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The friends in Spain I’ve never met

Deskbound Traveller is a site dedicated to literary journeys. But these are exceptional times, and I’m conscious that opening a good book is but one of the ways in which we can carry on travelling. I’d like to introduce you to some friends of mine in Madrid…

I feel I’ve got to know Ben Curtis and Marina Diez pretty well over the past eight or nine years. He’s from Oxford and she’s a Madrileña, a native of Madrid, the city where they are raising their two children. 

  Right now, because of the Coronavirus emergency, they’re home-schooling the children and not getting out much. They used to talk a lot about the museums, galleries and tapas bars (Madrid had mucha marcha — great nightlife), though they did grumble sometimes about the noise and the traffic jams.

  As an occasional visitor to Madrid, I can understand Marina’s fondness for the shady paths of the Retiro Park (where her parents, in Franco’s time, were threatened with a fine for kissing in public), though I’m puzzled by Ben’s liking for the brutalist Plaza de España.

  Away from the city, I know that she’s drawn to the mountains and he to the beach; that he’s a big fan of Radiohead but she prefers the raspy voice and poetic lyrics of Joaquín Sabina. I know, too, that Marina’s favourite film (which also happens to be one of mine) is La Lengua de las MariposasThe Butterfly’s Tongue, a story of a boy growing up as Spain is breaking apart in the Spanish Civil War.

  And yet I’ve never met Ben and Marina. Everything I’ve come to know about them I’ve picked up from the podcasts and videos on their website NotesinSpanish.com. It’s one of those entirely enriching outposts of the internet; a place where you can get a feel not just for a language but for the life of the people who speak it all day and the country they live in. 

  I alternate between using the site regularly and occasionally; more regularly at the moment, because I can’t travel and I’ve got more free time on my hands. But anyway, tengo que practicar (I need to practise). 

  Since 2005, when the couple  put up their first podcast, they have seen more than 40 million downloads of their conversations, touching on everything from Don Quijote to la violencia domestica; from the tyranny of the mobile phone to the death of the siesta. They have 10,000 subscribers to their “Real Spanish” newsletter, most of them in Britain, North America and other English-speaking parts of the world.

  Language learning brought Ben, now 47, and Marina, 44, together. Having tried to make a living in London as a photographer, he decided to go to Madrid in 1998 to teach English. He and Marina met on una cita a ciegas con excusa – a blind date with an excuse: a session known as an intercambio in which he improved his Spanish while she improved her English.

  They made their first podcasts — 31 in 31 days — to raise money for charities as part of a sponsored motorcycle ride Ben was planning with his father across India. They would sit on the bed in their flat recording straight into the built-in microphones in a digital recorder, “with our wardrobe doors open,” says Ben, “so that the clothes hanging inside would dampen the sound of the room a little bit.” (You can read more about how they did it in Ben’s self-published book, Notes on the Internet Dream.)

  Since then, they have developed their site in line with the so-called “freemium model” of online enterprises: giving away their best material, the audio, but charging for transcripts and worksheets so that the keenest learners can get more from that free material. Within a couple of years they were able to give up their day jobs — Marina had been working as an IT consultant — and a few years later they had paid the mortgage on their flat. She has since retrained as a yoga teacher and he has developed a series of online projects, including a site on mindfulness.

  Having taken a break from adding fresh podcasts in 2013, they restarted in 2017, and last week released new podcasts and worksheets for the advanced section of their course. Their back catalogue, one of the net’s best resources for students of Spanish, continues to attract new users, and they email subscribers at intervals with news, phrases, hints and tips and offers on worksheets. 

  One strength of their recordings is that, while they did some preliminary research and talked from a list of subject headings, they didn’t write a script. The conversations are natural, unforced. In the early ones, too, where Marina is gently correcting Ben’s mistakes, and he is introducing her to such English expressions as “swot”, you have a sense that the  people teaching you Spanish are on a learning curve themselves.

 

Ten more great sites for language learners

Lindsay Does Languages

Lindsay Williams, based in Milton Keynes, says she eats, sleeps and breathes languages. Whichever you’re learning, even if you don’t quite share her commitment, you’ll benefit from visiting her site, which is full of hints, tips and resources for both independent learners and online teachers. Following a degree in French and Spanish, plus studies that have included German, Italian and Mandarin, she started a business in 2012 offering private tuition to individuals and groups, and says she found her niche teaching via Skype. She blogs, vlogs and offers coaching packages and online courses for both learners and teachers. In response to the coronavirus lockdown, she is offering free classes for children on YouTube, an “isolation kit” for language teachers going online for the first time, and a great list of resources for learners in general.

News in Slow…

Listening to current-affairs programmes in the language you are learning can be a great way to broaden your vocabulary — if you can keep up with the speed at which newsreaders and journalists tend to speak. Linguistica 360, a US-based company, makes it easier, producing weekly shows in slow-paced French, Spanish, Italian and German, with discussions of the news, grammar and expressions. You can listen to the recordings free online as you read a transcription; for printouts or downloads you have to subscribe.

Radio Lingua Network

RLN (radiolingua.com), based in Kilmarnock, Scotland, was founded by Mark and Catriona Pentleton, both language teachers, who work with a team of native speakers and teachers around the world producing audio and video courses in short, manageable chunks.

  Free podcasts are available in English, French, Spanish, Italian, German, Swedish and Chinese. The next step is a paid-for Coffee Break Course, offering video, lesson notes and bonus audio content. If you get seriously bitten by the language bug, you might want to try their “espresso shots”, available in more than 30 languages ranging from Arabic to Zulu, and each comprising 10 lessons of just two to three minutes (£10).

  A blog post on the site says: “Throughout the world the impact of Coronavirus… is being felt, and here at Radio Lingua we are aware that schools are closing. In an attempt to help parents, carers, teachers and learners to minimise disruption, we have gathered a collection of our free resources for primary and secondary on a single page which can be easily shared.”

Talk in French

Founded by Frédéric Bibard, who lives in the suburbs of Paris, as a small blog catering to busy learners of the language, Talk in French has grown into a fully fledged website offering not just a blog and podcasts but e-books and audio books for language learners and francophiles alike. Bibard says: “Teaching French is just the beginning for me. I want to create a tool or framework to help people form a learning habit. I believe that if everybody spends 30 minutes each day learning something… instead of watching TV, good things can happen in their lives.”

The Iceberg Project

Cher Hale, an American from Las Vegas, went to Viterbo, north of Rome, in 2012, in her second year at university, and fell in love with Italy. She lived for six months in Viterbo, then for three months in Rome in 2015. Her site is aimed at others who are similarly smitten but find themselves “swimming endlessly in an ocean of Italian”.

  She’s not a qualified teacher, but an enthusiast, possessed of “an intense curiosity, a whole lotta patience, and the willingness to make mistakes over and over again as my team of native editors gently correct and redirect me”. She is now back in the United States, running her own public relations company in Spokane, Washington, but after a break has returned to updating her website. 

Slow German

Larissa Vassilian (aka Annik Rubens), a German journalist based in Munich, started the prize-winning Slow German (paced as its name suggests) as a hobby and on her own in 2007. Each episode consists of a sound file with accompanying transcript. In the “Absolute Beginner” category (where topics range from transport to make-up), recordings are in English, with just a few words and phrases in German. Premium membership (€40 a year) offers everything that’s already in the archive, learning materials in PDF form, episodes spoken at a faster pace and extra lessons.

Talk To Me In Korean

The team behind this site, based in Seoul, South Korea, started up in 2009 to help people around the world “learn Korean more effectively through fun and simple lessons”. They say they now have more than 300,000 students around the world. A basic course, including PDF lesson notes, is free. Premium membership (US$12.99 a month, $US$7.75 if you sign up for a year) brings additional materials, including sample dialogue videos and comprehension quizzes.

Melnyk’s Chinese

Serge Melnyk, a Russian who has studied Mandarin for more than 25 years, spent 17 years in China, has a master’s degree in Chinese linguistics and used to work as an academic director in the International School in Shanghai. On Melnyk’s Chinese he offers theme-based lessons for beginners consisting of practical conversations — recorded with Summer, a native Chinese speaker from Beijing, and Pauline, a native of Taiwan — and everyday vocabulary. The site doesn’t appear to have been added to recently, but it has more than 270 lessons. Audio can be listened to free, but if you want the accompanying PDF transcripts and worksheets you have to sign up and pay ($77 for six months, $97 for a year). 

Learn Japanese Pod

Alex Brooke, an English musician and composer who first visited Japan as an exchange student in 1995, started Learn Japanese Pod to brush up his own language skills. He’s now living in Tokyo, teaching guitar and, on this website, has been introducing others to language and culture with the help of his friends Ami, Asuka and Beb. The blog hasn’t been updated since last December, but there’s an archive of podcasts and videos, and you can download PDF “cheat sheets” if you sign up to a free members’ area. 

Language Transfer

Language Transfer is a marvellous open-hearted project led by Mihalis Eleftheriou, from Cyprus, a linguist with a passion for sharing language. It offers courses designed for beginners in nine languages (including English for Spanish-speakers). All are made with the help of volunteer teachers and offered free. LT is sustained entirely by donations made by its users, funds raised through workshops given by Eleftheriou, and purchases made in its online shop. Instead of memorising and scribbling, learners are encouraged to build on any connections between the language (or languages) they know already and the one they are learning and to speak from the very start.

  In a Facebook post on March 17, Eleftheriou said: “If you know anyone in quarantine, remind them that this is a great time to learn a language; we might just save some folks from insanity!”

Into the dark zone

When it came out last year, I recommended Will Hunt’s book Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet. I see from the author’s Twitter feed that his TED talk about “the dark zone” is now available online…

A tribute to Ciaran Carson, biographer of Belfast

Ciaran Carson, as I’ve mentioned here before, was one of the great conjurors of place, in prose as well as poetry. This week’s TLS has a rollicking tribute to him from his friend Paul Muldoon, recalling a “cigarette-safari” they made through London in Muldoon’s Triumph Herald Convertible.

Taking an ‘Inventory’ of Derry

Inventory, a remarkable memoir by Darran Anderson of life in Derry at the tail-end of the Troubles, is published today (Chatto & Windus, £16.99). The Irish Times has an interview with the author by Seámas O’Reilly, whose own Derry memoir, Did Ye Hear Mammy Died?, is due to be published in April. In a podcast, Anderson talks to Martin Doyle about the writing that’s inspired his own, the work of Lyra McKee, the legacy of the Troubles, and his luck in having parents who “refused to hate”.

Dee and Co at Daunt Books Festival

Daunt Books not only runs great shops, most of them in London; it’s also a publisher and has its own annual festival. The line-up for the next festival, on March 19 and 20 at its Marylebone branch, includes Tim Dee, talking about his latest book, Greenery, in which he seeks to travel with the spring and its migratory birds, north from South Africa to Britain; Simon Loftus, author of Puligny-Montrachet: Journal of a Village in Burgundy (which Daunt republished last year); and Paul Wood, author of London is a Forest and London’s Street Trees, who will be leading a walk on the second day. Also on the bill are writers including Sebastian Barry, Colum McCann, Olivia Laing, Caroline Criado Perez and Max Porter.

Following Chekhov to the ‘end of the world’

Why did Anton Chekhov travel in 1890 to Sahkalin Island, at the “end of the world”, where Russia was sending 20,000 prisoners a year? In seeking to answer that question, William Atkins (winner of the Stanford Dolman prize for The Immeasurable World) spent part of spring last year on Sakhalin. His haunting piece for Granta magazine, which went online in November, can be read for the moment without charge. On Twitter, Atkins is also recommending an “excellent” New Yorker essay by Akhil Sharma (from 2015) on Chekhov’s Sakhalin book.

Chatwin in Patagonia, pining for veg

On this date in 1975, Bruce Chatwin, in Patagonia, was missing his veg:

I have visited a poet-hermit who lived according to Thoreau and the Georgics. I have listened to the wild outpourings of the Patagonian archaeologist, who claims the existence of a. the Patagonian unicorn b. a protohominid in Tierra del Fuego (Fuego pithicus patensis) 80cm high… Dying of tiredness. Have just walked 150 odd miles. Am another 150 from the nearest lettuce and at least 89 from the nearest canned vegetable. It will take many years to recover from roast lamb.

Letter to Elizabeth Chatwin, January 21, 1975

Paul Bowles’s Tangier — and the real one

What’s a travel book? It’s a question that’s been argued over for centuries. The American writer Paul Bowles (1910-1999), author of The Sheltering Sky, gave his answer in an essay, “The challenge to identity”, published in 1958. “For me,” he wrote, “it is the story of what happened to one person in a particular place, and nothing more than that; it does not contain hotel and highway information, lists of useful phrases, statistics, or hints as to what kind of clothing is needed by the intending visitor. It may be that such books form a category which is doomed to extinction. I hope not, because there is nothing I enjoy more than reading an accurate account by an intelligent writer of what happened to him away from home.”

   Bowles wrote those words 11 years after arriving in Tangier, where — though he carried on travelling — he would live for the rest of his life. He wrote extensively about the city, in non-fiction as well as in novels and short stories, and helped to shape outsiders’ views of Morocco. So was he accurate about place and people? Hisham Aidi, a native of Tangier who met Bowles, and even ran literary tours of “Paul Bowles’s Tangier”, has been reassessing the man and his work for The New York Review of Books.

Getting to know ‘The Northumbrians’

If you’re planning a trip to the North East of England (and even if you’re not) I’d recommend reading The Northumbrians by Dan Jackson (Hurst), a history of the place and its people that I’ve reviewed for The Daily Telegraph: it’s an entertainment as well as an education. And the author, I’ve just noticed, has been interviewed for Dan Snow’s new History Hit podcast.

Primers on an overheated planet

I’ve flown only once this year, and I’ve promised (with others on Flight Free UK) not to fly at all in 2020. An odd thing to do when you’ve made much of your living for years as a travel writer and editor. But I’m not alone, even in my trade, in trying to fly less. Several of my colleagues have done likewise. We’ve all decided that we don’t want to encourage readers — even indirectly — to burn more oil at a time when everyone should be burning less.

  A strange time it is, when the president of the United States is denying that climate change is as dangerous as his own officials tell him, and yet an airline is asking potential passengers to consider reducing their carbon footprint — by avoiding flying. KLM is doing that right now on its own website. Why? Because, it says, “aviation is far from sustainable today, even if we have been — and are — working hard to improve every aspect of our business”. 

  In a report last October, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which brings together leading scientists, gave warning that we have only a dozen years to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. “It’s a line in the sand, and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now,” said Debra Roberts, a co-chair of the working group on impacts.

  The indicators haven’t improved since then, but governments still don’t seem to have got the message. The UN gathering in Madrid, which finished yesterday with a compromise deal, hardly suggests a collective resolve to save the planet.

  Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy for the Union of Concerned Scientists, who has been attending climate talks since the early 1990s, told The Washington Post: “You have the science crystal on where we need to go. You have the youth and others stepping up around the world in the streets pressing for action. It’s like we’re in a sealed vacuum chamber in here, and no one is perceiving what is happening out there — what the science says and what people are demanding.” 

   Having been slow to tune in myself, I’m now trying to catch up. I’ve read almost as much on climate this year as on travel, so I’m in a position to recommend a few primers. Boris Johnson, in his victory speech last week, promised “colossal new investments in infrastructure and science, using our technological advantages to make this country the cleanest, greenest on Earth”, so I’m sure he’s already ordered a copy of each of the books below for every member of his cabinet.

  First, The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells (Penguin), which spells out how climate change is going to touch every aspect of our lives, from the food we eat to the places we live in (or can no longer live in) and the stories we tell ourselves. It shows how, through “ignorance, then indolence, then indifference”, we’ve made for ourselves “a gaseous suicide, a running car in a sealed garage”.

  Nathaniel Rich, in Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change (Picador), explains how, in the 1980s, our leaders squandered opportunities to lessen the damage. His book began life as an article for The New York Times Magazine, which you can still read online. 

  Then there’s There Is No Planet B by Mike Berners-Lee (Cambridge University Press). In this handbook for what he calls “the make-or-break years”, he sets out what we can and must do now. He makes it clear that systemic change is essential, and that governments and industry must lead it. But he also encourages individuals to do their bit: “We need to think beyond the immediate and direct effect of our actions and ask more about the ripples that they send out, and how the actions of one person, company or country might get multiplied rather than muffled…”

  In the video below, which went online a couple of weeks ago, Professor Berners-Lee explains some of the themes he tackles in the book. He also touches on developments that worry him, and on others that give him hope.