Survival Spanish: Five quick tips for rapid language learning

Welcome back to the Survival Spanish series! Having recently passed the one year mark learning the Spanish language, I’m going to mix up the format a little and offer some practical advice for learning. These nuggets of advice apply to my own experience with Spanish, however I hope (and expect, to some extent) that they will help in any language-learning escapades.

I’m sure you saw this coming but there is no substitute for hard work. Language learning is difficult for the vast majority of people, even those multi-lingual geniuses us poor grunts all come across from time-to-time. Nevertheless, hopefully I can offer some insight into my own endeavour and (mainly) failures which have led me to start believing I can speak a foreign language.

1. Practice, listen, or study almost every day

This is typical advice dished out to language learners, but of course very difficult in practice with such full lives and tired minds. The important thing is to power through moments where you are lacking motivation or just don’t want to think about Spanish/your chosen language any more. Even if the interaction is passive, you will gain a lot over time through small increments. Even listening to a 10-minute podcast every day means more than an hour’s varied listening every week. Couple this with skimming the news for 5 minutes over your coffee at work and you are already well on your way.

2. Leave your pride at the door

This is absolutely crucial. Prepare to be humiliated time and again (at least in your own mind). If you can’t handle the embarrassment of getting things wrong, then perhaps language learning isn’t for you. Think about it for a moment: children learn languages easily, right? There are a lot of reasons for this, but think about how they always make “silly” mistakes (e.g. in English: “I goed to the shops”, “I done it”, mixing up “f” and “th”, etc). But it doesn’t matter. They don’t care, and adults find it cute and might correct them or just let it slide. Children absorb a lot, but they experiment with the language, try new words and phrases out to see if they work. There’s no reason it should be any different as an adult.

3. Keep a diary

Related to my first point, a diary can really bring on your writing skills and help get you into that “little bit every day” habit. Even if it’s just a few lines every night, it will also help you internalise common phrases very quickly and use a mixture of tenses, which can be invaluable in real conversations (Hoy, fui a…/”Today, I went to…”, Cuando llegué…/”When I arrived…”, Estaba lloviendo y…/”It was raining and…”). Yes, I do lead that thrilling a life. A diary also allows you to benchmark your progress and look back on your achievements in those moments of frustration.

4. Learn what works for you

I cannot emphasise this enough. People learn in different ways, people speak in different ways, people have different personalities. Use the accepted wisdom as a guideline, but you need to find what works best for you. If you like to visualise words or spelling in your head, scribble notes furiously in class or online. If you are outgoing and chatty, use that to nail your conversation skills. Of course, you need to work on reading, writing, speaking and listening (crikey!) but find the mix you are comfortable with, as I have found that each area can feed off the others. For example, if I write a lot for an assignment or – ahem – catch up on a few days of my diary, I suddenly find that my spoken Spanish becomes a bit more fluid.

I also liked to use classes almost as milestones or platforms rather than driving the learning process. You can learn some basic words and phrases but won’t get far without some grammar and, perhaps, the structured guidance of a class. However, I felt that this quickly started to hold me back, so I gave it more time before moving to more advanced classes. I essentially skipped the beginner classes and went straight to elementary, then took some time to improve outside of the classroom before I felt I needed more structure and was able to join an advanced level class while travelling. That’s not to say you won’t find the progression through each and every class level essential or motivating.

5. Communication is key

This bears some relation to the previous point, but deserves special mention. The overwhelming opinion in language learning is that total immersion is the most effective, quickest way to learn a new language. I disagree that this is best for everybody. Of course it has huge benefits, but it is easy to feel lonely, isolated, or just lazy.

As a relatively new learner in particular, I believe that even if you are following the immersion route – for example by travelling, or even within classes – try to take some breaks. Speak to people in your own language occasionally if you can. Take the opportunity to have more advanced (or more low-brow!) conversations than you are having in the language you are learning. Use it to build confidence again. Some of my greatest leaps with Spanish came alongside periods of socialising with English speakers. Another aspect for competitive people like me is that if you are with other non-native speakers this can make you really push yourself in the language you are all learning.

Particularly vivid for me is a week spent in a hostel in Bilbao, where I was constantly switching between English and Spanish as we had a nice balance of around 50-50 in Spanish and international travellers. Having a good time and relaxing in my own language left me fresher to speak Spanish, more confident in general, and led to probably my best Spanish performance to date in the wee small hours in a bar in the old town!

I believe there is a fifth skill we can add to reading, writing, speaking, and listening: that is communication, and you can work on this through any medium you like.

Agree or disagree with any of this? Your comments are very welcome!

Bonus: recommended podcasts

La Casa Rojas (Luis Rojas talks about anything and everything in this long-running podcast. From sport to politics, family to philosophy, everything is covered in this great series. As this is all in Spanish, good for intermediate-advanced learners but I’d recommend listening in at any level.)
Showtime Spanish (A very clear and actually enjoyable walkthrough of a range of Spanish grammar. Great for post-beginner through to intermediate learners.)
Notes in Spanish (Short conversational pieces which are great for beginners to intermediates.)


Basking in brand

Brand. The word oddly conjures up a cold feeling; sending shivers down the spines of communications professionals in many organisations. That is, if it doesn’t remind you of a mediocre comedian-cum-revolutionary.

“Brand police”. Being “on brand”. These phrases that we all use stifle creativity and remove freedom, sucking the life out of something which should be vibrant, exhilirating, or even comforting. The purpose and effect of branding should be anything but cold. I thought myself immune to branding, having worked in digital communications for some years now. I don’t make decisions out of loyalty or familiarity, simply logic and cost-benefit analysis (yeah, right!)

I have worked with enough clients to understand the resentment that brands can generate from the people who represent them. And yet now I understand more than ever why we try to create and preserve these symbols of our products and services, from the obvious website logos to the subtle colour shades or tone of voice on the wrapper. In one instant, the sight, sound, or smell of a brand can transport you through the years and across hundreds of miles. The comforting Starbucks coffee when you are travelling and everything is just ever-so-slightly alien to you is an obvious example that most will relate to. However, brand is a complex beast. We try to analyse what makes a good brand, but just as analysing what makes a good product this is fraught with difficulty. Brands can be built through time and exposure, sowing seeds that may only be reaped years or decades later, such as my affection for McVitie’s Ginger Nut biscuits (my grandad used to buy them all the time). It’s not that I buy them often, I just indulge now and again and respect the brand. I’m sure it has influenced my purchasing decisions with other products. The curious things is that brands can have just as much, if not more impact based on a single interaction. I saw an Arizona green tea drink in a supermarket in Spain, and nearly went weak at the knees as I was transported back to Reading, England on a summer’s day four years ago.

Heineken beer logo evolution.

What do we learn from this? Brands are, almost by definition, things which require playing the long-game. Sure, you can tweak tactics and optimise as you go along, but in order to really explore and define a brand you need to let it grow and take hold. No point trying for a few months then overhauling everything when it “doesn’t work”. I am a huge proponent of listening to the customer and driving strategy through insight, but there are certain areas where you need to set the agenda and put a stake in the ground. Like the entrepreneur, who time after time refuses to accept defeat and believes staunchly in their product. A recent trip to the Heineken beer factory in Amsterdam (sadly not work-related) threw up the very interesting progression of the Heineken logo. You can see the experimentation in the early years, changes of colour, etc., however the modern version is strikingly similar to that of more than sixty years ago. The Heineken family backed what they were doing.

McVitie’s Ginger Nuts. Screaming blue and orange murder.

Sharing is also key. While contemplating these (admittedly food-based) brands, it is not price, design, or even the taste I am focusing on. Of course, the sensory experience of a good product is essential, but I am thinking about that definitive taste in context, which for me – and I guess most consumers – is with our family and friends. The café in Reading sitting with a special person trying something new on a Saturday morning. The Starbucks shared over late-night study sessions at university. My grandad’s odd love for Ginger Nuts and our family’s banter about my sister’s red hair. The touch points may be few and far-between, but they resonate. A brand is nothing without being shared, so make it share-worthy.

Finally, Gestalt principles never go out of fashion. What did my three little brands also have in common? The screaming orange and blue of the McVitie’s wrapper and its suggestive name. The onomatopoeic, almost dirty sound of the word “Starbucks”, along with its odd (but by now so familiar) logo. My tea brand with its artsy wrapping and chunky, non-standard bottle design.

If you are different, and have the quality to back it up, you are already way ahead of the competition.

[Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with any of the brands or products mentioned in this post. This blog is simply a series of personal observations as a consumer.]


Review: budget accommodation in Spain

As I pass the four-month mark travelling in Spain, I thought I would share some of my insights from being on the road and of no fixed abode. We’ll pass over the luxury hotels and royal palaces I’m afraid; here you’ll find some of the best up-and-coming ways to find budget accommodation and meet new people.


This has been my most frequent and favoured option. AirBnB is certainly a mature platform now. The website search and booking features are great, and for most big towns there is a good set of options. Like hotels, prices vary a lot but at the bottom end you can find some really comfortable and pleasant rooms for similar prices to staying in a hostel. Property pages tend to be informative and accurate, while hosts are generally friendly and respond quickly even if they can’t facilitate your dates. The review and reference system helps alleviate any worries you have about staying with strangers. Experiences will naturally vary a lot, and it can sometimes be a little awkward as there isn’t the same pressure to socialise as with Couchsurfing but at the same time you are not in a private, detached hotel room (although you can rent apartments too). It’s about respecting the house rules and finding the balance with your hosts.

Pros: breadth of options; review system; security of booking through the platform; personal touch; home conveniences.

Cons: AirBnB take a fee from both guest and host; living arrangements (i.e. number of residents and guests, children) are often unclear; calendars are usually not accurate meaning you have to enquire with each host before booking. There is also talk of greater regulation to come.


The old classic; you normally can’t go wrong if you are just looking for the cheapest bed for the night. Like all types of accommodation, the setup can vary quite drastically, from small dorms of six people up to twelve or even eighteen plus! I have actually found the hostels in Spain to be less party-oriented than I was expecting. Perhaps this is due to the areas I’ve visited, but I’ve found them to be pretty clean and well-run, with a broad range of international tourists. Still, it can be a challenge staying for more than a couple of nights with new faces in and out all the time and the utter lack of privacy.

Pros: often the cheapest option; good locations; fantastic for meeting people; often good facilities such as wifi, common rooms, and kitchens.

Cons: no privacy; roommates change constantly; can be noisy; difficult for more than a few days.

Guest houses  

Commonly called pensiones here in Spain, these are sort of a halfway house between hostels and a proper hotel room. The rooms are however normally well-equipped, with desks and TVs common. In-keeping with the general standard I have found in Spain, they tend to be clean and well-run. The trade off here is for a lower price you share a bathroom with the other guests in your building/room, and there are normally few or limited other facilities like receptions, kitchens, or dining areas. Occasionally you can find guest houses with ensuite rooms, but this isn’t the norm. This option tends to be slightly more expensive than a hostel or a cheap AirBnB, but can be worth the extra money for a little bit of peace and quiet if needed or if you just want to crash out in front of the TV.

Pros: in terms of the room, practically a hotel experience; privacy.

Cons: bathrooms shared between multiple guests; limited facilities and staff support; not particularly sociable.


Arguably the most sociable of my chosen options, Couchsurfing is a bit of a phenomenon within the travel community and something which divides opinion. I must admit I am a little on the fence. I don’t have a wealth of experience with hosts, but found it to be a welcoming and nicely sociable experience. A bit of background: you politely request whether you can stay with someone and they see if they can host you. This could be on their couch as the name suggests, but increasingly could be in someone’s guest room, etc.

The interesting part of all this is that it’s free, at least in terms of financial transactions. No money changes hands on the platform and people are strongly discouraged from doing this offline. The idea is that in place of money, people share their time, life stories, or any skills they might have like cooking up a storm or doing a language exchange. There’s also an element of karma in all this: the expectation is that you might be able to reciprocate for your host one day, or at least pay it forward with other travellers. Of course with this comes the fact that there are no obligations for either host or guest.

For me, Couchsurfing was not actually the cheapest option financially, given that I felt compelled to buy rounds of drinks and tapas when out with my hosts and their friends. The way I look at it is that this isn’t the point. I prefer to see Couchsurfing as a social network, a way to meet people in a particular area and sample the local social life. For this reason, it’s probably not viable for long-term accommodation or if you are on a strict budget, but it can break things up nicely when you want to socialise with locals.

Pros: no fees; breadth of options; review system; personal touch; local social groups over and above hosting.

Cons: no privacy; pressure to socialise and buy drinks, food, etc. (this may depend on your personaility!); low response rates to messages on the site; no guarantees.


So far, so good with this platform. I have two placements lined up for August, after which I will update on the experience! The website itself is simple and seems to have a high response rate from hosts. You pay a fee for two years’ access (at time of writing this was just over twenty euros) which allows you to contact hosts offering work in exchange for accommodation and often food. The work can be with all sorts of local businesses or even just people needing help at home, and is normally around five hours per day. The majority so far in my experience tend to be farm work, building/DIY, or teaching English to families. The best bit about Workaway is that you can browse listings and only need to sign up to set up a profile and send a message to a host. So far I’ve found this a much more appealing and efficient option than house-sitting, which now seems saturated and overly-competitive. There also don’t appear to be many house-sits outside of the expat community while with Workaway you really seem to get a good mixture of local and international.


The range of options now available to the budget traveller in Spain is a huge plus. There is real flexibility and the opportunity to mix with local people as well as tourists, in the price bracket of 15-30 euros per night (summer 2015). Last minute bookings are certainly possible, even during the summer peak, but of course it’s always wise to check in advance. The downside to all of this choice is the amount of research and messaging you might need to put in. For this reason, I would advise at least securing some of your accommodation before you set off, and fill in the gaps on the way.

Of course, there are other great options such as just networking and staying with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. The community of travellers is generally very open and helpful, so for example a stint in a hostel or a few days’ couchsurfing could easily lead to other opportunities for apartments or rooms.

Buen viaje!


These are noches locas

A few weeks ago, I had the fortune of witnessing the spectacular Noche de San Juan right in the heart of Barcelona. This is the night where everyone takes to the streets, firecrackers and fireworks galore, to ride on that precious first wave of summer.

I wandered around the city from twilight, via a huge bonfire and DJ stage in the middle of one of the main roads, all the way to the centre of the action down at the Barceloneta marina and the beach. Thousands of people filled the sands, peppered with occasional mischievous fires. Young and old, families and groups of friends, this was an occasion for everyone (except for those poor dogs, mostly locked at home because of the noise!) I have to admit, I don’t think I have seen anything quite on this scale. The sheer frequency and sound from the firecrackers has you on edge for at least an hour, before you accept that it sounds like you are being shot at constantly and start to relax into the occasion.

The whole thing had me reflecting about our different cultural events and how we choose to celebrate the life and traditions around us. La Noche de San Juan may have been (for me) unprecedented in terms of freedom and size, but at its heart it shares much with celebrations across the world. At least the Western world. Spectacular fireworks across the globe to usher in the new year; the rather odd tradition of Guy Fawkes Night in the UK. All of them based on that primitive draw of fire and noise, the contrast of life and defiance against the void of the night. The Viking fire festival of Up Helly Aa, celebrated in the north of Scotland, seemed like a particularly fitting comparison with the mixture of pagan and Christian tradition that is San Juan. My colleagues from Spanish class came up with similar from their own cultures: Italian, Polish, Israeli, and Indonesian alike. As if we didn’t already realise it, we are all completely similar. You just need to take a look at the layout of so many towns and cities: facing the sea or river, backed by hills or mountains, perhaps a cablecar ascending towards the photo op. Culture centred around harbours and markets, food and family the focal point of the day. Sound familiar? I’ve observed this over recent years and the more I travel, the more I recognise. Pamplona’s San Fermín (early July) is perhaps an example of a more unique festival, with its iconic dress and the “running of the bulls”. However, get beyond those icons and once again we find the same core: food and drink, family and late nights. Engaging the force of nature that is the bull simply resonates with those same pagan sentiments about the elements.

La Noche de San Juan in its current form is centred around the celebration of the birth of Saint John the Baptist: in fact the main celebration takes place on the eve of this date. It just so happens to coincide almost exactly with the summer solstice, much the same as with Christmas in winter. These were events of rich significance to pre-Christian cultures, and have retained that value to the present day. Evidence if any was needed that our belief systems morph over time, striding the line between history, tradition, and human nature and somehow coming out with a directive for life. To me, this presented a fascinating back story to the sights, sounds, and tastes of San Juan, made all the more real by the encyclopaedic knowledge and passion of my Catalan Spanish teacher!

Just make sure you sample the coca y cava next time you are in Cataluña, otherwise some locals may lament the beer and reggaeton culture that is starting to take over…


Survival Spanish: part 4

In just shy of four months, I have visited eleven of Spain’s autonomous communities and well over thirty towns. I feel like I am at least starting to get to grips with getting around the place, mainly by coach and train, although there are still the inevitable Kafka-esque set pieces such as I encountered in Zaragoza train station the other week.

Having decided not to walk to my AirBnB place, due to the forty-plus degree heat and the fact I was carrying all of my stuff, I duly purchased my local train ticket and tried to get through the barrier. Billete defectuoso! it cried. Faulty ticket. So I walked the length of the airport-like station in search of someone to ask. Not a soul. I reached the ticket windows and waited for my turn. A woman ran over asking if she could go next; she was in a terrible hurry. Me da igual, I replied. I don’t mind. Pasa. Next, they decided to open up a couple of other windows due to the rapidly-growing queue. Of course, the people behind me sprinted over to the other windows. Nice, I thought, but keep calm and stick to your guns here. Eventually I got to the window and explained to the guy that my ticket didn’t work in the barriers. Could I get a replacement? The look of puzzlement on his face was astonishing. After a bit of back and forth, he told me he couldn’t help me but I could go back to the barriers and press a button, then someone would come and help me. Qué botón? I said, incredulous. I thought he was having me on. I certainly hadn’t seen any button on the barrier! He said yes, if you look on the first one round the corner it will be there. So I traipsed back. Nothing, of course.

I had a look around, feeling ridiculous as usual. There was a suspicious button on the ticket machine. Ah ha! As I walked over, a guy in hi-vis was coming out from the barriers. Other customers asked him something, and I thought I would do the same. Surely it’s easier than faffing about pressing this button of doom. He seemed very confused by my predicament. Pero, están abiertas! They’re open. Cómo? I replied. The barriers were all clearly closed. No, he said, if you try to go through they will open. Vale. I gave it a go and the thing parted like the Red Sea, no ticket required.

Now I’m sure these sorts of things happen in every country: Spain just happens to have a slightly unfair reputation for bureaucracy. In reality, its transport system is excellent. Buses and trains are extremely punctual, generally quick and clean, and a bit more affordable than in the UK. A bit of basic vocabulary therefore will get you quite far!

Vocabulary for getting around

Necesito coger el tren/autobús/vuelo (“I need to catch my train/bus/flight”)
Dónde está…? (“where is…?”)
La estación (“the station”)
Cercanías (these are the local or commuter trains in each region – basically the step between the metro and medium/long distance.)
Qué autobús/bus es para…? (“which bus goes to…?”)
Destino (“destination”)
Horario (“timetable”)
Cuánto dura el viaje? (“how long does the journey take?”)
Cuándo llega a Madrid? (“when does it arrive in Madrid?”)

Billete de ida (“single/one-way ticket”)
Billete de ida y vuelta (“return ticket”)
La taquilla (“the ticket window/office”; not the delicious beverage)
La máquina (“the machine”)

A la una (“at one o’clock”)
A las dos (“at two o’clock”)
A las ocho y media (“at half past eight”)
A las tres menos cuarto (“at quarter to three”)
A las diez y cuarto (“at quarter past ten”)

Subir (“to get on”)
Bajar (“to get off”)
Plaza o asiento (both mean “seat”)
Ventanilla (“window”)
Pasillo (“walkway”)
Abróchese el cinturón (“fasten your seatbelt”)
Próxima parada (“next stop”)
Alquiler coche (“car hire”)
Tomar un taxi (“take a taxi”)

General advice

I have found online information to be almost always hard to find or outdated. Likewise any posters or flyers. It’s invariably better to go into the station and ask about/buy your tickets there. You will also save an online purchase fee in many cases, although it’s worth checking in case there are discounts on trains for buying in advance.

If you are travelling a lot on long-distance trains in particular, you can buy tickets in bulk for a set number of trips. It’s not guaranteed to be cheaper than the individual journeys, so work this out beforehand or ask in the station, but could save you a lot of money if you’re covering a lot of ground. Also worth looking into is Interrail for intense travel.

[Usual disclaimer: any suggestions for improvement or corrections most welcome :) ]


Three months abroad in Spain: the lessons

Shockingly, I am now well over three months into my extensive journey across Spain. Fresh from visiting my tenth of the country’s seventeen autonomous communities (i.e. regions), a look at my calendar tells me I am over the two-thirds point. Surely I’ve learned something by now? If not, then it’s certainly time to get cracking!

I shared my thoughts a couple of months ago on lessons from my first month abroad. Here’s something of an update. I can’t promise that it speaks from any enhanced wisdom, but hopefully it offers a glimpse of the realities of travelling solo:

You will know yourself better than ever. And probably not like it.

Despite having to plan things out every day, travelling from place to place, getting to know new hosts, classmates and friends, trying to work, study, etc, etc. there is still a lot of time for self-reflection. A lot. And to be honest I think there is a limit to how useful this time is – like anything, once it becomes a habit then you are perhaps not being challenged enough to draw genuine insights or generate meaningful ideas.

For me, this introspection has mainly confirmed things, rather than lead to me “finding myself”. Maybe the epiphanies come further down the line, but I’ve certainly firmed up a lot of things about what makes me tick and what sort of character I am. A natural introvert, I spent years working on this, from trying to improve my presentation skills at every opportunity and embracing training roles in my profession, to picking up various hobbies and partying a lot. Now, I think the premise of this trip is reasonably bold in itself, but there are just days when you want to lock yourself in your room and chill out, or quietly do some work or study without speaking to a soul. This is extremely difficult on the road without your own place, hence it has caused me some frustration – it’s clear there are aspects of one’s character which can never be changed, for better or worse. I’m also rather analytical and quite self-critical, and so at times I have really been appalled by my lack of social motivation which appears to contradict the whole ethos of travelling solo abroad and trying to learn a language while at it.

You will discover working – or doing anything normal – is nigh impossible.

This one is pretty straightforward – without a fixed address, to some extent you don’t exist. This ranges from small irks like not being able to find relevant options in online signup forms, to near show-stopping ones like the fact that lots of people are not interested in hiring you and your service has to compete on a global market. “A month’s work in two days for $100? Consider it done, my good sir!” Of course, you could get around this by doing a lot of preparation and networking before you go off travelling. Moving swiftly on…

You will become familiar with diminishing returns.

I genuinely think I learned the majority of what I have after one month – the ensuing time has been consolidation and trying to develop this trip into something meaningful (watch this space…) Therefore, if you are keen on the idea of travelling or a career break but don’t have a long-term goal like learning a language, developing your skills, or seeing somewhere in real depth, consider starting off with four-to-six weeks. The key is probably not to have a plan and make sure you still break away from your life or career somewhat, but you will learn a lot relative to the time you invest.

You will learn what homesickness is.

Having never felt homesick in my life, I think I can safely say I have experienced it now. A few years ago moving my life to London, then subsequently across to Reading and Oxford, did little on this front. And the homesickness is not even for my home back in Scotland, nor for my family or friends (which of course, I do still miss ;) I am homesick for cooking. I am homesick for my own space, however small, expensive, and unwieldy, where I can make my rubbish curries and chuck some meat and veg on a plate. Simple, nutritious, grub. I am homesick for being able to go to the gym. Any gym, as long as it’s mine. I am homesick for being able to converse naturally every day, without having to second-guess everything or plan it in your mind beforehand. And rain. Dear, sweet, hypnotic, life-affirming rain…

It’s not like I’m living in hardship, and certainly don’t deserve any sympathy. This is just an observation about how trivial the idea of homesickness turned out to be! So much for feeling the pull of the glorious motherland.

You will become motivated to do a lot when you “get back”.

Already my mind is playing tricks on me. “It will be so good when you get back!” it says. “You will see your friends and family, you will have structure in your life, and you might actually get a full time job…” Granted, I feel like I now know a little better which areas of my life and leisure I want to focus on, and will truly appreciate some things I perhaps didn’t before, but I wouldn’t say it’s anything revolutionary. Neatly on to the next point…

You will learn that the grass is, well, never green.

First six weeks of trip: hopping about Andalucía. Breathtaking and intense. But I couldn’t wait to have somewhere more fixed, for at least a couple of weeks, where I could plan things and do some work. By the time I was in Barcelona, where I stayed for a month, I nearly went insane. I felt so static; my momentum was gone. I think this was to do with reaching my “strategic inflection point” and the halfway stage of the trip, but it left me wanting to move on from place-to-place once again, covering the map and meeting new hosts in each town.

Another case in point: I could not wait to get away from all that technology when I left my job and hit the road. I would be disciplined with my laptop work hours, would use my phone only occasionally or for emergencies, and I would be out in the sun/sea air most of the time. The last part is pretty much true, but I use my technology as much as ever, if not more. Constant daily battles to make sure my phone is charged enough and I have backup. Photo-taking as an endurance sport. Messaging friends and family when I have no-one to talk to. Putting my laptop through its paces to search for accommodation, plan my route, look at transport, all on myriad different websites – every day (this is the worst part – plan at least some stuff in advance ;) I have a couple of gigs through Workaway in August doing real, manual work so hopefully I can break this compulsion for at least a while!

Well, this brings me to the end of what I’m sure you are thinking is a rather negative-sounding blog. It’s not a moan; it’s just me and my critical character, hoping to offer some pause for thought for anyone contemplating a similar journey. Above all, I am still on this trip; still learning; still looking forward; and I’ve never once seriously thought about cutting it short. That should tell us everything. To paraphrase Batman‘s Harvey Dent: “It’s not who we are, it’s what we do that defines us.”


Huesca, the five hundred and forty-five

Today I visited a town in Aragón called Huesca, nestled near the foothills of the Pyrenees in north-eastern Spain. Not the most trumpeted place on the map, but it comes as a fairly well-recommended day trip from Zaragoza (despite the forty-degree heat). Like pretty much everywhere I have visited, there are some real hidden gems, especially if you are willing to go the extra yard and trek around for a few hours. To my delight, I found among other things a shop selling the sword from the Highlander films, but that’s by-the-by.


I found an unusual monument which inspired me to enter my first photography contest, with the remit of capturing “what it means to be unbreakable”. Neither my photographer’s eye nor my outdated Nokia phone are up to the task I should expect; however the photo shows the ascent to a pyramid-shaped memorial constructed of 545 stone blocks, each representing one of Huesca’s fallen from the Spanish Civil War. A haunting testament to their courage, suffering, and enduring impact, even for a non-native. The vivid red plants at once evoke thoughts of bloodshed and the symbolism of the Spanish republican left, while the form is reminiscent of the millenia-old Mayan civilisation.

I’ll never pretend to be an expert on any region’s history, but as I have made my way across Spain I have seen the deep impact of the civil war and the Franco years. The wounds often appear fresh, from the “Spanish Spain” heartlands of Madrid and Andalucía through to independence-seeking regions like Cataluña. Picasso’s Guernica and associated works sometimes feel like they haven’t aged a day. Of course, modern Spain is peaceful, welcoming and very easy to travel in. It’s when you talk to the people and step off the track that you start to understand what unbreakable means, and why it has been – and always will be – an essential characteristic.


The memorial can be found in Huesca’s El Parque Mártires de la Libertad.


Latidos del mar

Conditioned to contradict, this freedom
Medium of existence which ends us
In a breath. Our greatest catharsis
No understanding, just doing – then not.
Know the creeping ebb of our lifeline
That which purifies is only oneself
What is purity but mastery lost?
When the gulls come seeking, we are but one.

Qué calor hace, incluso con fuegos
artificiales. Imposible!
Gritan, pero es toda la verdad.
El mar de calor
Esconde siempre nuestro dolor
Como una mascara hecho por
La maestra.
Cómo podemos llegar?
Sin destino, no lo sé.

– Daniel Robertson


Survival Spanish: part 3

It’s not all sunshine, sea, sangría, and the rest.

Today we’ll look at some real daily grind Spanish, the sort of things you might put off learning or have never looked up because they are so boring! I certainly remember grasping for how to ask what time reception closes, ask my host to let me wash the dishes, and ask if there is a launderette nearby. Even seasoned Spanish learners can be thrown by simple things like a visit to the supermarket, simply because it’s never a situation you are in until you are actually there, and it is rarely covered in classes!

Loosely following Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs”, here we really address the base of that pyramid – particularly useful if you are in Spain for more than a few days. Vamos a por ello!

Accommodation and your surroundings

After water and food, this is where the action is at :) In Spain, as I imagine in many countries, there are loads of ways to put a roof over your head. There are the old favourites, hotels and apartment rentals, but things are getting increasingly diverse at the budget (i.e. more interesting) end of the scale. Hostels and guest houses of all descriptions, camping, AirBnB, Couchsurfing, and even Workaway or house/pet sitting. Perhaps a topic for another post.

Here is the basic vocabulary for a typical trip:

Alojamiento (“accommodation”)
Hotel (“hotel”)
Albergue o albergue de juventud (“hostel” or “youth hostel” – essentially the same thing.)
Hostal (“guest house” or “bed and breakfast”. A bit of a false friend here; don’t get confused with youth hostels as above!)
Pensión (“guest house” or “bed and breakfast”.)
Apartamento o piso (“apartment” or “flat” – essentially the same.)
Casa (“house”)
Habitaciones (“rooms”)
Habitación individual (“single room”)
Habitación doble (“double room”)
Camas (“beds)
Sofa (“sofa” or “couch”)
Personas (“people”)
Tarifa (“rate”)
Horario (“schedule” or “opening hours”)
A qué hora…? (“what time…?”)
Cierre (“closes”)
Abre (“opens”)
Recepción (“reception”)
Entrada (“check-in”)
Salida (“check out”)
Reserva (“reservation” or “booking”)
Tengo una reserva (“I have a reservation”)
Nombre (“name”)
Apellido (“surname”)
Pagar (“to pay”)
Tarjeta (“card”)
Efectivo (“cash”)
Escalera (“stairs”)
Ascensor (“elevator” or “lift”)
Llaves (“keys”)
Contraseña wifi o clave wifi (“wifi password” or “wifi key”)
Desayuno (“breakfast”)

A few small pointers if you are actually staying in someone’s home:

Dejame lavar los platos (“let me wash the dishes”)
Puedo poner la mesa (“I can set the table”)
Voy a hacer la compra. Necesitas algo? (“I’m going grocery shopping. Do you need anything?”)

In the supermarket

A situation which can strike terror into the heart of even the steeliest traveller (although that can happen in your local supermarket too…)

Bolsa/bolsita quieres? (“do you want a bag?”)
Ya la tengo (“I have one already”)
Guantes (“gloves” – in Spain it is normal to handle fruit and veg with plastic gloves, or like me just with the bag. Touching is, alas, normally forbidden.)
Tiene…? (“do you have/sell…?”)
Parking? (do you need to pay for parking?)
Tarjeta de … tienes? (“do you have a … loyalty card?”)
Necesito sacar dinero (“I need to withdraw some cash”)

Note that while in many places in Spain paying by credit card is still uncommon, in supermarkets it’s normally possible. Also, it may just be me but there seems to be a strong habit of paying with exact cash or adding euros and cents on to your notes so you get a round number back as change. This makes sense, but it can be easy to get confused, especially when trying to remember your Spanish, so be prepared to be asked for the odd coins!


If the supermarket can be unpleasant, doing your laundry… Anyway, it needs to be dealt with and here are a few things to remember:

Lavadora (“washing machine”)
Lavandería (“launderette” – note these are much less common in Spain than in the UK.)
Jabón en polvo (“washing powder”)
Lavar (“to wash”)
Secar (“to dry”)
Moneda (“coin”)
Cuánto tiempo dura? (“how long does it last?”)

Now I’m off to do none of the above. Hasta la próxima!

Bonus note

I thought I’d highlight something I’ve observed when travelling here in Spain, basically about how useful the simple present tense is in conversation. Try not to get too hung up on all the tenses when you are learning to speak; nailing the simple present will get you very far! Here’s a quick (non-exhaustive) list with some examples:

1. Facts or statements
Es caro (“it is expensive”)
Consiste en muchas palabras (“it has a lot of words”)

2. Habits
Trabajo por la noche (“I work at night”)
Juega al fútbol (“he plays football”)

3. Continuous Actions
Qué haces? (“what are you doing?” – note in addition to the more factual “what do you do?”)
Busco una panadería (“I’m looking for a bakery”)

[As usual, please contact me with any corrections or suggestions!]


Looking for Román

The other day I was taken aback, to say the least, when I was given a football shirt as a gift from a stranger on the streets of Barcelona.

I have an Argentina shirt which retains an essential spot in my single backpack of possessions. One of the occasional football shirts I spent my pocket money on when at school, I’ve worn it for over ten years (long before Messi became a god :) Its iconic, timeless appearance along with its sheer comfort makes it a firm favourite and meant that it survived the cull when I downed tools and went travelling.

Oddly enough, in Spain it also makes for some great banter from the Argentinian expats, arguably better than you would receive with a Spain shirt. This was as true in 2006 as it is now, and you can perhaps put this down to the strong regional identities found in Spain along with fierce club rivalries. Every day I wear the Argentina shirt, it’s a guarantee of a couple of good chats and many other shouts in the street. Of course, there is the Messi factor too, above all here in Barcelona.

This brings us up to the other day. I travelled to Palma de Mallorca by overnight ferry: a gratuitous trip, seeing as I would only spend a few hours there due to budget, but it meant I could see one of the Spanish islands, the much-vaunted cathedral, and travel on the sea which certainly appealed to the romantic in me. I encountered a higher-than-usual rate of Argentinian banter, from labourers at the port to truck drivers on the ferry itself. I took to explaining to people that my favourite player is Juan Román Riquelme, a genius of vision who could split entire teams open with a single pass almost at will. This is to challenge the assumption that I’m wearing the shirt because of Messi or Maradona, “the big two”. Slightly reminiscent of the way the lead character in the film Looking for Eric idolises Eric Cantona.

Fatigued from a night without sleep and two almost back-to-back eight-hour ferry rides (I know, poor me!) I somehow got sent the wrong way when trying to disembark in Barcelona. After tangling with the various decks of trucks and motos, I finally found my way out last of all the passengers. Immediately upon exiting the terminal, I heard the shout:

Argentino! Hola tío, Argentino!” A young guy carrying a holdall.

“I’m not Argentinian, I’m from Scotland.”

“Ah, you’re from Scotland! But you speak really good Spanish.”

“Thanks a lot, well I’m trying to learn.”

“So why are you wearing this shirt?”

“I really like the football team. My favourite player is Riquelme.” I waited for the reaction, expecting something like “ah, but Messi is out of this world” or “Maradona was the best ever”. Instead, he said “Juan Román Riquelme? Wait a minute.” He began rummaging in his bag. My natural reaction was that he was going to sell me something or, I’m more ashamed to admit, was this a distraction technique for pickpockets? I’d heard about all the disarming tactics they supposedly use in Barcelona, it was dark, and I was lightly-dressed with a wallet and phone conspicuously bulging out of my shorts.

Moments later, he pulled out a Boca Juniors football shirt. He showed me the back, Riquelme’s name and number 10 proudly printed there. What a coincidence, I thought. This guy doesn’t have very much and he’s carrying this shirt!

Un regalo para ti.” He wanted to give me it as a gift. I didn’t know what to say, other than stuttering “No, I can’t…” But he was persistent and I took the shirt. We chatted about Argentina, the economy (what else?), and how he was travelling back as his visa had expired. We shook hands and parted ways, firm friends Gianfranco and I after scarcely ten minutes.

Numerous studies have shown that, psychologically, people tend to create strong first impressions in around seven seconds or even less. It can be incredibly difficult to overcome that first impression, whether positive or negative. Apparently around eight positive experiences are required to overcome a bad start. We’d like to think that our interactions are based on logic, perhaps shared interests or heritage, and founded on open-mindedness. The human mind is normally just not wired for this.

I am also reminded of the idea of “minimal groups”. Simply by randomly assigning people to two meaningless groups (“A” and “B”, “Blue” and “Green”, etc.) one can instil a fundamental ingroup-outgroup bias. We see it all the time on gameshows, in pub quizzes, and the like, while loyalties are just as easily switched.

Despite having connections to Argentina and football which are tenuous at best (I want to go there some day, I’m learning Castilian, and like most men enjoy a bit of international football), wearing the shirt endears me to part of society and has resulted in some of my most memorable experiences and random conversations while travelling. I would suggest to people simply leverage this. Particularly while travelling, first impressions are everything and you will often make friendships which only last a day, hours, or minutes. Pick an icon to gain attention, then once you have it you can switch things around and learn about the people who give you their time.

I liked the serendipity of the Riquelme incident. Of course, being the logical and unemotional person that I am, I encouraged friends and family to buy lottery tickets that night on my behalf. I don’t think they did but I’m suspicious of the ones who have gone quiet…