Spain in 1975 was very different from England and quite different from what it has become today. I felt it, as much as saw it, as soon as I got off the plane. Of course it was hot and dusty. Policemen carried machine-guns, and there seemed to be a lot of them about. There were only two makes of car, SEAT (i.e. FIAT) and Renault, and they were all either black or white. The country looked old-fashioned and poor – if differently poor to Birkenhead. On the five-hour bus journey from Madrid to León we passed through villages where people wore wooden clogs. They stared as if they’d never seen a bus in their lives. The scenario was primitive and a little bit intimidating.

Twin towns? L: Birkenhead – R: Pobladura de Los Oteros

The girls’ secondary school I’d been allocated to, IES Legio VII, was in the centre of the old town. The teachers seemed relaxed and informal, certainly compared with those at my own school, but they didn’t seem very interested in me. I think only one ever invited me round for dinner. The female English teacher whom, I suspected, had never ventured out of Spain, handed me my timetable: a back-breaking six hours a week, all in the morning, with nothing at all on Fridays. I hardly saw her after that. So they were actually paying me to teach classes of teenage girls for six hours a week. Blimey. Before the week was out, everyone in town knew who I was. The same was true of my compatriots, fellow students on their “year off” doing similar arduous work.

Being an auxiliary was as big a doddle as I’d hoped. The teacher didn’t know what to do with me, so anything the girls learned would be a bonus. Discovering that the school possessed a guitar, I decided to make use of it in my lessons, and get some practice in at the same time. Soon the class became quite good at performing “The Wild Rover”, though we all struggled to translate “no, nay, never; no, nay, never, no more”. My translation exercises were drawn principally from articles in ¡Hola!, trusting that the pupils would find them more interesting than whatever they were being fed by their teacher.

Ex-pat friends in León’s barrio húmedo

It became a custom for us ex-pats to meet after morning school at a local bar called, inexplicably, “Mr Pib”. As often as not we’d spend the evening in the barrio húmedo, a medieval square packed with bars. Some of us began to frequent Mythos or Atomium, León’s premier night-spots. The girls there always outnumbered the boys and I eventually worked out why. It was because of the mili – military service – which robbed the town of a good proportion of its young men during the week. The doomed youth turned up on Sundays in their ill-fitting battledress, and slouched around the town accompanied by their families until it was time to return to barracks.

The lovely Tere: my teenage dance partner – indisputably Spanish

From the day I arrived, I could see that the locals were showing an unusual interest in the TV news. Everyone was glued to the telly because Generalísimo Francisco Franco, a.k.a. El Caudillo, a.k.a. El Cabrón, was dying. It took him a long, long time, but he finally went to a better place (perhaps) on 20 November, after generously pardoning his enemies. No-one knew what would happen next. In the event, we all had a week off school for “mourning”, then went back as if nothing had happened. In Bilbao and Barcelona they were letting off fireworks and holding drunken parties, but not in León.

A memorable edition of Cambio 16

In December IES Legio VII held its end-of-year fiesta – a rather restrained and twee affair. The teachers and girls sang folk songs; I was handed the trusty school guitar but decided to go a cappella. I stuck my finger in my left ear, in the hope that it would impress the audience. There was only one song I felt at all confident about performing, and that was “The Bonny Black Hare”, which I knew from a Fairport album. It is a cheeky little number full of less-than-subtle doubles entendres. Respectful, and ignorant, applause followed. 

Of course it is a cliché, but I learned more about Spain and Spanish people in two months than in the previous two years. A lot more. They ate better food, and more of it, but not sugary snacks. They dressed better, even if they had less money to spend. In some ways they were narrow-minded, in other ways more open and trusting than the English. Respectable middle-aged ladies in fur coats drank lager at the bar. The girls were more forward than I expected. Parents were not embarrassed to show that they loved their children. You were generally treated with respect and there was very little chance of you being attacked on a Saturday night. You just had to steer clear of the police, in all their forms.

As Christmas approached it got seriously cold, though it hardly rained at all. Having settled into life in this compact, friendly town, it was time to return to Blighty. Pete came down from Oviedo and we headed off to Madrid by train to catch our charter to Gatwick. It started to snow heavily and the flight was delayed. We met up with some fellow students in the airport bar, and by the time we eventually took off we’d all had a few. Soon we were singing Amor, amor by Lolita. (The chorus consists, conveniently, of just one word, endlessly repeated. Even those with no knowledge whatever of Spanish can master it.)

***

If you were born in Spain, or have lived there or studied the language, you probably know a fair bit of Spanish! Most English people, however, would say that they only knew “a few words”. But maybe a good deal more than they thought. (Nouns anyway. Verbs are for geeks.) For example…

You leave your hotel and head across the plaza in search of a bar or cafetería. You say hola to the barista and order a café, por favor. When it arrives pronto, you say muchas gracias, señor (or señora, or possibly señorita, if that’s not politically incorrect), and on leaving, adiós. Any problems so far?

Later in the day it’s getting a bit warm and you fancy a beer: a boring choice, but it might be San Miguel? So you know at least one man’s name. Think of all those footballers, tennis players and golfers: Pedro, Rafa(el), Felipe, Antonio, Andrés, Carlos, Santiago, Diego, Enrique, Severiano, Angel, David, and the consistently mispronounced Javier. There’s Fernando (ABBA), Manuel (Fawlty Towers)… Iñigo Jones?. And how could we leave out Jesús?

What about those towns in the Americas? San Francisco, San Juan, San José. And the female ones: Santa Mónica, Santa Bárbara… Then there’s Paloma (Faith, or Picasso, to go with Pablo), Teresa, Gloria. And Bizet’s Carmen. Oh,Mercedes! Think back to those dusty bottles on the barista’s shelf: Tía María (Aunty Mary) and Tío Pepe (Uncle Joe). Mother? Madre of course. Father? Padre (as in the Army chaplain).

Just a tapa for lunch or something more substantial, like paella? Then maybe a siesta before strolling to the playa for a swim in the mar. Careful not to get burnt by the sol (as in the Mexican beer). You will need your sombrero or even a parasol. Or sit beneath the shady trees. Los álamos (poplars), las palmas (guess?). Then take a walk up the hill to take in the vista of the costa, or the sierra across the bay.

In the evening you could relax on your patio and enjoy a glass of vino or sangría. Or go to the fiesta to join up with your amigos. See you mañana.

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