Thursday, February 20, 2020

Crossing in style

At the kerb, halt! Eyes right, Eyes left, Eyes right again. If the road is clear, Quick march! - that was my generation; military. Then there was a squirrel, Tufty Fluffytail, and later the Green Cross Code Man. Or it may have been the other way around. I forget.

In Pinoso they have just painted some symbols on the zebra crossings. Apparently these symbols are there primarily to help people with autism but they reckon they may be of help to people with learning difficulties and also to we older, vaguely aware, people.

My experience is that Spanish drivers habitually stop for pedestrians on crossings - there's no cat and mouse to it, no gamespersonship. If you are waiting at a crossing or approaching one then cars will stop. It even works in big cities. Spanish people have sometimes told me that I'm wrong but one's experiences are one's experiences.

I mentioned the new symbols to my pal Jesús as we nattered over a coffee the other day. They've got it wrong he joked. The symbols say Stop, Look, Car stopped, Cross. That's not right. Why should the pedestrian have to stop or look? The instructions should just say Cross! It's up to the cars to stop.

I sniggered but I have to say that, when driving, the number of people who do not slacken their pace as they walk from pavement to zebra can be quite alarming. My personal favourites are the ones pushing prams before them as they stare at their mobile phone.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Good result

Seventy days ago someone from the health service rang me to tell me that my routine poo stick test showed traces of blood. I saw the doctor a couple of days after that and, in the same week, I got some blood tests. Do you remember when dentist's used to give lollipops to children after fillings? Well in Pinoso Health centre they gave me a big box. "Oohh, laxatives, just what I've always wanted".

The appointment for the colonoscopy was today at Elda Hospital. I was worried about what it might show but I wasn't at all worried about the process. This is the third time that doctors have thought I might have cancer and my concern was that, statistically, the odds must be shortening. So, the 54 hours of fasting and the Ajax like scouring effect of the laxatives passed off normally enough given the abnormal situation.

Three young woman were in charge of setting up the patients ready for a colonoscopy. They told me to strip below the waist, to leave my socks on (so far just like a 70's porn film) and to come out wearing the towel. "NO, NO, not THAT towel!!!! There was a much larger towel hanging over the screen than the one I'd found on the chair.

Once I was on the bed I with the towel arranged sarong like to give easy access I got all the usual sort of control questions - allergies, medical history, favourite musical as well as a bit of a third degree about my fasting and toilet habits. I was having a conversation about the band James with one of the women, who had done a work stint in Leeds, whilst one of the others poked and prodded me in an attempt to find veins for the cannula. She tried both arms, five attempts all together. It's an old problem, deep veins. At one point, as I clenched and unclenched my fist to pump up the veins, one of the women told me to relax, she obviously didn't think I relaxed enough - NO, RELAX. I replied that it was a bit difficult to relax knowing they were going to shove a tube up my arse. All three laughed as though I were the first person to ever make that comment. More likely, they were laughing at my Spanish. Now we're going to put you to sleep. Think about something nice.

The next time I knew anything one of the young women was saying hello and suggested that I should rub my stomach hard to get a bit of farting going. I asked what time it was, Maggie was waiting outside as I wasn't supposed to drive, and it had only been about forty minutes from start to finish.

I asked about results as they shooed me into the corridor. "The doctor will be with you shortly," they said. And, true enough a young woman doctor came and handed me a note for my GP. "Obviously we can't be absolutely certain until we've done the biopsy but all we found was a very small polyp which we've snipped off. You're in the clear".

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Trying to get an ID card

In Spain you have to carry ID at all times. For Spanish nationals they have an identity card, the DNI and for foreigners there is a TIE, the Foreigner's Identity Card. EU citizens, within an EU country like Spain, are neither Nationals nor foreigners. This means that EU citizens have to carry the form of ID in use in their country. Now we Brits are a little odd in that we don't have an ID card so Brits are supposed to carry their passport with them at all times in case the "Competent Authority" needs to see it.

As well as the need to carry identification EU citizens, living in Spain, have to register. When the scheme was first introduced the registration certificate was a bit of green A4 paper but later it became smaller and more card like, something like the old UK paper driving licence.

A couple of weeks ago the UK left the European Union. Consequently the registration document became a bit of an anachronism for UK citizens. Nonetheless with the transition period, the limbo time, we're neither fish nor fowl. Quite what's going to happen is a bit moot. As everyone else in Spain carries ID then Britons are obviously going to have to do the same in time. There are a lot of us though, nearly 366,000, so if we all popped out to get our new ID between now and the end of the transition period it may all get a bit congested. Currently the idea is that the process for exchanging the green certificate for something more like the Spanish or Foreigners card, will be quick, cheap and easy.

Getting an appointment to go to one of the offices where ID cards and the like are handed out has become a bit of a problem. Most of the time it doesn't matter much to we (relatively) wealthy Brits, it's usually no more than a minor inconvenience. Not always though. It can sometimes make life very difficult even for we haves. For the have nots who need to rent a flat or find a job it can be disastrous.

The few weeks I spent in the Cub Scouts taught me to be prepared. I applied for an appointment back in November to get myself a new identity card appointment after the Brexit date. Clearly stating that I was British and I wanted the Foreigner's Identity Card, the TIE, I got an appointment. I'm not isolated though; I read the press, I have been keeping up to date with the Brexit information from the British and Spanish Governments as well as checking the Citizens Advice Bureau Spain stuff. I knew that the process wasn't going to be generally available on the date of my interview.

I came very close to cancelling the appointment. In the end I asked the Citizen's Advice people what they thought, expecting the answer to be that there wasn't a chance. What they actually said was along the lines of - you've got nothing to lose by having a bash, have a go and tell us how you get on.

I went, yesterday. The appointment was in Benidorm. The policeman on the front of house information desk was acting as gatekeeper asking all sorts of questions before allowing anyone to stay. I thought that was quite positive. He was turning away well over 75% of the people for being in the wrong office, not having an appointment or not having the basic documentation.

I got seen half an hour after my appointment time. I told another police officer what I was there for. He looked at the paperwork and said no. He reckoned it would be September before they started to process we Britons. It took him about 2 minutes to turn me away. I wasn't surprised, I wasn't shocked or angry. It was just a bit of a waste of time.

Hang on, let's say he's right and they get cracking on September 1. The end of the transition period is 31 December 2020. That's 121 days (we'll pretend there are no holidays or Sundays) so if there are 365,967 Britons resident in Spain my arithmetic says they will need to process 3,024 people a day.

Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Olive, the Other Reindeer?

When you buy a beer at a bar in Spain they usually give you something to go with it - olives are favourite. In fact olives are everywhere in Spain. They come in salads, they grow in the fields beside the road, they get milled over the road in Culebrón village and we always cook with olive oil as well as using it for dressing on salad.

I needed olives and beef for the recipe. We only had black olives in the cupboard so I added green olives to my shopping list.

When I got to the shelf with the olives I found black olives, olives stuffed with anchovies, olives stuffed with jalapeño pepper, olives stuffed with red pepper and even a variety made to look like a monster sperm by shoving a small gherkin into the hole where the stone had been drilled out. There were also the manzanilla ones.

Now manzanilla is an interesting word. If you're in Sanlucar de Barrameda it's the local dry sherry. I prefer it to the similar fino sherry produced in nearby Jerez de la Frontera though both are rather splendid. Manzanilla is also camomile or camomile tea; once, in Vigo, in a bar, we asked if they had manzanilla. We were delighted when they said yes and mightily disappointed when the anticipated crisp cool dry white wine appeared and was some sort of nerve tonic tea.

Alongside the other olives were lots of Manzanilla olives. I'd always presumed they were sherry soused. I sniggered to myself as I searched the shelves. Imagine that, a country loaded with olives and no olive flavoured olives to be bought. I asked a passing shop worker and she pointed to the Manzanilla ones. "But aren't they flavoured with wine?," I asked. "No, manzanilla is a variety of olive," she replied.

I felt stupid. Something so simple and something that has taken me fifteen years to discover

Tuesday, February 04, 2020


Despite knowing that there are a bunch of men knocking things down and building things up outside our living room window it's amazing how many times we've gone to open the door to a building that no longer exists to get the vacuum cleaner! We're a bit unsettled and, probably because of that, things seem to be coming in clumps.

The demolition denied us hot water and laundry facilities but, thanks to the generosity of a couple of friends, we can now shower and launder. We also had a problem with Maggie's car and it's off the road. There again, someone stepped up and loaned us a motor for a bit.

In amongst the general upheaval the heating in our house packed up. It turned out to be a blocked chimney starving the burner of air which is what Maggie had suggested it might be right from the get go! Once the fitter had the burner working again we needed to get a chimney sweep. The bloke who came didn't sound like Dick Van Dyke nor did he have any small boys to send up the chimney. He did have big vacuum cleaners and brushes that were turned by an electric drill. He also had very sooty hands so I presume I can expect nothing but good luck after shaking one of them. He was English. I thought it was an intelligent choice of self employment in an area where there are still lots of open fires, wood burners and pellet stoves.

A couple of hours before the sweep we had a tanker truck come to suck out the liquids and solids from our cesspit. The builders had complained that they were paddling in fetid pools as they dug foundations. The tanker driver made me feel very inadequate. "Your cesspit is tiny, made from concrete," he said, "only two thousand litres." It sounded like a personal failing. He also suggested that instead of calling him so often we should get a small pump and pump out the nutrient rich liquid ourselves to spread around the garden. That way we'd have to call him only when the tank was more slurry than liquid. We will take it under advisement.

A bit later, the same afternoon, the carpenter who is making a glass panelled sliding door for us popped around to pick up some bits and bats. Apparently the door is nearly ready and, when it is, the building work will move inside.

This morning the builders arrived surprisingly early. I needed to get dressed in double quick time to move the cars from the drive as they get in their way. As I was doing that a big cement mixer truck appeared and threaded its way up the very narrow track alongside our house.

I like to believe that I'm still quite active but the truth is that I will be pleased when I can go back to getting up, having a shower, eating breakfast and doing a bit of reading before a routine day kicks off. We old people, at least this old person, like stability and routine.

Sunday, February 02, 2020

Eating to learn

One of the questions that Spaniards ask me, from time to time, is "Have you ever tried.......?" The dots represent some typical, local food. It's a question that makes me feel unloved. They obviously suspect that I sit at home listening to the BBC wearing my Union Flag socks and eating Chicken Tikka Masala.

It might, I suppose, be a reasonable question at times. Imagine we have a Spaniard who has lived in Notting Hill for fifteen years. I say, "Have you ever tried Parkin?" or "Have you ever tried bubble 'n' squeak?" They are not common foods. On the other hand were my question to be, "Have you ever tried roast beef and Yorkshire pudding?" the question verges on the insulting. I do understand where a Spaniard might get the BBC and socks idea though. The Spanish TV News has been full of Brexit the last couple of days and the cameras went in search of the British immigrant response. They went to places like San Fulgencio where they filmed immigrant Britons reading the Daily Mail as they tucked into a Full English at outside tables in the sun.

I don't eat in Spanish homes very often but the last twice that I have the food has been spectacular. It was Arroz al Horno, oven baked rice, in the first and Cocido in the second. Arroz al Horno translates easily but Cocido doesn't; the verb simply means cooked and the noun is a stew. Neither convey the complexity of Cocido.

I've had Cocido in restaurants only a couple of times in all the years that I've been here. On the plate it usually looks like a sort of half stew; lots of thin gravy with a selection of chickpeas, vegetables and potatoes that have been cooked until they are very soft alongside some cheap cuts of meat cooked for ages to make them tender. I thought that was what the real thing looked like and that I knew two factual things about Cocido. As it turns out both were wrong. The first was that it's a dish linked with Madrid. Our hosts were very firm that it is typical of Valencia too.  The second was that the home-made version produced two courses from one pot cooking. I had it in my head that the chickpeas, meat and other veg, were cooked inside a muslin bag, so that their flavours seeped into the water producing a broth which was then used to produce a noodle soup, whilst the meat and veg were served as the second course.

It's not that I was far off in my idea but it's a bit like making tea in a microwave. It might work but it's just not right. In fact, traditionally, the chickpeas go inside the muslin bag but not the meat. The veg, things like cabbage, potatoes, turnips and carrots are cooked apart. The broth is used to make the soup (photo at left) but some is kept back to serve with the meat. Then again I also suspect that originally Cocido was a dish designed to use up left overs and that there are as many versions of Cocido as there are people who make it. Google certainly presented me with a wide variety of recipes. The one we had yesterday had the pelotas -the meat balls I talked about when I went to the Cuadrillas in Patiño - and black pudding sausages and turkey legs as well as knee joints and ham-bone. To be fair it's not an attractive looking dish but it tasted great. The cook said that the whole lot had taken hours to prepare. Her effort was my gain both culturally and weight wise.

A couple of days after eating the Arroz al Horno I had a go at making one at home. I thought my effort was OK and Maggie didn't complain as she ate it all up. I don't think I'll be having a go at the Cocido though. Far too complicated.

The photos are just from somewhere on the Internet.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Banking on it

My bank sent me a letter, well there was a message on the website, to say that I should ensure that they held the correct details on me. Apparently this was going to help them combat money laundering. I can see that. Anyway the documentation said I was a teacher and, as I have an official looking certificate to say that I am in receipt of a Spanish State Pension, I thought it would be easy to do.

Going into a Spanish bank requires time. A lot of time and the patience of a halo wearer. I very seldom have to go to a branch but, yesterday, I did. There was the usual confusion about which desk to use - not a linguistic confusion. In this case, four desks, three of which seemed willing to deal with people and one of which seemed to be doing something on his computer which may have been high finance or he could have been playing Fornite Battle Royale. I behaved like a good Spaniard, I staked my place in the general queue for the cash desk, just in case it was there, then I asked the spare man where to queue. "Any of the desks there," he said, pointing vaguely. "No, not that line, either of those two,"  he said, "Oh, no, sorry, just with the woman". I bantered with the other customers about how useful it would be to have a desk that said Information or maybe a sign that said this desk for blahdy blah and that for whatchamacallit.

I got to the front of the queue. "Easy peasy," said the woman, "Do you have any proof that you're a pensioner?" I produced the certificate and she beamed. No problem for her about it being a British pension. No problem because I had no proof. Those Chechen money launderers should get one. She started to tap tap tap on her computer. The tapping got harder. "¡No va!," she said. It doesn't go, it's not working. She complained about computers and I sympathised. She tried time after time. I looked over my shoulder and wondered about the queuing time for the people furthest from the desk. "Do you have any errands to do?," she asked. "I can ring you when it comes back on".

So I did the supermarket shop and I drank two cups of coffee and read a chapter of Viaje al corazón de España, Journey to the heart of Spain. Well over an hour, closer to 90 minutes. I went back to the bank. "No", she said, "I told you I'd ring." She phoned about ten minutes later. For some reason the database didn't want to just change teacher to pensioner it also wanted my ID number, my phone number, my inside leg measurement and my preference in chocolate biscuits. The address proved tricky. Despite copying out the address that was on the letter they'd sent, the address they held for me, the computer repeatedly said no. I noticed the mistake this morning, some twenty hours after it would have been useful. The woman knows how to spell and wrote Caserío but the database didn't and wanted Caserio. Do you see the difference? It happens a lot. Spanish programs use accents -á,é,í, ó,ú, ü and ñ - but US and UK type programs don't. She got round it by basically inventing an address. Then I signed two or three documents and, after only a little over two and a half hours my documentation was up to date and my money laundering days were over.

There was going to be something much more important and much more terrifying later in the day but I'm not going to share that on the blog!

Monday, January 27, 2020

Hunky Dory

Our house is very small. Originally, we think, it was a couple of tiny, single storey cottages that have now been knocked into one. At the back of the house we have a small, enclosed, courtyard and, over the years previous owners have built inside that to increase the habitable space.

One of the courtyard "extensions" was basically an amateur build corridor, with a tin roof, extending from the original front door. In the photo to the left you can see where that extension ran. We had it spruced up a bit when we first moved in but we haven't done anything to it in the last 15 years. Over the years we've noticed lots of small signs that the corridor was moving - non fitting doors and then cracking tiles and plaster work. It's got much worse in the last year so Maggie decided we needed to do something about it.

We asked three builders for quotes to rebuild and update it. Just one of them, after about three months delay, nearly came up with a price. It wasn't very specific. I asked again for something that outlined exactly what we were getting and how much it would cost. I also stressed, right from the start, that we wanted this done legally with all the permissions in place. My track record with the authorities suggests that should we decide to cut any administrative corners we could expect trouble.

The builder said he'd be round last Thursday. Instead three blokes turned up armed with Kango hammers and other tools of mass destruction. I spent a happy morning racing them to carry stuff out of the quickly disappearing building. Three or four working days later and it's all gone. They are now digging foundations for the replacement corridor. The reason for the sinking building looks reasonably obvious. Lots of fractured pipes and very boggy ground. I have no idea whether they intend to do something about that. The builders are Ukrainian. They don't speak, really speak, either English or Spanish which makes communication just a tad difficult.

We'd thought about this carefully and we were well prepared to deal with the disruptions which the building work would obviously cause. Our washing machine was in that space. We have nowhere else where we can relocate the machine. Our water heater was in that space. We have no hot water and for a day we had no water at all. Stinking clothes, vile bodies and undone washing up then.

It's not that comfortable in Culebrón at the moment. Some neighbours have offered us use of a shower and a washing machine for 10€ a day (which is going to add up!) but, to add insult to injury our main source of heating, a pellet burner, has stopped working. It won't light. Our living room is very cold and the first bloke who came to fix it was obviously the sort of expert you need to get you out of a hole. He reckoned the stove had been struck by lightning. Another firm doubts that they can access any spares.

So the house is freezing, we have no hot water, we can't wash clothes, the place is filthy and there are a couple of blokes we can't speak to outside our window with pneumatic drills.


Since posting this we have had lots offers of help - offers of washing machines, tumble dryers, showers and gas heaters as well as lots of advice about how to get around the problems. We've also been offered two places to stay and one of those offers came from as far away as the Eastern reaches of Russia. People have been and are being remarkably generous. Thank you to you all.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Put another log on the fire mother

I'm a bit of a softy weatherwise. We get  a lot of extreme weather here  and I don't like it. Well, I don't like most of the extremes. When the sun's beating down in June, July and August that's an extreme I can be doing with. I don't like it though when the wind blows hard. I expect the garden chairs, or something else not firmly anchored, to smash into my parked car. I can visualise the pine trees outside the house toppling over and taking down the roof of the house. I don't like it when it hails. Again I worry about the motor. Cars with hundreds of little craters, in the skyward facing bodywork, are commonplace around here. I don't like it when it rains hard. I am quite sure the drain in the back patio will block and that water will flood into our living room and even if that doesn't happen it's a certainty that the water will gouge deep channels into the track outside our house. I don't like it when the temperature drops either and our water pipes freeze.

As I typed this thunder was booming out. The rain had been coming down in sheets. We've had sleet and snow and there has been a biting cold wind. I can see snow on the hills opposite our house. In fact we've been lucky. Yecla and Villena, which are within 40 kms of here, have had heavy snow; Villena was even isolated for a while. Down on the coast the waves have been going over the top of beach side houses. The TV news has been much more about Borrasca Gloria than it has about Trump losing his few remaining marbles or politicians suggesting direct rule from Madrid of Murcia to stem the homophobia of the far right party Vox.

We've been doing our bit to bring about the next mass global extinction by pouring heat into our house to keep warm the past few days. As we have almost no insulation of any sort, anywhere, the heat just flies out of the doors, windows and roof. I've been looking for figure, that I'm sure I saw a couple of years ago, that said something like 80% or 90% of all new builds in Alicante province had the poorest levels of insulation using that Energy Performance Certificate rating. In the hunt I found that Spain ranks as No. 7 in the most energy efficient countries in the World (Germany No. 1, UK No. 5) which would seem to go against my half remembered fact. There is a difference though. When Spaniards ask me what I least like about Spain I always say the horrid winters. For most of the year we have blue skies and sun outside but in winter, when the midday outside temperature is 12º C, it can be T shirt weather in the garden and mitten weather in the ice box that is our living room. It's dead normal to see people sitting in offices around here wearing coats as they work. Now in the colder parts of Spain, like Burgos and Pamplona, houses and buildings in general are set up to deal with the bad winter weather but in Alicante and Murcia people stubbornly cling to the belief that we only have a couple of cold months. The table below shows the figures for our nearest weather station for 2019. 

I'll leave you to decide but I don't think that 3ºC is very warm, it's when the ice warning pings on my car. There were only 6 months last year when it didn't get that cold overnight on at least one day in the month. On average there were just four months when the mean temperature was 20ºC or more. Bear in mind that the World Health Organisation's standard for comfortable warmth is 18 °C for normal, healthy adults who are appropriately dressed and for the sick, disabled, very old or very young, a minimum of 20°C. Again, just to stress, that there is a lot of difference between the air temperature, the accepted norm, and how you might feel sitting out in full sunshine with the same temperature.


The photo is of Villena yesterday.

Monday, January 13, 2020

And I worked in Community Education for years

Yesterday I went to see the 32nd Encuentro de Cuadrillas in Patiño, an area of Murcia City. Cuadrillas are musical groups made up of between 15 and 20 people. The programme told me that Cuadrillas, are typical of the Murcia Region and first made their appearance during the 17th Century to provide music at many of the annual round of rites and festivals. It goes on to talk about the variety of musical styles and the range of instruments used (many of which I presume are not in common use) and how the repertoire has been handed down orally from generation to generation.

It's not the first time that I've seen Barandillas. On the last Sunday of January in Barranda, a satellite village of Caravaca de la Cruz, they have a Fiesta of Barandillas. I've been there three times and it has always been gloriously sunny. The groups take up positions throughout the village centre so that you can watch one group for a while and then move on to the next. There's also a big market and the town is packed to the gunwales with people.

So, the description of Patiño said something about hot chocolate and churros (pastries) to start, then a mass before the groups performed on a central stage. There was also the mention of "jam sessions" along one of the town's streets. The added incentive was that there was free food at lunchtime. Free pelotas made and given away by the good citizens (nearly all women) of Patiño. Pelotas are meatballs. It's a name that means different things in different areas; basically they are all meatballs but, that said, each town and village, possibly each cook, produces a quite distinct product. In this case the meatballs are quite small and, apparently, made from turkey. The broth that accompanies them is as important as the meatballs themselves. In Pinoso we have meatballs too which are called faseguras (in Valenciano) and relleno (in Castellano) but I think they are made from pork and sausage meat (though I could be wrong).

Anyway. So I'm expecting a central stage but music all over the place. In fact it was just the Cuadrillas on stage, one after another, with chairs for the audience. At the front, between the chairs and the stage, there was room for people to dance and lots of people had brought castanets to click along. There may have been more music on the streets in the afternoon but I cleared off after grabbing my free food so it hadn't happened by a little after 3.30 pm when I left.

I was writing this up in my diary this morning and I wrote that it hadn't been as good as I'd expected. It was a bit of a revelation because, thinking about it, the event in Barranda, with the musicians surrounded by people, with the spontaneous dancing along the streets, with music on every corner has the advantage of being much more participative, much more community like. The Patiño event had performers to be watched and listened to (and maybe danced to) but it was nowhere near as inclusive. Thinking about it all the events I enjoy most are inclusive ones. In some of those the participation is simply as a crowd but where the crowd is so close to the action as to be a part of it and there are others, like the ofrendas, the flower offerings, and the romerias (short distance pilgrimages) where the participants are the event.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

I still bought a pullover

A pal tells me that Ralph Lauren clothes are, generally, badly made and hugely overpriced. I don't care really. In my time I've liked, and bought, a fair few bits of Ralph but I don't think I've ever paid full price. Outlet Centres and Sales have provided all of them. I know I shouldn't be sucked in by the label thing but in the 80s I learned the habit and I've never altogether lost it. True nowadays I buy more clothing at Primark and Carrefour than I do from Ted Baker but I still like labels.

In Spain the January Sales used to be proper sales. I vividly remember sorting through the racks in Corte Inglés where Oprah sized high waist blue denim Calvin Klein's rubbed shoulders with hipster waisted black Armani's that would be a size challenge even for Evanna Lynch. Of course it was only then that I realised I was in the women's section but you get the idea. I still think back to a really nice pair of black Polo jeans that I got for 19€ when we lived in Cartagena.

It's ages since The Sales were deregulated in Spain. There are discounts all the time now, especially online, but old habits die hard and I usually head down to Corte Inglés (the still impressive chain of department stores) sometime after Christmas. We went yesterday. Maggie said something that I realised was absolutely true. It's got 50% off she said but it's still too expensive. Absolutely right - I liked a jacket but even at 140€ it was hardly cheap. At its original 280€ it was simply overpriced. Discounts everywhere in the shop but no real bargains.

Once upon a time sales were about getting rid of the ends of lines, the funny sizes, that colour that nobody wanted, the craze that was no longer fashionable. Nowadays, with the big retailers, everything just gets discounted for a period so the January Sales are no longer the upmarket jumble sale that they once were. Shame really.

Wednesday, January 08, 2020

I think there was a point when I started to write

One of the films we've seen recently is called Legado en los huesos, Legacy in the bones. It's a Spanish film, the second in a series of three based on trilogy of crime books set in Navarre with a woman detective, from the regional police force, as the key character.

Our nearest cinemas are just metres apart in Petrer about 25kms from Culebrón. In the Cinesmax we tend to go and see Spanish language films and films which have been dubbed into Spanish from languages other than English; French, Brazilian, Chinese etc. In the Yelmo, where, for the past couple of years they've had one performance of films every Tuesday (and some Thursdays), in their original language with subs in Spanish, we usually see English language films. Hearing Ian McKellen or Margot Robbie (and legions of others) sound like themselves rather than some dubbing actor from Pozuelo de Alarcón is a joy.

Now back with Legado de los huesos; I heard the principal actor from the film, Marta Etura, talking in a radio interview. Her character is supposed to be married to a North American, James, who speaks English. Consequently from time to time, in the film, Marta speaks in English. An English that was very laboured and heavily accented. During the radio interview she was complimented on her English in the film. Her on screen husband, Colin McFarlane, speaks some Spanish during the film and that is equally laboured and heavily accented. In the books which gave rise to the film and which I'm reading, James has no trouble with keeping up his end in the Spanish conversations in the family home. His use of the subjunctive has me in awe.

Last night we were going to see the new Clint Eastwood directed film Richard Jewell before we realised that with better planning we could see Mujercitas, Little Women, on Tuesday and still catch Richard Jewell on Thursday. So when Little Women starts it's in Spanish. To be absolutely honest I didn't notice for a moment or two but then I did just as the audience started to grumble, people went to tell the cinema staff and the film, was stopped. A woman came in and told us, in Spanish, that for technical reasons the film couldn't be shown in English and we were offered free tickets, refunds and the like. There was quite a lot of confusion as the generally British audience didn't know what was being said too them. We chose to stay as did the two Spanish families. English language films are not as good in Spanish and sometimes I get lost but we don't, usually, have a problem with understanding a dubbed Hollywood film. It's harder to understand Spanish films and it's hardest when the film is from South America because the Spanish in both is more idiomatic and less clear.

And that was it really. There was some vague point about the trickiness of bilingualism but I seem to have lost the thread so that will have to do.

You just never know how things will pan out

On April 30th 1987 I was on holiday and in a bar. The bar was called the Bar Lennon just up by la Estación del Norte railway station in Valencia. Spain was still very new to me and, as I drank a beer at the bar my partner of the time and I talked about the odd looking drinks behind the counter. The barman was one of those nosy, talk to you types. "It's pacharán," he said, in nearly English. Zoco pacharán in fact, a sloe-flavoured liqueur though we didn't know that then. The drawing on the label looked like blackcurrants. Jaime, for that was his name, seemed to be keen on talking to us and singing along to the European Anthem. He, and his three pals who were in the bar, invited us to the beach the next day which just happened to be a Bank Holiday. We went to the arranged meeting spot not expecting them to turn up but they did and we went to the beach at el Saler. Not the obvious parts of the beach but to the bit that the locals know and the tourists don't. A beach that involved a trek. I have a diary entry that says there were 18 of us that day, all of us twenty and thirty somethings, and several of our number quickly divested themselves of kit and started doing what Spaniards do on beaches - talking, eating and drinking. It was a good day.

Monday of this week was the last day of Christmas in Spain, a Bank Holiday. The Three Kings had delivered their gifts the night before and people were about to have their last seasonal meal for a while with plenty of that typical cake, the roscón de Reyes. Pepa, who had also been in the bar all those years ago, and Jaime came to see us. It's been a bit intermittent over the years but we've never lost touch. Maggie and I had run out of food - no beer, no bread, so we took them over to Eduardo's Restaurant in Culebrón and he did us proud. Good food which allowed us to do what Spaniards do in restaurants - talk, eat and drink. It was a good day.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Names and seasonal stuff

Today and tomorrow are the days to eat roscón, roscón de Reyes. I've written about it several times before, check this link for earlier blog posts. So no real detail this time. It's a bit like a big doughnut, a cake to be eaten around epiphany, when the Three Kings, The Three Wise Men, allegedly arrived with their odd gifts for the baby Jesus - not a Scalextric American Police Chase nor a Linkimals Smooth Moves Sloth in sight but a couple of tree resin extracts and, always useful, gold.

I've bought roscones lots of times. Buy them from a cake shop, made to order, and they cost an arm and a leg, well around 25€ which is pretty expensive for a cake. In supermarkets the price varies a lot. You can get some for five or six euros but the one I'd seen judged as the best for this year was from one of the low price supermarket chains, Día. I was expecting to pay around 10€ but I couldn't find one. I went back and forth to our local branch five times over three days and I tried another branch in another town. They said they had sold out and were waiting for deliveries. No success cakewise.

From my experience of a couple of countries I am going to extrapolate. Once upon a time, in the UK, to talk about a vacuum cleaner you would say Hoover, to describe a vacuum flask it was a Thermos, sticking plasters were Elastoplasts, Armco for the crash barriers, Jacuzzi for the hot tub baths etc. In the same way similar things and their brands may be well known in different countries whilst others are world brands. I know very little about guns but I think that British soldiers of my dad's generation used Lee Enfield rifles, and that British soldiers on the streets of Northern Ireland used something called an SLR. I suspect that is peculiarly British knowledge whilst the "Soviet" AK-47 Kalashnikov and the US Americans, M14 rifle are so well known as to be almost cliches. For some strange reason I know that the famous Spanish rifle is called a CETME.

Now a little while ago I heard someone say they were going to buy some Chirucas. I thought it was a word I didn't know but it turns out to be a trade name for a brand of Spanish boot - the sort that hunters or mountaineers might use. I decided that I could be Spanish minded and link this idea of doing the Camino with buying something intrinsically Spanish. It turned out that Chirucas and I are not a match made in heaven. The 44 is too tight, the 45 is floppy. Also, very unsatisfactorily, the label inside the model I liked said, in English, Made in Vietnam. No success bootswise.

For some reason Madrid doesn't load a bunch of fireworks skyward on New Year's Eve. There are plenty of New Year traditions though. One of the main ones is eating grapes. Again I've written about this so check it out here if you're interested. Anyway we were at a party on New year's Eve. The house we were in usually watches platform based telly - Netflix, Amazon Prime etc. - rather than broadcast stuff. For a live event though it needed to be broadcast telly. The two main choices were the state broadcaster who broadcast from in front of the most famous clock in the Puerta del Sol Spain in Madrid and a private station which now has a tradition of being hosted by a team which includes a woman in a revealing "dress". As the most technically adept person in the house struggled to fight past the adverts and cookie warnings to connect his laptop to the telly in time for the midnight chimes we missed the critical moment. We had no chance to eat our grapes. New Year was declared at about 00:02 hrs. by someone in the room. No success grapewise.

Looking forward to a torchlight procession as part of the Kings parade tonight though.

Thursday, January 02, 2020

The back of beyond

Jesús, a pal, said to me the other day that he and his chums consider that there are three classes of "friends" - amigos, conocidos and reconocidos. Amigos are friends, proper friends, the ones you know well and may even lend you money if you were in a scrape. Conocidos are the ones you might drink or eat with and with whom you can have an extended and detailed conversation. Finally the reconocidos are the people that you vaguely know - the people you nod at in the street and who get a description rather than a name when mentioning them.

The official lists say that 7,966 people now live in Pinoso. Those same figures say that if we were to corral a representative sample of 100 people from the streets of Pinoso then 42 would have been born here, another 25 would have been born in Alicante province and another 18 in some other region of Spain. That would mean that something like 15 people in the sample would be foreigners. The biggest group of foreigners, by far, in Pinoso, are British. If I've got my sums right nearly 7 people from our sample would be Brits. Obviously there are stacks more Britons in Torrevieja, or Madrid, than there are in Pinoso but, as a percentage of the total population Pinoso ranks as the municipality with the fifth highest ratio of foreigners to home grown stock. Who knows, that may be why Vox (a right wing political party) made such a strong showing in the last General Election in Pinoso.

Considering that Pinoso is so small we have one surprisingly trendy clothes shop. Now I'm not but, for one reason or another I ended up in the shop on New Year's Eve. A couple of young women were in the shop gearing up for partying later that evening. I'd taught one of them a little English and the other works in a bar I frequent. The bloke in the shop was laughing and joking with them as he served. It was obvious he knew them. He knows me too, well enough to nod in the street at least.

In the local theatre just yesterday the man on the box office nodded in vague recognition before he sold us our tickets. Inside the theatre we nodded, smiled and waved in this and that direction and even had a couple of conversations with people; fleeting and superficial conversations in both Spanish and English but conversations nonetheless. On stage and in the audience there were other people we half knew and there were others who are small town celebrities - the bloke who organises the singing group, the woman from the cancer association, the local rally driver  - butchers, bakers and candle stick makers. All around people were greeting and being greeted.

In the Post Office today I asked who was last in the queue and exchanged a few words with the person who answered. He later had a conversation with a woman who was wearing a post office uniform. As she left the post office worker shouted across to Enrique, the chap who works behind the post office counter and who always calls me by name, "take care of him, he's my nephew". We all tittered.

There's an old woman who wanders the streets of Pinoso. I've heard that she's Romanian but I've never checked. Everyone knows her by sight. Just before Christmas I saw a car stop beside her. A man got out of the motor, handed the woman an envelope and a blanket, mouthed something, that may well have been Happy Christmas, and got back in the car. I suspect an act of generosity.

Small town life.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Walking to Santiago

I have friends who love to walk. They stride out across moors, along coastal paths and through forests carting tasteless cereal bars and bottles of water in their high tech backpacks. They comment on the fauna and flora and marvel at the views. I have no problem with the basic idea of walking as a method of shrugging off a mild hangover or as penance for a good lunch but serious walking has never appealed.  Now don't get me wrong. I don't have any problem with people enjoying walking for walking's sake and I definitely approve of walking as a form of transport. For instance, if I were in the British Museum and still lusting for enlightenment the walk down to the Natural History Museum, with the promise of all those landmarks along the way, would get my vote over the Tube. As a young man I worked in Leeds and often caught the last train to Huddersfield. With a following wind that train might get me in early enough to catch the last bus home to Elland but, as often as not, it didn't and, usually, I quite enjoyed that four mile walk home

I'm sure that you've heard of the Camino de Santiago, The Way of St. James. It's said that the bones of the Apostle, St James, lie in Santiago in Galicia. The pilgrimage to get there is, I think, number three on the priority list of Christian pilgrimage sites after Jerusalem and Rome. Nowadays walking to Santiago is a big tourist draw. People do it for all sorts of reasons. Religion is one of them, for others it's a broader idea of fellowship, for some it's the physical challenge whilst some people do it in the same way as they'd walk the Light Wake Walk or stride out on any weekend. I have several friends who have done it - generally by foot though at least one by bike. Most have found it hard, painful work.

People often wrongly think of the Camino de Santiago as a route, something like doing the Pennine Way from Edale to Crowden. That's to miss the essence of the Camino. The whole point is the pilgrimage, the destination, the tomb of Saint James. When Christianity was a driving force behind European society getting to Santiago was worth mega points in your bid to get into Heaven; into Paradise. Getting the Compostella, the certificate that proves you did the pilgrimage to Santiago, was the real life equivalent of the get out of jail free card. Nowadays there is a non religious version but I understand that most people still opt for the much prettier religious version. I'm also told that, for obvious promotional reasons, the Church tries to persuade walkers to take the religious document.

That's not to say that there are not recognised routes to Galicia. In the Middle Ages, to get to Spain from the British Isles, your average Irish or English pilgrim would take ship to A Coruña or Ferrol and walk in to Santiago from the coast. On the other hand the common or garden French pilgrim would probably walk in at Roncesvalles via St Jean Pied de Port and do the French Way. There are plenty of other routes too. If you've ever done the Lonely Planet type trip around Guatemala or Turkey you know that you keep bumping into the same people. It was the same for the early pilgrims. Walking in from Southern France the Arles Way or the Catalan Way made sense whilst the Swiss would walk the Le Puy Way and the Portuguese, very properly, the Portuguese Way. I was in Pinoso town hall years ago when a bloke turned up with his credencial, the passport that you get stamped as you walk. He was asking about getting some sort of official stamp to show that he'd done his distance. Pinoso isn't generally on the major routes!

After a few drinks we've often talked about doing the Camino. Some friends took this more seriously than most and bought a guidebook and did a bit of planning. We are now pretty sure that we're going to do it in the Spring and there may be more friends going to join us. Now for someone who has just said that he doesn't care to walk this may sound like madness. But I'm working on a theory, a theory that, like Ernie's, is one what I have and is not backed by anything specific. Santiago has been attracting pilgrims for hundred of years. As those pilgrims trudged the new routes other people, entrepreneurs, saw the opportunity to make money by opening hostels, brothels, taverns, cobblers and bakers, along the way, aimed specifically at the pilgrims. In turn, that influx of people, and wealth, along the route made lots of other services, like flour mills, vets and blacksmiths, into viable business ideas. Over time those original routes have lost importance. Like drovers paths and canals the traditional route has now become become something of a backwater. The motorways and train lines still go to the same major cities but by slightly different routes. This, I hope, has left the old route laden with history so that it's going to be nearly as interesting as that walk through Bloomsbury, Mayfair and Knightsbridge.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Down the bar

I was in a bar this morning. The bar is called Arturo but the boss isn't; his name is Salvador or Salva to his friends.

Arturo is a nice bar, an ordinary bar. Plenty of Britons use it but we tend to be mid or late morning users. Earlyish morning it's a pretty Spanish environment. Clientele wise it's for anybody and everybody from pensioners and office workers to parents on the school run and working class blokes.

From what I can gather lots of Spaniards seem to leave home without a decent breakfast. I get the idea that most shower the night before so they're ready to go in the morning. It seems to be up and out rather than dawdling over toast and cereals. But regular food stops, and a real interest in food, are very Spanish traits. Anytime between nine and eleven in the morning overall wearing blokes down tools and open up their lunch-boxes. In a similar time slot bars the length and breadth of Spain fill up with people getting something to eat as a sort of more substantial mid morning breakfast.

Back in Arturo's it's around ten-o-clock and I'm sitting at the bar waiting for someone who never turned up. The noise level is high, I mean high, really high. Spaniards are not particularly quiet people as a rule, especially where they feel comfortable. It's not class related. The after show hubbub in the theatre lobby and the noise level in a truck stop transport cafe are pretty much the same. In Arturo's, every now and then, laughter, raucous laughter, breaks through the general din. The young woman who's only been serving here for a couple of weeks looks a bit shell shocked. Salva is working like some sort of machine handing out bottles of wine, bottles of vermouth, cans of soft drink, finger spreads of wine glasses. Ice chinks, the coffee machine hisses, the door bangs. Salva can I have more bread?, What's that there Salva?, Salva give me some of those red chorizos, Gachasmigas Salva, Three with milk and one black when you can Salva, Toast with cheese and tomato today Salva, Salva, how much is that?, Go on then Salva I'll have a brandy too.

A group of four men hit the bar at the same time, two of them have their shoulders against mine, they all have that sort of workshop smell - oil and grease. They're talking to each other, they're asking for things. Salva is answering all four of them and talking to the cook in the kitchen at the same time. I marvel. It's not something new, it's not something unknown, it's not even surprising but I did notice it and it did make me chuckle.

Sorry about the snap. I didn't have any pictures of busy bars and none of the Google ones were any better.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Oh, oh, oh, oh, o, ho

We were talking to some Americans - North Americans, from the United States. We were in the Gods, the gallinero or chicken coop in Spanish, at the top of the Teatro Principal in Alicante. We were high enough to consider breathing apparatus. The seats were so steeply raked that Maggie worried about plummeting.  It was absolutely roasting presumably because the people in the stalls were at just the right temperature. Heat rises, rich people comfy, poor people sweltering. First I took off my jacket and then I took off my pullover to reveal my Gas Monkey T-shirt. That was the talking point to begin the conversation. All four of us were there to see a zarzuela. Say it like Thar thway la.

Have you ever seen a zarzuela before asked the Americans, "Yes," I said, "No," said Maggie. In a way we were both right. We've seen several scenes from various zarzuelas in full costume and three concerts of zarzuela music. It was the first time though that we'd seen a full production.

The production was La revoltosa, the Troublemaker, set in 19th Century Madrid and written by Ruperto Chapí, a local lad done good. He's considered to be one of the foremost composers of zarzuelas. The Revoltosa features poor folk, poor but happy folk. Lots of singing and dancing and chatting up of sultry maidens. Zarzuela is the name of a Royal Palace on the outskirts of Madrid.  The building is supposedly named for the blackberry bushes, zarzas, that surrounded it and where, so the tale has it, zarzuelas were first performed.

If anybody asks me, and as you may imagine it's a common question, I always say that zarzuelas are light opera - I think Merry Widow and Gilbert and Sullivan. The Spanish Wikipedia entry is very scathing about comparisons with other operatic forms. It pooh poohs the idea that zarzuelas are anything like the French Opereta and says it's more like the German Singspiel but that really it is a uniquely Hispanic form. Interesting eh? No, I didn't think so either. The English Wikipedia entry says that zarzuela is a Spanish lyric-dramatic genre that alternates between spoken and sung scenes, the latter incorporating operatic and popular songs, as well as dance. And that will do for me.

It wasn't as good as I'd hoped. I quite like the zarzuela style music but as a live performance it was a bit gutless. We didn't understand most of the spoken parts - Maggie said it was because we were so far away, I think it's because our Spanish is terrible. On the other hand, as an experience, I thought it was pretty cracking. Maggie didn't. She said that the heroine warbled like Gracie Fields. The Americans said it was good too but that may have been because they were tourists.

Oh, and being old and nearly senile I managed to scrape the side of my new motor as I reversed out of the underground car park. Nothing significant really but enough to make me swear like a trooper all the way home.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Queuing for Peter Pan

We have a couple of very active theatre groups in Pinoso. One of them, Taules, was even the joint winner of a prestigious national award for amateur theatre this year. Taules usually put on a show for the August fiesta and another for Christmas.

For some events in Pinoso you can buy tickets online but for most of the events in our 400 plus seat theatre you have to get tickets, or invitations, from the box office which opens for a couple hours for a couple of nights before the event. It's a bit of a pain for us because we're not usually in town in the evenings so we have to drive in specially. We've learned that normally we can chance to luck and there will be tickets available on the night. You can't do that with Taules though.

I'd misread the programme information. I thought tickets were on sale from 4pm. In fact it was 6pm. I didn't realise though because, when I got there, there were about 40 people waiting. Now the Spanish have a queuing system that I've mentioned before. They don't, usually, stand in a line but, as you arrive, you ask who is the last person in the queue and so take your place - let's call that virtual queuing. This causes confusion when foreigners, like we Britons, stand behind the person we think is the last in line. We may be queue jumping because the line usually only represents a part of the virtual queue. I asked who was last in the post office the other day and a woman sitting on a chair pointed to a Briton and said "He is, but he doesn't know, so I probably am." She may have been just a little peeved.

As I arrived outside the theatre I was assigned my place in the order. Over the next fifty minutes though the system started to creak as people came and went, children, coming from school, joined their waiting parents whilst cousins, aunts and brothers in law stood with other family members. The noise level was rowdy. I still didn't realise I was early and I was seething about the delay and unfairly cursing Spanish organisation.

When the man from the theatre group did turn up there was a loud cheer so I still didn't realise I was early; I just thought he was late. We all jostled and pushed into the theatre lobby behind him and any semblance of place in the queue vanished. Then the theatre bloke explained. Tickets would go on sale at the advertised time, 6pm, about an hour away. There were going to be separate desks for each of the three performances and they were going to set up posts and ropes to organise a physical queue. We were asked to organise ourselves so that the new physical queue had the same order as the original virtual queue. That involved leaving the theatre and finding your rightful place. I'm not good at forceful and I realised I'd end up at the back of the queue if I did as asked so I hung back a little and dropped into the reforming queue more or less where I belonged. Then we waited for the sales desks to open.

Progress to the three desks was painfully slow but I did, finally, get there. Choosing seats involved a Biro and a photocopied diagramme of the theatre. Paying involved banknotes and coins. I was surprised how many seats had gone. People must have been buying shed loads of tickets at a time because I wasn't that far back in the line. Not many people behind me were going to get in on Sunday evening so maybe all the bumping and shuffling and standing around was actually worthwhile. If I'd turned up at six I'm not sure I'd have got any tickets.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Truths and falsehoods

I listen to a fair few podcasts. Most are arty or documentary like and just one of them, Spanishpodcast,  is aimed directly at people learning Spanish. This week the episode was called True or False, ¿Verdadero o Falso? and dealt with some of those commonly repeated "facts". You know the sort of thing - we only use 10% of our brains (false), hippos have pink sweat (true), hair and nails continue to grow after death (false), koalas have two penises/vaginas (true) and others of the same ilk.

There were a couple of Spanish related stories in the podcast that I thought I could safely pinch for this blog. The stories have the added advantage of satisfying any cravings I might have to write a blog entry whilst gently steering me away from politics. I'd been tempted though because, yesterday, Parliamentarians were being sworn in as "MPs" at which time they have to promise or swear to uphold the Spanish Constitution. Lots of the Deputies used their brief moment in the spotlight to make some form of statement - from local to global, for the Catalan republic, for the Basque Country, for Spain in general and for depopulated Spain in particular, for the planet, for social services, for murdered women, for democracy, for love not hate and for the Trece Rosas, the thirteen young women killed by a Francoist firing squad soon after the Civil War. Today there are politicians saying this tinkering with the swearing in ceremony is an abomination, a misuse of a public forum blah, blah, blah and that it should be stopped by law. As I keep saying I fear that Spanish society has a very tenuous grasp on the idea of liberty of expression.

Anyway back to Spanishpodcast. Apparently one of the stories, as you down the tequila and Jägermeister shots, is that, in Iceland, it is legal to kill Basques. The Basques are people born in the Basque Country in the North of Spain. Amazingly it's sort of true. Alex, the man from Spanishpodcast said that it's a long story but the essence is that in 1615 a Basque fishing boat went down in a storm off the coast of Iceland. The fishermen, who were probably whalers but Alex kept quiet about that because he knows we foreigners are touchy about whaling, managed to swim ashore. The Icelanders, all those Helgasons and Sturlusons, thought that these Basques were invaders, the vanguard of a bigger army, so they slaughtered them all. That done they had a bit of a parliamentary session and enacted a law making it legal to kill Basques. The law stayed on the statute books until 2015 when the Icelandic Government finally abolished it. And from that date I suppose the tourist routes between San Sebastian or Bilbao and Reykjavik became just a touch safer.

The other story was about a war, the longest war that Spain has ever undertaken, which passed off without dead and wounded or even weapons. It's a bit like the idea that Berwick on Tweed is still at war with Russia (you can Google it just as well as me but I've played drinking games too!) because a small town in the South of Spain, Huéscar, declared war on Denmark in 1809 and that war went on for 172 years until 1981. Not a shot was fired, nobody was killed or injured and really nothing happened at all but, officially, there was a war. In fact the story goes that sometime in the 1970s a Danish journalist was briefly detained in Huéscar but as it was the town archivist who discovered this declaration of war in 1981 and couldn't find the peace declaration to pair with it, a story in the 1970s sounds a bit fishy to me. Anyhow, when it was discovered both sides, the Andaluces and the Danes, took it in good part and had a bit of a party to celebrate the peace. In good Andaluz style that is now an annual fiesta and the Danish ambassador to Spain is usually one of the attendees presumably with a peace offering - pastries maybe?

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Another talking politics post

It's strange how the same thing has more or less value depending on your own thoughts and when you have them.

I was listening to some high up politician from Navarre (an area of Spain) on the wireless. She was going on about how her right of centre party had done well because it had picked up more votes in the last election. I won't extrapolate on her model by pointing out that her party came second. Instead I'll pick up on her complaint about a Catalan party that probably holds the key to the formation of the next Spanish Government. The party in question are Catalan separatists, they want some form of autonomy, nationhood even, for their region.

So the Navarre woman says her party's votes give them legitimacy. She argues that Cataluña is an integral part of Spain. By her own reasoning the people who live in Cataluña are Spanish and, in Cataluña this separatist party got sufficient votes, enough to make them potential kingmakers. But, for the woman from Navarre, the party that won most votes, and is looking to form a government, shouldn't talk to this separatist party because their votes are less valid than some other votes. She didn't try to suggest that the winning party's votes were bad votes, worth less than votes for her party, but she did argue that the separatist votes were worse; tainted votes, less valuable votes, wrong votes. I listen to this and wonder why the journalist interviewing her doesn't point out this massive contradiction, this illogical behaviour.

I hear, time and time again, politicians pointing out that certain things can't be talked about because they are unconstitutional. If the law says that Spain is indivisible there can be no conversation about it being divisible. That would be illegal. But, worldwide, lots of things that used to be legal are now illegal and lots of things that were legal are now illegal - pit bulls without muzzles being one example and Elton John and David Furnish being another. Changing laws, changing constitutions, happens all the time.

In 1933 a Republican (left wing) government in Spain introduced a law of "Vagos y Maleantes" the Law of Layabouts and Thieves. Basically this law said that if you were a ne'r do well you could expect trouble - trouble if you were gypsy or gay or workshy or uppity about working conditions or lived in a dodgy council estate and sold scrap. Over the years this law became associated with the Dictatorship, with Franco, but it was there before him and, with a changed name and all sorts of modifications it was still there in 1995 - twenty years after Franco drew his last and descended into the fiery pit. That law was dropped in 1995 because, somehow, people became to believe it was wrong and bad and made no sense. For 62 years though it was law. It was right. Now it's wrong. Just like the Constitution is right and the Basques and Catalans are wrong.

Good votes, bad votes, legal things, illegal things, fixed positions, immovable barriers. I've heard that humankind is on a collision course with disaster. I wonder how that happened?

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Sour grapes?

I never particularly cared for Bohemian Rhapsody, or Queen come to that. For years and years though the British people, in polls no more dubious than the Catalan referendum, voted Bohemian Rhapsody the best song of all time or some such accolade. In Spain that same sort of listing goes to a song called Mediterráneo by Joan Manuel Serrat. Last Saturday some bloke I was having lunch with asked me if I'd ever heard the song. I controlled my snort and answered his patronising question almost civilly.

He was an anaesthetist, I think the woman with him was a surgeon. There were five other people, including us, on the table and one of those people, a bloke we'd known for fewer than three hours, bought lunch for everyone on the table in an outstandingly generous gesture.

We'd met the bill payer and his two pals in a car park in Novelda as we waited to do a tour of the vineyards that produce eating grapes, uvas de mesa, in this little bit of Alicante province.

The wind was blowing, it looked like rain. Of the 23 people signed up for the tour only five of us actually turned up. Our future benefactor and his two pals went in one car and we went in the vineyard owner's BMW along with the tour organiser.

Spaniards seem to prefer their green grapes with seeds. One particularly famous seeded variety is aledo; the grape traditionally eaten alongside the midnight chimes that ring in the New Year. All the eating grapes we saw were protected from birds, beasties and the elements by wrapping them in what look like paper bags as they grow on the vine. This time of year, the run up to Christmas and the New Year, is a big time for picking - possibly because of the popping them into your mouth as the chimes ring out thing - but that could be a bit of chicken and egg type reasoning. One of the various stories to explain the twelve grapes tradition of the Spanish New Year has the grape growers of the past, faced with a huge glut of grapes at Christmastime, coming up with the cunning plan of promoting their fruit for the New Year. Do Britons choose to eat sprouts as a Christmas accompaniment or is it simply that there was very little option in the dead of a British winter?

So we got the tour. I understood it perfectly. We saw the forms of "trellises", we heard why hand picking was the only way, we learned  about the seedless varieties, with pink skins and red leaves grown under nets for the British market and lots lots more. But that was a week ago. All the fine detail has now drained from my overtaxed and withered mind.

The bit that I do remember, and the thing that surprised me most, was the next bit. The vineyard owner drove us to a shed just off the La Romana-Novelda road, by the turn down to Aspe. It's hardly a centre of population. Inside the shed there were well over 100 people  working at a cracking pace to prepare the fruit for market. They cut off leaves, discarded damaged grapes, packed the fruit in variously named boxes for different supermarket chains and then carted the boxes to waiting lorry trailers or piled them into the cold store. It was a very slick operation carried out to a stridently upbeat and very Spanish musical soundtrack.

And to finish off we went to a bodega that grew the other sort of grapes, the ones that people ferment into alcohol. That's where we met the man who paid for our lunch and the medic who thought that after fifteen years in Spain it was surprising that I'd heard a Spanish song.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

The menoo

It's nice to think that people remember me from time to time. This week two old friends sent me the same article they'd both seen in the Guardian about the slow death of the Spanish "menú del día". The piece said that ordinary working Spaniards no longer had time to eat a big meal at lunchtimes, that diners were looking for different sorts of food and that restaurants were no longer able to work on such low profit returns. Actually I wrote about some of this in ปลาออกจากน้ำ  (Thai for fish out of water) when we were in Madrid. So, I partly agree and I'm sure that the Guardian correspondent is right in suggesting that there is a trend away from the traditional three course meal. Nonetheless, away from the big cities, the menú is very definitely alive and well.

Just before we go on something about the pronunciation. Menu, pronounced the English way, is carta in Spanish. Here we're talking about menú, with the accent over the U. This word is pronounced something like menoo, the full phrase is menoo del dear, menú del día and it's a fixed price, set meal.

The menú is, generally, served in restaurants at lunchtime (2pm to 4pm) on working days from Monday to Friday. The price is fixed and it usually includes two savoury courses and then a pudding. It generally comes with a drink - water, wine, beer or pop - and bread. Spanish servers will be surprised if you order a tea or coffee to drink alongside your meal; hot drinks are for afterwards not during. Often, especially on the Mediterranean coast, you'll get a basic salad thrown in too. It's usually an either or between coffee and dessert though sometimes you get both as part of the package. Despite being so ubiquitous it's an unusual style of Spanish meal because each individual orders separately and eats separately. So often, when eating in Spain, the food is ordered to be shared.

There used to be legislation about menus but the Guardian article told me that was changed in 2010 so here are a few of the little tricks and ruses to look out for.

The most common trick, especially for tourists, is that they are drawn in by the fixed price menú advertised on a chalk board or similar outside the restaurant. Once seated the tourists are handed a carta, the a la carte menu. They're a bit unsure if they read the board correctly, it's difficult to ask and so they order from the menu and end up paying more. Usually it's a bit of a con. If you ask for the menú they'll tell you what it is though it may well not be written down anywhere except on that board outside. Sometimes the fact that they don't offer you a menú is not the restaurant being tricky. As I said most fixed meals are available at lunchtime on workdays. Britons often think of the principal meal as being the evening meal. If you turn out in the evening there is unlikely to be a fixed meal available but the advert for the lunchtime meal may still be there. The same at the weekends or on Bank Holidays.

Another of the standard tourist area dodges is to charge for things that are usually included - like the drinks, the bread or the salad. The server puts them on the table, you eat them and they turn up on the bill. If you read the the menú information it will be there; if the menú listing doesn't mention drinks (bebidas) or bread (pan) then expect to pay extra for them. Even when you know the extras are coming it can sometimes be a nasty surprise. We went in a place opposite the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. We knew the drinks would be extra, we knew that it didn't include the coffee or pudding but it was still a good price for such a tourist mecca and the place looked nice enough. They charged me 6€ for a bottle of beer.

Most menus are not haute cuisine. A pal used to describe the menú choice as chop and chips. Plain and filling would be a kinder description though, every now and again, a menú can be surprisingly good. Even today, around here, there are, very occasionally, dead cheap but perfectly good menus available at around 7€. The majority are in the 9€ to 12€ range. There is often a second group of slightly better looking menus in some eateries  - maybe 15€ to 18€. If the restaurant does offer a fixed menú on Saturday or Sunday expect the prices to be higher; the 12€ menú becoming 15€ and the 15€ menú becoming 20€. Obviously there are price differences with geography. If you're in Benalmadena or Benidorm then the food is likely to be cheaper than in Barcelona or Bilbao.

Still a good way to kill the couple of hours when the streets are deserted.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The culebrón for Culebrón

There's a WhatsApp group for Culebrón. Usually it's used to advertise events or to check that it's not just your Internet that's down. There was a bit of a message flurry today when the water was off for hours. Eduardo (or Maria Luisa) said it was because the water main was being relocated under the new roundabout. As the messages bounced back and forth, so did the witticisms. Would the roundabout be decorated with a Coliseum like arrangement of marble blocks similar to the last roundabout built in the area? - that's it being built in the photo. I suggested that, as Culebrón, means giant snake, maybe a huge serpent would be appropriate. Someone asked if anyone knew the legend. I didn't but Google did. Google knows everything.

So, the tradition says that big hairy snakes, culebrones, go about, generally by night. These wild hairy snakes would attack carters and walkers going so far as to eat some of them. The snakes were generally supposed to live in warrens. One of their principle tasks was to guard buried treasure. Carters and walkers were advised to stay away from places where warrens and treasure coincided.

In order to feed themselves the giant snakes, the culebrones, culebrón is the singular form, would attract and ensnare prey with their gaze. They could do this even at a distance. When a culebrón was hungry it was big enough to eat animals whole because it had such a huge gut. But it wasn't all about killing. Where there was a good supply of food the culebrones had another trick. They could attract cattle with their tail and then suckle on their milk; the culebrones were partial to a nice drop of milk. They also ate smaller animals like farmyard chickens and geese. This could, too, be an explanation for the disappearance of so many of our cats. When the snakes were satiated they'd often have a bit of a kip in the grassland or stubble before moving on, underground, to pastures new.

Culebrones were, as mentioned above, adept at guarding treasure. I don't think we're talking about Blackbeard type, X marks the spot treasure here but more about someone keeping their money safe by burying it in a clay pot in the back garden. Anyway, within forty days of burying their stash people could be reasonably sure that it would attract a culebrón. So, if the owner wanted to recover the hoard without ending up inside the snake's belly, the trick was to sprinkle the ground with the local version of potcheen or moonshine, called aguardiente. The drunken snakes were inept security guards.

Now in just the same way as wealth attracted the culebrones it was said that anyone who kept a culebrón would become rich and prosperous. Domesticating a culebrón wasn't that easy. First you had to pull the three longest hairs from a wild culebrón. That done the three hairs had to be placed in a tureen of milk. The hairs would come to life and grow. After a while, the strongest of the three would devour the other two. In time the victorious hair would grow to be a full blown culebrón. The owner had to keep a milk cow for the sole purpose of providing milk for the culebrón. What's more the owner had the annual obligation to kill an animal, or if the owner preferred a family member or relative, to feed to the snake. Whether it was a baa lamb or great uncle Edgar the blood had to be spilled in a place known only to the owner and the culebrón. These duties were sacrosanct, absolutely essential. If the culebrón keeper were to neglect this duty he or she could expect to fall into abject poverty and maybe end up as prey for the culebrón. There was another downside to this arrangement as a way of getting rich. It signalled to the devil that the owner was greedy and open to deals. Buying the soul of a culebrón breeder was easy meat for the devil. Anyone that keen to get rich would almost certainly be quick to sell his or her soul in return for earthly rewards at the risk of an eternity in purgatory.

As well as meaning big, hairy snake culebrón is the Spanish word for a soap opera, presumably because it goes on and on. And here, in this blog, the two things for the price of one.