Why I came to Spain (part one): the footsteps of Don Pelayo

Spain started in Oviedo.

Or, to be a bit more precise, the local Visigothic ruler, Don Pelayo (later King Pelayo), defeated the Moors at the battle of Covadonga around 718, establishing a Christian kingdom in Asturias, and so began the reconquest of Spain that wasn’t completed until 1492.

Like King Pelayo before me, I too started my Spanish life in Asturias.

Pelayo made Cangas de Onis his capital before shifting his court to Oviedo. I took a more direct approach and went straight to the Asturian capital, no messing about.

Day one

I took an early bus from Madrid* and had no real idea where I was going or just how big and empty Spain was. I stared at the endless flat plains of León as we drove on and on, nothing to see for miles. Hours later we climbed up into the Cantabrian mountains and eventually emerged into the driving rain of Asturias. I understood that Spain was not just hot and sunny beaches, but there was not a single time that I came out of that mountain pass and it wasn’t raining cats and dogs.

Oviedo didn’t look great from the bus. It looked drab and shoddy, but then very few cities look nice from the point of view of their bus stations. Oviedo’s bus station was surrounded by apartments that hung their washing out on spiderweb carousels overhanging the central courtyard where the buses parked. I wouldn’t like to dry my pants in full view of the city’s travellers, and would fear that they could easily become dislodged and fall, ending up on the roof of a bus, never to be seen again.

I walked out, suddenly realising that my happy-go-lucky lack of planning had a negative side. I had no idea where to go, what to do or how to speak the language. I felt lonely but not lost. It was an exciting and exhilarating – if a little daunting – feeling of freedom and opportunity; it was like I was actually living my life at last, and that anything could happen.

This feeling waned slightly as I checked into a hostel and was shown to my room.

It was small with an uncomfortable bed and a postage-stamp-sized window in the top corner of the far wall. Stig of the Dump would have felt at home in that room, although he may have complained about the lack of natural light. Desperate to recapture the feeling of youthful adventure, I went to enjoy a beer, a smoke and my Jack Kerouac book.

I didn’t particularly want a beer, or a smoke, or indeed to read the Kerouac book, but I thought it was best to try to live up to the idea of who I was supposed to be.

When I’d left University earlier that same year, I’d decided that it wasn’t cricket for an educated fellow to be monolingual. Having enjoyed a holiday in Spain the year before, travelling around the Basque Country and the Ebro valley, I’d seen a side of Spain that I really liked. It was both lively and easy-going, relaxing but energetic. And had great food, cheap booze and pretty girls. Even the language didn’t seem like such an impenetrable impossible mouthful as French or German, the two European languages I had tried (and failed) to wrestle with previously. Spanish seemed to flow better, it was difficult and often maddening, but at least it went with the grain, not against it.

That first day in Oviedo I realised that I didn’t know a thing. The few phrases of this bizarre foreign tongue† I’d picked up on previous trips were better than nothing, but only in the same way as a grain of salt is better than no salt in a scenario where you need loads of salt.

Not alone

I grew to really like the city. I’d picked it out on the map because I didn’t think there’d be any other English people there. It was fairly small and unknown, stuck in the rain-swept north and not even on the coast, surely I’d have the place to myself. Little did I know that the local University had a deal with Leeds University and the town was full of people from Leeds, my hometown, the city I’d just left behind.

Just as King Pelayo had rebelled against the Moors, defeating them in battle and then set up his own Kingdom, I moved out of the hostel and moved into a shared flat that I couldn’t really afford and that didn’t have the telephone that I needed to be able to find work. The parallel is imperfect, but the courage required in each case was comparable. You would agree had you seen the bathroom I had to use‡.

Working 5 to 9

It took me a long time to get any work. I had about £1000 that I’d saved from working two jobs and giving up on my rock star dreams by selling my electric guitar and amp before I came over.

I picked up hours of work here and there. I spent the early evenings knocking on doors of schools and language academies and anywhere else who might employ an unqualified scruffbag native English teacher trying to extend his student years and avoid a proper job. I eventually cobbled together just enough hours to mean I could afford to stick around until June if I didn’t eat very often.

Every night I went out at midnight and played chess and drank beer with friends in Diario Roma, a cool indie bar on the Calle Mon. I’d get home about six and sleep till early afternoon.

My job started after the long siesta, at five o’clock, and then I’d rush across town from class to class until my long hard working day ended around nine.

Pizzagirl

I loved the weekends. Oviedo was a big student city and its compact old quarter came to life on Friday and Saturday nights: the bars were packed, the streets were packed, it was like I had a real social life.

I met a wonderful girl§. She was amazing. She worked in Telepizza in the evenings and studied English during the day. I remember she was reading “The Magus” by John Fowles which struck me as a horrendous waste of her time. She could have used that time to think about me. Unfortunately for me, she soon did think about me, and hence the relationship ended. I was gutted, but knew it to be right and proper, she was way out of my league. She was clever and quirky and funny and cute, and I … well, anyway, it ended.

The end

When I got home, some time in late June, my world had changed. I felt I had really moved on from being an awkward pedantic bookish geek¶. I had survived in a foreign country on my own for nearly eight months, and not just survived but thrived (depending on your definition of “thrive”). Even my Father was proud of me, and it’s not often I got to say that.

Notes

* My Father had dropped me off at Manchester Airport for my flight to Madrid. I’d spent the journey across the Pennines trying to get him to appreciate the bass playing of Jaco Pastorius, but it was not his thing. I remember walking into the terminal building and feeling a physical weight lift off my shoulders. I was astonished, the feeling was so intense and real. There I was, just 22 years old, free of studies, no job, no parental control, no responsibilities, on my own with a one-way air ticket and a pocketful of traveller’s cheques. When you’re 22 you think moments like that will come and go, but they don’t. I wish I’d savoured it more

† David Niven as Phileas Fogg in the long and tiresome “Around the World In Eighty Days” film is perplexed when his balloon blows over to Spain and he inexplicably finds the natives conversing in some “bizarre foreign tongue” (BFT for short). Unsurprisingly this turns out to be Spanish, which suggests that Fogg had not done quite as much research as one might have expected under the circumstances. Fortunately Passepartout saves the day, and, avoiding all stereotypes, performs in a bullfight and he and his master are allowed to proceed. Since watching this ridiculous film, I have always found it amusing to refer to Spanish as BFT

‡ The bathroom had an electrical plug inside the shower cubicle! Turning on the washing machine was a risk akin to taking on an invading force in battle, but with the advantage of getting your clothes washed. The state of the bathroom declined over time. The apartment included a weekly clean, so whatever hygiene challenges happened were reset every seven days, but due to a spot of trouble between two of the flatmates, the bathroom became an occasional battleground and human waste the weapon of choice. I moved out around this time

§ (Wistful sigh)

¶ I hadn’t, it was an illusion. Like a leopard accepting that the spottiness was just not going to go away, I was just learning (slowly) to embrace it and make the best of it

Playlist

I went to Oviedo with a pretty clear idea of what it meant to like good music.

It was, I believed, of utmost importance to play real instruments and not be lured by the repetitive beat of dance-orientated electronica (except that I also liked Prince and The Orb).

By 1993, this simplistic goodies v baddies dichotomy of rock music versus house music had dissolved into a more complex understanding of the musical world, but nonetheless I still clung to my proudly narrow views and was astonishingly ill-informed about music outside of my little niche.

I took my Walkman and a bunch of compilation tapes I’d made. Made the old-fashioned way: not dragging and dropping MP3 files into playlists, but by painstakingly playing each vinyl/CD track in full and holding down PLAY and RECORD together on the tape deck at the same time.

My roommate in Oviedo had very different tastes.

This was eye-opening, and often ear-closing, but it did broaden my horizons and for that I am forever grateful.

This list is a mix of my favourites from his collection plus a few of my own.

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