Tag Archives: Spain

I finally made it to Barcelona!

I realise I’ve only recently bombarded you with pictures from a trip to Lyon and now I’m about to whack you over the head with another rash of snaps, this time of beautiful Barcelona. But before anyone’s staightjacketed inner globetrotter gets their knickers in a funk, I would like to assure you that your travel envy is (sadly!) misplaced: I’ve not left Toledo so far this year. Until those two trips, that is, both of which happened in the very same week. Madness! Lyon was a last-minute jaunt with a good friend who’s about to leave the country, and the reason I went to  Barcelona was to meet up with a dear friend from London. This was, in fact, my first ever visit to Catalonia.

And, if it makes you feel any better, I came back with a stonking cold and a severe case of conjunctivitis. My eyes swelled up so bad, I had to turn off Skype for two days – I was just too afraid my mum would see me in this state!

Barcelona Harbour

Barcelona flower

Barcelona Bubbles

Here are my only two OK-ish pics from inside Sagrada Familia:

Sagrada Familia Windows

Sagrada familia organ

Organ pipes, in case anyone’s wondering

La Sagrada Familia in the distance - surrounded by construction machinery. It's due for completion in 2026. or 2028.

La Sagrada Familia in the distance – surrounded by construction machinery. It’s due for completion in 2026. Or 2028. Or whenever.

A bit more Gaudi, this time from Parque Güell:

Park Güell fence

 

Barcelona harbour:

We took a ride up to Montjuïc in the cable car, an installation that can only be described as an ill-conceived disaster.

It was not a busy day. The queue of people in front of us was deceptively short. Nevertheless, we had to wait nearly an hour to be herded into the lift. There is only one single little lift that accommodates ten people. The outside waiting area is bereft of shade, and even though it wasn’t a particularly hot day, we got sweaty and uncomfortable, not to mention a tad cranky. How does this work in the summer at 30+ degrees C, 85% humidity, with lines three or four times as long?! People must be collapsing like dominoes. Is there a fleet of ambulances ready and waiting to cart them off?

Once you get to the top of the tower, there is yet more waiting before they let you get onto the cable car. You might think that the wait would be a prime opportunity to take some great pics, since the platform is encased in glass. But no. The window panes are filthy, every inch covered in greasy finger prints, toddler snot and soft drink splatters. I don’t think they’ve been cleaned, ever, on either side!

The carriage itself holds about 20-30 people, but moving around and enjoying a 360-degree bird’s eye view of the city isn’t an option. You’re packed in like pilchards. My friend and I ended up standing on the “bad side”, of course.

The ride is a short one, a mere few minutes, and once you reach the café on top of the hill, you do actually get a breathtaking view of Barcelona. A jug of sangria helps considerably to mellow the experience. Luckily, there’s no need to take the cable car on the return journey – you can walk back down into town very comfortably.

The main problem seems to be this: There are only TWO cable cars. One each way. There should be at least six of the damn things. Who thought this out?! WHO?!? I want that man, I want him tied to his harebrained creation by the balls, and, above all, I want him to re-do his fucking engineering degree in Germany. How can such a great idea turn into an epic fail? End of rant.

The tower of smudge

Dangling sardine can

…of which there are two. Those two.

Where’s the cake?! Well, there was no cake. Yes, you read that right. No Cake. I and my partner in crime went on a daily chocolate binge instead. We are a diligent pair. Barcelona is full of artisan chocolate shops. There’s no pictorial evidence of our collective sins, though, because my camera does not care for chocolate. No matter how handsome the morsel, it ends up looking like a turd in each and every photo.

Four Annoying Things That Spanish People Do

Talking VERY VERY LOUDLY

When Spanish people socialise, even if it’s just two or three of them meeting up for a coffee, a curious thing happens: They seem to lose any awareness that there are other people around them. I’ve had to raise my voice on many occasions to keep communicating with a friend sitting  a few inches away from me because of a group of diners in another corner of the restaurant. They were not drunk or rowdy, just Spanish.

In the UK or Germany, this kind of behaviour also happens.  Usually, though, the perpetrators of  noise pollution are either hormone-crazed teenagers or legless lager louts. In Spain, well-dressed middle aged ladies have no trouble outhollering a busload of pupils on their annual school trip – after all, they have half a century of practice under their belts and are eager to demonstrate that they are not fettered by the shackles of consideration for others or any such social niceties. The louder the merrier!

Kids everywhere, at all hours

Spain has one of the lowest birth rates in the world – just 1.3 whelps per woman in 2015. Even child-averse Germany’s is higher (1.4).

And yet, you cannot get away from tantruming toddlers. A true paradox.

A visiting UK friend remarked to me once, on seeing a 5-year old being wheeled around in a buggy one late Saturday afternoon, “That child is too old to be in a push chair!” Indeed. What she didn’t know was that the vehicle wasn’t about saving the poor little blighter’s legs, but about saving everyone else’s nerves much, much later on in the day. That buggy, was, in fact, a mobile bed.

The parents were going to be out till the wee hours, enjoying good food and wine. After running around and shouting its little head off, the sweaty, worn-out sprog would eventually collapse into the wheeled sedan chair around 1am. It’s my personal theory that this is why events like concerts start so late here in Spain – everyone has to wait patiently until the kids finally pass out on their own accord before people can get on with the adult stuff.

In Germany or the UK, a young child in a restaurant (or any public place) after 8pm is a rarity. There’d be disapproving looks. The little one needs its sleep. Some would consider dragging a cranky minor around in the evening to be kind of child abuse. Not so in Spain, school night or not.

Incidentally, Spain has the highest rate of “fracaso escolar” (lit. “school failure”) in the European Union. According to Eurostat data released in 2015, 21,9% of Spanish students abandon the education system prematurely without any qualifications, compared to an EU average of 11.1%. Am I the only one wondering whether, perhaps, there may be a possible correlation…?

Finders Keepers

If you happen to lose your bag, your wallet, your favourite pen, etc, you may as well say goodbye to it the second you notice. The chances that anyone will hand it in or, if you’ve left it in a shop or a restaurant, keep it under the counter in case you return, are extremely slim. If you’ve forgotten it at someone’s house it’s perfectly safe, of course, but strangers encountering lost property seem to operate a strict finders keepers policy.

This miserly mindset, you may be surprised to learn, is sanctioned by a saint. Yes. A saint. An Italian one that goes by the name of Saint Rita, aka the patron saint of impossible causes.

There’s a Spanish saying that’s commonly evoked when someone is blessed with some unexpected providence: “Santa Rita, Santa Rita, lo que se da, no se quita”. Loosely translated: Saint Rita, Saint Rita, what is given cannot be taken. In other words: finders keepers.

I lost a nice pair of sunglasses once here in Toledo, in either one of three shops that I frequent on a weekly basis. They never surfaced again. I also lost a laptop in Copenhagen, which duly found its way back to me. Thankfully, nobody’s ever heard of bloody Santa Rita in Denmark! I rest my case.

She said you can keep it...

If she says you can keep it… who’s to argue with divine providence?

The smoking

Before moving to Spain, I’ve never really had any close friends who smoked. It’s not that I’ve consciously avoided making friends with smokers, but it just so happened that people I connected with didn’t usually smoke.

Smoking prevalence is higher in Spain compared the UK, where I’ve spent most of my adult life – 21.1% of Spaniards smoke compared to 18.4% of Brits. In the US, just 16.3% of the population are smokers and in Canada it’s 15.6%.

Another factor, in my observation, is that in Spain, just about anyone, regardless of social background or level of education, may whip out a cigarette on a balmy evening. In the UK, the US and Germany, by contrast, people who went to university are much less likely to be hooked on tobacco.

Smoking is forbidden in Spain in bars and restaurants, and this is widely observed, but if you’re from North America or Northern Europe, you may be in for a surprise if you get invited to people’s private houses for a meal, a party, or some other type of social gathering. They will light up. Right there at the table. In a closed room. It will fill up with smoke, your eyes may be streaming, your unprepared respiratory system may start to convulse in distress. And nobody will give it a second thought. You have been warned.

*    *    *    *    *    *

Disclaimer (of sorts): I admit, I was scraping the barrel when I wrote this post… the positives of hanging out with Spanish folk far outweigh the negatives. I gather from other blogs that, in many countries, new arrivals, especially those who are longer in their early twenties, tend to find it hard to enter into rewarding friendships with locals. In my experience – and I’m far from being outgoing, personality-wise – this is not a problem here in Spain, where people, on the whole, are welcoming, open-hearted, generous and inclined to strike up a conversation with a stranger and show genuine interest in them.

As an aside, the old stereotype that Spanish people are notoriously unpunctual, is, in my opinion, totally unwarranted. People may, on occasion, be a few minutes late. I may be a few minutes late. Noting out of the ordinary. The bizarre thing is that the Spanish seem to have internalised this belief about their chronic unpunctuality, and are highly apologetic about this perceived shortcoming – particularly those, it seems, who are rarely late themselves. I’m not quite sure what that is about. I’ve heard that poor time keeping is particularly rampant in the south of the country rather than in the central/northern parts, but since I have little experience of southern Spain, I can’t really comment on that.

 

You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com

 

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]

soap

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.

 

You may also be interested in my specialist language blog, see here: http://multilingualbychoice.blogspot.com

 

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.

CurlyHair

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.

Baby’s Got Whiff? Dip It In Perfume!

Spanish babies are a malodorous breed. To disguise their offspring’s offensive stench, Iberian mamas have a powerful weapon at their disposal: Half-litre bottles of “Baby Cologne”. You want proof? Here are some pics I took this very morning in my local supermarket:

lala

Lalal

“Low in alcohol”

Now, I must confess, I know nothing whatsoever about miniature humans or the fancy potions that are meant to maintain their olfactory acceptability. It was my Spanish teacher who first drew my attention to this cultural difference in paediatric hygiene a few years ago, when she told me about her frustrations in trying to hunt down such a product in North London chemists after the birth of her first daughter, reaping nothing but raised eyebrows and contemptuous glares.

I can’t get my head around the concept either. Surely, most people dunk their whelps in a warm frothy bath at the end of the day in order to remove suspect residues, probably employing some sort of industrial cleaning product which is already lightly perfumed. Why would anyone expose their little princess’s pristine peachiness to any more chemicals than are absolutely necessary? And chemicals they do contain:

lalla

Contains one third less alcohol than other brands, apparently. And a healthy dose of Tirdeceth-9 Octane… WHAT?!  Oh, but look, it’s soap-free!

lala

The question at the top reads, loosely translated, “What does it do for my baby?”, and then goes on to explain that the product lends an “original smell and wellbeing”, and that it “stimulates [the baby’s] senses owing to its special fragrance and your cuddles, which it loves so much”. I guess nobody would want to risk making physical contact with an untreated beast… Theres’s also a series of warnings, including “avoid contact with eyes”, “do not ingest”, “keep out of the reach of children”, “do not use near naked flames or heat sources”.

I’ve already professed my abject ignorance on the subject, but I thought I’d check some figures before hitting the ‘publish’ button. Owing to my work, which I do on rare occasions to finance my cake habit, I have access to a vast database detailling the sales of consumer goods by country, including toiletries and cosmetics. From this, I gather that “Baby and Child-specific Fragrances” are chiefly sold in six countries: Brazil, Spain, Mexico, France, Russia and Italy. This does seem to be a bit of a Latin thing…

Spain is the world’s second largest market (after Brazil), generating retail value sales of US$55.3 million in 2014, and Nenuco and Johnson’s (see my photos) are indeed the leading brands here in Spain. In annual per capita terms, Spanish consumers spent US$9.60 on its defenceless victims aged 0-11 years of age,  while Brazilian parents dowsed millions of tiny botties with US$11.50 worth of the stuff in 2014. Sales in the other countries I mentioned were rather minimal by comparison, hovering around the 1 dollar mark per child.*

So, people, do tell me, are babies sanitised in this way in your country…? Or do they prefer them au naturel?

 

[*For data source, click here]

 

 

Three Countries in Five Days

After nearly three months of nothing but Toledo (except for the delightful little day trip to Cuenca) I was starting to go a bit stir crazy. The only thing that kept sane was an upcoming trip, which my friend Noelia had organised: Three nights at her friend’s place in Badajoz, Extremadura, just a handful of miles from the Portuguese border. From there, we would invade the neighbouring country and stuff ourselves silly with all the glorious Portuguese food we could cram down our gullets. Then, it was onwards, across the entire country and down to Andalucía for a couple of days, following a kind invitation from one of Noelia’s workmates, who had bequeathed us a lovely flat overlooking the beach.

All you all ready and comfortable? Let’s get started 🙂

Badajoz has some lovely public gardens

Badajoz has some picturesque public gardens…

...and glorious views.

…and glorious views. The town itself has a very southern Spanish flair, although it’s not much more south than Toledo. The Portuguese influence is keenly felt in the architecture, the colours and on restaurant menus. Salt cod and custard tarts galore!

Moving on to Portugal…

Évora's party piece: A Roman temple from the 1st century

Évora’s party piece: A Roman temple from the 1st century

Roman Temple and moi

Hidden gems

Lots of crumbling gems to discover…

...as well as some modern art. Noelia (left), and our hosts Gracia (right) and Lua (centre).

…as well as some modern art.
Noelia (left), and our hosts Gracia (right) and Lua (centre).

One of Évora's stunning residents turning his back on me

One of Évora’s most glamorous residents turning his back on me

The Almendres Cromlech, a few miles from Évora. A megalithic complex erected 8,000 years ago, and pretty well preserved. We just made it in time for sundown.

The Almendres Cromlech, a few miles from Évora city. A megalithic complex erected 8,000 years ago, and pretty well preserved. We just made it in time for sundown.

We're in Elvas now, another historic town settled since the year dot. Just don't ask me what that thing in the middle is...

We’re in Elvas now, another historic town settled since the year dot.
Just don’t ask me what that thing in the middle is supposed to signify…

Like any Portuguese town worth its salt, Elvas has a castle...

Like any Portuguese town worth its salt, Elvas has a castle…

...impossibly steep, cobbled streets...

…impossibly steep, cobbled streets…

...and plenty of tiles. Everywhere.

…and plenty of tiles. Everywhere.

 

And, of course, FOOD! Here we are, waiting for ours. The desserts at that place were to die for.

And, of course, FOOD! Here we are, waiting for ours. The desserts at that place were to die for.

For one last look at Portugal, how about this cork oak? The souvenir shops are full of cork products. You can even send postcards made of cork.

For one last look at Portugal, how about this majestic cork oak? The souvenir shops are full of cork products. You can even send postcards made of cork.

Cádiz Province, Andalucía, here we come!

Andalucía billboard

BEACH BEACH BEACH

BEACH BEACH BEACH!!!

I was very taken with that umbrella ;.)

I was rather taken with that cheery parasol 🙂

Andalucia Castellar

Did I mention the beach...?

Did I mention the beach…?

Noelia and our generous host and indefatigable tour guide, Paco

Noelia with our generous host and indefatigable tour guide, Paco

A cute frog fountain in Tarifa

A cute frog fountain in Tarifa

Soto Grande Boat

 

Gibraltar... that was the third "country" on our trip. We spent the morning there, I made a beeline to M&S, bought as many packs of hot cross buns as I could carry and several boxes of walnut whip. None of which survives.

Gibraltar, the third “country” visited on our trip. We spent a morning there, during which I made a beeline to M&S, heaping as many packs of hot cross buns as I could carry into my basket, as well as several boxes of walnut whip. None of which survives.

Now there’s just one thing missing, one VERY IMPORTANT thing:

Badajoz Cake