Normally when I travel – if there IS a normal anymore – I do not get to know many people from the countries I’m visiting, especially if I don’t speak the language. I have conversations that mostly consist of “Hello”…”How are you?”…”Where is the toilet?”… “Can I have some more wine?”
In the Pueblo Ingles program, I would not say I got close to the participants, but because I did talk to every Spaniard for at least 50 minutes one-to-one, I learned quite a lot about them. As a result I gained insights into Spanish culture and these individuals that linger with me.
Carolina is unusually tall for a Spanish woman. She speculates that somewhere in the past a member of her family had an affair with a Viking. While talking to her, the subject of marriage as an institution arose (it had been a discussion topic earlier in the week.) She told me that although she has been married twice, she never really wanted to marry. Her first husband, however, did, and she agreed, even marrying in a church because it was important to him (although she is not religious.) She married the second time to ensure that her partner had legal next-of-kin status because she was very ill with breast cancer, and she wanted him to be the one to make decisions for her if she was not able to. (If they did not marry, this role would have fallen to her mother and she preferred that it be her husband.)
As we talked more, I developed a huge admiration for this woman. She explained that she has worked her whole life as a woman in a man’s world (she works in claims, for an insurance company) – and she is clearly able to hold her own. She is obviously deeply attached to her husband, but they respect each other’s independence and frequently do things separately. He does most of the cooking (and her mother disapproves, upbraiding her for lying on the sofa while he works in the kitchen). But he likes to cook and she does not; he often comes home from work in a state and barricades himself in the kitchen for an hour to relieve stress by cooking. Then he emerges and tells her he has not only prepared dinner, but has made her lunches for the next few days. Meanwhile she is free to play the piano or whatever else she wants to do. Pretty good deal, she thinks – and I couldn’t agree more.
Carolina has had a difficult few years. She was so ill with the various cancer treatments that she could barely walk. For about a year she was off work and someone had to be with her at all times because she was so weak. When her husband was working, her mother came to stay with her – and tried to coddle her. But Carolina’s husband objected fiercely to anyone pitying her and told her mother that she should never say “poor Carolina” or anything like that. Carolina agreed and insisted that she get up and fetch a glass of water herself, even if it took her 10 minutes to get across the room and fill the glass. She values her independence hugely.
She also said, that although she felt utterly wretched during that year, it was not all bad, not at all. It freed her to contemplate her life and to do the things she wanted to do (once she was able) – like learn to play the piano, take singing lessons and focus on improving her English, not because she had to, but because she wanted to. She was also very moved by the support she received from friends and colleagues.
She lost all her hair – in fact one night asked her husband to cut it off after it had started coming out in clumps on a windy evening when they were dining with friends and she feared everyone’s food would be full of hair. Before the cancer, she’d had long curly hair. Now it is short and utterly straight. She has been back at work for a year, doing fine, but she still tires easily and the intensity of the week-long program exhausted her. Not that you’d know, given the energy she brought to our conversations.
It was my great pleasure spending time with Carolina. She lives in Barcelona, a city I love and certainly hope to visit again. If I do, she will be very high on the list of people I want to see. And I think she is a Viking: brave, strong and independent!