Monthly Archives: February 2013

Project Portuguese Is In The Starting Blocks!

Brazilian Portuguese. It’s my next thing. Been thinking about it for a while, but haven’t made a start. At this moment in time, I know ziltch Portuguese. I watched a couple of podcasts and attempted to parrot a few words. I totally crippled them in the process. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done my research. I know I that I want to learn is Brazilian Portuguese, rather than Portuguese from Portugal. Initially, I was quite torn over this. After all, Portugal is so close, only a few miles (OK, 300 miles) down the river. The Tagus, which flows through Toledo, spills into the sea at Lisbon. It would be fairly easy for me to spend part of my time in Lisbon, and part in Toledo.

The Tagus (Tajo), shot from Alcantara Bridge, Toledo.

The Tagus (Tajo), shot from Alcantara Bridge, Toledo.

Brazilian and European Portuguese, despite being technically the same language, have diverged significantly since the Portuguese first arrived in South America in 1500 carving out the colony, and the two ‘dialects’ are no longer mutually intelligible. Although, according to what I’ve read, the Portuguese can understand the Brazilians, but not vice versa. I look forward to finding out more about the specific differences in due course.

Why Brazilian Portuguese?
First, there are the simple metrics: Brazil has a population of 194 million, while Portugal’s amounts to just over 10 million. I’m not all that interested in acquiring a ’boutique language’ understood by only a handful of bods, unless I happen to be living in a place where a minority language is spoken. Second, Brazil is a fast-growing economy, and of great interest to me from a work perspective. I frequently write about emerging economies, and being able to access relevant material in the original language and having a basic understanding of local culture affords me a distinct professional advantage.

Another, and not unimportant reason is that my friend Sofia also needs Brazilian Portuguese for her work, and it would be nice for us to be doing this together. She has a tourism company here in Toledo, and she expects that over the next two decades, a significant proportion of her business is going to come from Brazil.

Our plan is to start learning the basics here in Spain, and then go off to Brazil in November for three or four months to do an intensive language course. Well, maybe not that intensive… we’ll be in a town with a lovely beach, called Salvador, which Sofia has been to before 😉

Cold Feet…
Part of me is apprehensive about starting to learn another language so soon, when I’m only just getting to grips with Spanish. I feel like I’m already not spending enough time on that. Then there’s the fact that Portuguese and Spanish are very closely related. On the one hand, this is good; it means that I’ve already got a massive passive vocabulary, but on the other hand, it’s tricky, because it’s likely to cause me a lot of confusion at this stage.

Ideally, I would have liked to have waited for another year or two, until I’d gained a much more solid grasp of Spanish, before embarking on my next linguistic adventure. I’ve written once about the fact that quality is far more important to me than quantity when it comes to acquiring foreign languages. But, seeing as a delectable opportunity to abscond to Brazil with a good friend is presenting itself, I really don’t want to pass it up, just because the timing isn’t absolutely perfect.

Things are moving fast!
Since I wrote the above two days ago, things have been slotting into place rather rapidly. Yesterday, I called a language school I found which is offering Brazilian Portuguese (there isn’t exactly an abundance of those in a small town like Toledo!). It so happened that they had a couple of people on a waiting list, and with me and Sofia on board, they are willing to kick off a beginners’ class. A small class like that would suit me perfectly. We’re starting either this coming Monday or Tuesday, they haven’t confirmed the day yet. Well, now that it’s happening, I’m starting to feel rather excited…!

Which Countries Consume The Most Alcohol? And Who Drinks What?

I don’t usually write about alcoholic drinks – my specialist field being packaged food, fresh food and non-alcoholic beverages – but I suddenly found myself intrigued to see which nations guzzled the most booze and what type. Here is what I found in the database:

Overall, the Czech Republic consumes the most alcoholic drinks, downing 173 litres per capita per annum.

[Note: All figures are per capita, retail (drink purchased in supermarkets, corner shops, etc) combined with on-trade consumption (bars, clubs, restaurants, etc), at legal drinking age. All data refers to 2012 consumption levels.]

Next in line are Slovenia, Estonia, Germany, Ireland, Austria, Poland, Belgium and Finland.

And now let’s look at national tipple preferences in more detail. A nice cool beer after a long day at work is not quite the same as downing six glasses of vodka, even though what slips down the throat may be equal in quantity, i.e. in terms of liquid volume.

The Czech Republic tops the beer consumption charts, which explains the previous statistic. Czech people may be in love with their beer, but at least they are not in the front line of the ‘drinking hard’ league. Czech per capita beer consumption amounted to 144 litres in 2012, while Germany mustered 107 litres, Ireland 105 litres and Belgium 87 litres, just to give you some comparison with other beer worshipping nations.

Ireland and the UK lead, no surprises here. Finland’s next in line. It’s worth noting, perhaps, that cider hasn’t caught on much in Eastern Europe. Neither the Czechs nor the Poles care for it in the slightest, it seems. Estonia and Lithuania quite like it… I guess it’s trickled down from Finland.

I had my money on Russia, but my sure-fire expectations have been well and truly dashed. South Koreans(!) knock back the most dizzying quantities of spirits in the whole wide world, a whopping 25 litres! Next in line are Belarus, Estonia, and finally, here comes Russia with a paltry 12 litres, just under half of what our comparatively dainty South Koreans can handle. This must surely be a most devastating kick in the morose Russian soul, and even more so as they fail to emerge as numero uno in the vodka gulping charts, where it’s Belarus in the lead racking up 16 litres – six whole litres more than Russia, which finds itself relegated to third place! Estonia is runner up, Poland occupies fourth place… well, I will refrain from listing the entire vodka belt. We’ve still got a lot of booze to get through, so cling onto your seats and your livers.


France led with 2 litres in 2012, followed by Uruguay, Spain and the US.

But here comes a real shocker: in fifth place, we find the United. Arab. Emirates.

Yes, you read that right. A Muslim country features in the top five of the global whisky per capita consumption charts. Oh my. The UK claims 8th place. Scotland is not broken out in the data, unfortunately, otherwise they may have been top of the tree. At least that’s what I’m hoping, it would be a dismal national disgrace for them otherwise.

Phillippines. Baffled…? So am I!

Switzerland in the lead, followed by Russia.

Ah now. Here everything’s nice and predictable. At least to start with. Portugal crowns the wine rack, with 43 litres,  Italy and France nipping at its heels. But then it gets weird. Slovenia is in third place and Switzerland fourth with 38 and 36 litres respectively, 47 and Spain, which I had expected to occupy a top five slot, lags miles behind in 18th place with an embarrassing 21 litres. Eighteenth?!? Come again?!?! I live in Spain, and boy, are they proud of their wine. Nevertheless, Germany has Spain choking on its dust with 26 litres, and even the UK somehow manages to plonk itself just ahead of the Costal Del Sol & Outskirts in 17th place. This will have me scratching my head till at least midnight, I tell you.

There’s nothing like a luxurious finish with a swig of the priciest bubbly money can buy. France (who else?!) leads with 2 litres per capita in 2012, followed by Belgium and Switzerland. The UK, quite admirably, clambers into 4th place.


[This article was updated on 13 March 2014]

[For data source, click here]

Toledo’s Treasures: Toledo Train Station

In Toledo, it’s hard to know what to photograph first. Everything’s incredibly old and incredibly beautiful. The first amazing thing most people get to see is the train station. Which, as it turns out, isn’t incredibly old at all – the station building went up a mere century ago – but it is incredibly beautiful, nevertheless, and I don’t think you’re going to disagree. Take a look:

Toledo Train Station

Toledo Train Station

Toledo Train Station

The interior is no less stunning…

Toledo Train Station

Toledo Train Station - Interior

Toledo Train Station - Interior

Toledo Train Station - Interior, Ceiling

Toledo Train Station

Why Move To Spain? The Answer Is Clear.

Some of you might recall a post I wrote a while back entitled There Are Only Four Valid Reasons For Moving Country. While I was working on this,  I remembered an amusing phone conversation I once had with a fellow freelancer before I decided to move Spain. (I didn’t know him personally, I got his number from one of my clients.) He very kindly agreed to have a chat with me, for which I was (and still am!) very grateful. He gave me some valuable tips on freelancing from Spain, including the need to pay a whopping €254 monthly to social security, which, had he not warned me about it, might have toppled me off my chair when I registered as self-employed shortly after moving here.

But I digress… now, this guy had made the move from the UK a few years ago with his wife and kids. In the middle of imparting his wisdom to me, he suddenly asked, “And why is it that you want to move to Spain? It  is really important to be clear about your motivations before you do something like this. Never do it on a whim”, he went on, ” you need a sound enough reason. Do you know why we decided  to take this step?”

I sat there, in spell-bound anticipation, receiver pressed to my ear, waiting for his profound revelation. “I shall tell you,” he continued, “the weather. The weather with a capital ‘W’. We don’t care all that much for Spanish culture or the food or the people. We don’t really have much contact with them. But we just love the weather here”.

My friend sent me this picture she took in January this year, when London weather reaches the height of shittiness. This bus stop is a few minutes up the road on which I used to live. Ah, memories... ;-)

In January, London weather tends to reach the height of shittiness. My friend sent me this picture she took a bit over a month ago. This bus stop is a few minutes up the road on which I used to live. And now that I’m looking at this, I can almost see (part of) the freelancer’s point 😉

Inauspicious Beginnings of a Wanna-Be Polyglot

I’ll be forever envious of people lucky enough to have grown up in environments that fostered multilingualism. I was dealt a rather poor hand on that front. Nobody in my family had had any significant exposure to foreign languages, nor had anyone continued their schooling past the age of 14. Sure, they supported the concept of learning enough to get a ‘good’ job that would earn you a steady living, but education was not seen as an end in itself, and the kinds of  professional jobs requiring higher education were not for ‘people like us’.

Shunted onto the wrong track aged ten
Things started going pearshaped for the dormant linguist in me when I completed primary school. At that stage, your scholastic performance thus far determined whether you had above average academic ability or not. If so, you then had the choice of attending a certain kind of school which would eventually lead you to university, and in line with this aim, it also offered high quality foreign language teaching. I had the right grades, but unfortunately, none of my friends did, and when I asked my parents what to do, I was told that it was up to me. Well, when you’re ten, you just want to be with your friends, and I was no different. Back then, the German education system was rigid as hell, and there would be no coming back from that ill-fated decision.

Like all German pupils at that time, I started learning English as a second language aged 11. And I liked it! But we only had English lessons a couple of hours a week, with teachers who, despite being well qualified as teachers, would probably have struggled to hold a decent conversation in English in a real life setting. Some were downright incompetent. I remember one particularly hopeless individual whose ‘lessons’ consisted of making us copy grammar chapters from the text book into our exercise books. Years later, I learned that she had killed herself. Twenty years too late, I remember thinking when I read about it in the paper.

French foiled, Russian GO!
When I was 14, the school gave each of us the choice to study either French or IT.  My father convinced me to opt for computing, as he thought this was going to be more useful in the future. I could see his point, but it turned out to be a complete waste of time. My heart wasn’t really in it,  and we had to share one computer between three people. I didn’t learn squat, and promptly gave it up in the coming year. By then, I had missed the French train 😩

Something else did come up, however: Russian. Ironically, it was offered by the neighbouring school that I could have been attending, had I not made that crappy decision a few years back. My Dad, supportive of my linguistic exploits as ever, refused to give me the money for the book I needed. It was 14 bucks 80, the price label will be forever etched into my brain. My aunt bought it for me, and I spent a couple of glorious years learning a few scraps of Russian on Friday afternoons.


Miraculously, my parents did fork out so I could go on a school trip to Moscow in the spring of 1988 with my Russian class

English boost
In the meantime, it had dawned on me that I wasn’t going anywhere with my English. Classes at school consisted of drumming in grammar and vocabulary by rote. There was no opportunity to practice either speaking or listening. Bizarrely, the school had an expensive ‘language lab’ into which we were ushered once a year, to stare in reverence at the booths equipped with headphones and mics. Nobody did anything in there the rest of the time.

How the hell was I ever going to learn to talk and understand spoken English?!? Something had to be done. Luckily, I had managed to get myself a job babysitting for some neighbours. The mother of my two charges was a lovely, educated woman from South Carolina, who could clearly see all of my life’s frustrations. A deal was struck. I would help her son with his German homework in exchange for English conversation lessons. We remain good friends to this day.

Around the same time, I developed an interest in learning Spanish and Portuguese, but there were only evening classes available in a town just a few miles away. I could have gotten myself there on the bus, but not back home again – there was no public transport after 7pm in the Bavarian outback. I asked my father if he would collect me, but making a 20 minute round-trip once a week was just too much of an imposition.

Scuppered one last time
At 16, my full-time schooling (geared towards producing paper-shuffling office monkeys) came to an end. It was decision time once again.

What I really wanted to do at this point was to get into a specialist language school so I could train as a translator. One small problem… there was only one state-funded school within geographic reach, and it had an entrance exam. I was competing with people who had gone to the ‘right’ school, studied English for three years longer than I with far superior teaching. I sat the exam, but it was futile… I failed.

There was also a private school I could have attended, charging a fee of 800 bucks per annum, which was well within my family’s financial means. (I calculated once that my father spent three times that much on cigarettes each year). But of course, he refused to spend a dime on something he deemed to be a complete waste of time. (I.e. any kind of further/higher education for girls.)

Being a minor with no accessible funds of my own, I had little choice but to take on a mindnumbing but ‘secure’ office job. This entailed attending school once a week for the three longest years of my life – a hallmark of Germany’s famed dual-track education system – where I was bombarded with more boring tosh, like how to file alphabetically and enter numbers into an accounts ledger. This being Germany, there was an exam to pass at the end. Two days after taking that blasted exam, on 15 July 1991, I was on a plane to the UK to start a job kindly arranged by the kind people I’d been babysitting for and who had taught me the basics of English conversation. Oh yes, we had been busy plotting my escape.

It was another decade before I actually saw the inside of a university, but I had flown the coop, in direction of an English-speaking country! That was good enough for now.

(As an aside, I am a smidgen consoled by the fact that I did grow up ‘somewhat’ bilingual. My native language, if you will, is Bavarian, a dialect of German that is virtually unintelligible to people from outside the region. I even met somebody from my neck of the woods in Toledo where I live now, the owner of a small bar, and every time I walk in, he insists on speaking Bavarian, because there’s nobody else in town who can indulge him.)


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



Toledo’s Treasures: Incongruous Walls

Toledo has been a settlement since the bronze age. EVERYBODY and their dog has been here and put up some edifice, including the Visigoths, the Romans, the Moors, the Jews…. As a result, the town was declared a UNESCO world heritage site. This is excellent from a tourism perspective, but it also means that you cannot get rid of inconvenient bits of ancient architecture that may be in your way. Local residents, businesses and public institutions wanting to construct something of their own are forced to either integrate or work around such artifacts. The results can be slightly on the bizarre side.

A case in point is town walls in varying states of disrepair, which crisscross the entire city in an unpredictable fashion, and every time anyone starts digging anywhere within a 5km radius of the old town, another fragment rears its crumbly old head.

Let me show you a couple of examples:

Below is a piece of wall invading the Army Museum. I must confess, I don’t know who even built this thing, but it’s there, very noticeably so, completely incongruous with the structure of the museum.

Front entrance of the Museo De Ejercito (Army Museum) with its chunk of old wall sticking out

Front entrance of the Museo De Ejercito (Army Museum) with its chunk of old wall sticking out like a sore thumb

Museo de ejercito, Toledo

Here’s another gem, right in the middle of the restaurant Afileritos 24 just around the corner from me. It may look like this great big slab of wall was just plonked there as a piece of rustic decoration, but, in fact, it’s been there for the best part of two thousand years, courtesy of the Romans.

Behind the wall is a toilet cubicle, and the bar is just to the right

Behind the wall is a toilet cubicle, and the bar is just to the right

Who Spends The Most On Weight Loss Products?

Weight loss concoctions, urgh, I can hear you snort with palpable disdain. I’m sure most of us have brushed up against these foul things at least once in our lives.

I remember buying some fibre tablets when I was a dumpy teenager. The idea was that they would swell up in your stomach and give you a feeling of fullness. They were like huge wooden pellets and made me gag when I tried to swallow them. As for the ‘slimming’ effect… well… erm… at least they kept me regular. I also bought a packet of slimming pills back in the 80s, but after reading through a long list of bone-marrow-curdling side effects (one of which was ‘personality changes’…!?!), they duly ended up in the trash.

OK, so maybe I wasn’t exactly a poster child slimming aids consumer, but as a product category, slimming aids are hugely successful. According to the magic database, hopeful dieters spent US$13.3 billion on these products last year.

Enticing colour...!

Enticing colour…!

Meal replacement slimming products (think Slim Fast shakes and those beefed-up-with-vitamins snack bars that taste like cardboard, which you’re meant to be eating instead of real food) made up the bulk of sales, raking in almost US$7 billion in 2012. And there’s no prize for guessing who forks out the most. Of course, it’s the US, generating just over one third of global sales, followed by South Korea, Japan, Brazil, Mexico and Italy. South Korea, surprisingly, has a higher per capita spend on meal replacement products than the US. Go figure!

The US and Japan (Japanese women are notoriously weight obsessed) feature as the top consumers of weight loss supplements, which amassed US$4.5 billion in value sales world-wide in 2012. Those fibre tablets I mentioned would fall into this category. Mexico, Taiwan and Russia are the next big spenders.

Slimming teas, surprisingly enough, is the category which grew the fastest in 2012 in terms of value sales. China is the biggest market for weight loss tea, followed by Russia, Taiwan, the US and Thailand.

Slimming Tea

I just love the product info for this Chinese brand:
This product is manufactured after strict checkout and authorized by national sanitation department, which takes jiaogu cyan, gingko leaves, tea polyphenols and lactose as main raw material. After making the function test, it proves that this product has health care function of reducing weight.
1. This product can not replace medicine.
2. It should stop using this product when weight reaches normal weight.

Improper object: Pregnant women and lactation mother

I don’t know about you, but I can feel a coffee & cake session coming on…

[For data source, click here]


Project Trilingual: I Can Reach The Handle Now!

This Spanish learning business does make me want to bang my head against the wall, repeatedly, morning noon and night. But sometimes, the ghost of Cervantes turns in his grave – either in despair or with mercy, it’s hard to tell which – and tosses me a scrap of hope. I’ve talked before about acknowledging the little successes, and I remain committed to posting them, no matter how piffling.

So, a couple of days ago, I went to the Museo Sorolla in Madrid with an old friend visiting from Germany. (Joaquin Sorolla Bastida was a Spanish Impressionist painter, born in 1863). We asked for audio guides, available only in English and Spanish, which was a bit inconvenient for my friend. As for me, there I stood, in front of the desk, dithering for several minutes over which one to go for. In the end, I opted for Spanish. As we trailed through the building, I kept pressing the litte buttons that explained the wonderful paintings, and… to my amazement, I understood everything.

Why did I even hesitate to ask for the Spanish audio guide? Well, only a few months ago, listening to guided tours in Spanish was a supreme effort. I understood maybe 30-40% if I was lucky. Thanks to “operation radio”, however, I no longer have problems with comprehension.

Curiously, at the point of choosing the audio guide, my conscious mind hadn’t quite caught up with the fact that my listening skills had improved greatly since my last tour. With hindsight, it seems silly now that I thought I might struggle with the Spanish audio guide, when I manage to understand just about everything else – people talking to me, films, the TV, etc. I guess, my initial doubts were like those of a kid looking wistfully at the doorhandle it couldn’t reach the last time it tried, not realising that it had, in fact, shot up a couple of inches in height since then.

The steps leading up to the entrance of Sorolla's villa, now a museum

The steps leading up to the entrance of Sorolla’s villa, now a museum

And a close-up, coz the tiles are soooo pretty ;-)

And a close-up, coz the tiles are soooo pretty 😉

Toledo’s Beautiful Buildings: Monasterio San Juan De Los Reyes

Founded in 1477 by the Catholic Kings, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. It belongs to the Franciscan order, and parts of it are open to the public.

A distant view of the Monastery San Juan De Los Reyes

A distant view of the Monastery San Juan De Los Reyes

A more detailed look at part of the facade

A more detailed look at part of the facade

The interior garden

The interior garden

Beautiful wooden carved and painted ceiling, with lion arches :-)

Beautiful wooden carved and painted ceiling, with lion arches 🙂

San Juan De Los Reyes