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.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Confused for 80 seconds

Whilst I was shaving this morning, I heard a piece on the radio about changes to the rail service in Murcia. The National news has ten minute sections of local news every now and then. In the bathroom the local news comes from Murcia and in the kitchen the local news covers the Valencian Community. It's to do with signal strengths and because we are on the frontier between two regions.

RENFE, the train operator and ADIF, the rail infrastructure operator, have been in the news a lot lately. Over in Extremadura there was lots of fuss about really old diesel trains breaking down all the time and leaving people stranded for hours. The people of Extremadura complained that they live in a forgotten part of the country. In fact there has been a lot of grumbling, from several parts of Spain, that all the railway money is being poured into the glamorous high speed trains whilst the much more travelled commuter lines are being largely ignored. The story was rekindled a few days ago when, in Cataluña, there was a head on collision between two trains, leaving several people injured and one person dead. The trains looked like very old stock..

Back in Murcia the city is awaiting the arrival of the high speed train line out of Madrid. Over the last year or so, possibly longer, there have been a number of pitched battles, really violent confrontations, between people who live in the communities, that are about to be cut in half by the high speed lines, and the police. I have read articles that have suggested that vested interests are at work in suppressing reporting the number and severity of those confrontations.

Foamy faced I didn't quite catch the railway news but it sounded interesting. Like Sheldon Cooper I approve of trains and I like to use them. So I thought I'd check the story. I expected a quick, precision strike. Not so. First of all my search turned up lots of unrelated stories about the introduction of hybrid trains onto the line that currently joins Murcia to Madrid. These trains can change axle width (Spanish conventional gauge is wider than the standard European gauge used for the high speed lines) at Cuenca for the last part of the run into Madrid. They are hybrid because they have diesel as well as electrical drive for the non electrified parts of the route.

Thwarted by printed stories I had to go back and find the podcast of the news bulletin I'd half heard this morning and listen. I understood the words but I still didn't quite understand the story. In fact it turned out it was three pieces of rail news, affecting Murcia, reported as one

The first was about temporary cuts in the service between Murcia and Madrid because of the Variante de Camarillas. I thought I knew the word variante and I thought it meant variant. So what was Camarillas? The dictionary said it was a clique, a pressure group or band of people. I wondered if it were maybe some local agreement to do with the opposition to the new tracks. That didn't seem right though. Maybe it was a place then? The only Camarillas that Google maps knew was in Teruel. There was a street in Murcia called Camarillas Reservoir Street and that was the clue. I found the reservoir on the map. I also discovered that variante can mean detour. The Variante de Camarillas is a new stretch of rail that cuts off a corner in the current route between Murcia and Madrid. It runs from Cieza to Agramón (a place I've never heard of) and means that the line to Calasparra will become just a local line. Crikey. What a lot of work for such a simple story.

The second story was that there were going to be closures on the line between Murcia and Alicante. Again part of the difficulty was that there was a place name involved, another place I'd never heard of; Reguerón. It's a district of Murcia city. That story was about was closing the current line whilst a couple of stretches of new track were joined up.

The third piece took no working out. Another place, but this time they described the name, Trepía, as a village near Lorca. It was about protests demanding the  building bridges instead of level crossings on the new line.

Just 80 seconds of news bulletin which I would have understood perfectly if I'd known two place names and how to say spur line in Spanish. Or which I would never have heard if I'd shaved faster and got into the kitchen for the local news spot!

Friday, February 08, 2019

Letters to the Editor

When we first got here I used to buy El País newspaper every day. It was a part of my introduction to Spain. El País is a left leaning Spanish daily that came into being shortly after Franco's death. If you were looking for a British political and literary equivalent it would be The Guardian. Although its paper sales have plummeted El País is still the second most read printed newspaper in Spain (after the sports only newspaper, Marca). The digital edition of El País is number one amongst all the online Spanish newspapers.

The newspaper has an English version which I've read for quite a while. About a month ago the English edition started to promote a new weekly podcast called ¿Qué? The podcast is presented by the Editor, a bloke called Simon Hunter. He gave us his Twitter name should anyone wish to comment. I'd enjoyed the podcast so I sent a message to say so. There was a photo alongside Simon's profile picture and I thought he'd done pretty well for himself considering that he looked so young. Later I read his biography somewhere and it says he went to University, in Hull, between 1996-1999. I did the same, went to Hull that is, but in my case between 1972-1975. I suppose that's why he looks young to me.

The podcast is very good. Informal but very informative. It mixes background and story for some of the big news events in Spain each week.

I was skimming through my news feed this evening and I came across an editorial, translated into English, of a story about the moderator/mediator/rapporteur proposed to help the negotiations between Spain and Cataluña. Negotiations between Spain and Cataluña is tantamount to suggesting talks between Cumbria and England but you'll have to take the meaning rather than question the phrasing.

Basically the article pointed out the democratic problems with the Mediator solution. I could tell that the premise was interesting but I had to read it three times, and it was in English, before I could make head nor tail of it. Half the problem was the translation. There had been hardly any attempt to interpret as distinct from translate. Being a bit whiskied up, knowing who the editor was and having his Twitter contact I sent a message. I suggested the piece was incomprehensible and it needed some judicious editing. He came straight back. Understandably, he was defensive. It was all a bit tense. I backed off, he backed off, the phrases softened. I'm half expecting an invitation to the Christmas party

It's pretty cool being able to talk to a newspaper like that. And good on the man for defending his people.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

A stroll around Pinoso

I've always liked cinema so, when I began to take an interest in Spain, I made an effort to see Spanish films. For years and years it seemed that every Spanish film ever made was about the Spanish Civil War. They were almost all dull and drear. I also read Hugh Thomas's book about the war and I found it hard going. Paul Preston's more recent history of the same event persuaded me that he was one of the most boring writers that has ever put pen to paper. Years later, I thought I should give him a second chance, he seemed to be well regarded by everyone else, so I read his book about Franco. I have never been tempted to try him again.

The Spanish Civil War ran from 1936 to 1939. That's a long time ago. As I mentioned in a post a few days ago there are two schools of thought amongst Spaniards about the war and more particularly about the dictatorship that resulted from it. That it should be forgotten or that it should be given a thorough airing so that it can be finally laid to rest. Unlike Britons, a little older than me, who talk incessantly about "The War", the Second World War that is, I don't think that I've ever heard a Spaniard start a conversation about the Civil War. The majority of young people know about the Civil War from their school syllabus in exactly the same way as young Britons do topics on The Blitz. Our Town Hall had obviously decided which side it was on with the second in a series of annual week long events around a Civil War theme.

The war started because a group of army officers didn't much care for the result of the 1936 General Election. They organised a coup and botched the job so that it turned into a bloody civil war. The area where we live was the last redoubt of the Republican Government and, indeed, the last tatters of the defeated Government flew out of Spain to exile from an airfield about 5 km down the road from Culebrón.

Last Sunday we went for a walk around Pinoso led by the town archivist and a chap from Alicante University. The idea was to show us sites that had been important in the Spanish Civil War. I enjoyed standing on a street corner having to imagine the scene but, to be honest, the visit could equally well have been a lecture because there was very little to see in situ. The Archivist told us that the idea came from one of the local councillors. That's the same team that brought us a journey through the town archives and a tour of the local cemetery both of which have been among my favourite events here in Pinoso.

Anyway. so we're strolling around in the bitingly cold wind. We get told about the checkpoints to control traffic in and out of the town, we hear about the Pioneers, the socialist equivalent of a movement like the Hitler Youth, we hear about a lynching (and the dispute from the participants about whether that was a true story or not), we hear about paseos and about sacking the local church and the burning of all the religious statues. Paseo by the way is usually best translated as a stroll. Here though it's the euphemistic term used to describe the last walk to the firing squad during the Civil War years. At one point Maggie checked with me, as we walked from the site of an air raid shelter towards the clock tower used as a look-out post, that Pinoso had been in the area controlled by the Republic. I think that she was having some difficulty in squaring summary firing squads with the idea of the "good guys".

Just one little snippet from the talk that struck home with me amongst all the detail of colony schools and union activity. There has been a bit of a fuss in Spain recently about removing reminders of the dictatorship enshrined in street names. Lots of the ostentatiously named streets, like Avenida del Generalisimo, changed soon after Franco's death in 1975 but, in towns and cities the length and breadth of Spain less obvious Francoist street names and symbols live on. In Pinoso there were 12 of these streets with names like Capitán Haya, a Nationalist air ace, Sánchez Mazas, a writer, responsible for one of the "Arriba España" slogan and others of a similar ilk. Fair enough, I thought, change the names and there you go. What was pointed out though, by the guide, was that this was part of a systematic method of obliterating older social and cultural aspects from Spanish streets and replacing them with a "Francoist" history.  It reminded me of George Orwell's 1984 hero Winston Smith writing a piece for The Times about an air ace. In reality the pilot never existed but, in a fake news sort of way, he would become important as soon as his story was in print.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

How do you say Historical Memory in English?

Spain came up with a novel way to move from the dictatorship of the 40s,50s, 60s and 70s of the last century to the democracy of today. No Truth and Reconciliation Commission here. The people who make the decisions about how things are going to work just decided to forget all about it - the Pacto de olvido - the pact of forgetting. Then, in 2007, the Socialist Government came up with the Historical Memory Law - Ley de Memoria Histórica - which recognised that there were victims on both sides of the Spanish Civil War, gave rights to the victims and the descendants of victims of the war, and the subsequent Franco dictatorship, and formally condemned the Franco Regime. Now neither Pact of Forgetting nor the Historical Memory sound like good English to me but I hope that you get the idea. The first idea, the pact, is to sweep the mess under the carpet and the second, historical memory, is to get it all out in the open so you can have a fresh start.

The Spanish Partido Popular, the Conservative type party, was against the Historical Memory law. Their argument was that it wasn't good to stir it all up again. The PP was in power between 2011 and 2018 so, in a very Spanish way, the law stayed in place but nobody did very much about it. Mass graves were not opened up so no remains could be handed over to families for reburial, at least not in any systematic or wholesale manner, and simple things like renaming streets dedicated to Francoist heroes or the removal of Francoist symbols was equally half hearted. And Franco himself, or at least his mortal remains, continued at rest in the place of honour inside the gigantic monument that is the Valley of the Fallen - el Valle de los Caídos.

Last night, in Pinoso, I went to one of the events that are "remembering" the Spanish Civil War this week. The events have the snappy title of Jornadas de Memoria Histórica y Democratica de Pinoso - Days of Historical Memory and Democracy of Pinoso - which, once again, you will have to interpret in your own way as I can't think of a decent English language translation. The problem, for me, is that the words represent concepts I don't share so I don't have good language for them.

The event was the showing of a documentary about Miguel Hernández; a poet from Orihuela in Alicante. The documentary is called Las tres heridas de Miguel Hernández and it's on YouTube with subs if you want to have a look. I knew a little about the poet having been to his house a couple of times, listened to radio programmes about him and even read some of his poetry. He stuck with the legitimate government and never renounced his socialist beliefs even when he was captured and locked up after his side had lost the war. He was condemned to death but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and he finally died of tuberculosis in a prison in Alicante aged 32.

I enjoyed the documentary. Nicely put together and easy to understand. The people who presented it talked about some of the opposition that there had been to producing the documentary and the passions that Hernández still arouses in his home town of Orihuela. The question and answer session afterwards was really interesting. There were a variety of opinions but there were two obvious strands. The same themes represented in the idea for and against the Historical Memory Law. Sleeping dogs as against washing your dirty laundry in public.

Mr Pugh and Charlie Drake

They say that moving house is one of the most stressful things you can do. To be honest I don't think it compares to, for instance, living in Aleppo in 2015/16 but I appreciate the general idea. So moving countries must be extra hard. You still have to deal with estate agents and solicitors and utility suppliers but, on top, you have to learn a whole new bunch of procedures. As a new migrant everything comes in one big, strange, deluge and it needs doing now. Whether that's getting your identity documents, buying and taxing the car or working out which of those cleaning products in the supermarket is bleach it has to be sorted out straight away.

It's ages since we had to cope with the hundreds of things to be done on first moving here. The pain of it all is long forgotten. I might still have to renew our PO box or get the car checked for road worthiness every now and then but it's nearly fifteen years now since we were juggling piles of paperwork every day. In fact, to be honest, I've been feeling a little smug about it all recently. Brexit is reminding lots of the British migrants here that the sort of half British half Spanish thing might fall apart on them. You can argue all you like about the finer points of whether your British driving licence is still good but, if Britain crashes out of the EU, the jig is up unless you have that Spanish licence you should have applied for long ago. International Driving Permit time it is. So there has been a bit of a scramble amongst the Britons living in Spain to get their paperwork sorted. I think our paperwork is pretty much in order as it stands, hence the smugness. Mind you hubris and all that; pride before the fall. We shall see.

I've been repaying a favour to a non Spanish speaking pal who helped me out last year. He needed to sort a few bits of paperwork. There have been little hiccoughs along the way, forms left at home, the wrong certificate here and the wrong fee there but, basically, we've managed to sort everything out without any huge trauma.

What's struck me as we've been dealing with things is how patient the staff in the various government offices have been. We were standing in a queue, the man in front was Lithuanian and his partner was from Dominica. They were having language difficulties. The policeman dealing with them repeated his information, drew diagrams, sorted their documents into piles, wrote out internet addresses. The policeman must spend his days dealing with annoyingly confused people yet he didn't snort or tut or send them away. It would be human nature to get cross, to get fed up of it all but he didn't. It was the same with us. For the problems we had the officials dealing with us smoothed our path to get back in the queue when it would have been much easier, for them, to send us away. It mustn't always be like that because someone who helps people with official paperwork all the time warned me about someone working in Elda Police Station. The truth is though that I've never been treated as off offhandedly as I was in Elland, Halifax, Peterborough, Bradford or Manchester when dealing with Job centres and Social Security offices. True the difference is 30 or 40 years so I'm sure that if I were claiming Universal Credit in the UK nowadays I wouldn't still find the chairs bolted to the floor or dismissive staff.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Do you have doubts Charles? Do you?

I'm not a particularly sociable type so I don't get a lot of phone calls. When I do it nearly always takes me by surprise and I fumble with the phone controls and miss the call. This time I was half way up a palm tree, cutting off the branches that hadn't done that Confucian thing of bending like a reed and had chosen to break like the mighty oak instead. It was from the bloke who fixes my car. One of his Spanish customers had been complaining about the cost of the photos for his upcoming wedding and Julian, for that's his name, had mentioned to the customer that he knew someone with a decent camera.

Now, as you know, I take a lot of snaps. I like to take snaps of things with bright colours and a lot of contrast. I've got lots of pictures of people too but I'm not good at pictures of people. Friends take much nicer people photos than I do. And that was my initial reaction, well that and worrying that I'd somehow cock up taking the photos at all. Rather than saying no directly though we agreed that Julian would give the soon to be Bridegroom my phone number.

Palm tree trimmed I set about the weeds listening to the Capitán Demo podcast. I began to think about taking wedding photos. The pressing the shutter button is a very small part of it. Wedding photographers do all that ordering people about. Parents here! Get rid of that cigarette! Mother of the bride - button up your jacket! Bridesmaids - come here! And of course that ordering about would have to be done in Spanish. Then I thought about the ceremony and the routine. I know the UK routine, more or less, but I've only been to one Spanish wedding and the structure is different. How do priests feel about having the photographer stand behind them in front of the altar? Is that what you do anyway? Would I know where to be to get the appropriate snap? Do Spanish couples sign the register, open the telegrams, make speeches, dance the first dance and go off with tin cans tied to the back of the car? Are there photos of garters and legs, do bouquets get tossed to the expectant crowd or is that all too sexist for words? Wedding photography has fashions. I have seen Spanish couples piling out of cars at local beauty spots to have their photo taken with a seascape as a backdrop but, to be honest, I have no idea what's expected. Do they still do those blurred at the edges shots or frame the happy couple in a heart shape? Would I be expected to be there from the make up session at the Bride's house to the last sozzled guests checking the beer cans for fag ends before drinking?

All of those things aside let's presume that I managed to get some decent images on the SD card. My guess is that there would be at least a thousand and maybe more. Just a quick scan for the blurred, ugly and mis-framed shots would take a while. Is there an expectation of photo shopping, of editing out double chins and spots? I never bother with my own pictures but then most of my snaps never get past the digital format; they go on Google photos or Facebook and that's it. I've hardly ever printed photographs since getting a digital camera. Presumably, nowadays, you produce one of those photo-book things but, for all I know the happy couple expect pictures on T-shirts and mugs. How much does it cost to print photos? Which firms are reliable? Who does the photo selection anyway? Is the photographer the arbiter of which photos get chosen or the couple? What sort of quality, meaning what sort of cost, is expected for the finished album? I vaguely remember that, at the one Spanish wedding I've been to, several prints of the ceremony were being passed around during the meal. That must mean that the photographer had immediate access to a photo quality printer rather than relying on BonusPrint. The more I thought about it the more I realised where the high cost of the package offered by wedding photographers comes from and the less interested I was in doing it.

Anyway, when the bloke calls, I'll probably miss the call.

I got the photo at the top of this post from Google. It said that it was labelled for non commercial re-use but, just in case it isn't the firm that took it is Retamosa Wedding Stories from Torrent in Valencia.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Vote early, vote often

Many years ago - strange how all my stories start like that - I was at a Conservative Club fundraiser in North Yorkshire. I have no defence, I was just there - no kidnapping, no drugs, nothing. I spent a long few minutes talking to a relatively powerful politician of the time, Baron Brittan of Spennithorne or Leon Brittan as he was called then. I was talking to him about voting and how it was a flawed tool. I argued that voting gives you one chance, every few years, to choose between a couple of, or if you're lucky a few, electable groupings with which you share some opinions. He argued that choosing a band and sticking by them was the mark of a strong democracy. We didn't come to an agreement but he did buy me a drink.

It's the only tool that democracy gives us though, not the drink, the vote. The only other thing that might work is getting out in the street with a banner or a Molotov cocktail depending on your preference.

I got a vote in the referendum about the UK leaving Europe. I was on the losing side. Here in Spain, as a resident and a European Citizen, I have been able to vote in two lots of local municipal elections. Neither Spain nor the UK allows me to vote at a regional level but the UK system allowed me a vote in the last couple of General Elections and in Europe. I'm about to lose that vote for having been absent from Britain for fifteen years. My country is about to leave the European Union anyway so it looked like I was going to lose my Spanish vote too. Disenfranchised everywhere.

Hope springs eternal though. We have elections here in May and, when I heard an advert on the radio, advising EU citizens to get themselves on the voting register, I went to the local Town Hall and checked I was still registered. The people behind the desk thought I was barmy but they rang the central register and confirmed I was on the electoral roll. Whether that would do me any good after March 29 was a moot point. Then, the other day, a rather ambiguous letter from Pinoso Town Hall said that EU citizens should signal their wish to be on the voting list by filling in a form. It had to be done before 30 January. We're still EU citizens at the moment so Maggie and I went to the Town Hall and signed the form yesterday. The same day I read that the UK had signed a bilateral agreement with Spain to maintain the voting rights of Spaniards in the UK and Brits in Spain.

So I'd like to thank Robin Walker and Marco Aguiriano for signing on the dotted line on behalf of their respective governments and so keeping me in the game.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

No summer lawns to hiss

Both Maggie and I worked this Saturday morning so, by the time we got home and ate something, we considered the day a bit of a write off. As always, when we have nothing more exciting to do, I suggested the cinema. I wanted to see the French film El gran baño which I think is called Sink or Swim in English. The reviews I've seen, and particularly the cinema themed radio show I listen to, said it was a must see. I enjoyed it but of the five films I've seen, so far, in 2019 it was actually my least favourite. I much preferred (English titles) Vice and Life Itself and I probably preferred both Aquaman and the Memories of a Man in Pyjamas which is a cartoon! Vice we saw in English because the Yelmo cinema chain now has an original language showing of at least one film, and often several, on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. It wouldn't have been much use going to the Tuesday showing of Le Grand Bain in its original language as my French only deals adequately with pens and aunts. The Spanish dubbed version was the one we'd left for today.

I've grown to quite like the radio show about the cinema. If they say a film is worth watching I've tended to enjoy the film. They were less than glowing in their report on Vice, the film about Dick Cheney. I thought it was a good film and I wondered if part of their problem with it might be that the version they would have seen wouldn't have had Christian Bale, Sam Rockwell or Steve Carell (or anyone else from the original cast) speaking. It was one of those films where the timing, the phrasing and the pronunciation of the specific word were all important to the plot. The radio critics would have heard dubbing actors trying to get the same meaning and intonation into a rewritten version of the screenplay. They heard different voices working to a different script written to maintain lip synch and Spanish meaning. So they were reviewing a film with different actors and a different script. We all know that Ingid Bergman didn't actually say "Play it again Sam," to Dooley Wilson in Casablanca but let's just pretend she did. For a Spanish audience, read Elsa Fábregas asking José María Caffarel to "Tócala otra vez, Sam." Immortal.

A couple of months ago we saw a really nice, but slight, film called A Family Recipe to use its translated Spanish title and with either Ramen Teh or Ramen Shop as its international title. It's a film from Singapore and it centred on food. Singaporeans eat noodles. Spanish dubbing artists seem to like overemphasising the slurping and sucking sounds associated with noodle eating. It was really noticeable and remarkably annoying.

Anyway, that wasn't the thing I meant to post about. I had a thought about our garden as I waited by the car, by the gate, for Maggie to lock up the house just before we set off for the cinema.

In our garden there are plenty of trees and shrubs and stuff, particularly around the edges, but the majority of the garden area is bare earth - bare, bare earth - soil. I have to be constant in my attempts to keep the weeds down but the low temperatures of the last few weeks have slowed down the growth and made my job easier. I get the same effect in high summer when the heat keeps the little treasures at bay. The lack of weeding left me time for pruning and one of my jobs yesterday was clearing some of the smaller twigs and what not left over from that process. While I was tidying I noticed the blossom coming out on the almond trees. I was pleased that my inept pruning seems not to have killed anything of note. As I waited my gaze wandered towards the trees with those first signs of blossom and it suddenly struck me how un-English the bare earth looked and yet how ordinary and everyday it is for us.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Corvera Airport

Years ago we very nearly bought a house in the Murcian town of Caravaca de la Cruz. It was a new flat and it looked nice. The last time I saw the building it looked decidedly scruffy. Our purchase was thwarted by a misspelled email address. The property had already been sold when we turned up in the agent's office.

One of the selling points of that flat was the new airport at Murcia. It was billed to be opening very soon and Caravaca would be only a short motorway journey away. I don't remember the year exactly but it was around 2002.

On Monday the last passenger flights used the airport at San Javier, near Cartagena, the one the airlines call Murcia. The day after the new Murcia airport, at Corvera, just over the Puerto de la Cadena from Murcia City, opened for business. The first flight was a Ryanair out of East Midlands.

We'd have had to wait quite a while for all the problems to be ironed out.

Beep Beep Lettuce

Our fridge went beep when the door was opened. It shouldn't. It still worked though. We could live with that. Then the handle came off in my hand. Not so good. A beeping handle-less fridge. I put it off. I tried the enquiry form on the repairer's website. They didn't answer. Nothing for it but a phone-call. I could procrastinate no more. It went alright really. The woman on the phone asked me for the model number. "RD-46," I began. "Sorry?" RD-46. "What?" I tried hard to roll the R. I was reduced to "R - like the capital of Italy, Roma". "Loma?" she went. No, Roberto, Robot, Real, Radio." "Ah, R," she said. D for Dinamarca was easier. The engineer came today. The conversation went well and the fridge is mute though I'm 110€ poorer.

The electrical goods in the kitchen are in open revolt. The kettle, bought eleven weeks ago, started to leak. I had the receipt. I took it back. "No, this isn't guaranteed," said the bloke in the shop. "It's the limescale that's done for it and improper use isn't guaranteed." I became very cross very quickly. "If you want me to ever buy anything, ever again, in this shop - I listed some of the several big things we've bought there - then you will take this back as part payment against a better make of kettle". He argued, I blustered. My Spanish held together remarkably well. I heard myself using a third conditional. I was impressed. We agreed the kettle was guaranteed and I came home with a shiny Bosch one.

As we drove across Castilla la Mancha I knew the sign said to watch out for otters crossing the road. Otter is not an everyday sort of word. I can watch a film in Spanish without too much trouble. I can read a novel in Spanish though I may miss the nuances. I can maintain a conversation - well sort of. Imagine if you can't. Imagine talking to an insurance company about the burst pipes in your house or opening a bank account or going to the doctor with a pain. What do you do when the instructions for the self service petrol pump make no sense to you and you need fuel and it's 2am. Having a conversation using Google Translate, with gestures, drawings, odd words and a lot of smiling is fine when you're on holiday but it's not so good if you need an O-ring for your pool pump and it won't help you decipher the letter from the bank.

I'm of a certain age. Lots of the Britons I know here are of a similar age. A friend, back in the UK, sent me a message minutes ago to say that someone I once worked with has cancer. We're getting to the time of life when death is not such an abstract idea. When chronic illness is probable as well as possible. Someone was talking to me about their concern that they may end up alone, lying in a hospital bed, surrounded by people they couldn't talk to and being subjected to processes they didn't understand. I know of lots of people who have decided that it's time to move from that rural house that looked so idyllic just a few years ago. Now the garden seems boundless. The drive in to town a real chore, and with failing sight and a gammy knee, a potential problem. Some have moved into Spanish towns, others have gone back to the UK.

I know that I write about language a lot but, as I look around me, I understand the British ghettoes, the low level of knowledge about the place we live, the effort that Britons make to find people to provide British television and doctors and plumbers who speak English. It wasn't just the fridge door that reminded me to write this same blog yet again. I am appalled at the lack of support for the boats cruising the Med looking to rescue refugees and migrants. Count the emergency vehicles for a derailed train and compare that to the lack of response to a boat load of people abandoned at sea. I am disgusted at the racist attitudes of far too many people. I heard some MP, on £77,000 a year plus expenses, asking why some refugees don't stop when they get to the first safe country. I wondered if he would have walked from Senegal to Morocco and then crossed the water in a boat from Toys“R”Us to get his job? He wouldn't get it anyway without speaking English.

Wednesday, January 02, 2019

The car forum

Manuela Carmena is the Mayor of Madrid. For most of her career she was a lawyer and then a judge but in 2015 she entered politics with the left leaning Ahora Madrid. She now leads the city council with the support of the Socialist party. I like Manuela and I think that lots of people, even those who disapprove of her politics, like or at least approve of her too. I wait to be corrected. Actually she broke her ankle a few days ago and she's still laid up so, all the best Manuela.

Each year in the Christmas run up the Madrid council has a bit of a junket for the press. This year one of the presenters was a comedian and media host David Broncano. The event became newsworthy because it ended up as a sort of improvised comedy double act between the two of them. I heard a bit of it. One of the comments from David was that the only script he had was from Forocoches. I had no idea what Forocoches was so I determined to find out.

The story goes that the founder of Forocoches, Alex Marín, bought a Renault Laguna in 2002 and couldn't find an Internet forum that talked about cars. So he decided to create one. He'd been making some money from a series of websites before then and this was just another. Except that it took off in a big way. The forum on car chat soon spread to other areas and it is now a hotbed of political incorrectness, countered with political correctness, with opinions of very colour and hue about anything and everything. It's also like that site which tried to get Rage Against the Machine's Killing in the Name to be the British Christmas number one or, and they nearly managed this, to get the Royal Navy to name its newest scientific research vessel after a Spanish admiral who defeated a British fleet.

I wasn't at all impressed when I first visited the forum. The site looks dead old fashioned and it is festooned with adverts and banners but that doesn't stop it being massively successful. It took me days to raise the enthusiasm go back for a second peek. I then realised that you needed to be invited to join the forum. You could also buy your way in with bitcoin and the like. There were lots of warnings about code scams. One journalist who'd used the forum to write an article about her online dating experiences paid 20€ for her invitation! Codes are also given away on some of the social media sites so I had a look there but the codes are all gobbled up within minutes of being published. I couldn't be bothered and with looking at the parts that anyone can read, without being a member, I realised that even if I could get in I'd probably not be able to understand what was going on. It is a sort of Internet version of one of those conversations that you see in a film between a bunch of Locs wearing rappers and gangstas dripping in gold and driving around in Cadillac Escalades or Maybach Exeleros. The forum is loaded with street talk, abbreviations, obscure social references. I couldn't even understand the invitations to codes on Twitter without paying attention..

But that wasn't the point. It was that Manuela knew what Forocoches was and the newspapers didn't feel that they needed to explain. The threads that she and Broncano talked about included "Manuela is going to make us walk", (She's introduced traffic and pollution reducing measures in Madrid and tightened up on electric scooters and the like), "Echenique likes Manuela", (Pablo Echenique is an Argentine-born Spanish physicist and left wing politician who rides around in a high tech wheelchair because of his spinal muscular atrophy) and "I spy Stalinism in Manuela", (Maybe because she's short or has webbed feet - it couldn't be because of her politics!)

So, yet another thing I didn't know about Spain despite all these years here.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Down on the coast

Tell someone that you live in Alicante and most people think coast, they think we live by the side of the sparkling Mediterranean. It may, in reality, be one of the most polluted stretches of water in the world, full of plastic, sewage, lead and agricultural chemicals to rival the dead patch in the Gulf of Mexico, but there's no denying that the Med can look lovely.

Actually we live inland, about 60 km from the coast. We also live up a hill so we are at about 600 metres which means, other climatic factors being equal, we are 5.8ºC cooler than at sea level. That difference is notable at this time of year. Very noticeable. As I type, Bohème like, my little hands are frozen.

So, one of the conversations between immigrant Britons is based on the major division between those who live on the coast and those who live inland. There are all sorts of perceptions about the Spanishness, or not, of the two locations. The probable truth is that the influence of immigrants is a product of population percentage. The 500 Britons in Pinoso make up 6 or 7% of the population so we make a significant difference to how the town looks and feels. In Abarán the 14 Britons pass unnoticed. I have no idea how many Britons live in Alicante City but even if it were a couple of thousand they would be under half a percent of the population lost amongst the tourists. There are other towns where the influence of Germans, Moroccans, Norwegians or whatever is pronounced. There are also perceptions of that influence which may or may not be true. When I think of Torrevieja, for instance, I think of Iceland and other English speaking shops but I remember that, for Spaniards in Santa Pola one of their initial comments in any conversation about the town would be the presence of the Russian Mafia.

Several people we know have chosen to move from Pinoso to the coast. Reasons vary from looking for more variety of food and entertainment to the weather and the ease of being able to do so many more things in English. A couple of pals moved from Pinoso to a spot between Torrevieja and San Miguel de Salinas a couple of months ago and we popped down to see them. They chose to downsize altogether and they moved onto a campsite but bought a sort of small wooden chalet. I have to say that I thought the site was remarkable. There is a huge variety of caravans, park homes and  motorhomes on numbered pitches and most of them have a variety of more or less permanent structures, awnings, sheds and adapted carports, to increase the living space. There is artificial grass and there are mountains of pot plants, sculptures and ornaments of every shape and size from wind chimes and mobiles to gnomes and fountains. The space was very organised and nicely landscaped with lots of greenery, with numbered pitches along streets, shower and toilet blocks on each street and a big communal pool. I'm told there is a restaurant and bar too. All of it with security and various systems for Wi-Fi, televisión etc. I saw vehicles with Belgian, British, Bulgarian, Danish, Dutch, French, German and Spanish plates and I wasn't really looking. The nodding and "good afternoon" language was definitely English and the sun was shining.

I looked at the for sale sign on one of the plots - 8,950€ I think. Hmm? Warm and only 10 minutes to the beach.

There are snaps at the tail end of this December 2018 album

Friday, December 28, 2018

Sitting pretty

When I'm out, by myself, and I fancy a coffee, or a beer, I usually sit at the bar. That way I don't block up a table. It also saves the faff of the wait for whatever I've ordered to be delivered, asking to pay, waiting to pay and waiting for the change. Besides which there's usually something happening at the bar, something to watch or even to comment on. The bar is a public, not a private, space.

It's not comfy though and it's not good if you have lots of bags. Better then to use a table. If I'm going to sit at a table I usually order at the bar and then go and sit down.  I realise that's not the key principle of table service but it's both faster and more definite.

Maggie and I went down to Granada for Christmas. We were sitting at the bar in the hotel because there were no tables left. The bar stool was a bit rocky and my bottom overhung a lot. The innards of the stool were also palpably recognisable to my buttocks. A couple of youngsters were tormenting the automatic doors but it was a busy hotel anyway and the cold night air assaulted our position every few seconds. It was not a comfortable experience. I was reminded.

Years ago we were house hunting in Caravaca de la Cruz one February. I'd been a bit ill and I was hardly on top form. It was cold and damp outside and I remember wearing my overcoat and gloves as I perched on a wooden bar stool. The floor of the bar was as damp as the pavements outside and the street door was open. To all intents and purposes I was outside despite being inside. It was miserable.

Nowadays, in winter, most Spanish bars are reasonably well heated but there is not a lot of thought in the interior design. It's all a bit industrial. I can't remember the last time I sat on a sofa or even on a padded chair in a bar. Wood and plastic. Now I'm sure if I thought hard about it I could prove myself wrong but even when we visit places where there are traffic jams, and credit card payments are the norm, most bars are still pretty basic.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Fat chance

As usual we won nothing. Twitter was alive with complaints about the state broadcaster's presenters talking over the numbers and full of praise for the coverage on the commercial channel la Sexta. On the telly the little girl who called the winning number was joyfully sobbing her eyes out whilst her mother, in the stalls of the same theatre, grinned all over her face. In Almansa, in the hairdresser's where the owner had handed out fractions of the ticket to her regulars, they were celebrating, in the old people's home where nearly everyone had won a woman said she was going to go and find a boyfriend and all over Spain people popped the corks on sparkling wine, toasted their good luck and danced for the TV cameras.  The usual crop of Christmas Lottery stories.

The first event of the Spanish Christmas, el Gordo, the one that hands out lots and lots of money in relatively small packages all over Spain has come and gone.

I thought I couldn't do yet another blog about the lottery until I had a look back at the December posts. All I could find are the entries from 2007  and 2006. The draw does get a mention in other years but only as a partial entry amongst talk of mince pies and polvorones. It would have been a good thing to write about but it's just after eleven in the evening now. We went out to Murcia and, to be honest, I don't feel like writing a full entry from scratch.

The 2007 post though is still pretty accurate. The boys and girls from San Ildefonso school, who sing the numbers and prizes, have different uniforms and the top prize is now 400,000€ or 323,000€ (I think) after tax but the lottery hasn't changed that much in 11 years.

I was thinking about what I'd do with my winnings just before I got up this morning. Pretty basic stuff, a new motor, a bit of driving around Spain and probably back to Cartagena. Not a sausage though, as I said. I suppose I could buy a ticket for el Niño in January. Different but similar. Still enough for a new car.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Down the Social

This is a quickish update on the post The Headlong Dash - the one about having to claim the old age pension from the Spanish rather than the British authorities. It's even drier and dustier than usual as it's aimed at anyone trying to use this blog for information rather than for it's charming whimsy.

When I first started to think about the pension I did a bit of information gathering. One chap, on one of the expat forums said that I needed to take a copy of my "vida laboral," my work history, and my British National Insurance Number to a Spanish Social Security Office. Once there, through the wonders of information technology, the Spanish Office would have access to my UK history and everything would be sorted in a jiffy.

Using my Spanish digital signature, I booked an appointment at the Social Security Office (INSS) in Elda and applied online for my work history which was posted to me as hard copy. From my British Personal Tax Account I was able to get my UK pension start date and an official looking National Insurance number.

The Social Security Office was a haven of peace and tranquillity at 10am in the morning. As I tapped my appointment code into the machine by the entrance I noticed there were just two people working. Each had a customer. Otherwise there was me and the security guard in view. I clutched my deli counter type number and watched the screen. I only waited a few minutes. The man who interviewed me was wearing a snood.

I told him I was coming up on 65 and that my UK pension was due a few months after that. Once we'd established who I was and that I'd worked in Spain as well as the UK he turned to his computer. He didn't need my Spanish work history as he had it on his screen. He confirmed that I would get a pension paid proportionately by each government - 30 plus full years in the UK and  a bit over 6 full years in Spain so the ratio would be one to five or thereabouts but paid through the Spanish system. He seemed to suggest that I'd get the full pension.

Now that he was reasonably sure I was in the right place at the right time he gave me a long, long form to fill in and sent me off to a table in the foyer to do it. Most of the form was about my dependents, other allowances that I may want to claim, about my partners income (but, as we are living o'er brush, that doesn't count!), how much money I had stashed away in offshore accounts and the like. I'm a simple man with a simple lifestyle so all I really had to give were name and address type information, full bank account details (down to things like BIC and IBAN codes) and a detailed work history. Even then it took me about forty minutes to complete the form, maybe longer. Like all official forms I wasn't sure what it all meant and some of my answers were guesswork - who remembers how many months they were unemployed forty plus years ago? There were some technical words that were a bit tricky to translate on the form too but not many. Just an aside. Spanish funcionarios, local government workers and civil servants, are notorious for having two hour long breakfast breaks. The chap who was interviewing me put on his coat and went out while I was wrestling with the form; fifteen to twenty minutes later he was back. Just enough time for a quick coffee.

The form completed there was a short wait before I got back to the original desk. Generally I just sat there while my man copied the information from my hand written form onto his computer. I told him some of it was guesswork but he said that was fine. After quite a lot of tap tap tapping he printed out a copy of what I'd completed and told me that was it. If anyone needs anything they'll get in touch he said but he added that it all looked pretty straightforward. He also confirmed that, having worked in Spain, my healthcare entitlement was good to the day I die without any reference to my UK history.

Retirement date 30th April 2019.

Apparently Bob Geldof never said "Give us your f***ing money!"

My mum says that the adverts on the telly, the ones where dogs are tied to lamp posts on roundabouts and left to die and suchlike really upset her.

I don't see those sorts of adverts on the main commercial channels here. They may be on but, if they are, they keep them away from prime time. I do see the ads from time to time on the lesser watched channels - the ones that show endless reruns of CSI and Elementary, Mexican soaps or that one which follows a giant road train as it trundles across Australia. I suspect that the TV chains aren't that keen on replacing the glossy bodies of lucrative perfume adverts with others that shows real people in distress or it could be a simple price thing. Either way the charity ads turn up on the channels with less audience.

I have a lot of time for the doctors of Médicos Sin Fronteras going head to head with the Ebola in the Congo, for Open Arms plucking people from toy boats adrift in the Mediterranean and for the Red Cross turning up with blankets and food wherever people are cold and hungry. But there are only so many times I feel able to say yes to the people in the street who want you to sign up with a direct debit to support their charity. So those adverts on the telly allow me an easy way to salve my conscience with the occasional tiny donation - send a text message with the word MÉDICO to 28033 and donate 1.20€ to help provide vaccine in some lost and forsaken hellhole - says the ad - and I think I should.

When I changed my mobile phone package a little while ago the text message for a donation thing stopped working. I talked to my phone provider and they said they would fix it. The next time I tried it it didn't work again. This time the conversation with my provider was a little more tense. It's a premium number, we block it for your safety. How dare you presume to take decisions for me. We'll unblock it. Damn right you will.

I'm not that generous though, or maybe I don't watch the Divinity channel very often. I saw an ad the other day and texted ALIMENTO to the number. Haití, Syria, Philippines, Thailand? - I forget. It bounced back. I went back to the phone provider the next day, in person, in their office. Sorry, SMS is such an old technology that we don't have much control over it here and the people who provide the service won't allow us to unblock 28033 because it's a threat to their security. It may or may not be true but it seems a shame that such a simple way of assuaging my guilt is blocked to me.

Thursday, December 13, 2018


I have pals who are very knowledgeable about birds. Those same people are likely to know about plants and trees too. If I know a few birds, a handful of trees and a couple of constellations, they can wax lyrical.

I've wondered about this in the past but it was a conversation about robins that reminded me. I was talking to a couple of students about Christmas cards. Cards are not a standard thing here. I mentioned that there were robins on Christmas cards. I translated robins to petirrojos. Nothing, not a glimmer. You know, like mirlos, gorriones, tordos, alondras, lavanderas. I was just digging a bigger hole; blackbirds, sparrows, thrushes, larks and wagtails were nothing to them. They just presumed my Spanish was as crap as it is. And these were a couple of professional, well travelled students who live in a small town surrounded by countryside.

I think that it's true to say that most Britons can recognise a big handful of birds. We know that we can mitigate the bad luck of seeing a single magpie with a friendly greeting. We know that those dusk time clouds of birds that settle on city centre buildings are starlings. I have no idea why but most of us can tell a crow from a kestrel. Sparrows, wrens, geese, gulls, cormorants, swallows and jays are known to us. This doesn't seem to be a city versus country thing. Country folk might better know which finch is which and whether it's a common or arctic tern but even if city dwellers are a bit unsure about the differences between swallows, swifts and martins they know that it's not a wagtail. And  even if we don't know the birds we know the names. If somebody were to tell us that's a such and such kite as against a such and such harrier we'd believe them because we know that harriers and kites are birds.

Now, obviously, some Spaniards know birds just as well as the most clued up of Britons. They know the difference between a bullinch and a chaffinch between a goldfinch and a greenfinch or between a sparrowhawk and a hen harrier but, for the majority of the Spaniards that I have ever spoken to about this, hunters apart, birds fall into three classes.

There are birds that float - these are ducks, patos. Even swans can be ducks. Then there are little birds. Sparrow sized birds. Theses are pajaritos which has no better translation than little birds. Finally there are pajaros; birds. and that includes everything that isn't a duck or a little bird.

Nice and simple at least.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018


The other week I was driving around, enjoying the sun, when I heard an interview on the radio. The interviewee was called Vicente Calduch and he was talking about Suavina, a lip balm.

Back in 1880, in the town of Vila-real in Castellón, the local pharmacist, Vicente's great great grandad or maybe it was great great great grandad, spookily also called Vicente Calduch, created an ointment. He called it Ungüent de Vila-real. His target market were the local citrus farmers who got cracked and chapped lips as they worked on their crops.

That first Vicente had four sons, all of them became pharmacists and all of them sold the lip balm. One of them settled in Castellón and, in 1916 he opened a small laboratory to manufacture the ointment and gave it the more catchy name of Dermo-Suavina.

Laboratorios Calduch still make the balm. The formula is unchanged from the original but the packaging changed from wood to metal in 1940 and then from metal to plastic in 1965.

The packaging looks pretty retro. The little plastic tub is inside a small box and the typeface on both is sweet. I know that because I was in a chemist the other day and I suddenly remembered the story. I asked if they sold Suavina; they did. Very traditional, very vintage said the person serving me. And quite an interesting way to spend 2.20€.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

And all things nice

I think, in my youth, I was misled about treacle and cocoa. Treacle, in a Heinz treacle pudding, isn't the same treacle as the bonfire night Parkin. Cocoa, rather than drinking chocolate, is the pipe and slippers staple that goes with the "You've been a long way away, thank you for coming back to me," of Brief Encounter, rather than the stuff I drank from the machine at Halifax Baths. This came to mind as Maggie and I sipped on a hot chocolate at the Christmas light turning on ceremony in Pinoso the other day.

Hot chocolate, the sort that is made either with proper cocoa powder or, more usually here in Spain, by dissolving low grade chocolate in hot milk or a hot water and milk mix, is thick enough to stand a spoon in and usually sweet enough to dissolve teeth on contact. In these here parts the chocolate is usually served with a sweet bread, called toña. Toña tastes like the doughy part of the French buns sold in the Yorkshire of my youth but Maggie seems to think it's more like the iced buns of Liverpool. Iced buns and French buns sound substantially similar to me. Chocolate y toña is served at lots of events. There is sometimes a pretence that it's for the children but the people at the front of the queue, with the sharpest elbows, are the grandpas and grandmas rather than their generationally removed descendants.

I wondered if there was a blog here. About the local food. Not the impressive stuff, not the main courses, like gazpacho, the rabbit stew loaded with a naan bread like pancake, or the local paella made with rice, rabbit and snails or even the made from nothing gachasmigas. I set about Google and came up with an insurmountable problem. Put something like coca amb oli into the search and Google finds, at least for the first 50 pages, things which are almost exclusively Catalan in origin. That's because Valenciano and Catalan are, linguistically, related.

My cooking skills are limited but they far exceed my skill in telling what I am eating. If I had to do that MasterChef tasting thing and to say what was in the food I'd just tasted I would be hard pressed to tell the difference between beef and pork never mind the flummoxing subtleties of herbs and spices. So, just because I've eaten various cocas, doesn't mean I tell you much about them. Maggie describes coca amb oli as fat pie (I think it's a flat bread made with lots of olive oil) but I always think of cocas as being the local equivalent of pizzas, something bready with a topping usually including tomatoes, peppers or aubergines and, often, something fishy. I could well be wrong though.

I thought about it more. There are rollitos, doughnut shaped hard biscuits often flavoured with orange or wine or anis  a sort of pernod or ouzo type drink. I think rollitos have a lot of lard, a lot of olive oil and a lot of flour in them. I like them. Maggie says they are boring but she thinks digestive biscuits are boring too so she's not the best judge. I'm pretty sure they are typically Pinoso though.

Then I remembered perusas. Perusas are what you get at the end of the meal in Pinoso when you have just eaten something traditional like rice. They usually come along with some of the local sweet wine called mistela. Just like the rollitos I like perusas and Maggie doesn't but we both describe them as dust cakes to visitors. They literally melt away once you've bitten into them. Google had no trouble with perusas. The first few search pages had the word Pinoso in the heading. The ingredients are similar, flour, sugar, oil, lots of eggs, anis and icing sugar to dust them off.

So, in the end, I decided there wasn't enough hard information for me to do a blog on the bits and pieces of the local cuisine.

Fiestas de la Virgen in Yecla

You may have seen my snaps of blokes in bicorne hats shooting off arquebuses (old fashioned musket type rifles) in the streets of Yecla. If you haven't, and you want to, there is a tab at the top of this page for my photo albums. The one you want is December 2018. You may wonder why.

Well, basically, in 1642 during The War of Cataluña 61 soldiers from Yecla, under the command of a Captain Soriano Zaplana, went off to fight in line with some treaty signed with a Catalan noble. The Yeclanos were in Cataluña for six months but they were never called on to fight. They all got back to Yecla safe and sound. They were well pleased so they went up to the Castle in Yecla, did a lot of praying and suchlike and then took a picture of Our Lady of the Incarnation, known as the Virgin of the Castle, down  to the town where she stayed in a church for a few days so that people could do even more praying and genuflecting. As the soldiers carried the picture down the hill to the town they shot off their guns Hezbollah or Hamas style. That was the start of the tradition. The Virgin in procession with lots of men shooting off guns. That's what you can still see today.

The celebrations were a bit of a movable feast at first but in 1691 a group called the Brotherhood of the Immaculate Conception was formed and, as a result, the town adopted that particular version of the Virgin Mary as their patron saint. The brotherhood commissioned a statue and when she was finished, in 1695, she replaced the original picture, from the castle, in the processions.

There was a bit of a blip in the celebrations in the late 1700s because of a fifteen year nationwide ban on the use of gunpowder. The Yeclanos kept asking for their fietas to be exempt and in 1786, Carlos III granted that concession. The guns, silenced for 15 years, took to the streets of Yecla again. The regulations for the revitalised fiestas, written in that year, remained in use right through to 1986. I presume that the style of the suits worn by the soldiers date from that time too.

There was another blip in 1936 when the Republicans set fire to lots of churches and burned lots of religious statues amongst them the 1695 Virgin. The one that gets an outing nowadays is a copy of the original. It was carved by Miguel Torregrosa in the 1950s and given a Papal blessing in 1954.

To be honest I'm not quite sure about all the details of the celebrations. It's a very male festival, and women are notable by their absence. Things like flag kissing and even flag waving are reasonably obvious but there are also children, referred to as pages, who have some part in the festival which I don't quite understand. The web in general and Wikipedia in particular has not helped. The key part though is that there are sixteen groups of soldiers (plus a couple on non aligned groups), each led by a Mayordomo, which dress up in those 18th Century clothes and process through the streets of Yecla shooting off their guns as they escort the Virgin from one place to another.

Should you ever decide to go you will need ear plugs. It is very, very loud.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

Pale blue dot

Shortest day of the year, ages old festival. Rural Spain smells of wood smoke from the open fires and wood burners. Burning things is big here. Valencianos have a reputation for fireworks. The Fallas festivals in Valencia are about burning the old as the new life of Spring appears. There are bonfires at San Juan for the longest day of the year and bonfires in Santa Catalina just a couple of weeks ago, maybe full of symbolism, but also good for cooking sausage.

Back in the UK, when we lived there, one of our Christmas treats was to do a bit of a tour around those houses, beloved of the electricity generators, covered in myriad light bulbs. The light to chase away the darkness. I'm not sure how that plays any more. LEDs mean less power but the UK seems to be quite puritan, quite serious, from the odd titbits I hear. There's probably something bad about lighting up your house. If  the principal talking point of a 1977 video of John Noakes climbing up Nelson's Column is the scant regard for Health and Safety then it's probably basically wrong to bedeck your house with lights.

Here in Pinoso they turned on the town's Christmas lights on Thursday, on Constitution Day. The nativity scene was opened up too and there was singing opposite the church. We got cake and hot chocolate down where they set off the fireworks near the municipal tree - though of course it's not a tree it's one of those soulless traffic cone LED things. Good lights though and the weather has been lovely so the turnout was good.

Time to get cracking on joining in. We've had a star - guiding the three wise men, the magic kings - to the West on the front of the house for years now with a long sparkling tail. This year I've added another rope light, a curtain of twinkling LEDs and a light up reindeer on the garage roof. Not much by some standards but it took me ages to drill all those new holes for all those new hooks.

And this year we have company too. Generally Spaniards aren't big on lights in their homes. The countryside is not peppered with decorated homes. Our next door neighbour never bothers but there are new Brits a couple of doors up and they have strung some lights along the front of their roofline. Our homes shine, as beacons of foreignness, into the night sky warding off the evil spirits of the approaching winter solstice.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Number two of two

Chinese buffets are an example. The first time you go to one it's all a bit confusing. The second time, less so, and by the third time you actually get what you want and in the order you want it. I've heard that crows learn quickly but I think we humans are faster.

I've been helping a friend in his meetings with the medical staff at the hospital. If you've read this blog before you will know that I mumble and groan about my Spanish speaking ability all the time. I do speak Spanish though. I gurgle and trip over words, my Yorkshire accent becomes more pronounced and I abandon any clever constructions I may think I know, especially during the first few words, but I usually muddle through.

Hospitals are much less easy to understand than Chinese buffets but, crow like, I suspect we'll soon pick it up. Spanish hospitals speak Spanish which adds a layer of difficulty for non Spanish speakers. Not only do you not know which door to wait outside or knock on but it's not so easy, Blanche DuBois like, to rely on the the kindness of strangers. That's why I've been involved. The first time my friend, his wife and I traipse, en masse, into a new to us doctor's office the doctor asks if I'm the translator. I usually say that I'm a pal who speaks a little Spanish. That generally suffices though it possibly undersells my abilities. Most of we old Britons don't handle Spanish particularly well. When we say "A little" to the question "Do you speak Spanish?" some Britons actually mean they have no more than hello, goodbye, I'd like a pint of lager please and my postillion has been struck by lightning. Their economy with the truth can make my truth sound like an untruth.

I suspect that uncertainty about my abilities may be why one doctor gave us a bit of a drubbing. Her argument was that she needed a translator who could convey the nuances of what she was saying, someone who knew the hospital procedures and, basically, someone more clued up than me. She didn't say that last thing but I understood it anyway. I tend to agree with her. If I can't say dexamethasone and it's a word I need to know then it's not so good. There is also something in my personality that makes me unhappy about talking to strangers and I suggested to my pals that I may be a bad choice as a go between. I told them how, before Google Maps, I would buy a street plan rather than ask someone for directions. My friends though have decided that they prefer dealing with someone they know over someone more technically competent.

They were in the hospital the other day without me. They were working on the assumption that they were there for a procedure. Patients are pretty passive during lots of procedures from a CAT scan to a blood pressure check. Nobody needs to say much as they are strapped into an x-ray machine, they just need to go where directed. But the friends got scolded again. "What happens if there is some problem and you can't tell us about it?

When I keeled over last year and woke up in an ambulance I was able to talk to the paramedics, the next few days in hospital there were no real communication problems. I forget that for other Britons that isn't necessarily the case. The other day, on a forum, I directed a bloke who is having trouble with marketing phone calls to one of the "Robinson List" sites. It wasn't much use to him as it was in Spanish. I don't think that had even registered with me. Crap as I think my Spanish is it's perfectly useable for most situations and it's difficult to remember that for some people even the small things, like knowing what's in a can on a supermarket shelf, is a constant and repetitive daily problem.

Number one of two

I think it would be true to say that the majority of Britons who settle in Spain intend to learn Spanish. The general view seems to be that, after a year or so, we should be getting by followed by a general and constant improvement until we are fluent after maybe four or five years. A longish term project but with immediate gains. That's a vast generalisation. Some people never have any intention of learning Spanish. Others, particularly those who maintain regular and constant relationships with Spaniards through living, working or studying together, may expect to, and actually do, learn the language much faster.

There are as many opinions on learning Spanish amongst Britons living here as there are Britons. I often think that a chap who runs a famous English language learning organisation here in Spain has it right. He was talking about English but the idea holds good for Spanish. He maintains that most people learning English get to whatever level they want or need and then falter or stop. That expertise may be sufficient to get a beer or it may be enough to maintain a detailed conversation about the functioning of the House of Lords. It's a level that suits the individual. Job done, now to rebuild the outbuildings.

Most Britons find it hard to learn Spanish. The sounds are different, there are thousands of words and phrases to memorise, there are structures and formulas to grasp, copy and use and English keeps getting in the way. It's just one huge memory task. People blame their teachers, they maintain that they are too old to learn, they say they get by alright with a few words. As I said, as many opinions as there are Britons living here.

It's easy to see that Spaniards find English just as odd as Britons find Spanish. I'm reading a book at a moment and the character goes for a walk from one Battery Park at the bottom of Manhattan up through Harlem and across to the Bronx. He follows Fordham Road. Now Fordham Road has a certain sound Britons but either the Spanish author, the Spanish proof readers or the Spanish editors don't share that sensibility. Fordham Road is also spelled as Frodham Rd. (possible but wrong) and Fhordam Rd. (impossible in my opinion). The point is not the misspelling but that it seems possible or even correct to Spaniards and my guess is that most Spanish readers won't even notice the error. I'm often Christopher Jhon on documents and there's something similar with the Pinoso Christmas programme. A local theatre group is doing Oliver Tweest, I presumed this was a spoof on Oliver Twist but no, it's a simple typo.

How people choose to learn is as diverse as the methods. Some take classes to try to learn - some want native speakers, others look for people from their own country with a good grasp of the language. Some sign up for miracle courses while others use applications on their mobile phone, watch films, listen to songs and podcasts, there are those who make vocabulary lists and there are even some unreformed types who buy books with CDs in the back cover. Methods and tips are a regular topic of conversation amongst the immigrant British population here. Some of those things come at no extra cost, some, like classes, cost money. Obviously enough most of the same things could be said about Spaniards who want to learn English except that the ones here are not living in a foreign milieu. They're home.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Comings and goings

We were going to try out the new Indian restaurant in Pinoso yesterday lunchtime. Maggie works till three and getting lunch around that time in Spain is absolutely standard. Nonetheless, on a slow day in a small town it's just possible that the kitchen will close if a restaurant is short of custom. I put my head around the door, to check. I was greeted in English. Open till six he said. It turned out that we'd had a bit of a communication problem. In fact they opened at six, not closed, presumably for we early dining Britons.

I knew about the Taj Mahal from simply passing by. The other day though, when I was quizzing, as one does, a student about toppings on pizza, they told me that they preferred pizzas from el Punto to the ones from Riquelme. According to the student the shop was about 300 metres from where I work. I'd never heard of them, I'd never seen their soiled napkins dancing in the swirling leaves, never seen their pizza boxes abandoned on the floor. Their Facebook page was created in July 2016 which suggests I've had plenty of time to notice them. Their takeaway offer seems to be traditional Spanish food as well as burgers and pizzas. I made a short detour from work and, right enough, there they were. They don't open Thursday lunchtime though.

Indian and takeaway denied us then. I wondered about La Picaeta. We went in there a couple of weeks ago. They gave us a business card with a new name and a new address. I'd heard an advert on the local radio to say that the restaurant was under new management but I think their launch day was today which wasn't much good yesterday lunchtime.

Maggie came up with a cunning plan. The dining room at Mañan has been putting out a blackboard advertising their lunchtime set meal for months now. Despite our thirteen year residence in Pinoso we'd never been there before today. We finally righted that wrong. Perfectly acceptable; nothing fancy but good and obviously well established - salad, starter, barbecued meat, pudding, coffee and a drink for a massive 9€.

So we've still got the Indian and the takeaway and the new Picaeta to try whilst the old Picaeta management, according to their card, are now running, los Coves. Ages ago we went to a bar/restaurant with that name up in Santa Catalina so I presume it's the same place. We need to check. Actually talking about Santa Catalina, we were up there last Friday and we found a bar with live music that we didn't know about - we knew the bar but not about singer - we must go back. At least we did manage to get into Estem Ací - the name for the new restaurant being run by the Uruguayan twins who formerly ran Oasis - shortly after it opened back in October. And, the other day I hesitated outside the bar in Rodriguillo, one of the outlying villages of Pinoso. I last went there in about 2006, shortly after that it closed for a long time but I'd heard it had re-opened. The hissing of the coffee machine and the chatter of voices emanating from inside the bar bore that out as I dithered on the threshold.

We're not exactly stay at home types so it seems just remarkable to me that there can be so many restaurants or bars that we haven't spent money in. After all the town, nay village, of Pinoso has only just over seven and a half thousand people!

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Just get the form, fill it in and get it notarised

I still look at various expat forums every now and then. On one of the forums, the administrators try to rouse the troops a little with something they consider to be potential conversation starters. One of the questions that's cropped up a couple of times is about cultural differences. I maintain, and I still maintain that the differences between Spain and the UK are minimal. I don't mean that the two countries are the same but the basic premises on which they run are very similar and lead to similar ways of doing things.

In Spain traffic is organised and regulated, doctors wait, stethoscope poised, in health centres, dustbin lorries come with monotonous frequency, I can take photos of more or less what I want, I don't have to join a particular political party to prosper, health and safety laws are strong, you are unlikely to be slaughtered in a gunfight, slavery and human trafficking are not tolerated, the state doesn't kill people, there are laws to protect animals and consumers, entering and leaving the country is a reasonably simple process, I, and more particularly women, can dress as we wish, my internet access is not controlled or censored, people are not persecuted for their ethnicity, corruption is punished, bribery is not endemic, people pay their taxes and a long etcetera. Now that doesn't mean that everything is fine but, without needing to look at a map or consult Google, we are not talking about the problems you might encounter in countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Myanmar, China, Nigeria, South Africa, The United States, Mauritania, Tibet, North Korea, Equatorial Guinea, Uzbekistan or Cuba.

I'm not saying that everything is hunky dory. Gitanos, gypsies (and I've never heard anyone suggest Romany People) get treated badly in tens of ways, there are racists here as there are everywhere, rich people find life much easier than poor people, transexuals get a rough time at school, children are abused by adults, the legal system seems to work better for the rich than the poor, dogs are abandoned in the streets and some donkeys, and sometimes trades unionists, get beaten with sticks. There are prostitutes controlled by evil pimps, there are laws which can be used to limit what I consider to be basic freedoms and builders will sit atop scaffolding dressed in shorts and flip flops and then suggest you pay in cash without the need for VAT. At times the process for getting planning permission or an insurance claim sorted out can seem interminable. I could go on.

I can't pretend that I don't notice the differences. But differences have a way of becoming normal. It's ages since we had to deal with the skein of bureaucracy that we had to deal with when we first got here. Residence documents, identity documents, registering with town halls, this and that piece of paper, new bank accounts, new insurance policies, cars to be bought, phone contracts to be sorted, new power suppliers to be compared, builders to be hired and a hundred more things, right down to recognising bleach in the supermarket, were a challenge at first. Those things came in an avalanche of activity. Nowadays they come along one at a time. It's just as much of a pain in the backside getting a new passport from the British as it is exchanging a driving licence with the Spanish. I'm helping somebody get a document we all call a residencia at the moment. The paperwork isn't particularly complicated but there is lots of detail that's a bit tricky. Just dealing with that one thing reminded me of that deluge of paper at the beginning. It's a miracle anyone survives it. It must be exactly the same for anyone heading for the UK from elsewhere.

Of course I actually keep a weather eye out for the differences because they give me to something to blog about. Visitors are good for reminding you just how many things have become ordinary that aren't that ordinary to a British sensibility. We have visitors at the moment. We popped out last night to see the statue of Santa Catalina get moved from one house to another during the fiesta in her honour, had a look at the mediaeval market and just strolled around. The people milling all over the place, the apparent disorganisation of it all, the actual idea of shifting a statue around escorted by a brass band, the unshaven priest, the mayor mixed up in the crowd, the number of police officers on hand, the odd looking buildings, children on the street quite late in the evening, not paying at a bar until you're about to go, bonfires set up in the middle of the road and complete strangers offering you glasses of wine or barbecued sausage were all just a bit different. And we were only out for a couple of hours.

Mind you it's not all whimsical drollness. I had to work this morning so Maggie has taken our guests off to a bodega and restaurant after. Whilst they've been away, I've been talking to a pal who appears to have been swindled over the sale of the kit to heat her pool. She's bumping into something else that is just as normal a part of everyday life in Spain. The difficulty of complaining when something does go wrong. Again I'm not so sure that's all that different from the UK but it can seem like a very uphill process when you are faced with the intransigence of a company, a company that doesn't answer your phone calls or return your emails, a company that speaks a different language and a company that knows its way around whatever legislation there is much better than you do.