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Valerie Collins and Theresa O'Shea
Valerie Collins (L) and Theresa O'Shea
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In the Garlic
When Valerie Collins and Theresa O’Shea sat down to write a book about living in Spain, they had a lot of material. They had lived in the country for a combined total of over 50 years—Valerie had arrived in Catalunya before Franco’s death and witnessed the transició to democracy first-hand. Both she and Theresa—who’s lived here for “17 years. I think”—married locally, and Valerie bought up her children here. They were well-schooled in the frustrating and ever-changing ways of officialdom, but also in street slang. Both of them enjoyed historical trivia and loved knowing about Spain’s past, but they also knew the ins and outs of buying property or a car, and which hospital department to head to when visiting someone in intensive care.
But where to start when trying to distil all this knowledge into book form? They decided to start at the beginning: the letter A. The result of their work, In The Garlic (Santana Books, 2006), is a forthright, warts-and-all A to Z of living in Spain. At times funny, and at times just plain informative, it covers topics ranging from the Galician language, to which street slang terms are seriously offensive and which are just colourful, to clear descriptions of official terms like declaración de la renta, touching on those hard-to-pinpoint linguistic sticky areas like the difference between bolso and bolsa in-between.
“It’s not really a guide—I like to think of it as a mosaic,” says Collins, who lives in Barcelona. “We decided to choose all sorts of words and institutions that make Spain Spain; we wanted to do something that wasn’t a dull ‘house in the sun’ magazine. We wanted to be accurate but not authoritative, and we wanted to counteract Spain being predominantly identified with Andalucía and the Costa del Sol—we really wanted to get a sense of the diversity of Spain. The comunidades are like different countries, and that’s what we tried to put across.”
The hardest part for both writers was providing accurate, clear information on administrative processes. “I was insistent that we include all the administrative divisions, because I’ve seen so many websites and magazine articles where they get it all wrong. And it’s not easy. We’ve both been through all this again and again, and we still get it wrong, because the laws change all the time. But people seem to like the book because it rings true—we’ve both been here a long time and still screw things up.” O'Shea underlines how complicated the research was: “Getting the facts right was the hardest bit, because you couldn’t always rely on the information; sometimes it was almost impossible to get to the nuts and bolts of what they’re saying.”
However, it wasn’t all hard slog. “I enjoy writing stuff that includes anecdotes about my life and family, but I also really love unearthing little-known facts. We really did want it to be fun and quirky,” said O'Shea. ‘Quirky’ is perhaps the word that best sums up the whole project: where else can one find a detailed history of the game futbolín (table football) next to a precise description of how to darse de alta (subscribe to a service), complete with a from-the-heart rant about how it’s far easier to do this than to darse de baja (unsubscribe from a service)? The end result is a highly subjective but very detailed and informative sketch of Spain, that captures both the frustrations and the joys of living in such a diverse country.
• In The Garlic is available from Amazon, local bookshops and can also be bought directly from the website: www.inthegarlic.com