Simon Calder: El hombre que paga su parte

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The Independent Travel

My Spanish, like my understanding of German, Italian and Portuguese, has been picked up by my being picked up. After several decades of hitch-hiking I have acquired a smattering of phrases that are next-to-useless in normal circumstances: "Are you going anywhere near León?" or "Can you drop me at the next junction?" cannot deftly be inserted into cheerful banter in a bar. And when circumstances conspire to thwart travel plans, familiarity with the vernacular for "dual carriageway" and "how does the door open, exactly?" rarely prove helpful. Last year in the Rioja I was picked up by a chap called Sergio who had learnt English by listening to Sex Pistols lyrics, which made for a stilted and unusual conversation.

I should have listened to Lord Reith. The founder of the BBC, and the greatest 20th-century cultural arbiter, also had an eye for travel.

"It is practically essential," the stern Scot decreed, "that we be able to converse with foreigners in their own tongues." In 1924 he helped nation speak peace unto nation by commissioning the first radio languages course.

The traveller's ami was a character named Monsieur Stéphan. He prepared listeners for the rigours and dangers of a trip to France, including encounters with evil customs officials – British insularity prevailing over internationalism once again? At least Lord Reith insisted that transcripts were published in the Radio Times.

Over the decades, the language barrier with Abroad was partially dismantled with the help of new-fangled devices such as television and cassettes. But educational programmes belonged firmly at the worthy end of the entertainment spectrum.

Now I have no excuse. This week the BBC launched "an online interactive thriller" designed to help travellers painlessly acquire some Spanish. Mi Vida Loca translates as "My Crazy Life"; the idea is that you are swept up in a breathless chase from Madrid to the Canary Islands involving a young journalist and miscellaneous villains. But the viewer is expected to participate in the story – for example, by paying off a cab driver. When he says "Viente-cinco euros", you click on the image of a €20 and a €5 note and drag them into his eager hand. A good trip to Spain should always resemble a breathless chase. And after clicking your way through the series you should be better equipped to cope with Spanish surprises.

I propose a sequel, aimed squarely at fellow package-holidaymakers with an attention span to match a Paraguayan border guard, with the working title Dos Cervezas, Por Favor.

Still at the BBC, the Today programme was busy discussing this week how the price of a barrel of oil compared with that of other liquids. I believe I have found the fluid bargain of the summer at Expo 2008, which has just opened in Zaragoza.

The theme of this £2bn global party in north-central Spain is agua – Bob Dylan has even recorded a special version of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" for the event.

Visitors to this beautiful but parched part of Spain will quickly work up a thirst for water. Quenching it with bottles of H2O acquired within the site itself will cost the equivalent of around $600 a barrel. But a handy Aldi supermarket right outside the gates sells a five-litre bottle of the stuff for just 49 euro cents – roughly $30 a barrel. Just don't fill the tank of your rental car with the stuff.

* My rental car experience would have benefited from a better command of Spanish; in the runway-sized car park at Barcelona airport, I realised I had not yet found the bit on the Mi Vida Loca course that helps with "Señor, you gave me the keys to what you claimed was a silver Skoda parked in space five; half-an-hour later I realise they actually belong to a brown car located on the far side of the parking lot."

Mind you, at the toll booth halfway to Zaragoza, I picked up plenty of robust cross-cultural vocabulary. The source: fellow motorists who had just learnt that the lady whose vehicle was holding up all the traffic had (a) the misfortune to have run out of money, and (b) the temerity to be driving a car with French plates.

Not much nation speaking peace unto nation there.

'Mi Vida Loca' is at Also online, watch the new 48 Hours in Zaragoza, the prescription for a fine weekend in the Expo city, at

You either love it or hate it

Barcelona airport is home to Clickair, the no-frills offshoot of Iberia. The British consumer magazine Which? did the Spanish carrier no favours this week by rating Clickair's parent as the worst airline in the world. Yet the current issue of the Clickair inflight magazine is benevolent to the British.

It has a feature called "Un toque britanico", which translates as "Best of British". The story provides a top 10 of all that is good about the UK. It begins with Marmite, then takes a curious retail diversion via Top Shop and John Lewis to Pimm's. In addition, Barbour, MG and Laphroaig all make the cut. And in at No 6: the BBC, for its periodismo integro, innovador y de calidad – which, I think, loosely translates as "Reithian values".