Clara comes from Asturias on the Atlantic coast of Spain, and is now living in Mil Palmeras, Orihuela Costa.
She has travelled to many different parts of the world and has stayed and worked in England on a number of occasions over the years. I thought it would be interesting to ask Clara what it was like to arrive in Britain without being able to speak a word of English. In answer she described her first experience of travelling to London to work as an au pair for a year.
"For the first three months I was like a deaf-mute. In the aeroplane approaching Heathrow I was handed a form to fill in with my address in the UK and said 'No thank you' to the air hostess as I had no idea what she was saying to me. When she handed me the form I started copying the same address as person sitting next to me until it dawned on me what it was all about.
"In London I went to one English class a week organised specially for au pairs, but apart from that I had no idea about the language. After about one month I would prepare a question to ask someone in English, but unfortunately I could never understand what people said back to me. It was horrible, I really suffered and cried a lot. In shops or bars I would hold out a handful of money for them to pick out what I owed. I'm sure I was often overcharged as a result – but that's the sort of thing that could happen anywhere.
"After about three months I was able to talk about the weather to the gardener! I also started to discover that if I made the effort to communicate, however badly, many English people would change their attitude and try to help me. Bit by bit I made some friends and would be invited out to parties. I had many Spanish friends who did not make the same effort and became an isolated group who were always complaining about how unfriendly the English were."
Some years later Clara was again in London, this time running a Spanish bar with her husband Denio who is Dutch of Bulgarian origin. During this period she had the idea of teaching Flamenco or "Sevillanas" dancing to some of her English friends. She wanted to communicate something of her culture and at the same time have a good time. She enlisted the help of a Spanish friend who was an expert dancer. Her friend would demonstrate the steps and Clara would help the students to do them. When the Spanish dancer dropped out Clara intended to cancel the classes, but her English friends insisted that she continued. In a panic she phoned someone in Spain to send her a teach-yourself dancing video urgently and stayed up all night trying to get her dancing up to scratch. She actually taught all the steps the wrong way round the first time on her own and had to reteach them all!
"Dance is something that breaks barriers. I taught the lessons in Spanish and people would learn a bit of the language at the same time. When there is a language barrier it's very important to find a common activity to enjoy together. Although I do not consider myself an expert I managed to communicate the feeling and the spirit of Sevillanas dancing and two of my students have gone on to take it up seriously. They are now much better than me, but have always thanked me for giving them their first love for the dance."
Clara has had many good experiences in England and loves to get to know English people. That doesn't mean she hasn't had some bad times as well. When she and her husband arrived to set up the business it was very tough indeed. They had been living in Spain and working on a cruiser for the previous year so had no fixed address in the UK. This meant they had great difficulty finding work, and without work had great difficulty finding somewhere to live! They were obliged to pay six months rent in advance for their bar, and while waiting had to live in a camping van. Because of all the parking restrictions they had to move the van around at regular intervals, and on one occasion were falsely charged by the local council for illegal parking. They had to take the council to court and eventually won their case and were compensated. However, it was extremely hard for them, and even more so because they were struggling to understand the language and the system, and through these experiences Clara discovered that Britain has its fair share of bureaucracy as well as Spain.
They also experienced one serious robbery in England when their car was broken into while they were visiting Hever Castle. "We were on our way from the airport and stopped off for a break. It was an idyllic spot on a beautiful sunny day. The lake, the castle, the trees made it all look like a fairy tale. When we got back to our car we were devastated to find that all our personal belongings had gone, including tapes, photo albums, documents and musical instruments which we had foolishly left on the car seats. Although it sounds stupid we just couldn't believe that this could happen in such a beautiful place! The people in the local pub were all very helpful and called the police. They insisted that we should not blame local people as it was the work of professional criminals who just take opportunities when they see them. It still hurts to think about all the personal things we lost."
It is never easy to live in a foreign country, and after all the friendship Clara experienced in England she has come away with a desire to give some of it back to the English people in Spain. She is thinking of organising some dancing classes here, but is still feeling her way. "If it works out and people are happy to learn the way I teach them, then I would love to communicate something of Spain to them. For me it is one way of saying thank you for all the help the English have given me over the years."
This article is published courtesy of CB Friday in association with thinkspain.com