Saturday, March 10, 2012

International Women's Day: Fesitval of Green Jokes

Being a fan of both feminism and feel-good tokenism, I have always enjoyed, in a mild way, the celebrations of International Women's Day that crop up around this time of year. When I was working at Parliament, one of the perks of office (ha!) was a yearly invitation to the UNIFEM International Women's Day Breakfast, which featured a range of high-profile women - your Gail Kellys, your Pru Gowards, your Therese Reins - and, usually, a guest speaker from the developing world, whose stories of enduring against the odds had a way of reminding the well-heeled audience how bad we don't have it. These celebrations always had the effect of ratcheting up my feminism, in a you go, sister kind of way. Also, there were mini danishes.

So, naturally, I was all ears when I heard that the women at my school were going for a lunch to celebrate International Women's Day. This being Spain, though, they did things a little differently, and without the politics: why would you let that ruin a perfectly good occasion? Also, I cannot imagine getting any of these women to a breakfast. What could possibly warrant getting up so early in the morning? And who eats breakfast anyway? 

No, we did this the Spanish way: tell people lunch is at 2.30, show up around 3pm, and have a small beer before the menu del dia, the fine Spanish tradition of a cheap set menu, one drink included, no tricky tips or taxes. (The one catch: you have to keep the same cutlery between entree and main.) And then - hang the politics - after lunch, as we were waiting for our coffees, the women took turns standing on their seats to tell chistes verdes, dirty ("green") jokes.  

By now, I have a fairly decent command of Spanish, even Spanish as spoken in Extremadura, which is not really the same thing. Even so, these jokes left me completely bewildered. This is unsurprising; to "get" a verbal joke, you really need two things. Firstly, you need a high level of vocabulary: joke tellers nearly always use insider slang, and many jokes, especially dirty jokes, turn on double entendre. My Spanish comprehension is pretty good, but it mostly only encompasses a word's denotation, as it might be found in the dictionary, or as I have heard it used on news broadcasts. Subtleties of connotation are frequently lost on me, as is much extremeño slang, although I adore learning the odd word.

And besides, to understand a joke, you also need to be aware of all sorts of cultural context. Consider a (non-dirty) joke I was told yesterday:
Q: What electronics brand do Gypsies prefer?
A: Gitaneer.

This is an extremely simple two-line joke, in fact a pun, but to understand it, you need to know that:
1) The Spanish Roma refer to non-Roma as "payo", pronounced "pie-oh" . 
2) Pioneer is an expensive electronics brand. 
3) In Spain, Roma people are called gitanos, Gypsies. 
4) In Spain, you totally tell jokes about how Gypsies are poorer than average and thus like to buy fake-branded products.

Incidentally, this is a joke told by gitanos themselves. Even so, and even after you know all that, the joke is not particularly funny. But who said learning a language was supposed to make you laugh?

Incidentally, the joke above also demonstrates how untranslatable many jokes are. Some of the women were begging the English teachers to translate the jokes for me. "It's impossible!" they said. This might be correct, or they might just be embarrassed to tell the jokes in English. Alas, I will never know.

Friday, February 24, 2012


It was approaching 3am, and everyone had repaired to the Tardis-shaped Doctor Who* bar, lured by the dual creature comforts of heating and flushing toilets. But somewhere underneath his fluorescent wig, Tomáwas getting maudlin. One of his friends had failed to show up this evening; another had elected - inexplicably - to spend the Carnaval weekend skiing in the Sierra.

"It used to be the three of us who had never missed a Carnaval," he confided, "and now it looks like I'm the only one."

I stifled a grin.  Tomás is short and barrel-chested, with exaggerated, dwarfish features and an uncanny ability to drink litres of rum while remaining standing. He is hard enough to take seriously at the best of times; when he is decked out as a sort of wigged Superman, the task becomes nearly impossible. Then again, it was Carnaval, people had been drinking since afternoon, and the poor man was feeling his age. Carnaval does that to the best of us.

I have seen pictures of various Carnival(e) celebrations around the world, but none of them are adequate preparation for Carnaval - mind the spelling - as practiced in Badajoz, which is to say, as God surely intended. Badajoz goes Carnaval-crazy. Something like 80,000 people turn out to the Old Quarter on the Saturday of Carnaval; when you factor in the rest of the festivities,  you realise that nobody in Badajoz is doing much else for at least five days of February. In fact, there are people here whose whole lives revolve around Carnaval, much as there are people in the Anglosphere who can never quite seem to shake off Christmas.

A quick dash to the shops.
These people - Carnaval Types - are most likely to be found in the murgas, in which troupes of grown men (they are nearly always men, although this is apparently not a legal requirement) dress up and perform a sort of musical sketch show. There is a formal competition, with ticketed entry, and then, throughout the week, there are impromptu murga performances in unlikely venues, such as our local Aldi. This imbues the business days during Carnaval with a surreal quality.

To an outsider, the murgas seem like a bit of a lark, but in fact, as locals will be happy to explain, they are serious business. The participants write their own witty lyrics and choreograph their own dances. They practice for most of the year, starting the preceding summer. The costumes are deeply elaborate; my favourite this year was sponsored by Badajoz's La Cubana bakery, and featured a range of the sticky, old-fashioned treats for which the bakery is justly famous. (Have you ever seen a man dressed as a bollo de leche? Then, my friend, you have not lived.) There is a cash prize for the best murga. And of course, there are murga politics, in which accusations are made of nepotism and corruption. (Spain is quite a transparent country these days, but many of its citizens remain deeply suspicious that the system is stacked somehow against them, probably by someone whose son knows the mayor.) It's all pretty diverting.

After everyone has argued about the murgas comes the real business of Carnaval: the party. Southern Spaniards, blessed with a warm, dry climate and indefatigable constitutions, have the practice of drinking in the street down to a fine art, with its own name: botellón. Normally, during the year, botellón is the province of teenagers, university students, and deranged alcoholics, who gather happily together in the parks after dark every Friday and Saturday night and see if they can't generate some noise complaints. During Carnaval, though, botellón goes mainstream. The supermarkets sell pre-made botellón packs, in approved botellón ratios: one bottle of spirits to one two-litre bottle of soft drink. And perfectly respectable people, who mind you can afford to drink in a bar, nevertheless find it rational to spend the hours between, say, 10pm and 2am drinking in the streets. In February, when temperatures often drop well below zero. I'm telling you, they breed 'em tough in Spain.

Oh, and did I mention? They all do this while dressed in costumes. Because why would you wear a coat and gloves when you can wear a thin layer of lycra instead? 

Then comes the parade on Carnaval Sunday, which starts at 3pm, a time which strikes most locals as unbearably early. (When are we supposed to rest?) Perhaps because of the uncivilised starting time, the parade is widely derided by childless locals, but that doesn't seem to stop people from moseying on down, post-siesta, and joining the fun. There are serious floats in the parade, and of course parade politics, but the real fun is to be had at the tail end, which is largely composed of groups who had decided to participate at 6am that morning, and who, dressed in costume and toting recovery beers, seem decidedly worse for wear.
But for all the politics and high drama, and that strange feeling that five days off work has left you worse off than when you started,the most important feature of Carnaval, is that it's fun. There's something really nice about seeing gainfully employed people put on a Superman costume, grab a bottle of rum, and kick up their heels. It's a feeling of release that only a five-day weekend can really bring, and if that's how Spaniards want to celebrate the onset of Lent, I say let'em. Just don't mind me if I slip out early. My rum-drinking days are behind me, and I have no Carnaval attendance record to maintain. Thank goodness for that. 
Taking a well-deserved rest on Day 5.

*pronounced Doctor Whoa

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Whatever the arguments for and against the continuing European tradition of trading-free Sundays, they have one shining advantage in my view: they free you from the obligation to do anything useful with your Sunday. The shops are closed, so there's no point in making that traditional, hellish Sunday-afternoon trip to the supermarket, and when you add the great Spanish love of downtime, you are usually relieved of any taxing social obligations as well. So, if you're still getting to know an area, Sundays are perfect for making day trips, or "going for a drive" as we, in our car-centric culture, like to call it.

This Sunday we visisted Olivenza, a picturesque little town on the Portuguese border. Although it is only 20km from Badajoz, Olivenza manages to avoid altogether the impression that it is a mere "dormitorio" for the city. In fact, it looks nothing like Badajoz, which tends towards the modern and industrial. Rather, it's a classic southern pueblo, all white walls and cobblestones. It's a fairly well-heeled town; however deeply in economic crisis Spain might be, there are still plenty of people around with plenty of nice, untouched country money under their beds, or wherever it is that they keep it. In Australia we call these people the squatocracy, as a semi-joke, but here, where only relatively gentle land reforms were implemented, many of them really do come from the old landed classes. 

If you mention Olivenza in Badajoz, people will all tell you the same three things: 1. that it's a lovely town; 2. that the Portuguese still claim that it is part of Portugal, and 3. that you have to try the local specialty, tecula mecula. The first claim is undeniably true - Olivenza is about as clean and well-maintained as pueblos come, and it has several lovely public spaces, perfect for that great pueblo pastime, sitting (not pictured).

The second claim is also true, sort of: Olivenza was long the subject of territorial battles between the Spanish and the Portuguese, back in the days when crossing the border meant something more than VAT evasion. There have been a series of treaties since, with claims and counter-claims about the legal standing of each.  The current situation, as I understand it, is that Spain administers the territory but Portugal still marks the town as Portuguese on their maps; a fair compromise, I guess, since Portugal pretty much has its hands full, from an operational point of view. I can report that the signs in the pueblo are all written in Portuguese as well as Spanish, and that the bakery there serves a mean custard tart. These are not, perhaps, grounds for a separatist movement, but they certainly make for an interesting day out.

And the tecula mecula? Well, that's between you and your cardiologist. All Spanish pueblos have a specialty that you absolutely have to try; at least in the South, nearly all of these involve some combination of egg yolks, almonds, and lots of sugar. To these never-fail ingredients, tecula mecula adds pork lard - Spain is no place to be a vegetarian, animal ingredients show up in all sorts of unexpected places - and is consequently even richer than the usual pueblo treat. I don't know how anyone ever gets through a whole cake of the stuff, but thankfully the local bakeries also serve it in pieces so small they feel nearly virtuous. I said nearly

Mind you, I defy you to hear the phrase "famous bakery" and not go rushing immediately to the hallowed site in question. As it turns out, the bakery in Olivenza is rather famous, and doing a pretty good business to boot. (Crisis? What crisis?) It seemed half of Badajoz was there, buying treats by the dozen to take back to their kids, grandkids, workmates, and, oh well, just a sneaky one or two for themselves while they're here; what else are Sundays for?

It's nearly Carnval here, and the pueblerinos themselves were in holiday mode. Kids and adults alike were dressed up in costume to conduct the usual pueblo Sunday business, i.e., hanging out in the town plaza.  Many people were dressed up as gypsies, which is perhaps a more racially loaded choice here, where the Romani are an actual, living minority and not something people think of as fictional. At any rate, only one of the fake-gypsies went down the stereotyped path of fake-pregnant. I think we can call that a win.

So as the sun went down, we left the good people of Olivenza to their own devices, drinking their rum-and-cokes and dancing in the plaza to the tackiest 90's remixes imaginable. (Anyone for a Smurfs remix of the Macarena? Me neither.) The bakeries were closing, and now we were out of place: we had forgotten to bring our gypsy outfits. Maybe next year.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Spain versus France: Doping Puppets edition

Just when you thought the cold weather was going to keep the country occupied for a bit, along comes a new distraction. The Spanish are up in arms about a series of videos in which it is implied that Rafael Nadal, the Spanish tennis great and favourite son, owes his success to drug use. (This is all the more hurtful because, although Rafa has never been anything but squeaky-clean, his He-Man physique does rather lend itself to malicious speculation.) The videos are distasteful, and not particularly funny, but then it's a satirical puppet show; what exactly was everyone expecting?

This comes on the heels of Alberto Contador's Tour de France title loss and two-year ban from cycling, and, as the videos make clear, it's not just Rafa who's the target: the punchline is that "Spaniards don't win for no reason". In other words, Contador's infractions are just the tip of the iceberg - any Spanish sporting achievement is suspicious. 

Naturally, the Spanish are extremely cross about this. Rafa himself has been, characteristically, fairly restrained on the subject, but that doesn't stop everyone else from opining, and for once Spain has achieved something approaching a national consensus. Everyone from the foreign minister to the sports minister to the parliamentary leader of the Catalan  nationalists (don't ask) has weighed in, along with the redoubtable socialist leader Alfredo Perez Rubalcaba, never one to miss a good populist opportunity. A protest has been launched, an inquiry will be had, and many, many opinions about the French and what they are good for will be shared at bars all around the country. 

This was all to be expected. Spaniards enjoy a good ribbing as much as anyone, but they also have a well-developed national talent for umbrage, made all the keener when the offending party is French (or, better, the French). It is generally suspected here, probably accurately, that the French look down on their western neighbours; Spaniards attribute this to the fact that they have a habit of winning French sports competitions, particularly the Tour de France and the French Open. This is doubtless the case, but it misses the rather obvious point that the Spanish are hardly the only targets of French disdain. Just ask the English, or the Americans, or the Germans for that matter.

More to the point, although they are hardly a flag-waving people, the Spanish invest a great deal of national pride in their sports stars, who have, to be fair, racked up outsize achievements in the last few years. I have had more than one perfectly reasonable Spaniard explain to me that their victory in the 2010 football World Cup was especially sweet at a time of such economic distress, as if the 23% unemployment rate was not primarily a matter of aggregated private tragedy but of hurt national pride, for which the achievements of an elite but frankly overpaid group of young men can be considered ample compensation. Tell that to the people on the dole queue.

At any rate, it's almost heartwarming, at a time of profound polarisation, to see the Spanish overcoming their differences and getting on their collective high horse about something. There's nothing like a bit of outrage to keep the blood flowing in the cold weather, after all. And nobody really liked French cheese anyway.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Ay, que frío!

One thing you learn very quickly in Spain is that the weather commands a healthy share of people's attention and emotional energy, no matter what season it is currently, or whether or not the person you're talking to has any plans involving outdoor activity of any description. The weather report on Spanish news is incredibly long and detailed: by my timing, at least 10 minutes of the 1-hour evening news bulletin is taken up by weather on an average day, when there is nothing really to report. And so technical! I am generally impressed by the "synoptic chart" in an average Australian news broadcast, but that thing is child's play compared to a Spanish weather report, which must include all of the following elements: a map and detailed descriptions of the forecast in every major municipal centre; a narrative describing the past three day's weather, or so, and predicting the next week, which requires detailed explanations of how each region's weather is affecting that of the others; a chart showing current and incoming pressure systems, another one showing wind directions; and striking viewer-supplied photographic images of the weather in every province (these are presumably the reward for sitting through the 10-minute science lesson, like a lollipop given to a child after his vaccinations).

That's on a normal day. When something out of the ordinary happens, weather-wise, say goodbye to the rest of your news bulletin (yes, even the economic crisis can take a back seat for this). That's what's happening now, with a cold front - or, as the Spanish are calling it, ola de frío siberiano - blowing over most of the country, and causing 30 provinces to be put on alert for cold temperatures. There has been snow in Barcelona, and in the Balearic Islands, and all across the north coast, and even famously mild Seville has had temperatures below freezing. Naturally, then, the news channels have brought out the big guns. Meteorologists from several universities must be interviewed; the technical explanation is supplemented by new charts, including a rather excellent one of the effect of wind chill on every temperature between 0 and 20 degrees (omitting not a single increment; people need to be told!); correspondents stand by wearing beanies in Asturias, in the Sierra Nevada, in Bilbao, in Menorca, to give us live footage of  what cold weather looks like. Some news bulletins have optional extras - yesterday there was an  interview with a guy from the Spanish road authority telling people how to drive in cold, icy conditions (slowly and carefully), plus an interview with a dietitian explaining how people's metabolism is faster in the cold (and thus, I suppose, more churros are needed). 

But my favourite segment of all is the vox pops. These are mandatory; they must be taken in Madrid, Barcelona, and, from what I can tell, at least two regional centres. They must involve an elderly caballero with a hat and a walking stick, explaining that he intends to go on his afternoon paseo, no matter what, just as he has been doing for seventy years; a silly young girl in manifestly unsuitable outerwear, complaining that she doesn't like to do anything when it's cold; and a well-to-do lady in furs, with a helmet set to her hair, explaining rather sternly that the cold is nothing, as long as you wear a decent coat and heat your house properly.

All very sound advice - the Spanish are, on the whole, a sensible people. In fact, I am feeling the frío now - and the weather report has just started. Time to turn the heating up, settle in in front of the TV, have a glass of local vino tinto. And if the frío is still here in the morning, it might just be time to order in some of those churros.

A New Hope

So. The whole blogging-as-soon-as-I-got-to-Spain thing didn't really turned out as I hoped. I could blame this on the fact that I ended up being in Madrid, and not in Badajoz, and working full-time all summer long, but that doesn't really cut it, does it? So let's just agree that I became a little too Spanish, went a little too native, and temporarily abandoned my ambitions of recording my Spanish adventures for the rather more visceral pleasures of terrazas, the Reina Sofia, tinto de verano, and Madrid's best Chino Chino (calle Hermosilla 101, for anyone playing along at home). Oh Madrid, I miss you.

At any rate, after a trip home for my sister's wedding, Christmas, New Years, and the like, I'm back in Badajoz, working as a Conversation Assistant at a couple of the local high schools, a gig which turns out to be both challenging and reasonably stress-free, at least for the moment. More on that, perhaps, in a later post. There are a few glimpses of other professional opportunities, but in Spain it pays to be patient, so right now I'm just cruising into my English classes, enjoying my afternoons off, playing hooky from my español para inmigrantes classes, and generally learning to take it easy. When in Rome, after all.

This is the main lesson of life in Spain: it doesn't always need to be so tough; you are not always required to achieve, or even desire, more. If you have a job that keeps you afloat financially, and gets you out of the house occasionally, and it doesn't leave you lying awake at night worrying about ridiculous things, well, lucky you. There is no need to be a Nobel-winning author or CEO of Repsol or President of the European Central Bank. Why would you want that? People who end up in those positions clearly don't value their rest enough. Sometimes good enough is just that.

And with that cheery thought, I'm off to El Corte Ingles. Not to shop, but to admire things, run into people we know, have a coffee and do a spot of people-watching. Because it's Saturday morning, and on Saturday mornings, that's what you do.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A word on semantics

One of the great joys of living in a foreign country is coming across little gems of colloquial language. I studied Spanish for three years at university, but managed never to come into contact with "novelero", either as noun or adjective.

This is probably an admission of appalling ignorance, but in my defence, dictionaries wouldn't help with this one. Online, we would find the following definitions:

Novelero/a, adj. Imaginative, creative. Expressive. Curious.
Novelero/a, n. Someone who embroiders their stories. Someone who likes reading novels.

All well and good. But none of these really captures novelero, in the sense that I have encountered it, here in southern Spain. "Curious" comes closest, but 'novelero' in my sense is both more bitchy and more useful.

So, then, what do I mean by it?

A novelero is somebody who is constantly drawn to the latest thing. To novelty, but not just novelty; specifically, to things with buzz. Sydneysiders, if you have queued at Adriano Zumbo's for a macaron; if you took capoeira classes in 2008 or zumba classes last year; if you have at any time in the MasterChef era, signed up for cooking classes; if you traded your iPhone for an Android or vice versa; if you look at the reviews in Good Living and think, "yes, I SHOULD try the okonomiyaki at Emon", well, then, you, my friend, are a novelero. Or a novelera. Join the club.

It's a useful word, no?

Noveleros are particularly interesting in Spain because Spain is not, as a whole, a country obsessed with novelty. Compared to us New Worlders, Spaniards have a strong sense of who they are and where they are from; of their tastes and strengths, their likes and dislikes. Spaniards, to generalise shamelessly, are more inclined to go to the same bar for the same breakfast every morning than to seek out the hot new thing. I like and respect this about the Spanish, but do not share it.

But Badajoz, which will be my base in Spain, is apparently a city of noveleros. (Which makes me feel right at home, because Sydney is, too. See above.) At the moment, the list of novelero obsessions in Badajoz seems to include padel, a sort of squash-lite, and gin and tonic, to which they devote whole hilarious sections of the menu, and which they winningly call "gin tonic". The old quarter in Badajoz has recently undergone a large-scale civic rejuvenation, and is pulsing with new bars and clubs, at which Badajoz hipsters, young and old, like to enjoy their aforementioned gin tonics. More on all this, I daresay, at a later date.

Naturally, this is paradise for a novelera like me, and I look forward to exploring it. Join me if you will.