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!

martes, 4 de noviembre de 2008

Medical mayhem

Being British, I was born to queue. Nice and polite, one behind the other, waiting quietly until the person in front has had their turn. Yet all it took was a visit to the doctor’s waiting room for me to turn into the queuing equivalent of Paris Hilton at a meeting of Nobel prize-winning scientists - completely out of my depth.

Just getting to the queue was a hurdle in itself. In almost three years, neither Ged nor I have been ill enough to need medical assistance (the power of positive thought - three years of thinking: “I’m positively petrified of going to a doctor in Spain”) but I could not put it off any longer. Spain is very strong on preventative medicine and after the hundredth student told me off for not going to any sort of well woman clinic (“after all, you are in your 40s” - muchas gracias for that, Pilar) I decided the time had come to take the bull by the horns and pop into our local medical centre to register - taking a book with me: I have by now, after all, had lots of experience in Spanish red tape and how long you have to wait.

Five minutes later I was out. Organised? Efficient? ¡Claro que no! Turned out that the medical centre only ten minutes walk from my house wasn’t the one for my area. No, the one I needed was a ten minute bus ride away. Course, that makes perfect sense. After waiting for the bus and then waiting in the queue, I was sent home to queue at the town hall for a certificate, after which I was back waiting in line at the medical centre. After registering, I asked for an appointment. “Sorry,” said the woman behind the desk, “I don’t do appointments. You need to queue up at the window next to me.”

With all this practice, by the time I actually got my date and time - Thursday, 11.15, number 27 - I was an old hand at queuing in Spain.

Yet it all went horribly wrong. The place was packed, the patients waiting outside their specified doctor’s room rather than in one general waiting area. Ged and I sat down and I checked my number again. It was then I realised there was a fatal flaw in my queuing procedure - I had a number, but there was nothing displaying numbers in the whole building . “The doctor must call it out,” surmised Ged.

A few minutes later, the doctor’s door opened. A woman came out. Another woman went in. Then it happened again. And again. A steady, silent stream of patients moved in and out of the consultation room, all in perfect sequence as if taking part in a silent dance. How did they know when to go in?

I was starting to get desperate. Then I had an idea. Some of my fellow waitees were holding their appointment slips. “Try and see the numbers on their papers,” I ordered. Surreptitiously, squirming around on my seat, screwing up my eyes and contorting my body, I tried in vain to make out the tiny writing. After a couple of twists and turns, I realised a few people were looking at me. Others were looking at Ged in sympathy. The woman next to me was edging away so nobody would think we knew each other.

“Stop it,” Ged whispered out the side of his mouth. “They all think you’ve got a marble loose. Or piles.”

Suddenly, the door opened and a kindly looking woman in a white coat appeared, clipboard in hand. She read out a list of names and I watched anxiously (listening is no good - have you ever heard a Spaniard pronounce Carr-Ellis?). These were the next group of patients but it wasn’t until after she’d finished that I realised I’d been expected to see who was before me so I would know my place in the dance. I’d failed the audition miserably.

But I wasn’t the only imbécil. An old man turned to me and asked: “Was I before or after you, young woman?”

“No, no, no,” said another woman. “She was after that woman in the red trousers over there...” she pointed to the woman I was to follow in a manner my mum used to tell me off for “... then it’s you.”

He nodded thoughtfully, and then decided he had time to go home and have a coffee (it was 12.15 by now). Ten minutes later, he was back. “I’m after you, true?” he asked. I nodded, ecstatic that someone else was worse in the Dance of the Doctor’s Queue than me.

Eventually, the woman in red trousers - the only time I’ve ever been glad to see red trousers - finished her turn. I stood up - just in time to see my original old man come through the front door, smiling broadly that he wasn’t too late to lose his place. The place I had now told another poor waitee was his.

I scurried in. Then scurried out five minutes later, turning my ears away from the argument growing behind me: “But the English girl told me I was after her.” “No, estúpido, she told me I was after her.”

Not having had the foresight to ask the doctor for some tranquillisers after my thoroughly stressful morning, I popped into La Terraza for a beer and checked the hospital appointment the doctor had given me. Three weeks later at 13.10, queue number - 72. Another day of it.

But this time I have just what the doctor ordered - I’m taking a bottle of gin in my handbag.

viernes, 17 de octubre de 2008

Drink to me only

Well, that's the end of the holiday season. Not ours, you understand, that ended long ago, no, this is everybody else's holiday season – the season where having relatives in Spain is suddenly fabulous. Somehow they don't seem so keen during the bleak mid-Madrid-winter.

Don't get me wrong. I love seeing family and appreciate the efforts they make to come here (BA please note – get a direct route from the north please). But after three months of constant visitors we are left wondering why we don't just go the whole hog and open a B&B.

It has been fun, though, although a lot of that was unintentional from our guests. And mainly the guests from my side of the family. Two in particular - my sister, Marion, and her son, David.

Marion and David are an easy couple to please so long as the sight-seeing ends with some form of liquid refreshment (visitors after our own hearts. After all this time living here and countless visits to the city beforehand, we've still never quite managed to actually enter the Prado and see the art that has made countless tourists speechless. You see, there's a really nice bar close by and people-watching always appeals).

Luckily, Madrid has more bars per head of population than any city in the world. So, we did the Puerta del Sol (a pick-and-mix of bars), the old, deeply atmospheric La Latina quarter (bars with scrummy huevos rotos to nibble on), the Santiago Bernabeu (come on, it's a football stadium. You've got to have a drink there) and then El Retiro park (no bars. They're called terrazas here).

And that was just in the first two days.

By day three, Ged and I left them to their own devices. David could remember enough of his schoolboy Spanish to get round and they were confident that they could map-read sufficiently between the two of them not to get lost. Still, I spent the day worrying that at some point a friendly member of the Guardia Civil would roll up at our door asking if we knew these two people who'd tried to have a go at bullfighting in the Plaza del Toros, or something similar.

So when we spotted them making their way along our street at 6pm, we were pleasantly surprised. Although David was walking a little funny.

When he entered the flat, we realised why. His jeans were soaking wet.

“Oh my God,” I screamed, “You didn't climb into the Cibeles fountain, did you?”

“No,” he grunted, giving a sidelong, malevolent glance at his mum. “We were in a bar, having a drink, when the waiter brought our glasses. Except mine wasn't a glass, it was one of those white, earthenware jugs they use for keeping the beer cold.”

“It was an honest mistake,” butted in Marion. “The froth at the top was white and it was full to the brim and I thought the glass was upside down...”

“And so she turned it the right way up!” finished David. “The beer went all over me.”

“I told you to get another one.”

“I couldn’t - I don't know the Spanish for ‘another’,” he pouted back.

By this time, the giggles Ged and I had been struggling to keep in erupted into laughter. Marion was also biting her lips to stop herself joining in while David sulked into the bathroom to shower and change.

I’d never noticed just how silly our family can be until I moved away which is why I thought it best to give a few pointers for next year.

First, and I know this is a bit of a surprise, this is Spain, not Bognor Regis, so when sitting out in the height of the midday sun please don’t say, “By but it’s hot, isn’t it?” I can no longer be held responsible for Ged’s actions.

Two: don’t explain to the waiters the perfect way to make “a nice cup of tea” as you’ll still just end up with a cup of dishwater - only this time it will be delivered with a scowl.

Three: do remember to pay for your drinks when you leave the bar and not when the waiter shouts at you when you’re halfway down the street.

Oh, and last but most definitely not least, please don’t go on and on and on about Real Madrid when we’re in a bar surrounded by Atlético de Madrid scarves. I don’t yet know the Spanish for “the big man knocked out half of my teeth”.

Yes, it’s lovely to have family to stay - they make me look not quite so bad.

martes, 26 de agosto de 2008

Baby, you can drive my car

It is with a heavy heart that I write that the streets of Madrid are no longer safe.

Especially when I have to admit it’s my fault that the streets of Madrid are no longer safe.

You see, I have joined the ranks of drivers. I know, I know, after my last paint-scraping escapade I vowed never to darken the driver’s door again but needs must when a regular journey takes one and a half hours in the bus and only thirty minutes by car.

And so, one 5.45am start too many, I scoured the pages looking for a bargain. Except that I forgot bargains only happen twice a year in Spain and I’d obviously missed the car season. Old vehicles are hot property - with hot prices to match - but eventually I found a Ford Fiesta that sounded good. I drove it, managed not to hit anyone, and told Santiago the owner I’d take it, proffering the money at the same time.

“Ah! No. You cannot pay me yet - first you have to pay a tax.”

“Pay a tax for buying a car?”


“And then I get the car.”


Doh, of course not. How could I have been so stupid? After all, this is Spain and if bureaucracy is worth doing at all, it’s worth doing in triplicate. Turns out, after going to the tax office to pay a transfer tax, I then had to go to the jefatura de trafico (the central car agency) with Santiago to pay another tax, of course, to transfer the ownership, as well as pay for all the forms that we needed to use. What did I say about a bargain?

After leaving me, Santiago had pointed at some strange handle, muttered something about “frio” (cold) and I had nodded like the dumb guiri I am. Five minutes later, after sitting in a car that wasn’t doing anything, I realised it was the choke. Yup, my car is so old it has a manual choke.

The next day I decided to take my maiden voyage on the motorway. Route planner in hand (or rather on the passenger seat), I turned the ignition key. Nothing. I tried again, and a faint chug-chug-splutter came from the engine. Pulling the choke out turned the chug-chug-splutter into a healthier sound and I pulled out gingerly.

Five minutes later and Ferdie was moving beautifully. We’d never left the slow lane and I had no plans of ever doing so . . . until a bus pulled to a halt in front of me and, with that wonderful way they have of doing so, just stopped.

I checked my mirror and indicated. And checked again. And one more time. It doesn’t do to rush these things. When even the dog in the distance had safely left my field of vision, I pulled out to the central lane and glided to a halt at the traffic lights.

And I had done all this with the choke left on.

The lights changed to green. My engine changed to stop. There was nothing. No matter how many times I tried, the engine refused to give anything and the only noise I could hear was the “beep beep” from the drivers behind me.

Close to tears, I tried to move the damn car myself, when suddenly I was rescued by a knight in shining armour (or rather, a white van). He quickly realised I was a female guiri in distress, commandeered another driver to help, and pushed Ferdie to a turning spot so the rest of the traffic could move on.

“This,” he said, pointing to the bonnet, “Kaput?” I nodded. “Please, open it.”

What? Open the bonnet? How? Where? With what?

I began scrabbling about the normal points for the bonnet release key but it was all in vain. There was nothing there. Wiping the tears away, I tried the key one more time.

Success. Ferdie sprung to life and my knight sprung into his van, smiling broadly as I blew kisses of thanks, using both hands to show my intense gratitude.

His big, wide, happy smile as he left kept me glowing all the way to my destination.

At my office, I stepped into the ladies’ for a quick touch up of my make-up. Hmmm, my hands were dirty too - must have been from scrabbling on the floor looking for the bonnet. The same hands that I had buried my face into. The same hands from which energetic kisses of thanks had been blown.

The same hands that had, the mirror now showed me, covered my face in large smudges of tearstained black dirt. So that explained the white van driver’s smile.

Since then, my confidence has grown, and now I toot horns, switch lanes, forget about indicating - all like a true Spanish driver.

And who knows, perhaps someday I can do it when there are other cars on the road.

sábado, 2 de agosto de 2008

Handbags and glad rags

What - you expected something over July, when temperatures hit so hot it was all I could do to sit by the pool with a cocktail . . . ?

The heat in Madrid over summer is unbelievable, and I’ve had to relegate my dark clothes to my winter pile and buy new, light-coloured ones, like the Spanish. Not that it helps me to blend in. We are instantly recognised as the new “guiris” (foreigners) in the neighbourhood and our progress around the barrio is keenly watched to see what these “mad Brits” will get up to. While I’m all for individuality, it can get a bit tiring at times so I was determined to follow Spanish fashion and fit in - checking out the other women in our local bar and taking their lead. They have long hair, so do I - now (well, it’s slightly longer than it was in the UK, a major achievement for this urchin-cut girl); they like little handbags, so do I; they like red trousers . . . ok, some things are beyond the pale. But I can cope with wandering around in cute vest tops with drawstring straps and gypsy skirts.

That was how I was dressed the other morning when I popped into my bakers for our daily bread (a task containing both pleasure and pain - pleasure in that the bread is fantastic, pain in the look on the baker’s face when I try to speak Spanish). Despite it being 25C at only 9am, the baker’s wife looked at me curiously. “Don’t you feel a bit chilly, just wearing that at this time in the morning?” she asked. The Spanish like discussing the weather almost as much as the British. I tried to make a joke about it feeling like a baker’s oven outside, but the perplexed look on their faces as I stammered my words made me turn my sentence into a simple “Not really”, and I headed back to the flat, bread in one hand, little handbag in the other.

Waiting at the traffic lights to cross (and feeling chuffed that I’d finally remembered to look the right way - as in the wrong way), I noticed a man wind peering at me from out of his window. “Señora,” he shouted, “It’s very hot. Do you have far to walk?” I shook my head and said I was nearly home. He asked if I was sure I wouldn’t like a lift, then drove off as I walked on, amazed at the kindness I constantly encountered in Madrid and smiling happily to myself as I happily swung my little handbag.

A few days later we visited La Terraza. Finding somewhere close-by to have a coffee or a cana had been important to us, but we’d had trouble locating one. In we would go, perch ourselves at the bar, only to get a look of disdain and a feeling that we were something the dog had dragged in. It took a little time to be welcomed at La Terraza, but finally Ged has been given a free lighter and I can go in by myself to work, read or just people-watch. Santi, the owner, grumpily teases us about having to turn his bar into a Spanglish-speaking one - winking as he says it - and the staff greet us when we bump into them in the street.

It was through Santi that I learned about Paul, a fellow Geordie, who lives in the next calle to us - we can even see his flat from our garden. We had chosen to live in Ciudad Lineal, a nice, well-to-do, very Spanish area, and at first didn’t want to mix with ex-pats as we wanted the “Spanish” experience. But after a while you feel the need to talk to someone with whom you share a common culture and language, and Paul quickly turned out to be a good guy.

He was in La Terraza when we popped in, laughing with Santi, and invited us to join him. Intrigued by the giggling, I asked what the joke was.

“Oh, Santi just had one of the girls in asking for a discount on their meals as they eat here so much,” said Paul. “He told them he would give them a discount if they gave him a discount. She wasn’t very happy.” We looked perplexed, and he explained: “You know - the ‘ladies of the night’ who live around the corner. It’s all legal here in Spain. Look, there’s a couple over there - with the small handbags. That’s how you can tell who they are.”

I looked at my tiny bag with horror, while Ged almost fell off his bar stool laughing. It’s since been relegated to the recycling bin and I’ve decided I’m happy being known as the guiri of the neighbourhood. There’s a lot to be said about individuality, after all.

miércoles, 18 de junio de 2008

Next stop, the Priory

Hello, my name is Elizabeth and I’m an alcoholic.

Well I’m not really, but as everybody here seems to think us ex-pats have multiple drink problems, I’m just waiting for someone to hand me the address of the nearest Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and thought I should get some practice in.

I first had the inkling that we didn’t share the same ideas on drink several months ago, on a night out with Laura, Marie-Jose and their friends. We started off fine, with tapas and a cerveza, but then moved on to the fashionable area of Huertas, where the streets are paved with discos all thumping to the same Latin beat.

Latin music moves me to tears . . . of absolute boredom, so I headed to the bar to drown my ears, noting that the order consisted of coke, claras (shandies) and one beer. No prizes for guessing who that was for. In the next bar, the girls all headed straight for the dancefloor to boogie down to David Bisbal or one of the many other Operación Triunfo TV stars and then, with the grand number of no drinks consumed, moved on to the next bar, and then the next, and then the next. We hit five discos without buying one drink. They even turned their noses up at the free shots the touts were offering. Now come on, if I have to suffer Shakira five times in a row I think some form of liquid medication is called for.

So I asked if anyone wanted a drink. They all agreed they were thirsty. And asked for: “Agua, por favor”.

I explained to Marie-Jose how strange this behaviour was compared to the UK and told her about nights out with my girlfriends, trying to imitate Carrie and Co by ordering cocktails and giggling home on our stilletoes. “I know,” she replied. “When my mother and I visited Edinburgh we saw two girls in the bar and you know what? They drank a whole bottle of wine.”

After a few seconds silence, I realised Marie-Jose expected an answer to this less-than-shattering news - and that she expected that answer to be negative. I struggled for a reply and ended up with: “And . . . ?”

“A whole bottle. Just the two of them.” She shook her head in disbelief.

“But,” I began, trying to think of a time me and my best friend had ever been so restrained on a night out, “I often see businessmen drinking a whole bottle of wine at lunchtime.”

“Well of course - at lunchtime,” and she gave me that special Spanish look that says more than words ever could about how stupid us guiris are. “They are having lunch,” she added, slowly, as if talking to a child.

Doh! Of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to have a whole bottle of wine - even by yourself - at lunchtime because then it’s not alcohol. Have a three-course meal and you’re a connoisseur; have a bag of salt-and-vinegar and you’re a drunk. (Sadly, this attitude is reflected in the fact that many of these connoisseurs still think nothing of climbing into their cars after their wine-laden lunch.)

I tried to answer, but it’s a bit hard not to appear an alcoholic when you’re arguing the merits of spending tiddly-time with your best friend to a girl who’s serenely sipping a glass of water at three in the morning. So I just nodded - and I swear I heard a cock crow.

It gets worse. Laura began talking about the amount Ged and I had drank once on a night out. The grand total of four cañas each For the record, a caña is a glass of lager so small that it doesn’t even fill a half-pint glass. “You drink so much,” she chastised. See what I mean about the AA meetings?

But then, back in the UK on a visit, I realised I’d been brainwashed. Sitting in a friend’s house, I looked up from my take-away to see them all staring at me - as I added lemonade to my red wine and asked for a glass of water.

Later, I picked up a can of lager and poured some into a small glass - about cana-sized - before wandering off, leaving the half-filled can standing and my friends shaking their heads while I looked through the CDs.

And there she was - Shakira, gazing up at me from the cover of her latest record. I looked at my glass of beer and then back at the CD. The two things seemed to go so well together. Should I? Could I?

No way! I mean, they can change my drinking habits but somethings are untouchable. Shakira was pushed to the back of the collection and soon the sounds of the Arctic Monkeys came blaring out.

And that was worth raising a glass to - no matter how small it was.

domingo, 25 de mayo de 2008

We wuz robbed!

Elvis is alive and turned into a speccy Spaniard whose chin bears more than a passing resemblance to Jimmy Hill. What's more - he's a star over here and beat the British choice in Eurovision.

For the past . . . oh God, feels like years, we've been subjected to the Chiki Chiki (pronounced Cheeky Cheeky) every five minutes. Its singer, Rodolfo Chikilicuatre, started life as a spoof on the popular Buenafuente show - a rip-off of those US late night programmes like David Letterman etc. Somehow, he managed to make it to Belgrade.

We, meanwhile, managed to make it all the way to the German entry before being forced to take solace in La Terraza. We knew with Danny being the Boogie Barman that we'd not escape, but it would seem a little easier on the ears with a caña or five inside us.

And that's when the cultural differences came in. In the bar, we had British (us), Romanian (Danny, who for some reason gets called Ricky by everyone else) and Spanish (the others) with an average age of Noah (and no, I'm nowhere near that). Songs we giggled into the foam at, they loved; those that we (well, I) gave thumbs-up to (come on, Latvia's pirates were fabulous) got a stunning silence from them.

Then came the Chiki Chiki. Ged and I stood waiting for the joke to hit . . . and then the song ended. Like the audience, we were stunned into silence at just how bad it was (although it's on non-stop, even appearing on bloody ringtones, I'd never had the - ahem - pleasure of hearing it all the way through), the locals were picking themselves up from the floor laughing.

France got a bum-wiggling vote of confidence from us (the beards went down well with our drinking companions) while Ukraine and Greece caused an amazing amount of slavering on the part of Danny (he's only 26). Meanwhile, Ue (yup, that's his name) started telling everyone how much he missed Cliff Richard and how Franco "had a problem with the English". And several others.

But Eurovision was the perfect opportunity for the Spanish to do what they do best - talk very loudly about absolute rubbish. Everyone had an opinion, even the old men enjoying a late meal ("ha, they couldn't change the colour of their shoes," muttered one as Georgia's costumes changed from black to white). This was a tertulia at its absolute best. And Ged and I laughed through every minute of it.

As we left, Danny decided to explain the Spanish entry to us.

"You see," he said. "We are laughing all the time in Spain. This is a joke. We know it is a joke. We want people to enjoy themselves. To see that we are laughing all the time here in Spain."

"We?" I queried.

"Did you hear the Romanian song? I'm Spanish."

Who'd have thought Eurovision could turn La Terraza into such a melting pot.

PS. We wuz robbed!

domingo, 4 de mayo de 2008

And here he is, Lucifer himself in Retiro Park! Looking suitably fallen, it has to be said. The artist, Richardo Bellver, took his inspiration from Milton's Paradise Lost apparently. Pic from

sábado, 26 de abril de 2008

My new city

Someone asked me recently what Madrid was like (settings have never been one of my strong points in writing!).

Well, take the beauty of Barcelona - and instantly forget about it. I'm not even going to pretend that my new home city is as stunning as the Catalan capital. We have no Sagrada Familia, no Parc Guell (just adorable), no sea . . . In fact, Madrid doesn't have a lot going for it. There's a trickle of water that they call a river (trust me, I've seen bigger "rivers" flowing down the Bigg Market on a Saturday night), it's roasting in summer, freezing in winter and surrounded by nothing. And not even green nothing either; the land is a pale sand colour that burns your eyes in summer.

BUT . . .

For a city of almost five million, Madrid is surprisingly compact, meaning you can wander around to your heart's content - and I defy you not to find something of interest on every street corner. Wander through La Latina and you're in the oldest part of the capital, with leaning towers of flats (well, a couple of storeys at least) and atmosphere galore. The streets here are narrow and dark, just the place for Alatriste or Britain's own Flashman to find adventures, and still contain traditional features, such as public water fountains. La Latina eminates from the beautiful Plaza Mayor (Pictured left. Just don't ever eat here. You'll need a credit card that could pay off the national debt of several African countries to do so). The plaza is a wonderful columned square where people still live and very much socialise. On one corner is Moore's Irish bar, in whose basement the Inquisition once tortured non-believers (I hate Irish bars so the torture continues to this day). My favourite place is the cape shop, where you can buy traditional Madrileño cloaks and pretend you're Dick Turpin (hmm, mebbes revealed a bit too much there).

Away from the Hapsburg part of town and you're met by wide, open boulevards and lots of light. And what light. Madrid is the highest capital in Europe and it shows. When the sun shines, the air becomes translucent. It has a quality that the only way I can describe it is to say my skin doesn't have it but I bet Gwyneth Paltrow's or Agyness Deyn's skin does. The light glimmers and shines and makes everything look different. It makes me understand why people climb mountains for the view (although understanding is the nearest I'll ever get to climbing a mountain. I mean, hey, I have the light here - why exercise?)

Statues, gargoyles, columns . . . at times, every building seems to have something to see. But the best things to see are the people. Brightly dressed to match the sun and full of life. Constantly chatting, whether to friends, to strangers, on their mobiles or even to themselves (!), the bubble of talk fills the air as much as the mopeds and car horns. You cannot come to Madrid and not get caught up in the atmosphere.

From where I'm sitting now, I can just see a plane in the distance taking off from Barajas. I always wonder where they're going. The convent sits opposite, quiet until the bells at mid-day or just before mass. Nuns and priests are a common sight in Madrid. A Spanish flag is valiantly trying to show itself in full glory but there's very little breeze now that Spring has arrived so it moves slightly and then the effort is too much and it relaxes. It's going to be a hot day, so I know how it feels. Far, far away I can just see the tops of the still snow-covered mountains, so small that I know they must be gigantic close up. And then, in between them and us, lies a range of greens, a montage of mosses and sages and olives, jades and kellys and limes from the many trees and parks and gardens that fill the north-east of the city. The sky is a pale-blue softly flecked with high cloud and the birds appear as silhouettes as they start their day. It's still and peaceful, but I know that in an hour my barrio will be buzzing with activity, people going to buy their bread and newspapers, calling into La Terraza for coffee, enjoying a lovely Spring day.

No, my city doesn't have the beauty of Barcelona. It has more.

Photographs @ (some great images here!)

domingo, 13 de abril de 2008

El Greco's Toledo

About an hour away lies the mystical city of Toledo, a wonderful daytrip for Madrileños. It's here that the Greek painter El Greco made his home - and no wonder. My favourite view - which I sadly missed getting a shot of - was a mobile knife-sharpener polishing up blades with the aide of a converted bicycle. He turned the wheel with one hand and then polished the blade against it.

To market, to market . . .

Contrary to popular belief, women do not, in fact, like shopping. Oh yeah, we grin and bear it and drag our heels to the shops when we have to go out for the essentials - handbags, shoes, earrings etc - but believe it or not, going to the local supermarket fills us with as much dread as it does you men.

But then, you move to Spain and a visit to the supermercado takes on a whole new meaning.

Some things are annoyingly similar to shopping in the UK. No matter which trolley I choose, for example, it’s always the one with that sixth sense of knowing exactly the direction you wish to go in and then choosing to turn its wheels in the opposite. And no matter what time you go, it’s always full - unless, of course, you go on a Sunday, when the shops are closed. Oh yes. Only on the first Sunday of every month can you go to the supermarket. The remaining Sundays, you’re left facing shuttered grills and forced to go to the bar for Sunday lunch. Our first few months of shopping here were fun until we gathered that one out, I can tell you.

But the real excitement comes once you’re inside (having run the gamut of the security people who want to check all your bags to make sure you’re not smuggling in any dangerous items). Give Spaniards any set of wheels and suddenly they undergo a personality transplant, all miraculously becoming Fernando Alonso - and I mean any wheels, shopping trolleys included. While I’m struggling to get mine to move in a straight line, these baby F1s are all under starter’s orders and determined to get best track time around the aisles. Until they see something they want, then the trolley is abandoned in the middle of a busy lane and you find yourself stuck in that most ugly of situations - the supermarket traffic jam. Without horns to blow, these guys are lost as to how they should behave and resort to barging their trolleys past the offending obstacle (metal or human) or pulling their handy little shopping baskets on wheels over whatever gets in its way. And an amazing lack of foresight on behalf of the supermarket planners means the parafarmacia (drugs department) is upstairs, leaving the lamed and crippled forced to hobble their way onto escalators to buy bandages, antisceptic cream and brandy (purely medicinal, of course).

Having suffered the trolley rage, there’s only one place to go to chill out – the fish counter, and not just because it’s covered in ice. Grab a good book, pull up a basket to sit on and get settled because you’re going to be here for a while. Spanish love fish and Madrid has one of the best reputations for fresh fish, even though it’s in the middle of the country and miles from the nearest port. As a result, your ticket number may say you only have five people ahead of you, but these five people obviously never learned from Jesus and instead buy enough fish to really feed the five thousand. And each fish has to be descaled, de-headed, de-backboned, de-everthing (the removed parts are, of course, placed into another bag for when you’ve got the ten hours necessary to make fish stock from them. Amazingly, many of my co-shoppers seem to have this time free - no surprise after the long wait at the fish queue. I, meanwhile, am left to mutter “no, gracias,” head down to avoid the disapproving looks as these tasty morsals are thrown away. An hour later, after you have your fish (“no only two pieces, please. Yes, that’s all”), it’s time to head for the shellfish counter and another long wait - this time enlivened by trying to avoid the escape attempts of the crabs and lobsters which, still alive, start to move towards you. Still, at least the wait gives you time to dash to the meat counter, where a tantalising array of heads, feet, brains and ears have the amazing affect of making you instantly decide on a veggie stir fry for that night’s dinner.

But there is always one source of satisfaction: the foreign food section. Every week, we stop and drool at all the exotic produce on offer - Homepride Cook-in Sauces, Oxo cubes, Chivers orange marmalade and Weetabix. (What, you thought I meant authentic Chinese, Indian or Italian food?) They all cost an arm and a leg to buy (hmmm, perhaps I could get these joints at the meat counter too) and we walk away with heavy hearts and protesting stomachs.

Until last week, when a sudden madness brought on by the wonderful reappearance of the creme de la creme of British food made us throw our Spanish style of life out of the window. That lunchtime, after tussling with the trolleys, freezing at the fish counter, shunning the shellfish and forgoing the feet, we sat down to a real feast: Heinz Baked Beans on toast washed down with Robinson's Orange Barley Water followed by ice cream in proper wafer cones, all eaten out on the terrace, of course. With the sun beaming down and our favourite comfort food inside us, it was just the thing to turn that supermarket weep into a supermarket sweep.

miércoles, 9 de abril de 2008

Wheel gone kid

No matter how late at night I’ve walked home (OK, staggered on some occasions), I’ve never felt scared on the streets of Madrid.

Step out onto the road, however, and it’s a different matter.

Madrileños are some of the nicest people I know (not counting the waiters, of course, who pride themselves on being so grumpy they make Oscar the Grouch look like Mickey Mouse), but put them behind the wheel of a car and you discover just where Robert Louis Stephenson got his inspiration for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. They become monsters who forget all rules of the road.

For a start, there’s lanes. Or rather the lack of them. Getting into the right lane is an interesting concept to Madrileños - and one that must be ignored at all costs. Want to turn left? Then just cut in to the five other lanes that are blocking your way (and yes, there are only supposed to be two lanes on most roads, as in Britain, but then there’s the vast number of cars straddling the white lines - where they exist - as well as the mopeds and the taxi drivers who are making up a whole new road system). Bus lane? What bus lane? That’s just a really, really good way to get through the rush-hour traffic (which happens four times a day, thanks to long lunches) and avoid the other cars - if only those cars in the five other lanes weren’t blocking your way and what on earth are those large red vehicles full of people doing trying to get past?

Meanwhile, if the SAS ever need a new way to test the toughness of their new recruits, Madrid pedestrian crossings are the way to go. There are two types - the ones with green man and the ones where you cross and pray to God that the car hurtling towards you will stop (usually they just swerve round you). With the other type you’re halfway over the damn crossing, the green man proudly lighting the way, when you notice the cars coming round the corner are still coming round the corner and hurtling over the crossing. That’s not strictly fair - some will slow to a speed of “not excruciatingly painful if I hit you” as they ignore every rule Tufty the squirrel taught you about the Green Cross Code (look left, look right - dammit just run for your life).

Then there’s the double-parking, the constant tooting of the horn, the speeding . . .

None of this criticism has anything to do with my recent expedition into the driving seat, of course.

I love driving and have missed it terribly in Madrid. I’ve driven in Spain before, several years ago during a trip from Nerja to Huercal Overa, in Almeria. It was all motorway, until we got to the small villages and then our guide offered to take over. I was out of the driving position so quickly you’d think the hire company had installed an ejector seat a la James Bond. Driving on the wrong side on straight roads is easy; on windy, bendy, too-narrow-for-a-burro roads it’s impossible and I was glad to leave the responsibility to someone else.

In Madrid, the traffic is so busy, no matter what time of day or night, that I’d never dared get into a car. Besides, there’s no need - public transport is amazing and we’ve never missed having a car. But I have missed the sensation of being behind the wheel, with the world at my feet (or pedals) and that’s why I took my friend Fernando’s offer of a try behind the wheel of his company car.

We were in a quiet part of the city, with barely another vehicle in sight, and the insurance covered everyone. No problem, I thought, easing the car into first gear and moving off. It was plain sailing - apart from Fernando screaming: “Look left. Left! The other left!” at every junction. In fact, I felt so confident I had no qualms as I maneouvred into the parking lot.

Which is probably why I didn’t see the workmen’s railings on the right-hand-side of the car until I heard a sickening sound similar to fingernails being scratched down a blackboard. I had scraped the side of the car.

I apologised profusely, offering time and time again to pay for the damage, but Fernando merely shrugged it off. “It’s the company’s car, not mine,” he said, displaying a very Spanish attitude.

For the next couple of weeks I could barely look at him, I felt so ashamed. But then he invited me for a drink. “Remember when you drove the car?” he asked over a caña. I groaned and begged him not to talk about it. “No,” he continued, “I was laughing about it with my father - when I did exactly the same thing on exactly the same railings.”

I hid a smile as he muttered something about “at least I know which left to look at”. But who cares about left and right? For me, it was full speed ahead moral superiority.

And so long as I never get behind the wheel again, that’s a road I’ll never have to leave.

lunes, 24 de marzo de 2008

A hole lot of trouble

There’s so much building work going on in Madrid at the moment that I barely batted an eyelid when my friend Fernando told me his neighbour was having a Metro station built in his back garden.

But then I realised that Fernando lives in Alcala de Henares, a small city to the north of Madrid famous for being Cervantes’ birthplace. A small city that is half-an-hour’s drive away from the nearest Metro station. Thinking I must’ve misunderstood, I gave Fernando my bewildered nod of agreement (if you nod slowly, while looking thoughtful, the speaker thinks you’ve understood what they’ve said and doesn’t know that your brain is desperately trying to work out how something that sounds like one word with fifty consonents - and most of them the letter “r” - could possibly be the answer to “A kilo of tomatoes, please”), but then had to admit defeat.

“A Metro station?”

“Yes,” he answered.

“I came home yesterday and saw half his garden had gone and now there’s a huge hole. He must be making a new Metro station - it’s the only explanation.”

He then laughed at my stunned face (Fernando and I tend to talk Spanglish, neither of us having sufficient confidence in speaking the other’s language fluently, and consequently conversations can become very surreal at times) and explained. Turned out his neighbour had decided to extend his house and so was digging out a new garage/basement in his garden. He also planned a new bedroom on top of the garage/basement – something that would completely destroy both the view and the light into Fernando’s house while knocking several thousands of euros off the price.

“How did he ever get planning permission for that?” I asked.

“Planning permission?” said Fernando, with an “oh you British” look. “He doesn’t have planning permission. He’s just digging.”

He went on to explain that although the council knew about the work, and although it was highly illegal, nothing could be done until somebody made a denuncia - a complaint. Until that happened, the neighbour could dig his way to Australia and no-one would stop him. I explained what would happen in Britain. Fernando just grunted. “Spain is different,” he said.

Over the next few weeks, the tale of the neighbour’s garden grew as much as the foundations he was laying. Fernando made the denucia, but nothing happened. Then he received news that an official was going to call. “Want to come and see my neighbour have to fill in his Metro hole?” asked Fernando, a smug grin on his face. He didn’t need to ask twice.

We waited at Fernando’s house - number 24, Calle XXX – with bated breath. And waited. And waited.

After a while, we heard a disturbance outside, And then saw the flashing light of a police car. Fernando went to investigate and came running back in.

“The man from the council is down the road, and the police are talking to him.”

True enough, a smartly-suited man from the council was stood inbetween two policemen and an old woman, who didn’t look happy. She was furious.

We joined the group of neighbours who’d also come out to see what was happening in this normally quiet street.

“Someone made a denuncia about the work in your house,” the man from the council was saying. “I have to investigate.”

“There’s nothing wrong with my house,” the woman was answering. “Who made the denuncia? Who of my neighbours would complain when I’ve done nothing wrong? Who would do this?”

Fernando gave a small groan.

“What is it?” I asked.

“This woman, she lives at 34. The man from the council went to the wrong house,” he answered.

He was right. When we got to talk to the council man, he’d been told to go to number 34, not 24, and, as fate would have it, the old woman who lived there was also having work done to her home. Work which had permission. And she didn’t like having some bureaucrat suddenly turning up and demanding that she stop. Which was why she had called the police.

I slunked away to the back of the crowd, leaving Fernando to sort things out. After a while, he motioned for us to go back to his house, alone.

“What about the council man?” I asked.

“He won’t come. He said they were told 34, not 24, and he won’t move without the right paperwork. I have to make the denuncia again.”

My jaw hit the ground.

“Do not worry, Liz,” continued Fernando. “My neighbour can do all the work he wants. He will just have to undo it all when it gets sorted. These things happen. Remember, Spain is different.”

miércoles, 5 de marzo de 2008

A kiss is just . . . not on!

Love is in the air - and on the escalator, the Metro seat next to you, the middle of the pavement . . .

One thing I’ve noticed in my time here is that the Spanish love snogging. Everything you’ve ever heard about Latin lovers is true (well, almost everything. Thankfully they’ve left the medallion and the skintight leather trousers far behind, although, sadly, hairy chests are still proudly puffed out whenever a J-Lo lookalike is in view) and believe me, they leave Parisians in the shade when it comes to romance. Young, old, straight, gay, couples everywhere in Madrid take any opportunity they can to tickle each other’s tonsils, no matter where they are. I’ve seen elderly men “old enough to know better” balance on their walking sticks to give their wives a kiss in the middle of their evening paseo, middle-aged couples giggle like schoolchildren as they snuggle up together in the supermarket queue, and even the youngsters in the playground drop their toys to pinch a peck when it’s time to say goodbye. The only ones who don’t seem to snog are the expats, who make sure it’s only their stiff upper lips that are on display as they cough discretely and push their way pass the passionate pairings.

However, sometimes you’ve have to join in - whether you want to or not,.

Ged and I recently celebrated our wedding anniversary with a meal at one of our favourite restaurants, Bazaar, in the centre of Madrid. It was a lovely evening and we billed and cooed as all good Britons do - discreetly holding hands and lovingly offering each other a taste of the fabulous food before scoffing the lot (although I did notice the mouthful Ged gave me of his beloved chocolate dessert was so small it made our free tapa at the bar beforehand look like a four-course meal). At one point, hubby looked as if he was going to buy a rose from the flower-seller who came round the tables but Scottish sensibilities (and an overdose of hair gel on my part) prevailed and we watched on as all around us, women proudly placed their floral tributes of love in their hair in a way that you just can’t do when your barnet is short and spiky rather than long and luscious. Things became even more loving when we realised that our local, La Terraza, was showing football on TV that night and we could make the second half if we got the Bingo Bus home.

The Bingo Bus? You know the one - in Britain, it’s the second-last bus home on a Saturday night which is always filled with older merrymakers making their way from the Gala. We have the same bus here, except it’s usually bullfights instead of bingo. The noise level is about the same. Being a late-night bus, it quickly became full, leading to Ged offering his seat to a woman who was standing, and, being a late-night bus full of people who’d just been to the bar, it wasn’t long until she started a conversation with me. (I learned several months ago that saying “I’m sorry, I don’t speak very good Spanish” to a Spaniard makes absolutely no difference. They’ll fix you with a smile, acknowledge what you’ve said, and then babble away fifty-to-the-dozen regardless. All you can do is nod, smile manically, and hope they’re not saying anything too tragic.)

The woman asked what I had been doing and I explained I’d been out with my husband. “Aaaah,” she replied, turning to give Ged her full, unashamed attention, “Con guapo? (With handsome?)” “Yes,” I answered. “It’s our wedding anniversary.” “Aaaaaaah,” she squealed with delight. “Your anniversary? How sweet. How loving! How long? So young! You should not be apart tonight. Come, come - you should be sat here, next to your wife.” And, despite Ged’s protests, she began giving orders to the rest of the passengers to move so she could give the seat back to him. And with every order, she announced it was our anniversary, until it seemed the entire bus was grinning at us and we had no choice but to look loving, grin back, and count how many stops we had to endure until we could escape.

A few days later, I recounted this tale to my friend Carlos, who has also just been married a few years. “I once read about a British couple who had just celebrated their 80th wedding anniversary,” he said. “But the newspaper didn’t say how many affairs they must have had to make this life sentence bearable.”

After so much loving, it was good to find a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek, British-style cynicism. So good, in fact, that I could have kissed him. But I didn’t. I am, after all, an expat . . .

sábado, 16 de febrero de 2008

Getting into a tight situation

With winter full upon us, a girl’s thoughts turn to only one thing - tights.

For as long as I can remember I have worn thick, black tights every winter. However, when packing for sunny Spain, I didn’t imagine such things would figure highly in my new life and gaily threw them in the bin. With my permanently tanned legs, I’d never need such things again, I thought.

Que idiota!

I should have been prepared. I can remember, in those distant, permanently-blue days of September, sitting in La Terraza and asking Paul and Santi about the photograph hanging on the wall showing the bar covered in a thick layer of snow, the sunlight sparkling brightly. “That was just this year,” said Paul. “Middle of February, I think.” Santi agreed. I looked again at the photograph; it was very picturesque. They both laughed when I told them this. “You wouldn’t say that if you’d been here.” I pooh-poohed their words. Paul’s lived in Madrid for more than ten years, while Santi is Spanish. What did they know about cold, pampered by sunshine all year round?

Fast forward three months to our first Madrid winter and I’m beginning to think I didn’t have it quite so hard in the UK. It’s cold. If I could say the words “brass monkeys” in Spanish, then you’d get my drift just how cold it is. Yes, the sun shines, but it gives out very little heat and my mum is sending across the long johns as we talk. Cold rioja has been replaced by hot chocolate (oh all right, perhaps that’s no big hardship), the jumpers are out of mothballs and the search for the thick tights is on.

But how hard can that be, I hear you ask, after all, tights are hardly the most taxing thing to buy. Well, welcome to the weird and wonderful world of Spanish tights.

I first ventured into this world with my Spanish friends Conchi and Pilar, two willowy, elegant women who would make Gwyneth Paltrow feel like Giant Haystacks. However, being a nice person I’ve learned to forgive them such perfection and they’ve become good friends, bucking me out of my British ways of dress towards a more feminine look (aka taking the effort to wash my hair before I go to the supermarket rather than jamming on Ged’s baseball cap). So it was a surprise when one night, over a drink, Conchi crossed her legs to reveal a glimpse of brown and yellow tights underneath her trousers. At first I thought I was imagining it, I mean, brown and yellow striped tights? But no, a second look confirmed they were definitely there. What’s more, now I had noticed them, I began to see brightly-coloured tights every where: red tights, blue tights, red and blue tights, checked ones, lacy ones, mauve, orange and pink stripey ones – you name it, someone somewhere had thought it was a good idea and turned it into a fantasy in nylon.

But not everyone is as subtle as Conchi. Instead of hiding these shocking stockings, some display them with pride. Women in business suits will accessorise with bright orange handbags and matching tights, while those who are “dressing down” will team lime green tights with electric-pink shoes. Sitting on the metro one morning, amongst a sea of sleepy faces and traffic-light legs, I found myself regretting pouring so much scorn on my mum’s penchant for wearing 30-denier, American Tan pop socks. Where are Trinny and Susannah when you really need them?

Things came to a head the other week, when I went shopping with my friends. I was looking for a new outfit for work and, after standing firm against some lime-green monstrosity, bought a very smart black jumper, black skirt and - hidden away in a corner - a supply of thick, black tights. (It’s not that I don’t like colour, it’s just that I’m British. We don’t do colour until July.) I paid for my purchases with joy, ignoring the looks being exchanged between Conchi and Pilar.

Two days later they sprung their surprise. Sitting over coffee, they produced a gift-wrapped package. A long, rectangular gift-wrapped package. In fact, the sort of long, rectangular gift-wrapped package you used to give Great-Aunt Aggy for her birthday - that’s right, the sort of package that hides a pair of tights.

I opened it up gingerly, looking nervously at Pilar’s red fishnet-clothed legs, and pulled out . . . a lilac scarf. “To go with your new outfit,” said Conchi. “,” agreed Pilar. “We thought it would look nice and make you look more Spanish.” I stammered my thanks and was about to offer to pay for all the coffees - and order cakes - when Pilar added: “And now people won’t think we’re friends with someone who goes to funerals all the time.”

“OK, you can get me some colour, but I’ll never wear coloured tights,” I laughed. They joined in my laughter - but then gave each other a knowing look . . .

viernes, 8 de febrero de 2008

A night on the tiles - ahem!

Hattie shows exactly what a flower box should be used for!

Okay . . . back to the lighter stuff!

There are many firsts to overcome when you move abroad - first home, first day at work, first security guard following you round the supermarket (how was I to know you’re supposed to check your backpacks in at the entrance?). However, this had to be the biggest - first date.

No, I haven’t ditched the husband in favour of some Latin lovely; it was a date with a new friend called Laura, who knows my old Spanish tutor. We’d met celebrating his birthday and a couple of weeks later, she phoned out of the blue to ask if I’d like to go for a drink. After I’d arranged to meet her in the city centre the following Friday, I jumped around like a teenager. My first Spanish friend.

Sitting in the bar that night with our friend Paul, a fellow Geordie ex-pat, I realised how important this date was. Apparently, the Spanish aren’t prone to handing out invites for drinks willy-nilly.

“In ten years,” said Paul, with a trace of huffiness in his voice, “I’ve never been invited out by a Spaniard.”

He looked even more offended when Santi, the bar owner, pointed out that that was probably because all his Spanish friends knew he would be in the La Terraza every night. But Paul had a point. Talking to the Brits we’d met, I realised what a privilege being asked out was. The Spanish are incredibly sociable; they’re just not that great at actually inviting people out. Friendships, especially among women, seemed to have been born many, many years ago - and certainly not with guiris. The pressure was mounting.

Come the Friday, I was a nervous wreck. We’d arranged to meet in the Plaza Mayor, next to the statue of Felipe II. And that’s when I realised everyone arranged to meet there. For ten minutes I furiously bopped up and down trying to see around the waves of people that came, met their friends, and left. No sign of Laura. Then came the text message: Running late. See you in 30 minutes.

I phoned Ged. “Typical Spanish,” he replied, then hung up so he could watch PasaPalabra.

For the next 20 minutes I waited at the statue, watching the pitying stares from those came and went and thought I’d been stood up. Eventually I saw Laura, looking every inch the perfect Spanish woman in her long, flowing skirt and long, flowing hair. I preened my recently shorn locks (who can be bothered with all that styling every morning?) and smoothed down my jeans. After a typical Spanish greeting - kissing both cheeks (“Don’t forget,” said Ged, “left cheek first, otherwise you smash noses.”) - we wandered out of the square and I prepared myself for an authentic Spanish night out. What delights would I discover? What new bars would I be taken to, far from the madding crowd of tourists? The excitement was killing me.

After about half an hour, it wasn’t the excitement killing me but my feet. We had done nothing but walk. At first I thought that perhaps we were going to look in some fashion shops, still open late on a Friday night, but no, we were just walking.

“Aren’t we going for a drink?” I asked.

Laura looked surprised: “Well, yes, but first we paseo. You want to go for a drink now?” Her tone sounded like I should be in the Betty Ford clinic. I shook my head and explained that in Britain, a drink meant a drink, not a five-mile hike up and down the Gran Via. “No, here in Spain we paseo and talk. Then we’ll go for a drink. I know a nice shop that sells fruit juices, mixed fruit juices with yoghurt - how do you call them in English?”

“Smoothies,” I replied.

Laura smiled: “, eh-smoothies," she replied, with her Spanish version of the "s" sound. "They are very nice.”

By this time I felt like a complete fish out of water - and a dry fish at that.

But after we’d walked and then chatted in a crowded smoothie bar, I started to feel better. The fresh air was much nicer than any crowded bar, and Laura was wonderful company, helping me with my Spanish as I helped her with her English. But, I found myself thinking, she’d be no good in Newcastle on a Friday night, not drinking smoothies all night.

The hours flew by and soon it was time for me to get my last Metro home. Laura’s jaw hit the ground. “Go?” she spluttered. “OK . . . but I am not going yet. My friends are meeting in a bar in La Latina. I’m going to meet with them. Are you sure you do not want to come with us?”

I looked at my watch. It was 1am - and they were just going to the bar now? I’d been out for four hours and was exhausted. Laura looked as fresh as when we’d met. I shook my head and made my apologies. She just grinned and kissed me goodbye: “You English. No eh-stamina.”

What was that about Newcastle on a Friday night? As I left, I found myself wondering if it wasn’t so much that the Spanish were not forthcoming with their invitations as that we just didn’t have the eh-stamina to keep up.

My mixed-up country

The recent furore over Lewis Hamilton's appearance in Spain - when four men blacked up and hurled abuse at the driver - has made me think about my new country.

Sadly, we've become used to such things. One of the Hamilton men has said he is not racist and only dressed up for the fun of carnival. Not like the woman I met the other day at the bus stop. Hearing my accent, she asked where I was from. Hearing I was English, she kissed both my cheeks and welcomed me to Spain . . . before proudly pronouncing: "No me gustan los immigrantes" (I don't like immigrants) and "Soy racista" (I'm a racist). She didn't like people from Africa, Morroco, "any of those places". OK, as she went on it was easy to see she wasn't the full euro but we've had students, high-up businessmen, feel perfectly at ease making the same declarations to us. A good friend of our is constantly referred to as "el negro" - the black man - without any ill feeling meant. To them, he is black and a man . . . what's wrong with saying "the truth"?

Hopefully, as more immigrants come to Spain and they integrate, this policy will change. Sadly, for the older generation, I think it's a lost cause. They were brought up on Franco's pride in being Spanish and it still shows. Years of isolation are hard to undo.

jueves, 7 de febrero de 2008

Has it been a year?

How can a year go by so quickly? So much has happened - and I've been keeping a diary (altho' I have no idea if anyone is reading this. Never mind, I always chunter away to myself anyway so this is just one more way of doing it.) Here's the next episode. Hope I enjoy it :-)

My first month of working as an English teacher has certainly been an education. First of all I’ve learned that a group of seven-year-old cariños can magically metamorphosise into the Bash St Kids when their regular teacher is away. My friend Tony runs a language academy on the outskirts of Madrid and had asked me to stand in while he took a week’s paternity leave. I’d observed him in a lesson with the kids, he’d left me all the work they had to do, and I’d just qualified as a TEFL teacher - what could go wrong . . . ?

I suppose it was when Mary, who’s been teaching since Noah was taking shipbuilding lessons, walked into the classroom and told everyone off that I realised I wasn’t as good on the discipline front as I thought. It was Blanca’s fault. She had the face of a Renaissance angel and the soul of Minnie the Minx. Sussing out in – ooooh, two seconds that I couldn’t always tell a preposition from a proposition, she started every sentence with “Tony usually . . . “ and me, taken in by the blonde curls and cherubic smile, fell for it. The turning point came when Mary marched her in from the toilets where she’d been having water fights with one of the boys. As Mary read the riot act, I hung my head and looked as ashamed as my young students.

So my next lesson I was determined to be tough. We were doing is, isn’t, are and aren’t and it was going great. They were getting it, we were laughing, I had become a great teacher. Until I asked them to use the words in sentences. While they could use them while talking, every one looked blank when we began writing it down. The more examples I gave, the blanker they looked. Then I asked Alejandro, one of the brightest, for an example. And Alejandro looked back at me with tears in his eyes. Oh God, I’d done the worst thing possible. I’d never be asked back. I wouldn’t be able to face Tony again. I’d have to declare it on every job application in future – warning: can make students cry. Alejandro blinked, and a tear threatened to roll out of his eye. Disney couldn’t have done it better. Sudden action was needed. “Is it or isn’t it time to watch The Simpsons?” I desperately asked. They looked blank, then Blanca said, hesitatingly, “It is?” I nodded and they cheered and settled around the TV, Alejandro rubbing his eyes as I buried my head in my hands.

With a heavy heart I headed off to my next class. Manolo, 41, who’s number three in a leading software company in Madrid. We’d already had one lesson which had gone well, but he’d had trouble on the present perfect and some of his pronunciation so I’d arranged a lesson on those, starting off with what we’d done that day: I’ve eaten breakfast, I’ve travelled on the Metro, I’ve made a student cry . . .

But Manolo wasn’t having it. “That is impossible,” he exclaimed. “Impossible to say that.” Hmmm, a ‘P’, an ‘S’ and a ‘B’ – all the pronunciation sounds I’d wanted to work on. That was a start, I suppose. “I have brushed my teeth! Why would I want to say ‘I have brushed my teeth’? I brush my teeth, I brushed my teeth. That is how you say it. You are making it artificial,” he fumed.

“Well,” I began, thrown by the outburst. “Perhaps you’re worried about whether your breath smells and you think, ‘Hmmm, have I brushed my teeth?’ and then you (I mimed cupping a hand to my mouth and smelling my breath) think, ‘Phew, I have brushed my teeth’.” Pleased with my example I looked up at him. Then wished I hadn’t. Clearly Manolo had been born with Colgate’s Ring of Confidence around him.

“I brushed my teeth this morning,” he said, emphasising each word. “I have brushed my teeth every morning since I was a child.”

“You’ve brushed your teeth every morning?” I repeated.

“Yes, I . . . “ he stopped, and then, realising what he’d said, added less bombastically: “I brushed my teeth.” I nodded and moved the subject on to something less contentious: bearbaiting or bullfighting or something of that ilk. Manolo was as quiet as a mouse.

And that was how I learned lesson number two: never discuss halitosis with top executives.

Now, if only I can get my students to learn as much as I have . . .