It Was 40 Years Ago Today…

Do I remember it like it was yesterday?
Or have I just talked about it so much it feels recent?

Here’s my account of Spain’s 23-F, part of the chapter C is for Corona, in The A to Z of Spanish Culture.

On the 23rd February 1981, Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo was ready to become the second president of Spain’s new democracy. All Spanish eyes (or most of them) were glued to the television to witness another event with democracy at its core. 

And then it happened. 

Under the counting of the votes, a commotion.

A bit of noise outside. 

The President of the Congress asking softly, “¿Qué pasa?” (“What’s going on?”)

And then a lieutenant, in full guardia civil gear, wearing the classic tricornio (a three-pointed hat worn by the civil guard) entered the Congress, with a gun in his hand. 

“Quieto todo el mundo.” (“Everyone, stand still.”)

Followed by:

“Al suelo, al suelo todo el mundo.” (“Everyone, down on the floor.”)

Then more military, this time with machine guns. A few shots and most of the politicians were forced to crouch down in their seats. Most except Suárez and Gutierrez Mellado, a military man who was Minister of Defence at the time and who directly challenged the intruders. Luckily for him, he was just pushed around a bit and not shot. I was watching this on television and I remember Suárez shouting at the military, “I’m the president, I’m the president,” as if thinking that his resignation had caused the mess and wanted to take it back. 

Looking for footage of the event on YouTube, I found a video with commentary from a radio journalist. You don’t need to speak Spanish to hear the panic in his voice as he realised what was happening. Meanwhile, the camera darts everywhere following the bullets from the machine guns and finally it stops, pointing at the ceiling. A male voice is then heard saying:

“No intentes apuntar la cámara que te mato.” 

(“Don’t try to point the camera or I’ll kill you.”)

You can imagine every Spanish heart sinking very low as they watched this coup. People who’d fought for freedom of speech; politicians who had been involved in the transition to democracy (la Transición), young people like me (I was 9 years old) who knew they had narrowly escaped repression and oppression and could see clearly in their parents’ faces the words “No, please, not again…” Everyone stared at the TV, waiting to see if this event would affect their lives. 

The phone rang in my house. It was the Danish mother of a friend of mine, calling to ask for advice. What was going on?What should she do? Send the kids to school the following day? Keep them home?

Luckily, all this happened at a time when TV was already a part of most Spanish households. Calvo Sotelo (who was being elected president on the 23rd February) points out in his book Memoria viva de la transición, that watching the drama unfold on T.V. stripped the coup of any mystery and therefore, of some of its impact. There wouldn’t be time for rumours or urban myths to emerge, as everyone had had the chance to witness the event live on T.V. Just as the Spanish population saw the event live, they also witnessed how it was knocked on the head by a simple, straightforward speech. 

Extracted from the chapter C is for Corona, The A to Z of Spanish Culture.

Introduction to the 3rd Edition of The A to Z of Spanish Culture

The third edition of The A to Z of Spanish Culture is now out, as Kindle, e-book and paperback. You can find out how the book has been updated in this post. If you purchased the previous edition and would like the updated sections, please comment in this blog (all comments need to be approved first, so I won’t publish them) and let me know. I will send you a PDF will the updates.

Many thanks again to Paul Read for his contribution. There’s no way this update would have happened otherwise. You can listen to Paul and Pilar talk about the update here:

Here’s the introduction to the third edition:

The A to Z of Spanish Culture. Updated Third EditionWhen I originally wrote ‘The A to Z of Spanish Culture’, I was hoping to sell a few books and make enough money to cover the costs of book formatting and cover design. So I was very pleased with how well the book was received by those with an interest in Spain and to my surprise, my little book about my country of origin made the recommended reading lists of academic programmes in both schools and universities.

An A-level Spanish teacher called Cristina told me that she recommends the book to the students in her London school precisely because it is such a condensed read. “Once they’ve read the book, they can identify which aspects of Spanish history and culture interests them most, and they can go and study those topics in depth.”
When I first found out how the book was being used, I considered updating it but felt too removed from the country to be able to do so. I’d also stopped publishing the ‘Spain Uncovered’ podcast, so I had little motivation to catch up with and share what had gone on in Spain. But when last year a generous reviewer pointed out that “An update to 2017 would be great as a lot has happened there,” I thought, “Right, now is the time to do this.”
I’d written ‘The A to Z’ to show how much Spanish society had evolved during the 1980s, 90s and first decade of the 21st Century. I thought the country had evolved and changed massively during that time. What I didn’t expect was there would still be more twists and turns on their way.

Introducing Paul Read
In the first edition of ‘The A to Z’, I said everything I had to say about Spain. I’ve now been away from the country for more than 25 years and I don’t stay much up to date with what’s going on there. This means I’m not the best person to update this book, so I reached out to the only other writer who I knew would enjoy putting down some brief words about those aspects of Spanish society and politics that had undergone the most significant changes since the last edition of the book.

Luckily, in between his own projects (which mainly involve teaching TaiChi online), Paul Read aka “Gazpacho Monk” accepted to take on the task of writing a few paragraphs to bring this ‘A to Z’ up to date.

So, what’s new then?

– There is a new, M is for Más Movidas chapter which summarises the recent change in Spain’s political landscape, as well as the rising number of corruption cases. Paul has done a brilliant job of explaining some very complex court cases, some of which are still ongoing (which means we had to tread carefully when laying them out in front of you).

– Speaking of corruption, I’ve expanded the chapter on C is for Corona to include the recent scandal involving members of the Spanish Royal Family using some of Paul’s notes.

– The chapter Ñ is for Ñ has been expanded to include the current situation in Cataluña. In the original chapter, I didn’t go into the different nationalist movements in much depth. That was because I have never had much of an identity as a Spaniard, and so I’ve never empathised with those holding strong nationalistic views. Even though I’ve been aware of the quest for independence from both Basque and Catalans all my life, I never took much interest. However, at this point in time, to have a book about Spanish culture that didn’t cover the Catalan movement in some depth would be to miss out a very important moment in contemporary history.

– In the new section When Ñ Becomes NY, I have left Paul’s words almost intact. He’s always had an interest in the history of Cataluña (which is at the centre of his book ‘Forgotten Stories From Spain: 1984 and The Spanish Civil War’) and once again, he’s been able to summarise clearly a very complex situation. Unfortunately, this chapter has an open ending, reflecting the unresolved status of this episode in history.

Paul has also provided me with bits and pieces to bring other chapters of the book up to date. I’ve peppered them around and adapted them to my own voice as much as possible.
Finally, in the interest of balancing his own opinions with facts (or at least with other opinions in the public arena), Paul has provided us with the long list of sources he used while writing the new pieces. You can find them all in the appendix Vocabulary and References.

I hope you enjoy this new edition, which, as well as facts and my own stories, now also includes someone else’s voice.

Pilar Orti
London, March 2018

Podcast on Spanish Podcasting

I am delighted to let you know that Craig Wealand (from La mansión del inglés)  and myself have teamed up to produce the podcast En clave de podcast – uncovering Spanish podcasting, in order to find out what on Earth is going on in that medium in Spain.

So far, we’re loving it.

But instead of writing about it, let us tell you about the show in this introductory episode cero. (And if you want to read about it, here’s the blog:

I hope you enjoy it – espero que os guste.

The A to Z of Spanish Christmas – Podcast

In the first of two special episodes on The A to Z of Spanish Christmas, I talk about

Estoy como unas pascuas
Fruta escarchada
Gallo (misa del)
K – no K, sorry.

Please follow this link to listen to the podcast,

or look for Spain Uncovered in iTunes, Stitcher of your favourite podcast app.

U is for Uvas

It’s Christmas time!

I’ve completely neglected this blog while I’ve been setting up the Spain Uncovered podcast and building up that site. But I’m back! And as it’s Christmas time, I wanted to share with you one of the chapters from the A to Z of Spanish Culture: U is for Uvas, where I talk through some of the Spanish Christmas traditions, or at least, through some of the ones I’ve come across throughout my life.

Here it is.

Feliz navidad.

G is for Guiri. Happy Guiri.

Who is the Happy Guiri?

He (or she, they can also be a she) is a person currently away from the land they grew up in.

That doesn’t mean they’re not happy. On the contrary. The happy guiris, by their very name and nature, manage to find happiness everywhere they go. Why?

They look around them and wonder at the wanders of human nature. They also wonder at the wanders of nature, full stop.

They take in what’s different, they take in what’s new. They compare, maybe, and then they move on.

The happy guiri is warm, not indifferent.

The smile behind his eyes takes in the whole world.

If he carries a camera, he still takes in life as he breathes and doesn’t just see the world through a rose-tinted lens. He might be “away” for two days, he might be “away” for two years, two decades…

Happy guiris know that there’s no place like home, but they also know that home is where the heart is. (They also speak in clichés every now and then.)

He’ll always feel like a guiri because he knows there’s a different way. But he will always be happy. A happy guiri.

“What is a guiri?” Guiri is the term that the Spanish use for foreigners, mainly for tourists, but not exclusively. I mainly hear it used affectionately now. In Spain, you can still spot a tourist or a foreigner; in London it’s a little bit harder. So a guiri is someone who breaks the mold, if only because their points of reference are different to most people around him/her. I now consider myself a guiri in Spain; I even look like one, especially when I walk around with my Dutch boyfriend who really looks the part. So, I’m a foreigner in the UK and a guiri in Spain. Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner…

E is for Eurovisión 2013

Well, I missed most of it, I’d completely forgotten it was on, so I only caught it half way.

Not sure who’s won, but if Greece don’t win… well, they were the best, life is unfair…

The best act had to be Sweden’s own incredibly witty, well-written, self-mocking song, with lyrics like “seasoned with a hint of horse” (referring to their meatballs, of course). A great act to keep us staring at the TV while the audience voted.

Ironically, while there is so much talk in Britain (or should I say England after what happened in Scotland) of leaving the EU, most of the songs were in English. Plus, the Swedish song at one point could have been about Britain: people loving queues , standing in trains, not really making eye contact…

Are we really that different?

I suppose the answer is yes, but then, aren’t we constantly being bombarded here about the benefits of Diversity? Or has that agenda just gone out the window now? I suppose not, considering most of the countries sent singers to launch their careers, whereas the UK decided the festival would be a great full stop to the career of a legend.

E is for Extras on the Letter K

As promised, here are the other suggestions I was sent through when I asked for Spanish personalities to feature in a post on the letter K.

60’s pop singer.

Kiko Veneno
Spanish artist still going strong.

Kaka de Luxe
A punk-rock group formed in the late 70’s, headed by Alaska. Olvido Gara, who has always been known as Alaska, has managed to reinvent herself through the decades and still remains in the public spotlight.

Kiko (from Verano azul)
Most probably spelt Quico, but what a great excuse to talk about Verano azul in this blog.

Verano Azul (Blue Summer) made its mark on Spanish teenagers who watched TV in the 80’s. I remember the gang, on their bicycles, happily riding around the town where they spent their summer holidays. And the tune, oh the tune. If you’ve got two minutes, have a look:

K is for Karlos Arguiñano

In February I asked my Facebook friends and Twitter followers to help me come up with the subject for a post on Spanish personalities, as I was pretty stuck on the letter K. I got some very interesting suggestions, some of which I had already thought of, some of which I would never have come up with, like the one heading this post (thanks @grahunt!).

It’s taken me a while to write this post – especially as I realised that in my angst to  talk about Juan Carlos I, the king who has fallen from grace, I missed out the post on “I”. So, before I tackle that one, here is my post on Karlos Arguiñano. It will be followed by an extra post on K, to include all the other interesting suggestions that were posted (or sent) my way.

Karlos Arguiñano


As is often the case, until I started writing this post, I knew very little about Arguiñano. as he shot to fame in 1991, just a year after I left Spain. He’s not just a celebrity chef, but a very charistmatic entrepreneur who owns a restaurant (which he set up way before he hit the spotlight), one of the co-founders of the Basque Culinary Centre, film producer and he even runs a moto-racing team. Oh, and he’s the father of eight children, two of whom are adopted.

Arguiñano grew up as the eldest of four children whose mother had become disabled. That was probably the reason why he had to start cooking at an early age and, by the time he was 17, he had decided he wanted to become a professional cook.

In 1978, he opened a hotel/restaurant in the town of Zarautz, in Gipuzkoa (native spelling). For 199 Euros, you can have a double room, a “taster” menu and breakfast in the KA, Karlos Arguiñano hotel.

In 1991, after hosting his own cooking programme on Basque television, he began to present “El menú de cada día” on TVE1, the main channel of Televisión Española. The programme got people talking about cooking, even if most of the audience rarely put any of the chef’s tips into practice and was just happy to watch this funny, charismatic man.

A man increasing the ratings of a TV cooking programme. That is why I thought it would be worth dedicating a post to him. I’m willing to be proved wrong, but the average family still favours women being the ones who cook and it was great to remind men that spending time in the kitchen was ok. Things are definitely changing and women my generation might still land someone to share the culinary chores with them.

Back to Arguiñano, having conquered the small screen, Karlos now has turned to another one of his passions: motorcycle racing. In 2011, he introduced the Arguiñano Racing Team when it took part in the Moto 2 competition. I watched an interview with him on YouTube and loved his relaxed manner as he talked about what is no doubt, the realisation of a dream. A dream which probably (my guess, not his words) began to look possible when he cooked for Carlos Sainz during the racer’s stay at the hotel where Arguiñano worked. I leave you with the interview, which I much prefer to the many clips there are of him telling jokes. I wish him the best of luck with this parallel career!


Image by By Ana Sánchez Cruzat [CC-BY-SA-2.1-es (, GFDL ( or CC-BY-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

J is for Juan Carlos I

If I’d sat down to write this two years ago, this would have been a very different post. I really feel like the Spanish monarchy has fallen from grace and, pretty much like the other European monarchies, it seems like the time has come to change their role or disappear all together.

During the last years of his life, Franco began to ease prince Juan Carlos gradually into Spanish life as the next ruler in line. Whether out of a particular liking to this future king or just out of dislike for his father, don Juan de Borbón, Franco preferred to leave Spain in the hands of Don Juan Carlos.

In 1975, after Franco’s death, Juan Carlos returned to Spain to become her king, restoring the monarchy to the country and, many hoped, democracy as well. I’m sure many SpaniaJuan Carlos Irds were very grateful to the king for going down the democratic route rather than prolong the dictatorship. I was too young then to have any understanding of this. What I do remember is never hearing anything against the king or his family for most of my life, apart from the common jokes about royal in-breeding. These jokes were affectionately made by playing on the fact that Borbón, the royal name, is extremely close to bobón (from bobo, stupid). You can imagine how the omission of one letter could lead to very popular jokes.

Many sighs of relief were heard when, instead of taking full advantage of his role as head of the army to rule by force, Juan Carlos showed his commitment to change the way Spain was governed by appointing Adolfo Suarez as Spain’s president very soon after he became king.

I grew up being slightly curious about the Royal family. The elegant Queen Sofia, who is Greek, playing to perfection her role of mother and monarch while her three children smiled at the camera – poor things, I always thought, who would want to be stuck in that world? But the royal family always seemed to remain human, with their smiles and sporting lifestyle.

When I was just seven years old, I was skiing with my mother and we were staying in the same hotel as the king. My mother always said the king winked at me. She also told me that a girl had approached the king and asked him, “They say the King is staying at this hotel. He’s the one whose face is on the coins.” I don’t think the king embarrassed her by introducing himself.

As the prince and princesses grew up, they also began to date, bringing the Spaniards into the debate of who should marry whom and whether the next in line (the man of course, in spite of being the youngest) should be allowed to marry someone of non-royal blood. The Royal Family has always filled the pages of magazines such as Hola and their love lives have given the prensa del corazón plenty of stuff to talk about. A divorce, a fraud scandal and the marriage to an ambitious journalist have all been part of the Royal children’s lives.

Unfortunately, the royal family has now become front page news. In 2012, Iñaki Urdangarin (Princess Cristina’s husband and also an ex-olympiad handball player, I told you they were sporty) was accused of siphoning funds from the not-for-profit company he was running with the princess. Allegedly, around 2.3 million euros from the Balearic Islands’ government (that’s Ibiza, Mallorca and Menorca) and 3.7 million from Valencia’s government had ended up in Urdangarin’s pockets, after being diverted through the organisation he owned, which was originally set up to run sports conferences and other events. (Source: on 17/4/2012)

At a time when the country was already more than disillusioned with its politicians, to see that corruption extended to the Royal Family (for the role of the princess and king played in all of this is still not completely clear) came as a big, royal blow.

That same year (an Olympic one as we can see, from more than one point of view), Juan Carlos broke his hip… while shooting elephants in Botswana. I could say “enough said” but actually, it isn’t. Not only was the king of a country in social and economic pain out in Africa playing a dubious “sport” but, let’s just say, that the queen wasn’t faithfully by his side. Although the whole episode was once more carried with dignity by the Greek member of the Spanish Royal Family, this incident really highlighted how much of a farce the Royal Family had become. In fact, 2012 was extremely farcical for the Royal Family, as it included someone shooting themselves in the foot – literally!

An apology from the King for the Botswana episode (which was made even worse by the fact that he was honorary president of the WWF at the time) was nowhere as near a poignant TV appearance as the one I will always remember. On the 23rd of February 1982, when the military tried to take over parliament, Juan Carlos calmly appeared on the T.V. screen to reassure the population that we weren’t about to go again down that very dark dictatorial path. In sad contrast, this last Christmas during his annual message to the Spaniards, he urged separatists (of which there are many now, from all regions) to keep Spain united. Completely wasted words from a figure recently fallen from grace.

Photo credit: By Juan_Carlos_I_Rey_de_España_2009.jpg: *Andrus_Ansip,_Juan_Carlos_I.jpg: Estonian Foreign Ministry derivative work: DPC (talk) derivative work: Escarlati (Juan_Carlos_I_Rey_de_España_2009.jpg) [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons