Living in La Mancha – My Year Abroad Experience
Written by: Betty Henderson. Photo by:Betty Henderson.
Mum and I drove down from Madrid, through miles of scrubby fields, until finally, we glided past the white and orange painted walls of Tomelloso for the first time. As we passed through the cobbled streets where the buildings turn inwards and the modest central square where they open out, a strange thought flitted across my mind: “One day this will feel like coming home.”
I studied Spanish at university, so spending a year abroad in a Spanish speaking country was a requirement of my degree. Students are given the choice between studying or applying to work as an Auxiliar de Conversación through the British Council, a programme where native English speakers are placed as teaching assistants in schools and language academies across the world.
For me, it was a no-brainer. My main goals were to experience Spanish culture and improve my language, neither of which would happen, I felt, in the Erasmus bubble of a university campus – plus, on the auxiliares programme, you get paid! That said, when I selected Castilla-la-Mancha as my first choice on the application form, I was expecting to be placed somewhere like Toledo, close enough to Madrid, cosmopolitan enough for my city-girl heart, and beautiful, a holiday destination. Tomelloso was none of those things.
For those who don’t know (everyone), Tomelloso is a small, agricultural town about two and a half hours south of Madrid, with a population of around 36,000. It’s best known for its locally-produced wine and its proximity to Don Quixote’s “land of giants” and other notable stops on the great hidalgo’s infamous journey, including the Lagunas de Ruidera, a series of breathtakingly blue lakes linked by waterfalls, and Toboso, home of ‘La Dulcinea’.
Tomelloso is a town with character, pride, and a big, open heart. It doesn’t immediately strike you as a place of beauty but there is history there. You just need to look a little closer.
If you were to glance up as you walk along it’s long, straight streets, you might notice the odd mysterious white bird perched in large, twiggy nests, on top of tall orange-bricked chimneys. If you were to glance down, you would occasionally pass over a vent in the pavement, larger than a drain, but smaller than a cellar door. The wafts of cold air that brush against your legs as you pass by are the only hint of the magic below.
Tomelloso has long been a centre for wine production in Spain. La Mancha today remains the largest wine region in Europe. Nowadays the main factories have moved to the outskirts of the town, but these impressive chimneys and underground wine cellars are a reminder of Tomelloso’s long, proud agricultural history.
And just as these vents hide an impressive secret, so too do the closed doors and stark white walls of Tomelloso’s buildings hide the true warmth and welcome of the people who live behind them. As I drove into Tomelloso that first time, I felt anxious, unsure, and mildly terrified of the sheer unfamiliarity of the place, but I need not have worried.
In fact, within hours of my arrival, I had already been rescued from a parking fine by a friendly hotel receptionist, amused kindly waiters with my nervous Spanglish, and been warmly and affectionately greeted by my boss (and future ‘Spanish mum’ as she likes to refer to herself), Pilar.
By the next day I had met Daniela, another auxiliar in the town who’s spare room I moved into, and who quickly became a fast friend. We then met Liam (Welsh), Valentina (Italian), Jess (French), Anne (French-Canadian) and JD (American) and our small band of ‘guiris’ was formed. (‘Guiri’ – an affectionately insulting term for a tourist.) Together, we travelled at weekends, partied till the wee small hours in one of the two nightclubs in town, and generally stood out like sore thumbs wherever we went.
Moving to Tomelloso was a bigger culture shock than I had expected. It wasn’t just that the food was different, or the weather, or even the structure of the day – school and work took place from 8:30am-2:30pm then 4:30pm-8:30pm and it was quite normal to go out for for food at about 10pm any night of the week – but that I realised for the first time, just how difficult it is to become truly fluent in a language. I’m not only talking about Spanish, but the cultural language of unspoken understanding that a community shares without even realising it.
This was likely more pronounced in a small town like Tomelloso, but I found that I was never quite sure if I was doing something that people found totally foreign and weird, and I was never able to process words quick enough to get all the jokes. As welcome as everyone made me feel, it was unnerving, and a little exhausting, to exist constantly just on the edge of understanding.
I was in at the deep-end in a year of self-discovery, isolated from friends and family, experiencing new people, new places, new food, new ideas, and developing a new respect for the nuances of language and another culture.
I fell in love with solo travelling. At the weekends, I would make the mammoth trip to Madrid (three hours on a bus, then another 45 minutes trawling across the city by tube) where I would wander through Retiro Park or El Museo Reina Sofía, getting lost in the beauty and unfamiliarity of it all. I visited Barcelona, Valencia, Malaga, Sevilla, and lesser known treasures like Toledo, Segovia, and Cuenca.
And I got to know Tomelloso. Us guiris became locals, not only in our favourite bars, but in the small cafe round the corner were breakfast cost 1.70€ and consisted of café con leche and a tostada con tomate (lightly toasted baguette-style bread smothered in delicious olive oil, salt, and fresh tomato grated into a sort of sauce), or a large fresh pastry, still warm out of the oven and better than any pain-au-chocolat in France (I have this on the authority of a highly-opinionated French woman!).
La Mancha is one of the increasingly few regions in Spain that still serves free tapas with every drink, a tradition that Daniela and I made the most of everywhere we went. We tried local dishes in every restaurant: ‘migas’ small chunks of bread fried in oil and paprika with bacon or chorizo and often topped with either an egg or some grapes, ‘gachas’ a traditional dish often described to me as a type of porridge (it’s absolutely not), which mainly consists of flour, oil, paprika and spices fried together to form a very flavourful mush, enjoyed with a big chunk of soft white bread (as is every Manchegan dish).
My wee gang of guiris and I grasped life in La Mancha by the horns (although we stopped short of attending an actual bullfight in the local ring – I wasn’t a vegetarian then but I still drew the line somewhere). We enjoyed many public holidays in honour of various ‘virgenes’. I amused my colleagues with my ignorance one day when I exclaimed surprise at just how many ‘virgins’ there were in Spanish Catholicism as I had only ever heard of the one – turns out Mary goes by many names in Spain.
Of these festivals, the Romería is one of the biggest events of the year. In the last weekend of April a procession of tractors, carriages, and people leave from the town centre and make their way to a nearby shrine to La Virgen de las Viñas (Mary again) where, for a whole weekend, people dance, drink, and eat in gazebo covered pop-up bars. It’s muddy, messy, and a lot of fun.
Tomelloso might not have been the exotic, cosmopolitan year abroad experience that I had always envisioned for myself, but in reality, it was better than anything I could have imagined. It was a time when I learnt as much about how to be alone as I did about forming new relationships. A time when I somehow experienced adventure while living in a town where nothing much happens. It wasn’t without its challenges but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
And the next time I drive through those white and orange walls, I know it will feel like coming home.