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 Cold rioja has been replaced by hot chocolate (oh all right, perhaps that’s no big hardship), the jumpers are out of mothballs and the search for the thick tights is on.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 . . .