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.


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.


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!