Tips for Semana Santa in Seville: A Survival Guide

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It’s been over a year since my first trip to Seville, and while this Semana Santa I’ll be walking the Camino de Santiago, no doubt I will be reminiscing fondly about the smells and bells of the pasos under the Andalucian sun as we trudge our muddy way to Santiago.

Although I did plenty of reading ahead of our trip last year, there were still –inevitably – things I wish I’d known or would have done differently. I loved Semana Santa in Seville but I’m not sure I’ll be doing it again any time soon – and maybe you feel the same: all the more reason to make sure the trip goes well, right? Here, for what they’re worth, are my words of Sevillana Semana Santa wisdom:

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Taken from the Cathedral steps.

-Be prepared for crowds, and to wait around for a long time before seeing the processions, which move slowly. Streets will be shut off and it will be hard to navigate your way around the city centre – a normally short journey may actually take an hour or two. This experience can be both claustrophobic and difficult, but a few deep breaths (and perhaps a Cruzcampo beer in a nearby bar as you wait for the processions to pass and the street to open up again) will help.

-Book your accommodation near the cathedral. This is something I actually, for once, got gloriously right. It cost un ojo de la cara (an arm and a leg, basically) – but if you’re here to make the most of the processions you may as well pay to actually see them rather than the backs of a thousand heads. We found a cute-but-tiny Airbnb on the Calle Hernando Colón, and some of the pasos came down our street – the clue for us was when the music began to approach and incense flooded the bedroom from the balcony doors. It saved us from the crush and stress of the street, and made for some amazing photos from the balcony. We even witnessed a woman singing a saeta, a kind of holy flamenco song, from a balcony opposite. Magical.

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Taken from the balcony of our Airbnb.

-Be prepared for cold as well as hot weather. That means take a jacket as well as sun cream and a hat. I actually had to buy a pair of leggings one chilly day during the trip, and while waiting for the Macarena to return back to her church at midday we witnessed an older lady swaying and nearly passing out in the crowd due to the crush and rising temperatures.

-Get a free paper guide or a Semana Santa app, or both. We were, embarrassingly, tricked into paying a euro by a street seller for a paper guide which was actually a free supermarket giveaway (Carlos especially kicked himself for this typically guiri error). Ask in your accommodation or in tourist information about where to get your hands on one.

-Know that the Semana Santa bars (that is, bars filled to the ceiling with Semana Santa photos, memorabilia, and other curiosities) are often closed during Semana Santa itself. I was determined to visit La Fresquita, but couldn’t, although I did finally manage it when we returned to Seville in December. Disappointing, but just another reason to come back!

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The Real Alcázar.

-If the processions get too much (despite what devotees would have you believe, to most out-of-towners one paso will blend into another) then consider leaving the city for a while, or doing something different. We made a day trip to Cordoba and also wandered the streets of Triana and visited the magnificent Real Alcázar, the latter being a highlight of the trip.

Secret Confessions of an Airbnb Host – or, why I just can’t host another guest

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Dear Airbnb guests: this is our home

After two years as a host on Airbnb, I’m finally calling it quits.

It made sense at first – I was living alone, not earning very much, and I had a spare room. Previously, I’d stayed in Airbnbs in hot tourist destinations such as Barcelona, and so I didn’t really expect anyone would want to stay in my quite ordinary house in a quite ordinary town. So I was surprised when the requests started coming in: but it turned out that as I live close to a big university, plenty of people pass through town and want a clean, safe, cheap place to sleep. So I  -then we, when Carlos moved in- hosted academics, international students, people coming for conferences, students sitting exams, and assorted others.

While it was a good source of additional income,  I’ve finally had enough.

It’s the little things that have worn me down. And the endless requests for freebies.

I’ve been pretty lucky. Most guests have been respectful. No-one’s ever trashed the place, nothing’s ever been stolen, and breakages have been minimal. Sometimes guests have even fed the cats and watered the plants while we were away. Best of all, one of our guests always stays with us while she’s in town, and has become a friend.

The thing I’ve found difficult about the experience of hosting is guests who ask for lots of extras (or discounts for no real reason other than they want to pay a cheaper price) – and expect that we should provide them for free. Now I understand that one of the attractions of Airbnb is the personal relationship you can have with your host and the local community, and maybe it’s reasonable to request a bit of flexibility. So I’ve always agreed when guests have asked to leave their cases for a few extra hours (and even much longer a handful of cases). But other requests have left me shaking my head. Here are some of the things we’ve been asked to provide at no extra cost by guests:

  • babysitting services
  • trips to the airport in the middle of the night
  • extra guests (sometimes one, sometimes several)
  • lifts to the university
  • a day out to a battle re-enactment
  • an extra night’s stay
  • bikes.

I agreed to the bike request, because I have a bike and wasn’t using it that day, so I was happy to help.  But other times I’ve had to say no because, for example, I don’t feel comfortable being in sole charge of someone’s young son or daughter when the parents are a long way away (what if the kid got ill or injured? What if they did something illegal? What parent wants to send their young kid to stay with a stranger anyway?).

Sometimes it seemed to me that guests were actively trying to take advantage. They were getting accommodation at a much lower rate than in a hotel, but they sometimes wanted to get even more – things they probably wouldn’t dream of asking for if they were staying elsewhere. It wasn’t everyone and it wasn’t all the time,  but it became wearing. Ultimately, if you need to get to the airport to catch a very early flight, it’s not reasonable to ask a stranger to take you there for free – even if you are staying at their house.

I suppose that’s the thing with Airbnb. If you’re a live-in host, the boundaries between personal and business get a little blurred. That’s why it also hurt a little when reviews contained something negative – it felt like a reflection on me, or on us, as well as on our home.

But anyway, I’m done. I’m no longer an Airbnb host. If in the future we ever came to own a flat in a large city that tourists love (and we lived somewhere separately) we’d consider doing it again. But unless something changes dramatically, I don’t think we’ll be hosting Airbnb guests in our house again.

 

Prepping for the Camino de Santiago

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The Camino del Norte runs past my in-laws’ place.

I had to renew my monthly train pass yesterday. No big deal (except that British trains are the most expensive in Europe) – and when I looked at the date of expiry, I realised I’d be two days into walking the Camino de Santiago when it ran out.

I was the most excited for this trip before Christmas, when I was booking the flights and working out logistics. I made a flurry of online orders, reading sleeping bag and backpack reviews like it was my job (admittedly, I was at work). A nice lady in my Spanish class even lent me her Spanish-language Camino guidebook. But since Christmas? Nothing. I haven’t even been thinking about it, much less training. I haven’t worn my boots since December. I’ve been caught up in making summer travel plans, and in wedding planning.

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This is the Uniqlo jacket I bought – handily, it folds into a tiny drawstring bag.

This trip has been on our radar for a long time, but due to work and other commitments, we just hadn’t been able to make it happen until now. Finally, it’s just around the corner – and I feel pretty unprepared. Does watching The Way or YouTube videos of Spanish pilgrims talking about their experiences count as preparation?

We’ve got 9 days over Easter for our walk. Of course, given that time frame, we won’t be walking the whole route from the Pyrenees as much as we would love to – just the final leg of the French Way through Galicia. We’ll be doing it “properly” though – carrying everything we’re taking with us on our backs, sleeping in the hostels, and walking every step.

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These are my boots.

April is the month for pilgrimages – I remember from my days as an English literature student that Chaucer’s pilgrims started out on their way to Canterbury during this month. And maybe the fact that we’ll be walking through Holy Week will add to the experience – the Camino’s religious beginnings still provide strong motivation for many pilgrims’ walk. Sometimes people make promises in their prayers, and carry out this pilgrimage (or perform other acts of devotion) when their prayers are answered. The husband of a friend of my suegra’s did such a walk over 20 years ago. This was because he and his wife desperately wanted a baby but despite trying for a long time nothing happened. Carlos says that they doted on him as a child and loved him almost as if he were their son. I suppose they must have prayed for a conception for themselves – and finally, it occurred, and the wife gave birth to a healthy daughter. In thanks, the husband completed a barefoot pilgrimage to a local church.

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I took this photo in Santillana del Mar. The Camino is marked by yellow arrows.

The pilgrimage spirit is still strong in Spain – apparently almost 50% of the pilgrims on the Camino are Spanish nationals. Of course, that’s partly because the Camino is actually in Spain, but it’s my belief that it’s also thanks to the country’s persistent Catholic culture and traditions (it’s telling that Catholic Ireland, a tiny nation, is #6 on the list of pilgrims – above the non-Catholic UK).

Our pilgrimage is being undertaken without a religious motive, but that doesn’t mean we’re not hoping for a meaningful experience. And walking the Camino during Semana Santa, then into the Praza do Obradoiro (there’s live webcam on the square) at Easter will undoubtedly be a moving occasion.

 

The investment in learning a language

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Learning Spanish takes time

Just this week, an email came through letting me know it was time to sign up for the next term’s worth of Spanish lessons. Not wanting to miss out (and always falling for the “places are limited, sign up now!” line), I duly clicked through to enter my card details and get my place confirmation. What I was surprised by, though, was the list of past transactions in my account. I’ve forked over a surprisingly large amount of money to further my language-learning goals since my first class when I was shown a flashcard depicting a sun and another with a moon and the teacher carefully enunciated buenos dias and buenas noches.

Since April 2015, I’ve been taking evening and/or Saturday language classes at my local university. In other words, I’ve been learning Spanish for almost two years now – it’s my Span-iversary (you can have that one for free). From struggling to understand or speak a civil word to my suegros, I’m now capable of watching (and understanding…mostly) the news in Spanish, reading a novel, and chatting away on Skype. I’ve even got my DELE B2 to prove it. So how hard was it to get here?

In terms of money, because I’ve paid for the classes in blocks of 6, 10, or 20 weeks it’s always been a manageable expense. I haven’t been to any pricey DELE prep courses in Madrid or any residential language immersion schools – although some of my classmates have and they sound like fun experiences. There are tons of free resources online, including Coffee Break Spanish, which I’m almost evangelical about. I’ve bought most of my textbooks secondhand, and use the Word Reference free dictionary app.

The real investment has been the time and effort (isn’t it always). I heard while studying for my DELE B1 that the key to improvement in learning a language is daily practice – and so it is, no shortcuts here I’m afraid. So while immersion in a Spanish-speaking environment would have been ideal, I’ve made do with radio programmes, TV, varied reading materials (starting out with kids’ books and fashion magazines and progressing up to more challenging texts) – and daily conversation with my Spanish prometido.

This is where I’ve had a clear advantage over my classmates – as well as the extra language-learning motivation that comes from not wanting to get left out of the animated conversation of the sobremesa on our frequent trips to Spain, I’ve had a human dictionary at home who’s there to correct my every grammatical misstep. But while I’ve been half-jokingly accused of “cheating” in my language learning due to having a Spanish partner, getting this far in the language hasn’t been easy. It’s a constant effort to express yourself in a language that’s not your own, and all too easy to slip back into English when a concept is just too nuanced to verbalise easily in castellano. Frankly, I don’t know how Carlos manages in English every day. But he does, and it’s impressive.

Learning to communicate properly in a foreign language is a struggle, no lie. In many ways, it goes against the grain to speak and understand another tongue – that’s why it’s so unsurprising to me that people can study, say, French for seven years at school and at the end still barely speak it. And it’s why I smiled when I heard a radio interview with Michael Edwards, the first ever British person to be elected to the French Academy, who said he still didn’t feel he’d mastered the French language. I’m sure I’m revealing no big secret here when I say that learning a foreign language is a lifelong process: a really big investment.

Souvenir Shopping in Spain (mostly food)

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Alternative title: What to buy as a souvenir in Spain (or what I buy in Spain).

Every region of Spain has the things it’s famous for (flamenco in the south, Valencia for oranges, Santiago de Compostela for the pilgrims, and so on) and sometimes the gifts or souvenirs you want to take home will reflect the region where you’ve been. Yet some things are great buys all over Spain, and it’s a rare trip when I don’t come home with at least three of the following things in my bag:

fullsizerender-88This is some tasty Idiazabal cheese and Txacoli wine which I had in Bilbao.

  • Cheese! Spanish cheeses might not be as famous as their debonair French rivals, but that doesn’t mean they’re not tasty. Tetilla cheese from Galicia, for example, has a very recognisable teardrop shape (or breast shape, that’s what they’re named after). The Basques have Idiazabal, but arguably the most famous member of the Spanish cheese family –the cheese daddy, if you will- is Manchego. Wherever you are in Spain, a trip to the local supermarket should give you plenty of options.
  • Biscuits baked by nuns. Belgian monks brew beer; Spanish nuns bake biscuits. This is the rule of the world. Asturian nuns bake a type called lenguas de monja (nuns’ tongues) which I really like, but the reality is that nuns all over Spain –and there are many- make varied kinds of repostería (pastries or sweets). They make deliciously quirky gifts and certainly my office mates have been all over them in the past.
  • Bonito del norte. This is tuna in olive oil, caught in the seas in the north of Spain. The tuna is better quality than any supermarket variety I’ve had outside of Spain, and has the added advantage in coming in a very attractive red and yellow can which is perfect for storing things in afterwards. I put pebbles in the one I have in my bedroom.
  • Fans. What could be more Spanish than a fan? You can buy them everywhere from the local chino (local discount shop, often run by Chinese families) to fancy specialist shops in Seville which stock gorgeous hand-painted ones with a price tag to match. A good place to buy authentic ones cheaply is at a Sunday “antiques” (flea) market, but any tourist shop, or indeed the airport, will also do.

fullsizerender-89I brought home one of these candles from the shrine in Covadonga.

  • Religious kitsch/Catholic paraphernalia. Maybe it’s just me (probably) but I love Catholic iconography, despite not being an adherent of the faith. Devotional candles, little statues of the Virgin Mary and religious images are the souvenirs I dream of. In Cordoba last Semana Santa I was gifted one of the candles from a float bearing the Virgin Mary and I just about died. Chinos are a good place for kitschy religious items at low prices, as are religious sites.
  • Turrón. This gloriously nutty, honey-infused Christmas concoction is best in its blanda (soft) incarnation, but you can also get chocolate and hard turrones. You can buy it in any supermarket during the Christmas season, but I’ve had reliable information that it’s available in El Corte Inglés year round, and it’s another product that’s often available at the airport.
  • Wine/sherry/local booze. I don’t necessarily recommend putting this in your case – we’ve had two breakages and now have a suitcase that smells of Andalucia. In Cantabria, the drink I like to bring home is orujo, but they don’t sell it in Santander airport so I have to either risk a breakage when we take a big suitcase at Christmas or else go without. Alcohol is much cheaper in general in Spain than in the UK, so it’s usually worth buying a bottle or two of something typical from duty free even if you can find La Gitana in Sainsbury’s.

Important Drinking Rules in Spain: featured post on The Spain Scoop

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Ever mindful of that nasty boozy Brit abroad stereotype, I wrote this post about Spanish drinking rules a while back and was delighted when the editorial team at The Spain Scoop said they wanted to publish it. I’d originally had the idea when I went to visit my familia política (in-laws) alone in October last year: I was in Spain for the first time without Carlos as a buffer, and while I was patting myself on the back for my dazzling language skills after a sweet old lady at the train station asked me how long I’d been living in Spain, I was still acting like a silly foreigner who didn’t know that it wasn’t the done thing to drink a gin and tonic before dinner. I learned plenty about Spanish culture during that trip. And so, a blog post was born.

Here’s what I wrote:

“No, no, no,” my mother-in-law tutted as I tried to order a vermut in the evening. Eso es para antes de comer. That’s for before lunch, silly!

How was I to know? Growing up in the UK, there were only two rules about what you could drink and when: the first being that beer was OK at lunchtime if you didn’t have a lot on in the afternoon, and the second being that pretty much anything was fine to drink after 5pm. Clearly, when it came to drinking in Spain, I had a lot to learn.

So to save you my embarrassment while drinking with Spaniards, I’ve written this simple guide. Let’s start with the morning. In Spain, it’s morning until you’ve had your lunch, which might not be until 2 or even 3pm. While drinking at breakfast definitely isn’t encouraged, my father-in-law has been known to drink a glass of red wine with a steak he’s cooked himself mid-morning as a treat when he’s not working.

Want to read more? Head over to the full post on The Spain Scoop.

 

Reykjavik City Card Review – or what I did when it rained in Reykjavik

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After finding my enjoyment of Florence greatly enhanced with the Firenze card, I was intrigued when I found out that Reykjavik also offers a city card. Of course, Iceland is very different to Italy and everyone who I’d spoken to before the trip recommended that we get out of the city and spend as much time enjoying the amazing Icelandic nature as possible.

So would it be worth spending so much time indoors when the scenery promised to be so stunning? My hand was forced the first day of our stay when a massive storm blew in and every tour company in town cancelled their day’s (and night’s) excursions. The rainy streets of Reykjavik were filled with dejected visitors complaining that they didn’t have anything to do, and I heard a man in the central tourist office in the morning claiming, slightly passive-aggressively, that he’d be coming back in the afternoon once he’d done everything they’d already suggested. The city card seemed like the best option, given the circumstances.

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Hallgrímskirkja is Reykjavik’s main landmark.

What is the Reykjavik City Card?

The card is available for 24, 48, or 72 hours. The clock starts ticking as soon as you visit the first attraction; the staff at the ticket office write down the time you enter on your card and calculate the time it expires. This seems like a fair way of doing things and gives you some flexibility – you don’t have to start using the city card right away, and if you buy the 48-hour card, as I did, you might even be able to squeeze an extra early-morning activity into the third day (such as swimming) before your time’s up.

The card lets you visit a variety of attractions without paying a separate entry fee, including in all municipal museums and art galleries, thermal pools, the local zoo, and it also lets you use public transport. There are sizeable discounts off the private museums as well as various other perks, too. There’s a full list of included activities here.

What I used it for

Reykjavik is an expensive city, and matters were made worse by the relative weakness of the pound (stupid Brexit). I wanted to save money to try the local food; attempt to see the northern lights; and make at least one daytime excursion out of town. But I’d also read a lot, mainly on the highly informative I Heart Reykjavik, about Icelandic culture and I was keen to visit a local thermal pool and see the main museums. So we opted for a 48-hour card each for ISK 4,900. Here’s what I did with mine:

  • Understood Viking history at the Settlement Museum (normal cost: ISK 1,600)
  • Delved into the national psyche at the National Museum of Iceland (ISK 2,000)
  • Checked out the art in the National Gallery of Iceland (ISK 1,500)
  • Swam twice (and enjoyed a hot tub in the snow) at Sundhöll public pool (ISK 1,900)
  • Learned about the cod wars and Icelandic fisherwomen at the the Maritime Museum (ISK 1,600)

The total of all of these attractions separately would have been 8,600 ISK – significantly more than I paid for the card. By the time our 48 hours were up, I felt like I’d seen and experienced a lot and had never been rushed. I didn’t make it to the photography museum, which was a pity, nor the Culture House – but while none of the museums were enormous, they were all beautifully curated and I came away feeling that I’d learned a little bit about the country, its history and its culture.

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I snapped this colourful bike and house near Sundhöll public pool.

Is the Reykjavik City Card worth it?

Definitely. Luckily, the storm blew itself out after one day of appalling weather and normal service resumed in terms of trips (and we were able to go northern lights hunting and did the classic Golden Circle tour). But even if the weather hadn’t been so fierce, I think I still would have bought the card. Museums are a highlight of any city trip for me, and with the individual cost of entry being so high the Reykjavik city card quickly paid for itself. What made it even better was that it also gave us entry to the local swimming pools – heated by thermal water and minimally treated with chemicals, they’re incredibly popular with locals. The pools also offer much more than I’m used to at home – think saunas and hot tubs under the stars and you’ll begin to see their appeal.

Incidentally, the swimming pools come with their own protocol, including mandatory naked showering. I have to admit I was pretty nervous about this part, but it turns out I had no need to be. The showers are, obviously, single sex and everyone’s very low key about the whole thing. Kids and adults shower in the same area, and no-one’s looking at you. I have to say that while I was there I properly realised that all the naked bodies we’re usually presented with are usually those of (female) actors – young, slim, in top physical condition and genetically blessed. It’s easy to feel insecure when that’s all you’ve got to compare yourself with, but in the Reykjavik pools’ shower and changing rooms everyone was letting it all hang out, regardless of age or physical condition. It was kind of nice.

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A typical Reykjavik street scene.

Other notes or tips?

Older people (I think aged 67+, but this might vary depending on the attraction) get reduced or free entry to many municipal attractions, as do kids and students. So if you or others in your group fall into any of these categories, it’s probably worth doing the maths to see if the card works out for you. I’ve heard that even though the kids’ Reykjavik City Card is much cheaper, it’s not really worth it as young children normally get free entry anyway.

Generally, the Reykjavik City Card let me see a lot of the city without breaking the bank or wearing myself out. We were able to take breaks, go for coffee/beer or lunch, and still see what we wanted to see, thanks to the compact size of the city and the fact that none of the museums sucked up hours of our time. The Settlement Museum was little but impressive. Do it!

 

 

10 Spanish Words that don’t Exist in English

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One of my favourite Youtubers, Joanna Hausmann, has a video dedicated to just this subject – words in English and Spanish which are tricky to translate into the other language. It’s not just nouns or verbs though – these differences between our languages go much deeper, and are sewn right into the fabric of our speech. As soon as you begin learning Spanish, you’re introduced to usted/, as well as ustedes/vosotros and you have to conjugate accordingly. An English “you” is democratic, because it applies to everyone – but this is not the case in Spanish, where you have to bear in mind the other person’s age or social status –as well as their gender, if there’s more than one person- when you address them.

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La thesis de Nancy is all about an American girl who struggles with Spanish.

There’s a lot to be said on this topic, but for the purposes of this post I want to look at just ten examples of Spanish words I’ve come across which have (and sometimes still do) amused, bemused or just confused me.

1.Madrugar. There’s something a bit poetic about this one. It means “to get up early”. It comes from the noun la madrugada, the dawn. Me cuesta mucho madrugar.

2. Gemelos/mellizos. These both mean “twins” (and gemelos also means “cufflinks”). Gemelos is used for identical twins; mellizos for fraternal twins. Simple enough, I suppose, but I always get the two meanings mixed up, probably because in English we simply say “twins” most of the time.

3. Chapurrear. This verb means “to speak a language badly”. Chapurreo italiano.

4. Tuerto. This term is for someone blind in one eye, or who has just one eye, like Nelson on Nelson’s Column. See also: manco (someone with just one arm or one hand).

5. Sobremesa. There are about a million “expat” (I hate that word! But that’s another post) blogs about the sobremesa. It literally means “over the table” but what it refers to is the pleasant Spanish habit of lingering at the table after the meal is done, perhaps having a coffee or something stronger, but generally just chatting rather than rushing to get finished and do the next thing.

6. Estrenar. If you know the noun estreno, you’ll know it means a film premiere. But the verb means to wear an outfit for the first time, or to use something for the first time. I’m premiering this dress today, I’m glad you like it.

7. Ser/estar. This is very hard when you first start learning Spanish – and also when you’re supposedly more advanced (ahem). Both words just mean “to be”. If you need an explanation, there’s a decent one here. But let me just say that even native speakers mix them up: I’ve been told that strictly it’s correct to say estoy casada, but plenty of people will say soy casada. And why is it está muerto? I never understand that one.

8. Friolera. In the north of England there is actually a dialect word for this and it’s used fairly frequently, especially among the older generation: “nesh”. It means someone who’s cold all the time, or someone who feels the cold.

9. Recoveco. Carlos taught me this one. One definition into English is “nook” as in “nook and cranny”, but according to the RAE the principal definition is actually the twists and turns of a narrow street. A specialist word no doubt – I might actually engineer it into a conversation sometime soon.

10. Entrecejo. This is a word for the space between your eyebrows! Not a unibrow, as I first thought (that’s a unicejo).

There are others too, and of course it depends where in the world you are – the Spanish say quincena, which in Britain we happily translate as “fortnight”, a term not frequently used in some other parts of the English-speaking world. There’s also anteayer (the day before yesterday) and its natural counterpart, pasado mañana (the day after tomorrow) as well as the slightly awkward soler, which sort of means “tend to” or “tended to”.

What have I missed?

DELE B2: ¡Apto!

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It’s a funny thing, fluency. When I was very young, I remember asking my mum if I took A level French I’d be a fluent French speaker. “Yes,” she replied confidently. Well I did, and I wasn’t. I wasn’t even fluent after spending a year living and working in Guadeloupe, an overseas department of France located in the Caribbean (although the day one of the utilities companies sent a man to cut off our flat’s power because the bill hadn’t been paid by the landlord, I was pretty fluent while persuading him not to).

Fluency is such as hard thing to define that officially, it doesn’t even exist. If you learn a European foreign language in Europe, you’ll often be assessed according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages or CEFR. This includes six levels, from A1 (beginner) to C2 (mastery).

My DELE B2 pass means I’ve successfully completed the fourth of these six levels. So what does that mean? I’m better than I ever was in French despite the fact that I spent around 8 years studying French, and less than two years have passed since I took my first beginners’ Spanish class. So I don’t feel my progress has been too slow, but the kind of fluency I dreamed of having in a foreign language as a kid still eludes me – you know, the kind where you can just open your mouth and a pure stream of flawless articulation comes out. 

 I still make plenty of errors when I speak Spanish. I understand Spanish TV (but it depends on the programme); I can read a Spanish novel (but almost every page has several words I don’t know); I can speak on the phone in Spanish (as long as the other person doesn’t have an accent I’m not used to); I can’t really follow a Spanish language film without subtitles, but I can understand the radio (most of the time).

Of course, I was both happy and relieved to hear I’d passed my DELE B2. Thanks to a demanding new job, I wasn’t able to study as much before the exam as I had with the B1. Instead, I’d relied on reading on the train, speaking more Spanish at home, and streaming Telediario every night. I’d also had genuine doubts about how it had gone on exam day, especially the oral. I then read this account from a blogger who’d failed the exam, and spooked myself.

But ultimately, the test isn’t so scary and the key to passing is being confident of your level and then familiarising yourself with the test format. One tool I found invaluable in helping me to determine my level before test day was the Instituto Cervantes’ Spanish level test: there’s a bank of questions so you don’t always get asked the same things, and you can track your progress over time. Overall, about 61% of people who take the DELE pass it, but this varies by level: 75% of test takers pass when they take A1, and more than half of C2 takers fail.

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Here’s the breakdown of my exam performance for the DELE B2.

My highest mark was in reading comprehension, my lowest in writing. My listening and speaking were both quite solid passes. So I know before I attempt C1, I’ll have to spend plenty of time practising my writing in Spanish – something I don’t really enjoy, because it’s so artificial (another letter to the ayuntamiento complaining about the state of the roads, blah).

I’ve written plenty about the test format as well as my experience on exam day here (B1) and here (B2).

Anglo-Spanish Wedding Planning: the Difference between British and Spanish Weddings

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We enjoyed this delicious wedding feast at an Ibero-Mexican-Polish wedding last July.

Although I’ve attended weddings in Spain before, it wasn’t until I started planning my own boda multicultural that I realised while many of the essentials of weddings in our two cultures remain the same, there are plenty of rituals which differ. So in ours, do we go for the Spanish way, or the British way? Or a little of both? Our wedding will be held in the Scottish highlands so we’ve got a British setting. But then, half of the guests are Spanish and we want to celebrate the multicultural nature of the event and of our families. So while we’re making some decisions about which traditions to include, here are a few of the key differences I’ve noticed:

Engagement rings – in Spain, engagement rings are only sometimes used, and they aren’t usually worn once you’re actually married. Carlos’ aunt wanted to show me hers because it was similar to mine, and I was mildly surprised that she had to root around in her house to find it. My grandmother, for example, wore her engagement ring every day, and so does my mother.

Wearing your ring on the “other” hand – in Spain, the wedding ring or la alianza is worn on the right, not the left, hand. Which one to choose?

Bridesmaids – in Britain, it’s usual to have perhaps two, three, or even four bridesmaids. Some have more – and American women seem to ask every female friend they’ve ever had! Damas de honor don’t form part of a traditional Spanish wedding, although with the influence of Anglo Saxon culture they’re becoming more common.

Madrina/padrino – I’m still not sure I fully understand this. The translation of these titles are “godmother” and “godfather”, but in the context of a Spanish wedding, it’s more symbolic: these roles are more like sponsors of the wedding than literal godparents. The “godparents” have an important role because they also act as witnesses and sign the legal paperwork. Usually the groom’s mother is the madrina and the bride’s father is the padrino, and they accompany the couple down the aisle.

Best man – this crucial role in a British wedding doesn’t really exist in a Spanish one. It’s partly covered by the padrino.

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I took this photo at my first ever Spanish wedding.

Coins – this religious ritual in Spanish weddings involves the exchange of 13 coins, representing Jesus and his 12 apostles. As we’re having a civil wedding, this part won’t apply to us (it’s a relief to have clarity on something).

Speeches – does anyone really like the speeches in a British wedding? Maybe when you’re one of the wedding party – but as a guest (especially when I’ve attended as a +1 and don’t really know the couple) these are a snore-fest. The Spanish skip this part completely.

¡Que vivan los novios! (and other yelling) – Spanish people shout this at weddings – it means “long live the bride and groom”. They also yell ¡que se besen! (kiss each other!) and other related things. I’ve heard some say it’s not classy, but I’m all for it. You can be quiet in a library or a museum. Or when you’re asleep. But some of the best weddings are noisy and joyful, right? 

Wedding favours – in Britain, it’s common to leave a small gift at each place setting and everyone gets the same thing. At British weddings I’ve been given homemade jam, alcohol miniatures, and other keepsakes. In Spanish weddings, the bride and groom hand out gifts halfway through the meal, with men usually getting a cigar or alcohol and the women getting something else (I was given loose-leaf herbal tea before).

Gifts – what to get the happy couple? In Spain it’s easy – money! The idea is you’re meant to cover at least the cost of your meal and your drinks. Because it’s usual to have around five courses, the amount given is usually quite high – I was pretty surprised when I heard what Carlos was planning to give when we attended his friends’ wedding. In Britain, it’s more common to give gifts off a wedding list, but some couples ask for money instead (but usually wouldn’t expect each guest to contribute such an amount).

Libro de Familia – this is a book you’re entitled to receive as a couple when at least one of you is a Spanish citizen. There are some necessary bureaucratic hurdles to clear before you can get this, but I’ve been told having this document makes it easier to get Spanish citizenship for your future child(ren) when one of you is foreign like me, or when you both live overseas. Essentially, this legal document means your marriage to a Spanish citizen is recognised in Spain and it confers benefits accordingly.

There are other things I know I’ve missed! Have you ever been to a Spanish wedding? What differences did you notice?