Spanish New Year

One of the more intriguing contrasts between Australia and Spain is how the New Year is celebrated. Last year, I was in Portugal, so I wasn’t able to experience a genuine Spanish New Year. But this year, I was fortunate enough to be invited to spend the evening with a friend and his family at their home in Madrid…

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At the beginning of the evening, things tend to be pretty normal. You sit around with the other guests, enjoying dinner and a few drinks, in the lead up to the big event.

Ho hum.

But at 11:45p.m., the preparations start in earnest. See, in Spain (unlike any other place on earth!), when the clock strikes midnight, there is a particular ceremony to be followed, namely The Ritual of the Grapes. The Ritual goes as follows:- as the clock rings each of its twelve times, the assembled multitude are required to eat a grape. So, by the end of the twelve chimes, you should have eaten twelve grapes. Each grape equates to a month of good luck, so eat them all, and you’ll have a lucky year.

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Now, let me assure you, having twelve grapes in your mouth is not as easy as it may look, especially when the official clock is chiming away every couple of seconds. For this reason, some people elect to “make things easier” (i.e. cheat) by peeling the grapes and removing the seeds, so that they “go down smoothly.” Or, if you’re REALLY lazy, you can buy a little packet of grapes, seeds and skin removed, and all ready to go when the time comes.

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This is how you can buy your grapes in the supermarket.

Seriously, this thing is a SCIENCE.

For my first year with the grapes, I was determined to have the genuine experience, seeds, skin, and all. As the clock approached midnight, I arranged my grapes, and prepared for the countdown (hosted on TV by a man who appeared to have taken style tips from Count Dracula- seriously, who on earth wears a CAPE nowadays?- and his glamorous assistant).

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At the first chime of the clock…nothing happened. See, for some bizarre reason, the official New Year grape clock in the Puerta del Sol chimes four times as a kind of warm up lap, before starting the official countdown. This is a trap for the unwary! Hold back, and don’t start eating the grapes before the TV tells you to!

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The official clock in the Puerta del Sol.

When it’s the REAL countdown, twelve grapes appear on the TV screen, and, with each chime of the clock, you eat one of your previously prepared fruits. The problem, I discovered, is that you don’t really have time to chew, so instead of eating the grapes, it’s more a case of storing them in your cheeks until you have time to chew them and digest them properly.

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The whole thing is treated with the seriousness of a military campaign, and it was positively surreal to watch my friend’s dad, his sister, and his brother lined up on the sofa, eyes glued to the TV, and arms moving in unison to deposit the grapes in their respective receptacles on each strike of the clock.

Miraculously, I managed to insert all the grapes into my mouth without gagging/vomiting/choking/otherwise requiring medical intervention, which means that I ought to have avoided a year of bad luck. But whether this will extend to managing to avoid having to eat the grapes next New Year, I’m not too sure…

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Grapes 10-12- “You stop wishing, and concentrate on not choking.” If only this was a joke.

My neighbours (or sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll made real…)

Aah, neighbours! The bane of everyone’s existence. Or at least of mine…

And this year, I seem to have struck the proverbial jackpot in terms of seriously unusual residents of my particular postal district.

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My street. Neighbours not shown.

So, without further ado, here is a brief spotters’ guide to some of the “treasures” of La Latina. And let’s just say, this neighbourhood really does justice to the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll cliché…

1.The Strippers

Sex, drugs, or rock ‘n’ roll?: Sex

Identifying characteristics: Two men. The first is a bearded fellow in his 40s, the second (who I assume is the first guy’s son or perhaps his partner) is a hairless man in his late teens.

Location: On the other side of my street, directly opposite my loungeroom window.

Claim to fame: I first became aware of The Strippers when I was relaxing on my sofa after a hard day at work. I opened the window, and was greeted by the sight of a middle aged, bearded man standing on the balcony opposite, clad only in his (very brief) briefs. When he saw that I’d seen him, he didn’t seem at all concerned, and continued to stand on the balcony in his undies, flexing his muscles and taking in the view.

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This is NOT my neighbour!

This has since become a regular occurrence- I open the window, and am greeted by the sight of my neighbour in his tighty whities, “delighting” observers with his body. Although sometimes, my neighbour decides to take a day off (perhaps he’s washing his undies?), and a younger, trimmer man replaces him on the balcony, and goes through the same display routine.

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Alas, he is more like this…

2. The Smoker

Sex, drugs, or rock ‘n’ roll?: Drugs

Identifying characteristics: I haven’t seen them, so I can’t say.

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What I imagine my neighbour looks like

Location: The flat below mine.

Claim to fame: The Smoker likes to relax of an evening by having a few puffs of a joint. But the thing is, his/her landlord doesn’t permit smoking in the apartment, so The Smoker always opens their doors and windows to air the place out. This is all well and good, except that the smoke drifts into the foyer of the building, and then into the other apartments. And let’s just say, The Smoker is smoking some VERY strong stuff. Simply walking past their door is enough to make me feel lightheaded…

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3. The Patriot

Sex, drugs, or rock ‘n’ roll?: Rock ‘n’ roll (if flamenco counts)

Identifying characteristics: I can’t say, as I’ve never seen The Patriot. But it’s definitely a man.

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Location: On the other side of the street, next to The Strippers.

Claim to fame: The Patriot has taken the saying “todo por la patria” to heart. His apartment is a veritable shrine to Spain. His balcony is festooned with a gigantic Spanish flag, with a number of smaller flags tacked up around his windows. Of an evening, he enjoys blasting the neighbourhood with flamenco music (I’m not complaining about this, although after a couple of hours, it does start to lose its appeal).

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Camarón de la Isla, one of the favourites of The Patriot

One day, when the Catalan referendum had stirred up a lot of passions, a passerby saw The Patriot’s decorations, and started hurling abuse from the street. The Patriot was absolutely incensed, and began screaming out of his window, using his choicest Spanish swear words.

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I’m not sure which of these three delightful neighbours is the best. All? None? But I guess if I find myself in dire financial straits, I could always sell tickets for a night out in my loungeroom, with high quality entertainment…

“The supermarket experience”

One thing which I was sorely unprepared for when I came to Spain was what I term “the supermarket experience.”

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I had naïvely assumed that shopping here would be the same as back home, but no, I was very much mistaken. And I found this out the hard way (namely, through trial and error and total humiliation).

What, then, are some of the defining characteristics of supermarket shopping in Spain?

1. Granny trolleys are EVERYWHERE

Whilst the granny trolley is an object of derision in many parts of Australia, in Spain, it seems to be perfectly acceptable to take your carrito to the shops. In fact, they even have a little space at the front of the supermarket where you can lock up your precious trolley, lest anyone want to steal it.

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2. The fruit section is an absolute minefield

Beginners BEWARE! The fruit area is not for the unwary. First, you must ascertain if the supermarket is full service or self-service. If it’s full service, you tell the fruit person what you want, and they will select it for you, and put it in a bag.

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From https://gnocchiadicta.wordpress.com/2013/05/29/triana-hecha-mercado/

If, however, it’s self-service, you have to choose and bag the fruit yourself.

“Great!” you may say. “Too easy.” Aah, but it isn’t…

For a start, touching the fruit with your bare hands is not acceptable. Rather, you have to don a pair of plastic gloves. One of my Spanish friends, who is very concerned about wastage and pollution, bucked the trend, and picked up some fruit with his hands, only to be soundly abused by a fellow customer for being dirty and unhygienic. You have been warned…

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The sign says “For hygiene, use the gloves to pick up your product.”

(Aside: I trust you’re enjoying these photos! I had to try and surreptitiously take them when I was shopping, and hope that the security guard didn’t see me…)

Second, in contrast to Australia, you need to weigh and price the greens yourself. This is an easy process- there’s scales everywhere, and you just enter the code for the stuff you’re buying, and attach the sticker which is printed out. But I didn’t know this at first. So I was going to the checkout with my fruit unstickered, and being told “no.” Eventually, a checkout clerk took pity on me and showed me what to do, but if she hadn’t, I would still have been taking my unstickered apples to the counter in vain.

Third, when you’re queuing for your turn at the scales, you need to be careful of a particular type of queue jumper. These individuals are elderly ladies, who look innocent, but who are demons incarnate. Their modus operandi is to feign disinterest, and then suddenly leap to the front of the queue when they think you’re not watching. Because they’re elderly, you think “Oh, poor old thing! I’ll let her go in front.” But seriously, this sort of queue jumping is NOT on!

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The most intriguing aspect of the queue jump is that these ladies know EXACTLY what they’re doing. Today, one “tried her moves” on me, and I refused to budge. She just shrugged her shoulders, and waited. But if I’d let her go in front, she would have taken her chance, make no mistake.

3. At the checkout

In contrast to Australia, in Spain it is the customer who does the bagging, not the shop assistant. So don’t just stand there, looking stupid, while they are scanning the items and chucking them to the side. This is your cue to start piling your stuff into your bags.

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Well, there you have it. Now you have no excuses for not knowing what to do!

My favourite students- Part I

I was reminded yesterday that I have been pretty lax in posting on this blog, though more from lack of motivation than from an absence of interesting occurrences. So, with this in mind, I decided to write an update. And not just any update. No. An update about a positive subject (Fear not, I doubt this will become a regular theme!).

A few months ago, I wrote a post about my three least favourite students, and so, for the sake of completeness, I thought I should write a post about my favourite students.

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Disclaimer- in some respects, I feel ashamed to admit that I have favourite students. It doesn’t seem fair or just. But this being said, I think it’s inevitable that just as I prefer certain adults to certain other adults (this is, after all, the difference between friends, acquaintances, and enemies), it’s probably not a surprise that I prefer certain kids over others.

But, let me just say, whilst I might like some students more, when grading papers or giving marks or asking questions in class, I am scrupulously fair.

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OK, with these caveats in place, I am going to write about my first favourite student, who I’ll call Matías.

Matías was in the (somewhat infamous) Grade 5 class (which also contained José Luis). I didn’t notice him at first, as he wasn’t particularly remarkable. He came to class every day. He wasn’t the best student. He wasn’t the worst. He was smart, certainly. But he wasn’t noticeable. He was just kind of, well, there…

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But, about four months into my stint at the school, he approached me, and asked for my autograph. I thought this was a bit odd, and the class teacher recommended that I write something fake, lest Matías be up to something devious. So I wrote a dreadful false signature,  inscribed “To my favourite student, Mateo!”

It was THAT bad. I didn’t even know his name!

But after this incident, I began to pay more attention to my “fan.” And I realised that Matías was actually a lovely kid. So I guess it’s no surprise that within a few weeks, he had become my firm favourite.

And he still is.

What I like about Matías is that he doesn’t worry about what others think of him. For instance, after the autograph incident, the class were doing a project on beans. They had four different types of beans- lima, black, green, and chickpeas- on pieces of cotton wool, and the idea was to guess which would sprout the fastest.

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Let’s just say, the level of interest in the class was pretty low.

Except from Matías.

Every day, he would come to the teacher’s table, and see if he could water the beans. I’d ask him which was growing the fastest, and when there was a sprout, I inquired if he knew why one was growing more rapidly than another. Talking to Matías, I realised that, crazy as it may sound, he was seriously, genuinely interested in the beans. And when it was the school holidays, and someone had to take the beans home, I knew EXACTLY who to nominate…

But when Matías returned from the holidays, I was a bit shocked, because he had:

  • removed each of the little bean plants from the communal pot;
  • planted them in individual containers; and (my heart skips a beat just writing this)
  • tied them all up with tiny stakes, to give them extra support.

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!!!!!!

I probably sound pathetic, because I can’t express myself adequately. But what I like about Matías is that he’s a total individual. He liked the beans, and that was all that mattered. If someone made fun of him, he didn’t listen, because he was too cool for that. And I don’t mean too cool in a “Wow, guys, I’m just WAY above this!” sort of way, or in terms of an attitude. He didn’t have an attitude.

It was just that he was interested in the beans, and if someone else couldn’t understand that, well, that was their problem, not his.

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I love this.

And I wish I had been like that when I was 10 years old.

One of my biggest worries is that as he grows older, Matías will succumb to peer pressure, and lose his appreciation of oddness.

But I am determined to do my best to ensure that he NEVER feels ashamed of his interests. If, after two years at the school, Matías is still the individual that he is now, all my time will have been worth it.