When I was a child, we used to go on a foreign holiday every summer. This was unusual in the Ireland of the mid-1980s. Many of my friends would never have been abroad, and if they had, it would have been to Wales, or possibly Manchester.
My mother claimed that we spent money on foreign holidays that other people spent on cars. And it was true that we didn’t spend a lot of money on cars. For years and years we had a blue Datsun Cherry. Three of the its doors didn’t open. The only other door (the front passenger seat door) wouldn’t close and we would have to tie the door to the headrest of the passenger seat with a bit of clothesline before starting any journey, so that whatever child was nearest the door wouldn’t fly out of the car whenever we drove over the pothole that was an inevitable part of any journey in 80s Ireland. When we arrived at our destination, we would all have to clamber out of the same door, climbing over chair backs and handbrakes and then we would rest the door in its place, pretending it was closed. I think at one stage, my mother was forced to exit the car via the boot, but that could just be a memory I invented.
As well as this, we had a large white Russian Lada. I sometimes wonder how I made it through secondary school with any self esteem at all. I used to arrive at school every morning with my dad (one of our teachers) in an actual Lada. These two facts alone (that I was a teacher’s son and that we had a Lada) were enough to supply bullies with ammunition for years. Amazingly, no one ever really mocked me for either. The heating in the Lada didn’t work, and one of the windows used to fall down of its own accord, meaning that whoever was sitting in that seat on cold winter mornings in the unheated car had to jam their hand against the window for the whole journey in order to stop it coming open.
So we spent our money on foreign holidays and not on cars.
On a typical summer, we would wait until after my dad had been paid for supervising the Leaving Cert exams in July. My mother was in charge of packing. She would put all our clothes and a good proportion of the movable objects from the bathroom and kitchen into Dunnes Stores plastic bags. (We had one or two suitcases, but most things were in shopping bags). Then we would drive from our home in Cork to Rosslare, take the ferry to Fishguard in Wales, spend the night driving across Britain, and get another ferry in Dover or Portsmouth to Calais or Roscoff. We (and by we, I mean my dad) would then drive, on the wrong side of the road across Europe, camping our way along, until we reached our destination. We usually got a summer house in France or Spain, but it could be anywhere. When I was a baby, we drove to Greece, meaning that my dad drove from Ireland through half of Europe, including communist Yugoslavia, with four small children and a wife who gets travel sick in a right-hand-drive car all the way to Athens. We weren’t your typical family.
We didn’t fit all that well in the car. One summer, we made room for my sister in the boot and she travelled through continental Europe among the suitcases and Dunne’s Stores plastic bags like a family pet. I also remember my older brother being sat astride the handbrake on another summer holiday. Our dad cut some foam to fit around the handbrake so my brother wouldn’t be too uncomfortable. There was a fairly limited range of music we would all agree to listen to on these journeys. We listened to a lot of ABBA and The Carpenters. We also listened to a country music tape that we got free with some biscuits. To this day, the only country music I like are the twelve songs on this tape. Unless you call Taylor Swift country music. Which I don’t.
We didn’t go to beaches often. We “did things”. We visited churches, museums, medieval towns, cathedrals, castles, parks and art galleries. I have no doubt it did wonders for my tiny developing brain. And it was while we were on summer holidays that my mother got me started on blogging. She decided that I would keep a scrapbook on my summer holidays. I would glue the funny foreign sweet wrappers and museum tickets into the scrapbook and write accounts of what had happened during the day. My mother always says that we’re clever children because she read a lot to us, and on those holidays she read to us for hours on end. She read to us about Narnia and the Little House in the Big Woods, about Biggles, the heroic fighter pilot, and about Mister Tom and his evacuee, little Willie. I can’t help but feel warm at heart even twenty-something years later at the thoughts of listening to those stories told on a funny foreign couch in a funny foreign house in my mother’s Dundalk/Cork/nondescript-primary-school-teacher accent.
The holidays were often in Spain. My father romanticised Spain. He had done Spanish in his degree, was a Spanish teacher and had visited Spain back when it was a fascist dictatorship and was completely distinct from the rest of Europe. I’m not unfamiliar with Spain. As well as those childhood holidays, I’ve had a weekend in Barcelona, a stag weekend in Madrid, a holiday in the Canaries (chronicled in the first year of this blog), a visit to my sister while she was on Erasmus in Barcelona, and of course my brother’s wedding in Valencia in 2006. And I spent the summer before my Leaving Cert there. I was doing Spanish in school and my Dad sent me to live with a family in Madrid who were in the religious community my parents are part of to improve my language skills for my exams. The family all turned out to be insane, every single one of them. It wasn’t a great summer.
All of this is by way of saying that Spain isn’t all that strange to me and I didn’t feel all that nervous when I got off the plane on Thursday. My sister had told me how to get to the town where she was working. Unfortunately, the phone-line had been bad and I hadn’t understood her properly. I followed the directions she had given me for the train station, and discovered I was at a bus stop. Luckily, I had about five hours to spare, so I easily had time to write a blogpost and find my way to the actual train station.
My sister’s flat is amazing. It’s maHOOsive. My little flat in Hall would fit into her living room. And her kitchen is a separate room from her living room. It’s like a proper grown-up place for a proper grown-up. She has three bedrooms and two bathrooms and three balconies and a hallway that’s actually a room and takes at least thirty seconds to walk from one end to the other. It’s stunning.
She has it decorated like a normal person, with lots of space and clean white walls. Of course my first thoughts were all about the various colours and kitsch knick-knacks and fabrics and throws and posters and pictures and tinsel and fairy lights I could put up in a place of that size.
I have to admit I spent much of the first twenty-four hours of the holiday thinking about how I could get my hands on a flat that size and thinking about all the ways I could do it up. I considered selling my soul for a full-time job in Dublin that I don’t want. I considered stability and all the lovely things I could do with lots and lots of money. It would cost at least four times what my sister pays in rent in Spain to get an equivalent property in Dublin, and I briefly thought it was worth it. But no. No. I’ve promised myself that 2014/2015 will be the year where, once I have this PhD-monkey off my back, I go on an adventure and I try to actually write a book. So I’m not going to go for the money and the maHOOsive flat with its 30-second corridor and separate kitchen and second bathroom. That can wait.
My sister was always into music. Some of my main memories of being a teenager is of going to live music events in Cork to hear her play. The bedroom she put me in is the music room when there are no guests. I shared the room with a wardrobe full of speakers and amps and stands and stuff for her band. There were also guitars and mandolins, a harp, a double bass and drums of many shapes and sizes.
The double bass was just there on loan, but my sister’s band had bought one that they could keep. I’ve never been in a flat with two double basses before. On my second day in Valencia, the second, newer double bass arrived. My sister went down to the door of the building to collect it.
Double basses are HUGE. The cardboard box it came in was so big (like a coffin) that my sister threw it away so that the instrument would fit in the lift. She then removed it from its styrofoam packing, leaving a massive, structural piece of polystyrene, not completely dissimilar from a glacier that has had a giant woolly mammoth removed from it.
I like the double bass because it’s so big. It’s one of the few things that I can stand with and it actually makes me look thin. I enjoyed it so much that I started looking for a double bass online for myself to buy. It can’t be that hard to learn. There are only four strings. I eventually found one on eBay. It’s blue. Which would bring out my eyes. Of course, I didn’t buy it. There are some impulses I’m capable of resisting.
After the double bass arrived, a man from the electricity company came to the door. My sister ushered him into the living room, moving a chair and smashing a glass and a bottle in the process. At around this time, the electricity man noticed the double bass and asked me if I play. You have not lived until you have been surrounded by broken glass while a man asks you about an instrument you don’t play in a language you don’t understand.
The conversation that ensued between my sister and this man was bizarre and lengthy. He told her about his childhood and the deaths of his parents. He showed her photos on his iPad of what his bald head looked like when you distorted it. He told her how much he earned. He also worked out a way of making her bills cheaper that involved my sister pretending to be her landlady’s ex-husband’s wife. He finally left, having interrogated my sister about her TV, the Irish language and her double bass.
I should, of course, mention Valencia itself. It’s lovely. It’s old and pretty and Spanishy. It’s got orange trees EVERYWHERE. Every single street is lined with orange trees, and there are actual oranges growing from them and they fall to the ground and roll around on the streets. It’s like something from Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. There are also palm trees everywhere in the city, but unfortunately no coconuts. Valencia also has some trees that were neither palm trees nor orange trees too, but those were all massive disappointments in comparison.
Spanish vegetables, however, are far from disappointing. They have massive peppers, nearly the size of a Christmas ham. The onions are twice the size of Irish ones. Tomatoes, leeks and scallions all make Irish vegetables look tiny. I was kind of embarrassed to be Irish. Until I saw their carrots. The Spanish carrots I saw were tiddly little things, nothing on our fine Gaelic horselike carrots. It’s a grand thing to be Irish.
I had a lot of fun in Spain. My sister and I are almost twins and she’s one of the easiest people in the world to be around. We’ve been living in different countries almost all the time since she went on Erasmus in 2002 and so we don’t see each other enough. I must visit her again soon.