Day 89 – Buenos Aires

May 21, 2010

I wake up to the sight and sound of Latin American pop videos on the bus TV – all synthasised Reggaeton beats and tanned flesh. For once, I can’t see any signs of poverty. Highways snake from one side to the next, flanked by skyscrapers. Occasionally, a gleaming football stadium passes by. Down below, life spills onto the streets as Buenos Aires comes to life for another day. I would soon find it never really falls asleep.

About 50 minutes later, we finally make it through the choked roads to the bus terminal at Retiro. A few minutes later, rucksack once again firmly attached, I’m dodging street vendors hawking sunglasses, cheap books, clothes and DVDs on my way south to the bohemian and stylish barrio of San Telmo.

I had been recommended a stay at the Hostel of San Telmo, supposedly Buenos Aires’ original. It takes a good hour to make my way through downtown, stopping off for a rest in the sun-kissed Plaza de Mayo, and into San Telmo. Its full of elegant restaurants and crumbling colonial edifices, and is a popular spot for backpackers.

I check out a few other hostels but finally plump on the recommended one, as its said to be one of the friendliest in town. Its nothing special to look at, but the welcome from the staff is genuine and disarming. We’ll give it a whirl – the boutique hostel I saw a few streets away can wait until another night.

Its pretty quiet, and my dormitory seems empty. Then I meet Jag, a guy from Birmingham with Punjabi roots who has also just arrived.

Little did I know in a few days time I would be beat-boxing with him through downtown at 8am in the morning.

I cook up some pasta and there a few more guys milling around. The weekly game of football is kicking off in an hour and my name is on the team sheet. It’s been more than four months since the last game of five a sides, in Madrid, and I can’t wait to have a kick around. The fact it’s in Buenos Aires, the home of Boca Juniors and River Plate, with a cosmopolitan mixture of players from Argentina, Chile and elsewhere, only makes it better. And one of them is a spitting image of (latter day) Maradona.

It’s an indoor game with a small football – proper Latin American style. I manage to grab an early goal and then disaster strikes – the sole of my trainer, which has made it through the jungle of Bolivia and across the volcanos of Guatemala, comes off completely. I change into my walking boots in the hostel and make it back for the last half hour.

After taking a shower I take a walk around San Telmo, which by now is getting dark, so I duck into that institution of overseas drinking – Molly Malone’s – for a pint. Later that night I cook up some steak from a nearby “Chino” (Chinese-run store), where I get into a very confused conversation about whether there is still a coin shortage in Buenos Aires. Whether its my faltering Spanish, or the Chinese guy’s understanding of the language, I don’t know, but before long I’m trying to make myself understood before a whole crowd of puzzled looking people.

Then its time to taste the legendary Buenos Aires nightlife. A crowd of us from the hostel kick off with a bottle of whisky and some wine in nearby Plaza Dorrego. I get talking to a Colombian, who asks me, straight faced: “Que piensas de la muerte?” Hmm, did he just me what I think about death? After some prevaracation, I turn to Max, the German, and bounced the question onto him. His look of complete bewilderment and shock has us all in stitches. It’s an expression that I would see on Max’s face often – he does befuddlement very well. Maybe it was just the whisky.


Day 36 – St Patrick’s Day

March 21, 2010

There may not actually be an Irish bar in Leon, but the Emerald Isle was well represented on this, their own national fiesta.

I had a return of the Man-aaah!-guas, the Nicagonies, the Leon-my-back-all-day-cos-I’ve got-a-sore-belly…so had to pass on the Volcano Surfing on nearby ash-covered Cerro Negro. Judging by the number of people wandering around Leon with their arm in plaster,  this may have been a blessing.

Anyway, so I hit the market for some respite from the punishing sun, eat some dubious substance wrapped in banana leaves, and went with a young guy trying to found tourists to help him pay for a pair of shoes for a tour of Leon.

We checked out the tunnels that link all the churches in Leon, a relic of the struggle in the 1970s for a socialist democracy, and various murals that depict that armed uprising against the dictatorship.

The evening, I met Peter, whom I had stopped calling “Holland” on account of him no longer baiting me about how many times his country had beaten Scotland in important football games…ooh we’ve gone all italics….interesting….I’m on a notebook by a lake on Isla Ometepe, three days in the future, and it’s not the most reliable of machines….
So, yes, where was I. Aye, so we met up in Bigfoot bar for some pizza and mojitos with a girl from his hostel, then made our way to a bar a few blocks from the centre for the big Paddy’s Day party. Oh what a night!
A local band was belting out the Irish numbers (mostly Cranberries and U2), then a few Irish girls took to the stage with guitar and sweet harmonies for a few quieter tunes.
We danced and generally made merry. For the first time I felt like an ex-pat, maybe because most people actually thought I was Irish. But then tonight everyone thought they were Irish, in particular a young lass from Connecticut who insisted, despite being born in the US, brought up in the US, and having parents from the US, that she was more irish than Paddy O Flannery, the Leprechaun from Tipperary.

Tres meses en Madrid – El Fin.

January 4, 2010

I have to write this now, finally, otherwise I’m going to eat all the Ferrero Roches that someone left behind in my living room last night. (Damn, I wish I hadn’t written that… now I want another one…)

Well, it’s been three weeks since I left Madrid for home and it feels like a long time ago. The first few days back in Edinburgh were pretty satisfying – a hearty plate of Haggis, Neeps and Tatties in The Doric on my first night set me up nicely. And I didn’t have to wrack my brain to speak.

Of course it was also really nice to catch up with family and friends.

But now, after a great Christmas making snowmen and eating my sister’s delicious food, I’m back in Edinburgh trying to put together a plan for the next few months. Travel and writing are the names of the game. And getting bitten by mosquitos. (More on this later in my thrilling yet-to-be-titled new blog…)

But before I embark on new tales, there is still a story’s end to write – the latter part of my three-month long attempted transformation into a Madrileño.

The heat of a balmy October was only ramped up further when I decided to give the school a break for a week and head to Andalucia with Vanya, my friend from Scotland. Check out earlier posts for the full low-down and photos. It was in a smoky underground bar in Granada where I shot some grainy footage of the extremely camp flamenco dancer who features in my little video of my time in Spain.

A week of sightseeing passed and we headed back to Madrid and to my new (third and final) flat with my good friend Marcos. Staying with this guy made a huge difference to my overall experience in Madrid.

A teacher from Sampere by day, Marcos is also a musical maestro, philosopher and all-round good bloke. Conversations (in Spanish) were rarely dull – I still remember chewing the fat over Neo-Platonic literature while making a cup of tea.

Then there was the day Marcos invited myself and a group of other students for lunch at a Harri Krishna temple. To help work up an appetite, we spent half-an-hour sitting cross legged chanting ‘Harri Harri…etc’, shaking tamborines, nodding our heads and generally trying to get the whole happy vibe thing going.

As a rule, I’m a little wary of religion. Let me clarify that – being amongst large groups of incredibly earnest religious people tends to make me want to pee myself laughing, as much as a response to awkwardness as anything else. But being with the HK lot was nothing compared to the Evangelical church Adam and myself inadvertently went to the previous Sunday. Now that was strange.

Life was getting better in Madrid as the weeks wore by. Knowing people makes a huge difference. Going out for pizza – si, muy Español – with Charlie, Adam, the lovely Brazilians, and others was a increasingly frequent joy. Living with Españoles meant I finally got to go to a Spanish flat party (my own) in my final weekend. It was great fun, apart from the point at which Wenwi, the temperamental cat, took exception to my attempts to evict her from my room (The scar has literally just healed).

I also got to hang out with friends from home who came to visit or happened to be in Spain. First there was Jane and Paul, who helped me discover the prettiest square in Madrid. Jason and Jo rocked up for a weekend of revellery and fantastic Spanish dining, while with Michael and Joanna I had the best Mexican-themed night of my life).

Oh dear, this is all starting to sounds a bit like an acceptance speech. But I guess at the end of the day my time in Madrid was all about the people I met, the friends I met and the great times shared with ‘la gente’. Oh, and learning Spanish. Mucho. Very Mucho.

Hasta luego chicos…hasta estoy en Argentina/Ecuador/Guatamala/No Se Donde. Buena suerte y besos a todo.

Tres meses en Madrid – Parte Uno

December 17, 2009

“Hello, I’m Mike. Pleased to meet you.”

“Hi! I, I, expected someone much younger!”

So began this 30-something’s first conversation in his first flat in Madrid. The place, Piso 1, numero 6, Calle San Fernando Del Jarama, the date, 12th September, 2009. Only just over three months ago – but it feels like a lifetime.

My flatmate was Philip, a 20-year-old German who had been thrust from the warm bossom of his family and student life to the concrete jungle of Avenida de America, in the north of the Spanish capital.

My route to Studio International Sampere was somewhat different – “gracias a la crisis” (thanks to the recession!) was a phrase I was to repeat several times in the 13 weeks that followed in Madrid.

Taking voluntary redundancy from a career you love and moving to a city where you know no-one and can’t speak the language probably seems a curious step. But for me there was no choice – I had banged on about wanting to live abroad for years, and when the chance finally came to fulfill my dream I couldn’t pass it up.

I had found Sampere through an agency on the internet and after a little haggling over price agreed to spend autumn in Madrid.

Philip "How Old?" Hartmann and fellow students

After that initial chat with Philip, I decided to head into town and meet Lara, from Galicia, who I had met in Edinburgh. Ok, I lied – I knew one person. That first night out really brought home to me what I had let myself in for.

“Estás en Madrid, vale? Vamos a hablar español” said Lara, as we walked through the beautiful Plaza Mayor in the heart of the old town. “Si, vale!” I replied, a little uneasily. That was about the extent of my Spanish – a fact that was glaringly exposed when we met Lara’s friend, Charlie, and headed to the buzzy barrio of La Latina for that classic Madrileño experience – cañas y aceitunes (beer and olives).

Our “conversation” went something like this: (Charlie) “HolaLaraQtal?Mevoyacasamañanaperojoder! miscompeñerosdepisosonhijosdeputa!QtalMike?HasidoaquiantesenMadrid?Hablamosmuyrapidosi???”


(Lara and Charlie look at me, indicating I am expected to say something now)

(Me): Si, vale! Me gusta Madrid! (Yes, ok. I like Madrid!)

Monday morning came and I had my entrance exam at Sampere. Somehow, I managed to dredge up present tense verb conjugations I thought I had long forgotten and managed to avoid being put in a beginners class.

But the week took a bit of a dive around Tuesday lunchtime. I became very sick after walking around Madrid for the afternoon, and ended up being couped up in bed with, let’s just say very bad stomach problems, for the next three days. It seemed I had fallen prey to the different food and bugs and stuff (to use its technical term) of Madrid.

We were a somewhat eclectic bunch, me and my first classmates. First there was Dominic, a 40-something surf and salsa fanatic from France. The thing I remember most about Dominic was that he always spoke very quietly, because every day he came to school with a sore head and, apparently, a problem with his ears.

Then there was Carl, the older German professor of European History who had somehow persuaded his university it would be a good idea if they sent him to Madrid to learn Spanish for three weeks.

Carl evidently didn’t have any problems with his head or ears, as he SPOKE VERRRYYY LOUDLY INDEED. He was the most enthusiastic and kindest student I met at Sampere – a thoroughly good egg. Then there were two 17-year-old girls from Switzerland, who’s names escape me. They all seemed to speak very good Spanish, much better me than, and my first six weeks at Sampere was as much about hanging on in there than really learning a lot.

Carl on a day trip to Toledo

Then there were the teachers. And in Candela and Eliza, you couldn’t have found two that were much more contrasting. Candela (officially the prettiest of the teachers) was a ball of energy, always laughing and joking. Eliza, meanwhile, would often start her classes with barely a hello.

Eliza also spoke incredibly quickly, so much so that there times when I found myself misinterpreting our homework instructions and coming to school the next day having done something completely different. But with time I found that Eliza was a fantastic teacher who became increasingly inteligable to me. (Yes, I was learning!!) Then there was Alberto, my teacher from weeks two to six and a Real Madrid fanatic whose love of football began to elicit my first truly spontaneous Spanish conversations.

While the school always provided a friendly, welcoming environment to hang out, I found the mix of students – largely split between 20-year-olds from Switzerland/Germany/France/Holland and older people here for a week or two – rather frustrating. All incredibly nice, but just not the kind of people I usually hang around with.

But then there was Marzio, a 30-year-old Italian guy who was also my flat mate in Avenida de America. When Marzio was around, there was always a fiesta going on. We went to a couple of Irish Bars which staged regular “intercambio” nights. These were organised meeting places where foreigners (or “guiris” as the locals liked to call us, after those non-Spaniards who fought in the Civil War) would exchange their languages with young Spaniards wanting to brush up, usually, their English.

It would also be where you could get drunk and have a good time, making friends in the process. We were all in the same boat and so people always tended to be open to getting along at the intercambios. In fact, it became apparent there was something of a sub-culture among the intercambios in O’Neill’s, Star Studio and elsewhere. Everytime I went along (usually once every couple of weeks), the same characters would always show up.

There was Gala, the blonde girl from Madrid who I spoke to on my first night; Emanuel, from Peru, who share my love of football, and Bupe, from Manchester. Then there was this older guy whom I once had a raging argument about, of all things, domestic abuse. In Spanish. (I was both totally fired up and chuffed to bits at the end).

But the most recognisable of all the intercambio characters was, well, I never found out his name, but basically he was this lofty old bloke (must have been well into his 60s), who swanned around the bars with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, invariably ending up with a gaggle of pretty young girls whom he would on occasions leave with.

But you didn’t have to go to these flesh pots to practice your Spanish. After a couple of weeks, I was introduced my a teacher at my school to Beatriz, an ex-profesora at Sampere who wanted to practice her Spanish. Beatriz would patiently listen to my stumbling attempts at conversation – and even worse, humour – over cups of tea in cool literary cafes around Chueca and Opera. But as the weeks passed, we were able to chat much more freely. The funny thing was we never spoke in English.

My Madrid adventure was beginning to pay dividends…..

I like the cinema

December 14, 2009

It is snowing. It is my final day in Madrid and it’s snowing. How…odd. Very odd. And, how do you say, a little bit funny. Entertaining! No, not entertaining.

I am going to Scotland tomorrow. Yes. I am, how do you say? It is good. But I am sad. And happy. At the same time. It is a shame. A big shame. But I will be back. I don’t know, exactly. But, yes. I like the cinema.

The time in Madrid has passed very well for me. Very well. I have known lots of people. Lot’s of nice people. Very good.

I am living with Spanish people. It is better like that. I can practice my Spanish. I have learned a lot and I can speak much better. But still it is, how do you say, very difficult. It is that the people speak fast. Verrryyyyyy fast. Yes. Yes. Yes.

What more? I live in Lavapies. It is very good. Very entertaining. There are lots of barrrs, restauraaaantes. What more? Yes, lots of immigrants. Which is good. It is better, very interesting with many cultures. I have luck to live here. My flatmates are brilliant. I live with Marcos, who is a teacher at my school. He has not been my teacher but he is a teacher at my school.

And his girlfriend, who is very friendly, and another Spanish guy and an American guy. They are nice and I can practice my Spanish a lot. But still it is difficult, sometimes.

I like the cinema. I prefer films from Europe but sometimes action too. But it is very expensive to see a film in Madrid. Nearly eight euros! Everything is a little expensive here. Except the metro, which is very good. It is very cheap.

Why am I here? I can say this fast because I have said this story many times. Yes. It’s funny, and boring. It’s that I, how do you say, had an opportunity five or six months ago to leave my job with, how do you say, a little money. Thanks to the crisis! It is an opportunity very good for me because I like to do different things. To travel and live in different place.

The life here is very good. I believe it’s the people. There are so many people. In the street. There is so much animated life! I like people in my country but, I don’t know, maybe they are more open here. It is easy to talk to people in bars. But it is not easy to talk to people in the metro. It is normal.

But not everything has been good. One time a man robbed me in the metro. To fuck! I, how do you say, wooooollllllddd shiiittt on his head. If I could. But everything is fine. Nothing is happening never.

Do you like the cinema? Sometimes in class we have interesting conversation. I remember one time we were speaking about how the climate is changing. Now there is a big meeting happening about how to stop the changes in the climate. I’m not sure. It is very complicated.

Often I play football with a group of students at the school. Adam…Charlie… It is good. We play on a pitch in Retiro. Hmm, it is funny, one time the ball went into the tree. Ok, you know that one. You can play if you want. If you are able to.

I am quite tired today. It’s that there were lots of parties at the weekend. The nights are long in Madrid! On Saturday we had a birthday party for my flatmate, Igor. We played lots of games. There was one game when someone writes the name of someone famous on paper and sticks it on your head. Very entertaining. I’m not really tired today. Tonight I’m going to a restaurant for a pizza to say goodbye. It is a little sad. But I’m happy. Before I have to buy some things. But it’s snowing. So I might watch a movie. I like the cinema.

Bank is a crap name for a holiday

December 9, 2009

There’re a lot of holidays in Spain.

We’ve just come off one, in fact. Sampere was shut yesterday as it was the dia de la Immaculada Concepcion so I decided to head for the campo (countryside) and do a bit of walking.

I took the train to El Escorial, which is fast becoming my favourite place near Madrid for return visits. The town itself is pleasant enough, with a smattering of pretty squares and leafy side streets.

But there are two reasons why anyone who visits Madrid must come here – the amazing monastery, where the kings an queens of Spain are entombed along with their families, and the easy access to stunning countryside.

San Lorenzo de El Escorial, on a grey December afternoon

San Lorenzo de Escorial was built by Felipe II in the late 1500s as a Catholic response to the emerging protestantism at the time. Situated about 45k from Madrid and one hour on the local cercania train, it functions as a monastery, royal palace, museum, and school.

I had already been to the monastery with the school and had woken up that morning with “ganas de” go hillwalking…so after asking a woman in the oficina de tourismo the best way to get to the campo, I headed out of the town and into the hills.

It turned out to be an amazing couple of hours, as within

Nice views from the hills surrounding El Escorial

A creepy looking tree (on the left)

about half-an-hour’s walking, I found myself completely alone with incredible views of a forested valley stretching out for miles below. The towers of the monastery became ever more distant as I climbed the hills. And as the light began to fade, the clouds lifted to reveal the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra de Guadalajara.

This would be a great place to shoot a Blair Witch Project-style film, as there is something slightly eery about the countryside around here, with the brown and orange leaves that remain on the trees at this time of year on the point of death and large granite boulders appearing out of nowhere.

Anyway, I was talking about holidays… Yes there are a lot of them in Spain, and they all have their own fairly colourful name. There is Dia de la Hispanidad (Columbus Day) on October 12, Dia de la Constitucion on December 6 and San Pedro and San Paulo on June 29, to name but three.

Why don’t we Brits come up with more holiday names, instead of calling them “bank holidays”? (There can be few more joyless names for a holiday than “bank”, and choosing a name on the basis that, oh right, banks are gonna be shut then, displays a fairly shocking lack of imagination).

“High Tea Day”, anyone? “Squirrel Day”? “Jimmy Saville Day?” Maybe not..

El Clasico

November 30, 2009

Sunday’s match between Barcelona and Real Madrid wasn’t a classic, but it was still a joy to watch two of the best teams in the world and greatest rivals pitted against each other – in a bar only a couple of hundred yards from the Estadio Bernabeu.


Standing room only at the Irish Rover



And watching the way Messi, Iniesta, and Xabi kept the ball, even when surrounded by Madrid players, maintaining an incredible calmness at all times, was cool. A far cry from the blood and thunder of most Scottish games!


Philip, Charlie, Adam and I congragated outside the metro Bernabeu, appropriately enough, and headed for a giant Irish bar, se llama The Irish Rover, to watch the game. We thought if we turned up an hour early we would find a table. Wrong! The place was already busy, and five minutes later it was heaving. Eventually we managed to find a spot near the door where we could get a good sight of the giant screen without blocking anyone else’s vision.

Madrid were on top for the first half hour, and Ronaldo had a great chance to mark his comeback from injury in style with a potentially decisive goal. But it was the Barca substitute, Zlatan Ibrah…the Swedish guy…who made the difference with a cool close-range volley.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic after the final whistle blew



While the atmosphere was good, it was a far cry, I reckon, from how it would have gone down in the bars of Barcelona, where victory against their perenial title challengers seems to mean a bit more than for their Madrileño rivals. (Blame Franco and nationalism for that..)


Misadventures in Retiro

November 27, 2009

As I write this, a pair of trainers remain stuck up a tree in Retiro, that great Madrid park where couples take their kids for an early evening stroll and language students hang out after class, batting off regular offers of hash from the black dealers that hang around near the metro station. 

The trainers have been there for a week now, but they won’t be lonely as they’ve got a few other inanimate objects – a stone, a stick and a football – for company.

You can probably guess how they get up there.  It started off when Adam challenged me to kick the ball over a tree. It was a particularly tall tree, one of the biggest in the park I’d say, and there was little prospect of me clearing it with the ball. But I never like to shirk a challenge, and the memory of Adam beating me in a tense closely-fought game of paper scissors stones on the metro the day before still rankled, so I went for it.

The ball got stuck. Nice one. Adam then flung a small rock at the football to dislodge it and, somehow, it got stuck too. Now the idea of losing a football was bad enough, but the thought that a potentially lethal rock was stuck up this tree, a rock which could plummet to the ground at any second and land on someone’s head, was too much to bare. Well, for Adam anyway. So up went his left football trainer. 

When one trainer gets stuck up a very big tree, one that due to its lack of branches near the base is impossible to climb, you might as well throw the other one up as well. After that, we spent about an hour throwing clumps of mud, and the aforementioned stick, in an increasingly desperate attempt to get any sort of return for our pointless endeavours.

Boy am I hungover today. In fact I missed school, because, as they say “tengo puta resaca”. Last night – the monthly Sampere free bar – was fun though. The usual stuff …  drinking, dancing, drinking, smoking, drinking…  Earlier, I went to the opening of a photography exhibition to see my old flatmate, a Frenchman called Yves, whose pictures were on display. His photos, of the natural world, are great. I was just leaving to head for the party when I asked this guy outside the exhibition for the time. He seemed to have something to do with the event.

I got “Englished” – “Where are you from?” he asked me? I told him “Soy de Escocia”, refusing to give up my Spanish chat that easily. “Aye, and which part?” This guy, who turns out to be an actor, is from Leith! (part of Edinburgh, where I normally live). Apparently, speaking Spanish with an Aberdonian accent makes you sound like your are from Barcelona. So I better keep my head down on Sunday when Barca play Real Madrid in what is probably the world’s biggest domestic football match.

Madrid and Me – the movie..

November 23, 2009

I have just uploaded a film onto youtube that I made over the last couple of days…using clips of films and a few photos I had taken over the past few weeks. The music I did myself before, back in Edinburgh, as I wanted to link it to Facebook and heard they don’t like it if you publish copywrited music. Don’t know if it’s any good but it was good fun to make!

Featured scenes include Charlie and Laurie at the karaoke, Adam at the karaoke, Vanya enjoying her mojito at El Tigre, to very funny guys we met there, a hilariously camp flamenco dancer in Granada, Madrid on the attack against Milan at the Bernabeu, and me nodding in front of my computer to D.A.N.C.E by Justice…. 

Can I have a house of milk?

November 22, 2009

Or, “puedo tener una casa de leche?”. Just another of the slightly amusing wrong things I’ve said to folks in the past few days.

(I meant to say una “cosa” de leche … a “thing” of milk). Ordering tea in a Spanish cafe can be a bit tricky. I love this place but one thing I don’t like – along with people peeing in the street and being mugged – is how they just don’t get how to make tea.

One time I was in a cafe asking for a “te con leche”. I was given a teapot full of warm milk and a teabag to dunk into said milk. Who doesn’t know you need water to make tea??? So today, I asked for a “te negra, con una poquita de leche” (black tea with a little bit of milk). The guy said: “Quieres te sin agua??” “NOO!” It’s a minefield.

Another funny thing I said, to Marcos’s girlfriend, who had been sleeping on the sofa one night Marcos had been at his parents’ house: “Tienes mierda de dormiendo en tu habitation sin Marcos?” Which translates into: “Do you have shit of sleeping in your room without Marcos?” I should have said “miedo”, which means “fear”. How we laughed!