Marinating in Madeira

I was always told that the secret to enjoying wine was to keep drinking it.

“If you don’t like it,” said my father, “just continue trying it until you do.”

This makes him sound like a religious alcoholic, which he is not. In fact, it turns out that his advice is applicable to many things in life, especially when it comes to immersing yourself in a new language. I call the process cultural “marination” and having just returned from a marketing and wine internship on the island of Madeira, I can safely say I know how to put this into practice. After 3 months of sampling the local culture and gastronomy, I am now not only a raving Madeira wine fan but also, I hope, a little more fluent in Portuguese.

So here is a flavour of what full “marination” in Madeiran culture involves:

Madeira Wine

The island is famous for its fortified wines, whose rare taste and longevity (you can keep a bottle open for a year without the wine going off) come from the unique heating and traditional ageing process which they go through. Vineyards of Sercial, Verdelho, Bual, Malmsey and Tinta Negra grapes tumble and cascade over Madeira’s rugged peaks and the wines made from these are served as often to tourists in restaurants as they are in locals’ homes. As with language learning, the secret is to keep on trying in order to fully understand deeper levels of taste and complexity. Working at a wine lodge meant I was tasting regularly and practically swimming in Madeira, although I didn’t go as far as the 1st Duke of Clarence. An ardent love of Malmsey and enforced death sentence by his older brother led him to choose to be drowned in a vat of the stuff, according to Shakespeare’s Henry VI. There’s always one who takes things a step too far.

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Obligatory Cultural Drinking at Blandy’s

Poncha

This is a local drink made from Aguardente (sugar cane rum with an alcohol content of roughly 50%), fresh lemon, orange or other fruit juice and honey. The combination is mixed with a long wooden stick called a “Caralhinho” (local slang, not for office use) and just four shots is enough to make you suffer horrendously the next day.

Poncha

Stronger than it Looks

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Madeira is Cristiano Ronaldo mad. He has his own museum, hotel and now airport. I was lucky enough to be on one of the first flights departing from the newly opened “Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport” on the 29th March. The inauguration day was a crammed confusion of important national figures, TV journalists and school children screaming at his horrifying new bust.

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Statue at the new Cristiano Ronaldo Airport, Madeira.(Photo by Octavio Passos/Getty Images)

Bananas and Odd Exotic Fruit

Madeiran farmers claim their bananas are smaller than continental ones, but tastier. If that doesn’t do it for you then the extraordinary range of weird fruit just might. Even if you are widely travelled, Madeira will show you fruit you never knew existed: alien-green pipinelas, scaley but mushy custard apples, something known as an “english tomato” which has most certainly never caught a glimpse of British soil in its life, as well as a sort of ridged cherry called pitanga and over seven different types of passionfruit. Whatever your taste you’ll find something that takes your fancy.

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Exotic Produce at the Farmers’ Market

Local Slang

The Madeiran word for a coffee with milk is garoto, which means boy. I’ve been told it’s not appropriate to use this when ordering at a café on mainland Portugal.

Food

It’s an absolute essential to try the local delicacies if you want to fully immerse in Madeirenese culture. Eat Espada (sword fish) with banana (local dish, surprisingly edible), Espetada (meat kebab), or Lapas (limpets) if you feel adventurous. Honestly more appetising than they sound.

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Lapas Grelhadas Grilled Limpets

Humour

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Madeiran Comedians – 4 Litros

One of the best ways to understand a foreign culture is to get their sense of humour, so listening to local comedians is a must! Check out the Portuguese Ricardo Arujo Pereira, debating live on radio the best way to eat cereal and the optimum temperature of milk:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPRtQBHS72w

Or the very Madeiran 4 Litros, a comedy group which satirise the island’s culture through youtube. In reaction to Donald Trump’s “America First” speech, they produced a parody video “America First, Madeira Second”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxARhLTOENE

A lot of the above may not exactly be your cup of tea, but the key to cultural immersion, much like wine tasting, is to keep drinking it in. Just as wine improves with age, so too do language skills with time. Alternatively, just try speaking Portuguese after drinking a bottle of Madeira, the results are astounding.

 

Published on Immerse app blog, April 2017.

http://blog.immerse-app.com/marinating-in-madeira-portuguese-fluency/

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Post Argentina Blues

I’m one of those people who, as many of you will already know, like to try and flow the opposite way to the current stream of trend. Whether this be deliberately for dramatic effect or for genuine reasons I will let you decide. However, at the present moment, I find myself painfully in a position of having to adhere to an expected pattern of behaviour: it’s October, I’m back in Exeter, it’s raining, and I’m well and truly suffering from the famous Post-Year-Abroad-Blues.

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Take Me Back

The frustrating thing is that I can see myself, a year and a half ago now, coming out of a Pre-Year-Abroad-Departure-Lecture (they’re quite into their long titles here), bright eyed and ignorant of what was before me, telling a group of friends that “Reverse Culture Shock” (another one) wasn’t a thing, and that we’d all be just as delighted to be back at University after a year abroad, as we had been before. How wrong I was.

I thought that in light of this, I would try and cheer myself up by writing a few thoughts on what I miss from my time in Argentina. A bit of a paradox but I think it has something to it. I enjoy writing lists, and I hope you enjoy reading them.

So here we are:

Things I Miss From Living in Argentina (Or Things I Grudgingly Had To Get Used To Whether I Liked it or Not):

1. ¿De dónde sos?

No matter how long I’d been living in South America for, and no matter how much I’d practiced rolling my spanish “R”s and yelling “Che boludo” at long lost friends or strangers in the street, I seemed to emanate some sort of aura of Englishness that was inescapable. I’m not going to lie I did enjoy being English and unique in a country full of people who had never been to England, because I felt interesting when talking about inane things like tea and the Queen and dog walks. That is something I’ll miss.

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Jolly Good

2. Thank you

As much as I find the English way of thanking and pleasing at every possible moment a little overbearing now, I very much did miss it when abroad. Thanking happened much less in Argentina. During my first day working at the school I held the door open for no fewer than 23 people (Teachers and Students) who filed in past my beaming smile without giving me so much as a glance. All I could do was mutter a sarcastic “you’re welcome” to myself before learning to be a bit more pushy at doorways. Oh and they didn’t do queuing either, innocent looking 70 year old women were to be regarded as an archenemy when at the butchers counter.

3.Very tactile people and kissing EVERYBODY

This was an interesting one. From a friend’s grandmother to your boss, from your landlord to the annoying neighbour with the barking dog next door, you kissed everyone you met. Just once on the cheek, not twice like in Spain. I did really appreciate having a uniform way of greeting people, because it avoided all British embarrassment of “are we hugging/hand shaking/waving like an idiot/air kissing/nodding formally at each other like a muppet?” Strange men were acceptable to avoid kissing, but otherwise, that’s just what you did.

4.Everything taking a very long time to be sorted out

I wouldn’t say I ended up loving the Iberian and South American inefficiency whilst I lived abroad, but it definitely made me chill out about getting things sorted out immediately, and it one hundred percent made me realise how lucky we are to live in England where a 5 minute delay is a legitimate excuse for complaint. In Buenos Aires I once spent 6 hours waiting in queues and travelling across the city to try and withdraw my month’s wages. I went to three different branches and all had run out of cash, because they hadn’t thought to stock up for the upcoming bank holiday weekend, nor born in mind that it was pay day across the whole country. Paying bills and sorting out accounts is something that we can easily do online at home, but not something which has stretched in its entirety to South America. So I’ve definitely learnt not to complain as much, though by nature I will always retain a British impatience when having to wait over 2 hours for a bus.

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Keep Calm and Carry On

5. No British Stiff Upper Lip – Let it All Out

Argentinians are a lot more emotionally open. If they were angry with you they would say. If they were happy because it was their birthday you’d know about it. If they were upset because a relative had just gone into hospital, you would get the whole story, from the initial moment of crisis to discussions on possible long term effects for the family’s assets along with many tears, cups of tea (or sips of Mate), back rubbing, sympathetic noises and dramatic hand gestures. It didn’t matter if there was work to be marked or things to be handed in, everything stopped until that person was smiling again. I like that people feel able to express their emotions instead of brushing off personal questions with a “fine thanks”, but it doesn’t half slow things up when you’re trying to plan a lesson for 30 children in an hour.

6.Bluntness

If they thought she/he was fat, strange, or annoying, they had no qualms about saying it out loud. I liked the directness, if someone didn’t like you, they didn’t feel obliged to invite you to things “just to be polite”. When you were invited to a party you knew it was because your company was genuinely wanted. I think I picked up a certain dose of this which may be a good or a bad thing.

7. Food Sharing

“Cuando hay, hay para todos. Cuando no hay, no hay para nadie”, as my landlady told me. If there was food on the table you could take it and didn’t have to ask. My polite and over exaggerated English manners meant I found this difficult to swallow, for when with new friends I find it impossible to take food without asking for it first. Yet neither was I able to interrupt a conversation in order to do so, something which in Spanish you must learn to do unless you want people to believe that you live as a hermit under an eternal vow of silence.If you don’t interrupt, you aren’t allowed to speak. I therefore spent many a meal stuck in limbo, stomach growling with hunger whilst trying to feebly interject into an animated discussion on Cristina Kirchner. I would sit, melting with hunger, waiting for the opportune moment to ask for the last empanada. But alas, I was too late, someone had already grabbed it.I soon learnt to be more Argentinian about the whole thing, which saved me from near starvation. The policy also conversely meant that if you had brought biscuits into the staff room people automatically assumed they could have one too which was NOT the case. Chocolate digestives were impossible to come by in Argentina, and I wasn’t going to share my limited supply.

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It’s All For Me

8. Reggeaton

This music was my guilty pleasure, and I’m sure anyone who has spent any time living in a Spanish speaking country will agree with me. Nothing like a bit of Osmani Garcia to bring back memories of fernet-filled evenings, asados, nights in Ferona, Niceto, Crowbar…                                                                    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRp3-D3SMwI

9. Argentinian Asado

I should probably have put this at the top of the list. The asado was THE Argentinian social gathering which involved the most delicious and tender red meat I think I will ever eat, cooked on the parilla, washed down with copious amounts of Malbec or Fernet, and burnt off with solid dancing until 7am the next morning. Fantastic.

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Bailamos

10. Small talk

It took me a while to realise that England must be the only country in the world where perfect strangers can bond over the topic of the weather. It just didn’t seem to illicit the same enthusiastic response with Argentinians. I tried talking about food instead, it was much more successful.

Hasta la próxima, Argentina.

Published on Immerse app blog, January 2016.

http://blog.immerse-app.com/the-argentinian-blues/

 

A Nice Cup of Mate and an Argentinian Biscuit

 

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Why would one drink anything else?

When straying from England, it is common for the average Brit to encounter difficulties when it comes to finding good tea and comforting biscuits. Though the burden of this is usually softened by the drinkers having brought their own tea bags to the foreign land, explorers further afield must eventually endure the terrifying reality of life without the blends and biscuits they know and love. On such an adventure myself, the absence of familiar tea is soon to become very real (I’m down to my final ten bags of Whittard’s English Breakfast), however, the problem of lacking chewable accompaniment has been solved. I have discovered a stunningly adequate alternative option;”Cereal Mix”.

Coming from a strong background of Chocolate Digestives and Hobnobs, I was surprised that this more healthy alternative could give adequate satisfaction to one who is not in general a “fruit biscuit fan” (FBF). And yet there is something so delightfully delicious about this biscuit, that once you have had one or two, the third, fourth and fifth seem to follow pretty quickly afterwards. The S/S (Sweet/Salty) ratio is on par, is ticks the crunchy-but-not-too-dry box, and before you know it you’ve managed to inhale an entire packet of them. In short, a genuine page turner of a biscuit. They go along divinely with a good cup of English Breakfast, and are recommended for the hotter climate, being lighter and more granola-y in consistency, as well as free from any ‘melting over the fingers’ risk. They come in a variety of flavours, but personally I would recommend the Apple ones (pictured below). They taste like the apple nutri-grain bars (of the late 2008 era), but with a crunchier attitude. All in all, a winning combination.

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The New Chocolate Digestive?

As I mentioned before, I have not yet had to go without a proper cup of brown stuff, and thank goodness, because the Argentinian alternative is horrifying. It makes even the most eccentric habits of English tea drinkers pale in comparison. At a first glance, Mate (Mah-teh) seems to strike many similarities with its English relative; it’s a drink made by mixing hot water with dry leaves (although the optimum water temperature is 80 degrees, not 100, so timing when to take the kettle off the stove is a nightmare), and is drunk fairly regularly throughout the day as a means of being sociable. I usually encounter Mate drinking 4 times a day here; once in the morning at breakfast with my landlady, twice at school during the break times in the staff room, and once back at home whilst musing over the days findings. So far, so good.

But then we get to the equipment used to drink it. Toss aside any ideas of mugs and teapots, and picture a large hollowed-out, wooden fruit shell and a long thing metal straw with a tea strainer on the end. The fruit shell apparently comes from the original indigenous peoples of South America who used to hollow them out to drink the Mate leaves, but as far as I can make out, the straw with the small sieve on the end seems to be a lazy way of drinking the concoction without having to bother about removing the tea leaves first. The shredded leaf remains in the shell whilst you drink, and as long as you drain all the water before you take a break from the mixture, you can return to top it up as many times as you like, and hence continue the pleasure of drinking this acrid, energy-filled brew all day long. There are special Mate on-the-go kits which are designed to house a box of leaves, a thermos of hot water, a box of sugar (should you be one of those who needs its unpleasant and bitter taste to be sweetened before ingesting) and a compartment for the cup and straw. You will see Argentinians shopping, sight seeing, on holiday, at lunch parties, at school, reading books, on the train, in the queue for the mobile phone shop, decorating for the office Christmas party – ANYWHERE with a Mate kit for company. The Spanish in Madrid smoke, but the Argentinians have opted for the healthier, and infinitely more lumbersome option. Why slip a packet of cigarettes in your pocket when you could sport a highly trendy Mate bag on the shoulder? Should you ever get the urge to purchase one, there are a wide range of sizes, shapes and colours to suit even the most peculiar tastes.

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Never did I think I would find something that would trump the stereotypical English obsession with tea. But I see now how wrong I was.

 

 Written with inspiration from, and apologies to, one of the more eccentric tea and biscuit websites: http://www.nicecupofteaandasitdown.com

 

The Difficulties of Early Mornings, and English Withdrawal Symptoms

There is something so pleasant in waking up early. As you tiptoe out the door and the sun begins to creep gently into the streets of Madrid, you’re filled with the overwhelming smug realisation that you’re awake before anyone else. The pleasure of seeing a crisply awakened city whilst most others are still asleep is a wonderful feeling. The day ahead must seem full of promise.

I’ve only ever experienced this beautiful early morning view of the city once before. When I stumbled out of the tube at 7am one morning after a long evening of dancing the night before, fresh is not the word I would have used to describe my emotions at that point, nor is optimistic the word I would have used to describe my expectations of that day. Alas it is always the same story. Any of you who have ever been excitedly promised a cooked breakfast by me at 1.45am in Timepiece, will realise that this seldom happens. However much I try to insist, I am not a morning person.

This morning, for example, when the alarm went off at 8am I furiously battered the poor alarm clock 8 times into a hasty ‘snooze’. When at 9.30am I finally opened my eyes to see the time I reprimanded it strongly for not having woken me up earlier. Luckily I’ve got pretty good at getting ready at speed: Tea. Then clothes. Breakfast. Change shirt. Make up. Add scarf to the outfit. Clean teeth. Sigh at the mirror. Remove the scarf. Door. Nearly forget keys. Bit more mascara. Keys. And out the door…tearing across the road in front of swearing Spanish taxi drivers, and pelting down the road for the bus. The road works that have been taking place on Calle Lopez de Hoyos every morning for the past 3 months have now become a familiar part of my route to work. Their irritating disruptions to traffic and the hearing abilities of passers by are now cheerful old friends of mine. I also have a familiar faces on my journey; the man from the fruit shop, the seamstress who I chat to on the bus, the children in the nursery I work at, the porter in the office building, and the woman in my favourite jewellery shop on my favourite street in Madrid, Calle Ayála. These small pieces of puzzle together make the muddle of my routine abroad feel more like home. I arrive at the office as per usual in a slightly ruffled state, and ten minutes late, but no one seems to mind. Most of them arrive after me anyway, clutching bags of shopping or a motorbike helmet.

 

The saying “Infierno, Invierno” rings true of Madrid – hellishly hot in Summer and when in Winter, devilishly cold. One week I was sunbathing on the beach in Valencia, and the next I was in a scarf, coat and boots going to work back in the city. Though summer is now very truly behind us, Madrid in the mornings is spectacular. I still can’t get used to the loud buses, taxis and unnecessary honking of horns that parade past my bedroom in the morning, but they serve as a second alarm clock when my first one fails, so I shouldn’t complain. And despite some of the Spanish who are slightly more pushy and less English on public transport than me, everyone is friendly and willing to help an old woman into her seat or join in shouting verbal abuse at the bus driver if he breaks too sharply or forgets to open the doors at the bus stop for a fellow passenger.

As it gets colder and colder (tiddly pom) I am missing England, my mind seems to have made it into this idyllic place where I go on never ending dog walks with my family, in the freezing cold and mud, eat gargantuan amounts of crumpets and scones, dripping with honey, jam and butter (proper butter), drink gallons of hot tea (with proper milk), and wear woolly Christmas jumpers and socks to warm up in front of the fire. All of that preferably with snow on the ground outside and Christmas carols in the background. I get equal cravings for Exeter, seeing friends, home and food as I do for chilblains, wet dogs, damp woods and frost. In short, English withdrawal symptoms at their very finest.

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Missing the Countryside and “Proper” Cold

The family have all been well. The mother has been teaching me some wonderful spanish recipies and I’ve decided when I am older and fabulous I will have to dress as beautifully as she does. My Spanish really is getting better and better, as is my understanding. As soon as I learn a new word it feels like all of a sudden its used in every conversation afterwards, but realistically it has probably been used all the time, and I just suddenly recognise the sound. I’m getting there!

Hitting the Wall, and a view of the Ebola Scare from Madrid

The collection of individuals you find on the metro at 1am are if anything more noisy than the ones you find at 1pm. As my carriage rattled homewards, I was surrounded by a blanket of noise and yet felt miserable. We filed through metro station after metro station and I felt utterly isolated from everything unfolding around me. The woman on the phone to her husband, the couple stealing kisses opposite me, a group of teenagers on the way to a house party. So disjointed and out of touch with Madrid and Spain yet glued to my seat, unable to move. I didn’t want the train to arrive at my stop. I wanted to keep shuffling through the stations one by one, long enough to be civil but nothing more. I didn’t belong to this country, I was merely passing through and smiling until it got to Christmas when I could go back to England, stop trying to like coffee, and to laugh at jokes I hadn’t fully understood.

 

It’s natural to feel out of place when in a new country surrounded by new food, people, language, work, culture, life style. But apart from a few low moments, I am in fact having a marvellous time. It feels like time skipped forward whilst my back was turned and suddenly it’s Friday and I’ve just finished my 6th week of working in an office in Spain. The German intern has gone and I miss her but I now have a new intern to shred paper with and teach the ropes to. The women in the office are becoming gradually more friendly, although attempting conversations still lead to confusion, and a near order of 150 cream envelopes that we didn’t need instead of multicoloured post-stick notes. The telephone bites me less and less, and I can chat with or pass clients to the correct colleague with a flourish, only occasionally accidentally pressing the wrong button and hanging up instead. It feels a bit like waking up from a dream, everything around me is becoming less hazy as I understand more and more, meanings of new words sharpening into focus in my head as I hear them again and again.

I am sitting in the Retiro again as I write this. More leaves crackle under the feet of passers by along with freshly fallen conkers. The sun shines a little more weakly as the first whispers of autumn chill the breeze. The Ebola crisis does not appear to have affected the everyday Madrileño at all, for the atmosphere is as cheerful and lively as ever, and everything is business as usual. As a foreigner in Madrid, at one point seriously concerned that I might end up in quarantine in a British airport at Christmas, I’ve been flabbergasted at the relaxed (and very Spanish) way, that the government and health service have dealt with the potential spread. There have been no government warnings telling people to stay at home, wash their hands 16 times a day and sleep with a bag over their heads. No, they simply created a crisis committee, made a list of all the people that the infected nurse, Teresa, had been in contact with before she contracted the disease, visited them all in person and warned them they could have Ebola. They then incubated some and put down the family’s dog for good measure.

 

It may be that I completely missed the panicked reaction to the news of Ebola in Spain, for I don’t understand 100% of everything I hear on the radio, but the biggest issue in the media seems to have been the sacrifice of the dog, not the potential world wide spread of the disease. The Spanish reaction to Ebola makes the British Swine Flu panic of 2009 look hysterical. The demonstrations I watched outside the Juan Carlos hospital were in fact crowds of well wishers and friends celebrating Teresa’s recovery, and not cries of anger at how this could have been allowed to happen. No one shut themselves indoors and refused to go to work, not in my office anyway. There was one person who took three days off work due to a throat infection but they appeared again on Monday morning. That person was me, and I can’t tell you how thrilled I was that my GCSE doctors vocab for ‘my tonsils hurt’ finally proved useful. Eddie Izzard was wrong, some things you learn in school languages classes do come in handy.

Life has just rolled by as normal, although I’m still finding new things to do. I’ve learnt to cook a Spanish rice and prepared the family an English breakfast. I’ve been to some wonderful places to eat and art galleries including the Prado, Thyssen-Borneszmia, and the Abelló collection which I finally find interesting now I’m learning more about art. Sorolla is my new fave painter – about as close as the Spanish ever got to Impressionism:

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Sorolla – Mending the Sail, 1896

Homesickness has been a bit tough, but I’m surrounded by new friends and a friendly family which makes it a lot easier.

As my brother kindly reminded me: “Everything will be all right in the end…and if it’s not all right then it’s not yet the end.”

 

Expeditions to Northern Spain

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Saluting the Picos de Europa

As the wretched heat, crush and swell of Madrid dropped behind us, I began to relax. Just another amongst the screaming torrent of cars squeezing out of the city on a Friday afternoon, we dragged smoothly along the motorway, leaving behind us stretches of browning grass before being swallowed by a swollen black cloud. Rain broke over the cracked pores of parched landscape as we drove North on the Spanish motorway, and an atmosphere of calm reigned throughout the car. When we finally arrived in the tiny cantabrian village 6 hours later, everyone stiffly slipped out of the car and dazedly went their separate ways, happy to have a few moments of stationery bliss.

And so began an absolute marvel of a weekend with the family discovering Northern Spain:

– Communicating with friendly mountain goats at the top of the Picos de Europa;

– Smoking apple flavoured Shisha with in a moroccan bedroom decorated with beautiful lamps, rugs, cushions and slippers (we drank proper mint tea too and then watched Pirates of the Carribean in Spanish);

– Actually enjoying coffee (though it will never beat a good cup of Earl Grey);

– Trying Queso (Cheese) flavoured ice cream (seriously don’t love it till you try it);

– Eating exquisite food in a tapas bar in Burgos which had a tree growing through the middle of the roof;

– Helping two elderly Spanish ladies up the hill with their shopping bags in Potes (apparently the local shop didn’t do home deliveries at the weekend);

– The entire 800 year history of Burgos Cathedral was also pretty interesting.

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I do still sometimes feel like a fish out of water being constantly surrounded by Spaniards, because I don’t yet understand everything they say. This is improving slowly but a lot of the time I get only a vague, hazy idea of what they’ve said, and working out what reaction they are looking for proves difficult. I still can’t work out if last Thursday a friend of mine recounted a comical anecdote about an old woman called Lourdes or told me an actual story about their grandmother who died last year.

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Burgos

Work has been good this week. It does feel like I’m living the Devil Wears Prada, I am the incompetent new employee compared to Sophie who seems to understand everything and has fabulous clothes, and I’m surrounded by very efficient women. One of them told me that she liked my top when we were in the kitchen the other day, and one said ‘Buenos Dias’ when I opened the door for her, so poco a poco I will learn their ways, their style, and how not to be reduced to a nervous wreck when I don’t understand clients who turn up at the door without warning. I’m just waiting to become fluent so I can force a laugh out of them with dry English sarcasm. Despite the cultural difference in sense of humour, it might work.

I’ll leave you with another favourite Spanish hit: Enrique Iglesias with Bailando http://youtu.be/NUsoVlDFqZg

Besos from Madrid xx

Writings from El Retiro, 13th September 2014, Madrid

Here I am sitting in another beautiful park. Cars are droning past noisily in the background, a pigeon nibbles at the dust by my feet whilst the first autumn leaves skitter across the pavement in the warm breeze. Dappled sunlight hangs over the soft paving stones and a busker plays an accordion. Young and old shuffle past me on the Madrileño mid day stroll whilst two street sellers discuss the progress of their morning’s work on a bench. El Retiro is a wonder; lengths of fresh grass, lurid coloured flowers and gestulating Spanish people. The stillness of Lisbon contrasts sharply with the bright scene, but maybe its just because I’m not hungover this time.

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Lunchtime in El Retiro

It’s hard to believe that I’ve already been in Madrid a week. I’m waiting for the typical year abroad phrases like ‘It already feels like home’ and ‘this is the best year of my life’ to spring to mind, but they haven’t yet. It’s not to say that I’m not enjoying my work, my new home, and Madrid, it’s just that everything is so new. I no longer have a student daily routine on a campus with lectures, I no longer can talk to people around me fluently without forgetting words, and no one here has the least idea of how to make a bloody cup of earl grey tea.

However, I’m lucky enough to be renting an apartment from a Spanish family who seem to have absorbed me into their lives as if I’m just an extra daughter. They’re doing their job fantastically; keenly showing me everything from the palacio real and their favourite tapas bars to how to work the washing machine, and I would be utterly lost without them. In one week I’ve gone from brushing away tears of nerves and trying to appear jovial and British when appearing at the door of their appartment in the mornings, to over confidently kissing everyone I meet twice on the cheek (startling an English intern in the office) and trying to pronounce new Spanish swear words with a flourish. They chatter around me and tell me how ‘mono’ my Spanish accent is, and I in turn offer to cook them an English breakfast. It’s a brilliant arrangement.

As for the office…well it’s wonderfully elegant and I feel very out of place. The german intern I work with is thankfully my age and lovely. She is miles taller more efficient and than me, and dresses to perfection. I’m working hard on befriending her so we can go shopping and she can show me where she buys her clothes. The señoras in the office are distinctly condescending and don’t seem to understand when I try and crack a joke, but it’s probably better for the moment that they don’t pay too much attention to how shaky my voice is when I speak Spanish on phone to the clients, for it would probably make them throw me out. How was I meant to know that ‘Anjelez Biyathierro‘ is actually spelt ‘Angeles Villaciero‘, for example? And then there was the time that I hung up on two clients instead of passing them onto the right colleague because I pressed the wrong button and then sheepishly had to call them back to apologise. I can rest easy in the knowledge, however, that it’s not just me who has difficulty in understanding what is said on the phone, for the clients seem to be unable to understand me too. One señor wrote an email addressed to ‘Mary’ who he spoke to in the telephone phone earlier that morning about an antique watch. It must be down to the telephone that we are unable to fully understand each other at the moment, for there is no fault with my Spanish pronunciation. For now I have been taken off telephone duty, it seems that it works better for the other intern than for me.

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Morning Route to Work – Puerta de Alcala

Apart from a disastrous trip to shop for food (where I decided it was a good idea to write my shopping list in Spanish but then immediately forgot what every single word on the list meant when in the shop), I’ve had no other troubles apart from my Blackberry which finally gave up on life last Saturday. The combined efforts of a new Spanish sim, being illegally unblocked by a Spanish phone-hit-man called Juan, and the general change in climate sought to bring it’s life to a sad end when I dropped it on the floor.

And so finishes the first thrilling installment of my year abroad. If any of you think you may get bored enough to read more in the future then please follow my blog and you’ll get updates every time I post. Miss you all, keep in touch.

P.S. To give you a flavour of Spanish chart music have a listen to my new favourite song. It’s a killer, a fantastic mix of Eurovision, lots of flames, shiny silver body suits and hunky Spanish men. Who could want more from a track? http://youtu.be/Tgt6iaSYMEM

Hungover Reflections in the Jardim de Santos, Lisboa

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Sunday 13th July 2014

And here sit I. The soft sounds surrounding my seat are quietly absorbed by my muted senses. Chuttering wood pigeons in front of me glance around suspiciously before sinking back into their deep dust baths. I feel utterly anchored to the bench I sit on, a perfectly weighted piece of puzzle slotted into this Lisbon scene of creaking park tables, trickling fountains and rustling branches. To sit here in this moment of quiet, is to feel that I belong here and nowhere else but here. My senses are frozen in this capsule of time, lilting with the hushed scenery around me.

The pigeons chitter and nibble at one another, preening the odd stray feather and blinking sleepily as they soak in the afternoon sun. In front of me three old men sit chatting round a table. Dappled underneath the shade of the trees, they smoke rolled cigarettes and regard thoughtfully the beers they are drinking. They, like the pigeons, are content to sit here chuckling to one another. The men look over at me and a pigeon winks, stretching out a sleepy wing to wave in my direction. I am as gently welcomed into this suspension of calm as the tinkling of a passing cyclist’s bell through the breeze. He is not to know of our afternoon stupor, we alone are hidden by our lethargy. A rigid stranger stands in front of me, caught in the act of fingering his collar proudly. His stone moustache is superb to behold, but his stone eyes betray no emotion. A slight hint of a smile in his stiff lips may be in response to what he hears of the pigeon’s private mumblings at his feet, but we shan’t ever find out, it seems to be a secret.

How sentimental one feels with a hangover. As I write this a slither of humour tries gently to creep into my words, and to crinkle into a smile a corner of my mouth. And yet this time, just this once, I do not let it peep through my heady daze of lethargic satisfaction. My lips remain as firm and as straight as the pencil I write with. This description does not mean to be humorous, as is my usual intent – everything here is as blurred and as beautiful and as breath taking as a painting. A timeless image, a gift for the memory, one never to forget.

One of the old men approaches me, mumbling a conversation to himself in soft Portuguese to which I do not respond. He ends with a graceful “Obrigado” and shuffles off to his next imaginary audience. A pigeon scuffles past me, issuing distressed noises and blinking furiously. I look up to see a crowd of them gathering around a drooping old woman on a walking stick as she gently makes her way to a bench. All is revealed as she settles down into her spot and unfolds a basket of breadcrumbs from beneath her shawl. Agitated fluttering and flapping from her new friends as they anxiously cluster around her ankles disturbs the quiet of moments before. She lays down her stick and with a flourish lets loose a cascade of crumbs onto the earth below. The birds rush for the offerings of bread as if they were precious jewels, and with frenzied shoving, pecking, squawking and scrabbling demolish the lot.

Suddenly all is calm once more. The pigeons seem to remember themselves again and move off in twos and threes, cooing to one another sheepishly and pretending to passers by that there is nothing to see. The old woman eases herself up onto her stick, and shuffles past me, letting loose a small smile. The excitement of a Sunday, gone in a fluttering of wings. The pigeons call goodbye to her as she disappears into the trees, intimating that they would be happy for her to come again next week, at the same time.

Quiet reigns again in the park, but I am lifting out of my sun soaked reflections. A smile returns to my mouth and the glimmer of amusement resumes prime position in my thoughts. Life seems to glide back into the right gear; the pigeons return to their sunspots, two attempting a bath in the trinkling fountain as my reverie merges to a conclusion. May there long be nuggets of time to remember such as this. One day when I have become as crinkled and as muted as this park and the old woman in it, I will urge to mind this happy situation. I will hush all conscious thought, rebathe my senses in the tranquillity of dappled sunlight, and remember above all with blissfully closed eyes just how bloody sentimental you feel when you’ve drunk too much the night before.

 

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