How to enjoy retirement.
In my 70th year, I have started a new life. I am determined to learn how to enjoy retirement in a new country, with a new culture, two new languages and everything my heart could desire.
I weighed up all the options, faced the fears and bought myself a riverside small-holding where I intend to live as frugally as possible, grow my own fruit and vegetables and reclaim my independence The alternative was a declining social life, progressively poor health, poverty and boredom. So I made a huge leap of faith and came here.
This is Spain. It is the reason why ex-patriots shrug when everything that can go wrong, does go wrong. “No pasa nada”, it doesn;t matter. “Manana”, tomorrow will do.... – What the hell! Tomorrow is another day, or, as my mother would have said, “A whole NEW day, never been touched!” A chance to start afresh. “Poco a poco”, little by little. “Tranquilo” Take it easy, chill out.
More precisely, this is Catalonia, which is an even better explanation, since Catalonia is an enchanting, Monty Python region of Spain with its own language, life-style and ethos. Like other places I have lived in and loved, it is a proud, uncompromising country which resists strangers but welcomes converts with hugs, air-kisses to both cheeks, strong food, smutty humour and roars of jovial laughter.
What other places I have lived in and loved? How about North Wales, where they would not speak to me until I could ask for my groceries in Welsh? Or I could suggest Finland, where a girl’s betrothal lasted fifteen years and precluded even hand-holding with another man. The Finns were adamant that when God invented time, he said nothing about hurry. Then there was Malawi, where anything with four legs was meat, but the beggars were frank and charming. The women collected fuel a twig at a time, “little by little makes a bundle”. I helped one man with a three-month project to scrape a dug-out canoe from a tree-trunk and pounded maize with his wife and the village women, singing a chorus to the conversational lead of our soloist, too old to work, but not too old to make up one-line jokes and commentaries as we raised and thumped down six-foot wooden pestles into hollowed out tree stump mortars polished with years of grinding toil. Before that, there was Skane, where both Danish and Swedish neighbours described their dialect not as a language, but a throat disease. The beautiful blonde people lived in huge families in farmhouses on stilts above their flood-plain fields and went everywhere on bicycles in summer and on skies in winter.
I felt welcome and at home in them all. I was happy there, in spite of all the reasons not to be.
They were all places after my own heart, eccentric, warm-hearted, fiercely independent and slightly mad.
And so it is with Catalonia. Here I can embrace my Zen Buddhist resolution to give up all resistance to joy, as I discover how to enjoy retirement..
This morning I took my cobbled-together walking frame to the local viewpoint where there was a panoramic vista of the river Ebro flowing serenely from the hydro-electric dam; the ramshackle hamlet of Riba-roja, with its cascading ruins, miniature parks, beautiful graffiti, new apartment blocks and a horse grazing in one of the fenced off oblongs of allotments, wasteland and building sites that comprise a good third of the village. On one side, fields of solar panels turn their faces to follow the sun. Concentric rings of surrounding hills and distant mountains are topped with graceful giant wind-turbines while the fluted concrete rim of the steaming water cooler at the distant nuclear plant in Asco is clearly visible. At night the wind-vanes and water-cooler flash with red and white diamonds to rival the bright stars scattered on a black velvet sky and steam clouds fade into a diaphanous trail mimicking the Milky Way.
I love it here.
A wide, white concrete road leads up from the village to give way to dirt trails into the hills. On several of the nearby promontories there are tumble-down buildings painted with great enthusiasm with cartoon characters, stylised scripts, names and declarations of independence. Some people say the place is an eyesore and a tip. I think it is enchanting.
One of the buildings is a huge concrete fortress perched at the edge of a cliff. Steps lead up to a doorway. There is no roof, but in an enclosed void an iron ladder leads down twenty feet or so to what looks like a pair of empty concrete swimming pools in the heart of the hill, decorated with the inevitable graphic artwork of the 21st century. Health and safety has not yet reared its nanny-state head in Catalunya.
I feel a gut-clenching fear as I look down, holding tightly to the door-frame to ward off vertigo. I left my wheeled walker a little way down the track which was too rough and steep to navigate mechanically and balanced gingerly on unreliable ankles to negotiate the graveled run-offs that made the approach a challenge to any arthritic septuagenarian determined to feel the terror, but reclaim a life anyway.
Pushing my luck, I lean out over a cube of rock at the cliff-edge to admire the broad, green ribbon of ponderous river, spanned by a delicate bridge to nowhere. The concrete road on the other side rapidly gives way to dirt tracks traversing a natural park. There one can see nesting storks with their babies and risk tumbling even a four-wheel drive down the clay and shale precipices on which heavy plant venture after rare rain-storms to gauge out new trails that may be passable for a few weeks before they too disintegrate into vertical scree.
I spread my arms wide for balance, hold my breath and return to the walker, wondering how long I would remain up here if I were to fall or turn one of my all-too-unstable ankles.
As I grow older, I am aware of the need to dig deep inside myself for the courage to do even the simplest things alone. At present I am debating getting some form of transport. But since I have tried taking a pensionable jeep from the village to my finca, a tiny small-holding less than a kilometre away, I have been well aware of my limitations in physical strength and reaction time, not to mention my some-what unreliable vision.
I gave up driving ten years ago, having been declared partially sighted due to cataracts and optic neuritis caused by Multiple Sclerosis. But my vision is variable and there are times when I feel safer than others and able to venture short distances behind the wheel. I would not try it at night, when all light sources blaze like rockets or roman candles, obscuring my visual field with beautiful sunbursts of bright, chrysanthemum rays. I would not try it on days when double, or even quadruple, vision makes it impossible to tell the time by my large, red-digital electric clock. Do its inch-high figures suggest it is eleven o’clock or one, eight or three? I could not begin to guess. Similarly, there are days when a shark-jawed entity with rainbow-crystal teeth gnaws an arc out of my peripheral vision. It is not a mechanical problem with one eye, since I can see the identical phenomenon with one eye open or both, or even with one or both eyes shut. It has to be neural in origin, perhaps another plastic plaque hardening in the grey mushroom pate of my brain.
More frightening are less obvious problems with gaps in my visual field which are filled in by a helpful internal computer to homogenise what I can see into an apparent whole. The problem is demonstrable when I try to read a page of print which appears superficially normal, but is gibberish, letters cut up and re-pasted into meaningless approximations of a type-face. Often I can still persevere to make sense of them, since we only need the clues of about one-third of their form, to guess the whole, but it is easier to read text with bits obliterated than with unhelpful and incorrect additions. A challenge, certainly, and for one who is addicted to problem-solving, not un-amusing. But is it responsible to attempt to solve them at the wheel of a ton of metal juggernauting at thirty miles an hour?
The conundrum is this. Is it cowardly to stop trying, or wise to admit to limitations? I borrowed a light van from a friend as an experiment. It was easier to drive in some respects, more responsive on the steering and easier on the clutch, but the left-hand drive layout left me groping for a non-existent gear-stick on the wrong side, or trying to force a painful and uncooperative right hand, wrist, arm and shoulder to overcome the disadvantages of atrophied muscle and arthritic joints to do what I had previously persuaded my left side to achieve. I can, and I will. But is it really the best solution?
An invalide carriage of some sort would be enough for the short journey to the finca and back twice a week. My wheeled walker keeps me exercised on every-other-day shopping trips to the village. A taxi would take me to the nearest town for bi-weekly necessities and would probably be a lot less hassle and expense than maintaining a car of my own. I just need to feel comfortable with admitting my weaknesses and working round them. Sometimes I scare myself. But hey, the adrenalin is good for you and lateral thinking is a wonderful remedy for old age.