I’ve met some famous people in my time. I once stood on Declan Kidney’s toe, so I pride myself on knowng how to behave around celebrity. Despite this, even I – friend to the stars – was lost for words last Friday morning when, in Dublin airport on my way to Madrid, a small, dark-haired woman queued nearby. It was she: Manuella Spinelli, Giovanni Trappatoni’s enigmatic translator.

Over the past year and a half she has become familiar to us all. In guiding Giovanni through press conferences with a firm but fond manner, she has earned our respect. She seems like the capable daughter of a slightly eccentric, loveable old rogue. A Nicole to his Papa. Men all over Ireland could do with an interpreter like Manuella to be the interlocutor between us and our significant other.When we are faced with life’s difficult questions, she could turn our unintentionally incendiary remarks into verbal Sudocream.

“Does my bottom look big in this jeans?” Caught in the headlights we would turn to Manuella for help. “Sure what harm if it does? – them yokes always stretch after a few wears” we whisper to Manuella. And she translates it as “You and your bottom sit like a butterfly on a daffodil.”

In the airport, I decided to say something to Manuella. You know the way famous people love it when you talk to them. I tried to sound sophisticated, because Italians are fierce for the sophistication, but I was struck dumb. All I could manage was “Aren’t you yer wan?” She walked off, no doubt muttering the Italian for ludramán.

Apart from a certain footballer who we shall refer to as ‘le Coq Sportif’, we’ve always had great admiration for the Continental Europeans. Whether it’s watching Breton teenagers, on exchange visits, shifting the locals at a GAA disco or Spanish pensioners on holidays here with their expensive-looking spectacles, it has always felt to us that life is effortless for the Conty-nintles.

In the early stages of its panicked, I mean measured, response to the financial crisis that wasn’t their fault, our government spoke a lot about the need to follow the ‘Swedish Model’. They weren’t advocating celebrity stalking. They were, rather, extolling the virtues of Sweden’s response to a previous recession. Sweden was held up as the paragon of countries, yet again. Quite often the main evening news will carry a report about some negative aspect of the facilities and services in this country and without fail, we will be told what the Swedes are up to. “That’s right, Sharon, in Sweden, a pregnant woman can expect up to twelve years maternity leave and in many cases, the man will actually give birth” or “That’s right Una, a recent study has shown there are only seven alcoholics in Sweden”

Ah yes, Sweden, the world’s perfect child. If Sweden lived in your estate your mother would be saying to you “I was talking to Sweden’s mother in the shop. Apparently Sweden is training to be a doctor”

This habit of drooling over Europeans while bemoaning our own lot was on my mind as I headed to Madrid. My mood wasn’t helped by the reading material. In that day’s Irish Times, the headline read: “AIB Investigates Two Senior Managers Involved in Property Business.”  While the in-flight magazine had a full-page ad for AIB which proudly declared: “Business is All About Connections”

There’s no doubt about it – Madrid is a total lash of a city. It’s a rich tapestry of handsome plazas and quiet hidden lanes. Palaces, art galleries and museums compete for your attention. Just to walk around and look, is a tonic for the eye. When you’re in a place like that, with all this beauty on show, it’s mandatory to indulge in the game that we all play while abroad known as “Sure If That Was In Ireland It Would Be Vandalised” It’s easy to get the hang of SITWIIIWBV. You just look at something that isn’t chained down and utter the eponymous catchphrase. It could refer to anything. A table in a picturesque square, a bicycle, a nuclear power station, anything.

And with half of your homeland under water and the other half even damper, SITWIIIWBVIT eventually leads to another game “Blaming Ireland For Things It Can’t Do Anything About.” It was sunny and warm in Madrid for the three days we were there, prompting classic BIFTICDAAs like cursing the weather, the onset of Winter and the long dark nights – “Who decided to put the country that far north anyway? In the path of Atlantic rainbelts, were they mad? How did they get planning permission for that?”

But spend any amount of time abroad, and it’s not long before you see that nowhere is perfect. Yes, the rain in Spain stays mainly in…Ireland, but they’re not without their troubles there either. On Saturday we were swept up in a huge protest by Spanish farmers, angry at falling prices. I say swept up, as if we were caught in the middle of a riot. As if police baton-charged balers and farmers retaliated by spraying against blight. They were angry but it was a peaceful affair. And in many ways familiar. Farmers look the same in every country. They wear the same jumpers. They know that prices in the capital city are a rip-off. “Ten euro to get into an art gallery? G’wan outta dat…”

As I walked through the protest, a man wearing a tyre-tube garlanded with ears of maize – I think he was making some sort of point – asked me in broken English where I was from. “Ah Ireland” he said. “I go there next Summer – beautiful rain.” So meteorologically and mentally we may be languishing in a series of Atlantic Depressions, shortly no doubt to be replaced by Polar Lows but at least there’s the summer rain to look forward to.

Footnote: Earlier, I mentioned that sometimes, we men need the assistance of a translator; but none was at hand when I asked a very special lady a Very Important Question under an olive tree in a sun-kissed park in Madrid on Sunday afternoon. Happily, she said yes. And you can interpret that any way you want.

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