Looks like Beirut

“I can tell you were missing Beirut when you got this place,” said one of our visitors looking out our windows at the view across flat roofs and satellite dishes spreading from the foothills behind to the blue of the sea. When we moved to a flat in a working-class area of this medium-sized Mediterranean town, several people remarked on the resemblance to the view we left behind in Lebanon. Most Brits moving to the Costa del Sol come for a villa with a swimming pool and garden – something unattainable in England. Not us. We’re not in some charming pueblo blanco on the hills or some Driving-over-Lemons style valley, or even one of those gated developments with communal pool and tennis courts that many opt for.


We arrived with a two-year old and a baby so a flat in town meant I could take the kids out on errands and visits without hassling with car seats and loading up or unloading a pushchair and a sling at every stop. I didn’t want to end up isolated in some pretty villa sitting under the bougainvillea eating supermarket-sourced figs and wondering what Spain was really like.



flat roofs and a smudgy eclipsed moon

flat roofs and a smudgy eclipsed moon



When we visited Spain before moving to Lebanon we found Andalusia beautiful …and the costa less than. But after a few years in Beirut we couldn’t quite face moving away from the Mediterranean with all its highs and lows. It was heart-wrenching to leave Lebanon, but here on the coast we found so many things in common.

Rampant unethical property development along the coast? Yep.

Half-built buildings abandoned? Yep.

Flat roofs bristling with satellite dishes and aerials? Yep.

Beautiful green countryside out of town? Yep.

Flexible, fun-loving people? Yep.

Zero stress about rules? Yep.

Strangers who talk to you in the street? Yep.

An overused cliché about swimming and skiing in the same day? Yep.

The scent of jasmine on an evening? Yep.

Old biddies in plastic chairs watching the world go by? Yep.

A surplus of excellent produce? Yep.


picotas, cerezas y... cherrys

picotas, cerezas y… cherrys


A fellow Beiruti blogger used to run an awareness campaign targeting the misuse of the expression “it looks like Beirut” to refer to scenes of destruction, chaos or bloodshed. It is such an outdated expression because Beirut is glutted with luxury cars and haute couture boutiques. Car bombs are only occasional, and the Lebanese do chaos so well, you can’t really fault them on it.

Save for Marbella, here we have none of the bling and swank, so I can’t really say it looks like Beirut. But there is a little something, and I’m so glad there is.

You want a wire through your wall? We'll put a wire through your wall.

You want a wire through your wall? We’ll put a wire through your wall. I’m pretty sure that’s a Beiruti wire that escaped to Tarshish.



My Spanish DELE exam review

I’m not quite sure why I set my mind on the DELE C1 with the amount of peace that small kids afford. Motherhood also rhymes with guilt, so even though I gave up my job for my kids, I often wish I could do more for and with them. Still, I’ve noticed that when parents slave away doing everything for their kids to have a better – easier – life, it often isn’t appreciated either in the short term or the long term. So I hope at least they will learn by example that if you want something enough, you have to work hard for it yourself. Carve out the time, be self-motivated and all that.

Ideally I would have written a review right after I took the DELE Spanish exam, as I would have remembered more details about the topics covered, but I walked out of the exam to face a mountain of other stuff I had put aside in order to swot up for Spanish. Here, then, are just a few thoughts on the exam itself that have managed to survive the post-deadline avalanche.


Brass band in Madrid

Brass band in Madrid preparing to film an advert

The Oral


I was fortunate with the time of the oral – 3.30pm on the day before the rest of the exam. I was happy not to be one of those with the Oral on the same day as the rest. They told me to come 15mn before but I turned up at 3pm to be safe. Immediately they had me fill in a form alongside a woman from Bangladesh and an English woman who had been in Spain 40 odd years and should have been doing the C1 in my place. Both were in fact doing the basic A2 level so they could apply for Spanish nationality.

Straight after, the staff took me into the preparation room where I was told I had about 15mn to prepare. I pointed out it was 20mn, as per the official exam web. The lady responded “quince a veinte minutos” which I thought odd. The website is pretty clear, and it really does make a difference. Turns out they only had two students for my level, so I can understand the mix up. All those doing the level below were supposed to have 15mn. Still I was a bit flustered, and had I arrived at 3.15 as instructed, it would have been even more rushed. As it was I raced through my prep in case. I was offered the choice of two texts, one on ecotourism and one on the selfie culture. I chose the latter.


The interviewer and examiner were kind and pleasant making it easier to deal with the nerves, though the interviewer spent a long time on the chit chat meaning that the other parts had to be shorter than I was used to. I felt like everything flowed pretty well which was a huge relief, but I may have made a lot of errors without realising it. I realise now I will need a lot more practice to get to the point that I can talk freely AND grammatically!


the kids' favourite part of Madrid - scaffolding in Plaza Mayor

the kids’ favourite part of Madrid – scaffolding in Plaza Mayor


The Rest


The next day I had to be onsite at 8.15, which meant leaving soon after daybreak for the next town, as the examination centre in my town had no free places. I sped along the motorway as the sun rose hoping for a convenient parking spot and a coffee at the café attached to the language school. When I arrived the café wasn’t open, so I ate a Mars bar. Which reminded me that the last time I ate chocolate bars was a year ago doing the B2 DELE exam. The same taste of chocolate, nerves and adrenalin. Over the next hour we had our ID checked and were separated into groups according to the level of exam we had signed up for. Our group was taken to a very small classroom. That’s when I found out there were only two of us doing C1. The other guy was Chinese, about 20 and had obviously been schooled in Spain. I felt a bit more nervous.


The Reading was considerably harder than doing practice tests at home, even though it’s the part I feel most comfortable with. I remember finding the same with the B2 level exam. I think it just requires a level of concentration that is somehow hard to maintain in a strange room along with nerves, although you’d think it would be a lot easier than braving the chaos of small children to complete a timed test at home. It took me the full test time of 90 minutes, compared to about 50 at home. But I felt I couldn’t go too far wrong.


The Listening followed and I was grateful for all the practice exams because there is nothing quite like knowing the layout. I read ahead as much as possible, but it the pace was very fast. After the listening exam, we were accorded a break which the moderator suggested we shorten to 20 minutes. The other guy seemed raring to go and ready to almost do without, so I took what I could get. To my great disappointment, the café was still closed, and I didn’t have time to go and find some caffeine at a local bar, so I ate another Mars bar.


five-star scaffolding

five-star scaffolding

By then there was just the Writing left. I had practised a great deal but it was always going to be hard work. Unfortunately the official writing test answer papers, which were labelled with our names and numbered, were not quite the same layout as those on the official website, so I couldn’t accurately estimate the word count the way I’d planned. Another surprise was that the audio for Tarea 1 was a young guy with a heavy Argentine accent – I was prepared for that in the listening when at most it might cost you one of the five tasks, but this was the basis for one of the two written pieces I had to produce. I understood most of what was said, but not some parts near the beginning which could have been vital.


Just as I got underway trying to make sense of the bits I had heard and trying to imply the bits I hadn’t but could imagine were in there, the other guy raised his hand. He had written on the wrong page. And he had written a whole dense paragraph already. The moderator didn’t know whether to give him new sheets or have him re-write it on the correct sheet. She got another staff member into the tiny room and there was quite some debate while they fixed it. Twenty minutes later the same thing happened. The moderator faffed around a lot and made a point of coming and checking up on me rather theatrically for each page to make sure I hadn’t made the same mistake. The other guy raced on undaunted and finished ahead of time. I, on the other hand, ended up working with my hands over my ears, struggling to retain the thread of thought, and rather disappointed with the result.


In August I’ll find out the actual results. In summary, I feel like I had the levels of grammar and reading comprehension and even listening comprehension that were required, but didn’t perform well in the Writing and didn’t have the accuracy required for the Oral. After all, the C1 is just one level below C2 which is native-like mastery. I know, it was extremely ambitious.


Toledo, aka Sword City

A group of uni students from Oman visit Toledo, aka Sword City

Although I think I failed because I really needed to be fully fluent, like someone who has worked in the language for a few years, I’m willing to sit it again another year. For now I’ll take the summer off - some travel and some learning Urdu, while entertaining the kids throughout their nearly 3-month summer holidays. Later on I’ll work out how to move forward. Whatever happens, I won’t forget the feeling of driving along the motorway into the rising sun, ready to put my preparation to the test – a victory over baby brain and the quagmire of domestication, and perhaps a small triumph for motherhood.


***UPDATE: Just got my results, a mere two months after the exam, and somehow I passed!***


DELE prep books: Preparación vs El Cronómetro

In the flurry of preparation for the DELE C1 Spanish exam, about the time those doubts set in and I started wondering why on earth I’d signed up, I ended up buying a second book, the aptly named Preparación al Diploma de Español Nivel C1, published by Edelsa. This was in addition to El Cronómetro which I had been hoping would get me through.

my DELE prep books

my DELE prep books

I had managed to book myself ten private sessions of an hour each to practise the Oral, and although the teacher told me I was at the right level for the exam, she also reminded me that the mark only shows how good you are on the day. And to be honest, most days I really didn’t feel the right level. The teacher also pushed for me to do model listening exams during my sessions but there was no way I was going to waste 20 euros on a practice listening test when I could buy six of them for 25 euros, along with the rest of the six model exams that are found in Preparación.   So I did just that. I had worked my way through most of El Cronómetro (you can read my review of the Cronómetro B2 version here), and I figured that the extra practice I’d get from the listening exams in a second book was a good compromise between what I needed most and what I could feasibly fit into my schedule around the kids. I didn’t cover all of Preparación. I have plenty left to do in case I fail! But I did use parts and especially the Listening. So here is a brief comparison of both exam prep books side by side:

Contents of El Crono

Contents of El Crono


Contents of Preparación

Contents of Preparación

Preparación Pros:

  • There are six model exams, compared to four in El Crono.
  • The answer booklet (sold separately) highlights why the answer is correct, and sometimes why the other options are wrong. It also includes transcriptions, which for El Crono are found online.
  • At least with a separate booklet, you cannot see the answers accidentally. In one or two places I found the Crono answers placed too close to the questions.
  • Each exam focuses on one theme – mundo laboral, bienestar y salud, educación y formación, etc. This isn’t realistic as of course they are mixed in real life, but each starts with a page of vocab for that theme, so I suppose that could help you to master a wide range in a consistent way.
themed vocab and exam - Preparación

themed vocab and exam – Preparación


  • The Listening exams were too easy. This was my main complaint. First of all, the audio felt markedly shorter and slower. In the Chronómetro audios, you had longer texts to listen to, making it harder to unearth the correct answers. Secondly, in Tarea 1, where you have to fill in gaps choosing from ten expressions to complete several sentences about the conference talk, the Preparación talk actually contained the same expressions which were the right answers. In El Cronómetro they used synonyms, which meant you had to understand the sense of the sentences.
  • It had no strong Latin American accents unlike the Argentine accent in El Crono only quite easy ones. You really do need some practice with these …as I found out in the actual exam (post coming).
  • From a practical perspective, the way the recording is organised does not reflect the exam. For one thing, you have to play each track twice manually rather than the CD having them recorded twice in the first place. This is fiddly when you are supposed to be filling in the answer sheet. Also, the tracks do not include the reading of the instructions, and at no time is there any time included to read the text before the audio begins, whereas the official website includes this. So you have to guess how long to leave yourself.  I tried to underestimate to be on the safe side and managed to complete the 50mn test in just 32mn while scoring 29 out of 30. Having done the actual exam, I’m pretty sure my score was a far cry from that!
  • The answer book comes separately, that is, costs more. About 5 euros on top of the 20 for the book, but this is comparable to the 24 euros I paid for El Crono. Possibly you could consult one owned by a friend or your language school.

El Cronómetro Pros:

  • It has a lot more exercises all the way through. I only got it four months before the exam but I could have done with more time for the exercises.
  • Working mostly on my own with very little feedback from teachers, I appreciated having a place to record your progress and compare your results from each section of the exam over time.


Resumen de preparación - El Crono

Resumen de preparación – El Crono

  • Listening audios are recorded in a very similar way to the official exams, so you can learn to judge approximately how much time you have to read ahead.
  • An Argentine accent represented in each listening test, albeit only one poor guy they dragged in each time.
  • It contains answer sheets at the back which you can photocopy and get used to filling in the little boxes with a pencil if you so desire.
  • It has several pages of idioms with a multiple choice definition quiz plus the answers.


Idioms - El Crono

Idioms – El Crono

  • It also has several pages of contenidos gramaticales, one of those things that looks really useful to go through as a checklist of learned skills, but somehow never made it into my top priority tray.
Los contenidos gramaticales - El Crono

Los contenidos gramaticales – El Crono

All in all, if I had to pick, I would definitely go with El Crono. I think it’s crucial to get the listening prep right because along with the oral, it’s one where if you get completely lost in Question 1 you could be thrown off course for the whole rest of the test from sheer nerves. So that weighs heavily in my consideration. In addition, it would be misleading to think that the level in Preparación is sufficient for the listening test, even though the other parts seemed in line with El Crono, and the actual exam. Either way, you will need back-up to correct writing pieces and give feedback on your oral practice.

Questions for a multilingual family

These are the questions I asked before having kids. I still ask some of them every year or so. The kids grow; we move country; they start school… language is such a fluid thing so everything is up for change. Looking back on the six years – nearly seven – since my daughter was born, I would say that some things were easier than we thought. But the biggest surprise was the difference that personality makes.


What is your current linguistic landscape? 

Mum (main caregiver) – English; Dad – French; Community – Spanish


Is it really enough if there’s only one person speaking a given language to them?

Much of the time, the kids only get French from their dad. Because he is bilingual, it would be easy for us all to slip back into English, so we have to be on guard against that. I have nudged French into being a main language at mealtimes, though without directly talking French to the kids. We’ve had to make sure they get lots of time with their dad at weekends, but their French is perfectly fluent, probably as good as their English, and always has been. We’ve relied on books to broaden their vocabulary, but always choosing them for interest first and foremost. They probably make more grammar mistakes than monolingual kids their age. Things like “She sended the letter,” or “Tu as allé au parque?” or “Ça ressemble comme…” from the English “it looks like” or even in the reflexive, as in “Ça se ressemble à …” from the Spanish “Se parece a…“. Still, they are switching between three languages every day, so I figure some ongoing interference is inevitable.


What about the language delay?

What language delay?


What if they reject a language?

This hasn’t happened to us so far, although there is plenty of time left for teenage angst (or is it preteen angst these days?) and other life changes to throw the cat in the pigeons. I ward against it by speaking highly of French language and culture (in age appropriate-terms, so “French culture” = croissants, by the way). As for Spanish, I’m enthusiastic about learning it myself, and we both try hard to speak Spanish to locals even when we could get away with English. Although my 6-year old is not a big fan of school, it hasn’t been an excuse to reject Spanish, and so far we haven’t had any linguistic issues.



Do they mix?

As in do they randomly switch language mid sentence? No, not unless they are talking to bilinguals. Do they sometimes use a French word in an English sentence? Yes, and vice versa. Usually because they have forgotten the word or never learnt it. Sometimes they break off and turn to one of us to ask “How do you say XYZ in French?” Sometimes they adapt a word to make it fit. The other day my son was talking in French about “la lavadoire”, a new take on the Spanish lavadora / French la machine à laver (washing machine). You can’t blame him, I mean it does sound French.


Still, it’s a question of knowing what to use where. I think of how often I say “thingy” or “truc” when speaking, and how I would naturally eliminate that in a job interview.

It’s also a personality thing. My oldest would never use a French word on her English grandparents, for example. My son might. My daughter focuses on expressing information precisely and succinctly and can get blocked if she doesn’t feel she has the right word. She’d rather stay quiet. My son, in complete contrast, communicates more in terms of a general feeling, and he’ll just keep chattering on until you get the word from the context. As he grows we’ll do our best to provide enough vocab to keep up with the chatter.


Overall, though, they are very clear about addressing me in English, their father in French, and the outside world in Spanish.



What about the kids between themselves?

They used to opt for one or the other, depending on what game they were playing or what book they were reading, or who was in the room with them. Then they spent a year speaking almost only French to each other. Even if I said in English, “Go and tell your brother it’s time for dinner,” it would be relayed in French. I think this was triggered by a bit more time spent with cousins (a bit older, so quite impressive) and it could have been influenced by French being closer to Spanish which was becoming a more important language for us all.


But now they have swung back to switching. So far no Spanish between them, though I feel my younger, more talkative, less pedantic child would be perfectly happy if his older sister made a move that way. Not sure how we can keep that at bay, but for now pedantry is on our side.


How can you boost a language if you feel it lacks support?

My quickest and easiest tip is songs. If daddy spends all day at work and comes to the dinner table tired, shortly before bedtime, they’re not going to get much French input. But we make sure to learn lots of French songs and just humming one in the afternoon can get them singing in French together. It’s also great for car journeys, long or short, when the rush to get out the house without forgetting something vital has usually wiped our minds of any brighter, wittier conversation.


Books are a great crutch, and keeping the telly off so they can actually appreciate reading has been a big part of that, I believe. The Petites Poules series was a great hit when my daughter was five and just starting to enjoy reading alone in French. Secret Seven and Tintin followed at six. And they are now rereading Énigmes à tous les étages with great delight. At four and six they need an adult to read it with them first, but they get no end of pleasure out of rereading it alone or huddled together. Now I could really do with new ideas for chapter books or a short story series in French, so leave a comment if you can recommend something!



Although I never speak directly to the kids in French (save on a few very rare occasions for the sake of others), I’ll happily read to them in French. In fact their love of books has grown so that not only will my 6 year old happily read Tintin to herself, so will my 4 year old, even though for him it’s just looking at the pictures and repeating lines he remembers, in French. While daddy’s at work, that’s a big gain in terms of exposure to their minority language.



How does it feel to have trilingual children?

Go to India or Africa and ask mothers there, they’ve been doing it much longer.



Writing and more writing

To prepare the writing part of the DELE exam I have been churning out as many writing pieces from old exam papers as possible. About three texts a week is all I can manage, although in the C1 exam I’ll need to produce two pieces within 80 minutes. It takes me an hour of absolute concentration per piece (not to mention the preceding hour of procrastinatory coffee-making and paper-shuffling), 40 minutes to write, plus extra to work myself up to it and ensure I won’t be interrupted. Mentally, it’s tougher than facing up to a sinkful of dirty pans. In fact it made attacking the mess in the attic room look positively manageable.


What I’ve noticed, working with a stopwatch and counting the words at the end, is that there is no time to write about anything outside of the pautas, the guidelines. By the time I’ve covered the four to six points in the description fairly succinctly, I’ve not only run out of time, I’ve hit the upper word limit. Especially if you take the trouble to link the different ideas in (hopefully) a natural way. You are only given a certain number of answer sheets to write on (three for task 1 and two for task 2) so you can’t just write an essay even if you are a perfectly fluent speed-writer. You obviously don’t want to waste time counting words in the exam so (now the printer is working) I have been printing the official answer sheets from the website and using them each time. That way I have a clear idea how full the pages have to be, so I can see at a glance how I’m doing in the exam and I can adapt while I’m writing.


Blah blah blah

Blah blah blah

Speaking of word limits, nobody can quite agree on the exact figures. Task 1 is usually listed as 220-250, and task 2 is down as either the same, or less: 180-220. El Cronómetro disagrees with itself on the issue (see p.45 vs p.46), and no wonder because the official DELE website is not entirely consistent. The teacher I paid specifically to prepare me for the oral seems to think it is impossible to know. Apparently there has been a change in recent years so I’m sticking to the current guide which gives the longer word limit (sigh) for both and ignoring old test papers that give a lower limit.


I’ve also discovered that in contrast to what it says in El Cronómetro (p.47), there is NO time to write a draft copy – no way. This website corroborates. A brief outline maybe, but then again the pautas act as a rough outline anyway. There are fewer instructions for the first task, the one based on a 5-minute audio, because a lot of the information has to be surmised from the audio. Usually the instructions could be summarised as the following: What does the speaker argue and what do you think and why.


The official website is helpful with old exam questions and an example of a failed prueba and one which passed. From this I was able to work out that I should make more direct reference to the speaker in the audio, saying thinks like: “El punto de vista expuesto por el conferenciante es que…” Or “En la conferencia se exponen tres perspectivas…” It is important to present clearly in the text which ideas are from the speaker and which are your own.


Since Tarea 1 includes a 5-minute audio which is played twice, I figure that text will take me more than half of the 80 minutes, so I need to practise completing Tarea 2 in around 35 minutes. Tarea 2 often includes the option of a letter; I was told by one teacher that you should put your address at top of the page (as in real-life letters) but the example text marked APTO in the official guía only bears the place of writing and date, so I will not be wasting time on a full postal address.


I get my texts corrected and then I review the corrections, sometimes recopying them in categories. Although it’s been a struggle to find the time and the quiet to work, I’ve been buoyed by a noticeable improvement in my writing. I find now I can start a sentence without knowing exactly how I will end it and yet I still manage to end it. I’ve also seen my word count rise very slowly from below 200 in February to 250 words in 40 minutes, and I feel like my texts are more nuanced than before.


I want to keep up the writing practice until the exam, but I somehow have to squeeze in some proper Oral and Listening practice too. If nothing else, this autonomous exam prep is forcing me to be more self-disciplined. And the attic looks a lot better now.