Thursday, 29 January 2009

Victimising The Spanish

(I am going to be away for the next two weeks. I am going to have a fantastic time. The following article explains all. )

The film star, the politician and the chief of police arrived courtesy of their respective chauffeurs. The rest of the twenty odd Spanish came with us, in a four hour coach trip to the mountains near the Portuguese border. But whatever their position in real life, for one week they would all be equal. They would be our victims.

Why are we “victimising” the Spanish and who are “we”? Let me explain…

The Spanish half of our group have all been learning English and have passed an audition to gauge their level. They can all ask “How do you do?”, “What is on the menu for tonight?”, “Where is the Chemist?” and hold up their end conversationally in reasonably good English, but no one has taught them that the answers could be, “Gradely”, “Bubble and Squeak” or “Next to Woollies”. That’s our job.

“We” are a raggle-taggle bunch of volunteers chosen from every corner of the English speaking world. The answers to those questions could be delivered in accents ranging from broad Scottish to South Island Kiwi, deep southern states American to prim and proper home counties. It’s very different from what they learned in the classroom.

We are instructed that we are not there to teach, but to give them a taste of the “real” English speaking world. Slight grammatical and syntactical errors will be corrected, but if they don’t know the word, or the sentence is ambiguous or nonsensical, they have to rephrase or try another approach. Communication is the name of the game and a businessman at a conference or tying up the latest Spanish purchase of a foreign company cannot expect to have everything explained.
So, from nine o’clock in the morning to at least ten thirty at night, for eight days in a row, us “Anglos” flit from Spaniard to Spaniard talking normal, everyday English, whatever our English might be. To even think of speaking Spanish is a hanging offence. This is why the venue is called English Town. They are held in some of the remotest parts of Spain to avoid the students over-hearing Spanish in the streets. One venue does not even have a mobile phone signal. A fact that greatly upset the five engineers from Vodafone. “Do something about it then”, we suggested, while also reminding them that “vodafone” began with a “V” and not a “B”.

What do we talk about? A prim and proper Canadian librarian once stated, “I suppose the three taboo subjects of Religion, Politics and Sex are off the menu”. The organisers and experienced Anglos wondered what she would talk about after the second day! No subject is banned if the two having the conversation are happy with it. Likewise, neither are any words. Spanish executives at an international conference could expect to hear English in its crudest four letter terms and be expected to understand. And it amazing just how early on in the week those words become quite regular currency.

However, we are not expected to rough it. The organisers arrange for us to be comfortably housed and well fed and watered. The food is good, there is wine with every meal except breakfast and the bar is well stocked. However, we are expected to stay reasonably sober as the days are long and the students have paid the price of a good vacation to come and practice their English. We are expected to give value for money.
However, much has been written about the value of a little alcohol in the speaking of foreign tongues. Something about breaking down the inhibitions and ridding the mind of that mental barrier of translating in the head. So it is not surprising that the conversations really start to flow when the booze does likewise. I remember being with a group of five Spanish executives who, realising it was half past three in the morning, were really proud that they had been speaking English non-stop for five hours. But none of us were strictly sober!

By the end of the second day most of the Spanish are complaining that their brains can take no more. However, on the morning of the forth day they are excitedly telling us of the dream they had in English. All Anglos begin their week speaking in slow, measured phrases. By the end of the week our victims are telling us to get on with it. Proof, if any were needed, that the system works.

Since I discovered the English Towns I have returned over twenty five times as a volunteer. But why would people with challenging jobs give up valuable vacation time to come to Spain at their own expense to talk to Spaniards? Well, even the organising companies are hard pressed to answer that one. They remain amazed that in the past eight years over five thousand of us have done so and that their books are crammed with yet more eager Anglos. About the only thing the Anglos have in common is an ability to use the internet, as that is the only way to register. We have retired bankers, young backpackers, teachers, truck drivers, nurses and bakers. In fact, a complete cross section of ordinary people. Some are academic, others practical. Some just like a good natter.

A side effect of being a volunteer is that you become such an expert on all things Spanish; From how to make the best tortilla patatas to the Spanish attitude to sustainable energy. If you want to start an argument, ask each student which region produces the best wine. If you want to get serious, ask about ETA. The politician gave me chapter and verse and the police chief told me how they were dealing with the problem. One day, the actor might play either of them in a film. But he will do so in much improved English.

(Note: I wrote the original version of this nearly two years ago and it appeared on the best website about Spain, Notes From Since then there have been a few changes. Primarily, the original company has split into two independent companies. They are PuebloInglés and Vaughan Village. Although they differ slightly in the way the week is organised, both will give the visiting “Anglo” a wonderful experience. I guarantee you will make good friends. And they both fulfill the aims to improve the English of the students. The results are amazing! So much so that the actor mentioned above has recently completed his first major Hollywood movie – in a leading role. When he gets his Oscar I’ll tell you who he is.)

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

The English Scam

By Richard Morley.

A short time ago I had to make a presentation about the teaching of English in Spain. Many present were in fact, Teachers. There were also many Spanish there and I felt they needed some relief from the hard grind the teachers put them through. So, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, and acting the part of a prosecuter in a law court, I presented the case against the superiority of English.

The English Scam.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury. The several accused who sit among you tonight are the worst form of villains. They are nothing less than confidence tricksters; Practitioners of the most heinous scam ever to have been perpetrated upon an unsuspecting and gullible planet.
They sit among you tonight for all the world as if butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths.

Who are these rogues you may be wondering? Study carefully the faces of those next to you. Can you believe that some of them are miscreants of the worst sort? Beware; they are clever and very devious.

I put it to you, we are harbouring a nest of vipers in our collective bosoms. People many of you regard as friends. People who you would like to think have your best interests at heart. People that you think are helpful.
I am sorry to say you have been misled.

Don Quijote springing from the pen of Cervantes

Like many of the criminal fraternity these unscrupulous rogues go by several aliases in an attempt to mislead you. They are called Americans, Australians, Canadians and, it breaks my heart to say, also English men and women whose objective is, by taking advantage of those unfortunate enough not to speak English from birth, to fool you into accepting a common form of communication.

Do you still doubt of whom I speak? Two of their best known pseudonyms are “Native English Speaker”, or in some isolated communities, “Anglos”.

Recognised, and shunned, in their own countries, these charlatans travel the world to fool the unfortunate speakers of Babel into learning English. Like zealots through the ages misguidedly bringing scripture to the heathen masses, these “Anglos” believe they bring the word of Shakespeare, Hemmingway and Jeffery Archer to the unlearned. That a few try to make converts out of a sense of innocent duty is quite bad enough, BUT SOME exact a charge and make quite a good living out of this scam.

This is not just a crime against all humanity, but also against the will of God. He did not build the tower of Babel to no purpose.

If there were a counsel for the defence he would tell you that his clients are men and women of good character. He will tell you their motives are purely altruistic and their practices are acts of generosity borne from a desire to encourage communication between nations and thereby bring World Peace. He will tell you that English is the first language of half a billion people and the second of even more. He will point out it is the language of the internet and of technology and so, … international. He will attempt to demonstrate that English is a good thing, and by extension, those who teach it are like missionaries. He will portray them as saints, as scholars, who wish to bring love and harmony into the world.

Harmony? Why these so-called saintly missionaries cannot even agree among themselves how the language of English should be spoken. As the great Professor Henry Higgins once despaired, “Why don’t the English teach their children how to speak?” He went on to declare that within the English speaking community it is almost regarded as “Freakish” to talk correctly. And he was talking about the very country of England itself which one would suppose to be the heartland of correct English. Yet from Manchester, Birmingham and London the listener will hear the strangest accents and idioms. It is obvious that even the English themselves hold their language in great contempt. Again, as the great Professor Higgins said, “They should be taken out and hung - for the cold-bloodied murder of the English tongue”.

After despairing of the language in the country of its origin Henry Higgins turned his attention to the people of the United States where, he famously declared, the English Language has almost completely disappeared! “And not only do they mispronounce it, they also misspell it. Webster’s dictionary is as great an act of defiance as the Boston Tea Party. It is also an affront to a great language.

But at least for them there are mitigating circumstances. They chose to leave the family of the British Empire and go their own way. Bereft of leadership they are bound to make mistakes. An American General has told us this, “More has been screwed up on the battlefield and misunderstood in the Pentagon because of a lack of understanding of the English Language than ANY other single factor”. However, we have to be lenient. We should regard them as delinquent children from a broken home.

Those for whom there is no excuse chose to take refuge at the opposite ends of the world yet still claim to look to England and its language for their inspiration. I speak of the Australians. And the great crimes they have committed against the language of Shakespeare allow no mitigation. They refer to the “afternoon” as “Arvo”, a chicken as a “chook” and have so distorted the vowels as to make their form of English almost unrecognisable.

Ladies and Gentlemen. These miscreants sit among you tonight. Unable to practise their dark arts within their home countries they came to Spain to swindle you. Every day of every week they pray on the gullible. They supposedly teach them “correct” English when it is patently obvious they have no idea of what “correct” English is. Do you think this is right? Would you allow your children to mix with such people? Would you even want to spend a single evening in their company or drink a beer with them?

I put it to you, Ladies and Gentlemen, that the best English speakers here tonight are in fact not Native English Speakers. They are those poor souls who have spent boring days and long nights studying the grammar of English. Something that no Native English Speaker would ever do! They are the ones whose pronunciation is at least consistent; Again, something very difficult to find within the English speaking world.
The best English speakers are, in fact, the Spanish.

There can only be one verdict handed down tonight. You must find us guilty.

As Shakespeare put in the mouth of Caliban in The Tempest, “You taught me language: and my profit on it is, I know how to curse. The red plague on you..”

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Madrid Holocaust Memorial

Today, the 27th of January 2009, is Holocaust Memorial day. It is a day we should remember, for fear of history ever repeating itself, the terrible ethnic cleansing policies of the Nazi regime in Germany.

You might ask, what has this to do with Spain? Spain was neutral during the Second World War and allowed many Jews escaping from German occupied France to pass through to Portugal on the way to a new and free life. But the atrocities of the Nazi regime were not only directed towards Jews.
It is true, Spain does have a history of Jewish persecution. The expulsion of the Jews and Moslems from Spain in 1492 is a defining moment in the formation of the country. But by the same token there is hardly one European nation that did not at one time or another persecute Jews or some other minority race.

It is not wrong to be reminded of this.

In the north-west of Madrid is the city’s newest park: the Parque Juan Carlos Primero. Sprawling over 220 hectares it is an eclectic mix of lawns, gardens, lakes, olive groves, concrete and steel. Still looking very new, it will be generations before it matures into a Retiro or Casa del Campo. Spread over rolling land it is a place of surprises. There is something to amaze or amuse around every corner, over every hill. It’s a great place to walk, to picnic – or cycle or jog if you are of an athletic mind.

Sitting high on a slope, but almost hidden in a small copse of trees is a strange construction. Made of rusting steel and thick, heavy, two metre long railway sleepers at first sight one assumes it is just another of the somewhat avant-garde artworks that decorate the park. It is more than that.
A plaque some metres away informs:
Monument in memory of the victims of the holocaust.

In memory of the six million Jews assassinated during the holocaust by the barbarian Nazis, as well as for the Spanish victims, the gypsies, and other groups equally murdered in the extermination camps
. The inscription includes the word Shoa. (“ShoÅ”, also haShoah (Hebrew: השואה), Churben (Yiddish: חורבן) properly means “catastrophy, calamity, disaster, and destruction”, but is the accepted Hebrew word for the holocaust.)

Then passing the plaque one steps up on to the railway sleeper platform and gazes around. In the centre stands a rusting spike, some ten metre high. It has Hebrew letters cut into its sides. To your right several tens of sleepers stand upright. They have rudimentary eyes and mouths drilled into their top ends. To your left is a crude sculpture, also constructed from the same sleepers, of a mother carrying a dead child. The upright sleepers stare silently at you, watching you, witnessing your every move. The head of the mothers screams towards the sky asking, “Why?”

The watchers have no answer. They are us. The world who watched and let this happen. The mother curses not us, but God, feeling this to be her own personal crucifixion on the cross of man’s inhumanity. Why, oh why, has He forsaken her?

Returning to the plaque you might be puzzled. The extermination of the Jews in the death camps you know about. You might even know that the Nazis considered the Gypsies as less than human and also deserving of extermination. But who are the “other groups”? And what Spanish victims? Spain was a neutral country.

The Nazis believed in the dictum: If you are not with us, you are against us, so political opponents of their regime also faced extermination. They include such diverse groups as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Communists, Homosexuals, Soviet prisoners of war and Spanish Republicans.

At the end of the Spanish Civil War half a million of the losing Republicans fled across the Pyrenees to France. They hoped for refuge. They didn’t get it. They were first placed in internment camps which were no different to concentration camps. They were forced to work as members of the Compagnies de Travailleurs Étrangers, or companies of foreign workers. When Vichy France was overrun by the German occupiers many of them were forced to work for the “Organisation Todt”, the arm of the German regime that built the Atlantic wall, the long line of sea defences that was meant to protect France from Allied Invasion. Eight hundred Spanish workers worked on Alderney in the occupied Channel Islands. Many died there.

Because of their anti-fascist or Communist political affiliation 30,000 were sent to work camps deep in the heart of German occupied Europe. These were the “Red Spaniards”, or Rotspanier. The most notorious of these was the camp at Mauthausen, near Linz in Austria.
The Rotspanier arrived in 1940 and were systematically worked to death. By January 1945 only 3000 of the Spanish remained alive. Of these, 2163 were killed in the next three months.
The cuts in the steel form the Hebrew word "Yizkor", which means "Remember!". It is also the name of a prayer for the dead.

I have no room to write more. Others have written volumes. The fate of Spaniards at the hands of the Nazis is well documented. It is a fascinating, but sombre history.

So remember them today. And some day go to the memorial in the Parque Juan Carlos. At first you will wonder, then you will be moved. The power of the monument is that you will, no matter that it wasn’t you personally that committed these atrocities and it all happened before you were born, feel a little guilty. The guilt of a world that let this happen.

You will remember the millions who were carried away on those tracks those wooden logs supported. You will feel the pain of the mother and her dead child. You may even shed a tear.

And you will say, “Never again”

I would like to thank Sharon Edvy in Israel for help in translating some of the Hewbrew inscriptions.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Food Fit for Donkeys

The Spanish do not exactly hold English food in the highest regard. Whether they have actually tasted it or not, in Spain it seems to be universally condemned. And when it comes to my favourite vegetable they disparage it with the opinion that it is only fit for “donkeys and other animals”. Well, this Ass disagrees!

Arguably one of Britain’s favourite vegetables, we roast them, boil them, chip them and puree them. An integral part of many a Sunday lunch, they also find their way into soups and stews – and even into wine.

They are so popular that Britain cannot grow enough to meet the demand and import them from Poland, (who feed them to pigs!! Que barbaridad!), Germany, France and even from those who disparage them so rudely, Spain.

I refer, of course, to that king of vegetables, that tasty tuba, the delight of diners, the Parsnip. In Spanish its name is Chirivia, yet the word seems to be sadly lacking from the majority of Spanish greengrocers’ vocabulary.

It was towards the end of last November when I realised I hadn’t tasted the sweet delights of the Parsnip since I moved to Madrid. At once I set out in search of that Holy Grail of vegetables and little did I realise how elusive my quarry was to be.

Madrid boasts some wonderful markets. My absolute favourite being the Mercado de Maravillas, or the Market of Marvels just up the Calle de Bravo Murillo from Quatro Caminos metro station. This market resembles Doctor Who’s Tardis in that its narrow street frontage completely belies its huge interior. Once this was Madrid’s main northern source of food, and the reason why line 1 of the metro terminates at Quatro caminos. It was here that the horse drawn carts bringing produce from the surrounding countryside would transfer their goods for distribution across the city. Some of the metros trains were solely for this purpose. The Market of Marvels grew from this.

But despite Spain being a major producer of “Chirivias”, none of the stall holders knew what the heck I was talking about.

And that is no exaggeration: hundreds of hectares of south-western Spain are given up to the growing of parsnips. In the same way that British wine companies have a presence in the Sherry industry, so British vegetable growers own markets gardens to supply the UK consumer.

In 1995 Paul Knights established his company Knights Of Spain in Jerez de la Frontera. Farming over five hundred hectares in the provinces of Cadiz and Seville and with their own processing facilities, they supply UK and European customers with potatoes, carrots, beetroot and parsnips. Bromhams, a British based company imports seven hundred tons of parsnips every year to its base in Wiltshire.

It’s estimated that nearly a thousand hectares of Spanish agriculture are devoted to the growing of Parsnips. Yet, like a prophet in its own land, it is barely heard of.

A friend’s mother, a woman in her mid-sixties who was born in Alicante, claims to remember eating them as a child. My friend, her daughter, had to look up the word in the dictionary. She had never heard of them. I meet many people. During the months of my search I have questioned many. All have shaken their heads, some doubting that “Chirivia” is even a Spanish word.

Yet in the Museo de Bellas Artes in Granada hangs a 1604 painting by Juan Sánchez Cotán entitled, “Still life with Cardoon and Parsnips”. The Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) is a Mediterranean vegetable. It was the Romans who used it for sweetening and introduced it to Britain. Before the arrival of the upstart potato it was, together with turnips, one of the main vegetable foodstuffs in Europe. They can be served in exactly the same way as the potato and weight for weight the nutritional value of a parsnip is about the same. So it hasn’t always been unknown.

Yet Pepe, who supplies my locality with vegetables at my local market, looked at me in pity when I asked if he stocked them. Surprisingly, he knew what I meant, but shook his head. “Not in Madrid, Señor. Perhaps in Valencia”, he told me with a tone of voice that suggested that citizens of that city were beyond the pale.

But I am not a man without resources. After all, I have the Internet at my fingertips. Merca Madrid is a huge wholesale Market to the south of the city. One hundred and fifty-three wholesalers spread over a one hundred and seventy-six hectare site sell to twenty-thousand retailers in the Madrid area. I sent them an e-mail. The reply came back:
Muy Sr. mío: En contestación a su correo de fecha 1 de enero de 2009, y con registro de entrada 3/2009 en Mercamadrid S.A., en donde nos solicita que le indiquemos la venta de la chirivia, le recomiendo que se dirija a la Asociación de Detallistas de Frutas, sita en nuestro Polígono Alimentario en la Nave B , en le teléfono 91 786 05 11. Esperando que esta le haya sido de utilidad le saluda atentamente, Margarita Vargas Martínez, OFICINA DEL MINORISTA Y USUARIO, Centro Administrativo, Avda. de Madrid, s/n, MERCAMADRID, 28053 MADRID.
So they passed the buck. (And between you and me I don’t think they even tried.)

Through contacts on the best website about Spain and its way of life, Notes From, I had received information that Mercadona, Spain’s largest supermarket chain with over 1300 branches, sold parsnips in Catalonia. I am, of course, in Madrid, but I do have a local Mercadona, so along I went. They had a wonderful selection of produce, but not a single parsnip. So I sent them an e mail, asking why they sold them on the coast but not in Madrid. They replied:

Estimado Sr., En primer lugar agradecerle la confianza y el tiempo que ha dedicado al expresar sus inquietudes e informarle que vamos a pasar su sugerencia de incorporar chirivias en los centros Mercadona de Madrid a los responsables correspondientes. Gracias por su interés, MERCADONA S.A.

But that was nearly two months ago now and, a, I haven’t heard from them again, and b, there are still no parsnips on the shelves.

Friends told me to try El Corte Inglés, Spain largest department store chain with many supermarkets that have sections aimed at the guiri, the foreigner, but to no avail. Shops in Madrid that actually specialise in only goods from the UK do not stock produce other than baked beans and mushy peas. I tried market after market, shop after shop, in all parts of the city. I drew a blank.

But then this week I had to travel down to Murcia, on the coast. This is Guiriland. Many retired Brits come here to while away their twilight years. In fact the restaurant in Mazarron we used boasted of its “International Clientele”, and apart from three workmen propping up the bar, there wasn’t a Spaniard in sight.

And in the local Mercadona supermarket they had parsnips. They were past their best and to be fair to the supermarket an assistant was busy clearing the shelf. I raced her to the last by filling my basket with what turned out to be a straining plastic bagful, but that only cost me less than five Euros. Well done Mercadona, with your “siempre precios bajos”, always low prices.

The check out girl looked askance at a dozen chirivias rolling towards her on the belt. My Spanish colleagues, probably a tad embarrassed, explained we were from Madrid and there they were impossible to buy. “Well”, remarked the girl, “it’s only the extranjeros, the foreigners, that bought them in Mazarron. She was very polite, but couldn’t resist a tiny smirk when I said, “So, they are only for the guiris”. In fact, as I later remarked to my friends, the name of the vegetable should probably be changed to “Guirivia”, to reflect that fact.

But now I have a tiny fear. For two and a half months I have been seeking the parsnip. In my mind there are memories of a sweet, rich taste. I have just returned from the south. The Mercadona bag sits in front of me, the packaging on each parsnip as yet unopened. Will I be disappointed? Will friends to whom I have promised a taste think me deluded? I hope not.

Only fit for “Donkeys and other animals” indeed! Hee haw!

Sunday, 18 January 2009

A Year Of Speaking Englishly

By Richard Morley.

It’s nice to be part of something successful!

In January 2008 a friend of mine, Mike Monroy, started a series of Friday evening meetings in which anyone from anywhere with a will to improve their conversational English could come and meet with native speakers and do just that. By the end of the month he had roped me into helping him (he’s very good at that!), and later the team expanded to include a number of wonderful people. A year later we have just celebrated our first birthday.

What you get is what it says on the box. Speaking English.

We meet in a bar in the Calle Santa Cruz de Marcenado called the Restaurante Salmantino.

On a typical evening this is what happens. Meetings begin at 8pm (that’s 20:00 in Spanish!) and people start to drift in from 7:30 onwards. From 8 we will talk, play silly games, tell stories, have quizzes and more than anything else, it seems, we laugh.

We finish around 9:30, but no one goes home. In the bar the conversation continues and continues. Some people have boasted that they were still there at 2am – still talking English.

A year ago an average evening consisted of no more than seven or eight people. We celebrated our anniversary by trying to find more chairs for people to sit on. Last Friday we had almost forty people.

We don’t do anything really special, except provide a comfortable place for people to meet. There is no charge. Except for the official hour and a half, we don’t even insist that the language of conversation is English – but it is.

Those who come tell me that the Friday evenings are very necessary for them to continue practising their English. Some do have to use the language at work, but many others do not, and for them the old adage of “Use it or Lose it” is particularly true.

Like everywhere else in the world at the moment, there is an economic crisis. This means jobs are on the line. Spain is no different and jobs are tenuous if you have one and difficult to find if you haven’t. One industry that does not seem to have been affected by “La Crisis” is that of teaching English. Speaking the language is seen very much as an important qualification. So perhaps that is why we are so popular. It is certainly not my bad jokes.

Whatever the reason, the English Speaking Group typifies Madrid. They have to be the nicest and friendliest group of people I have ever met. If you are visiting the city and want to meet instant friends, then come. If you are Spanish and want to practise your English, then come. Right then, that means no one has any excuses. See you there. You will be very welcome.


Meets every Friday evening in the Madrid city centre (8:00pm-9:30pm)
Restaurante Salmantino,
C/Santa Crus de Marcenado, 13,
Metros San Bernado(L2), Bilbao (L1 & L4)  Parking: Glorieta Bilbao
Point of contact: Richard Morley
Address updated in in June 2010 due to a change of venue.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Escape To Seville

A few months ago I headed south, to Seville. These are my recollections:

If being Moorish means making you want to come back for seconds, then Seville spectacularly fails. What appeals to me about Spain is its phoenix like resurrection from the ashes of its past. Yet, like an insect in amber, parts of Seville remain mummified in its history.

Once Seville grew rich from trading with the Americas. Now its vendors prosper by selling trinkets to Americans.

That’s not to say I did not enjoy my visit to the Real Alcazar. Without realizing it I had sneaked in through the back door. I have no idea if there is a charge for entry, but I noticed that the crowds coming towards me held small maps; others held electronic guides to their ears. I wondered from where they had got them until I found myself just inside the entrance and saw the long queue waiting to get in. I was` pleased I had missed that.

The labyrinthine passages and the relaxing gardens were a sheer joy. I am pleased we no longer rely on film in our cameras; the processing costs from my walk in the Jardines would have cost a fortune. Around each corner is a delight; an unexpected pleasure. The imagination of its builders is impressive. It is if every niche is planned to appeal to all the senses; from the intricately designed interiors to the cool, relaxing arcaded plazas and shady gardens. The perfume of the roses is not over-powering, the fountains not exuberant. They trickle rather than spurt, whisper rather than gurgle.

With my first sight of the cathedral a phrase entered my head. If God’s works are miraculous, then Man’s are wonderful. The massive bulk of the cathedral is lightened by amazing external carving. The flying buttresses soar, the tower of the Giralda almost penetrates the sky. I am both fascinated and overawed by medieval architecture. How the craftsmen constructed such edifices without the benefit of modern technology is incredible. I can, and have, studied for this for a long time. In Amiens or Chartres I have sat and contemplated the inspiration and dedication of the men who formed them.

No chance for such contemplations in the cathedral in Seville however. At nearly eight euros to enter it is somewhere to go once only. This is a shame as there is much to see, or perhaps not see, as I really feel that they have over-egged the pudding. The only real marvels that can be clearly seen are the massive vaulted ceilings. All else is obscured by gaudy wooden gilt carvery. The views are limited and the enjoyment consequently diminished.

And the crowds! As a tourist myself I cannot blame anyone from making the grand tour and seeing the sights. But Seville cathedral has become a theme park for tourists and screaming parties of schoolchildren. It is a place on their itinerary; a place to gawk and exclaim, not to contemplate and wonder. I felt cheated out of my eight euros.

The streets around the cathedral also pander to the tourist. It is a matter of a few metres from the cathedral walls to the nearest Irish bar. The carriage drivers with their patiently waiting horses solicit for custom and I can honestly say I had the worst dinner I have ever had in Spain in one of the narrow streets that radiate from the Plaza Virgen de los Reyes, which lies at the foot of the Giralda tower. I actually found myself wishing I had gone to McDonalds!

But the view from the Giralda tower is fantastic. The highest a member of the public can climb is ninety-seven metres above the town and from there one can see forever. To glance directly down is to invite a severe case of vertigo, but to see Seville laid out beneath your feet is really quite breath taking. And it was pleasing that one could climb the tower at no extra charge, unlike St. Paul’s in London, where they charge both on entry and then again for the crypt, the dome and so on. But the space up there is limited and yet they had allowed a thousand kids to run rampage down its sloping access. (There are no steps, until the very last part, just a continuous ever ascending helix – except it’s square, if that makes sense!) I was pleased none of the kids had thought to come equipped with a skateboard. In the cramped spaced I was jostled and pushed by bored, belligerent children. The spaces for viewing are limited and impatient queues formed. One could not stand and contemplate. There was just a mad scramble to get the camera to where its aim was unobscured by the crowd and take the picture for later viewing.

To ease my aching feet I took a tour in one of the open topped buses. For fifteen euros I expected more than a tour of two now defunct trade expo sites and a brief glance at the Plaza de España. Ok, it did come with a set of free earpieces that enable one to hear the commentary which claimed to be full of history and anecdotes. Another disappointment! “On the left is the tobacco factory on which Carmen was based”, “On the right was the Mexican pavilion for the trade fair in 1929”. And then???? Nothing! No tales, no insights, very little history. After one complete circular tour I alighted at the Plaza de España and enjoyed the frescos and the relative peace. Once the centerpiece of the 1929 expo, the semi-circular building is now a tax office and a place for weddings. I witnessed one happy bride pose with her retinue on the steps of the Viennese style bridges which cross a waterless, litter strewn sunken moat.

But with the obvious tourist traps done I wandered away to other parts of the city. I have always had a fascination with engineering on a large scale, and in particular, bridges. Seville serves well in this respect and has among the several that cross the wide Rio Guadalquivir two spectacular examples; the Puente de la Barqueta and the Puente del Alamillo. The last had recently been a subject of a History Channel documentary and I was keen to see it up close.

The receptionist at my hotel told me it was about forty minutes walk. He lied. It took twice that, but I didn’t mind. The Paseo Rey Juan Carlos is a riverside walkway that is a pleasure to amble along. The view of the gently curving river with its leaping fish made for an enjoyable excursion. And the quality of the graffiti on the bridge supports quite high! The Puente de la Barqueta preys over the river like a giant insect. Thick stays descend from its belly to support the platform. The Puente del Alamillo rests like a harp on its back. Its massive supporting, reclining tower shoots one hundred a four metres skywards, the roadway below suspended by the harpstrings. Under the bright blue sky it gleams a brilliant white and can be seen from the train a long time before reaching the station.

Puente de la Barqueta Puente del Alamillo

I saw both the bridges, crossed them, photographed them and was happy and turned back into town. But I was footsore and thirsty. Just off the Puente de la Barqueta begins the area known as Macarena. There is to be found a bit of the old city wall, with its synonymous gate and the tower of Los Perdigones, which boasts a camera obscura with which to view the city.

Just up a side street I found a cerveceria. It was mid afternoon. A few workmen stood at a street side counter and ate tapas and drank their beer. Inside secretaries ate and read newspapers. The floor was littered with discarded sugar sachets, napkins and cigarette butts. I felt at home.

The barman, who wore a stained tee shirt emblazoned with “The best is yet to come” (in Spanish, which I translated but cannot remember the exact wording,) seemed curious that I was English. The choice of beer was either non-alcoholic Barbican or the local Cruzcampo. It was a no brainer!

And suddenly, from not liking Seville very much, I had a complete change of heart. All around me people were speaking Spanish. Not an American, German or French accent anywhere. What’s more, (thanks in part to having learned a lot of Spanish from Pimsleur recordings with South American accents,) I could understand the conversations around me.

The next day I went back into Macarena and wandered the alleys and streets so narrow they can be crossed in a couple of paces. I found a tiny plaza where an enterprising café owner had set up tables on the steps of the church opposite and there I sat in the shade of the bell tower drinking coffee and contemplating the world as it passed me by. It was so quiet I could hear the birds singing. A couple of blocks away the plaza Alameda de Hercules was a mass of construction machinery and a maze of protective fences. A place of cheap tapas bars and hostals, it belonged to the young. There must be a music school nearby as the pavement cafés were full of students with instrument cases at their feet enjoying cheap food. Soon the restoration of this square, or rather oblong, will be complete, but I hope the tourists don’t find it quickly.

So there is hope for Seville. A new tram system now clangs its way through the centre. Away from the Giralda and the Alcazar the city behaves like any other. The area of Macarena will remain unspoiled as they would have to tear it down and begin again. The street musicians will continue to play in the Calle Velázquez, the little shops in the Calle Sierpes will carry on trading. The citizens are friendly. My taxi driver from the railway station, unlike the taxi drivers of Madrid, immediately began a conversation. He wanted to talk football. When I told him I didn’t really like the game he pronounced me, “Muy raro”, and carried on regardless. The alleys proclaim to be for pedestrians only, but beware of motorcyclists who don’t read signs. If you are coming to Seville get the tourist traps done quickly, then find that little hidden square in the depths of Macarena and chill out.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

The Legend Of Madrid

La leyenda de Madrid.

The legend of Madrid tells this story:

Among the few survivors of the battle of Troy was a Prince called Bianor. Fleeing the battle he made his way to Greece and then to Albania, where he founded a Kingdom.
On his death his son Tiberius succeeded to the throne. Tiberius had two sons. The first, also called Tiberius, was legitimate. His second, named alter his grandfather Bianor, was the love child of Tiberius’s relationship with a simple peasant girl called Mantua.

Trying to avoid problems with the succession, King Tiberius gave Mantua a great fortune and sent her, with her son, into exile in Italy.

Once in Italy, the she founded a city in the north of the country, which she named after herself, then called Manto and today known as Mantova.

When Bianor reached adulthood he had a dream in which the God Apollo advised him to refuse the Kingship of Manto that his mother offered and depart with some loyal followers in the direction of the dying sun.

Before leaving, on the advice of his mother, he took the name of “Ocno”, which means “He who is given to see the future in dreams”.

They journeyed here and there for nearly ten years. One evening, after the sun had set, Ocno set his camp for the night. Again Apollo appeared to him in a dream, telling him that this was the place where he must found a new city to which he would give his life. On waking he saw to his surprise he was on a beautiful, peaceful plateau, richly wooded and with abundant water. Nearby grazed plentiful flocks of sheep and the shepherds seemed happy and of good character. They called themselves “Carpetanos” or “Those with no Town” and travelled with their flocks, hoping one day for a sign from their gods to show them a place they could call home.

Ocno told them all about his dream and the shepherds took it to be the sign they had waited for. Soon they began to construct walls and houses, a palace and a temple. When the city was finished they arranged a ceremony to consecrate it to their gods. But there was disagreement. Because of Ocno’s dream some thought it should be consecrated to Apollo, but others disagreed. Ocno left them to their squabbles and falling asleep under an oak tree found once again that Apollo came to him in a dream. Supplicating himself before the god, he asked for guidance in solving the conflict. Apollo told him that there were two important things that had to be done to resolve the problem. The first was that the city should be named and dedicated for the goddess Metragirta, who was also known as Cibeles, goddess of the earth and daughter of Saturn. The second thing to do was that in order for the decision to be impartial, Ocno should offer his own life as a sacrifice. On waking, Ocno told the assembled masses what the god had told him. Taking a shovel he began to dig a deep well. When it was finished he lowered himself in it and had the mouth covered with a huge carved stone.

For a month the population mourned his death. They sang funereal hymns and praised his memory. At the end of the month when the moon had completely waned a terrible storm arose and a cloud descended from the heights of Guadarrama. On the cloud rode the Goddess Cibeles who raised Ocno from his tomb and carried him away to paradise. From that moment, the City was called Metragirta as Apollo had ordained. Later the name changed to Magerit until it finally became Madrid; “The City of men with no country”.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

The Day The Snow Came

A visiting English Lady, telling me that she was thinking of relocating to Spain, asked me about the weather. "Does it ever get cold?" she asked, perhaps imagining that the country had a permanent summer. Well last Friday, following days of chilly weather which reached minus temperatures overnight, we had snow. The Photograph heading this post was taken just after midday - and the temperature had climbed to zero. Enjoy the other pictures from our Winter Wonderland.

Slippery road conditions had drivers moving at sensible speeds for once. I stood beside the road and watched as some clearly demonstrated they hadn't a clue about driving in such conditions. Many drove to work and returned by metro, leaving their cars to be collected later. The TV News was full of road chaos and programs telling drivers how to fit snow chains.

It must have been heart-breaking for the children. School had restarted just the day before. The only people outside experiencing the questionable joys of the snow were all grown up. The dogs seemed to enjoy it though!

PS. Except in a few shaded areas, it had all thawed by Sunday

Sunday, 11 January 2009

The Best Metro In The World

The Metro that all the world wants to have, lives in Madrid

There is an ad on Spanish television where a young man describes the wonders of Madrid. The riches and splendour of the Prado and Reina Sofia art galleries, the Palacio Real, the Plaza Mayor and other jewels of the city are commented on with a shrug of the shoulders and a “Ho Hum”. The most wonderful thing about Madrid, the young man exclaims, is the metro. The metro?!! Madrid’s underground railway? It’s subway to American readers.

And I will admit there is a part of me that agrees with the young man’s opinion. In my travels around the world I have used urban transport systems in many countries. Nearly every one of them compares very favourably to the antiquated London Underground that I know and loathe so well. In my travels in France I have ridden on the “Twisto” trams in Cean on the north French Coast and the driverless metro in Lille; the system in Rouen is half over ground tram and half underground metro. The transition works seamlessly as the train passes over the Seine River.

But the Madrid metro beats them all.

I recently received an e mail from London transport describing their plans to modernise. There was even a small computer animation showing the new trains that were due to come into service by 2015. They looked familiar. It was what the Madrid metro has NOW!!!

There are two hundred and eighty three stations on the thirteen lines of the underground part of the system. These join to a further thirty two of the three lines of the light railway that carries commuters out to the suburbs. And it seems hardly a month goes past without an additional station coming, literally, on line. Two thirds of these stations are part of the central system and any journey between any two will cost no more than one euro. If you buy a multi journey ticket it will cost even less. And we are not talking short distances here. Line 10 will take you from the southern suburbs of Alcobendas to the completely separate town of San Sabastian de los Reyes in the north; a journey of forty kilometres and all for less than two Euros when the northern section supplementary fare is added.

The metro opened in 1919 as the Compañía de Metro Alfonso XIII. Alfonso XIII was the last king of Spain before the civil war and invested heavily in the metro. Today, billions of euros of investment from local and central government continues to improve what must be one of the best metros in the world with over three hundred kilometres of track extending like a spider’s web across the greater Madrid area. Projected plans up to 2020 show the metro almost doubling in size.

The planners of the metro are very innovative. The very method of constructing the tunnels is known as the “Madrid Method” and Metro Madrid hold patents on many features that are used all over the world. Interestingly though, a particular design of station used here is known as the “Barcelona Design”, which includes a central platform. However, it’s still Spanish!

While some of the original lines still show an impoverished air with their smaller tunnels and consequently narrower, more crowded carriages, the new lines allow for modern, spacious rolling stock. And there is a lot of rolling stock. At peak times there will be a train every three minutes. They are also fast. I continually arrive early for appointments because I forget how efficient the system is.

A declared aim of the metro is that no resident of Madrid will ever be more than six hundred metres from a station. In the time I have lived here I have never felt the need for owning any sort of private transport. The metro invariably takes me exactly where I want to go. (The on road buses expand the network of public transport even further, but, because of Madrid’s continually gridlocked roads, can never be as efficient or as speedy as the metro.)

There is history to be learned here too. The authorities have seen fit to name stations after Madrid’s and Spain’s finest sons and daughters. Explorers, conquistadores, Statesmen, Kings, Priests and Doctors have all been honoured. Even a casual research on some of the names reveals volumes of Spain’s role in the world. And deeper research reveals station names which have been altered to reflect changing attitudes to some of those aspects of history that would best be passed over!

For anyone travelling to a new city, finding your way around can be a daunting prospect. New arrivals in Madrid need not have this fear. There are downloadable maps of the metro to be found on line. Metro Madrid have recently revamped their website and it comes in both Spanish and English if you click on the button at the top.

There are similar websites to use the Madrid bus system too. Read about that by clicking THIS LINK.

The metro might not be as world renowned as the treasures in the Prado, the Reina Sofia, or the Royal Palace, but it certainly deserves to be regarded as one of the jewels in Madrid’s crown.

If you found this post useful and/or entertaining, don't hesitate to leave a comment below.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Reviewing Hostals in Madrd

The heavy wooden door creaked like those of the castle in any Hammer Horror movie as I leant my weight against it. Beyond lay a narrow corridor redolent of damp and rotting wood. However, this was obviously going to be a temporary state of affairs as in the dim light I could see the passageway was also an obstacle course of builder’s ladders and piled high stacks of cement bags.
Manoeuvring my bags I penetrated the gloom until I reached the lift cage and pressed the button to call the antique cage. The mechanism groaned and made curious whining noises, but eventually reached me and the diamond lattice cage doors stuttered open and let me enter. With me inside the mechanism’s rattles sounded like the death knell of the industrial revolution, but manfully managed to hoist me to the third floor. There I encountered another door; this one stained dark with unpolished brass fittings. It opened and there stood a small, portly man with no hair and dressed in only trousers and a vest. A cigarette with an inch of ignored ash was stuck to his lower lip.
“Welcome Señor to the Hostel Bxxxx.” This was Paco, a Cuban who ran, as far as I could find on the internet, the cheapest Hostal in Madrid.
The décor was drab and the furniture second hand in the days of Alfonso the tenth, but Paco was sprightly and very jolly. His English was rudimentary and as, then, my Spanish was non-existent, we communicated with sign language. He took my passport and a pitiful amount of money and showed me to my room. It contained a bed, a sink a TV and a ceiling fan seemingly made from the rotors of a Blackhawk helicopter. I switched it on and lay on the bed watching it circulate above me and turned it off again, afraid of how many pieces it would chew me into should it fall. Above the headboard a window opened on to some internal passage and carried quite clearly the voices of people on the other side. I closed it and made sure it was locked. I dumped my bags, scanned the stations on the TV, (there were five and all in Spanish – no BBC or CNN), checked I still had some money and went out to eat. This was my initiation into the Hostels of Madrid.
Before I found my own apartment I stayed at quite a few hostals and have my favourites, which I returned to many times if they had rooms available, and there are a couple on my blacklist. In other words, the quality varies.
I have slept in tiny, immaculate boxrooms, rented a partitioned room of three which had once been one grand salon and gazed at ceilings wondering if the flaking paint above me would decide to fall tonight. Yet, with one horrible exception, I would happily stay in all of them again. Yet it would be true that you do not always get what you pay for and rooms in a single hostel can differ quite considerably.
I used three rooms in the Hostal Txxxxx and they were all different. One square, one rectangular and another was a long narrow triangle, so keen were the management to utilise even the smallest area. (The radiator flooded the first, and a booking error had the management asking if they could move me. The new room was better, so I naturally agreed.) The Hostal Mxxxxxxx has the ricketiest wooden spiral staircase I have ever climbed, yet the receptionist returned my e-mails with alacrity and with my first name. I think she was in love with me! And they have free wifi. Hostal Cxxxxxxxxxxx is superbly placed, but has decayed rapidly over the past two years and the hostal PA aways put me next to the laundry where I could lay in bed in the early morning and learn new examples of Spanish profanity! But the welcome was tremendous. The hostal O is clean and cheap, but I didn´t feel safe in its narrow back street. And in Seville, the advertised hostal turned out to be a three star hotel that was short of bookings and had cut its rates. The bathroom alone was as large as some of the other rooms I have rented. It´s a bit pot luck really!
So how can you tell, as a first time visitor that you will get a good one? Well, Hostel Bookers and a few other display client´s comments, which can be a help. Out of desperation I once picked a place that had bad reviews to find they were all deadly accurate. So I never went there again. And some Madrid based websites often give recommendations.
Now that I have become a resident of this wonderful city and rent my own place and hostals have become a thing of my past. I will miss them. But my sources reveal that three years on, the cement bags and ladder are still a feature of the Hostal Bxxxx.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

With a view to communication

It was a language that brought me to Spain. But the language was my own. One of the largest, and growing, industries in Madrid is the language business, and what language do the Spanish want to learn more than any other – English. There are companies here that rely on English Speaking volunteers to help their Spanish clients get to grips with the intricacies and oddities of the tongue of Shakespeare and Twain and I will write about those very soon. But when I first came here I had a language problem of my own: I spoke no Spanish.

Well, that’s not quite true. From a vacation taken many years previously in the Canary Islands I had one very important phrase, “Una cerveza, por favor”. A beer, please. On the pleasantly warm evening when I first arrived in Madrid that phrase was the only one I used. And it worked. I sat at a terrace bar surrounded by beautiful señoritas and drank my first beer. Within a week I had learnt to modify my only sentence to, “Una cerveza fria, por favor”: make it a cold one!

Since then my knowledge of the Spanish language has not exactly come on in leaps and bounds, more in trips and stumbles. But I can communicate: I shop for food, I get my hair cut almost the way I like it (but apparently that failure of communication between client and hairdresser happens even if you are fluent!) and I mostly make myself understood in the majority of circumstances.

When, as children, we learn our native tongue, our mothers do not tell us about verbs and nouns and adjectives (or conditionals, subjunctives, prepositions and whether these words are perfect, imperfect, or pluperfect for that matter). So why do teachers of second languages instruct their pupils in a language no one understands. Dammit, I was fluent in English before I started school (more or less) without knowing a scrap of grammar, it should be easier now I am all grown up.

A language is like a wall. The words, the vocabulary, are the bricks. The grammar is the mortar that keeps it all together. Well, you can build a wall just with bricks and the language equivalent is you sound like Tarzan. “Want beer. Cold”. Communication is established and a need fulfilled – but you sound like an idiot.

When I look back it amazes me how many of my Spanish friends were happy to consort with an idiot. Like the good friends they turned out to be, and they are, you might think they would encourage me in my endeavours to speak their language. But no; in me they had a ready made way of practising their English. Hmm. Thanks guys!

I spent a year sounding like Tarzan, then decided to do something about it. There are probably as many schools teaching Spanish to Foreigners in Madrid as there are Schools teaching English to Spaniards, but the circumstances of my life made it awkward to sign up for a course. So, I bought a book and began. That book didn’t really do it for me, so I bought another … and another. Eventually I had quite a library – and still I wasn’t getting anywhere.

You see, there are different ways to approach learning a language. I envy those who can learn by rote. They just absorb the vocabulary and the grammatical rules and never question anything. They become fluent in no time. Me? I want to know why that phrase means what it means and why that grammatical rule is used. It seriously impedes my progress, but that’s the way I am.

But we live in a world where just about anything you need to know lies hidden beneath a keyboard. The Internet! Do you have any idea how many websites there are that want to teach you a language? Well, lots! How many of them are any good and are not trying to sell you something? Not many!

Well, for your education here are a list of some the good ones; the ones that helped me get to the stage I am now (So it’s their fault, not my procrastination!):

Top of the list are the many podcasts from Notes in Spanish. Thanks to Ben and Marina for some “cool” and really helpful stuff. Also the forum on their sister website, Notes from Spain. There are people on there who really know their cebollas.
Coffee Break Spanish, a series of 80, yes! 80 podcasts from the Radio lingua website – and now Showtime Spanish. Find both of the above on Itunes together with a bunch more language podcasts.
The Spanish bit of The explanations both on the main pages and on the forum have been invaluable
The Spanish section of

Most of the books are much of a muchness, but one that has really helped has been Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish.

Actually, books are key for learning vocabulary. But here I mean NOVELS. Read, read, and then read some more. Only use a dictionary if a word appears three times on the same page and if you can work out the meaning yourself. So many words are almost the same as they are in English. And remember, when you were learning your native language, you didn’t read Shakespeare – so don’t read Cervantes. Read comics and other childrens’ books until you progress.

Of course you can buy language lessons on Cds. I quite like the Michel Thomas courses and if you really want to spend money there are the Pimsleur Courses. Those last are sooo boring, repeat, repeat, repeat, boring, I have to steel myself before sitting down to what I feel will be a mind-numbing half hour lesson, but thirty minutes later I just feel I have got better.

But certainly not least, I have to thank some really mean and tough friends who didn’t want to go around with an idiot. They got me speaking – and listening. I still vandalise verbs and screw subjunctives and if the Spanish were as chauvinistic about their language as the French, they would have me shot, but if you want to learn Spanish, or any other language, get yourself some really horrible friends like those. They are worth their weight in oro.

View though a glass - brightly

The photograph on the left shows the Bear and the Strawberry tree that is the symbol of Madrid. The protester refused to move! The bear seems to be enjoying him (or her - there's a bit of controvesy!) self and that seems to be a principle of life here.

Don't misunderstand me. That stereotypical idea of Spain being the country where everything is done "mañana" is false. You don't get to be one of the world's leading economies by being lazy. But when the day's work is done, then meeting with friends over a copa or two is pretty normal. And when it's party time, believe me, the Spanish know how to party!

The man who coined the phrase about New York being "The City That Never Sleeps" had not been to Madrid. It is quite normal for working hours to go on until 8pm, so at a time when the English or Americans have finished dinner and washed the dishes, the evening in Madrid hasn't even begun. It's pretty usual for me to meet friends at 9 or 9:30. For Friday nights make that even later! And the only reason many evenings finish around 1pm is because the Metro closes at 1:30, but there are always plenty of taxis. In the centre it's pretty easy to party through the night. This is highlighted in the way that Spanish actually has a verb that means "To party through the night and go to work/school the next morning without having been to bed": Empalmar. (You have to be careful using that verb. It has another meaning if used reflexively which also means to "stay up". I will say no more!)

An often quoted statistic is that Madrid has more bars than the whole of Belgium. Someone once told me it was possible to go to three different bars each evening for a year without repeating. I would say that's a conservative estimate. Visit La Latina, Chueca, or the area around the Puerta del Sol and you will never be short of somewhere to drink. A thought that would gladden the heart of any English binge drinker. BUT, binge drinking is alien to the culture. A drunk is a rare sight - and, I am sorry to say, probably English. I am sure that the sight of a pack of Brits on a stag or hen night brings golden euro signs to the eyes of bar owners all over the town, but those of us that live here tend to avoid places with such groups. The gutters of Madrid are not filled with vomit night after night. It is not considered polite, or "bien educado" to be drunk in public. It is not considered macho to be so. And one's friends do not put you down if you choose to have a coffee or chocolate instead of that last beer. Although the "one for the road", known here always as "the PENultimate"(!) is an oft used phrase.

You can get beer in pints, but mostly one drinks a "Caña" - a beer of less than half a pint usually served with a small offering of food: a plate of olives, potato crisps (chips in the US), a variety of "tostadas" (small pieces of bread that are only sometimes actually toasted with a savoury topping) or slices of delicious Manchego cheese). And you can drink a lots of cañas in an evening. Favourite brews are Mahou and Cruzcampo, but the Irish pubs sell Guiness and Murphys etc. Several bars specialise (if that's the word) in many beers from outside of Spain, or different regions of the country. There is definately no lack of variety.

The residents of Madrid are friendly. There are no lack of friends with whom you can have a night on the town. But you will lose them if you get drunk and start a pub brawl. Civilised drinking - how refreshing!

The first view

I live on the fifth floor of an apartment block in Madrid, Spain. Madrid is a fine city with some wonderful vistas, but my actual view of the city is not one of them. Living in a "Jungla de Cristal", which means "Glass Jungle" and signifies the same as "Concrete Jungle" in English, the view from my apartment is - of other apartments!

Despite its high rise towers my barrio is named after a "Parque" (Park in English) in its name and its a bit of a misnomer; There is a "parque". I often go there to read or study a few more Spanish verbs. It's pleasent enough: Shady, liberally strewn with benches to sit on, never crowded and, if I choose my time of day, enough pretty girls to improve the view no end.

And I will admit that the urban planners have done much to soften the blow of concrete and asfelt with many areas of trees and green, with children's playgrounds and relaxing benches. But it's still a city suburb.

But this blog is not about the actually view I can see. It will be about my views and my opinions as a "guiri", a foreigner, living in Spain.

Today is the seventh day of the year 2009 and is approximately my one thousandth day of living in Madrid. Spain is a wonderful country and Madrid, for me, in the jewel in its crown. I am no longer a young man. I have lived and worked in many countries and always looked forward to the next one. Then three and a bit years ago I landed in Madrid. Within a very short time, and I mean hours rather than days, I felt at home, that I could make a home here. And so it has proved.

Without a shadow of doubt, Madrid is the friendliest city and I have made some very good friends here. In posts to come you will meet some of them and, hopefully, will appreciate why I love it here so much.

A word of warning though. The rose tinted spectacles with which I first viewed this city and its country fell away a long time ago. There are aspects that annoy me, that make me mad, that make me think the people who run this place are sometimes idiots and occasionally crazy. The fact that I continue to enjoy living here is testament to the fact that the pros far outweigh the cons. But it is not always going to be sweetness and light and uncritical .

Spain has a long history and an curious present. There is some very good and very bad, but all of it is fascinating. I hope you find my view of it just as interesting.