I Spoke French. And God, Did It Hurt!

I’ve been learning French since May, shut away at home, curtains drawn, eyes (and ears) glued to the computer screen. But there comes a point when the input of a real living, breathing human being is required.

Some of you may remember me mentioning a few months ago that my goal was to join a local French conversation group in September. Well, it didn’t happen. Why? Coz I cannot speak. And who wants to be sitting there like a nun in a condom factory? Not me.

I know from previous experience that there’s only one remedy for my selective muteness: Brute force. It’s a job for a professional bully, for someone who sits down opposite me and won’t budge until the cake lady talks. A cat o’ nine tails would speed up the process, but not many language teachers carry that one in their resources folder, I have found.

Yup, that would bring out my chatty side...

You really want to bring out my chatty side…?

So, a friend of mine recommended a teacher, and on Thursday, I trotted off to my first lesson.

Poor woman, I should have prepared her. As you may have guessed by now, I’m not a terribly rewarding student first off. It’s not that I complain or turn into Miss Bossy Boots. But it can’t be much fun crowbarring sentences out of somebody while they pull a face like they’ve been sucking lemons injected with battery acid.

I also have a list of activities/subjects I absolutely detest in language classes. One of them is poems. My new teacher hands me a list of tongue twisters, which is kind of in the same category, only a million times worse. She tries to convince me that it is the best way of nailing the pronunciation. I do NOT agree. To me, it’s like being plonked into Bombay city centre at rush hour for your first driving lesson. Surely the best place to learn how to start a car and lurch along in first gear is a quiet parking lot?  My sour lemon face reaches a level of contortedness on a par with the Gordian Knot. Slightly alarmed, she lets me read aloud through a couple of short texts aimed at preschoolers. That’s better.

Contents of my head

Contents of my head

Still smiling and chirpy, she drags me through the French alphabet, gives me a couple of handy pronunciation hits, cajoles me into squeezing a couple of half-baked sentences through my gritted teeth.

She tells me I have gazpacho in my head. I like gazpacho, but I can tell it’s not meant as a compliment.

Before one of us has the chance to collapse in a sobbing heap on the floor, the doorbell rings and the next student arrives. I leave so frazzled that I forget to pay her.

I’ll be back next week. Unless she’s left town…

You never know, I might graduate to bouillabaisse one day...

…and you never know, I might graduate to bouillabaisse one day…







 *    *    *    *   *    *    *    *

[Why am I learning French? See here for the answer: Scratching a 30-Year Itch





Language Learning: Portuguese Potholes

This language learning malarkey is a bumpy old ride. One minute, you’re shouting perfectly coutured phrases from the rooftops; the next minute, the roof gives in and you’re on the cold concrete floor, spreadeagled, coughing up blood and dust.

I was on a total roll with my Portuguese in early summer. After two years of slogging away at it, I felt that I’d had some kind of breakthrough: I was chattering away to a bunch Portuguese people over Skype several times a week. Sometimes I even understood what they were saying to me and vice versa. A trip to Portugal in the first week of July saw me handling all the touristy stuff in Portuguese without breaking into a sweat (except when I accidentally asked for cock in a supermarket, see here for that story).

All was well until I took a one-month break from Portuguese in August while visiting my family in Germany. But on my return home to Spain, I found to my horror that I was suddenly “back to the mistakes of the beginning”, as my Portuguese teacher put it when I resumed my lessons with her in September. My Skype chats also dried up that month after a couple of fruitless conversations.

I have no idea how a mere four weeks of taking your eyes off the ball can cause such a mother of a setback. All I know is that I’m mighty peeved.

Well, no point throwing in the towel. I’ve invested too much. And I really really like Portuguese. It sounds cool and it has hilarious expressions.

And then, this Monday morning, a tiny ray of light… finally! The previous week, my teacher had suggested I’d join one of her other students for a conversation class. We’d already had a couple of attempts at this a year and a half ago, but said student was quite advanced, while I could barely string a sentence together at that point, and so we gave up on the idea pretty quickly.

Anyway, this week’s little Monday threesome turned out to be a very gratifying experience all round. We hopped across a plethora of topics, from fish feed to Portuguese rugs to the pitfalls of teaching Spanish in China. We wilfully mutilated the grammar, but conversation flowed and we laughed like drains. My classmate, who kindly gave me a lift home afterwards, remarked how much more fluent I was compared to last time we did this.

I guess that’s the thing with language learning. It’s like building a mountain out of gravel. Sometimes, when you pour another bucketful on top, it just slides down the sides taking the tip with it and all you can see at that moment is that your pile has lost height. Only by stepping back you realise that you’ve actually broadened the base, allowing you to construct a more expansive, bigger mountain in the long term. All you have to do is to keep heaping onto it. Bit by bit. Steadily and relentlessly. And remind yourself that, to fully appreciate how far you’ve come, you need to take the long-term perspective.



A Weekend of Hurricanes and Virgins

Joaquín is going to fuck up your weekend, my friend told me in a Facebook message. Who is this Joaquín and what has he got to do with my weekend, I wondered.

Joaquín turned out to be a hurricane set to tear through Andalusia last bank holiday weekend, when everyone had made travel plans. Including me. Sigh.

Well, a little wind and rain wasn’t going to deter us, and so my pal Noelia and I embarked on the five-hour drive down south on Friday evening to spend the weekend with some friends who had shamelessly abandoned us in Toledo and moved to Carmona, a small town about 30 minutes east of Seville.

In the end, Joaquín was very considerate, unleashing his unholy fury in the dead of Saturday night while we slept off our dinner.

However, despite being spared a torrential downpour in the daytime, it wasn’t the best weather for taking photos. But I shall post a few of them anyway. Coz my mum likes them…

A handful of shots of Seville:

Seville, River

Thanks for pointing this out, Noelia...

Noelia just making sure I didn’t miss anything.

Sevilla, houses along river

Sevilla Statue with bird

Torre de oro, Sevilla

Sevilla, gipsy church

Seville is obsessed with virgins...

Seville is obsessed with virgins…

A torero and some orange trees are an absolute must!

…and toreros

Seville is a stunner of a city, even on a gloomy day. Oh, and the food! But here’s the one thing I didn’t like: The town centre is thronging with hundreds of  horse drawn carriages, waiting to take tourists around. Nothing wrong with that per se, but at least one quarter of the horses I saw – though scrupulously clean and brushed up to the hilt –  were way too thin, too old and/or clearly unwell. Spain loves bureaucracy – so why is there no veterinary inspection service making sure that the only animals put to work were those that are fit and healthy??? I found this really quite distressing.

Get it sorted, Seville!

Get it sorted, Seville!

And a few shots of Carmona:

Carmona centre

A bar in Carmona, just about to open...

Carmona bar, just about to open…

And more virgins!

More virgins!

...and convent windows like these are designed to keep them that way

Forget chastity belts… how about chastity windows?! This one belongs to a convent, of course.

But it's not just virgins. There's also maids!

There’s also maids! There’s cakes in the back of that car, I could smell them…

Talking of which:

Some Middle-Eastern-inspired treats. Except for that big bulbous chocolate thing on the left, filled with marshmallow and Nutella(!) and scoffed by me.

Some Middle-Eastern-inspired treats. That big bulbous chocolate thing on the left, filled with marshmallow and Nutella(!), was scoffed by me. And no, I didn’t share.

A traditional Spanish dessert called

A traditional Spanish dessert called “leche frita” (fried milk), which is a bit like a semi-solid chunk of custard. Looks better than it tastes, though the sugar/cinnamon coating makes it somewhat enjoyable.

Language Matters: C-Words of Difference

A while back, I had a facebook chat with an American friend who left the US about a decade ago and settled in Costa Rica. It went something like this:

Her: So, now you’re in Spain… how’s your Spanish coming along?

Me: I’m getting there. Curious though that no sentence seems to be complete if it doesn’t contain either culo*, mierda** or coño.

Her: What is coño?

Me: Uhm… CUNT.

Her: ?!?

[*arse **shit]


The fact that my American friend, who’s certainly no prissy, had not encountered this term, despite having lived for many years in a Spanish-speaking country (and being fluent in Spanish), speaks volumes. Latin Americans, on the whole, aren’t given to peppering their soft, mellifluous language with expletives.

The Spanish, on the other hand, have a reputation for being straight-talking and potty-mouthed. Since I’m quite partial to this communication style myself, I fit right in, but, I must confess, even after four years in Spain, I’m still a bit shy of the c-word.

I should get over myself. Cunts get dropped into conversation left, right and centre. It’s no big deal. You could be showing someone an infected mosquito bite and they’d exclaim, ¿Qué coño es esto? – What the hell is that!? Or you might have had a glass of wine too many at the expense of coherence when your still relatively sober drinking buddy confronts you with ¿De qué coño estás hablando? – What the hell are you talking about? 

¡Coño! as an exclamation by itself can mean a million different things, like “Are you shitting me?”, “What the hell were you thinking!?”, “WOW!” and “FFS!”. You get the idea.

If something’s “a big bloody hassle”, then it’s a coñazo – literally: a BIG CUNT.

So, there you have it. The Spanish are comfortable with their cunts.

Until they move to an English speaking country and discover that not everyone else is.

A Spanish friend of mine, who’s been living in London for more than two decades, avoids the ubiquitous little English word “can’t” at all cost.

The subtle differences in English vowel sounds are a real coñazo for Spanish speakers. Spanish only has five vowel sounds, while English has more than twenty. For Latin Americans living in the US, this is not so much of an issue in this particular case, but in British English pronunciation, can’t and the ‘unmentionable’ are dangerously close. Too close for comfort for my friend, who painstakingly resorts to “cannot” instead.

Hair My Cry, O Blog!

When you move country, the first thing you’ve got to occupy yourself with is finding those people (and services) without whom your daily existence would be a living hell. For example:

  • Somebody who gives you a place to kip and store your belongings
  • Somebody who plugs the internet into said place
  • Somebody who tosses you a handful of peanuts every month for whatever tricks you’ve learned to perform along the way
  • Somebody who fiddles files your taxes so you don’t go to prison
  • And, most important of all,  somebody who slashes the unruly growth on top of your head every once in a while so you get to maintain the outer appearance of a humanoid life form

I thought my move to Central Spain a few years ago was a brush stroke of genius on the follicular front. It is a dry region. Unlike North London. Those with curly hair will understand.


Remember this one going round on fb? = ME AT 7AM!

Shortly after my arrival, I stumbled into a nearby hairdressers called “Diseños” (Designs). Sounded like a creative sort of a place, I thought, and the fact that La Friseuse in attendance was close to my own age and also sported curly hair, gave me hope. I’m gullible like that. I imagined her channelling her creative juices into giving me a flattering cut that would, perhaps, make my witch’s chin stick out a bit less.

But no. My veteran Figarette happened to be of those people, who had figured out their solution to their hair troubles, and that would just have to do for everybody else. She herself had resorted to straightjacketing her wiry mop into a rectangular shape, which kind of suited her, but sometimes, one glove does not fit all.

This is actually pretty much matches my appearance as well as my facial expression post-redesign - just imagine a sticky-out chin instead of a snout.

This pretty much illustrates the result. And also my facial expression post-“redesign”. (Just imagine a sticky-out chin instead of a snout.)

Since I don’t really care for having a square head – I’m already German, let’s not forget – and adding the fact that the salon’s “design” component referred more to its prices than the craftsmanship, I went in search of a new chop shop as soon as my rebel locks had managed to break free from their cuboid confines.

This time, I asked about the price first. Twelve bucks, I was told, and one can’t argue with that. In North London, you wouldn’t even get a drunk on the Tube to drool on your head for that. Like I said, I’m gullible.

Now, haircare professionals do have a bit of a reputation for enthralling their captive audiences with tales of their all-inclusive summer break at CattleProd Resorts, but THIS was something else.

If you are acquainted with British English, you may have heard the expression “talking the hind leg off a donkey” – a disparaging reference to a tedious person’s excessive loquaciousness. At forty minutes in, I was very nearly at the point of fearing that my extremities would drop off due to necrotic tissue damage induced by the most inane of moronic monologues I had ever been subjected to in my entire life.

But the ceaseless chatter wasn’t the worst part. What really drove me to distraction was that the girl would stop short after every snip in order to accompany her onerous outpourings with wild gesticulations. At one point, überchatty scissor sister was exposing all the parts of her body to me which had ever been nibbled on by a mosquito. Don’t ask me how we got there. I can only assume that those bloodsucking creatures are, in fact, totally soundproof.

No, I told her, a blow dry really wasn’t necessary. Yes, I was aware that it was the midst of winter, but putting on my woolly hat would probably stop my dripping fringe from freezing to my eyebrows on my way home, and I’d see myself out, thank you very much.

On my second visit, it was the owner who cut my hair. (I had made sure he was holding the fort all by himself after peering through the window at a stealth angle). He was pleasant, professional, and, above all, soothingly SILENT. I was in and out of there in twelve minutes flat. INCLUDING a blow dry. An 87% time saving on my first visit. And the cut was good.

This week, it was high time to excise the felt mats once again, and so when I walked past the salon on Tuesday afternoon and found it empty but open, I  decided to seize the opportunity. I wish I hadn’t. As soon as I entered, I spotted her, slithering out from behind the spiral staircase. Miss Verborrhoea.

As she led me to the washbasin, I felt my eardrums tighten in anticipation. So far, she’d not actually uttered anything besides standard salon protocol. Maybe she’d been on speed last time, and had sworn off it since then.

All was well for about five more minutes, until she suddenly stopped working the warm lather into my pelt. Did I mind if she nipped off to the toilet for a second, the water tablets her doctor had prescribed made her want to pee every five minutes.

Did I enquire, with a caring look on my face, what terrible affliction would require such a sprightly 20-year-old to be popping diuretics? You bet I did not. But I would find out. In excruciating detail.

Thank heavens it’s still summer here in Spain. My hair dried in an instant as I shot through the door into freedom at supersonic speed an interminable hour later.

Lake Tegernsee and Wasserburg, Bavaria

Not another lake, I hear you groan. Not the Bavarian Alps AGAIN…! But yes, I’m afraid, I’ve just got to cram one more in before I’m done with this year’s home visit ;-)

Tegernsee is another one of these fabulous destinations just an hour from Munich on the train. Although it is most definitely a tourist destination, foreign tourists don’t really know about it, so I’d say that probably 95% of tourists are Germans.

Lake Tegernsee 1

Who said Germany didn't have great beaches...??

Who said Germany didn’t have great beaches…??

Rottdach Egern

Traditional Bavarian dresses (

Traditional Bavarian dresses (“Dirndl”) on sale.

Tegernsee Boats

Tegernsee at dusk

Tegernsee Fire Station :)

Tegernsee Fire Station :)

And now, to give your Alps-and-lakes-weary eyes a rest, a couple of shots from a trip we took to Wasserburg, a medieval town in Upper Bavaria, circled by the river Inn.

I did not take this photo of Wasserburg myself, but I didn't want to deprive you of the beauty of this pespective

Aw, look, how pretty! (Note: I did not take this photo myself, it comes from http://www.wasserburg.de)

Wasserburg Town Centre

Wasserburg Town Centre

That's my mum there in the white skirt

That’s my mum there in the white skirt

Wasserburg Houses

VW Beetle


There's nothing as tempting as a shot of someone's privates...

There’s nothing as tempting as a shot of someone’s privates…

And to finish off:

Another portion of fabulous apple fritters! I had a bit of an obsession with them on this trip...

Another portion of fabulous apple fritters! I had a bit of an obsession with them on this trip…