Living in a warm Mediterranean country next to the sea. I’ve got one more month as period of notice and then our adventure will start…

The rest of my time with this employer I feel high and I can’t seem to get the smile of my face anymore. I feel in love! And I can’t deny it, I also feel pretty triumphant. A new life, away from office politics, away from the nine-to-five routine and long stressed hours behind my computer. Away from dark winters in which I vainly try to compensate the lack of UV-light with visits to the solarium studio. My boyfriend Robert is very annoyed by the air pollution in the city and the amount of black soot we find on our window frames every week. And if the sun finally does shine every now and then, I’m frustrated by ‘good-weather-stress’. Because with a full-time job, housekeeping and social obligations there always seems to be a reason for me to not sit on some nice terrace and getting a healthy tan. In my new home town -called Nerja- the sun shines three hundred days a year. Wow!

My colleagues now look at me in a different way, now the news about my unexpected leave rapidly spreads. Almost five years I worked in this company and most of them only know me because of my writing for the company’s magazine, the founding of the intranet and the graphical work for offers and presentations. Especially the younger generation likes to make expensive exotic trips during their holidays or they have adventures hobbies. But at the same time they’re all focused on their career and a drastic step like we’re going to make, to them seems unthinkable in our over rationalized society. After I finished my education I just wanted to do nothing for two months and even then I already got concerned questions from people around me ‘If I wasn’t worried about the gap on my resume’. “But how does this step work for you pension plan?”, my colleagues ask me now not-understanding. “You have to be joking, I only just turned thirty!” is my response to this. But still, everybody’s interested to hear my story and I proudly tell them of my future plans on the ever sunny Costa del Sol.

“No, we don’t leave, because we’re not happy here. And no, Spain isn’t our ardent passion.” Not yet. We ‘just’ are looking for that special Mediterranean way of life. With lots of pleasure we’ve spend almost all our holidays in the South of Europe while almost all our friends seemed to have internment ships on the other end of globe or cycling the Himalaya. My colleagues are happy for me, but they also ask me about ‘the down side’. Don’t we think we’ll miss family and friends too much? Won’t we feel home-sick and do we already speak the language well enough? By now I’m already armed regarding these critical doubts. They’re absolutely justified, but -to be honest- I just don’t want to hear them anymore. The truth is: I simply don’t know either. Time will tell…

Skype, Facebook and cheap plane tickets nowadays make the world a lot smaller, but of course we do want to start a new life. And yes, without a doubt there will be setbacks. We’ll need to adjust to the Spanish way of life and the word ‘integration’ will get a new meaning to us. And no, we don’t have a lot of experience when it comes to running a restaurant and we have to keep this in mind when we make decisions regarding our concept. But hey.. after all it can’t be that difficult to conjure up some luxury sandwiches and salads! I’m convinced we’re up for the challenge. Luckily we’ve got enough financial space and we don’t have to borrow any money.  And if it really, really doesn´t work out, we could always come back.

During my ‘farewell dinner’ I tell my best colleague about a determining moment during our holiday in Mallorca two years earlier. The setting was actually rather cliché; a hot summer night, a picturesque restaurant in a lovely little marina, the mixture of smells of jasmine, baked garlic, the sea and after sun cream. We are comfortably digesting our food with really the last drop of wine from the bottle. We had the feeling we went to dinner relatively late because we’d had explored the rough Northern part of the island this day. When we ask for the bill, though, a large local family sits down, including grandpa and grandma. The owner of the restaurant comes to great them and he opens a few bottles of local wine. We watch the table slowly getting filled with all kinds of delicious tapas. They directly get the mood going on, while more and more languid toddlers are moved to their buggy. The whole family is roaring with laughter about the fishy stories of cousin Alejandro. Although we don’t understand what they’re saying, we secretly have to laugh as well. I think a lot of people wouldn’t have found this moment worth telling, but we were completely fascinated by the relaxed and intimate atmosphere at this table. Actually, we wouldn’t have said no at all, if they’d invited us to their table! But we’re just anonymous tourists, invisible outsiders. And we can’t seems to forget this ideally setting. The idea that you could live this way of live yourself…

Pimientos del padron

On a hot summer afternoon we slowly stroll through the Albacin (the old Moorish neighbourhood) of Granada and settle ourselves on a shadowy terrace. It’s quiet in the streets and I suppose most Spanish just wisely stay inside with the air-conditioning on its max. Although I should have known better, I order myself a racion pimientos del padron (a portion of fried green peppers with sea salt). I’m just claiming this dish isn’t as spicy as I thought, as I promptly catch a pepper that is at least twenty times as hot as the other ones. A freaky twist of nature… My face gets red, my blood pressure rises above healthy levels and I start sweating like crazy. Just what I needed with these temperatures! Gasping and spluttering I attack the white bread on the table and try to suppress the need to just consume the large water bottle on the table at once. Because of the shock I, for the first time since my childhood, get hiccups and for the next days to come my mouth can’t feel or taste anything anymore.

On the terrace across the streets life seems to be a bit more relaxing. Here about twelve older caballeros (gentlemen) have gathered and they vainly try to get themselves some cool air with a traditional Spanish abanico (fan). The most shrunken grandpa suddenly bursts out into a spontaneous flamenco serenade, while he beats the rhythm with his walking stick. His amigos (friends) wildly enthusiastic clap their hands and call out ‘olé’ to encourage him to keep singing. Real joyful Andalucian chemistry!

Making plans

According to the official statistics there’s a huge number of people with serious plans to emigrate. The people that finally succeed to do so often leave without any preparation. Without learning the language, without enough money, without a plan B and in some case not even with a reasonable plan A. Just like the rest of the country we’re astonished by the amount of drama stories on the internet and on TV, which can’t just be all conspiracies of ‘viewing rate eager producers’. In Spain more than seventy percent of the new set up business already call it a day within three years. A painful percentage… Are we naive, arrogant or do we have too much self confidence to think that we’ll do better than the rest? And after five or ten years, will we still be living in Spain? Happily and with full conviction?

We optimistically tell ourselves that with our broad education, our experience in setting up new businesses and with some simple common sense it shouldn’t be that difficult all together. Normally we’re not impulsive persons, so we spend next year translating our fantasies into concrete plans. Our new life support should be a restaurant or, better said, a cafeteria. As we don’t have any professional experience in the kitchen yet, this seems a more realistic scenario and managing a lunch menu sounds like something we’re capable of. I’ve always loved cooking but I also feel that I’d also enjoy managing our own sunny terrace and socializing with clients. After this many years behind the computer the idea of working in the open air is extremely appealing to us.

Because of the long season and the winter tourism the South of Spain seems the most logical location for our new business. Ironically, though, we’ve never been here before. So for preparations we visit Spain no less than five times this year. Our first visit leads us from Denia to Marbella by rental car. From this 1500 km long journey we like Salobreña, Almuñecar and Nerja best. During our second stay we decide Salobreña is too small and Almuñecar doesn’t have enough tourism. Nerja, though, is one of the few places along the coast that still has an attractive old town centre. This picturesque former fisherman’s town attracts enough tourists, but in no way is as crowded as the Western part of the Costa del Sol. In other words: we ourselves would also choose Nerja as our holiday destination.

The rest of the visits we use to experience the area in all different seasons and to take extra Spanish lessons in the local language school. Luckily this intensive classes work better for us than just our current two hours a week in Holland. But, pfff… Learning a new language isn’t just something you do over night! I completely changed over to Spanish music through internet radio and Spain starts to dominate our lives. During our stays we submerge ourselves in Andalucia culture, nature, gastronomy and we just enjoy all the beauty our future homeland has to offer.

The menu for our restaurant and all the design graphics are already practically done. We want to serve ‘bagels’. For anyone that may think a bagel is just a bread roll with a hole in it, we can truly say there’re some important differences that effects the quality of this product. Except from the fact that they are produced with first class ingredients, the rising time is almost 24 hours and the dough gets steamed before it is put into the oven. Because of this procedure the outside becomes crunchy while the inside stays soft. You can buy them in all kinds of variations (like poppy-seed, sundried tomatoes or blueberry) and they are served with luxury toppings. For example, a classic one is a bagel with smoked salmon and herbs cream cheese. The thing that makes us decide to go for bagels instead of another kind of bread, is that this product to a lot of (city) people is synonym to the word ‘quality’. And this is exactly what we want to communicate.

Trough the internet I research the possibility to bake these bagels ourselves, but it turns out this won’t be money worthy. In the end I manage to I find a British supplier that also delivers in the South of Spain. They are deep frozen and just need to go into the oven for a few minutes, which is ideal for our concept and the price is reasonable. Because we also want to serve ‘new-style’ salads, we chose the simple name ‘Bagels & Salads’. Sound and clear.

I don’t have the illusion -by the way- that we’ll attract a lot of Spanish with our concept. They’re not really used to having a bread meal and the name ‘bagel’ isn’t well known. In Northern Europe, though, this product keeps getting more and more popular. I try to gather as much of marketing information I can get with local bagel franchises and -if I tell them we want to start our business in Spain- they even provide us with important figures on costs, turn-over and conditions concerning the area of location. With a lot of commitment I start calculating, designing and absorbing everything that has relation to Spain. I also start a website about Nerja and Andalucía, because I want to share my enthusiasm with others and in years this internet pages will grow to be one of the best visited on this region.

Osborne

Just before we have scheduled to leave for Spain my mother wins a sherry workshop in a trendy Amsterdam kitchen school. Of course this is completely ‘my thing’ and she asks me to join her. It will be the last thing we’ll do together for a long time to come. Although my mother has mixed emotions about my leave, she does understand my motives better by now and this day really illustrates the new kind of life we’re looking for. We have a super entertaining afternoon during this freezing cold Tuesday in January.

“Sherry is definitively hot again”, the enthusiastic Osborne promoter ensures us with a thick tongue. He surely already has been tippling before our arrival, we chuckle with understanding. But then we’re put to work. With a group of two to three people we all prepare a course from the modern Spanish ‘cuisine’. About ten dishes in total, because that’s the amount of ‘vino de jerez’ (literally ‘wine from Jerez de la Frontera’) that you can find in the colourful scale of Spain’s largest sherry bodega. From almost transparent and dry as hell, to dark deep brown and sweet as honey. Manzanilla, fino, oloroso, dulce and Pedro Ximenez. I can’t distinguish one from the other anymore, but that doesn’t make it less fun. On the menu we find homemade croquettes of Serrano ham, wild duck with orange sauce and a desert with five types of chocolates. My mother and I cook a creamy blue cheese soup with juicy ripe pear, bittersweet and crispy roasted leek and an aromatic jelly of Pedro Ximenez sherry. If I may say so myself: our dish results to be breathtaking delicious. The atmosphere in the class room rises with the consumed level of alcohol and we all have a really great time. Good for us we came by train…

Spanish lessons

We observe the daily life of the family members of our Spanish course local host with a mixture of curiosity and discomfort. Because of the language barrier we feel a bit like dead wood. And after having lived together for already ten years now, it feels strange not having any privacy anymore. Our bedroom is freezing cold because most houses in town don’t have any central heating at all. During the day it’s partly clouded and around nineteen degrees, but during the evening it cools down quickly and there’s even snow on Nerja’s mountain tops. We don’t feel like sitting on a wooden chair with the family in their small and over-decorated living room all evening, watching Spanish television that we don’t understand. So we make sure we go out a lot, turning up the heat in our rental car to the max. Every day Robert after twenty minutes practically drags me from under the hot shower. I admit that occupying the bath room and using all the water is very anti-social, but it seems the only way for me to get warm again.

Later we learn that in a lot of Spanish houses they still use a brasero (stove) when it gets really cold, although nowadays they are mostly electrical. The whole family sits around the table under which this heater is placed and they put a large blanket over the table. This means your legs get hot as hell, while you practically have icicles hanging on your nose. Cosy, Spanish nostalgic, so to say.

Every day during lunch at two o’clock the two adult daughters and their family come over for dinner, so they are fourteen people in total. Every single day the male members of the family have a cheerful discussion about soccer (Madrid versus Barcelona) while the women wisely keep their mouth shut. Not only their voices are loud, but also their non-verbal communication is intense and I’m often afraid their swinging arms will knock over all the little marble and crystal figures on the closet the lady of the house seems to collect. In the meantime we eat in shifts on the highly polished dinner table, which only has room for six. The TV is displaying its cartoons with a lot of volume and on the pompous couch we always find the five year old chubby grandson with a large bag of crisps.

Also the meals are a new experience for us. Senora Jimenez makes breakfast just for us, because most Spanish have the habit of having their first meal not before eleven. During lunch time she prepares three courses. I see Robert getting goose pimples when she serves him another potato or bean soup with no salt or any kind of -for us unknown- seafood. But he eats everything with a smile out of respect for the lady of the house. I eat everything anyway and I have to say she really cook with a lot of variation. Paella, sardines, meat, macaroni, Spanish tortilla. They don’t have as much pure cooked vegetables like we are used to, but every day she puts a large colourful ensalada mixta (mixed salad) on the table. As dessert it’s mostly yogurt, flan (pudding) or fruit. At night between ten and eleven they have their last small meal.

A lot of young adults in Spain can’t afford to move out until they are in their thirty’s, so a lot of them simply stay with their parents until they get married. This is also the case with the son of senora Jimenez. He sells supplies for swimming pools from a room next to the living room and always wanders around in a shabby jogging suit. He’s a real macho (earrings, tattoos and trendy cut hair) and he seems to have the habit of brazenly scratching his balls every five minutes or so. He has a parrot in his attic that lustily sings TV commercials, day and night. He also cries out chico, chico (‘boy’, which is the son’s nickname) a dozen times per hours. Like there isn’t enough noise in the house yet.

Although we feel verbally handicapped this week was a brilliant experience for us and we give Senora Jimenez the highest rate on the evaluation form. The weekend we spend in rainy Sevilla where Robert is struck for a complete day by an allergy attack of due to the diesel dust in this busy town. I don’t know if it’s because of this bad first experience, but even after many years now, I still prefer Malaga, Granada and Cordoba over Sevilla. So far for the romantic honeymoon…

Esparragos con dos salsas

“The major of Nerja also likes this restaurant”, some insiders inform us. When I look at the elegant place and I see how seriously the waiter considers his job, this doesn’t completely surprise me. In Spain being a camarero (waiter) isn’t just an ‘in between’ job for students. It’s a serious profession. The waiter is dressed perfectly in black-and-white and correctly keeps his left arm behind his back all the time. When I see him a few weeks later in the supermarket I notice that he even maintains this position waiting in line to pay. Like a proud torero (bull fighter)… If somebody just even glimpses his way, he immediately rushes over in a most customer friendly way. The tables are covered with white sheets, the wine glasses on the table are huge and shining and there are even fresh flowers on the table. Also the menu looks excellent. I do miss some nice warm vegetables in most tourist restaurants, so I’m delighted to discover asparagus with two sauces on the menu. I love the Mediterranean cuisine and it’s exactly the right season for ‘the white gold’, mmm… So I order.

When some twenty minutes later our dishes are being served, I blink my eyes a few times. On my plate I find about twenty cold, pale and weak asparagus FROM A TIN with on top a wad of mayonnaise and cocktail sauce, which definitely aren’t home-made. “You have got to be kidding me!”, I mumble indignant. This wet substance costs eight Euros, which in Northern Europe is nothing for a starter, but here it isn’t exactly cheap. Although I already know the answer, I ask the good-natured waiter if they don’t serve fresh asparagus. With his fixed sonrisa (smile) he answers this is just the way they’re always served. He clearly doesn’t see any problem so I suppose it is true that all restaurants just dish them up this way. For a moment I feel like having the plate returned to the kitchen to make a statement. But my hunger is stronger than my principles. “Just eat the damn things”, Robert also comments me, while he’s enjoying his delicious salmorejo (thickened cold gazpacho from Cordoba). I promise myself that our future restaurant will never serve any prefab crab like this!  

Finally… Nerja

In March we can finally leave. For just a thousand Euros our complete furniture -which is only a modest 10 m3- will be brought to Spain and we spend three days waiting for the final phone call of transporter of oranges. He does this kind of rides on his way back to make some extra money. Although last month the police found out that our neighbours were running an illegal weed plantation, we lived in our apartment with a lot of joy during the last eight years. I suppose we’ll come to miss the facilities of the big city, but for now the only thing we want, is to leave.

When the chauffeur finally arrives he looks with some surprise at all our perfectly packed and labelled boxes and tells us he’s never seen a move that’s this well organized. When I look at his rickety truck, I decide to make a quick phone call to our insurance company. Just in case his vehicle chooses to fall apart during the trip, which to me doesn’t seem completely unimaginable.  

To be honest, I don’t have any problems with saying goodbye to family and friends, because my thoughts are already in Spain. The only thing I really regret, is no seeing my new born nephew grow up. My sister and her boyfriend are so disorientated with this new asset, that that don’t even notice they leave the door of the car trunk open while they drive over to say farewell. And it’s the middle of winter! I don’t have a clue about how my future will look like, which feels weird, because normally I’m quite a rational person. (Well, at least I like to believe so.) All my securities I leave behind and my life will become different in almost every aspect. Just like probably I myself will change because of my new experiences. With a feeling of impatience and excitement we leave in our old Peugeot, heading towards our new future.

My god, Spain’s is really huge, we experience while we drive no less than a thousand kilometre from North to South, listening to the Gipsy Kings (although we later find out they’re actually French and not Spanish)! All kinds of landscapes pass our window and the percentage of olive trees increases every hour. Via Biarritz, Burgos, Madrid, Jaen and Granada we drive towards Nerja, with its white houses on the green hills, decorated with palm trees and cypresses. The famous viewing point Balcon de Europa we can already see from a distance in the late afternoon sun. We pass the historical aqueduct with in the background the impressive Navachica mountain of 1800 meters high, which is a famous destination for hikers. Nerja is the most Eastern village of the Costa del Sol and is situated on the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Because of its favourable position towards its mountains Nerja has an official micro climate, which implies that winter temperatures are higher than on the rest of the coast and summer is just that little bit less hot. The average maximum day time temperatures there for officially varieties from 14 degrees in January to 31 degrees in July and August.  

About 24.000 people live in this town of which 6.000 are permanent foreign residents and this seems to me like a fine proportion. Because of tourism the population doubles in summer. Ideal for the visitors is that Nerja has thirteen different beaches with all different characters. Some beaches are busy and have all thinkable kinds of facilities, while (besides high-season) East from the village you can find completely deserted beaches which can only be approached by foot walking down the steep cliffs. This automatically gives them a very high ‘Lonely Planet’ atmosphere. I could tell all kinds of romantic story about the fresh ink fish you can buy on the street corner with an antique balance, nuns on scooters or Conchita’s cloth store where you can still buy fresh eggs. But it’s probably best if you come to experience the typical Andalucian way of life yourself… 

Two day later the truck with all our belonging safely arrives. A flat tire was the only technical delay during his trip, the driver proudly claims. After this hectic period it’s finally time now to relax during a half year of sabbatical. Just going to language school, settling and for the rest … absolutely nada (nothing).

La grua

It’s already late when we drive back to our temporally housing in Nerja. The moon doesn’t show itself tonight and the street lighting is broken. Robert puts the car in a unknown but official parking spot and then I feel like I almost get a heart attack! Our old Peugeot sinks with both front tires into a sixty centimetre deep hole in the concrete surface. Oops… That one we really didn’t see and leaving this dangerous situation without any warning would be unthinkable in our own country. Without any effort we try to rescue the car but this seems completely hopeless, so we have a huge problem now. Tomorrow at seven we need to be at Malaga airport for our first short holiday back home!

What now? We don’t have any Spanish emergency phone number and no internet. I’m tired and I hate being unprepared for this kind of unexpected situations. In the end a friendly Spanish guy walking his dog helps us out with the phone number of a local grua (breakdown lorry service). It costs us two more hours and a hundred and fifty Euros. We probably are being hugely overcharged due to our dependency on this late hour, but we’re just happy to be able to finally go to bed and at least catch a few hours of sleep.

Etopati

Learning a new language is difficult and it’s a process that just never ends. Probably most language students -that aren’t sixteen anymore- will agree I guess. And why in heavens name did I have three years of French in school and no Spanish, while French is only spoken by 70 million people and Spanish by 330 million worldwide? If I’d had Spanish instead, I wouldn’t have to start at level zero now. Almost six months we have twenty hours of class a week plus homework and it’s way more intensive than I imagined. But one way or the other, learning the language is simply essential to our new future here and after we started working, we probably won’t have time anymore.

Although our study is tough, this is a nice phase. We enjoy our contact with the international students and the social life around the language school. It’s new for us to be in each other’s presence now almost twenty-four-seven and because of the language it’s still difficult to make friendship with the people from Nerja, so we enjoy the social events a lot. At the same time I realize that even without the language barrier, it’s difficult to become friends with the Spanish, because most of them already have a busy social life with family and friends. And besides of this, they are used to the fact that a lot of (young) residents will leave in time anyway. Back ‘home’ our circle of friends hardly changed over ten years, so I do understand this very well.

Besides of the people of the language school -that mostly leave after a little while- we get in touch with the younger international clique that permanently lives in Nerja. We meet up on a regular basis and this is a nice way to make us feel at home. The thing though that makes me very uncomfortable, is that they more or less all are the backpacking types. They work hard all week but still haven’t got enough money to pay the rent by the end of the month, because the wages in Spain are just so low. I feel almost embarrassed to tell we don’t work at all this year and are going to invest in a new restaurant of our own. Of course we’re happy to buy someone a drink more than once a night, but in the end this still isn’t a very satisfying solution. It for example leads to the awkward situation that one of our new friends can’t go afford to the biggest fiesta of the year, while Robert on the same day bought himself a shiny BMW cabriolet… I can’t blame him either, because it’s his self owned money and he’s just passionate with cars. But I myself still seem to have more of a student’s mentality and prefer my old scooter.  

I like the lessons of our cheerful Spanish teacher Vera very much and in a few years we will become friends. Our children even shall go to the same class in school, but this we of course don’t know this yet. After a few months we switch to private lessons. Less hours, but way more intensive and to the point. Although… teacher Fran makes us listen to his favourite song En tu ventana (Behind your window) from the popular duo Andy y Lucas at least a thirty times. It’s our job to translate the lyrics about a painful issue in the still macho Spanish society: domestic violence. A nice song, but after hearing it over and over again as well on the radio, I feel completely brainwashed.

But Spanish does sound like music to me, I really think it’s such a beautiful language! Sometimes I almost get goose pimples by the right intonation. On the other hand it frustrates me to not being able to express myself as I’m normally used to. During a simple conversation my brain sometimes seems to shut down completely. Even when I prepare myself well with a dictionary before a chat, I have another problem: people do talk back to you… In no-time we end up in grammar verb tense type number fourteen, while in the meantime I still can’t order a single bread in the panaderia (backery).

Another problem is the strong Andalucian accent, which a lot of other Spanish (or people from South America) can’t even understand. Pescado (fish) -for example- simply becomes pecao and I often sing along with a summer song on the radio ‘Etopati’. It takes me a year to understand that they actually should be singing Esto es para ti (This is for you). Some difference, huh! And then you have the cultural differences. I once speak with my doctor about the la gripe Mexicana (Mexican flue) which I looked up in Google Translate one hour earlier. After been doubled up with laughter for about three minutes, the doctor sits up again and informs me that this disease in Spain is called ‘Influenza A’.

The Spanish language has some difficult differences with English. They for example often leave out the subject of the sentence, which your normally can understand by the context. But if understanding the context in the first place, you’ll definitely will be lost. And they have three words for the verb ‘to be’. ‘Soy rubia’ (verb ser) means ‘I’m blond’, but there’s also ‘Estoy rubia’ (verb estar) which implicates that you’ve bleached your hair temporally. And if it’s a phrase with no particular subject, they use the verb haber, like in ‘No hay’ (It’s not there). The next mayor difference that you can’t get around, is the two past tenses. The Spanish namely see a difference in -for example- ‘On the first January I walked (caminé)’ or ‘When I was young I walked’ (caminaba). These two versions can change twenty times within one paragraph.

Together with all the irregular verbs it’s really a lot to keep in mind during a conversation while you’re speaking, listening and translating, all at the same time. But when you think you’ve had it all…  there’s the ‘subjuntivo’. This new construction applies to half of all the verbs you use in daily life and in every single times version and with all its exceptions all over again. Speaking Spanish is easy, but speaking Spanish well. Wow… that’s seriously difficult! The most annoying part of it all, is that no other language uses something like this subjuntivo. This for the simple reason that there’s just no need for it. Except for the conjugation ‘would have been’, it doesn’t add anything to the meaning of the phrase at all. But in the end the lack of meaning of course goes for a lot of grammar. A nice example of this is the language Papiamento which they speak in Latin America. They simply say ‘I walking’, ‘you walking’, ‘he walking’. And they understand each other just fine.

A Spanish job vacancy

Anybody that assumes that the Spanish by now would speak quite some English, might be deceived. Even the name of rock band U2 they pronounce as ‘oo dos’ . Only ten percent of the population officially speaks a basic level of English and another ten percent has an advanced level. If you think about it, this a peculiar fact for a country that for a mayor part economically depends on international tourism. But what can you expect when old prime minister Zapatero even doesn’t speak English himself… It would be so much better if they would just have subtitles on television like in a lot of northern European countries. Not just because Brad Pitt also should sound like Brad Pitt, but it helps your pronunciation so much if you hear a foreign language on a daily basis. On top of this, it also improves the Spanish reading proficiency for children, which -by the way- probably wouldn’t hurt either for a lot of adults.

The fact that most Spanish really don’t have a clue about the English language is also illustrated by a commercial that I hear on the local Spanish radio station. It a serious message of a decent optician in town, but they chose a modern dance song with the lyrics: “Baby, I’m gonna do it to you all night long”. Uh lala…! This radio add puts a smile on my face every time I hear it.

In a local magazine I read an article about Torrox-Costa. This town is situated ten kilometres West from Nerja and its tourist’s base is mainly German. The reason for this -by the way- is that in the seventies of last century this town was the location of a German pharmaceutical company and after it shut down it offered its employees to purchase the company apartments for a really low price. Well, the town now contracted a new employee for the local tourist office that… only speaks Spanish!! I wonder if she’s the niece of the mayor or that they just aren’t able to think logically at the town hall. The irony of it all is that the Spanish cleaning lady of this tourist office does speak German and also a little English. She now voluntary helps translating the questions of the visiting tourists.