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.