Things I like part two - the Metro

Once upon a time - in what now seems like a different life - I lived in London. For five years, in fact. Considering I've now been in Spain for six, the actual time I spent in the wicked city seems so disproportionate to the importance I put on it, and the way I still look at it as one of the defining periods of my life.

I arrived thinking I'd discovered the centre of the universe. It was a big fat "hooray" with a side helping of "yippee". I couldn't imagine living anywhere else, ever. Yet five years later I crawled away on my hands and knees.

One of the many things I was pleased to see the back of was the Tube. Something which seemed so cool and sophisticated when I first staggered off the train from Durham - "Wow, it runs every two minutes?" - but soon started to turn into the annoying friend who you think has got your back, but is actually - via a series of clever put downs - slowly eroding your self confidence.

It's zombie central in the morning. You try to avoid eye contact, and keep your face out of dangerously close armpits. If it's rush hour you're packed in like sardines, and it's so small you can almost feel the rounded walls closing in on you. Is that guy deliberately brushing up against you? should you say something and risk getting stabbed?

If you do manage to fight your way to one of the scratchy, carpeted seats - you have trouble trying not to think about the story which details what was found by a group of scientists when they took one of the seats away to be analyzed.

The blood of 10 different people, urine of as many, ditto sperm. Oh and two dead rats. It might be an urban myth, but it's something nice to think about when you accidentally touch the carpet.

Oh yeah, and that's not counting the nutters, the alkies, the flashers you might be lucky enough to meet, either on the trains themselves or in a semi-deserted station near the end of the line. and don't even get me started on the people who try to get on the train as soon as the doors open, before you've even got off. Is it any wonder you want to kill that posh bird who tells you to "please mind the gap between the station and the platform"?

So what's different about the Metro, you may ask. Surely the Metro has the potential for all of the above things. (Apart from the carpet filth, that is - the seats are made of plastic.)

And yes, perhaps it does. Perhaps I'm just lucky that I don't travel at rush hour. And maybe I've just been lucky in avoiding the gropers and nutters. But I genuinely like the Madrid metro. Would even, at the risk of being called a saddo, admit to being a bit proud of it.

It's so spacious and clean. No dust. No litter. impossible to play 'spot the rat' here. Not even the sniff of a mouse (though i did once see a boy with a hamster on his head). Yes there are beggars and buskers, but they're not in your face. Some play the pan pipes, one old guy even sells his poems.

And it's so cheap. 46 Euros for an abono - your monthly travelcard. I have no idea how much they are in London these days, but I'm guessing they're not that cheap (even with this new fangled Oyster card thing).

Far from busying themselves looking at the floor, people on the Metro openly stare at each other. It's something you'll soon find yourself joining in with. Whatever my obsession of the moment is, i find myself checking it out on other people. If i hate my toenails, i'll check out other people's manicures. I'm thinking of changing my hairstyle, so i'l look at all the other barnets in the carriage, and give them marks out of ten. I'll look over people's shoulders and read their book with them, their revision notes, the minutes from their meeting. Everything is public property on the metro, as far as the eyes are concerned.

The thieves would take it further, though - to them, your possessions are also up for grabs. And in fact i've had my wallet lifted, but not even that put me off. In fact, the security guards saw the theft happen and apprehended the robbing little cabron before he could leave the station. I got my wallet and all its contents returned to me. When does that ever happen?

But really, why do I like the Metro so much? Perhaps if i really sit and think about it, it has much to do with where it takes me. In the morning it delivers me to a job I love. In the evenings it drops me off to a home where I am genuinely happy or to see my friends, always so full of fun. Could it be the contented thoughts have just filtered back in a pavlovian way?


Things I like part one - Saturday mornings, 6.15am

I feel like I've arrived as a blogger - I've been tagged in my very first meme. The idea with this one is that you write seven facts about yourself, then you tag other bloggers and set them the same task, effectively passing the meme on.

While I don't actually know if I've been around long enough to start tagging other people, I will definitely take up the challenge myself.

Thanks to the very excellent Mr London Street for tagging me. If you haven't already checked out his amazing blog, you should. Be warned though, it's addictive.

So on with the meme. As Mr LS did, I'm going to go with seven things I like. Starting with…

1) Saturday mornings, 6.15am

Every Saturday - well, almost every Saturday - the alarm goes off at 6.00am on the dot. Crazy, I know. When you've been getting up at 7.00am Monday to Friday, why would you want to drag yourself from your slumber so early on the first day of your hard earned weekend? What would be so good to justify it?

One word - fishing. Putting fake rubber worms on the end of a hook, dangling them in the water and whipping them out with the force of a juggernaught when you feel the bite. When you reel in that whopper, it's all worth it. Well, as far as the bloke is concerned, that is.

That alarm is not for me, you see. It's his early morning 'up and at em' call. The one that gets him out of the bed faster than a black bass chasing his prey. it's unbelievable. This is the man who needs nine alarms to get him out of bed on a workday for a 9.00am start. Yet 6.00am on a Saturday morning is no problem, if you throw slimy scaly water dwelling creatures into the mix.

One thing you can say for my boyfriend is that he doesn't do things by halves. If he likes something, he'll take it to the extremes. Snowboarding in Spain won't do - he instead goes to Alaska, where you've got the best runs in the world, only accessible by helicopter.

When he was into making music, he would spend hours locked away in the studio he built himself, driving himself crazy with listening to loops and sorting through a thousand different synths, searching for the perfect one.

His new mistress is fishing. And over the course of the past year, she's crept into our lives, slowly but surely bewitching my boyfriend and trying to steal him off me.

Friday evening trips to the fishing tackle shop have become a regular thing. You wouldn't believe the amount of paraphernalia - imported from America and Japan - you could fit into one room. Racks of brightly coloured-fake worms - some with glitter in them, some smelling of different fruits; a million different sized hooks and weights, little fake fish baits that look scarily real, and a million other things that i have no idea about.

And on the walls pictures of the owner Paco with various monsters he's caught during various competitions. One day the bloke hopes to have his walls filled with similar pictures, I'm sure.

Luckily the bloke has a partner in crime, my friend Sa's boyfriend Chucho. While we meet up with Two Shandies and PB for drinks at Lago, the boys go off fishing.

"I wonder if they sit and talk about you and Sa when they're together in the boat?" wonders Two Shandies.

"No, they just talk about fishing," says Sa.

"What, for seven hours straight?" asks Shandies, disbelieving. "Surely that can't be possible?"

Yes, it is. i've seen it in action. And the bloke has done his research. His bedtime reading is 101 Bass Fishing Tips. Whenever he's alone with use of the DVD player, he sticks on something that features men on boats showing you how to do drop shot or some other technique to raise your chance of success. They usually feature Kevin van Dam, the god of fishing - an American who's become a multi millionaire through fishing competitions. Some of the big tournaments have 1 million dollars prize money. The fact that i know these things troubles me.

But really, not that I mind so much. i've been on the boat with him and I can see the appeal. The sun is setting, blowing up pink and purple candy floss clouds in the sky. The lake is a rippled mirror, and it's all so peaceful.

I've even felt the thrill of hooking a big one. On my first go the bloke showed me how to cast, and pointed me in the direction of where he knew there was a a big female.

Before my hook had even hit the water, she jumped out of the water and bit down on the bait, and my rod bend double as she raced away. The bloke's eyes nearly popped out of his head. he grabbed the rod off me and wrestled the monster into the boat. She was the biggest catch of his fishing career - 3 kilos - and I had hooked her. The range of expressions on his face were comical. From pride and wonderment to extreme annoyance and jealously that his girlfriend had trumped his record.

I never much bothered with it after that. It's not like I can ever do better. I like to go out on the lake - but with the intention of sunning myself and reading a book. I certainly wouldn't leave my sleep at 6.00am on a Saturday morning - no matter how beautiful the lake looks when you're the only one there and the sun is creeping above the horizon.

So 6.15am is the time i love best. When the bloke has showered, got his fishing gear on, given me a goodbye kiss, and skipped out the door into the darkness. Not that i've seen him skip, but I'm sure that he's not far off actually doing this.

I fluff up the pillows, spread myself out in the bed, which is now all mine for the rest of the morning, and fall back to sleep. When I wake up four hours later the sun is probably shining and I can't help but feel happy with my lot in life.


My Spanish is better than you manners

What do you do when someone tells you your Spanish is rubbish? Well for a start, you can kiss your good mood goodbye. Wave goodbye to your nice afternoon - but keep your smile still there, plastered on your disbelieving face.

I should have seen it coming. This particular guy used to love telling me my Spanish was crap. But he hasn't for ages, at least six months, and I thought we were past all that.

But here he is, doing it again. In the aftermath of someone's birthday lunch, in front of a big group of people. Totally uncalled for. He says it once, he says it again for emphasis, and I realise everyone is looking at us, waiting to see what I'll say. No one is going to come to my rescue, tell him to shut up.

So what do you do? Say: "Hey, my Spanish might not be great, but it's better than your manners"? or "Actually I can speak OK, but big groups like this really scare me, so I tend to stay quiet and listen"? Or "How do you know, you've hardly talked to me? I spent ten hours at a party last weekend talking Spanish all the time and lots of people said it was actually getting better. So stick that in your pipe and smoke it."?

But I don't say any of that. Instead I make a joke of it. "My Spanish is fine. It's just that you don't speak it very well." And everyone laughs, including me and him. And my smile is still plastered on, though I'm glad of my sunglasses, so no one can see the pathetic tears of embarrassment and anger prickling at my eyes.

"He doesn't mean it in a bad way," says the bloke. "We're all like that in this group, we just take the piss about things we shouldn't." And I know he's right - this guy isn't trying to be nasty. He really has no idea how much it upsets me.

He's never studied another language, never lived in another country. Never had to walk the tightrope of trying to follow a group conversation of a group of tipsy friends who've known each other half their lives and half speak in their own version of Spanish. He's never lost concentration and slipped down into total confusion, desperately scrabbling to catch the threads of conversation again to pull himself back up.

The fact is that I never thought of myself as a shy person. But in my second language I can be. And it's really hard in a group of people who know each other inside out the way they all do. And someone publicly putting down my language skills doesn't help. Surely anyone would be able to see that?

Maybe not. I used to be an English teacher. I would never never ever think of critisising one of my students in class for their mistakes. What would that do, apart from make them feel down on themselves? How could someone be so cruel?

But perhaps you wouldn't realise that unless you've seen it for your own eyes. The same way that you should know that if someone doesn't understand you the first time, you should slow down your speech. Maybe use easier words. Not just repeat the same sentence at the same speed, like this guy does every time.

A bit later he overhears when I misunderstand something a girl is telling me about her telephone. He throws his hands up and says: "You see?" Like it's a perfect example of my rubbishness.

"But so, what?" says the girl. "We understood each other in the end."

The bloke jumps in to help this time: "And how's your English? I'd like to see how you get on in a big group of British people."

"My English is terrible," he says. "But I've not been living in England six years."

Then he turns to me. "It's completely normal you don't improve. You work with English people, you speak English with him. If you're only speaking Spanish in situations when you're forced to do it, it won't get better. But there comes a time when you've just got to take matters in your own hands."

I'm tired, I think. I've been here like seven hours already and I want to go home. I've had enough of all this for today. "I'm trying my best!" I tell him.

But am I really trying my best? My Spanish is improving slowly, but it's nowhere as good as it should be to say that I've been six years in Spain, and that I have a Spanish boyfriend.

I don't take classes anymore, and though I've even blogged about my intentions to Speak Spanish with the bloke, I've even failed in doing that. I don't read books in Spanish like my friend Two Shandies does. What am i really doing apart from speaking it on a needs must basis?

I came here to immerse myself, but have i really done that? I seem to still have one foot firmly planted in the English bubble. If i'm not careful I'll end up like Michael Robinson - a famous football commentator here who still confuses his tenses and articles, and has the worst accent ever, after 30 years living here.

Though I still half want to kill that friend of the bloke's, I think he might have done me a favour. Call it a massive kick up the arse, if you will.

A similar thing happened with my a-level art teacher. He told me I would never get above a c - I would never be as good as my brother. You bastard, I thought. i'll show you. So I worked my behind off. Completely went over the top and painted so much I got pains in my neck from bending over the paper, and stains under my nails that wouldn't wash out for months. Couldn't hardly carry my portfolio to school.

Sure enough I got an A. Take that you horrible man - how can you me so mean to an 18-year-old? And well, truth be known, my stuff really wasn't as good as my brother's - he had a real god given talent. But I learned then that no-one has the right to tell you you you're rubbish - you can't do something, you're not good enough. and if you set your mind to what you want you can achieve it, if you're prepared to work at it.

So this time I am going to get serious about my Spanish. And maybe one day soon this friend of the bloke's will turn to me and say, "wow, your Spanish has really improved". But you know what, I won't hold my breath. Some people only seem to notice the stuff they can make you feel small with.


Dead battery

"We're fucked," says the bloke. "We are so fucked." This is serious - I've only heard him say this on a handful of occasions - one being the time when we accidentally did an illegal u-turn in front of the police. Well, the u-turn itself wasn't an accident, but doing it in front of the policia certainly was.

Like adults who only swear once in a blue moon, he wheels out the phrase at the crucial moment - and I know things are not good.

He turns the key in the truck's ignition. It wheezes like an old man then dies away to nothing. Turns it again, now there's only a high pitched scream, then silence.

"We can forget about going fishing," says the bloke, glancing sadly at the pile of rods stacked up between us. Then even more forlornly at the lake, glittering invitingly through the back windows of the chevvy.

The battery is dead. We are stuck in reverse in the lane by the boathouse, meters from the shore. The afternoon turns in a matter of seconds.

All business now, the bloke whips out his phone and calls for help. But he's soon spitting curses again when it dies too – cutting him off mid sentence. "Great," he says, putting the useless phone to his forehead, as if he could bring it back to life with the power of his brain.

I pass my mobile and he begins to tap digits from memory, pure Rain Man style. That's something I've always been fascinated by. Despite problems with dyslexia as a child he has a photographic memory where numbers are concerned. He can recite the phone numbers of friends and family, without trying, even as far back as remembering his landline in London, seven years long gone.

As he talks to his brother I get out of the truck, and sit down on hot concrete to wait.

"Charlie's coming to help us," he says. "If we're lucky we can get it started, go home and swap it for the car then get back in time to still go fishing."

And then: "Will you go get me some cigs while we wait?"

It used to really annoy me, him asking me to buy him cigarettes, when he knows I hate him smoking. But he looks so stressed it doesn't even cross my mind to argue. So I grab the euro bill out of his hand and set off for "el Club"

There's maybe two hours of daylight left, but el pantano (the lake) is in fifth gear. In my head it's Madrid's beach - with a sandy shore, families lounging on towels, boats roaring up and down dragging wake-boarders behind them like children running with kites.

I can feel grains of sand already in my shoes as I go, even though I haven't been anywhere near the shore yet.

To the left there's a bare-chested man fixing the sail to the base of his windsurfing board, two little dark-haired, slack-jawed boys squatting down watching him intensely. Just behind them two tiny girls in bikinis chase each other round in circles cackling wildly.

I wonder at what their childhoods must be like, growing up with this as their playground. How wonderful to be dipped in delight on a daily basis, run barefoot through the surf before going home for tea. I can count the amount of times I went to the beach as a child on ten fingers, and though my memories are hazy, I remember wellies and raincoats to have played a starring role.

Before I can stop myself I'm playing my favourite game – the one that I stopped myself playing well before the operation, but have taken back up again now, now that i know that everything seems to be OK.

It's very simple - just looking at children and wondering if they could be ours - what would our kids look like? Would they be blonde, like the little girls tearing after each other, or dark, with deep brown eyes, like the boys, still sat watching their father with their hearts' proud eyes? Would they be shouting at each other in English, or Spanish? I can't wait to find out.

A car sweeps past and I have to look twice. It's a bright blue Mini Cooper with a Union Flag roof and wing mirrors. The guy driving it looks about as British as Antonio Banderas though. What on earth was he thinking? I'd like to drive a Spanish equivalent of the gaudy car around Durham and see what happens.

As the moving piece of Britain disappears from view my eye falls on a van emblazoned with 'DOGOKI' and 'CATOKI', which puts my mind in a spin. Is it like Karaoke for pets? But a backwards look reveals a slogan, todo que necesitas para tu mastcota (everything you need for your pet). It's nothing more than the van of a pet shop.

Up the concrete walkway, like a catwalk to pisshead-ville, is el Club, where the bloke and his brother finished up at silly 'o clock last night, playing 50 games of darts. It's straight out of the Seventies, a square mess of glass, metal and stone - decorated with ship's laterns, rope, and water skiis - with a terrace overlooking the lake. It could have been magnificent once, but now the white paint is creeping with black and green stains and the curtains are worn and patchy.

I push through the glass doors to see the bar manager Vol Damm sitting watching TV. No customers, only dust particles glistening in lines where the last of the evening sun shines through in rays.

Vol Damm jumps up to get me some change for the machine. He's a curious creature – mean face that screams 'hard as nails', tattoos and gold Nike tick earrings. He's Romanian but speaks flawless Spanish, much better than mine.

I want to ask him if his name is in fact the same as the beer we have here or if everyone is pronouncing it wrong. I want to know how he came to be running a bar here, in a comunidad in Pelayos, in the middle of nowehere.

But instead I put my money in the cigarette machine and say: "They're not for me, you know. They're for your friend," mentioning the bloke's name. Vol Damm laughs, showing a few missing front teeth. I smile back, remembering that the bloke has a sore arm from arm wrestling Vol Damm last night in a moment of madness. I consider telling him about what's happened with the truck, but decide against it, in case he feels obliged to help.

Back at the truck a crowd has gathered, each person alternating between scratching their heads and giving advice about what could be wrong. Even the guy from the boat house, who was arguing with the bloke half an hour earlier, is trying to help. There's a huge buzz of excitement when the engine revs into life suddenly, followed by a round of curses when it dies away after Charlie has disconnected the jump leads.

I sit down again to wait. The sun is sinking lower in the sky. Mums are trying to talk and bribe their ninos round to the idea of home time.

There's a tickling in my shoe, and I take it off to reveal a giant ant, slightly crushed at the bottom. I tip it out and watch it struggle around in crooked lines, several of its legs bent and useless. My stomach sinks when I realise I'm going to have to kill it. Silly thing to get sad about, it's only an ant. I eat meat, I wear leather. What's the problem? But still, as I crush it under my shoe I feel guilty. It's not moving now. Where does it go, the life?

I've barely had time to think it, when another giant ant comes along, lifts the remains of the dead one above its head like a champion weightlifter, and scuttles off. Waste not want not. Wow.

With a lion roar, the engine starts up. This time it sounds like we might be going somewhere. "Get in quick!" shouts the bloke.

The ants are immediately forgotten as I spring up - using my index fingers and thumbs like a champion sprinter - and run towards the truck. I won't tell him about them, it would sound like a silly thing to say it out loud.

But I can't stop thinking about it later, when he does finally hook that first special fish that makes all the effort worth it.

Where does the life go when it's not there any more?