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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?

Firenze card review – is the Firenze card worth it?


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The Duomo

This post originally formed part of this one I wrote about solo female travel, but I decided it really deserved a place of its own.

Back in 2014, I decided to make a solo trip to Florence. I was a bit worried about filling my time (needn’t have been!) and was looking online for suggested schedules or itineraries to keep me busy when I came across the Firenze Card. The basic deal was that for the cost of the card, you could have access to pretty much all the museums in Florence, plus priority entry for some of the top sights. I was intrigued.

At the time I went, the cost was 72€ and it was valid for 72 museums, for 72 hours. That was back in 2014, but when I checked just now, the price remains the same. Bargain.

The best part is that the card allows you to skip the enormous queues at the Uffitzi and the Academy- seriously, you can be waiting hours outside. It’s almost worth it for that alone. But seeing as I was travelling by myself, I made it my mission to visit as many places as possible covered by the card. I had a little under 72 hours, so time was tight, but thanks to the accompanying app, I was able to locate attractions that I otherwise would have passed by, and I tried to see everything worth seeing, even if only for a few minutes. It was an impossible task. I inevitably ended up spending hours inside places that I had only intended to visit “for 15 minutes” because they were so amazing, and which I wouldn’t have given any time to at all if it hadn’t been for their inclusion in the scheme. Seriously, buy the card. In my time in Florence, thanks to my Firenze Card, I enjoyed:

  • The Palazzo Vecchio (10€ admission charge)
  • Santa Maria Novella (5€)
  • Capelle Medicee (6€)
  • Palazzo Medici Riccardi (7€)
  • Santa Croce (6€)
  • The Uffitzi (15€ including advance fee of 4€)
  • Museo San Marco (4€)
  • The Accademia (15€ including advance booking fee)
  • The Museo degli Innocenti (3€)
  • 1 bus ride (2€, the card also covers some public transport)
  • Duomo combined ticket (10€).

The sights I saw would have cost 83€ had I paid for them all alone, and had I had a little more time on my city break, I know I would have got even more out of it. Somewhere that stood out especially for me was San Marco’s convent, which has frescoes painted by Fra Angelico on the walls – if I hadn’t had the card, there’s no way I would have ended up there, and I loved it.


I took this from a window in the Uffitzi.

So what was my favourite sight in Florence? Somewhere that wasn’t included on the card, actually – but as it’s a place of worship, it’s free to enter anyway: I loved Dante’s Church, which I stumbled upon by accident after seeing a little wooden sign nailed to a wall. It’s a tiny, 11th century chapel, and it’s still in use. It features in The Da Vinci Code, if you’re a fan of Dan Brown. People go there to leave letters to Beatrice, Dante’s muse, to ask for her help with their love lives, and the letters are dropped off in baskets inside. Beatrice’s grave is also to be found here, tucked away in a dark corner, and on my visit, I remember seeing a few people duck in just to say a quiet prayer of have a few minutes’ respite from the crowds outside. After all the Florentine grandiosity, this quiet, humble, ancient place impressed me in a totally different way.

The Firenze card was just perfect for my trip, but I can see that it might not be worth the price tag if you’re only in Florence for one or two days, or if you only plan on visiting a handful of places. In order to fit everything in I barely had a break – I was out for hours each day and speeding from one place to the next. Maybe running around isn’t what you enjoy doing on holiday – but I’m still raving about how great Florence was 3 years later, largely thanks to the card.

The Perfect Country Doesn’t Exist


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El Oso y el Madroño is a symbol of Madrid

Over Christmas, we were in the car with Carlos’ uncle, who was talking to his daughter. Carlos’ uncle is Spanish, but he lived for many years in Mexico – in fact, he married a Mexican woman, they had 3 kids, and later the family left Mexico to live in Spain. All 3 kids are now adults, and all 3 live in the UK. The youngest, Carlos’ cousin, was now complaining about where she lives – Lincoln, and saying that she was thinking of leaving the UK altogether. Her father’s words of wisdom? El país de maravilla no existe – there is no perfect (marvellous) country. And of course, he’s right.

Why is this important?

On days like this -freezing dark January ones- I start to think my life would be so much better if only we lived in Spain. I start to feel dissatisfied with what I have, and I want to change it by moving away. Wanting to change your life isn’t a bad thing, and moving abroad can be an amazing opportunity (I have done it before) – but sometimes I get so caught up in the romance of the idea of Spain that I become blind to the advantages of the life I already have. It also means I don’t consider the downsides of relocating.


The Scottish highlands are incredible

Reasons why the UK is great and not-so-great

  • The multicultural society we have in Britain makes the country so much more diverse and interesting (and it means that the eating options are as varied as they are delicious – even in my smallish town, we have authentic Indian, Japanese, Nepali, Turkish, Lebanese, Italian, and Chinese restaurants) – great!
  • Brexit, Boris Johnson, and Nigel Farage – not so great
  • The unemployment rate is under 5%, meaning that most people are employed and there are (generally speaking) enough jobs to go around – great!
  • Springtime in Britain and the light nights of summer – when I returned from my year in the Caribbean, it was April in England and daffodils and other spring flowers were everywhere. I remember walking around feeling so happy and grateful to be here. You don’t get such a sense of the seasons shifting in hotter countries such as Spain. Also, in May and June it doesn’t get dark until so late – there’s still light in the sky at midnight if you’re as far north as Inverness. – great!
  • It gets dark at about 4pm in winter – not so great
  • London is an amazing world city with cultural, gastronomic, and historical attractions to rival any other place on earth. Unfortunately, it’s incredibly expensive to live there, inequality is rife, and city life is hard: a higher percentage of people live in poverty in London than anywhere else in the UK. Outside of London, life is easier but sometimes it can feel dull in comparison –not so great
  • Waitrose, traditional pubs, the Scottish highlands, the green countryside, Edinburgh, scones with clotted cream and jam, great vegetarian food available everywhere, Cambridge, Oxford, Bath, York, regional accents and National Trust properties – great!



Gijón in Asturias is a hidden gem

Reasons why Spain is great and not-so-great

  • Cultural life doesn’t begin and end in Madrid – even tiny villages have casas de cultura and regional towns and cities have impressive museums and musical and theatrical offerings –great!
  • Vegetarians have a hard time in Spain. You won’t starve with tasty, easy-to-find options such as tortilla de patata (and tapas can quite easily be vegetarian), but if you want something more than egg and chips in most ordinary restaurants, you’ll struggle. And I’ve never seen a veggie-friendly menú del día. – not so great
  • The weather. Spain is one of the sunniest countries in Europe. It’s the main reason over 300,000 British people live in Spain. You’ll never suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder – great!
  • The Spanish attitude to life which includes the whole family. Everyone gets together at someone’s house, or even at a bar – everyone from babies to great-grandparents, and not just for special occasions – great!
  • The Spanish economy. It’s getting much better but unemployment is still almost 20%, and for young people it’s much higher. It means that a lot of talented, highly-educated younger Spaniards such as Carlos leave Spain to look for better opportunities elsewhere – not so great
  • Corruption. Spain is ranked as an orange country by Transparency International – that is to say that it’s considered quite corrupt, and the negative effects of this are felt everyday by ordinary Spanish citizens –not so great
  • Fiestas, delicious food available almost everywhere, Asturias, flea markets, tapas, churros, San Sebastián, regional languages, Seville, abundant and cheap red wine, the Paradores, the Picos de Europa, gintonics served in fishbowl glasses, sweets made by nuns – great!

If you’re interested in a Spanish take, you can read all about what the Spanish love and hate about their own country on this cute blog I found, Tu vida en dos maletas (in Spanish).

El país de maravilla no existe.

10 Reasons to Marry a Spaniard


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I’m not sure when the idea first came into my head to do this post, but it was no doubt inspired in part by a similar entry on a blog I often read – Multilingual Living. I haven’t yet married my Spaniard (we’re doing that this summer) but I’ve lived with him for almost two years now. The following is my semi-serious advice.


Spanish husbands can provide a lifetime’s worth of empanada.

1. Because you love them, they love you, and your life would be a lot poorer without them. Seriously! Spanish wo(men) aren’t a commodity. If you’re lucky enough to to be in a romantic relationship with a Spaniard, then sincere congratulations. But they’re ultimately not that different from anybody else. I once shared a flat with a girl who was convinced that the best boyfriends were German, so she exclusively dated Germans (we were living in London at the time). It was a bit odd. My advice: pick the person, not the passport.

2. Because you have a live-in language teacher. Living with a native speaker of the language you want to learn is the best. They can correct your grammar (even if, frustratingly, they have no idea how to explain when exactly you need to use the imperfect subjunctive). They also teach you all the fun things that Spaniards really say that you don’t learn in Spanish lessons. Vaya vaya, bocadillo de caballa.


We ate these delicious pinxos in San Sebastián.

3. Because Spanish food is delicious. This almost goes without saying. If you marry and/or set up home with a Spaniard, you’ll also go through more olive oil than you ever really thought possible. And, how did I live so long and never eat turrón?

4. It’s easier to live and work in Spain- and, by extension, the rest of the EU. Remember what I just said about picking the person and not the passport? Well, I’m about to contradict myself a bit. As a Brit, I’ve never really had to worry about access to the rest of Europe, because I’ve been a happy EU citizen all my life. But in these upsetting, unsettling post-Brexit times, I don’t know what’s coming next. The idea that I should be able to settle in Spain or even become a Spanish citizen after my wedding this year makes me feel a tiny, tiny bit better.

5. Unlimited Spanish holidays. Imagine that there was a lovely family in Spain who cared for you like a daughter and were always happy to see you, and were always asking when you were going to come and visit again. Bi-monthly visits to Spain and a place to stay, you say? Sign me up.

6. A bilingual family. If you want to have children, as we do, they’ll be native speakers of two very useful languages and these skills should mean that they feel at home in either country, and have an advantage many of their classmates won’t.


This is a Roscón de Reyes, a kind of sweet bread (like a pimped-up brioche) that’s eaten in Spain to celebrate epiphany.

7. Two Christmasses. Both British and Spanish people see the 25 December as Christmas Day, but the big difference is that Spanish people wait until 6 January to exchange their gifts. So, while British people are packing up their trees and taking down the tinsel, Spanish people still have about a fortnight left of Christmas, meaning that you can can celebrate twice, and no-one gets left out.

8. Sharing your culture. I have had endless fun teaching Carlos silly British slang (you’re welcome); showing him how to “feed” a Christmas cake; and watching The Great British Bake Off. In return, he’s shown me how to make a proper tortilla de patata; appreciate Karlos Arguiñano for the modern-day genius he is; and has demonstrated many different ways to swear using the word hostia. (There are a lot).

9. More opportunities to travel. Not just to Spain, although that is where we go the most. Usually if a person’s willing to relocate from their home country they’re the type who like to travel and do so a lot. I’ve definitely found that to be the case.


Spain is really pretty.

10. Opportunities for personal growth. Hmm, I’m not sure I like quite how that sounds. But what I mean is – by being with someone from another country, you learn about the culture and you learn the language and you learn to be a bit more self-reliant. It’s so hard speaking Spanish to older members of the family (and strangers) at first, especially as often they don’t make any concessions to the fact you’re foreign. But it gets easier, and you learn to really show up for yourself and find a way to get your voice heard.

Carnival in January!


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Following Christmas excesses in a lot of places, it’s normal for people to take a month or so off from partying in the new year – until February at least, when Carnival begins in the run-up to Easter. It’s a different story in the picturesque mountain village of Silió in Cantabria, though – on the first Sunday of every year (or the second if New Year’s Day is a Sunday), a spectacle known as the Vijanera takes place.

What is the Vijanera?


The Vijanera is a popular carnival-type celebration which apparently has its roots in Roman times. Under Franco, who disapproved of all non-religious fiestas, the celebration was stopped – but it was revived a few years ago and has come back with a bang. Participants dress up as allegorical and mocking figures – we saw mock priests “blessing” people by splashing water at them; pretend members of the Guardia Civil; people dressed as trees, a bear with a bloodied mouth; an old couple; a cross-dressed nurse and doctor who stopped to tell dirty jokes; and a really cute little boy dressed as a walnut.

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The most significant people in the whole show are the Zarramacos (the photo above isn’t mine, it was taken by Carlos). These guys wear pointy black hats and a sheepskin jacket with bells attached – the sound of which is meant to drive the evil spirits from the village. At the culmination of the fiesta, the “bear” (it’s just somebody dressed up!) is captured and killed by the Zarramacos, thus ridding the village of malign influences and welcoming in a  fresh new year.


Silió is a tiny place in the mountains that you might not visit if it weren’t for the Vijanera, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth exploring in its own right. I took this picture of the church in the frost while we were waiting for the festivities to begin, and there’s also a small museum/interpretation centre dedicated to explaining the significance of the festival to anyone who’s interested.


The festival also includes some familiar fertility-type symbolism: green men, carts loaded with flowers, and various colourful dresses and outfits.


Look at the tiny Zarramaco on the far right of this picture! If there’s something about fiestas in Spain that I really like, it’s that they’re inclusive of all ages – from babies to teens and couples or families to the older generation. That goes for participants as well as onlookers.

My Tips

Everyone told us we’d have to be in Silió at the crack of dawn for the Vijanera. They were wrong! My sister-in-law got there at 8.30am last year, and we arrived at 9am this year. We were able to get a great parking space and find a perfect viewing spot (standing above the crowd by the wall of the church) but we ended up hanging around for almost 3 hours before anything started: not fun because it was -5C. The official start time was 11.30, but things kicked off a little later than that. If we go again next year, I don’t think we’ll plan on getting there until about 10 or even later.

It doesn’t actually matter if you arrive after the whole thing has started (except you might have to park quite far away). The parading and festivities continue pretty much all day, with traditional music and food as well until about 9pm.

Because there’s a photo competition involved, lots of people come armed with their fancy cameras, running in front of the parades in an effort to take winning shots. If you want to take part, make sure you’ve got sharp elbows. Otherwise, I recommend finding a place to watch either on the bridge or by the church walls, where we stood. We saw plenty of people climbing the foot of the mountain (the parades come down from there) – but it’s probably not such a good place to see everything, because the participants come down quite quickly and most of the real action happens in the village itself.

Festival Information

You can find information on the Vijanera on Spain’s official tourism site here (the next date is January 7, 2018).

There’s information about the background of the festival on Spanish Wikipedia or in English.

Finally, the fiesta’s official website can be found right here.



I love flea markets: the Mercadillo Charco de la Pava in Seville


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img_0806There’s something about massive piles of junk which just fills me with joy. Ever since I was a kid (and charity shops were deeply unfashionable) I’ve loved rooting around in slightly unloved, dusty, or otherwise vaguely unpromising locations looking for hidden treasure. It’s part of the reason I like shopping at TK Maxx, too. In a world of throwaway landfill consumerism, rescuing and giving new life to old things rather than buying them brand new is also unquestionably a good environmental choice: I’m impressed by zero waste activists such as Lauren Singer and Bea Johnson who dedicate their lives to reducing their environmental impact and not creating landfill waste by avoiding purchasing packaged items and anything which contains plastic.

While I try to put my beliefs into action (I buy virtually all my clothing secondhand! I don’t drink bottled water! I compost!), I’m still as guilty as most of creating waste. And, truth be told, I think I’d like charity shops, flea markets, and secondhand emporia of all kinds even if it weren’t for their ethical merit. So, before I make a trip anywhere, I often research my secondhand shopping options.

Spain has no real charity shop culture outside of the big cities – the one charity shop chain I’ve found in the country is Humana, which only has stores in Barcelona, Granada, Madrid and Seville. The vintage scene is also lacking. Where the Spanish do an excellent job, though, is in their flea markets. So while I sadly missed out on Seville’s popular El Jueves market on my recent visit, I was able to go on Sunday to Mercadillo Charco de la Pava – and this is what I saw:


I still regret not buying the red and blue skirt on the left. It had a matching top and shawl and it was just fabulous and perfect.


Secondhand books were my first love. When I was at university, I filled my room in halls with copies of the classics from the Egham branch of Oxfam. I’ve cut back on the books since but I still bought one here for old times’ sake.


I couldn’t resist snapping a picture of this quirky book about the reproductive habits of canaries.


I really wanted this handpainted blue chair, but it wouldn’t fit in my hand luggage.


Catholic paraphernalia is one of my flea market faves. Probably my favourite-ever flea market buy is a battered miniature statue of the Virgin and Child which I bought in the south of France one summer for €1.


The real reason I was there: flamenco dresses. Look at the detail on this one!


I love the colours here. Seville and Andalucía generally are such sunny, colourful places and these dresses sum that up for me.


More flamenco dresses. Can you believe some ladies buy themselves a new one every year? They’re not cheap.


Finally: this is all I came away with, minus the book I mentioned earlier. Wasn’t I restrained? Everything pictured cost just €1 per item, with the exception of the Seville Expo ’92 badge featuring mascot Curro, which cost €2. I splashed out there as it was a nostalgic gift for my Spanish boyfriend who was unlucky enough to be working at the University of Seville while I was flea market shopping (lol).

Flea market details:

Charco de la Pava is a large flea market hosted every weekend morning on the Isla de la Cartuja in Seville. It’s walking distance from the city centre. Secondhand items are for sale on Sundays only.

There didn’t appear to be any toilets on site. Go before you arrive as it’s a good walk to the nearest cafe or bar. I saw plenty of men relieving themselves at the sides of the market grounds.

Most vendors are unlikely to speak English (and speak Spanish with strong Andalusian accents!) so be prepared with a few phrases. I was warned about pickpockets while I was there but I kept a close eye on my things and luckily was unaffected. Take small change.

Spanish Book Club 2: fun books to improve your Spanish


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Dirty Spanish by Juan Caballero

OK, so I bought this book on a whim after getting a £10 Amazon card and not knowing what to do with it (I don’t normally shop at Amazon). This book is sort of disappointing. In essence, it’s a phrasebook, except instead of the phrases being things like “Where can I find the bus station?” or “two beers please”, it includes gems such as “Dude, your dad is so hairy!” and “this little place is bumpin'” (what?).  Buying it, I thought it might be a good way to learn some Latin American slang and get an insight into the culture, but it includes no context and it’s written in a really off-putting American frat boy tone. I’m not even 100% sure what a frat boy is, but I’m pretty sure they say the things that appear in this book. Example: “How did that hoochie manage to marry a doctor?” Urgh! Sorry Juan Caballero, but your book is una cagada.



101 Spanish Idioms by J.M Cassagne, illustrated by L.N. Raidon

An oldie but a goodie. I bought this book secondhand and it’s over 20 years old, but it stands up well. Each page is devoted to a particular idiom, written in bold in Spanish at the top. There’s then a little cartoony sketch to illustrate, and a literal English translation and well as a translation of what it “really” means. Then underneath there’s an anecdote written in reasonably simple Spanish which uses the idiom in the correct context – and if your Spanish isn’t quite there yet, there’s a translation into English at the back.

I particularly like the section on santos y pecadores (saints and sinners). There, I learned that a howling gale is un viento de mil demonios; to remain an old maid is to quedarse para vestir santos (stay dressing saints); and to say your time will come (“every dog has his day” is an idiom with the same sentiment in English) it’s todos los santos tienen novena. I’m assured by my resident native speaker that these sayings are all pretty common – handy.



Con dos huevos by Héloïse Guerrier and David Sánchez

This is the kind of book that Dirty Spanish wishes it were. It’s not a phrasebook so much as a window into the peninsular Spanish soul (and it includes explanations in Spanish, English, and French). It’s also classy, witty, and genuinely filthy. As with 101 Spanish Idioms, each page has an idiom and an accompanying illustration, but the big difference here is that the idioms in this book probably couldn’t be taught in a classroom setting. Example: if something’s really really good, a Spanish speaker might say era teta de novicia (it was the novice’s tit). A British English speaker in the same context might say “it was the dog’s bollocks”, as the book helpfully notes. The picture which goes with it shows a young nun with her breast exposed- the illustrator, David Sánchez, is really talented and the images are all as imaginative and colourful as the language itself.

Other plain-speaking idioms include dar el coñazo and cagarse en Dios, and admittedly the latter shocked me a tiny bit the first time I heard it. My boyfriend tells me that his abuelo used to say me cago en la hostia (I shit on the communion wafer) when he was particularly happy. This is Spanish as really spoken by Spaniards, in one eye-opening little volume.

Interested in more books for learning Spanish? One of my favourite blogs has some recommendations here. There’s also a review of Con dos huevos in academic journal Hispania right here.