The friends in Spain I've never met

Michael Kerr
Retiro Park, Madrid - getty

I feel I’ve got to know Ben Curtis and Marina Diez pretty well over the past eight or nine years. He’s from Oxford and she’s a Madrileña — a native of Madrid, the city where they are raising their two children. 

Right now, because of the Coronavirus emergency, they’re home-schooling the children and not getting out much. They used to talk a lot about the museums, galleries and tapas bars (Madrid had mucha marcha — great nightlife), though they did grumble sometimes about the noise and the traffic jams.

As an occasional visitor to Madrid, I can understand Marina’s fondness for the shady paths of the Retiro Park (where her parents, in Franco’s time, were threatened with a fine for kissing in public), though I’m puzzled by Ben’s liking for the brutalist Plaza de España.

Away from the city, I know that she’s drawn to the mountains and he to the beach; that he’s a big fan of Radiohead but she prefers the raspy voice and poetic lyrics of Joaquín Sabina. I know, too, that Marina’s favourite film (which also happens to be one of mine) is La Lengua de las Mariposas — The Butterfly’s Tongue, a story of a boy growing up as Spain is breaking apart in the Spanish Civil War.

And yet I’ve never met Ben and Marina. Everything I’ve come to know about them I’ve picked up from the podcasts on their website NotesinSpanish.com. It’s one of those entirely enriching outposts of the internet; a place where you can get a feel not just for a language but for the life of the people who speak it all day and the country they live in. 

I alternate between using the site regularly and occasionally; more regularly at the moment, because I can’t travel and I’ve got more free time on my hands. But anyway, tengo que practicar (I need to practise). 

Since 2005, when the couple put up their first podcast, they have seen more than 40 million downloads of their conversations, touching on everything from Don Quijote to la violencia domestica; from the tyranny of the mobile phone to the death of the siesta. They have 10,000 subscribers to their “Real Spanish” newsletter, most of them in Britain, North American and other English-speaking parts of the world.

Language learning brought Ben, now 47, and Marina, 44, together. Having tried to make a living in London as a photographer, he decided to go to Madrid in 1998 to teach English. He and Marina met on una cita a ciegas con excusa – a blind date with an excuse: a session known as an intercambio in which he improved his Spanish while she improved her English.

They made their first podcasts — 31 in 31 days — to raise money for charities as part of a sponsored motorcycle ride Ben was planning with his father across India. They would sit on the bed in their flat recording straight into the built-in microphones in a digital recorder, “with our wardrobe doors open,” says Ben, “so that the clothes hanging inside would dampen the sound of the room a little bit.” (You can read more about how they did it in Ben’s self-published book, Notes on the Internet Dream.)

Since then, they have developed their site in line with the so-called “freemium model” of online enterprises: giving away their best material, the audio, but charging for transcripts and worksheets so that the keenest learners can get more from that free material. Within a couple of years they were able to give up their day jobs — Marina had been working as an IT consultant — and a few years later they had paid the mortgage on their flat. She has since retrained as a yoga teacher and he has developed a series of online projects, including a site on mindfulness.

Having taken a break from adding fresh podcasts in 2013, they restarted in 2017, and have just last week released new podcasts and worksheets for the advanced section of their course. Their back catalogue, one of the net’s best resources for students of Spanish, continues to attract new users, and they email subscribers at intervals with news, phrases, hints and tips and offers on worksheets. 

One strength of their recordings is that, while they did some preliminary research and talked from a list of subject headings, they didn’t write a script. The conversations are natural, unforced. In the early ones, too, where Marina is gently correcting Ben’s mistakes, and he is introducing her to such English expressions as “swot”, you have a sense that the people teaching you Spanish are on a learning curve themselves.

See Michael Kerr’s blog for his pick of the best language learning apps and websites