Before dropping me off at the pool party I went to a few days ago, the father of the family took me, along with his mother, up the winding mountain roads to the town’s local hermitage. Before coming to Aragon, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what a hermitage was. England, while full of old stone churches, does not have (to my knowledge) any of the same kind of impressive churches which stand perched on mountain tops, isolated far away from the surrounding towns. Spain, meanwhile, is full of these ermitas and thus, far from being a tourist attraction, the local population consider them to be perfectly ordinary, visiting them every now and then for certain festivals and celebrations. In England, as I explained to the dad, if such a place existed, it would be so unusual as to become a national attraction. There is some legend surrounding the hermitage I went to a few days ago. Supposedly a virgin was found in the location the church was erected and therefore the building is devoted to her. The father of the family, and his mother, are evidently religious and they carry out certain Catholic rituals that I haven’t seen before. When we entered the church, the father dipped his hand into he baptismal font, before then going to touch the hand of his mother. While standing up by the altar, his mother knelt down to kiss a small painting of the virgin which hung from a ribbon, wiping the painting afterwards with a nearby handkerchief which seemed to have been placed there precisely for that purpose. Since I had not really seen anything like it before, I was completely in awe of the hermitage, which they named the Carrodilla, so called due to some connection with a cart (Spanish for cart is carro) and the virgin which I can’t really remember, considering the story too incredulous to heed it too much attention.
It was the birthday of the father’s sister a few days ago and, in honour of the event, we had a dinner outside on the family’s plot of land, which had formerly been used as a farm before it became illegal to have farmland within too close a proximity to the village. Portions here are usually pretty small, but there are occasions when food is plentiful, as was certainly the case that night, when we had a starter, a main and two types of dessert. Meals are, interestingly, organised very differently in Spain compared to England. Usually, people in Spain tend to eat traditional, local food. Whereas in England you would never be able to guess what people were having for dinner (it could be anything from chicken tava to lamb tangine), in Spain it is likely to be, say, pan con tomate with an assortment of meats and Spanish tortilla. In fact, this meal is one I had at least three times during the two weeks I was in Spain and, after seven months in Barcelona, I was certainly sick of eating the same thing all the time, both at home and in restaurants. The food in Spain is, however, very fresh, tasty, wholesome and cheap. Moreover, food is often served up on plates and brought to you, rather than placed in the middle for you to help yourself. In Aragon, salads were not placed on the table with salad servers. Instead, you dipped your fork in and picked at it communally (germaphobes, Aragon is not for you), sometimes, in my opinion, to the detriment of practicality, since reaching across every time you wanted to stab your fork into a tomato was not always an easy task. And, finally, meal times are, similarly to France, very rigid. People don’t grab a bite to eat as and when they feel a bit peckish, having dinner one night at 8.00 and another at day at 6.30, although breakfast (el desayuno), which is often a very light meal, is one which a lot of people skip. For breakfast, if they have it, people, especially children, often have a glass of chocolate milk made with Nesquick powder or similar. Then, mid-morning, people have the almuerzo, a kind of pre-lunch snack. Then there is a lunch and then late afternoon/early evening is another snack called the merienda. If your merienda is at 4 o’clock and your child doesn’t want to eat, then you sit and try and force him or her to do so. Finally, then, is dinner, which is usually eaten between 9.30-10.00, even for small children. If one meal is going to be smaller, it will be this one, but my experience in Aragon was that there was not a great degree of difference between the kind of food and the quantity and type of food that was eaten for lunch compared to what was eaten at dinner.
Another cultural difference between Spain and England is discipline. The lovely English woman who organised the au pair program explained that Spanish children are not brought up with the same kind of ‘children are to be seen and not heard attitude’ which is more prevalent among Brits. She runs an amazing English academy and is passionate about education, but also explains that she has to be very strict with the children to bring them into line. In the family I was living in, the mother was one that I would certainly be happy to have as my own. She was loving, attentive and had great ideas about which kind of values she wanted to have instilled in her kids. My reason for being in Spain is due to her desire for her children to learn English, or at least for them to understand its importance, for them to see that not everyone speaks the same language they do. She takes her children to many activities, ensuring they are always entertained, is against them using the computer or mobile phone too much and echoed my views that it is difficult to combine working with looking after a children and that having a successful career means sacrificing giving children the attention and care they really need to have in order to develop. Yet children in Spain get away with murder, making them all the more difficult to look after. If they didn’t get what they want the first time, all they had to do was throw a tantrum and their mothers would give in. All children are, of course, somewhat selfish, and they thus have to be taught how to share and compromise because the world does not, in fact, revolve around them. The two sisters I was looking after will also slap and hit each other, which my mother would not have accepted at all, but merely results in a light reprimand in the family I am working for. One day, the youngest child was very annoyed with me because I didn’t give her more bread after I picked her up from school. I knew she was hungry, but I also knew that if she had any more bread, she wouldn’t eat her lunch. The mum laughed at her daughter’s anger as thought it was amusing, even when she screamed at me at the top of her lungs, in response to me telling her how well she was reading aloud, ‘no quiero que me escuches!!!!’ (I don’t want you to listen to me). She usually wanted me to sit with her at lunch, but that day, because I had become the enemy, she told me she wanted her mother to sit next to her. Instead of telling her daughter to stop being so rude to an adult, the mother merely switched the places around. A lot of the time, the children are endearing and sweet, but when they begin to play up, and they are not punished for doing so, I find it frustrating.
But anyway, back to the birthday dinner. A little after we golfed down the ice-cream cake, presents were handed over to the aunt. One of the presents was a type of vegetable cutter. The aunt appeared to have asked for such an item and took it out of its packaging to show us all how it worked. ‘Es una pasada,’ said the dad, which roughly translates as ‘that is so incredible’. His sarcasm was clear and it made me laugh. Later, the dad told me to come with him so he could give me a tour of the land. He showed me round had a significantly large building which housed a kitchen, a bar and a television, amongst other things. ‘This is where we come to watch the football,’ he explained. He said he was a supporter of Real Madrid, which surprised me as, given Aragon’s close proximity to Barcelona and the alliance’s they formed in the past with Catalunya, I would have thought most people in Aragon would be supporters of the Barcelona team. The dad, however, explained that those who identify themselves as Spanish support Real Madrid, where as ‘those who consider themselves a bit different, and are a bit weird, support Barcelona’. They were certainly not pro-Catalunians!