domingo, 25 de febrero de 2007


Mad dogs and Englishmen may go out in the midday sun but they’re wasting their time if they’re going out shopping. The reality of the Spanish long lunch break – like who’s minding the store when the shopkeeper’s snoozing – had never really seemed real to me. Until now.

Even in a major city like Madrid, life here centres around the barrio, and in the barrio are all the little shops that have more or less died out in the UK – the butcher, the baker, even the religious artefact maker – each offering traditional service. Customers are called by their first names and everyone stops for a bit of a gossip. If the shopkeeper doesn’t know you, you’ll be called “guapa” (beautiful) or “joven” (youngster) – in my case usually followed by a “yes, you” as I look around for this mysterious beautiful, young person. However, traditional service comes with a price, and in our case that price was getting out of bed early enough.

Our first few months living here have been a wonderful indulgence of late nights and even later mornings. Bliss after the hectic life we lived in the UK but hell when it comes to buying such essentials as bread! You see, while the supermarket may stay open all day, it can’t compare with our barrio’s baker – who doesn’t. Off I would go, gaily swinging my bag in the glorious midday sun like a true mad Englishwoman, only to pass La Terraza and see the baker tucking into his menu del dia as he started his two-hour lunch break. Back I would go, bag dejectedly slung under the arm, wondering how to make an exciting lunch from two potatoes, a carrot and a tin of tuna - and the cats would be getting the tune.

Eventually the baker took pity. “Guapa, you just can’t get here early enough,” he told me, “Shall I save you a loaf every day?” And now, after he finishes his lunch, I have mine – with the best bread in the barrio.

However, all that is about to change as we embark on a full working life. We’ve just been for our first interview. It was my first in five years and Ged’s first in 12, so you can imagine how nervous we were. Off I trotted, in my beloved Manolo Blahnik shoes, an expensive but wonderful reminder of my former life, pulling my skirt down over my hips and regretting having spent the summer enjoying every Spanish pastry I could find. I love high heels and overlooked the fact that my Manolos were so high they made me walk like Tina Turner. But then, disaster. The pavements here are very similar to cobbles, making walking in high heels the Spanish equivalent of doing an army assault course - and my Manolos certainly weren’t army-issue. Five minutes to the Metro station, and twenty-five minutes away from our first interview, I stepped down and the heel didn’t stop. It kept going down and down, snapping to the metal bar underneath. I tried to fix them, but nothing could be done. Besides, there wasn’t time. I needed smart shoes and I needed them fast.

Luckily the Spanish love shoes almost as much as I do, and I dashed into a nearby shoe shop to find a pair with low heels. The shop was empty except for an elderly sales assistant and a young salesman, who were checking over figures. I grabbed a shoe, tried it on, and staggered across to the two men.

“Excuse me,” I began, in my very British way of over-apologising for wanting to buy something in a shop, “I’m sorry to disturb you but I’m in a hurry. I’m on my way to an interview and my heel has snapped. Can I try on the other one to this, please?”

The assistant looked at me, pushing his glasses up onto his forehead, and peered at the shoes. Then he wandered off, leaving the salesman checking the figures at a much quicker rate than he had previously been doing. I watched the assistant wander into the back room, where thousands of shoes sat in boxes like the shoe shop that time forgot, and disappear. What seemed like an age later, he returned with my shoe’s partner and I slammed my foot into it.

“I’ll take it.”

He nodded, slowly. “Si, joven, of course. Because they are very pretty shoes and make you look very pretty too.”

The salesman nodded and was about to join in the discussion before I reminded them of the interview. I left amid calls of “Buena suerte (good luck)” and ran across the Manolo-murdering pavement and into the Metro station, cursing everything.

When we returned, the sales assistant was shutting up shop. “How was your interview?” he asked. I told him it had gone well. “Of course, because in those shoes you are ‘muy guapa’.” And then he went off for lunch, leaving me grinning.

It might be old-fashioned, it might be slow, but when you’ve just lost your Manolos, there’s a lot to be said for shopping in Spain.

Moving in

Looking back on our first month in Madrid, as I sit on our terrace, glass of wine in one hand, nibbles on the table, cats rolling around in the sunshine, it’s hard to believe that neither of us has actually killed each other yet.

Moving is one of the most stressful things going. Move to a new countryand you can multiply that stress level by every single one of the thousands of miles you’ve just travelled, and sometimes the level gets so high that you can see smoke billowing from your ears and heaven protect whoever is standing next to you.

When we first arrived, we knew we had to stay in a hotel for a few days while we opened a bank account and filled in all the necessary paperwork for the flat. What we didn’t know was that the bank would take that particular time to install new software, which meant our “aval bancario” (bank guarantee) disappeared into the ether longer than it should. A couple of nights in a hotel turned into a week, despite the fact that Gema, the rental agent, had actually gone with us to open the account. “Can’t we just move in?” we pleaded. By the look she gave us in answer, you’d think we’d just asked her to take a one-hour lunch break. Frustration forced us to the bar, silently accusing each other: “You wanted to move here . . .” over glasses of cold rioja. Several glasses later, making our way back to the hotel through crowds of families enjoying the end of a hot, summer’s day in a way we’d envied so much as visitors, the accusations died away. If this was the worst that happened, we could cope.

Except it wasn’t. I had to return to the UK to pick up my babies – Harrie and Hattie, two mangy cats who cost me £2.50 to buy 12 years ago and several hundreds of pounds to transport now. Thanks to pet passports, getting them prepared for the journey was easy. Much easier than physically carting them around two airports while a certain airline’s staff looked on in bemusement. I tried to be inconspicous, but the girls wouldn’t stop stop shouting. (Not that I could blame them; I had already knocked Harrie’s case off the luggage trolley and it had gone rolling across the floor - with her inside. If miaows could be translated, none of hers would have had more than four letters.)

Then, at Heathrow, after I had snaked my way round the check-in queue, I had to take them out of their cases – right in the middle of terminal two – while a lovely man named Mo drilled extra holes into their boxes for them to be able to travel. After her topsy-turvy entrance into the world of airports, I could see Harrie eyeing the runway with interest and I had visions of her becoming one of the “bongs” on that night’s Ten O’Clock News: “And finally, a runaway cat has halted all air traffic in and out of Heathrow. Her owner, who has since been given enough valium to knock-out a horse, was last seen gibbering dementedly in a corner clutching a half-empty bottle of Spanish brandy”.

But their ultimate humiliation came at Barajas. They were given their own private escort to the terminal. I, meanwhile, had to go fleeing around like a madwoman and was just heading for the excess baggage area (where I had been told I would pick them up) when I heard a howling from the carousel. There were their boxes, going round and round and round, with Harrie and Hattie inside, scowling as several planeloads of Spaniards ooohed and aaahed at them. It took another hour for my suitcases to arrive, by which point I just wanted to plonk myself at the airport bar and forget about everything.

But at least we were home and it would be plain sailing from now on. You bet? Ged, my husband, greeted me with the news: “We have to meet Don Carlos, the landlord – now.” So, on our first day in our new home, nervous, scared, and with two very angry cats in tow, we met Don Carlos. Think of Sean Connery in the film Medicine Man – old man, beard, ponytail – and add a moped and a helmet and you’ve got the idea. He went to a Jesuit school in Brighton as a child and had all the manners and formality you would imagine of a Spaniard who gets called “Don”. Well, Don Carlos took one glance at the Bedlam reject standing in front of him and decided to just talk to Ged, while I followed them around like a lapdog – still clutching a catbox in either hand.

When he’d gone, Ged turned to me. “You wouldn’t believe how stressful today’s been,” he said. I glared at him. There was nothing for it – he had to die. “How stressful your day’s been?” I shouted. “Here,” he answered, before the rant could begin, “Have a glass of rioja.” And suddenly, it didn’t seem so bad . . .