Ben Curtis came to Madrid almost by chance when he decided to live abroad for a year. He wrote to International House in Madrid, Barcelona, and Paris, asking about the CELTA courses in each city. At the time he told himself, “Whoever answers first, that’s where I’m going to go. Because any of those three places will do.”
I was really, really motivated to learn Spanish, just because I really liked Spain, and also because secretly I think I wanted a Spanish girlfriend.
When the Madrid center wrote back with news that they had a course starting in two weeks, he gladly packed his bags and set off for the busy Spanish capital.
Perhaps coming to Madrid was a quirk of fate, but staying here has been anything but. Ben, the editor of the website and podcast series Notes in Spanish, came here with few Spanish skills, but he didn’t waste any time in setting out to improve them—by any means necessary. “I was really, really motivated to learn Spanish, just because I really liked Spain, and also because secretly I think I wanted a Spanish girlfriend,” he grins.
He found five or six intercambio partners — not all at the same time — but the one that stuck was with a madrileña named Marina, the woman who would later become his wife and business partner. Meeting, dating, and subsequently marrying Marina has allowed Ben to enter into a whole new world of Madrid and Spain: the Spanish family.
Referring to the experience as going “into the deep end,” Ben agrees that experience has helped him with his Spanish, even if it did leave with him with a “blinding headache because of the intensity of the conversation.” Suddenly in the midst of Spanish culture, Ben estaba encantado.
Ben is a big fan of Madrid, and he admits that nowadays he doesn’t get out as much as in the past. “Life changes dramatically when you have a child … My first year in Spain was quite wild. I used to go out every night.” Nonetheless, he professes an affinity for “old-man bars,” and Casa Portal Asturiano in particular.
He also expresses a longing for Madrid’s past, when the city didn’t remind him so much of London: “It’s become a little bit more hectic. It was more provincial. Now it’s more of a world-class city, and that brings with it certain stressors and tensions.”
To get away from it all, Marina and he often travel to the Sierra, to Puerto de Navacerrada. “It’s worth making the most of the fact that there are stunning mountains really close to Madrid.”
Perhaps because of the intensity of his Spanish-language learning, Ben started the travel blog Notes from Spain and the language learning site Notes in Spanish to help other guiris like him, a term he insists doesn’t really bother him, even if people have said it to him with bad intentions in the past.
Ben was working as a translator when he became fed up with the lifestyle. He had already started the blog Notes from Spain, and when a friend introduced him to the world of podcasting. He was surprised when people from around the world left encouraging comments, asking for more. He did the first few episodes by himself, but Marina soon joined in after losing her fear of being recorded.
“From there, one day someone said to us, ‘Why don’t you do one in Spanish, one of you and Marina talking in Spanish?’ So we said, ‘Okay, why not?’ And we did a conversation in Spanish. That was the beginning of Notes in Spanish.”
Asked if he one day imagined he could make a living off the site, Ben asserts, “That was totally the plan … I kept looking at ways to make money somehow on the Internet.”
After a few failed attempts, Ben hit the mark with Notes in Spanish, a one-of-a-kind podcast that aims to teach everyday Spanish to English speakers through natural conversations between a native speaker (Marina) and a non-native (Ben). Marina freely corrects him throughout the podcasts, allowing listeners to hear and revise any errors in their Spanish.
They started with Notes in Spanish Advanced, which was quite straightforward, since according to Ben “it was basically just natural level conversation.” But the listeners wanted more, lower-level podcasts for not-so-advanced students. Along with transcripts, for which they charged approximately a dollar, the podcast started to make a profit.
Not only does Ben have several successful podcasts, he also has written an ebook, Errant in Iberia, about his first few years in Spain: meeting Marina, buying a flat in Lavapiés, and “getting in” with the in-laws. As for why he wrote it, he says, “I read lots and lots of books about people who’d come to Spain … and [I] thought, I want to write a book like that as well.”
He published it himself through a service called Lulu. For a long time, it was only available in that form, but he decided about eight months ago to try putting it on the Kindle. He says, “It was interesting, because it took off again. It suddenly started selling like a hundred copies a month, instead of two copies a month.”
Besides his Spain-based projects, Ben is also interested in the pursuit of mindfulness. He has a theory about how things occur in seven-year cycles. “We’d been doing Notes from Spain and Notes in Spanish for about seven years, and I think part of me has a bit of a kind of itch to do something a bit different … For the past few years I’ve been quite interested in things like mindfulness and happiness, what makes us happy — how what we do in life, to live a happier life. So I thought I would start writing about that. And at the moment, it’s still tentative. I’m not there writing five posts a week.”
Yet another project he has on his plate is mutual. On holiday this past summer in Asturias, coincidentally his favorite spot in Spain, Ben was talking with his friend John, a fellow British expatriate, about his desire to “get out more and get the creativity going again.” His friend suggested they start a blog, and Ben accepted eagerly. Much to his delight, the project is working. The two are getting out more and taking more photos. Ben likes to walk around his favorite spot in Madrid, the Retiro park, to capture the images. In addition to his own projects, he takes art classes from a Spanish friend.
Yes, Ben does realize that he’s got a lot on his plate. Laughing, he says, “Recently it’s almost got too much. It’s like, Oh my God, why can’t I just do one thing? I would so like to just do one thing, but it never seems to happen … That’s just how I do things.” He does hope that one of his current projects will pick up steam like Notes in Spanish, however.
“Or maybe I’ll just end up doing ten things all the time for the rest of my life and going a bit crazy.” Maybe crazy, but never boring.