Spanish Steps

How will efficient, list-making career girl Jenny cope with retirement all on her own? You might be surprised…

The heat hit Jenny the second she left the airport, drifting from the cool, almost chilly temperature of the air-conditioned arrivals lounge into a wall of hot air.

She was so taken aback, she almost laughed aloud. Obviously, she’d expected Spain to be warmer than the UK in May, but this – this oven? It was like having a hairdryer blowing into her face!

As Jenny wheeled her suitcase across the wide pavement and rummaged in her handbag for her sunglasses, she gazed around, taking in the clean, sun-bleached walls of the terminal building and the towering palm trees, but most of all, the sky. So blue and cloud-free, it looked painted.

And so big! It seemed to take up much more space than the sky back home, stretching up, down and along the horizon. Spain! Finally, she was here.

At the age of sixty-two, Jenny felt a new chapter beginning in her life, one very different from anything she had expected.

Yes, she had always planned to retire in her sixties, having spent her entire career working in the town planning department of her local council. But she hadn’t really thought about what would come next.

Her working days had revolved around meetings, consultations, site visits and reports. There was so much packed in that every morning over coffee, Jenny wrote a to-do list in her notebook.

Every evening, without fail, she left the office with every item ticked off.

Jenny had never married, though had come close a couple of times, and had no children, which didn’t really bother her.

It did seem to bother others, especially women (her mum, her sister) who couldn’t understand that she had no desire to have a baby of her own. So she lived alone and genuinely enjoyed her own company.

Still, colleagues at her retirement party had teased her, suggesting she’d be bored and begging to come back to work within a month.

That hadn’t happened.

Instead, she had written another to-do list, made up of things she hoped to achieve during those first few months, and over several weeks, had systematically ticked off the items in her notebook – get a new bathroom fitted, decorate the living room, empty the hall cupboard, tidy up the garden…

One final task remained: learn Spanish.

Rachael, a friend from work, had encouraged her. She had studied languages at university and practised basic sentences with Jenny when she had signed up for an evening class at the local college a couple of years earlier.

But though she had picked up the basics – learning how to say numbers, colours, days of the week – she’d never fully grasped the language.

“You know, Jenny, the best way to learn a foreign language is to live in the country,” Rachael had said, as they chatted over lunch one day. “I learned grammar and vocabulary at university, but I only became fluent when I moved to Madrid for my study year abroad.”

Jenny had smiled.

“That sounds great, Rachael, but it would give me a heck of a long commute to work!”

Rachael had laughed. “I know it doesn’t seem possible now, Jen, but who knows what the future might hold?”

And then one day, a few months after she’d retired, Jenny had gone for a check-up at the dentist. As she sat in the waiting room, flicking through glossy magazines, a small advert in the corner of a page had caught her eye:

Learn Spanish in Spain! Intensive language courses for age 50+.

Jenny had glanced around the waiting room to make sure no one was watching and then without hesitating, had ripped the advert out of the magazine.

When she got home after having her teeth poked and prodded, Jenny opened her laptop and typed in the name of the language school.

The website brought up pictures of sunny beaches, blue skies and small open-air classes. It described intensive language courses lasting either one week, two weeks or four weeks.

Jenny paused for thought. Her house was looking the best it had in years. Her garden was neat and tidy and her notebook had no more lists jotted down. It was time to achieve that final task.

She looked back at the website and clicked on the How to book link.

Her sister, Liz, and niece, Ella, had been amazed when she’d told them.

“You’re going to Spain, Auntie Jen?” Ella had shrieked.

“But who with? Where will you live? Who will you talk to?”

Jenny had smiled fondly at this kind young woman, the closest to a daughter she’d ever have. Hard to believe she was almost thirty herself now.

“I’ve rented an apartment in Alicante for just over a month,” Jenny said. “The classes are in a language school close by – three hours a day, five days a week. And there are activities organised at the weekends too. I’ll be fine!”

Liz had hugged her.

“I’m so glad you’re doing this, Jen. You’ve worked so hard all your life – it’s time to do something just for fun!”

Now, standing alone outside Alicante airport, Jenny couldn’t quite believe she was there.

She usually went on holidays with Liz and her family, or sometimes just with Ella. She had taken a few trips alone as well. But this was different.

Four weeks in a foreign country, living in a rented apartment and going back to school!

First things first, though – getting from the airport into the city centre using public transport…

Using her guide book and her basic Spanish, Jenny found the correct bus for the city and before long, was standing outside the apartment block she’d found online and booked via email.

She liked the look of it immediately – an old stone tenement with a small café bar on the ground floor and wrought iron balconies all the way up the front of the building.

The sea was ten minutes’ walk away and the street itself was noisy and bustling. So different from the cul-de-sac at home.

She collected the apartment key from the caretaker on the first floor and dragged her suitcase up to the third. As she unlocked the front door and pushed it open, she gasped in delight.

Sun flooded in through the double doors that led to a tiny balcony.

The apartment was modern and compact – a living/dining room with an open plan kitchen at one end, a big double bedroom and a shining white bathroom.

Jenny’s first thought was that she wouldn’t want to go home at the end of the month!

She dumped her luggage, changed into a cool linen dress and her new leather sandals – yikes, her legs looked so white and bare! – grabbed her handbag and headed out to explore.

First stop, the café bar downstairs, for a glass of delicious freshly-squeezed orange juice and a platter of bread, ham and cheese. Sitting at a table on the pavement outside, Jenny studied the map in her guidebook and tried to get a sense of the city.

It seemed fairly easy to navigate, especially as the promenade along the seafront was at the end of every street.

Her classes weren’t due to start until Monday, so she had a day and a half to explore the city fully, get some food shopping and break in her new sandals.

Jenny smiled at this latest to-do list – so much more enticing than previous pages in her notebook.

Alicante filled her with joy – the beautiful architecture, hidden plazas and quaint churches were so different to what surrounded her back home.

And the noise! Everywhere she went, there was music, shouting and laughter.

She remembered the teacher at her evening class saying that if a Spanish child hadn’t learned to speak by the age of two, they had no chance. They’d simply be drowned out by the noise around them.

Sitting with a glass of chilled white wine and some tapas in a pavement café that first evening, Jenny had observed the conversations taking place at the tables around her – lots of people talking over each other, gesticulating and shrieking with laughter.

It was normal life, but with the volume turned up much higher!

That first night, she slept soundly and peacefully, waking early to the noise of crates being delivered to the café downstairs. She pulled on her dressing gown and went out on to the balcony.

The sun was rising over the sea, the sky was clear and rosy-coloured and it was already warm. It was paradise.

Jenny thought back to all the mornings at home when she’d got up in the dark, shivered as she’d driven to work, then returned home in the dark.

How did she manage to do that for so long? Liz had asked her about it once, a couple of years ago.

“I know you like your job, Jen, but it’s not much of a life, is it? You never see daylight.”

Jenny had smiled.

“I’m used to it now. Anyway, what’s so great about daylight?”

They’d both laughed, and in truth, back then, Jenny had thought that getting regular sunshine was over-rated.

Now, as she gazed at the sun sparkling over the Mediterranean and smelled the first coffee being brewed downstairs, it was as though her senses were open for the first time. This was life.

She decided to get dressed and go for a walk before breakfast, knowing it would be stifling later in the day when the temperature rose.

She passed the caretaker on the stairs, who gave her a friendly wave, and practically skipped down the final few steps.

As she walked past the café downstairs, the owner, a friendly man in his forties, recognised her from the day before and called out to her.

“Buenas dias, senora! Como estas?”

Amazingly, Jenny understood (she did learn something at evening class after all!) and was even able to respond.

“Bien, gracias!”

It was a simple “How are you? I’m fine” exchange, but suddenly, for Jenny, it took on a new, more significant meaning.

As she walked on, adjusting her wide-brimmed straw hat and putting on her sunglasses, she realised she was completely fine.

Despite initial concerns that her life might be empty and dull without work, she understood now that it could in fact be fuller. Maybe even better.

What she’d had before was a career. Now, walking by the sea, feeling the heat of the sun on her limbs and looking forward to starting her new class tomorrow, she had a life.

Or rather, una vida.

Jenny smiled. She mentally made a short to-do list for today: find a nice place for lunch, check out the location of the language school so she’d be able to find her way tomorrow, and finally, send a postcard to Rachael, her former colleague.

She could imagine Rachael’s surprise when she found it on her desk in their old shared office:

You were right – living in a foreign country is the best way to learn a language…

Jenny kept walking and a thought sprang into her mind: viva la vida!

Long live life.

Our My Weekly Favourites series of feel-good fiction from our archives continues on Mondays and Thursdays. Look out for the next one.
Don’t forget – you can find brand new, uplifting short stories every week in My Weekly! Subscribe now for a great saving on the weekly magazine, monthly My Weekly Special… or our fortnightly thrilling, romantic Pocket Novels.