Everday life in Spain Spain Travel

Insomnia, Heat, and La Boca del Asno

It’s hot. 38º Celsius (100ºF) hot. No one can sleep hot.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, after all, this happens every year in Madrid, and every year I swear it’ll be my last summer living in the capital. Oh well, perhaps we’ll all get used to it in a week or two!

Luckily we’ve discovered the most perfect escape, just an hour and a bit from the city, high up in the Sierra de Guadarrama.

La Boca del Asno is a vast area of pine-covered mountainside, with a freezing, shallow mountain river, and a huge number of fellow picnicers. In fact, when I arrived at the already overflowing car park at midday last Saturday, my first thought was to run a mile – it seemed like the whole city had followed us up the hill! (N.B. Get there before midday if you want a spot in said carpark!)

El Boca del Asno

But there is so much space, and as usual so many people stick close to the car park, that within a few minutes walk up the river, you find yourself with plenty of riverside space to sit down for a picnic and a long day’s paddling.

The trick is to cross over the river at the bridge below the bar, and keep heading up stream until you feel you have enough room between fellow picnicers to really relax.

El Boca del Asno

It’s 8 degrees cooler than Madrid, (being about 800 meters higher), and if you wander up the hill away from the river, you really can escape humanity completely, lie back in the long grass under the pines, and contemplate the wonders of nature. Like this, for example – any ideas as to what it is, gratefully received:

Lava - El Boca del Asno

To get to the Boca del Asno, drive up to Puerto de Navacerrada from Madrid, head over the top and down the hill towards San Ildefonso, wind down the 5 or 6 hair pins, then look for the big ‘Boca del Asno’ sign and car park:

Everday life in Spain NFS Spain Photos

Photo Wander Madrid

A wander from Atotcha up to the Plaza Santa Ana this morning shows that, despite myriad changes, Madrid is still the same old Madrid, and Spain is still fantastically Spanish… Much of what I saw reminded me of the city as I first found it, 12 years ago…

Here a lottery seller stands in the Paseo del Prado, the week’s previous results pinned to the tree behind him:

Lottery Seller, Paseo del Prado, Madrid

And still the bright red, back-breaking Bombonas (gas bottles) are a viable source of city energy in 2011… Fiambres (ham, chorizo etc) and Frutos Secos (nuts) are a viable source of human energy too!

Fiambres and Bombonas, Huertas, Madrid

Nacional products, like these walnuts, are still considered to be highly superior:

Walnuts in shop display, Madrid

Spot the odd can out (hint, by Heinz!):

Canned food, shop display, Madrid

Posters on a closed-down fish market advertise a protest organised under the slogan “Joventud Sin Futuro – Sin Casa, Sin Curro, Sin Pensión, Sin Miedo” (Youth without a future – no house, no work, no pension, no fear):

Protest posters, Huertas, Madrid

The walk was roughly this:

More good stuff: Did you catch yesterday’s podcast?

Everday life in Spain

Flash of Life On The Corner of Calle Atotcha

Life on Calle Atocha, Madrid

I walked round this corner, coming round the building from the left, on my way back from lunch in Lavapies the other day.

There were 5 Sub-Saharan immigrant guys hovering over that big patch of pavement by the blue motorbike, covering the flagstones with their ragged ‘top manta‘ meter-squares of cotton sheets, full of the latest Hollywood Blockbuster DVD copies, idly browsed by the bored tourist trade..

…and the second they came into my view everything exploded into sudden action, as the men reached down to get the stings that attach to all four corners of the cloth laid out before them, and in one smooth movement the cloth had gathered the DVDs, they had turned on their heels, and sprinted through cars across the zebra crossing to sit things out nervously in the middle of the road.

Then I saw the police car that had pulled up just behind them. One of the agentes lazily made a show of pretending to get out, realised he’d achieved his aim of scattering them to the wind, and pulled his foot back into the car while his partner headed back into the traffic. A tourist bent down and picked up 5 of the DVD’s that had been dropped during the escape, and wandered off casually, showing them to his friends.

I stopped and watched the guys still hovering in the central reservation, sheets clasped tightly in their hands, ready to run again. I walked over to wait at the crossing. Looked into the window of McD’s – some teenagers with mum and dad, eating a burger – lettuce, slab of grey meat, looked like the bun had chocolate chips on top – what?!

Looking down, I saw I was right next to a palid, sad 40-something guy sitting on a scrap of cardboard, his back up against the wall below the burger-eaters window. He had a few coins laid out in front of him, a half-tin of catfood, and a tiny tabby kitten. Every time the kitten made it to the boarders of the cardboard he reached out, grabbed a bit of fur or a limb, and dragged it back. Again, and again, and again, and again.

But something in his half-dead eyes convinced me later that the kitten gave a scrap of meaning to his life, and that the kitten wouldn’t have made it without him either…

Everday life in Spain

Notes, from Ben.

1. I’m glad I don’t want an iPad. I can’t see it doing anything for my life that my Macbook doesn’t do already! And I still just love paper books, as opposed to the e-versions…

One thing that strikes me though: imaginary conversation 20 years hence…

Son: Dad, what did you do in the evenings when I was a baby?

Dad: Well son, like millions of others around the 1st world, I found that pretty much nothing beat sitting in front of the computer watching second-hand coverage of a sales pitch from a guy in jeans for a brand new shiny object that wouldn’t even be available for another two months, and I really didn’t need. Now that was the way to spend an evening!

Son: Oh.

2. My yearly ‘blogging crisis’ set in this month, when I have no idea what to write about any more – or, more to the point, I have had nothing to say about Spain for a while…

So I start thinking about starting other blogs, then procrastinate for 2 weeks, then watch a great video on why it’s bad to have too much choice, and realise having multiple blogs is a nightmare, and decide to keep on writing about whatever I like (not just Spain) here again.

3. Why, shockingly, do I occasionally have nothing to say about Spain for a while?

After eleven years, Spain spends a lot of time being my background, not so much the foreground any more. What does that mean?

When you first move to a new country, every sight, smell, meal, encounter, taxi ride, confused shopping experience, language cock-up, weekend road trip, every time you step out onto the street in fact, is a wonderful, wild adventure.

The new country and culture is in the front of your mind every second of the day, it’s the chief stimulant, a constant cafe solo, perking you up, setting your eyes sparkling as you continue to discover new delights.

If 2010 is the year you are thinking of moving to, or spending a long time in, Spain, then don’t hesitate. I have a friend who moved here recently, and after 4 months he still glows with the excitement of a new life abroad.

But after eleven years my relationship with my ‘new country’ has changed somewhat. The constantly new has become the happily familiar. What jumped out at me as ‘different’ for years, is now, except for when I’m travelling, quite normal.

Does that mean that life in Spain is suddenly dull? Not at all! On the one had in makes it harder to communicate the joys of this country to you with the same regularity, and the same perspective of discovery as before.

On the other hand, it means that Spain can now become the background to new projects other than just ‘Spain’, which was my chief preoccupation for so long.

4. New projects, like what?

Still thinking about that a lot, but…

5. Cooking.

I’ve had a two bad habits for most of my life. One, letting other people do most of life’s domestic stuff for me, if I see they don’t seem to mind, and I can be lazy about it. Two, having an encyclopaedic (British?) knowledge of things that are bad for you, but not spending enough time learning about what is actually good for you.

Doing more cooking helps with both of these. Regarding point one, by doing as much of the family cooking as I can, I can take a lot of the weight off my wife, giving her more freedom, while also dealing with point two: I want to understand healthy food, and see how it makes us healthier as we eat it.

So I’ll be cooking mostly vegetarian food, trying my best to source organic, ‘eco’ ingredients… which still isn’t as easy here as it is in the UK.

I have always, yet reluctantly, loved cooking, usually picking one dish and cooking it repeatedly for six months, until we are both so fed up with it, that I never cook it again.

When we first lived together, I cooked so much chicken for 6 months, that Marina couldn’t touch it again for nearly 5 years! (This was mostly because I couldn’t understand the Spanish names for all the different cuts of other meats, so I only bought chicken!)

6. Writing and recording more – but not necessarily about Spain.

Self-explanatory. Watch this space I suppose. We continue to record Spanish-learning conversations at Notes in Spanish, but I hope to write more here again, about all these projects!

7. Cosmos

I have an increasing interest in understanding the nature of the cosmos – life, the universe(s), etc. Perhaps it’s because I was afflicted early on in life with a philosophy degree. I find that reading Discworld novels helps. Well, I read two, and to my surprise, they were rather good. Third one on the way, to continue my cosmic education.

7.b. Who knows this lovely beach?

8. Dickens.

Speaking of reading, I’ve just finished The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, both incredible. Despite having a fairly sophisticated culture and system of law, the Victorians really treated poor people and debtors like total sh*t. Inhumanely in fact, and Dickens portrays the horrors vividly (he’d experienced them first hand in earlier life).

But it makes me wonder: In 150 years, what will make people raise their eyesbrows in amazement when they read about social conditions in our times – what is normal to us now, but will seems absolutely unthinkable to them in terms of treatment of our fellow humans?

The fact that people are left to sleep on the streets perhaps, or overcrowding in hospitals … who knows…

9. Thank you…

This post breaks all good blogging rules by being too long, and covering multiple subjects. If you got this far, you are great 🙂 Comments are back on, they had to go off as the amount of email I was getting was detracting from my peace of mind! Please do comment if you like!

10. Here are some nice links:

Top Walks – Nice walking routes in Spain, with photos.

Secrets of Spain on a road less travelled – Guardian article on amazing Asturian route. – Spanish site about vegetarian cooking. I met Eugenio over Christmas, a very lovely man with a total passion for vege food, that he passed on to me (see point 5 above!)

Spanish illness and doctor phrases and vocabulary – Fun bit of audio at

Everday life in Spain Living in Spain

The Worst Thing That Can Happen To You In Spain

You live happily in your big old flat block in the middle of Madrid for 5 years without so much as a hiccup, then all of a sudden, one day your sister-in-law overhears a bit of gossip in the building lobby that changes your life forever… something so serious that you have to pretty much immediately start looking for a new place to live… an utterly compelling reason to leave your dear, sweet home forever… without so much as a backward glance…

Not cockroaches in the bathroom, noisy neighbours, burst water pipes, or a dial-up internet connection (none of which we suffer, thank god) could be worse than this…

The catastrophic conversation overheard by my sister-in-law on the way up to our flat just minutes ago, between our porter and an elderly resident, went like this:

Old guy: “So, the new Presidenta is Marina Diez?”

Porter:”Yes, it’s just been decided in the residents meeting…” [that we avoid like the plague]

Old guy: “The girl with the baby…”

Porter: “Yes, that’s the one.”

Yes, my wife Marina has apparently been made Presidenta de la Comunidad… Marina, ‘the girl with the baby’… and the business to run… and no time to so much as stop once a day for a glass of gazpacho… handed the worst thing that can happen to you in Spain…

… the sooner we get out of here the better… our very sanity, and with it our health, is at stake. Marina has been landed with the one job no-one here in planet-Spain would beg for in a million years.

Let me explain:

The ‘comunidad‘ is the collection of people that live in this building. In our case, Marina has been nominated boss of said ‘community’ for a year and will be required to take on associated administative responsibilities.

Doesn’t sound too bad, does it? And after all, the post is changed once a year by a fair system of rotation (apparently) – everyone gets a go.

But let’s look at the facts. There are ONE HUNDRED flats in our building. The above-mentioned “collection of ordinary people” that live in them is HUGE, mostly elderly and bored, and often somewhat mad.

And when they find out who has been nominated, albeit by this fair rotational system, to be in charge of them for the coming year, they will become psychotic, oppressed, moaning whingers, who’ll be beating down our door on a daily, no, an Hourly basis with the most inane building, neighbour, lost cat, cracked basin, just-a-bit-lonely/bored and god-knows-what-else related complaints they can possibly come up with, whenever they can possibly think of an excuse to come up with them!

That’s not even considering all the trips to the bank, document signings etc Marina will have to take on and, worst of all, worse than having all these people coming to our door for a year… Marina will have to chair the dreaded “residents’ meetings”… where the great unheard flat-owning masses of our dear community are all put in one room to rant, rage and olympicly moan at the same time!

We await official confirmation… with a gathering sense of dread. If it’s true, which seems 99.99% certain, then there is only one allowable way out. To leave the building, better still, to leave town. We’ll be heading for the hills. Flat (maybe) for rent. Watch … this … space…

Everday life in Spain

Very Spanish #1: Old Men With Portable Radios

I was wandering around Madrid’s Retiro park today, when a familiar sound faded slowly in from behind – the loud rasping crackle of a single speaker, battery-operated, hand-held radio, turned up to full volume, blaring out an evening ‘discussion’ (guests shouting at each other) program.

That’s funny I thought, the oldies usually only listen to the football on those things. One thing was clear to me though, without even having to turn round: it was a man from that generation – the generation with the portly somach, the ‘jacketigan’ (brown cardigan-jacket cross-breed), and the little battery-operated portable radio.

I stopped to let him catch up and overtake, so I could take a look and confirm what I’d already guessed – and past he went, radio clasped at chest height, as is their way, whiling away the hours until caña-time, at a favourite bar down the road.

Everday life in Spain Spanish Food and Drink

Sucking the Brains Out of Prawns

prawns, Spain

Update: in retrospect wish I’d waited until April 2nd to publish this, as it may be met with some scepticism today, but people really DO do this! Besides, December 28th, ‘El dia de los inocentes’ is joke day here in Spain, not April 1st.

My Spanish wife Marina, who many of you will know from our videos and podcasts, has, like her mother and endless other Spanish people, a most alarming approach to eating prawns.

I’m talking about the prawns that are cooked as they come, and need careful peeling to reveal the, to my mind, evil tasting nugget of white flesh inside. The first maneuver in this peeling process involves pulling off the head, and while most people will discard this immediately (often straight onto the floor if standing at a bar), Marina will raise prawn-head to mouth and, with an almighty swoooooosh, suck out it’s fried little brains.

Ben: “Uuuuuuuuuuuuuuuchhhhh, how can you DO that?!”

Marina: “Shut up! Joder, It’s the best bit!”

OK, so clearly I can’t say I’ve tried sucking the brains out of prawns, so don’t really have a leg to stand on, but I do know this:


Prawn-brain sucking is up there with eating pig jowls, lamb brains, and anything’s testicles. It’s a psychological barrier that just isn’t going to be crossed!

Then again I used to say that about Morcilla, pigs-blood-sausages, some stuffed with rice, all rather delicious.

The question is: Would YOU suck the brains out of prawns?

Note about this post: This is a short excerpt from a new book I’m writing, that tells the story of our last few years in Spain, and covers many of the things, like this, that make Spain so Spain. To help with the writing process, and to be first to find out when the book is ready, sign up for our newsletter in the top right-hand corner of this page.

Everday life in Spain

Holy Balls

Rainy crappy weather in Madrid so I didn’t make it out of the house until past 6 p.m. and then only to a bar up the road for a quick caña.

There were a couple of policemen in there, one drinking non-alcohol beer, the other a clara con limon: shandy. Not sure British cops would drink shandy, even on duty.

I kept my ears peeled for some fine Spanish vulgarities from the local constabulary, but was disappointed. They just ate their bocadillos and stared blankly at the chat show on TV.

Never mind, the portero made up for them as I walked through our lobby on my way home.

How are you I asked?

“As they say on that Police program on TV,” he said, “hasta los santos cojones” – Pissed off to my holy balls.

Everday life in Spain Spanish Culture and News

Patio Interiores – The Neighbours Inside Out

Patio Interior

The above photo is of our patio interior, a glorified light-shaft present in the middle of just about every flat block in Spain, where light and air enter the back end of the neighbours’ apartments, and all sorts of interesting things float out again: sounds, smells, arguments…

We’ve heard wild creaking bedsprings at midnight, seen marijuana plants where now you see the geraniums, get woken by the breakfast sounds of the kids on the third floor at 7 am, and have to shut all the windows against the strong smell of cocido that rises for a five hour stretch every thursday morning.

We hear the screech of clothes lines as the chords are dragged across the gaping space over the horizontal pulley system, and the clatter of fumbled clothes pegs as they tumble from washing baskets to the ground floor.

It’s all part of the aural-aromatic landscape of life in Spain, and far from being annoying (except perhaps for the smell of a 5 hour cocido and the 7 am alarm call), it’s comforting, especially today, when all I can hear through my window over the patio interior is the clatter of refreshing May rain.

Business in Spain Everday life in Spain Living in Spain

Working for a Company in Spain – Everyday life in Spain 4

I once had an argument with an English friend who suggested that the Spanish don’t work very hard. He thought they spent half their working day having a siesta. I told him that having worked in two companies in Spain, I could say without a doubt that the Spanish work much longer hours than the British and appeared equally, if not more, stressed as a result.

I worked as an English teacher in both companies. The second was a multi-million dollar marketing company, that invoiced its clients hundreds of thousands of euros at a time. By just floating in for a few hours a day (max 24 per week), I earned more than most of the main-floor cubicle workers I was teaching, who worked 60 hour weeks, might come in at weekends without extra renumeration, and were lucky to earn 1,000 euros a month.

They are the so-called mileuristas (great article in El Pais), late-20’s to thirty-somethings with a degree, maybe even a Masters, probably an extra language or two to their name, who just can’t break the 1,000 euros a month barrier no matter who they are working for. Inflation rises, house prices go through the roof, yet salaries in Spain just don’t budge. How is that possible, even when multi-nationals are writing the wage cheques?

Can’t answer that one, but here are a few more things you might not know about work in Spain:

– Many companies still enforce an hour and a half lunch break (as if everyone still worked round the corner from home and wanted to pop back for lunch – now the exception rather than the norm).

– It is still common for women to get paid less for doing the same job as their male colleagues. A female director in the above-mentioned multi-national I worked for said this is because the man is seen as the head of his family, and will need more money to support his household, including, presumably, his low-earning wife.

– Once you get off the cubicle floor and into a managerial position you will earn a more realistic wage, but you’ll be expected to give up the rest of your life to earn it. Don’t expect to be home before 10 at night.

– Working from home is uncommon, but pilot schemes in some companies do let people stay at home once or twice a week.

– A yearly salary is usually split into 14 payments: one per month, and an extra payment of the same amount, the paga extraordinaria, paid once in June or July and once at Christmas.


Working in a Spanish company is tough. You are expected to work long hours for low wages, no matter who you are working for. Multi-million dollar international marketing firm? They’ll pay you little and take their cash for the shareholders, thanks. A Spanish friend of ours works for a multi-million dollar tech company, just outside Madrid, as a mid-level IT consultant with 6 years experience. She has been placed there by her consultancy firm, a large French company. Should be driving a BMW, right? Wrong. She earns less than 2,000 euros a month, probably half what she would earn for the same job in the UK.

If you want an easy life in a Spanish company you have two options. Be the chauffeur driven CEO, or the lowly English teacher.

How does life in your company/country compare?