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24 September 2014
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Eating tapas at a bar in San Sebastian
Eating tapas at a bar in San Sebastian

Tim Parfitt on Madrid, mañana, and mealtimes

By Jan Gilbert
When Tim Parfitt was sent to Madrid for six weeks at the age of 27 to help launch Spanish Vogue in 1988, little did he know that six weeks would turn into nine years, and that helping out would turn into running the company...

Now living in East Anglia, Tim has recently published his memoir, A Load of Bull: An Englishman's Adventures in Madrid, which chronicles his Spanish experiences in often hilarious detail.

"Because lunch or dinner was always so late I'd often eat twice: I'd have lunch before I went out for lunch, or dinner before I went out for dinner!"
Tim Parfitt

But just what led him to write about Madrid now, nine years after leaving the city? "It had been on my mind ever since I was sent to Spain in the first place and I kept diaries and notes," explained Tim, in Cambridge for a book signing session at Waterstone's. "I got fed up reading about the same old ex-pat stories of doing up old farmhouses in Andalusia, or Tuscany, or Provence. Although I enjoy those types of books, I thought it would be an opportunity to explain what it's like to live in the city."

So the country of Tim's memoir isn't the "white-washed, bougainvillaeaed, olive-grove Spain of North European fantasies", as he puts it. It's what he calls 'the real Spain', a place he credits as being "much more Latin or Moorish, depending on where you are" than the costas Britons have been flocking to since the 1960s.

And it's a country Tim admits taking time to adjust to. "It took me a long time to get used to the laidback... slow pace of life. The clearest example is the eating hours. Because lunch or dinner was always so late I'd often eat twice: I'd have lunch before I went out for lunch, or dinner before I went out for dinner. So it caused havoc with my digestive system and weight!"

But it wasn't just mealtimes Tim had to get used to. "Doing business over there was at times very frustrating as there is this cliché of mañana, mañana... They love leaving things to the last minute. There's an anecdote in the book about when the King arrived at the world fair in Seville to open it in 1992, and the decorators were leaving by a side door leaving wet paint everywhere! That's how they are, but they get things done in the end."

And it wasn't long before that relaxed lifestyle had won Tim over. In fact he says if he could bring back anything to England from Spain it would be that less hurried, healthier pace of life.

It's hardly surprising that Tim's time in Spain holds many fond memories for him. Not only did he achieve considerable success professionally and forge long-lasting friendships while in Madrid, but he also met his wife. But writing his memoir brought back more than just memories. "Funnily enough my Spanish has improved because I did a lot more research. I went back to Madrid many times to get the smell and the sense of the city. And I fell in love with the city again, which is dreadful because now I want to go back and live there!"

Indeed the Spanish capital captivated Tim right from the start. "I haven't told many people this, except very close friends, but I fell in love with Madrid almost immediately. It really sounds odd but I felt like I'd been there before in a previous life or something."

Despite efforts at learning the language, fitting in wasn't always easy, although being English did have its advantages. "It did frustrate me a great deal that I was still always regarded as a guiri, a foreigner, and that never went away... Funnily enough as the years went on, although it had frustrated me on a social level and culturally, it did help me with business. I found that when I was pitching the Vogue business to clients - in broken Spanish, obviously they either felt sympathetic to me or they found it amusing enough that they bought the advertising... So in a sense I shamefully used my tourist assets when they suited me!"

So does Tim hope his book will encourage others to get to know Madrid? "I'd love to think that people could pick up my book and go on the trail, not just of the bars and restaurants, but of the museums and some of the other sites and really get a feel of it." And judging by messages posted on a number of websites, it's already happening.

But what do Tim's former colleagues at Spanish Vogue think of his side-splittingly funny travel memoir? "Some of them are waiting for it to come out in Spanish, and the ones who do speak English are sending me some wonderful emails, and they're still talking to me!" A good job, as Tim's currently working on a sequel, which is bound to be a runaway success if it's as entertaining as A Load of Bull.

last updated: 26/10/06
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