Welcome! Fancy a Vermut?

This is my first post on the new look blog.  I have been so busy planning and preparing for the changeover that I forgot to write a post to welcome you over here.

So, let’s sit down and share a virtual vermut, which is my way of saying there is no one theme to this post, it is more like a chat between friends, dancing from one subject to another. With a virtual vermut in hand!

1. Independence Day

Last Sunday we had the independence vote in Catalunya. It was a success in spite of many legal attempts to stop it happening. It is good to know I was there and I took part.

We went to our voting station, my stepsons old school in fact. There was a long queue winding down the street and around the corner and down the main road. People of all ages were there and many arrived with the whole family, and the dog.   We met friends. I saw the elderly couple who own my parking space, and the lady who runs the local gym.  People arrived in wheel chairs and supported on walking frames.

The best thing for me was how happy everyone was. Even though it was not an officially approved vote, the Spanish government even called it ‘sterile and useless’, in spite of all this, people were deeply moved to be voting at last on something so close to their hearts. It was well organised, calm, determined and community based. Inside at the ballot box almost everyone had their photo taken at the important moment of dropping the envelope into the slot.

2. Brrrrrrrr

The weather changed this week. As always it surprised me with the speed of the change. Only a couple of weeks ago I was swimming with my sister at Llafranc on the Costa Brava and then suddenly I was putting on coats and boots and even wearing socks to bed at night.  When I complain that the summer is too hot and the winter too cold and there is not enough time in between with just sunny mild days, my partner replies, ‘This is the Mediterranean and that is the nature of it. Sudden changes, extremes of weather, not so much of the inbetweens’  Does this say something about the Mediterranean personality too? After five years living here I find I am more like this too.

3. Family

I am pleased to tell you there seems to be a mellowing in the relationship between my stepson and myself. He is 19 now and although he’s still not much of a helper or a chatter at home and has to be reminded almost every time to wash his dishes or clean the hairs from the bathroom sink, I still notice a softening of the walls that keep us apart.  Is it his age?  Is it because I have spent a lot of time sending him love and peace as I stride along the streets, flicking through my prayer beads?  Is it because I have changed?

I practise speaking to him as he whizzes past me in the house and maybe even these few words that show I am interested have opened up  little gaps in the wall. I hope so as sometimes it feels impossible to continue living with someone who ignores me so totally. It has been almost  five years!

4. Five Years

Five years ago in December 2009 I started writing this blog. I was sitting at my desk in a chilly flat in Carrer Valencia, Barcelona.  I felt lonely and a bit lost in the middle of my new life in Catalunya. I had a new and still fragile relationship, several new friendships which were as yet untested , two languages to learn, a  beloved yet strange city to explore, and I felt myself to be vulnerable and anxious.  People kept questioning my ways of thinking and doing things. Even walking down the street was challenging as I hadn’t yet discovered that people in Catalunya walk on the right side and British people walk on the left!

I decided to write a blog and the name came to me almost immediately. The Catalan Way – it was like my private joke reminding myself that while I was here I must do things in the Catalan way.  I had decided to be open to change and I didn’t want to be a typical foreigner who insisted on doing things their way. I had come to learn and to expand my possibilities so now I must educate myself about the Catalan way and try to follow it.

The blog became my friend and my guide. From writing it I made new friends and I learned more about myself as I tried to understand what was going on around and inside me. I hope I also have shared some of this in a way that is interesting for others even if you have never been to Catalunya or met me.

Now here is my new version of The Catalan Way. I am very excited about this new stage of the journey and  I hope you will come along with me to see what happens next. I know of course that it is as much about me as it is about Catalunya.  I often struggle with decisions about what to write – more on Catalunya and less on my life here?  Or the other way around?   But Kate’s way seems to be a mix of both.

Welcome to Kate’s journey on the Catalan way.

An outsider looking in

“I’ve felt like an outsider all my life. It comes from my mother who always felt like an outside in my father’s family.”   Anthony Hopkins
 I am going to tell you about our visit to Falset, the lovely town near Tarrogona where my partner’s aunt lives.  Falset is famous for wine and olive oil production and is where we get our bottles of Vermut – the real variety!
We drove over to Falset to celebrate Santa Montse – the saint’s day of all women called Montse (including Pep’s aunt) and of course our own much missed mother/mother-in-law. It was a family get together which if you have been paying attention to this blog you will know is not my favourite way to spend a day as I don’t feel relaxed and comfortable with that particular group of people. I don’t speak Catalan well enough but more than that, I don’t feel they are very interested in getting to know me.
But it went surprisingly well – perhaps partly because I love the auntie and so was happy to be there.  I also  love Falset and of course, things tend to go more smoothly when you meet up in neutral territory.
We ate here in a hill top restaurant called La Cassola in the wonderfully named Gratallops. The restaurant looks out over the vineyards and olive groves and was strangely empty for a Saturday lunch time. We all got quite giggly due to the immensity of the restaurant,  the strength of the rich red wine, the grumpiness of the owner/waitress and also the appearance of strange dishes like this typical Catalan escudella i carn d’olla
There was nothing odd about the dish itself, it was the fact that this huge tureen was a starter for one person!  Brother-in-law ploughed his way through it admirably but in the end had to admit defeat. 
The middle courses I don’t remember but I am sure they were also hearty. Then we had puddings and here they are!  
Music – dried fruit and nuts, served with a dessert wine
Crema Catalana –  the traditional option
Mel i Mato  – honey and a soft cheese
I couldn’t resist the Pyjama which turned out to be a bit of everything
We walked though the town afterwards and ended up at one of the wine cooperatives where we were overwhelmed by heady choices of wine and oil
I have always got on well with the Montses in the family – the living aunt and the sadly gone mother.  They belong to a generation which while it might have different opinions, is warm and welcoming to a stranger.  But I have spent many hours since arriving in Catalunya wondering why there is a coolness between me and the younger members of the family.  It is easy to think it is my fault – I don’t speak the language well enough, I don’t make enough effort to fit in, I occasionally duck out of events, I am so different culturally and in personality. But after this outing I did come to some conclusions which might explain this problem which has affected my ability to feel at home here.
“I think having an outsiders viewpoint is interesting and good.”
Paul Merton
1. Older people expect to be different from me and so can be accepting.  However younger people seem uncomfortable around  someone who is broadly their age but who is clearly not the same. They don’t know how to deal with me, what to think of me, where to psychically put me. I am an outsider by nature and by choice.
2. People in Catalunya generally do not move around as much as British people do. My own family are spread around the UK taking in London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Cambridge and Cornwall, but the Catalan family all live within 10 miles of where they were born. Their husbands, wives and parents do too.  All of them come from a small area around our town.  Imagine what a difference this makes in your life!  Your friends are also from the same area. Everyone that surrounds you is familiar.  The nearbyness of your extended family.
They don’t know how to relate to this strange childless woman in her 50’s who suddenly arrived in their midst?  Who is she?  Where is she from?  Why did she leave her home and family to come here? What is in her past?  Does she have dark secrets chasing at her heels?  
They could chose to ask me these questions and try to find out about me or they can play safe, being friendly but not inquiring too closely. It is safer to welcome me but not let me get too intimate – after all – I may decide to set off for pastures new again one day. Or I might try to disturb the familiar patterns of their lives.
I think it is hard for British people coming here to really understand how it is to be part of such a different culture – deeply rooted in home territory, bonded closely with family and childhood ties, passionately protective of traditional customs and habits. 
I have struggled with understanding all this and I continue to peck away at it in my mind – trying to make sense of so many subtle things that disturb my equilibrium. It is only now after 5 years here that I can see how important it is not to take it too personally. It is not personal although it has so often affected me that way.
It is a ‘thing’ that affects me, hurts me, confuses me but it is not directed personally at me.  Phew!
Or maybe it is!  Eeeks!   Maybe they just don’t like me?
Deciding to embrace my role as ‘outsider’ may be the only answer that will give me peace and stop my constant worry that I don’t fit in here at all.
At least I am in good company – thanks Paul Merton, Anthony Hopkins, Jeremy Paxton and others who describe themselves this way.
Do you think that we all feel like outsiders?  Do you have this feeling sometimes?
I am curious to know how other people deal with this.
Let me know in the comments
“I’ve always felt myself to be an outsider, I’ve always felt awkward” 
Jeremy Paxman





Virtual Vermut

I’ve needed a few actual vermuts this week.

It was the sort of week you dread in advance and then when it’s taken step by step – poc a poc – it isn’t so bad.  But I was feeling a bit on the edge – easily irritable – could it be the Spring?  That seems to be the explanation for most things at the moment.

We got our potatoes in at last.

For the first time I have planted some in sacks on the terrace and the rest of them are in four rows in a large allotment in Llica D’Amunt.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee
And live alone in the bee loud glade

Marc, the owner, has lots of vegetables growing there down by the river Tenis, with a chicken run and cherry blossom trees. Bonnie had to be stopped from digging holes – she seems to have forgotten how to behave on a vegetable patch or perhaps she was just over-excited

In 90 days we should be eating our own Charlottes and Pentland Javelins.

Early one morning Bonnie was unusually restless and something in her little plaintive whines made me decide to get up and actually take her out rather than just open the door to the terrace.  It was 6am. She led me rapidly through the empty streets, down to the New Park

A dog with a mission. Once there she found some grass and began to munch. It was fascinating how she chose which bits to eat and which to reject. Pure instinct

If we were sitting down now to share a drink I might tell you stories about the family party we had at the weekend. We had planned a barbecue on the terrace and even though it was cloudy and threatening rain, we went ahead. It wasn’t cold – just a little breezy. But so lovely to be outside. Somewhere along the line we had forgotten that not everyone likes to sit outside on a cloudy day in early Spring. There were lots of complaints. And I drank lots more vermuts to keep myself smiling!
These are calçots!

The celebration?  Funnily enough this year both father and son have significant birthdays.
The resident adolescent is now officially an adult.
We are watching closely for signs of the change.
I made three cakes – two of them were disasters as the sponges rose very high in the oven and promptly collapsed on coming out. For the third I gave up the idea of cake and instead made chocolate brownies at the last minute.  In the fridge were chocolate candles given to the boy by a friend – one 1 and one 8. Unfortunately by the day of the party he had nibbled off half of the 8 and so we had a cake for a 13year old!

The birds are beginning to pair up.  I’m looking out for swallows.
People are starting to talk about Spring!  And when they say “La Primavera” they say it with a twinkle in the eye. It means much more here than sprouting potatoes and budding trees

Bonnie met her friend Azlan in the park -it’s good to see her so happy.

There is certainly something in the air. something explosive and strong. For me it meant having to hold my tongue on several occasions when I felt frustrated.  I need to be out of the city – somewhere  I can ‘live in the bee loud glade’. Perhaps not alone but certainly away from the constant presence of computers games and crisp packets, disinterested shop assistants, piles of rubbish on the ground and shops full of bored unfriendly people buying more clothes.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings
There midnight’s all a glimmer and noon a purple glow
And evening’s full of the linnets wings

The Crazy Stepmother from Hell

There are so many changes to adapt to when you move to another country that sometimes it is hard to know where or who you are.
But for me the most challenging thing has been without doubt the change from childless independent woman to evil step-mother.
I had to create another blog to write about that as it has been a steep learning curve and I needed to create a safe place to explore many difficult feelings and experiences.  I was trying so hard to be nice – yet getting in touch with terrible anger and even hatred. If you want to read about people facing difficult emotions then go and read online Stepparent Forums. Noone prepares you for what it is like in reality and there are a lot of people suffering out there and often blaming themselves.

I went through an interesting process today, out walking Bonnie in the park and mulling things over as usual.  I felt myself shift from tired beaten down victim who wants to run away……. to someone who could stand up for herself and fight her corner. I don’t like fighting – surely people can just be nice to each other?  Can’t they?  Well, sometimes that just isn’t going to happen.

Here’s the story.

Don’t Judge
If you have never been a stepparent please don’t judge what I tell you. It is nothing like being a parent – it is much more complicated and in my opinion, harder. And being a stepmother is not the same as being a stepfather. Those fairy tales weren’t joking – stepmothers have a raw deal and it’s no wonder they can get murderous.
In the beginning
I came onto the scene when the boy was 14 – entering adolescence. I have never known him as a normal child.  Never seen him being loving or entertaining or cuddly like small boys can be.  I have no memories of his eyes lighting up when he sees me, nor of him running to me for a hug when he is hurt. I arrived for the worst bit without any shared happy history.  We haven’t been through a bonding experience like mothers and babies do from the beginning
He hates me
I didn’t expect that.
I probably arrived with absurd notions about parenting.  I don’t have my own children and I had no experience at all of what is involved in being a step-parent.  None of my friends had step children and I have never had a step family myself.  I now know that of course a child will hate the person who intrudes into their home and takes away attention from them.
Whatever the original parental relationship was like, it had one strong common bond – The Child.
I arrived and although I wanted to make a relationship with The Child, he didn’t want one with me. His survival does not depend on me and in fact I am an obstacle in his life. I come between him and his father.
He is a boy so doesn’t express his emotions.  He tolerates me so long as I don’t get in his way. But if I come between him and his desires then it becomes obvious. He hates me.
Obviously we have an added difficulty in that we don’t share the same language. Luckily for me he speaks quite good English and I quickly decided to only speak that with him. If I struggle to talk in Spanish or even worse Catalan, it puts me in a very inferior position and he has even less respect for me than he does already.  He is an expert at the raised eyebrow, the silent putdown.
For the first year our main meeting point was the dinner table where he and his father spoke in Catalan and I sat in grumpy silence, trying to understand what was going on.
I actually learnt a lot of Catalan in those days as the conversations were fairly repetitive. Food. School. Homework. That sort of thing.
There were many times when I was totally lost about what was happening as he spoke with his father about plans or trips or events or, more often than not, things that he wanted to have.  Of course he used to turn on me if I intervened and sneer ‘you don’t know what we are talking about so mind your own business’.
Language also affects how I relate to his friends. It is awkward enough talking with monosyllabic teenagers but I am at a great disadvantage as I can’t be natural and chat and joke in a light manner. Usually they ignore me and talk with his father. If I say something I see terror in their eyes –  I might suddenly burst into English and they might have to answer.
I am told he is a normal adolescent. If that means lying, being rude, swearing a lot, missing school, not doing any homework, refusing to help in the house, stealing money and using our credit cards, playing online poker, looking at food on his plate and saying he won’t eat that shit, not showering without being paid, never cleaning his teeth and spending ALL his awake home time on the computer or mobile phone, then yes, he is a normal adolescent.
If mothers always get the blame then what about stepmothers?
My partner’s family complained that I wasn’t playing the mother role in the house. Perhaps it was a compliment that they thought me capable of mothering someone who had so little desire to be mothered.  And in what way was I qualified for this important job?  Just because I am a woman?
Did they think I could make everything better?    This was actually quite an interesting introduction into mother-blame.  Never having been a mother before I hadn’t understood quite how crazy with rage this sort of thoughtless stupid remark can make you.

So, this morning I was walking, mumbling to myself about how I can’t live one more moment with someone who doesn’t want me in their life, who doesn’t like me and who sometimes actively hates me when ……..

….suddenly I received some help from the ethers.
I realised that I am much stronger than I believe.
How can I be so scared of a 17 year old baby who has no money, inadequate social skills, not very good job prospects and at the moment, no qualifications?
I have a bad habit of feeling small and vulnerable and getting stuck in despair but of course there is a part of me that is tough as boots. I just need to remember it!
Years ago I  took an intensive five year survival course in character building at the school of bad relationships when I was in love with someone with borderline personality syndrome.  After that brush with madness (and I am talking about my own there), surely a stroppy, selfish, lazy, rude and spoilt adolescent should be a doddle in the park?

PS I can’t say often enough that if you have never been in this situation then you can’t know what it is like. I used to believe that stepmothers should be patient and understanding and loving and mature. Stepchildren have often been through horrible family breakups and need help not negativity. 

But that was before I actually lived this situation.  We are only human and adolescents can be bitingly cruel and cleverly manipulative.  And deep down, they don’t want you there.  Yes they may be wonderful people underneath but sometimes it takes a saint or a doormat to stay loving and open.  Birth parents find it hard enough but they have a magic potion called unconditional love flowing in their veins. We are expected to be good parents without any help – magical or from society.  Add to this the language and cultural differences and perhaps you can see what I am talking about.

Stupid ideas I used to have about parenting

Before I came to live here I used to believe:-

1.  Boys should be taught by their mothers/fathers to do housework. Surely it can’t be that difficult?
2.  Children who refuse to go to school should not be allowed to go out with their friends in the evening. You just tell them they can’t go and they, sulkily, will agree to stay at home! Right?
3.  Children who say they are too ill to go to school should stay in bed until they feel better. If they are too ill to study then surely they are too ill to hang around the town centre?
4.  Children who steal from their parents should be made to pay it back – perhaps through working in the house?  They’ll love you for it later.
5.  Mobile phones are a luxury, NOT a necessity. Why do some parents pay for contracts only to be scared witless by the monthly bills?
6.  People who give their children expensive mobile phones have only themselves to blame when they get broken through lack of care.
7.  Children need to eat fruit and vegetables every day. If you let them refuse and permit them to eat nothing but pasta and pizza and fried croquettes, washed down with coca cola, then you are an idiot.
8.  Televisions are there for everyone in the house, what person in their right mind would allow a child to dictate what everyone watches?
9. Gradually children will become more and more independent and responsible for their own money, hygiene and personal belongings. Watching this process will bring a self satisfied smile to your lips.
10. If you treat your child with respect as well as love they will not lie, steal or swear at you.
11. Having a child brings love and joy and laughter and hugs into your life.

What a fool I was! Is it always this difficult? Why?