Monthly Archives: November 2012

Toledo – Where Cars Come For A Good Scraping

The old town of Toledo is a warren of narrow cobbled streets. This brings many practical problems for its modern-day inhabitants. For starters, it’s not a town that was built with cars in mind. There’s barely any space to park, and shoehorning anything larger than a skateboard through the streets is not without consequences.

Cars belonging to the residents of Toledo are instantly recognisable throughout the entire Castilla-La Mancha region:

The walls don’t remain unscathed either…

The town’s eccentric lay-out makes plenty of work for the local police. The officers are constantly busy rescuing tourists who have managed to get themselves stuck. A street may appear wide enough to drive through at first glance, but half-way down, you suddenly find yourself trapped in a bottleneck. Bits of broken wing mirrors everywhere. A one-way system is in operation, but just because the streets that led you into town may have been wide enough, on the way out, it may be a totally different story…

More Flatsharing with the Crazies: When Loopy Came to Live with Me

London living is fraught with the interminable quest for the perfect flatmate. Or just a bearable one. But how can you tell, after a half-hour interview, whether the stranger you’re about invite into your life, isn’t an axe murderer?

In over a decade of flatsharing, I was lucky enough only ever to end up with three nutters. I’ve covered one of them already in a previous post, and you’re about to meet number two. I shall call her ‘Loopy’.

During said interview, conducted by my landlady and me, Loopy, a French woman in her late twenties, told us a little bit about her family background: Her parents divorced when she was in her early teens. Her mother’s new partner hated her, and so she had left home quite early, aged sixteen, to live with her older sister. The reason she was looking for a place right now was that her current domestic arrangement involved sharing with five other people. There was considerable boyfriend/girlfriend traffic, much commotion at all hours, queueing for the bathroom in the mornings and a lack of kitchen space. She was desperate to find somewhere a bit more quiet.

It all sounded perfectly reasonable. Tranquility I could certainly offer her, seeing that I’m not exactly a party animal, and that I was going to be her only flatmate. (At this point, my landlady, who I used to share the flat with, had moved into another house with her new husband.)

Loopy moved in a week later. She was nice to me, and during the first few weeks I was considering whether I might strike up a friendship with her. But there was something… not quite right…. I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

She seemed to be miserable a lot of the time, and would talk to me at length. From her monologues, a distinct pattern emerged: The whole world had it in for her. Her family, her work colleagues, everybody. Her boss, she told me, employed a number of strategies specifically designed to make her look incompetent in front of her co-workers.

Meanwhile, my landlady was having a tough time with her brand new tenant. Loopy showered her with complaints about the flat and her room that nobody had ever previously found fault with, and every effort she undertook to make the girl more comfortable, like buying her an electric blanket,  was rejected without a word of thanks.

With hindsight, I would say that Loopy’s Goth-like exterior was probably a reflection of the turbid emotional waters beneath. A natural red head with maggot-white skin, she had died her hair jet black. The contrast was quite striking. She also dressed mostly in black, but refrained from wearing the heavy make-up associated with members of the Goth tribe. But as the weather got warmer and winter garb gave way to skimpy tops and skirts, the tattoos started to emerge. One of them was the shape of a huge spiderweb spanning both her legs. I couldn’t help thinking how classy that would look in about twenty five years’ time. But each to their own 😉


A few weeks went by, we didn’t interact all that much, but when we bumped into each other around the house, I would always smile and nod sympathetically to her persecution stories. I felt a bit sorry for her.

Then, one evening, I noticed that she had removed all her toiletries from the bathroom. The following morning, I she had left a letter for me in the kitchen. It started with the words “I think we should talk about your behaviour…” and ended with “if you want me out of here, tell me up-front.”

Oh my, where had all this come from? It was true that I felt that she wasn’t friendship material for me, but she was quiet and clean and I certainly didn’t dislike her.

Having read this bewildering letter, I sent her a placatory text message, and that evening, when she got home from work, I talked to her, assuring her that I did not want her to move out. The conversation went fine. A bit too fine, in fact. Her responses were completely incongruous with the aggressive tone of the letter. The word “overreacted” cropped up, and, apparently, she “had been worried about me” spending too much time alone in my part of the house. I did not want to make a big issue out of it. What was abundantly clear form the letter, though, was that she had a tendency to construe stories in her head about the attitudes of other people towards her – and they were all negative.

Things plodded along pretty much as before, i.e. seemingly calm, until a few weeks later one evening, she confronted me about having left the bathroom tap running the night before – ON PURPOSE! – to disturb her sleep.

I had gone to the toilet in the middle of the night, and, after washing my hands, I had failed to turn the tap off properly. The trickling of the water had woken her. I apologised, but to her mind, it had been no accident.

And this wasn’t the only thing I had done to rile her, as I was about to find out.

I had also deliberately spoiled her food in the fridge. This conclusion was based on me having accidentally knocked the temperature dial, causing the fridge to warm up, which turned her salad into mush. (To stop this from happening again, I had already fixed the dial into place with a piece of sticky tape.)

On top of that, I was hiding her mail. She had not received some of the correspondence that should have been forwarded to her from her previous address, and me stealing it was the only feasible explanation.

Oh my God, she really was totally nuts…!

After she was done hissing at me in the hallway (I had been far too stunned to reply to any of this) and slamming the door in my face, I called our landlady, who was, it has to be said, rather delighted by me asking her to send Loopy packing. Within the hour, she’d been served her notice, and she moved out shortly after that without further incident. Phew!

Toledo in Autumn

No big stories today… just fancied posting a few pictures of Toledo at this lovely time of year 🙂

View of San Juan De Los Reyes Monastery (above)

The Tagus river. If you follow it, you end up in Lisbon..

A random Toledo street, close to where the previous picture was taken

A lovely garden in the Jewish quarter. But it’s always locked 😦

A closer look at the “forbidden garden”. Those oranges need picking.

Park in the Jewish quarter

It’s also that time of year when the Christmas decorations start going up!

There Are Only Four Valid Reasons for Moving Country Aged 25+

When you’re young, you get away with pretty much anything. You can wear your pants below the ankle, collapse, pissed as a fart, over a receptacle designed to hold doggie doo dahs, and you can move to any old country in the world without anyone batting an eyelid.

There are several popular ways of approaching the latter: you can sign up for an organised student binge drinking expedition (the infamous Erasmus programme), you can bum about on a beach while your hair slowly corrodes into dreadlocks (“gap year”), you can opt to cook, clean and be pelted with snot balls by vicious whelps for a pittance (au-pairing) or you can inflict permanent damage on your vocal chords explaining the present continuous to a classroom full of hormone-crazed teenagers who don’t give a rat’s arse (Teaching English as a Foreign Language).

But be warned: Once you officially enter into adult life, say, aged 25+, it’s an entirely different kettle of fish. From then on, to avoid social disgrace, you need ‘legitimate’ reasons to justify taking up sticks, and there are only four that count.

1. You’re fleeing an evil regime
If you’re at risk of having your head lopped off or your genitals torched, you’ve got to get yourself outta there, no question. And good luck to you.

2. You move for a job
But watch out! One of the following criteria must be met if you don’t want to go raising eyebrows:

  • You are unemployed and can’t, for the life of you, find a job in your country. In fact, you’re so overqualified that not even a charity shop will have you
  • You’ll be earning considerably more dosh abroad
  • The move presents a major career advancement. [So, instead of a non-descript admin bod at home, you’ll be Head of Office Supplies in your company’s Mongolian outpost (or rather, four posts, as these will be holding up your “office”), and in charge of a whole stationery cupboard all by yourself. In a country where staples count as an official currency!]

3. You move because of your husband’s job.
Blogspace is packed with expat wifies suffering it out with their exiled petrochemical engineer spouses.
After much initial wailing and chest beating, she has not only come round to the idea, but she’s positively excited about the whole thing. Needless to say, hubby’s company has organised the whole translocation affair, from packing up every last ceramic figurine she won’t be able to live without, to air conditioned accommodation in a hermetically sealed compound and free leisure club membership for the entire tribe.

Once the moving stress is over and the last doily has been lovingly laid out by the live-in maid, wifie can finally relax and get on with her own new job: sending hourly updates back to the civilised world on how the well the little darlings are settling into international school (aw, they are so adaptable at that age!), which  – just imagine!! – is attended by two bona fide natives.

Imagine the sheer thrill when the freshly baked expat couple is invited over for dinner by one of hubby’s local work colleagues! Finally, she gets a chance to experience, at first hand, what life is really like on Mars. She takes reams of snaps of every dish from four different angles, so that she can extoll to her friends back home on how much fun it was to scoop up every morsel with her bare hands. And it was all delicious, of course. This makes a delightful change from endless photo coverage of camel/yak/llama rides. And the day after, she’ll be posting the recipes, instead of pics of bruised body parts.

[Strangely enough, expat blogs written by guys whose other halves have landed a job in foreign climes are about as common a sight on the interwebs as giraffes strolling through Greenland. I mean, just imagine the scenario… resigned to twiddling his thumbs to the beat of economic dependency on the missus, and his career prospects reduced to a smoking stack of ruins for all eternity, his balls would drop off in an instant.]

4. Retirement
Aaah, finally, after four gruelling decades,  you stand liberated from the shackles of your 9-5 existence. There’s nothing stopping you now from making a new home in an idyllic land, where the sun appears in the sky for longer than twenty five consecutive minutes at three-week intervals. Yes, UK readers, I can hear your collective sigh…

Needless to say, you wont have to bother yourself learning the language of your destination country – everybody there speaks English – and you’ll just “pick up”  the necessary pleasantries to flatter the locals with. Also, your native country’s laws and social norms will continue to apply to you wherever you are.

If you believe any of the statements in the previous paragraph to be accurate, you may want to consider relocating to a nice care home near Chichester instead.

So, now you know all there is to know about legit rationales for deserting your country of birth. As for the number of whimsical ones (“och, because… I just fancy a change” or “to see what a proper curry really tastes like”), which are guaranteed to induce looks ranging from mild incredulity to outright horror on the faces of your born-here-and-shall-die-here compatriots, the sky is the limit. If you happen to have any good ones, I’d love to hear them. The more frivolous and idiosyncratic, the better.

Learning Languages – Quality or Quantity?

Languages are one of my big life passions. But I don’t speak very many of them at all. My current count is a paltry two and a half (three and a half, if you count Bavarian, but that would be cheating 😉

I guess we’re all different when it comes to our language learning objectives. Some value being able to ‘get by’ in as many languages as possible. I can see the merit in this approach, especially for travelling purposes. A basic-to-intermediate knowledge of just five languages – English, German, French, Italian and Spanish – can get you all the way through Western Europe (and through a fair bit of Eastern Europe as well) without suffering too many miscommunication disasters.

Whether it’s cake or languages – I want all or nothing, me!

Thing is, I don’t just want tourist vocabulary. Or work vocabulary (bloodless “International English” springs to mind – yeuch!!). Or drinking vocabulary (“Una cerveza por favor…”) siiiigh.

I want the full bandwidth. I want to read novels without sobbing into the dictionary, watch a soap and cringe up all my innards over a corny line, understand a 92-year-old granny’s incoherent warblings. I want to FEEL what I’m saying, give it nuance, zest and, if appropriate, a bit of humour, not just run my brain’s equivalent of Google Translate. I’d rather speak three languages competently than be able to order a pizza and side salad in twelve. It just doesn’t satisfy me. It’d be like a lifetime of eating nothing but starters, without ever getting to the main course or the best part, aka dessert.

I’m not there yet with my Spanish. Trying to read books is still positively painful, and hell, what I wouldn’t give to understand my accountant! I just shuffle him a pile of papers every three months, sign on the dotted line and pray. I expect to be amassing a formidable repertoire of prison slang when I get done for accidental tax fraud.

I read polyglots’ blogs half in wonderment, half green with envy. OK, I can completely see how somebody might end up speaking ten languages fluently, if they’ve grown up in a trilingual household, and were continually shunted from one corner of the globe to another by their diplomat parents.

I’ve also come across people who claimed to speak a second language, but then got busted. Many moons ago, while working for a financial services company in the UK, I interviewed a young woman for a position that required speaking to German customers over the phone. The girl gave me a well-rehearsed speech, like one of those a 16-year-old might regurgitate at the start of an oral exam when prompted to “talk about yourself”. But when I asked her some non-technical, work-related questions in German, she drew a complete blank. What was she thinking, applying for a job that was all about offering assistance to people who had just been robbed of their bank cards and other valuables in a foreign country? That “My name is Julie, I grew up in Shrewsbury, I have an older sister, and my favourite subject is history” would placate them?

Now, I’m by no means above launching a half-baked attempt at learning a language. I’ve dipped into Russian, Japanese and Chinese. I did Russian at school for a couple of years, and Japanese and Chinese as an adult for about six months each. Although I never went beyond beginner’s level with any of those three, it was a real eye opener to see how differently they work in comparison to Germanic/Romance languages. With the Asian ones, I just love the concept of verbs that don’t change (Spanish, take heed!), and also the nifty thing about just sticking ‘ma’ or ‘ka’ at the end of a sentence to turn it into a question, without having to fiddle with the word order.

Japanese is the one I’d quite like to pick up again at some point. What puts me off, though, is the thought of the time and gruelling effort (not to mention money and…. PAIN!) it would take to reach even intermediate speaker level – never mind cracking the writing system! Part of me is thinking, what’s the point of even trying, when I’m never going to be able to read a novel in Japanese?

Anyway, the next one on my list is Portuguese. The Brazilian kind. A friend of mine is also keen to learn it, and she wants us to kick it off together at the beginning of 2013. I’m a bit nervous about it. I feel that I’m not quite ready, and that I ought to fully apply myself instead to filling the gaping holes in my Spanish. On the other hand, Portuguese and Spanish are quite similar, and so progress should be comparatively swift.

My overall aim is to master five languages at (close to) native speaker level. I’m half way there, and, barring being run over by a bus or dying early of cake poisoning, I’ve still got about half my life in front of me. So, I reckon I stand a fair chance of accomplishing my goal. It’s definitely quality over quantity for me. Now, if only I could stick to that policy on the cake front…

You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here:


The Amazing Doors of Toledo

One of the things that struck me on my very first visit to Toledo two years ago was the multitude of doors, hundreds of years old, embellished with elaborate metalwork.

So, I took some pictures to show you. And please, no disparaging remarks about my lack of photographic skills. The blasted things just wouldn’t hold still for long enough, I swear!

The magnificent Post Office door – it’s about four metres in height. For the first time in my life, I was waiting for a PO to close, lol.

A late night snog in this doorway could get a tad uncomfortable

So symmetrical

…and in more detail

From the 16th century, a local passer-by informed me when I took this

Starry starry… door

Mmmmmh… covered in delicious freshly baked buns. Unless you’re a bloke, then all you’ll probably see is knockers. Which any good door should have, I agree.

More on the theme…

…and with knobs on!

To finish off, a nice bit of tiling

Toledo Tales: Fighting fires… or peeing dogs?!

This is a story about me getting the wrong end of the stick. And it goes like this:

Along the outside wall of my building, there is a long line of 5-litre water bottles. They are spaced about one metre apart. Here is a pic:

As you can see, there’s a sign on the wall. It says “For exclusive use of the fire brigade”.

When I first moved in, a friend of mine, also a foreigner who’d only recently arrived, threw her hands up in horror when she saw this. She had made the (seemingly) obvious link between the bottles and the sign.

Eeeeek!!! If there really was a fire, that’s how they were planning on putting it out…!

I seriously considered adding a few more bottles myself. To give us at least a fighting chance of drowning a firecracker on the rampage in a waste paper basket.

I must confess, I did take a rather morbid pleasure in advertising the ‘Spanish Economic Crisis Solution’ to house fires to friends and family who came to visit me. And it always got a far more evocative reaction than any of the two-thousand-year-old buildings I’d been dragging them to.

A few months later, however, my bubble of deplorable ignorance was finally burst by one of the local people I used to meet up with for the purpose of language exchange lessons. On this occasion, he was telling me about childhood pranks. One of the most popular, it turned out, was opening the water bottles, which people positioned alongside their walls to deter dogs and cats from marking their territories, leaning them against the front door, ringing the bell and running off.

Water bottles stop dogs pissing against the walls?? Who’s ever heard of that? As soon as I got home, I consulted the Great Oracle of Google.

Here is what I learned from a forum:

Andrea9: Water bottles are a Greek-Albanese tradition and they serve to discourage cats from peeing in the street.

Da Kine: You see the same thing in Hawaii, I was always told that it kept the cats out of the yard, something about the way the light reflected off of the water in the bottles scared them.

Pola: We use them in Italy, too. But I have strong doubts they work.

Jordi Guzman: In Spain (Barcelona) apparently it works.

Aine: Well guys, I have to say it works. It’s common knowledge in Devon (‘cats won’t walk near water’).

Holly9: Apparently this was originally a radio hoax for April Fools Day. It went right around the world. I’m in New Zealand, and you still see some people here with water bottles on their front lawn.

Krista: Great, so instead of just dog pee, now it’s dog pee and plastic water bottles everywhere. Just beautiful!

Lonny1: Sure, those bottles might stop dogs from peeing on the street, but they don’t discourage me from peeing on those same streets.

Scott2 If you leave a water bottle on top of your car in Argentina, it will cause the car to go away because it means it’s for sale.

I am so much wiser now. And just as baffled.

[…and as for the sign on the wall, in case anyone’s still wondering, there’s a dry riser inlet behind it for the fire brigade to hook up their equipment.]