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On the outside looking in

They say the more you know, the more you know you don't know. Ten days into my emigration and I'm beginning to catch glimpses of how vast the cultural chasm I've exposed myself to really is.�

I'm lucky. I have a few friends here to get me started, to help get me 'up and running'. Without friends I can see how pretty nigh on impossible it must be for anyone to settle themselves into a foreign country.

This morning I was entrusted into the hands of friends of my friends, people I didn't know at all. They are Dutch and are colleagues of my hosts Chris and Nicia. They in turn, know a local man Nacho, who has a friend who is an estate agent (also Spanish). There are apartments aplenty in Ogijares and the surrounding area but of course many of them do not appear of official estate agency lists, or on the relevant internet web sites (something to do with extortionate official fees that have to be paid). It's been pointed out to me on several occasions that information on the ground is ten times more valuable than anything else you might pick up via offical channels. I understand the sentiment that here in Spain, certainly in this neck of the woods, it's not what you know that's important, but who you know.

The Dutch couple I met, Martin and Nelliga know a young Brazilian family. Through unfortunate circumstances they have to travel back to Brazil and as they do not have all of the correct and appropriate documentation they will not get back into Spain. I was left to put two and two together over that scenario while in the meantime my Spanish and Dutch contacts showed me around some properties.

Estate agents - gotta love them have you not? I was assured at one small house that the vicious looking dog next door only barked at people he didn't know; at another apartment the disgraceful smell emanating from the kitchen was nothing more than still water in the kitchen sink pipes; and in a final apartment that the north facing window overlooking a busy road below ensured the living room would stay cooler in the summer. For a small one-off fee, reductions in monthly rent could be obtained. If I wanted to take a deal on the rather expensive but unfurnished new apartment I saw they could arrange for some nice curtains and maybe a tv to be put in - if I say yes to Nacho before Monday.

But I'm getting ahead of the story. Before the property viewing I took a car trip with Martin to the Brazilian family's apartment. We were to take Daniella (Brazilian lady) into Zaidin (an area of Granada) to try and get two of her propane gas bottles changed. The local gas bottle man who tours the area had irritatingly ignored repeated calls from the family to replace the empty bottles. Hmm.

On the way to Zaidin Martin pulled the car into a dealership to try and get a refund on a dodgy windscreen wiper blade they had sold him. Yesterday whilst driving in heavy rain the wiper had flown off. I stood and watched as Martin, a gentle and unassuming Northern European, button-holed a mechanic and launched into a passionate arm waving tirade using his best Spanish. Daniella, standing aside with me, translated the gist of the argument. Fifteen minutes later we returned to the car, now complete with a new wiper blade, handed over at half price, and continued the journey.

I noted the lesson. The Spanish like an argument. They like to see some passion, some 'cojones', and if it's not in your nature to stand up for yourself you'll be trampled on, particularly if you are foreign.

Part of the task was to convince the mechanic that not only was the wiper blade the wrong make but that it had been incorrectly fitted. The dealership in turn insisted it had been fitted properly but had probably been damaged in a car wash or by someone leaning against it (?). Martin's passionate argument won the day though he then cheerfully admitted to us in the car that he had fitted the original himself.

Back to Daniella and her apartment. If I was to be a potential beneficiary of the family's misfortune I was at least determined to remain emotionally detached and impassive over the situation. Not a bit of it. Her husband Ricardo was pleased to meet me and I saw immediately that they were the most charming and delightful couple. Their apartment, the cheapest of all the properties I saw, was easily the prettiest and best aspected too. We drank tea and ate chocolate muffins while Martin did his best to meld my Spanglish and their Engluese into some form of agreement (whatever happened to Esperanto?).

Things change rapidly. Now it seems Daniella and their young daughter will go home in a couple of weeks and Ricardo will stay to try and earn some more money over the summer months. At the end of the summer he will then go back to Brazil - but in the meantime it's now being floated that I could share the apartment with him for the summer then possibly take it on myself in six months time. It would certainly enable me to live cheaply and get a feel for things with someone who knows the ropes before taking sole possession myself. The only problem? This is Martin's idea and no one has run it past Ricardo.

I've discovered so much this past week, a fair chunk of it today. I know the importance of making contact with locals, of discovering the person Chris terms the 'local knowledge source'. Get in amongst the community and make an effort but don't make the mistake of expecting people to be openly friendly. You won't get invited to the house of a Spanish family until you are firm friends. Be respectful and make sure you too are respectable. What else? I'd already heard about the hard edge of racism that thrives in Spain and now I've heard first hand accounts of those at the wrong end. Not nice.

None of this fast track education would have been possible without knowing people beforehand. Though for the time being I remain on the outside of this strange world looking in I can at least see one or two paths through the maze. The more I'm learning the more complicated I see it all is.

A lot of this mirrors my experiences in looking for teaching work too. Who I know is proving far more invaluable than having a CV or a qualification. I have picked up a student through a contact and have four more potential clients through Nicia my hostess here in Ogijares. And did I mention too that Daniella is an English teacher? She'll be leaving Ogijares within a fortnight. Perhaps my arrival could not have been better timed?

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