Sunday, 27 March 2011

Sod it, I´ll sort it out later

Living la vida loca here in Madrid, the good times come in swings and roundabouts. Facing my first visitor-free weekend in six weeks – for which I had carefully organised two days of blank space – I was looking forward to being blissfully lazy and unsociable. However, probably due to a combination of overtiredness and drowsiness (caused by antibiotics taken for a piercing that went badly wrong) I found myself at the wrong end of a trough. Rather than revelling in a weekend of guilt-free nothingness, I was friendsick and craving a night giggling in front of a mindless English gameshow - Take Me Out or Total Wipeout to be precise.

However, by now accustomed to pangs of homesickness, rather than throw myself hopelessly on my bed after work on Saturday, I somewhat reluctantly put on my trainers and went for a run. Although afterwards my body was grumbling with uncomfortable twinges, it had the desired effect. After twenty minutes of puffing my way around Retiro Park I stopped yearning for a night of Total Wipeout and began chewing over a basic blueprint of what to do with myself until 2012. I returned mentally revitalised with a vague plan. Although my hazy ideas will undoubtedly be redrafted several times over, one feature that I am fairly confident will remain constant is travel - albeit as yet I don´t know who I´ll go with, where I´ll go or when.

With travel on my brain, I am now in quandary. Is time to quit my weekend job and start exploring Spain: living right in the middle, I´m ideally placed to explore the four corners. However, it is just as tempting to continue using the welcome wodge of Saturday school cash to pad out my backpacking piggy bank. Just how much should you skrimp and save for a rainy day? When is it okay to think “Sod it, I´ll work as little as possible, live cheap, enjoy myself as much as possible for as long as possible and deal with the problems later”?

Living an adventure is certainly an appealing prospect. I recently found myself sharing a bench with a familiar-looking guitarrist: as I pass the hours between classes rotating between different benches in the city, he strums his way around the tourist hotspots. Curious about his story, I started a conversation. After the obligatory polite chit-chat about the weather, he started to tell me that travelling as a living is easily doable: all you need is a skill that is universal and can be employed wherever you are. For example, he had previously worked as a chef, and many of his friends now scrape a living as clowns or performers. Floating from place to place unburdened by responsibility is indeed a romantic notion, and I´m certainly not against living without luxuries: when travelling I relished the simplicity of living out of a backpack. Similarly, considering that since arriving in Spain I´ve had my wallet, coat, phone and camera nicked, I´m learning (albeit the hard way) to attach less value to material things.

However, a quick glance around at the sorry collection of human statutes attempting to squeeze a euro out of sceptical tourists in Plaza Mayor is enough to expose the rough reality of what is just a romantic idea. When my wallet was swiped and I lost a good chunk of my months wages, not only was I lucky enough to have generous friends, but I also had enough cash in the bank to pay them back. As much as I don´t mind swapping flights for overnight buses and restaurants for market stalls, I don´t think I could forgo the emergency cushion of cash in the bank. When returning from Barcelona recently, I somehow found myself on the verge of missing my flight home with no credit on my phone, no bank cards and less than a fiver in my purse. To say it was a stressful morning is something of an understatement. As such, the thought of being stranded in a foreign country without the emergency option of plastic money is enough to squash any urges to take to the road. I suppose the “I´ll live for the moment and sort it out later” physche is just one step too far for me.

So, it looks like the Saturday job will continue for now... at least until I get dreadlocks, shop exclusively in hemp shops and become a real hippie!

Sunday, 20 March 2011

A step beyond slap-stick comedy

More a fan of action movies and comedies than films with any sort of artistic standing, it is fair to say that until a month ago I was almost wholly ignorant of Spanish cinema. Aside from Amenábar´s much-coveted ´Abre Los Ojos´ , my movie repertoire was dominated by flicks featuring Bruce Willis, Hugh Jackman or superheroes. However, surrounded by friends who live opposite a Spanish arts cinema, I felt slightly bashful at my inability to contribute to any cinematic discussions that went beyond X-men or Terminator. My subsequent initiation into Spanish cinema, ´The Spirit of the Beehive´ (El Espíritu de la Colmena), didn´t exactly inspire confidence. Although described by critics as ´profound and affecting´, to me the film was simply two long hours of little dialogue, minimal action, even less camera movement and no obvious plot. More used to the crudely obvious, I think I simply failed to capture the deeper subtleties of the film.

As such, for my second foray into Spanish cinema, I went for something completely different: Airbag. I was warned it was an off-the-wall absurdity, but even so, I wasn´t prepared for such an outrageous, non-stop romp of bawdy sex and clumsy seduction, drugs and alcohol, high speed car chases, random violence and yet more bawdy sex and clumsy seduction. With only a limited command of Spanish it was nigh-on impossible to follow such a vibrantly ludicrous film. Even if I had understood every word, I doubt I would have grasped the plot of this hair-brained rollercoaster of debauchery. England and the United States are by no means short of slap-stick comedies, but the Spanish equivalent explodes the genre onto new levels.

Perhaps this is because the Spanish themselves are that little bit more outrageous.. The film certainly seems to have parallels with my flatmates. Take last Sunday, when I woke up groggily to a thumping electronic bassline coming from the lounge, as an example. Initially, head heavy with sleep, I thought I must still be in the midst of a drunken dream. However, on venturing warily out of my room, I was engulfed in a foggy haze of cigarette smoke and the smouldering blurry light of soft red lightbulbs. The lounge had been taken over an array of unknowns garbling rapid, incomprehensible Spanish, some dancing suggestively, others draped over the sofa, sprawled across the floor or on perched on various pieces of furniture.

Confronted with such a scene at midday on a Sunday, I seriously considered the possibility that someone had slipped something into my glass of wine the previous night and I was having some sort of delayed trip. However, reality was soon confirmed when my housemate, who was wearing a giant, white babygrow (he had obviously pyjama-ed up in anticipation of going to bed), bounded over anxious to check I wasn´t irritated by the impromptu Sunday morning booze-up. Slightly dazed and confused about time-of-day and day-of-week, I mumbled some sort of reassurance in Spanglish and bid a hasty retreat to the nearest café for a hot chocolate and a croissant.

Two drinks and three hours later, I was still somewhat apprehensive about returning to the boudoir: I whiled away most of day in the city and finally returned home at about 7.30pm. I was greeted by the ankle-nips of a scarily hyperactive dog (who I imagine had been making the most of the party´s fuel) and a lounge still bathed a brothel-esk red and abuzz with lively chatter. It wasn´t until about 10pm that the party died down to a manageable rumble and only four were left still standing.

No-one knows how to party quite like the Spanish: clubs don´t fill up until 3am, arriving home at 4am is considered to be a quiet night and it is not unsual for a wild friday night to blur into Saturday – possibly even Sunday as well. In this respect, I suppose that Airbag, for all of its absuridites and hedonism, is simply proportional to life in Spain.

If this is the case, interpreting ´Spirit of the Beehive´ is completely beyond me.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Brits Abroad

In recent pre-match rugby banter, French coach Marc Lievremont claimed that England was the most hated team in the Six Nations, emphasising the common understanding between the French team and “their Italian cousins”. Though he was admittedly just stoking the fire in the build up to a deciding match (a tactic that had little success), Lievremont had a point: the latinate links between French, Italian and Spanish and the resultant cultural ties are undeniable. In comparison, the English seem to inspire hostility across all of Europe. In particular, English tourists have a notoriously bad reputation, commonly viewed as sunburnt, rowdy lager louts, the likes of whom spawned phenomenons such as ´balconing´ (what must undoubtedly the epitome of stupidity). Considered to lack modesty, restraint and respect, ´Brits Abroad´ are infamous for causing general havoc and offence wherever they land.

I can empathise with this: I have never been a fan of intimidating groups of boisterous, boozed-up ´lads on tour´. However, having just returned from a short break in Barcelona, I have found myself coming out in defence of the English. The weekend was a shamelessly Brits Abroad holiday: on landing in Barcelona I was greeted by a friend who, despite the winter temperatures, was proudly sporting light pastel boardies and flip flops (“I´m on holiday!”). He took me directly to an English-heavy international bar just off Las Ramblas to introduce me to his friends - polite handshakes and awkward waves rather than the european double kiss. I soon was glugging the first of several pints of Heineken, from which the weekend drifted by in a tipsy haze of Irish pubs, sing-alongs to English pop songs and McDonalds (one of my friends managing to eat an impressive four cheeseburgers in one day).

However, although we undoubtedly indulged in stereotypical English pastimes, we were still a relatively polite, respectful rabble and as far as I know, we didn´t cause undue offence to anyone: valid proof that not all rowdy British tourists wear matching Magaluf 2011 T-shirts and cause a raucous. After spending five months intensively immersing myself in tapas, siestas and all-things-spanish, I have to confess that I relished this weekend of wholesome britishness. Whereas I usually jump at the opportunity to practice Spanish, when in Barcelona I eagerly retreated to an English bubble, reluctant to exchange even basic Spanish with barstaff. On reflection, although it sounds somewhat paradoxical, living on the continent has strengthened my English idiosyncracies. Granted, I have always been slightly obsessed by a good cup of tea, but now, living in a land commanded by the coffee culture, regular imports of English brews have become essential. Similarly, being a rugby fan in a country completely indifferent has not dampened my enthusiasm, but amplified it.

Living the European lifestyle, as much as I´m enjoying it, has magnified my attachment to the English. Replace national pride with a self-deprecating sense of humour, european argy-bargy with a staunch grin-and-bear-it attitude and over-the-top friendliness with reserved propriety... Even if beer-guzzling-Brits-on-tour didn´t have such notoriety, with so many character quirks is it any wonder that our European “cousin´s” don´t relate well to us?
On another note, I have written another article for Letango Tours. Ironically, it describes one of the biggest benefits of living on the continent: The Countdown to Spring.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

There´s just not enough time in the day

Despite having resolved that working full-time is not for me, I have taken the paradoxical decision to considerably up my teaching hours and for the past two weeks I have been contesting an unfortunately busy timetable of early starts and late finishes.

I won´t deny that bleary-eyed mornings and weary evenings have been a shock to the system: my efforts to keep pace with the Spanish night life frequently leave me disorientated when my alarm clock sounds at some unseeming hour in the morning. To make things worse, on more than one occasion I have stumbled out of bed to make a cup of tea and bumped into my housemate (equally disorientated) on his return from a night out. Needless to say, pre-dawn chats over glasses of rum, spliffs and teapots only serve to increase early morning confusion.

It´s also been a struggle to adjust to an inconvenient, widely-spaced timetable and I am now spending a disproportionate amount of time on the Metro commuting to the North of the city and back three times a day. Over three hours a day just evaporates into tightly squashed tube journeys and the shuffling up and down of endless escalators.

However, I have been trying to make the most of hours on the metro and early mornings starts to scribble down my thoughts - even if they are somewhat fuzzy. The fact that my last blog for Best Spain Travel was only on the homepage for a measley two days has given me more inccentive to try and write more regularly. Here is the latest: The Mountains Surrounding Madrid.