I walked down Calle de la Magdalena in Oviedo, feeling stupid and alone. What was I doing back here on my own when all my friends had moved on?
I was trying to recreate something that had gone. The party was over, and I was the only one who hadn’t gone home.
I felt so lonely I wanted to cry.
At least I had a job this time. I’d come to Oviedo the previous December and just managed to survive on the meagre scraps of work I could scramble together here and there, but now I had the promise of a 25-hour-a-week job which would pay a decent monthly wage.
My new boss was Mr A. He was a slick type who insisted on the formal Usted rather than the more usual tú. I didn’t trust him one bit. He had the strut of someone whose most important objective was that other people saw him as important. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to communicate properly and so we never got to establish much of a relationship, and I think he never saw me as anything other than a potentially useful pushover.
He was right, I was a pushover.
The previous year the secretary had asked me how I was and I muttered a non-committal “meh” and she said “so so?” and I nodded, “yes, so so” and Mr A laughed, repeating the phrase “so so” as he threw his head back and guffawed … except he wasn’t really saying “so so”, he was laughing because they were calling me “soso” (insipid, boring) and I nodded along, unaware of the joke.
He was right about that too, I was soso.
He asked if I could do some work during September (the school proper started in October). He wanted me to deliver leaflets and put up posters around town*. I quite enjoyed it at first, walking around in the fresh air, getting to know every street of the city. I briefly wondered if I could just do this and forget the hassle of teaching, but it wasn’t a financially viable career move, even for a youngster like me with simple tastes and a low rent shared flat.
I was lucky to get that flat. A nice clean place with two Spanish guys who were very civilised. We got on well, I even taught them to play backgammon, and had I stayed I think that we would have become good friends†.
But I didn’t stay.
Mr A was being evasive when I asked about which of his three schools I’d be working in, and about how many weekly hours work I’d be getting. The number seemed to drop from the standard 25, to 22 or 21, maybe less at first … I didn’t want a repeat of the previous year when I’d had to walk the streets day after day, knocking on door after door, just to get a few hours teaching work. I’d spent three years as a student with no cash, then a year in Oviedo on a starvation liquid-only diet. I needed a reliable job with a predictable paycheck.
It was then that I was offered exactly that.
A friend, Mr B, told me of a job going in the neighbouring city of Gijón. It was 25 hours per week with a fixed guaranteed wage, higher than I was being offered by Mr A.
I didn’t want to leave my new flat. I liked the guys there and knew living with them would be great for my Spanish, but this job was much more certain and the pay was better. I don’t remember giving it much thought, I just made the decision to take the job and leave Oviedo.
I sometimes wonder what might have been had I stayed for that second year.
It was one of those clear forks in the road and I could have easily picked either path. Writing this now I see that staying was a much more viable option that it seemed to me at the time. Back then it felt like a no-brainer (not that we used that term back in 1994), but maybe this was my natural bias for action and my impulsive desire for change, maybe it was me just reacting to that deep feeling of loneliness I’d felt as I’d walked down Calle de la Magdalena the week before.
My change in plans didn’t go down well with Mr A.
He refused to shake my hand when I told him, he turned his back and dismissed me from the room with a flourish. He later discovered that it was his arch-enemy (Mr B) who had been behind my move, and he was livid. Mr B (a school-owner and a friend from my first year), had, without my knowledge, shopped Mr A to the authorities for employing teachers without paying the full social security – it wasn’t uncommon to pay at least part of the wage in cash. I guess they also saved on insurance and other costs, but I am not sure. I was a naïve skint foreign kid trying to scrape by, but I wasn’t entirely ignorant of the circumstances either, I knew cash-in-hand when I saw it. I wasn’t happy when I found out that Mr B had been mining me for information and using me as a pawn in his ongoing feud with Mr A and told him so, but in the kind of way a pushover might try to carefully assert themselves so as not to offend anyone.
Gijón is bigger than Oviedo, around 260,000 to 180,000 at the time. It is a coastal city strung out across two main bays with a tiny peninsula in the centre. On one side was the lovely San Lorenzo beach, on the other a marina and then, further along, the industrial port. The peninsula is called Cimadevilla (summit of the town) and was the lively old centre full of the lively late night bars.
Oviedo was the posh and pretty historical capital with a university feel, Gijón was the hard-working dirt-under-the-fingernails gritty town of grafters, an ugly disorganised pile, but one with a heart and soul that I grew to like. I didn’t love it like I had Oviedo, but I did grow rather fond of this flawed chaos.
That whole year was different than the previous one.
After that first crazy year in Oviedo, I’d come to see Spain as one big partyland; not a country of work, but a country entirely dedicated to play.
This was not a fully rounded understanding of the country.
Spain is a great place for going out and drinking too much, and a wonderful place to eat out, but the thing with having a proper job is that you are also expected to turn up and do some work.
In Oviedo I’d irregularly worked a scant few hours in the evening, from around 6 till about 9, then I’d gone out, eventually crawling into bed around 6am and getting up at 4 in the afternoon. This lifestyle didn’t fit too well with the demands of my punishing new schedule. Some days I started as early as 10am, and on the others I had to be at work, not reeking of alcohol, by 4pm.
Fortunately the expat community of Anglophones were more sensible than the studenty bunch I’d hung about with in Oviedo. They were far more integrated, quite a few were married or had Spanish partners, and many had properly settled like the way real adults do.
This was before the internet, so there was precious little English-language stuff around. We’d cluster together to watch Saturday afternoon football on Canal+ (fortunately Leeds United were quite good in those days), or get up extra early to watch Peter Jennings deliver ABC World News in English (not that there was much news from outside the US). On Tuesdays some of us would meet up when the Sunday papers made it this far north and we’d do The Observer cryptic crossword together over coffee.
Not all of us were natural friends, but there was an unspoken agreement to get on with each other while we were there. A friend called it the Anglo-Irish Agreement – it was the same friend that got me the interview that led to my first proper job (a Trainer at Virgin Atlantic Airways) a few years later … I will never know what might have happened had I taken the fork to stay in Oviedo, but I know for sure that I would have missed out on that great job.
We spent a lot of time in a very seedy bar called the Savoy, we ate a lot in the wonderful Torremar restaurant, enjoyed Asturian sidra (cider) and chipirones (whole baby squid) in El Centenario in the Plaza Mayor, spent Easter in Barcelona; I even had a couple of girlfriends that year, but for all these great memories, the one thing that sticks out from the 93/94 year was the moment my Dad told me he had cancer.
I was on the phone in the hall, doing my usual weekly obligatory phone call home, and he told me in that matter-of-fact way that people from Yorkshire do, like it had similar importance as having a broken fingernail that was annoyingly snagging on his jumper. I’d seen him at Christmas and we had all marveled at how much weight he’d inexplicably lost. I remember thinking how old he looked suddenly but I didn’t say anything. If I could go back in time, I’d go to this point and tell him to go to the hospital right away, but I didn’t know then that sudden weight loss and looking dead old was a massive alarm bell that shouldn’t be ignored. There are lots of times I’d like to go back in my life, in general I’ve played this whole being alive gig quite hamfistedly, but this one is at the top of that list.
That summer I went home and had a miserable time working in a boring office and watching my Dad suffer through bouts of chemotherapy. The only bright point was me meeting the girl of my dreams, and I even managed to persuade her to the pub for a drink; but circumstances were such that it just didn’t happen (her mother walked in, and anyway she had a boyfriend, was at Uni miles away, was way out my league etc.) … so I spent the rest of the summer being even more morose.
To avoid having to make any decisions, I meekly returned to Gijón by default.
My first year abroad had been an adventure, and I’d proven myself resourceful and capable. The second year had been a proof of concept, I wanted to try to live with an income so I could properly enjoy the experience and learn the language. By the time it came to decide about that third year, it was just that I didn’t know what else to do and I took the easy way out, running back to what had become my comfort zone.
I don’t regret it exactly, they were unusual circumstances, but it was the first time I’d decided to tread water rather than experience something new, and maybe that led to my next stupid decision – but I’m getting rather ahead of myself …
Here’s the playlist, as best as I remember, from that year …
* I’d put the leaflets in piles in a spare classroom. Rather than count out each pile, I’d just measured their height. Mr A counted them while I was out and found them to contain an average of about 80 – so he cut my pay by 20% to account for this. Fair enough, but he needn’t have taken such obvious delight in it.
† Assuming we survived the girl issue. My flatmates kindly invited me out one night with their pals, several of whom were female. I had the good manners to first check which one my single flatmate had his eye on; I didn’t want to tread on toes. Unfortunately he wanted the one who seemed most into me. This meant that I spent the evening awkwardly trying not to get off with this attractive woman who was clearly available. Remarkably I managed to keep my hands to myself, but I suspect it would have been an unsustainable situation over the longer term.