Blogs in this series

Life in Culebrón is a disconnected series of pieces about the banal and ordinary of everyday life in an inland Alicante village seen from my very British perspective.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Clowns

I still have a UK bank account. Last November my bank, the HSBC, asked me to prove that I was who I said I was and that I lived where I said I lived.

I thought the whole process was ridiculous but I have learned docility over the years so I set about jumping through their hoops. By grinning at a webcam as I showed my passport they were happy to accept that I was me. Proving where I live has been a little more difficult.

Now we're not going to talk about the fact that they have been posting things to me at this address for years or that the original account with them was opened in around 1972 and has been at the same branch since 1979. We won't dwell on the fact that, whilst the need for the bank to verify the address of their customers is an external regulatory requirement, the process for collecting the data is purely up to the bank. No, we're going to accept the possibility that I may be the front man for a Serbian money launderer and that this process is not a fatuous waste of time and money.

I've mentioned before that rural Spanish addresses are a bit hit and miss. Living, as I do, in the 21st Century most of my bills are paperless anyway so precision of the address isn't important. I can obviously print the bills out from the computer but the bank wanted originals sent through the post. They also wanted bills with EXACTLY the same address as the one they had on their records. As chance would have it none of my bills have that exact address.

I have talked to several people at the bank over the months. Most of them have been perfectly pleasant. They were often quite human, quite flexible. In fact last Autumn  I was told to forget the whole process until I got a letter from the UK tax people in April. When I got a tax coding that set the whole rigmarole in train again. There have been a lot of phone calls, secure messages and emails since then. The bank hasn't been moving quickly though. Between one question and an answer I had to wait over two months for a reply. Today, after another lengthy phone call and lots of blether the solution that my customer care team representative came up with was to change my address on the HSBC website so that it matched the one on my phone bill.

The woman didn't seem to grasp the contradiction of the suggestion. In order to prove that my address was real I needed to change it. I didn't argue too much though. After all it's an easy fix.

So, now my phone bill address and the address the HSBC holds are the same. All I have to do is to get our local notary to certify the bill as real before sending it back to the UK. That done the HSBC will be able to sleep soundly knowing that their records are accurate.

There was though a teensy weensy potential stumbling block. The HSBC wanted the notary to use a particular form of words - I, [full name of certifier], confirm this is an accurate copy of the original. I pointed out to the HSBC that a document written in English wouldn't have any legal validity in Spain and that the notary may be unwilling to certify anything using a foreign langauge. The bank were suitably imperialistic about the need to use English.

And guess what the Notary said? We can validate the phone bill but not in English. I told them to go ahead anyway. When it's done I'll shove the confirmation in the envelope and send it back to Harry Weston road in Coventry and wait for the next round of negotiations.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Marbellous

Just for a while I had a student who owned a marble company here in Pinoso. I have no idea whether there is money to be made in marble but I do know that he bought himself a Mercedes GLE - one of those big four wheel drive coupé things because he said that some of his Arab customers looked askance at his Citroen. He also told me a story about how a new employee had left something off the manifest for a container full of marble which had lost him 2,000€. But, these things happen, he added.

All around this area there are companies that sell stone. Lots of them are alongside the motorway as it passes through Novelda but there are tens of them scattered around. Some are quite posh and others are just fences around an area with a few big blocks of stone, some handling and cutting equipment. I've been on a trip to the quarry here in Pinoso. It is humongous. It's what makes the town so clean and tidy with such brilliant facilities or at least the money it produces is. In a bad year the quarry brought in 6,000,000€ for the less than 8,000 population of the town. The sums aren't hard.

Pinoso does an ivory coloured marble. I think it really is a marble, in that the limestone has been recrystallised, and, as such, it takes a lovely shine. It's almost certain that you've walked on our marble in some office block or shopping centre. One day, when there was a marble and wine themed day in Pinoso I visited the only stone yard we have actually in the town and I was surprised to find that they were cutting and selling a limestone quarried in Albacete. The main company involved in the Pinoso quarry has its HQ in Novelda.

Today I went to visit another quarry as part of the Mármol-on event run by Novelda tourist information. We went to the Bateig quarries which were big, if not on the same scale, as the Pinoso quarry. They seemed to have a limestone that has a blue hue and takes a nice shine too.

The chap who did the commentary before we got there was really great. He emphasised that the three original stone companies in Novelda, had grown up around the railway. He stressed over and over again the effect that the railway had had on Alicante businesses from wine and marble to saffron, cigarette papers and toys. Just as an aside finding out that Banyeres de Mariola and Alcoi have history with fag papers was nearly as interesting as finding out yesterday that, in the last days of the Spanish Republic, the official Spanish currency was printed in Aspe. And probably more interesting than seeing some stone.

We went on to the workshops of Iván Larra the man who built the first ever church organ out of stone - marbles and granites. He gave us a tour of his workshop. He was more a musician interested in stone than a mason interested in music though he didn't give us a biography, or, if he did, it slipped me by. His workshop was a series of tumble down buildings which had once been part of a spa complex alongside what is now the A31 Alicante to Albacete motorway. Interesting (again) to think that people might have "holidayed" there until the 1950s.

I seem to have used the adjective interesting a lot in this entry but what with quarries and exhibitions and stonemason-musicians plus the street music event in Villena I can't think of a more appropriate adjective.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Being pushed and going

It was Dave's birthday last week. He invited us to his birthday barbecue and, following the hallowed tradition, whilst we were captive, Sara sold me a ticket in a World Cup sweep. Come on Morocco!

Spain play their first match tomorrow. To be honest it would be dead easy to be unaware that the World Cup, Copa Mundial or, more usually, just el Mundial is about to start. There are clues - like lots of adverts on the telly for big screen TVs and dead giveaways like the adverts for Coca Cola reminding you to get your supplies in before kick off. But, if you just were to simply wander around you would hardly be assailed by World Cup offers. None of the petrol companies, for instance, are giving away World Cup medals, youngsters aren't exchanging World Cup stickers and if the bicolour is flying higher than usual I would associate it with something anti Catalan rather than something pro Spanish squad. If there is massive support out there for la Selección Española, the national football team, la Roja, a name which comes from the traditional red kit, I seem to have missed it. Perhaps it will start tomorrow in Sochi at the Fisht Stadium.

If my Spanish nationality exam were to demand a 500 word essay on Spanish football I'd be hard pressed. I am vaguely interested in the World Cup though; as an event. It's just the same when, during the Olympics, I find myself watching, and caring about, the hockey. So, I'm chopping up the cucumber for the salad and on the radio they say that Julen Lopetegui, the national team coach, has got the boot. He's taken on the manager's job left open by Zidane at Real Madrid. My initial thought was that this was sheer madness. Presumably the squad has been training with this bloke, presumably their strategies, the ones they have been practising, were designed by the same man and, after all, it was he who had the final say in choosing the squad. I mean it's not as though it's a scandal taking another job. I presume he was willing to work out his notice. He'd not signed up with another national side and, so far as I know, he's paid his taxes. Why didn't they just let him do his job until the moment when the squad's World Cup was finished?

I was interested enough to have a look online for the printed version. The replacement is a man called Fernando Hierro who was the Sporting Director with the Spanish Football Federation. That presumably means that he's been there, alongside Lopetegui, in the plans so far. That sounded a little better. The article also gave me other pointers. It said that the news of the coach going to Real Madrid had left "players indignant and perplexed, particularly those who do not play for the capital’s team." So now we have it. It's about club football.

There was a strange symmetry to the football news. Whilst the no confidence motion was in progress, against the Partido Popular and its leader Mariano Rajoy, the one that led to a new Spanish Government,  Zinedine Zidane the Real Madrid manager, chose to resign. The number of tweets, WhatsApp and Facebook memes that mixed the events was legion. Yesterday the new Culture Minister, Máxim Huerta, who is best known as a morning TV show presenter and author with a very active presence on social media, resigned when it turned out he'd had a bit of a run in with the tax man. He'd routed some of his earnings through a company and, in court, he lost his argument with the Revenue. A bit against the grain in Spanish politics he resigned within 11 hours of the news breaking. So this time the memes were Lopetegui and Huerta rather than Zidane and Rajoy.

The photo by the way is of one of the security guards working at the play-off game between Valladolid and Numancia. He looks a lot like Rajoy. New work for the ex-president?

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Inconsistent

I have a pal, Carlos, who has one book published and a second well under way. Carlos is obviously driven to write. I think he's pretty good. There's a bit of a tendency to too many trade marks and too many adjectives along the lines of  "He moved forward. His Doc Savage jaw and aquiline nose crossed the threshold of the door in a dead heat and just in time to see the pneumatic blonde kick off her black Jimmy Choo Aimee pumps, flick open her ancient IMCO and gently scorch the end of the pink Sobranie Cocktail clamped between her glossy red lips." He can be a bit repetitive too (then again Dickens has scrooge eat dinner twice) but the story lines and plot development are good. If you read Spanish then give it a go and help to make him rich and famous - El Legado del Mal by Carlos Dosel.

I have no ambitions to write, other than for my own amusement. I also keep a diary. I have for years. Most of it is along the style of I got up and went to get a coffee before going to the supermarket but, hey ho, such is life. At the bottom of the pages, for years, I have written a little comment on the weather.

In winter I find inland Alicante very uncomfortable. It can be difficult to keep warm and life can be a bit miserable. If we ever move house buying one we can keep warm in winter will be a priority. But if winter can be hard then I just love summer. The never ending, inescapable, unremitting heat of it and especially the sound the heat makes. Things expanding and contracting. Cigarras singing nonstop. Brilliant. Spring and autumn are good too. Not hot but warm enough.

It's been warm for weeks now. Warm in the sense that a British summer is usually warm or maybe better said that it's not cold. You may occasionally feel a bit chilly, you may have to reach for a big woolly or roll down the sleeves of your shirt, but the gloves and overcoats disappeared weeks or maybe months ago. The outflow of cash on gas bottles has slowed to a trickle. I forget exactly when it was but there's a moment when I quit the electric blanket from the bed  - the blanket that hasn't been used for quite a while but is still in place, just in case. Probably it was the same weekend when the pullovers were folded up and put away ready for next November.

It's probably not been a warm May though and there has been a fair bit of rain. Torrential rain at times. At least that's what people have been saying. "Cool for the time of year", "Will it never stop raining?", "It's usually hot by now," and so on. I'm never sure. People have their own ideas about weather just as they have about Coke and Pepsi. I often think that June is one of the more reliable months with plenty of sun whilst July can be a bit unpredictable but I'm pretty sure that weather service could prove me wrong.

Lunchtime news today and just a short piece to say that May has been, temperature wise, pretty average if a bit wet. They popped a bit on the end to say that the reservoirs were filling up nicely. Strange that, last time I heard it was unlikely we would recover from the drought for years.

Anyway, back at my diary - June 4th 2018, this year - Sunny and pleasant. High 26ºC Low 11ºC. June 4th 2017, last year - Occasional sun, occasional showers, cooler. High 26ºC Low 15ºC.

So last year I thought 26ºC was a bit cool and this year I thought it was pleasant.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Colouring between the lines

The other day, at work, they asked me if I'd be willing to do a quick cramming course for 17 or 18year olds who had had trouble with their final marks in the English test or who were about to do an English paper as a part of their University entrance exam.

I had to do a bit of checking around to find out exactly what I might be taking on. I knew that some recent changes in education law, the law called LOMCE,  had made changes to the various exams but it's one thing having a general idea and another knowing the specifics of an exam. So now I know about PAUs and EvAUs and how people still call the whole thing selectividad. I even understand the marking scheme - for English at least. Obviously though I'm at a disadvantage over Spaniards who have gone through the system or who grew with the changes as they affected their children or younger relatives. So whilst I know there was a system with EGB, BUP, COU and now there's a system with ESO and Bachillerato and vocational training, or FP, I've never lived through those systems as I did with O levels, GCSEs, A levels or GCEs.

The EvAU exam is interesting. There's no speaking or listening component. It's mainly a comprehension, a bit of reading and some questions about what you have read plus a short essay. I find the reading comprehension quite difficult and I think the questions are full of traps. I'm glad my future doesn't depend on passing the test. I notice that University Chancellors think that the test is too easy and that marks should be lost for students who do not copy out parts of the text accurately!

There was a lot of hoo-ha in Spain about the final evaluation of the bachillerato, a lot like the  British sixth form, the voluntary 16-18 education period for youngsters . The LOMCE proposed that the evaluation should be external but, as far as I understand it, that was knocked back and only the students who want to go on to university have to do the external exam, the EvAU. I think, as it stands, it's the schools that set the exams and decide whether a student has passed the bachillerato or not. Certainly my bosses told me that the end of course exam is set by the teachers and generally looks like the EvAU except that it has an extra element where the youngsters have to translate sentences in Spanish into good English. Passives and reported speech look to be favourites. Translation can be a very subjective game. Take the very simple  "buenos diás". Días in Spanish means days but buenos días is usually translated as good morning not good days. Australians though, from my vague memories of Skippy and all those Foster's adverts, say G'day and they're English speakers. I wonder whether a Spanish born English teacher would take that into account when deciding whether "good day" was an acceptable translation for "buenos dìas" or not?

So, I'll be doing a course for a few students who had trouble passing their end of course English exam and some others who want to pass the English element of the University entrance exam.  I have a couple of weeks for the re-takers but only a few days for the ones who aspire to University. I'm not quite sure how much help I can offer in such a brief time but all we can do is to give it a go.

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Just a bit of an update. I've done a couple of sessions now. They didn't much care for my delivering the class in English so I've had to try and teach in Spanish. Hilarious and hard work.

A morning in Alicante

The Catastro, the Spanish version of the Land Registry, told me that article 18 of the Legislative Royal Decree of the 5th March 2004 (1/2004) says that any dispute must be attended within six months of receipt. I remember those things from when I used to work. We will acknowledge receipt of your communication within 24 hours and respond within 72 hours. Except that, this time, it was six months.

I have a bit of a conversation cum reading sheet about drinks that I use with my English learners. The drinks sheet starts with tea. It says Britain is a tea drinking nation. It has variations on "A pint of sheepshagger, please" and it mentions how overpriced coffee has Italian, rather than Spanish or French, names. But it starts with the phrase Britain is a tea drinking nation.

Now I have a critic. Every now and then a Spanish bloke, living in the UK, feels incensed enough, on reading my blogs, to put fingers to keyboard and play merry hell. He tells me off for lots of things but he particularly doesn't like my generalisations about the Spanish and he doesn't like my comparisons between the UK and Spain. My argument back to him is that generalisations are a fact of life. My experience is that Britons drink tea, the people on Gogglebox look to have a cuppa in their hand. It's true though that neither my mum nor my pal Geoff drinks tea. The sheet though says that Britain is a tea drinking nation and I think that's fair enough.

As well as the critic my Mexican pal Laura told me off, years ago, for repeatedly harking back to the UK. I tried to stop. I suspect though that the majority of the handful of people who read my blog have a British background. Nowadays though I try to keep my British comparisons to the factual or explanatory. So if I write about the ITV I might say that it's a regular vehicle check similar to the MOT or I might say that the ITV involves a such and such a check, unlike its British counterpart. I often voice an opinion, based on my experience, and draw some sort of conclusion from that observation. For instance I might say that the Spanish Social Security payments for the self employed are almost punitive and so there is a natural tendency for people to avoid paying them if possible.

So back to generalisations and my British opinions about the Catastro. I didn't want to go to their offices. I had the feeling that it was tempting fate. My limited experience of complaining in Spain leads me to believe that it can have unexpected consequences. Sleeping dogs are better left lying. But, after 15 or 16 months of absolute silence from their offices, and despite article 18 of the Legislative Royal Decree of the 5th March 2004 (1/2004), something needed to be done about trying to get back the hundreds of euros we'd been overcharged in paying the property tax on our neighbour's house.

In order to get to speak to someone I had made an appointment. When I got to the office I had to check in. There was a little ticket printing machine to do that. It assigned numbers. I entered my NIE, the ID number issued to foreigners, and the machine said that I had no appointment. The same thing, failiure to recognise the correct number, happens relatively often on badly designed websites - the sort that presume everyone has two surnames. The NIE is different in format to the ID number issued to Spaniards, the DNI.  Sometimes, I can get the NIE to be recognised by missing off one or both of the letters that top and tail the seven digit figure. Sometimes adding a zero at the beginning works. But not this time. So I went to the man at the information desk. He ignored me for a while and then he spoke to me as though I were an idiot. He asked the security man to help. The security guard was fine. He checked me off his appointment list and told me that the machine wasn't set up properly to deal with NIEs. He gave me a number and some ten minutes later my number flashed up on the screen telling me to go to desk 4 but I didn't even get to sit down. "Hang on a mo," said the woman, "Yes, you need to go upstairs to room 15. Wait to be called". I sat and waited. I had to go and feed the parking meter before I was called. The 90 minute maximum waiting time wasn't enough.

"The problem is that your land isn't registered, just the buildings." said the man in room 15. It wasn't difficult to recognise that I was being fobbed off. But that bloke on the reception desk had really pissed me off and I wasn't for backing down quite so easily this time. In for a penny in for a pound as it were.  We talked back and forth for quite a long time. Just for once my Spanish didn't fall apart and I stood my ground. I wasn't for giving up on this. If he'd found another problem then we had another problem but what about the original problem, the overcharging? Even if I had land to register they had the buildings registered and some of the buildings we were paying tax on were not ours. And, besides, why hadn't they sent a reply in fifteen months? There didn't appear to be any extra documents added to the stuff that I'd sent them, in fact it looked as though this was the first time that anybody had looked at the file despite my three inquiring emails and despite article 18 of the Legislative Royal Decree of the 5th March 2004 (1/2004). Obviously enough, in the end, he still palmed me off. "It needs a decision from someone higher up the pay scale than me," he said. At least I felt I'd done my best. It's going to cost us more money in the end though.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

By the Ermita de Fátima

I've just come back from watching the awards ceremony for the 21st Maxi Banegas National Poetry Competition. Maxi was a local teacher and poet.

It's a nice little event. This year it was half way up our "emblematic" salt dome hill near the Fatima chapel in a sort of wooded clearing. Lovely setting. There were some songs from Andreu Valor, and an unnamed musician, as a guitar duo before the awards for a couple of photo and writing competitions and then the big prize for the poetry competition. As I said all very gentle and very pleasant.

There was wine and there were snacks afterwards provided by the local bodega, Bodegas Volver, but I didn't stay. Maggie was watching Liverpool lose the Champions League final so I was alone. There is something pathetic about eating ham and drinking wine alone in a crowd but that was only half the reason for clearing off. There were plenty of people I'd nodded to in the audience. With a glass in hand they may well have tried to speak to me and that would never do. I took a few last snaps of the guitar duo, now augmented to a trio, and headed home.

Nice as it was I have to admit to being a bit cross with the event which is billed as being a National competition. The singers sang in Valenciano, the Mayor spoke in Valenciano. There was a lot of Valenciano. Fair enough I live in Valencia. Good on them that they use their local language. On the other hand it's also very exclusive. Say something in Castellano, the world version of Spanish, and any of the forty odd nationalities that live in Pinoso might have a chance. Speak in Valenciano and it's only for the locals. It even excludes the vast majority of Spaniards.

Quite a lot of the news on the local website and radio station is presented in Valenciano. There's plenty in Castillian too but I think the percentage of Valenciano may be increasing. Anyway I was listening to the radio as I drove into town the other day and I heard the shortlist for the Carnival Queens, in Castillian, for this year's fiestas. All of them were double barrelled, local, Spanish names. Not an Ecuadorian, a Moroccan or a Ukrainian among them.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Chuntering on


I forget where we were but they offered Contessa as afters. The Vienetta of my youth, fancy, if industrial, ice cream cake. There was tiramisu as well. Not many years ago all the puddings on offer in an everyday Spanish restaurant would be crème caramel, ice cream and seasonal fruit. Now you can get chemically flavoured cheesecake and deep frozen profiteroles and suchlike almost everywhere. An example of reasonably recent change.

Last Saturday evening I wasn't sure whether to go and see some flamenco in Villena or go to Jumilla for the Night of the Museums. I like Jumilla but we've done their museums a few times. I was drawn towards the flamenco. It's ages since we've seen a couple of old fat blokes wailing or listened to anyone turn clapping into a fine instrument. The trouble was the information I could garner from the web about Villena wasn't complete. I had a time, a place and a title. No description; Art and Flamenco could have been a learned discourse as easily as a night of sweat and guitars. A few years ago not being able to find any information on the Internet would have been dead usual. I'd have risked it but, as I got to the decisive junction, I turned the car towards the certainty of Jumilla. Until very recently Spaniards were not big on sharing information. The working hypothesis, born as so many things still are in Spain, of forty years of life under a dictatorship, was that what you knew may be to your advantage - so best to keep it quiet. But, nowadays, lots of information is reasonably accessible and that's a big change.

I'm not sure how much of the Catalonia news gets outside of Spain. I would guess that there are sporadic bursts as someone goes to a Belgian, German or Swiss court or when some President is nearly sworn in. The gang of politicians who have the upper hand in Cataluña at the moment are a bunch of pig headed, short sighted, single track thinking fools. The President of Spain, who represents the opposing side for those Catalan politicians, is also a fool, a plodding, vindictive, uninspired fool. There is only one way out of this, the two sides have to talk to each other. The trouble is that both sides only understand playground type rules - "I'll take my bat home" or "I'll get my big brother on to you". It's going to take ages for their feeble minds to come up with anything workable. Mind you I think Spanish history is peppered with examples of Spaniards being unwilling or unable to talk to each other. Co-operation is, in my opinion, not a big thing in Spain.

On a much lighter note, well away from the politics of a repressive regime or two, I don't care for the run up to Christmas. This is because Maggie watches a series of TV shows that shape our weekends. There is the X Factor, the one with the audience reduced to a baying pack of hyenas, which I heartily dislike, and there's also the dancing one which I don't find offensive but which isn't my idea of fun. I'm not sure when MasterChef is on but she likes that too. It's not a programme I particularly care for but I have nothing against it either except that it cuts across the start time for prime time telly which means we miss the first thirty minutes of any film on Spanish TV. Nowadays of course the format for TV programmes is a saleable item. There are Spanish versions of Come Dine With Me, First Dates, Britain's Got Talent, The Voice, Kitchen Nightmares, Big Brother, The X factor, MasterChef and Strictly amongst others. Now if Maggie likes MasterChef and if I want to watch Spanish telly you'd think that we'd have a televisual winner with the Spanish versions. The problem is that the programmes are presented differently. Strictly or Bailando con las estrellas as it's called here, only started last week. We gave it a go. We watched for a while. Maggie complained that the format wasn't as good as the British version but she'd probably have put up with that if the programme hadn't started at 10.30pm and gone on till 12.45am - two and a quarter hours. MasterChef does something similar on Sunday evenings - hours and hours long.

I could go on but it's probably best that I don't as I'm over 700 words. Way past the attention span of most people. A bit like Spanish TV!

Friday, May 18, 2018

Spanish Nobel Laureates

In 1895 the Swedish inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel, left money in his will for the Nobel Prize. The prizes are judged by Swedish and Norwegian institutions to recognise academic, cultural and scientific advances. The first prizes were awarded in 1901 in Chemistry, Literature, Peace, Physics and Physiology or Medicine. The prize in Economics was first awarded in 1969, after a donation from the Swedish National Bank to the Nobel Foundation.

To date there have been just seven Nobel Prizes awarded to Spaniards. So the next time you pass a school or a street named for one of them you can amaze your visitors with your knowledge of Spain. If you can't remember who won what plump for literature and the odds are on your side – five literature and two for medicine.

The Spanish started well with an early win in 1904 for literature. José Echegaray y Eizaguirre was a civil engineer, mathematician, statesman, and one of the leading Spanish dramatists of the 19th century. José Echegaray was awarded the 1904 Nobel Prize for Literature "in recognition of the numerous and brilliant compositions which, in an individual and original manner, have revived the great traditions of the Spanish drama".

Next up was Santiago Ramón y Cajal in 1906 for medicine or physiology. Ramón y Cajal was a pathologist, histologist and neuroscientist. His pioneering investigations of the microscopic structure of the brain have led to his being called the father of modern neuroscience. His medical artistry was legendary, and hundreds of his drawings are still in use for educational and training purposes. His Nobel citation reads "in recognition of their work on the structure of the nervous system"

It was quite a while to the next one, 1922 to be precise, to Jacinto Benavente y Martínez for literature. Jacinto Benavente was born in Madrid and became one of the foremost Spanish dramatists of the 20th century. The Nobel Prize citation reads "for the happy manner in which he has continued the illustrious traditions of the Spanish drama".

Nothing in the 1930s or 40s but in 1956 Juan Ramón Jiménez Mantecón picked up the literature prize. Juan Ramón Jiménez was a prolific writer and poet who received the prize "for his lyrical poetry, which in the Spanish language constitutes an example of high spirit and artistic purity". Although he was mainly a poet his prose work, Platero y yo - Platero and I, a series of gentle stories about a boy and his donkey, is one of those books that children are made to read at school.

Severo Ochoa de Albornoz was a physician and biochemist. Severo Ochoa won the medicine or physiology prize in 1959 by which time he had moved to the USA and taken on American Citizenship. He worked alongside Arthur Kornberg  so the citation reads "for their discovery of the mechanisms in the biological synthesis of ribonucleic acid and deoxyribonucleic acid"

Vicente Pío Marcelino Cirilo Aleixandre y Merlo was born in Seville in 1898. Vicente Aleixandre received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1977 "for a creative poetic writing which illuminates man's condition in the cosmos and in present-day society, at the same time representing the great renewal of the traditions of Spanish poetry between the wars". His poetry is generally free verse, very surrealistic and often sad.

The latest winner to date was Camilo José Cela y Trulock, 1st Marquis of Iria Flavia in 1989 for literature. The Trulock part of Camilo José Cela's name comes from an English grandparent though his mum was Spanish. Because he is more recent you may find that his work is better known - titles to remember are La familia de Pascual Duarte and la Colmena (The Hive). He liked to shock with his statements and in an interview on telly he offered to demonstrate his ability to absorb litres of water via his anus. You can see why the Nobel citation is for "for a rich and intensive prose, which with restrained compassion forms a challenging vision of man's vulnerability"

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Don John

My Spanish is odd. I know a fair bit. I can talk alright but sometimes I can't. Sometimes I can get really flustered and cock it up completely. Sometimes I can laugh at my mistakes and plough on or I can get angry and sulky. Language, or problems with language are still, by far, the biggest stumbling block to my day to day dealings with Spain.

In the last post I mentioned that the Consumer Office had suggested the only way to sort out our overpaid local taxes was to go to the nearest office of the Land Registry, the Catastro, 60 kilometres away in Alicante city. Nowadays, with most government offices, you need to arrange a prior appointment. That doesn't mean you don't have to queue but it does mean you'll get served. There are lots of systems for making an appointment online and even the most basic website usually offers some sort of email possibility. Not the Catastro though. You can get access to plenty of information online but sorting an appointment has to be done by phone.

I used to live on the phone when I had a real job but, nowadays, I find phone calls to help lines really difficult irrespective of the language. First there are the technical problems; the headsets not set up properly so that the volume is too loud or too low and the VOIP connections with the corresponding clicks or echoes on the line. Then there are those more physical problems like balancing the phone under your chin whilst you search for the reference number that you didn't expect them to ask for. Now add in the Spanish. If talking to people face to face can vary from ordinary and normal to a bit embarrassing talking to people on the phone, for me, tends towards nightmare. There are non of those corporal cues to help - you can't nod or gesticulate or smile - it all depends on the words that you utter and only on the words.

So, I'd put off phoning the Catastro as long as I could. As I pressed the number buttons on the phone I remembered approaching the end of the 10 metre board at the swimming pool in Skipton when I was a boy. The connection was dodgy - a beep on the line every three seconds or so. I listened to the "Please hold we'll be with you in a moment" message for a while with the knot in my stomach getting tighter and tighter. "How can I help you today?" said a cheery voice in Spanish with a nice clear accent. No niceties on my part I just blurted out "I want to arrange an appointment with the Alicante office" with the Spanish steeped in the broadest of Yorkshire accents. Questions and answers; ID numbers, reference numbers, post codes, phone numbers - easy questions. Then there was a question about why I wanted to speak to them, I fluffed and muttered. The man said "Ya". Ya is a multi-use, often confirmatory, word that can mean lots of things. When he said it he said it in a way that I know well, with the vowel sound lengthened and a click at the end, so that it sounds resigned and world weary. I got the appointment though.

As he confirmed the place, date and time he made the mistake, common amongst Spaniards used to their double barrelled surnames, of thinking that my middle name was my surname. Thank you for your call to the Catastro today Don John. As I sniggered I failed to say "adios" properly. Ending on a low note.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Sweet and sour

The Spanish tax year runs from 1st January to 31st December. Sometime around the end of March, or the beginning of April, the tax process begins and people have till June to either put in their claims for reimbursements or pay up what they owe. I still do a bit of part time work and I have some income from a Teacher's Pension so I have tax to pay. For years I did my own tax return by either going to the local tax office or doing it online.

A few years ago it all got a bit more complicated because there were rule changes about the taxation of overseas pension income. Well that and that I'd been evading tax just a little. HM Revenue and Customs dobbed me in to the Spaniards and told them about the 300€ or so I get each year from a tiny AVC pension fund. Pedro, a nice accountant in Molina de Segura sorted it all out for me and I stuck with him the next tax year too. Last year though I went back to doing it myself and ended up with a tax bill of about 1,200€ which was a bit of a shock. That amount represents a bit below four months pay from my very part time. It didn't seem fair or right but, after lots of Googling and questions on expat forums, the evidence suggested it was as it should be. So I gritted my teeth and paid up.

This year I added my pension to the draft tax return form online again and it looked as though I owed around 400€. I decided to ask an accountant, just to be sure. My appointment was this morning. All the sums done the accountant told me the tax people owed me about 50€. This is a good result. It turns out that accountants can do something on the tax returns that private individuals can't so, by not going to an accountant last year, I had doomed myself to overpaying my taxes. I'm taking a positive view of this and being thankful. I am not going to cry over last years spilled milk. There's the sweet.

In February of 2017 we got a huge "rates" demand. Well huge by our standards. Another five months of part time work's worth. With a bit of checking it turned out that there was an error. We are paying the rates for most of our neighbours house!

I put in an appeal with the Land Registry, the Catastro, and waited for something to happen. After about five months I sent an email asking, very politely, if they had any news. They told me they had, by law, up to six months to reply. I asked again after nine months and they told me that the matter was "under consideration". It's now around 15 months and their recent reply was also to wait. Taking on the Land Registry in hand to hand combat is not something I relish. So I booked in for an appointment with the local Consumer Protection Office to see if they could do anything on our behalf. My appointment was this afternoon. Their advice was to go to the Land Registry Office in Alicante and make my case face to face. Not exactly the sort of help I was looking for. Perhaps the most depressing thing was that the chap who suggested this also gave me the address for the local ombudsman rather suggesting that he's not hopeful about the outcome. And that's the sour.

Friday, May 11, 2018

11-M; the 2004 Madrid Train Bombings

On Thursday 11th of March 2004 between 7.0 and 7.15 in the morning, thirteen backpacks, each containing about 10kg of explosive, were loaded onto four trains as they passed through Alcalá de Henares station. About half an hour later, in the two minutes between 7.37 and 7.39, ten of those bombs exploded on crowded commuter trains in the heart of Madrid. 190 people of 17 nationalities died and over 1800 were injured. The bombs, at first reported to be the work of the Basque terrorist organisation ETA, were later ascribed to independent Islamist terrorists.

The explosions occurred during the morning rush hour, targeting a busy commuter rail line into Atocha station from Alcalá. At 7.37 four bombs, planted in different carriages of a single train, exploded inside Atocha station. Two minutes later three bombs exploded on a train held at calle de Téllez by a red signal just 500 metres out of Atocha. The presumption is that the bombs were planned to go off inside Atocha, Madrid's busiest railway station. Meanwhile, at El Pozo station, two more bombs detonated at 7:38 on another train. A single bomb, also at 7.38, killed more at Santa Eugenia station. Four trains and ten bombs. Bomb disposal teams found and detonated two more bombs in controlled explosions on the train at calle de Téllez. Another unexploded device, which was apparently of a different design to all the others, had been on the El Pozo train. It was later discovered, inside Vallecas police station, where it had been taken with other items. One reason given for that bomb not going off was that the timer had been set twelve hours late in a confusion between am and pm.

11-M, the Madrid Atocha bombings, are the worst terrorist attack in modern Spanish history. They wrested that unhappy record from the 1987 attack by ETA on a Hipercor store in Barcelona with 21 dead and 40 injured. In fact the attacks were the deadliest in Europe since the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. More people died in the Atocha train bombings than died in Paris in November 2015.

The bombings had an important political effect. Spain was just three days away from a General Election when the bombs went off. Opinion polls at the time were predicting a victory for the ruling Partido Popular led by José María Aznar. Government sources pointed the finger at the Basque terror group, ETA, though they quickly denied any involvement. The suggestion is that Aznar thought that the public would perceive an ETA attack as the death throes of a terrorist organisation throttled by a firm Government. An Islamist attack on the other hand would be seen as the result of him deploying Spanish troops in Iraq. One was good politics, the other bad. That's probably why when, for instance, the police found a stolen van containing detonators and Arabic language materials near Alcalá station and later, as the evidence of an Islamist attack mounted, the PP stubbornly maintained the ETA hypothesis.

Aznar lost the elections. José Luis Zapatero, the victor, fulfilled his promise to withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq. Nowadays, the view is that the surprise victory had more to do with the public reaction to what was seen as the Government disinformation rather than a direct Iraqi war link.

During the investigation seven men including two suspected ringleaders of the bombings blew themselves up as police closed in on them. The blast killed a policeman. Twenty eight people eventually went to trial in what the original trial judge described as a mixed bag of Islamic extremists. Twenty one of them were convicted but seven were acquitted including one of the alleged masterminds. Four of the sentences were later overturned
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Just a word of warning. In writing this article I came across multiple factual contradictions and differences in what should have been simple information. I tried to steer through but I cannot be certain that there are no errors in the account.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Breathing Space


A pal had to go to accident and emergency yesterday. He was having trouble breathing and he suspected he had something lodged in his windpipe. He asked me to go as a translator. Perhaps his difficulty in breathing had clouded his judgement!

He was seen by a doctor inside about 15 minutes of arrival. He was taken to a cubicle with a bed after that first consultation. There were a couple of routine tests, blood samples, blood pressure, temperature and whatever it is they do when they put electrodes on your chest, hands and legs to get one of those wiggly line graphs. A few minutes later and he got a chest X-ray and then he was shifted onto an observation ward. Somebody came to do the blood pressure and temperature stuff again. This time they were a bit worried about the oxygen levels in his blood so they fastened him up to oxygen administered through one of those clip in the nostril jobs. Then it all slowed to a crawl.

The patient wasn't. He thought they were taking ages and not doing much. Impatient rather than patient. I thought it seemed pretty good. Presumably someone was looking at the various tests and deciding what to do. We'd been there about four hours, a bit less maybe, when I had to go to get to work. Before I went, they told me that my chum would be moved to a room and that they would have a look for the obstruction the next morning. I got a WhatsApp this morning from him to say that they'd taken some food out of his windpipe today.

The lunctime TV news reported that eight out of ten Spaniards are very happy with the service they get from the Spanish health system. Their main complaint is that the waiting times are too long between GP and specialist at around a month. I'd go along with the 80%.

Troughing down

It turns out that I've blogged about the restaurant in Culebrón, Restaurante Eduardo, probably nearly as many times as I've eaten there. So I'll try to keep this short.

Last Sunday Maggie put up less resistance to eating at Eduardo's than usual. There were several possible reasons for the feeble struggle that she put up but I think the main one was that, being Mother's Day, she knew that most restaurants would be awash with diners and Eduardo's is never awash. We had house guests too and I think that Maggie recognises that Eduardo's offers a rich and varied Spanish experience. And so it was. There was the usual reluctance, on the part of the restaurant, to be clear about what there was to eat but, in the end, we got a good meal at a good price. At least I think so. You'd have to ask John and Claire what they thought to get a reasonably unbiased view. Maggie and I have entrenched positions about Eduardo's that are unshakeable before logic or reason.

The thing that did surprise me was that the meal was very Pinoso yet it seemed to be new to our friends. Amongst other things we got entremeses, well generally a selection of local embutidos, sausages, in the way that salami and pastrami and black pudding are sausages, rather than bangers, served as part of the range of food before the main dish. For a main we had been offered gazpacho but Maggie's not a big fan of the local gazpacho. It's not the liquid salad gazpacho of Andalucia but a rabbit stew served with a sort of pancake in the base of the bowl and a dough, based on wheat flour, floating in the stew. The gazpacho rejected we went for rice, for paella.

Now John and Claire are no strangers to Spain so they know what a paella is but the local rice is a bit different to the "generic" paella of the coast. Rice dishes are different all over Spain and the one with seafood or chicken and those flat green beans isn't the one in these here parts. Our rice, still cooked in a paella pan, has rabbit and snails with a dry rice only a few grains thick. It's success depends on the quality of the broth that gives the taste to the rice. Something a bit different for J&C.

Rice over it all looked a bit humdrum - Vienetta, variations on creme caramel, industrial cheesecake etc but there was a final flourish when we got perusas. We call them dust cakes because when you bite into them they melt in your mouth. They disappear. Like dust.

An experience, as always, and, I realised, quite Pinoso.


Saturday, May 05, 2018

Fighting for a parking spot

Saturday morning in Pinoso – parking at a premium; nothing in Calle Lepanto, Trafalgar or Bailén. Hmm? Now there's a theme. The streets are named for battles. I did a bit of checking. Nearly 400 battles were listed as important in Spanish history with sixteen as absolutely key. With the limited space available my choice has been a little arbitrary.

Skipping chronologically over Guadalete, Covadonga, Navas de Tolosa and Ceriñola we arrive at the Battle of Otumba in 1520. This was the one where Hernán Cortés crushed the Aztec Empire and opened the way to the conquest of what is now Mexico. He did it with the help of lots of locals but let's pretend, as Spaniards often do, that Hernán, his horses and a few lads from Extremadura did it alone.

So we ignore Pavia and San Quintín and move on to Lepanto in 1571. This was a naval battle between the Turkish Ottoman Empire and an alliance of Christian powers sponsored by the Spanish King. Cervantes, the writer of Don Quixote, was there and he was wounded – fortunately in his left hand, not the one he wrote with. Lepanto was fought off the coast of Greece. The Ottomans lost which halted Turkish expansion and established Spain as a naval power.

No space for the Battles of Rocroi or Villaviviciosa but I can't miss out Almansa. After all Almansa is only fifty minutes from home. This was a battle fought in 1707 as part of the Spanish War of Succession between the French backed Bourbons and the Austrian backed Hapsburgs with Spaniards on both sides. In the battle the Duke of Berwick, the illegitimate son of James II of England serving in the French Army, beat the French Henri de Massue, leading British troops. In fact we Britons backed the losing side, the Hapsburgs, but it was a good war for us. The treaty of Utrecht, signed at the end of the war, gave us Gibraltar.

Next up is Trafalgar and unless you were asleep when they did this at school you know about Nelson taking apart a combined fleet of French and Spanish ships but dying in the process. It was fought off the coast of Cádiz in1805 and basically after Nelson's first onslaught the French ran away leaving the Spanish fleet to be smashed to smithereens. It was the end of Spanish naval power and the battle was hugely influential in the future of Europe and Spain's American possessions.

By the time that the Battle of Bailén was fought in 1809 the Spanish had joined the British against Napoleon's French in what we call the Peninsular War. This was the start of Wellington's campaigns all the way to Waterloo. Completely against the grain a Spanish Army, commanded by General Castaños, beat a French Army in direct battle. It was the first time that Napoleon's Grande Armée had been beaten. By the way it was at this time that the Spaniards invented Guerrilla warfare, attack and run. Guerrilla means little war.

No space for the battle of Ayacucho in Peru in 1824 when the Spanish lost control of mainland America or for the 1898 naval battle of Santiago de Cuba when the Spanish fleet was pulverized by the U.S Navy. The Spanish lost Cuba (and the Philippines) their last American possessions as a result.

The last battle on my list, the 1938 Battle of the Ebro was the bloodiest and longest battle of the Spanish Civil war. The Nationalist victory put paid to the Republic and paved the way for the next 37 years of dictatorial government in Spain.