jueves, 9 de abril de 2009

The best drive-in show in town

There are some abbreviations that are simply lovely. M&Ms, for example. or BYOB and DKNY. Then there are those that fill us with dread: OHMS, BMI (Body Mass Index, not the airline, and it always makes me depressed) and now there’s ITV.

That’s right - ITV. No . . . not the television channel that brings us Corrie and Ant and Dec. It’s the Inspección Técnica de Vehículos - or to put it simply, your MOT.

Yup, Ferdie the Fiesta and I had successfully made it through our first year together and it was time for his fitness to be assessed. Actually, it had been time for a couple of months but when your beloved car is in his late teens, it doesn’t do to rush these things. You never know how expensive it could be.
Unlike in Britain, where you drive off to your local garage for an MOT, you have to attend a special centre in Spain and there’s no need for an appointment. “Just drive in,” Paul informed us - although he changes his car more times than a matador changes his pants so how he knew I have no idea. “Just drive in and hey presto - no problem.”

Well problem right there, actually Señor New Car. It’s a bit much to assume that just because I can navigate my way to the supermarket every week - yes, even by myself - that I can find my way around the impossible road system of Madrid. So we decided to head further out of town to get our ITV, to a place called Tres Cantos where I had worked and knew quite well. And really, what’s a 40 minute drive these days? Or 60 minutes, by the time we’d got lost.

“A family car?” said the guy in the ITV information centre. “Numbers three or four.”

“And then?”

“Then drive through the test,” he replied, with one of those “bah, guiri” looks.

Drive through the test? Ged and I looked at numbers three and four, at the cars politely queuing (and there’s a phrase I never thought I’d hear myself say when talking about Spanish drivers) to drive through the test.

“What do you do in Britain?” asked my non-driving, haven’t-a-clue-about-cars husband.

“Hand the keys over, have a coffee, go back.”

“That’s not what’s going to happen here, then.”

We joined the queue. I mean, it couldn’t be that hard, could it? All these people in front were doing it with no problem.

First up, a guy checked the lights. Or rather, he stood in front of Ferdie and shouted: “Enciende los faros.” I started wishing I’d brought a dictionary. He shouted again. I looked blank again. Ged just looked like he wasn’t with me. The guy came over, leaned through my window and switched on the headlights.

Then: “La intermitente para la izquierda.”

“He said ‘izquierda’ - left,” piped up Ged. “Something for the left.”

Indicatators! I flipped it on, only to hear: “No, la izquierquirda! La izquierda!” Now that wasn’t my fault. I get my left and right mixed up in English, never mind in such stressful situations as this. My examiner had had enough and leant into my car to flick on the indicator and test everything else I needed, saying each word to me. It was one of the best vocabulary lessons I’ve ever had.

Eventually he grinned and left, directing me on a couple of metres to have my exhaust examined. Thankfully, all I had to do was sit there, Ged and I both giggling at the whole thing.

A few minutes later, the giggles turned to hysterical laughter. Cleared from the exhaust man, we faced our final hurdle: manoeuvring over a great hole in the floor from which a man shouted instructions through a megaphone at the driver before me.

“I hope he can climb the stairs out of that hole damned quick because I have no idea what he’s saying,” I told Ged.

I’m not sure what alerted the man to the fact that I wasn’t entirely confident about the whole thing, although it could have been my almost driving straight into the hole, but he decided to take the safe option and explain the procedure to me Janet and John style.

“First,” he said, holding up an index finger, “take the steering wheel (he mimed holding the wheel) and turn it quickly (which he did, rather like a child pretending to be driving) then two, (two fingers up in the way that gets you a black eye in Britain but means nothing over here) press the brakes up and down (foot slamming into the floor) until I say stop. And nothing more.”

By this time I fully expected Jeremy Beadle to appear but no, we went through the procedure and - looking relieved - the man waved me on with a sheet to take to the main office.

The laughter stopped. This was the moment of truth. The man looked at the document, pulled open my ITV record, and stamped . . . “Aprobado”. We’d passed!

Now the ITV can join the list of nice abbreviations. And next year, I’m going to sell tickets for the funniest show in town.

miércoles, 8 de abril de 2009

A guiri abroad

It wasn’t until a recent visit to the UK that I realised just how Spanish I have become. No, I haven’t started wearing red trousers or grown my hair into a mullet (a crime worthy of instant execution). I mean in my everyday behaviour - I now act in a completely different way and didn’t even realise it until I suddenly couldn’t do it anymore.

First, I had to remember to apologise if I accidentally bumped into someone in the street. In Spain, nobody bothers because they’d be doing it all the time. Walking along the narrow pavements of Madrid is like a duel: they’re coming towards you, taking up all the room; you’re heading in their direction, your bags hanging at your side like a gunslinger’s holster; the pavement is only wide enough for one person to walk on and you’re both deter mined - who will win the Gunfight at the Calle Mayor? OK, it’s always me that loses, sliding to the side to allow the other person space and then scowling to myself as I’m invariable nudged by a bag (or a large Latin bum). I’m British; we deem this behaviour to be polite and even apologise to the offending bag (or her bum). Just don’t expect the Spanish to return the sentiment. You have to have been forcibly manhandled out of the way and thrown into the path of an oncoming bus before you’ll get an apology out of them.

Then I had to relearn not to say: “Hello, good morning” whenever I entered a shop. It wasn’t so bad in my mum’s corner shop, but the security guard in John Lewis looked a bit disturbed and watched me during my entire visit (somethings never change). I won’t even mention the faces of the people in the lift when I left them with a cheery: “See you later”. You see, in Spain we have to do that when we see a shop assistant, and we always have to say goodbye when we leave a lift. Not to do so is considered maleducado (uneducated). I have to admit that the lift one got us at first. It just didn’t seem right that these strangers were saying “hasta luego (see you later)” when we’d never even been introduced, but now we do it all the time - we’d be the talk of our apartments if we didn’t.

Finally there was the bus - and the bus queue. There are very few words with the letter “q” in them in Spanish and now I know why - queueing is an alien concept. At the supermarket tickets force them into orderly lines to get their fruit, fish or jamon, but in the bus queue there is no such numerical dictatorship. Anarchy rules and it’s survival of the pushiest. Long gone are the days of standing idly by as I watched the entire population of Ciudad Lineal barge past me and into the best seats. Now I’m there elbowing my way in with the best of them, usually pulling Ged behind me. (It’s not his fault he’s always behind. I get over my inhibitions by imagining there’s a cut-price pair of Manolo Blahniks on the bus waiting for me. Somehow Ged just can’t share this image.)

Not that it ends there. Once on the bus nobody moves from their seat. If they are sitting by the aisle and the window seat becomes empty, they stay put and you have to squeeze past to get to the only empty place left (because, of course, you weren’t quick enough in the - ahem - queue). It’s the same when you then have to leave that seat. “Move? You’re joking? Can’t you limbo dance your way out without disturbing me?” Even after all these months I’m still glad I live near the end of the line and the seat next to me is always empty. There are some formalities a Briton can never abandon.

This is not to say the Spanish are not polite. After all, this is a country with two ways of saying “you”, depending on how formal you wish to be. As I learnt on my journey back from Barajas airport. The lady in the bus seat next to me was very indignant at the young air steward on her flight addressing her as “tu” (the more familiar form) when she should have been “usted”. In fact, she was so indignant about it that she discussed this “maleducación” for the entire journey. And then she got off - pushing her Latin bum in my face as she clambered out of the seat next to me before I had time to move.

It was good to be home.

martes, 24 de marzo de 2009

What's in a name?

After our embarrassing first visit to see Rayo Vallecano in action (we won 4-1, by the way, and so are now known as the Mighty Rayo - or at least in my household. Danny the Boogie Barman at La Terraza, an Atletico Madrid bar through and through, seems to dissolve into giggles whenever we mention their name), Ged and I decided we had to show our true alliance in future. And so, new scarf proudly keeping my neck warm, I headed off to the stadium to buy season tickets (yes, a bit late, but never mind).

Anything official sends shivers down my spine and it’s even worse in Spain. Here, they have red tape off to such a fine art that I end up so tangled up I need a lie down and a cup of tea. With a dash of whisky, preferably. But after three and a bit years, I have a rough idea of what’s needed and now go armed with so many forms, documents and photocopies that you’d think it was first day back at school. Yet there are still problems . . .

My first attempt to explain what I was after at the stadium was met with the uncomprehending “huh?” which I know so well. It’s the shorthand way of saying: “Sorry, I was so busy trying not to laugh at your accent and your attempt to roll your ‘r’ which sounded more like a combine harvester in pain than a recognisable word that I didn’t listen to what you said.” It’s a familiar pattern: I then repeat what I said; he then repeats what he thinks I said; I then say it again . . . Eventually, we get there, although at times it can be like a game of “Give Us a Clue”.

Next came the forms. Oh yes, nothing is official in Spain unless it’s signed, dated and stamped. In triplicate is even better. But as I said, I was armed with all the numbers and names I needed and went to it with an official air. Now in the early days, I always relied upon the fact that even if they couldn’t understand what I said, I could write it down and bingo, instant communication. Oh yeah? I’ve had to learn to add a stroke through my Zs and change my qs (no little flick at the bottom but a cross) to avoid bureaucrats thinking I’m illiterate and talking slowly to me (which takes us back to the first problem of accents).

So I was fairly confident when I handed over the forms for Ged - full name Gerrard Ellis - and myself - Elizabeth Ellis.

The man in the ticket office picked up the forms, looked at them, pulled them in for a closer look, then frowned. “Where is your second name?” Ha ha! That old chestnut. Think he was going to get me with that one? I grew wise to that after . . . oooh, at least two years of being asked. Nope, it’s not my “middle” name, it’s my second surname, my mother’s maiden name. I told him I only had one surname. “Aaaah, so you are buying tickets for you and your brother!” Hee hee - he couldn’t even get me with that. I know the answer by heart, now, having explained the “quaint” British habit of usually taking your husband’s surname when you marry so many times I’ve started to think about having it on my iPod to save my breath.

(A friend of mine who’s been here many years admitted to me that she still gets flustered by the explanation. A recent run-in with the local government saw her getting official documents addressed to Señora Johnson Notienes from where the official wrote “no tienes – she doesn’t have one” on the space for the second surname on the form.)

Then the man hit me with a new question: “Your husband’s name is…” Now Gerrard doesn’t usually thrown them. Ged, yes, and we come up with lots of goodies for how to pronounce or spell that one, but never his full name.

He mouthed the name to himself, first, then louder to me, with an inquisitive air: “Gerrar…” The rs were rolling as if they’d been plunged headfirst down a mountain.

“Gerrard,” I annunciated carefully, realising my Geordie accent made me sound like Elmer Fudd saying it. So I spelled it – in Spanish – and explained how it was of Irish descent. He nodded blankly. “Like Gerrardo, in Spanish,” I finished off.

Oh, well, that was okay then. Lots of smiles and laughter and repetition of “Gerrardo”.

Eventually – and without need of the two passport-sized photos I’d taken just in case – he handed over the season tickets. One for Elizabeth Ellis and the other for her husband . . . Gerraro. He’d read my D for an O.

I thought of taking the card back, but then realised it was easier just to change Ged’s name. After all, in the fight with bureaucracy, it was practically a win. Just like the Mighty Vallecano – I hope.

A road to nowhere

When I was younger, my friends and I used to dream about doing a road trip, just heading off somewhere, stopping when we wanted, the freedom. But things got in the way (okay, then, boys got in the way. Damn them) and it never happened.

However, one of the good things about upping sticks and moving to a new country is suddenly everything and anything seems possible. Dancing till six in the morning when you’ve got work the next day? No problem. Sneaking through the open gates of a football stadium to see what it looks like? Piece of cake. Running from the security guard who’s just spotted you? A little more difficult with the passing of years, I grant you, but do-able.

So getting in your car and heading off who knows where for a weekend? Easy-peasy.

Leaving the cats in the capable hands of friends - honestly, I think finding babysitters is easier - we packed up the car and headed off for Valencia. The route, thanks to our trusty mapreading internet site, looked simple enough: go to the roudabout on Plaza de Alsacia and then turn left. Except when we did this, we ended up at the Carrefour supermarket we always go to. Still, it gave me the chance to stock the car up with all-important sweeties for the journey and then we retraced our steps.

Carrefour again.

Obviously, Ged was reading the instructions wrong. So we stopped, shouted at each other, then headed off in the opposite direction which at least took us to a motorway. A toll motorway, and the guy wasn’t too happy when we handed over a 100 euro note to pay the 1.75 fee (we’d spent all our change on the jellies we were now happilly chewing. Perhaps I should have offered him one?)

Still, we were back on the open road, fulfilling my dream of years, even if we were now heading to Andalucía and not the Valencian coast.

Aware that the furthest I’ve ever driven in a day was Edinburgh to Inverness, I decided frequent stops for coffee were called for. So, when we hit Jaen, we called into a service station.

I should have realised something was up when even the cockroaches were walking out the front door, but I was tired and needed coffee - NOW - and something to take away from the sugar rush of all those sweeties.

The menu was large and it took a few minutes to decide: bocadillo de lomo for Ged and one of calamares for me. “They’re sold out,” said the surly girl behind the counter. Okay then, jamon and tortilla. “They’re sold out.” We tried a third time. “We’ve only got bacon and cheese.”

“Well, one bacon and one cheese, please.”

“No. Bacon and cheese.”



“Ah. We can’t have a bacon and a cheese?”


As Ged hates all cheese except parmesan, we left. So far, my road trip wasn’t really thrilling me. But never mind, we went to get petrol and decided to stop at the next cafe for something to eat.

I struggled with the security-first safety catch of the petrol cap and popped the nozzle into the hole. Nothing. I put the nozzle back in place and tried again. Nothing. I looked around for help. Nothing. Eventually, a voice crackled over an intercom telling me I had to pay for the petrol before filling up. “But I've never filled it full before so I don’t know how much petrol it will take,” I objected. Answer - nothing. I struggled with the security-first safety catch again and drove off, cursing with every gear change.

Four hours and one successful pitstop later, we pulled into a little town in the mountains of Granada. There was a mirador - somewhere - where we were going to spend the night. But Ged was map-reading again and “somehow” we’d ended up a narrow lane, on a gradiant of God-knows-what, with nowhere to go. “I’ll have to reverse,” I said through gritted and very tired teeth. Ged hid behind the map as I tried to make my way down the windy road, aware of a local watching me with keen eyes.

Yup, the scraping sound told me something wasn’t right. “You’ve hit something,” said the helpful local who’d watched every movement without saying anything. “I know,” I answered. “And you’re leaking,” he went on, pointing to a trail of liquid following us up and then back down the hill.

I jumped out and looked under the car. Yup, there were two distinct drips coming from underneath. Thankfully, the small bollard I’d dunched had been all sound and no action - it left no mark on the car.

But that was it. I lay my head on the top of the car. Not even Easy Rider Peter Fonda had this much hassle on a road trip.

“Hey,” said Ged, who had used my breakdown to have a chat with a group of guys nearby. “They say the leak is just the water from the air-conditioning. Look, it’s already dried up. We’ve had it on all the way from Madrid so they say it’s natural for it to drip. And, we’re twenty minutes from the sea - how about we spend a nice night down there, then head back to Madrid tomorrow?”

It was the best thing I’d heard all day. And so, we joined the old fogies enjoying the late autumn sun on the beach - and you young things can keep your road trips.

jueves, 5 de febrero de 2009

Own goal

Think of Spain and what images come to your mind? A beautiful white beach? Ice-cold jugs of sangria? Handsome young men in shades? Okay, that last one might just be me, but the others will be there, along with, of course, a bright, shining, full-of-heat sun.

At the risk of annoying the Spanish Tourist Board, I have some bad news - in winter, there is no sun. Well yes, it’s there and occasionally teases you with giving off a small blast of warmth, but from November until March you can forget the usual images – at least in Madrid.

After freezing like a very dumb guiri for the last few winters, this year I decided to take action and got my mum to make me a nice, wooly scarf with matching gloves and hat (yes, I have stepped into that age bracket that puts functionality above fashion. But that’s the great thing about living in a foreign land - you can get away with wearing things you would never wear in your homeland. Honest, no matter what you don, you are always going to be strange and exotic. With perhaps a little more emphasis on the strange. There is a woman who lives next to us who always remarks how you can tell a guiri because their high heels “tic-tac” along the street in the way Spanish shoes don’t. It doesn’t matter to her that all my clothing is now from Zara and Mango and Sfera and so on!).

Armed with my protection against the cold - God bless you, mum - I suggested to Ged that perhaps the time was right to embrace Spanish football. Back when we first arrived, we’d tried to find a new team, eventually plumping for Atlético Madrid. But there was never that spark so vital in supporting a team. We watched them on TV, but going to the Calderón stadium never happened and my heart was never in my mouth the way it was with our beloved Hibernian back in Edinburgh.

But over three-and-a-half years, Ged had got to grips with all the intricacies of the Spanish leagues and come up with a possible choice - Rayo de Vallecano, a team in many ways like the Hibees: small, community-based and with a chequered past. Even better, their strip had once featured a giant bumble bee on the front of it. I mean, you’ve got to love that, haven’t you?

Remembering those chilly days in Edinburgh’s Easter Road, I got fully prepared for the visit to the Teresa Rivero stadium: thermals head-to-toe, check; jumper and jeans, check; thick socks and boots, check; and finally, hat, gloves and scarf - all checked and put on at jaunty angles.

It was on the metro that I first noticed a few looks at my clothes. I paid them no heed - as I said, foreigners are always noticed and I now wear my guiri-ism with pride. The excitement grew as we bought our tickets and headed to the stadium bar for an “aperitif” before the game (one of my favourite ways to describe having a drink in Spain! Sounds so much better, don’t you think?). It was busy, but hey, I’m a Geordie lass more than used to pushing her way through far busier pubs in the Bigg Market, so I squeezed an elbow onto a small patch of space on the bar and then manoeuvred my body in. Works every time.

Well, not this time. Every time I tried to order two cañas, a voice louder than mine wiped me out and I stood there like a goldfish. Eventually, a man wearing a bumble bee shouted my order across for me. I gave him “un mil gracias”.

“You’re welcome. Good luck for the game - although we are going to win.”

“Sorry?” I replied, but he wandered off to his fellow Bumblers.

I pondered on this as I made my way back to Ged, who was standing under a poster advertising the match and pointing at the opposition’s team strip - which was exactly the same colour as my lovely hat, scarf and gloves. My mum had turned me into the opposition.

Despite Ged’s protests that both sides in Spain mixed in the seats, I whipped everything off and hid them down the front of my jacket. I appeared six months pregnant, but at least I didn’t feel like such an outsider.

And so I still froze through the game. But it was great fun and we can’t wait for our next outing. Although I might ask my mum to get her knitting needles out before then…

miércoles, 7 de enero de 2009

Seasons greetings

I’ve never found Christmas the easiest of times. Somehow, no matter how organised I’ve been, somehow I’ve always ended up dashing to Woolies at 4.55pm on Christmas Eve for emergency cards, stocking fillers or pick ‘n’ mix (because Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without enough chocolates to keep the dental service in practice for the next twelve months).

However, being in a new country spurred me into super-organisation. When I discovered Spain doesn’t do Christmas cards (I know!), I made my own (only to discover that Spain doesn’t really do receiving Christmas cards either. My cotton-wool snowmen and glittery greetings were met with stunned silence and then questions about how much Rioja I was drinking). Presents were wrapped ready for all three days. Yup, three. We have friends from Eastern Europe who celebrate on Christmas Eve, our expat pals on the proper day, and then the Spanish on Three Kings’ Day (twelve days after Christmas - trust the Spanish to be late). I even travelled one hour on the train to the only English-brand shop I could find which stocked sage and onion stuffing and Christmas pudding. It was going to be perfect. I went to bed early on Christmas Eve, eagerly anticipating Christmas in Madrid and feeling as excited as when I was a little girl.

And just like when I was a little girl, I found I couldn’t sleep. Bang on the stroke of midnight, the convent opposite opened its doors - and its bells. For ten minutes, the sky was filled with ding-dang-dong - with the occasional bong thrown in for good measure - to celebrate the nativity. Then, when the clangs died down, we heard the chatter and laughter of everyone going to Mass. “Merry Christmas,” said Ged. “Shut up,” I answered, snuggling into my pillow. One hour later I was awake again - by the chatter and laughter of everyone leaving Mass, with car horns taking the place of the bells. This had never happened in the UK.

By the morning my spirit of goodwill and joy to all men and Midnight Mass-goers had returned - probably helped by the glass of cold cava and smoked salmon blinis we had prepared. We opened presents, tucked into chocolate far too early in the morning, phoned family, played games . . . everything we had done in the UK, although it was frankly weird to turn on the TV and not see Dorothy and Toto leaving Kansas and we were at a loss for what to do at 3pm instead of hiding from the Queen’s speech.

Continuing to sip the cava, we began preparing lunch, peeling and chopping a mountain of vegetables (minus sprouts. There are some traditions that simply have to be avoided at the first chance possible) while listening to Shakin’ Stevens, Band Aid, Slade, and all the old favourites that we had - mercifully - been spared for the previous two months. In the distance we could see the sun glinting off the snow-topped mountains. It was all perfect.

Too perfect. Thirty minutes after I’d been transported to a Christmas worthy of The Waltons, I heard a horrendous crash followed by a string of expletives. Rushing into the kitchen I saw Ged, holding the turkey, staring at a black hole where the oven door had once been. The door was on the floor. Or rather, all the pieces that had once made the door were on the floor. The safety glass, which had looked loose for a little while, had finally given up all efforts to hold on and fallen and shattered - just like our dreams for a traditional Christmas lunch.

After sweeping up the glass and throwing accusations at each other (“you were supposed to get it fixed” “you had more time than me” “I have to do everything”, you get the picture), our Christmas had descended into chaos again. Only this time without a trusty Woolies to help out.

In situations like this there’s not much you can do, except open another bottle of cava and search through the cupboards for anything not remotely oven-based to eat. “Aaah,” said Ged, finally. “I know what to do.”

So, while all our loved ones settled down to turkey, stuffing and sprouts, we had . . . paella, or rather Christmas Surprise Paella (the surprise being a distinct lack of prawns, rabbit and chicken and in their place rather a lot of turkey along with a side dish of sage ‘n’ onion stuffing at my insistence) followed by Christmas pudding generously doused with Spanish brandy.

“It’s a metaphor for our lives,” I announced. “Spain meets Britain. It could be a new tradition.”

“Or we could get the oven fixed for next year,” answered Ged.

Reluctantly I agreed. Which is why this year, we’ll be celebrating like everyone else - with our new oven door and earplugs to block out the bells. But we’ve got a packet of rice in, just in case.

viernes, 28 de noviembre de 2008

The biggest day of a new guiri's life

The night before my wedding I was safely in my mum’s house, slowly sipping one glass of champagne before an early night. The night before María and Seve’s wedding, however, the bride was in the bar. “Why would I be home with my family when my friends are all here?” she asked, her beautiful face suddenly frowning. I know, us guiris and our way of doing things. In the end, Ged and I left before María did - “I won’t be much longer,” she said as we left - because, well, it was my big day on Saturday and I didn’t want to look bad. My first Spanish wedding is something important, after all.

The following morning, we woke at nine - an hour after I’d arranged to meet Laura in the hairdressers to start all the beauty preparations that guests seem to need to do here. It was a beautiful morning and the sun glinted off Bilbao’s river. The perfect day for a wedding - and far too nice a morning to sit in the hairdressers. Anyway, wouldn’t Laura be finished by now?

It seemed not. I found Laura still in the hairdressers, having what seemed like the millionth hairclip put into her long, blonde tresses. “I have one more hour,” she said.

“An HOUR?”

, we have to look beautiful.”

My hair was currently hidden under a hat while my face shone from recently applied moisturiser. “Perhaps you’re right,” I said, starting to pull off my coat. In response, Ged pulled me to the door. “You’ll look beautiful,” he said. Funny how quick the compliments come when I’m holding him back from breakfast . . .

My careful preparations were all in vain anyway. As soon as I saw María arrive, even more gorgeous in her white dress, tears flooded down my face. In fact, it was so bad that I didn’t notice until halfway through the ceremony that Seve’s best man was a woman. “How modern,” I whispered to my friends (although why I whispered I do not know. Those who hadn’t taken the opportunity to skip the actual service and head straight to the bar - “, everyone does it in Spain. The misa can take so long” - were posing happily for photographs in their pews and giggling away). Unsurprisingly, my pals looked blank. Turns out there are no best men in Spain, only madrinas, mothers of the groom, who sit with their son, the bride and the bride’s father (phew, thank goodness somethings are done properly) on special seats on the raised altar, in full view of everyone. No bridesmaids either, only flowergirls - and very cute they were too.

It was only a short walk from the church to the hotel, where we tried to look sophisticated as we stood on the terraza, the Guggenheim as our background, and enjoyed cava and nibbles on the terrace. And more cava and more nibbles, and more, and more.“Don't eat them all! These are just aperitivos,” Jorge, the bride’s brother, informed us. “There are nine courses waiting for us for lunch. With the proper wine, of course.” NINE? “I’ll only have half of each,” I whispered to Ged. “I can’t possibly eat nine courses or drink all that wine.”

Four hours later, as I licked the last of the chocolate cake off my plate and ordered a post-lunch brandy to go with my coffee, I was as Spanish as the rest of them, happily taking over the shouts of joy that had punctuated the pause between each course.

Viva los novios!” I called. “Viva!” came the response.

Viva los padres de los novios.” “Viva!”

Viva los amigos . . .” “Enough vivas,” cautioned Ged. I did a quiet one of my own, just to make sure. After all, we didn’t want the friends of the bride and groom being missed out on long life, did we?

By this time, my head was spinning - and it had nothing to do with drink. Somehow, I had become the chronicle of wedding etiquette in Britain and all day, I had been asked “Elli, in your country, do you . . .?” The idea of speeches was abhorrent. What, no role for the mother of the groom? And which friend would really think it was an honour to be dressed in a lilac meringue for the day? “Let’s disappear for a little bit,” I whispered to Ged. “My feet are killing me. We’ll come back later.”

But just as we were about to leave, a group of red-clad men with instruments burst through and, overcoming the cheers, began serenading the bride - who showed a big white frock is no impediment to bopping. “It is a tuna,” said Jorge. “They are traditional here in Bilbao.” Well, we couldn’t leave just then. After clapping and dancing along to the men, it was then the disco, and Ged and I were bundled up by our new friends - all so reticent to speak English earlier in the day - and dragged onto the floor to join the arm-waving uncles dancing to I Will Survive (I know, a strange choice for a wedding song but it was popular).

Arm-waving dancing uncles, beautiful bride, handsome groom and a room full of happiness. As we settled in for a very long night, I realised that Spanish and British weddings weren’t so different after all. Viva los novios!