Head to our new webpage, on the EL PAÍS site, where we will be relaunching our Trans-Iberian blog, bringing you a selection of stories and posts about Spain both from expats and Spanish authors.
Covering everything from the major news of the week and burning social issues, to expat living and la vida local, EL PAÍS’ team of English-language bloggers offers its opinions, observations and analysis on Spain and beyond.
Head to our new webpage, on the EL PAÍS site, where we will be relaunching our Trans-Iberian blog, bringing you a selection of stories and posts about Spain both from expats and Spanish authors.
It sometimes feels as though Britain's only export to Spain is the English language. Visit a bar in central Madrid and you're as likely to hear an English voice as you are to be given tapas. Pick up a menu and you’ll probably be able to order Spanish omelette as well as tortilla española. Walk past certain public schools in the capital and you'll notice a feature of its signage is the Union Flag.
One of Madrid's bilingual secondary schools, Instituto Pablo Picasso. Picture: Carlos Rosillo
This is because the Comunidad de Madrid is home to a pioneering bilingual school system. It's a huge employer of native English speakers in teaching assistant, or auxiliar roles, and a demonstration of confidence by policymakers in a future where freedom of movement between Spain and Britain was probably foreseen.
But this bilingual programme – which uses English to teach Spanish schoolchildren subjects as diverse as Biology and Music – is among the many things Brexit has cast into doubt. Its overall existence is almost certainly safe. Britons, after all, aren’t the world’s only native English speakers. But Britain’s impending divorce from Europe may threaten the involvement of Spain’s nearest Anglophone neighbour in the scheme.
British Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 yesterday. With it she began a two-year process of negotiation during which nearly everything is on the table – including free movement of labour. If that goes, so does a massive advantage of the programme for Britons: the ease of applying.
Language assistant Rajini Vimalanathan Oliver, 40, works in a bilingual primary school in the north of Madrid. The married mother-of-two, originally from London, said she would “definitely” have thought twice about applying had the process been more difficult.
“I've been here nine years and nothing is easy, there's a lot of bureaucracy,” she said.
“It's difficult to do the simplest things. I got this job literally by applying to an advert on [mobile app] lingo bingo. I wouldn't have applied if I had to do far more paperwork.”
Briton Katie Spoor, 24, works at a nearby bilingual secondary as an auxiliar and says she was nearly turned down for another job in an academy “because the owner thought I wasn’t an EU citizen anymore”.
She agrees more paperwork could put Britons off.
“I'm not sure if it would have stopped me but I would have thought twice for sure,” she said.
“[In Britain] we're so used to the EU and not having to get visas to come work in the EU, perhaps if it becomes more difficult it would put people off.”
Carmen Morán is the co-ordinator of the bilingual programme at IES San Juan Bautista, one of Madrid’s first ever bilingual schools.
She urges the British government and negotiators not to thrash out a deal that erects barriers for Brits wanting to take part in the scheme.
“We should push and pressure so that things don’t change,” she said.
“Normally, when they hire English people they tend to say it’s much easier than with American people. I think it’s much easier with passports and permission et cetera when they are living in Europe. So it might be more difficult in comparison with Irish people, for example."
She added: “We’re not so happy with having so many Americans. Students are more exposed to that accent through culture and media et cetera.
“They need also to be exposed to the British accent. It would be a shame if they were to lose that.”
A lot has happened since the last time I wrote for the Trans-Iberian Blog. Somehow, I’ve transitioned from travel blogger extraordinaire to medical cannabis writer on a mission. I’m not sure how it happened. One of those unexplainable chain of events, or were they heavenly stars aligning?
Either way, my days now involve wading through PubMed papers, unpacking the intricacies of the little-known endocannabinoid system, and telling the stories of the thousands of patients who find relief through the much-maligned cannabis plant.
The funny thing is that before my new incarnation, I hadn’t really smoked a joint in years. In my twenties in Madrid it was something I’d do from time to time. But that was smoking hash in the mid-nineties. Back in the UK where grass ruled the roost, a few puffs saw me entering an oppressive inner chamber of fear and paranoia. So, that saw the end of my relationship with cannabis.
But then began a gradual trickle of information about the cannabis plant and its health benefits: people claiming it cured their cancer, stopped their Parkinson’s shakes, and freed them from the rigid prison of multiple sclerosis.
Fast forward a year or so, and the gift cannabis gave of dying with dignity to my friend’s mother ignited a heartfelt commitment to shatter some of the myths peddled by mainstream media.
And then, it happened. My path crossed with a Danish company called Endoca who make health products from hemp. Before I knew it they’d offered me a job, and I’d become an accidental expert on the cannabis plant and its therapeutic uses.
So, how come I’ve just joined a cannabis club?
Well, if I’m honest, it’s some sort of weird, completely unscientific experiment I’m doing on myself. Through my work I’d read a lot about the compounds in cannabis called cannabinoids. Hemp is rich in a cannabinoid called CBD, which studies show to be anti-inflammatory, anti-epileptic, reduce feelings of anxiety, and can be a safe alternative to prescription pain killers. Because unlike THC, there’s no mind altering ‘side effect,’ it’s sometimes painted as ‘the good cannabinoid’ and by association THC ‘the bad’.
But the more I read about THC, the more I began to realise that despite its sometimes uncomfortable high, it had been tarred with a brush it didn’t deserve. So, living in Spain where cannabis clubs are a plenty, I figured that this was the best chance for me and THC to get better acquainted.
So here I was, standing in reception at ‘El Perro Andaluz’ in the historic centre of Seville, one of the many cannabis clubs peppering the city. It was lunchtime on a Wednesday and inside the atmosphere was more six form common room than illicit drug taking den. It’s fair to say I was the only 40 something English woman present, everyone else seemed to be male, slightly grey in pallor, and in their 20s.
In what reminded me of a school tuck shop cubby hole, a smiley chap called Javi patiently advised me on the strain of cannabis that might suit me: too Sativa heavy and I might never come down, too much Indica and I’d have to be peeled off the sofa. So, in the end I opted for a strain called ‘cheese’. I didn’t even need to be stoned to find that amusing.
I was just about to leave my new friends when I was offered the chance to try out the house vaporizer.
‘Don’t worry,’ they said. ‘It’s really mild, you’ll hardly feel any effect at all.’
Fast forward twenty minutes and I was gingerly picking my way back home, silently worrying about the possibility of meeting anyone in my path. Because guess what - I was completely twatted. On a Wednesday afternoon.
Safely back at home, I was suddenly overwhelmed with an intense hunger. From a biological point of view, I know why this happens. THC convinces the brain we’re hungry, even when we’re not. That’s why it can be an effective treatment for any illness where appetite is impaired. But knowing this didn’t take away from the fact I was ravenous. And all I had was a pan of homemade broccoli soup, not your usual munchies fodder by any means. By the third bowl I felt vaguely satiated, but still utterly stoned and incapable of doing any work for the rest of the day.
Eventually ‘normality’ did reign once more. And now my ‘cheese’ consumption involves ‘micro-dosing’ a couple of puffs a night before going to bed.
It’s been about two months now since my 'THC experiment' began. And while this doesn’t constitute any form of double blind, placebo randomised trial, my experience has been the following: I have been feeling well. When I say well, I mean happy. Not stoned happy. But happy in my heart. Optimistic, positive. Something I haven’t felt for years.
Is it down to cannabis? I don’t know. What’s different in my life since I started experiencing this feeling? If I’m honest, I’d say cannabis. Will I continue taking it? Yes, but only in small doses. Does this constitute medical advice? Absolutely not.
Crystal Fighters, by Jackson Grant. Interview with Sebastian Pringle, centre.
2016 has been a year marked by divisiveness, politics that promote a fear of others and a movement to put up walls and barriers around our national identities. Global political attitudes have shifted toward a national defensiveness and a distrust of alien cultures, veering away from ideals that embrace, accept and celebrate differences.
But if there is one band that is standing defiant in the face of those ideologies, it is Crystal Fighters.
Based in London, the band’s core members are Sebastian Pringle (vocals, guitar/ukelele), Gilbert Vierlich (keys, guitars, Txalapaparta) and Graham Dickenson (guitars. txalaparta). They formed in 2007, and while Sebastian and Gilbert are both Londoners, Graham is from the US and former singers and original band members Mimi Borelli and Laure Stockley are Spanish and of Basque descent respectively. The band were inspired by stories in a notebook authored by Stockley’s Basque grandfather (the name 'Crystal Fighters' was taken from a play written by him). From the start, the band’s sound was grounded in Basque-folk influences, combining electro beats with the ferocity of the txalaparta, a Basque percussion instrument.
Crystal Fighters are an important band to have around right now. Their largest fanbases are in the UK and Spain, and can be seen as a creative example of the importance of nurturing cross-border relationships, “We are English speakers, but we are heavily influenced by Spain,” says Sebastian. “Thankfully Spanish people like our music too. While there is loads of amazing music in Spain made by Spanish musicians, they are mainly known in Spanish speaking countries. So we try to make Spanish songs in English, as it just comes easier to an English speaking audience.”
The band’s unique Basque-electro sound demonstrates how creatively fruitful global fusions of culture and music can be. While writing their first and second albums they travelled to the Basque region, and for their newly released third album Everything is My Family, Sebastian returned again to the Basque countryside, “...we always try and use elements from the Basque culture as it ties the music together. Usually it’s the wooden blocks, the Txalapaparta” he tells us. “It has such a tribal energy about it, we love using that in our music”
Live in Amsterdam, 2016. Photo by Teresa Weikmann
While writing Everything is My Family, Sebastian also travelled further afield to South and Central America. “It is really life experience - that’s the main thing that shaped the album” he clarifies. ”Whether it's the Basque culture, North America, Central America... wherever we go we try to connect with the people and the landscape and the land - the sound of the place - and just let it flow”
Everything is My Family maintains the signature upbeat positiveness characteristic to the Crystal Fighters sound. Lyrics focus on themes of love, partying, dancing and togetherness. “The lyrical idea just comes from appreciating everything having its place in a beautiful cycle of life - the idea that everything is helping each other exist in this world” Sebastian says. “Going back to the big bang, or whatever it was that sparked life - there was a family at that time, so surely we are still a family now - just much more spread out.”
The sense of inclusion and community is important to their live show as well, as they urge their audiences to hold hands and come together. “That's a whole other side to our thing” he explains. “The body is amazingly sensitive, receptive to positiveness, smiling, hugs, to joy - that will actually make you live longer. We are social beings.”
Crystal Fighters nurture and encourage optimism. Two years ago their drummer Andrea Marongiu tragically passed away from an underlying and undetected heart condition. Despite this, the new music has not ventured into negativity or hopelessness. Rather, they pay tribute on the track “Lay Low”, which celebrates life and the profundity of the love between friends and family. It is an uplifting track, emblematic of the attitude of the new album.
Whilst maintaining his passion for exploring new sounds in different places, Sebastian still lives in east London. His attitudes differ to those of some of his fellow countrymen - those who agree with Prime Minister Theresa May, who recently declared “If you believe yourself a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” Sebastian reflects on this statement. “I suppose she is trying to be divisive and get people to get behind their country. I completely disagree - going under the ‘everything is my family’ type thing - refugees, asylum seekers. It’s terrible selfishness that these richer governments seem to have”
One of Crystal Fighter’s earliest and most popular track is the electro-frenzied rave song 'I Love London', which has evolved into a sort of anthem for Londoners. In light of recent political events, does he still love London? “I do love London” he says, unwavering. “I currently live in London, I still have optimism. Although, I realise that I hang around in certain circles - I am vegan, I go to vegan restaurants...but I see people understanding and trying to make a change, especially environmentally.”
Through their music and live performances, Crystal Fighters want to make you dance, smile and forget a little bit about the darkness of the year. “There is an element of positive action to our band” he stresses. “Positiveness, get together, dance, fun, freedom, light, awesome - and that makes you feel good. We are glad to be fighting that corner”
Crystal Fighters are currently on their European tour, and will play Spain in December. For more information, click here.
"Everything is my Family" is out now.
One day after the mass Ni Una Menos protest, which demanded women’s rights and safety against rising instances of domestic abuse and femicide in Latin America, Chilean pop star Francisca Valenzuela talks to us about using music as a platform to campaign for women’s equality. In November she will bring Ruidosa, a feminist-focused music festival, to Mexico City.
“Domestic abuse, femicide and this perpetuation of machista culture is something very prevalent in Latin America. This was the first time I have felt, seen and heard the concern and the actual empathy and understanding of rape culture in the voices of men and the people who before were unconvinced – even women.”
Francisca Valenzuela is speaking to us a day after the Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) protest, which took place in Buenos Aires, Santiago de Chile, El Salvador, Mexico City and other locations in Latin America. The protests came about after the heartless killing of sixteen-year-old Lucía Pérez, who was drugged and raped multiple times in Argentina’s Rio Plata, dying as a result of her injuries. Outrage and horror provoked thousands of women to take to the streets in Buenos Aires – sparking a chain reaction in other cities of Latin America, where incidents of domestic abuse and femicide are rising.
“...as last week has been so intense, with this catharsis of women telling their stories, men and women are becoming conscious of things that activists and feminists have always been aware of” she continues.
Women protest on the streets of Buenos Aires EITAN ABRAMOVICH (AFP)
Valenzuela participated in the protest in her hometown Santiago. She is an active campaigner of women’s rights, understanding the importance of bringing women together to share their stories and experience of mistreatment and injustice. In March this year she launched Ruidosa in Santiago, a music festival dedicated entirely to addressing misogyny in the music industry. In between a series of concerts which took place throughout the day, female musicians and music industry professionals came together in panel discussions to share tales of their own personal struggles in the male-dominated industry.
“… it was not only a great outcome in terms of people that came, but the participants themselves really became involved, making the project their own, which was something important - to have that collective feel” she reflects. “It was interesting to have a very specific agenda in terms of addressing the problems of this patriarchal culture.”
When we spoke last March, she cited Mexico as a country where she experienced a deeply entrenched machismo culture in the music industry. “It was absolutely intentional to bring the festival to Mexico. Mexico has very prevalent sexism, but also it is an important epicentre of Latin American music; it has an amazing thriving scene - impacting both South America and North America. There are all these women who are professionals in the industry that never have had the opportunity to share experiences and speak from Mexico to the world”
Taking place on the 4th and 5th of November, Ruidosa will bring female authors, artists and musicians together in the free festival in Mexico City, with the aim not only to discourage sexism, but also to celebrate, encourage and empower women - in all industries and societies.
“...the music industry is the initial approach, but of course the intention is for it to grow, drive change and look for answers in other areas of culture and creative industries” Francisca stresses.
Valenzuela has addressed the issue of sexism and sexuality in her songs, most markedly in 2015’s ‘insulto’ - a song which defies the patriarchal ‘norm’ in support of gay rights. Twenty-nine-year-old Valenzuela is currently one of Chile’s most successful musicians, with large fanbases in both the US and Latin America. In her activism, she follows a Chilean tradition of combining music with socio-political statements, ranging back to 50s-60s folk icons Violeta Parra and Victor Jara, to contemporary compatriots such as rapper Anita Tijoux.
Is there a sense of obligation and responsibility for Chilean musicians to use their influence to initiate change?
She reflects on this for a moment. “I don’t think it is an obligation, sometimes there is a grave responsibility placed on musicians, especially in Chile. I think it is a good thing, in that you feel very connected and involved in your local context. Sometimes some musicians just want to do their music and create - that doesn’t mean that is the wrong thing to do.” She pauses. “But there is a sense of responsibility, and for me there is a great impulse to combine my interest as a citizen and humanist with an artistic drive...”
“...so it is compelling for me to use music as a platform, whether it is in songs or storytelling or the impact I can have locally. I do think there is a synergy with between my intention and interests to do music and use it for issues that concern me.”
Ruidosa takes place on the 4 & 5th of November in Mexico City. For more information, click here.
Additional information: franciscavalenzuela.com,
Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan
Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist, translator and teacher, now resident in Barcelona after growing up gracefully in Scotland via Norwich. He writes for The Guardian, the NME and The Quietus, among others, on everything from music to digital media. You can find him on Twitter @bencardew
Fiona Flores Watson is a freelance journalist, guide and translator who has lived in Seville since 2003, and has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Originally from Essex, Fiona is also Consulting Editor of Andalucia.com and has her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. She has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2014 and tweets at @Seville_Writer
Jeff Brodsky is a freelance writer. He arrived in Barcelona in 2013 via an admittedly indirect route, living in Chicago, Arizona, Seville, Amsterdam, North Carolina and Madrid. Despite not having stepped foot in Seville for over five years, he still speaks Spanish with an Andalusian accent. Jeff’s writing has been published in newspapers and magazines in America and Europe.
Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist and blogger enjoying a life of near-eternal sunshine in Alicante. She writes for publications in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, focusing on stories exploring smart and positive approaches to social issues. She hangs out on Twitter at @KorenHelbig and keeps a selection of her favourite stories at korenhelbig.com.
Julie Pybus lives in a small off-grid house on a hillside in Catalunya. She usually focuses on helping charities and social enterprises with their publications and websites, but has also written for The Guardian, Country Living and The Observer. Julie launched and runs a hyperlocal website which endeavors to increase understanding between the different nationalities in her area perelloplus.com. @JuliePybus
Paul Louis Archer is a freelance photographer, multimedia storyteller and artist educator. A cross-disciplinary worker, who endeavors to encompass the mediums of photography, audio design and writing. Born in Hertfordshire of an English father and Spanish mother. Based in the United Kingdom. @PaulLouisArcher
Vicki McLeod is a freelance writer and photographer. She has lived in Mallorca since 2004. Vicki writes about her beloved island for The Majorca Daily Bulletin, the only daily English language paper in Spain; produces regular columns for the Euro Weekly News, and articles for Spain-Holiday.com. Vicki runs PR strategies for several businesses in Mallorca and London as well as working on her own blogs and projects. She and her husband, Oliver Neilson, supply photo and text content for private clients via @phoenixmediamlr. She tweets at @mcleod_vicki.
Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and based in Barcelona, Alx Phillips writes about contemporary art, dance and theatre in a way that human beings can understand. For more previews, reviews, interviews and extras, check: www.lookingfordrama.com.