Registration day at the Costa del Sol branch of the University of the Third Age (U3A) in Fuengirola was fully under way on Monday when I was greeted at the door of the Lux Mundi ecumenical centre by president Dawn Boardman and vice-president Chris Lee.
U3A Fuengirola is just one branch of many across Spain, attracting volunteers from along the Costa del Sol who "want to put something back" into society, in addition to retirees and, as Dawn emphasises, non-retirees who are eager to get involved. Over the years, the vision of U3A Fuengirola has evolved to encompass more than purely "learning for pleasure", and now balances this with its social side, holding Christmas parties at Valparaíso in Mijas, weekly coffee mornings, and events at local venues Restaurante Dominique's and Cafetería Manila. Indeed, it is the opportunity to "get to know hundreds of people" which is the pulling force for many to U3A.
Dawn and husband Jerry used to holiday frequently in Frigiliana, while Chris came to the Costa del Sol 13 years ago with the dream of establishing his own bar. His move to U3A followed his wife's inkling that Chris, unfortunately, "might be [his] best customer". Dawn and Chris are now the force that "holds U3A together", coordinating the more than 40 activities available for the rising count of 450 members.
'Making Lampshades' is among the most obscure courses offered in the past, sadly fizzling out of the programme not long after it was introduced. "Unusual is the adjective I'd use," says Chris wryly. The eclectic buffet of activities is what attracts so many to U3A, however, as 'Jigsaw Swapping', for one, becomes increasingly popular.
Among the weird and wonderful is also 'British Sign Language', a new addition to the programme this year, and proving a hit already. Melannie Hassall, who has been resident to the Costa del Sol for two years now, will teach the class. She picked up the skill during her time as a teaching assistant in Durham (UK). "It was to keep my brain ticking over," Melannie explains.
And, brain stimulation seems to be the common denominator for much of U3A's programme. 'History - The Renaissance' is unsurprisingly intellectual, while 'Opera', on Mondays, is designed for those eager to become oeuvre connoisseurs. This activity is taught by Patrick Shaw, who, Dawn assures me, is armed with an "intense interest" in his subject and oozes enthusiasm.
Dawn and Chris also recognise the demand among the retirees for training in the use of modern technology. "It's almost compulsory now; you can't get away from it," says Chris. Following a recent complete overhaul of U3A's website and Facebook page, online engagement is more than ever a requirement for members. As a result, Ray Challinor has been introducing digital training by a drip in his fortnightly 'Photography/Technology' sessions.
Equally practical are the Spanish classes, which prove popular year after year, despite U3A member Barry Cooke acknowledging the difficulty of getting a Spanish word in edgeways in a town such as Fuengirola, which is brimming with Brits.
Barry, who still works as a market trader 33 days of the year and who joined U3A years ago "purely for the activities", will be putting his name down for 'Hiking'. At this announcement, member Sue Garner, who sits across from Barry at the table, encourages him with a thumbs up: "It's good to have a challenge."
I note, however, that Sue will instead be opting for 'Walkie Talkies', a social take on its more strenuous counterpart. 'Yoga' is another one on her list, and she sits next to yoga guru Dee Board, who will be leading the group. Dee, who originally came to U3A to "learn how to write stories", stresses that yoga "helps you to remain more flexible". "Use it or lose it," Barry chuckles, while Sue reassures me that the group does not quite attempt the contorted poses of those supple gods and goddesses we see on the internet, before disarming me with a quick: "But we can aspire".
Immersion in Spanish culture is also high on U3A's list of priorities - at least that is the excuse I am given by the 'Foodies' group which meets monthly. Veronica Wallis, Publicity Officer, excitedly tells me of an upcoming excursion to the Museum of Malaga, unashamed to admit that the tapas promised to round up the trip will likely be the highlight for many. "We'll probably only come back with half the people," she winks, letting slip the secret party spirit which still bubbles up among the ranks. Fun is evidently still to be had in retirement, and those believing it to be restricted to the 'Modern Jive' sessions on a Thursday would, categorically, be wrong.
Veronica, a former school teacher, who came to Spain in 1973 and remained when she was swept off her feet by a Spaniard, dabbles in the 'A Mixed Bag' programme: a riveting series of fortnightly talks, covering all topics under the sun. This term, Veronica is readying herself to deliver a talk of her own: 'A Tale of Two Cities' will unveil the blurred lines between reality and fiction in Nottingham (UK), home to heroic legend Robin Hood. For an entity which emphasises its 'non-political' nature across its website, the programme at U3A is, surprisingly, quite political; 'Debating and Discussion' on Wednesdays is taut with topical polemics.
U3A proves you really do learn something new every day, and upon that realisation, I left the retirees to enjoy the Back To School rush.