Ups and downs of living in Spain

We share the highs and lows of living in a small town in rural Southern Spain. Do the Spanish celebrate New Year as we Brits do? Why is there a statue in somebody´s front room? All will be revealed here!

Wow!  That was the first word to come to mind when we entered the Jardín Botánico last night: José María of Los Chilines had surpassed even his high standards.

This was the third Gran Cata that we have attended since moving to Jumilla.  We thought the first one in Jardín de Los Caños was great – lots of good food and lots of good wine - even though we were sitting on stone seats.  We encouraged our friends Lesley and John to join us for last year’s Gran Cata, which proved to be even better, with live music from a local group, plus chairs had been provided for us all to sit on. 

We all reserved our tickets for this year’s Gran Cata as soon as details appeared, which was lucky as they sold out almost immediately, such is José María’s reputation for organising excellent wine tasting events.

La Gran Cata 2009

La Gran Cata mark III was held in the beautiful surroundings of the Jardín Botánico however the first thing we noticed on arrival was a red carpet!  We walked along the red carpet, stopped to have our photos taken by Fotocool and then headed for the lounge area.  I was wearing flat shoes, suspecting that we might have to stand up all evening as it was a far bigger event than before, so it was a pleasant surprise to see that tables and chairs had been set out.

We were soon joined by a group of young people, one of whom introduced herself and said she was keen to practise her English on us.  She was called Victoria, and we realised that she was the singer who would be providing the evening’s entertainment later on.

The whole evening was exceptionally well organised, especially considering there were two hundred and fifty people present.  Bar Paraiso were in charge of catering again, so we knew that the food would be very tasty.  The wine waiters timed things to perfection, so we all had the right wine to taste as the wine makers from the 10 participating bodegas introduced their individual wines. 

Waiting with Lesley and John for the food and wine to appear

I think the four British pensioners were the only people present to appreciate the irony of one wine being named Crápula, though we tried to explain it to the chicos and chicas at our table.  Our favourite wines were Divus, Gemina Cuvee, Calzas and Juan Gil 18 meses.  Wine tasting is all about individual taste though as, in spite of us not rating Crápula, the wine guru Robert Parker gave it 90 points!

While we were tasting the first five wines, plates of delicious food kept arriving.  Our Spanish companions were eagerly waiting for the jamón, which the champion Maestro Cortador de Jamón was carving, so I kindly helped them out with the seafood tapas and cheeses. 

Victoria disappeared with Paco her guitarist just after we had tasted the fourth wine (she was being abstemious though, only drinking water and coke) and she then appeared on stage to perform her first set.  Victoria had already told us that only three of her twenty five songs would be sung in Spanish, so not surprisingly we knew most of the words.

After tasting the final five wines we listened to Victoria’s second set, while more bottles of wine were being brought round, giving us a chance to taste our favourites again.  By now several people were up dancing and, once I had twisted John’s arm, we joined them for a couple of lively numbers.  After that Lesley and I discovered the Dulce Zone, where tiny desserts and chocolate truffles had been laid out, so we headed eagerly in that direction.  Yummy!

Listen to Victoria singing “Mrs Robinson”

We left at one o’clock, having had more than enough food and wine, however we noticed on the way out that Chaplin Bar was serving drinks to those with more stamina than us.

Many congratulations to José María and his team for organising such an amazing event – we are already looking forward to next year’s Gran Cata!

PS What do you think we had to pay for this great evening?  Please leave your guesses in the comments box below, and I will post the answer next week.

La Gran Cata 2011

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Of course you should never generalise - and I guess a lot of what I am about to say will be true about Spaniards generally and not just those who live here in Jumilla – however these are my observations about our Spanish friends and neighbours. 

1.  They are direct and blunt, to the point of being almost rude.  They see our dog Lisa and tell us she is gorda.  Our little dog isn’t fat, we tell them, she’s just well-built.  She has big bones.  At least it keeps me on my toes and ensures I don’t over-indulge: I don’t want them turning round and saying that I am gorda the next time they see me!  They also want to know how much money we paid for our house.  No beating about the bush, just a direct request to tell them how much dinero we handed over when we bought it.  John and I don’t mind this, maybe because we are both northerners (I’m from the northeast of England and he is Scottish) so we are used to people speaking their minds.

2.  They are very helpful and caring.  Not long after we moved into our apartment our trastero (storeroom) was broken into and some items were stolen.  One neighbour we hardly knew offered to drive us to the Guardia Civil to report the robbery, and then said she would wait with us there.  Another neighbour whom we had never met before rang our doorbell, said how sorry he was to hear about the break-in, and then said we were welcome to keep our remaining belongings in his trastero until our door had been replaced.

3.  Jumillanos are very friendly and chatty.  Whenever we walk down the road, children will call out Hola or sometimes Hello, and the adults will also greet us and ask us how we are or comment about the weather.   I guess it helps that we have a dog, as we now know all the other dog owners in the area.  Now when they see us without Lisa they ask us where she is.  If they aren’t close enough to speak, for example on the far side of the road, they will call across and wave to us.  If they are in a car they will toot their horn until we see them and wave back.  Sometimes they will stop their car on a crossing so that we can have a conversation.

4.   Jumillanos love to party and don’t need much of an excuse to have a celebration.  In Spain you don’t just celebrate your actual birthday, you also celebrate your saint’s day.  I like that idea, especially since I discovered that August 11th is the feastday of St Susanna, so I don’t have too long to wait.  We had a party with our neighbours for the inauguration of  our apartment block and another one for the anniversary of the inauguration.  We invited them to our apartment for a party to celebrate the launch of my book.  We live in the barrio of San Juan, so obviously we have a good time during the Fiestas de San Juan, with several days’ partying.  August though is one of the best months for fiestas, with the Fiesta de la Vendimia, Fiesta of the patron saint of Jumilla (Our Lady of Assumption), National Folklore Festival plus Moors and Christians festivities.

Spanish friends and neighbours at the fiesta for my book launch

5.  Jumillanos aren’t too worried about punctuality.  Today we showed a group of about fifty people from San Pedro de la Pinatar around Jumilla.  We had arranged with the town hall for the castle to be opened at 11.00, as it is usually only open at weekends.  We waited outside the castle gates in the coach, looking at our watches a bit anxiously, as it was 11.00 and nobody was around.  A couple of minutes later a car stopped beside us and a man got out, brandishing a large bunch of keys.  He noticed the group leader looking at his watch and smiled as he said: “A las once!”  By now it was five past but as far as he was concerned he was there by 11.00.  Personally I was amazed that he had arrived that early, as the majority of events here start at least 30 minutes later than advertised.

6.  Jumillanos are very proud of their city.  When a local wine shop had a wine tasting evening: Rioja vs Jumilla, we weren’t at all surprised that everybody voted for the Jumilla wines.  We like the local wines, and they have won many medals, but a couple of the wines from Rioja were very good as well.  A couple of other people said the same, but when it came to the vote, Jumilla won.  The greatest compliment that we have been paid since moving here is to be called Jumillanos, and to know that we have been accepted as one of the vecinos (neighbours).

So where do you live?  What are your neighbours like?  Please leave your answers below, but nothing too libellous please!

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I don’t know how common it is in other parts of Spain, but we have noticed that many Jumillanos who live in town during the week will retreat to their home in the campo most weekends and especially during the summer months.  Many of our younger friends have parents or grandparents who own a property in the countryside, others will buy (or maybe inherit) an older property and do it up gradually.  Most of these second residences are located only a few kilometres outside Jumilla, some of them in pueblos such as Fuente del Pino or Torre del Rico.

Our good friends Juana María and Salvador share a small country property with Salvador’s sister Belen and her husband Pablo, and have kindly invited us to spend the afternoon there on several occasions.  On Sunday they invited our English friends John and Lesley to come along as well, so Lesley unselfishly offered to be the chauffeuse, allowing her grateful husband John to enjoy a few glasses of vino tinto.   

The bungalow is well off the beaten track - take a right turn off the main road, then left onto a bumpy road, right again onto a dirt track and you will see it just past the peach trees on the right.  Last time we visited we saw the owner of the peach trees, who told us to help ourselves.  Needless to say we didn’t hesitate!

Although the house is tiny, with just one main room and a bathroom, it has all the necessities to enjoy a summer day in the countryside: barbeque, swimming pool and tennis courts.  Lesley and I have vowed to take tennis racquets the next time we get invited there, although on Sunday it would have been too hot for even a gentle game of tennis.

We had time to have a leisurely swim (paddle, in my case) and lounge around before lunch.  Our dog Lisa had been invited, but she gave the swimming pool a wide berth, preferring to roll about in the grass and chase a few flies.

A lazy sunny Sunday afternoon

As I am a difficult guest (I don’t eat any meat plus I won’t touch tomatoes), I always take something suitable for me  to eat, just in case.  However Juana María is a very good friend and she always remembers my dietary fads: the tomatoes were on a separate plate, plus there was plenty of non-meaty food to suit me. 

The table was set out with lots of different dishes as aperitivos: local empanadas (with tuna but without tomato!); nuts and dried fish; cheese on tostados; tomatoes; stuffed peppers; smoked salmon on bread.  The two Spanish men had been busy outside dealing with the barbeque (yes, it’s very much a male thing, even in Spain!), so a huge platter of meat appeared, however they had thoughtfully grilled swordfish separately for me.  We than had the most delicious fresh sardines that I have ever tasted: Lesley and I both had one then grabbed another one before they all went! 

This was followed by fresh melon and watermelon, plus local pastries.  John and I had brought some chocolate truffles from Mercadona, which went down well with the coffee and brandy.  This type of feast isn’t unusual in Spain, as we have experienced it before when invited over to our neighbour’s apartment for lunch.  No wonder the traditional siesta is still observed here!

Another necessity in Spain, even if it’s only a weekend pad, is a TV to watch sport.  John and I had been wondering if it would be bad-mannered to mention the Tour de France and Formula One, however we didn’t have to worry, as Salvador turned the TV on.  We tried not to look too pleased when Mark Cavendish won the green jersey and the Australian Cadel Evans won the Tour, with Spain’s Alberto Contador and Samuel Sanchez down in 5th and 6th places.  However then Lewis Hamilton beat Spain’s Fernando Alonso – all I can say is that it’s lucky that we are all good friends!

That was Sunday lunch Spanish-style – so although we had plenty of food at home, we didn’t need anything else to eat that day.  It makes you wonder why more Spanish señoras aren’t overweight, though that may be down to another Spanish tradition: in the mornings they are all busy sweeping and mopping their floors, then throwing the water into the street, whenever we go out to the shops or for coffee.

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So what is your favourite kind of music? Some people find that question easy to answer.  My friend Wendy’s husband Con is a jazz fanatic, with too many albums for me to count them all: I’m not sure whether we are talking 100s here or even 1,000s!  My father loved classical music and would sit listening to his records in the dining room whenever my brothers and I had “Top of the Pops” on in the living room. 

Showing my age now (!) - I still love listening to music from the 60s, plus some light classical music, in memory of my Dad.  However, since moving to Spain, I have also got into flamenco in a big way.  I don’t think it is a case of which music I prefer, it’s more a matter of what mood I am in, and I am sure that many other people feel the same way.

I have pasted some links below to videos on youtube that were taken at the recent Música entre Vinos concerts, with music varying from flamenco to jazz via swing.  Needless to say, I enjoyed all these concerts even though the music was very different. 

I’d love you to tell me which is your favourite video - and why.  (Scroll to the end of this post for the comments box.)

Casa de la Ermita, where Orquesta Brass Ensemble played

  Click here to play video: Orquesta Brass Ensemble

With friends, waiting to hear Al Golpe at Bodegas JM Martínez Verdú

Click here to play video: Al Golpe 

Bodegas Alceño - Jumilla Black Band

 Click here to play video: Jumilla Black Band

John and I waiting for vino at Bodegas BSI

Bodegas Viña Elena

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If you fancy visiting a Bodega in or near Jumilla you are spoilt for choice, however if you are specifically looking for a tour in English that will limit your choice a bit, as Jumilla is inland and therefore many local people only speak Spanish.  This guide is intended therefore to point non-Spanish-speaking people in the right direction.

The bodegas situated within walking distance of the city centre are all very different, so this is also a resumé to help you decide which bodega is right for you.  You may of course want to visit several bodegas, however you will need a lot of stamina if you intend visiting them all on the same day!

1.  Bodegas Viña Campanero

This is the smallest  bodega in Jumilla and if you speak a bit of Spanish it is definitely not to be missed.  Pedro and his father are very welcoming: they enjoy showing people around and are very proud of their newest acquisition, a small bottling unit, which was only installed last year.    There are great views of Sierra Santa Ana from the salón, a tiny wine museum, and they also have a reasonably priced shop on their premises.  The bodega is behind BSI, so it would be good to combine a visit here with one at BSI.

Museum in Bodega Viña Campanero

 2.   Bodegas San Isidro (BSI)

The largest bodega in Jumilla is BSI, which is a co-operative.  Tours in English are available, but please make sure you book in advance.  They have some experimental vines on their site, however in the vendimia we see tractors queuing up with loads of grapes to deposit there, many of them from small vineyards, as well as trailers full of olives later in the year.  They also have their own wine museum and a shop on their premises.
3.   Bodegas Silvano Garcia

They have two members of staff who speak good English, and they do several different tours, including a visit to their aroma room.  The visit to the aroma room costs a bit more but all our visitors have said it is worth doing, as it is not only educational but also fun. 

If you don’t normally like sweet wine (I didn’t), I recommend forgetting your prejudices and trying their award-winning dulce wines.  I am now a convert and particularly enjoy their Monastrell dulce, which is perfect with dessert at the end of a good meal.
4.  Bodegas Pedro Luis Martínez

More commonly known as Bodegas Alceño, we think that this bodega is so good because the chief winemaker is very particular about things such as the correct temperature, which is reflected in the quality of their wines.  It is the oldest bodega in Jumilla, being founded in 1870.  Some English is spoken, but remember to book in advance if you want a tour in English.  Don’t forget to buy some wine before you go! 

5Bodegas Bleda

We were lucky enough to be guinea pigs for their first tour of the bodega in English several months ago.  Antonio Bleda  had only been learning English for two months at the time, and we were very impressed by how good he was: by now he probably speaks perfect English!

It is worth visiting this bodega for its location alone: situated about 2 kilometres outside Jumilla on the road to Ontur, and surrounded by vineyards.  Not only that, but they have many award-winning wines, though my personal recommendation is their Castillo de Jumilla Blanco, which everybody who has tasted it rates highly – even the committed red wine drinkers! It is also very reasonably priced, so you can afford to buy several bottles to take home.

6.  Bodegas Carchelo

Slightly off the beaten track, but recommended for a visit because of its location in the Valley of El Carche and because at least one member of staff (Poñi) speaks good English.  My daughter Kate was impressed by their branding, and said that she would immediately spot their wines in any wine-shop because of the distinctive black and white hoops around the neck of the bottle.

7.  Bodegas Viña Elena

Another family business, which was originally called Bodegas Pacheco after the grandfather of the current generation.  It is now named Bodegas Viña Elena after Paco’s youngest daughter Elena, who is being groomed to take over from him.  You can see the original bodega as well as the smart new installations, and don’t miss the lovely garden at the back.  The bodega is at km 52 on the N344, the main road between Jumilla and Murcia.  Tours are available in English by contacting them in advance.

The local bodegas charge from 5€ per person for a tour, including wine tasting and nibbles, though you can negotiate a reduction for a large group.  As mentioned above, it is advisable to book in advance, especially if you want a tour in English.  All of them sell wine on the premises, so even if you haven’t booked a tour of the bodega you can pop in to buy a few bottles of your favourite wine.

Other bodegas well worth a visit are Bodegas Luzón, Bodegas JM Martínez Verdú, Hacienda del Carche, Casa de la Ermita and Bodegas Finca Omblancas.  They are all out of town, which means you can see the vineyards as well as visiting the bodegas.  More details can be found on the Ruta del Vino website - you need to scroll down their page to find links to all the bodegas.

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We had such a wonderful evening last night that I don’t know how I can possibly condense it all into one post.  We had two events to attend with our friends Lesley and John (thank you for chauffeuring us Lesley!) both of which were being held outside, so we were grateful that it was another lovely summer’s evening.

Our friend Cristina was getting married under a pergola at Salones Pio XII and we didn’t want to miss seeing her even though we had booked tickets for our final Música entre Vinos, which was due to start at the same time.  The bride was traditionally late, though early by Jumillano standards – however she does come from near Barcelona, which probably explains it.  Cristina looked stunning, in a very elegant understated way, as she arrived in an open-topped sports car. 

Here comes the bride!

The occasion was enhanced by our friend Jaqui singing a couple of songs, and although the civil ceremony was in Spanish we could follow what was happening, more or less: the moment when they both said “Si”, the handing over of the rings, the new husband kissing his bride and finally the signing of the register.  We witnessed the moment when they became husband and wife, before we discreetly slipped away.  We had brought some rice to throw, however when we spotted at least two large boxes of rice sitting on a wall behind the pergola we reckoned there were plenty of other people willing to carry out this duty.

Bodegas Viña Elena were hosting Música entre Vinos for the first time, so we were curious to see how well they coped.  We have visited the bodega before, so we weren’t too worried about missing the tour, and Loles had kindly confirmed that the concert wouldn’t be starting until at least 21.15.

The organisation of the whole evening was superb, starting with the moment when we arrived at 21.15 and were efficiently directed first to the car park and then to the collection point to pick up the all-essential wine glasses.  Background music was being played as we headed towards the bodega, so we knew that Loles had been correct in saying that if we arrived at that time we wouldn’t miss any of the concert. 

We had timed our arrival to perfection.  We were trying the first of four wines - Paco Pacheco Blanco 2010 - and accepting some of the tasty food on offer, when the musicians started tuning up.   The catering had been done by Media Luna, who brought out plate after plate of delicious food: including spoons of scrumptious seafood, chunks of Manchego cheese, plenty of jamón for the carnivores, and cubes of juicy melon.  We were impressed by the Bodega’s Tinto Jóven, which we reckon is one of the best from 2010.

Bodegas Viña Elena

There was a great ambiance and I would say that this was one of the most enjoyable events we have attended during Música entre Vinos this year.   Part of this was due to the fact that so many of our friends were there enjoying themselves, part of this was due to the friendly welcome we received from Paco Pacheco and his family and part of this was due to the music from Cantos  Jazz Fusión, playing classics like “Bye Bye Black Bird” and “Autumn Leaves”.

We mentioned this to our friend Pedro, President of the Ruta del Vino, towards the end of the evening – adding that we preferred it when busloads of fellow Brits weren’t around, especially those who complained about the lack of chairs!  Having said that, after standing up for well over three hours in my high heels, I was grateful when a couple of people left and we were able to grab their chairs to sit down for a while.

Our final verdict is that Música Entre Vinos 2011 was an outstanding success, with a winning combination of good wine and food accompanied by good music, and that each year it seems to get even better.  We can’t wait until Música Entre Vinos 2012 – and promise to publish full details here, as soon as Pedro emails me!

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Even before you see the welcome sign to Jumilla, the Ciudad del Vino, it’s pretty obvious that Jumilla is a wine producing area by the numerous vineyards on either side of the road.  There are olive groves, almond trees, orchards of peaches and pears as well, but it’s the vine that dominates the landscape.

Vineyards at Casa de la Ermita

Wine has been produced in Jumilla since Roman times from which I gather – though history isn’t one of my strong subjects - that Jumillanos have been making wine for a very long time. 

When phylloxera devastated vineyards in France in the middle of the 19th century, there was a resulting boost to Spanish winemaking and particularly in Jumilla where the monastrell grapes were unaffected.  French wine-making immigrants brought their expertise to the area, which was a turning point for Jumilla wines, even though they too were affected by phylloxera at a later date. 

Early exports of Jumilla wine were in barrels and, as they were taken by train to Alicante and shipped from there, the wine was designated as Alicante wine.  The next important stage in the history of Jumilla wine therefore was on 22nd January 1966, when it was granted the right to have its own D.O.  Currently there are 42 bodegas within the D.O. Jumilla and, contrary to rumours, John and I haven’t visited them all.  At the time of writing our total is 13 – lucky for some!

The creation of the Ruta del Vino Jumilla, which is certified as one of the Wine Routes of Spain, was an important step for wine tourism in Jumilla.  Twelve bodegas, two wine shops, one specialist food and drink shop plus seven restaurants are amongst the associates, who all work hard at promoting Jumilla and its wine. 

Last year the Ruta del Vino won a special mention in the national awards for best enoturística initiative for its popular and successful Música entre Vinos events.  Los Chilines vinoteria was also shortlisted, which didn’t surprise us after attending their many excellent winetasting events, including La Gran Cata, one of the year’s highlights, which we will be going to next week.

Times are hard, so Jumilla isn’t resting on its laurels.  One of its biggest export markets is the USA, helped no doubt by the fact that Robert Parker has given 90 points or more to many Jumilla wines over the last few years.  He has recognised that Jumilla wines are extraordinarily good value and commented on their superb price-quality ratio.  Last year the main markets for Jumilla’s bottled wines were the UK, USA and Germany. 

However there are new markets out there and local bodegas are also looking to increase their exports to other countries such as Japan, Russia and Canada.  In spite of the world-wide recession, over 8 million litres of wine were sold in 2010, with a slight increase in the amount of bottled wine, although figures for bulk wine were down. 

This year Jumilla celebrates its 40th Fiesta de la Vendimia, where wine flows from one of the fountains in the city centre, much wine is drunk by both Jumillanos and visitors, and on the last night lots of wine is thrown over the participants.  Not surprisingly, John and I consider that a bit of a waste!

So let’s raise our glasses to Jumilla wine – Salud!

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I have already mentioned that Jumilla is the “Ciudad del Vino”, but is it really a city or is it just a town?  Most British people visiting Jumilla for the first time assume that, with a population of just over 25,000, it is a town.  We expect cities either to have a cathedral, which traditionally was the case,  or to have a significant population - therefore we wouldn’t consider Jumilla to be a city.  However Jumilla was granted city status by King Alfonso XIII on July 17th 1911, and the city has just celebrated its centenary.  At the same time the Town Hall was granted the title of “Excelentísimo”.

Jumilla Town Hall

Jumilla was honoured because of “the increasing development of agriculture, industry and trade and their constant adherence to the constitutional monarchy”.   I don’t know how many citizens are monarchists nowadays, but I do know that the wine industry in particular is always looking for new markets and introducing initiatives such as “Música entre Vinos”, so they are definitely following in the footsteps of their ancestors.

While I am talking about the history of Jumilla, maybe I should mention how many significant dates for the city end with the number 1. 

1241 – Alfonso X conquered Jumilla for the Kingdom of Castile.

1411 – Saint Vicente Ferrer preached in Jumilla and the first Holy Week procession was held.

1461 Juan Pacheco, the Marquis of Villena, restructured the old castle and built the Torre de Homenaje, as seen today.

1911 – King Alfonso XIII granted Jumilla City status.

1931 – The Parish Church of Santiago and El Casón (Roman funeral monument) were declared National Monuments.

1981 – Old town of Jumilla was declared of historical importance.

1991 – HM Queen Sofía visited Jumilla for the inauguration of the Teatro Vico after its restoration.

The first significant date was 600 millions years ago, when a series of mammals left their footprints in the area of La Hoya de la Sima. Another important date was 1,500 BC when the first Bronze Age population settled in the city. 

The Romans arrived in 180 BC, settling in and around the current site of Jumilla, until the troops of Abd-El-Azid conquered Jumilla in 713.  It was the Arab conquerors who named the town Jamila – meaning beautiful - and they ruled until Alfonso X (remember him?) conquered the town in 1241.

When we first visited the local archaeological museum, we were a bit puzzled by the dates.  We use BC to represent the years Before Christ and AD for Anno Domini (Latin for the year of our  Lord) representing the years After Christ.  In Spain AC is used rather than BC, which we eventually worked out meant Antes de Cristo, and DC is used instead of AD, meaning Despúes de Cristo.  Confused?  Yes, so were we!

I don’t want to send everybody to sleep, so I think that is enough for your first history lesson.  The next history lesson will be about the wine industry in Jumilla: just for a taster I will mention the fact that the first vines here were grown by the Romans, which as you know was a long time ago.

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Anybody living in, or going on holiday to, a non-English-speaking country will no doubt have a bit of sympathy for their compatriots who decide to play it safe and keep to English-speaking areas.  It’s not easy to learn a foreign language especially for those of us who are, to be honest, a bit more mature, however once you decide to live inland, away from the tourist areas,  it becomes a necessity.

There are lots of books and courses out there, claiming that you can learn Spanish/French/German/Turkish (delete as applicable) in 7/12/30/90/100 days (delete as applicable), or just 10 or 15 minutes a day.  What I would like to see is one saying that you can speak Spanish fluently after three years.  We have been here for three years now and, although we know lots of Spanish words, we are far from being fluent.

We can get by on an everyday basis without too many problems and, through watching Spanish TV every day, we have learnt to understand a lot of what people say to us, but our main difficulty is gathering our thoughts quickly enough to be able to reply confidently in Spanish.  We have British friends who have lived here a lot longer than us who say the same.  Somebody, who will be nameless, has a catchphrase: “No problema”, which is fine but it does become a bit repetitive if you don’t say anything else – and that of course is a problema.

Listening to Spanish people talking to each other, I started to realise that lots of phrases came up on a regular basis.  I also realised that many people talk at the same time, without listening too closely to what their friends are saying, which is when I came up with the idea of my” Essential Spanish Conversation” course for all social occasions.  The good news is that it is totally free!

You need enough of the basic language to be able to follow the conversation, even if you don’t understand every word, and then all you do is insert any of the following words and phrases at what seems to be the appropriate moment.

“Si,  Si, Si.” or “No, No, No.”  You will immediately stand out as an extranjero if you use only one Si or No at a time.

“!Claro!” - meaning of course - is particularly helpful if you aren’t sure whether Si or No is the right response.

“Poco a poco” – little by little – is the correct reply when asked how your Spanish is progressing.  (If you are already fluent in Spanish, you won’t need this course.)

“!Madre mia!” is the acceptable exclamation when something shocking or surprising is said to you. It is particularly appropiate when a firework goes off unexpectedly and startles you (this happens frequently in Spain!) or a motorist totally ignores the fact that you have a green man and therefore right of way, accelerating over the crossing ahead of you.

“Más o menos” – more or less – is used a lot when talking about time in Jumilla, where punctuality is virtually unknown.  A friend asked us the other day what time the concert started, to which we replied “A las ocho.  Más o menos”.

“!Jésus!” is the most common response when somebody sneezes, though some people prefer to say “!Salud!”

“!Qué guapo/guapa!” is a compulsory phrase whenever you peep into a pram to admire a baby (which is in itself a compulsory action).  It doesn’t matter if the baby is ugly – Spanish babies are all guapos or guapas.  If the baby really is good-looking, a superlative is called for: “guapisimo” or “guapisima” is what you need.  You know, of course, that guapo is for males and guapa is for females:  usually masculine words end in “o” and feminine words end in” a” in Spanish, though obviously there are exceptions. Who said learning a foreign language is easy?

Spanish people are naturally very helpful.  A common greeting here is “¿Qué tal?” quickly followed by “¿Bien?”, hinting at the expected response, which is of course “Bien” or possibly “Muy bien”.  They also have an uncanny ability to recognise when they have lost you conversationally, asking “¿No entiendo?”  If you didn’t understand, you will then tell them “No entiendo”.

So there you have it.  Instead of just nodding to show that you understand (más or menos), just learn a few common expressions and impress your Spanish friends and neighbours with your language skills.  !No hay problema!

I am sure that this principle also applies to people living in France, Germany or any other foreign country, trying to learn the language.  Do you have any key essential phrases to add to my list?

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Once a week we buy the Costa Blanca News, partly for general information of interest to British expats, and partly to shake our heads at the insular lives some British expats lead here, especially on the coast.  Of course that is their choice, but I do wonder if they realise what they are missing by not integrating more.

The letters page is usually where this attitude is highlighted and most weeks there is at least one letter to incense me, however last week was the first time that it actually drove me to replying.  The title of the letter was “Why won’t the Spanish try to speak English?”  The writer (who was anonymous – why do you think that was?) went on to say that most Spaniards now have compulsory English lessons in school so they have little excuse for not trying to speak English. 

Good point.  I think that those Spaniards who learnt English at school should try to speak English  – when they go to the UK.  The writer’s argument is based on the fact that he and his wife learnt French at school, so when they visited Paris for the first time in their forties they were bursting to try French for real.  Right.  So if you learnt French, you should try to speak French in France.  If you learnt English, then you should try to speak English in England.  I hope that you are following me so far, as everything is nice and logical.  Million dollar question is coming up now: does that mean therefore that if you learnt English at school you should try to speak English in SPAIN?

The classic quote from “Enquiring citizen in the Hondon Valley area” now follows. “The Spanish appear very resistant to even coming half way to meet you and this, I fear, is more to do with their unfortunate history and insular attitude to foreigners.”  I think there is a very good case for substituting the words “Enquiring citizen” for “The Spanish”, don’t you?

He follows this up by saying: “Moreover, there can be no doubt that they get exposure to English in their everyday lives in the shops and streets of Spain.”  This is probably because there are so many other British people like “Enquiring citizen”, who walk around the shops and streets of Spain expecting everybody to speak English to them and complaining when they don’t. 

He adds: “It seems most Spaniards who must have studied English in school don’t want to venture an occasional “good morning” to me.”  I suggest that it would be more appropriate, and courteous, for him to venture an occasional “buenos días” to them.

In my reply, which was one of five responses published in Friday’s paper, I stated that we live in Jumilla, and cannot walk down the street without niños calling out “Hello” or “Good morning”.  Young people are always apologising for their English not being good enough, to which we usually respond “it is far better than our Spanish”!  We don’t expect anybody to speak English as we are living in a Spanish area, so we are trying to learn Spanish at the local adult education centre.  Local people appreciate our efforts to speak their language, and those who speak some English show their appreciation by occasionally speaking our language too.  When we venture into Bar Canarias, we never know whether the owner will speak to us in Spanish or English.  I think it all depends on what mood he is in that day.

We also organise occasional intercambios, with Spanish people trying to improve their English and British friends (plus John and me) trying to improve our Spanish.  I suggested that “enquiring citizen” might want to try that in Hondon where he lives.

I finished my own letter by saying that, contrary to his experiences, “Jumillanos on the whole have been very welcoming; many people here do try a few words in English (though we don’t expect them to), and our Spanish neighbours have been very friendly and helpful. Dare I ask whether it is more to do with the attitude of individual British retirees rather than the attitude of the local Spanish people?  What do other readers think?”

I would love to hear your thoughts on this too especially if, like us, you are an expat.

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