Sunday, 16 January 2011

Two more years of English Speaking

By Richard Morley.

Last Friday a lovely señorita tried to teach me how to dance salsa. Have you ever heard the saying, “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig”? Trying to teach me, with legs like sticks, as the Spanish say, to dance is very much like that. Except I wasn't annoyed, just frustrated as I have never been able to dance – as my embarrassed children will testify.

Actually, the evening wasn't primarily about dance. It was about speaking English.

Two years ago I wrote about the Madrid English Speaking Group. That's not a snappy title, but what you see is what you get. An evening of English Speaking where those with a will to maintain or improve their English skills can come and practise. Oh, and drink a lot of beer in the process. Speaking is such thirsty work!

That article celebrated our first anniversary. Last week, after another one hundred meetings, we reached our third birthday and we seem to be as popular as ever. Nearly fifty people crammed onto the mezzanine floor of the Restaurante Salmantino and for ninety minutes discussed, debated, presented and listened to my terrible jokes.

My jokes don't get any better, which might be why the inmates are taking over the asylum.

For a long time I was frustrated by the lack of confidence in their speaking skills of our Spanish members. They came every week, collaborated, orated and related many a tale in various levels of English, but they happily allowed only the native English speakers to lead the evenings. It was amazing what we had them do: Solve puzzles, answer riddles and quizzes, tell short stories, play grammatical games of my own devious design and converse non-stop for the allotted hour and a half of the meeting and then, with no prompting from me, continue to natter away in English until the bar owners kicked us out. But when I suggested that one of them could actually run the meeting and come up with devious schemes of their own, they would all shake their head a tell me, very fluently, that their English wasn't good enough.

But I thought that if they wouldn't run an entire evening, perhaps I could persuade someone to take over for a part. This succeeded and if anything demonstrates that the Spanish can sometime be a little sadistic, this was a wonderful example. She led us in an exercise on Phrasal Verbs! The Spanish hate phrasal verbs, considering them a particularly torturous part of the English language. And here was one of their own subjecting them to an English Inquisition!

Actually this practise in grammar is very unusual. We have found out that no one wants a lesson on Friday evenings. We sincerely want people to have fun while using their English. I think we succeed as it’s the sound of laughter that predominates.

Perhaps it was a desire for revenge, but this opened the way for others to follow. Now, as well as having had evenings totally led by Spaniards, we have also had a Frenchman, a Dane and a Bulgarian. We believe in equal opportunities.

And last Friday it was a lovely Spanish lady and a Danish gentleman who not only instructed us, in English of course, how to dance salsa, but also gave us the history of the dance. As a discussion we broke into groups and had to come up with our best and worst dance experiences and then representatives of each had to relate these to the entire audience.

For many people, making a speech or presentation in their own language to a large audience can be daunting. Last Friday I watched as a dozen Spaniards did just this in English.

A year ago this would have amazed me, but now it is a regular occurrence. It takes a lot of courage to get up in front of so many people and throw caution to the wind and speak. Remember, there are several very fluent, native English speakers present. Our wonderful Spaniards know they will make mistakes, but they still do it.

One volunteer leader told me before the meeting that he was so nervous he had hardly slept during the previous two nights and that his knees were literally knocking. Afterwards he was so, deservedly, proud of himself he offered to do it again. That's confidence!

A great benefit of this is that now us guiris learn a lot about Spain and it culture from our Spanish leaders. Apart from learning to dance, we have heard stories of experiences on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella, a walking holiday in Finland, Spanish food, music and traditions.

I know it does wonders for their confidence in English because they tell me so.

But the English Speaking Group of Madrid is more than just a place to practise language skills. Judging by the smiles, the laughs, the cries of welcome that ring out when attendees arrive, it is a place to make friends. International friends. We have had visits from people from all over the world. We have a reputation of being somewhere that English speaking visitors can come to meet people in Madrid without any language barrier – and our native members take full advantage of that.

Shortly after I wrote the piece two years ago a gentleman arrived whose ability to converse in English was, to say the most, limited. To see him now you would not believe it was the same man. His easy use of English is amazing. His confidence inspiring. I would be lying if I said that it was only his attendances on Friday that have led to his now amazing confidence with the language, he has worked very hard at achieving the skills he now has. But I like to think that we had a hand in what he has achieved.

And he is not the only one.

Since then the membership has evolved. We have lost some and gained more. Some come every week and other less regularly. Our ages range from 21 to really quite ancient. We are not a club, there is no charge, except for the beers you consume. I like to think the Madrid English Speaking Group just provides a happy place that those who wish to improve can come without fear of feeling silly, without worrying that others will disparage their use of English. In fact, like the man in the last paragraph, I am happy to see those with a low level, but with a desire to improve, come along and try their best. And I get a real kick out of watching them improve. (And if you think your language skills are poor, you should hear my Spanish!)

And I would like to add that several ladies have commented they feel safe coming to our group, which is not always the case when attending venues where strangers meet.

The Bar Salmantino has changed owners and name. It is now called the "Rincón Santa Cruz"

Who - The Madrid English Speaking Group.
Where – Rincón  Santa Cruz, Calle Santa Cruz de Marcenado, 13.
(Nearest Metro – San Bernardo, Lines 2 & 4.
When – Every Friday from 20:00 until they kick us out.
Contact – or

We also have a virtual presence on line. Join our group on Facebook or come along to the forum. For reasons best known to the creator of both they go under the name of “La Tienda de las Lanas”, which means “The Wool Shop” as he claims it is a place where people go to talk. You can find the forum here .

There's an advertisement on the right showing where we are. If you want to improve your English, now you know where to come. If you only speak English and want a friendly evening in Madrid, then you will be very welcome.

Monday, 3 January 2011

2010 revisited

By Richard Morley.

My camera is my notebook. When something interests, amuses or annoys me, then I ususally have my camera to capture it for all time. I am not a good photographer - more of a record taker. I have used many photographs on the blog during 2010, but some, either because they were surplus to requirements, or just didn't reall fit anywhere as part of a post, were put to one side. But waste not - want not. These pictures had a meaning for me at the time of taking them and serve to jog my ancient memory. Here are some of those memories from last year:

During one of my lessons an important point was raised for discussion: The correct way to pour a beer. Spaniards seem to like a lot of head, which us guiris view with dismay as we see the glass only half full. So, when stopping off at a café en route to Andalucia, I couldn't resist taking the picture below. Sometimes I feel like showing it to the many bar-tenders that don't follow the rules and serve me a glass of bubbles instead of beer.

There are parts of Madrid that are still a work in progress. Three times a week I teach in a built-up suburb to the east of the city, but that still has building space available. Left to themselves they have become tiny oases of grass and wild flowers. Each time I walked past this miniscule meadow I captured the growth. Below you can see it in late spring.

The same barrio, but a few blocks distant, and I came across one of my favourite subject - graffiti. It wasn't the artistic quality that made me laugh, but the way the "artist" extended the figure out on to the pavement.

It was difficult to avoid stepping on his toes!

The Spanish word for "cowboy" is vaquero. In the UK a cowboy is not a horse-backed cattle drover, but is a description of a tradesman who does a poor, cheap  job,  rarely finished on time, and then disappears, never to be found again. Not someone you would want to employ in your home, particularly with something as potentially dangerous as electricity. So I was tickled to see this sign on an electrician's van.

It is only the sign that amused me. I am sure he is an excellent electrician.

Another that I couldn't resist snapping, if only for the lack of logic in the "construction" of something "natural", was this:

Strange juxtapositions also caught my eye. Why, for instance, do our fire-fighters get their own exclusive ashtray?

All of us guiris are trying our best to learn the language. It's always a problem to know exactly the right thing to say when, for instance, eating out. So, a huge vote of thanks to the VIPs chain of restaurants for this useful list of phrases.

A dear friend called me one evening. "I've won some concert tickets in a raffle", she told me. "Would you like to come?" What sort of concert? I asked. "I don't know, but it's at the Auditorio Naciónal, so it's going to be classical". Well, I had always wanted to see inside this place, but the cost of tickets is prohibitive. (The tickets my friend had won had a face value of €134.13 iva incluido!) So I said I would love to. "When is the concert?" I asked and the reply was, "In an hour!" Luckily The Auditorio Naciónal is about five metro stops from where I live so, after a quick change of clothes, I made it in time. I met my friend and we checked the tickets, which gave no indication of what we were going to hear. This was solved when we entered and were given a couple of glossy programmes that informed us we were going to hear Bruckner's Third Symphony played by the Staatskapelle orchestra of Berlin conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Our seats were so close to the front I could have yanked on the tails of the great man's frock coat. Quite a good prize, I think. Before the concert began I took this picture of the inside of the auditorium and its massive organ. 

As spring turned into summer Madrid became the city we all love. The trees burst into leaf which cast shade from the sweat inducing sun. Even here, in the Paseo de la Castellana, it was possible to escape those searing rays.

Because, as this weather forecast on Sexta told us bluntly, summer was here to stay.

That picture was a direct photograph from my television screen. In April 2010 they turned off the old analogue signals and I was in danger of not having a TV as the set that came in my apartment was ancient with an indoor antenna, which would be useless with the new signals. I asked my landlady if she could arrange for me to be connected with the digital antenna on the apartment block roof so that I could then buy a special box  to convert the signals. A few days later, a hole was drilled into the wall and I had my connection. But the following day, her father knocked on my door saying, "We thought you would like this" and removed from its box a brand new digital TV. Sometimes I just cannot get over the generosity of the Spanish.

I took a few more pictures off the screen this year as there was no way I could get the advantageous viewpoint of the cameras of the TV stations. Look at this helicopter's view of the crowds in the Plaza del Sol on the night Spain won the soccer World Cup.

And from an even higher viewpoint:

The feeling in Madrid that night was electric. It was if everyone on town came to Sol to celebrate.

In the spring we had the festival of San Isidro, the patron saint of Madrid. It is an excuse for everyone to put on their finest clothes and walk about town.

Although some had to stay at home.

Slap bang in the centre of Madrid is a huge reservoir. Not that you would know as it is below ground and above is a modern sports centre with a golf driving range. But water does feature in the above ground part as I discovered walking between lessons one bright and sunny September morning.

Spain does not really have any dangerous wildlife: A few wild boars and the odd wolf and bear. But when walking in the country you have to be careful not to disturb a creature that will sting, bite and cause painful swelling. This is the processional caterpillar. In the countryside is one thing. I did not expect to find them out for a morning's saunter in my local park.

 No prizes for guessing why they are called "processional".

And finally - a load of balls. During the second weekend of September, for one night only, Madrid hosts hundreds of events cultural or silly. On the Saturday afternoon I wandered though the Plaza Dos de Mayo and found one of the silly, but fun, ones. My photograph shows only the early stages, but by nightfall the entire plaza was full of beach balls to wade though, play with, dive into. I went to a concert of the National Jazz Orchestra, but I am told by those who visited the plaza (where the best pizzas in Madrid can be eaten) a wonderful time was had by children and grown-ups alike.

Madrid can be silly or serious, highbrow or low, but never dull. Have I told you, I love it here!

Saturday, 1 January 2011

A Happy New Year - with cost constraints.

By Richard Morley.

Two years ago I celebrated the arrival of 2009 in Madrid’s Plaza del Sol. It was crowded, I was jostled, and I stood in one place for four hours. New year came, the bells of the clock on the casa de correos chimed twelve and we ate our grapes. There were fireworks, music and a laser show. It was great fun and a wonderful display of city pride, but it was now on my “Been there, seen it, done it – bought the tee-shirt” list and said I would never go again.

So what the heck was I doing there last night?

I have a friend who a few months ago moved to Spain for work. She is Scottish and therefore loves her New Year celebrations. Her Spanish friends and colleagues told her that most definitely she had to celebrate New Year in Sol. Enjoy the atmosphere, eat the grapes, drink, sing and be merry. It is a Great Spanish tradition.

And then all of her friends found something else to do!

So, instead of there being a crowd of us, it was just us two. We met early, planning to eat before joining the crowds in the centre. Her Scottish compatriot put it well when Robbie Burns wrote about “The best laid schemes o' Mice an' Men, Gang aft agley”, because where we had planned to eat had closed its doors for the night. Nearby was a VIPs restaurant, which informed is they were not cooking that evening. (So why the heck were they open?) They did however provide a pancake postre and a couple of beers, which saw us through.

My Scottish friend was amazed that catering establishments would so willingly give up the chance make money from the tens of thousands who attended last night’s celebrations. In Edinburgh, she told me, when the masses gathered in Princes Street to welcome in the new year, the restaurateurs and pub landlords would not waste such an opportunity to fill their cash registers.

Walking along the Calle Mayor last night we passed bar after bar whose doors were shut and in darkness. Even McDonalds was closed.

But there was drink aplenty in Sol – so long as you had brought it with you. Early arrivals came with a liquid picnic and sat on the cold slabs of the plaza. Some near us, had bought twin packs of Coke and Red wine taped together to create the instant calimochó and of course, there was Cava, the Spanish champagne, everywhere.

After our meagre dinner, my friend and I found our spot in the plaza and began the long wait for midnight. Our legs weakening, we followed the example of the picnickers and reclined on the cold, stone slabs of the plaza while we waited until the thickening throng started standing on us. One picnic group generously passed us a can of Cruzcampo to share.

The television companies, who had set up al fresco studios on the balconies and rooftops opposite the clock would incite the crowd to cheer and wave as they sought to add colour to their broadcasts. Those wearing garish wigs of bright colours out-numbered those who didn’t. I noticed a new line in headdress this year with the inclusion of Venetian masks, richly decorated, worn by the ladies. Men tended to stick to orange afros. A guy dressed as the pope staged a one man protest against the catholic church’s opposition to condom use, another group sailed a huge banner in support of the right of divorced fathers. An annoying guy banged a drum non-stop.

By eleven the crowd had grown to jostling proportion. We had to almost fight, at least be really stubborn, to maintain our position on the two stone slabs where we had staked our claim. But it was a good natured crowd with only a couple of *¨/&$Ys who rudely shouldered others out of their way without a perdone. There was singing, restricted dancing, and much taking of photographs. You can see my blurred offerings on this page. (I really must get a better camera!)

A minute before midnight and the already deafening screams of the crowd rose to painful. People prepared their little bags of twelve grapes, ready to consume one for each chime of midnight. It was a slow minute, but then the minute hand clunked up to vertical and the preliminary peal from the bells began, catching out those who thought this was the actual midnight chime. A few first grapes were consumed before the twelve strident bongs rang out across the plaza.

A grape for each chime. Manage this small feat will bring you luck for the year ahead. The noise fell to a murmur until the last grape was swallowed. Then the crowd broke into song, shaken cava fountained, unconsumed grapes were thrown. There were kisses and hugs, back slapping and wishes of Feliz Año on all sides. And then ……


No fireworks – no laser projections – no music. Around us people watched the sky expectantly. It remained dark. Someone in the crowd let off a small rocket and there were a couple of thunder flashes. But no official celebration. There was a definite feeling of anti-climax. Within minutes the crowd began drifting away. Some glancing back to see if something would happen. But no.

My friend and I joined the exodus and wondered off in the direction of Plaza Santa Anna in the hope of an open bar. No luck, they were all closed. What sort of celebration was this? Eventually we bought some beer from a Chinese shop and sat in a plaza near her hostal drinking and chatting. Passing strangers wished us “Feliz Año”, one man stopped and kissed my friend – and then insisted on kissing me!

A dead Plaza Santa Anna. No celebration here!

I would be lying if I told you I had not enjoyed the evening. I had a good time and in great company. The generosity and joy of the people around us was infectious. But there was something missing this year. It must be “La Crisis”. It would surely be wrong for the ayuntamiento to spend Money on public entertainment when so many are without jobs or have had their salaries reduced.

So I am curious to see to what extent the parade of the three kings will be reduced next week. Last years cabalgata was a fantastic show which must have cost a fortune to stage. It is a night of colour, noise and music. It’s the night when the three kings come to bring the presents for Spanish children. I hope they come in style.

After leaving my friend I attempted to get a taxi home; A necessity when, after attracting tens of thousands into the city centre for a midnight celebration they still insist on shutting down the metro at one-thirty! I had no luck and walked back though the town to catch a night bus from Cibeles. I did pass open bars, but with others closed those that were serving were packed beyond limit. It seems strange that in a time of financial uncertainty business owners would deliberately give up the chance of profiteering from the thirsty.

Spain, still, is different!

This blog is on the cusp of being two years old. Last month it achieved a record number of hits from every time zone around the world. For that, let me say a huge thank you to all of you for reading what I write and, sometimes, writing such encouraging comments in return. I apologise to those who were caught out by my annual Diá de los Inocentes mischief. We will continue to alternately roast or be soaked in the Plaza Mayor for a long time to come, and there will be no bio-dome in the Retiro.

And of course, allow me to wish all of you a very happy and prosperous New Year.