Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Sandwiches

Ruth, Dave, Maggie and I had a conversation about sandwiches the other day. Ruth wondered what you had to do to get sliced tomato in a bar ordered sandwich. It's true that, if you ask for a ham or cheese sandwich with tomato in a Spanish bar, you'll get the bread moistened with tomato pulp. So, if you want slices, you have to be determined and specify that you want sliced tomato. This will be considered a little eccentric by the server.

I'm a simple sort of bloke and when I think sandwich I think of something like meat or cheese between two bits of bread. I know that for some Britons the word sandwich is more specific - sandwiches, for them, are made with slices of bread and they use other words like roll or baguette to describe different but similar, items. Most Spaniards would tend to agree. Just to be clear here I want to emphasise that there are a lot of Spaniards and I've not spoken to all of them so my generalisations may or may not be 100% true for every Spaniard. The majority of Spaniards I've ever talked to about sandwiches (and as you may appreciate it's a common conversational topic) think that a sandwich is made with sliced white bread, possibly only really suitable for children. There is also a tendency to think of sandwiches as using toasted or grilled bread. Consequently a ham and cheese sandwich, often called a mixto or biquini, is likely to involve melted cheese and warm ham a bit like the British toastie. In this case too the ham will almost certainly be the stuff we Brits call boiled ham and that Spaniards call York ham. Normally, if you ask for ham in Spain, without being specific, you'll get the cured, serrano, ham. Just whilst we're on sandwiches, a warning to vegetarians, the sandwich vegetal has tuna as well as salad in it.

So, in general, the two pieces of bread with something between them in Spain is the bocadillo, a little mouthful. Most use an elongated, torpedo shaped bread roll minus the fins and propeller. Some Spaniards use the word bocata instead of bocadillo. Spanish bocadillos don't come in many flavours and the bread usually comes dry without butter, marge or oil - it is very seldom other than white. There's none of the sandwich shop culture of the UK with lots of ingredients and lots of different types of bread on display so that you can construct your own sandwich. Generally in Spain you get what's on offer. The offer varies from place to place: in Pinoso a longaniza sandwich (sausage) is very common just as a fried squid sandwich is absolutely typical of Madrid but the "national" varieties are surprisingly limited - ham is ubiquitous, both the cured and the cooked sorts, cheese too, tuna, tortilla (the thick Spanish egg and potato omelette), lomo (pork loin), anchovy and bacon are all nearly universal and there will always be something more local like the longaniza and squid mentioned above or things like a local pâté, cold cuts like salchicha (think Italian salami) or morcilla (black pudding).

Mixed bocadillos aren't particularly common in a normal bar. I once asked for a cheese and onion one in Malaga. It was years ago but the bloke refused to do it. I asked for one years later in Águilas and the bloke there said that he'd make me one but he didn't understand how anyone could want such a thing. A couple of old friends once took us to a bar in Valencia that did sandwiches because they thought it was extraordinary. It was the sort of place that put grated carrot, beetroot or maize in with the meat or fish and it was really trendy at the time. There is a very common franchise in most of the shopping centres that does mixed sandwiches but the idea doesn't seem to have spread very much. Just to prove that there's an exception to every generalisation ages and ages ago, long enough ago for me to be travelling with squaddies getting drunk as they celebrated their release after compulsory military service (which was scrapped in 2001), at Murcia railways station, the now ex soldier I was with asked for magra (stewed pork cooked in a tomato sauce) in a sandwich. The barman suggested that the young man was deranged but served him anyway. The point is that variations are possible but not usual.

One last point. If you make your sandwich at home and want to fit in as you unwrap it for your mid morning break, be one of the crowd picnicking on the train or feel right at home as you take your roll out of of your cool box on the beach you should wrap your bocadillo in tin foil. Everyone else does.

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Coffee break

One of the worst films I've ever seen in Spanish, and I've seen some shockers, is called Balada triste de trompeta by the director Álex de la Iglesia. There is one good scene in it though. The protagonists have just finished their meal. The waiter asks if anyone wants coffee and every one of the fifteen or so people around the table specifies a different type of coffee.

This is not the Starbucks/Costa/Nero thing. No big coffees served in everything from bucket sized mugs to drinking through a hole in a plastic topped, hand scorching, paper cup. No expensive buns either. No this is just common or garden coffee in a common or garden bar or restaurant.

It's one of those things I'd stop noticing but we were on holiday in Andalucia last week and I, we, noticed this very specific ordering because of the accent - the Andalucians have a way of swallowing letters - and because, as good holidaymakers, we were gawping around us.

From time to time people still ask about instant coffee, more  accurately what most do is stress that they don't want their decaff from a sachet but from the coffee machine. I suspect this is because when decaff first came on the market it was generally available in bars as one dose sachets of instant Nescafé.

Most Spanish bar coffee comes out of one of those hissing machines that pass boiling water through the grounds. If I have to name them I tend to say Gaggia or espresso machines. It's interesting that both forms are Italian. I suppose, as in so many things, the Italians marketed much better, much earlier, than the Spanish or the French and, hence, the generic name is the Italian one. So the English speaking world asks for caffè latte, caffè espresso or cappuccino even when the names are given an English language twist as in "Can I have a skinny latte, please?"

Spanish coffee has three basic types: solo for the thimbleful of thick coffee, cortado for a short coffee with a touch of milk and con leche for the milkier coffees. Some of the Italian names are also used in Spain. Americano, for instance, is what you'd usually ask for if you wanted espresso/solo watered down with hot water. The more traditional Spanish name is solo largo, a long solo. Occasionally, some waiter will feign ignorance of things Italian.

Some bars offer a couple of varieties of beans, maybe torrefacto, which is a coffee bean roasted with sugar, but in most ordinary bars you get what you're given. The plethora of possibilities come, mainly, from the amounts of coffee, water and milk. Most of the varieties don't have a specific name but there are lots of possibilities with the simplest probably being the proportion of coffee grounds to water. Some people complicate that a tad by specifying water temperature and, when the weather is warmer, it's very common for people to pour their coffee over ice. Next you might start adding milk: milk can be hot or cold, it can have varying amounts of fat or be lactose free and some people ask for a sort of milk that isn't really milk - the stuff made from soya or sawdust. People even specify the vessel; lots of people seem to prefer coffee in glasses rather than cups and the details of the glass design can become very specific. The only other variable I can think of is the sugar. White sugar in little sachets on the saucer is the default but asking for saccharin is common enough. I think I've only ever heard foreigners ask for brown sugar.

So, back in Andalucia, made special by that letter consuming accent. "Ponme un nubla'o, descafeina'o de maquina, con leche sin lactosa y en vaso, porfa" (Can I have a cloudy, decaff with lactose free milk in a glass please). Splendid.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Demonyms and Gentilicios or Brummies and Gaditanos

Lumi, Elena and José Antionio were most amused. We were in the Culebrón village hall and I'd just asked if the collective name for people from Culebrón were Culebronista. They put me right, I'd be a Culebronero. The Spaniards told me that the -ista ending was usually for supporters of something. I thought Culebronistas sounded good but I was probably thinking about the Nicaraguan Sandinistas from the time when Dani Ortega was still a bit of a hero and not the raving despot that he is nowadays.

You're going to have to stick with me now for a bit of Spanish grammar. I'll try to keep it brief. Spanish has two genders for its words so Lumi, being female, would be a Culebonera and Jose Antonio, being male, would be a Culebronero. In the language sense sex and gender don't always match. Of the many Spanish slang words for penis at least four I know are, grammatically, feminine - picha, polla, chorra and verga - while a couple of the many slang words for a vagina are coño and chocho both of which, surprise surprise, are grammatically masculine. 

So, imagine that we have both females and males with a group identity. Brothers and sisters might be a good example; hermanos and hermanas. The grammar rules say that a group made up of any number of sisters, as long as there is at least brother, should be described as brothers, hermanos. Or, for another example, back in the village hall there is a neighbourhood meeting; just one man but several women. The grammar rules say that we should forget the women and concentrate on the man. The collective group should be referred to as Culebroneros. Nowadays, for obvious reasons, anyone who is reasonably aware wants to include both sexes in the generalised description - like the way that the one time firemen are now firefighters. Imagine the Shakespearean Julius Caesar transported to 21st century Culebrón. Provided he wasn't a card carrying member of VOX he'd be asking that Culebroneros and Culebroneras lend him their ears. In fact, if he were a progressive Spanish politician he may have wanted to get the attention of those who identify with neither of those genders - Culebroneras (women), Culebroneros (men) and Culebroneres (unassigned) lend me etc. 

I can't pretend that this is a particularly stylish linguistic flourish, repeating the male and female forms all the times is tedious. Nonetheless it's a battle that's being fought in Spanish. There is only one possible outcome and it's not a victory for anyone clinging to arguments about rules of grammar. In written forms the @ symbol is often used because it looks like a combined o and a - Culebroner@s

This thing of using a name for the natives or inhabitants of a particular place is dead common worldwide. Scousers, Glaswegians, Brummies and Geordies do it. For Britons there are a range of generic terminations; think endings like  -er and -ian. So we get Londoner, East Ender, Mancunian, Bedfordian and Invernessian. I didn't realise there were some strange British examples Haligonian for Halifax and Cantabrigian for Cambridge, though I've worked in both places and I'd never heard either till Wikiwhatever told me they existed. In the UK some of these demonyms (technical term for the names) are used a lot more than others. Liverpudlian, Mancunian and Aberdonian are, to my mind, in common use whilst Exonian (Exeter) and Silhillian (Solihull) were another Wikisurprise to me. 

It's similar in Spain. For our situation we can start with the region: Valenciano/a, go on to the province, Alicantino/a and then the municipality, Pinosero/a. Just over the border into Murcia it's Murciano/a. Lots of the names are like those, the root is obvious enough, Madrileño/a for Madrid, Barcelonés/esa for Barcelona, Toledano/a for Toledo. Some others are a bit trickier, Gallego/a for Galicia, Oscense for Huesca or Jiennense for Jaen but at least they share some of the same letters. Others you either know or you don't - Gaditano/a from Cadiz, Abulenses from Ávila and Conquense from Cuenca. Cities can be even odder, from Elche for instance we have Ilicitano/a, in Badajoz they're Pacenses and in Ciudad Rodrigo they are Mirobrigenses. 

Once you realise that these terms exist you'd be surprised how regularly they are used in everyday conversation particularly by sports commentators. As I said in English these descriptors are apparently called demonyms and in Spain they are gentilicio. If you're ever curious just ask Google for the gentilicio of a town and you'll usually find that a name pops up even for places as small as Culebrón (not that it really does but I'm not going to spoil a goodish ending with the truth).

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Not shaken, not stirred

When I was young I was confused about many things. One of them was the Martini adverts. There were beautiful people Martini drinkers in floaty fabrics with red or white coloured drinks and sunny backdrops. Then there were Hollywood Martini drinkers at posh parties in elegant frocks and dinner jackets with conical cocktail glasses and swizzle sticks. It took me years to work out that Martinis and Martini were different things. 

Anyway, Martini, the stuff with the bright young things, like Cinzano is just a branded vermouth and, as so often, we Britons think of something Italian when we think of Mediterranean staples. Vermouth is, basically a wine with various herbs, spices, barks and plant extracts added to give it a particular taste. Wikipedia tells me the name originates from the German word wermut which means wormwood and wormwood is used in nearly all vermouth to give it that particular flavour.

So, years ago, in a Spanish evening class, the teacher told us that most bars in Spain did their own vermouth. My guess is that slapping in a few herbs and roots and bits of bark into rough wine is a way to hide its true taste. Nowadays, when the bars and restaurants want to offload the same sort of plonk they simply put it in the fridge. So, all those years ago, I'm in a raggedy bar in Granada with lots of rickety chairs on the dusty forecourt cum car park. I remember this factlet about homemade vermouth from the evening class. I ask if they serve vermut. They do. The barkeeper produces a well used, cork stoppered, white wind bottle from underneath the bar and pours me a generous measure. I forget what it tasted like. 

Thirty something years later I'm in Granada again and I remember that bar. On my first visit it was the sort of place with toothless, domino playing old men smoking Ducados. By the second decade of the 21st Century the bar had been trendied up so that it looked even more traditionally Spanish. I was surprised there was no guitar player and no horse parked outside. The bar was full of tourists who had read about the place in their Lonely Planet guides. The vermouth bottle had a nice label.

Vermouth didn't really cross my path again till we settled in Culebrón. One of our first tasks was to investigate the local bodegas, the places that produce and sell wine. Most of them had a vermouth and all of them tasted slightly different. Obviously it was our cultural duty to investigate the differences and we did so with due diligence. When the novelty wore off, and the morning after consequences became unacceptable, Maggie went back to unsullied wine and I divided my time between tea and beer. 

Vermouth resurfaced again, for us, some years ago when our local Culebrón village fiesta advertised a vermouth session as the opening event for the weekend. Roberto, from the village bodega, brought a few litres of vermouth to the social centre and we all set around drinking it. Vermouth can be taken with or without soda water, sifón, but definitely with ice, orange slices and green olives. A little later, when the Socialists won the town elections, in 2011, they changed the character of the town fiestas to be more participative (take that as personal opinion rather than demonstrable fact). Among other things they introduced a vermouth session in the municipal gardens just before lunch. I presumed it was a well established Spanish tradition and I applied myself, once more, to this cultural activity with British rigour.

Vermouth hour, la hora del vermut, really is a Spanish social tradition; a time for friends and family (and presumably enemies and complete strangers) to have a bit of a preprandial drink. It's quite odd, as I was drafting this post there was an author on the radio talking about his book and about the book fair that is on in Madrid at the moment. When the interviewer asked the writer when he was signing he said he was working la hora del vermut.

The idea of having an aperitif before eating is hardly uniquely Spanish, lots of countries do it, but, in most countries it's an evening rather than an afternoon tradition. Apparently there are two principal theories as to why Spain is different. The first has it that before the Spanish Civil war (1936-1939) Spaniards did as most of the rest of Europe and had an aperitif before the evening meal but, after the war, people were often so hard up that they needed two jobs to get by. This prompted a change in working patterns with people combining a morning shift with an afternoon/evening shift. The late evening finish relegated the evening meal to being more akin to a snack than a full blown meal and the main meal of the day shifted to the time between the finish of the morning job and the start of the afternoon/evening job. This change not only affected the hora del vermut but also radically arranged the Spanish working day. The second, and much more widely accepted theory, is that the hora del vermut was originally something that rich people did in the slot between finishing mass on Sunday and eating lunch. As the Spanish economy grew, and a middle class began to develop, one of the first luxuries that this new class could afford, one of the few habits of the rich that they could easily copy, was to have a bit of a tipple before Sunday lunch. And it's easy to see that developing into a daily routine.

Whilst the original drink for the preprandial was vermouth tastes began to change and people tended to other drinks to "open their appetite" maybe a beer, maybe a wine. As the habits changed the name didn't. Just as people in the UK may have coffee at teatime or tea at coffee break the name, hora del vermut, stuck to describe this pre-lunch drink. At the end of the last century vermut was relegated to a very secondary place in Spanish drinking habits but recently there has been a bit of a resurgence and there are now lots of craft vermouths and even specialist vermouth bars. Some of these vermuterias offer drinks that bear only a passing resemblance to traditional vermouth - things like cider or gin laced with those "botanic" ingredients.

We're still waiting for our first vermuteria in Pinoso but in the meantime I think it's beholden to all of us to embrace the traditions of our new home and do what we can to promote this age old custom!

Tuesday, September 07, 2021

Starry eyed

Eating is a bit of a thing in Spain. Not a bit of a thing like it is in South Sudan, not in the sense of needing to eat to avoid dying, but eating for pleasure. It's also a never exhausted topic of conversation. Lunch is the main meal of the day in Spain and cheap set meals, a few euros on each side of 10€, are available all over the place. I know that most Britons living here don't agree with me but I can't remember the last time I had a memorable set menu in that price range. They're fine, some are better than others, most are perfectly pleasant but few, none actually, come to mind as showing much flair. For a bit of cooked sea bass or steak the set menus are incredible value. The ones I enjoy most though are the restaurants that have set meals costing something like 25 to 35€. Its enough money for the restaurants to be creative but, when the bill comes, I don't wonder about the sanity of just having spent a new mobile phone's worth of cash on something that will be flowing down the drains a few hours later. This said one of the things that we've done a few times now, on Maggie's birthday, is to go in search of a restaurant with Michelin stars. 

It started years ago when a chef called Kiko Moya came to Pinoso as the "Godfather" of the annual celebration of traditional food in and of Pinoso called Mostra de la Cuina del Pinós. The chef was from a nearby town called Concentaina. His little speech at the opening ceremony for that food festival made me think that a posh meal in his Michelin starred restaurant and an overnight stay in a hotel would be a nice gift for Maggie's birthday.

Two stories stick out from that meal. The first is that the only thing either of us remember as being particularly nice was a savoury version of a normally sweet local Christmas treat called turrón. The second is that they served us a dish at one point which featured the mould that grows on corn cobs. For those of you old enough to remember it was amusing, in a Pseuds Corner sort of way. We wondered why mould had never caught on, unlike egg and chips for instance. Overall though it was a pleasant enough experience and the basic plot seemed sound - an overpriced meal each year as a bit o a birthday treat.

The second year we went to a place in Almansa. No overnight stay this time just the restaurant which meant evening. Usually, and for no obvious reason, evening meals are less enjoyable than lunchtime meals in Spain - a bit more formal, less lively, less Spanish. It was a bad experience. I usually compare it to the time that you're invited to an acquaintances house for dinner. They serve things that you don't like at all but which you can, just about, eat without vomiting. With grim British style determination you wade through each course. In this particular restaurant the tasting menu had at least eight courses. The one that took most effort was a tuna heart stuffed with something that made it look like an eyeball though I suspect eyeballs taste nicer than whatever it was we were given to eat. I was only just about able to control my gag response.

The restaurant we went to in Cuenca the next year was totally forgettable. It wasn't a bad experience; nice enough as I remember with good service and decent food but I cannot remember anything of the detail. What I do remember as being really disappointing were the digs. Cuenca is too far from home to pop over for an evening meal and get back home. So, I booked us in to the Parador hotel there. The Parador hotel chain has some impressive buildings and impressive locations. They often convert places like castles, monasteries and convents into hotels. The hotel in Cuenca is a converted convent set atop a river gorge. That's it in the photo with this post. It looks great outside and the communal spaces inside - the restaurant, the lounges, the bar - are all impressive as well. The room though was quite small, it crossed my mind that it may have been the size of the original nun's cell, and the décor and fittings were very ordinary. The hotel was also full of a wedding and loud wedding guests dominated the character of the hotel for we non wedding guests. And it was not cheap.

We went to a great restaurant with a Michelin star in La Nucia, el Xato. This time it wasn't Maggie's birthday but it was the birthday of one of our long-time friends so we went as two couples. It was splendid. Great service from really pleasant servers, good price, verging on cheap for a restaurant with Michelin stars, excellent food and with a little gastronomic journey from the Valencian shoreline to the interior of the region explained in food and drink. 

Last year I hunted around for another starred restaurant but the places that were on my possible list were prohibitively expensive. Going to eat Mexican in Madrid for instance with the train, hotel and meal was way beyond my wallet. The set meal, with accompanying matched wines, was a bit short of 200€ per cover. I reckon that with the train fare and the overnight stay In Madrid it would have been around 800€ and I just couldn't justify, or afford, that. We stayed locally instead and had a remarkably ordinary paella at a restaurant which should have done much, much better.

This year though there were lots of new restaurants with Michelin stars in the area and with reasonably (given the criteria) priced set meals. One in Calpe, a couple in Murcia and one in San Juan. All a bit fish based though and Maggie isn't big on fish. Eventually I settled on one in Ondara, near Denia, a short couple of hours from home. Maggie knew nothing about it till the last moment and she didn't know that I'd invited a couple of pals along too. The idea was that she would have company as she worked her way through the wine accompanying each course whilst I, nominated driver that I am, remained steadfastly boring and sober. Nice place, excellent service and the prices were fine except for the unnecessary graspingness of overcharging for things like water, beer and coffee. It was a strange failing because something I've noticed in most of the other posh restaurants we've been to is that they don't overcharge for the ordinary things. If a coffee costs 1.50€ in the local bar the posh restaurants usually limit themselves to doubling the price. Not so in Ondara. 

To be honest I've already forgotten what we ate; for me it's the experience that's the pleasure rather than the food. If I wanted to eat something I really liked I'd cook up a bacon sandwich and make a nice cup of tea but then I wouldn't have stories about eating mould, the feeling of dread as I forced myself to eat some supposed delicacy or the unpleasantness of handing over the credit card and contemplating the tip.

Thursday, September 02, 2021

Gardening leave

I've lived in houses with gardens before - but small gardens, a bit of earth to turn, a patch of grass to mow. Nothing much to speak of. Gardens that were more useful as places to park the bike or to hang the washing than to grow gladioli or fennel. Nowadays we have a biggish garden, plenty of space to build a pool for instance. There may even be enough space for a tennis court. Or not. I don't really know how big a tennis court is. The last time I played tennis was a while ago, when those yellow balls were a bit of a novelty, when one of my closest pals was called Spud and when I used a bike as my form of transport. 

The style of garden is bare earth, to help prevent scrub fires, with quite a lot of fruit trees and a few bushes and plants. I don't know what most of them are called but I do know that we have olive, quince, peach, apple, pomegranate, fig, loquat, almond and cherry trees as well as various grape vines and a healthy looking passion fruit that has spread all along the fence. Some of the trees are so weedy that it's a bit unfair to suggest they produce fruit (I think there was just one cherry this year) but we have other stuff too. We have lots of ivy, we have a yucca that is taller than me, we have aloe vera type cactus and we have a bunch of trees like cypresses, mulberries and pine. We also have a splendid palm tree. I'm not much of a botanist though, my grasp of plant species has just four main divisions: weeds, flowers, bushes and trees. Maggie occasionally says something to me about pruning the oleanders or dividing the irises but if she were to fail to point out the plant in question I wouldn't be sure where to start.

My part in tending the garden is really the part that involves brute force or grim determination. Most of the time it's a controlled sort of physicality turned against the weeds whose tenacity and rate of growth leave me in awe. At this time of year I also water most of the non autochthonous stuff to keep it from withering in the summer sun. There's a lot of raking too; raking up leaves and raking up the fallen fruit. My other regular job is pruning. When I first pruned I was very careful. I would gingerly trim the thin branches using secateurs but nowadays I chop and cut with an Errol Flynn swashbuckling bravado and ne'er a care. The trees take no notice and simply grow back again. Well, most of them do.

This year lots of the plants look very unwell. The fig trees are covered in nasty little beasts, the grapevine on the wall has produced no fruit at all, the peach trees have some sort of leaf curl, only one of the three pomegranates has any fruit, the little apple tree is hanging on against the odds and the quince tree, which was splendid last year and produced lots of fruit, has a single scrawny example. Even our rose bush is looking a little sad and brown. It also seems that I've spent much more time watering, raking and cutting than I usually do over the summer. Apart from the palm tree which I have to spray every six weeks I don't usually spray; it doesn't seem like a good thing to do, bad for the bees and other small creatures that have a perfect right to their short existence. The fig tree blight was horrible though so chemical warfare seemed appropriate. Anyway my story about spraying six loads wearing overalls, gloves, mask and woolly hat from a 20 kilo, when full, backpack in the 40ºC+ midday sun, is, I think, quite amusing.

I got up early on Tuesday morning to do the watering partly because it's more efficient, water wise, before the sun gets to work, but also to fit in my various morning jobs. I was thinking as I did it how much I'd prefer not to, about how much older I'm getting and how physically punishing gardening can be at times. As Basil Brush once remarked a mix of three parts sand to one part of cement, spread liberally all over the garden, is an effective weed killer.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Spanish language stuff part 2: Learning Spanish

I've been trying to learn Spanish for ages, long before we got here 17 years ago. In fact I started my first Spanish class in 1983. I'm talking about evening classes, maybe an hour or two per week for a ten week term. It takes a long time to clock up the hours especially when you consider that you're usually in a class with maybe a dozen other people. The important thing about the classes was the routine, the commitment. Doing a class meant homework exercises, grinding through verb tables and learning lists of vocabulary. However many times someone tries to sell you a course that they promise will teach you Spanish (or any other language) in a few hours just consider this. Imagine you want to learn a poem or a literary quote in your native language. You'll know the words and you'll know the pronunciation, all you have to do is remember the words in the correct order. How long do you reckon it might take? It used to take me ages to learn those "O" level Shakespearean quotes. If it really were true that you could speak Spanish with just 1000 words, and you took just five minutes to memorise each word, you'd still need 83 hours of parrot fashion learning before you got to the variations and the combinations. What it comes down to is that language learning is, principally, a huge memory task and there is no way around that.

How much you try to remember is a matter of personal choice and willingness. Richard Vaughan, quite a famous teacher of English here in Spain, always stresses that learning common words pays dividends over learning less common ones. The example I've heard him use more than once is between the verbs to sleep and to be. To sleep isn't exactly an obscure verb but in comparison to the verb to be it is. The trouble with that theory is that certain words are common under certain circumstances. You hardly ever know when the circumstances will arise when you will need more words. The verb to fry and the nouns egg and chip aren't particularly common words (In the Richard Vaughan sense) but in a greasy spoon, when you want fried egg and chips, they are. 

Use and repetition is important too. Once upon a time I used Excel spreadsheets and Access databases. I was never good with them but I knew the basics. I haven't used them for years now and I wouldn't have the faintest idea where to begin with designing a simple database. You may think that living in Spain I would use the language all the time, and I do, but most of my conversations are very simple transactions. In the supermarket, in the bar, where a couple of stock phrases will suffice. I often greet people in the street and exchange a few words about their family or the weather but it's very seldom that the conversation strays to the movement of refugees or US Foreign Policy or even a bit of gossip about some event in the area. In this sort of case Richard Vaughan's common phrases and words theory works well. It's like the Spanish waiter or waitress on the coast. They speak to their British customers in English but most of those waiters and waitresses don't really speak English, they speak the menu. 

All this said my Spanish isn't too bad nowadays. I can nearly always get what I want though there may be a lot of fumbling and stumbling along the way. I can read a newspaper, listen to the radio, watch the TV and even read the car handbook. With the online conversation I can even practise real conversations. But my Spanish is still far from good. If I'm watching a film at the cinema I can lose the thread completely. Understanding the lyrics of songs is usually beyond me unless I see them written down and even in something as commonplace as watching the TV news my understanding lets me down from time to time. While I can overhear, and understand, something said in English through all sorts of extraneous sounds and in all sorts of unfavourable circumstances I need a following wind to not lose the thread in Spanish. 

After all this time and all the effort it is frustrating beyond belief.

Spanish language stuff part 1: Things not to do

The other day I rang someone who I've been friends with for nearly 50 years. We talked about trees, we talked about fish dying in the Mar Menor and we talked about when organic veg aren't really organic veg. We also talked about language learning. It was that conversation which prompted me to write this two part blog. My pal, who has been learning German for years, recommended a YouTube series called Easy - Easy German in her case and Easy Spanish in mine. I watched the video and thought crikey, if that's easy my Spanish is worse than I thought. Here's the link if you're interested. 

The particular episode talked about things not to do in Spain. Here's the list.

1 Never turn up on time - the example they use in the video is a party. Spaniards do turn up on time for lots of things but the basic notion is good.

2 Never go to the shops between 2 and 5 in the afternoon. Again lots of town centre shops and supermarkets open in the afternoon but the basic premise is good

3 Don't start the "two kisses" (the cheek to cheek lip smacking greeting) from the wrong side. You need to start by moving your head to the left to brush right cheeks; otherwise expect a head butt or a full on the mouth kiss.

4 Don't try to eat in a restaurant outside the "traditional" times. That's probably between say 2 and 4 for lunch and after 8.30 (even that's a bit early) until some unspecified later time for dinner. You can get tapas, sandwiches etc. outside these times but these are the hours when the kitchen will be open. Actually I changed the times a bit because I think they used Catalan times (see point 8).

5 Never clear off as soon as you've finished eating with someone. If you're really in a hurry you can start apologising that you have to go as you drink the after meal coffee. Normally though the after meal chatting is an essential part of the meal

6 Don't read anything into the way you are greeted in a shop or bar. If you are called guapo or guapa for instance (handsome or beautiful) it's simply the same as someone in Liverpool calling you luv or someone in Nottingham thinking you're a duck.

7 Never pronounce an English word as though it were an English word. Every English language word has to be hispanised. This is absolutely true but the rules are incredibly complex about how the word should be tortured.

8 Don't generalise about Spain by which they mean that people from Andalucia have different ways to the people of Cataluña or Galicia. Whilst it's true I often wonder how we'd ever say anything if we weren't able to generalise.

Finally, point 9, don't shoot me. If you don't agree go to the video and make your comments there. I'm just repeating (more or less) what the young women in the video said.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Do British people still use the term Chelsea Tractor?

Just after lunch a convoy of three tractors passed our front gate. They had the folding umbrella type contraptions on the back that are used to collect almonds. The tractor reverses up to the tree, grabs the tree trunk using some hydraulic thingummy and then fans out the expanse of plastic tarpaulin type material to surround the tree. With the tree grabbed and the material in place the tree is given a good shaking and the almonds fall into the fan of material and roll tractorwards to a collecting chamber. When the collector is full the nuts are usually transferred to a trailer or a lorry and taken off for processing. It just so happens that there is quite a large nut processing factory (I originally wrote processing plant but I thought that may lead to confusion) in Pinoso. On the smaller plots, you'll often see a family group going at an almond or olive tree with sticks with a big sheet or net spread out under the tree to catch the falling fruit. 

The tractor driver I talked to told me that, with the three big tractors, they would clear the bancal in two to three hours. A bancal is what, once upon a time, I'd have called a terrace, it's the level land formed by building two parallel walls on a hillside. Recently someone told me that the retaining walls are called ribazos but the only people I've ever tried to get to confirm that word are a bit too urban to know whether it's correct or not.  So, according to the driver a big tractor costs around 250,000€ and the folding fan thing about 30,000€. I expect that the stick and visqueen sheet method involves substantially less financial outlay but it may take a while longer to collect the fruit. As I said the driver said 2 to 3 hours and there are about 350 trees on the bancal. Lets say that 15 minutes per tree using the hitting the tree with sticks method or about 8 days working non stop for 12 hours a day. Costs and benefits, swings and roundabouts I suppose.

It's pretty obvious that we live in the country. I've said before that we don't have any street or avenue as a part of our address; even our postcode is a bit undecided. This causes people who live in cities no end of problems. They presume that I don't understand or that, being foreign, and consequently stupid, I don't know the correct answer to their simple question about my address. I can't say I know much about agricultural life but I do see the gangs of (usually) blokes collecting the grape harvest from one type of field orientation and the mechanised grape pickers working on fields with a different configuration. I sort of half know what's going on with some of the processes just as I sometimes wonder what that bright green crop is that all those people are picking in some field as we drive past.

Yesterday Maggie and I went to the cinema in Alicante. We took advantage of being in the town to go to see an exhibition, an artistic exhibition, about space debris. It wasn't a particularly good exhibition but it's the sort of thing we do given the opportunity. Parking was surprisingly easy but we had to search around a bit and Maggie, who doesn't parallel park, was quite sure that I couldn't either. Without having any relationship to those Comanche trackers that John Ford always had helping the 7th Cavalry as they rode through Monument Valley, we were able to tell that dogs had been in the same street that we were walking and we avoided there manifold calling cards. We commented on the striking aroma from the communal rubbish bins in the August heat. There may not be any cinemas or exhibition spaces in Culebrón but parking is very easy and we don't have to be too careful about where we walk. Pros and cons, advantages and disadvantages I suppose.

I was thinking about this as I watched a programme in the second series of Valeria on Netflix. It's a series based on the books by Elísabet Benavent. In it four young women, whose main concerns seem to centre about their work, their wardrobe, the people they have sex with and food and drink, do what they do around Madrid. I don't know how real the Madrid, depicted in the series is, but the televisual version looks like a cool and exciting sort of place. They eat Korean, they use "park and ride" type bikes when they aren't using taxis, they sport clothes that I haven't seen in any of the chain stores. The life depicted is of the economically advantaged and domestically unchallenged. It's not much like Culebrón, or even Alicante, but it looks good on Netflix. I don't think that I'd be that keen to swap passing tractors and lots of outside space for exotic food delivered by a bloke on a bike or time share car schemes. Pluses and minuses, for and against I suppose.

I should stress that I watch Valeria not for the sex scenes or because I lust after city life but because of the Spanish. I'm a bit unlikely to use calimochada to describe an impromptu picnic or yembé (a sort of tom tom drum apparently) but the four main protagonists, and their pals, use a lot of slangy type words to show how young and modern they are. I'm interested to hear those words particularly as I don't mix with many real Spanish people. I like to think my Spanish is still improving but if the conversation with the tractor driver is anything to go by then I'm obviously deluding myself. Ah well, you win some, you lose some.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

10,000 steps with hardly moving

Back in April I suspected that I needed a small surgical operation so I made a doctor's appointment. It was a telephone appointment and my doctor said she needed to see me to make a diagnosis. So we met. She agreed with my self diagnosis and she referred me to a surgeon. That's how the family doctors work here in Spain. They basically act as gatekeepers, dealing only with common ailments, passing patients on for anything at all out of the ordinary. So they don't remove warts themselves, they confirm that you have a wart and send you on to someone somewhere who will remove the wart. Often the second doctor, the specialist doctor, confirms the diagnosis of the first doctor and then sets the wheels in process for whatever the next step is. You say my throat hurts, the GP sends you to the ear, nose and throat department where an ear nose and throat doctor tells you that you have polyps (if you have). You are then given another appointment somewhere where someone will cut them out (or do whatever they do with polyps). Actually you never want to need to go to see an ear, nose and throat doctor because the Spanish word for one is an otorrinolaringóloga (woman) or otorrinolaringólogo (man) which is obviously unpronounceable.

In my case I got to see the surgeon a couple of weeks later. He confirmed the GP's diagnosis and said he would schedule surgery. Something like three months later the health authority writes to me and says they are a bit backed up and that they are contracting out some surgery to private hospitals; would I like to go private? To be honest I don't care whether it's private or state. Good, bad and indifferent doctors work everywhere. Nonetheless I sign on the dotted line.

Later someone rings me from the private hospital and gives me a time to turn up for an appointment. He speaks to me in English. His instructions suggest that I'm going to be the only person at the reception. I can imagine the spotless, gleaming white building and the friendly, smiling receptionist when I walk across the silent entrance way or maybe it'll be like that Cottage Hospital where Alastair Sim uncovered the killers. Cosy with roses around the door.

The hospital in Elche is big and on an industrial estate. There are lots of entrances and lots and lots of people; not particularly gleaming and certainly not cosy. I go to a reception desk. There are three people on the desk all wearing badly tailored corporate grey suits. The man is flirting with the woman to his left. I wait. A little later I tell them who I am and that I have a 10.30. They ask me what I'm there for. The truth is that I don't really know. I was told that I'd talk to a doctor but what sort of doctor was not made clear. I try being generic - it's to talk to someone for the first time about a surgical procedure but apparently that's not enough - I suspect they do a lot of cosmetic surgery and I suppose they do want to mistakenly increase the size of my breasts. So I have to tell them what's wrong with me. Not that they care but I don't really want to share my haemorrhoids, warts, polyps or bowel cancer with someone I've only just met.

I'm sent to outpatients, consultas externas. There they ask for ID and (basically) who is going to pay. A different man in a very similar grey suit at a very similar reception desk sends me to a basement. I'm getting better at this. Before I abandon my spot in front of his desk I ask him what it is that I need to say I'm there for and what the process is when I get to where I'm going. 

"I'm here for pre-operative tests," I say (though I stumble over the Spanish pronunciation of preoperatorio).  I know I'm talking to medical types because they are dressed in white down to their super clean crocs. The blood woman takes no notice when I suggest to her where she will find a vein. After two failed attempts she says "Left hand side you say?". I don't think she understands my joke about personal anti vampire measures either. I'm sent to another room with another woman in white. I ask the woman why I'm getting an ECG. "Your name is Roy something or other?," she asks. When I deny being Roy she pulls all the sticky pads off me and sends me back to reception. I ask which reception.

It's the same man. "Hello again," I say, "where now?". "You're going to speak to a surgeon, wait outside consult room 20, they will call you". The quality of information is improving.

The surgeon takes as long to make her diagnosis as my GP did, as long as the state health service surgeon did, that's two or three seconds. She asks me the same questions too. She gives me a date in November. Not exactly a week tomorrow then. "You'll need to speak to the anaesthetist" says the surgeon, "Go back to reception and make an appointment".

The grey suit and I are nearly old friends now. "The surgeon says I'm to make an appointment with the anaesthetist". "Is this the date of the operation?," asks the man in the grey suit, pointing to the 15/11 scrawled on the top of the information sheet that warns me of the multiple ways I might die or be forever maimed under the surgeon's knife. "Yes", is my quick witted return. It must be the first time he's ever seen that sort of paperwork. "Our booking system doesn't stretch that far into the future. Give us a call in late October and we'll give you an appointment then".

So that's my first taste of private medicine and I can't say that I noticed any difference to the public health systems I'm more used to. The first encounter is always chaotic but you get there in the end and, the second time, you know just a little bit more about where to go and what to do. You can spot the people with chronic health conditions in hospitals, they're the only ones, staff aside, who look confident about where they are going.

Wednesday, August 04, 2021

In oven chicken breast bathed in our own homemade BBQ dressing

Since Christmas we've been trying to lose weight by following some ancient meal plan from the long defunct Closer magazine, a plan that is, almost certainly, now scientifically discredited. We have both lost a fair bit of weight though. Lunch still usually comes from those diet sheet recipes but we're nowhere near as strict and disciplined as we were during the first couple of months. Nowadays we go out for meals whenever we want and I drink beer in bars and if they put crisps on the table I'll wolf them down. If anyone can explain to me how it takes a week of carefully controlled eating to lose a few hundred grammes and just a single chocolate biscuit to regain a kilo I'd be pleased to know.

Today's diet meal recipe was new. I'd not tried it because it involves aubergine and courgette. I don't really care for either. The recipe also called for a splash of chilli and tomato sauce. There was none in the cupboard and I knew it was hopeless to go and see if it were available in any of our local supermarkets, it's just not the sort of thing that they carry. Easy to make some though as the name gives away the principal ingredients. Whatsmore a nearby supermarkets is one of the few I know that stocks chillies in a routine way. It reminded me, but just to be sure I just checked, and it's true, that we have nothing "pre-prepared" in our freezer. There's pitta bread and frozen peas and chicken breast and some very chemically ice pops but there are no prepared meals - no lasagne, no spag bol, no microwaveable burgers or kebabs and obviouslly no chilli con carne. Most Spaniards don't go in for prepared food. Frozen and chilled pizzas are popular enough and there are pre-prepared things in the freezers and chiller cabinets of most Spanish supermarkets but they are not a usual purchase. Glance at the person in front of you in the checkout line and you will see raw materials for building dishes rather than packets of ready to go meals. Spaniards don't even eat a lot of things like breakfast cereal and fancy biscuits. 

I don't know whether this is good or bad. I'm just saying it's different. I know, for instance, that my mum gets lots of ready made meals from a company which delivers frozen meals to her door. She says that they are first rate and save her money and waste. When I lived in the UK, years ago, I would often pop something in to the microwave, when I came home from work, and it would heat through as I went to shed my suit and tie. Life would have been harder without those frozen meals. I know that the urban myth is that, nowadays, no British family still sits down to eat together, unless they order in takeaway and, even then, there will be no conversation, just the movement of thumbs on the mobile phone keypad. I have no idea whether that fireside scene is real or not but I have seen the takeaways of every colour and hue on English High Streets and I know from our infrequent visits to one of the "British" supermarkets on the coast here that there is lots of interesting sounding food in boxes and packets. 

Back in Culebrón I sometimes wonder about the time it takes to prepare a detailed shopping list and the time it takes to cook the food as compared to the time it takes to eat and to do the washing up after. And the aubergine and courgette thing? Even with the splendid sauce it was horrid.