19/12/2010

The place where I will marry

Today was a special day. Today we visited the place where we're going to get married.

It was the second time we'd stepped through the heavy wooden doors of Finca Casa Esquileo. But this time, with the bloke's parents with us, it felt official.

Like old pros we showed them the pretty garden that'll make a great place to hold the welcome cocktail. Then on to the rustic old banquet hall, with the 18th Century graffiti on the walls. And the old preserved house where we can do the family photos.

Because we're actually going to do it. We're going to get married, and we're going to do it there.

And even though we're in the grip of winter and your breath freezes in front of your face and your toes are icy slivers in your shoes, I see it as summer with my heart's wet eyes.

I can see the tables all laid out, with place names for all the people I love most in the world. I can see my Dad stood up at the top table, thanking everyone for coming. I can see us swaying across the dance floor, taking tentative steps into the next chapter.

I can't say that I was ever one of those little girls that daydreamed about the day I would get married. In fact, at one point I thought I would just never bother.

But now it seems like I can think of little else. I'm prone to letting my mind run away with wedding thoughts in spare moments, or searching online for details I can steal. And it's only two months down the line, what's come over me?

One thing will stay with me from today. On the way back to the car after checking out the cute little church close to the venue, there was a group of Japanese tourists taking a photo. I waited patiently for them to finish, but the guy with the camera said "pasa, pasa" (ie - you can pass)

I thought to myself, oh, they think I'm Spanish. As as I continued on my way, to where the bloke and his parents were waiting, I realised - I sort of am. I'm marrying a Spaniard, I work here, speak the language - I've built my life here. This is home. I will always be proud of being British, but in some respects I am Spanish.

And that's a great feeling indeed.

15/12/2010

New York part four: Al Pacino, limos, helicopters and butterflies




Day six - Thursday

Wake up to glorious sunshine. Decide to abandon our Statue of Liberty trip altogether as there are no tickets left that would allow us to actually go inside it and up to the crown (if you want to do this book well in advance) So instead we decide to do a helicopter ride, which will allow us to fly over the top of it and get a really great view.

the bloke rings up to sort it out over breakfast and we're booked in for a 3.30pm flight. That gives us time for a little more shopping back in Soho. We find the Burton shop and while the bloke checks out the clothes I fall in love with Charlie, a tiny little chocolate coloured poodle who belongs to the manageress of the shop. He's got a security tag on his collar so they'll know if he goes outside. (Or if someone tries to steal him.) He's so friendly and when I pick him up for a cuddle he smells of flowers. Looks more like a little teddy bear than your typical poodle. Decide I want a poodle too.

We get in a taxi and zoom down to lower Manhattan to Pier six where the helipad is. As we're queueing up outside we see a bride and groom arrive. They're about the sixth pair of newlyweds we've seen on the trip. they're everywhere. The first ones we saw, the bloke shouted "viva los novios" (sort of 'long live the bride and groom') and the bride nearly jumped out of her skin. It's a nice thing to do if the couple speak Spanish. If not, all you've got is a mad spanish bloke shouting something at you that you don't understand.



I start to feel nervous as I see helicopters taking off and landing. But my nervousness soon turns to boredom as we wait, and wait and wait. the helipad is so badly organised, with several different companies all operating there. People who turn up off the street without an appointment seem to be jumping the queue. And a family of four who are booked in for a 4.00pm flight get to go ahead of us as there's four of them, so they'll fill a helicopter. It's annoying but apparently the place gets more chaotic as the day goes on, so if you do want to do a heli ride, book for early in the morning.

Two hours after we arrive we finally are led onto the helipad to do the flight. My heart is doing the river dance in my chest, but the bloke is calm - he did about 60 heli rides in Alaska when he was heliboarding, so it's nothing new to him. We're in with two other couples - one German, one Spanish.

We put our headsets on and the pilot introduces himself. then Just as I'm busy taking photographs the helicopter takes off. What a rush! The next 15 minutes were incredible. We fly over the Statue of Liberty and up Manhattan, over Ground Zero, Central Park and the Yankees Stadium. When the helicopter turns it feels like it's about to go upside down.

Too soon it's over, but the wait has been worth it. The sun is just setting as we come in to land so we get some amazing pictures of the Statue of Liberty with the burning orange sun behind it. And even though we're not really supposed to, we ask the Spanish couple to take a photo of us standing in front of the helicopter. it's one of my favorite from the whole trip.



We walk up to the financial district - something totally different from everything else we've seen. We get pizza as we're totally starving, then go to check out Wall Street and the Stock exchange. There are people in sharp suits everywhere and there's even a Tiffany's - good lunchtime shopping for the rich types. There's a suit standing shouting into his phone about a business deal - looks like he's a cliche who's been put there specially for us.



We finish our tour by going to Ground Zero, which - although it's basically just a building site at the moment - is very humbling. Hard to believe the two towers used to stand there. There's a plan up of what they're going to build there - a memorial featuring two illuminated pools of water. I wonder about the controversial mosque that's supposed to be being built somewhere around. Will it go ahead?

I leave the bloke for a little while and go to Century 21, discount designer goods shop. it's a little mental inside - you really need to rake through to find what you're looking for. But the accessories section is mazing and I get some good DKNY stuff that'll make great Christmas presents for the family back in Durham.

Back at the hotel it's more cocktails. By this point the bar staff are getting to know us and I've found my favorite drink - a Tres Chic. It's a champagne cocktail which has pear flavored vodka, St Germain elderflower liquer, framboise and is garnished with an edible candied hibiscus blossom.

After we've had a few we grab the camera and decide to go on the rampage in Times Square. On the way there we walk past the theatre where Al Pacino is appearing in the Merchant of Venice and see there's a massive queue of people waiting outside the back entrance.

We wait around to see what's going to happen, then all of a sudden people start screaming, and Al Pacino walks out! We push as far to the front as we can and take some pictures. Can't believe I'm actually standing a metre away from Al Pacino - one of my favorite actors of all time. And I'm not the only one who thinks that. The guy next to me is just repeating "Oh my god it's Al Pacino, oh my god it's Al Pacino" over and over.

He does look like crap - straggly hair, horrible beard (which i guess he had to grow to play Shylock) but he's still got such a presence. he spends a good 15 minutes chatting to people and signing autographs, then he jumps into his car and speeds off.

After that we're on a total natural high. We go on a mission to get our photograph taken with as many cops as possible. Most of whom are absolutely lovely and chat to us about Spain, offering up their own story of how they've been there, or know someone who's been there, and really would love to go there.

One cop even lets me sit on his bike and gives me a big hug. And there's a queue of people waiting behind me to do the same. How do these guys actually do any work? Not that they seem to mind though.

after spotting some Navy Cadets and grabbing them for a photo we have some sambucas in a bar just on the corner of Times Square and I chat to a Canadian waiter about how hot the weather's been this week. We've been so lucky. but it's going to be cold tomorrow he says, so I'm glad i brought my winter coat.

We walk towards Hell's Kitchen with the idea of finding somewhere to eat, but all that goes out the window when the bloke spots a limo parked outside a hotel and the man he thinks is the driver.

After a spot of cheeky negotiating he hires the limo for an hour for 100 dollars, and we do an amazing trip around Manhattan, sipping champagne and generally feeling like we rule the world.

He drops us off at our hotel an hour later and by that point we're staving and quite tipsy. nothing for it but drinking about ten gallons of water and getting more room service before we pass out.

Day seven - Friday

No chance whatsoever of getting the bloke out of bed early, so I let him sleep and go for a manicure. Find a nail bar on 9th Avenue run by a Chinese lady and her daughter. As I settle down to get my nails painted a hot pink colour she attempts to make conversation, but I have a bit of trouble understanding her.

Her: You go party?
Me: Party? Oh yes, probably
Her: How long party?
Me: Erm, I don't know how long. Until I get tired.
Her: No, How long party?
Me: Errr...
Her: How long. Candy. Children. masks, ghost.
Me: Ah, Halloween!
Her. Yes. Howlwon.

from what I can figure out, everyone seems to have been coming in to get their nails done for Halloween. The two girls who come in after me get theirs purple and black. Then a man comes in to get a manicure and it takes me by surprise. Can't imagine Brits or Spaniards doing the same.

It's ridiculously cheap - $13 and looks great so I tip the lady $5 after my nails have been dried in the special uv light drier. I know it's probably too much, but I don't care. The two girls look at me like I'm a total idiot.

Back at the hotel finally manage to get the bloke out of bed and we make our way to the Natural History Museum. Before we go in though we have a 3 dollar breakfast in the form of a hotdog from one a roadside stall. Covered in mustard and ketchup - it tastes like heaven.

Once we're inside we go straight to the butterfly enclosure, which is a glass area that's heated up to tropical temperatures. Inside are about a hundred exotic looking butterflies. All fluttering around and occasionally landing on people. They're just beautiful. A few of them look a little tatty, and the guide tells us they're getting to the end of their lives - the butterflies in here will live for about two weeks, no more. That comes as a surprise.



After a long time in butterfly land we leave and try to find the auditorium, where they're going to show a documentary about the hubble telescope. When the attendant I ask for directions hears my English accent he freaks out, and gets me to repeat words like potato and steak, saying they sound much better the way I say them.

Another attendant comes over and tells us we should hear this guy's Michael Jackson impersonation, so we bully him until he sings Heal The World. He does sound amazingly like the King of Pop. He tells us to type his name Jameil and Michael Jackson into youtube and we'll see some videos. I make a mental note.

The hubble documentary blows my mind - especially the bit where it shows some of the images the telescope brought back, of stars being born, millions of light years away. I feel very small and insignificant indeed.

This continues as we go to the Rose Ceter for Earth and Space to see another installation at their IMAX-style auditorium, this one a Whoopi Goldberg-narrated one called Journey to the Stars. Did you know there are about 40,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars or more out there? Where do they even get that number? i'm pretty impressed but the bloke falls asleep

We spend the rest of the time looking at some of the permanent collections, including my favorite - the dinosaur skeletons. And we got a cheesy photograph taken, with both of us pretending to be scared by some dinosaur fossils.

We stay till the last possible minute then are ushered out with the rest of the museum goers. Outside it's freezing - the temperature has dropped at least ten degrees since yesterday. I'm struck by how lucky we've been with the weather.

Despite that, we really feel like a walk, so we set off, walking past the famous Magnolia Bakery, where people are queuing to buy cupcakes. For once we opt out - I've pretty much overdosed on wheat by this point. We also pass a street that seems vaguely familiar, then i work out why - it's the one Carrie's from Sex and the City's house is on.

Close by we find an amazing pet shop that has a pick n mix style counter full of Halloween-themed biscuits. Even doggies can get in on the action too. The bloke is delighted when we find a magazine shop that has a wall full of fishing mags. He buys a whole ton.

We finally get back to Hells Kitchen and find a lovely Chilean restaurant, Pomaire, to have dinner in. Before the main course (lovely chicken stew) has even arrived the bloke is best friends with the manger, who keeps putting on a fake mustache and hard hat - dressing up as one of the liberated miners.

A policeman comes in to say hello, and afterwards he tells us how Hells Kitchen used to be a real dump, full of whore houses and drugs. now it's not like that obviously, and the increased police presence obviously helps. there are a staggering 40,000 cops in Manhattan, he tells us.

After sharing an enormous jug of sangria and a having a Frangelico each, we stagger back to the hotel. It's a choice between packing or cocktails, and you can guess which one wins. at least we've managed to check in online. We'll sort the rest out tomorrow.

Day 8 - Saturday

Wake up very sad that is's our last day. Boo. Head over to Soho to meet up with my old school friend Jenny, who's now living in New York with her American husband. We meet them at Nolita House - cool little cafe that has a live band on.

Spend the next few hours trying to catch up on the last, what - ten years? Can't believe it's been so long. She fills me in on the people in our old group I've lost touch with, and I do the same. jobs, marriages, babies, etc. When did we all get so old?

I do envy Jenny her glamorous life, living in New York. but her job sounds horrendously stressful. She works long days as an accountant, and only gets 10 days holiday a year. And most of her workmates frown on her for taking those. I'm glad things are different in Spain.

We go our separate ways, promising to meet up at Christmas. (We'll both be in Durham) And off they go to finish their Halloween costume shopping. She's going as her husband, he's going as her. they both agree that Halloween is a major deal over here.

Back at the hotel we set about taking all the tags off our purchases and trying to fit everything into two suitcases. it's difficult, but with the bloke's superior packing skills, we manage.

Then we take one last walk around Times Square and I buy myself a tacky 'I heart NY' hoody. Think it'll look pretty cool back in Madrid.

We check out, then spend the last hour of our time in New York in the hotel bar. By the time Martin, the travel company driver comes to pick us up I am slightly tipsy, and very sad. We don't want to leave.

New York was just magic. It exceeded my expectations - blew every other holiday I've ever had out of the water. I'll never forget it. Thanks so much to the bloke for making it happen, it really was a once in a lifetime trip.

04/12/2010

That's the holiday weekend completely ruined then


Something unthinkable happened this weekend. Spain just completely ground to a halt on puente weekend - one of the biggest holiday weekends of the year.

Most people had five days off work. Even me, oh joy! But for any poor suckers who had to catch a flight it all turned to shit, as Spanish aerospace completely shut on Friday evening, just when most of them were setting off to leave.

And it wasn't because of the cold weather, there was no snow or anything like that, oh no. The 2,400 Spanish air traffic controllers - many of whom earn in excess of 700,000 Euros a year - went on strike, throwing the country into complete chaos.

The controllers - who are the highest paid in Europe - have been in dispute with the government for over a year about the privatization of Spain's state airport authority AENA.

A private organization will not tolerate their work monopoly, they think (yep, got to agree with them there) so it's something they've been wanting to avoid. So imagine their horror when on Friday the government approved the sale of 49 percent of the AENA and put a cap on the number of hours the controllers could work per year.

So what did they do? They booked a conference room in a hotel near the airport, and at 5pm staged a completely unannounced mass walkout, saying they'd already worked over the maximum hours this year. The result: Spanish airspace was completely closed, royally ballsing up the whole weekend for everyone.

What followed was total chaos, and highly annoying. If you've ever had a plane cancelled, you'l know what I mean. you feel like you want to stab someone in the eyes, and everyone is blaming everyone else. Well it was pretty obvious whose fault things were here.

but hang on a minute. If the government had an inkling of what would happen when they signed this new agreement, why the hell did they do it just before puente weekend? Couldn't they have waited till next week?

The Spanish economy is in such a bad state right now. By making this new agreement, the government are just trying to bring down last year's budget defect of 11 per cent. With their new capped wages, the controllers would make much more reasonable (by who's standards?) 200,000 Euros. Clearly that's not enough for them.

The bad thing is that our biggest industry is tourism, and this will be hitting it badly. And may put off any prospective tourists from coming here. Maybe Portugal is a safer option?

Now Madrid is in a "State of Alert" for the first time since our new Consituation was signed in 1978.

The military have been sent in, and the controllers - who have signed in to their shifts, but are refusing to work - have been threatened with prison if they don't go back to work. One tearful worker on the news said men with guns had marched into their headquarters and told them to get back to work.

"What kind of atmosphere is that to work under?" she sobbed.

Now I don't have much sympathy, but she does have a point. These people have lives in their hands. if they mess up, they could wipe out two planes in a second.

Would you want to fly knowing the person guiding your plane safely along was emotional and liable to make mistakes?

Luckily, me and the bloke are skint, so going away was not an option for us. but in my group of friends, many have been affected. PB can't take her plane to New York, meaning she's missing out on the trip she's been looking forward to for months. Science Chick is stuck in England, as is Jim. And the bloke's parents can't spend the weekend in London. Anthony, my work colleague is stuck in Bulgaria.

You just have to log into Facebook to see more and more angry people posting their stories.

The Public Works Minister says it'll take 24 to 48 hours for air traffic to return to normal - by which time everyone's holiday plans will be well and truly ruined.

Science Chick's other half The Director posted the following on Facebook: "If I ever meet a Spanish Air traffic controller I won't be held responsible for my actions."

I wonder how many people in Spain are thinking the exact same thing?

18/11/2010

New York part three - tattoos, Central Park, fake Louis Vuitton and the Lion King



Day four - Tuesday

I let the bloke have a lie in and go to investigate Broadway tickets. There are some red steps in Times Square where you get half price ones but I don't know what the deal is. The information guy says the tickets for the night time shows go on sale at 2pm - the queue opens at 1pm. Think I can't really be bothered queuing up for an hour and decide it's going to be best booking tickets online, which we do when we get back to the hotel.

Have a walk around the area and make the mistake of taking a leaflet from some guy from a place that buys gold. Suddenly I'm surrounded by a load of men saying "are you selling? I'll give you the best price" and similar things. Run away and back to the hotel.

Get the bloke out of bed and go to Central Park. The weather is amazing, as it has been all week. Freakishly warm - almost T-shirt weather. We have a great time walking round, watching squirrels, listening to singers, looking at monuments, people watching. We stumble on a photoshoot with loads of drag queens in ball gowns and get some amazing photos.



Have luck in the Boathouse. Gorgeous restaurant overlooking a little lake. Glad I booked it - the maitre d is turning people away who don't have reservation. We're seated on the wooden decking where we have a nice view across the water and people rowing in bashed up old boats. Food-wise, the crab cakes are amazing.

Afterwards we go for a drink in the waterside bar and the bloke throws bread into the lake so he can see the fish who come to the surface to feed. They are enormous, colorful carps, some of them at least half a metre long. The bloke wonders wistfully what would happen if he came back with a fishing rod.



We go on to strawberry fields - the moment opposite the Dakota, where John Lennon was shot dead. In every guide book it says it will always be frequented by someone playing a guitar and singing John Lennon songs. That's just what we find.



It's getting cold so we go back to the hotel for cocktails. Then it's a short walk to the Minskoff Theatre, where we take our seats to watch The Lion King. As a rule the bloke hates musicals, and as we enter, he's not sure if he'll enjoy it. But it's amazing. The costumes are so intricate and the music is really chilling. For me, it's great - I'm reliving all the stuff from the animation that I grew up with. The words from the script pop into my head before the actor says them, coming from a strange forgotten part of my brain.

But why did I not notice before that the only characters with an English accent are the evil death-plotting uncle Scar, and the comedy lackey bird servant Zazu?

Still buzzing from the performance we wanter back the hotel for yet more cocktails and food. We sit down in the restaurant and discover the room service menu is better so we leave and go back to our room to order something.

Day five - Wednesday

Wake up to the first day of bad weather. Raining a bit and grey skies. So instead of our planned trip to the statue of liberty we decide to go and check out China Town and little Italy.

China town is a bit of a let down. Guess we were expecting something a bit more like the one in London, with the golden arches and everything. Go into the buddhist temple at the end of Canal Street and light an incense stick and watch a bit of a religious service that's going on. The huge golden buddha in the temple is very impressive.

Go to the shop and buy matching jade charms for me and the bloke, featuring our animal signs. Mine - the monkey, his - the snake.

Have a real China town experience - buying a fake Louis Vuitton bag. All along Canal Street you'll see Chinese women asking you if you want to buy fake designer bags, Tiffany jewellery, rolexes, etc. If you say yes they'll take you off round the corner where you either go into another shop or meet a man who gives you a laminated card showing you the wares he's got for sale. You then tell him which one you want while he looks shiftily around him before going to get it for you.

That's exactly what we do, and it stresses the poor bloke out no end. "If this goes wrong, I'm going to be very upset with you," he tells me. It did feel like we were doing something really bad though, like we were buying drugs, or something.

The bloke is so nervous he even barters the guy up instead of down with the price. In the end I got it for 160 dollars, which might sound like a lot, but it's a good copy of an 1,500 euro bag, and it is real leather. The whole thing was a pretty funny experience which we laughed a lot about later.

After we both calm down a bit we go to check out a tattoo studio on Canal Street with Broadway and the bloke decides to get something done, an eight-pointed star. They tell us to come back at 6.00pm so we go to check out Mulberry Street and Little Italy

Get pizza at one of the traditional-looking little restaurants and then stop off for a drink at the Mulberry Street bar. it was a favorite with Frank Sinatra and has been used to shoot scenes for the Sopranos, Donnie Brasco and many other mafia-type films.

Back on Broadway we find an amazing t-shirt shop called Yellow Rat Bastard. It even has Tokidoki stuff. The bloke goes a bit mental and picks up about 21 t-shirts. Good job we brought two massive almost empty suitcases.

Go back to get the bloke's tattoo done. The guy who does it, Shay is an a great artist - his studio is full of painting of skulls which he's done himself. When the bloke takes his top off he spots his HR Giger tattoo (the artist behind the designs for Alien) and says he's also got some of his work tattooed. The bloke tells him about his favorite tattoo artist - Robert Hernandez, and shay pulls up his sleeve to show us a piece done by the man himself - a scary face.

While I watch the bloke get his done, decide I would like a tattoo, but don't know what. "Just make sure it's meaningful," says Shay. The noise of the tattoo gun is a bit unpleasant, but the bloke only winces a few times.

We tell Shay we're getting married next year, and he reveals he's also engaged. He's from Israel so is doing one wedding there and one in New York. We wish him a happy wedding and go to leave.

Before we do we're invited to the tattoo shop's Halloween party. One of the staff has got his septum pierced especially and he's going to paint himself red and stick horns and prosthetic fangs on so he can come as the devil. shame we're flying home on Halloween so will miss the fun. There are 30 bottles of white wine sitting on the till that they've just bought - looks like it's going to be an amazing party.

On the way out we check out the art gallery, where the tattooists display their paintings and sculptures. They're all so talented. Looking at shay's skull like demon things, it's clear he's been majorly influenced by Giger. My favorite though is a mixture of photography and painting - it's a little girl standing in front of a spooky house, and there's an evil old woman looking out of the window at her.

back at the hotel we have a few cocktails in the bar then go to check out the best burger in NYC. It's at the burger joint - a tiny diner behind a black curtain in the posh Parker Meridien Hotel. Queues can often be round the block for it apparently but we've left it until the end of the day (11.00pm) so we manage to get in and get a seat.

We order the works - burger with everything on it. It really is the best burger I've had in my life. I don't even like burgers really, but I eat every last morsel.

09/11/2010

New York part two - Ethan Hawke, Where Harry Met Sally, crap cocktails and great views



Day two - Sunday

Kind of hard to get the bloke out of the extremely comfy bed. We just miss breakfast and instead get room service. The bloke always says you can tell how good a hotel is by the quality and quantity of room service available, and this one rates pretty high by all accounts. I go for a smoked salmon omelette and some green tea (which is the nicest I have ever tasted) And the bloke gets the full American breakfast. He can't even finish it, and we realise we're going to have to get used to how big portions are here, and maybe order less.

We leave the hotel and have a quick walk to Times Square to check out how mental it is. Spend a lot of time looking up and going: "Wow!"

There's something really familiar about it all and I realise what it is - the sound! If you close your eyes you'll recognise it from a million movies. Traffic, both close and far away at the same time, sirens, New Yorkers chattering, feet on the pavement. It could only be the Big Apple.

We walk down Ninth Avenue all the way to Chelsea. Encounter our first (and only) New York nutter of the trip. A black guy who shouts at me to put my map away or he'll "fuck me up" or even "kill me". Like a true Englishwoman I pretend it's not happening and keep walking. A bit further down we see Ethan Hawk walking his scruffy little black dog, just like any other person would. No-one bothers him at all.

Have a look around Chelsea market, which must be great if you're a foodie, (it's nearly all food) but we're not that bothered. It is cool to see people eating massive lobsters at one stall though. After unsuccessfully trying to find two flea markets (both of which have moved) we go to the Apple store and the bloke splurges on an iPad. the shop assistant says he's had lots of Spaniards buying them. He sold 30 just to Spanish people yesterday.

Then it's on to Pastis for lunch. It's like an old worldy style French Bistro and again, the food is amazing. I'm not too hungry so I have a goats cheese salad and the bloke has some home made pasta. But the real treat is in the dessert. Our waitress recommends the cheese cake, and it's really out of the world. We finish with some digestive liqueurs which give us a bit of a glow.



Next, on to the High Line. It's an old decommissioned subway line which runs over the oh so trendy Meatpacking District. They've transformed it into a green space, with a wooden walkway and lots of flowers and plants. It's nice, but considering how lovely some of the countryside around Madrid is, we're not as impressed as we maybe should be. We're certainly not as impressed as the New Yorkers we see see exclaiming with excitement at the bees hopping from flower to flower. Or the ones furiously taking close up shots of the flowers on their camera phones.

Half way down the High Line there's the imposing figure of the Standard - one of New York's trendiest new hotels. It looks pretty horrible from the outside but the rooms are meant to be amazing. We try to go for a drink in the rooftop bar but find it's shut on Sunday afternoons. Instead we have a drink in the main bar, which is full of poser types. I order a ginger rum cocktail that's so spicy I can hardly drink it.

We leave to watch the sunset over New Jersey from the High Line, but the bloke has a better plan. So we cross the road to the waterfront and walk down pier 54. We have a much better view from here of the sky slowly turning pink and purple, and there's no one else around. Only a man sitting reading and a boy and his dad throwing a baseball to each other.



Back to the hotel where the bloke plays on his iPad a bit before we go and check out The View - an amazing 360 degree rotating restaurant and bar 43 floors up in the Marriot Hotel, Times Square.

On the way there we see the famous 'Naked Cowboy'. An extremely buff man who goes out in his underpants (which have 'Naked Cowboy' emblazoned on the back of them, just so you know) cowboy boots and hat, and carrying his guitar. He sings songs, and with his guitar covering his crotch, he looks like he is, in fact in the nutty. There's a massive crowd around him, and he keeps stopping every few bars of his song to put his hands in the air and flex his muscles, posing for photos. Someone standing next to me says he makes 50 grand a month, but I can't see how, as I can't see anyone giving him money. I have seen him in some films and documentaries though, so maybe that's how he makes his mullah.



We take the scary super speed lifts to The View and are shown to some window-side seats. The whole thing has a tacky feel to it (sort of like how I imagine Vegas to be like) but it's just perfect. The bloke takes about a hundred pictures of all the buildings as we whir round at a snail's pace and we try to figure out what they all are. The cocktails are horrible and we make them last over an hour as we're too busy looking at everything to drink.

After we've been round a few times we go back to the hotel and get more room service. Too knackered to do anything else.

Day three - Monday

Actually manage to make it down for breakfast this time, and I have a melon with palma ham. for once the portion is not enormous and I don't feel uncomfortably full. We walk to the Rockefeller Centre to go to the Top of the Rock observation deck. I've booked 11am tickets. A few people have recommended it to me in place of the Empire State Building as the queues are shorter and you actually get the Empire State building in the view.

Up we go after walking though the little mini museum dedicated to Rockefeller. He was an interesting chap. He was a t-total oil magnate who hated art but he helped re-appeal prohibition and embossed some pretty impressive art collections. I think it was all down to the woman he married, Cessie Rockefeller - who was a bit of an art-loving free spirit.

The view from the top is very impressive. Like Sim City - doesn't look real. We ask ask a security guard where the Two Towers were and he sadly tells us "just to the right of the Empire State Building and all the way to the end".



After we've got enough photos we go back town and accidentally come out in the subway. Take another taxi to soho and seriously hit the shops. Lafayette street, Broadway, Spring Street. The bloke buys so much stuff in the G Star shop we can hardly carry it all. Decide to drop the bags back at the hotel before lunch.

On the way out we're stopped by a Kanye West-lookalike in the street holding a sign saying 'will rap for free'. He does a pretty good rap about New York and we give him a few dollars. He thanks us, explaining that he's saving up to buy his own studio. We wish him luck and leave.

in the taxi back the traffic is rammed. In Times Square we see a group of kids praising Jesus through the medium of breakdance. Doing headspins and shouting "Jesus! Praise the lord!" Very strange.

Lunch at Katz Diner. The place made famous in 'Where Harry Met Sally', where she fakes an orgasm sitting at one of their tables. We sit in the famous spot (which has a sign above it saying 'Where Harry Met Sally, hope you have what she had')

The place is so authentic. From the outside it looks pretty scruffy. When you go in the guy on the door gives you a blue ticket. Basically when you get something you give it to the guy at the counter serving you and he writes what you've had. then you pay at the end.

everyone in there is speaking Spanish so the bloke chats away to them. They're famous for their pastrami sandwiches so we get one each, plus a hotdog, just to try. Both are mouth-watering. But I don't quite manage to finish mine. on the walls are loads of pictures of famous people, the bloke even spots Bill Clinton. All with the mustached owner Katz, smiling his jollly head off.

We wander back to Soho and Noho to finish our shopping. We check the designer vintage store ING and the bloke gets an amazing Versace jacket for 200 dollars. I go visit Screaming Mimi's, a fantastic vintage shop with stuff from the 60s, 70s and 80s, while the bloke has a drink in the bar next door. It's happy hour so we both have a few before having a final walk down broadway to All Saints before calling it a day on the shopping front.

We have dinner reservations in La Esquina/The Corner, so I check to see where it is - it's back in Soho! that's three times in one day we've been back and forward to Soho - oops! But this place is supposed to be amazing so there's no way we're missing it.

We arrive at The Corner and it looks like a complete dive. A tiny diner with a red neon light above it. "Are we really eating here?" asks the bloke. We're early, so we have some mojitos in the bar next door.

It's finally time to go eat at 11.30pm (it's the only time we could get a reservation as the place is so popular and we left it late to book) but we're unsure where to go. there's a main entrance in the diner, and one round the corner. The security guard on the main entrance directs us to a girl holding a list and she ushers us down some stairs. A waitress takes us through a kitchen, where a load of Mexican guys say "hola", then past a whole wall of different types of tequila bottles, and onto the restaurant.

it's not what I was expecting. Sort of a mini club, with a DJ and even some people dancing. We're seated at a booth with a huge painting of a crying girl with 'niña triste' written under it. Little buckets hang above us from the ceiling and at the next table sits a cap wearing Dominican gangster type and his heavily made-up girlfriend.

Our waitress apologises for not speaking Spanish. She is Mexican, she says, but doesn't really speak the language. We order mushroom fajitas, chicken and meat tacos and pork ribs. it's all delicious.

In the taxi on the way home we get the giggles about something and seem to be really annoying the taxi driver. When the bloke gives him the money and asks "is that good?" he shouts: "No man, that is not good. You gave me a 10 cent tip. Not good." We apologize and give him a few extra dollars and make a swift exit.

07/11/2010

New York part one




"So this is what the inside of a stretch limo looks like," I said, taking in the fresh pine smell, cream leather seats, neon lit bar, mirrored surfaces and fountains of UV lights, subtly changing colour with every passing minute.

"It's tack-tactic, but I love it."

The bloke smiled and filled up my champagne glass. Outside Manhattan sped by, a sensory mess of colours and sounds at night. George Michael's 'Faith' came on the radio and I suddenly felt like I was having an out of body experience.

Had I overdosed on fun? possibly. It was the night before the end of our holiday and we were both on a complete high. Two hours earlier we'd spotted Al Pacino in the street, coming out of the theatre where he was appearing in The Merchant of Venice on Broadway. Five hours earlier we'd flown over the Statue of Liberty in a helicopter.

Then now, the limo ride. After the bloke had spotted the driver on the street and cheekily asked if we could rent it for an hour. I am never going to forget this, I thought as I gazed out the window across to the New Jersey skyline. This is just magic.

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That was nearly the end of our trip. And it was full of moments like that which would make a thousand blog posts. Instead I wanted to write a blow-by-blow diary of what we did in short form. Largely so I can remember it, but also to help people going to the Big Apple who might be in search of ideas. My friend Ed did it, and it was invaluable to us. I realise that if you have no intention of going to New York (and I recommend you change your mind if that's the case) or if you've never been, you might not want to read it all, but hey, never mind. I know I'll have fun looking back over it at least when I come home after a crap day at work. Here goes…

Day one - Saturday

The day of my birthday but a horrible start to the holiday. Almost a non start, in fact. We arrive at the airport to find there's massive overbooking on the plane, and as we queue up a worker offers us 600 Euros to miss our flight and go on the next one. No way!

But when we check in we discover our travel agent has messed up and only checked the bloke in online, not me. So the bloke has a seat on the plane and I'm on the waiting list and probably won't be able to fly. The next plane they can guarantee us a seat on is 24 hours later and If we want to upgrade to business class on this one for a guaranteed seat it'll cost us 5,000 Euros!

Absolutely dejected we check in our bags anyway in the hope that someone might not turn up for the flight and tramp off to the gate, heads hanging low. All the time I'm getting happy birthday messages from people saying "enjoy New York" and I just want to scream.

Overbooking is completely legal though - with companies regularly selling 5-10% more seats than they have on the plane, on the assumption people won't turn up. Which I can sort of understand for short, cheaper, flights. But come on, if you've paid a grand, maybe more, would you really miss your flight?

Anyway, what I'm trying to say is absolutely make sure you check in online to avoid the same thing happening to you. It nearly ruined the start of our trip.

When we get to the gate there are about ten other people on standby, and my stomach just drops to my knees. There's no way we're getting on this plane. The lady at the desk asks everyone: "Are you all on the waiting list?" And the bloke says: "No I'm not, but I won't fly without her." The lady asks: "what's her name?" Then after we tell her, something magic happens - she says: "You can both go through".

My hand is shaking as I give her my ticket and I can feel everyone else just hating me to the back of my head as we walk down the tunnel towards the plane. I feel sorry for them but insanely happy. Now we're going to enjoy this even more because we nearly lost the first 24 hours of our holiday.

Seven hours, and a few glasses of cava later, we finally get to JFK airport, 4.30pm (we took off at 2.00pm Spanish time). On TV screens as we walk to the passport control Sarah Palin is giving a speech, or rather a screech. She clatters through it like a combine harvester going over cobbles. "you deserve more than Washington is giving you." How can anyone believe her when she sounds like a parrot being strangled? A voice comes over the loudspeaker announcing where we can pick up our suitcases. But instead of a bored monosyllabic tone, he practically sings it: "luggage is on wheel nuuuumber TWO!" America is going to be different.

I get nervous being interviewed by the policeman on the passport control and my hand is shaking slightly when they scan my fingerprints. Don't know why - I've obviously done nothing wrong. Then I'm through but the bloke is led away after his interview and I start to panic. It turns out he has the a very similar name to an international narcotics trafficker and they just had to double check it wasn't him.

We're taken on the hour long trip to the hotel by our Spanish-speaking travel agent representative Martin, who gives us lots of tips about New York. Forget Spanish time, try and stay awake till at least 10pm this evening to beat the jet lag, drink the tap water, tip 10% or a dollar a drink etc etc.

Then before we know it we're at the hotel. We had originally booked to stay at the Waldorf Astoria, but decided to change shortly after back in Madrid as it looked a bit old and stuffy - like staying in a museum. We decided on the Intercontinental Times Square after consulting Trip Advisor, which placed it at number 43 out of the some 3,000 hotels listed in New York.

Glad we did. It was brand new - only opened in the summer and had the same sort of vibe going on as the Hoxton Hotel (our favorite place to stay in London) but more upmarket. Same sort of feng shui decor, all dark woods and metal which a cool restaurant and bar with a cosy fireplace. The air con was always on full blast in the entrance though, which was a bit weird.

After telling the guy who checked us in it was my birthday and we'd recently got engaged, we cheekily ask for an upgrade. He says they'll sort us out if we join the hotel's loyalty scheme. so we promptly do so and got put in a deluxe room. Enormous bed with the best mattress ever, duck feather pillows, waterfall shower, and an inward facing room so nice and quiet. We unpack our stuff and chill out for a little while, watch some American TV. A celeb news program shocks me as the reporting is anything but impartial. They're crucifying Lindsay Lohan for failing a drugs test. "This is a disgrace. It was COCAINE! How can she avoid prison again?"

We put on our glad rags and get a taxi to Morimoto - New York's top rated Japanese restaurant according to Trip Advisor. I would agree with them. The whole thing was amazing. the venue is a work of art, with eye-catching light features and beautiful furniture, and the toilets were space age - with jets of water that came out that you could control the direction and strength of.



And the people watching was amazing. Girls who looked like they'd stepped right out of vogue, with skyscraper heels and their equally polished boyfriends, old rich ladies dripping in diamonds and funky types. One girl came in wearing an enormous fluffy hat with pom palms. she didn't take it off for one minute even though she must have been boiling. Then there was a couple of cyber goths who were clearly made for each other. Her blue spikily eye make up covered half her face while the boy had long black hair, but had shaved his hairline back and his eyebrows off. they looked like they could have been in some goth rock band.

Oh and of course there was the food. We went for the seven course tasting menu with the alcohol accompaniment. I would recommend you sell a kidney and do the same.. though I couldn't manage to drink everything they brought out. With every course you got a half glass of wine or champagne or sake, which perfectly complimented the course on the table. It was out of this world. the bloke, who doesn't even like Japanese food said it was the best food he's ever eaten.

Highlights included the salmon tartar (above), the amazing sushi course (with barracuda and yellow tail) and the main event - curried lobster and wagyu beef - it just melted in your mouth. Somehow the staff knew it was my birthday (well I had been telling anyone who would listen) so they stuck a candle and a 'happy birthday' chocolate which the dessert course, which was a nice touch.

So full we could hardly walk we jumped in a taxi back to the hotel, thinking we'd really started the holiday off on a high.

20/10/2010

The big three – oh

When you were a kid, where did you think you would be when you were 30? Married with kids? Doing your dream job? Or maybe even rich and famous? Perhaps you didn't even think that far ahead. After all, when you're small, 30 seems so old. Almost a lifetime away.

I never really gave turning 30 a thought. It was like a far off milestone that I could see in my imagined future. Something to be filed away with 'meeting the man of my dreams' and 'getting married' and 'settling down' and all that jazz.

It wasn't really, until about a year and a half ago that I began to consider it.
At the time someone else at work was leaving her 20s behind. She turned to me and asked: "So, have you got any plans for your 30th?"

After telling her I didn't, it was ages away after all, I had a moment of clarity. It wasn't a far off event any more, it was actually going to happen.

It wasn't that I was thinking oh my god, I'm going to be so old, or anything like that. Bemoaning the loss of my youth. God not at all. I had a total blast in my Twenties, but I'm deffo moving into a different place now.

What does being 30 mean? Is it actually just a number? Will I feel any different? Do I actually feel any different now than I did when I was 18? Does anyone? I've learned a lot of lessons since the day I arrived in London with a suitcase full of bad clothes and almost pissed myself with excitement at being in a place which was so 'not Durham'.

But in many ways I'm still the same. I still get excited about going to new places, still try to see the best in people. Still hope that one day high speed trains will replace the need for air travel.

It's been a big year for me. I've had my first real brush with serious-ish health problems, I got engaged, and now (well on Saturday to be precise) I'm going to turn 30.

By the time my mum was my age she's been married for nearly ten years and had two kids (with me still to come) The bloke's mum had four by the same point. I guess it's just a bit different for our generation.

But I wouldn't have it any other way. And thanks to the bloke I'm managing to combine celebrating the start of my third decade with one of my big dreams – going to New York. I am one lucky girl.

We fly on Saturday, and once again I find myself almost pissing myself with excitement. I guess some things just never change no matter how old you get.

30/09/2010

Engaged

What I'll always remember from that day is the sun on my face from the open sunroof. And closing my eyes and just turning to the bloke and saying: "I couldn't be happier." How wrong I was.

We were on our way to el Escorial - a historic town about an hour away from Madrid. A day trip to somewhere new. Something which always, to the bloke's complete amusement and bemusement, makes me a lot more excited than I really should be.

Before lunch we drove round the town's old monastery and up into the hills to check out la silla de Felipe II, a stone chair where the old king used to go survey the building of the monastery.

But the bloke wanted to go higher into the mountains, so up we trekked, climbing stone stairs until suddenly we came across a fantastic vista point with no-one-around.

It's funny how your life can change so much from one moment to the next. One minute I was gazing out across the valley, admiring the way the sun and shade were creating borders across the forest.

The next I was almost watching my life play out in slow motion, as I turned to find the bloke gone, then looking down and realising he was kneeling before me with a little blue box in his hand.

It really was like a scene in a film. I got the shock of my life - but in the best possible way. In between shaking and crying I think I said something like "Is this really happening now?" I don't know how long it actually took me to say "yes", but I'm sure he got the message immediately by my reaction.

It wasn't until long after, until the ring was on my finger and I'd calmed down a bit that I realised we'd taken photos of the happy moment with my wrist support bandage on. So in all our memento photos I've got a megawatt smile and a bionic hand. Never mind, makes the whole thing more memorable I suppose.

The rest of the day seemed to pass in a blur. I think we were both a bit shell shocked over lunch, which I spent most of just gazing at the diamond sparkler sitting there on my finger. Did I look any different? Could people tell? Of course not, but how can it be so that when something changes so much, it doesn't have any outward signs at all?

It didn't really start to sink in until much later, when we started to phone people and tell them the good news. Someday soon, we actually have to sit down and organise - and go through with - a wedding.

As I reluctantly took the ring off my finger that night and put it to bed in its little velvet lined box, I had something of an out of body feeling - like it was somebody else playing out this scenario that I've imagined so many times before.

Seven years ago I met a guy in a bar. He asked me if I wanted a shot - I said yes. We found each other then we lost each other then we found each other again. We didn't know where it would lead. But he turned out to be my rock, my best friend, and really, it couldn't have gone anywhere else.

I couldn't be any happier. And this time I know it's safe for me to say that.

23/09/2010

Happy Crack, Bar Fanny and other silly names

****The cast is off but the hand is still a bit rubbish. Apparently I need ten sessions of physiotherapy! Anyway, another short one in the meantime - a short trip down memory lane, with hilarious pictures courtesy of the fantastic Jim. Who else would think of making a collection of rude bar names?*****

I've loved every single day of living in Spain. But it was still a real wrench getting up at 6am to go to work, back when I had businessmen and women to teach English to.

The train to Granollers, just short of an hour away from Barcelona, was grey and grim in the morning. It smelt of London in the winter. You could have been a commuter stepping off at London Bridge, especially the days you had to open your umbrella as you walked out into the pelting rain.

But the one thing that always cheered me up, stupidly so, was walking past Happy Crack on the way to the language school. Ridiculous name for a kebab shop. ridiculous name for anything really. But it always had me chuckling under my crappy umbrella as I splashed through puddles - put the day off on a good foot.

I never took a photo of it. It's probably shut down now and turned into something else with a regular name. I missed a trick there. But there are others - even better - still standing in Barcelona to this day. My good friend Jim has captured them for prosperity so thought I'd share them with you - hope you like them.















14/09/2010

Only in Spain

Most things you get used to. Dead bodies on the news don't get to you like they first did; dodgy men shouting "guapa" at you on the street fail to ruffle your feathers. But once in a while something is so off key that it really kicks you up the arse and makes you wonder if you're the only one thinking: Is this wrong?

The wrist is meaning I still can't write anything extensive, but I just had to share this advertisement with you, glimpsed over the bloke's shoulder while he was reading his sports paper. It's for an online betting website. The tagline simply says: "Addicted to football?" Amusing or morally wrong, or a bit of both? They probably couldn't get away with it in England, that's for sure.

31/08/2010

Broken bone


***Thanks to the bloke for writing this down for me through the power of dictation. Hopefully I'll be back in action soon

It was one of the most dramatic things I can remember happening when I was a child. And I can still remember the sound Carl's leg made when he smacked into the wall, scrambling over to the other side in a flurry of arms and legs. Me and his little sister Emma just stood and stared, mouths gaping, like a couple of kids watching a really good fireworks display. One minute he was running, the next he was jumping. But he didn't quite make it. His shin knew all about it.

It wasn't till he started screaming in pain that we started to run towards him. Past the wall and there he was, rolling around the floor and clutching his leg, face in a horrible grimace. Just like a football player trying to get a free kick out of the ref, but this time for real.

"Get mum. Hurry up," he instructed. So we took off running again. I was taller and faster, so Emma ate my dust. I was the one to deliver the important message: "Carl fell over trying to jump the wall up by the Spar. He's hurt his leg. He wants you to come."

By the time we'd got back there, there was already an ambulance. The man from the pizza shop had called. Looks like he's got a broken leg, they told us. We need to take him to hospital. I snuck a look inside the ambulance, at all the tubes and wires and just stuff. Wow, this is like something that only happens on telly, I thought. It was even cooler than when a boy got run over in front of our house because I actually knew Carl, and I got to see into the ambulance.

He came home much later with a plaster cast on his leg which we all signed. I wonder if I'll ever break a bone, I thought, as I drew a big swirly pattern around my name.

Well, I finally did, 20 or so years later. And what an anticlimax. There was no ride in an ambulance, no accident, no drama. I went to the hospital finally as an afterthought, five days later. A tiny bone in my wrist is broken, somewhere close to my thumb. And I'm not even sure how I did it. I think I bumped it sometime on holiday, then crunched it bending my hand too far backwards during a yoga move.

Now, with a plaster cast from my thumb to my elbow, I've entered the realm of the one-armed man. I can't do up my shoes, chop an onion, or get my metro ticket out of its plastic wallet. Typing one handed, I feel like I'm approaching carpal tunnel syndrome at the speed of light. And the plaster feels like it's slowly shrinking. Constricting round my arm like a python squeezing the life out of it's prey. I'm even too old to have anyone sign it, so where's the fun in all this?

But then again I know I'm going to get my left arm back. Not like the girl I saw at the zebra crossing. Her arm, hanging down from her sleeveless denim shirt, stopped at the elbow. As we stood on opposite sides of the road waiting to cross and go about our days, she saw me. Took in my arm in a sling, and gave me a half smile.

What was she thinking? You think you've got it bad but you haven't got a clue? Or was she wondering if I was sympathising with her because of my predicament. And how did that make her feel?

The green man appeared and she went on her way, probably forgot all about me. But I remember her sometimes when I can't manage to do the everyday things I took for granted with two working hands. What would this be like if it was permanent? I really hope I never ever find out.

24/08/2010

Back

Some days are worse than others. That's the way it's got to be. They can't all be ten out of ten for fun. Like Christmas or the last day of the school term, the day you finally rode your bike without stabilizers, or even just one brightened with a nice detail like the delivery of a crop of new movies fresh from Amazon.

Those are the gems. But some of them are just plain crap. And nothing takes the Oscar for downright rubbishness like the first day back at work after your summer holiday.

When the alarm goes off at 7am, first you don't remember where you are. Then you do, and the dread sinks in like paintbrush colour into the water jar of despair.

This is an outrage, you think. It's still dark outside. Just a day ago at this exact moment in time, I woke up, took a piss, then went back to sleep for another four hours.

Marbella to me is heaven on earth. You go from your bed to the pool – via breakfast – then to Las Sardinales for lunch. Eating coquinas or on an extra special day Arroz con bogavante (Rice with lobster) which the bloke manages to get down his front and over half the pristine white tablecloth. All of this with the sea breeze in your face and the thick sound of the waves lapping gently on the shore.

Then it's back home for a siesta, movie, more pool action, or if you're feeling extra energetic – a trip 400 metres down the road to the beach. After the sun has set – if you're lucky making a pink and purple mess of the sky – it's either a nice dinner at home, swapping stories with the family – or one out, where you might get to try something completely new, like rabo de toro (bulls tail) And this deserves a blog all to itself!

Repeat this sequence on every day of your holiday. Does it get boring? Not for me, and not in this lifetime.

And it's all just a memory when you rip yourself from your womb-like bed come Monday morning. The clinking of glasses around a round table by candlelight. The smell of la dama de noche in the garden while you dangle your legs over the wicker furniature and loose yourself in a book. The warm soft skin of the bloke's little nephew as he gives you a hug at bedtime.

Gone gone gone.

And in the real world your morning tea is too hot, the radio too loud. Your key feels alien when you turn it to leave the house. Your beloved little dog rubs your nerves up with sandpaper when she lingers too far behind.

The bus driver's: "buenas dias" is loaded with fakeness. The air con is on too strong and everything is slightly wrong, tiled 30 degrees off centre. The final stretch of pavement to those glass double doors of the office feels like a walk towards the GCSE maths classroom.

It's all, one, big, laboured, sigh.

But really, it's not that bad is it? Well not for me anyway. I have no business complaining really.
"Welcome back," says my boss. "How was it?"
"Oh it was great. Amazing, in fact. I can't believe it's over now, though."
"Ah come on, It's hardly a big chore, is it," he says raising his palms upward and outward. "Imagine if you had to go back to England"

Mood lifts by 50 feet immediately. He's right. My "back in real life" scenario is not rain, cold, sky to floor grey concrete and a job I hate. Post holiday blues have no place in my heart or my head. I need to remember that.

09/08/2010

The Spanish crusaders (five drunk Spaniards)

A crash in the bathroom wrenches me from sleep. Groggy-eyed, I reach for my mobile and check out the time: 7.40am. Brilliant. "I dropped it," says the bloke - emerging from the bathroom, swaying, with pieces of the porcelain soap dish spilling from his fingers.

How the hell did he manage that? It was glued to the wall!

I groan and pull the covers over my head. This is not one of those Saturday mornings he will spring out of bed and go fishing. He's just on his way to collapse into a rum-induced coma after a night out with the Spanish crusaders.

Most people who meet my boyfriend for the first time probably don't know what to make of him. He's a bit of a strong character whose mouth moves a gear ahead of his brain. And he likes a drink or ten, after which he turns into a firing on all cylinders pub hobgoblin. But then if you think that's hard going, god you should see him when he gets together with his friends.

They're all at least five years older than him, though you'd never know it. In fact by their behavior you'd be hard pressed to pin an age on any of them. Their friendship goes back to the Eighties, when they took the bloke under their wing and let him hang about with the older kids cos he used to swap computer games with one of their gang.

The most of them are there when we rock up to el Maison del Puerto at about 10pm. I was hoping at least one other wife or girlfriend would be there, but no, it's just the boys. Oh and me. Sticking out like a sore thumb and also wearing a dress, just to make the difference even more obvious.

There's el Gordo (fatty) who "isn't allowed out that much any more" since his wife had a kid. He's not fat at all since he got seriously into rock climbing, but the name stuck like a wellie in the mud. He's like a big brother to the bloke, who always listens to his advice.

A few feet above the rest is el Largo (the Large). I've never seen a man so tall - especially a Spaniard, which I usually pip in the height department. He talks so fast that I find him impossible to understand most of the time. Though I've never spoken to him about it he has an unusual job - he is a creative responsible for coming up for ideas for TV commercials.

It's curious, I've never spoken to any of them about their careers - I don't know what most of them do. The conversation here is just not about all that 'real life' boring stuff. I do know that Luisito (little Luis) runs a bar, though. at the moment he has longish hair and a beard but I don't know how long that'll last. He's dyed his hair pink in the past, and one time he wet shaved his hair off completely for a friend's wedding. I was talking to him for ten minutes before I realized who he was.

The last one here this evening is Miguelito (little Miguel). He's obsessed with football (He's the one who took me to el Classico not that long ago).

Together they seem like a herd of characters from a Almodovar film, all trying to be heard at once, and gesticulating wildly. (Bloke says: "You have to scream to be heard in this group" and don't I know it)

Amazingly, the fist hour of the night (and perhaps more) is taken up by bitching. Bitching! like a group of old abuelas (grandmothers) About how they weren't treated right at one bar or another, how another one serves garrafon (fake alcohol) About the correct etiquette of how to treat your friends if you own a bars.

Alcohol is a reoccurring theme. Would you think it's possible to talk about whisky for 30 minutes solid? Well it is. And not only that, these boys can really put it away. i thought I'd known big drinkers in my time but nothing compares to this group. In the two or so hours we're stood having tapas the bill lists 12 beers and 24 copas.

And they're truly eye watering measures, which keep getting bigger as the night goes on. Gordo is drinking neat whisky - in the final drink at this bar his measure reaches the top of the glass.

By the time we leave El Maison the barmen are crying with laughter at the bloke's imitation of the local San Martin accent: "Que paha tio?" And Miguel is doing football-style commentary of the barmen clearing up for the evening. Everyone apart from the bloke - who amazingly quit smoking two weeks ago - is chuffing on cigars, filling the bar with acrid smoke.

Before we leave, Largo tells me in his broken English that having a baby doesn't need to change your life. You can still to go out, you can still have fun. You can still go on holiday. His girlfriend had a baby three weeks ago and he certainly still looks like he's having fun. He admits his other half is staying home with the new arrival at the moment, but assures me that as soon as she feels up to going out with her friends he'll be happy to stay in with the baby. Sounds like a fair enough deal.

At that point I leave them, going home while they head off into Pelayos to tear up the town. Definitely five men on a mission.

When the bloke gets up the next afternoon he has to ring the others to piece together the night before. At least there were no fights this time. Two weekends ago the bloke got slapped in the face after he grabbed a girl by the arm to bring her to talk to Luisito. He thought this girl had been making eyes at Luis all night. But it had been another girl - this one had a boyfriend, who did the slapping. It was all smoothed over in the end though - and for some reason the bloke hugged the guy who had slapped him. He spent the next day beating himself up over it though.

Oh and the best thing was that Luisito was oblivious to the whole thing. "That's the last time I try and help him get a girlfriend," says the bloke afterwards.

What the bloke can remember is falling straight backwards, flat on his back, Charlie Chaplin style in the middle of a bar. And no-one coming to see if he was all right afterwards, apart from Luisito. "At least you didn't spill the drinks though," Luis tells him the next day.

And they can remember jumping over the chairs in their local bar 'If', and the other "normal" people sitting outside the bar waiting for them to leave before they came in.

The bloke apparently left the bar at 6.30am but didn't get home till a good hour later. Apparently Miguelito had to talk him out of going swimming in the lake.

Poor Gordo seems to have come off the worst, though. After telling the rest of the group to take it easy he ended up in the worst state, and has hurt his hand and wrist, though doesn't know how. The next day he has to go to A&E and ends up with a plaster cast, going all the way up to his elbow.

"Oh dear," says the bloke. "I don't think we'll be seeing him out for a while." I think he could be right.

I'm amazed they've got home in one piece. And i'm even more amazed, that the next day we all meet up again to go over the night's events (with the women in tow this time) they're all sitting round sipping on tinto de veranos, and not one of them has even the a sniff of a hangover. How is that possible? how is that fair?

Must be something in the Spanish blood. Either that or they've got livers of steel.

02/08/2010

Things I like part five - Daniella


With Daniella it was love at first sight. Which sounds ridiculous, but it's true.

Long before the bloke and I got back together he would send me the occasional email telling me bits about his life. And I would do the same. But of course it was only the good parts - the bits that made me sound extra fun and just that little bit wild.

After all you don't want to tell the person who once made your stomach tie up in knots (and still did a little) about your moments of self doubt. The times when you really scratched your head and looked at the years stretching off ahead, wondering where they would take you.

One of these emails came with a picture attachment. "I've got a cocker Spaniard," wrote the bloke. "Take a look at my bitch Daniella."

After I'd had a little chortle to myself about the Spaniard/Spaniel confusion I opened the attachment. The bloke's brown eyes hit me like a brick. But before I could start to dwell to much on the ghost of relationships past, I looked at what he was holding in his arms - the cutest white little dog I'd ever seen.

After I'd decided that she seemed to be smiling, I stopped to check out the bloke's messy Seventies-style kitchen. Then I started to think about who would have taken the picture. Not for one minute did I ever think that I would one day make dinner in that kitchen. That I would effectively walk right into that photo.

But I did, and Daniella was part of the bargain. All of a sudden I was part of a ready made family of three. Constantly picking white hairs off my clothes, out of my shoes, and even out of my own hair.

By rights, she should have hated me, an intruder stealing away attention. Because of me she was instantly demoted from sleeping in the bed to her own basket on the floor, and was banished from the furniture. But she didn't.

Maybe it was because I took her on nice long walks, unlike her master. Or maybe it was because I made said master happy just by being around. Or maybe it's because - for all I love her - she's really not that bright and couldn't connect my arrival to her new rules.

There were new rules for all of us, after all. I couldn't play the radio really loud in the morning - you can't really do that in a duplex apartment to your poor sleeping partner at 5.30am. He couldn't play the TV really loud till the early hours of the morning - you can't really do that in a duplex your partner who needs to get up at 5.30am.

Deep fat fried anything wasn't on my menu. Salad wasn't on his. We found a middle ground - as eventually did, both habitually and culturally I think. And Daniella was there through all of it.

I like her for this and more. How she barks in her sleep when she'd never dare do that in real life. For the way she'll bustle happily up to any living creature she finds in the street - where it's a rotweiller or an angry mangy cat. How she's so loving with the bloke's nephews, even when they pull her ears and poke her in the eyes.

There is nothing bad about my dog and all the memories I have connected with her are good ones. How many things or people can you say that about?

25/07/2010

Bonjour, Toulouse (and Munki)

I was barely there for three days but somehow it seemed like much longer. Sometimes you're lucky enough to get weekends like that. When time is for once on your side and it slows down when you want it to.

Usually when I'm off to a new place I research it like a loon, making lists of places to go and things to do. But this time I decided not to type 'What to see in Toulouse' into google. I wanted everything to be completely new and unexpected.

There was so much I liked about that part of France. Everything was so green, the fields full of citrus yellow sunflowers. And everything was so old, Even the graffiti. I found a communist party symbol scratched into the side of a dam with the date chiseled underneath - 1945.

But the best thing of all was spending time with my mate Munki - after all, she was the reason I'd gone out there.

We had so many years tearing up London together. We even lived in the same room for a few months when times were hard. Now our moments together are few and far between, but definitely cherished more than ever.

I guess the picture of her I still have in my head is from circa 2000. Riding her BMX with her grey MAMBO backpack slung over her shoulders, her home-made jewelry and of course, the funky Mohican. I thought she was coolest girl I'd ever met - I still do, really.

But as I walk through arrivals at Toulouse I can't see her anywhere. Then suddenly this tall elegant creature with a golden tan and long brunette hair walks towards me, arms outstretched. Wow, we all grow up in the end, don't we?

Munki's been going through tough times lately. Making big life changes, sorting her shit out. And I'm so proud of her, as I tell her several times over the course of the weekend, which we spend at the old refectory her parents have renovated and turned into guest houses.

But it isn't all soul searching and deep conversations. On the first day we do something so out of character it's comical - we go on a 13km canoe ride. After I've slapped on factor 60 and we've set off down the river I find that I'm really enjoying myself. By the end I've vowed to buy my own canoe and take it out on el pantano back in Spain. but finally we both work out that it won't be as much fun without a current propelling the boat downstream.

Later I marvel at the fact that I've managed to completely burn the back of my hands and my left ankle somehow.

It's so weird being in France. Strange and uncomfortable to not be able to speak the lingo. Does it make it worse somehow already having a second language? Though I do understand little bits, drifting back from my GCSE class all those many years ago, it's not good enough.

I'm frustrated when the good-looking boy who's sorting out all the canoe rental stuff seems to be flirting with Munki and I can't understand what he's saying. I'm annoyed when I try to ask where the toilets are in a restaurant and Ou est el baño comes out.

I'm so used to looking after the non-Spanish speakers who come to visit, but now Munki is the one translating for me, pointing out the little local details.

On the way to Albi she tells me about Toulouse Lautrec - whose paintings I know, but whose story I do not. How he was only five foot tall because of health problems which affected his growth, and though he was born in Albi he went to Paris to hang out with other people who were different. And he painted the black people and prostitutes he encountered there.

She also points out the black silhouettes of people at the side of the road and asks me if I know what they are for. "They're dead people," she tells me. "Every time someone dies they put one up."

We also pass a sign that warns of the road: "Three dead in five years." But we ponder that it's actually quite a good statistic, especially compared to Spain's horrendous traffic accident fatality record.

The only bad thing about the weekend is the saying goodbye. But we end up being distracted by all of that when we arrive at the airport to find my flight has been cancelled. They're putting on a coach though - a nice 12 hour journey through the night. Concentrating on the horrors that lie ahead on the bus make me able not to tear up as we say goodbye, with promises to see each other soon.

A little while later I get on the coach, leaving France behind. The stupid air hostess tells me: "Enjoy your flight," as she takes my ticked and I get on the bus. I want to tell her her she's an idiot, but I don't bother. I make a mental note to tell Munki about it a some point though. I'm sure she'll find it funny.

19/07/2010

Things I like part four - being friends with my parents

We're sitting in el maison de puerto, the bloke and I with my parents. They look so out of place to me here - staring round the room like it's an exotic foreign place they've landed in. Which, I suppose it is.

We won't be long, just a little stop off on the way to having lunch with the bloke's parents. As he is such a regular, we're being treated like kings. Plates of tapas keep appearing at the table, which we pick at. Mum is torn. "Oh this is so lovely," she says. "We shouldn't leave it or it'll look rude… But we don't want to fill ourselves up, do we?"

Dad has no such qualms. He'll have room for everything. "This is marvelous, isn't it Margaret?" he says to my mum, between putting slices of jamon and queso manchego in his mouth. He is hypnotized by the huge sizzling plates of t-bone steaks - chuleton - being whisked out of the kitchen door and carried through to the restaurant, leaving trails of steam in their wake. Nothing impresses my dad as much as food.

At this point he turns to me, and grabs my arm. "You've made the right choice here mind pet, " he tells me, and I feel that he's talking seriously to me for the first time since they've arrived. For the first time in maybe years, actually.

"You have such a great life here. Much better than you would've had in England. We're so happy for you."

It's a sentiment that mum expresses too. Almost with a sense of relief.

"The people at the Spar supermarket always ask granddad after you," she says. "He tells them, 'Oh she'll never come back to this country. She's got it good over there'."

It makes me laugh as I can see him doing it. Walking stick in hand, and his cheeky lopsided smile - one side higher than the other.

They are both relieved, bless them. How hard must it be when one of your children is living somewhere so far away. And you don't really have a clue how they're doing. When for so many years the phone calls are few and far between and the standard answer, rolled out without much of a thought, to the question of "how are you?" was always: "fine".

Somewhere, in the golden space of time between when I left home - aged 18 - and now, my parents stopped being mythical bullet proof creatures and started being real people. I couldn't tell you exactly when I started seeing them this way – perhaps it's something that's crept up over time. More likely the thought began to take root when I began to really fully process the fact that they aren't going to be around forever.
 
And in turn, their perception of me seems to have changed. My mum is no longer incredulous with disbelief when she rings up to find I'm cooking something. There's a sense of being a co-conspirator when we launch into one of those 'oh how hopeless our men are (but we still love them)' chats. Though we were never that inseparable, 'tell each other everything' mother-and-daughter team of which everyone knows at least one, we have become equals. We have become friends.

Over the course of the weekend they're in Madrid I realise how much I enjoy their company. We have real conversations. Even dad's crappy jokes - "I was born just after the second world war - it was in all the papers" make me laugh rather than irritating like they did when I was younger. Even though he's still rolling out the same ones.

They've been married over 40 years. And though they're not the type of people to kiss or hold hands in public, it's clear to me how much they love each other. They simply couldn't function apart.

They met in a sausage factory. My dad did deliveries and my mum worked in the office. She had lots of young men asking her out, but she chose dad, and they were married when she was 23, and he was five years older.

I feel so grateful that they're still both here, and still together. And I'm beyond relieved that they love the bloke almost as much as I do, and he loves them in return.

When we have to say goodbye at the end of the weekend, something strange happens - I feel tears prickling at my eyes. That never happened before. Is this what being a proper grown up means?

"I'll miss you," I shout down the road after them. These two people who are my now my friends. Who will go home with lots of happy stories about eating baby pigs and huge slabs of meat. "I can't wait till Christmas to see you again." And I smile inside, knowing I really do mean it.

12/07/2010

Champions of the world! (things I like part three, football)




Does God answer prayers relating to football? And who does he answer when he's got millions of people on either side praying for the opposite thing? That's what I find myself pondering as I see the bloke pull out the St Joseph pendant necklace he got for his christening and kiss it for the thousandth time.

Please don't let them score. Please let Casillas save it. I'll be good, I'll even quit smoking, God, I swear I will. You can almost see the words forming above his head in a thought bubble.

We are in our local, bar Yuppie, watching the World Cup final. The same place we've watched el classico when it's away, yes - but back then, it seemed like a different place entirely.

I've never seen it so packed, and nearly everyone bearing something showing their allegiance to Spain. A flag painted on the face, or the full on kit from head to toe. Ramon has hung an enormous flag behind the bar, and another on the wall, underneath the giant screen which is only brought out on special occasions.

We arrived an hour early, but we weren't the first to take our seats - which we reserved after the semi final. Behind us a group of young madrileños are already chattering wildly and sporadically tooting on horns. all are wearing red, apart from one guy with a white t-shirt emblazoned with the curious slogan 'No sex, please!' His partner in crime is wearing the tiniest pair of white shorts I've ever seen and a viking hat made to look like a half football.

In front of us an elderly couple - and they must be at least in their 70s - sit down and peer around with what my dear dad would describe as 'faces like slapped arses'. They're wearing matching white Spain caps and they soon order a bottle of Moet and Chandon. Which they're soon knocking back.

On the giant screen we're seen the replaying of all the goals and are now watching the VIP guests arrive. Charleze Theron slinks past the camera flashing us a dirty look, and Morgan Freeman sits down wearing what looks like a Dutch scarf. Then the Queen of Spain and her son Felipe and his wife Letizia arrive in the VIP box with the Dutch royals Crown Prince Willem-Alexander and Princess Maxima. And they all start hugging each other.

The rowdy Madrileños shout "guapa" when the queen comes on the screen.

Through all of this the bloke is quite calm. But when Rafa Nadal appears on the screen with his face painted yellow and white his nerves crack.

"Do you think we're going to win?" he asks.

"Of course we are. Pulpo Paul has never been wrong," I assure him.

Pulpo Paul the physic octopus. Another reason why this World Cup has been the best ever. he's predicted the winning team - by choosing between two muscle-filled boxes bearing each team's flag - every time. And tonight he's picked Spain.



The bloke retreats into himself, chaining fags with the rest of the pub and swigging his rum, until the starting whistle.

"Que nervous!" he tells me. "I never felt like this before with a game of football. I got the same feeling like I get before I've got an important meeting at work or something."

Before long I start to feel sick too. every time the ball goes near Casillas I join in with the screams of "No, coño!" and every near miss down the other end makes my stomach drop an octave.

It's soon clear this is going to be a dirty, violent match. And the British ref Howard Webb seems to be not calling it right. A clear red card - a karate kick in the chest - is let off with a yellow. But maybe he just doesn't want to ruin the game by bringing the Dutch side down to ten men so early. by the end he's given out a record 14 yellow cards and one red - double the previous final record of seven.

The first half ends nil nil, and then the second drags to the end with the same result. I can't take much more of this, really. I've perfected the the downward head between knees 'i can't believe it' move and the hands raised to the top of the head 'that was so close' formation. But it's gone to extra time.

This is torture but it's brilliant. I've never cared so much about football in my life. i remember a time I could take it or leave it. But right now I wouldn't be anywhere else in the world apart from watching this match.

And just when i think I can't possibly take any more - seriously, penalties might just kill me - Torres makes a play for it and Iniesta finishes the deal. It's going in, I can't believe it. As the ball hits the back of the net the reaction is instantaneous. the whole bar erupts, the smoked filled air filling with screams of joy.

I grab the bloke and we pogo up and down. On the screen Iniesta whips off his top - something which lands him a yellow card - revealing a dedication to Dani Jarque - the Espanyol player who died of a heart attack. Then the screen shows Casillas crying like a baby, and I realize I'm crying too. So's the bloke. So are most of the people around us. Hugging each other and crying. we're into 116 minutes but in our minds we've already won it.




The final whistle blows, and there's a fresh surge of celebration. The old man with the slapped arse face is completely transformed. He's on his second bottle of Moet and is spraying it like a Formula One winner. His wife whips a Spain scarf around her head like her life depends on it. The madrileño boys are high fiving and embracing, and still crying. A group of Brits at the bar are shouting "Champinones!" (mushrooms) instead of "campeones". No one bothers to correct them.

"I wish my granddad was here to see this," says the bloke, thinking of his grandpa Antonio, who sadly died coming out of a football match. So we toast to him and all the people we know who aren't around to see this.

Somos campeones del mundo. World Cup Champions for the first time. In history. Dare I say it, but I couldn't be more happy if England had won. There are five million unemployed in Spain and the economy has gone to shit but none of that matters now. Euphoria reins, and will do for a long time to come.

It's magic. Casillas breaks down when he's being interviewed live on TV by his reporter girlfriend and gives her a kiss. the manager Vincente del Bosque says: "Esto es la leche." (this is the bollocks)



Later we make our way home to the sounds of beeping horns. When I drop into bed, emotionally and physically drained, the chant of "Yo soy Español, Español, Español," rings in my ears and I can see a sea of red and yellow even when I close my eyes.

Viva España y viva el futbol!