Saturday, August 08, 2020


There are a lot of flies in Culebrón. There are also plenty of wasps. The most common type in Culebrón don't seem to be quite like the one that stung me in Elland when I was at Junior School. I inadvertently squashed the poor beast as I rested my chin on a low wall to marvel at a Mercedes 220 SE "Fintail" passing by. Mr Kemp, the Headteacher, used an onion from the Harvest Festival display to lesson the considerable pain. I've been stung a couple of times here but, to be honest, I've hardly noticed. Obviously British wasps are tougher. National pride and all that.

Anyway, as I said there are lots of wasps. One of the common questions on Facebook, amongst the Britons living here, is how to deal with the hordes of them swooping and hovering over swimming pools. Being poor and poolless our wasps have to make do with drinking from the water bowls that we leave for the cats. Recently the wasps have also been feasting on something growing on the leaves of the fig tree. Wasps are not my favourite beasts but they have as much right to the planet as I have so, generally, I try to leave them be. Not always though.

They sometimes start to build very small nests, usually underneath the roof overhangs though not always. The one in the post box was a bit of a shock! The nests we've had have been very small, two or three centimetres in any direction, and usually with an obvious population of only three, four or five wasps. Sharing living space with wasp nests is just a step too far. Fly spray has proved to be drastically lethal to the wasps on the nests. One quick burst and the whole population drops dead to the ground. 

I've slaughtered one such population just minutes ago. I'm sure I will be judged.

Monday, August 03, 2020

You know... the woman from No. 42

Years and years and years ago I got off a train in Almeria as twilight became evening. The train station was a long way from the town centre  and it was a very warm, very sweaty evening. The thing I noticed, as I walked, rather than my dampening clothing, was people sitting out in the street. Generally they were on dining room chairs and deckchairs but some had stately armchairs. It was whole families and the neighbours. Often the telly was on the windowsill facing out. 

Nowadays of course only old people watch the telly - well in the traditional broadcast telly way - so nobody would drag their telly into the street. Most likely they'll do without telly all together but I suppose the coerced youngsters can always play with their phones. It was always the relative coolness, the chatting, and maybe a few snacks and a drink, that were important anyway. 

I did wonder if it still went on. I mean we've all got aircon nowadays. I've seen people outside in Pinoso but Pinoso is hardly big city, Pinoso is a bit of a time warp. Are they still on the streets after dark, in the cool evenings, on those dining chairs in Almeria and Valladolid?

I was wondering about this entry. I asked Maggie if she thought it were still true. She was sure it was, maybe less so and only where people had the space. It doesn't work so well or so easily if you're on the fifth floor of a block of flats, she suggested.

The bright orange snap is from Petrer tonight. We'd just been to see a bit of a concert and the car was parked in a side street. It suddenly struck me that my question had been answered. 

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Mistaken identity

I went to pick up my new Foreigner's Identity Card this morning. All pretty straightforward. I'm now an immigrant foreigner instead of being identified as a Citizen of the European Union. I've never cared for the glib way we Britons use the term expat. I think that it borders on the racist. It's a semantic dodge to try to make a clear division between immigrants and us. Now there's no doubt about it at all. I'm a foreigner living here with a card to prove it. Just like a Cambodian or Cameroonian.

As I was waiting in the queue a couple of things crossed my mind. I was quite happy to be getting the card and yet I'm dead set against ID cards. They are an obvious and essential means of control. Nobody would try to run a totalitarian Government without first having everyone registered and documented. When Dicky Attenborough and Gordon Jackson were getting on the bus in the Great Escape what were they asked for? Exactly. Documentation. Spain introduced ID cards during the Franco dictatorship and it still maintains them.

And the fingerprints too. The Spanish authorities now have my fingerprints, as well as the fingerprints of anyone who has an identity card. That's nearly everyone in Spain. In Hollywood films, the scene with the mug shot and fingerprints was when the person, guilty or innocent, was branded as criminal. I seem to remember, though I may well be wrong, that, in the UK, fingerprint records are kept only for proven criminals and, of course, immigrants.

There was a small queue outside the Police Station. There was a police officer on the gate. He came and went, he even answered questions. I set out to ask him if we're in the right queue a couple of times but we seemed to work like the same poles of magnets - as I approached he retreated. Maggie and I really knew though, from the general question and answer as people arrived, that everyone in our queue thought we were in the right queue. Once past the gate and into the courtyard of the Government Office it became clearer. There were two queues in the courtyard, one for the people who need to be spaced out in time, people with appointments, people who are renewing cards and the other, quicker queue, for people like us, who are just picking something up that has already been processed and should only take a couple of minutes.

I've often commented that information in Spain tends to be handed out sparingly and not willingly. This morning I messaged our Town Hall to ask what time the team that carries out repairs on the water distribution system considers to be "office hours" and the response was that they did not have that information available - they even used that sort of reasonably formal language - they didn't say, "Sorry, we don't know, you'll have to ask in such and such office," they said "At the current time that information is not available to us. You will need to enquire in such and such office". When we were in Alicante waiting for the card I thought how easy and how useful a couple of notices would be for we dazed and confused.

Inside the office I hand over my passport to prove that I'm me as I collect a document that proves that I'm me. As a secondary check they scan my fingerprints and check them against their records. The computer bleeps and it's access granted. The two women on the desk have a brief conversation about the card I'm collecting. It's a new style card and for one of the two women it's her first sight of one. They laugh that my white hair blends into the background on my photo. That's something else I've often noted about Spanish "officials". Nobody, in all the Government offices I've ever been in has treated me badly. Sometimes the result isn't what I would want but there's never any "I, Daniel Blake", about it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Talk to the screen

I shouldn't have chosen 7.30 in the morning. It seemed like a good idea. I thought that an hour at the start of the day wouldn't interfere with any other plans. Anyway with aching bones and a weak bladder I'm nearly always up at 7.30. Besides the session was online so I only had to look dressed from the neck up - no problem with wearing loose fitting shorts and yesterday's odorous t-shirt. Skype doesn't yet transmit body odours. The reason it wasn't such a good idea was that I woke up around 5am and didn't really get back to sleep for worry that I'd miss the appointed hour!

It was the first time that I'd ever done a Spanish class online. Somebody told me about an app that they had been told was easy to use to arrange online lessons. The one I used is called italki though I'm sure there are tens if not hundreds of others. I looked through the tutors first. The tutors are from all over the world so you have to think about accents - for Spanish I chose someone from Spain rather than someone with a Venezuelan or Mexican accent. All of the tutors seemed to have different prices though the majority seemed to be in the 7€ to 8€ range. I think one person was 23€ an hour. They must either be very good or as misguided as that bloke who once tried to sell me a very expensive Land Rover. I bought a discounted 10 lesson pack, 10 hours of classes, for $70, or about 65€ with one specific tutor. In general though I think that you basically buy credit with the organisation which you can then spend with any of their tutors. I'm still a bit novice with the system but, basically, the app puts you in contact with the tutor, arranges the session times and takes your money. The lesson with the tutor happens on Skype or Facetime or whatever the Google equivalent is called this week.

I can see lots of advantages to doing languages online and very few disadvantages. The application gives you a brief bio of all the tutors, which languages they speak, where they are based, how much they cost etc. All the teachers have a little introductory video so you can hear them speak. You can buy individual lessons or packages and most of the tutors offer a free or reduced price test session. So, basically, for very little money you can give it a go. If you don't like the tutor, if you don't like their style, if you have technical problems or if you just think better of it you can simply say goodbye at the end of the session with none of the trauma of abandoning a more traditional class. I suppose too you could also book lots of sessions in a very short period to get an intensive course or you could take lessons from several different tutors for variety and, as long as you can get a decent connection you can take the class from wherever you happen to be.

The bloke I spoke to was very good; nice and easy to talk to. I've booked up for a second session but this time I'm not starting quite so early.

As wise as courageous

The sweat was running in a little rivulet down my back. I noticed too that my damp hands had transferred the wood-stain on the handrails on to my beige trousers. The raffia work type chair had been uncomfortable from the start but I found myself wondering if Enver Hoxha's torturers had ever thought of the possibilities of dining chairs. Wearing a surgical mask wasn't helping. The daytime temperature had topped out at 41º C and it was still nice and warm as the performance got under way just after 9pm. Maggie, who was probably the only woman in the theatre without a fan, says she was on the verge of collapse from heat and pain. I suspect a fan may not have helped much!

On stage a harpist and three women, all dressed in black, were reciting poetry and singing songs based on the work of women like Santa Teresa de Jesús, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Olivia Sabuco, Ana Caro or María de Zayas. Women who lived and wrote in what is now called the Siglo de Oro (literally Golden Century), the Spanish Golden Age. That's a "century" that ran from 1492 till 1659 or maybe 1681 depending on who you listen to. Now, as you may imagine, my grasp of Sixteenth and Seventeenth Spanish poetry, even in modern translation, is relatively tenuous. It was easy for my mind to wander from the action on stage.

We were at the Classic Theatre Festival at Almagro in the Ciudad Real province of Castilla la Mancha watching Tan sabia como valerosa. The whole Festival is super popular and you have to be quick off the mark to get tickets. This year Covid played havoc with the event - was it going ahead or not? I went shopping for tickets the first day they went on sale and, for the venue we wanted, the Corral de Comedias, the only performance that had tickets left was the one we were at. The Corral is a timber framed open air galleried theatre - think of London's Globe Theatre and, although the buildings are quite different, you'll have the idea.

The original theatre on this site  was probably built at the end of the 16th Century, though nobody is quite sure when exactly. Mentions of the theatre in Almagro turn up every now and then in the records over the years but, after 1857, not a dicky bird. Then, in the 1950s, when the main square of Almagro was being rebuilt, bits and bats were found which pointed to the site once having being used as an open air theatre. When the stage was found, almost intact, behind a brick wall, it was decided to restore the area as a typical Siglo de Oro theatre. The first performance in the new space was in 1954 and that's the theatre we were sweating in on Sunday evening.

It was an event I'll remember. If I'm honest though my favourite bit was probably when a bat fluttered into the auditorium and briefly crossed the stage. Not something you normally get when you go to the theatre!

Saturday, July 25, 2020

An open air snack

We're just about to go to see the local brass band. The title of the event is something like "You bring a sandwich and we'll provide the music". I've bought some bread and things to go in it to make a sandwich. We've got some crisps - well actually they're some sort of healthy pretend crisps made out of soya or peas or some such - and, because my tortillas always sag in the middle, I've bought a tortilla de patatas as well. And, of course, a couple of cans of beer.

I can guarantee though that we won't do this "properly". I don't know how many Spanish kids I've seen unwrap their mid morning breakfast, how many women I've seen break out the un-buttered, unoiled rolls in silver paper, how many families I've seen trudging across the sand laden with cool boxes, how many times I've seen tuppers (pronounce that as tapperr) laden with cooked dishes spread out on picnic tables, how many watermelons I've seen carved into chunks with penknives and lots more similarly constructed phrases but I guarantee that whatever we break out to eat as we sit there tonight it won't be the same as the people around us. I can also guarantee that they they will all be doing the same thing. It's like some sort of herd instinct and it bears no relationship at all to my history of banana and crisp sandwiches on Skeggy beach or my big bottle of Ben Shaw's fizzy pop on the way to Chester Zoo with my sliced Mother's Pride sandwiches wrapped in greaseproof.

Different traditions.

And worse than I'd feared. Despite the title for the evening nobody had any food! Ours stayed firmly in the bag too.

Friday, July 24, 2020

I've heard that about 10% of the Earth's surface is on fire at any one time

Spain has lots of wildfires. The number of times they are started by people, both inadvertently and on purpose, is alarming. The farmers who burn stubble, the people who flick fag ends from cars and the people who light barbecues in the countryside are oddly surprised when it all gets out of hand. There are also arsonists who start fires for reasons best known to themselves and their doctors. Fires can also start naturally, a lightning strike being the most common cause. Just like those potholes on British roads, fire breaks all over Spain are suffering from lack of spending. What should be a difficult barrier for the flames to leap, a defensible line for fire fighters to hold, is so full of weeds and shrubs that it offers no real barrier and the fires grow and spread.

There have been several fires in the local area over the past week or so. On the national scale they have not been big and they have not spread widely but seeing smoke on the horizon and watching fire fighting helicopters fly overhead is a bit anxiety making.

Just three days ago there was a fire within a couple of kilometres of where we live. It was put out quickly but the local police chief reminded people that if land is not maintained adequately then the costs of putting out the fire will have to be borne by the landowner. The news of the fires got picked up by our village WhatsApp group and there was an exhortation from the Town Hall representative in the village, the local "mayoress", for people to put their house in order. The little land we have, the garden, is weed free but just outside our boundary there is a lot of long dry grass. We have tracks bordering our property on two sides which are, so far as I know, and our Spanish neighbours agree, the responsibility of the Town Hall. Both Maggie and I commented in the WhatsApp group in a way which clearly showed that we were far from happy about how our part of the village is routinely forgotten. That neglect includes not cutting the verges back. One way and another the exchanges became a bit tense.

Concerned by the recent spate of fires, and by the local inaction, Maggie decided that she would have a go at hacking those weeds down herself. Now, to be honest, the tools we have are not much use against deep rooted two metre high grass. We tried though and the next door neighbour joined in and brought out the small tractor that he uses to plough his orchard. In the end we took about 20 garden refuse sack size bag loads off the verge alongside our house. It's better but it's still not perfect.

Still dripping with sweat I contacted the people who have the refuse collection contract for the outlying villages of Pinoso. I told them that we had left the 20 sack loads of cuttings by the side of the communal bin. They came back to say that whilst they collect old furniture and other household stuff they don't deal with garden waste and that I'd have to sort that myself. I'm sure you can imagine what I thought about that. Fortunately though, this morning, our mayoress was on the case and she turned up with the appropriate bloke from the Town Hall. He said he would arrange for the weeds to be cut back and that he'd get the cuttings taken away.

So that's where it rests at the moment.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Heat and Dust

Have you seen those photos of the Greek Islands? Blue and white paintwork everywhere and the boats apparently suspended in mid air on a transparent crystal clear sea. It's the light that makes those photos so stunning and it's the same sort of light that we have here. A popular late 19th and early 20th Century Spanish painter, Joaquín Sorolla, is most famous because of the way he captured the Mediterranean light. I often think of Sorolla when anyone comments on the limpid, flawless blue sky in even the most mundane of my snaps.

So, when we first came to Spain I envisaged a house with big French windows, with gauze like curtains moving gently on a whisper of warm breeze making and unmaking pools of light on the tiled floor. Obviously we would wear, white, probably linen, clothes as we Virginia Wolfed our way through the days sipping on ice tinkling lemonade or a more alcoholic gin and tonic. Nobody sweats in those images, we would just luxuriate in the brightness of it all.

Actually of course, nowadays, being good Spaniards, we walk on the shadowed side of the street, we look to park the car in the shade so that the steering wheel will not singe our hands and the seats other parts of our anatomy as we return to it and we would always choose to eat inside, in the air conditioned interior of a restaurant, rather than out with the flies and the dust in the street. It's alright to have a drink in the street but always in the shade. And whilst you're there the most important thing about a beer is it's temperature. That's one of the reasons Spaniards drink small beers and not pints (well that and the metric system). Eating outside we leave to the tourists. We're sometimes taken aback when guests want to sit in the sun or eat outside. We're not really good Spaniards though, or at least I'm not. Maggie would do the Spanish thing and drop all the blinds on the house and leave us in permanent twilight if she had her way. Windows and doors would stay firmly closed until the sun had dipped out of sight or at least until it starts to cool down a bit. I'm still for a through draft and a bit of natural light in the house. We're also lucky that, up here, at 600 metres the evening temperatures drops into the teens which makes it easy to sleep without taking to the old Spanish trick of sleeping on the terrace. Of course it's also the summer heat that means that Spanish events, like theatre or pop bands, don't start till lots of Britons are thinking about whatever the summer equivalent is of cocoa and a bedtime book.

It really is a splendid light and, as I've said before, I like the heat. Yesterday I polished my car and as I collected the various implements with the job done I noticed the fine patina of dust already on the car. I smiled. Just as it snows in Stockholm in winter it's warm and dusty in Culebrón in July.

Thursday, July 09, 2020

The Rolling R Review

Imagine one of those dance studios. A wall of mirrors. Lithe dancers, six pack stomachs, firm buttocks and all that brightly coloured, body hugging clothing.

Same idea, a mirrored wall but there's a bloke with a pronounced belly and a red nose, maybe for alcohol, maybe for the sun, sitting, facing the mirrors, on a cheap plastic chair with the sort of posture that Mr Plant would have reprimanded him for as a youth. Every now and then an acrid smell, it may be sweat from Mr Tubby or it may just be the room, wafts through the hot and airless atmosphere. It's Covid time so the fat bloke is wearing a face shield. Sometimes he blows a raspberry, well more or less, sometimes he gets hold of the side of his mouth to try and get his lips to flap in the wind. Gargling sounds. Strangled sounds. Flapping tongues.

It's me and I'm with a speech therapist trying to learn how to do the rolled R that is more or less essential to speak Spanish. Something I haven't mastered in all the time here. The therapist has said four sessions may do it. Maggie says I'm wasting money. I don't care. I've thought about doing this for years. To be honest it didn't go well. I have a video to prove it. Worth a try though and three more sessions to go.

This part I added in August 2020.

It took me a while to get the sound but I can now make it reasonably easily. We'd booked in four sessions but after two and a half the speech therapist said she was stealing money from me, she'd taught me the sound and it was just my job to practise. So every day I work through barra, berre, birri, borro, burru, carra etc. and raba, rebe, ribi, robo, rubu etc plus other real word exercises.

The problem is, and the therapist recognised that this is true, I don't have the same problem as Spaniards who have trouble with the sound. If they have problems with the rolled R, and she can teach them the sound, then that sound becomes the normal. Every time they use an R at the beginning of a word or RR in a word, they use that new, learned sound and it is reinforced as being correct and soon becomes habitual. But I don't have trouble with the R at the beginning of a word or the RR in a word. I am not Jonathon Woss. I pronounce the R fine in English. The problem only arises when I'm speaking Spanish. I have to pronounce words differently in Spanish - the lisp in Barcelona or cerveza for instance I can manage perfectly well by using the English TH sound. If I want the  double LL sound I can use the J from just or the LL from million but for the R I don't have an English sound to commandeer. I have to change the sound as though I were a performing animal. I do it as a trick. So the sound tends to be overemphasised. I've also noticed that I'm taking a breath before making it. I'm relying on tenacity to see my through. I'm reading through the list, which takes about twenty minutes, twice a day and, with a bit of luck, I'll soon sound as Spanish as an average Scot.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Getting the new Brexit version TIE

Maggie and I went for our new TIE cards, Tarjeta de Identidad de Extranjero, Foreigner's Identity Card, today. The idea of this entry is to explain the bare bones of the process for someone who has to do it and who already has one of the green residence forms or cards.

Now that we are no longer European Union Citizens we Britons can get this ID card, we have been able to since Monday. We don't have to, at least for a while, but we can. The advantage is, in a country that uses and demands ID all the time, we will have a credit sized card that will save us the bother of carrying around our passport and other floppy bits of paper. I think, though I'm not sure, that it also allows us to sign in for certain online transactions.

The process was pretty straightforward. I saw, online, that there were some appointments available and didn't hesitate to book them up straight away. Getting appointments for lots of the official procedures has been difficult for months, no doubt partly due to we Britons finally sorting out our missing paperwork as the getting Brexit done dates came and went and came and went. I was happy to get an appointment at all and amazed when I managed to get appointments for both Maggie and me within half an hour of each other on the same day. If you have a go and you find there are no appointments available try again later. They seem to come and go quite often.

The paperwork we needed was pretty simple. There's a form for the process available online, we also had to pay the 12€ fee beforehand, which we did at a local bank. As well as the two forms the Foreigner's Office wanted a copy of the form that shows your official address, the padrón, a copy of the green document that all we British immigrants call the residencia (mine was one of the A4 sized sheets), a photo and, of course, sight of the British passport. Hardly anything. There was a trick to come though but I was ready for it.

We found the Foreigner's Office in Alicante easily, parking was easy too and it was on "our" side of town. A bit before the appointed time I queued up outside. It was a short queue of maybe seven or eight people, I showed my appointment card to the security guard and he let me in. It was amazing the number of people he turned away because they didn't have appointments. Once inside I went through the security scanner and then tapped my appointment code into a machine. The machine spat out a sort of delicatessen counter ticket and the number on that ticket flashed up on a TV screen in the waiting area telling me where to go. I went to my appointed desk in the appointed room and handed over my paperwork. In the official list of required paperwork there was mention of passport and residencia - there was no mention of copies but I've been to a lot of government offices in my 15 years here and I've learned to carry more paper than they ask for. So, when they wanted a copy of the passport and a copy of the residencia I pulled them out of my bag, rabbit like. The biggest problem was my fingerprints. I had to give my fingerprints for the biometric data chip and it appears I don't have one or any. As I said to the bloke I must remember to use that finger on the trigger if the time ever comes. I tried lots of time, maybe forty times before they got the prints they needed. That done, paperwork stapled together, the man gave me a paper slip which told me where to collect my new card in "about" three weeks. I was out within about 20 minutes.

Maggie had a similar experience though the security guard wasn't around for twenty minutes or so, probably breakfast time, I kid you not, so she was a bit late getting in. And Maggie's top hat didn't work so well - she pulled out the residencia but not a copy of her passport so she had to go to the nearby bar to get a copy. Even then she only took about 40 minutes to complete the process.

Now, if the document turns up, as promised in three weeks, just one more trip to Alicante and we're in business.

This part was written on 30 July. I rang, yesterday, to see if the card was ready and they said it was. I was told there was no appointment system and just to turn up at Calle Campo de Mirra, 6 between 9am and 2pm. That's what I did. There was a bit of queuing but basically it was hand over the bit of paper I'd been given at the end of the first session, show my passport, hand in the green residence form, give a couple of fingerprints and leave with my new TIE card.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Putting the customer first

We're back to cold showers. The gas water heater has gone on indefinite strike. The little led panel is running through its full range of codes, E9, F0; I think that's a zero not a command.

So, I thought that this time we'd call the official service people, their number is on a sticker on the water hater. I'm not particularly good on phones nowadays. I tend to cut across people and they definitely cut across me. I understand why George Clooney, as Billy Tyne, says "over" or even "over and out" when he's talking to Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. Obviously it's a bit more difficult again in Spanish. Hand movements and facial gestures may be available via facetime but not in an ordinary phone call. And ask my pal Harry what radio professionals say about dead air. A two second silence in a radio show sounds lasts a lifetime. I always feel the same about a pause on the telephone. Keeping speaking is essential. It can lead to appalling language errors. That's why I use WhatsApp a lot.

So I ring the Junkers people. I remind myself that slave labour was generations ago. The phone offers me a service in English. I press 1. The woman speaks to me in Spanish. Never mind. I keep cool and I talk slowly and calmly. It goes well. "I'll get someone to phone you back from Alicante," she says.

All day I carry the phone. We country folk don't get good coverage. It's OK by the palm tree but terrible alongside the aljibe. Nobody phones. I'm careful to keep the phone on full volume, with vibrate as well, in my back pocket. Nothing. No, they haven't rung the fixed phone either. Some eight hours later I decide I should phone a local plumber. He doesn't answer but I leave a message. Three hours later Maggie does the same to the same plumber as he know her number. He still hasn't answered.

This morning I phone another local plumber, the sort with a new van and logos on their polo shirts. No beer gut. "Ah, it sounds like spares," he says, "you'll need to go to the official service people, they won't sell me spares". He tells me how expensive they are and even over the phone I can hear him suck air through his teeth.

By now I know there's a part of the official dealer network based in Alicante and finding their number is easy. I ring. We go through the details. "Ah, you phoned our head office yesterday, yes, we're coming to you on Monday, that's when we do that area". I sniggered. That's because I couldn't do that "Why the hell didn't you tell me that yesterday and not leave me thinking that something had gone wrong" speech. Glib was easier. "It's good that we like cold showers," I said. I was lying. Maggie doesn't.

I wrote this days after the rest of this post. The Junkers people turned up as promised and within twenty minutes of the scheduled time. It was a replacement part. 160€ and we have hot water again.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

On our cistern

When I was a schoolboy I was told how the Vikings, the Saxons and the Normans were responsible for lots of English place names; things like  -thorpe from the Norse for a village, as in Mablethorpe, and  -ham is from the Saxon for the same thing, as in Birmingham.

In 711AD North Africans invaded what is now Spain and they controlled at least part of the peninsula for the next 700 plus years. Obviously enough, during that time, they made their mark on the land and its people. In the Spanish language lots of words begin with "a" or "al". That's because the Arabic for "the" is "a" or "al".  Over times  the sound sort of fused - like the old advert,  Drinka Pinta Milka Day, or how, when I've finished this, I'll get a cuppa. If you know Spanish you'll be able to think of myriad words that begin in "a" like azúcar, almohada, albahaca or almirante. If you don't know Spanish think of some of the place names that you know like Almeria, Andalusia, Alhambra (like the theatre in Bradford). No?, alright then, think Alicante airport (ألَلَقَنْت or Al-Laqant).

We have one of those words in our back patio, we have an aljibe. An aljibe is a construction to hold water, a cistern. I suppose that at one time in the past it would have been the main source of drinking water for the house. This is not a well, it's a structure that collects rainwater, like a water butt. It holds about 11,500 litres of water or around 2,500 gallons. The down drain pipes from the roof lead directly into the aljibe so, when it rains, we collect the water. We don't use it for drinking water, we use it to water the garden, and we raise the water with a pump rather than the more traditional pulley and bucket. It was only relatively recently that I realised that the shopping centre down in Elche, which is called L’Aljub, is simply aljibe written in the local Valenciano language rather than the more common Castilian Spanish.

Our aljibe started to leak. The bricky who came to have a look said that it was because tree roots homed in on the water and forced their way through the concrete. It was true, hanging with my head well inside the pit I could see the straggly roots. The bricky put me right when I called it an aljibe. "It's not an aljibe, it's a cistern," he said. I presumed he would know, being local and a builder and such, but I can't find any Internet source that agrees with him, nobody except José Miguel makes any distinction. For instance the translation of the Wikipedia article says of the etymology of the word: the term aljibe ("algibe") comes from the hispanic arabic, alǧúbb, algúbb, and this from the classic Arabic جب, gubb, which means cistern, well or pit.

I don't really mind what the name is but I do often think about the careful husbandry of water inherited from those North Africans as I'm watering the garden and I feel quite righteous in not using good clean drinking water for the job.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Usually it's green paint and buff coloured stone

The province of Alicante, the one we live in, like all the provinces of Spain, has its own particular characteristics. Unlike lots of Spain Alicante is not choc a bloc with cathedrals, medieval quarters and massive stone built historic town centres. It doesn't even have characteristic colour schemes for the houses (well it does but they are not as eye catching as, for instance, the indigo and white of Ciudad Real or the ochre and white of Seville). We do have plenty of impressive buildings but they tend to get lost in a general unremarkability. Say Alicante to any Spaniard from outside the area and the first thing that comes to mind will be beach. If you've ever had holidays here, in Benidorm or Torrevieja or Calpe or if you live in Elda, Monóvar, Aspe or Sax then I'd be more or less certain that whatever you appreciate about your town it is not the architecture.

That's not to say that I don't like our province. Look in any direction from our house and you see hills and pine covered mountains. Out here in the countryside there are lots of orchards of peach, apricot, almond, stacks of olive trees, grape vines all over and a host of other crops from wheat to artichokes. I know that the first impression of Alicante for Northern Europeans, as they look down from the aeroplane window, is that the landscape is dry and everything a yellowy, orange, dusty sort of colour but here, on the ground, it looks pretty green to me.

I like the unending summer heat here, despite the flies. I like the way the province groans and swelters in the bright, bright sunlight with such tremendously deep skies. And we do have that beach and that flashing blue sea. Something else I like is the strange distribution of houses and hamlets. Alicante is out of kilter with much of Spain because the houses are scattered, higgledy-piggledy, across the countryside. In most of Spain houses are gathered together in villages and towns with hardly any people in between.

Not long ago agriculture was what there was in inland Alicante. People lived close to the land they worked. Then things began to change. Other sectors became the big employers and agriculture now only employs about 4% of the workforce as against around 20% in industry and 75% in services. We have lots and lots of unworked land around here. To oversimplify and overgeneralise the families that worked the land moved away. The blokes, and it is blokes you see, who drive the tractors and still work the land are old and battle scarred. They may still rope in the family at harvest time but basically the farmers are dying in harness and their children prefer to work at a keyboard, in air conditioned shops, factories and offices. The houses the farmers owned in the villages and hamlets often still belong to the families (unless they were sold on to we rich foreigners) but they are only opened up occasionally - maybe for a party or a couple of cheap weeks in the countryside. 

The landscape is criss crossed by a maze of back roads; those lanes are used by tractors and locals by day and by drunk drivers avoiding possible police patrols at night. The roads are usually narrow, twisty and some are pothole scarred but most are perfectly usable. They get narrower in spring and summer as the abundant grass encroaches onto the tarmac. The herds of goats that once kept the verges well mown are now few and far between too. Alongside the roads are little hamlets and clusters of houses. Nowadays most of the houses are deserted or they get that very occasional use. Of the ones that are occupied all the time it's probably true to say that foreigners make up a disproportionate percentage. Spaniards and Northern Europeans have different ideas about the delights of town versus country living.

In one way those villages and hamlets are just a repetitive pattern but they are one of the things I really do like around here. Suddenly, in amongst the vines and the almond trees, there will be a cluster of stone built houses with faded paintwork, abandoned farm implements and the shady spot where generations of locals once sat to tell tales and share their lives.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Bring out your dead!

On the last fourteen weeks I've only filled the car with petrol twice, I've read nineteen books though and watched more TV series than you could wave a stick at. I've weeded the garden so often that it is as weed free, and generally tidy, as it has been at any time whilst we've lived in Culebrón. I've even re-painted all but one of the exterior walls. Our area of Spain has been relatively mobile for the last two or three weeks but even then we've generally limited ourselves to a couple of outings to local bars or eateries with just one trip to the coast. We could have gone further, anywhere within the province, but we've chosen not to stray more than 60 kilometres from home. Basically we've done as we were asked, we've stayed at home.

Today though it's all more or less over, for us. We can now go where we like - masks, general hygiene, keeping distance and local regulations permitting. It's back to some sort of normal. The State of Alarm has been lifted.

I asked Maggie if she fancied going somewhere today, given that we could. I wondered about the Murcian coast. She didn't remind me of the death toll in Brazil but she did remind me that the sensible thing was to stay home, unless we had some reason to go out. It's one thing to go to see a fiesta or a museum or a theatre performance, to go out with a purpose, and to go out just because the shackles have been loosened. And just in case you don't think Maggie has it right here is a quick, and imprecise, personal view of the World Health Organisation figures.

I know that, in comparison to the the Antonine Plague, which killed between 5 and 10 million, (and we're complaining about statistical inaccuracies!) in the Second Century Roman Empire and the Spanish flu, which did for between 17 and 50 million, in 1918, Covid is nothing. A mere sniffle in the historical register. That given it's still true that Europe looks to be a bit poorly - 18,313 new cases and 1,726 dead in the last 24 hours. Mind you I'm not a health statistician so that may be the equivalent of a bad weekend on the roads for all I know. But, back at the Covid figures; the Russians and Turks are up there for new infections though the UK remains way out in front for deaths with Italy and France making up the top three and pushing us off the podium. Nonetheless, it's all looking a bit better, a bit healthier. 

The Americas are where it's all happening now (apart, obviously from Tulsa where Trump thought it a good idea to have an election rally yesterday). Brazil and the USA are currently running neck and neck in new infections but, yesterday, more people died in Brazil than in the US. If the Chinese are further ahead in quantum computing than Google and IBM (in projects headed up by Spaniards apparently) I presume that Donny can take some solace that the US is far and away the world leader in total Covid 19 dead. People are dying/have died in shedloads in Trump's United States and Bolsonaro's Brazil but Peru and Mexico don't look too cracky either. Interesting that countries like Venezuela and Nicaragua, run by madmen, have almost no reported deaths. Africa's numbers don't look "too bad" given that the head of the league table there for deaths, South Africa, is about equivalent to Ireland and over in Asia India doesn't look that good, number wise, but, given the population there I suppose they are doing remarkably well.

As for me I've just started book twenty - and it's in English for a change - and I'm wondering about that last wall.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Food heresy

People, in general, seem to be very interested in food. Spaniards certainly are. I think I've said before that the first time I ever managed to catch the drift of a conversation in Spanish, when I presumed that the discussion would centre on Wittgenstein or Nietzsche or, perhaps, the novels of Kafka it turned out to be an impassioned debate about the pros and cons of adding peas, or not, to some sort of stew.

Spanish food tends to plainness. Spicy is, generally, not seen as good. Recipes are often traditional and made from the ingredients to hand. It's permissible to argue about whether tortilla de patatas should have onion or not but basically the recipe is eggs, potatoes, oil, salt and nothing else. Woe betide the TV chef who thinks a clove of garlic or a couple capers might spice it up a bit. That's why Jamie Oliver got so much stick about chorizo in paella. Paella and arroz (rice) are interchangeable words in some situations but paella has fixed versions. If you want to cook rice with things in it that's fine - to each their own - but if you want to call it a paella the ingredients are limited and unalterable. The Spanish thinking is that you should not tamper with perfection. That perfection may be in anything; there are strong opinions about everything from black pudding, ham, cheese, cherries and oil through to how to serve suckling pig or what the perfect squid sandwich looks like.

Given this interest and passion for food the quality of the fare in run of the mill restaurants is really surprising. The menú del día, the daily menú, the set meal, is a Spanish institution. It's becoming less fashionable in big cities but it's still available all over the place. They're cheap enough and they're usually fine. There are (routinely) three courses and the price varies but let's say that they're about 10 or 11€. I can't remember though the last time that I ate a menú that really impressed me. Let me say again that they're fine. Perfectly edible, occasionally imaginative, extremely good value and plentiful. For me a bloke in a restaurant in a restaurant in Elda summed up the usual situation. To the habitual question, from the server, asking if the food had been good the chap avoided the equally inevitable reply and said "normal" which translates as fine, fine in that not wishing to get involved way, fine with the provisos of mass catering, fine in the way that someone with persistent arthritic pain answers the question as to how they are.

The prompt for this post came because we had our first menú for over three months this Sunday, in Santa Pola. The 12€ included a salad which was fine, a bit overcold and lacking in the usual spoonful of tuna top centre. The mushrooms in a such and such sauce sounded great but turned out to be deep fried McCain type jobs. Blindfolded I wouldn't have known what I was eating but they were fine. I had the cachopo as a main which is a dangerous choice - it's basically a battered steak, cheese and ham fritter - they can be quality food and yet so many times they taste like something out of a freezer at Iceland. The watermelon was nearly frozen but fine and the coffee was okey dokey too. Uninspiring, forgettable and perfectly acceptable. I wouldn't ever go back to the eatery out of choice but if that were all there were then, well, fine.

Now lots of people would disagree with me and I plead guilty to being old and grumpy. We have a local Indian restaurant. People keep reporting how good it is both face to face and in the social media. We thought it was average to poor when we first tried it within days of its opening. We listened to the rave reviews and we thought, maybe, they'd needed to get into their stride so we tried again. I thought it was poor. Covid 19 strikes and the restaurant is quick to take advantage of the rules and pushes its takeaway menu. The reviews from Brits are eulogistic. It must be me, I think, so we spend with them again. Terribly boring and rather unpleasant was my critique. Now maybe it's just me. Then again no, because, every now and again we bump into a restaurant, and it's never a menú place, where the nuances of the food are important, a place that reminds me of that conversation about the rightness, or not, of peas in a stew.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Lines on a map

Amazingly it is now 13 years since Maggie took up a job in Ciudad Rodrigo. Ciudad Rodrigo is a small town in Salamanca province in the autonomous community of Castilla y Leon. It's just 30 km from the Portuguese border. When I needed a service on my Mini, not surprisingly, the Spanish Mini Internet site directed me to the nearest Mini garage in Spain, in Salamanca city, nearly 100 km away. The nearest Mini dealer was actually in Guarda, in Portugal, just 70 km away.

A little less romantically Pinoso is in Alicante province on the frontier with Murcia. Maybe here I should clarify how Spain is administratively and politically carved up. The smallest unit is the municipality. Each municipality has a town hall. In our case Culebrón is in the municipality of Pinoso. We pay Pinoso town hall for lots of services like water supply and rubbish collection and it's where we go for administrative tasks like planning permissions or licences to burn garden waste. In turn Pinoso is in the province of Alicante so, for some services we have to go via the provincial capital, Alicante city, or maybe to an office in a larger, nearby town. The province of Alicante is in the autonomous community of Valencia, called La Comunitat Valenciana or the Valencian Community. Our autonomous community has three provinces - Alicante, Valencia and Castellón.

This structure of municipality, province and autonomous community holds good for most of Spain. Some autonomous communities are not divided into provinces. Our next door neighbour, Murcia, for instance is just one unit - The Region of Murcia. It's the same for other autonomous communities like Cantabria, La Rioja and Madrid and there are other variations.

This division is quite rigid. When I signed on the dole for instance I signed on at an office in Alicante province and I might have been offered jobs in Denia, about 140kms away, but I wouldn't be offered suitable jobs in nearby Yecla or Jumilla because they are in the Region of Murcia. I wasn't able to register in Murcia because I didn't live there.

So, back to Pinoso. Pinoso has nearly 8,000 registered inhabitants of whom about 500 are Britons. The very marked British presence in Pinoso owes something to the fact that Pinoso is a wild border town. Villages like Raspay, Cañada del Trigo, Gabrieles and Zarza (for instance) are a stones throw from Pinoso but they are in Murcia, in three different municipalities in fact. Equally people from Chinorlet and Casas del Señor would naturally shop in Pinoso, as the nearest town, but although those villages are in Alicante they are in the municipality of Monóvar. Under normal circumstances there's nothing to stop you driving your Berlingo in from Cañada or cycling in from Raspay to have your hair cut or get a coffee in Pinoso. Nonetheless the people who live in those villages don't figure in the Pinoso population numbers (because they don't live in the municipality) nor can they use services in Pinoso such as schools or health services. If you live on the other side of  the border, in Murcia, and you call 112 the fire engine, police car or ambulance won't come from Pinoso - it will come from further away.

Now comes the virus, comes Covid 19. Cross border travel is limited, banned in fact. I think, though I'm not sure, that there has been some sort of local arrangement between Pinoso and those nearby villages about sensible breaking of that rule - allowing people from just over the border to do their usual supermarket shop in their usual supermarket rather than have to do a 70 km round trip. But there is a limit to that leniency. 

As the confinement has started to loosen up things have started to re-open, amongst them the ITV stations. The ITV is the vehicle road worthiness test. The nearest test centres for Pinoso are in Yecla or Jumilla but both of those are in Murcia. On the wrong side of the uncrossable frontier. Going there, at the moment, is not permitted. Of course Britons being Britons are sure that it can't be that cut and dried and the questions, misinformation and personal stories abound.

There was a post on Facebook asking about going to Jumilla for an ITV during the quarantine. Jumilla is the preferred station because it is perceived as being slightly more lenient than other stations. Personally, after an incident with the steering on a Skoda 1000MB the day after an MOT in Hull in 1972, I'm all for the strictest vehicle tests, but that's another story. 

The question reminded me of an absurdity about the vehicle tests here in the Comunitat Valenciana. It was something I knew but which I'd half forgotten. I think it was back in 2004 that Valencia decided to introduce an additional test to control noise levels. My guess is that this was a weapon to fight those incredibly noisy mopeds and the like rather than to penalise your average Ford Mondeo driver but, nonetheless, the Valencian Community has a requirement that vehicles normally resident in the community must pass this noise test. The test is not a requirement in other communities. The ITV is, supposedly, a national test. Pop into an ITV testing station when you're in Cataluña and you're good for Andalucia or Extremadura or wherever. That's what Central Government says. But Valencia says that for its residents they have to be able to prove that their vehicle passes the noise test. I think it can be done separately so you could pass the ITV in la Rioja and then, within a month, do the noise test somewhere in Valencia but it's obviously easier to just get it done at ITV time. This means it's just possible that an overzealous Guardia Civil, fresh out of the academy and working Traffic, might hand out a fine for not having passed the noise test. I'm not sure what the outcome in court would be but I do know that going to court is an expensive and laborious process.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Learning things in books

You will remember that I have a theory that the majority of Spaniards classify birds into just three types:

1: Pajaros are biggish birds like blackbirds and pigeons. Pajaro in English translates as bird.

2: Pajaritos are smallish robin or sparrow sized birds. This is just the word pajaro with the termination -ito which is used for diminutives. An English example might be book and booklet or pig and piglet where the -let suggests something smaller.

3: Pato is used for birds with webbed feet, swimming birds like geese and swans. Pato translates directly as duck.

On more than one occasion I have asked a Spaniard to identify a bird, for instance, what I now know is a hoopoe or, maybe, I describe a magpie and and ask for the Spanish word for such a bird. The answer to both questions is pajaro. I find this amusing. Obviously my observation is partially true at best; there are lots of Spaniards who know birds. However, I have never been one to let the truth get in the way of a good story.

So, a little while ago I read a book about Magellan sailing around the world for the first time, proving that the Atlantic and Pacific were linked. Actually Magellan was killed in the Philippines but, the at one time mutinous, Juan Sebastián Elcano brought the Victoria home to complete that first ever circumnavigation.

In the book there is a quote which I recognised as endorsing my view. Magellan's boats, or ships if you prefer, were looking for a way through the waterway which is now called the Straits of Magellan. Part of the sentence in the book says "Exploran otras dos con igual resulatado: la bahía de los Patos, llamada así porque abundan en ella los pingüinos..." or, in English, "They explore two more (bays) with the same result: Duck Bay, so called because in it the penguins were so abundant.."

So, you see, historical, geographical and literary precedent.

Thursday, June 04, 2020

Warts and all

One Friday, ages ago, at the monthly few minutes of silence organised by the Plataforma El Pinós contra la violència de gènere I got talking to a couple. The bloke was a patent and trademark lawyer and he wanted to learn a bit of English.  We swapped phone numbers and later arranged to meet in a bar every week to speak to each other for a while in Castilian and for a while in English. Oh, and just in case your Valenciano is a bit rusty, a clumsy translation of the event would be The Pinoso Platform Against Gender Violence.

It's important here that I say Castilian or Castellano and not Spanish because there is no doubt that Jesús does not consider himself to be a Castilian; he's Valencian. He identifies as Catalan. At first that caused a bit of tension. He's really quite vehement in his nationalist views, but over the months it has become just one of those things that we are able to joke about. As he explains some Catalan point of view to me I am often reminded of that Clark Gable film where Mr. G ends up in a drinking match with the crew of a Russian patrol boat. Toasts along the lines of "Cheers, to Marconi, the inventor of radio", are countered with "Nostrovia, to Alexander Stepanovich Popov, who really invented radio".
After 84 days of linguistic abstinence we will be meeting for a chat tomorrow.

It's strange about Spanish, the Castilian, world Spanish variety, not the localised Catalan Spanish. I often complain that my Spanish is crap. I use that word. It is. I make a mistake in every sentence – errors which I recognise a nanosecond after uttering them. I curse my mistakes and mentally self flagellate. Yet my Spanish is reasonably good, well it is for an old fat English bloke who doesn't mix much. I can listen to the radio, read a novel or a newspaper article and, given the opportunity, I'd be overjoyed to get back to the cinema and see a film dubbed into Spanish. I can't though listen to the radio, read that novel or newspaper article or watch that film as easily in Spanish as I can in English.

It could be interesting tomorrow. I have had even less reason to speak Spanish over the last twelve weeks than my pitiful usual and I'd be amazed if Jesús has kept up his English. I know he's been swotting for exams. I'm rather expecting a pidgin and morale sapping session. The chilled beer will though, I'm sure, be excellent.

Thursday, May 28, 2020

And keep the change for yourself

Spain is bespattered with Chinos, Chinese owned shops. There are two principal types. One is like the old British corner shop where the family work all the time. It opens late, it sells sweets, pop and stuff plus basic food and all sorts of things that seem a bit out of place - piles of flip flops in over brittle and discoloured plastic bags piled on top of the crisp boxes. Here in Pinoso we don't have one of those. Our 24 hour shop, or it may be shops, are Spanish run. 

We do have two Chinos though; ours are the sort that sell everything except food. There are tools, cleaning products, stationery, earphones, phone cases, reading glasses, clothing, cleaning products, photo frames, light bulbs, pet supplies and a trillion other things. We Brits love them. We can hunt around the shelves looking for whatever it is rather than having to mime and splutter to, for instance, the person behind the haberdashery shop counter, "Err, I don't know how to say knicker elastic in Spanish." The two Chinese shops in Pinoso are awash with Britons though they're popular with the locals too.

The Chinos were the first places to close when the pandemic hit. I think there was a fear amongst the Chinese community that there would be some sort of racist backlash - the sort of knee-jerk stupidity beloved of the incoherent Donny Trump. When we moved phase here, when the stranglehold of quarantine started to be relaxed, the shops started to re-open. One of the Chinese shops couldn't because it's bigger than 400 square metres and the regulations said "no" to big shops. The other could though. I couldn't avoid the temptation as I passed on the first day it re-opened and I came away grinning with my haul of paint brushes, hosepipe connectors, car shampoo and whatnot. I hear that the bigger Chinese shop has now re-opened but that it's on a sort of ask at the door process. I've scratched my own itch so I've not been in. I have been to a bookshop though, and an ironmongers and the cold meat and olive stalls in the market. Spreading my paltry wealth around.

It's been good to see the "non essential" shops opening up again. It seems to be much more a hopeful sign of the return to normality, of fewer people dying, of politicians calling each other terrorists and coup plotters, than being able to go for a stroll or do a bit of exercise close to home for a limited period in a delimited time. To tell the truth, with being able to travel in province again, we made an appointment and went down to Torrellano to look at second hand cars. Whilst we were there we went to a bar with a view over the Med. It wasn't the first bar we've been to since the confinement began to ease - the machine coffee and the ice cold beer were great but, even better, it felt just like any old day in Spain for a while.

In general things seem to be getting back on track. This morning I had to get up early to take Maggie to her hairdresser who works a little outside Pinoso. Maggie told me that the appointment queue for the haircutter had been a long one as people made up for weeks of folicular fecundity. I know that my mum, in the UK, is really anxious to get her first professional shampoo and set after weeks of staying at home.

Who knows we may still get a fiesta or a concert or something this year.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Zilch, nada

I was trying to think of what to write. I wondered about something on having to wear masks in public. I thought about the slight loosening of restrictions - being able to get a beer outside a bar or go into a shop. Neither smacked of Herodotus nor even of Stephen King. And the message has all been a bit mixed up too; freer movement promised to people living in small towns, announced last weekend, still hasn't been enacted.

Next I considered the political argy bargy. I have been thoroughly appalled at the way that the opposition parties have been trying to make political capital out of the continuance, or not, of the state of alarm, the constitutional state which allows for a "unified command". Then it turned out that our President had done a secret deal with a political party that has a dodgy, terrorist, background, and kept it from his colleagues. Bang went the moral high ground.

What about the unrest on the streets, the people banging pots and pans to protest about the perceived government mishandling of the situation? To be honest that's not much of a story really. If you've been locked up in your house for going on three months, if the promised government "temporary dole" hasn't materialised and your mortgage is unpaid and everything you like to do has been scrubbed then it doesn't take much of a social media campaign to get a few hundred or even a few thousand people on the streets to moan and groan.

I wondered if there was something in the uncivic attitude of quite a lot of people. I think anti social would be the translation but uncivic seems so much more descriptive. We've spent all this time locked up to find tons of young people flouting the rules and cramming into bars and having beach parties because they're fed up of not being able to. That's not either interesting or particularly Spain related though is it?

What about working with my sources of outside stimulus? The books I've read or the stuff I'm watching on Netflix and Filmin? What about all the podcasts that I'm still listening to? Maybe there's something about the street Spanish I've been picking up from those sources. Boring - and I've done it before. I will though, thanks to the Netflix series Valeria, be off to Madrid as soon as they let me. The city really just looks so brill and what's that beer they drink all the time?

I considered the, hugely commented, Twitter post where someone, presumably British, said they'd made a Spanish omelette. This is one of those things where the failure of two nations to understand the other is a simple failure of translation. Spaniards think that the thick egg omelette with lots of veg., that Brits call Spanish omelette, is a blasphemous recreation of the Spanish tortilla de patatas. Mistreating the tortilla de patatas is nearly as bad, in Spanish eyes, as overcooked rice with things being described by foreigners as a paella. But I realised that unless you live here the fuss about recipes would almost certainly seem like time wasted.

So, nothing then, none of them would make a decent blog. Bother!

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Playing Detective with Ted Rogers

You'll probably find this really boring and almost incomprehensible so don't feel you need to read on.

During the late 1970s and 1980s there was a quiz show in the UK called 3,2,1 hosted by Ted Rogers. The original format for the show was invented in Spain by a bloke called Chicho Ibáñez Serrador. The Spanish name was the other way around - Un, dos, tres or 1,2,3. It was hugely successful here partly because, at the time, there were only two Spanish TV channels and the one that didn't carry 1,2,3 was rather highbrow.

On the same TV channel, but some 36 years after the last Un, dos, tres was broadcast, we watch a Spanish TV programme called El Ministerio del Tiempo - The Time Ministry. The idea behind El Ministerio del Tiempo is that there is a covert government ministry whose job it is to ensure that Spanish history remains unchanged. They are able to do this because they have access to a system of tunnels which lead to specific dates and places in the past. One of the reasons the past may be in danger is that there are lots of tunnels and not all are controlled by the Ministry. An important part of the background to the programme is that Spain has always had people working for the state, funcionarios, functionaries. As the Ministry of Time has always existed those civil servants were recruited to work for the Ministry of Time in their own period but where they work, in time, is flexible. 

Still with me? So, this week, a woman called Caroline and her husband are on the game show 1,2,3 in 1981. They win the star prize of a flat at the seaside. Caroline isn't a happy woman though. Her husband abuses her and, to escape being beaten up by him, she locks herself in the bathroom. As he pounds on the door she looks for a place to hide and climbs into the airing cupboard which just happens to be one of these time doors; one not one in the care of the Ministry. She comes out of the tunnel just as King Felipe IV is passing by doing a spot of hunting. He takes her in as a part of his Court. One of the things Caroline does there is to introduce 1,2,3 as a sort of parlour game. The King takes a shine to her and they decide to marry. This would rather mess up Spanish history as Felipe should marry Maria Anna of Austria. Our 21st century Time Ministry team spring into action to keep things in order.

At one point in the story the King and Caroline leave a room and say "¿Nos alabamos?" It sounded like a farewell, TTFN, but, literally it means something like "Do we praise ourselves?" It was pretty obvious that it wasn't being used that way and, clearly, it had something to do with the game show - I presumed it was a catch phrase. I went a Googling and then asked a couple of chums for clarification.

The answer is that some of the regular characters in the 1,2,3 show were a comic trio, The Hurtado Sisters or las hermanas Hurtado. Whenever they were leaving the stage they would say "¿Nos alabamos? ¡Hala, vamos! ¡hala, vamos!, ¡hala, vamos!..."  The "hala vamos" means something like "wow, let's go" but the point is that in Spanish Bs and Vs sound the same. Equally Spanish Hs are silent. So, "Hala vamos" and "Alabamos" have exactly the same pronunciation. The catch phrase was a sort of humorous play on words. There is also a second significance for good Catholics because one of the responses that the congregation make during the mass is "Te alabamos Señor" or "We praise you Lord".

And that''s it. I told you you'd find it boring but I feel like a regular Hercule Poirot having found that out.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020


I'm a bit of a list maker. Any job has a validity all of its own. Watching a TV programme, blowing up the bike tyres or even having a beer can all be jobs. So, for instance, completing my tax return or looking through the new book of photos that I've just bought have a similar status. In reality, I suppose, the tax return is probably more pressing but the new book gave me a photo for the blog! The mummified nuns were dug up in Barcelona at the start of the Civil War. One in the eye for the Church.

So, for eight weeks lots of the limiting, delimiting, factors went away. You can't paint a wall if you have no paint and the shops are shut. You can't not be able to do something because it's time to go to the theatre when there is no theatre. This week though the world regained some of its normality. Watching the scenes on the telly of people getting together I tend to think that we may have a bit of a rebound to the killing fields but, by then, the Government will have lost the vote on centralised control and it could all be quite interesting. Like having one of those credit cards in the 1990s living in the countryside has its privileges.

Anyway, Maggie is back at work. Just her usual part time slot from 10 till 2 and I'm driving her in and then coming home. It's amazing how those time limits have played havoc with my ability to complete essential jobs like reading a book, weeding the garden or writing a blog.

Well that's one off the list at least.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Lunching out

We're going to have takeaway for lunch. I'm almost beside myself with excitement. Well no, not really, but it is a bit of an event. At the moment almost anything at all different is an event. Of course Maggie is going back to work tomorrow so that will be a big change. With the easing of our confinement we could even go and get a beer outside a bar. I'm not sure how keen I am on that. Great to get a beer and to watch the world go past but it's still a world full of masks and latex gloves and having waited eight weeks I don't want to be too previous. Latex, of course, can be quite interesting. I once went to a club in the West End where everyone wore latex. I'm amazed to this day that they let me in wearing my interview suit but I think it was along the same lines as the Sioux not killing the geologist from the wagon train because they considered he was slightly mad grovelling amongst the stones and mumbling to himself. I talked to a bloke in the club, Skin Two, who I initially thought was really fat but then he undid the ankles on his one piece suit and all the sweat ran out and he was much, much thinner. Latex gloves are more reminiscent of internal exams and dentists than a subculture though and I'd prefer that they weren't an everyday part of my life.

So we don't really have to decide about how much advantage we take of the more relaxed movement from tomorrow, with our area being given Phase 1 status, but today we're still pretty much locked in. I can go and get pre-ordered food though perfectly legitimately. It's not takeaway in the same spirit that Madrid chose to look after it's "free school meal" youngsters by sending TelePizza and McDonald's with chicken McNuggets. They eventually stopped that but not before the President of Madrid defended the food saying something like "I'm sure the kids will enjoy pizza and burgers".

No. Eduardo, our local restaurant in the village has a big sign outside to say that they are doing takeaway. And when they're on form I think the food at Eduardo's is good. Anyway I'm all for supporting a local business and you don't get much more local than our restaurant in Culebrón. We're getting croquettes, gachamiga (a sort of doughy, garlicky pancake) and paella with rabbit and snails. I've just realised. The big paella pan will be hot and it could potentially scorch the carpets in the back of the motor so I'd better give up writing and get to lining the boot with cardboard before Eduardo phones.

Enjoy your lunch too.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Longer than the time in the desert

I've been thinking about the changes that happen slowly. I'm not talking about the sort of time needed to form the Himalayas or even the period of time that the Chauvet Cave was active. I'm thinking about how Marlon Brando, Dan Aykroyd, William Shatner and Alec Baldwin became so much bigger. Really I'm thinking about seven, going on eight weeks. I'm thinking about why so many people were champing at the bit to get to a haircut when the hairdressers re-opened yesterday. I suppose all those weeks is a big slice of the year.

I was doing reasonably well at knocking off weight before I was given detention in March. I'd lost about 11 kilos from Christmas but, this morning as I jelly rolled my stomach the distance between the shower and washbasin, ready to shave, apply brylcreem and brush my teeth I couldn't pretend that I wasn't putting it back on again. I also realised that I wasn't wearing slippers. No need for a bathmat on the floor to protect my little tootsies from the cold tiles. Last night, yesterday, we had no heating on anywhere in the house at any time. The pellets I bought for the stove on my first weekly outing in mid March, pellets sold at an incredibly inflated price, are still unused. We've had a very wet few weeks with lots of torrential rain but even when it rains and blows, when the weather definitely isn't nice, it has stopped being cold. We're back to T-shirt weather. In fact my nose is a bit red from the sun and my farmer's tan is returning from the time in the garden.

In those weeks Jess, the cat who was living in the garden, hasn't started to watch the telly with us or claw at the bedhead/sofa/record collection but she does wander in every now and then to see if there is better food down for the house cats than for her in the garden. At the beginning of the confinement she was definitely felina non grata but, 50 days later, Beatriz, Teodoro, Isabel, Fernando and Federico occasionally scream or spit at her but, basically, they tolerate her. We now, definitely, have six cats. In fact sit down to have a cup of tea and read a book in the garden and she's straight up on your knee like a fluffy purring machine. We can only presume that she's a domestic cat that fell on hard times.

Since mid March the garden has gone a luxuriant green, multicoloured actually. Despite tens and tens of man hours (specific not sexist) the weed situation remains unchanged. The little buggers are still everywhere. Outside the house the green is even more impressive and there are reds, yellows, purple and white capped plants everywhere. The explosion of flowers and plants is accompanied by the sounds of all sorts of small flying and crawling beasts. There are birds too, they all make plenty of noise and the swallows leave calling cards all over the car just to remind us that they are back from Africa. Our cats come back covered in ticks - but the ixodida don't dig in and suck blood because the cats were dosed with anti parasite stuff just before quarantine. The ticks do hitch a lift into our living room from time to time. There are thousands of mosquitoes too. The village WhatsApp group has lots of horrid pictures of people covered in bites. We've been affected too, me much less so than Maggie. She always suffers from allergies at this time of year as well but the bites must be infuriatingly itchy. Our guess is that it's all worse because the tractors, the ploughs, the harrows, the pickers and traffic in general hasn't been moving around. Just as the owls are back nesting in the towns, because there's nothing to stop them, that same nothing is not knocking the ticks off their perches and nothing is churning up the puddles and pools to keep the mossies down.

And I won't say anything about the apparently growing stupidity of the Spanish politicians who seem determined to wage their petty little party political wars at enormous potential cost. There is a good chance that the Government won't get the support it needs to extend the State of Alarm for another couple of weeks. My guess is that, with a bit of brinkmanship, they'll get it this time but that will be the last extension following the current model. Once that model goes, and with it the emergency powers, who can say how it will all develop. With a bit of luck all will be calm in Culebrón and the sun will be beating down. My hair may be longer too.

Saturday, May 02, 2020

One Monday Morning

Today is May 2nd. It's an important date in Spanish, and Madrid history. It is the reason that the famous Goya painting at the left exists. Years ago I wrote this article for the old TIM magazine.

The 2nd of May 1808. A Monday morning in Madrid. We've had French soldiers swaggering all over the city since March. I blame the old King, King Carlos IV, when he let that lackey of his, Godoy, do a deal with Napoleon to invade Portugal. Imagine that! Our troops fighting alongside all those Frenchy gabachos. Why would we side with that lot after the way they let us down at Trafalgar? Those cowardly Frenchy sailors ran away leaving our lads in the lurch and letting that one eyed, one armed Brit dwarf sink our navy. Lot of good it did the old boy anyway. Napoleon forced him to abdicate in favour of that son of his, Fernando VII, Now old Boney has both our Kings in France at Bayona planning to do goodness knows what with them.

This morning's rumour is that General Murat, Napoleon's brother in law no less, who seems to think that he owns this country, plans to send the last of our Royals up to Bayona. Our worthless puppet government, the Junta de Gobierno, said no but Murat won't take any notice of them. He'll do what he likes. I'm off to the Royal Palace for a bit of a look see. It's time we showed those gabachos that enough is enough.

And that's where it started. Our man, along with a bunch of other Madrileños, the people of Madrid, forced their way into the Palace. Murat had dealt with rioters before. He'd blown a demonstrating mob in Paris apart with canister shot but in Madrid the result was different. Instead of running home and hiding, as the Parisians had done, the Madrileños began to fight.

Murat was confident of his army. The men in Madrid were a part of the Grande Armée of France. The Great and Invincible French Army that had crushed everyone and everything in it's path for years. It included not only Frenchmen but soldiers gathered together from all over Europe, and beyond: Dutch cavalry, Hungarian Hussars, Polish horsemen and the fearsome, turban wearing, desert warriors, the Mamelukes. The finest army in the world against a rabble, ridden with lice, living in hovels and armed with knives and outdated shotguns. That rabble was angry though and in the narrow streets of Madrid hordes of them fell on those fine cavalry horses and their moustachioed riders, overwhelmed them and hacked them to pieces with their long country knives. Dragoons, who had survived the bloodiest battles in history, died in a rain of plant-pots hurled from balconies by housewives.

Spanish troops garrisoned in the city had been confined to barracks before the revolt because the French didn't quite trust them. Two captains, Luis Daoíz and Pedro Velarde, stationed at Monteleón Artillery Barracks, disobeyed orders, joined the insurrection and became national heroes. They organised a handful of soldiers and ordinary Madrileños who not only beat off the first French attack but took the commanding general prisoner. Murat was amazed and furious. He sent a larger force to overwhelm the Spanish defence. Both Spanish officers perished in the attack.

The French eventually regained control of the city. The best figures suggest that over four hundred Spaniards died, many of them before summary firing squads (The Goya painting), when the fighting was over. French losses were about 130.

On June15 Napoleon’s brother, Joseph, was proclaimed King of Spain, leading to a general anti-French revolt. In August, a British force under Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington, landed on the Portuguese coast. By mid 1809, the French had abandoned Portugal. In Spain it took longer for the British and Spanish to defeat Napoleon's army and it wasn't till 1813 that the Battle of Vitoria finally saw the French driven from the Iberian peninsula.