Spanish by default

December 28, 2018


I am Spanish, but my dad is Scottish. My parents met in my mum’s hometown close to Gibraltar, where my dad came for work. When I was little, he worked in different countries, so I don’t have many markers of him from that time. I’ve never been to Scotland. I’ve met my Scottish aunts and uncles, but I don’t really see them as family.

My mum and dad now live in Ireland, and I live in England.


When I was growing up, my hometown was quintessential Spanish: the seaside on one side, the forest on the other, a church in the middle, up on a hill.


There was a strong sense of community and a lot of that town was related to me; there wasn’t a person I didn’t know one way or another. They were all people like me. Sure, I could see they were doing bad things, but they were family.


Drugs were a huge problem. Heroin is very visible; needles were everywhere. There was prostitution, too; people get desperate. But they were all somebody’s mum, somebody’s dad, somebody’s kid; they weren’t anonymous. Nowadays, you see people in the streets and no one claims them. It wasn’t like that in my town.


Now it’s a completely different place; it’s cleaned up a lot, though maybe I just don’t know where to look. It’s lovely, but it doesn’t feel like home. When I lived there, it gave me a strong sense of belonging. Now I don’t feel it there; I’m not sure I feel it anywhere. Having said that, although I don’t live there and none of this really affects me, when there was a vote about Barcelona, I thought, fucking hell, you’re not dividing Spain like that.


I was surprised by this sudden sense of patriotism; where did it come from? I travel on a Spanish passport, but that’s about it. I don’t vote; I don’t visit; I don’t even speak Spanish every day.


Being Spanish, for me, means belonging to a particular space at a particular time. I may never feel that belonging again, but I know very clearly that I don’t feel Irish; I don’t feel Scottish; I don’t feel English. I must be Spanish.


We moved to Ireland when I was ten because my mum was tired of being a single mum. My dad was already working in Ireland, but my mum was in Spain raising two kids. It wasn’t like she could be a stay-at-home mum because my dad was working abroad and sending us all this money. Nothing like that; she’d worked every hour that God sent. She’d been a nanny for a rich family since she was twelve; she’d never lived anywhere else. I think my dad convinced her that us kids could have better opportunities in Ireland.


I remember, I arrived at Dublin airport and got to a taxi that was blue. I sat by the door that you slide to open. I couldn’t see outside because there was condensation everywhere. It was freezing; I was in shorts. It was June! I remember thinking, how do I deal with this?


I spoke no English, though it didn’t really bother me. I made it work. I used a dictionary to make a grocery list. I’d write things down and then, in the shop, I’d try to match the letters on my piece of paper to the letters on the labels. B-U-T-T-E-R. Butter! Yes, okay, I’ll have that. It took an age!


In Ireland, I was surprised by the wealth. We now lived in a semi-detached house that had more than one bathroom, which was bizarre beyond belief. I soon realized that other families had matching silverware. They had plain plates one year and polka dot plates the following year. I was like, what?


In Spain, I used to sell the toys I got from people to give money to my mum. When I was in Ireland, I didn’t have to do that; it was a big step up. We didn’t have as much money as some of the other families, but we still had much more money than we’d ever had before. The other families even went on holidays. We never went on holidays. Holidays? What do you mean holidays? People have to work! Not in Ireland. Our neighbours went to Tenerife, Italy, Abu Dhabi, and I was like, what are these places?


I moved to England to work in a high security psychiatric hospital. Out of the people I worked with, one or two people were English. The rest were from all over. In my current job at a children’s home, most workers are English with a handful of foreigners. 


The other day, I asked one of my boys whether he thought I’d care about him differently if I were English. He said, of course not. And I thought, of course not. My passport or my postcode, it doesn’t change how I look after someone. As long as I speak the language and no one feels like they have to explain themselves over and over, we’re good.


I was the first out of very many people in my family to go to university. I went with a plan to go from undergrad, to post-grad to PhD and emerge as this learned person. I was so impressed that I managed to enrol that, surely, I thought, I was born for a “higher” purpose.


I think I became a little afraid of people. I did psychology because I loved the idea of how perceptions and memories and biology come together to create a reality that’s mine and that’s so different from yours. But all these cases studies I read, I didn’t think they prepared me to handle any of the situations they described. I didn’t want to become that person who shows up to a therapy session and dispenses advice on what to do with a child but lacks the confidence to look after that child.


At the end of my course, I got an offer from the psychiatric hospital, I thought, if I can handle this, surely, there is nothing in this life that I can’t do.  


I loved it. Things would happen to me daily that I wouldn’t believe were real. In a day, someone would wee on me; I’d be able to calm someone’s distress. Sometimes someone would just confide in me and I wouldn’t be able to believe that someone could trust me so much.


Now, I look after young people in a children’s home and it’s almost as random. For them, that first night in a strange house with people they don’t know, it must be terrifying. In a couple of weeks, they will call this place home. They’ll be hugging me, crying in front of me, getting angry in front of me (always a very good sign). But that first night, what a terrifying thought.


If I make any difference, it’s not quantifiable. My kids, they go through things that there is no response to. I can’t always help them, but I can be there for them, stay quiet and take on everything they’d been through, every day, little by little.


The other day I ran into a girl I used to look after. She gave me a big hug and said, Yadira, I have a dream now. I never thought I would hear her say this. And there she was, a nineteen-year-old who’s had an incredibly shitty life up until that point, saying she had a dream. That’s big.


With a dream, she might not get what she wants, but she’ll get somewhere. Whether I did that personally, I’ll never know. But a dream, that’s all anyone needs.

Yadira Merrifield is a wanna-be free spirit and a believes in the power of adventure. Walking in the night and scrapbooking are her my main coping mechanisms (she would love to say that its yoga and mediation but definitely not). Loves to travel, go camping, listen to ghost stories, watch movies, eat Chinese food, her work, photographs, quotes and most of all her family and friends. 

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Zuzanna Fiminska & Project Neighbours

Oxford, England, UK