Being Happy

Happy skating guy in the Retiro park

…is up to you, only up to you, and not up to anyone else. Look after yourself, do things you like, love yourself (and other people will love you more as a result)

…means being peaceful about stopping a lot

…is about realising all the reasons you already have to be happy

…is about giving up ideas about things you don’t have or aren’t doing that you are convinced will make you happier when you are already actually quite happy as it is

…is about giving more to get more

…is living in the present, not the past, not the future

…is about positivity

…is getting out and about

…is getting unstuck

…is moving, but not striving

…is just relaxing and not trying too hard

…is saying, OK, why not, that should be interesting

…is letting go

…is realising all crises are impermanent (and so is everything else)

…is listening to the birds, or the wind in the trees

…is walking up a new hill

…is giving the person you are with all your attention

…is thinking I was writing this post on another secret (no longer secret) ‘in the works’ blog project of mine, then suddenly realising I am writing the draft post here on by mistake instead, and deciding to publish it here anyway. I’ll add a pretty photo to the top too, of the super-happy guy who skates around the statue of the devil in the Retiro park. Hopefully the photo or the words will make someone happier. Maybe I’ll explain all the points one by one on my the new blog if anyone is interested. Or here. There are no mistakes after all! Un abrazo, Ben

What makes YOU happy?


Great books… Need fiction

Here are a few of the books that have had a great effect on me, or given me great pleasure, or proved very useful. I need your recommendations at the end please!

1. Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

Total deconstruction of the American myth, very funny, insanely imaginative. If you have any interest in not just being entertained, but also in the ways of writing, and just what extraordinary lengths it is possible to go to within the medium of ficiton, then you will find this quite an inspiration.

2. Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

My favourite book on Spain. Orwell’s writing is quite a thing to behold, and nowhere more so than here, especially when he describes what it is like to be shot in the neck.

3. The Outsider by Albert Camus

Surely you’ve read this. Much here on the very meaning of life, the universe etc. Incredible book. Actually better to read when it’s really hot outside. Like in Madrid in summer. Probably just as good in winter when you need warming up!

4. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

One of those books that everyone feels they should read, but this one is actually worth it. Unlike Ulysses I imagine, which I haven’t bothered with, but did obviously make sure I had prominently displayed on my bookshelf throughout my late 20’s.

5. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini

This book explains exactly what marketers, waiters, salespeople, soldiers in communist POW camps, business owners etc do to get us to give then our money, opinion, or consent. It should be required reading at school, as it is likely to save you a lot of money, and hassle, throughout later life. I read this book on and off for a year (there is a lot to digest), but it is one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read. If you’ve ever wondered how you’ve occasionally been pursuaded to do people favours who don’t deserve them, buy toys for your kids that they don’t want, tip waiters too much, buy cars you aren’t sure about, even why two-year-olds are terrible (and hundreds of other fascinating examples), the answers lie within. What all non-fiction should aspire too.

6. Peace is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh

Ages ago I read a post on a ‘productivity blog’ about mindfulness. Hmmm, I thought, being more mindful sounds good, so I got this book as recommended by a comment on that blog, and have been immensely grateful ever since. I may not be very mindful all the time, but I have developed a far more interesting relationship with many of the things I value in the world – actually that sounds ridiculous, I’ll stop trying to explain further, and just say that this book, by a gentle Vietnamese monk exiled in France, is non-denominational, nothing to do with ‘self-help’, or peace activism, and the wisdom inside, on the right days, surely has improved my life no end. Great audio, The Art of Mindful Living, by TNH on iTunes too.

7. The 4-hour Work Week by Tim Ferris

I’m re-reading, well, skimming this right now, as I have a baby that doesn’t sleep much, and the flu all week. I have less time than ever, and still the same business to run. So I’ve gone back for a look here at ways to get more done, more efficiently, and am presently surprised again by what a fun book it is, and just how useful it is in saving time for the important things in life. Like going to the park with my family. Mindfully. Which I want to do more of. When I get over this damn flu.

8. Your choice! Please recommend good fiction for me in the comments! I’m sick of reading non-fiction, and need really really amazing fiction to help me relax at night! I don’t care if it’s modern or classic, but it must be the best you’ve ever read. Please, recommend something for me in the comments!


Notes on Schooling and Creativity

Thoughts after watching this tremedous TED talk (which I may have posted here years ago already):

Thoughts: My friend Sam was saying the other night that he wasn’t sure he’d leave Madrid with a child (for smaller towns/cities in Spain), due to the wonderful education opportunites available here, that you just don’t find elsewhere.

Madrid has international, private, and bilingual schools of every grade and pursuasion. If we move to Asturias, will we have the same choices? Probably not, but for me it is still worthwhile taking my child out of a huge metropolis, and into the (or much much nearer to) the countryside, because of the very unique education that one gets by being ‘closer-to-nature’. It is not an academic education, but a kind of nurturing that I value very much, having grown up in a semi-rural area near Oxford.

Granted, I went to good private schools close to my village, an education I value very highly, but as this video points out, they certainly weren’t solely responsible for developing my creativity. Any creativity I have was fostered through my father teaching me about photography, and my mother’s love of the arts. Oh, and I think I had to get pretty good at creative-writing to get through my philosophy degree!

So my question is, in a world of “academic inflation” where “degrees aren’t worth anything” (I largely agree…), and with schools killing real creativity, does it matter if one no longer lives near a fine range of upmarket private education?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. My hope is that we are wise enough to spot our children’s creative instincts in time, and do everything we can to encourage them through any appropriate educational experience we can find – our own, institutional, or otherwise.


More thoughts on this talk and issue from the speaker himself

– Interesting “What’s your favourite TED talk” thread that brought me back to this (a day too late! Ken Robinson spoke in Madrid last night, very close to my home, and I missed it, balls!)

Life Madrid Confessions

Creativity, Building You, Being Unique…

…don’t be a version of anybody, you have to be unique in yourself, you have to be creative, unique… don’t imitate anybody… be yourself, be genuine to yourself and build yourself. – Nawal El Saadawi

I listened to the most tremendous podcast this week, an interview on the BBC’s World Book Club with Egyptian author Nawal El Saadawi.

What a fascinating woman! A doctor and writer in her late 70’s, she has some of the most refreshing, interesting views on life and creativity I’ve heard for a very long time. If you are interested in the creative process, in writing, in living, I urge you to listen to this interview. It focuses on a novel of hers called ‘Woman at Point Zero’, which I shall order at once.

Helping a friend with a research project yesterday, I was asked what I missed most about the UK (family and friends aside, of course), and I came to this conclusion: Listening to Radio 4 (and programs like this) in the car. That even more than Marmite on toast. Or Cornwall. Thank god for podcasts.


Catch Up Time – Comments Back

Time to catch up on a few important things that have been whirling around these past few weeks. I hope some of them might be useful. So, in no particular order:

1) Two weeks ago I turned comments off on the blog… and stopped blogging. I think there may be a connection, so I’ve turned them back on again. There goes that experiment! I’d love to keep hearing from you as usual 🙂

2) Turning off comments and stopping blogging meant I got far far far more done in the last two weeks, supporting the theory that the only way to get anything done is to a) remove all distraction and b) have a real mission to get on with. In this case it was to finish our latest Spanish project before baby turns up!

3) I’m loving the new ‘Genius’ feature in the latest update of iTunes. You pick a song you like, hit the ‘Genius’ button, and it makes you a playlist from all your other tunes, based on that first pick. It’s a wonderful way of rediscovering old music from your collection.

4) I’ve rediscovered “God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot” by “Buffy Sainte-Marie” as a result. What a song!

5) I’m going to be living vicariously through Tom, one of my oldest bestest mates, over the next few months, as he travels across South America. He’s started out in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala, where he is doing a Spanish course. Check out his progress and podcasts at

6) Just got back from the market. Walking up the hill with 7 packed shopping bag, the question once again came up, how do those Spanish grannies manage to so effortless occupy the ENTIRE pavement/sidewalk, while moving at 0.2 km/h, thus making it impossible for anyone else to pass them EVER, or get home before the combined weight of the shopping bags turns your hands BLUE?!

7) Had to have a number seven. Anyone know what it is about the number 7 that is so important? If you ask someone to think of a number between 1 and 10, most people will say 7. Why?! (P.S. this is a good party trick – you guess 7 when you ask people to pick a number, and they think you have ESP or something…)



An interview with me about my book, Errant in Iberia

Cory Hughes recently interviewed me about my book, Errant in Iberia, using questions sent in by Notes in Spanish listeners. You can check out the interview here: – I think there is some good stuff in there about the experience of moving to another country, focusing of course on Spain.

Another book?

I think about writing a follow up to Errant in Iberia about once a week, but haven’t started yet for a few reasons:

1. The first book covers a period when everything was asonishingly and wonderfully new to me, when I was making a huge change to my life. That meant there was a huge amount of material to write about.

2. The story of ‘what happened next’ (i.e. what could be in book 2, continuing the story after our marriage) is very different to the ‘inspiring move abroad’ narrative that I wrote about in the first book.

What did happen next was that I struggled for a long time with finding happy employment here before we started our own business, and, once we did start the business, had a lot of hard stuff to deal with, like constant trips to the UK for a year leading up to the death of my mother. I also travelled less than in the first 3 or 4 years. This makes it a much more complicated book to write in the ‘inspiring life in Spain’ mould, though I think the rise of Notes in Spanish as a business can be an inspiring stroy (I like the thought of being inspiring, as you can tell!)

So basically, I’m not sure what the story would be for book 2. If the story of the first book, Errant in Iberia, was ‘escaping to Spain, discovering Spain and myself, meeting Marina,’ then a book 2 might be ‘finding it’s hard to really settle in, but building a cool business which solved lots of problems’, and again, I’m not sure how great a book that makes.

3. It takes a hell of a lot of effort to write a book, you have to want to do it more than anything else on the planet, and we’ve got a business to run at the moment!

4. Rather than ‘Errant 2’, I also get distracted by the idea of doing a different sort of book, based around the blog, like ‘Notes from Spain – the book’, full of the best posts on Spain from here, and new stuff with lots of fun lists, Spain-isms etc. Then I think, ‘why don’t I just blog that here instead?’

Thanks for listening! Thoughts welcome.

Life Tech

Advances in tech = 2D world and no guitar

Comment of the week:

Ben – aren’t you spending a little too much time on this web-site hobby of yours? Shouldn’t you be relaxing somewhere with a recently-emptied six-pack of once-cold beer at your feet and a guitar in your hands?

Which got me thinking: yes, I wish I’d spent at least a couple of hours yesterday enjoying my guitar instead of staring at this piece of glass we call a monitor and the (admittedly quite interesting) totally 2D world it presents.

Let’s follow that thought for a moment:

Most of us spend most of our days staring at a dynamically shifting piece of glass.

Of course, it gives us news, correspondence, a wealth of information beyond our great-grandparents’ wildest dreams, even fun stuff like naked celebrities and this incredible website.

But do the math: for an 8 hour working day (forgetting leisure time on the net) that’s 40 hours a week screen time, 2000 hours a year, 90,000 hours in a typical 45 year working lifetime… which corresponds back to a total 10.27 years of our life, minimum, staring fixedly at a piece of glass.

What would our great-grandparents have made of that?

OK, so this only really affects people that work with a computer – nurses, gardeners, truck drivers, teachers, postmen etc all largely escape the screen – but not for long, soon technology will probably find better ways to get them staring at screens too.

I think a brighter future lies in areas like podcasting, that use the same technology that delivers pixels to glass (i.e. the internet), to put the interesting stuff in our pocket, giving us the chance to get away from the screen and into the garden or park, to have an enhanced, 3D, multi-sensual and simultaneous knowledge/life experience, instead of waring our eyes out and narrowing our perceptions down to this 17″ (insert your monitor size) window on the world.

So here’s hoping that technology and the net works harder on giving us back our 3D life, focusing less on sucking us in and more on spitting us back out into the world, so I for one can spend more time in the great outdoors with a podcast, or with that six pack and my guitar.