Friday, February 18, 2011

The blurring boundary between public and private lives

I was listening to early morning Spanish radio the other day (in an attempt to help improve my Spanish) when a very bizarre song came on. The chorus seemed to consist of a woman wailing ‘What the F***’. Now I know I’m not quite used to Euro pop but this came as a bit of a surprise at about 10am on a weekday morning.
The lyrics reminded me of the fact that over the last few years in magazines and newspapers it has, seemingly, become more acceptable to use swear words as a means of expression. Now, I’m not really sure, if I’m honest, about my stance on censorship, but I do think that our media reflects the sort of society that we live in.
I like a good old swear myself every now and again (I recently moved a single bed downstairs on my own and that called for much swearing at the bed and the stairs) and I don’t mind a good old swear (usually drunken) with friends. However, that doesn’t mean that I want to publically swear as a means of normal conversation, nor do I, necessarily, want to hear regular swearing on the radio or read swearing in a newspaper or magazine that I think is going to give me thoughtful and thought provoking information about the world or cinema, books, food and life.
I wonder if the increasingly public appearance of swearing in print media and on the radio is a result of the blurring between private and public that we see increasingly in our lives. As magazines and newspapers increasingly provide insight into the most personal aspects of celebrity lives are we becoming more used to intimate revelations?
Does that mean that we no longer mind if journalists and musicians feel the desire to express their thoughts and feelings with language more usually used in private not public forums?
Is it middle age? Am I becoming more prudish and judgemental as I get older or am I just expecting a bit too much of the world around me?
Certainly in my job (as a teacher) it would be highly inappropriate for me to use swearing as an everyday means of acceptable expression. I wouldn’t want to either...I like to separate my professional and personal life with some boundaries...the ability and freedom to swear if I wish comes as a welcome release when I am home from school and my children are in bed!
I am a believer in the fact that we shape the world around us with the way we use language, as much as the media and other influences all around us shape the way we think and behave. So, what do we do? Make sure that the language we use is thoughtful and considerate, is provoking when it needs to be, but does not necessarily bare all our innermost sweary thoughts and feelings to the world.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

How do the Spanish know I'm not Spanish (without me speaking a word)?

There are some cultural things which are fantastically wonderful to observe when you move to a new country. Some are distinct and easy to spot and others are more subtle and make me wonder whether it’s a cultural distinction or just a peculiarity that I have as an individual or that I have inherited from a sometimes eccentric mother...
How do the Spanish know I’m not Spanish (without me speaking a word?)
1. There are lots more zebra crossings here in Spain than in the U.K. possibly because people walk a lot more in the warmer climate so there is a lot more pedestrian traffic here. Anyway, they’re everywhere, street corners, any place you may possibly want to cross the street in fact and it is obligatory, when you’re driving, to stop for pedestrians who are waiting to cross. When I am a pedestrian myself and a driver has stopped for me, I always like to give them a little cheerful wave and smile, or if I’m busy just a quick flick of the hand as an acknowledgement that they have stopped for me. When I’m driving and I stop, the Spanish just seem to walk across without even glancing up at me in the car, waiting for a little smile or nod.
So the question is, is my acknowledging little wave a very British thing or is it just old style gratitude and manners as taught by mother?
2. I like to eat my lunch at mid day and my dinner between 5 and 7. This is terrifically early by Spanish standards and they are probably eating their dinner while I am warmly snuggled up in bed...which leads to the next point...
3. I like to be in bed by 10.30 at the VERY latest and that’s when the night life here is at its very early stages, many Spanish people are eating their main meal of the day at this time and will be socialising or partying through the night.
4. My Spanish is adequate now and I can understand most things for day to day existence. However, occasionally I will encounter a Spanish person with a strong accent (think Spanish equivalent of strong Liverpool or Middlesborough or Scottish accent) and my face when they say a simple thing must be a real picture of absolute incomprehension...then they know I’m not Spanish
5. As above when some Spanish people become animated or excited or angry and they seem to speak at the most terrific speed and I cannot possibly follow the rapid stream of face says it all
6. At the moment it’s quite chilly in the mornings, so when I wake up I layer up, t shirt, thick jumper, thicker jumper...then by 11am, when it’s warmed up a bit, I am absolutely boiling, especially in the car with the sun streaming in through the windows. I need to adapt the way I dress for this climate with one thin layer and then a very warm coat or jumper on top
7. I don’t normally double kiss acquaintances when I see them, friends yes, but not parents at a birthday the Spanish know I’m not ‘one of them’ by the hearty ‘British’ handshake
8. At British birthday parties, at a certain age, parents are delighted to be able to drop off the children for two hours of child free shopping or football watching before returning to collect the kid(s). In Spain, the parents stay with the children, have a drink, maybe a beer, a few snacks and’s kind of nice but at the same time it can be like a three hour Spanish lesson for me and by the end of the party I am eager to escape from brain drain of thinking in Spanish for three hours and shouting children, so I often leave as soon as is reasonably polite (in my mind) whilst the Spanish parents seem happy to stay and socialise forever...bear in mind here that some Spanish kids’ parties are in the evening, after work, from 5.30 until 8 o clock at night I’m sure my face just says weariness to the Spanish parents as I beat my hasty, tired retreat.
How do I know I’m not Spanish?
1. I marvel at the beautiful weather every day
2. I am constantly surprised at how kind the people neighbours have already helped me to register at a medical centre, change the water bill to my name, buy fabrics from a haberdashery, harvest our olives and prune the trees. A colleague at school took kilos of olives to be pressed because he knew where the press place was. The plumber has been to sort a number of teething problems with the plumbing in the house and not charged us once. The man who built our house, when asked if he could put in another door at the back, said yes. When told that we couldn’t afford to do the work yet, he offered to pay for the door and we could pay him back when we could afford it...
3. I find it very funny that the Spanish have particular words for a snack at mid morning and an afternoon snack
4. I find the noise levels and the chatter volume at parties, the school dining room and restaurants surprisingly loud
5. I love it when my children are complimented and patted and generally adored by Spanish people, just because they are children
6. I still smile when I am welcomed at the fish shop or the dry cleaners with an ‘ Ola Guapa’ or ‘Hello beautiful’ from the old lady in the shop
7. I marvel at the beautiful weather every day (Yes, I know that was number one on this list, but I want to say it again)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Seamus O’Hanlon’s lucky day - a true story

Seamus O’ Hanlon was a very lucky man, the luck of the Irish of course, born in sight of the Blarney Stone, full of joy with his life: a story to tell at every given opportunity. The night before he’d had a good old round of luck in his poker game with the boys. They only played for 1 riyal notes mind, not wanting to fall out with friends. Nonetheless, he’d won a fair few games and as he counted the notes that he’d stuffed into the pockets of his shorts the night before, he could see that he had a decent amount, maybe a hundred and twenty notes, all in ones, which was a bit of an unwieldy wedge in his wallet but he was planning on spending it, so no concerns there.
It was the Eid holiday, so Seamus knew that the mall would be fairly quiet at 10 o clock in the morning. The locals would have had a very late night celebrating Eid with family and friends, eating late into the night and sleeping in, so he didn’t expect there to be many locals in the shops at all. Maybe a few Westerners enjoying the holiday with a bit of consumerist gratification. A couple of people wanting to escape the blazing heat by shopping maybe. Seamus still banked on the fact that the mall would be quiet. Quiet enough to venture out with the kids to get them some new trainers without having to worry too much about crowds. He could take the kids and give the wife a lie in, get some trainers for the kids with his poker money and earn some brownie points with the wife at the same time. Yes, it was a good plan.
He had a quick scan at the news before he left. Same old nonsense on the TV about terrorism and fear. The war on terror with no real explanation of what the terror was, only an implication of blame. Seamus couldn’t believe that some people at home listened to that nonsense. He felt lucky to live in the Middle East, happy and healthy and, he wouldn’t exactly describe himself as wealthy, or affluent, but comfortable financially, yes, with a nice little tax free income to soften life’s financial burdens...
The kids couldn’t find their decent sandals, so he threw their old scuffed flip flops on their feet. They were only off to the Mall, it wouldn’t matter. He was a bit hung over from the night before and he didn’t want to disturb the wife either, so they left the house in a quick flurry without brushing his daughter’s hair. His son’s t shirt was on inside out too but Seamus didn’t really mind. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining, it was hot. Not too hot yet, the early morning sun was just comfortable and the kids were happy in their flip flops and their scruffy clothes for playing in.
The mall was as quiet as he’s anticipated; he’d been right about Eid. It was a family day, a day for charity and food and celebration. He found the shop he wanted for the kids’ trainers and they quickly tried them on. The two kids were blonde haired and drew the usual friendly good natured glances from shop keepers. As he walked up to pay, Seamus noticed a woman in an abaya in the shop. She had noticed his daughter and was giving her a crinkly smile; the kids were used to seeing women in abayas after living in the Middle East for the last three years, so his daughter smiled back at the woman and greeted her in Arabic.
Seamus went to the till to pay; he knew his children were safe in the shop, especially under the watchful eye of a friendly Muslim woman. He reached the counter with the shoes and smiled to himself as he realised his poker earnings would pay the bill. The shop assistant asked for the money and Seamus smiled again as he counted out the one riyal notes. It took a while to count the hundred and twenty five but he reached the total eventually and handed over the cash to the slightly bewildered assistant who was more used to cards than cash and certainly not used to being paid in one riyal notes. He was ready to go and turned to find the kids. The lady in the abaya had found what she wanted and was behind him in the line. She’d seen him pay in ones and gave him a friendly smile. He saw her glance at the children’s feet and at his son’s inside out t shirt and felt a momentary twinge of embarrassment because although the abaya is not the most beautiful garment in the world, being basically an all over black sheet, even with Seamus’ unpractised eye, he could see that her abaya was rather wonderful, with intricate embroidery in gold thread decorating the front. He looked at the kids in their flip flops and gave the woman a sheepish smile, lifting his carrier bag as if to indicate that he was really a good father, buying new shoes for his kids.
He smiled once more as he left the shop, ready for home and a grateful wife, ready for a dip in the pool with the kids maybe. This was a lucky, sunny life. He was a little startled when the shop assistant grasped him quickly by the shoulder outside the store. Seamus wondered if he’s miscounted the notes. The shop keeper was in fact grasping the notes, all one hundred and twenty five, in his hand. Seamus hoped the boys hadn’t been teasing him with forgeries. The shop assistant caught his breath; he’s obviously had to run to catch up Seamus and the kids. Then he explained that the lady in the abaya had paid for the shoes. He was returning Seamus’ money and he thrust the notes back into Seamus’ hand with an enormous grin.
Seamus grinned back but felt a little puzzled...why had the woman in the abaya paid for his children’s shoes? Then he looked at his kids, two blonde haired kids in their playing clothes and scruffy flip flops, his son with his inside out t shirt and his daughter’s unbrushed hair. The shop assistant was repeating a word that Seamus couldn’t quite understand, until his daughter piped up “Eid, Dad, he’s saying Eid”. Seamus smiled at the man, said thank you and shook his hand. It was Eid, the day of charity. The woman in the abays thought that he’s been saving his one riyal notes until he could afford to buy new shoes for his kids. Her charitable act of Eid was to buy the shoes for him. Seamus smiled again as he stuffed the notes back in his pocket, ready for next week’s poker game...

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Fires of Domestic Bliss (not an advert for Jamie Oliver, honest)

I’m not the most domesticated woman in the world. I never move the furniture when I bother to hoover and many of my clothes are bought specifically because they don’t need to be ironed. Cooking is something to be completed to fulfil my nutritional needs although I do like to be aesthetically pleased by my food that’s not a great combination when you’re a lazy cook, as I am...unless you are lucky enough to be married to a more than competent and happy to cook husband.
Yes, lucky me, I haven’t needed to cook in the past because I’ve had a great husband to do it for me. Now, I don’t want to be too misleading here. I can cook fairly adequately, I’m just a bit haphazard and disorganised in my approach and, therefore, I’ve had some great memorable disasters in the kitchen. These include an attempt (over ambitious in hindsight) to make a fabulous whole orange in the middle chocolate cake from a Jamie Oliver recipe (don’t we all love Jamie?) for my best friend Amanda’s wedding celebration. The whole thing collapsed, leaving a rather sad looking chocolate smeared orange in the middle. The chocolate flavoured goo that surrounded the orange was delicious, but it could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be called a beautiful cake!!
I have also served pizza with cabbage (for want of any other vegetable for the kids) which husband teases me about to this very day...don’t know why because the children ate it and so did I...
When I worked quite long hours in a demanding job, my husband took care of the home and kids for a few blissful years, then he took a job and occasionally would be unable to cook dinner. These are fondly known as my pesto years because the staple evening meal became pasta with pesto sauce. Thankfully, the children adore my pasta pesto sauce and ‘green pasta’ became the children’ favourite dish!
Then, horror of horrors, my husband applied for his own great job, complete with long hours and I am now working part time...which means that I am home first, which means that I am on food duty. Now the first few months were a bit haphazard in terms of food preparation. I was devoid of ideas and after a lengthy kitchen absence seemed to have forgotten how to make anything bar green pasta.
Luckily, my wonderful mother in law informed me about Jamie Oliver’s new book (we love you Jamie). Mother in law had been watching the 30 minute meals programme and extolled its virtues, so we bought the book.
Needless to say, Jamie is a genius (despite my failure with the orange chocolate cake from many moons ago) and I am a convert to the 30 minute meal regime. I have tried a range of recipes with some fab results. The kids like the food and so do I.
I am now happy to call myself a domestic goddess, almost on a par with Nigella but without the cleavage and with a bit more fire...we have had a small blazing adventure with one dish.
The meal involved baking parchment and filo pastry and the oven, shall we just say that I set the oven on fire and we had a blazing conflagration in the kitchen which the children really enjoyed and I stared at open mouthed. Thankfully competent chef (AKA husband) was around to quench the fire quickly and save parts of the pie, so our dinner was only a little bit burnt and not smouldering at all. And there was only a little bit of burning baking parchment floating around the kitchen. And we weren’t completely overwhelmed by the smoke. And the phrase ‘don’t try this at home’ did keep popping into my mind in a semi-hysterical way. The pie was good, it was eaten and I still insist that I am a domestic goddess, complete with fiery flames in the background and me dancing in the foreground a la “Tales of the Unexpected” opening titles.

*If you don’t understand that reference you can you tube Tales of the Unexpected opening titles!!