In need of refreshment

In need of refreshment

It was only a matter of time before I had to talk about the weather! With a fierce heatwave sweeping across Europe, the news reports show Spain turning a deep, aggressive shade of red on the map. And that can only mean one thing – it’s July!

At least this year, I sort of know what to expect. I must have acclimatised a bit, or maybe I just have a better understanding of how to survive summer in Spain!

Last year was an adjustment. Arriving in June, it was already scorching hot. I was missing the beach, and craving sight of any body of water since even the río had almost dried up. Public fountains tormented me. I would hover close, praying that the trusty Madrid breeze would blow the right direction so the spray would provide a quick (and subtle) cool-down. One day I lingered just a little too long, and the light spray I was expecting ended up as a heavy (and very public) drenching!

I remember the first time I felt 40°C here. The temperature had stayed consistently around 38°C for weeks, but I waited for it to rise just a few grados more- it felt exciting, and a little dangerous! The journey home from my dance class coincided with the hottest hour of the day and I was out there exposed, darting between shady spots until I made it on to the air-conditioned metro.

Once home, I slipped off my sandals and stepped onto the cool tiles, which provided instant relief! Then I poured myself a glass of something lemony and plunged my swollen flamenco feet into a basin of icy water. This became my effective body-cooling ritual which I would race home for after a hot day out (and by race, I mean shuffle very slowly).

I had only felt temperatures like this once before, very briefly in Abu Dhabi, where the streets were deserted during the days, everyone living a sensibly nocturnal life.

But this was my new normal, and I started taking stock of my sunscreen supplies and drinking agua like my life depended on it…

Because life doesn’t stop here. People still go about their daily business – working, exercising, eating out. Even moving house and home renovations are surprisingly popular in the summer months!

The public transport still runs, the roads don’t melt and even during last year’s heatwave, when other European countries allowed the public to cool off in fountains (much to my envy), Spain continued as normal, unphased by the sizzling temperatures which brought other countries to a standstill.

The only time Madrid takes a break is between the hours of around 2 and 5pm, when some of (but not all) life pauses. This is just one of the ways the Madrileños beat the heat, or at least deal with it every year. As well as the trusty siesta, other hacks include drinking cañas (because anything bigger than this tiny beer would become warm and unappealing, very quickly), flocking to public swimming pools on weekends, and taking that all-important evening stroll at an hour that we would usually be in bed!

I was reassured to learn that the Spanish like to talk about the weather just as much as the British. Except, instead of comparing inches of rainfall, the focus is very much on the temperature. Weather-related expressions are one of the first things you learn in Spanish, and it is always a safe topic of conversation, or so I thought…

People will fan themselves continuously while saying things like “Hace mucho calor” (It’s hot or literally: it makes much heat). But trying to express that you are feeling the heat is where things get risky. We must use “Tengo calor” (I have heat) because saying “Estoy caliente” (I am hot) means something entirely different altogether…

So, unless you intend on announcing your “state of arousal” to an unfortunate someone (while already sweaty and breathless) then be careful! It’s an easy mistake to make after all and one that can at least be blamed on the brain-frazzling heat!

I have been guilty of glorifying the weather here, sharing the forecast with friends and family back home. The novelty of sunshine in February or a hot day in October is hard not to show off, but June-August can be tough – particularly this year with the compulsory use of masks.

Even now, with the AC blasting and three additional fans circulating warm air around my apartment, it can be impossible to stay cool. I am currently averaging two cold showers and four outfit changes per day (not to mention perspiring in peculiar places)! And the heat can be draining; it is responsible for zapping my appetite, drying out my contact lenses and causing my phone to overheat and crash daily (much like myself, it requires respite in a cool, dark room from time to time).

But I soon realised that I wouldn’t have it any other way, because the fresh food, the good mood, the glowing tan and the healthy dose of Vitamin D are only some of the benefits of life in the sun. Plus, the (once-boring) topic of the weather allows me to practise speaking some simple Español, even if I do confuse calor and caliente (or hot and horny) from time to time…

And when the sun sets behind the mountains, there is life on the streets as people return, revived from their afternoon rest. Chatter and reguetón beats are carried by the warm breeze which is ever-present in this city, and I know that the incomparable vibe of a Spanish summer is the only refreshment I need!

Language success:


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!



Add a little garnish…

Add a little garnish…

I often find myself rating places based on whether they seem like “a good place to write”. Some people choose cosy home offices or transform their garden sheds into dreamy dens. Others prefer to work on the move, some from bed, some just in their head – never actually putting pen to paper.

My natural habitat (and all-round happy place) is by the coast. I grew up there, spoilt for views, and whenever I found a secluded bay or a cliff top overlooking the sea, I would rate this highly as a “good writing spot”. I presumed the words would just flow if I found the right place!

In any weather too, whether the waves are crashing or the water is as still as a sheet of glass, for me, there is no better place to spend the hours, feeling grounded. Some people feel the same way about the desert, or the mountains. From something that is bigger than any of us, from landscapes which make us feel “small”, we find ourselves inspired.

But since moving to Madrid, I have never lived so inland! I am quite literally in the beating heart of Spain, 360 km from the coast. But once I accepted that the beach was out of reach, I began to appreciate different things. 

Now, I see any green space as beautiful, and this is a surprisingly green city (most of the city council budget must be spent on sprinklers for the countless public parks, not that I’m complaining – except when my picnic blanket gets wet)!

And the Guadarrama mountains have become my substitute for the ocean, because as long as I can see beyond the city, I am happy.

Just how influential is our environment to spark creativity? This got me thinking about those who had written about Spain before, and one man in particular springs to mind…

I had only recently discovered Ernest Hemingway when I embarked on what can only be described as an unintentional world tour, following the trail of the man’s life.

By chance, I found myself holidaying in the hot spots where the writer once lived, wrote, and drank (a lot), from Paris to Cuba. And then of course, there was Spain.

“Don Ernesto” as he became known, loved this country, returning again and again to the Feria de San Fermín (Running of the Bulls Festival), to the Basque Country, and to Madrid, which he once called: “the most Spanish of all cities”. (This initially surprised me – it seemed too authentic a claim for a major capital city, but I now appreciate that the mix of people from all regions living and working together here makes it very Spanish indeed)!

Reading his classic “Fiesta: The Sun also Rises” when I arrived here was a treat! It was so exciting to recognise the places he name-dropped. And those I didn’t know, I put straight on the bucket list, sold by the passionate descriptions. Fortunately, many of Hemingway’s haunts still exist, (often in the form of a bar) and remain seemingly unchanged from the days he frequented – even the Daiquiri recipe remains consistent.

So, he was a frequent visitor and lover of the country, but I was curious to know what language learning efforts were made by the American. When I found out that he was in fact fluent in Spanish (due to his time in Spain and Cuba), I wondered if by knowing the language, this allowed him to write about a place more fully. Without it, could he have reported on the Spanish Civil War with perspective, or so vividly described the bullfighting, or written about cultural insights with the same appreciation? Was his ability to hold conversations with everyone from camareros to matadors one of the reasons he became respected and remembered?

But, how did he learn? Did he study grammar intensely, or attend lessons like me? Somehow, I doubt it. Did he learn from reading newspapers and settling in the same cafés to write, by making connections, re-visiting his favourite places, and attending fiestas on a whim year after year? Probably.

Most of Hemingway’s Spain was far from coastal, instead covering the inland destinations of Pamplona, the Sierra Nevada, and the capital. The inspiration he found was from the experiences he had, the people he met and arguably, the sherry he drank…

Currently, my Spain is also far from coastal, so I sought inspiration elsewhere. And I found it! I found it in the arid landscapes and the remote fincas in the scorched countryside, from the acres of olives groves and vines stretching as far as the eye can see. I found it when looking towards the mountains, or up at the dazzlingly bright and cloudless skies, from the blazing sun and the intense thunderstorms.

And I too found it from the people, the experiences, and…the language.  

Maybe “where” you write isn’t so important after all, but instead, where you let your mind go. Hemingway and famously, JK Rowling were partial to a café, where they spent hours penning their masterpieces. And whilst I am most definitely not comparing myself to these literary legends and their preferred establishments, I was influenced. So, I sampled the Starbucks scene, tucked away in a cosy corner with a cappuccino. Admittedly, it was more practical than getting sand in my laptop or having my pages blowing off a cliff. And while I was still in the city (wishing I was by the sea), I listened to the chatter of Español and I started to write…

One day I will return to my favourite place, inhaling the salty air whilst looking out to the unpredictable and ever-changing Atlantic, and I will soon discover whether the words flow…

But for now, I will let the sun go to my head and feel the warmth in my heart (I can always rely on the park sprinklers to cool me down) and I will continue to feel small in the centre of this diverse country, because inspiration is all around us, you just have to open your mind to 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:

Live life with zest!

Live life with zest!

Confidence is key! It took 10 months and a worldwide pandemic for this to really sink in.

What was the point of setting myself these language challenges if I was going to approach them so self-consciously? Why did I stutter over words I had memorised just before I left the house? Or break out in a sweat if I misunderstood a question asked by a shop assistant? Sometimes I felt like I was the only person ever to be confronted by these obstacles when learning. Spoiler: I wasn’t.

They say that when you move abroad, you leave part of your personality behind, and become a different person. I have heard this A LOT. You have left your family, your friends and a lot of what makes you “YOU”. You have opted to put distance (2,500 km in my case) between the familiar (the safe) and the new (the scary) in order to experience, learn and grow.

Creating a new version of yourself isn’t a bad thing but then again, I wasn’t looking to change. Maybe it’s true that some people are when they pick up their lives and move across the continent?

But whether it’s your intention or not, it is inevitable. You are constantly absorbing new information, learning cultural rules and of course, contending with daily language challenges. Your focus is altered, you become interested by new things, you develop a different routine and meet new people (all the while, on your best behaviour)! So, before you know it, you are changing.

This new version of yourself is the one you present to your new amigos and colleagues – with who, in English, you talk about the everyday and share the quirks of Spanish living. Meanwhile, in Spanish, you haven’t developed a personality at all yet!

Of everything I left behind; my loved ones, my surroundings, the rain…, there is one comfort I have overlooked and that is my native humour. I don’t think I have ever appreciated my country’s own unique comedy until I was no longer surrounded by it on a daily basis. I’m sure it’s not just a special Scottish thing, but this characteristic is one that I can rely on to help me connect, and bond with my own funny breed of people wherever I am in the world.

But you don’t “learn” humour as part of a beginner’s language course, and a lot of the time, you need to know and understand cultural reference points to join in. This will take years to learn (and years more to master). Until then, you will smile, nod and laugh in a group of Spaniards at an arranged meet-up in a bar, the lack of understanding shining through in your startled eyes (regardless of how many glasses of ‘wine-for-courage’ you’ve had)!

Humour helps to shape your personality and you can seem a little vacant without it! Could this be one of the many reasons that might explain why I have found myself slinking around, overly conscious of looking and acting like a “guiri” who doesn’t belong here?

This term, which the Spanish use to describe a foreigner of northern European descent, was first introduced to us by our Madriliño language tutor back in Glasgow. He described the “guiri” as the type who is identifiable by patchy sunburn or by the infamous socks and sandals combination. Or the one who is sporting shorts in Spring, eagerly flashing pale flesh in temperatures below a “cool” 23 degrees.

We knew at once that we were at risk of being mistaken for, or worse, recognised as a couple of “guiri’s”. But we were glad of the warning and made it our mission to shake off this reputation as soon as possible.

Despite desperately trying to embrace all things Español, we are still guilty of committing “guiri” acts on occasion – like having dinner at “normal” (UK) time or ordering patatas bravas when we are too hungry to translate a whole menu. But coming from a self-deprecating society, we have always had the humility to laugh at ourselves. We won’t forget where we came from and honestly, I would rather be “guiri” than hungry!

Then life changes, and the country comes together amidst a pandemic. We are suddenly faced with more pressing challenges than which is the correct past tense to use! Perspective is everything at this time and the sense of community and support for each other has overshadowed the things that once seemed important (like the guiri’s ability to converse fluently in Spanish)!

So, what have I taken personally from this shared national (and global) experience? Well, when the time comes that our freedom is restored, I vow to emerge with newfound confidence and a new lease of life.

We only have una vida, and I am going to live mine with zest! I am going to be ME.

Who knows, one day I might even tell my own jokes. And while we can safely assume that I won’t make it as the next Billy Connolly de España, I’m sure it will be a story worth sharing!



Quenching the thirst

Quenching the thirst

My language journey didn’t start with Spanish…and I’m not going to count high school French. It was years later, at University, that I had the desire (and the opportunity) to learn Arabic.

“Why Arabic”?

Well, if I had a sticky date for every time I was asked that! I would answer that I was really interested in the culture, which was more than partially true, but there were other reasons too. As I was edging towards the final year of my degree, the race was on to prepare myself with skills that I hoped would better my career prospects (and I thought the script was beautiful too)!

I had a vision of setting up camp in the desert (not literally, just in the broader sense of the Middle East) and getting a really “cool” job – something that was exotic, exciting and worlds apart from what I knew.

I persevered through years of lessons, first at University and then at evening classes at a local language school. But there was never enough demand in Glasgow to keep students in attendance for longer than one term. So, I started private lessons with a lovely Lebanese lady and together, we drank mint tea and she showed me her beautiful silk occasion dresses, while teaching me the fundamentals of Modern Standard Arabic, and about the richness of Arab culture.

When the time came to stop – I was sad but accepting. I had achieved something; I could read and write the beautiful script and had enough phrases up my sleeve should I ever find myself bargaining at a spice bazaar in Beirut. But the (less exotic) job I had landed in Glasgow had no requirement for this Semitic language. I had no one to practise speaking with and just not enough reason to study out-with my weekly 90-minute class.

So, I bought a beautiful copy of “The Arabian Nights” with gold gilded pages, for the memories. It has pride of place on my bookshelf and whenever I pick it up, I get swept away in a fantasy of fascinating far-away lands.

And since moving to Spain, I have been amazed to discover what an influential part the Arab-Muslims (Moors) played in this country’s history, and the deep-rooted connection between the two cultures. The imprint left on Spain from almost 800 years of Moorish ruling in the 8th Century is still evident today (particularly in El Sur), from mesmerising Arabic architecture, and musical influences (not to mention the importance of chickpeas in Spanish cuisine)!

And then of course, there is the language. Although Spanish is a Latin language, around 8% of its vocabulary derives from Arabic – even the words that sound oh-so-Spanish to us like guitarra (guitar), barrio (neighbourhood), hasta (until), naranja (orange), and nearly every word beginning with ‘al’!

I believe there is something irritating and wasteful about dedicating so many years of our lives to learning a unique skill only to lose it all through lack of practice (or need). That’s why I get so excited when I connect Arabic words in Spanish, because I am reminded that all was not lost.

All those years of learning; of adapting to reading right to left, of remembering the alphabet and its changing form, and of pronouncing the deep guttural sounds (which is actually surprisingly easy if you happen to be Scottish, or German)! If anything, reminding myself of this was starting to make learning Spanish seem pretty simple!

Looking back now, I realise that Arabic was a stepping-stone. It quenched my thirst for learning about a culture that has fascinated me since I was young, and it awakened my appetite for learning languages. But as it turned out, it was not the language I “needed”.

It’s different this time, with Spanish. I NEED this language and that is the driving force. We all start learning new skills for different reasons, but the idea that this is one that will enhance my life is enough of a motive for me to give it all I’ve got!

I haven’t given up the dream of achieving polyglot status yet, and one day I will make space in my brain for more than one foreign language.

But I must also leave space for imagination because dreams of magic lamps, Persian princesses, sultans and sorcerers (oh, and really cool jobs) are never far away!



Lemon sole

Lemon sole

(The day I befriended a Cobbler)

It was early January and I was ready to challenge myself again. I needed to find a way to overcome the “7-month silence” that I was experiencing after Navidad. Already-fluent friends reassured me that this was a perfectly normal stage of language learning. It’s the stage where you understand more and more (you might even get a buzz from listening in to someone’s conversation in a café). But when asked a simple question, you clam up and appear to have forgotten everything you have ever learnt! (You certainly would if asked: “Why are you listening to my conversation?” This didn’t happen to me by the way, I’m too subtle).

I was told that the only way to overcome this dreaded confidence-killing-silent-stage was to…HABLAR!

In a bid to follow this advice and start the year as I meant to go on, I pleaded with R to think up a challenge for me!

(Side note: I had already exhausted my own list of “challenge yourself in Spanish” errands. They were becoming pointless! I once convinced myself the dress I bought for a wedding needed altered and spent ages researching tailors nearby. I had my script rehearsed and was about to embark on my mission when it occurred to me that, there was nothing actually wrong with the dress. I must have dreamt up its imperfections just because I was in need of a new challenge! Either that or the August heat was driving me delirious)!

Anyway, it wasn’t long before he came up with something unforeseen…

The very next day as he was leaving for work, the sole fell off one of his shiny new work shoes! How convenient, I thought, this was my chance! I must go and find a cobbler! (A first for me, in any country).

Not fully satisfied at work, I thought now might be a good time to switch vocation and re-train to become a cobbler myself. I was joking of course, but you would be surprised at the things you consider when seeking (preferably non-verbal) work in a foreign land…!

So, off I went in search of the cobbler who would mend the shoe (and maybe even appoint me as their apprentice).

We live in a neighbourhood where there is a local everything; a Frutería, Florestería, Perfumería…even an Acting Academy and a Magician’s studio! You name it, we’ve got it. So, I knew it wouldn’t be hard to come by a Cobblería* (*translation not accurate).

Roaming the streets nearby, it wasn’t long before I found what I was looking for! A shoehorn in a dusty window display was the giveaway and I followed some steps into a dark hovel, below street level.

There, perched upon a stool, was an exceptionally old man mending the shoe of another unfortunate soleless customer. The shop was over 100 years old and I was sure the cobbler couldn’t have been much younger. I liked him at once.

I wasn’t really sure what I was asking for, so in limited Español (and with a smile), I presented the shoe with the flapping sole and he went about inspecting it.

He admired it, in a way that only a Cobbler would, and then went on to show me an array of his handiwork from the back of the cave which I, in turn, admired dutifully. We had a pleasant, broken conversation and he asked where I was from. He looked surprised when I told him. He “thought Spanish” – I was thrilled, but sceptical…

I had used all the common phrases I knew, and my limits had been reached, but seemingly unphased that I couldn’t follow, he just continued talking…and talking. From his mouth came an eruption of words and I frantically tried to pick out anything I understood, desperate to converse more with him!

Yet despite my difficulties, I felt oddly at ease. From this patient old man, there was no expectation or judgement of my proficiency, and there was no hurry either. As he rambled in a dialect that I hoped I would one day understand – I realised that instead of perceiving language as a “barrier”, we should see it as an open door to experiences, to cultures and to people that we would never have accessed otherwise.

Eventually, when the time came to bid “Adiós”, I paid 10€ for the pleasure and headed back into the sunshine.

He did not make me his apprentice, but I was already excited to return for the shoe!

Language success:


When life gives you lemons…

When life gives you lemons…

“The greatest adventure starts with a conversation…”

Or in our case, years of them. Mostly on a Friday night, after a long week at work over a bottle of vino tinto. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, spinning my globe (my prized possession) for inspiration, I would start to list countries at random in an attempt to narrow down where in the world we could start a new life one day. R usually picked the less obscure of my options for consideration, but wherever it was, we were both in agreement that “we’ll have to learn the language, of course”.

Soon, those Friday night conversations would continue into the weekend. DIY jobs around the house took a back seat (any excuse!) and we became wary of making commitments “just in case we move away”. We made no secret of it either, sharing our dream with family and friends. There’s something in the power of saying it out loud…

1st January 2019 was the turning point. Waving off our friends and their 3-month-old after our traditional NYE celebrations, we walked the empty streets of Glasgow – our home for a decade – hangover-free and full of hope. The sun was shining, our minds were clear and there was literally nothing stopping us – it was a symbolic start to our year. Within days, R sent job applications all over the world, I returned to work feeling positive and for once, didn’t submit a holiday request form on the first day back!

By February, there was something in the pipeline. Our dreams weighed on R’s shoulders as he triple-checked his Skype connection prior to his second interview, but he played it cool. He was offered a position in Madrid!

We couldn’t believe it. After years of those conversations, we were finally making it happen!

Things quickly fell into place. We gave notice at our jobs, started packing up our lives and true to our word, signed up for Spanish classes! A Madrileño student living in Glasgow spent a few hours per week teaching us the basics of the language and the cultural ‘need-to-knows’ before we made the move. He told us the Spanish were a notoriously nosy bunch so not to be surprised if our elderly neighbours would want to know all the gossip. I immediately asked to learn all the key phrases that would help me befriend an old Abuela or two!

 It was the start of a long journey of language learning that would require more effort and determination than anything we had done before. But we were serious about this, and motivated by the desire to fully immerse ourselves, we knew we would do whatever it took (even if that meant watching ‘Dora the Explorer’)!

Fast forward through a few whirlwind months of emotional farewells, important appointments, apartments to view and forms to sign, the unpacking of our worldly possessions, and more than one “Is this really happening?” moments!  

And we were settled.

These days, I watch ‘Place in the Sun’ during my (completely justified) siesta time! I still can’t get used to this, particularly when I remember that I used to watch the show on a rare sick day back home, snuggled up when it was grey and wet out. I would envy the couples, whose circumstances allowed them to pack up their lives and follow the sun. I would turn my focus to planning our next holiday, distracting myself from the fear that our real goal could be out of reach until we retired, in 40 years’ time! But I always dreamt that one day, we would have our own place in the sun. We just had to make it happen.

“The greatest adventure starts with a conversation…” I wonder what the next one will be. It might even be in Spanish!