martes, 24 de marzo de 2009

What's in a name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A road to nowhere

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

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

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

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

Carrefour again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No. Bacon and cheese.”



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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