My most popular posts of 2013, plus a mini-review

Colourful Spanish wear words are fascinatingly anatomical and religious.

Spanish swear words are fascinatingly anatomical and religious.

You lot seem to think I’m quite amusing. What am I, funny like a clown?

En serio – my most popular new posts, published last year, are mostly silly ones. Well, not silly – highly intelligent, witty and astute, of course.

Plus a bit of culture – phew! I wouldn’t like to think you come to my refined blog just for some light entertainment. Por favor!

So what can’t you get enough of? Let’s find out.

The top five most-viewed Scribbler in Seville blog posts of 2013 are (drum roll):

1) Five Things Spanish People Say (And What they Really Mean) 

This is also my all-time most popular post. A controversial look (see comments) at how to know when someone means something totally different from what you think they’re saying. OK, so it’s actually about swearing, exaggeration/fibbing – and jamón. The stuff of real-conversations life here in Spain.

Number two post of 2013: contemporary Spanish fashion designers' interpretations of Zurbaran's saints.

Number two post of 2013: contemporary Spanish fashion designers do Zurbaran’s saints.

2) Art+fashion+religion=a richly-textured show in Seville

Frocks by contemporary designers reinterpreting famous paintings of saints by 17th-century Sevillano artist Zurbaran. Dead clever. This one was “Freshly Pressed” (as in the badge, top right), which means it’s one of only eight posts chosen by the kind folks at WordPress to feature each day from the tens of thousands posted daily. Which was nice. So if you found my blog through Freshly Pressed, a special hello – it’s good to have you.

3) False Friends and other Fine Messes

We’ve all made an arse of ourselves by mixing up two similar-sounding words in a foriegn language – one innocuous, the other devastatingly embarrassing or offensive. If you haven’t let us in on your experience yet (the comments are much more entertaining than the post, believe me; careful you don’t spill your tea on your PC or tablet as you chortle), then come on over and join the group therapy session – it’s time to spill.

Ceramic celosia (Moorish lattice screen) of new museum.

Ceramic celosia (Moorish lattice screen) of new museum.

4) Celebrating Seville’s azulejo heritage: a sneak preview of Centro Ceramica Triana

Ah, some more history and culture *breathes a sigh of relief*. This museum of tiles, with a winning mix of groovy contemporary architecture, original Moorish brick kilns and some exquisite antique azulejos, was scheduled to open in September 2013, then October, then November, then December, and it’s still not open in January 2014… you get the picture. Well, what do you expect? We’re in Spain, people! Which makes this post even more valuable, as it’s all you can see of it for now.

cadiz, carnaval

The Queen with her Beefeaters. Sort of.

5) Carnaval de Cadiz, family style

Where can you find sea urchins, sand architecture, man-sized bumble bees, and the Queen in drag? At Spain’s craziest carnival, of course. Probably our best daytrip of the year, out of many. And we even dressed up, sort of.

I know I’m also supposed to say Where I Went and What I Did last year in the round-up, so here goes with my new discoveries: Doñana National Park; Ubeda, Baeza, and picual olive oil; Paul Read; Latin-American belenes; the Feria de Jerez; Mr Henderson’s Railway; Costa Ballena, and a cooking class. As you can see, an international jetsetter I am not (used to be, many years ago). National neither; daytrips in Andalucia, often with the family, is more my thing.

I hope you enjoy reading these posts. As long as at least one of them raises a smile, I’m doing my job.

Torrijos 2013: a picture post

Devotees (or the merely curious, like us), head for the chapel to see the visiting Virgin, and the Christ statue.

Devotees (or the merely curious, like us), head for the Hacienda’s chapel to see the visiting Virgin, and the Christ statue.

Another year, another Romeria de Torrijos in the village where we live. For weeks beforehand, the horses and oxen are trained and prepared in the fields around our house, carriages practise-driven, carretas decorated in brightly coloured tissue paper, and of course flamenca dresses and accessories sought out, examined and donned.

This year was perfect weather – blue skies, but not too hot. We missed the procession of ox-carts due to a prior social engagement, but stayed later to make up for it. I’m always intrigued by the chapel of the Hacienda de Torrijos, the Arab-era estate where the romeria takes place.

An image of Jesus was supposedly discovered 400 years ago by a hen pecking near the chapel wall, a dubious event related in a tiled niche. But enough to convince the faithful/supersitious/gullible (delete as appropriate) creyentes, who leave small silver offerings – arms, legs, cows, horses – to ask the Son of God to cure their, and their livestock’s, ailments – as well as messages of thanks.

I will leave the rest of the photos (and captions) to speak for themselves. Hasta la proxima!

Clapping hands in time to the song, as men play the guitar. Romerias are about friendship, feasting and flamenca.

Clapping and singing, as men play the guitar. Romerias are about friendship, feasting and flamencas.

A typically animated group enjoying their lunch, with the Hacienda de Torrijos behind them.

A tableau of romeros enjoying their lunch, with the Hacienda de Torrijos behind them.

This way you can't lose your glass when you move around visiting groups of friends, while at the same time displaying your football allegiance.

This way you can’t lose your glass when you move around visiting groups of friends, while at the same time displaying your football allegiance.

Horsemanship starts young in Valencina, and obviously he has to look the part, in his traje corto and Cordobes hat.

Horsemanship starts young in Valencina, and obviously he has to look the part, in his beautiful traje corto and Cordobes hat.

When my daughter lost her new balloon (dalmatian with turqoise collar), only candy floss could cushion the blow.

When my daughter lost her new helium balloon (dalmatian with turqoise collar) to gravity, only candy floss could cushion such a terrible blow. My son’s bubble gun was more grounded, thankfully.

I love the way the sunlight falls on these horses' arses (so to speak).

I love the way the sunlight falls on these horses’ arses (so to speak).

A horse-drawn cart kicks up dust crossing a field.

A horse-drawn cart kicks up dust crossing a field.

My daughter Lola poses with some romeros - pilgrims (Chaucer overtones make that word sound so wrong in English).

My daughter Lola poses with some romeros – pilgrims (the medieval overtones make that word sound so wrong in English).

This hibiscus flower is the new fashion for flamenca hair accessories.

This hibiscus-style flower is the new fashion for flamenca hair accessories.

Entrance through the left arch, exit on the right - the chapel of Hacienda de Torrijos

Entrance through the left arch, exit on the right – the chapel of Hacienda de Torrijos

Huge exotic shell looks incongruous against the azulejos of the chapel entrance.

Huge exotic seashell looks incongruous against the azulejos of the chapel entrance.

Little silver ofrendas to give thanks to Cristo de Torrijos for curing feet, legs and hands.

Little silver ofrendas to give thanks to Cristo de Torrijos for curing limbs and extremities.

The story of how the image of Cristo de Torrijos was found - by a hen!

The story of how the image of Cristo de Torrijos was found insde this very wall – by a hen!

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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Shortlisted (again, whoop!), and inside a Spanish school

Here's some I made earlier - baking bread in Parents' Week.

Here’s some I made earlier – baking bread in Parents’ Week.

I’ve written before about how my blog doesn’t fit neatly into any one category: it’s a weird amalgam of mummy blog, expat blog and travel blog, because that’s what I am: an English journalist with two children living in Seville, who tries to explore this part of Andalucia as much as I can, and write about it. So I am delighted to have been shortlisted in the travel section of the Brilliance in Blogging awards, organised by Brit Mums, for the second year. If you feel the urge to vote for me, just click on the badge to the left, or even easier here. Voting closes on 19 May, so there’s a couple of weeks to go. Or why not just get it over with now? You will be rewarded with my undying gratitude – OK, so it’s anonymous, but my loving gratitude will wend its way towards you somehow.

Warhol

My daughter, aged four, with thanks to Mr Warhol – and her fab teacher.

As an English expat mum living in Spain, one of the areas of life I am often asked about is children: what’s it like bringing up kids in Spain? What are the schools in Spain like? Are you happy with your children’s education? So I thought (hoped) it might be interesting to give you a glimpse into the lives of two bilingual Anglo-andalusi niños.

My children attend an Andalucian state primary school – I’ve already written several posts about the school’s Andalucia Day activities and shows, as these are always fascinating to an outsider like me, not to mention of outstanding quality. The school also recently made a video starring every class – if you watch, you’ll see what it’s like inside.

This particular school, which is in the local village, is divided into Infantil (ages 3-5) and Primaria (aged 6-12), both in the same complex of buildings, but with separate playgrounds. It’s a big one, with around 1,000 pupils. At the age of four, my younger child started in Infantil last September – it’s similar to her nursery, with big classrooms, group tables, lots of toys and play time, and a wide variety of activities (during his time in Infantil, my son studied the Romans, including a visit to a major archaeological site nearby and a school exhibition – see below, as well as Monet), all with warm, dedicated teachers.

My elder child moved up into Primaria last September, which involves many hours of sitting behind desks in tightly packed rows, with a couple of gym classes a week for exercise. Six-year-olds aren’t good at staying still for minutes, let alone hours on end, so the jury’s still out on this stage of the Spanish education system. It’s a huge change from one level to the next – from a degree of freedom and fun, to sedentary rote-learning, which many children (unsurprisingly) find hard to adjust to. This year, budgets have been cut further, meaning fewer school trips (and fewer books), which obviously makes the whole school experience less varied, and less rounded too. One of the most successful outings was to the police cuartel, where all the children loved meeting the dogs and horses.

An unfinished version of the Lola presentation.

An unfinished version of the Lola presentation – family, preferred food, colours, characters…

So what sort of activities do the pupils do, and how are the parents involved? Well in our school, they have just introduced “Protagonista de la Semana” – Star of the Week – in Infantil. Each week, a different child takes this role, and my daughter, in her first year of Infantil, was one of the early stars. I had to make up a board with images of her, and about her – photographs with family, drawings, and her favourite things (Peppa Pig figured large). And I had to go into her class to give a little talk about her (pink, chocolate, Peppa Piga, a dog called Pipo).

Lola's teacher with her classmates.

Lola’s teacher keeps her classmates in order with consummate skill.

It was a very enjoyable experience, talking to her 18 classmates, finding out about them – and especially seeing the teacher in action – she’s got the whole kind-but-firm thing taped. There was no mucking about tolerated, but no raising of the voice, either. I take my hat off to all teachers, as commanding respect from children on a continuous basis is very, very hard. But keeping a class of 16 three-year-olds still and quiet is a hugely difficult task, admirably accomplished.

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In April, it was Semana de los Padres – Parents’ Week. You can volunteer to do any activity with your child’s class, whether reading, craft, musical or energetic. The slot last around an hour, and many do activities related to their job – in my daughter’s class, a chef brought in a huge bucket of masa (dough) to make bread, and a dentist talked to the kids about the importance of oral hygiene. Until this year I’ve always chickened out, but I decided I had to do my bit.

Children in Lola's class (3-year-olds) doing pasta pictures - a novelty in Spain.

Children in Lola’s class (3-year-olds) doing pasta pictures – a novelty in Spain.

With Lola’s class, I did some English vocabulary – colours – and then pasta pictures. While these are standard practice at English nurseries, they’re not familiar here, so they were intrigued, asking if they could eat the pasta!

With Zac's class, who loved running around playing games for an hour, as they're sitting behind desks for most of the school day.

With Zac’s class, who loved running around playing games for an hour, as they’re sitting behind desks for most of the school day. The wonderful Loli is sitting on the ground in front of me.

For Zac’s class (the six-year-olds), I teamed up with another mother, who happens to be an unemployed PE teacher. Result. Talk about striking gold – we got the Monday morning slot, first out of the gates, and Loli had some great ideas for traditional playground games, so I just added a few linguistic elements like counting in English. None of it involved paper or pens – or, indeed, sitting down at all. Get the kids running about, was our idea; this was just after a long period of wet weather, when everyone had cabin fever after weeks of being stuck inside.

Playing blind man's buff with Zac's class (6-year-olds).

Playing blind man’s buff with Zac’s class (6-year-olds).

We sorted the class of 26 into teams, with each child numbered in English (wan, toooo, threee), for panuelito – you hold up a hanky, or scarf, and call a number – the corresponding child from each team has to run a and grab it, and the first to get back safely to their team wins. After that, we played some games like policias y ladrones (cops’n’robbers); then did carreras de relevos (relay races) in teams with variations like hopping; and finally split into two groups for gallinita ciega (blind man’s buff) and 123 pollinita ingles (grandmother’s footsteps). The kids loved competing, as they always do, and were mostly good-natured – I had feared having to adjudicate quarrels, a normal part of daily life as a mum.

Zac enjoying the Roman baths with his classmates -  a project from when they were four.

Zac (yellow toga-skirt) enjoying the Roman baths with his classmates – a project from when they were four years old.

Other activities have included painting themselves in the style of artists – hence the Andy Warhol-esque Lola you can see at the top of this post. Zac’s class did a big project when he was four, on the Romans, which included a visit to nearby Italica, the site which was the first Roman town in Spain. They had swords and watched “gladiators” fight in Italica’s impressive arena, and then produced fantastic collages like the one you can see above.

Apart from occasional visits to my nephews’ outstanding (literally – Ofsted top marks, Beacon Status etc) primary school in Suffolk, some years ago, I have no experience of British educational establishments. So sadly I can’t offer any sort of comparison with equivalent schools, in terms of staff, general experience or activities. Also, I am well aware that this is not any kind of serious examination of the Spanish education system, nor is it intended to be. It is designed merely to give an idea of what children do in schools here.

Are your kids at a Spanish primary school? Is your experience similar to mine, in terms of parent participation? If they’re in an English school, how does this compare?

False friends and other fine messes

spain, spanish, language, learnOne of the things that always astonishes – and depresses – me about long-term expats here in Spain is how many of them have a grasp of Spanish somewhere between weak and non-existent. This might be because they haven’t been here long, or only stay for short periods, or because they’re studying but are finding it a struggle. But there are plenty who just never bother, aren’t interested, because they live in an expat ghetto and only ever interact with other English people – at the pub, restaurant, cafe, social occasions. What’s the point of living in a country if you can’t interact with its natives?

I guess it’s a matter of personal taste, but that was never the expat experience I was after. While I can’t boast a huge army of Spanish bosom buddies with whom (on whom?) to practise, and thereby improve and expand, my linguistic skills, my Spanish is decent; my accent, however, is not. When I first arrived, I already had a reasonable level; however, that didn’t stop me from getting in a pickle, and making an arse of myself on regular occasions.

Here are some of the stupid mistakes I made early on in my nine years here in Seville, which I hope will serve to a) entertain, and b) inform. Some are similar words which are easily confused, while others are so-called “false friends” – misleading words which resemble those of another language – in this case, English – while having a different meaning. They hold out the hand of friendship to you, and then cruelly snatch it away, laughing at your pain and confusion.

For many years, I was confused by the idea of a control on the motorway – how can they control my car? Using some scary super-high-tech remote sensor? But no – it’s a check, as in speed/alcohol motorway check.

As many women will have found out to their cost, embarazada does not mean doing something a bit silly which makes you blush; it means up the duff.

I also found it illogical (captain) and deeply muddling that subir means to go up, when sub is down – submarine, submerge, subnormal

One that I still haven’t got my head round is hemeroteca , which means archive – I cannot quite accept that it is not in any way connected to “homoerotic”. But maybe that says more about me.

It’s also muddling that esperar means hope, wait and expect – that’s a fairly broad net to be spreading. “I´m hoping to see you,”, “I’m waiting to see you”, and “I’m expecting to see you” – think of the room for misunderstanding.

I used to regularly order “un vaso de agua de grifa” – “a glass of spliff water”, while my now-husband died quietly of embarrassment. Grifa=jazz cigarette, grifo=tap.

As someone who writes about hotels, I’m incapable of walking (or driving, come to that) past an interesting-looking one without stopping, going inside for a nose around, and asking for a brochure. The look on the receptionist’s face (especially if it was a man) used to be a picture, as I merrily asked, “Me das un follete?” “Can I have a fuck?” Other half wasn’t too thrilled with that one, either. Follete=fuck, folleton = leaflet.

I have to admit that this isn’t mine, but it’s too good to pass up. A fellow Sevillana expat was visiting a family in Ecuador, and they were deciding which of their chickens to kill for dinner. As they chased the unfortunate bird to prepare it for the pot, my friend lamented “pobrecito polla”. She was confused as to why the family were helpless with mirth. Polla=male sex organ, pollo=chicken.

What confusions and embarrassments have you suffered while learning another language? Especially, though not only, Spanish?