jueves, 25 de agosto de 2011

Feeling the fear - resisting the call of the sirens

The last thing I did before leaving Belfast a week ago was to throw away my umbrella. I dropped it into a litter bin on the Donegal Road with a smirk. Ten minutes later the heavens opened and the smirk had transmuted into a grimace. Not even the last evening in Ireland would be rain free. I sighed and trudged onward, gathering my coat to me while trying to be positive about getting soaked. At least, I supposed, the appalling summer weather would make my departure from my home town for a warmer climate slightly less painful. In just 24 hours I would be enjoying clear skies and baking temperatures in Spain. It was hard to remember what that felt like, to walk along the street without the accompaniment of a chill wind.
In the depths of last winter I took a decision to go and live in Spain for a year or maybe even more. This is no holiday that I am embarking on. Neither am I retiring. I am getting old and instead of sitting around in my terraced house in Belfast waiting for illness and death to catch up with me, I’m going on the run. Old age, and all that comes with it, can catch me on the run, somewhere where benevolent temperatures will soothe, and not aggrieve, my arthritis.
Tarragona is the setting for this new phase of my life. Exactly twenty five years ago I left my job teaching English in this pretty Mediterranean city, famous for its Roman ruins, and headed north, back to England and to academic life. Now I’m returning a quarter of a century later, quarter of a century older, it seems like a safe bet to return to these streets that were the scene of some of the best years of my youth. I’m familiar with its terrain but still I’m apprehensive about what this volte face, this aberration, might usher in. It’s not at all clear as I write whether the decision to move to Tarragona will be the cause of mild embarrassment at dinner parties back home in years to come, or the source of deep satisfaction at having “broken free”, at having thrown a spanner in the works of predictability by embracing uncertainty. What is clear now is that the move, wrenching myself away from all that is habitual, has been very challenging. My job, my house, my community of friends, my cat and my stable routine called to me, like the mythological sirens, even as I packed my suitcases in the week leading up to my departure. The message was always the same, so alluring and so rational, “You can stop this madness now.”
Unlike Ulysses, I was not bound hand and foot to a ship’s mast, but even so I resisted. Last week I boarded a flight bound for Barcelona and precipitated myself into the “madness”. The call of the sirens is still there, fainter, but perceptible. I felt it when I landed in the airport with my two heavy suitcases and later when I heaved them on to the single bed in the spare room of my Catalan friends’ home. Moving from a house into a single room is hard to justify, the sirens whispered, so this experience better be worth it.
But I am only here in this single room temporarily. I have begun my search for a place to live, somewhere that is Mediterranean, exotic, with a hint of Bohemian character; above all it must have a soul.
None of the property ads I have seen so far speak of “soul” and their hard-nosed Catalan owners and estate agents would cringe if I were to mention the word. Instead, the defining factors in my search have become firstly, noise and secondly, light. Too much noise and too little light. In a country where the car reigns supreme and the volume of traffic is both intense and relentless, finding a home where one can sleep undisturbed is equivalent to mission impossible. The hum of traffic is one thing but the stentorian blast of car horns deep into the night is another. Light, or rather the absence of it, in the bedrooms and even in the living rooms of some otherwise “acceptable” flats I have seen so far leave me shaking my head in disappointment. Owners and agents have grandly opened doors into dungeon-like chambers, so dim that the bed was barely discernible until the light was switched on. To wake to permanent gloom in the Mediterranean would be unforgivable the sirens rebuke. Enough of that in Belfast. Now, before a viewing, I ask if the bedroom is exterior, as opposed to interior. But it’s Catch 22 because an exterior bedroom leads me into a head on collision with noise from the street.
The most tempting abode that I have viewed this far into my search was one of the first in my quest. The bedroom was bathed in “natural light” flooding in through large patio windows leading on to a balcony overlooking an astonishing array of Roman ruins. It was undoubtedly a room with a view. Mentally, I was already unpacked and bestowing my personality on to the apartment, seeking its soul. Then the owner dynamited my reverie sky high.
“You can only have one of the two bedrooms. You choose which, but I need the other.”
            I’m a married man, thirty one years married. But I still have my needs.”
Fearful of what was coming next, I gave him my full attention.
            “My friend, girlfriend I mean, from Barcelona, comes down to Tarragona a couple of times a week and I don’t take her to a hotel. I bring her here. I hope you understand the way these things work.”
I nodded, knowing very well how these things work from the bitter experience of a cheating husband. I smiled benignly.
            “Of course I understand. That’s life, isn’t it?”
The smile was beginning to wear thin so I dropped it into a neutral expression. Sordid and sleazy, a squalid little arrangement, the sirens hissed. No thanks. I shook his hand anyway and mustering all the sincerity I could, I told him I would give careful consideration to his proposal.
Stepping out into the bright sunlight, I glanced up at the sign on the corner, Calle Gasometro, Gasmetre Street never would have suited me anyway.