Spanish Culture and News

No fun finding non-smoking restaurants in Spain


Now we have a baby in tow we obviously need to find places to eat that are non-smoking. This is hard.

OK, there are options available via a quick search at, but if we try to think of favourite old restaurants that are smoke free, we can only think of four. Two are pretty expensive for a weekday lunch, one is completely over the other side of town, and the last is a wonderful Hare Krishna center where you sit on the floor and eat rather delicious Tali, but again, quite a metro ride away.

So come on Spain, SORT IT OUT!!! If the French, the English, Irish and Italians can all do without smoking in restaurants and bars, why can’t Spain? In brand/image terms, this smoking thing is going to make your country start looking pretty intelectually and sociologically backward pretty soon.

Yes I know you passed some half-arsed ‘less-smoking’ law a few years ago, but it only applies to places over 100m sq., of which there are about 3 in Spain, and everyone ignores the legislation anyway!

I also realise that at street level, hardly anyone really gives a damn. A friend told me the other day about going into a bar with 3 sets of parents, each with small children in prams/strollers, and ALL of the parents smoking! The smoke was so bad that my friends left the bar! We see parents breathing smoke over their kids every single day, so this is not an isolated, or surprising, case…

So come on Spain, work on your self-image AND your nation’s health a bit, and get with the damn program. Look at the French! No one smokes like the French (except the Spanish), yet they have done it – 100% non-smoking bars and restaurants now a pleasure to be in, a pleasure to enjoy that wonderful food in. Spain Spain Spain. How long til you sort this out?


Feel better now. Still can’t find anywhere smoke-free and local for lunch though. Grrrrrrrrr 😦

Spanish Culture and News

Spain and the Love of the New

Two things happened recently to make me start thnking about Spain and the love of all things new.

Firstly, I was going over past comments recently, and came across this, from Bill:

“The contemporary Spanish like to look forward, not backward. They like to live in brand new flats, drive brand new cars, build new railways, etc. They’re not interested in the past so much…”

Secondly, while Marina is on maternity leave, I’m putting together a series of special advanced Spanish pocasts with our friend Isabel (who is currently helping with everyone’s written Spanish in the forum).

We are planning to make a recording about how the Spanish would never be seen dead wearing second-hand clothes from a charity shop, something that is both common and seen as perfectly acceptable in the UK in most social groups.

I’d love some input on this. Why do the Spanish run from the old and embrace the new? Why are there no second hand/charity shops in Spain? Will all this change as the ‘crisis’ (set to get worse in 2009) means that out-and-out mad mass consumerism has to calm down, and people might have to reconsider their views on the merits of buying second-hand?

Your thoughts would be much appreciated.

Spanish Culture and News

In Spain they still shoot wolves…

My friend Alistair and I were in an Asturian place this evening, just off Madrid’s Calle Narvaez.

Propped up on the booze-shelf behind the bar was a photo of the owner, a fat grin below his thinning ‘tache, mountain pine forest behind… Here he is, the wild man, holding an absolute honest-to-god WOLF between his outstetched arms, tail in one hand, jaw (toothy and twisted towards the camera) in the other. A sticky red smear on it’s tawny belly the only clue that it had recently been shot to death.

I asked the (bigger moustache, combed-over hair, quintessentially Spanish) barman: “That’s a wolf, right? It’s huge!”
He said: “Yes, I’ve seen it, the head’s in the bar’s window display”
Me: (Nice…) “When was that photo taken?”
Barman: “Last year”
Me: (WTF?!) “Where?!”
Barman: “In Zamora Province”

Jo’er.… so they are still shooting wolves in Spain. Wolves! There’s something so medieval about a wolf! And something so heartening to discover that they are still wandering around the wilder corners of Spain. Or not, as the case may increasingly be…

What’s to be done about the shooting of wolves?

Spanish Culture and News

How Do Spanish Weddings Work?

Spanish wedding

After a recent bout of the ceremonials in Valladolid, I thought it might be interesting to further explore the archetypal Spanish wedding…

Church or ‘Civil’

Everything starts with the ceremony. If as a guest you are lucky, this will be a civil affair, probably in the local town hall. Presided over by the Mayor (if you have friends in the right places), or a local councillor, the ceremony lasts approximately 2 minutes and 45 seconds, during which the bride (Novia) and groom (Novio – collectively know as the ‘Novios‘) are required to agree to a couple of legal statutes, swap rings, say I do, and get the hell out of there to stop wasting any more municipal time.

If you are less fortunate, you may be subjected to the the rigours of the Spanish church wedding. Of unknown length (bank on an hour) and religious ferocity, the church wedding is usually an unutterably boring experience that involves lots of catholic process completely unknown to your average guirri like me.

In theory you are allowed to skip the church part if you don’t fancy it and go straight to the party afterwards, but in practice you suspect your absence will be noted and feel far too guilty to sit this part out in a nearby bar where many of the more canny Spanish males are hiding out.

Note: to get married in a church in Spain, the Novios are required to go do several pre-training sessions at the church, where they swear their allegiance to the cross and generally become re-religiousified (I claim that word!)

In the ceremony itself they are forced to make all sorts of rash promises about educating their children in the ways of the church and the eyes of god and so on, promises they mostly have no intention of keeping. The fact is that 9 out of 10 couples don’t marry in the church because they are devout believers, but rather because it just looks nicer than the average town hall.

Also note: Getting married in the church is pricey. You pay a hefty fee, and are forced to use the churches florist and photographers, both of whom kick back to the guy at the altar.

After the service

What happens next is subject to a strict, practically unbreakable, formula. Everyone races off to a local restaurant/golf club/country house – anywhere that is set up to screw money from newly-weds in the mighty Spanish wedding business.

First up is the “cocktail”, where everyone mills about on the lawn outside or in some sort of reception area, being fed exquisite tapas (foie gras, jamon iberico, gambas rebozadas, tempura de verdura, that sort of thing), and the first round of booze.

Spanish wedding meal

Just as you feel you can’t eat another thing, it’s off to the tables for dinner, which usually involves a couple of seafood dishes, followed by meat and, finally, an almost inedibly sweet cakey desert of some description.

Throughout the meal white wine is followed by red, and Cava is served with the cake for everyone to toast the happy couple with at the end of the meal. Finally comes the coffee (dancing energy) and, as if anyone actually needed it by now, the liqueurs (pacharan, liquor de hierbas…)

Note: there are no speeches at Spanish weddings. However, it is customary for the drunker and younger members of the crowd to constantly heckle the increasingly annoyed happy couple throughout the meal, with shouts of ‘Viva la novia‘ (long live the bride) and, the one that really embarrasses them, ‘Que se besen’ (kiss each other!), which once shouted out is taken up and chanted by the entire room until the couple oblige.

This is considered slightly tacky behaviour in polite circles, especially when, during the resulting kiss, the drunkest table continues to chant ‘con lengua, con lengua’ (with tounges!)

Bara Libre and Baile!

Now for the fun bit! The Novios open the dance up with a traditional waltz that more often or not they haven’t bothered to learn properly in advance, but isn’t that hard after you’ve seen it at 100 other weddings and you’ve been on the vino all night in preparation for this moment.

While they sway around the dance floor, everyone except the oldies is completely ignoring them, hell bent instead on getting their first free copa of rum and coke or gin and tonic (top 2 drinks) from the free bar.

With the waltz out the way, a hard night of boozing, bad dancing and worse music, now ensues, with Spanish fiesta classics and international megamixes from the 80’s keeping everyone happy until at least 6 am (see also Spain’s coolest DJ).

And everyone is indeed extremely happy, something that may not only be down to the fact that they are drunk, and their friends/relatives have tied the knot, but also, on a deep psychological level, because they have paid to be here in the first place….

Money or Gifts, and the Corte Ingles Wedding List

Going to a Spanish wedding is a pricey affair. Apart from all the usual travel etc costs, you are expected to give a very decent gift, and 90% of the time that gift should be money. If you know the couple well (hay confianza), you get a bank account number long before the wedding (on rare occasions it arrives with the invite!) and you simply hand the money over the wires before the big day.

Alternatively you can slip them an envelope after the meal, hoping they aren’t drunk enough to mislay it. The big idea is that you are helping them to pay for the wedding, which seems entirely fair enough considering how much these things cost these days.

What’s the going rate? How much should you hand over? As a mid-thirties couple we usually stump up 250 Euros. As one heads off into middle age this number tends to increase, and I have a feeling those of Marina’s parents age may well hand over double this at the wedding of a close relative.

Some couples will set up a wedding list, more often or not at the Corte Ingles department store. You go in, choose a gift from their list (carefully created by the Novios to include objects in a wide range of prices) and pay for it.

What many people don’t know is that this money goes into a special Corte Ingles bank account that the Novios can then spend on whatever they like in the store. They may never end up with what you actually spent hours deciding to buy them.

Your Thoughts….

So there we have it, your typical Spanish wedding. What have I missed out? Please add your thoughts in the comments below!

Spanish Culture and News

‘Morbo’ and the Spanish fascination with emotional hell

Barajas plane crash

Last week’s horrendous, tragic plane crash in Madrid led us and many others living in Spain to take firm decisive action: to turn off the TV, ignore news websites, and stop buying the papers.

The news media had gone (and continues to go) too far again. Within hours of the accident we had all the information we would need. The plane had lost control, crashed near the airport, and all but a few very lucky people (now 18), had died.

Yet the ‘news’, playing to the famous national ‘morbo‘, or morbid fascination with all horrendous events, has been camped out outside hospitals and the main convention centre morgue where bodies are being identified, trying desperately to secure images and, worst of all, interviews with emotionally destroyed relatives.

Occasionally it seems (OK, I have watched a minute here, a minute there of the news, all I can take), they strike gold and discover the story of the guy who tried to get off the plane before the second fatal take off attempt but wasn’t allowed, the text message sent to a friend about ‘problems with our plane’, and more emotion-twisting horror than your average viewer can take.

And still it goes on, 4 days later. Part of the reason it is so hard to watch is that it so closely mirrors the news coverage of the Madrid train bombings, a few years ago, when we were all glued to images of twisted train wreckage and dead bodies for days (or weeks) on end, trying desperately to understand how something so insanely horrendouns could have happened.

According to a conversation overheard in a doctor’s waiting room, all this Spanish morbo can be traced back to a lady named Nieves Herrero (nicknamed Nieves Horrores), who started the trend in the 90’s with a daily morning TV programme called ‘Cita con la Vida’ (A Date with Life), that scoured the country to broadcast the most upsetting, awful social and personal tragedies Spain was hiding in its quiet villages and city suburbs.

Here’s a quote from Wikipedia’s entry on Nieves Herrero that perfectly captures the current Spanish media behaviour, and the average night on Spanish TV:

“She was heavily criticised for the coverage given to the famous Crimen de Alcácer, making a live broadcast from this village the same night that the bodies of the girls were found. In the programme, they took advantage of the emotional state of the families of the victims, interviewing the parents about how they felt at the time, and converting their pain into a public spectacle to be broadcast to the whole country.”

The country became addicted to ‘other people’s awful lives’, the media discovered there was plenty of tragedy to go around, and no watchdog ever stepped in to say just how much horror they could get away with showing. The result is that you will see bodies, devastation, and emotional hell that you would never see in 100 years on the good old BBC.

But let’s face it, this morbo is not just a Spanish problem, it’s just more out in the open here. In the end, revelling in other people’s misery is a very modern, developed world phenomenon. I think it plays to either one of two basic human positions:

1) “Thank god my life isn’t that bad”

……or, perversly, (and please tell me if I’m wrong),

2) “If something that bad happened in my life it would probably give me the shake up I need to change things dramatically forever, and kick me out of the everlasting everyday mundane.”

Whichever the case, for many Spaniards this latest round of media morbo has been a step too far. Is it possible that one day an audience that just can’t take any more will switch off for good? Will we ever see the demise of this endless aggressive probing into emotionally-debilitating modern human horrors?

Comments welcome as always.

Spanish Culture and News

Having Trouble With The Spanish Timetable

Like most people when they first move to Spain, when I arrived in Madrid nearly 10 years ago, I found it tricky to adapt to the crazy timetable during the first few weeks. I was eating at 1pm, but everyone else turned up at 2… or 3…. I ate dinner in empty restaurants at 8.30, the Spaniards came in as I was paying my bill.

Still, within about 2 weeks I worked out what was going on, and did as the locals were doing. Friends wouldn’t meet until 10pm on a Saturday night? No problem! Soon got used to that!

But recently something perplexing is going on. These days I get up at 7 a.m. and work from about 7.30 until 2. A quick rest after lunch, then more work until 6ish, when I am obliged (under new household laws designed to control my computer addiction and give me back some of my old life) to stop work, close the lid of the laptop, and pay more attention to my wife.

All fine… until we meet up with Spanish friends in the evening. By 11pm I’m shattered! By midnight, as the assembled locals start looking if anything even more lively, I’m sending pleading glances to Marina, hoping she’ll take the hint and announce it’s time to go home. By 1 am I’m downright pissed off!

I think I have three options to beat this very Madrileño problem:

1. Get up later (unlikely, and not very Spanish)

2. Start taking a 45 minute siesta on days we are going out (hmmm… tempting)

3. Take up coffee, in heavy doses.

How do you deal with the long end of Spanish timekeeping?

Spanish Culture and News

More Spanish Car Safety Madness: The ITV

Car owners in Spain are required to have the following four things in place before they can take their vehicle out on the road: paid-up car tax, valid insurance, the ITV vehicle inspection certificate and, last but not least, a complete disregard for their own personal safety.

This was proven again this weekend, at an official level, when we took our car to sort out item 3 on the list, the ITV.

The ITV, or Inspección Técnica de Vehí­culos, is the equivalent of the British MOT. A new car has to take this test after 4 years on the road, then every 2 years for a while, then finally every year.

The test is administered at huge warehouses on the dusty outskirts of cities all over Spain, and involves checking exhaust emissions, suspension, brakes, indicators, seatbelts, and other small items required for general road safety like whether or not your headlights work.

Ours didn’t. At the very second the guy told me to turn on my headlights for this seemingly important part of the test, a warning light popped up on my dashboard telling me that the front left headlamp had failed. Oh No!

This blatantly meant we were going to fail the ITV, would have to drive back to Madrid, get it fixed, and come all the way back out to kilometer 20.4 of the A6 motorway to take the test again several days later.

As we queued up to get out ‘Fail’ certificate the injustice of this terrible piece of bad timing weighed heavily: why couldn’t the damn light have blown just 2 minutes later? I approached the desk and was informed by a nice young lady, ‘Here we are, no problems, 2 more years.’ The car passed the test!

Marina and I scanned the piece of paper to see how on earth this was possible. At the bottom there were two colomuns: Infracciones Graves (Serious, Your-Car-Is-Off-The-Road Problems) and Infracciones Leves (Little Fluffy Don’t-Worry-About-It Problems). Under the Small Problems column, where things that are not important enough to fail you and keep your car off the road go, we read ‘broken headlamp bulb’.

So next time you drive along a narrow Spanish country lane in the dark, and a nearly-impossible-to-see car with only one functional headlamp comes tearing round a blind corner nearly forcing you off the road in shock, don’t worry! Relax! It’s just an Infracción Leve, not in any way to be confused with something that might actually make the already scary roads of Spain any less of a secure environment for you and your family!

Spanish car-madness stories/experiences welcome in the comments below.

Spanish Culture and News

Spanish Police Brutality and the Sign of the Cross

There’s a granny on the first floor that makes the sign of the cross, just as if she’d entered a church and stood before the altar, every time she crosses the threshold of our building, stepping out into the mean streets of Madrid.

You sometimes see this with old ladies that get onto the Metro too, and I’ve seen more than a few younger women franticly tracing thumb and forefinger up and down, side to side across their chest, as they step on a plane bound for the UK (I imagine they are more worried about the flight than the destination, though these days it’s a toss up as to which is more dangerous!)

I used to inwardly smile at this sort of ‘antiquated’ behaviour, but these days, as many of the big cities in Spain start to take on unpleasant aspects of other great metropolises around the globe, I’m not sure those grannies (and why is it only women I see doing this?) are so crazy. After all, believer or non-believer, every bit of supernatural protection probably helps!

I mean, look what happened right below our balcony recently:

Spanish Culture and News

Rafa and Bob

Yesterday was pretty damn good. I saw the living legend Bob Dylan live at Rock en Rio just outside Madrid, and Rafa Nadal won Wimbledon. For me Nadal is the greatest sportsman Spain has produced in the last ten years, and possibly the greatest sportsman in Europe at the moment. He’s thrilling to watch, incredibly strong both physically and mentally, and just ridiculously humble and nice. If only all sportsman were like that.

If you haven’t seen it yet, watch as Rafa wins the final point and sets off on a climb to see his family, the Prince, and La Leti. Well done Rafa!!!!

Spanish Culture and News

Spain Win European Cup!

Well done Spain! It’s half past midnight here in Madrid and the city is alive with horns, fire crackers and sirens! ¡Hemos podido! ¡¡¡Campeones!!! Not sure anyone will get much sleep tonight!

Full reports: English (BBC) | Spanish (20 Minutos)