Ferreira de Panton has been our home for eleven weeks. As we near the three-month mark, I am taking inventory: what have we achieved? Consumed with ticking renovation jobs and administrative chores off lists, I find that I have forgotten to check in on how we are feeling. I cannot speak for Sarah, so must ask her this question separately. So, me, how am I feeling?
Disconnected is one way that I can describe myself. Not a new sensation for me. The house, the garden, the work we are doing, all are constantly on my mind. The budget must stretch further than originally anticipated, but this is no surprise, an old house will always invite you to uncover new and alarming items requiring repair or replacement: discovering, for example, that the wall beams in the gallery are held on only by filler-foam, or that all of the powerful halogen spotlights have been installed with audio wiring, and are uninsulated.
I digress; an avoidance technique I have called out previous counselling clients on many times! It is hard to not know what everyone is saying all the time, and to struggle to construct basic, baby-talk sentences. In my own language I am an articulate woman, whose language skills indicate tertiary education to the world of strangers. Now I communicate like a Spanish three-year-old. My self-esteem suffers. I feel a powerlessness when dealing with administrative and bureaucratic tasks that I have never felt before.
I am surrounded by new acquaintances, some of whom will, doubtless, become friends. But I miss those who have been constants in my life for so long: my family, our Penrith neighbours, the familiar faces at the shopping centre, the Austrian lady who always sat in front of me at church, the Irish lady who sat behind.
I haven’t driven for three months, and will do so on the right-hand side of the road once my new car arrives. Then there will be the process of being a “new driver” all over again, in an area I do not know, which at 57 is daunting. I am speaking baby language and taking baby-steps.
All the acquired confidence and experience of middle-age counts for nothing. I am diminished. I rely on others to help me to meet basic needs. When a child this is normal. As an adult, it is frightening. I have a deeper insight now into why so many older people seem so anxious all the time. This vulnerability is unsettling.
I have not been in full-time work since October 2017. I am “retired” at 57. I no longer have to plan my activities around a 5-day working week. I love this new freedom, and I do not miss my previous work. I did put 100% of myself into it, and I feel satisfied that my contribution is paid up. But I do miss the status (and money) it gave me. It’s hard to define myself when people ask: “What do you do?”
My hand-sewn, crisply-tailored Italian business suits dangle forlornly in the wardrobe. I wonder what kind of brain melt I experienced when packing? Did I envisage myself swinging a bill-hook in the orchard, dressed in blue pinstripes? Who brings black suede Chelsea boots to the country?
Slowly-slowly I am learning to redefine myself. It’s confronting. Who am I? What have I brought to this Spanish party? Success or failure will not be measured by the same criteria. Yes, a thriving B&B business will indicate that I have planned and executed the project well. But happiness and contentment cannot be measured in the same way, and that of my small family unit – Sarah, Raphael, and Minnie, seems to be my responsibility in some way, because all this was my idea. So, when Raphael gets fleas and suffers an allergic reaction, I feel it’s somehow my “fault”, or because Minnie the cat seems to be keeping herself to the sun-room, I wonder if she is unhappy and afraid in her new surroundings. When Sarah misses her best friend’s birthday party, I experience a stab to the heart.
The shimmer of newness is wearing off daily life, and is being replaced by a patina of familiarity: faces I see in the village, fetching warm bread from the bakery each day, the country roads leading roads into Montforte, the hourly and half-hourly clock chimes from towers of the concello and monastery, the white horse in the field as I exit the village; these are my new touchstones.
As I toddle uncertainly into this new life, I must re-learn trust, in my own capabilities and resourcefulness, and in the decency and kindness of others. I must permit myself to stumble, to fall, to fail, sometimes. I must learn to speak in a new tongue, to tune my ears to those sounds. Then one day, I can dance the new steps and sing the new songs.