A healthy dose

A healthy dose

Today marks my 30th blog post!

Thirty times over the past year, I have clicked ‘publish’ and shared one of my stories. And if you have been following my musings, you will know that the theme of my writing so far has been about languages and my own personal experience of learning Spanish. The reason for this is because it has reflected so much more of my journey since moving to Madrid, and I’ve never been short of material! Documenting the ups and downs of language learning has allowed me to draw parallels with other aspects of life here and made it possible to express myself as I have adapted.

Moving abroad to start the next chapter of life, and fulfilling a life-long dream in the process brought on a cascade of emotions. And they were mostly overwhelmingly positive ones, like when I first arrived and would get up every morning, open the shutters, have a coffee and feel the sun on my face. The small lifestyle changes have often had the biggest impact, and I still have to pinch myself most days.

But, as new and exciting as it all was, there was an initial period of adjustment, as I tried to get my bearings, make friends, find work and generally get “set up” (whilst trying to fathom the popularity of ‘shelf milk’ in the supermercado). Naturally, there was a feeling of vulnerability, which I now realise was not solely due to my inability to communicate with little more than a few basic words of the lingo.

Wondering if I would ever shake this feeling, I once read that when you live in another country “you will always feel a little uncomfortable”, but that this should be viewed as a good thing, because this is what you thrive off. The adrenaline not only keeps on your toes, but it keeps you excited, and striving!

The flustering, floundering, little-lost-sheep moments which I have described just became part of my normal daily life and while I still have them, they are fewer as I become more “established”. Because two years on, I do have my bearings, I have made friends AND found work. I have explored endlessly and learned deeply and whilst language has been the common thread weaving through all aspects of life here, it hasn’t been the only thing tying it all together.

This became apparent recently when the first symptoms of coronavirus started being spluttered around our apartment. With no outdoor space and the air-con circulating the germs on high power mode, I accepted my fate, “in sickness and in health” and all that! Even two doses of trusty AstraZeneca couldn’t protect me from the fifth wave which is sweeping across Spain as fiercely as the July heatwave.

We didn’t have a COVID “action plan” and suddenly faced with the reality of the situation, we started scouring the notoriously hard to navigate government websites for information on what to do next.

Times like these are when the familiarity of ‘how things work back home’ is sorely missed – you know where you stand with the NHS, for example. On more than occasion, I have woken in the night panicking that once again, I had forgotten the emergency number here in Spain (which is 112 for reference), and before drifting back into a deep and peaceful sleep, I have already imagined a range of scenarios where I might need to call. Is there is an option in English when you connect? Afortunadamente, I have never had to find out, but I am curious.

Anyway, the initial phone appointment from the doctor didn’t have me as flustered as expected. She was patient and calm and I didn’t feel feeble for not understanding one or two of her questions. Going for tests, receiving results, following quarantine instructions – the process was surprisingly slick and simple.

It was only later when I relayed the whole experience to my mum that she asked “…and that was all in Spanish”? Pues, sí. And that’s when it hit me that the last week of “survival” has not been about which language I have spoken.

Yes, the anticipated daily check-in calls from the medical centre have involved a bit of prep – like learning the vocab for all the síntomas experienced that day, and between cough, headache, fever, chills, sore throat, loss of taste and smell, there has been quite a lot to learn! Of course, I wasn’t able to fully express how I really felt, which would be like waking up after drinking a full barrel of Rioja Gran Reserva, which you couldn’t smell, or taste (what a waste) but which you thought might help to ease the heaviest head-cold you were already suffering from, since not even the ridiculously large and hard to swallow paracetamol was helping. Instead I told the doctor: “Tengo tos” (I have a cough), which was also true.

So, as you can see, I am not trying to claim to have become suddenly fluent! But, I have accepted that this way of communicating has just become a part of life. And with that realisation, I view these situations differently, like exciting challenges spicing up daily interactions instead of as an obstruction that slows the process of anything I try to do.

And with this important attitude shift, along with a little bit of isolation-reflection, I realised that this is no longer just the beginning; this is the 2-year checkpoint, the “look how far I have come”. My sense of achievement and personal growth has been worth every moment of sweaty-palmed discomfort, but with so much of this amazing city and country still to enjoy, maybe it is time to stop overthinking verb tables and pronunciation techniques.

So, what will I write about instead? It is possible that this might be some sort of mad, rambling epiphany brought about by the virus or the heat (it is very hot), so I don’t feel best placed to make any commitments right now, but rest assured that any funny moments, flounders and fails won’t go unreported.

I hope it has been entertaining. It has been for me! Not only have I made myself laugh with some of my antics, but I have provided myself with some cracking writing material, whilst discovering a passion for language that was right under my nose the whole time. Behind the scenes, I will still be working hard on my progress because I still have goals. In the short-term, our first Spanish wedding of some wonderful friends, and the much-anticipated arrival of visitors for the first time since 2019, and in the long term, well, there are countless important linguistic milestones still to hit. But all with one key difference – sin pressure. From here, it will be one podcast, one language class, one Netflix show, one Penelope Cruz film, and one chapter of the grammar textbook at a time.

Furthermore, I hope you will try it. I encourage you to download the Duolingo app or listen to a Coffee Break languages podcast or watch a film with subtitles or tune into someone’s conversation the next time you are travelling. I hope you will embrace the dialects of your own country or learn more about the structure of English. Listen to the national anthems of other countries being sung with as much gusto as the Italians at the Euros or read aloud the Gaelic on road signs as you staycation in Scotland, or spot how many ridiculous metaphors Boris can use in one speech. Because it is captivating (not the Boris bit). And above all, be sympathetic and encouraging towards English language learners.

Mil gracias for coming on my journey so far, a journey which is faaar from over. And I hope you will come with me as I skip off down a different path through the lemon grove, in search of fresh content. And with inspiration in plentiful supply, I will continue to thrive and grow, embracing this dream come true as though mi vida depends on it!


Freshly connected

Freshly connected

It took a bit of time to get used to wearing a mask. Initially it was recommended but it soon became mandatory and it has been adhered to very seriously here, with 86% of Spanish people reporting that they always wear one to go out.

There was an adjustment period before it felt like a “normal” part of everyday life, and I was guilty of forgetting the rules. More than once, I pulled my mask aside to speak to someone, aware of how hard it can be to make myself understood at the best of times! It was only when I saw the looks of horror that I realised the error of my ways. After that, la mascarilla stayed firmly on my face.

Not only was it providing protection, but it seemed to be providing me with something else – confidence!

During lockdown, I had started to worry about how my language progress would be affected, amongst other things. Even though I had been receiving extra lessons and studying more than ever, I was concerned that there had been months of lost opportunities. Instead of being out practising in public, I had been confined to la casa, reading articles about coronavirus and learning lockdown-related vocab.  

So, I surprised myself when I first ventured out with my face covered. I headed to la farmacia (to collect more masks), and the encounter was effortless. I seemed to have no trouble being understood and I felt emboldened by my new guise! Afterwards, I joined a long queue for the post office and one by one, we were asked (from a distance) which service we required. Not only did I have to think on the spot and shout out in the street, but I also had an audience. However, with my face hidden behind a mask (and sunglasses), I felt less exposed and more confident than ever. Nothing was going to overthrow my joy and relief of being outside again!

But my confidence was short lived…

Last week, I answered the door to two men wearing masks and carrying tools (side note: one had a ponytail, the other was bald). I spied ID badges and heard the word “Wi-Fi” and before I knew it, they were in the apartment searching for the router!

It had been so long since anyone had been in my apartment, or my personal space, so I was taken aback to have two unexpected visitors roaming freely, looking for wires to wiggle.

I knew we hadn’t arranged this visit but couldn’t think how to communicate this. It was surely the worst time to forget every word of Spanish I had ever learnt, and I frantically searched my internal translator for: “I’m sorry, should I be expecting you?” (How very British).

I put on my mask (you can never be too careful) and we began a broken “conversation” with me trying to find out their intentions and them quizzing me about our provider. Communication works both ways of course and the confidence I once felt behind the mask soon turned to confusion when I struggled to understand a word they were saying! Deciphering their muffled speedy Spanish was impossible!

I loosely gestured at my mask, this time using it as an excuse for my mispronunciations and was waving my hands as I tried to tell them that there must be a mistake. I pleaded with them not to disconnect us, particularly during R’s important work call, which he quickly abandoned to come to my rescue, also trying to communicate that the router was to remain untouched (por favor).

(If only they knew how much effort it took to set-up our internet contract here. R had spent hours stretching out his limited Español over several phone calls, tirelessly translating and trying to spell out our names to the company who insisted they had no English speakers to help. It was an exhausting process but a huge step, and I was so impressed by his efforts so early on)!

Anyway, after about 10 minutes of this highly animated exchange, one of the men (the one with the ponytail) checked his phone and read out a name…

It was the name of my neighbour!

Now this, I could explain. I marched him to the front door and pointed out my neighbour’s apartment, all the while wondering how either of us could have been mistaken for José-Luis…

There was no answer at the door, but I gave them his phone number, glad that we had solved the misunderstanding that it was he, not I who wished to change internet provider during a global pandemic. They commenced their admin from my kitchen, and I hovered, unsure whether to offer café or begin disinfecting.

Eventually, they gave up calling and thanked me (IN ENGLISH) before taking their leave. I presumed they went to wait for my MIA neighbour in a more appropriate social distancing spot.

Con-mask or sin-mask, it wouldn’t have mattered. I decided this experience would have been just as strained and confusing either way.

We had a close call, almost being disconnected from our loved ones when the distance is already great enough. I suppose that’s the risk of inviting two masked hombres into your home without question!

Being unable to communicate what you want to say puts you in a position of vulnerability, and despite what I first thought, wearing masks has made things that little bit harder. But we are adaptable and as we learn to live as a masked society, we will find fresh ways to connect. We might master the art of reading deeper into each other’s eyes or express ourselves more through gestures.

And the muffled words that we do exchange will be precious, in any language (whether we understand them or not)!

Language efforts:


Taking the wedge off

Taking the wedge off

Approximately one year after my journey of language learning began, and 10 months spent in the native country, I had a small eureka moment!

Day 26 of the national lockdown evoked the usual cycle of emotions; brief boredom, quickly followed by guilt for feeling bored, then a surge of positive thoughts to overcome this and ultimately relief that everyone I knew, was safe and well. Exhausting!

It was also the fourth day of the Easter fiesta, and we should have been in Valencia. But there was no point pining for paella with a sea view when we couldn’t even leave the apartment. So, when in doubt about how to spend our abundance of free time, we resorted to some geeky Spanish practice. Naturally.

We plucked a “fun” translation quiz from Week 6 of ‘Learn Spanish in 3 months’ – I must have been feeling ambitious, or just a bit naïve when I bought this book! Anyway, it was my turn to translate aloud some random sentences like: “Carmen likes to sit in the garden” and “I’m going to a party tomorrow, and I need a new dress” (Both of which were slightly cruel examples under the current circumstances, I thought).

I worked my way through the exercise, nailing verb tenses and correctly placing object pronouns, when I clocked the genuinely impressed look on R’s face (it could also have been one of surprise)! I had already been feeling secretly pleased with myself, but when he told me how much he thought I had improved, it was all I needed to hear. Two days later, my Spanish teacher (who is notoriously shy of praise) cemented this once more when he commented on my progress.

I felt great! I had to keep going, what better motivation was there? I began daydreaming about 6 months from now when I would be skipping down the street, chatting to my compatriots with ease and asking questions just for the sake of it – imagine! On the verge of an ego trip, I even allowed myself to glimpse 5-10 years down the line, when I would be working in Spanish, effortlessly translating documents, chatting with colleagues and having finally “made it”.

I was getting carried away. It was only a small step in my journey, but it had a big impact. How can it be that whilst confined within four walls, the world seems like an even bigger place? The opportunities awaiting me on the other side of this experience began to seem endless, and possible.

So, was there a secret behind this awakening? Or was it enough to simply lock yourself in your casa for weeks on end, practise your chosen language for at least one hour every day and then impress your partner, your teacher and above all, yourself, with your glowing progress!

Let the world feel big and let yourself believe that you have a big part to play. Now, let me get out there before this glimmer of hope and confidence fades (along with my tan, and sanity)!



Hot water and lemon

Hot water and lemon

(Language learning in the time of corona)

Well, this is a strange one. We had just returned from two glorious weeks away celebrating my ancient husband’s milestone birthday…the BIG 30! He needed a bit of convincing that he really wasn’t THAT old, and he didn’t have THAT many grey hairs. I reminded him that he should be grateful for his health at least. Oh, the irony!

As we boarded a near-empty plane back to Madrid on the eve of the national lockdown, we hoped that good health was one thing we did have on our side.

Mild fear was setting in. We had been travelling around Cuba, using every form of transport you could name (save this for a quarantine game).  A beautiful and fascinating country, but not renowned for its hygiene standards and we soon got used to paying $1 for the pleasure of washing our hands in public! Then on to Miami where we arrived bang in the middle of Spring Break (WOO)! Hygiene standards here may have trumped Cuba, but so did the number of people, excitedly breathing over each other around the hotel pool while deciding where to brunch.

One night, in a South-Beach restaurant, a super enthusiastic waiter (read: American) began to drip feed us horror stories of hotels beginning to shut down, flights being cancelled, and restrictions on travel to Europe. We thought he was being dramatic, thriving on the growing media hype. Afterall, we had just spent a blissful Wi-Fi-free week in Cuba, shut off from information and free from worry. (But yes, of course we left a tip).

“Luck” had been on our side so far. We saw Miami Heat play the last game of the season and hopped on one of the last flights back to London to continue the big birthday celebrations with the family! Then we made it home to Madrid, as mentioned, just hours before the official lock-down began. It was a tense flight. R made the grave error of clearing his throat during take-off in an attempt to dislodge a stubborn piece of popcorn, and received a glare from a fellow passenger, who was both masked and gloved (a look that was soon to become the norm but at this point was terrifying)! As soon as we were high in the sky, a member of the cabin crew approached to check if R was sick. I quickly confiscated the popcorn and silenced him for the remainder of the flight. Too risky.

And here we are, 8 weeks into el confinamiento. We have enough food to make some much missed hearty dinners, but not so much that we could be accused of stockpiling. After all, we need an excuse to take an occasional outing to the supermarket, and there is only so much you can hoard in a rucksack and a bag for life! We learnt the do’s and don’ts along the way. On Day 2, still foggy from jet lag, we boldly ventured out together but soon discovered our mistake when an army guard shouted at us from across the street to move apart. And they say romance is dead…

Just a few months ago, we were travelling around Cuba without a care in the world, exercising a freedom that we took for granted – even holding hands! We had the invaluable opportunity to practise our Spanish and at times, felt elated with our notable progress and level of understanding. The mild surprise and encouragement from the Cuban people when we “tried” was a great incentive.

With weeks ahead confined to la casa, what better time could there be to improve even more? Now, I sign in for two Skype classes per week (looking semi-presentable from the waist up), then work my way through a free trial on Babbel for around one hour per day and listen to a range of language podcasts to help me drift off to sleep (I haven’t dreamt in Spanish yet but I am lead to believe this is a pivotal moment).

Last night we even watched ‘First Dates’ in Spanish! It’s amazing what you can learn from following the subtitles of people’s awkward first encounters! I currently have no one to practise my hilarious newfound phrases on, but my Spanish teacher could be in for a treat during our next online date… I mean class!