After eight years of living in a tiny hamlet where the silence is broken only by the gentle jangling of cow bells and the sartorial code simply dictates clogs over slippers and never being seen in public without a large stick in your hand, it seems I have reverted to full country bumpkin mode. Any veneer of sophistication gained through years of living in and visiting some of the world’s biggest cities effectively stripped away. As my old Dad always used to say, ‘You can take the girl out of the bog but you can’t take the bog out of the girl.’
So last week when I headed into Gijón on business I approached it with a mix of excitement and trepidation, as any certified country mouse would. Gijón is a lovely, coastal city and is actually pretty compact. Compact size notwithstanding it is remarkably easy to get lost in its cunningly curving central streets. On my 40th birthday some of my closest girlfriends and I spent a night there. We nominated Denise as navigator for the evening. She had all the right credentials: she spends weeks at a time hiking alone in the high Pyrenees, relying on her map, compass and innate sense of direction for survival. Since my 40th I now make her check in with me regularly from those hikes.
The consensus as we started out for the evening was ‘let’s eat somewhere very typically Spanish and authentic.’ An hour and a half of increasingly dispirited wandering in circles later and we still hadn’t reached the casco viejo (the gorgeous and vibrant old centre of the city), less than a kilometre from our hotel. ‘What about this pizzeria? That looks fine,’ went up the shrill cry. But we persisted (aided by the dogged determination of the clever one who’d had a tactical ‘pincho de tortilla‘ before leaving the hotel). And eventually we triumphed.
So I am wary of the city. My visits limited to a strict rotation of beach, fab playpark and market; my parking always in the same spot, my walking routes well-trodden and seared into my brain. But then work requires a visit to a new destination. I carefully Google the address and plan my route. But I am diverted off course by the wretched one-way system. Plan abandoned, I am free styling. Oh no.
But, aha! I spy Bank Inter. Within 50 metres I have found an on-road parking space (no mean feat, I can tell you). I pay for an hour and congratulate myself on my city skillz. It takes just a few moments of confused and embarrassing back and forth at the bank counter to establish the fact that I am in the wrong branch of Bank Inter. The man I need to see works elsewhere. Note to country mouse: cities do tend to have more than one branch of a bank.
Coveted car parking space acquired and paid for I am loathe to abandon it. I will walk. With less than an hour now on the parking ticket and knowing the propensity of Spanish bank staff to require much hoop jumping on the part of their customers, I’d better be quick. The walk can double as a ‘high intensity workout’.
I can’t afford any wandering in circles. Luckily I have a smart phone, and a Google Maps app on it. (I know. You’re wondering, ‘why didn’t she use that before?’ I have no sensible answer for you.) I input the address and set it to walking mode. ETA: 15 minutes. Hmm. Cutting it tight. 15 minutes each way, plus hoop jumping, could easily top an hour. I’m in a race against GoogleMaps.
I speed walk through the city guided by a mechanical American voice. The appalling pronunciation of the Spanish street names brings a smile to my face: it *almost* makes my anglicized strangulation of Spanish vowels sound good by comparison. (Take your triumphs where you can, I say!) But I shouldn’t be so ungrateful. The disembodied voice gets me to my destination flawlessly (if a little sweatily).
The administrative acrobatics are mercifully minimal. My thick file of supporting documents (copies of passports, tax numbers, house deeds, power of attorney – all to simply pay a banker’s draft into a client’s account) does the trick. Within minutes I am back on the street and racing back to ‘Kai-eh Es-cor-de-Ahhhh’. I arrive at the car with 4 minutes left on the ticket and literally two steps ahead of the traffic warden.
Country Mouse is feeling pretty pleased with herself as she rejoins the morning rush hour traffic. Henceforth international cities shall hold no fear. I can go anywhere with my new American friend.