Pain-free ways to practise your Spanish



I nearly called this how to practise your Spanish without too much (S)pain.  Ho ho!

But seriously, many adult learners find that getting to grips with a new language is not exactly laugh-a-minute stuff.

Of course, there has to be a bit of grimy work there somewhere.  For instance, when memorising irregular verbs.  But if you want to stick at your language learning long-term, you’ve got to enjoy it.  It’s no different to starting an exercise regime.  Make it fun and sociable, and you’re much less likely to get fed up and chuck it all in.

You have an advantage compared to language learners of previous generations.  It’s called the internet.  So step #1 should be to make the web your language buddy and bookmark some sites you reckon could be useful.  The online dictionary Spanishdict will conjugate verbs for you as well as give some pretty good examples of how new words can be used in a sentence.  Sign up to get its ‘word of the day’ mails.

If you find grammar daunting, or just consider Spanish verb forms a bit of a turn-off, then I’m afraid you may come across a few web pages that could put you off foreign languages for life: beat a hasty retreat, should you land on them.  Click here to see the kind of thing I mean.  Actually, I quite like this sort of stuff myself.  But not everyone is like me.  Which is probably a good thing.

Here are my tried-and-tested-and-not-too-painful Spanish learning strategies:

Writing whatsapp messages.  In Spanish, por supuesto.  I do this quite a lot.  Once you’re friendly with a Spanish speaker, you can have an authentic, live quick-fire ‘conversation’ with them.  If you want to use some fancy grammar or vocabulary, do as I do and look things up on a tablet or other device just before you type your end of the chat.  Get your phone set up for the Spanish language to benefit from some handy prompts as you write.

Writing emails.  For lengthier, more considered writing, email’s the answer.  Tell your Spanish-speaking acquaintance about what you’ve been up to this week.  You can make it simple or, if you’ve time on your side and want to stretch yourself, be more elaborate.  Either way, try to use at least one word or phrase that’s new to you.

Reading newspapers.  Get clued up on world affairs and practise your Spanish reading at the same time.  If you really want to multi-task, eat a bowl of cornflakes too.  I like to look at El Universal, a Mexican paper.  Because I’m over the age of 40 I do prefer to buy a ‘paper’ paper (if you know what I mean) and smell the ink, listen to the rustle of the pages…. but now I’m back in the UK I make do with the online version.

Reading Buzzfeed.  If pop culture is more your thing, try Buzzfeed’s Spanish-language sites (for the Mexican one, click here).  You don’t have to be an instagramming millennial to get some value out of Buzzfeed.  The snappy format is perfect for picking up a lot of varied language in small doses, even if you’re not all that enamoured of the highly practical advice in 20 ideas para experimentar con el estilo gotico.

Language/conversation exchange.  Make contact and meet up with a native Spanish speaker who wants to practise their English.  There’s so much to talk about when you sit down with someone from a different culture.  I find it works well if the other person’s English is much more advanced than my Spanish.  Some nice café vibes make it work even better.  Check out the Conversation Exchange website to get started.

Finally, some motivation for you.  You might begin to ask yourself, “what’s the point?”.  Unless I live in a Spanish-speaking country or am lucky enough to have multiple holidays each year, I’m not going to actually need and use Spanish very often, right?

Well, researchers have found that the process of language learning can boost your problem-solving skills.  It puts the brain to work.  Further up life’s road, it can even help to stave off Alzheimer’s.

For my part, I like to think of language learning as a pleasant intellectual challenge.  More useful than doing the newspaper crossword, at any rate.


When a situation becomes ‘a million times worse’


Conservative ministers “should be under no illusions that a lot of people are very, very angry at their disastrous handling of Brexit, which has made a difficult situation a million times worse.”

So says Tom Brake, a Lib Dem MP, about his party’s plan to join the ‘pro-Brexit’ march during the Conservative Party conference in October.

Well now.  If a difficult situation has become a million times worse, just how bad is it?  As bad as the sun exploding and life on earth succumbing to a slow and jolly painful death?  Alas, he doesn’t elaborate.

It beats me why he cannot simply say that a difficult situation has been made “even worse”.  Or perhaps “far worse”, if he believes the whole Brexit deal-or-no-deal thing is going to get really dire.   To make useful sense of what he is on about, we could quite easily picture a scale spanning neutral to bad/difficult to really bad.

Saying something is “millions” times worse or better, or applying it to quantities, reminds me of playground boasts: “I’ve got millions and trillions more than you”.

If Mr Brake has a case, and maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t – who am I to say? – he undermines it by going in for such hysterical hyperbole.

If the situation truly is a million times worse than it was, then he should already have given Britain up as a totally lost cause, and be on a plane a million miles away.

airplane silhouette

The temptation of fatty bits


Vegetarians should read no further…

Eating tacos at roadside stalls during my stay in Mexico City reminded me just how much I like globs of fatty meat.

Even better, fatty meat sitting on a soft corn tortilla, accompanied by chopped onion and herbs, and maybe a squeeze of lime or a dab of salsa for that Lat-Am kick.

There is something irresistably primeval about the experience of using your fingers to transport your tasty chunks from plate to gaping mouth.

Although by no means all tacos are made with fatty meat, a memorable one I had recently would be a prime contender in any fatty taco contest.  I am not sure what the meat or cut was: in Mexico there are many variations, from taco al pastor to taco de longaniza, taco de maciza, taco de chuleta…

But anyway, it went down like baby food.

Another time, at the same stall which served up that mystery fatty taco, I enjoyed a taco de cabeza (that’s meat from a cow’s head), which I was pleased to find had some more than passable fatty gristly bits.

Unhealthy?  Well, I’m not so sure it is.  The corn tortilla is a wholesome change from the standard bread products using flour made from wheat.  Even better, it’s a break from the pappy white stuff that passes for bread in most industrialised countries.

Indeed, a taco is fast food for the purist – being not much more than meat, corn and herbs.

Can we make similar claims for the hotdog, which has crawled its way south to Mexico from the USA (and north, east and west as well)?  Definitely not.  What about the omnipresent ‘hamburguesa’, as they call it in Mexico?  Or, pride of my very own England, sausage rolls and other products made from calorie-laden pastry (which hide their meaty contents, perhaps out of shame)?

No.  These are generally processed foods with quite a number of additives to boot.  And you don’t get fresh coriander or other taco touches sprinkled on top.

Back in the day, when humans depended on slaughtered game for their meat-centred meals, I’ll bet our cavemen ancestors gathering round the roasted deer grabbed at the really fatty bits like they were going out of fashion.  Not for them the fillet steaks that do so much damage to our wallets in fancy restaurants.  They knew what was good and what would see them through a winter’s night.

Those instincts are still alive in me, as in many other folk.  After enjoying a roast lamb in our house, I sneak into the kitchen to attack the carcass and pop a couple of greasy scraps, preferably with salty skin attached, into my already slime-covered mouth.  They slip down oyster-style.

Fatty meat should not be shunned.  It should be celebrated by princes and paupers alike for its taste, texture and comfort food value.  It really is the ultimate meat.

taco stand

Stuck in a train (though not for very long)


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In the darkness, a few sighs, a few nervous laughs. I stood motionless, trying to stop myself thinking about the press of bodies around me, trying to focus instead on the thoughts I might be having if I was walking the streets of Mexico City on this humid, sunny April Saturday, instead of being stuck down here…

That was my unpleasant experience on the metro the other day. Well, no: not exactly unpleasant in itself, for it didn’t last long, and I emerged with money and mobile phone intact. But I was left contemplating how much worse the situation could have been.

Aiming to get to Coyoacan for a late afternoon showing of Dr Zhivago at the Cineteca Nacional, I waited on the platform at Insurgentes Sur. And waited some more. All the time, the platform was gradually drip-fed with people. Those of us who had been kept lingering the longest wore annoyed expressions, save for a rotund man who kept chortling at every comment made by his companions. On the opposite platform, trains came, but the length of time they paused deepened my sense that I was in for a long journey. I only had to go to Zapata, two stops on, where I would change lines, and had allowed plenty of time: on balance I reckoned I would make it.

Eventually a train came, very very slowly. As many of us as possible crammed on board. At the next station some people got off, a few got on, and the doors shut. And we went nowhere. The lights went out. It grew uncomfortably hot. The lights came on again, followed by the air conditioning. But then both went out again. And then went on again. Then off. A few more chortles were coming from the direction of the rotund man, but most other passengers were keeping silent, coping with the situation in their own private ways.

That’s when my imagination started to run wild. I was at a station, so could have signalled my dire stress, if I got to that stage, to passengers standing on the platform: but supposing I hadn’t been at a station? What if I had been trapped in a tunnel, and for some reason imminent rescue was out of the question? Supposing some malevolent bunch of people had jammed us in here intentionally, and I was enduring my own Black Hole of Calcutta?

I got out, of course. That is why I am able to write this. In fact, I wasn’t actually imprisioned for very long. I have no heroic tale of endurance to tell. But I don’t mind admitting that some disturbing thoughts continued to lurk in my mind as I sat in a Cielito Querido coffee shop (I’d given up on the cinema), chai latte and philosophy book beside me.


More than tequila: exploring Mexico’s drinks


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Never mind the tacos, tlacoyos, tamales and other quintessential Mexican foods beginning with ‘t’ (tortas, tortillas…). To understand Mexico, you needn’t go much further than exploring its beverages.

That was my conclusion after visiting an enlightening exhibition called ‘Que te tomas? Las Bebidas Mexicanas’ (What are you having? Mexican Drinks) at MODO – the Museo del Objeto del Objeto (no, that is not a typo), in the leafy heart of Roma Norte here in Mexico City.

The most celebrated of Mexico’s pre-hispanic drinks is pulque, possibly enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment, and in the first room at MODO I saw brightly coloured jicaras for drinking the strange milky, viscous stuff out of. They looked unfeasibly large to me, but then again pulque is not very alcoholic and if you go to a contemporary pulqueria you’ll often find yourself served a capacious jug for one. In the same room, what looked at first sight like a slaughtered pig was actually a cuero, a container made from hide that was used for transporting pulque.




Meanwhile, a Jose Guadalupe Posada illustration in a satirical broadsheet showed a cheery sombrero-d man and was accompanied by Cancion del Pulquero – a pulque seller’s song. I’ll drink to that.

I also learned that bars, as we know them today, arrived in Mexico alongside the US troops who invaded the country in the 1840s. Cocktails followed hot on their heels.

Moving away from alcohol, the exhibition taught us about atole, that wholesome drink – typically made with corn dough, but also with rice flour or oatmeal – still popular with labourers needing to fill their stomachs before a long morning’s work building new apartment blocks. Like pulque, it is not a drink that has crossed the Atlantic to Europe. Hot chocolate, or chocolate full stop, is a very different story, as cocoa seeds are easy to transport. Very fortunate indeed for those of us who are addicted to the stuff.

Talking of addictions, few nations have a greater affinity with Coca-Cola and other sweet soft drinks than Mexico. Down in the MODO basement was a wall’s worth of shelving displaying old-style bottles of well-known brands alongside specimens of now-defunct sodas.

No tasting was possible, alas, but the shelves of old and not-so-old Mexican wines, and arrays of beer bottles sporting vintage labels – or everything, to be honest, including the tequilas – made me want to go off at once and let my tastebuds do some exploring. Definitely an inspirational exhibition.

Blogs without readers



Happily, people do sometimes read my blogs (thank you, both of you).  But what if a post goes unread?

Hello?  Anyone around?  Is anyone reading this?

If it has no reader I wonder if this can even be called a blog post.  Technically, I suppose it classifies as a blog post.  It’s on WordPress.  But if I knew no one was going to read it, I could just as well tap out a random assortment of nonsense words.  Easy peasy.  At the very least, I needn’t wait around for that writerly sparkle that gets me putting words in a notebook and then onto a Word doc.  Nor need I bother pruning superfluous verbiage, or tackle the rough surfaces I usually like to smooth to give you, my reader, a comfortable reading journey.

If no human eyes alight on this post, no one would say it is not a post, and nor would they see any difference between, on the one hand, my little musings, and on the other, 300 words from the pen/keyboard of a Pulitzer Prize winner on a particularly inspired day.

Because no one will say anything about something they don’t know exists.

My unread post would be like the falling tree in the forest in that old philosophical question – the one about whether the tree can be said to have made a sound, if no one is around to hear it.

On a less conceptual, more sentimental level, if we assume the tree does creak and crash, isn’t it rather lonely and pointless if no one hears the death throes?

Thomas Gray knew a thing or two about the lonely and unloved.  Here he is in his ‘Elegy’, contemplating the anonymity of common folk’s lives:

“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air”

I’m not for a moment claiming that my posts are sweet or excellent.  But posts crafted by many an unsung yet talented blogger certainly do merit such adjectives.

Amid the dismal wastes that make up so much of what passes for journalism and comment on the worldwide web, how many fine flowers are blooming unnoticed?


Getting to know yourself



It’s a pity in a way that The Spectator magazine doesn’t focus exclusively on culture.  As it is, the columns that muse so brilliantly on art or life, or the well-informed book reviews, are missed by those who are turned off by the political stuff: Brexit speculation, who’s vying to be the next Labour Party leader and so on and so forth.

Matthew Parris writes one such column.  In the Christmas issue he used it to reflect on how long it has taken him to get to know himself (he is 67) – to know that other Matthew in his mind, the Matthew who offers wise advice.

In giving an example of this advice, he draws on an experience in Peru while researching a travel book.

In short, he nearly turned down a lift in a lorry, worried about enduring the highly uncomfortable, crowded conditions for three days.  But his inner voice dispassionately told him that he would regret giving up the opportunity.

He stresses that this voice was, and is, neither judgmental nor exhortatory.  It ‘simply forecasts’.  He took heed of the forecast in Peru and decided to get in the lorry.

The result?  “That journey, and the peasants, prostitutes and chancers who became my comrades, formed the centrepiece and best chapters of Inca-Kola, still in print today”.

Now, I have read some philosophy.  I have read arguments about the question of consciousness, I have worn out my braincells trying to understand explanations of the so-called ‘problem’ of knowledge.  Yet Parris’ little insight is crystal clear, and punches well above its weight.

Yes, I’ve always known about good conscience, bad conscience – the angel on one shoulder, the devil on the other.  But Parris is talking about something different, about that voice inside us that is our ‘companion and adviser’.  It is the self whom we never know completely but get closer to as our youth shuffles off (that’s why the column’s heading is ‘The one thing that really gets better with age’).

I may be Jasper, but have I always trusted the voice of that inner Jasper, telling me what I should be doing?  I certainly didn’t in my twenties.  I did things that are not really ‘me’, because I was trying to be something I thought I was but was not, too readily allowing society or external forces push me into doing these things.

It’s not quite about listening to my instinct.  Rather, about listening to that inner wisdom and reasoning I sometimes choose to ignore.

People constantly say, ‘This sort of music isn’t really my thing’, or ‘I don’t know what I want’, or ‘I’m not sure if I’ll be able to keep my cool’.  Our everyday utterances point to the truth that even as mature adults we are still getting to know ourselves.

A final point.  Not knowing yourself, not trusting yourself, not able to be yourself (which is hard, when you don’t yet know yourself) – it all sounds like the sources of anxiety that the existentialists identified.  If this disturbance fades with age, then that’s one consolation for grey hair and stiff limbs.



What a way to make a living!



Few job specs can be odder that of the 19th century Parisian Quatorziéme.

Mentioned in The Spectator’s ‘Dear Mary – Your Problems Solved’ column recently, a quatorziéme was a sophisticated and presentable gentleman dressed up and poised to drop in on someone’s salon as a last-minute dinner guest to avert the bad luck associated with a table set for 13.

This line of work seems to have gone the way of the capital’s horse-drawn trams and cholera outbreaks, but another strange gig that is still very much alive is that of professional mourner for the dead.

Traditionally found in Mediterranean and Eastern cultures, but certainly not unknown in modern, protestant Britain, moirologists earn their keep by lamenting theatrically or delivering a eulogy before a family’s loved one is laid to rest.  (They don’t always have to do much at all – just sit around looking sad and preparing their excuses for why and how they knew the deceased but not anyone else in the church.)

While dinner parties, perhaps sadly, are rare happenings now (they’re just ‘supper’), and dinner parties of more than eight people rarer still, funerals will always be with us and they are more than grim if there is only a scattering of attendees.

Naturally, “Hello, I’m a mourner/chocolate taster/chicken sexer” will always beat “I’m an accountant” as a conversation starter in bars, regardless of whether the job in question is one we’d like to do.  Even so, being paid to be at a social or family event isn’t a cushy source of income, of course.  I’m sure that the quatorziéme couldn’t just sit there eating escargots.  He would have had to help make lively conversation and be charming to the dull lady next to him.

Odd jobs are two a penny these days.  Given that conventional employment is not so easy to find, and no longer so secure, it makes sense that motley bands of serial entrepreneurs, career downshifters and redundant ex-office toilers – for whom self-employment is a necessity rather than a whim – come up with creative ideas for earning a living.

Odd will soon cease to be odd.


(Photo credit: Piotr Siedlecki)




… and Hillary Clinton

The Washington elite were out-of-touch, the Democrats failed to communicate with ordinary voters, the party machine assumed she was the only possible contender for the nomination.

If I was asked for one word to sum up these deficiencies and explain why Hillary Clinton didn’t win the US presidential election, I would choose this one: smugness.

I think that’s why not enough people fancied voting for her.  They reckoned she was smug.

It’s quite an easy trap to fall into, smugness.  If you believe you are in the right, or you have done really well at something, you are going to be pleased with yourself.  It’s human nature.

In my case, when I’ve convinced myself that I’m right about something, I sometimes have that nice feeling of superiority over people who do not share my view.  So maybe I’m smug – but only about whatever it is that’s just made me smug.  I’m not a smug guy per se.  Indeed, in many areas of life I’m a kind of cautious novice anthropologist, observing but not judging.  I am fully open to altering my view.

Often, even where I strongly believe I am right, I leave the door ever so slightly open in to admit a doubt or two.  I entertain a healthy suspicion that I might not have thought things through quite as well as I should.  And as smugness often comes from a failure of empathy, I try my best to see things through the eyes of others.

Clinton could have rid herself of that air of ingrained aloof smugness that so irked many Americans, working-class ones especially, if she had simply but daringly said she was ready to start again, if she had expressed a desire to ‘disrupt’ – to borrow the IT start-up terminology – the Democratic status quo.

I’ll bet she’s not smug now.


A gym in the park in Mexico


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In soggy Sussex, the thought of doing exercises outdoors in November makes me want to come down with some sudden illness. Anything, anything to avoid having to squelch and slip around on wet leaves while trying to do walking lunges with dumbbells.

The more distant the memories of dry and warm days, the more I wistfully reflect that it would be much easier to keep up a meaningful new exercise regime if I was still based in Mexico City.   The weather there is more predictable: I am now, as you might guess from my dispirited tone, in England.

In that megalopolis outdoor gyms have sprung up all over the place. Just knowing there was a free gym in the corner of my local park in colonia Nápoles made me satisfied, quite apart from using it. I’ll admit that I discovered the amenity rather late in the day and did not use it a huge number of times. But I did quite enjoy heaving away at the chest press, striding out on the cross trainer, working out arms and legs simultaneously on a rowing machine, or pogoing up and down in a rather fun way on a machine which somehow put me in mind of treading grapes in a winemaker’s tub.

While pushing and pulling on the bright yellow machines I could look at pedigree dogs and their owners passing by, listen to the shouts of the basketball players on the court beside me, and people-watch the other apparatus users. The brisk wind on my cheeks felt so much more wholesome than a windowless, sweaty indoor UK gym which you pay too much to use.

I soon left the monkey bars in my park-gym well alone, finding out that I’m a long way off being able to lift my own body weight. But I had plenty of other contraptions to be getting on with. Sometimes, the one I was eyeing was already taken by some guy who likes to do exercises wearing a smart shirt or hipster-tight jeans. So I would pedal a cycling machine and regard him out of the corner of my eye: perching on his seat, typing into a mobile and nonchalantly bobbing up and down as though proximity to equipment was enough to burn off calories.

At the other end of the enthusiasm scale, muscular youngsters who had signed up to some fitness programme managed impressive bodily feats on and around the monkey bars. Impressed by their example, I rowed a few extra yards.

But my point here is this: Britain’s weather does nothing to get you motivated for a work-out.


Come sit on me: the gym in my local park, Mexico City