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.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

My Jamaican nan wants to know why I love chocolate spread so much, but mi Nutella

So I'm in a restaurant. I have wine and rice in front of me, outside the sun is shining and I don't have to work. Someone passes who knows me. They ask how I am and I respond that life is terrible. If this were an English person they would give a sort of half hearted, well mannered, version of a smile. If the person were a Spaniard they may well ask why.

I arrived late at the Monday evening intercambio session a few weeks ago and a friend was introducing herself to a Spaniard new to the group. After the formalities she added that English people can be a bit difficult to understand because they, we, joke with the language all the time. I watched as she struggled to explain exactly what she meant but I realised that it was true. When Maggie asks if she should put the kettle on I can't stop myself asking if she thinks it will suit her. I often explain to my students that the greeting "hi" is probably somebody playfully responding to hello pronounced "'lo"  with its opposite and that "hiya" is another form of wordplay against high.

Yesterday evening a pal posted a list of English words used by Spaniards in everyday conversation for which there is a perfectly good Spanish word available. The list included things like apariencia instead of look or pasatiempo instead of hobby. Along with the like I put a comment, in Spanish, "It's not our fault" and he responded with "Nobody says that it is, Chris". Ooops, that wasn't what I meant at all.

Maggie often tells me that I compound my difficulties in speaking Spanish by giving similarly obtuse answers when Spaniards speak to me. But I can't help it. It's how I think.

To justify  myself I responded with a blog that I found which started with - El peculiar sentido del humor británico  - the strange British sense of humour can seem disconcerting at first. With strong self criticism, an almost imperceptible sarcasm and a very dry style it may seem like a completely new language.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Roll your own

My dancing is terrible. In fact I don't dance. I can't clap in time, I can't keep rhythm, I can't sing. At junior school they wrested the triangle from my grip enraged with my inability to strike it at the appropriate moment. At Grammar School I was beaten for singing badly. It was presumed that I was singing so tunelessly to be rebellious.

I can't roll Rs either. This is essential for speaking Spanish reasonably well. The R at the beginning of a word has to be rolled and the double RR has to be rolled. To Spaniards I sound like a Benny Hill Chinese person.

There are dozens of YouTube videos with tricks, methods, advice and examples of how to roll Rs. They all start by saying that everyone can roll Rs. Just the same way as my music teacher, Philip Tordoff, told me that everyone could sing just a few moments before he set about me with a ruler.

Apparently the trick, for Rs, not for singing, is to put the tip of the tongue on the alveolar ridge and expel enough air so that the tip of the tongue vibrates. The tongue, to produce a Spanish R, has to be somewhere near where it would be if a British person were to say de. I can do that. I can make my tongue vibrate but there is some coordination necessary with my vocal cords and that just escapes me.

It is, as Mr Jones my Latin teacher used to say, a bugger.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Bàsquet: els equips cadet i infantil inicien la competició

I am often quite concerned by my Facebook feed. Apparently I have friends, acquaintances and friends of acquaintances who believe that wearing particular clothes is dangerous, that seeking a better future is intrinsically wrong and that arguing that people should be treated equally is woolly minded thinking. I listen to Trump and Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orbán knowing that Jair Bolsonaro is about to join their ranks and I wince. I think of my home country and its isolationist anti cultural bigotry and I wonder where it all went wrong.

My dad used to talk about how, in his youth, there was hope for a world order of sorts. People working together to solve common problems. Obviously we're now on exactly the opposite track. United Nations, World Trade Association, European Union. Forget it. We'll do better on our own.

On the most parochial of levels, with something very tiny, I don't like what's happening in Pinoso. I have some mobile phone application that collects news articles. Amongst others it takes the news from the local Town Hall. It's news that isn't news really but it helps me to keep up with what's going on locally. Since we got back from our holidays though I wonder if there has been a change of policy, if the news has been Marine Le Pen-ised; Pinoso for the Pinoseros? This was the crop of news headlines yesterday:

Música, jocs i màgia per celebrar el dia de la Comunitat Valenciana
Handbol: inici de lliga amb derrota
Bàsquet: inici de la competició
Futbol sala: resultats del cap de setmana
“Meldo” visita la escuela infantil municipal
Futbol: resultats del cap de setmana

You may notice that they are all in Valencian, the local language rather than in the worldwide version of Spanish or in both. I'm not that interested in the games and magic to celebrate Valencia day, the handball, what happened with the basketball or five a side teams or even about Meldo visiting the nursery but what if the news were about local taxes or changes in administrative procedures that had a direct effect on me? 

The last time I saw a full list of the nationalities living in Pinoso it read like this, ranked in number of people from each country: Spaniards, Britons, Ecuadorians, Ukrainians, Moroccans, Colombians, Bulgarians, Argentinians, Uruguayans, French, Paraguayans, Cubans, Brazilians, Romanians, Germans, Bolivians, Swedes, Algerians, Pakistanis, Italians, Norwegians, Dominicans, Georgians, Lithuanians, Belgians, Portuguese, Czechs, Russians, Venezuelans, Thais, Belarusians, Slovakians and someone from the United States.

It's likely that only a percentage of one of those groups speaks Valenciano. So am I to presume that the rest of us can go take a running jump?

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Round midnight

It was just after ten and I was putting away my paperwork at the end of the class when a WhatsApp message pinged on my phone. It said that Maggie was helping a couple of friends out with a bit of a medical emergency. One of them was having trouble breathing and, at the local health centre, they needed someone who understood Spanish. Maggie stepped into the breach.

Later it was decided to transfer the ill person to the nearby hospital in Elda for tests and what not. We ended up going too and so, around midnight, we found ourselves hanging around in the Urgencias, the Accident and Emergency of the local hospital. Nobody was watching the telly high on the wall, someone was throwing up on the pavement outside, the drinks and snack machines were doing a slow but constant trade. The main activity though was waiting; staring at mobile phones or talking in small groups. Nobody looked rich, nobody looked well dressed, one woman was even in her dressing gown and nightie - when things happen quickly I don't suppose there is time to spruce yourself up. Quite a few of the men were in shorts despite it only being 11ºC.

It reminded me of so many places with old plastic chairs or faded and lopsided posters on the walls, dole offices for instance, but, more than anything, it brought to mind my occasional overnight coach trips from Petrer to Madrid and on to Salamanca and Ciudad Rodrigo. A motorway service station and an A&E waiting room when the world has slowed down for the day are surprisingly similar places.

No particular news on our pal as I write- stable but not fixed.

Sunday, October 07, 2018

Oh dear! I shall be too late!

Sleep's a funny thing for we older people. Put me in front of the telly or set me to reading in the garden and I'll soon be snorting away and dribbling onto my shirt. On the other hand staying asleep in bed is a problem. If it's not the bladder or my aching back then I just get bored. So today was quite odd because, when I first looked at my watch it was nearly 10am. That's the day gone I thought.

Getting up late on Sunday isn't a venal sin or anything but it does have a big disadvantage in Spain. It basically knocks out any daytime events.

Most people know that the Spanish tend to eat late - lunch from around two but maybe as late as four and dinner from maybe nine till around ten thirty. Summer times can be later. I remember reading a Blasco Ibañez (1867-1928) book where the family were preparing a grand lunch for friends and they were planning to eat at twelve thirty. I wondered at the time if the more modern, later, meal times were to do with changes in the working day and then promptly forgot all about it. I was reminded of the earlier sittings recently with the debate that has been going on about ending the clock changing that goes on every March and October. In a radio discussion someone was arguing that clock time and schedules were different things. He said that, before the time in Spain and France was moved to coincide with the time in Nazi Germany, Spaniards had always eaten at around one in the afternoon. When you think about it as Spain sets down to eat at 2pm the clocks are chiming one in England. In turn that made me wonder what the UK will do when the rest of the Union stops changing its clocks. Maybe the staunchest of Britons will argue for proper British time, GMT, to go along with blue pàssports and non pink driving licences.

So Spanish morning events almost inevitably finish at around 2pm. Markets and selling events will start to pack away even before that time. If you have an all day event everything will re-open for the evening session anytime after 5 or 6pm but if it's an evening only event it can start anytime from 8pm to midnight even in Autumn. Summer start times for evening events are often around either side of midnight. So, as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes this morning and looked at that 10am watch I knew that it was unlikely we'd be going anywhere much today.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

“Then you shouldn’t talk,” said the Hatter.

You may have noticed, I hope you've noticed, that I haven't posted for a while. That's because we haven't been in or around Culebrón for a long couple of weeks. Indeed we went for a remarkably enjoyable cruise around the Baltic from Southampton. The boat spent a lot of the time at sea and so, for days and days, we were without affordable Internet access unless you consider £80 for a couple of weeks WiFi to be reasonable. Once back in Spain it's taken us a while to get back onto an even keel. (Sorry).

The majority of the passengers on a Fred Olsen Cruise Ship do not have jobs. They have sizeable pensions instead. So, the very Anglo, second question of, "And what do you do?" isn't much use to pigeonhole individuals in an Orwellian, doctor good, shelf stacker bad, sort of way. It was substituted instead by the "Where are you from?" question. I suppose Huddersfield scores fewer points than Berkshire but I don't think it's as reliable an indicator. As an aside Spaniards very seldom ask what you do after they have your name. Instead they ask about your family, your food tastes or whether you like Spain. There doesn't seem to be the same need to peg your status.

It was a small boat and we were soon on nodding terms with dozens of people. We engaged in lots and lots of conversations with lots and lots of people. When we were asked where we lived we told the truth and so we'd get questions about weather, about food, about house prices or about bullfighting. Without doubt though the favourite question was what the Spanish think about Brexit.

I noticed that, when we were answering those questions, Maggie and I have different perceptions of some things Spanish. It has never crossed my mind that I will die anywhere other than in Spain whilst Maggie envisages a possible return to Albion. Apparently we have different ideas about everyday things like how clothes fit or how long the winter lasts too. On Brexit though we seemed to be in agreement. In our experience the Spaniards who live here don't think very much at all about Brexit. It's not an important issue on the street. It's there on the news from time to time but it's not a big item or a long item or a headline item. For your average Spaniard any question to a Briton about Brexit is more a demonstration of good manners than a question with an interesting answer. To be honest it has a similar status for me. What the Spanish authorities decide to do to we foreign immigrants after Brexit may cause me problems but the wayward behaviour of a bunch of British politicians a couple of thousand kilometres away is of very little interest. Not that it won't affect me of course. I'm just about to lose my vote in the UK and I'll lose my European and local vote too when I'm no longer a European citizen but..

Anyway it's good to be home. Every time I go back to the UK I find it much less like the place I used to live, which is obvious enough if you think about it. So I'm a little less comfortable each time. Mind you being fluent in English, even if it tends to be an old fashioned English, helps a lot and a couple of weeks of being able to say exactly what I wanted, when I wanted, was very nice.

BTW: The photos of the trip are in the tab just underneath the Life in Culebrón photo.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

Horny handed sons and daughters of toil

There are all sizes of tractors. Probably the most common around here are really old, really beaten up and quite small tractors. Think of a tractor the size of a 1950s Massey Ferguson, the sort of tractor Peter Rabbit's Mr. McGregor would have, if he'd had a tractor. They use them in the vineyards where there is just about space for them to manoeuvre, they use them to haul trailers full of grapes to the local bodega, they use them for the almonds and to go to the bar. A couple of days ago four big tractors roared past the front of our house followed by a medium sized tractor hauling a trailer. They were going to pick almonds. I know because the tractors each had one of the umbrella like nets at the back which are fastened around the tree trunk whilst the tree is given a good shaking. Sherlock Holmes wise I could also deduce that they may well be picking almonds because, when I passed the industrial estate the other day, I could hear the machines working and see the mountains of almond shells in the yard. Oh, and when we were eating outside the village hall on Sunday a tractor and trailer rig went by and nearly everybody there shouted encouragement to the farmer. I could see almonds in the trailer.

Pinoso is rural, it's surrounded by lots of small villages and by vineyards, wheat fields, almond and olive groves and goodness knows what else. And that's the thing. Those people in the village, at the meal, who urged the farmer on, knew what he was harvesting and my guess is that they usually know what's been harvested because they have friends or family involved. I don't. Some things are obvious, the grapes for instance, and maybe peaches or cherries but there are plenty of fields with green things in them. They could be artichokes or peas or peppers or melons or potatoes or onions or aubergines. I may be able to tell close up but I can't guess from as I see the workers stooped over, picking by hand, or the tractors going to and fro.

We have farmers as a near neighbours. They have plenty of kit, sometimes though, for things like big combines or the mechanised grape picking, they hire it in. They work all hours. They work the fields under artificial light quite often. Yesterday evening a tractor started ploughing up the field, which has been fallow for three or four years, directly opposite our house. They finished, I think, though to be honest I'd stopped paying much attention to the noise by then, around 10pm. I'd suspect they stopped to go home for the evening meal. They started again well before first light, around 4.30am.

But why have they ploughed up the field and why was it so urgent? I don't like not knowing that sort of thing.

Sunday, September 02, 2018

Our menu today

Egg and chips is a typical Spanish dish. Egg and chips is a typical English dish too. I wouldn't be surprised if half the world has a similar claim to egg and chips. Of course there can be lots of differences between one plateful of egg and chips and another dependant on the quality of the ingredients and the preparation. I like my bacon sandwiches in white bread with lots of butter and with crispy but cooled bacon. I know people who are appalled at the idea of butter and white bread and pour ketchup or brown sauce on theirs. So preparation, ingredients and personal taste all make a difference when we're talking food.

Sometimes Spanish people ask me if I eat British or Spanish food at home. I suppose the question is whether I eat paella or roast beef and Yorkshire pudding because, most of the time, the stuff I cook is probably stateless. I might think it's chilli con carne or biryani but a Mexican (or is that a Texan) and an Indian wouldn't recognise it as such. And who lays claim to chicken with garlic and lemon? Eating out of course it's possible to choose. Spanish pizzas, hamburgers and Spring rolls have numerous Spanish touches but the sign above the restaurant door still says American or Italian or Chinese. There are plenty of restaurants though that sell food that most would class as local, as traditional, as Spanish. Lots of it, like pork chop and chips or fried hake is as nationless as egg and chips. Hand over the steamed mussels and tell a Belgian that they are typically Spanish and I don't think they would agree however normal it is for Spaniards to eat mussels.

There is obviously lots of food that is Spanish through and through. Nobody would doubt the parentage of the myriad of rice dishes that we lump together as paella or the less internationalized classics such as fabada Asturiana, marmitako, cocido, michirones, calçots, patatas revolconas, flamenquines and hundreds more. I heard someone once say that lots of the best Spanish food depends on the shopping and I tend to agree. The cooking is often simple but the food is well conceived and tasty if the ingredients are good. Las papas arrugadas, something typical of the Canary Islands, are simply wrinkly boiled potatoes usually served with a sauce made with oil, vinegar and paprika pepper. This is hardly haute cuisine but they can be splendid. Or they can be very ordinary. It's the same with so many of the dishes. I had the local rice with rabbit and snail dish in a restaurant in Chinorlet when I was with my mum and the one word to describe it would be sublime. I could not believe that rice could be so good. I made a reservation to take Maggie to the same place. The rice was good but nothing special. It may have been a different cook, the wood may have burned at a different temperature, maybe it was a variation in the amount of salt, the rabbit may have been from a farm rather than caught on the mountains, maybe it was the wrong season for the snails - who knows, but it wasn't as good. And if you go into a restaurant where one of the starters on the fixed price 9€ lunch is labelled as paella, or if there's a photo of it, I can guarantee that the rice will not leave you impressed. It's only paella in name, not in spirit, not in ingredients, not in the care. I've had worse fabada in a restaurant than the stuff that comes out of the cans bought in the local supermarket and I've had fabada that made me understand why the dish is famous in Spain.

So the upmarket Spanish restaurants work in two modalities. The first is a restaurant that cooks the same food as your mum or your grandma (dad or grandfather if you prefer) but tries to do it better. My grandma never cooked gazpacho pinosero so I can't comment but I've enjoyed traditional food, of this type, in lots of those restaurants. The second style is food that may pay lip service to local cuisine but the interpretation is a very personal one, that of an auteur chef. As the waiter describes the dish they tell you that the small spot of reddish paste represents a traditional local food or that the tiny mound of mashed potato flavoured with almond represents the symbiosis present in the local agricultural economy. Well, if they say so.

For the past two years, on Maggie's birthday, we have gone to a restaurant with a couple of Michelin stars. Last year I had to try hard not to laugh out loud when the waitress was telling us about using the mould that grows on corn as one of the ingredients. If I'd been in argumentative mood I may have asked why that corn fungus had never caught on in the majority of the bars, cafes and restaurants of the world. Last night we went to a place in Almansa. No names no pack drill. The room was pleasant, the servers were very personable and efficient. The problem was that the set menu, which included  a very creditable 12 or 13 courses for a reasonable 69€, was quite unpleasant. I can't say that I enjoyed a single dish. Most were OK, edible enough, the sort of thing you eat as a houseguest so as not to upset your host. Not something you would choose to eat but something you force down behind a pantomime smile for someone else's benefit. A couple of the courses were, literally, hard to swallow, the sort of food that was close to making me gag. Tuna hearts stuffed with something that I missed in the description, but which looked like snot, resembled nothing more than a couple of glassy fish eyeballs. By the end of the meal I was really hoping that they did ordinary coffee; surely good coffee would overpower the variety of tastes lingering in my mouth?

But I suppose we'll be back to another one next year. Hope springs ever eternal as they say even if kangaroos just hop.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night

I know there's a rearguard action. I know that people talk about the character of the surface noise on vinyl discs and the value of the smell of books. I know that paper book sales increased and e-book sales fell last year and that there's a new version of the Nokia 3310 but, in the long term, it just has to be digital that wins.

One of the many losers to date has been traditional mail. When someone asked me to write a reference for them a couple of years ago I thought about a document in an envelope with a stamp. I could feel the smirk as they gave me the email address. Be that as it may the Post Office in Pinoso is a good place to meet fellow Britons. We seem to be heavy postal users in comparison to the locals. My guess is that there is a lot of toing and froing with grandparent/grandchild presents and Callard and Bowser butterscotch. Moreover because so many of us are of a certain age, there is still a lot of traffic in greetings cards. It's fine, we say, sending a greeting via Facebook or one of those nice GIF things on Instagram but you can't put it on the mantelpiece.

I still send a handful of cards each year, not many but a few. I had one to post today. Now getting stamps isn't as easy as it used to be. The Rowland Hill concept of a universal, one price, postal service has long gone. Here, and I think in the UK, the size and colour of the envelope as well as the weight and destination are factors which affect the final price. A letter or card weighing less than 20g sent in a standard size white envelope to a Spanish address is currently 55 cents. If it's a bit heavier (up to 50g) or the envelope is pink or square or something add an extra 10 cents. Within Europe that becomes 1.35€ or 1.65€.

Now Correos, The Post Office, is aware that people don't like to pay for stamps. I know lots of people, Britons, who work on the assumption that the Post Office will give the benefit of the doubt. They bung a stamp on the envelope, throw it in the post box and expect that the mail will get through. As a consequence Correos is not keen on selling stamps. Go into the office with a pile of Christmas cards and ask for so many national and so many international stamps and they will take the cards from you, sort them into neat weighed and colour coded piles, count up the cards, do the sums, take your money and then print a bundle of stickers that get stuck on the envelopes. If you try to buy generic stamps they will suggest that you come back with the envelopes.

Tobacconists or estancos sell stamps too. In the olden days it used to be one of their main forms of income. They sell all sorts of stamps but if you simply ask for national and international stamps they give you stamps that show either the letter A or a B. The idea is that those two stamps cover the most common transactions. You can see the thinking clear as day. When the price goes up each year there is no need to print a whole new bundle of stamps.

When I got to the Post Office there was a big queue. Counter service in Correos is not quick. My birthday card was in a square, blue envelope so it would cost 1.65€. I had some stamps in my wallet. I presumed that the stamps have a monetary value so an A would be worth 55 cents. I only had three of the A stamps left but my arithmetic was strong enough. That would do nicely. I slid the card into the post box and walked away.

As I passed the tobacconist my Baden Powell inspired Cub Scout training kicked in. Be prepared I thought. Replace your stamp stash. As the woman handed me the stamps she explained that the international stamps had gone up in price by 10c this year and she gave me some stamps, with a face value of 10 cents, to go alongside the B stamps. "You'll need one of each on the envelope," she said. "But I thought the whole idea of the lettered stamps was to avoid this" I replied. "So did I," was her response, "it's absurd but that's how it is."

So, if the birthday card doesn't arrive by the 3rd then you know I tried.

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Fit for purpose

There are lots of things that I've done in my life which I regret. Some are big things, which I'm not going to tell you about, and some are small. I admit to wearing leg warmers in the 1980s. Something that causes me psychological grief every now and then is remembering my last leaving do. I rambled on and on for hours. I would be briefer given a second opportunity. My colleagues bought me gifts; amongst other things a Panama hat and a couple of sophisticated deck chairs. There was obviously an expectation that I would be sitting out in the sun.

It is true that being outside is one of the pleasures of Life in Culebrón, life in this part of Spain in general. I seem to remember that those chairs also served in our unfurnished living room for a while! We've got a sofa now (though Samuel the demi kitten is making sure that we will need a new one very soon). The Panama lives on, albeit with an extra hole, other than the one for my head. The chairs went the way of all flesh years ago. The Spanish sun bleaches things and destroys plastics, textiles and wood in all manner of ways. What the sun doesn't manage the huge changes in temperature and the infrequent but torrential downpours and high winds finish off.

This has given Maggie a hobby. Whenever we go into Carrefour, whilst I search for a new seasonal wardrobe or computer bits, she gravitates towards the outdoor furniture section. One of the odd things is that in an area where they say the sun shines 300 days each year outdoor furniture is not cheap. In fact it is shockingly dear. Maggie's hobby has now extended to searching the Internet for bargains. I'm not sure where the six chairs came from a couple of months ago but the design left something to be desired. I fear, that in assembling them, our Spanish neighbours may have learned several Old English expletives. Repetition I understand is one of the key elements in learning something. I damaged my hands so badly fastening up dozens of Allen key bolts with the toy tool that came in the box that I bought something resembling a proper tool for the next time. That next time proved to be yesterday. There was an eBay chair, bench and table set to assemble. This time the design was better and things fastened together more or less as they should but it would have helped if they'd remembered to pack sufficient nuts and bolts in the box. Oh, and to pack the glass for the little side table so that it didn't arrive in thousands of little cubes.

This hunt for perfect outside furniture has, according to Maggie, helped her to become more Spanish. It happened a couple of years ago now. None of the furniture can take the battering it receives from the climate. Well, with maybe one exception. "I used to think it looked horrible but now I think it looks OK - I think I'm becoming Spanish." She was talking about "stone" benches and chairs. I use the inverted commas because I presume that it's some sort of stone composite rather than the product of some advance on Palaeolithic flint knapping technology. Anyway, as I said, that was a while ago. I have no idea whether the steel and fabric kit from eBay is a product of Hispanicisation or not.

Monday, August 20, 2018

All squishy

There's a certain tendency to euphoria sometimes. It would happen from time to time driving across the fens or maybe with the MGB in the Cotswolds. Just feeling glad to be there, to be passing through. It happens a lot here. As I drive across some Spanish landscape with, maybe, high hills, or never ending plains or, perhaps, just watching that ochre yellow dust trail as a car or van drives along some dirt track I start grinning for no particular reason.

Maybe it's my age but nowadays I've got to the point where small pleasures cheer me up quite as easily as things on a grander scale. Maybe it's always been like that. Lots of the films that I've liked most across my lifetime of cinema going have been the ones that are classed as independent film.

There are lots and lots of celebrations in Spain. They are everywhere if you look. I wonder if they have a more obvious impact in small towns and villages. The centre of Pinoso is more or less closed off for the eight or nine days of the fair and fiesta in August. We were in Bilbao once, at Easter, and a parade was routed down one side of a dual carriageway whilst traffic continued to flow on the other carriageway - the place is simply too big to stop because of an Easter parade. I thought the penitents looked lost and out of place in a way that they don't as they invade the streets of Jumilla or Hellín. Mind you they close a lot of the centre of Valencia to traffic by the Fallas, Alicante for Hogueras and Murcia for the Spring Festival so I could well be wrong.

Lots of the events are religious in basis, Catholic in fact. Not a lot of Divali or Eid celebrations in the streets here. Often, when I say to Maggie, "Do you fancy coming to see the san Antón stuff in Villena?" or "What about going to see the sawdust carpets in Elche de la Sierra for Corpus Christi?," she'll answer "I'm not a Catholic." Well, neither am I but I'm beginning to really like some of the smaller scale, home grown parades and what not. Actually I think that for most Spaniards the events aren't that religious either; they are more cultural or traditional or just theirs.

Pinoso fiestas is full of happenings. Fireworks and folk dancing here, mascletàs and vermouth sessions there and big events like the concerts and the fancy dress parade. And my favourite event? - the flower offering. Old costumes, lots of flowers and heading to the church to lay them at the feet of a carved wooden statue in the church, with the inevitable mass - not that I've ever been to the mass. Strange choice. I know what I think the reason is. I think it's because I'm soppy. It's like that line in Wonderful World about shaking hands. In the ofrenda there are little groups - from the villages and from organisations but there also seem to be family groups and just, well, people. They wave at their pals as they pass, they break rank to say hello, the smiles are enormous. The pleasure is infectious.

I went to see a little procession in Chinorlet last night. Chinorlet is only about 3kms from our house but it belongs to Monóvar rather than to Pinoso. I didn't know which figures were being moved about so I asked Google. The first result was the 1998 fiesta programme. Heaven knows why. It gave me the answer though. Twenty years ago the procession was at the same time on the last Sunday of the fiestas. The billing says Solemn procession of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Sainted Virgin of the Rosary. Solemn? Well sort of. There were a lot of candles and nice frocks and suits for some of the men alongside a couple of second commandment graven images. The statues are on either wheeled floats or carried on strong shoulders and backs. All through this little village, of fewer than 200 people, there were knots of people sitting on chairs outside their homes, standing around chatting, passing time waiting for the procession. I suppose that "everyone" who has a weekend home in Chinorlet was there over the weekend.

It's a bit odd. I'd decided to write this piece yesterday evening suggesting that this was something about as Spanish as mantillas and peinetas. This morning, on my Facebook feed, there was a photo of a bunch of people loading a carved catholic figure into the back of a decorated pickup truck. I presume that they were setting off on what is called a romeria here in Spain. The photos were from my brother in law from when he passed through Messajanes in Portugal. It reminded me that I've seen those carved virgins making the rounds in the background of lots of Sergio Leone and Robert Rodriguez films. But, who cares about facts? The next time I watch the Virgin of the Assumption heading up the little road to Caballusa or another Virgin trekking from Aspe to Hondón de las Nieves I'll think that I'm watching something as Spanish as it gets and I may well grin.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Knee high to a grasshopper

Do you think there's a cultural element to how we sweep up?

Just after the tiniest of earthquakes, yesterday evening, we had a bit of a downpour. It didn't last long but there was sufficient rain for our guttering to leak. So today I was on gutter cleaning. The mud from the gutter had to be swilled and swept from the interior patio and, because I was now mud spattered, damp and sweaty I thought, masochistically, to clear away the rotting peaches from under the tree and then to sweep the front yard.

The usual Spanish dustpan is like the one in the photo or maybe a plastic version of it. The way most people I see around me sweep up is to brush with one hand and collect with the other. I don't seem able to do that. I've tried but it  just doesn't seem natural. I prefer to sweep the debris into a pile and then to sweep the pile into the dustpan. It's the way that I've always done it. Learned at my mother's knee.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Song of the mines

One of the problems with things starting late is that one never knows how late. Last night, well earlier today too, we went to see the final of probably the most famous flamenco competition in Spain, Cante de las Minas, in La Unión near Cartagena in Murcia. The competition has an overall winner and lots of other prizes based around the elements of singing, dancing, guitar and, new to us, other instruments. We've been to semi finals before and to concerts of established stars during the festival but this was the first time that we'd done the final.

So, a 10.00 p.m. start and we reckoned on about three hours for the event. We abandoned food in a bar because the service had been so terrible it left us with insufficient time to finish up and get into the hall for ten. We knew the start would be delayed, the usual for theatre and music is about twenty minutes, but you can't be sure. Some things do start on time. It's not common but they do.

Twenty minutes would have been good. The event got underway properly at about 10.30. People were still coming in from the street, at least we supposed they were, because the ushers were guiding them to their seats, at 11.30. Presumably they had decided against rushing their dinners. There was a constant procession of people moving around the concert hall going to and fro. Changing positions, moving to an unoccupied seat, having a chat with their neighbour - in nothing that could be described as hushed tones. Our chairs were hard and we had a terrible view. We should have joined the throng and walked around but we are British, and the original announcements had asked us to remain in our seats, so we did.

The programme showed 19 different performances from the various finalists. The singers and musicians did three or maybe four tunes in one go but the dancers did just one dance before going offstage. They came back to do a second number when they had recovered from their exertions and changed their clothes. By about 1.40 a.m. there were still six performances to go so, after a bit more than three hours, we were two thirds through. Maybe another long hour to go. Then of course there would be the judging time and the presentation ceremony. The YouTube video shows that it took twenty five minutes for the prize giving so I reckon that they must have gone on till at least four and maybe five in the morning. We weren't there. We were long gone. When we left we were offered a re-entry stamp which probably explains some of the constant movement. People, as bored as us, going outside to get a beer or a fag and then coming back. In our case though we weren't exactly local. We were an hour and a half from home so we said no to the stamp. As it was we didn't get back home till a little while before 3.30 a.m. by which time my contact lenses were really hurting. Fortunately the overall winner was a woman we saw sing rather than one of the people we missed. I didn't care much for her singing though.

Now I like Flamenco - well sort of, for a while and with a following wind. When I tell people about our experiences at La Unión I usually say that the first half an hour is great, that the second half hour is nice but the seat is beginning to get hard. By something like ninety minutes in there's that moving from cheek to cheek half hour to abate the pain and there always seems to be a problem with my watch running slowly. At about the two hour mark an unnecessary visit to the toilet to restart the circulation is always good. But finally it ends and you get to talk about the bits you liked.

I have a short attention span. It's one of the reasons I like festivals better than single band concerts - short sets, no encores and the possibility of moving from stage to stage. I'm really pleased that the newer albums, the LPs of old, are back to being about forty minutes long after that obsession with putting twenty or more tracks on each CD simply because the technology made it possible. I still remember with horror watching the Rolling Stones, in Barcelona I think, and they just went on and on and on until I'd lost the will to live. I was reminded of that last night!

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

All the news that's fit to print

We have a splendid little town in Pinoso. I mean splendid. The other day we had David Bisbal here, one of the biggest pop stars in Spain. A bit like getting Ed Sheeran to play Marlborough in Wiltshire. There was a float in the carnival procession complaining about the concert. About 5,000 people paid the ticket price of a bit less than 30€ per head and the event made a profit. The complaint was that the prices were too high, that the audience was outsiders and that the profit went to the Town Hall. I presume if the prices had been lower and the Town Hall had made a loss there would have been complaints about that too.

Sometimes though I do wonder about the way that the Town Hall spends money. The current administration has done a lot to prettify the town. There are arguments both ways. The first is - what a waste of money when we need more (fill in the space s appropriate). The second is - lovely, how nice our town looks. I've tended to the second camp. Pinoso is not endowed with many, any, buildings of note. There is lots on a small scale but you have to know what you are looking for. So, keeping the town neat and tidy and the lights and drains working seems reasonable enough.

The Town Hall runs a radio station, produces a periodic magazine, maintains a Facebook page and has a website. The Town Hall website was tarted up recently. It's now slower than it was, more difficult to navigate and altogether much clumsier than before. Nonetheless at least it gives us a way of dealing with some of those minor admin procedures and it gives us access to information. But not really. Take the news sort of information - events and happenings. There have been a couple of pieces put out by the media team which haven't rung true with me. For instance in Culebrón we have a bit of a fun run and the headline was something like "Even more runners this year" but I remembered differently, I checked and there were, in fact, fewer runners in 2018 than in 2017.  There are little reports too from the local police but there seems to be very little about the break ins that we hear about on the grapevine - I suspect a hint of subtle disinformation - report that a flower pot was vandalised but forget that someone was robbed at gunpoint, because that's not a local police issue, is disingenuous to say the least because of the picture it paints. There was a piece too about how sad it was that the local football team wouldn't be playing next year despite the best efforts of the newly formed committee and the councillors to get the team onto an even keel. The comments on a local forum type Facebook page suggest that the reason for the crisis in the football teams is that the Town Hall has pulled the funding. Winston Smith would be proud of them - rewriting history subtly or not. I could be completely wrong of course. We Britons tend to pick up dodgy information because of our dodgy Spanish or because we choose not to get too involved with our adopted new home. The thing I really don't like though is that when I do try to check I find it more or less impossible.

Now the other day I had a conversation with a Canadian who has lived here for a long time. I was being relatively supportive of our administration and he was less so. The conversation ranged across everything from Education Policy and the use of the local Valencian language to general funding in the town. We had different ideas about where the money was coming from. We both knew that there was local, provincial and regional funding but we had different ideas about how it was being used in Pinoso and how much there was of it. A couple of weeks ago I mentioned to one of my students how nice something new was in the town and she agreed but went on to say that the Town Hall only likes to spend money on sexy, vote winning, projects. She lives at the top of a pot holed and tree root damaged tarmac road and that sorting the road out was neither sexy or vote winning. Here in Culebrón I watched the hypocritical annual clean up of the village before our local fiesta. It reminded me of that little story that says that the Royals think that a new paint smell is normal. I marvelled at the piece haranguing local citizens for dumping things beside the rubbish bins which serve the rural areas outside the town. I think they said it had cost the Town Hall 7,000€. I could hardly believe that a Town Hall with a budget of well over 10,000,000€, that happily spends thousands on new flowerpots and railings, was worried about 7,000€ but, even more, I wondered if they'd considered why people had dumped rubbish. Was it perhaps that the communal bins are full to overflowing because they do not have sufficient capacity for the frequency with which they are emptied? Or maybe it's because the town's tip doesn't open at the right times?

One of the selling points of the new webpage was how it allowed people to feedback to the Town Hall and to find "transparency" information. It is possible to make comments on the website but nobody ever answers them. Saying nothing, refusing to engage in a conversation is a remarkably effective way of blocking complaints or questions - it worked in the days of paper forms and it still works in the electronic age. Nonetheless, following on from my conversation with the Canadian I clicked on Transparencia on the Town Hall website. There are redirects to things like budget proposals, income and expenditure predictions, declarations from councillors about their personal wealth and lots more good things. I clicked on a number of links and the message that came back was usually "It seems that we can't find the page you're looking for. Maybe you should try a general search." Other headings led to broken links. In other words either the website isn't functioning or the transparency is a sham. I did try searching and I did find some very basic budgetary stuff there published to the Provincial Bulletin. Stuff like 5,000,000€ in from the quarry and 5,000,000€ out on personnel. That's a lot of personnel for a town of 7,500 people. I'm probably just misreading it all because if those employees were getting the national average pay of 23,000€ that would be 217 staff and there can't possibly be 217 Town Hall staff for a town of around 7,500 souls can there? Oh, and, 23,000€ sounds like a good wage to me. For instance, if I were paid according to the agreements between teaching unions and employers, my annual pay for a 34 hour week would be around 15,000€. Who knows, the information may be there but the website is so turgid, so slow, so laborious, with so many dead ends that I always give up.

And that worries me. The truth is that the Town Hall has tight rein over the flow of information. When we used to have a weekly newspaper, when we used to have a website run by an ex-school teacher it was relatively easy to find alternative and optional points of views; non sanitised information. That's a healthy sort of town, a town that knows how to take and respond to criticism as well as to organise a splendid fiesta and build a new library.

Friday, August 03, 2018


My brother went to see a bullfight in Alicante. He seemed quite surprised that it was bloody - I wondered what he'd expected. Personally I am totally opposed to bullfights. Arguments about art and heritage cut no ice with me. I'm a bit ambivalent about some things that some people consider to be animal rights issues though - animals in zoos being a good example.

It's a bit the same with bull related events here in Spain. There are lots. Some are plain barbaric, they are simply the abuse of animals by humans reduced to their most savage but others aren't, in my opinion, quite so bad. There are some bull events that worry me no more than people keeping their dogs inside all the time or the donkey rides at the seaside. I'm sure you've seen Sanfermines on the telly where all those people run in front of half a dozen bulls in what's called an encierro, and which I think we call bull running. I don't care about it one way or the other. I'm not interested in seeing it but I don't worry that it happens either. I cannot say the same about the events where bulls are or were cut to pieces with lances or brought down by thousands of darts in their body.

Now in sunny Pinoso we have a bull related event, though they're actually bullocks rather than bulls. The locals always refer to them as vacas, cows. The bullocks are introduced into a big fenced area where anyone over the age of 16 can choose to join them. On the stupid side of the fence there are a number of islands and obstacles which give a semi safe haven for the humans when they have a bullock close behind. Lots of people sit atop the sturdy fences that surround the arena, or indeed on some of those islands and obstacles, to watch the action but there are probably as many people in the makeshift cafes or chiringuitos dotted around the site having a drink and natter. Traffic between the food and drink stalls and the arena is non stop.

Yesterday evening I went to the venue a good half an hour before the event was scheduled to start. I was going to take some pictures of the chiringuitos and their customers. I had no intention of taking any pictures of the event itself. Inside one of the chiringuitos a bloke asked me if I'd take a picture of him and his mates. I did. Then he asked if I'd take some more inside the ring, he explained, and this made me feel reasonably stupid, that he and his chums were the team that made the event work. They were the animal handlers. Perhaps if I'd read the legend on the red shirts they were wearing - Vacques el Pinos: Organizacion - I'd have caught on earlier.

Whether I'd misunderstood or whether the plans changed in the couple of hundred metres walk I have no idea, both are equally plausible, but I was taken to the pens where the bullocks are kept before the event and told to take photos to my heart's content. Given that all of the potential pictures were either directly into bright sun or of bullocks behind sturdy and close spaced bars in dark interiors that wasn't quite as good an opportunity as it may sound. The blokes were being pleasant to me but they were also getting things ready. I felt out of place and my Spanish showed the strain. Anyway, eventually, they suggested that I could use a viewing platform on top of the pens to watch the action and that's what I did.

The process for letting the bullocks in and out was really clever. The animals started in individual pens. There were also two paddocks and a passageway that led to the arena outside. One of the paddocks was empty and, in the other, were two animals with big horns. From their colour I recognised them as mansos or cabestros. Manso in Spanish means something like calm or docile. When you watch the Sanfermines bull running there aren't six bulls; there are twelve. Six of them are these mansos. The idea is that these non aggressive animals know the ropes and they lead the way for the fighting bulls showing them where to go.

So when it's time for a bullock to do its stuff a pen is opened by opening a door, the door opens against a wall so that it forms a barrier that the bullock can't pass and behind which the door opener can hide. It's the same on the gate that leads from the pens into the passageway, the doors are opened, whilst the handlers are shielded behind the metal gates. The bullocks take the obvious path - out into the arena. The bullocks then chase around the arena for a while every now and again giving someone a scare and occasionally catching someone and giving them a bit of a going over. I was on the phone with my camera hanging limply by my side as I watched a young man get thrown about three metres into the air, twice, pushed around on the floor a bit before the bullock was finally distracted away. He was fine. The bullock was fine too.

After a while it's time for the bullock to come in. A door was opened from the paddock where the mansos were so that they could trot out into the arena. The bullock saw them and came over to join them at which point the mansos ambled back into their paddock. The bullock followed and, as soon as he was inside a door, the door was closed behind him using a pulley system. At the same time another two gates were opened allowing him to pass from one paddock to the empty one which was where each successive participant ended up. A lot sweatier and probably scared and confused but basically no worse for wear. I was standing next to some bloke who later introduced himself as the cattle breeder who had supplied the animals for the event. He was from Xalo and even though he was shouting in Valenciano to the red shirts I suddenly realised that the mansos were actually mansas, that is to say they were cows not bulls. That's presumably why the bullocks were interested in following them. All together very informative interlude.

There are lots of pictures in the August 2018 snaps section which you can access by clicking on this link or on the tab at the top of the page if it's still there!

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Can I call you a cab sir? I'd prefer you called me Chris.

I don't normally do news. I more usually blog about what I had for breakfast but, when we were down in Alicante for the tail end of the weekend, there was a big line of taxis that went past the hotel travelling at a snail's pace and hooting their horns. They were striking in sympathy with the Barcelona and Madrid taxi drivers. And, in those two cities we have seen pictures of roads blocked by taxis, of improvised camps on key thoroughfares and attacks on the cars the taxi drivers consider to be unfair competition.

There has been an intermittent battle between taxis, the sort of taxis that have to get themselves registered with the local authorities and comply with all sorts of regulations, and any other sort of private hire for years now.

Around here, ages ago, people, particularly expats, saw that there was a market for making a few euros by using their car to take somebody that they didn't know down to the airport in Alicante/Elche. The taxi drivers noticed that some cars were in the airport dropping off zone a lot and they didn't like it. There were stories about the airport run drivers finding themselves hemmed in by taxis whilst the police were called. I have no idea whether it really happened or not but the story was certainly told and retold. The airport runs still go on but, with the rise of the Internet and especially the mobile phone applications, it was only a matter of time before somebody came up with a  more systemised way of undercutting traditional taxi services and their metered charges.

I think that Cabify was one of the first and I think they are Spanish. So far as I understand it they have always used what I would describe as chauffeur driven cars. I think that Addison Lee offer something similar in the UK though, as I picked that reference up from some song lyrics, I may well be wrong. Again, as I understand it, the idea is very neat. A cadre of insured, tested, and registered vehicles with professional drivers that could be used to transport people from A to B already existed. All that was needed was something easy to use which could put potential passengers in touch with drivers and their vehicles. Cabify produced that interface. The cars they use were, I suppose, the cars traditionally used for weddings, funerals and shifting business people around. In Spain they are labelled as Vehículos de Turismo con Conductor or VTC - private cars with drivers.

Then of course there was Uber. Without bothering to do any decent research my basic understanding is that Uber was just one up from the airport run except that the Uber interface did away with the need for the word of mouth recommendation. The application existed solely to put drivers and passengers in touch. That model quickly ran into legal problems in Spain so Uber relaunched itself using chauffeur drive cars just like Cabify.

So the "proper" taxi drivers were a bit upset. They were losing business to these people. They fought back by claiming that the new firms were flouting legislation and, at the moment, their argument is that the VTC cars should be limited to a ratio of thirty taxis to one VTC. They argue that VTC cars were never supposed to be an alternative to taxis and that the premise was that VTCs and cabs operated in different markets.

Now I don't know about you but the reason I don't use taxis a lot is that they cost too much. I know that if a gang of people get a taxi on a Saturday night to go clubbing it seems reasonable enough but, when you get off an aeroplane lost in some city and decide to use a taxi to get you to the hotel it costs lots and lots, sometimes as much as the flight. In my case it's only because I'm on holiday and primed for spending cash that I don't cry. I also know that taxis are generally only available where there are plenty of people. So it's easy to get a taxi in Barcelona and not so easy to get one in Pinoso. In fact I'm never sure whether we have a taxi in Pinoso or not. I use taxis when I'm a bit lost, when I can't be bothered to cart suitcases around, when somebody else is paying, when my car is in the garage and I need to get back to work quickly and maybe because the public transport alternatives are infrequent or non existent.

To be honest my one experience of trying to use a mobile phone application to get a car was not that satisfactory either. It took a fair while to set up the details on the application and when I sent the location a driver phoned me back to say that he couldn't pick me up from wherever I was because only licensed taxis could collect there. So I found myself hot and bothered from dragging suitcases around trying to cup the mobile under my chin, shouting into it above the din of the traffic, in a language that is not my first, trying to describe what I saw to a driver who was only hundreds of metres away. It was all a bit fraught. And to be honest the final fare didn't seem to be that low either. I wondered if it might have been easier to walk out of the train station and put my cases into the back of a traditional taxi.

So I'm all for competition driving down prices and the Internet applications seem like a simple and effective way to do that. After all taxis are a bit of a left over from times long gone, a licenced monopoly that doesn't seem quite right in 21st Century Europe. It also seems inevitable. Legend has it that Ned Ludd, a textile worker who smashed a couple of modern machines, gave his name to the term Luddite. Over time Luddite has grown to mean opposition to industrialisation, automation, computerisation and newer technologies in general. It seems to me that's where the taxi drivers are. George Harrison said that All Things Must Pass and that's what lamplighters, coal merchants and Blockbuster video have all done. Taxi drivers are of the same stuff. They are on a loser unless they change and adapt. Camp out as they like on the Castellana or the Gran Via; block the traffic for a couple of days if they must but it won't, in the end, make any difference.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Armani doesn't do a blue tux

Twenty years ago, more, I was walking out of Covent Garden, probably via Floral Street, maybe King Street. It was love at first sight. In the window of Emporio Armani; a charcoal grey suit. I walked away twice but I was drawn back. The chap in the shop wasn't like the man in the Aquascutum shop a few years before who had explained to me that if I were just looking that's what the window displays were for. Mr Armani's man was welcoming and persuasive. My credit card groaned but bore the strain. I wore suits a lot then and I always felt great in the Armani. Like a dinner jacket it had a magical back straightening effect.

In fact, once upon a time, I had suits and shirts and shoes and trousers for almost any occasion from a barbecue to a wedding. Maybe a new tie for a funeral or new shoes for a naming ceremony but the basic kit was there. It's not the same now. I have jeans and T shirts and hardly anything else. I never iron. I do have several pairs of chinos and quite a selection of short sleeved shirts in the wardrobe but I can't wear them. They look alright on the hangers but, once on, the buttons on the shirts gape and the trouser waistbands dig in. Heaven knows why; a faulty washing machine maybe. They are remnants of the dress code from the place I worked in Cartagena.

We went to see the crowning of the local carnival queens in Pinoso last night. Considering that we are a town of 7,500 people the event is glitzy, polished and professional. The presentation is rehearsed and smooth, the frocks range from the elegantly understated to the fluffiest meringue. The smiles are wide, teeth flash and emotions are on plain view.

As we set off to see the coronation I changed my shorts for a far too narrow (given my age) pair of jeans, brushed my hair but kept the same t shirt on. Maggie changed into a nice bright frock. She had caught the mood better than me. In general people were pretty smartly dressed. Some people were in their finery but smart casual was the order of the day.

People do dress up in Spain, they dress up all the time, but they seem to do it more because they want to rather than because society tells them they have to. Normally, if you are going to a wedding or a baptism then you put on your finery and, in general, women seem to do it much better than men. They look relatively comfortable in their satin dresses and high heels whilst the blokes fidget with their marginally too short or slightly overtight suits and the wayward knot in their tie. The same doesn't seem to be true of funerals. The general style for funerals always strikes me as being a bit scruffy and I sometimes wonder if there is a slightly anarchic resistance to dressing up in the face of mortality; better to cock a snoop at death than to kowtow. If there is a dress code in banks and insurance offices I haven't caught the essence of it. For most professionals the appropriate style seems to be an unremarkable blouse skirt or shirt trouser combination but, nearly as often, the woman bank manager will be wearing a metaphorical pair of ripped jeans and pink pumps and nobody seems to mind or even notice. At the theatre I've seen men in Salamanca and Madrid wearing traditional cloaks side by side with men in scruffy everyday stuff. Basically, and within reason, people seem to wear what they want when they want.

So, nowadays I go everywhere and to everything in jeans and T shirts. I don't have a pair of shoes that will take a polish and however nice the salesman is I will never again spend over a thousand quid on a suit.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

As it should be

Coming home was just brilliant - that feeling of being in Spain when Spain is almost a parody of itself. It's not really hot but it's very definitely summer. Probably in the low 30s. Nice and warm, hot enough to make anyone sweat, hot enough to make it dusty, hot enough for those sudden gusts of wind to be very welcome and nearly hot enough for a spaghetti western snake to slither by. I finished teaching the last of my courses this morning. No more work for a few weeks. I'd celebrated with a beer and a chat in the market square. The streets were lunchtime deserted as I went for bread. The cicadas sang. My sandals kicked up little swirls of dust as I walked.

In the car, on the way home, I had the windows open and the new Florence on quite loud. Loud enough for the bloke working on putting up the dodgems in the market car park to look up as I passed. I waved and wondered why he was working at such an odd time. Coming around the Yecla-Jumilla roundabout they're redoing the tarmac. Blokes in the shade of the road rollers eating their pack ups in the midst of the none too subtle aroma of fresh and glistening tar. A few kilometres later, as I turned up our track, I had to give way to the bin lorry which left a trail of 7th Cavalry like dust that settled gently on my car. The bin lorry was aromatic too. Rubbish cooking in the heat has a very particular smell.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Goodbye Lou, Hello Louise

Irene (pronounced something like eeh rainy not eye reen) runs a little charitable setup called Gatets sense llar del Pinós. Google translates the Valencian to English as Homosexual kittens of the Pinós but I think that may be a Google glitch! Translated to Spanish it says Gatitos sin hogar de Pinoso which is something like Homeless Pinoso Kitties.

Maggie looks at Irene's Facebook page quite often. She'll say "Oh, look at this poor old cat, with three legs and a duff eye that has been abandoned" and I'll respond with something along the lines of "Well, we've got plenty of space, what's another cat to us?" Maggie thinks of the feeding, the damage to the house, the things being pulled off the shelves and the vet's bills and common sense saves the day. But, a couple of weeks ago there was a picture of a few weeks old Siamese like kitten with watery eyes on the Facebook page. Usual comment from Maggie, usual reply from me. I'd reckoned without the euphoria of the English quarter final victory though. So we now have a newish kitten in the house. Bea and Teo aren't happy about the new arrangement but the violence has been low key to date.

The first name that popped into my mind for a male "Siamese" cat was Samuel. So we had a provisional name. The name may not be definitive though, There has been a small scale discussion on Facebook against his picture. I just sent a longish reply to someone who posted there and I thought to repeat the comment here....

We have this sort of tradition of proper names in keeping with calling them him or her rather than it - Matilda, Mary, Eduardo, Harold, Beatríz, Teodoro and Gertrudis to date though, on a day to day basis the names inevitably get shortened and we use both the anglicised and hispanic versions. The cats that don't get a proper name - Mr Big Balls, Stripy Pants and Hissy Missy are the ones that only sponge off us but never get to pull threads on the sofa or lie in front of the pellet burner. So Samuel, which can be pronounced like the better Tadcaster beer maker or in a Spanish sort of way, as something like Samwell, works fine. Then Maggie wondered aloud about Sebastián so I started looking through names that began with S  because we thought S to go with Siamese. A bit like Martin, Melissa or Mandy the Meyncoun and Paco, Pedro or Penelope the Persian. We both liked Sancho. Sancho of course was the proleterian hero, the voice of reason behind The Knight of the Sad Countenance, El Quijote or Don Quixote so, although there is no obvious English equivalent I definitely approve of Sancho as a name. But I like Samuel too.

So, if you have any thoughts; vote!, vote!, vote!.

The pedanía at play

Each of the little villages associated with the small town of Pinoso, the pedanías, have a weekend fiesta sometime over the summer. It's the turn of Culebrón this weekend. It's happening now.

So far we haven't been to anything that's been put on at this year's fiesta and I suspect that we won't be going over for the rest of the event tomorrow. To be honest the programme isn't that important, it's more the idea that the village is as full as it ever gets, that people are around and that they do things together with a lot of laughing as a part of the recipe. In the past the event had a sort of curtain raiser in a meal organised by the Neighbourhood Association the weekend before but that hasn't happened twice in a row now, possibly because of differences of opinion between a couple of key village personalities. As I haven't rejoined the Association this year I wouldn't be able to attend even if it had happened!

People who have a "weekend home" in the village will use it this weekend if they ever do. When the football competition was on I'm sure some of the spectators had time for a chat and maybe a beer. Whilst the children were served cake with chocolate the adults probably chatted and sat around, maybe with a beer. I've only glanced at the programme for this year but it hasn't changed much over the past few years. The big events are the meal on the Saturday and the mass and procession on the Sunday where the figures of San Jaime and San José are paraded around the village. Since 2013 there has also been a walking and running race that attracts a lot of competitors and fills the village in a way that doesn't happen on any other day of the year.

I can hear the after dinner music now, as I type. We would usually be there but the last couple of times it has all been a bit lacklustre and we have had our incomer status emphasised in various and subtle ways.

I was very clear to Maggie that I didn't want to go but she thought we should. Her argument centred around the fact that we live here. So, at the last minute, and way past the closing date for reserving a place, Maggie made an effort to book us in for the meal. She phoned, texted and sent another message but the pedánea, a sort of village mayoress didn't reply.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Red in the face

My mum was unhappy about the heat in St Ives, in Huntingdonshire, unbearable she said. Somebody here in Pinoso was complaining to me about how hot it was too but, because I keep a little record in my diary, I thought I was aware that, so far, both June and July have been a little cooler than usual.

So I did a bit of checking. I was a bit surprised how difficult it was to find full sets of data for past years  and I could only really get fullish sets for 2013, 2014 and most of 2015. All of these results are from the same weather station so any microclimatic differences are evened out. And it seems to be true. Both June and July this year (so far) have had lower maximum temperatures than in the previous quoted years. Mind you the difference isn't really that much and the nightime temperatures are much as usual.

In 2013 in Pinoso the highest June temperature was 35ºC, for 2014 it was 32.5ºC, for 2015 it was 37ºC and for 2018 it was 31.5ºC
In 2013 in Pinoso the highest July temperature was 36.5ºC, for 2014 it was 35ºC, for 2015 the records are missing and for 2018, so far, the highest is 33.5ºC

In 2013 in Pinoso the lowest June temperature was 8ºC, for 2014 it was 7ºC, for 2015 it was 9.5ºC and for 2018 it was 8.5ºC
In 2013 in Pinoso the lowest July temperature was 12ºC, for 2014 it was 11.5ºC, for 2015 the records are missing and for 2018, so far, the lowest is 12ºC

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Autocrats, Republics and Monarchs

I'm sure that you remember that Charles I, King of England, Scotland, and Ireland had a bit of a problem with Oliver Cromwell. Charles was executed on a cold day in January 1649 and a Republic declared. Cromwell headed up the Republic as Lord Protector and, on his death in 1658, the title passed to his son, Richard. The army overthrew Richard in 1659 and invited Charles I's son to be King. It was all made official with Charles II's crowning in 1661. His first parliament ordered that Cromwell's body, and those of another couple of people responsible for the death of the old King, be dug up and hung. The heads were then stuck on a 6 metre long poles near Westminster Hall. Cromwell's head kicked around until 1960, when it was buried at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge

When the Hapsburg, Carlos II of Spain, died in 1700 he left no heir. The Bourbon family took over and they have kept Spain in monarchs ever since despite a couple of hiccoughs along the way. For instance Fernando VII had his reign interrupted when Napoleon put his brother on the Spanish throne in 1808 but that didn't last long. Fernando was back in 1813. Just one generation later, in 1868, Isabella II was deposed and a new monarch had to be found. Eventually the politicians asked a chap called Amadeo, from Savoy in Italy, to be King but he never took to Spain and abdicated after just five years. There was a very short lived Republic before the Bourbons were back in 1874 but that went pear shaped again when, in 1931, Alfonso XIII and his English wife abdicated in the face of The Second Republic, the one that Franco and his pals put paid to in the 1936 -1939 Spanish Civil War. Franco ruled Spain from the overthrow of the Republic till his death, in bed, in 1975. He named, as his successor, another Bourbon, the still alive Juan Carlos I, who abdicated in 2014 and who is just now running into a bit of a problem around his handling dodgy money during his reign. His boy Felipe is a Bourbon too and our present Head of State.

Funny thing there. Franco was buried inside the basilica in the rather impressive Valley of the Fallen. The new Socialist government is talking about exhuming his body so that it can be buried somewhere a little less showy. At least for the moment there is no talk of heads on sticks.

Now Maggie was sifting through Facebook and came across an article reprinted from the Observer of 1959. I was going to trim it down and pull out the salient points and try to tie that in to rulers of one hue and another. In the end I decided to leave it as it was for you to read or not. The article is impressive in how old it feels; I suppose 1959 is, really, long time ago but it still sounds like the recentish past to me. I particularly noted the idea of the radio and films as engines for social change, the idea of needing a labour permit to get a job in the city and the "bread and circuses" reference to football but you may pick up on something else from an article written at just about the half way point in Francoist rule of Spain.

The Observer piece said that this was an edited extract from an article by Nora Beloff entitled ‘What’s Happening in Spain?’, published in the Observer on 19 July 1959. Here's the text.

One of Spain’s principal attractions to it’s millions of visitors from industrial Northern Europe - besides sunshine and cheap services - is the archaism of the countryside.

You can drive for hundreds of miles and, apart from a patchy and uncertain tarmac under your tyres, there is nothing to remind you of the twentieth century: no poles or pylons, no petrol stations or electric pumps, just the peasants and their children in floppy hats and dateless clothes, women carrying pitchers on their heads and the two commonest landmarks, the donkey and the Cross. All this produces an illusion of permanence: so these people have always lived and so it seems they always will.

The illusion is false: and the tourists themselves are one of the reasons why. Their disturbing impact on old Spain was noted by the National Association of Fathers of Families, one of the major corporations now authorised in Spain, who said at it’s annual congress this year: ‘It is impossible to overlook the danger represented in certain regions of Spain by the tourist current as a vehicle of ideas and customs highly pernicious to our family morality...’

Primarily Spanish farming is being forced away from its primitivism by the reproduction rate of the Spaniards themselves. The population has increased by five million since the Civil War, and a European country with the lowest agricultural yield and the highest birth-rate is condemned to modernise or die. The switching of public investment from industry to agriculture, notable in irrigation, has, in fact, already been decided upon.

The change is being accelerated by the penetration into rural Spain of Western notions of progress. This comes partly from the tourists, but also from a plentiful provision of American films (very cheap and available in local currency under the American Aid Agreement) in village cinemas and from the spread of radio. But the decisive fact has been the migration of surplus labour into the cities, so that hardly any peasant family is without a cousin, brother or child to bring it into touch with the modern world. An old lady from a remote mountain village in the Asturias said she had had seventeen children, but added with a chuckle that her eldest daughter had married in the nearby town and had had only three;’They are cleverer these days...’

Crowding into cities is a common enough feature in the modern world but in Spain it has reached catastrophic proportions. Madrid (now two million) and Barcelona (one and a half million) are in a state of siege. Every day police patrol the platforms when the trains from the west and south arrive and peasants without labour permits are sent back on the next train at public expense. They find other ways of slipping back.

There are today 120.000 of these immigrants grouped in the outlying slums of Barcelona. Some we visited have built their homes on the beaches by the railway track, regardless of the stench, where the sewers tip their contents into the sea. You can see them with buckets trying to fish food out of the filth. Bureaucrats have visited the site, declared it insalubrious, and forbidden further building. So now when, as frequently happens, the waves knock down existing shacks, families have to move in together.

Leaving aside the sub-proletariat of the slums, who sell their services far below the minimum wage, labourers have suffered far less from inflation than white-collar workers and school teachers whose standard of life has sunk far below conditions before the Civil War. Many Spaniards will tell you that the Government is deliberately pursuing what an orange-dealer from Valencia called the ‘cretinisation’ of the Spanish people: demoting and starving the intellectuals (who are traditionally anti-militarist, anti-clerical and anti-Franco) and boosting the current football craze (which has now ousted bull-fighting in popular favour) by radio, television, liberal allocation of newsprint to sports papers, and the building of colossal stadia.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

See you in the usual place

I bought a book, second hand, from the Spanish Amazon site. The book is in Spanish but it was sold by a bookseller in the US, I think. It's called Plazas de España, Squares of Spain. I was rather expecting a version of a treatise on the architecture, development and use of the public square in Spain suitably dumbed down for a plebeian audience. It had a bit of that, in the introductory pages, but the bulk of the book is a selection of photos of some of the more impressive squares with one of those factual and instantly forgettable descriptions. "This square, built in a Rococo style with Neoclassical additions ordered by Carlos III, is one of the most ornate of all Spanish squares." It reminded me of some of the terrible guided visits we've been on - to your left a crucifix from 1752 inspired by Michael Angelo and, over the fireplace, a scene from the Battle of Lepanto painted by Plácido Francés y Pascual in 1871 - now if you'd follow me we'll move on to the onyx fireplace.

I looked at the pictures in the book, read the captions and parked it on the bookshelf next to James Herriot's Yorkshire so that it could get on with it's predestined role of collecting a thick layer of dust.

Squares though are very common here. In the same way that the UK is strewn with lovely green spaces and parks, places to play football or cricket, listen to the band or buy an ice cream Spain is littered with squares. Places to watch the world go by, places to meet people, the place for the weekly market, the annual fiesta, the outlet sale or the book fair. Spanish squares are open, public, spaces woven into the everyday life of most Spanish towns.

I know that there are squares all over the world. Trafalgar and Leicester Squares came to mind instantly. Not far behind I remembered Times, Red and Tienanmen and that enormous Zócalo in Mexico City. Come to think of it the car park behind the public baths in Elland, where I grew up, was called the Town Hall Square. But I think there is a difference. It's the way that the Spanish Plazas Mayores, whatever their name, are an everyday, a constant in Spanish life and not just a gathering point for pickpockets, nor for kissing strangers on New Year's Eve, to give your Easter blessing or to parade those ever so green shiny missiles.

The Spanish Plaza Mayor, the main square, the principal square is where you need to head to if you are looking for the old centre of town. The Town Hall is almost certainly there, partly due to an edict from the Catholic Monarchs in 1480, the ones who sponsored Columbus to go West. It's where the SatNav will take you if you give it nothing to work on except for the town name. If you don't have a TomTom or whatever the main square can be pinpointed by looking for the church tower. It'll probably be just next door. Civil and ecclesiastical power are usually close by in Spain.

I managed to cock up our going to the homage to Julian Bream concert in the Petrer Guitar Festival yesterday evening so I suggested we go and have a look at the Moors and Christians in Hondon de las Nieves instead. We didn't know quite where the parade would start but we headed for the square by the Town Hall, the Plaza de la Villa, and there it was.


I've just realised that I wrote this same blog back in March. I bought the book because of the programme. But if I didn't remember then probably you didn't either and anyway you've read it all now so no going back!

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Juanito Andante and friends

Just thinking about the last blog, about being in Madrid and about going to the pictures. Yesterday we went to see Love, Simon or Con amor, Simon. I pronounced the name Simón in a Spanish sort of way and the woman on the cash desk came back at me with the English pronunciation. I've said in the past that this can be a bit strange at times. Trade names, film titles etc. can have a variety of pronunciations that are neither Spanish, in the usual link between letters and sounds, nor English in the sense that we say a word exactly as we want to.

So, I'm in Madrid, years ago. I've been drinking beer because it's easy to ask for but I want a whisky. I look at the array of bottles behind the bar. White label - odd pronunciation with the silent h and that w and probably labble instead of label - guiyt labble? Bells, double ll, a sort of y sound - Bays? Johnny Walker - odd letters to pronounce both j and w - ghhhonni wallka. And then I spy it, the obvious, the easy - J&B. What can be wrong with that? Me pones un J&B, por favor. Except that J is jota and b is be without the and - something like hota bay.

I got it in the end though and it's still the whisky I drink most often in bars.


There was an advert when we went to the cinema this afternoon for Coca Cola. It is about the people responsible for the success of Coke in Spain over the past 65 years. The funny thing in watching it was just how "Spanish" it looked. There is, for instance, a shot of a door with a polished aluminium door knob. The wood veneer, the colours, everything looks, and is, Spanish. It's the same with the men walking up the road in their fluorescent and grey overalls. I've seen those very same blokes getting the set meal in scores of restaurants in Spain. I've opened that door.

So how did those Coca Cola people make the advert look so Spain? After all we live in Spain but I don't think that anyone could argue that our microcosm represents the totality of Spain.

The very first time I went to Madrid I wasn't that impressed. There didn't seem to be anything notable in the Coliseum or Eiffel Tower "must see" mould. There were plenty of interesting buildings, squares, places and palaces but it was like being in New York and finding that the best they had to offer was the New York Federal Reserve’s Gold Vault. Very nice but hardly the Empire State. It was August to be fair and Madrid used to more or less close down in August. It was hot too. Very hot. I spent a fortune on trying to keep from dying of thirst.

I don't think the same about Madrid nowadays. I find something to stare at on every corner. I know the city a little better, partly because Maggie used to live there at the start of the nineties and, as an inhabitant, she stopped being as interested in just the Prado or the Plaza Mayor and started to know those hidden corners that locals know - the place for the best fried egg sandwiches at 3am, the best free music venues and which metro route to use to avoid long walks as she moved from one line to another. We've also been there a lot of times now but, even then, my knowledge is very superficial. In some ways my knowledge of Madrid is a bit like my knowledge of London - I know Bush House as well as Marble Arch and I can vaguely navigate from Shaftesbury Avenue to the ICA but it's a generalised and incomplete knowledge that sometimes fails spectacularly. "What's that building there?" I asked Maggie. A minute later, when we realised that we were almost in Colón, I knew it was the National Library but to that point I hadn't even recognised Recoletos.

In my youth I had a period living in or close to London. The excitement was tempered by the inconveniences. Travelling the Tube at rush hour and marvelling at people who could read a broadsheet newspaper given the crowds is interesting to someone heading for a job interview but it's a pain in the kidneys when you have to do it day after day surrounded by people with scant regard for personal hygiene. When I go to Madrid I'm usually there for a few days. I'm a tourist who recognises the similarities and the differences to the place I live. The number of people, the hustle and bustle is great, at times, and at others it's suffocating. We were somewhere on Alcalá looking for a gallery that I'd heard about on a radio programme and the number of people, blinded by their mobile phones, who kept crashing into me tried my patience. But there aren't any galleries loaded with Goyas, Tapies and Reubens in Pinoso so I suppose it's a choice; quiet streets or something to see.

There are differences too of a more prosaic nature. We went to a Thai restaurant. One of those that gets an honourable mention in the Michelin guide without getting a star. I don't actually know much about Thai food but I'm pretty sure that Thai is commonplace in the UK. The sort of thing you can get in packets from Tesco's as well as in plenty of high street restaurants. My impression is that it's not the same in Spain. Not that it's scientific or anything but I just Googled Thai restaurants in Murcia city, the seventh largest city in Spain, and Trip Advisor came up with just three. The Madrid restaurant had a table for us even though they were busy. We decided on the tasting menu but lots of people just had a main, or a starter and a main, with a drink and then cleared off. There were other tourists but, if I were guessing, I would say that most of the people eating there were on a lunch break and in a hurry.

A couple of things strike me about my hypotheses. One is that there were sufficient Madrileños in this one district willing and happy to eat Thai food often enough to keep an ordinary sort of restaurant in business - nothing like reluctance to stray away from traditional food common around here. The second was that, if I were right about the lunch break, then the model of a day split in half by a two or three hour break, which is alive and well near us, is losing ground in the city to the intensive day, the "nine to five" with a lunch break, of Swedes, Germans and Britons.

So, we saw the Pat Metheny concert in Madrid, we ate Thai, we went to the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, we saw a Brassai exhibition and we rode around on the Metro, we went up the Faro de Moncloa. In Atocha, we caught the train in a station full of smoothie stalls, sushi bars and vegetarian cafes but when a few of us got off the train in Villena, in the gentle warmth of the Alicantino evening, with the aroma of the vineyards wafting around us I thought it was nice to be home.