Carnaval (and no, I haven’t spelt it wrongly!)

One of the (many) things I love about Spain is the interesting festivals that are held here. I particularly like it when said festivals are accompanied by a public holiday, and a day off school…

But I digress.

Anyway, next week is Carnaval, and preparations are already in full swing. According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, Carnaval is a “festival of the libido” which occurs before Lent.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when I first heard the word “Carnaval”, I imagined Brazil, and scantily clad dancers parading down the street to the sound of Latin music.


But given that it was SNOWING in Madrid last week, bikinis are never going to be a part of the Carnaval here.

Instead, the carnaval involves getting dressed up in some kind of costume, and having a party. Costume parties seem to be extremely popular in Spain, and near my house, there is a very large shop which stocks all manner of disguises. Here’s a photo from today:


I’m assuming that it’s “supreme leader” Kim Jong-un, but I really don’t know. In a panda onesie. And gangsta sunnies. With a cocktail umbrella on the side. And hardcore arm folding. Plus a marijuana leaf lei. Talk about a bizarre combination…

(Aside- You’re not going to believe this, but the Kim Jong-un costume wasn’t even the strangest in the shop. That award was won by one of Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish Prime Minister, clad in a red lobster onesie, with a cigar in his mouth, and a skimpy shell bikini over the top. Dear god. The mind absolutely BOGGLES…).


Anyway, at my school, the Carnaval celebrations are (comparatively) tame. On Wednesday, the students have to come in a disguise, which is different for each grade. For instance, the Grade 4 group have to come as artists, and the Grade 5 group as firemen, fire, water, or policemen.

But, for me, the best part of the Carnaval is the appearance of the peluche. Every day, in the week before Carnaval, the peluche gives the children “homework.” This homework is typically a bit naughty. For example, on Tuesday, the peluche told the children to wear something silly on their head. On Thursday, it told them to wear their socks in a funny place, so they turned up with socks on their ears. And so on…

The problem with the peluche is that, umm, it isn’t young (that’s putting it mildly). Rather, it appears to have been hanging around in a cupboard or similarly salubrious locale for, well, 20 years. After a few days sitting on its seat, it’s not looking its best. Rather, it appears ready for a visit (or, more precisely, a permanent move) to the nearest garbage bin…

Another of the more interesting aspects of Carnaval is the ritual burning of the paper sardine. After the children have paraded through the school in their costumes, someone brings out this gigantic paper sardine, covered in hundreds of carefully constructed scales. Each of the scales belongs to one of the kids, and on the back, they have written something they would like gone from the world e.g. war, bullying. At the finish of the celebrations, the sardine is burnt, and the bad things are “symbolically destroyed.”

It always amazes me that this symbolic burning proceeds incident free. It would seem to be asking for trouble to set a giant paper fish alight amidst a crowd of small children, but perhaps I’m too much of a worrier.

And I suppose, in the end, there was always the kids dressed up in the firefighter costumes to put out any unintended blazes…

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…


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.


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.


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).


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!


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.


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…


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.


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.


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.


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.


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…


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.


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).


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.


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.”


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.


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.



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…


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!


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.

colorful reusable bags.jpg.838x0_q67_crop-smart

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