Saturday, 26 December 2009

A different Christmas

This Christmas Day I did something I'd been meaning to do for years, but various things had always got in the way - usually the simple pressure to spend the day with one relative or another.

But 2009 was my year for changing things so I started making enquiries in October into volunteering opportunities in Brighton for Xmas Day. Information was few and far between, but via the Brighton Volunteer Centre I got in contact with Brighthelm Community Centre. They run a community Christmas on 25th and 26th every year and needed around 20 volunteers each day. So I got in touch with the organiser and was welcomed as a volunteer, then I met up with them on the 22nd for a little planning meeting. They were a diverse bunch, which I guess was only to be expected. I didn't really learn much about what to expect on the day, other than the fact that the guy who normally does the entertainment had unfortunately died a few weeks ago, so they were asking all the volunteers to pitch in and help out. Eek.

So 9am Christmas morning found me walking the half hour to the centre, through a deserted Brighton, wearing my most cheerful clothes, Xmas baubles in my ears and carrying my guitar.

When I arrived, the kitchen was a hive of activity with 5 volunteers having got there early to attack 25lbs of sprouts, hundreds of potatoes and the usual trimmings. There was a huge nut roast parcel waiting to be cooked, 3 gigantic turkeys, 2 huge hams, bread sauce, cheese sauce and gravy, someone making custard from scratch, and a gigantic Christmas cake.

The kitchen appeared to be under control so I set to work helping to lay the tables and working on teas and coffees. Which turned out to be my job for most of the day, by default. People started to arrive around 10.30, and having walked there in the freezing cold, were in need of a hot drink. And of course some of them were homeless so had actually spent all night outside.

At 11am there was a mini service because the community centre is also a church - however, most of the guests were sitting in the eating area and chatting and the volunteers were busy, so most of us just vaguely hummed along with the carols!

At 12 we started to serve up hot soup from a tureen the size of a small house. The soup turned out to be WAY too popular and it ran out before everyone had had a cup. Cue frantic searching through the cupboards where we finally tracked down 5 boxes of tomato cup-a-soup and everyone was happy.

At 1, it was time for the mammoth task of dishing up a full Xmas dinner to the 65-odd guests. Each volunteer chose a table to serve and went backwards and forwards between the table and the hatch, collecting steaming hot plates of turkey, roasties, mash, sprouts, carrots, bread sauce, cranberry sauce and gravy. Once everyone else was served, we got to eat too! The veggie nut roast was lovely and as not quite as many veggies had turned up as expected, I got 2 helpings. With extra sprouts! The guests were all offered seconds too, and most accepted though strangely enough, the second time around most of them said they'd have everything except the sprouts! Can't understand it.

Before dessert, it was time to dole out the presents, all of which had been donated to the group over the preceding weeks and wrapped by the organiser and her family. Unfortunately, having carefully originally separated the presents out into male, female and unisex, the parcels had all got mixed up on the way to the centre so it was a case of waiting until everyone had opened their present, and then swapping if they wanted to. Christmas pudding and custard followed, though there was way too much. Then more tea and coffee! I think over the course of the day, I made about 30 large pots of tea, 15 pots of fresh coffee and we cleared about 25 pints of milk.

The group started to thin out after that, but probably half of them stayed on for "entertainment"! Several of the older guys took their turn on the mike, with rousing choruses of What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor, My Way, Side by Side, Pack up your Troubles etc, complete with a can-can dancing pensioner and much use of a tambourine. A couple of people read poems. The minister and his family had made a somewhat bizarre home video version of the nativity story, which was shown on a big screen. I didn't escape, so my guitar and I made it to the front for just one song, thankfully. An attempt was made to feed the Queen's speech through onto the big screen via the net but it was not to be! Oh dear. What a shame. Never mind. I've made it this many years without ever having seen the damn thing, don't see why I should start now!

Over the course of the day, I'd chatted to a good number of both volunteers and guests. I met Annie, a volunteer who's a jazz singer and medium; Suzanna who has the smiliest face I've ever seen; Michael, a guest (who'd come to the centre via a mental health charity) who knew everything (and I mean EVERYTHING) there is to know about the life, works and death of Bruce Lee and was determined to make sure that everyone else knew it all by the end of the day too. The 50 out of focus photos of various BL-related places in Hong Kong were a bit of a trial, to be honest! I talked to a lovely guy who for reasons I didn't get to the bottom of, is currently living at a homeless hostel where he can enter at midnight but has to be out by 6am, so for 18 hours a day he's on the streets. If he hadn't told me that, I'd never have known. He was eloquent, intelligent, reasonably nicely turned out (!) Yet he came back for food and drinks over and over, pointing out that he hadn't eaten since the 23rd so was stocking up. He needed to phone the hostel to make sure he could get a place that night, but didn't have 20p for the phone either, so he borrowed my mobile then constantly thanked me and apologised for the next hour! I had random, brief and bizarre conversations with many people, but they all had one thing in common - if it weren't for the community Christmas, they would either be alone at home, or simply have absolutely nowhere to go. It was an eye-opener, made me feel very privileged but also made me realise even more what an obscenely over-commercial, expensive and wasteful time Christmas is for most of us.

I finally made it home at about 5.30, tired and desperately in need of a drink (no alcohol allowed during the day!) but very, very glad I'd done it. And I'll do it again. I can recommend it!

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Universal balance

On my return from my evening at Cathy's I found 2 messages waiting for me, both of which reduced me to tears - both from really good friends. One simply very lovely and heartfelt and the other to say that her mum had passed away the day before. Life is regularly tinged with sadness, but at this time of year it's always worse. So to all the people I know who are having a really hard time at the moment - you know who you are - I'm thinking of you lots.

The silliness begins...

Having been the only person I know to have actually made it back to their "home" country without hideous delays, here I am! In my flat (weird), with the cat (cute) and preparing for 9 days of Christmas socialising.

My flight from Barajas was only an hour late so I was back here just after midnight on Sunday night, or rather Monday morning. Having unpacked my very tiny amount of clothing, I set to work behaving exactly like I do in Madrid - ie I got a glass of red wine and spent til 3am on the internet!

On Monday, I stocked up with the necessities from my much-missed local greengrocer/deli, had an unexpected afternoon tea with Cathy and looked forward to an evening catching up with my ex over pizza and beer. But it was not to be. The vagaries of the British public transport system, combined with the half an inch of snow and a bit of ice, meant that he couldn't make it down to Brighton. Ah well.

Things fell into place more on Tuesday. I went to a meeting with the other volunteers that I'll be spending Christmas Day with (weird bunch, but I guess that's only to be expected!) then it was off to Cathy's for an evening of Christmas silliness! She'd laid on a really good spread, practically all homemade, and must have been slaving over the proverbial hot stove pretty much all day. There was homemade houmous, carrot and beetroot cakes, chickpea flour fairy cakes, steaming hot potato croquettes, fried cheese balls, spring rolls, crisps, cranberry Bellinis and most importantly, mulled wine and mince pies. Yum.

She'd gone all out on the games front too. A frustrating, and potentially argument-inducing "Christmas Number 1 in which year?" game which caused much scratching of heads and a lot of nostalgia, Family Fortunes and a quiz. Crackers, da-dos, stickers, paper hats and exploding streamers. And the obligatory Christmas CD playing in the background. All the requirements for a lovely, festive evening with friends.

It was really good to see everyone, and I haven't laughed so much in a while! Despite my pauper status having caused me to knock any chance of present buying on the head, I should know my friends better, and I came away with 3 bags of pressies. Naughty people, but THANK YOU! I'll have some serious catching up to do if I ever have any money!

I got home very full of food, and possibly slightly too much alcohol (so what's new?), ready to crash and prepare for the next round!

So thanks Cathy, Sid, Ed, Sarah, Carol, Anne, Andrea (and 2 unnamed friends!) for a fun evening!

The photos are here:

Now if I could just get Stop the Cavalry out of my head.....

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Glorious Gredos

So another week at Vaughan Town came, and sadly went! The last program of 2009 was one I'm really glad I was part of. It was my 4th time at Gredos, but my first in the winter. Despite the potential for heavy snow, which would have kept us indoors a lot of the time, we were instead treated to (mostly) blue skies, sun and freezing temperatures. One night of light rain combined with a massive drop in temperature did leave the pathways between one of the buildings a lot of us were sleeping in, and the main hotel, like a skating rink. Several people fell victim to the slippery conditions and I think we were lucky not to have serious injuries.

As usual, there was a fascinating combination of people and personalities in the group. The Anglos were from far and wide, with a big range of ages and some hidden (and not so hidden) talents. The Spaniards were, as ever, the most delightful group of people you could hope to meet. Without exception they were charming, interesting, enthusiastic, friendly, exuberant and eager to make the most of their week in a little English enclave.

I have to mention Vicente, the most inspiring septugenarian (nearly octogenarian) - not only was he the most disgracefully fit person (for his age) thanks to a regime of tennis 6 days a week, running 3 times a week, regular pilates and who knows what else, but he was one of the most dignified, proper "gentlemen" I have met. Anyone who knows me, knows that I find a lot of the old school gentlemanly behaviour somewhat sexist, but I swear that there was nothing Vicente could have done that could ever offend anyone. He is interesting, eloquent, funny and frankly, mad as a brush! He took up skydiving at, I believe, the age of 72 having lied about his age to get his first jump! By the end of the week, everyone wanted to take him home as an adopted grandfather. Not least for his ability to eat 3 if not 4 helpings of dessert at every meal!

We had a great selection of sketches, presentations, readings, musical interludes and everyone joined in. Those of you that have done a program will know that the hard work that has to be put in by Anglos and Spaniards during the day is made even more worthwhile by the hour of entertainment at the end of each day.

As always, the Spaniards' level of English, comprehension at least, rocketed up over the course of the week, which is good since that's the point of them being there. I have huge admiration for the sheer guts of them for even being there in the first place - I know I wouldn't be brave enough to go and do the same thing in a foreign language.

Even the veggie food had improved since the last time I was there - though the vast quantities of red wine I managed to drink at every meal may have skewed my opinion just a little. Really, I don't know where it goes - it must evaporate while I'm enjoying yet another bread roll drenched in olive oil and chatting away nineteen to the dozen about a bizarre selection of subjects.

As always, I'm having a huge comedown now I'm back to reality - the price you pay for having such a good time, I guess.

The only disheartening thing about the week was the fact that there are some weird goings-on with the company at the moment - they appear not only to have lost focus and interest somewhat but, for a company that is all about communication, they are failing to keep potential participants up-to-date on future opportunities. The Spanish version of their website clearly shows the whole of the 2010 schedule and details a change of venue for next year. The English version however, which would be where any interested Anglos would be looking, is sadly lacking, showing only 5 programs for next year and still talking about a venue they won't even be using. The machinations may well result in one of the loveliest and most talented people I know no longer having a job next year and frankly, if that's the case, they won't be seeing me back either. It seems to me that employee relations in a lot of companies these days have hit the back burner and those companies are going to be losing some of their best employees who simply feel abandoned.

OK, I'm off my soapbox! Nonetheless, it was a week filled with fun, laughter, chat, some tears and a great feeling of friendship that will hopefully last a long time. I'd still heartily recommend a program to anyone looking for an unusual but very rewarding experience, whether it be with Vaughan Town or Pueblo Ingles, the other company offering a pretty much identical program.

Back to real life then, I guess, but if you're interested in my photos of the week, they're here:

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Fun with Falling Furniture

So the time has come to share with you my latest Spanish adventure. Let me begin by saying I hope no-one has to repeat it, because it really wasn't fun.

I will set the scene. My little Ikea, almost kids', bedroom here in Madrid has a single bed pushed up against one wall. Over it, standing almost 7 feet tall, is a piece of furniture which has 4 cupboards at the top. It stands on 2 legs, one at either end of my bed, and the legs are probably about a foot across, and maybe an inch and half wide. Since I arrived here, I haven't put much in them, because I am not 7 feet tall and therefore can't reach them easily.

On Sunday evening, I came home with a bagful of goodies from my friend Hannah, who is leaving Madrid and had donated some things to me (thank you, Hannah!). Not being exactly brimming over with spare space, I decided to put just a couple of them in the cupboard over my bed. I can just about reach the cupboard handles so I reached up and opened the end cupboard.

Or at least that's what I tried to do. All I remember is that as I glanced up towards the cupboard to decide what to put in there, I was confused as to why the entire unit appeared to be getting bigger and closer to me. Cue something of a strangled scream as I realised that the whole thing was falling - on top of me. I at least had the presence of mind (I think) to get to the floor as fast as I could, which I'm pretty sure is the only thing that stopped it actually crashing into my head.

A couple of seconds later, and having heard the scream and the crash, my flatmate Kiran appeared in the doorway with a horrified look on her face, to find me in a heap on the floor, surrounded by the contents of the cupboards, most of the things from my table, with the massive unit leaning at a 45-degree angle across the room. Fortunately, my room isn't all that wide and the opposite wall had stopped the unit in its tracks, otherwise it would have continued its downward journey unimpeded and landed on me anyway.

I rather quickly noticed that the opposite wall wasn't the only thing that the unit had ended up crashing into. One of the cupboard door corners was wedged quite firmly straight into the keyboard of my laptop, like a dagger sticking out of a dead body.

In this technological age, as you can imagine, I was actually more concerned about the laptop than about whether or not I was still in one piece. Given the disastrous history of that laptop, I wasn't honestly surprised that it had suffered yet another attempt on its life.

With the help of most of the family in the next flat, I was extricated from underneath the offending piece of furniture, it was pushed upright again and after a lot of pushing, shoving, moving of other furniture, and the ingenuity of Jorge from next door, it stood up without any assistance, albeit still a little wobbly (as was I, by that point).

That's the exciting bits of the story pretty much over with, you'll be pleased to know.

The rest of that evening and most of the next day were taken up with phone calls between me and the landlady, her husband, the landlady and her insurance company and the computer repair centre. Rather surprisingly, we discovered that this flat is not covered for accidental damage to anything by anything. The contents are covered solely for damage due to flood, fire or theft. Now to me, that was a shock. I would have assumed that in order to rent out a flat privately an owner would be obliged to arrange comprehensive insurance cover, particularly in case something belonging to the owner in a furnished flat, somehow damages something belonging to a tenant, or even actually injures a tenant. I'm still staggered to find that it appears not to be the case. Given the hoops that landlords in the UK have to jump through in order to be allowed to rent out a property (electrical inspections, smoke alarm installation, fire extinguishers etc etc), it seems nigh on irresponsible that here someone can pretty much rent out their house/flat to private tenants without any formalities whatsoever to safeguard the health or safety of the tenants.

The laptop is now at the repair centre locally awaiting a decision on its fate (inexplicably, it did actually work after the incident, but 6 of the keys and the space bar were pretty much unuseable) - the landlady is paying for the inspection and the repair if that's possible and if it's not, she is paying for a replacement computer.

The piece of furniture has now been screwed to the wall behind it, which frankly, should have been done when it was installed - both the landlady and her husband have said precisely that. Which does beg the question "Well, if it SHOULD have been screwed to the wall, why wasn't it?" I'm guessing that will be an eternally unanswered question.

The room is finally sorted and things are back where they should be.

The only extra surprise has been the quite startling number of bruises that have appeared on me over the course of the week. I went from thinking I had come away entirely unscathed, to now looking as if I was beaten up. One example is in the photo at the top of the page. The rest of the bruises are on my back, my thighs and (be very grateful for the lack of photographs) my buttocks! I also ache all across my neck, shoulders, back and arms, I think from lifting the damn thing off me and then pushing it back to an upright position. It's a lot heavier than I had ever realised!
November really hasn't been my month all in all!

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Thankless task

Out on my balcony a minute ago, I witnessed one of the most pointless things I've seen in a long time. Anyone who has been to my flat, will have seen the dinky little house across the road, the single-storey abode which appears to house a family of about 5 people, a giant TV, and wouldn't look out of place in a shanty town.

The roadworks that have been going on for months now have all but consumed this tiny dwelling, and I can only imagine what it's like to live in there, with pneumatic drills and cement mixers just inches from the doors and windows. Given the stupendous amount of dust that the works create, which reach my 4th floor balcony and cover everything in a film of brick and concrete dust, the effects on that house must be incredible. Right at the moment, they are literally working right outside the front door, and when I saw the little old lady who lives there just now, valiantly trying to sweep her front doorstep, I could only feel sorry for her. I feel she needs her 5 minutes of fame, so here she is:

Peace and quiet amongst the chaos

I finally found myself a little haven of peace and quiet in my local area of roadwork chaos.

Just a 5 minute walk from my flat, is the local library (Biblioteca Pública Municipal Tetuán). I'd walked past it a few times without realising what it was - it doesn't exactly advertise itself well - you only find out what it is after you go through the main doors from the street!

In fact, it's like 2 libraries. Downstairs is obviously the original - it's kind of dark, dusty, low-ceilinged but is, at least, full of actual books! It reminds me of the one I belonged to when I was a kid, wandering between the shelves, staring up at the ones I couldn't reach, picking up anything and everything and reading the blurb, only to carefully slide it back where it belonged. There's a tiny selection of English books, only 3 shelves, and they're a real mishmash of stuff. Half of it belongs on an English 'O' Level syllabus (do I have any readers who wish I'd said GCSE? I don't think so!) - Shakespeare, Dickens, the war poets - frankly not things I generally want to read in my free time. And the rest are a random concoction of thrillers, romance, slightly off-the-wall strangeness, translations of some Spanish books, things by no-one you've ever heard of. My reading is certainly going to be varied in the next few months, but I don't think it's going to take me long to exhaust the supply. Being the serial filer that I am, if I find something in the wrong place, I can't resist putting it where it's meant to be!

Book of choice at the moment? Gertrude and Claudius by John Updike. It's a kind of prequel to Hamlet (my favourite Shakespeare play) - it's pretty good so far!

The second floor is clearly very new. Upstairs you have magazines, CDs, DVDs, 6 computers with 45 mins free net access (inexplicably unavailable in the mornings of 28, 29 and 30 of every month) and a quiet reading area. Through from that is the study room - my current haunt for peace and quiet if I'm trying to study Spanish or lesson plan, or just scribble my thoughts.

Peace and quiet might actually be an understatement. Deathly hush is closer to the truth! Even full, which means probably nearly 60 people in there, it's pretty much silent. There's a slight hum from the overhead lights and from the individual lights on each 6-person desk but otherwise, there is just the occasional noise from people simply being alive! Papers being moved around, the opening and closing of zips on bags and pencil cases, water bottles being sipped from, but not much else. Last time I was in there, I hadn't eaten all day. Suddenly, my stomach rumbled - about 10 people looked over at me. It had sounded like the beginnings of a small earthquake in the silence. Chastened, I lasted another 10 minutes then slipped out to find some food. That's a mistake I won't make again. The users are, as you can imagine, mostly students surrounded by pages and pages of notes, trying to write dissertations but there's a good few other people studying languages, or perhaps revising for the very difficult Civil Service exams. If I'm lacking in inspiration, I tend to just people watch, imagining what they're all doing there.

Now that there are 3 of us living in the flat, and I have lots of lesson prep to do, it has become my little hideaway where I actually get something done. Any complaints? The chairs are bit uncomfortable in the study room, and I wish it was open at weekends. But Monday to Friday, 8.30am til 9pm isn't bad. I just wish I knew why they feel the need to employ a security guard!!

If you're really thrilled by the idea, here's their website: . Don't get too excited!

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Conde Hermanos

Having treated myself to a guitar a few weeks ago, I finally made it down to the shop that the guy I bought it from had recommended.

It was an experience. It was a proper guitar shop! Dark, dusty and filled with half-built guitars that the owner makes himself. He's about 150 years old and, needless to say, speaks no English. In I marched, completely unprepared, ready to get a case, some new strings and theoretically to ask him to replace one of the tuning heads at some point.

After much gesticulating, the case was easy enough though it took many repetitions of "menos cara" til I got the cheapest one he sold. The strings should have been easier but turned out to be more difficult. Had I spotted the big display of them under the dusty counter I could have pointed, but the charades were much more fun. The tuning head I just couldn't fathom at all. He got what the item was that I was on about, but trying to explain that I wanted to take the guitar in and get him to fit it, failed dismally. He got a huge box of tuning heads out and I just bought one to get it over with! By this point, his equally ancient wife/assistant had come out from the back room (where presumably they hide the bodies) to "help". Debbie was finding the whole thing very entertaining.

In all the excitement I completely forgot to buy a capo, so a few days later, I had to go back in there on my own. As soon as I walked through the door, he said "Ah, hola, .........." something else very fast in Spanish! Then he shouted to his wife "That English girl's here again". I don't know if he just assumed I wouldn't understand cos my Spanish had been so appalling the first time. Still, I got a capo and a very big smile out of both of them!

It was just as well I didn't ask to give one of his handmade guitars a try, cos I'm sure I would have had to buy it!

Now I just need my huge stack of music sent over from the UK and I'm sorted.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Damn dawn delights

Sunrise from the window of the Ministry of the Environment, before my class!

In the words of The Monkees, and if I had my way, "the six o'clock alarm would never ring".

On the 21st of September 2009, I "officially" became employed again. Yes, I'd had private students before the summer, but now I had a real job. With a contract (though I've not actually seen it yet!), and proper pay - hurrah - minus tax - boo!

The day before my first class, I did the sensible thing and made a reccy out to the Ministry of the Environment, to time the journey and make sure I could find it. Easy enough. 5 stops on the Metro and a 7 minute walk down one straight road! Even I can do that. Having found it, I decided to take a stroll back a different way and to a different Metro station. The area between Nuevos Ministerios, Rios Rosas and Cuatro Caminos is really nice. If I were to move, I'd quite like to go there. During my wander I found a cool looking wine shop, the very posh Scuela Italian de Madrid, a Pilates centre, a million pastelerias with their tempting window displays, a great little travel bookshop, a couple of tempting restaurants, the beautiful Antigua Hospedal de Maudes (now some kind of council building) and my absolute favourite - a kitchen furniture/equipment shop called, in a particularly un-PC fashion "ForLady"!!!

Anyway, work! It's going pretty well, if I say so myself. My 2 students at the ministry are a director and a sub-director. The director is nice but scary. She's clearly something very, very high up and has an office that wouldn't look out of place in the White House. I'm meant to teach her every Monday and Wednesday morning at 8.15 but so far she's cancelled every Wednesday due to work commitments. I only get paid for a cancelled class if they cancel with less than 12 hours' notice - damn. The sub-director, however, is absolutely lovely. She's happy, bubbly, smiley, enthusiastic, does yoga and belly dancing and seems to find pretty much everything I say funny. I'm keeping my fingers crossed and taking that as a good thing!

As I said, the only down side is the early morning start. Alarm goes off at 6.30 and I'm out the door at 7.20. It's kind of weird being back in the normal working routine and going to the Metro station with all the other commuters! My Metro routine is to listen to my MP3 player all the way there, then pick up a free paper as I exit the station so that on the way back after class I can listen to more music, but read up on the news in Spanish. It's a hilarious free paper - it carries the important stories but mostly it's about Madrid and its suburbs. In that great way that those kind of local publications do, it has amusing stories about, for instance, a car being abandoned on a street corner in one of the suburbs. If that's the most exciting thing that happens there, well......!!

Getting into the Ministry has at least got easier and faster. On my first day, the security desk didn't have the requisite authorisation email about me and they wouldn't let me in! A couple of frantic phone calls to the school didn't help as it was out of hours so I just got the machine. Finally, I went back to the security desk and asked if I could at least phone my student on the internal phone to explain that I was there, I had actually turned up and that I would see her at the next lesson. The security guy rang her office, and 2 minutes later, I was in! I guess he rang the student himself and if she's as important as she seems, she probably just said "Let my teacher in!"

So, there it is. I'm working. I even got my first pay cheque on the 1st of October. It's all gone, of course!!!

Debbie's birthday decadence

September 27th not only saw the end of the reunion, but Debbie's birthday! Yay!

A small affair, due to various people being out of town - Debbie, Moira and I celebrated together. We met at Cafe Delic in Plaza de Paja, a plaza that I discovered was a total nightmare to actually find! Despite looking very easy on a map, I walked round and round (round what turned out to be the outside walls of the square!) for about half an hour, trying to find the way in. Finally, with the help of Moira on her mobile and her map which actually had street names marked (always helpful) I found them.

They were just reaching the end of a mojito each (which when the bill came and they turned out to be €9 each, I was glad I'd missed!). Being a birthday, cava was the order of the day. The waiter initially looked a little dubious as to whether they had any or not, but then came back with 3 very cute, individual bottles (much more reasonable at €3 each), 2 proper champagne flutes and a short, fat tumbler (no, not the acrobatic kind from the circus!). He apologised for not having 3 champagne glasses! As if that mattered. We were tempted to decadently swig it out of the bottle but propriety won out in the end.

Despite the desire for another cava, we decided to resist and walked all of 10 metres to Viva La Vida, a vegetarian food-sold-by-weight buffet restaurant we'd heard so much about but never been in. WOW! What a revelation! Like veggie heaven. First, the place itself is beautiful - all hippy and mad decor. But the food is just amazing. There must have been around 30 different dishes to choose from and that was just the savoury stuff. There were various croquetas, polenta cakes, pastas, fresh veg, salads, roasted vegetables, falafels, you name it, it was there. Loads of sauces, and pots of toppings (sesame seeds, pine kernels etc). Basically, you choose a size of plate, load up whatever you want and they weigh it. It's €2.10 per 100g. Now admittedly 100g isn't very much depending on the density of the food on your plate, but we threw caution to the wind! My plate cost €18 which is probably more than I'd spent on one plate of food since I got here. But to hell with it. It was absolutely delicious and it was more veggie food than I'd seen in 6 months. I may just move in there.

The desserts all looked good but I was so stuffed I could only manage a tiny little biscuit thing that cost me all of 67 centimos!

With that I took my leave of them, at a very civilised 10.30pm and headed home ready for my 6.30 am alarm call for the start of week 2 of teaching.

So - on here at least, happy birthday again Debbie, and no, I haven't forgotten I owe you a present. Forthcoming when the bank balance allows!

Raucous reunion

The weekend of 25-27 September saw the long-awaited reunion of at least half of the group from the Vaughan Town I did at the beginning of August.
Marta, Nacho and I had become the unofficial organisers of the whole thing, so come the Friday morning, I found myself with a long piece of paper containing the names, mobile numbers, planned arrival times, accommodation details and who knows what else of the group. They were arriving by various methods and all through the day - apart from those of us who live in Madrid of course.
First to touch down was Roz who came into Barajas and then found her way to the lobby of Kim's hotel to wait. Then Kim arrived - we had a very girly, screamy reunion of our own as she came out through arrivals, and then headed off to her hotel. Or we would have, if she'd had any idea of what it was called or where it was! Now I realise I had become the weekend organiser, but I wasn't aware that that stretched to knowing where she was staying or how to get there. With the help of various people on the street and finally Roz, we made it.
We spent a lovely afternoon after she'd checked in, first at La Mallorquina (great tea/cake shop on Sol) with Pedro, who was moving to Dublin the next day. It was great that he could manage to catch up with just a few of us before going to his own leaving party in the evening.

Over the course of the evening we managed to track down/meet as planned with: Carlos (known to me as Luis, long story), Mercedes, Margarita, Maria V, Nacho, Marta, Ana Belen and Geraldine. Oh, and Marta's brother and Margarita's husband! We moved around the area near Plaza Mayor for most of the evening, from bar to bar, attempting to eat but in 2 places failing, once due to no room and once due to no food! The travelling finally caught up with people and we drifted off.
On the Saturday, people went out in disparate groups. Kim and I met Roz, Geraldine and Marta at Plaza Espana and we went for a lovely walk all around the Temple of Debod, Palacio Real, Jardines de Sabatini, had a late lunch, sat in the sun, talked a lot and generally chilled.
In the evening, 12 of us made it to dinner at Bardemcilla (owned by the Spanish actor, Javier Bardem). What a great place! Google it - even the online menu is funky! Margarita's husband came out again, and this time Maria Angeles came and brought her husband along too. Halfway through the evening, we had some bad news and some great news.
The bad news was that one of the Anglo participants on the program had been involved in a really bad car accident 5 weeks earlier in Ibiza, and had been in hospital there ever since, with a severely injured pelvis and will have to learn to walk again. Poor Ali. We've heard from her since and she's very positive, bless her!
The good news was - JOSÉ LUIS was coming - as a surprise guest! Without a shadow of a doubt, the loveliest, most gorgeous, most popular (with both sexes!) guy on the whole program, and I know everyone else would agree. He'd said he wouldn't be able to make it due to work commitments, but he drove all the way down from Santander, with a work colleague, to come to the restaurant! The reaction from our table when he walked in probably made people think some film star had just entered! It was really good to see him, and his work colleague (Haagen from Germany) was equally lovely and entertaining! After dinner, we all headed to Chueca and took over a huge corner outside a great bar, that was full to overflowing with drag queens and various same/mixed/indeterminate sex couples and groups. We talked and drank til the small hours but finally admitted defeat!
On Sunday, most of us met up again, this time in the lobby of José Luis' hotel. The majority went off in search of culture by way of the Prado and the Thyssen. Roz and I, being the uncultured heathens that we are, went to the Retiro and just sat in the sun and chatted for a couple of hours. Roz then headed off on the train to Alcala de Henares to visit other friends and I went to find the rest in the Thyssen gift shop (generally the only bit of an art gallery you can drag me into!)

We went for lunch nearby and then it was time for everyone to head their separate ways. The usual 30 minute goodbye scene took place on the street and it was over!
It had been a lovely weekend, full of laughter, chat, fun, silliness, seriousness (Margarita had a totally life-changing experience the week after our program and is clearly very, very happy - good for her!), and a reminder of what good friends we had made on the program.
Whatever other nonsense might be going on with those programs at the moment, the fact remains that they're great experiences that always result in new friends being made, some programs more concretely than others. This was just one of those very special programs.
So thank you to everyone who made the effort to come, thanks to those who couldn't come but sent messages, and to the rest - see you sometime in the future. There is talk of this becoming an annual event so we'll keep you all posted!

Lazy, lazy, lazy blogger

I know, I know, I've been really bad and not blogged for ages. I could come up with various excuses but I won't.

So get your reading heads on - it's a quiet night here in the flat and I'm recovering from last night, so what the hell. Several blogs to be blitzed.

>>>>>>>>>>> TBC!

Friday, 25 September 2009

Blognotes Inc.

I was flicking through the little notebook I carry everywhere with me and found loads of little entries marked "For Blog". None of which have been. So here is a somewhat random selection of stuff, some of it from right back when I arrived! And exactly how I found them in my notes:

- El Corte Inglés - important to have accent on Inglés otherwise it means a groin wax!
- Guy on Metro asking for money by thrusting a note in your face. Can't speak at all or just can't speak Spanish?
- César - at Quiet Man - chat about paganism. Emailed me. Oops, who is he? Can't remember.
- C/de la Huertas - Veggie deli, Moroccan restaurant, Karma Indian, lots of stuff, v touristy, prob not cheap.
- Esto no sierve para nada - This is good for nothing!
- Spanish don't really do birthday cards!
- Little local veggie restaurant (Ceres) full of workmen at lunchtime. (Not sure if I thought this was a good or bad thing!)
- Nacho's "other" friend = Jaime
- Why can't I buy just one potato?
- Terramoto = earthquake. Maremoto = seaquake. What the hell is a seaquake?
- Keep being asked question/directions especially at bus stops. Do I really look Spanish?
- Why don't Spaniards seem to sweat or smell in this heat?!
- There are almost as many travel agencies as hairdressers.
- Ferreterias - key cutting places. Millions of them. Do the Spanish lose their keys a lot?
- In 39 degrees, I suddenly understand the need for shutters on all windows and doors.
- Ugly Naked Guy on balcony opposite. Stares a lot. Maybe we should flash him!
- Guy in the little convenience store across the road knows what I want the minute I walk in. Predictable?
- That's 2 entire buildings near me they've knocked down now in 3 months.
- Great city. Apart from the dog poo.
- I should really have found a job by now!

Not scintillating, I realise but they were starting to annoy me every time I flicked through my notes. So now it's done. Blogged. As planned. Well, not quite as planned. I'll shut up now.

I'll just walk in the road, then!

Just recently, the roadworks etc right outside the flat have been looking like coming to an end. October, they promised us. I'm not convinced but at least it's improving!

However, I now see that they've just moved.

Calle del Capitan Blanco Argibay, the fairly main road near me is becoming impassable. First they dug up the pavement on one side, completely, so everyone had to use the other pavement.
Now, rather spectacularly, not only have they dug up some of the useable side, but along the part they haven't dug up, they've just put up scaffolding. There is a whole stretch of the road with nowhere for pedestrians at all.

So we're taking our lives in our hands and walking in the fairly narrow road, full of taxis with their horns blaring, psychos on scooters who never seem to look where they're going, and buses that are almost the same width as the road.

Frankly, if I keep making it to and from the Metro station in one piece, it'll be a miracle.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Louise's moving day!

OK, so I should be lesson planning but I can't get Word to open (that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it) so it's time to catch up on blogging.

Last weekend saw Louise, one of my Australian friends here, moving out of her little house. The very house that I lived in for a month when I first arrived. She's going back to Australia in a month and for the next 4 weeks, will be variously in Madrid, Santander and Mallorca. So it was time to quit the house.

For days, if not weeks, beforehand, she'd been talking about packing, and the move, and storing stuff elsewhere. I'd already said that she could leave a couple of cases at my place until she leaves.

The day of the move came around and when I texted her at 12 to see how it was going, what came back was "I'm up to my neck in it here. I need a calming influence. Please come." Now, I'm pretty sure I've never been called a calming influence before, but there's a first time for everything so off I trotted, having called in reinforcements in the shape of Debbie.

When I arrived, I could see what she meant! The landlady was coming for the keys at 6pm and the place looked like a bomb had hit it. She'd made a good start but really, 2 years' worth of accumulated stuff is an awful lot when you have it all piled in a tiny room. Wrongly, I assumed upstairs was finished. Not a bit of it. Not least, one of the wardrobes was locked and stuck that way. Various attempts were made by both of us to open it to rescue her work suits but it resisted any and all attempts, nice or otherwise. Still, once I was there, we cracked on with the rest and slowly but surely, it all came together. Or at least, it all came downstairs. Debbie arrived soon after and lo and behold, a bit of Reiki and positive thinking (not to mention a screwdriver and some now missing wood from the lock) resulted in the wardrobe popping open and releasing its contents!

Downstairs, the main focus of attention was the huge wooden cupboard/press/thing! The drawer at the top contained, well, a bit of anything and everything, as drawers like that are wont to do. The main part of the cupboard contained 2 years' worth of teaching materials! So much paper! I believe there may have been an entire Brazilian rainforest in there. Not any more. Now it's mostly in the recycling bin nearby. Debbie and I even found it quite therapeutic taking regular trips to the recycling places, and the bins, so I imagine it was either more so, or very painful, for Louise!!!

Finally, everything was packed up. There were 4 cases, innumerable bags and boxes plus of course the odds and sods that we kept stumbling over that she had forgotten about!

It took a total of 3 taxi journeys (2 to my place and 1 to Debbie's) to shift it all. The corner of my bedroom has now disappeared, and Debbie's flatmates are marvelling at the arrival of actual kitchen equipment (like forks, for instance!), and a working TV and DVD player. In true Louise style, she was determined to pass on/recycle as much of it as possible, so Debbie and I have her to thank for our large bags full of goodies! Debbie was unfeasibly excited by a pot of plastic animals - I'm hoping due to her imminent teaching of children!

It was a fun, but exhausting day, and has served to convince me that I must not accumulate stuff while I'm here if I can possibly help it! I don't want to be faced with that if/when I leave.

Louise, for a nomad, you're a terrible hoarder, love! And we will be very sad to see you go!

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Strum strum strum

Finally, after 6 months and 5 days here, I have a guitar! I didn't bring mine with me due to luggage constraints and the fact that I don't have 12 hands!

For the first few months I didn't miss it so much. I had plenty of other things to do, plus I went back to the UK twice and could play mine while I was there.

But my week at Pueblo Inglés was a reminder. Unlike Vaughan Town, there is a guitar at each venue with PI so I got to play. Not as much as I wish I had the nerve to, and probably should have. But in a couple of group activities, quietly in the bar area a couple of times, and then outside on the last morning. And I realised how much I missed it. Not so much the performing, because unlike singing, I haven't really played the guitar in public all that much. Just simply having it there, in reach, to play around with when I'm bored or can't sleep or feeling a bit down.

I have to admit to there being another incentive. A certain rather lovely guy who I met on the program (yes, the one mentioned in a previous blog) picked up the guitar when I put it down on the last day, said he really wanted to learn so I taught him a couple of chords. He's clearly musical so picked it up easily. On his return home, an infuriating 6000 miles away, he bought himself a (very nice) guitar! Which just made me want one more.

So I trawled through strange Spanish eBay, and a couple of second hand websites til I found some. I struck lucky with my 3rd attempt. A 2-year old, good condition, Spanish classical, nylon strung guitar could be mine for the princely sum of €40. All I had to do was meet a complete stranger at an out of the way Metro station. "Just look for the guy carrying the guitar", he said. Well, to be fair, that's exactly what I did.

I gave the guitar a test run, sitting on a bench in the street while I chatted to Mark, the seller, a Brit who's been living in Spain for 2 years variously as an English teacher, a guitarist and a music teacher. He plays amazing flamenco guitar and gave me a little demo, which made my embarrassing little test play even more mortifying.

We ended up chatting for over an hour about all sorts of stuff. That's what I like about this country. In the UK, if I'd bought a guitar of a guy on the internet, I'd have gone to his house, checked it was in one piece, handed over the money and that would have been that. People here have the time and the inclination to chat, are interested in your story and happy to tell their own. He has since sent me info about good guitar shops in Madrid, how not to get ripped off should I decide to take flamenco guitar lessons, and I've sent him info about the whale and dolphin watching company I holidayed with once, and about a garlic restaurant in San Francisco. Weird and wonderful.

So anyway, I'm the proud new owner of a lovely guitar! Now I should really practice more......

Moroccan munchies

Thursday was Louise's birthday, so a group of us went to Arabia, a very lovely restaurant near Chueca.

I can certainly recommend the ambience of the place - it looked and felt like you'd want it to. Lots of cushions, low seating, carved wood, nice music.

Yet somehow it appears we pissed off the main waitress simply by arriving. Maybe it was the fact there were 7 of us for a booking of 10, but these things happen. Can't be helped.

Because we were a group, we had to have the set menu which basically means not ordering off the menu, you get what you're given. It's a starter, a main and a dessert per person, a glass of cava and a bottle of wine between every 3 people.

A couple of us had ordered a beer at the beginning but confusingly, this resulted in said stroppy waitress immediately starting to collect up all 7 wine glasses and try to take them away. We pointed out that wine came with our set menu and could we please have our glasses back. Cue them being banged back down on the table at each place setting!

7 very delicious all vegetarian starters arrived. No complaints. Divine. All of them.

Then 7 main courses. I'm assured they were lovely, but unfortunately only one was veggie so my main course consisted of 2 spoonfuls of couscous! Partly my fault for not checking, I admit.

7 little baklava style cakes, the little glass of cava and the most sugary mint tea in the world followed.

Really, the only downer was the behaviour of the one waitress who continuously glared at us, banged things on the table, snatched things away and was generally entirely undeserving of a tip. Which is why she didn't get one!

All in all, it was a great evening though, as the company was marvellous. I learnt all kinds of things about wine, courtesy of Rafa.

I'll be going back there again, but to order from the menu next time. And hopefully when the waitress is in a better mood! Or on a day off.

Friday, 18 September 2009

And the nominations are.....

A couple of days ago, the lovely Dade ( nominated me for the above. Having been somewhat lax, and in my opinion, not terrible creative with mine, that was a very sweet surprise for which I thank him.
I have no idea, and nor did he, where the idea came from but that doesn't diminish it one bit.
In return, a recipient is asked to share with their readers "7 things that I love", not including people, and then nominate 4 brand new worthy recipients, simple.
So, 7 things I love
1) Playing the guitar. I've been doing it since I was 10, on and off, but in recent years probably more off than on. I've been getting itchy fingers though, in the last few months and having had a couple of opportunities to play, finally bought myself a second hand one here in Madrid!
2) Madrid - what can I say? For someone who doesn't like cities, very much, it's been a revelation. I love the people, the different barrios, the buildings, the sheer chaos of the streets and the tranquility of the Retiro.
3) Marmite. Say no more.
4) Music - after a dry few years in the 90s when there was nothing I liked and I stuck to listening to my 80s classics, I'm pleased to be back interested in music again. My mp3 player comes everywhere with me these days and there is rarely a silent moment.
5) Vaughan Town/Pueblo Inglés - yes, I did actually put them together. I'm aware this is sacrilege, but no matter who runs them, any immersion program in beautiful parts of Spain, where Spaniards can get the equivalent of 6 months' English in a week, is a good thing. They both lead to lasting friendships and experiences that will never be forgotten.
6) Water - OK, not the most scintillating choice. But still. It's what keeps us alive. I am never without a bottle of water, as certain people regularly point out, and possibly make fun of. I don't care. It's good stuff. It lets me eat and drink all the other rubbish, enjoy myself yet not always suffer the after effects!
7) Greece - After Madrid, it's my favourite place. OK, probably higher than Madrid! If I live anywhere else, it will probably be Greece, Crete hopefully. I love everything about it - the food, the lifestyle, the scenery, the beer (Mythos!), the people, the perfect little blue and white houses and churches you stumble across everywhere, the skinny cats, the beaches........ you get the picture.
And so, my 4 nominations for blogs are:
1) More Or Less : This is my friend Debbie's blog about her life in Madrid these days.
2) Crystal Jigsaw : I've been following this for a while. The writer has a great turn of phrase and some of the most moving entries I've seen.
3) A View of Madrid : - this is Richard's informative, amusing and well-written take on, well, Madrid. Obviously.
4) Rockin' On : - I stumbled across this a while ago, while searching the net about halloumi cheese. Don't ask. It's a random blog, but I just like it!
So there you go, my 7 and my 4. Thanks again Dade, for the nod!

Wednesday, 16 September 2009


I guess the bumming around, living off my ever-dwindling savings and generally lazing had to come to an end sometime. And the start of the academic year in Madrid seems like an obvious time for it to happen.

It's been good to be here, experiencing the city and life in a foreign country properly for the first time, but reality sets in eventually, especially when I look at my bank balance. Plus, I'm really not good at doing nothing. No, really, I'm not. Stop laughing.

So work it is. Two interviews in the last week and it appears they were both succesful. For one of them, I start teaching at 8am next Monday morning (ouch!) - in a government dept (not sure which one). The company has a 3 year contract to teach English on site to various government offices all over Madrid, so I'm going to be teaching civil servants. Ironic, really. At least we'll have something in common. My first 2 students are "directors" - not quite clear what that means here other than presumably they're reasonably high up and slightly older. The woman who interviewed me said she thought that would be a good reason to send me because I'm "slightly more mature". Ouch. Backhanded compliments all round.

I'm excited and terrified at the same time. I guess this is the crunch. I find out if I'm actually a good teacher. At least I start from the position of thinking I probably am! Having been on training teams etc for a lot of years, and generally feeling pretty pleased with myself when I have trained/taught someone something, I feel I've got a good base. But can I teach English? We'll see. All I can do is my best, which I will.

The kicker is going to be getting up in the mornings, for the first time in 6 months. It's not like I've been in bed til 12 every day (OK, some days) but I also haven't actually had to set an alarm really for ages. From now on, Monday to Thursday, I'm going to have to be up around 6.45. I just checked online and sunrise here is around 8. Still, at least in the dark I might not look as trashed as I'll actually be! So there will be some early nights coming up, which will be very unusual. My body clock seems to have very happily swung onto Spanish time, and bed at 3 or 4 in the morning is pretty normal. Still, again, years of shiftwork mean I'm fairly flexible and reckon I'll deal with it OK.

The other company hope to have some classes to offer me in October sometime.

2 of my 3 private students want me back too, which is good and they've moved their lessons so that I teach both of them 2 evenings a week at their flat for 2 hours. I'm waiting to hear from the 3rd one as to whether or not he wants to continue. His work is pretty demanding so I think it's the timing that will be the issue.

So there we have it. I'll have an income again. Not a king's ransom but a good start.

Now - the third conditional. What's that again?

Saturday, 12 September 2009


So since the tearful goodbye at the airport on Thursday morning, I've been in serious need of distraction from heartbreak, not to mention sleep.

Thursday at least involved lots of sleep, eventually. Though first I finally sorted out my Social Security number and went for a chat and a drink in a tiny weird Ecuadorian coffee shop with Debbie.

Yesterday turned into a packed day. First I had what appears to have been a pretty successful job interview. Then I met the lovely Richi for a chat and a drink and dog-walking. Then, and try not to be too jealous, I hit Ikea with Richi and Julie! OK, so I don't actually have a property to furnish or anything but since when did that stop anyone wandering round the Marketplace? In very restrained, and broke, fashion I managed to spend just under €15. I'm now the proud owner of a small lime green stool/table to rest my drinks on in the living room, a strange silicon ice cube tray, vanilla ice cream tea lights and....there must be something else. Other than a big Ikea paper bag!

Amusingly, I spent the trip feeling like a kid in a big shop with their parents. Julie's 6ft 2 and Richi's about 6ft 4. Consequently, I felt like a midget trailing round between them!

Excitement of the visit came when Richi dumped an entire cup of coffee over me and, more importantly, my mobile phone! Cue panic, swearing and much crossing of fingers. Seems to have survived the experience though it now smells funny!

Then I had a fleeting meetup with the lovely Lizzie from my recent Pueblo experience. She was on her way to Dublin. I was lending her a pair of shoes. Random.

Knackered, I then headed home via Hannah's for a "quick drink". That was at 8.3o. I got home at 2.30 am. Time warp. Again.

So thanks to my friends for doing their very best to distract me and keep me sane for the last 48 hours. Has it really only been 48 hours since the airport? I guess so. Feels like a lifetime.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Unexpected surprise

There is far too much I could say about the last 11 days but I can't begin to express it, nor would you all have the patience to read it, I dare say.

Suffice to say, my experience in Valdelavilla was unforgettable and I have taken away (and I hope, given) more than I could have expected. The immersion English programs, no matter which company they are with, are the most rewarding, intense and frankly, tiring, weeks in the world. Everyone should do one.

However, on this occasion, and more importantly, I met the most beautiful, inspiring and loving person of my entire life. What happens next is out of my hands but if anything I believe in cares to conspire in my favour, I will be eternally grateful.

As per the statue's head - "E 4 G" (private joke!)

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Another trip coming up

Having spent most of my week back here faffing about with job applications, fighting with the dust from the roadworks, and socialising, I decided to reward myself with another week away!

I was asked at very short notice if I wanted to go and do another English immersion program (mentioning no company names!) so I'm off Friday morning, til next Friday. It'll be interesting!

No idea what the net/mobile access is like, so if I disappear til next Friday night, you'll know why.

Hasta luego.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

No joke

Well, it appears I've finally found out what's wrong with my foot. The GP in the UK seems to have given me the absolute basics but it might have been nice if she'd told me the long-term news. Instead of which, I have to get my info from Google.

Using a phrase that the GP mentioned while I was there, I've done some research. And I can confidently say that I have PTS - Post Thrombotic Syndrome. Every single thing I found on the net today fits perfectly. Thanks to the multiple blood clots on my lungs that I had in 2003, which it seems came from an undiagnosed DVT in my calf, I am now joining the high percentage of post-DVT PTS sufferers. Ah, so many acronyms!

There are 2 annoying things : 1) it appears that my chances of getting it COULD have been lowered if I'd been given certain advice/treatment immediately after my 6 months on blood thinners following the pulmonary embolii and 2) there is now nothing that can be done for it and I can look forward to years of foot/leg pain, swelling, discolouration and if I'm really lucky in the end, open ulcers. Referred to on most websites as leading to chronic morbidity.

Oh goody. Bit pissed off, frankly.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

What I did in my summer holidays!

After the gloriousness of Vaughan Town, I packed myself off to the UK for 11 days. That may seem a strange place to go in the height of summer when you live in Spain, but....! Those of you in Spain will know that August in Madrid is 2 things: dead and HOT! Not just a bit hot, not just pretty warm, but hotter than hell. 40-45 degrees. So despite the fact that it's lovely that it's so quiet, it's kind of wasted cos you just don't want to go out! I realise that complaining about the weather may seem like rubbing salt in the wound of those of you living with grey, cloudy skies but really - try living day to day in over 40 degrees. Not as fun as you might think!!

Be warned - this is a bit long. Sorry.

So - anyway, August in the UK. I'll get the weather out the way first. Changeable. Predictably changeable - if that's not a contradiction in terms. I had rain, cloud, sun, wind, heat, you name it. Well, apart from snow. Though it wouldn't have surprised me if that had put in an appearance too.

After my previously detailed delayed arrival, I launched into my social whirl on the Sunday with an afternoon BBQ for the 60th birthday celebrations of an old family friend. It was a lovely, chilled afternoon in their garden, with a fantastic spread of "normal" and veggie BBQ stuff with very tasty accompaniments (including beer of course!). Followed by no less than 8 cakes! Most people were settled in around 4 big tables and there wasn't much mingling so I chatted most of the afternoon to the birthday celebrant, his son, my mum, dad and stepmum (always an interesting fly-on-the-wall experience to have the 3 of them sitting together!!! :-)

Monday was spent ferrying the slightly damaged cat backwards and forwards to the vet for stitches in her inexplicable wound! One VERY grumpy moggy finally came back home at 6, complete with pretty purple soluble stitches, but a look on her face that said she'd be taking a long time to forgive me. Pushover that she is, some chicken and tuna seemed to change her mind quite fast and she's now healing well!

In the evening, I went out with Andy (in case anyone doesn't know - he is now ex-boyfriend, formerly known as boyfriend). For the duration of my trip to the flat, he was away house-sitting for a friend so any awkwardness there might have been trying to share with a recent ex was avoided. So we met for beer, pizza and chatting. And it was really nice. Really, properly, nice. Think we've found we get on much better as mates than as a couple. Yay.

Tuesday was a mishmash of sorting out my storage lockup in a hunt for things to sell (got to pay my rent in Madrid somehow), then 6 hours trying to fix my mum's laptop. Fairly successfully, if I may say so. Then she took me out for curry at the yummy Blue India in Haywards Heath.

Wednesday I spent the day blitzing the murder mystery that Cathy and I are desperately trying to get ready for the beginning of September, then Ange treated me to food and drinks at The Open House and we chatted. A lot. (And I made her cry. Accidentally!)

Thursday was my only day to myself so it was more murder mystery prep, a trip into town to try and flog some jewellery (total failure!), caught up with some random TV and listened to Spanish radio! Oh, and at the back of a drawer I had found an old SLR camera - with film, not digital! Worked out I probably last used it in about 2001 and it still had film in it, with 13 photos taken. Curiosity got the better of the me and despite the fact I thought the film would be knackered, I used up the rest of the pictures and took it off to Boots for developing! And in the evening, I learnt to play the ukulele that I got for my birthday!

Julia and Mike, more longstanding friends, came down for the weekend. Friday night we went out for a gorgeous Sri Lankan curry (if you're in Hove, go to Moonstone in Church Road), with Cathy, Ed, Andrea and Carol. Another good, fun, chatty evening accompanied by great food. I nearly missed the last bus home but was very glad that I didn't as I would have missed the spectacularly impressive transvestite bus driver.

Saturday I collected the photos from Boots, expecting little, but getting 36 perfectly good photos! The first 13 were indeed a blast from the past - a weekend away with mates in, we think, North Devon and some shots of a very bizarre girly pampering night for me and Cathy at my flat. Facepacks galore! I met Cathy, Julia and Mike again and we went for lunch at The George (vegetarian pub). We got over the disappointment of them not having any veggie sausages available and scoffed tasty halloumi baguettes, baked goats cheese and vegetable soup. Then we went to Devil's Dyke on the open top bus. Breezy. Bracing. OK, probably cold! By the time we got to the top, there were very threatening grey clouds, strong winds and we had to admit that our planned beach BBQ might not be the best idea ! We walked on the Dyke for a while then headed back on the bus. We stopped at a pub near my flat then Sarah joined us for takeaway pizza at mine. I wish they'd open a branch of Oregano's in Madrid!

Sunday was Ed's birthday so brunch on the seafront called. Summer had returned and it was lovely to sit out with our veggie sausage sandwiches and cheesy chips in the sun and the sea breeze. Cathy and Ed headed off for a birthday surprise night away, and Julia and Mike had to go home so I met up with Sarah and Sid for a late afternoon laze in the park, with ice cream.

On Monday, I spent the day with my dad. Lunch at Tosca's in Shoreham was tasty as ever (though disappointingly the very gorgeous Italian waiter wasn't working!). I played about with his computer too, installing his webcam and Skype so we can have strange disjointed conversations in future, and getting rid of IE8 which they'd downloaded but hated! In the evening, Ange came round for food, chat and a jam session. We've been singing and playing the guitar together since we were about 13 - to be fair, on that basis, you'd think we'd be better by now! But it's always amusing to us even if the neighbours don't agree. The video evidence, which some of you will have been unfortunate enough to see, says it all.

Tuesday was packing and saying goodbye to the cat day. A long walk on the seafront with Andy was relaxing and refreshing. Then for my final evening, I went to Misty's for cocktails with Cathy, Sid, Deb and Carol. A rather drunken evening, I have to admit. Doing 2 for 1 offers on cocktails til 9 is very nice of them, but does rather encourage binge ordering. We'd already had 2 each when we realised it was 8.50 and we'd better get to the bar. Ordered another 2 each plus somehow an extra communal one for the table! Still, I can't complain about an evening that starts with a Sicilian Kiss, goes through Purple Rain, Brandy Alexander, another Sicilian Kiss and ends up in an Orgasm. Slightly the worse for wear, I climbed into our "taxi" (thanks, Andy!) and Sid and I went to her place so that I could wake up far too early this morning, only 10 minutes from the airport.

So that's my last 11 days. What have you all been doing?!

Photos of my trip can be found here:

Monday, 17 August 2009

Am I home yet?

My time back in the UK was weird. Good but weird. As future blog will show!

I had some great fun meetups with my mates and family, and I definitely should have put the cat in my suitcase and smuggled her back to Madrid, but still somehow it was odd. The flat felt strange for the first few days though it didn't by the end.

But the couple of times I referred to going back to Madrid as "going home", I was met with slight surprise by the person I said it to, yet it felt totally normal to me. But is it home? Kind of. It's where I spend the majority of my time. Yet I don't have a "real" job, I'm renting a room in a shared flat, I still get lost (a lot!). I've got friends here, but I've known all of them less than 2 years, and in most cases, only since March. Having said that, they're fast becoming very good friends.

With the other Anglos (or should that just be non-Spaniards?), maybe it's the shared experience of living abroad that kind of throws us together. Someone said to me today though that it's a perfect opportunity to meet people that probably you wouldn't meet under any other circumstances. They're right - the majority of my mates in the UK are either school or work related. Common ground, of course. And without exception, they're great and I wouldn't be without them. But I guess it's another comfort zone thing - there's no impetus to find/need other people there!

So maybe I have 2 homes. Or none. Maybe I'm just learning to enjoy wherever I am.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009


Went to a BBQ on Sunday. In England. It didn't rain. Just thought I'd mention it.

Being home - but is it home?

I flew back to the UK on Saturday evening, for the first time since May. It's only been 3 months but they've been a very eventful 3 months.

I felt strangely nervous as I headed to the airport (partly cos I'd been very disorganised and thought I was going to be horribly late!) - I was wondering how I'd feel to be back.

Ryanair did their best to change my nerves to anger by being delayed by half an hour, then letting us board the plane but then sitting on the tarmac for nearly another hour. Finally we left and the wheels hit Gatwick at 10pm (after an exciting descent through some great turbulence - yes, I'm one of those odd people that actually enjoys that!)

As we'd landed at a gate somewhere in Scotland as far as I could tell, it was 20 minutes before I found myself heading down the ramp towards the arrivals hall. Having spent so much of my life working at airports, they're not my favourite places anyway, but Gatwick South, particularly, fills me with abject horror these days. It's not improved by the fact that they're removing asbestos from the ceiling so there is now a false ceiling up, barely a couple of feet above our heads. It's very claustrophobic! So I joined the throngs of Brits and queued for immigration, hoping not to see anyone I knew. No such luck - but at least it was someone I liked! I got to giggle at the new uniform but as I left the hall, I realised that I absolutely can't ever imagine going back to the job, no matter where.

The delights of the British public transport system were my next challenge. Having spent nearly £9 on a one-way ticket to Brighton, I then found there wasn't a train for nearly 40 minutes and that was going to be the slow train. A dull wander around the terminal ensued to kill some time - at least it involved an M&S giant vegetable samosa - then off I went back to the station. The next stage of my journey was then thwarted by one of those announcement that you know isn't going to go well when it starts "Ladies and gentlemen, we are sorry to announce......." This time it was that everything was delayed because a train had hit a shopping trolley which had been thrown onto the line from a bridge. So vile British youth were already affecting my trip!

I finally got on a train and spent most of the journey being appalled at how the big group of chavs sitting behind me were massacring the English language. It struck me just how different it sounded to the English I hear in Madrid, from both Anglos and Spaniards (yes Debbie and Louise, of course you both know you speak the most AMAAAAZING English :-) )

At midnight, 3 hours later than expected I fell out of a taxi to my front door. It felt very strange to be back - it's my flat, it's my stuff (well, most of it at least!) but somehow it's not mine. At least Messy (the cat) recognised me this time! Last time I was back she spent 2 days skulking around, looking at me sideways and refusing to sit on my lap. This time, she was all over me in minutes, sniffing, head butting and washing me! Come to think of it, there was a lot of sniffing and washing. Maybe I didn't smell too good! :-)

After my day of travel, I was too awake to go to bed so I stayed up til 4am just faffing on the net and waiting to see if it would feel like home.

It didn't.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

What a week!

I could go on for hours and bore you rigid with all the details, but won't. In short (well, relatively short):

My sixth Vaughan Town (my third at beautiful Gredos) turned out to be as close to perfect as I can imagine. With the exception of the crappy veggie food (really, overcooked spaghetti with watered down tomato ketchup 3 times in one week?), which I was expecting anyway, everything else was fantastic.

The Anglos bonded really fast, in some cases within minutes of meeting for the first time at the tapas night (eh, Kim?!).

The Spaniards were an astonishingly lovely group - a pretty good starting level of English which probably helped but really just the best people. As usual, there was a good mix of ages, genders (well, OK, there are only 2 but....!), occupations, interests and talents.

Over the course of the week, I had silly, deep, ridiculous, interesting, moving, honest, educational and indescribable (or at least unrepeatable) conversations.

The group activities and entertainment hours were filled with laughs, audience participation and occasional bafflement. I enjoyed being in my own (tweaked!) murder mystery but the less said about my part in the dead parrot sketch, the better!

Queimada and karaoke night was fun, though as usual by the time karaoke really got going and people were getting enthusiastic, it was nearly time for it to be over! Too much time spent fighting over the 2 songbooks, trying to read them in the dark, deciding who to sing with and supping the requisite amount of Dutch courage!!

Party night rocked. Probably the first time I've known absolutely everyone stay til the end and of course, still not want to stop! The bleary eyes and sheepish looks the next morning indicated that not everyone did stop!

As ever, Friday rolled around far too fast and before we knew it, we were packing up, doing group photos and heading off for the certificate ceremony. Several of us were swallowing back tears before it even started, but by the end (despite the VERY inappropriate interruption of Dade's moving sentiment), open sobbing was the order of the day.

The palpable sense of achievement, accomplishment and friendship in the room is something I've never experienced anywhere else. That, along with the ludicrous amount of fun to be had, is what keeps me coming back. Time to look at dates for my next one, I reckon!

Here are my photos, though they're few and far between as I was generally having far too much fun to think about my camera:

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Unexpected intercambio

Tonight's lesson didn't start well. I turned up at Jaime's garage, as every other Tuesday evening, at 8.30. The look on his face followed by his exclamation of "Mierda" should have been a clue!
Oh yes, he'd forgotten all about our lesson and was just closing up the garage and heading off for drinks with a mate.

Magnanimously (I thought, having walked all the way there in 32 degrees with a heavy bag!) I said never mind, why don't we do it tomorrow evening instead?! Oh no, he said, I can't, I'm going out for dinner with 6 friends. We'd already established that we were cancelling Thursday's lesson, so it was looking like it was all over til September.

Until his mate, who was loitering around, asked why I didn't go with them for drinks! Jaime said yes as long as we had the class at the bar. Though he made me promise to let him speak quietly as he said he'd be embarrassed speaking English in public.

What the hell!

I can't pretend it was a roaring success. We probably did about half an hour of the class, regularly interrupted by the mate, who spoke no English but was very funny. In the end, Jaime gave up and said no more, please!

I let him off (the customer is always right), and we got more beer and more tapas.

Of course, once the class was over it was a free-for-all language-wise. It was pointless for me to keep plugging away in English so I took the opportunity for my first proper Spanish conversation! Went quite well, if you ask me! I understood pretty much everything they said and they were very patient while I looked odd words up in the dictionary. They politely ignored the fact that I can still only do the present tense!

What had started as a bit of a disaster turned into a very entertaining evening, all in all, and a very enjoyable learning curve!

Monday, 27 July 2009

RIP Little Tree

The bastards finally did it - the gits digging up the roads etc round here finally cut down one of the 5 trees in the little green area in front of the flats.

Eve and I had been keeping a close eye on it since they started, but because they had protected the trunks of all the trees with planks of wood, and had been carefully driving around them all for weeks, we thought they were safe.

Hah! Just as I stepped onto the balcony today, I heard a crash and looked down to see the smallest of the trees tumbling to the ground, then chopped up into bits and taken away in a digger.

So we have gone from (note little tree in the middle in front of the white van):

to this:

This is officially "Arbol Pequeño - Ground Zero".

Friday, 24 July 2009

Home alone!

Hmm, so now there's just little old me rattling around in my nice 3-bed apartment!

Yesterday morning, far too early, I waved goodbye to Eve as she headed back to Ireland with her many suitcases! Mind you, given that when she got to the airport they pointed out that with Ryanair, it's a total luggage weight of 15kg per person, not per suitcase, I'm surprised she wasn't back here a couple of hours later.

It's weird that she's not coming back, well, not any time soon. Not that I mind living on my own, I've done it plenty and I like it. But it was a really fun few months sharing with her, so now it seems a bit quiet with no prospect of a cheery Hola, or her chuntering on in any one of 3 languages! No-one to laugh at me when I pile through the front door, gasping for air after the 8 flights of stairs which, after 4 months, still kill me! Plus of course I am now the only thing directly in the line of sight of Ugly Naked Guy on the balcony opposite!

Still, I'm only here on my own for another week, then off to Vaughan Town for a week, then straight to the UK for 11 days. By the time I get back to Madrid, I imagine there will be news on the people moving in in September (and the geraniums will probably be dead)!

Meanwhile, I'll continue to do the girly version of a bachelor flat occupant, make some more tea, settle down on the sofa and carry on watching Sneakers! Robert Redford and River Phoenix sharing screen time. Who could ask for more? It certainly gets my vote for recovering from gastric flu, or whatever I've had.

Oh, and Eve, if you're reading this, you clearly didn't take the poltergeist with you. The same white bowl enjoyed more aerial acrobatics across the kitchen this morning! ;-)

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Gonna have a moan!

Feel free to shout at me for posting a negative blog, but it can't be all sunshine and flowers all the time. Well, OK, sunshine maybe!

Am feeling distinctly cheated that I'm where I want to be (for now), doing what I came here to do (sort of) yet at the moment, I feel like crap.

I've had a bizarre inexplicable swollen foot for, well, far too long and the only way to keep it down is to wear my trainers from morning til night, done up really tight. Not fun in this heat. And before anyone mentions it, for reasons that are far too boring to go into, I can't go to a doctor here. But I do have very expensive horse chestnut extract from the nice lady at the herbolario.

And to add insult to injury, an unknown git brought a stinking cold to our party on Saturday night and it's knocking me out. I can't breathe, my voice is practically gone, again, and I have a temperature. Which when it's 99 degrees outside, is not fun. My nose would be well suited to Rudolph due to all the blowing, all the eucalyptus oil in the world isn't helping.

Our murder website email server decided to crash and refused to send/lost a very long email I sent to a customer yesterday, so having waited all day for a reply from Tech Support (never came), I eventually had to go back in and compose the entire thing again, once the emails were up and running.

I feel so crap I can't even consider job hunting for September as I'd never make it through an interview at the moment! So I'm going to be trying to find a job in late August at the rate I'm going.

Even the virtual hug I was just sent didn't manage to cheer me up as much as it should! ;-)

Given that most of you have probably stopped reading by now if you've got any sense, I'll stop, though I could go on!!!

5 more lessons to go this week then I'm going to have a bloody long rest (well, apart from blitzing the murder mystery!)

And since I'm in moany mode, why does almost no-one ever comment on my blog?!!!!! Is it that boring?! Someone please tell me, and I'll stop (or at least get a ghost writer!) It's set up so that anyone can comment, you don't have to be a member or anything. So even if all you want to say is "Shut up moaning" then I'll be bloody grateful!

Time for me to go to bed, I reckon!!!

Monday, 20 July 2009

And then Cathy was here.... my life in Madrid attracted another visitor. Cathy came for a lovely long weekend.

Her time here was slightly shortened by Easyjet's inability to get a plane off the ground on time, so she was over 2 hours late arriving.

We had a fun weekend - involving (surprise, surprise) some sitting on the balcony in the late evening sun, huevos y patatas in town, shoe shopping, picnic in the Retiro, dinner at Isla del Tesoro (heavenly veggie food), a wander round the Temple of Debod and just general chilled enjoyment. Because she'd been to Madrid 3 times before, there was no pressure on either of us to rush around the touristy things!

In the middle of all this, of course, was Eve's goodbye party at the flat! But that is for another blog!

Due to a combination of my camera battery unexpectedly running out, forgetting to take it with me, being drunk/hungover or being somewhere that photos aren't really appropriate (the veggie restaurant!), there aren't as many pics as I would have liked. Still, what there are can be seen here:

It was a lovely weekend so thanks to Cathy for her company (and well done for managing to get up at 4.30 this morning to get to the airport!)

Monday, 13 July 2009

Similar, yet different

For those who lost the will to live trying to read my previous diatribe on Sid's weekend visit, here's the lowdown on her latest trip, just 2 weekends later:

Thurs: Arrival. Balcony. Park. Picnic. TWIGLETS! Taught. Sid was flat-bitch and made dinner! Yum. Drinks and chat.

Fri: Atocha Renfe - terrapins (tortoises?) Caixa Forum - Islamic Art exhibition, Cambodia exhibition, Architecture stuff, funky purple sofas. Maoz falafels. Wander. Shop. La Mallorquina. Tea. Lots of cream cake. Locandita. Beer. Chat.

Sat: Cacao Sampaka ( CAKE! Tea. Dribble. Wander. Retiro. Sun. Dinner on balcony.

Sun: Rastro. Lunch (Isla del Tesoro - best veggie restaurant ever!). Cable car. Casa de Campo. Sun. Drinks. Picnic on balcony. Cards and chat.

Mon: Local park. 44 degrees. Picnic. Sunburn. Sid - airport. :-(

The End.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

An evening in Segovia.....

Weeks ago, Jorge invited us for an evening in Segovia, the capital of his home province. He comes from a village a few kilometres away, but clearly spent lots of time in Segovia and wanted to share it. We finally got around to it last Thursday evening!

Things didn't quite go to plan immediately - we set off rather later than intended, then had to turn back halfway due to a fire, and find a different route. We arrived in the city at 9.45pm (on a school night!! :-). On the way, we'd been impressed by flashing lights on sharp bend signs (yes, we're easily pleased!), our ears had popped several times and we'd burst Jorge's eardrums singing along with the radio!

As we were driving in, we'd seen some hot air balloons in the distance. Just as we walked from the car, they floated directly overhead!!

We marvelled at the aqueduct, then strolled up to the cathedral which is beautiful at night when it's all lit up, and then further on to the castle. Given that the gates were locked at that time of night, the only way we could get a glimpse of the fairy-tale towers, was by standing up on the city walls. Which are rather high!! Jorge had a bit of a moment, when Eve stood a tad too close to the part with a 200 foot drop on the other side but otherwise we survived the acrobatics!

Obviously by this point, we'd stopped for a couple of drinks, the first in a great old traditional bar, with stacks of stuff hanging all over the place. Very tasty patatas ali oli tapas too. The next was in a surprisingly busy place. Having been walking round all evening, barely seeing another soul, it was a shock to find a street that wouldn't have been out of place in Madrid. Hordes of people in the street, chatting, drinking, spilling out of various bars. It was like being in a different city!

During the evening, Jorge had been really interesting and informative about the city. I'm constantly amazed at how much Spaniards know about their towns, country and history. Now I realise that probably sounds slightly patronising, but find me many Brits who could take you round their town and just know all kind of fascinating facts, figures and dates. I know for a fact that my knowledge of Brighton doesn't run to even knowing when the Royal Pavilion was built!! It makes such a change for someone to be interested in, and knowledgable about their town.

We headed back for the car as various people had work the next morning, but were diverted by the bright lights of TelePizza! Fancying just a slice each turned into ordering 2 big pizzas between the 4 of us. Despite being damned hungry, not helped by the tempting smell from the boxes, we hopped back in the car and found a quiet park (OK, it was more a patch of grass by a convent!) to eat it! Something about it felt quite naughty, a bit like when you were a kid drinking Merrydown Cider in the graveyard. Somehow the conversation turned to the aurora borealis and I said I'd seen them in Iceland. Hannah accused me of name-dropping so I told her I'd meant the freezer shop. Not that funny, I'm sure you'd agree but for some reason this set her off laughing, crying and snorting for an alarmingly long time!

The journey back was much faster, though we had time to stop off and top up our water bottles from a water tap hidden in a pitch-dark layby, wonder at the stars, and play silly games. How is it possible that I Spy can still be entertaining when the combined age of the people in the car is somwhere around 130? It helps when you have Eve guessing "Jorge" when the letter was H. A rather feeble attempt at "I am not Nebuchednezzar but I am......." (or as Hannah called it, I'm not Xaphod Beeblebrox.....) proved that it was amazingly difficult to think of a famous person that all 4 people in the car had heard of.

All in all, it was a lovely evening - Segovia at night is a very different place to the city I saw a couple of weeks ago with Sid. Thanks to Jorge for driving (and of course putting up with alcohol free beer all evening) and to everyone for their company!

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

A diverse day indeed!

Today was a real mixture. After the hottest night on record, (meaning that despite my managing to turn the computer off and actually try to go to sleep by about 1.30am - the earliest yet - I was still awake at about 4, drenched!), I was up and ready for brain usage at 11!

Debbie came and we designed her business cards, fighting with the confusing mess that is Word 2007! That thing is so NOT self-explanatory. During the course of talking about work opportunities, we somehow came up with a plan to provide English lessons by phone, cunningly disguised as phone sex, but in the voice of HM The Queen!!! Don't ask!

We finally made it out to lunch at 4. One of the restaurants in the local square had a Menu del Dia (menu of the day) for €10.50. Bargain(ish) for 3 courses, drink and coffee. Having stumbled our way around the menu for a bit, we realised that we just couldn't work out what was meat, fish or veggie on the main courses (needless to say, actually none of them were veggie!). My Spanish wasn't quite up to the job with the waiter, so he called out the "English speaking waitress". Her English ran to "fish" and "ice cream"!!! Still, I ended up with a very tasty gazpacho, with my own tray of finely chopped veg to throw in if I wanted it, a huge ciabatta style roll with olive oil, then asparagus and mayo with salad, then ice cream. Very nice it was too. However, time seems to fly past here and before I knew it, it was time to run off to my first lesson of the day (6pm - how civilised!)

My lesson with Nacho was......weird! As these lessons tend to, we went off on a tangent from the original conversation topic (something to do with carrying ID) onto the death penalty, people corresponding with death row inmates and then (via a tenuous link to the Spanish word for a habitual criminal) onto "kinky sex". God, how do I get myself into these things? If anyone looks at our scribblings on a piece of paper from the lesson, they'll see it degenerate from sentence, through "time off for good behaviour", judge, incarceration, "doing time", down to kinky, depraved, paedophile, bestiality. So much for the very innocent "link the noun to the adjective" game I'd had planned!

Normal service was resumed with Jaime's lesson. It's his 40th birthday tomorrow so, in what I now understand to be Spanish tradition, he gave me a cake and a drink. Well, a can of diet Coke and a doughnut! How sweet! I gave him a card which confused him as the Spanish don't do birthday cards.

And so I'm back in the hotter-than-hell flat, supposedly doing lesson plans for tomorrow but finding far too many distractions, as usual!!!

Well, there's always mañana!!