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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

Vintage Shopping in Seville: where to buy a secondhand flamenco dress

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This past summer, I was invited to a wedding in Poland between a Polish woman and her half-Mexican, half-Spanish partner. The couple live in London and, unsurprisingly, the wedding guests made a pretty international crowd (I was the only Brit there, an experience I enjoyed). Apparently Polish weddings can take place over two days, with the first day dedicated to the ceremony and the second being more for partying – and on this second day, guests were encouraged to wear a cultural costume which felt appropriate for them. A group of Spanish women, friends of the groom, opted for the traditional traje de gitana, or flamenco dress – something immediately recognisable as Spanish, even if it’s not typical of their region of Spain (the group came from Galicia). I loved the idea, and as I’ve been slowly planning my own nuptials over the past months, the prospect of hosting my own muliticultural wedding party -and getting to wear a flouncy dress myself- has seemed more and more appealing.

Last weekend, my boyfriend was attending a conference in Seville – and I decided to tag along, making it our second trip to the city this year. This time, instead of fighting our way though crowds and staying up all night to see the Macarena, my focus was going to be on getting my hands on an authentic flamenco dress. After reading up on the history of the flamenco dress and the vocabulary I would need to acquire one, I started googling during quiet moments at work to track down likely places in Seville to search for my prize. I decided early on that I’d buy a secondhand dress – I buy most of my clothes secondhand anyway, but budget was also important here: new flamenco dresses usually cost several hundred euros.

I got up early on Saturday morning, and after a breakfast of strong coffee and toasted bread with olive oil and tomato in a bar on the corner of our street, I headed straight to Humana at C/San Jacinto, 69. Humana is a Scandinavian chain of charity shops which are popular in continental Europe – Seville has three of them and I remembered seeing flamenco dresses inside the (now permanently closed) branch on the Calle Feria. No dice. The friendly shop assistant suggested that they would have flamenco dresses in stock un poco más adelante –– or later on, nearer the time of the Feria. Undeterred, I headed on foot to the Macarena district of the city, where I’d heard there were some vintage shops.

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The first shop I headed into was this one, Ropero, at C/Feria, 37. See how they’ve done the shop sign like the London tube logo? In Spain, secondhand shopping still comes with a stigma, but those in the know associate “vintage” clothing with Europe’s hipster capitals like London and Berlin. Ropero had some great stuff, but sadly not much in the line I was looking for.

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The lower end of the Calle Feria (before the food market) has several vintage shops selling clothing, furniture, antiques, and all kinds of other pre-loved items. I browsed a couple of them but I knew I was onto something when I crossed the road to El Ayer – the outside doesn’t look especially promising, but the treasures which lie within..!

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The shop was tiny and the back was stuffed with racks of trajes of all kinds – with spots, with flowers, in single colours, and of varying lengths. I’d already decided that I wanted one with spots, or lunares, because it’s the traditional pattern. Fighting my way through the mounds of clothing, I began selecting likely candidates and laying them over my arm before asking the proprietor if I could try them on. The answer – yes! But there’s no changing room and no real mirror — just a tiny toilet with a square of mirror which just about lets you see your face above the sink. Despite these obstacles, I tried on five dresses, favouring fit over pattern. While I know a good tailor in the town where I live, it didn’t seem to make sense to me to buy something that was too big or small. It was too bad, because my favourite dress was a blue one with white spots that just wouldn’t quite zip up.

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Eventually, this is the dress I ended up with, and it cost me €40 – una ganga (a bargain). Looking at the seams, I’d say it was made with a sewing machine at home or possibly by a professional seamstress. There were no visible marks or damage, and the dress didn’t seem particularly old. I was really happy with my purchase, and took it back to the little Triana flat where we were staying. It’s funny to think that there’s another woman, about my size and shape, who once wore this dress to the April Fair. Was she a Sevillana, or a foreigner like me? What did she do there? Was she a member of an exclusive private caseta, or did she have to drink in the public bars? Did she have a boyfriend who wore the traditional suit?

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Sadly, we only arrived in Seville on Friday, thereby missing the popular market held on Calle Feria known as Mercadillo El Jueves (its name tells you exactly what and when it is – a Thursday flea market). Que pena, because I love nothing more than hunting through piles of old stuff and picking up little things here and there, especially when I’m on holiday. Happily, I got an insider tip from a woman I follow in Instagram, @becomingsevillana: there’s another large market a little out of the city centre on the Isla de la Cartuja, and on Sundays they sell secondhand stuff. I’d already got my dress by this point, but what I needed now was a fan and possibly other accessories. And, you know, I really wanted to go treasure hunting.

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To be honest, I was glad I’d already bought my dress when I went to Mercadillo Charco de la Pava (the literal translation of this name into English is “flea market of the puddle with the female turkey”). The flamenco dresses there were sometimes notably dirty, pretty old, and not that cheap: and there was nowhere to try anything on. That said, I spent over two hours there, wandering among the many stalls and chatting to the sellers while taking pictures. I also came away with quite a few things, including two painted fans and a shawl, and only spent a total of €7. A perfect Sunday morning, really.

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Clockwise from left: A badge from the ’92 Seville Expo; an old tin divided into four compartments; a red shawl with sewn-on seashells; two painted fans, and a Seville calendar for 2017. Everything cost just €1, except for the badge, which cost €2.

Reliable information for the market was hard to find online. According to my Instagram friend who lives in Seville, the market is open both on Saturdays and Sundays, with the secondhand stuff on Sunday only. I arrived at around 10am, but there were still lots of people arriving when I left after 12. I’d advise getting there early to make the most of it – and I was warned by one seller to keep a close eye on my valuables as theft is apparently common. Bring small change.

 

 

 

DELE B2: How was it for you?

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In the days (I had been going to write “weeks”, but that wouldn’t have been quite honest) leading up to my DELE B2 exam, this is pretty much what my life looked like. I took the exam yesterday, and I have to admit that I felt my language skills were being tested to the limit. It’s definitely a big step up from B1.

I took my DELE B1 six months ago, back in April, and it went pretty well. A new job, an engagement to a Spaniard, and plenty more Spanish practice followed, and I was feeling confident in my abilities. I bought some DELE B2 study books, signed up for evening Spanish classes at my local university, and began preparing for the formal exam. Having studied for two DELE exams now, I definitely recommend this series of books, and for wider reading I also found some very nice recommendations here.

So how did it go? Well…

When I did the DELE B1 felt easy-ish. Quite straightforward, nothing too tricky or designed to catch you out. The B2 involves some more obscure language, a lengthier oral, and some “integrated skills” – so on one section of the writing exam, you have to listen and understand a related recording, and use the information you’ve heard in what you write. Despite greater work commitments, I had prepared in advance – but perhaps not quite so thoroughly as last time.

So I arrived on Saturday morning at 8.40, blurry-eyed and uncaffeinated (the university coffee shop wasn’t open at that hour – gran error on my part). The DELE kicked off as usual with the reading test. There were four tasks – the first was about internet shopping, the second about Chilean musicians, the third about the Spanish translation of this book, and the final task a nice piece about the history of Argentinian colectivos.  I assigned myself 17 minutes per task, and in all honesty it felt a little easier than what I’d been studying at home. If the whole exam had gone as smoothly, I think I’d have no doubts about passing.

Next came the listening. It was…tricky. The first task, in which you listen to six short conversations, was filled with unfamiliar vocabulary and there were two or three questions that I definitely struggled with. I had time to listen again at the end, but I still wasn’t sure. Next up was the couple talking (this exercise is always the same – a man and a woman, usually friends, who meet by chance in the street and start discussing a random subject). In this task the woman had just adopted a dog from the shelter and they were talking about pets before moving on to talking about the guy’s wife and the fact he’s learning Italian. Fine. Next was an interview with an Argentinian film director, and despite his Italian-infused Argentinian accent, I think I followed. Then came the task where six people talk about a subject and you have to decide who said what. They were all talking about their living situations – it didn’t present too many problems. Next was a monologue in a Colombian accent. Not simple, but I imagine I may have got about four of the six questions right.

The written part wasn’t so bad. It consisted of two tasks, and you get a choice for the second one – in this question there’s always an information/statistical analysis type question, and a more opinion-based one too. As a humanities graduate and a queen of soft skills, the opinion-based writing task was the boy for me (it was about a free arts and culture programme in Madrid). I tried to be kind of ambitious with my vocabulary and I’m glad I had enough time at the end to read through and make corrections, because I definitely needed to. Throughout the entire exam, I felt like I was racing against the clock, which really wasn’t the case last time.

The worst part for me, unquestionably, was the oral. I mean I chatted hard. I chatted like my life depended on it – the examiner kind of had to shut me up on a couple of occasions. I was just so nervous. The B1 oral felt more relaxed, kind of like a simple exchange, but in this oral I had to look at various proposals (I picked a scenario about mass tourism), evaluate them, say who they’d benefit and who they’d be detrimental to, then justify my opinions. I also had to talk about a photo – kind of invent a story around it, say who the people were and what they were doing. I didn’t ask the examiner for any clarification or repetition at any point at all – I’ve heard anecdotally that it’s kind of fatal if you do. There was just one point when the examiner -an Argentinian, incidentally- asked me something about friendships which I didn’t understand, so I just blagged it and talked about what a good friend is for me. I’m embarrassed to recall that now, but in the moment, what was I supposed to do? Generally I answered the questions as best I could and I understood pretty well what I was being asked- if I fail, it definitely won’t be because I said too little. But I know 100% I made grammatical mistakes, and there was one occasion when I should have used the imperfect subjunctive followed by a conditional, and I didn’t. But there you go. Damn imperfect subjunctives!

Last time I received my results via email in just six weeks – and I’d been told it would be more like three to six months. I’m not sure if I’ll hear so quickly  (relatively speaking) again this time though- with Christmas and Reyes coming up, I expect the folks in Madrid who mark the exams are gearing up for a nice winter break. Fingers crossed for the result I want – ya veremos.

 

 

 

4 Things I Wasn’t Expecting About Spanish Culture

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There may well be people better qualified than me to write about this topic, but since getting engaged to my Spanish novio this summer, I’ve found myself absorbed into the heart of a large extended Spanish family. Not having many relations of my own (although I’m the eldest of 5 kids, both of my parents and all of my grandparents were only children), it’s been a novel experience. This month, my suegra and I happened to coincide with several days off work, and I was invited to go and spend some time in the family pueblo. While I got a few raised eyebrows when I told my workmates that I was going to visit my in-laws in Spain, who don’t speak any English, on my own, I was up for the challenge- and it was definitely worth it. I’ve been able to get to know my familia política a little better, and my language skills have definitely benefitted too. And the quirks of Spanish culture never fail to surprise me. Here’s some of what I’ve learned:

In Spain, it’s OK to swear.

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Spanish swearing culture is definitely very different to British swearing culture. Everybody does it. It’s very imaginative and it often involves whores, the Virgin, mothers, poo, God, food, anatomy, animals, or some combination of these things. My cuñada‘s favourite curse, which I also quite like for its expressiveness, is puta madre (whore mother). On this most recent trip, I was in a local supermarket, which had a large display of Spanish Christmas treats even though Halloween hadn’t even happened yet. While I was gazing at the display and weighing up just exactly how much turrón it might be feasible to squeeze into my suitcase, an older man sidled up and exclaimed: “¿Hay turrónes? ¡Me cago en Dios!” – literally: there’s already turrón here? I shit on God!

It’s also possible to shit on communion wafers, in the sea, in the (breast)milk, on dead relatives, and on your enemy’s whore mother. Metaphorically speaking.

If you’re interested is Spanish swearing, there’s a very good book called Con dos huevos by Héloïse Guerrier and David Sánchez. It’s written in English, Spanish, and French, and comes with some excellent (rather explicit) illustrations. There’s a link to the Goodreads page for it here.

Come lunchtime, all the shops are shut.

I’ve been caught out by this one too many times already. You want to buy something between the hours of, say, 1-3pm? Or on a Sunday? Too bad. Spanish businesses close – with the exception of bars, supermarkets, and larger stores such as the Corte Inglés. In the north of Spain, where my novio is from, it’s less about having a siesta (which may be a necessity down south when temperatures soar into the high 30s or even 40s during summer) and more about having a proper meal. While habits are slowly changing, Spanish people typically work a split day, with a good couple of hours off for lunch. Growing up, my novio‘s school didn’t even have a canteen, as everybody went home for their midday meal. While it’s definitely a bonus that there isn’t a sandwich-at-your-desk culture, there are also obvious downsides to this kind of schedule, which Spanish people will be the first to tell you about.

People are chatty and want to talk to you…which can border into nosiness

I’m not typically a chatty person, and I definitely don’t seek out conversations with people I don’t know. But in Spain, it seems that I get into conversations with strangers all the time. Perhaps it’s because I’m more open to it myself – I generally take every chance I can to practice the language – but it’s quite common to walk down the street in smaller places and to be greeted by people passing by. People tell you about their jobs, their kids, even their medical problems. And get ready for the questions! I’ve been asked about my plans for starting a family and other intimate details which actually made me kind of uncomfortable. It’s not ill-intentioned, but if you’re feeling sensitive about a topic, sometimes these kind of questions are the last thing you need.

I actually got lucky this time talking to a lady in the train station – it turns out that I’d been waiting on the wrong platform for my train, and if she hadn’t started talking to me, I wouldn’t have known about my mistake until I ended up miles away from where I was actually headed. So there are definite plusses to the chatty culture.

There are rules around alcohol consumption.

I think in general, the Spanish attitude to drinking is much more healthy than the British (but then, whose isn’t?). A glass of red wine with a meal is pretty much expected, while if you go out before lunch or dinner to tomar algo, a beer or a shandy is often the drink of choice. But certain drinks are only for specific times of day. For example, my suegra told me that Vermouth is only acceptable as a pre-lunch drink. And it’s not as socially acceptable to order hard stuff before eating – I vividly remember ordering a gin & tonic in a bar at about 7pm and being teased by the people I was with. That’s for after dinner, silly.

Equally, public drunkenness is seen as shameful, especially if you’re any older than about 23. Apparently there’s also a stigma against women drinking spirits, which I’m less inclined to pay heed to. I still remember as a young woman in the UK being told that men don’t like to see a girl “with a pint in her hand”- which is just sexist nonsense, obviously – and I happen to be partial to the local orujo, especially the honey-flavoured type (it’s a kind of liqueur made from fermented grape skins).  I’ll just make sure I don’t have it until after dinner.

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My Heart is in the Highlands: Top 10 Things to Do in Inverness

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First things first: I love Inverness. My Mum grew up there, my brother lives there, and I’m even getting married there. It’s a long way, both figuratively and literally, from cosmopolitan Edinburgh, but as the northernmost city in the UK, and the capital of the Highlands, Inverness has a special, romantic charm. There are legends of freedom fighters as well as spirits and soothsayers. Inverness was subject to prophecies by the Brahan Seer, and as the character Grace in one of Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie novels says: “they’re all a bit fey up there”.

I’m always boring my colleagues by telling them to go to Inverness and endlessly listing the attractions – and I’ve finally decided to write them down. So, here are my top 10 things to do in Nessie’s hometown:

1. Visit Loch Ness! It’s the most obvious thing to do in town, and there are a number of options depending on how you want to do it. Car hire is one option, and guided tours are another. Keen walkers also hike there. Personally, I like the boat best. You can get on one of Jacobite Tours‘ vessels at Tomnahurich Bridge (just outside of the city centre) and sit back with a whisky -there’s a bar downstairs!- and also enjoy the free wifi so you can ‘gram your shots of Urquhart Castle while scanning the loch for Nessie.

2. Go to Leakey’s. Are you a book fan? Despite its small size, Inverness boasts Scotland’s largest secondhand bookshop, in a converted church building. There’s everything from old maps to books on economics and biographies of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Things are loosely organised by topic, but it’s largely disorganised. I love it and have picked up some real gems there.

3. Listen to some Scottish folk music at Hootananny. There’s honestly nothing not to like about Hootananny. Every night sees live performers of traditional Scottish music at this bar, while the menu has everything from classic Scottish cullen skink to vegetarian haggis. It’s also a great place for local beer and single malt whisky – there’s even a cocktail bar upstairs.

4. Taste some whisky. There are numerous distilleries nearby, and if you’re a fan of Scotland’s most famous export, then these are most definitely worth a trip. If you plan on staying in town though, the local branch of the Whisky Shop does evening tasting sessions (warning: the measures of whisky served are very generous in size and you get to try about 5 of them – I recommend eating something first!)

5. Take advantage of the local culinary scene. Inverness is actually something of a foodie haven, with a number of really good restaurants. Rocpool is the local star (it has a celebrity chef and was ranked as one of the best restaurants in Britain in 2015). I also really like Mustard Seed – another Inverness business in a converted church. Make sure to reserve ahead for both.

6. Check out the statue of Flora MacDonald, rescuer of local hero Bonnie Prince Charlie. Sometimes to be seen sporting an Inverness Caledonian Thistle scarf, she stands outside Inverness Castle, scanning the waters of the River Ness with her pet dog.

7. Get some culture at the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery. As well as explaining the geographical, political, and social history of Inverness and the Highlands, this wee museum is also home to a very good cafe and gift shop.

8. Take a walk around the Islands. You barely have to leave Inverness city centre to be in the middle of nature. The Islands form a park in the river, and are linked by picturesque white bridges. They’re popular with dog-walkers and local families as well as visitors.

9. Visit a typical Scottish pub. My personal favourite is The Castle Tavern (I once saw the new year in here, and the kindly landlord handed round free whiskies at midnight – don’t let it be said that the Scots aren’t generous).

10. Take the open-top bus. A tourist trap? Maybe, but I still like it. A few years ago I took my bored little brother on this in an effort to entertain him for the afternoon, and it worked a treat. The bus efficiently shows you the town, takes you out to the Botanic Gardens and Tomnahurich bridge, and explains local legends and history in the pre-recorded commentary. The tickets are valid for 24 hours, which is nice if you want to hop off for a bit of exploring on your own.

Have you ever been to Inverness? What did you like about the city?

Spanish Bookclub 1: La tesis de Nancy

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Like the author of this blog, I had mixed feelings about the heroine of this story, the eponymous Nancy.

*Dusts off English Literature degree* La tesis de Nancy is an epistolary novel, made up of letters written from Seville by American student Nancy to her cousin Betsy back in the US. If you’re being kind to Nancy, you might say she’s plucky yet innocent and naive, but if you were feeling less charitable, you might describe her as ignorant, pleased with herself, and annoying.

I should start by saying that this was the first book I’ve ever read entirely in Spanish, and the choice was, just maybe, a little ambitious. A lot of the humour centres around the fact that Nancy, a 24-year-old American writing her Ph.D thesis in 1950s Seville, makes a lot of mistakes with her Spanish, leading to all kinds of crazy misunderstandings. While I got that Nancy usually has the wrong end of the stick, I didn’t always fully grasp the full implications of her misunderstandings, which made the reading experience kind of slow and frustrating – not a fault of the book, of course.

The book, being set in Seville, reproduces the characters’ Andalucian dialect, and includes dated 50s slang as well as andalucismos, which despite the explanatory material, further impeded my ability to follow what exactly was going on. As students of Shakespeare will tell you, any joke that has to be explained via a lengthy footnote isn’t really funny.

However, many of Nancy’s malentendidos were obvious, even to me. For example: Nancy’s bad-egg gypsy boyfriend Curro, due to his possessive nature, has her move out of her lodgings and into a flat with a little girl and her mother while he’s gone from Seville for a few days. She’s not supposed to leave the house, and the mother is meant to keep an eye on her as Curro’s worried that his love rival, a young gypsy poet named Quin, will steal Nancy away.

Unlike the other gypsies, Quin is blond and blue-eyed, earning him the nickname el abejorrito rubio (the little blond bumblebee). During the nights of Curro’s absence, an actual bumblebee flies in through the window of the bedroom Nancy shares with the little girl, and in a rather obvious plot twist, Nancy gives the same nickname to her apian visitor as to her blond admirer. Of course, when Curro comes back, the first thing he hears when he checks up on his girlfriend is that el abejorrito rubio has been visiting Nancy every night – and he flies into a jealous rage.

But this is one of the rare scenes where I actually liked Nancy. She’s really cool in a crisis. Curro is about to kill her -the note at the back of the book explains it succinctly: [Curro] tiene un terrible ataque de celos y a punto está de matar a Nancy y de suicidarse. So what does Nancy do? She casually reaches into her handbag and pulls a gun on him she’s brought from home. Apparently, you were allowed to take guns on international flights in the 50s.

Despite Nancy’s rather glaring shortcomings – as well as her superior attitude and lack of self-awareness, she’s nasty about almost everybody, including her rather sweet Dutch friend, Elsa, who she compares to un ratón, una ardilla, un chimpancé, un conejo, un grillo and una yegua – it didn’t escape me that she was a single, admittedly highly privileged, young woman travelling abroad alone in the 1950s. She manages not only to have adventures – including ascending the Giralda on horseback – but also has three boyfriends, as well as a really good time while “researching” her thesis.

I recommend the book to people who, like me, who are fascinated by Spanish language and culture – but unless your Spanish is tip-top, it might be a struggle in places (the novel is also available in English translation). I found myself having to look up a lot of words, making the task more like work than enjoyment. But still – I got there, and no doubt it did my language skills some good. And it’s interesting to read Spanish people’s take on the classic novel – you can see what they’re saying on Goodreads.

 

A Very Spanish Engagement

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This summer, I’ve been fortunate enough to make several trips: I’ve travelled as a tag-along on my novio‘s conference trip to Milan; attended a wedding in Częstochowa with a few nights in Krakow; visited Rome with a friend; went the Highlands to see my family; and to northern Spain to visit my partner’s.

The photo above was taken at the beach at Zaurautz – a cute Basque town not far from San Sebastián. We went to eat at Spanish celebrity chef Karlos Arguiñano’s restaurant as a birthday treat for me. The restaurant is right on the beach and it’s perfect- delicious modern Basque food, genuinely warm staff (they were extra nice to me when I clumsily smashed a glass of Tío Pepe), and not ridiculously expensive. Sadly, we didn’t get to see Karlos Arguiñano in person, but you can’t have everything. There’s a very nice video of Arguiñano getting excited about an egg with three yolks here.

I’ve been to the Basque Country before, but it was on this month’s trip that I really fell in love with the place. The beaches! The architecture! The culture! The food! (No really, the food!). I was also here that novio and I made our engagement official. We’d been living together for a while, and the subject of weddings kept coming up: not-too-subtle hints from his family over Skype, and really overt ones at the wedding in Poland. We talked about it in private after we came home and decided that actually, yes, it was something we wanted to do.

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As someone who’s been married before, I’ve had a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards weddings and marriage in recent years, sniffing cynically every time a friend or colleague announced their nuptials. And I remember attending a wedding with an ex not too long after my divorce – and crying in the church, despite the fact I didn’t know the couple. Marriage and I had some things we needed to talk about, and I definitely needed some time – but I think finally we’re there.

Novio and I didn’t really make the engagement public for the first month – we wanted to discuss it and get used to the idea before we started to share it. But the trip to Spain was in part to tell his family in person, and it was when he gave me a ring, in the hotel where we were staying in San Sebastián. So there it was – we were engaged. We’ve now told all the family, have a date set and a venue lined up, so it looks like it’s really happening.

Before we went to San Sebastián, I was googling things to do there like crazy, but having visited, I think the best thing to do is to just absorb and take it all in. I mean, they have the fine San Telmo Museoa (free on Tuesdays), a funicular, aquarium, and other fun activities, but the best part of being in the city was wandering the streets, eating pinxos, and watching people go by. It’s very much a holiday place, with plenty of French tourists milling about (it’s just a few kilometres from the border – in fact, the cheapest way for us to get there was to fly to Biarritz from London then take a bus). Everyone’s there to enjoy the exceptional food and wine, the pleasant summer weather, and the gorgeous city beach, La Concha.

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So my advice for things to do in San Sebastián? Just enjoy. Don’t worry about a packed schedule – the city is compact and totally walkable, and you’ll get the most from it just by spending time in the streets. It’s also worth mentioning that as the joint European Capital of Culture 2016, there are a ton of drama, music, cultural and other events to be enjoyed while you’re there.

As for day trips, we didn’t hire a car but we were able to get everywhere we wanted on the bus or train (both cover very scenic routes, so if you’re in a hurry or on a tight schedule, I would recommend driving). Zaurautz was much less international, but it’s definitely worth visiting for the beach and restaurant – bookings certainly advised for the latter; it’s really popular. We also made it out to Bilbao, a city which definitely improves on further acquaintance. I loved the casco viejo – there’s a lot more to the Basque capital than just the Guggenheim, IMO.

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So what next? Well, we’ve got a wedding to plan, and one or two trips coming up before Christmas, as well as the day-to-day responsibilities of work and adult life. I’m also thinking of taking my DELE B2 in November- ambitious, but hopefully doable. It’s going to be busy.

 

 

 

5 Things I Learned About Myself While Travelling This Summer

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Things have been busy in the last 3 weeks, because as well as getting into the routine of a new job, I’ve also travelled to 4 different cities. On the 19th June, I flew to Rome to catch up with an old friend, before taking a train to Milan a few days later to meet a new one. Just a couple of days after coming home, I packed my bags again and headed to Częstochowa in southern Poland, before again travelling by train- this time for a few days in Krakow. While each city deserves a blog post in its own right, seeing as I’m fresh off the plane (landed just a few hours ago) now seemed the best time to write a summing-up about some of the things I’d learned while on my trips.

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  1. I’m really unhappy with the way things are going in my country right now following the Brexit vote. I’ve made no secret of the fact that my sympathies were with the Remain campaign, and I went to the trouble of arranging my postal vote well ahead of time. I can honestly say though I’ve never been ashamed to be British (or, more accurately in this particular instance, English, given the result of the vote in Scotland and Northern Ireland) before. I was in Milan when I heard the news- I had, somewhat forebodingly, been dreaming about domestic violence when my novio woke me up to break the news. The reports of race-related hate crimes, in the wake of the result, including one in my adopted city of Leicester which saw my Muslim colleague in tears, had me hanging my head in shame.

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2. Spanish and Italian are not mutually intelligible or “the same language”. OK, this one’s embarrassing. I believed the anglophone hype that claimed that Spanish and Italian are closely enough related that if you can speak (or at least understand) one you can speak the other. Not quite, my friend. While Italian seems tantalisingly close to Spanish in many respects -sometimes I’d catch snatches of conversation on the streets of Rome and understand- they really are different languages with distinct punctuation, grammar, and vocabulary. While mainly the Italians I attempted to speak to in Spanish were extremely kind and forgiving, it took a boozy afternoon with an older Italian gent and a fun Australian woman I met in a restaurant for me to really realise that speaking Spanish to Italians was a bad idea. Also, I was struck by the fact that when I ordered a cafe con leche in a train station bar, the waiter gave me a kind of saddened stare, shook his head, and gently corrected me: latte. I’d hurt his pride! I had been insulting people all along by speaking to them in a foreign language, thinking it was close enough to their own for me to get away with it. Lesson learned.

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3. My Spanish is OK, but it’s not there yet. For most of my trip to Poland, I was in the company of my novio‘s large extended family, and Spanish was the dish of the day. Proving that the UK really is as diverse as anywhere you’d care to mention, my Spanish boyfriend’s London-resident Mexican cousin was marrying a Polish woman, and the wedding party consisted of two factions: Spanish-speaking guests, and Polish-speaking ones. As the only Brit present, I became a de facto Spaniard, and I did my best to keep up with the half-familiar rituals and customs (arriba, abajo, al centro, y pa’ dentro). Apart from one embarrassing incident over breakfast when I completely misunderstood something my novio‘s Mexican aunt said, I managed to keep up with the flow of conversation pretty well. When it came to my turn to speak though? I struggled for words to express my thoughts, and even to me my language seemed halted and strained. I’ve got work to do.

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4. I’m really good at walking. Sound like a bit of a lame boast? It’s not. I have never, ever, enjoyed sports- at school I was always the slowest in the race, and the dark memories of everything from hockey matches to darts games where I couldn’t even hit the board still make me shudder. On bikes I wobble, and anything other than a very gentle yoga class leaves me red in the face and miserable. So taking this into account, and an effort to live a more active lifestyle- as well as a reward for my first payday in my new job- I bought myself a FitBit a few weeks ago, and was keen to put it to the test for something other than my regular walking commute. In Rome, one day I walked 23 kilometres, and in Milan most days I was walking 15 to 20k. It was a little less in Poland due to the fact we were in the wedding, but in Krakow I happily eschewed the tram in favour of pounding the pavements. Maybe it was the excitement of seeing so many things, but I was told repeatedly by my travel buddies to slow down because I was going too fast- and I didn’t even feel it. I was happy to cover so much ground, figuratively and literally, and I even wore out a pair of leather sandals.

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5. I’m also good at map-reading, and finding my way in general. It’s a little-used skill in these days of GPS and smartphones, but when your iPhone refuses to play ball with data abroad and there’s no wifi in range, what are you supposed to do? I navigated myself and others around the cities we visited, taking over from cartographically-challenged novio who was trying to be gentlemanly and direct meOn my last day in Rome, I achieved my most impressive direction-based feat. My friend had left earlier than me to catch a plane to Serbia, and I had practically a whole day ahead of me before my train to Milan. I trundled my case to a cute piazza in Trastevere, and tried to plan my next move over lunch and wine. I got chatting to my neighbour though -an Australian lady with a fascinating backstory and lots of tales to tell- and the next thing I knew 5 hours had passed and we’d had more than a bottle of wine, and also my friend had accidentally taken my map of Rome to Serbia. I had to get to Termini! What to do? I got some half-coherent directions from my companion, and set off. I crossed the Tiber and followed my nose (also, I ate two ice creams on the way because it was hot and I was in Italy). I made it for my train with time to spare.

It’s been an exciting couple of weeks, and I have to admit I feel rather flat now I’m at home. I do, however, have a couple more trips in the pipeline, with over 2 weeks off work in August which are as yet still to be filled with plans.

 

 

 

DELE B1: ¡Apto!

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It’s been a busy week for me as exam season is truly happening. So busy, in fact, that I didn’t check my personal email account for an entire day on Tuesday. When I finally did access it during a brief pause on Wednesday morning, I was amazed to see a message from the Instituto Cervantes with the subject Diplomas DELE. Convocatoria de abril de 2016. Publicación de calificaciones. Could this really be my result? After just six weeks? I’d been told it would be closer to six months. As I copy-pasted my código de inscripción and typed my date of birth into the linked page, I could feel my fingers trembling.

Apto. I immediately took a photo of the computer screen and sent it to novio, before emailing my two Spanish teachers (one of whom had also been my oral examiner- although I met her for the first time in the exam itself) to tell them the good news, and thank them for their efforts. I know some people self-teach at home, and get good results too, but I get infinitely more out of a class setting and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.

Looking closely at the breakdown of my results, I saw that I had scored 91.35% overall, with 25/25 in my oral section. I still think they might have made a mistake there, because I really didn’t feel confident about my oral at all. But, clearly, I’m not going to contest it. My weakest part was actually my written exam- not that big a surprise maybe, because I rarely/never write in Spanish (with the exception of WhatsApps to novio), whereas I read, listen, and speak almost every day.

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Around 63% of candidates at all levels who take the DELE pass it, and the mark needed to pass is 60%. While I’m most definitely happy with my result, interpreting the way points are awarded before taking the test was definitely a chore for me. There is a total of 120 marks available. Each of the four skills are worth 30 marks, and all are weighted equally. However, the test is marked in two sections: reading and writing, and speaking and listening. While you can, in theory, dip below the 60% passing grade for any one skill, you have to score an average of 60% in each of the two sections in order to pass.

I suppose my essential takeaway from this information is that it doesn’t matter if you feel weaker in one skill than in others; you will be able to compensate for it. As with any test (puts on teacher hat) the most important thing is preparation. I don’t mean crazy hours of study, I just mean understanding the quirks of how you’ll be graded and what the test is actually like. There’s no such thing as a “pure” test of your language skills, so working your way through El Cronómetro and/or Preparación DELE to get used to the test format is ideal. I remember watching a Youtube video of a guy who’d made very impressive and rapid progress in his Spanish and he said his advice was just to practice a little every single day. I’ve tried to do that myself. As most people doing the DELE will usually have other commitments alongside (like, I don’t know, a job and a partner and kids and a million things), the “a little every day” approach seems like the most workable solution.

So what’s next for me? I’m hoping to walk the Camino de Santiago with novio this summer, and we have lots of other fun trips planned, including a wedding in Poland. So it will be busy. But I’ll still be attempting to put in time to practice my Spanish before signing up to a B2 course, and then thinking about further DELE goals.

Places to Visit in the UK (Part 2): York

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I had hoped to go further away this last bank holiday weekend (I’ve been thinking about Lisbon or Porto ever since sampling the delicious pasteis de nata from the Portuguese bakery in Leicester) but due to a combination of exam marking (novio) and baulking at the price of last minute flights for the bank holiday weekend anywhere (me), we ended up spending the weekend at home.

We decided late on Sunday night that we should make a trip, and bought train tickets to York. We’ve both been before- in fact, my dad is a York native, as were his parents and their parents before them. My parents met as teenagers in the 70s in a bar in York (now Yeats’ Wine Lodge), and I have lots of happy childhood memories of the city. You don’t really appreciate architecture when you’re young, though, and York has plenty of historic buildings to impress even the most jaded visitor, such as the 13th century Gothic cathedral, known as York Minster, above.

Mystery Plays (medieval plays with a religious theme and set characters/conventions) have entertained crowds in York since the 1300s, and the tradition is still going strong, although you have to be lucky or plan carefully to catch them (they’re not performed every year, and when they are on, it’s for a limited period of around a month. They are currently being performed in the Minster this May/June, 2016, and I really recommend going to see them if you can).

Essentially, York is a walled Roman city – Constantine was proclaimed Emperor here- with a medieval heart. The Vikings followed, and consequently York opened an interactive, multi-sensory Viking museum, the Jorvik, in 1984. Although it was sadly damaged in the flooding over Christmas 2015, there are plans to reopen in 2017, and the museum is to be found over the site of the Viking settlement in the Coppergate area of the city.

With winding medieval lanes, walkable Roman walls (and even a pub with a Roman bath in its basement), what this mixed heritage means for the visitor is more cultural and historical landmarks than in any city I can think of of a comparable size.

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Defying the trend elsewhere, York still boasts traditional bookshops throughout the city. York is a university town, and due to a combination of its tradition of sweet and chocolate-making, as well as its wealthy population in the 18th and 19th centuries, it largely escaped the mills, factories, and other large-scale industrial buildings which you can still see today in cities such as Leeds, Manchester, and Leicester.

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York also has lots of tiny ancient churches. You step from the busy modern street into one of these Lilliputian, darkened buildings, and are suddenly forced back in time. Often lit only by the open doorway and the wine-coloured light filtering through the stained glass windows, even if you’re not a believer, these places are atmospheric and compelling. I loved spending a few minutes inside and snapping a couple of photos before returning to the din of the outside world. The I took the photo above in All Saints, Pavement, which is one of 12 medieval/early modern churches in York.

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I’d be lying if I said food isn’t an important part of any trip for me, and when in York, the classic place to eat is Betty’s. It’s a beautiful, 1920s tearoom in St Helen’s Square in the city centre. Spread over several floors, and with original art deco features, this place is cavernous – and that’s a good thing, because there’s always a queue outside at any time of day. A couple of years ago I went there with my mum and we had afternoon tea upstairs accompanied by a live pianist and glasses of champagne. The waiting staff dress in traditional uniforms, but it’s not stuffy- you can also turn up in jeans or with your toddler and order a cup of tea and a plate of fish and chips. This time, I had a mini open sandwich followed by a homemade raspberry macaroon filled with buttercream and fresh raspberries (!) while novio had kedgeree (a first for him, and it was delicious).

Insider tip: when I was little, my grandma didn’t take us to Betty’s in St Helen’s Square because of the waiting times. Instead, she took us to Little Betty’s on Stonegate. As the name suggests, it’s a much smaller place, and it’s crammed into a wonky medieval building with uneven floors. The food, drinks, and service are exactly the same, and it’s where the locals go.

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Before we left to catch our train home, we had another bite to eat – tapas! We ate in Ambiente Tapas, the Goodramgate branch. It was pretty reasonable- we took advantage of the before 5pm 3-tapas-for-£10 offer, and accompanied the meal with a sherry taster: 3 different types for £6, which was perfect for a novice like me. The food was judged as “reasonably authentic” by novio, although he took issue with the way the patatas bravas were served – apparently in Spain they’d never come with mayo and a little tomato on top. I don’t know. I thought it was all pretty good.