A meeting of minds and Moorish magnificence by moonlight

Palacio Carlos V - a recent construction by the Alhambra's standards.

Palacio Carlos V – one of the more recent constructions by the Alhambra’s standards.

The circular interior of Charles V's palace. He was the first Holy Roman emperor and liked to make a statement.

The circular interior of Charles V’s palace – he was the first Holy Roman Emperor.

When you work from home, as I do, Social Media isn’t just for watching hilarious viral videos of animals falling off bicycles, comparing notes about X Factor, and poring over photos of your friends’ kids.

It’s a lifeline to other, like-minded people with the same interests, in the same field of work, often in broadly the same region. Anyone who sits alone in their house, shuttered away in an office/cubbyhole/sitting room/garden shed in front of a computer for a large part of the day, will know what it feels like to operate in a vacuum. Noone else to bounce ideas off, commiserate, celebrate, or just ruminate with.

So, when you’re largely isolated, and you live abroad too, an online forum of people who live in the same country as you, speak the same language as you, and have an enormous collective knowledge base to which you contribute and which you benefit from, is a godsend.

I’m lucky enough to be a member of one such Facebook group. Who’d have thought that Zuckerberg’s beast, great for selling unwanted furniture and stalking ex-boyfriends (plus engaging with customers, as any SM consultant will tell you), would be a launch pad for such a dynamic collaborative meeting of minds. Entrepreneurs, marketers, writers, bloggers, and creative types who live in Spain, and are passionate about the country. The name is WABAS: Writers and Bloggers about Spain.

A view of the Alcazaba, the fortress, from the entrance to the Nasrid palace.

A view of the Alcazaba, the fortress, from the entrance to the Nasrid palace.

Last year I attended the group’s second national annual get-together, in Malaga, which was hugely enjoyable, interesting and constructive. This year the WABAS venue was Granada. Friends, wine, expertise and the Alhambra. Meeting online friends in person (do they look like their photo? Are they what I expected?). It’s a winning combination.

We learned about topics relevant to media-savvy expats in business. We talked. We listened. We agreed. We disagreed. We ate. We drank. We drank some more.

these niches were used for jars of water, a symbol of hospitality, vases flowers or perfume.

These tiled and decorated niches were used for jars of water, a symbol of hospitality, vases flowers or perfume.

And we visited the Alhambra. At night. It was only my second time in this wondrous complex of Moorish and Renaissance palaces, the first having been nine years ago when I was pregnant with my first child. As an occasional tour leader in Seville, I was delighted that we were taken around the Alhambra by an excellent guide, Maria Angustia from Cicerone Tours. As this native granadina informed us, Maria Angustia is the patron saint of Granada.

She also told us that the Alhambra, which dates from the 13th century when this part of Spain was ruled by the Moors – cultured Islamic rulers from north Africa – was self-sufficient; its own independent mini-city. With no natural water source, usually an essential factor in establishing a settlement, the hill above Granada wasn’t an obvious location to build a palace; a river fed by the Sierra Nevada had to be diverted to provide water for the sultan’s new palace. But the Nasrid ruler Muhammed I obviously had a vision in mind. Titbits like these, about how the monument was initially planned, bring history to life.

We started our tour at the Palace of Carlos V, King of Spain and the first Holy Roman Emperor, for whom the phrase “the empire on which the sun never sets” was coined. He also built the Casa Consistorial (original Town Hall) in Seville and held his wedding to Isabel of Portugal in the Alcazar of Seville. This 16th century palace, a few centuries more recent than the Nasrid Palaces which are the main draw of the Alhambra, is unusual in that it was the first building to be square on the outside, and round inside. The Palacio Carlos V is used for concerts and exhibitions.

Arabic calligraphy and tiles.

Arabic calligraphy and tiles in the Mexuar Palace.

 

Arabesque detail of an archway in the Comares Palace.

Arabesque detail on an archway in the Comares Palace.

Painted decoration on a ceiling of mocarabe, modelled after stalactites in a cave where Mohoma took refuge.

Painted mocarabe decoration on a ceiling, modelled after stalactites in a cave where the prophet Mohammed took refuge.

 

Artesonado (decorated painted wood) ceiling in the Mexuar Palace.

Artesonado (decorated painted wood) ceiling in the Mexuar Palace.

Entering the first section of the Nasrid Palaces, the Mexuar Palace, we saw examples of the extraordinarily complex, multi-layered decoration for which the Alhambra is famous as the most perfect example of a Moorish palace in the world. A combination of geometric alicatado tiles, with designs made from tiny pieces of ceramic; the intricate white relief sections, often with plant motifs and Arabic calligraphy inscriptions, called arabesque; the coffered artesonado wood ceilings, with their gold details; and coloured mocarabe decoration (see photo above), and you have a dazzling array of never-ending abstract art, 360 degrees, on every surface. Maria called it “an explosion of imagination”.

Washington Irving was an American writer and diplomat who lived in the Alhambra in the 1820s.

Washington Irving was an American writer and diplomat who lived in the Alhambra in the 1820s.

We visited the rooms occupied by Washington Irving when he lived in the Alhambra as the US Consul. Most well-known outside Spain as the writer of books such as Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra brought the then-largely abandoned, but mercifully still intact, palace to the attention of a worldwide audience, drawing visitors to a then-unknown part of Spain for many years to come. This American author and hispanophile – he wrote several books about the country – is revered in Andalucia, and you can even follow a Washington Irving route across the region.

Two of the 12 marble lions on the Fuente de los Leones.

Two of the 12 marble lions on the Fuente de los Leones.

Courtyard of the Lions, with trees behind. The night sky with shadowy trees was full of mystery, while the courtyard by heaving with other visitors.

Palace of the Lions, with trees behind. The night sky with shadowy trees was full of mystery, while the courtyard was heaving with other visitors.

One of the most celebrated monuments within this UNESCO World Heritage Site is the Fountain of the Lions, recently restored. Each of the 12 carved marble animals is different, but the fountain wasn’t lit up at night when we there, so it was difficult to see their faces, with individually modelled eyes and mouths. Maria explained that the water has to be to very carefully controlled to ensure that it flows out of the lions’ mouths at precisely the same speed. As always with such fabled beasts, theories abound as to why there are 12 – signs of the zodiac is one possibility.

Courtyard in the Comares Palace - water was essential to Moorish architecture, for its soothing sound, artistic (reflective) qualities and cooling effects in the sweltering summer.

Courtyard in the Comares Palace – water was essential to Moorish architecture, for its soothing sound, artistic (reflective) qualities and cooling effects in the sweltering summer heat.

The Alhambra was very busy on the night we visited, too much so for my liking, and Maria told us that 50 visitors enter the complex every five minutes – that’s 600 an hour – and that the palaces are open for 14 hours a day. Three million visits per year.

Afterwards, we went out for tapas, as you do, and I exchanged guiding notes with Maria, and reacquainted myself with fellow WABASers, as well as converting virtual online friendships into real ones, over a few bottles of good Spanish white wine from Rueda. Networking in real life and online is a necessity for today’s freelancers, and if you can do it with the surroundings of such a legendary city like Granada, all the better.

For practical information on visiting the Alhambra, see this useful post by fellow WABAS member and resident Granada expert, Molly Sears Piccavey.

 

The E-X-P-A-T of moving abroad

expat, move abroad, moving abroad

Which country would you like to live in?

As I’ve mentioned before, this blog spreads itself widely, nay extravagantly, over three classic blogging genres: mummy/parenting, travel and expat. As I live in a supremely photogenic area – sunny southern Spain, where even a technically-challenged individual like myself can manage to take half-decent pictures, thanks to the excellence of semi-professional compact digital cameras – most of my posts tend to be about places to visit in this area. I’ve been nominated for some mummy travel blogging awards, which was very gratifying. But I also dip into the expat blog world too, typically from my own personal perspective of living in Spain.

As someone who’s been living away from my home country for 12 years now, I am often asked what advice I would give to expats. So when international money transfer site HiFX asked me to contribute to their Expat Tip Page, I thought I’d give it a go. While I don’t think of myself as being in a particularly strong position to give advice, since my life is not a model of smooth organisation, financial competence or inter-cultural harmony, some of these pearls of wisdom might be of use to those looking to move abroad. All common sense really, but there’s no harm in spelling them out. Especially since I forgot (and indeed, still forget) half of them myself on occasions – I came here on a whim, so my situation was different from a planned relocation with its premeditated schedule. So here it is: my E-X-P-A-T of being an expat.

EExperience

Whether you’re moving to a different country for a few months, a few years, or an unknown length of time, you need to throw yourself into your new life. Many people are posted abroad, or apply for a new job, for a set period of time – say one or two years. If you know how long you’ll be living in a place for, then you make it your project to see and experience as much of it as possible during those months or years – some events are annual, so be sure not to miss them when they come around. Don’t say, we can always go next year, as you might not be there. Similarly, if you’re invited to an odd-sounding local fiesta, jump at the chance. There may be moments of boredom and confusion, but these will be balanced by unforgettable memories to treasure forever; the opportunity to attend such events are often one-off chances which should be grabbed with both hands.

X – eXpect

It’s more a case of don’t – when someone moves to a place to live, they’ll have spent months planning, dreaming, building up certain expectations about everything from the people, to the weather, to the food. Keep an open mind. None of it may turn out to be as you thought. Perhaps you visited in mild spring, and you’ll be arriving in scalding high summer, or chilly winter. Or the food that seemed so gratifyingly exotic/quaint/simple will pall after you realise that’s all there is on offer. In any case, one of the most important prerequisites for any expat is not to make up your mind about anything until you’ve been in your new home for a while, and have experienced plenty of inevitable ups and downs. Adapt to your new country as far as possible, and try not to compare it to home (too much, anyway).

P – Prepare

The boring-but-important bit. Paperwork; taxes; health care; language skills. Leave yourself plenty of time, as doing these kinds of things in a last-minute panic is horribly stressful and risks costly mistakes. What do you need to do before you leave – are you renting out your home in your own country? What are you storing, sending ahead, packing to take with you? Will you try to the learn the language of your new country before you leave, if appropriate? Have you looked into health care and education (if you have children) in the country? Draw up lists, have a notebook (whether paper or digital) to check off tasks and have handy contacts and references. While many larger multinationals have special staff dedicated to helping employees and their families to relocate, there’s no harm in keeping an eye on these things yourself. Read expat blogs, email those already living in the city or area where you’re going, visit forums, join Facebook groups – all great ways of getting practical tips and suggestions, as well as answers to specific queries, so that you don’t get any (well, not too many) nasty surprises when you arrive.

A – Advice

Once you’re in your new home, you’ll need to build a network of people, both natives and other expats. Don’t be afraid to ask them for help – for everything from how to fill in paperwork and where to take it to (often you can pay someone else to do this for you), what to wear to local fiestas (one friend was the only parent to turn up to her daughter’s nursery Carnival party not in fancy dress. She was mortified), where to find a language teacher, or recommending a reliable plumber or builder. When I arrived in my village, I had little practical guidance. Now an Australian family has arrived here, and I’m only too delighted to offer my tuppence worth on anything they care to ask me about. Most people are very happy to offer their time to a new arrival, to help them settle in, find their feet and let them in on where the best/nearest hairdresser/softplay centre/English language cinema is. Again, Facebook groups and local forums can be very useful for this too – a whole virtual knowledge bank out there waiting to offer the benefit of their experience. Use it!

T – Try

What? I hear you ask. My answer: everything! You’re out of your comfort zone now, away from familiar surroundings, so what have you got to lose (apart from your health, wallet, dignity etc)? Join local associations (the American Women’s Club has branches in cities all over the world) which organise outings, tastings, and talks; visit the library to find out about language classes; take up a hobby; volunteer. Experiment with the local food – so you may want to stick to established family favourites or home-country traditional dishes on birthdays and holidays, but go to the market and buy the strange-looking fruit, or weird, knobbly vegetable. Ask a friend or neighbour how to cook or eat it – you adventurousness is bound to impress them. Stray into the realms of the unknown. You’ll make mistakes, sure, but we all know that’s an important part of the learning. As long as you don’t poison anyone, or (possibly worse) offend them, you’re doing fine.

For more tips, look at the experts’ offerings on HiFX, where those better qualified than me have wise words for would-be expats.

Interview with Paul Read, the Gazpachomonk. #WABAS12

Paul Read - writer, broadcaster and Tai Chi master.

Paul Read – writer, broadcaster and Tai Chi master.

As a blogger and tweeter, I follow and read many other expats here in Spain. One who has intrigued me for some time is the Gazpachomonk. Apart from the obvious appeal of the name, I was delighted on meeting Paul at the recent WABAS weekend in Malaga recently to find that he is different from other expats – he has fresh and fascinating views on living here in Spain, coloured by his experience of Tai Chi, his love of history, and his wonderfully dry humour. I enjoyed Paul’s book, Inside the Tortilla: A Journey In Search of Authenticity, and am avidly watching his series of videos on Spain in the WABAS12 series (12 bloggers-on-Spain each posting a video every day for 12 consecutive days), so I decided to ask him some probing questions about authenticity, gastronomy, and eyewear.

Why are you called the Gazpachomonk?

In a parallel universe I am known as the “teapotmonk” (where I write about Eastern philosophy, teach Tai Chi and spout Taoist nonsense). When I moved to Spain, I wanted to keep something of this identity, but as I was now working in an Iberian context, I exchanged the tea for gazpacho. Critics argue that I still spout the same nonsense, it just has more of a garlic flavour these days.

How long have you lived here in Spain?

In 1994 I spent a year in Seville as part of a degree course I was taking. I returned to Spain in 1996 with my partner, Cherry, and we have been living here since then.

the town of Loja,in Granada province, which Paul brings to life in his book Inside the Tortilla.

The town of Loja,in Granada province, which Paul brings to life in his book Inside the Tortilla.

A previous chapter in Paul's life: working in markets on the Costa Tropical.

A previous chapter in Paul’s life: working in markets on the Costa Tropical.

Where have you lived, and which place(s) have you liked most, and why?

Ohhh, big question. The year in Seville was exciting and it still remains one of my favourite cities in the world. In 1996 we moved to Tarragona, but just for four months. Loved the place and the people, but couldn’t get work, so shifted to Madrid. However, found that too hectic, noisy, expensive and it reminded us too much of London. So we moved to Toledo – atmospheric and medieval and a really convenient place to buy a suit of armour and marzipan. However, it wasn’t too long before we realised it wasn’t so good for getting a pint of milk or a loaf of bread.

After two years without bread and many adventures later, we fled to Castille and Leon. But it was too quiet and too cold, so we headed south and in 1998 found ourselves in the coastal resort of Almuñecar in Granada. We stayed there working the markets for seven years until we couldn’t stand the ebb and flow of so many people – it was a bit like living in a big bus station, just more watery, and so we fled the coast and found ourselves here in Loja, where we’ve been since 2006.

What still frustrates you most about living in Spain?

When I hear people complain about either Spanish bureaucracy, corruption or oily tapas, I tend to want to poke them in the kidneys – not because of what they are saying, but because I find such posturing ultimately disempowering.

If frustrating things happen – and obviously they do to everyone – I’m convinced it’s as much to do with ourselves as our chosen country. Clashes of culture, language, social differences will inevitably lead to misunderstandings. How we respond is the only tool we have – and it comes down to this: how do we wish to play out our life here? Is it going to be an obstacle forever, or will it be a challenge?

What do you think of the expat scene?

Let’s be honest, we are all expats, and we all operate in some circle or another. Some do so on the coast, others in the campo or inland. Some are bound together by their inability to speak or contextualise the affairs of the country, others by their – often misguided – belief that they can actually do so.

Yet we all need to touch base now and then with our past, with people who share our history, our cultural or social reference points, wherever we find ourselves. In a way, I can understand the expat communities of the coastal strip who honestly make no claim about learning the language or integrating into another lifestyle. I may not be in agreement with their aims, but I respect their honesty. On the other hand, a lot of other expats – particularly those who boast of their ability to conjugate an irregular verb or publicly rejoice in shunning the rest of the foreigners in town – are simply hypocritical. It’s pure class politics raising its ugly head once more.

Paul's book covers many aspects of life in Spain, from flamenco to

Paul’s book covers many aspects of life in Spain, from siestas to Semana Santa.

Which Spanish dish do you make best? (apart from gazpacho!)

“Sopa de ajo” is my winter favourite right now. Whatever is in season is the base of all my favourite recipes – and of course that changes with the time of year – Ive a section on my website with all my best recipes – if you want to check that out.

Where did you get idea for your series of #WABAS12 videos?

I’d been doing podcasts for the last couple of years and had based them on the concept of trying to understand the foolishness of our present lifestyle choices by looking for explanations in the past. History is not about answering the questions of when or where, but rather why and how? These questions bring history alive, particularly when you can relate universal themes to somewhere as specific as the town you live in. So when the WABAS12 project was born, I decided to try and apply these ideas to the medium of video, and try my best to portray one small town in the most universal of ways. I wanted to show that you don’t need to be living in a major city to see the history of the world in front of your eyes.

Why do you always wear shades in your videos?

There are two possible answers:

1) Robin, Spiderman, Batman, Iron Man – they all hide behind something when publicly fighting injustice, right? Well the Gazpachomonk wears shades.

2) “Uveitis Anterior” is an eye condition that dilates the pupils of the sufferer and makes sunlight almost unbearable.

Why don’t you mention your partner in your book, Inside the Tortilla?

It’s true that my partner, Cherry, was by my side during many of the episodes in the book, and her presence is there if you look for it. But I chose not to include her directly because the emphasis of the book is themes and not characters – hence we never get to know a lot about the narrator, and the Hound has no name. Even the identity of the town is never mentioned, other than by its fictional name of “La Llave.” In this way I hoped the book would not fall into the pit of two bumbling expats “Year in Andalusia, Driving over Figs” home-improvement yarn so prevalent since the last wave of North European immigrants discovered blogging.

Do you have any future book or video ideas/plans? You mention a sequel at the end of Inside the Tortilla: The Labyrinth Years.

The Labyrinth book was co-written by Cherry and I during our Toledo years and sits as an unfinished manuscript at home. Whilst we ponder over its future I’m working on a new book for 2014 called Voices, in which a series of historical characters describe what keeps them sane in an insane world: themes of love, passion, migration, gazpacho, corruption, churros. Meanwhile, I’m still working on my Tai Chi series of books with the teapotmonk – and a selection of videos and podcasts that accompany them (http://teapotmonk.com/).

How and where do you find authenticity?

Authenticity is an endangered species these days. Like people, towns have their authentic voices – at times loud and clear, other times silenced in the rush to embrace the latest expression of modernity ( eco-tourism and Facebook pages come to mind). My search for authenticity arose because I felt myself drowning in this sea of nonsense.

When any place or person engages in the exploitation of people or the land, and tags it as something new and trendy, they suppress its unique voice, its character, and we all lose out. I hope the greed we have seen exposed politically these last few years encourages us to look once more at the uniqueness of where we live and who we are, and not to fall back on the old cycle of unfettered growth in a world with finite means. Have I personally found it? Let’s just say it’s an ongoing project.

What advice would you offer for those thinking of moving to Spain?

If I had to give two piece of advice I’d say…

1. I know this is difficult, but try not to move to Spain without renting for a full year first. Yes, it means paying out cash, but it will give you so many advantages over buying. You can move around and check out the area, the town, the people, the dialect, the weather, the noise, the heat, the health services, the working possibilities etc without committing yourself to a huge investment that would be difficult to change later on.

2. Language – forget the imperfect subjunctive, just get familiar with the basics and let your new world teach you the rest. This of course means that if your new world is composed of satellite TV, internet news and watching rugby in the local Sports Bar, then you may have to make a bit more effort. Think of language as a useful app on your smart phone. It’s a tool that’ll help to contextualise this strange new world, explain it to you and help you explain yourself to others. Moving to Spain without the language is, as I’m often prone to say, akin to taking up golf and then pulling your arms of their sockets just before your first round.

You can find out more about Paul’s Spain-related books, ebooks, podcasts and videos at his website, Speaking of Spain: Resources on Living, Working and Sweating in Spain. (Paul has a great line in subtitles, as you can see.)
Watch his WABAS12 videos on his YouTube channel.
Other links: Paul’s books and his blog about Tai Chi.

10 things I’ve learned I can’t live without

A few weeks ago, I reached an important milestone – both in my life, and in my time lived in Spain: it’s 10 years since I arrived here in Seville. Back in September 2003 I came to this beautiful city – via London and Quito, Ecuador – with no expectations, no idea of what I’d find (I’d never been here before), and a few names as contacts.

A decade later, I have a small, tumbledown house (literally), two dogs and a semi-wild cat, two children and a husband, lots more English-language novels, thousands of leaflets, guidebooks and novels about various aspects of Andalucian and Spain, from the Civil War to flamenco, as well as a decent collection of children’s DVDs. And one of the contacts is still a good friend, and unofficial godmother to my son.

Having read Josh’s reliably excellent post on five things not to forget when moving to Spain (clue: it’s about food, and nursery food at that), it occurred to me that since I’ve been here 10 years, my anniversary would be a great excuse hook for a post on things I’ve learned that I can’t live without. Practical posts aren’t my forte, but this might be of some use or interest to a new, or potential, expat.

So here goes (artwork: Copyright Lola and Zac Flores Watson):

no1

1) Revo internet radio
If I want to dance, I find some pop tunes on Radio 2; hear the news, Radio 4; remember why I left London, Radio London; listen to some quirky tracks, Radio 6 Music. I go off into my own little world when I’m in the kitchen with my radio on. Some British expats refuse to listen to British radio or watch British TV. Balderdash and poppycock. (Confession: I do listen to RAI in the car.)

no2

2) Satellite dish
I rarely watch TV, except for the news – once the kids are finally in bed, I’m either working on the computer, eating, or asleep. We don’t even have one at the moment as our sitting room is a building site. But when we do, the reason I value it so highly is CBeebies. Have you seen Spanish children’s TV? Think, the most moronic, sexist, casual-violence American animated nonsense you can imagine, and that’s it. Brain-rot. At least Ballamory has sound ideas on racial harmony. And its theme tune is far less irritating than Sponge Bob Squarepants, FFS.

no3

3) Girls’ nights out
My best girlfriends are all English. What a cliche, I hear you say. But that cultural familiarity, the unspoken bonds, the mutual understanding of being married to a Spaniard (four of my closest mum mates are) and all the communication challenges that implies. All we need is a bottle of wine (or three) and you can leave us there till the wee hours.

no4

4) The Week
My wonderful, though sadly aging, Dad gets me a subscription every year to this weekly news mag, which distills the most interesting and important stories from British and foreign media into 60-odd pages – perfect loo or bath reading material. And it gets passed on to one of those mentioned in 3).

no5

5) Nice soap
The Spanish don’t seem to do nice soap, unless it’s made of honey and glycerin with oatmeal flakes suspended inside and costs 4 euros. Buy a four-pack of normal scented stuff from any English supermarket and you’ll be fragrant for months.

no6

6) Facebook, especially groups
I don’t understand anyone who doesn’t use Facebook. How else would I know when anyone’s birthday is? Or what their children look like now? Or what embarrassing thing happened to them at work last week? Or which Youtube video’s gone viral? I work at home, so there’s no water-cooler moment, no chat while the kettle boils (do they even have kettles in Spanish offices?) It’s like a mouthy coffee break, getting squiffy cocktail hour, and catch-up chat on the phone, all rolled into one. And the groups are indescribably useful and supportive. I’ve made fantastic contacts, found work, and received (and, I hope, given too) useful advice via Facebook groups.

no7

7) Extra reserves of patience and tolerance
The I-don’t-understand-you grimace, the “you don’t need that form”, “you only need one copy”, “you don’t need the original”. Ignore, push, insist, ask again, request clarification (you did need the form, four copies, and the original). If in doubt, start again from the beginning. Be firm and try to stay calm. Spanish administration is hell, but at least make sure that the bolshy jobsworth funcionario (civil servant) who’s trying to deny you that essential document – because she wants to go and have her coffee break – does her job properly. (Although in my case, I don’t think they get off scot-free either – I need everything explaining at least four times, which must have its less endearing qualities.) And if they’re being really obtuse, officious or offensive, just picture them in their underwear.

no8

8) Chutney
Cebolla caramelizada doesn’t quite cut it. In fact, Spanish jams in general are sub-standard. English fruit and vegetable chutneys, however, especially spicy ones, have this strange power of making an ordinary cheese sandwich into a thing of wonder.

no9

9) Regular trips back to the motherland
We go about twice a year – I need to be among people who speak my language, literally, and may not be as warm or friendly as the Spanish, but who won’t frown at me when I mumble because I’m too knackered to en-un-ci-ate clear-ly. Where supermarket shelves overflow with a heavenly array of cakes, biscuits and naughty puds, and crisps and chutneys (see 8) come in 359 flavours. Where friends who’ve known me for years can tell me what I need to be told. And where I, and especially my children, can spend precious time with aforementioned aging parents.

no10

10) My family
Well, obviously. I’m hardly going to dump them by the roadside and go gallivanting off to the Algarve for a week on my own, now, am I? (Well, actually, there was talk of a girls’ weekend away – see 3) The biggest change for me since arriving in Seville, apart from giving up smoking, designer clothes and poncy cocktail bars, has been having my children. They’re half-Spanish, or half-Andalucian as their Dad would say, bilingual, and comfortable in both cultures, thanks to 2 and 9; and 1 helps too. My husband, for his part, keeps our shoddily-built bungalow standing, tending to plumbing, electrical, structural and countless other problems, and is a bear-ish sort of bloke who is useful around the house and garden (great veg patch) – just as well, since he doesn’t have a job. Anyway, they’re the bees’ knees and I love them to bits. I managed without them for three days recently, on a very nice trip in Andalucia, but that was quite long enough, thank you. I can’t go without hugs for more than three days. Ni pensar.

What can’t you live without?

 

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Five things Spanish people say a lot (and what they really mean)

Captain Haddock's outbursts pale into comparison against Spanish swear words.

Captain Haddock’s outbursts are a lot less colourful than some Spanish expressions.

I’ve written about lots of fiestas lately – music, dancing, flamenca dresses and general Andalucian excess on all fronts, laughing in the face of austerity and denying the very existence of “la cosa“, as some prefer to refer to la crisis obliquely, thereby avoiding the ugly necessity of naming the beast.

Additionally, in an outrageous miscarriage of justice (the vote was clearly rigged) I didn’t make it to the final six of the BIBs mummy blogging awards, travel section – but many thanks to those who so kindly voted for me. For this reason, while I nurse my wounded pride, I will set aside the topics of family and travel for a few weeks.

So, as a change of tack, in this post I’m looking at Spanish expressions which have caught my attention over the years. As a writer, translator, sometime English teacher and language graduate, I am always fascinated by the use of castellano - I think stretching that part of my brain was one of the main reasons I moved abroad in the first place.

From embarrassing mistakes, to unusual words, I am constantly intrigued by how my my bilingual kids mix their languages; pondering, quizzing, driving my semi-literate husband mad – “What does this word mean? How is its meaning different from that one? Which of them is stronger/ruder/more typically Andaluz?”

After living here in Spain for nearly ten years, and in Spanish-speaking countries for a year longer than that, I’m increasingly aware of subtleties and subtexts in what those around me are saying. I wouldn’t call myself an expert by any stretch, but I’m slowly adding to my stock of colloquial phrases that I might tentatively try out for the first time, to be greeted by peals of laughter from friends and family, and delighted, gently piss-taking cries of “Que andaluza estas hecha, Feeee-onn-a!”

So here goes, with my five chosen Spanish expressions, which reveal telling points about Spanish society and culture. When I’ve blogged about such topics before, it’s drawn quite a response, so I await with interest to see what people make of this list.

**Warning: offensive language content (or at least I think it is)**

1) “Me cago en la leche/en dios/en tu puta madre/en la madre que te pario/en todos tus muertos”
(I shit on the milk/on god/on your whore of a mother/on the mother who bore you/on all your ancestors)

Palabrotas (swear words; literally, big ugly words – thanks to my linguistic consultant Mary for that one!) are used freely and without conscience by both sexes and all ages here in Spain. I remember a friend being horrified to hear her boyfriend’s sweet, lovable old granny swearing like a brickie at lunch one Sunday. Similarly, it’s shocking when such oaths come out of little kids’ mouths (not my own, I hasten to add – that would almost be enough to justify mild corporal punishment. Almost). Especially with the graphic nature of the language used.

Remember that Spain is still a Catholic country, where mothers are held sacred – both the Virgin, and one’s own. The force of the third oath in my list, and the contradiction with this hallowed matriarchal status, is illogical and deeply disturbing. Yes, yes, I know these expressions have lost all their force now, or at least it’s been massively diluted, through over-use. Noone actually thinks about what they’re saying when the words come out of their mouths. But I still wince when I hear it – especially in the years since I myself have “pario“. What an old prude, eh?

Blue skies mean the heat is on.

Blue skies mean the heat is on.

2) “Que calor!/Que frio!”
(It’s so hot! It’s so cold!)

Spain is a land of extremes – that’s one of the things I love about it. Everything is black or white – the opposing emotions of grief and joy, as expressed in that most Andalucian of art forms, flamenco. The full-on all-night partying at the Feria, in the midst of the worst financial situation Spain has ever experienced. As the saying goes(can you tell I love sayings?), they don’t do things by halves.

The same is true for the weather – in November, as soon as the temperature drops below 10 degrees, it’s all “Ay! Que frio!”, and on with the Boots. Andaluces, I have two words for you: British winter. I am usually colder inside my house than out, so my discomfort stems more from substandard Spanish building (our “old” house is 30 years young), than from sub-zero exterior temperatures.

In April, as the skies clear to their gorgeous rich blue, the sun regains its full force, and you bare your arms for the first time in months (yes, non-Spain dwellers, we do wear more than one layer for part of the year), people cry in anguish, wiping their brows, “Pero que calor hace!” as if they’ve just arrived from Siberia and are totally unaccustomed to sweating at 9.30 in the morning. Not as if they’re Andaluces who have lived here all their lives, as most have.

Noone (except me) ever says “Que buena temperatura!” – what a lovely temperature! God, I’m so English, aren’t I?

Gazpacho andaluz - chilled tomato soup, as made to perfection by every Spaniard's mother. Credit: Harlan Harris, under Creative Commons licence.

Gazpacho andaluz – chilled tomato soup, as made to perfection by every Spaniard’s mother. Credit: Harlan Harris, under Creative Commons licence.

3) “Mi madre hace el mejor gazpacho del mundo”
(My mother makes the world’s best gazpacho)

If I had a euro for every time I’d heard this, it would be me bailing Sr Rajoy out, instead of Sra Merkel. Gazpacho is a mainstay in the summer months, with every Spanish señora worth her garlic keeping a container of the red stuff in her fridge at all times during the hot summer months, ready to provide her extended family (ie, me) with a refreshing shot of cold liquidized veggies (Andaluzes generally drink gazpacho from a glass, rather than a bowl.)

This chilled soup of tomatoes, cucumber, onion, pepper, garlic, bread, and that essential, ubiquitous Andalucian product, olive oil, is as andaluz as its gets – all typical seasonal ingredients which everyone grows in their huerta. In the mid-20th century, many Andalucians lived off the land as they had no other option, so it’s a classic subsistence dish. It’s so easy, even a lazy and reluctant cook like me can make it. There are various camps – (sherry) vinegar or not, bread makes it salmorejo (no – salmorejo only has tomatoes, not the rest of the salad box). But whatever her recipe, each person’s mum has the superlative blend.

"I've only had two beers." Yeah, right, and I'm Nigella Lawson.

“I’ve only had two beers.” Yeah, right, and I’m Nigella Lawson.

4) “Solo he tomado dos o tres cervezas/No he bebido nada”
(I’ve only had two or three beers/I haven’t drunk anything)

There are two issues here: first, in Andalucia, beer is not considered alcohol. It’s a soft drink. It does not affect your ability to drive in any way at all, and you can put away as much as you like before getting behind the wheel of your car and driving your merry way home. So not drinking alcohol (“no he bebido nada”) does not equal not drinking beer, if you’ll excuse the double negative.

The second is the Andaluz tendency to either under- or over-exaggurate. As agreed with friends also married to Spanish men, “I’ve only had two beers”, the customary protest as your nappy-sensitized nose detects a whiff of cerveza on your mysteriously-late-arriving-home-husband, actually means about five or six. Under intense questioning, they admit to four, which pushes the genuine tally up to eight; and six – well, that’s a full-on drinking sesion.

(Caveat: I’m not saying that all Andalucian men do this, obviously. But there are plenty who do.)

meat, jamon, ham, vegetarian

Who the f*** put jamon in my salmorejo?

5) “Pero jamon no es carne”
(But jamon isn’t meat)

As any vegetarian who has been presented with a salad delicately sprinkled with little chunks of cured pig will know, jamon iberico is not considered within the earthly realms of meat in Spain (and even less so here, where we’re pig-snuffling distance from the Sierra de Huelva), and therefore is not described as such. Its provenance is more celestial, and it cannot be qualified or categorized alongside mere mortal iberico (prime pork) products such as salchichon or chorizo. It is, quite simply, on a higher plane, and an unquestionably essential element of life. And, it seems, of salads, soups, and other dishes described on menus as being “vegetarian”. The fact that we might not want it doesn’t seem to occur to them – why on earth wouldn’t we?

(My carnivorous friends wax lyrical about its tender texture and sweet, nutty flavour, plus its super-healthy oleic acid content.)

When you tell Spanish people you’re a vegetarian, you have to spell it out, very carefully and precisely, that this means you don’t eat chicken or jamon either. “WHAT?” they exclaim. “You don’t eat JAMON? You mean you’ve never even TRIED it?” The outrage is palpable – you’re clearly causing offence by disrespecting their hallowed ham. It’s like telling an English person you don’t like football, or the Queen. The look of bemused astonishment, the head scratching. How can this be possible? Yes, sir, I do not eat ham. I do not like it (Sam I am). The moral of the story is: vegetarians, if you don’t want jamon - on any of your dishes – be sure to tell your waiter firmly: “sin jamon, por favor”.

So there you have it – another over-generalised view from a foreigner who calls Spain their home. It’s a frustrating country in many ways, but I wouldn’t live anywhere else.

Please remember, before you tap out an outraged reply, that I AM ENGLISH and my tongue is firmly IN MY CHEEK. If you don’t know what that means, look it up.

Have you heard any curious expressions or sayings that reveal something fascinating about Spanish society and culture? Tell me, I’d love to hear!