The autumn equinox approaches the northern hemisphere with turbulence heralding winter. Now, as when I was a student returning from a summer to practise my tenuous knowledge of French, or Spanish or Italian, the travellers might still crowd the decks of cross-channel ferries tossed relentlessly by equinoxal waves. I helped a seasick girl on board only to be rebuffed when I smiled at her on the gangway. I had already been relegated to an embarrassing moment in her past, to be discarded when no longer needed.
To be honest, I love storms at sea. The rocking, jolting movement thrills and has its ludicrous moments. Once, crossing the infamous Bay of Biscay on a boat with pretty assertive girls on their way to South America crammed into the cheapest berths down in the hull, we perched on benches and laughed crazily as we tilted to and fro while trying to dip, balance and swallow spoonfuls of food from the dishes as they slid past, laughing near hysterically while we waited for their return journey and a further attempt to feed ourselves in a full force gale. Few of us, twenty at most, slid up and down the worn benches screwed on to the floor, spoon in hand, the soup rendered abnormally appetising by our hunger. From Tilbury, those dilapidated vessels left the Thames estuary to sail west along the English Channel towards the Atlantic and then veer south down the French coast towards the dreaded Bay of Biscay squalls. An adventure it was. I left the young women bound for South America, disembarking in Spain at the nondescript port of Gijon. I had found a job coaching a Spanish teenage girl whose parents decided that she had to learn English.
Gijon was then a grimy port of little distinction. Then no one would have dreamt of its new world-class museum of modern art. My destined family lived in the respectable characterless residential district and only left it to go to the beach or shops. Life was repetitious. So was my teaching of English and learning of Spanish. Breakfast was followed by an English lesson with Carmen spending more time gazing out of the window than at the page in front of her. Then came a longer walk than expected over cobblestones that bruised my feet to an already crowded beach. The first plunge was a strange sight. I had to put a towel round my waist because my decorous one-piece swimming suit did not have a skirt to it as the Spanish female swimming outfits all did. I was embarrassed as the towel kept on falling off to glances of disapproval from everyone around me, who seemed more intent on looking at me than enjoying themselves in the sea. Carmen thought she could swim but I had anxiously to guide her away from the turbulent waves rolling in from the Atlantic. Then followed hour after boring hour frying on the beach: front, then back, then one side uncomfortably followed by the other to ensure a thorough tanning.
Such jobs are precarious. One is supposed to be ‘part of the family’, when one might have an easier time clearly defined as a paid tutor, there to teach English but clearly not part of the family and striving to understand its strange rituals. There were compensations – the excellent food was one – but they faded over the long summer days as, once outside one’s sleeping quarters, one stepped into an alien world of habits and taboos that only became understandable by the time one was to leave. Those youthful experiences of being a summer English tutor become strangely more memorable as the years go by and one demands more from one’s past.