Recently, I made a very special discovery here in Madrid. Hidden away in the streets of the hip and happening barrio of Malasaña is a bookshop that sells English books. What a treat! I was due a couple of new reads to enjoy in the last of the late summer sun.

I browsed for ages, and was tempted by many, but despite my excitement at finding a treasure trove of texts in English, I found myself drawn to the single shelf of Spanish books. Tucked away amongst the used language textbooks and lengthy classics, was a pocket-size version of “El coronel no tiene quien le escriba” (“No-one writes to the colonel”), a short story by Gabriel García Márquez, of whose translated novellas, I am a big fan.

Reading fluently in Español is a dream, and I skipped off, happy with my 95-page miniature paperback having decided it would be perfecto to practise, yet small enough not to scare me off before I had even started…

So, I settled myself on a shady bench, opened the book and to my joy, discovered that some thoughtful person had already done some of the hard work for me!

There was page after page of legible pencil scribbles, and any unknown words had been circled and translated. I considered verifying but decided to take their word for it. After all, what did we do before the days of Google translate and handy language apps?!

With the turn of every page, I started to feel connected to the mystery translator and wanted to know more…

Who were you? Were you the first owner of the book, or the tenth? What were your reasons for learning Spanish? Did you move to Spain like me? Were you a fan of García Márquez too or were you simply attracted by the manageable size of this book?

I was getting so carried away creating a persona for them, that I was becoming distracted from the task at hand – which was to successfully read (and understand) this short story!

But there was a problem. As I advanced through the chapters, the notes became scarcer. There were less circled words, and if there were, the translations had been abandoned.

Then, half-way through the book, they stopped altogether, and all trace of the secret scribbler was gone!

This could only mean one of two things. Either they GAVE UP or they achieved fluency so quickly that they no longer had any need to scrawl their useful notes across the pages. (I like to think it was the latter – it gives me more hope.) Maybe it was only when they achieved this level of understanding (or gave up), and no longer had any use for their copy, did they give it away.

Determined to continue this project alone, I now carry my little edition with me wherever I go, reading a few pages (or as much as my brain will allow) in the park, on the metro or wherever I happen to be when the notion takes.

And I will take my time, knowing that when I finish, I will read it again. I will read it until I no longer have to trace my finger along each line, stopping to gather context like a first-time reader.

I will read it until I understand every word, every verb tense, every idiom.

I will then read it out loud. And then I will read it until my pronunciation is correct.

I will continue what was started by adding my own notes, and maybe even a small message of encouragement. And only then I will return it to the bookshop in hope that another fortunate language learner will stumble upon this hidden treasure and I can only hope their excitement is as great as mine when they flick through the pages to discover that others lent a helping hand towards their learning efforts.

We have a shared experience, my language-aid and me. Without even knowing it, they helped me learn by providing translations of obscure vocab I’m confident I will never need, like that for ‘cooking stove’, ‘lilies’, ‘haste’ and ‘bile’.

But these notes and scribbles help me stay motivated with every turn of the page and therefore have made my first attempt at reading a foreign text a little bit more interesting.

Most importantly, they helped me to feel like I wasn’t alone in this journey.

So, gracias mi amigo, whoever you are.

Let the circle of language learning continue…


Hydration station

Hydration station

The last run I set off on before moving to Spain was on a cold, wet morning in May. I jogged around a country park in the south side of Glasgow, and as I was running, I made a special effort to take it all in. I absorbed the sights, the sounds and smells I was so used to – of the woodland, the birds, the cool, damp air, and the muddy terrain underfoot.

Knowing it would be the last time in a long time that I would run in these familiar conditions, I remember thinking things like “I wonder if they have trees like this in Madrid”, “Will I ever run in the rain in Spain?”  and most importantly – “Will it be too hot?”

I had never enjoyed running in the heat, it felt punishing and unnecessary. In Scotland, running is the last thing on our minds when the sun comes out. Instead we go to a beer garden to enjoy a refreshment or head to the coast to bask in the rarity of sunshine.

Even though I had committed to a commute-on-foot from work, I was only faced with a couple of hot July days, when I would struggle home, red-faced and sweating. But the version of heat I knew then was significantly cooler than I know now. Even 18°C was considered much too hot for such vigorous exercise!

So, it was months before I plucked up the courage to go running here in Madrid. My first few attempts were a struggle but, timing is everything in the summer months and I have learnt to pick my moments. Heading out early in the morning when there is still a “chill” in the air or late in the evening when the sun disappears behind the mountains is prime time. It is not uncommon for me to be panting my way around the local parque at 9pm (wondering how it could possibly still be 30°C).

For me, running brings clarity. That’s why I find pounding the pavements a perfect time to practise Español. It’s the only time I seem to remember key phrases and can have semi-fluent but random conversations with myself. Even my pronunciation sounds muy bien (in my head at least).

Other times I count to 100 or just listen to a bit of Shakira – anything to distract from the heat!

In Madrid, it’s not just the heat to contend with, but altitude too. These conditions have got me thinking like an athlete. Mo Farah famously trained at altitude (albeit 1,800m higher than here). And I’ve even considered investing in some skimpy pants and wraparound sunglasses como Paula Radcliffe, but I fear this puts me at risk of becoming the female running equivalent of a “MAMIL” (middle-aged man in Lycra).

Inspired, and once confident that I wouldn’t faint from dizziness or die from dehydration, I started to feel invincible (of course remembering to drink water and replenish with some mean home-made electrolyte drinks after track sessions helped).

I developed a strong admiration for people who exercise in the heat, and this was when I heard about the Marathon des Sables!

A challenge of insane proportions. In short, it involves running 250km across the Sahara Desert, over 7 days (day 4 is a DOUBLE MARATHON), carrying all your own equipment and water supplies. The physical and mental barriers to overcome must be extreme, but I do wonder if the toughest part could be the heat? I mean, it is the Sahara Desert. 

And it’s the original toughest footrace on earth, but I encourage anyone to watch the Barkley Marathons on Netflix to see what stole the crown…

(Spoiler: I did not even consider let alone sign up for this challenge. It simply changed my perspective on the running “extremities” I thought I was facing)!

Just imagine setting yourself a challenge so great and sharing that experience with people from all over the world, camping out under the stars, exhausted after long hard days of scaling sand dunes, and communicating only through runner’s language.

It is a language where often no words are needed (usually due to shortness of breath)! Emotions are evident on a runner’s face – pain, struggle, and sometimes even joy! Injuries can be signalled to, and times can be compared by pointing at your watch.

Most importantly though, displays of encouragement and support don’t need words. It takes no words to give a reassuring thumbs-up, high-five or pat on the back. And I’m sure none are needed to take someone’s hand and drag them up a sand dune…

The Marathon des Sables seems not only to be a challenge of survival, but of companionship and connection too, regardless of language. Maybe this is part of the reason why so many loco people head into the desert each year.

Just thinking about it makes me long for a refreshing run in the rain – the type where you have to relentlessly blink the water out of your eyes to see, trainers heavy from splashing through puddles, and soaked to the skin (but somehow manage to return home without breaking a sweat). It used to take a lot of mental preparation to venture out in the first place when the alternative was a cup of tea on the sofa, but there is not better feeling than having pushed yourself out there. Well, except for the hot shower afterwards!

It can take just as much mental prep to head out for a run in the sun. Except now, it is sweat I blink from my eyes, and the clothes I peel off are just as wet. This time though, the best part is the cold shower!

The next time I have to psyche myself up, I will remind myself that I am not navigating the desert with rationed access to agua, carrying 8kg on my back and don’t need a doctor to deal with my unsalvageable blistered feet, while the hot sand burns my legs.

Nowadays, I live closer to that very desert than I do to the piney forests and damp woodland trails of home.

And although it is hot, I don’t have to get up and do it all over again tomorrow.

But, with all those open, endless days of running and all that clarity it would bring, just imagine how good my Spanish would be…

Language clarity:

Cloudy lemonade

Cloudy lemonade

Wanting to learn a language and needing to learn a language are two different things. There is an urgency attached to the latter that adds just the right amount of pressure to the whole learning experience. But no matter how much time and effort you invest, there are still situations you will be unprepared for. One such situation brought that to light for me recently…

We were taking an internal flight from Bilbao, returning to Madrid and had been in the air for less than 10 minutes when we heard “This is your captain speaking”, which is not something you normally expect on such a short journey.

Listening intently, I understood we were facing “tormentas” (storms) and that the outlook was not looking good at our destination. Blame it on the cabin pressure, the nervous chatter amongst my fellow passengers or just the fact that I haven’t covered the topic of ‘emergency aeroplane announcements’ in my Spanish lessons, but it was impossible for me to follow el piloto’s every word.

We had just left the North which is almost as notorious for its wet weather as the UK and we were aware of forecasted thunderstorms so, a bit of turbulence was to be expected. But this was more than just a bit of turbulence. This was the type that made me check that there was still a sickness bag to hand even though everything else in the seat pocket had been removed for fear of contamination. And when he repeated the word “tranquilo” (calm), I gathered that this was an instruction rather than a description of the weather…

We continued bumping through the clouds when suddenly, the plane lurched. I felt my stomach drop and people screamed and began crossing themselves.

Is this how it ends? I looked to the emergency exit row, two in front of me. A groomed man in pressed chinos and velvet Aladdin slippers (who had had to be reminded to fasten his seat belt before take-off) finally removed his headphones and glanced around with a look of terror, wishing he had paid attention to the safety announcements.

I don’t know what scared me more – not being able to understand everything being said or realising that this ignorant cabrón would ultimately be in charge of our fate if things took a turn.

Note: I, myself had paid extra special attention to the cabin crew safety demonstration since the linguistic geek within me was taking advantage of every opportunity to learn. And sí, I may have relied heavily on gestures to comprehend, but I was confident that I was in a better position to handle safety procedures than him. At least I knew we were on an aeroplane and not a flying carpet…

For at least 10 minutes, the pilot spoke, his calm tone unwavering throughout. He could have been talking about football or what he ate for lunch for all we cared because regardless of what he said, his technique of reassurance worked, and the fear subsided long before the turbulence. He stayed with us, and only when satisfied that all was ok, did he bid us adios, and the plane erupted in applause.

I joined in, grateful for this man who had foreseen the fear and had taken the time to instil calm amongst the passengers, who were already tense and nervous from travelling in these uncertain times.

There was no further announcement in English, but I understood enough from the little I could translate and from the admiration in the eyes of those around me.

Things calmed down and the crew began their preparations for landing. Once again, Señor Responsable in the emergency exit row had to be asked more than once to stow his Louis Vuitton man-bag to clear the area…

When the plane touched down in Madrid, we were all a little surprised to see that the sun was shining, the sky was clear and there was little more than a light breeze on the runway.

The memory of the incident in the sky seemed to fade as quickly as clouds, but it got me thinking…

It’s all very well knowing enough Español to be able to order food in a restaurant or exchange pleasantries with a neighbour, but what about times like this?

One day, someone might ask me for help, instead of for the time. Or the next time I fly en avión I might get seated in the emergency exit row and will be the one entrusted with understanding safety announcements to protect the lives of others.

And so, I must be prepared.

(I have also made a mental note never to trust a man who travels in velvet slippers).


Language success:

Lemon preserve

Lemon preserve

Four years ago, we first visited Spain together. Inspired by a travel magazine article he read on his daily commute, R came home one night and proposed a trip that combined the best of both worlds –FOOD in the Basque Country, and WINE in La Rioja. The perfect fusion – I was sold!

We devoured the fine food and flavours of the north before heading out on the quiet, open roads to the Rioja region for a few days of visiting vineyards and exploring bodegas by bike.

And today, we are returning to Donostia-San Sebastian – the foodie city that captured our imaginations and our hearts and satisfied every food craving imaginable! I still get hungry when I think about it…

I remember that first night in a local bar in San Sebastián’s enchanting old town, absorbed in an atmosphere like nothing I had ever felt before.

The bartender poured txakoli (the region’s famous lightly sparkling dry white wine) from an impressive height into tumblers while, all around, the chatter was constant. (Side note: this was my first experience of drinking wine from a tumbler – it was a revelation).

Laid out on the bar (and just a safe enough distance from the splashing wine) were some of the most decorative displays of “finger food” we had ever seen. These were pintxos, famous in el norte. They are a more elaborate version of tapas, like a meal in one bite. And they are works of art – with regional specialities such as meat, peppers or seafood fresh from the Atlantic, balanced carefully on a piece of fresh bread, all held together by a cocktail stick (which is where the word pintxo got its name, meaning “spike”).

I remember watching on in horror as people discarded their paper napkins on the floor after wiping the delicious remains from their mouth and hands, but I soon came to realise that if there was ever a place to “do as the locals do” then this was it!

Despite the extremity of this casual dining, the quality of these beautifully crafted masterpieces was enough to rival that of any of the world-renowned restaurants that populate this culinary hub (the city has the highest concentration of Michelin star restaurants in the world)!

But we didn’t come for the Michelin stars. We came to sample as many pintxos as we could, and that meant hopping around the countless traditional bars in the labyrinth that is the old town.

We learnt that it was custom to try one or two before moving on (which is easier said than done when everything looks so tempting) and to wash them down with some txakoli or famous Basque cider. This is an experience I guarantee you will want to return again and again for!

But how to choose what to eat? Instead of just vacantly pointing at what I wanted to try from the arty array on show, I scanned the chalkboard menus for help (ordering fresh from la cocina is also highly recommended). My mouth watered as I watched food being served swiftly to more experienced pintxo-pro’s. These were people who knew what they wanted!

But the words written up there didn’t look at all familiar. Even with my lack of knowledge at the time, I knew this wasn’t Spanish. There were too many x’s and k’s for a start, and some letters I couldn’t identify at all!

Of course, this wasn’t Spanish, it was Basque. Or Euskara (as it is known in Basque).

A language completely unique and distinct from any other language in the world, it is incomparable to its neighbouring Catalan, Galician, Castilian Spanish or French. It is a “language isolate”, a language of mystery and possibly the oldest living language in Europe. Wow.

This time, we are returning equipped with more knowledge of the country, and its regions. Over the past year, I have met people from the Basque Country (País Vasco) and quizzed them endlessly about their linguistic experiences (of course).

There is no expectation to speak Basque on this trip. I’m not sure anyone out with the region is expected to know this enigmatic language! But what will I use instead? The Basque people are largely bilingual, which is impressive, but will my Spanish (or my English) be understood?  

I will soon find out.

Regardless, I am going to pay careful attention to the Basque language this time round, without the pressure of trying to decipher it, knowing that it isn’t necessary (or even possible) to draw any comparisons to Español.

In a few hours, we will be walking along the picture-perfect beach of La Concha –which must be one of the most photographed aerial shots in the country. We will retrace our footsteps in the sand and remember that first visit and our first impression of Spain. We fell in love instantly with this small coastal city, surrounded by mountains and famed for its beautiful beach and gastronomic greatness (even though it rained for days).

But a lot can change in four years.

This time, there will be less locals flooding the city’s ancient taverns, enjoying the important sociable aspect that has been going strong for generations.

There will be fewer tourists walking along the promenade, admiring the view of the Bay of Biscay whilst contemplating how early is “too early” for dinner.

And there will be no food laid out on the bars for us to salivate over (which is probably for the best). But will this pillar of local culture ever recover from the recent restrictions?

I hope so.

But one thing that I hope never changes is the ancient Basque language that has puzzled linguistic experts and researchers for years.

I hope it is protected and preserved for as long as it has existed already, for its uniqueness and mystery is unparalleled.

And this weekend, I cannot wait to hear those all-important words again: “On egin!”

Enjoy your meal!

Language intrigue:



My love affair with the Mediterranean didn’t start with Spain.

Many years ago, I fell head over heels for Italia, infatuated by its people, its culture, its beauty, its romance. And in September 2017, the Mayor of the small town of Varenna in Lago di Como commenced the formalities of our nuptials as we said, “I do” in one of the most beautiful places on earth. That’s amore!

Why Italy? Why the Med? What is there not to love?

The words on a Dolce & Gabbana perfume sample I tried sold one idea – claiming the colourful, adventurous, fresh and fruity scent “reflected the sexiness of the Mediterranean lifestyle”. You only need to see the advert for their ‘Light Blue’ fragrance to know what they mean. The perfectly bronzed models David Gandy and Bianca Balti lounging on a boat in their matching white swimwear are supposed to capture the “essence of a sunny Sicilian summer”.

Yet, when I thought of the Mediterranean, my mind conjured up less sexy (but equally appealing) images of really old people resting on benches, shaded by olive trees in hard to reach mountain villages, or of large families at meal times, sharing food that has been grown with care and cooked with love.

Because it isn’t all about yachts on glistening seas and tanned models in barely-there swimwear. It is more than that.

It is life.

And whichever Mediterranean shore you land on, you are sure to feel life. The fundamentals of the traditional healthy lifestyle which include: a good diet with fresh local produce, lots of time outdoors, gentle exercise, socialising and a few glasses of wine – have helped shape an identity of people over generations (and has helped keep them alive longer too)!

It is a way of life that is aspired to around the world, even the UK’s NHS promotes the benefits of the diet and healthy habits. It may be easy to follow but almost impossible to replicate entirely unless you are blessed with the environmental factors too, such as 300+ days of sunshine per year, rich soil and a place to live that has been designed with walking for convenience in mind.

And I think the language is also a big (and beautiful) part of what helps shape identity. In Italy, I think it is a recognisable characteristic of its passionate people and just one more factor that helped formed my love of the country – as if I needed another!

If there was any greater motivation to quickly improve my Spanish, it is so I can move on to learning Italian ASAP. It is the next logical step on my way to achieving polyglot status, because the two languages are “more similar than not” – I am told. Both are Romance languages, deriving from Latin, and have around 80% lexical similarity and I’m recognising more of this shared vocab by the day: sí, no, uno, libro, luna, arte, casa…

Some say that to the ear of an untrained linguist, the languages also sound very similar. But the differences lie mainly in the pronunciation, and to me (an untrained linguist), the Español I hear in Madrid sounds a bit monotone (albeit rápido), in comparison to melodic Italiano.

Another clue lies in the letter “z”. In European Spanish, the “z” in “chorizo” or “Ibiza” sounds like “th” whereas in Italian, “grazie” or “piazza” are pronounced with a “tz” sound. (Is it even possible to say the latter without an accent)?!

A friend here told me that if a Spanish person and an Italian person had a very slow conversation (which seems an unlikely scenario), then they would be able to understand each other, more or less. And I love that! Although I do wonder how much of the conversation would be spoken with their hands…

Of course, I’m being very general and not taking into account the other official languages and regional dialects within each country – of which there are so many!

But what has always amazed me about Europe is that for such a tiny place (in the grand scheme of the word), every single country is so unique. Cross a border in a matter of hours and you find yourself immersed in a new culture, with different food, different traditions…and different languages.

And in the Southern European countries of Spain and Italy, it can only be advantageous to have knowledge of both languages, and I can’t wait to embark on an adventure of comparisons between the two – any excuse to go back to Italy really!

And when I do make that romantic return trip to bella Italia, it will be as a self-proclaimed linguistic geek. But as I sip a perfectly chilled limoncello after a long day of swooning over the famous food and fashion, I will be swept away once more, and not even the lure of comparing grammar systems or identifying identical vocab could bring me back to earth…

They say you need a clear motivation for learning a language. What is mine for learning Italian? Well, other than being able to declare my undying love for the country that holds such an immovable place in my heart, it would also be great to finally translate our wedding certificate!

But I’m getting ahead of myself – I must be patient.

After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day…


Vitamin sea

Vitamin sea

Vamos a la playa!

Last Friday, we set off on our holidays, heading east towards Jávea in the Valencia region. On the outskirts of Madrid, we drove by fields of sunflowers for kilómetros y kilómetros. They were standing perfectly upright in their neat rows, swaying gently in the breeze, like they were waving at me as we passed. They put a big smile on my face and were a perfect reflection of my happiness. I was leaving the city, for the first time in months!

And we weren’t the only ones escaping the furnace that is Madrid in July, the city was gradually emptying as everyone starts flocking to la costa to cool down.

After about 4 hours of waving at sunflowers, I caught my first glimpse of palm trees and knew that we must be close….

And there it was, sparkling like a thousand diamonds under the midday sun. El mar. It looked so inviting! Continuing along a stunning stretch of rugged coastline, I wished we could stop at every viewpoint and golden beach on the way. But R still had a few hours of work to do, and I had some essential poolside reading and a lilo to inflate!

As soon as we arrived in the area, I immediately noticed that all the signs had English translations. This seemed so foreign, which was confusing, but it just isn’t something I am used to seeing in Madrid.  

It soon became apparent that we were “free” to use English. It is the language that the British, Germans and Spanish use to communicate here after all. And although I had the chance to relax my language learning efforts and speak in my native tongue for one weekend only, I was reluctant…

Maybe because I am trying to use every opportunity to practise my ever-improving Spanish and am afraid of all my efforts going to waste? Or because speaking Spanish feels like the “right” thing to do? Either way, I had been looking forward to finally be able to communicate a little as we explore this country that we now call home…but this was tourist territory.

I had been given a recommendation of a local restaurant which was owned by a German guy and was popular with British expats. We went along on the first night, looking forward to hearing some familiar accents after months of being so far from home.

But it wasn’t the friendly atmosphere I had expected, when things fell quiet and we were eyed suspiciously as we approached the bar. I decided that everyone must be a little out of their comfort zones at the moment (despite the chilled vacation vibes we are all supposed to be feeling).

Locals and territorial expats must be adjusting to their coastal resorts filling up again after months of peace, quiet and safety, I thought, and were perhaps suspicious of the smattering of tourists who felt bold enough to take a holiday, and who were still adapting to the new rules. Still, I was unable to think of a time I had been made to feel like such an outsider in Spain…!

I don’t suppose we helped ourselves really, scared that if our Scottish accents were overheard, we would be mistaken for holiday-makers who had sneaked into Spain during the air-bridge ban that still existed in Scotland. Equally, if we explained that we had travelled from Madrid, they may have been fearful of what we had carried from the capital, which had been so affected by coronavirus outbreaks.

So, unsure of what to do but hoping to slip under the radar, we settled on a dubious combination of Spanish (with the German staff) and some quiet Scottish banter amongst ourselves…

After that, we decided that the best option when out and about was to continue with Español. And it never felt so good!

Even the simplest exchange, like ordering a coffee had one waiter looking genuinely impressed, and surprised, by my capability to converse at a basic level. Having your efforts recognised is a boost everyone needs once in a while and all the uncomfortable encounters and linguistic challenges I had faced over the past year started to feel distant (or maybe those chilled vacation vibes were starting to kick in)!

As I lay on my lounger on la playa, listening to the loud and constant chatter of Spanish amongst the locals, I was struck by how carefree everyone seemed. There were friends and families enjoying some of the simplest pleasures on a day at the beach. Sharing moments, making memories and feeling the freedom of flashing their flesh!

There were tourists too, enjoying the same pleasures (only more quietly and with their swimwear firmly on).

Amidst all the ongoing uncertainty, we were all enjoying what sun-soaked Spain had to offer. Together.

On the way home, we detoured via Benidorm, clinging to the coast for as long as possible before the inevitable time came to head back inland. It was surreal to see the resort so quiet, during the peak of summer holidays. In all its years of being home to sun seekers will the beaches of Benidorm have looked like this, with more free sun loungers than occupied ones (and more bronzed bodies than burnt Brits)!

Unapologetic stereotypes only add to the charm of this tourist hot spot and it was worth the extra 40-minute drive for one last paddle in the crystal-clear Med (and to stock up on Irn Bru from a British supermarket)!

I always take a stone from the beach for memories, and this was certainly a trip to remember. Not only was it our first trip to the famous Spanish costa since living here but it was also the first-time leaving Madrid since lockdown began in March. There were times that I could not imagine ever getting out of the apartment, let alone the city, and after seeing so many empty holiday villas with their refreshing pools, I know where I would rather have been confined!

Now, I’m back in the sizzling city, where temperatures are at least 10 grados higher than the cool coast. If I close my eyes (and stand by the fan), I can almost feel the sea breeze that dried my hair into crisp waves, and the salt onto my skin.

I feel energised and restored and until I shake the last grain of sand out of my shoes, I am still reminded of the simple pleasures; sun, sea, sand (and sunflowers).

Now that’s what I call a staycation.

Language success:


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:


A slice of advice

A slice of advice

Having been in Madrid for a year now and feeling pretty established (at times), I have been looking back and reflecting on all the things I have learnt from living abroad. And also to a time when this whole experience was just a big unknown, when I didn’t know what to expect…

I remember friends, family, and colleagues parting some really valuable advice onto us before we left, and looking back, I wonder whether I took it on board amidst the emotional goodbyes. It was an overwhelming time, with tears and hugs and when-will-we-see-you-agains, and only now do I realise the value of the wise words they passed on.

There were messages of encouragement; everyone eagerly telling us to enjoy the good life – the sunshine, the siestas and the sangria. This, we have certainly done!

But there were a few nuggets that really stuck with me…

  • “You have no idea how much your horizons will broaden” – I vividly remember this conversation just days before leaving. Someone told me that by moving abroad, I would be exposed to a world I didn’t even know existed; culturally, socially, career-wise. And whilst the latter is still up for debate, I still replay this conversation and realise just how true it is. “I’m only going to Spain” I thought at the time but when I think about the past year and all the things I have seen, heard, felt, achieved, and learnt (including Spanish), I am struck by how I would have had none of these experiences if we hadn’t taken the plunge. Every single day has been an adventure, and these words will stick with me forever.
  • “Never turn down an invitation” – was an invaluable piece of advice which has turned into a motto that I repeat to myself anytime I am lucky enough to receive one. It made me view every occasion as an opportunity because, you never know just who you might meet. Not only is it confidence-boosting to say “yes” and turn up, but you will always come away richer for it (sometimes with a phone number, a new friend, a job offer, a language exchange or at the very least, a good night out!)
  • “Without bread, it’s not worth it” – I now appreciate that this could only have been a warning to prepare me for the bread bloat I was sure to experience. I dismissed it at the time, confident of my carb control! But I was wrong, I have never eaten so much pan! It appears on the table with every meal, with every tapa and tempts you from every bakery window in the barrio. And while I have no desire for the disappointing and weirdly sweet shelf loaf, (which is certainly no Warburtons), the freshly baked baton is not only a temptation, but part of daily life. Plus, it feels continental, mopping up all manner of salsas with your bread from the basket, which is starting to harden a little in the heat – only adding to the delight of relaxed Mediterranean dining.
  • El tiempo es oro” – Time is Gold. In other words, time is the most precious thing we will ever have, so spend it well. Spaniards generally have some strong priorities, which include la familia, spending time outdoors, taking gentle strolls in the evening, good food, good wine, and sunshine. The slower pace of life has made me realise that it isn’t necessary to “fill” my time but to appreciate more the simple things in life. (Funnily enough, these wise words came from the same individual who passed on the previous gem, and I do wonder how much of his precious time is spent eating pan)!
  • “Assume life will be different” – that way you will be pleasantly surprised when you find things that remind you of home. I remember the first time I heard a Scottish accent in a crowd and felt instantly connected to the stranger, or when I spied Dairy Milk chocolate in a swanky supermercado and stocked up on the over-priced bars! These overwhelming feelings of comfort and “home” don’t come along often but when they do, I savour the moments. And then there are the times when I wake up with enough mosquito bites to ‘join the dots’ or am confronted by a cucaracha, and I am starkly reminded that some things are just…different!
  • “Love life” – waking up to the sunshine, exploring new places and experiencing new things every day makes it very hard not to!
  • “If you love it, don’t leave” – simple.

It was all great advice. But there was one crucial thing missing and that was of course, any advice for learning Spanish! There was plenty of assurance; “It will come”, “Don’t worry about it” and “Give it time”, people said. (Some even tried to trick me into believing that English would be widely spoken! HA!)

It’s exactly the advice I would have passed on to others in my situation too. In reflection, the reassurance that everything would be ok was probably more valuable than hints and tips for memorising verbs, which I would likely forget when distracted by paella and piscinas.

Anyway, it turns out any advice on the subject of learning a language is generally quite consistent, and simple. Any internet search or textbook preaches the same golden rules: Practise lots, don’t be afraid to make mistakes and SPEAK! (Note: this doesn’t make it “easy”, just less daunting)!

Moving abroad to start a new life is an experience that is guaranteed to be confidence-building in the long-term. Being forced out of your comfort zone can only be a good thing!

And while I am yet to benefit from a glittering career opportunity (or meet someone who is going to offer me one), we have made friends, we spend our time doing things we enjoy, and we do love life!

The phrase “you learn something new every day” has never been more accurate, and whenever I am exposed to fresh challenges, I can hear the voices of the well-wishers in the back of my mind, and I thank them silently for their words of wisdom.

But there was one slice of advice I was given, and it is perhaps the greatest of all – write it down! I don’t want to forget anything so it is important to capture the memories. And when I will look back again, to relive the moments, or to pass on peculiar proverbs, I will be so glad I followed this advice.

It also gives me the opportunity to share with you my experiences and I hope that one day, you might spend some of your own precious tiempo de oro enjoying this country.

I guarantee there will be bread. Because without bread…

It’s not worth it!



lemon: noun

lemon: noun

I once read that the human brain can remember 1.75 languages. Whether this is a fact or a complete fabrication, it is true that I can feel English words slipping away from my memory as my Spanish vocabulary expands! This is unfortunate, and untimely, because as a newly qualified English teacher, students expect me to know more words than the Oxford English Dictionary.

At home, our daily dialogue has started to involve filling in each other’s blanks when simple words are lost. This week alone we recovered: ‘disqualified’, ‘trespass’, and ‘spatula’. Not very promising.

More often than not, you don’t move to Spain to better your career prospects, at least not in the short term. Instead we were lured by the change of lifestyle, and of course, the sun!

So, teaching English is a perfect plan B for someone like me, who is not yet bilingual and will take a bit of time to find work here. And it would seem it is not an uncommon step to take, with everyone from college graduates to the semi-retired trying their hand at this at some point. As with any job, there are pros and cons. One of the down sides is that I don’t get a chance to practise Spanish in the workplace, automatically hindering my progress. Yet, on the contrary, when learning the depths (I mean the basics) of the English language, learning Spanish becomes easier too.

Native English speakers often don’t learn grammar at school, and I was ashamed not to “know” my own language whilst dedicating time and effort to learning the ins and outs of another. So, before I taught anyone, I had to teach myself. “English Grammar in Use” became my bible and I carried my well-thumbed copy with me wherever I went. It wasn’t a chore to learn, nor did I see it as extra work, because not only could I now confidently teach a class on the future simple tense but when the time came to tackle the “futuro simple” in Español, I was raring to go!

(Note: The grammatical differences between these two languages are stark, however, it was progress simply to know the terminology considering I had to remind myself what a verb was just weeks before)!

But before signing my first contract (teaching adults in the workplace), one language school asked me to clarify that I was a native English speaker. Confused, I confirmed that I was. They said they just had to “warn” me that if the students couldn’t understand my Scottish accent, then they would have to “reconsider” my position, but not to take it personally.

I didn’t. I was quietly confident that I sounded “neutral” enough on the broad and undulating scale of Scottish accents to be understood. (Mine may have diluted since moving here…but yours would too if your job was at stake)!

Each student has their own reason for “needing” English, and most want to improve. At times, they are frustrated with their own efforts, aware of the mistakes they are making. But I was encouraging – I could only aspire to be able to communicate this much in another language. I sympathised with the lower level students (the equivalents of me), but my sympathies quickly turned towards my own Spanish teacher who must have dreaded our hour of broken conversation each week! But we all have to start somewhere…

Not all students are eager and willing though. After all, who wants to give up time in their valuable (albeit, generous) lunch-break to revise pronouns, prepositions, and pronunciation.

But aside from the boring stuff, there was always time for a bit of chat.

I learned more about Spain, its people, and their customs from these students in my first few months of teaching than from any internet search, TV show, or guidebook. Luckily for me, they liked to talk about themselves and their lives and I invited it, being the curious (read: nosey) person that I am.

I decided it was worth the low pay to learn someone’s madre’s tortilla de patatas recipe, or to understand the importance of the chiringuito on holiday to the beach or to discover where the best olive oil is produced.

I was struck by the passion people had for their own regions of the country (particularly the fiercely defensive Southerners) and I began to recognise regional identities – picking up on differences in accents and even personality traits between Sevillanos and Madrileños, for example.

And there is no way I could have navigated Navidad and all its associated traditions had it not been for these guys talking me through the endless festivities for weeks in advance!

But when they weren’t talking about the best cuts of jamón or complaining about the government, I heard plenty about their personal lives too – the good, the bad and the ugly. I began to wonder if it is easier to share your problems in another language. There is a certain vulnerability about a student, whether you are learning languages or dance or anything in between, you expose a lot of yourself trying to communicate.  

I wouldn’t have half of the knowledge or understanding had it not been for these students openly and honestly sharing their stories, feeding me facts or expressing their (often direct) opinions.  

And I needn’t have worried about my native tongue! It warmed my heart to know that they LOVED Scotland (all credit to ‘Outlander’), and I revelled in sharing my passion for my own country with them.

So, as long as I can continue to keep my accent under control, I will go on to teach more interesting (and super-chic) Spaniards who in turn, will teach me more invaluable lessons for life here (and hopefully let me into their style secrets too)!


Language learning:

Driving a wedge

Driving a wedge

It turns out there is quite a lot involved in setting up life in a new country. I considered all the life admin we all do over the years: finding places to live, setting up bank accounts, registering with doctors and dentists, sorting out tax affairs, renewing phone contracts, haggling with utility providers – the list goes on. And for some crazy reason we had decided to do it all over again, in a short time frame, and in another language.

One of the “joys” of Brexit was all the ADDITIONAL things we would have to do to ensure the new life we had chosen in Europe would go as smoothly as we hoped it would, committed to the pursuit of the “Mediterranean dream”.

We made sure to follow what little guidance there was and do what we could sooner rather than later in what is sure to become a panic time-frame (although we defaulted to “blame it on Brexit” whenever appointments were scarce or difficult to book)!

Early one morning we made our way across Madrid to make the nerve-wracking exchange of our driving licenses, which we had read about on various expat groups on Facebook.

Finding our planned metro route disrupted, we jumped on the replacement bus service and arrived at the Driving License Centre with minutes to spare, only to find our 9am appointment was delayed. Of course it was. I sensed it was going to be one of those days…

When we were eventually summoned, it was by a lady whose desk was busy with a distracting array of religious figurines and framed cat pictures. Both having an ‘off’ day it seemed, we struggled through the appointment. There were whole sentences lost in translation and we asked her to repeat most of what she told us, more than once. But we dutifully signed every page of every form (a quirky rule here in Spain) and then, we handed over our precious UK driving licenses in exchange for a temporary piece of paper and a promise that we could expect our new licenses by post.

It was all a bit stressful. And it wasn’t over yet!

What I gathered from the lady’s limited hand gestures (pointing to her eyes and ears and then out the window), was that we had to undergo a medical test, obtain a certificate, and then return with it. Confused and caffeine-deprived, we allowed ourselves to be led away by what thankfully turned out to be a trustworthy tout, to one of several odd little medical offices nearby.

This one looked just like a house from the outside and when we entered, we were split up and I watched as R (who was my language comfort blanket in the early days) was led away by a woman with a clipboard and I, by a man in a lab coat. So far, so weird.

First, I worked my way very slowly through a questionnaire (todo en Español). This time there were no hand gestures, only raised eyebrows and disappointment, and a few comments about my LACK OF SPANISH. Not a high point.

While R was in the other room playing an 80’s video game (to test his reactions, I think), I was then subjected to an eye test. Completely unprepared, I cursed myself for not cleaning my smudged glasses as the grouch in the lab-coat pointed his stick aggressively at the smallest line of letters on the board. Not only could I not see them, but I had to guess them, and guess them in Spanish! If I got one wrong, he would point again and sigh dramatically. Panicking about the consequences of failing, I just started shouting out all the letters of the alphabet I could remember, even throwing in ‘ñ’ for extra brownie points. The thought of having to re-sit a driving test here was enough to terrify me in any language!

I think we were glad to see the back of each other when he eventually released me, and I went, sweating, into the other room to try my luck with the video game. With a joystick in each hand (which is not how I remember driving a car), I had to keep the little red dot within the lines, the machine beeping aggressively if (when) I strayed. R did his best to reassure me – I’m not sure he was finding it all that traumatic!

But by some miracle, we passed and settled up €70 for the ordeal before returning with our certificates to the next part of our lengthy appointment.

After 3 hours, we were done. Breathing a BIG sigh of relief, we headed straight for the nearest café where we ordered strong coffee and croissants, sat in the sun, and debriefed over our floundering language efforts. The more we shared, the funnier the whole morning became.

I’m sure we will suffer further bouts of Brexit bitterness as we go through the next steps, but we must carefully ensure not to drive a wedge between the countries we call home.

And what I first thought was a “disaster” of a morning, I came to realise was just another valuable experience to learn from.

I learnt never to attend an appointment before my morning coffee, for navigating the infamous Spanish bureaucracy can be lengthy and requires fuel. I learnt that not everyone will be sympathetic to our language learning efforts but why should they be? Being made to feel uncomfortable only spurred me on more.

It also made me realise that I really should think about getting behind the wheel here as soon as possible. And that I’m sure a quick revision of the alphabet wouldn’t do any harm!

Language success: