Living in Spain

Happy to be Home Again – Reflections from a Trans-European Road Trip

San Sebastian, Playa Gros

We just finished a 6,500 Km drive from Madrid, via San Sebastian (above) to the North of France, across to the UK, over the channel to Germany via Belgium, and back to Madrid via France and Catalonia again.

Here are some thoughts from the trip…

Collective Conscienciousness…

Every neighbourhood, town, region, city, and country, has it’s own feeling, a collective consciousness, based on many factors like standard of living, wellbeing of the population, employment levels, government, economic optimism and more…

Of all the countries we passed through this summer, including Spain, Germany far and away had the best street-level feeling about it. There was a sort of optimism in the air that you couldn’t help but notice, that wasn’t nearly as present in the other countries we visited.

In fact Germany seemed to be streaks ahead of the rest of Europe on many levels – prosperity, recycling, eco-friendliness, organic food, city streets clean enough to eat off! There was a palpable sense of industry, of forward motion.

After 5 days we were ready to abandon Spain and move there! But when we drove back across France, and finally crossed the huge mountainous divide at the Catalan border with Spain, the moment we passed the blue ‘España’ sign on the motorway, we smiled, and said ‘Home, at last!’

Back in Madrid things look very different to Germany. Apart from the grubby state of the pavements in our barrio, at least one more shop (a perfumería) has closed on our street since July, to add to the two (the photolab and the printers) that shut down for good at the end of June, knowing that with things as bad as they already were, they just couldn’t afford to make it across the empty summer divide to September.

The ‘feeling’ in our barrio though is still good. People seem to be happy. It’s nice to be back in a country where people hang out to chat on the street, where kids can make as much noise as they like and stay out late at night.

Where you can buy just one drink at a bar terrace table but sit there all night to chat to a friend if you want to, long after the waiter has taken your empty glass.

It’s nice to feel the hot afternoon air at the end of August, and the cool breeze at night. It’s nice to eat croquettas and tortilla, olives, calamaris, to not feel weird about ordering cerveza sin alcohol

I arrived in Spain exactly 13 years ago. After our long haul around Europe, it’s good to be back.

Other Things…

Read: The wonders of a downsized life in Asturias…

Living in Spain

Us and Them, Me and the Locals

Mayfly Lava Skin, Spain

Above, another picture from our recent trip to El Boca del Asno. When you get down to rock and water level, nature is quite endlessly surprising!

Right, what I want to talk about: In the Boca del Asno post, I wrote the following…

…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…

But what I nearly wrote quite automatically was “as usual the locals stick close to the carpark”… until I suddenly realised how totally ‘us and them’ the locals sounds.

Hang on, I thought, I’ve been living here for nearly 13 years, I’m married to a Spanish woman, most days I’m fluent in Spanish, I eat, live, and pay taxes in Spain, hang out with Spanish people all day long, my son is going to a Spanish school… how on earth can I keep on talking about ‘the locals’ when I am one!

I may not be Spanish, but I certainly can’t continue to set myself apart from the Spanish by using language like that anymore, that much became totally clear in the instant I was about to write about ‘the locals’ again.

Maybe it’s just that I’ve become a local after all this time, or, more importantly, allowed myself to feel like one.

Perhaps the key question then is ‘How long does it take to really feel like one of the locals?’… and in my case, despite the fact I’ve been totally happy and integrated here in Spain for so long, the answer to that exact questions looks ridiculously long at ‘about 12 and a half years’!

Do you feel like a ‘local’, if you aren’t living where you originally came from, did it take you long to become one, will you ever become one? Answers welcome in the comments!

Living in Spain Spanish

The Joy Of Spanish Intercambios!

If you’ve read Errant in Iberia you’ll know that the whole intercambio (language exchange) process was fairly instrumental in the fact that I planned to only spend one month in Madrid… and have now been here nearly 12 years!

My intercambio lead me to a wife, and a life, in Spain, so you can imagine I am a fairly big fan of the whole idea! So I was really happy when I got an email from Foster Hodge, with an excellent account of his intercambio experiences. I’ve included the whole article here, it’s a great read:

Mi Primer Intercambio – by Foster Hodge

After spending more or less a month in Madrid, working on my Spanish, learning the ropes of the city, and falling in love with a new and exciting culture—I decided it was high time to take the next step. I had received quite a bit of encouragement from friends and professors of mine that I should get myself an intercambio, or a language exchange partner.

I decided to put my nerves aside and posted an anuncio in, a wonderful website that offers a wide variety of things from renting and buying property, to citas de Internet and intercambios.

To my surprise, a couple days after posting my anuncio my inbox was flooded with responses from young Spaniards who were interested in meeting with me for a language exchange…

Living in Spain

Siesta-Shafting Supermarket Showdown

It’s one of those airless, heat-wave-hot Madrid days when the pavements empty at 3pm and the air coming up off the street burns…

Baby wouldn’t cooperate with his parents desperately needed siesta plan, so I take him for a walk around the neighbourhood, hoping some pram-(stroller)-time will send him to sleep…

…but it’s 38 degrees outside… and there’s only so much hill I’m willing to push him up and down in this heat… only 6 hours sleep last night… god I needed this siesta – we’ve partly gone out of the flat so Marina can get hers at least, and if baby sleeps from all this walking, well, that’s great too, I’ll deal with my rest-deficit later…

…too hot pushing him up and down this hill (even on the shady side of the street) though, so we dive into the local supermarket to get 2 bottles of water – it’ll be air-con at least, and we’ll kill 5 minutes.

So we get the water, and head to the front to pay… but something weird is going on… just as we approach the checkout, I see a female member of staff telling a male colleague to follow her ‘right now‘…

…they overtake us just as we reach the back of the short queue, and the male Supermarket guy goes straight up one of the two tall, young, barrio 20-somethings standing just in front of me, my pram and my baby…

Supermarket Guy to Young Guy 1: “Show me what you’ve got stuffed in your pocket…”

Young Barrio Guy 1 (moving to within an inch of Supermarket guy’s nose): “You want me to smash your face in?”

Me to Baby (reversing rapidly): “Let’s go and have a look at what’s at the back of the store…” (This was shaping up to be one PG scene I thought baby probably didn’t need to witness…)

So we head to the furthest corner of the store, as all the other male supermarket guys rush past us heading to the front following an emergency call from reception, and we spend the next five minutes at the back of the shop with me nonchalantly pointing out interesting hams and packets of milk and different kinds of butter to the baby, as all hell breaks loose at the front…

…how long till the police get here?! A few mums and young teenage girls are playing the ‘let’s see what’s at the back of the store’ game with me, until at last the commotion dies down, we give it a minute for safety, and I head back to the checkout, hoping to pay and get out before the bad guys come back… which, according to the scared-looking and 8 months pregnant checkout girl, is exactly what they have promised to do later.

Meanwhile the entire male staff of the store, and a couple of their female colleagues, are piling back in from the street, after the bad-guys made their get away.

A young supermarket girl: “They punched Juan in the face, and opened up his mouth.”

Juan then appears, looking pretty boosted on adrenalin, and shows everyone his split lip: everyone agrees ice in a plastic bag is in order.

Finally, just as we get our change, two young cops turn up, and the staff start telling them how the bad guys just left on a motorbike. The 3 more cop cars that turn up as we are on our way out, head off in search of the baddies.

Baby and I give up on the siesta and the stroll, and head home to wake mum up.


– You know when you’ve had enough city for one year, and it’s time to get out for a holiday. Even if you weren’t sure, suffocating 38º heat and street fighting certainly drives the point home.

– Why on earth do supermarket staff have to challenge shoplifters – is the shelf-stacking supermarket guy’s split lip (and obviously the result could have been a LOT worse) – really worth the price of whatever can be stuffed into a stupid barrio kids pocket? Hey management, either put security in, or let the barrio guys get away with it, but don’t put your staff in the punching line (note: pregnant checkout girl said “those guys WILL come back later, this sort of thing happens here all the time, and I know when they mean it, those two were seriously crazy…”)

– One of the barrio guys apparently said he’d also bring his girlfriend when they came back later, so she could punch one of the supermarket girls for him. Nice couple. Honourable behaviour and all that.

– If this is meant to be a pretty nice barrio, and “this sort of thing happens all the time”, what’s going wrong?

– Happy Summer Holidays… We’re out of here soon, so this may be my last post for a few weeks.

– You never get a siesta when you really, really, really need it. When you want a siesta as badly as I wanted one today, it generally gets seriously shafted!

Living in Spain Spanish

“At least it’s good for my Spanish!”

There have been many times over the last 12 years in Spain when, faced with a situation where I’ve felt waaaaaaay-in over my head as a non-native speaker, I’ve sat back, smiled (or winced!), and said to myself, “Oh well, at least it’s good for my Spanish!”

These situations include everything from the truly horrendous (speaking in Spanish to morticians after the death of a friend), to the exceedingly-important-not-to-get-it-wrong (negotiating the purchase of a flat, as related here), and the truly fantastic (getting through the technical Spanish of my wife’s pregnancy and the birth of our son!)

Whenever I felt in over my head, I just remembered the mantra: “At least it’s good for my Spanish!”

Over at our sister site Notes in Spanish, we are giving away lots of free videos and special reports this week that will, without any doubt, be very very good for your Spanish!

Living in Spain Notes from Spain Podcast

Summer Salad Days – Notes from Spain Podcast 76

Distant view of Madrid

[Download MP3]

Been a while, but here’s another fantastico Notes from Spain podcast! It’s hot at last, we’re all loosing the seasonal depression that no-one knew you could get in Spain, I’m getting in trouble over how to eat salad, whilst coping with the biggest culture shock I’ve had in years: how to map my childhood experience onto the Spanish education system so I can make intelligent decisions about the future of my own offspring….

Living in Spain

Hot Hot Hot in Madrid

You know you are getting more Spanish when the first heat of summer arrive with a bang, and you immediately start using ‘low blood pressure’ as an excuse to lie on the sofa all evening, avoiding the housework.

The key phrase to use here is ‘he tenido una bajada de tensión’, or for even more dramatic effect, una super-bajada de tensión, ‘bajadas de tensión’ (blood pressure collapse) being common amongst just about everyone in Spain when it’s hot, including it now appears, me as well!

Bajadas de tensión can be cured by various means, including: a) Rapid ingestion of Coca Cola/Sugary food, b) Doing nothing when there is lots to be done c) Telling everyone about your bajada, repeatedly d) all of the above. I’m getting good at this, and there have only been three days of heat so far!

On another note, as soon as the sun came out a few days ago, the Retiro park filled with people with bajadas de tensión stripped down to their underwear. Strapping young men in nothing but tattoos and tight boxers, women in bras and tangas (g-strings) – does this happen in your part of the world?

I’m sure it’s a more pronounced phenomenon than this time last year – am I just getting old?!

Apologies for the lack of illustrative photos to accompany this point – just think ‘slightly grungy lingerie ad with trees’, and you get the picture! Instead, here’s a favourite old photo of mine from 1998, of a man in the park selling chistes (jokes):

Joke Seller, Retiro Park, Madrid

Anyway, that’s enough for today, I feel another super-bajada de tensión coming on, and I may barely make it back to the sofa…

Living in Spain

Community – Do you live in one?

Forget online communities for a moment, do you have a real, live one on your doorstep?

In Spain the collection of neighbours in a flat block is called a ‘comunidad’? But I wander what that means?

In our case it means saying hello to everyone, chatting to the occasional neighbour, feeling safe about the other people in the building. But there isn’t much ‘popping round for tea’, or ‘could you look after the kids for a minute while I nip out for (fill in the emergency)’.

Part of that is our fault. If our lovely English neighbour at the end of the corridor is reading this, then a million apologies for not having you all round for that cake yet – we will soon, as soon as a weekend looks like a weekend!

But I suspect that in big cities people don’t just pop in and out of each other’s houses any more for a cup of tea, or look after each others’ kids at the drop of a hat – like they did in the old days, didn’t they?

Do you live in that kind of real, close-knit, sociable community? Does it exist any more? Can it exist in big cities? We’d love to live it better, but wonder if that world still exists these days, or if people just don’t have time any more…

I’d love to hear your thoughts, whether you live in Spain, Ireland, Australia, or Timbuktu!

Living in Spain

Accustomed vs Resigned

Conversation I had with a smart Argentinian guy in a suit outside a bookshop yesterday. Time Bookshop was meant to open, 5pm. Bookshop still shut at 5.10pm:

Argentinian guy: That’s why this country is in such a mess.

Me: It drives you a bit mad. The other day I went to the bank, it was meant to open at 9.30, didn’t open til 9.45! A bank!

Argentinian: See what I mean?

Me: In the end you get accustomed to it.

Argentian: No, In the end you resign yourself to it…

I wanted to tell him to lighten up. There is a big difference between getting accustomed to something, and resigning yourself to it, and I think I prefer the former.

In fact I think I’ll redo my Expat manifesto, to add the following:

7. When living somewhere you don’t originally come from, don’t resign yourself to the differences, just smile and get accustomed to them.

[Note: Please don’t use this post as an excuse to leave negative comments about Spain – they will be deleted! I’ve had enough trouble with that in the past!]

Living in Spain Spanish Food and Drink

Damn, still not Spanish enough!

Spanish Tortilla Tapas

I just popped out to a favourite local bar, where my favourite barman, super-friendly, 50-ish, thick white hair and humour as dry as a brick, brings in his home-made tortilla every day.

Un pincho de tortilla’, I said, ‘but don’t heat it up, I’ll have it just as it is’.

I’m not fond of microwaved tortilla, so usually add this specific request.

‘Si si,’ he replied, followed by some incomprehensible mumbles, and two minutes later, I was presented with an enormous slab of steaming microwaved Tortilla.

Damn. At this point it dawns on me that the mumbles I’d missed in his earlier reply must have been something like ‘Si si,…but you can’t eat it cold, it’s much better heated up.’ Subtext: you don’t know what’s good for you, I’ll bring you your tortilla how you really want it, piping reheated-hot!

Now, if I was Spanish enough, I would a) have complained at this point and demanded what I’d asked for, namely cold tortilla, and I suppose b) understood what he’d mumbled in the first place! I like to convince myself that after 11 years I’m pretty much 99% bilingual in terms of understanding spoken Spanish, but this guy’s mumbles cause me no end of trouble!

The real issue here though, is the incredibly well-intentioned ‘you don’t know what’s good for you’ subtext that led to the hot tortilla (which was very nice in the end, of course). It happened earlier in the year when I was in the same bar with my father.

Dad wanted a ham and cheese bocata (roll). ‘Una bocata de jamon iberico con queso manchego’, I asked my white-haired mumbling barman friend.

‘Ha, yeah, right!’ he answered, with a look of wry disbelief on his face, ‘Jamon iberico and cheese in the same peice of bread? Are you mad? Jamon York and cheese yes, but certainly not Iberico! There are some things you just don’t do!’

‘Errr, a jamon iberico bocata and a seperate plate of manchego cheese then?’ I ventured nervously…

Asi es, now you’re talking,’ he smiled, and that, of course, is what we ended up with.

The universe could rest in peace, things had been restored to how they should be. Iberian ham and manchego cheese together, yet separate, como Dios manda.

If I was just a little bit more Spanish after all these years of concerted effort, I would have know that in the first place!

Oh well, maybe after another 11 years…