Thursday, September 12, 2019

Shine on you crazy diamond


For years and years I used Brylcreem. Not a lot you understand but some. More like those 1970s adverts about a little dab of Brylcreem on your hair giving you the Brylcreem bounce. Nonetheless, as we entered the 21st century it became more and more difficult to find. Not impossible but difficult.

Then I moved to Spain. No RAF here, no Brylcreem back story. I asked people to bring it in their hand luggage but the terror bombers and HM Revenue and Customs put paid to that.

But luck was with me. Pinoso is a bit backwoods, a bit short on the latest trends. Juanjo had some in his shop. It said Ryelliss, Abrillantador del Cabello - hair brightener is one possible translation. It makes your hair shine is the idea. It was brilliantine. Then I realised that the biggest supermarket chain in Spain carried it too. So Juanjo and Mercadona kept my hair in place and shiny for years without Brylcreem.

There was none in Mercadona last time, Juanjo has none. Online everyone is out of stock. I can only assume that the various gels and waxes have done for Ryelliss. It's a shame. But the game is still on. Amazon UK has a supplier of Brylcreem and they'll deliver to Spain.

The rain saves a soggy post

I started to write a blog earlier this week. I didn't post it because it was boring. That's not going to stop me now though. Here it is.

"Leaves are swirling around in eddies outside our front door. More sweeping. It's what I expect. September has come, the weeds have started to grow again, there are piles of rotting figs under the trees. Where the branches overhang the path it is painted purple with gravity squashed fruit. The flies are out in squadrons and the crickets have stopped singing. Out in the vineyards the tractors and grape harvesters are doing their stuff and the air smells of sweet fermenting wine. Temperatures have dropped considerably and before setting the washing machine going I need to scan the sky to decide whether it will be a good drying day or not. This morning I couldn't even sit outside to read with my second mug of tea because it was a bit nippy and a bit blowy. The one good thing about the hot weather going away is that everyone stops moaning on about how it's unbearable and how did people manage without air conditioning ad nauseum and I can go back to wearing shoes and socks and jeans without lots of stupid comments.

When I was at school, sometime shortly after the wheel was invented, my headteacher often said that whilst  most of the world had a climate the UK had weather. It's one of the few things that the bullying fathead said that I would not disagree with. In England, in August, one day can be sunny and the next can be cool and wet. It's not like that here. Obviously the weather can change, a cold front can come in or we can find ourselves in a heatwave and time after time we have tremendous storms with torrential rain or hailstones the size of Cadbury's Creme Eggs but, in general, we get the same sort of weather for days and days, and sometimes weeks and weeks, on end. It makes it easy to predict. It will be hot and dry in late June and all through July. August will be hot to start and cooler later and by September the cooling will be noticeable. Although most days from November to February will be sunny with bright blue skies we'll be cold in the house. And March will be a terrible disappointment, temperature wise, and we'll have to wait for the official Spring before we can change to lighter bedclothes".

That's as far as I got. Now to start again. Our yard is awash, the garden looks like a lake, there is water everywhere. The kitchen floor is a pattern of muddy cat paw marks. Lots of schools, including the Pinoso ones, were closed today because of the threat of rain. It has been wet, the rain has been heavy but we've been lucky.  So far as I know, it's not been catastrophic locally. Close at hand though it has; utter devastation. Torrents of water flowing in and out of people's houses. People killed in Caudete (not far away) when their car was washed away with them in it, two more killed further South, Orihuela cut off, both local airports under water and big towns like Cartagena and Murcia with serious problems.

As I was checking closed windows this morning Maggie made a throwaway comment "Well, it'll soon be back to being warm again, we're not done with the decent weather yet!"

You see she agrees with that long dead headmaster too!

Monday, September 09, 2019

Slippery when wet

Spaniards seem to like napkins more than Britons. Now I'm not trying to say that we Britons don't like napkins or that there is something intrinsically right or wrong about using napkins. Go into a British restaurant and there will be napkins. They give you piles of them in McDonald's because, as the bun disintegrates, you will end up with a palmful of slimy hamburger patty, lettuce and ketchup and you will need them to clean up. If my family home was anything to go by the English use them only when we are being a bit posh; Christmas or when friends came to dinner. Normally though, especially at home, no serviettes, no napkins. Spaniards on the other hand put napkins out as naturally as they put out the cutlery and bread when they are setting the table and there is no Spanish restaurant, bar, barbecue, picnic or home without them.

Order a beer in a Spanish bar and you probably won't get a beer mat - sometimes yes and more and more frequently but not usually. The beer on the other hand will be cold so water will condense out on the glass and, after a while there will be a little puddle of water on the bar or table. But fear not, there will be a handy dispenser full of serviettes and you will be able to mop up the liquid. Only you won't or at least you couldn't but more and more you can.

I've just realised, pushed by an article that I read in el País, that it's ages since I've seen the sort of napkins that were everywhere in Spain at one time. They were a bit like the old Izal hard toilet paper and about the same sheet size too. They usually had a pattern around the outside in blue or red - sometimes chains, sometimes rhomboids, sometimes aeroplanes and the name of the bar in the middle. They came in spring loaded dispensers that were called miniservis and the serviettes were called servilletas zigzag (or sulphite glazed paper napkins to anyone in the trade). When you tried to pull out one you would be rewarded tenfold. No matter though because they actually seemed to repel liquid rather than to soak it up so you needed the whole ten to redistribute your puddle. It was similar if you were eating tapas with your fingers. By the time you'd finished you would have a whole pile of these sodden, grease, oil or sauce covered bits of paper piled alongside your plate.

Nowadays the normal serviettes are more like Andrex than Izal. This struck me as I was pulling an effectively absorbent black napkin from the little box in front of me in a bar the other day. They were held in place by a daintily painted pebble. Very pretty. Not as trendy though as the unbleached yellowish napkins that you get in the gastrobars on the coast or in big cities. There was, though, one advantage to the old slippery sided napkins. When they were put under food on a plate, like a sandwich or a croquette, they acted like grease-proof paper forming an effective non stick barrier between plate and food whereas the new sort tend to sort of attach themselves to your food in a most unpleasant way.

-------------------------------------------------------
I have used the terms serviette and napkin interchangeably. I thought, for sixty four years, that napkins were cloth and serviettes paper but, in checking for this blog post I found that although there used to be some distinction in the way distant past that hasn't been the case for a few hundred years.

Monday, September 02, 2019

How much?


My foot hurts. It's been a bit of a problem since I made the wrong choice of footwear for wandering around the Benicassim Festival site. The blisters were very big but that was ages ago now and, although the blisters are long gone, my heel still hurts. More worryingly it's getting worse rather than better.

I thought strapping it up or cushioning the heel may help. I went to the chemist and wandered around the displays. I found a couple of silicone heel cushions and, according to the box, they were just what I needed. Then I bought some lint, twenty individually wrapped pads, and a roll of sticking plaster. Total price 23.80€. Of that nearly 12€ was for the lint. Bit of a shock.

To be honest it wasn't a surprise. I just didn't like it. For years I've thought that the stuff they advertise on the telly that you have to buy from pharmacies (and lots of medical stuff can only be bought at pharmacies) is exorbitantly priced. You know the stuff; the spray for your aching knee which means you finish the marathon, the capsules that stop your nose running so you can be feted by your work colleagues for such a brilliant presentation or the haemorrhoid cream that allows you to throw away that blow up cushion. For all I know things may be equally expensive in the UK but I don't remember any angst the last time I bought lint or a roll of plaster in Huntingdon.

It's not the same for prescription medicine. My experience with prescribed medication is that it's affordable. The amount you have to pay depends on your financial and medical situation. Lots of people with chronic problems or work related injuries pay nothing whilst pensioners pay 10% or 60% depending on their income and they are also protected by monthly caps. Workers pay 40%, 50% or 60% of the actual cost of the medicine with no caps or limits.

Every now and again, I hear or read that the average Spanish salary is such and such an amount and it always makes me guffaw. At the moment they say it's just a bit short of 27,000€. I can only surmise that there must be a lot of very well paid Spaniards balancing out the miserly Spanish salaries I'm aware of.

Last week though I heard something that sounded much more realistic. It said that the most frequent salary (the sort of pay packet that most people get) in Spain is around 16,500€. When I went checking the most recent figure said that is now nearly 17,000€ year. Take off the tax and whatever and that translates to somewhere around 1,000€ per month take home pay.

You will be surprised to hear that I just happen to know the salary scales for teachers working in language academies. Non school teachers are unusual because their working week is shorter (34 hours) and they have longer holidays (10 weeks) in a country where a 40 hour week and 4 weeks holiday are still very common. Anyway the highest salary for that sort of teaching work is a bit under 15,000€. I never had an employer who paid the full rate but that's another story.

Your average Spaniard on that most frequent salary, or a language school teacher, paying rent or a mortgage might have to bind their injured foot with old rags so maybe I should think myself lucky!

Friday, August 30, 2019

Don't it always go to show


Maggie and I may be among the last few people in the world who are awoken by a clock radio alarm. A thirty year old clock radio at that. The wake up programme is Hoy empieza todo on Radio 3, a contemporary culture and music station. We don't listen for long, even if we're very slothful it will only be about twenty minutes though the programme stays on in the background.

I change the bedclothes on Friday. As I fought with the duvet cover the main presenter on the programme was talking to the organisers of a "pop" festival that runs in Miranda de Ebro in Burgos about 700km from home. They said that they were giving away a package of two tickets, travel and accommodation for the festival and to enter all you had to do was to make a comment on their Twitter account.

Now I've never quite mastered Twitter but, eventually I posted something as to why I wanted to go. I said I was old (and may die before the next one), because I was poor (and I wouldn't be able to afford to go with my own resources) and because I was English so that understanding anything around me was more or less impossible. I added that one of my delights was complaining and that at a festival at two in the morning I could complain mightily about my aching back.

Yesterday evening someone from the programme sent me a message via Twitter and asked whether I would go to the festival if I won. The messages went back and forth in very dodgy Spanish on one side but the last message said "Me das un email y un teléfono para gestionarlo todo?" - can you give me an email address and a telephone number so that I can arrange it all.

I presumed that I had just won something. I broke out the gin that I'd promised myself I wouldn't drink.

This morning, three minutes before the clock radio burst into life, I got another Twitter message. "Lo siento Chris, al final en la última ronda no os ha tocado! Quizás el año que viene." Sorry Chris, in the end, in the last, round you didn't win. Maybe next year.

Very disappointing.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

A clean pair of heels

There's a shoe museum in Elda. You have to ring a bell to get in. They have some very odd (sic) shoes. Elche has hundreds of shoe factories. Nowadays lots of them have signs with Chinese script characters over the door but the product still carries the label "Made in Spain."

If Elda and Elche are the most important centres this area, in general, has a tradition of shoes and leather goods. The tiny village of Chinorlet about 3km from us has a factory that makes handbags. Our next door neighbour has a company that produces bows and buckles and the like to stick on leather goods.

Pinoso too has a history of shoe making.  In the middle of town there is a small square dedicated to the shoemakers, (just like there are places dedicated to marble and to wine the other big industries of Pinoso). A local firm, Pinoso's, always has a stand at the celebration of the town's identity, the Villazgo celebrations, where you can don an apron and pose with a shoe last looking like you're doing something very footwear. When I taught one of my students said that her family had a firm that produced a part of the soles for shoes and another was a sort of shoe broker selling designs overseas. Just beside the library, on one of the principal streets of the town, there is an anonymous building which always attracts my attention when I walk by because the powerful smell of epoxy resin that issues from its open window. I have no idea what they are up to but unless they are the glue sniffing unaccompanied minors that the far right party Vox is always going on about then it's something shoe related.

So Pinoso is still a shoemaking town. I don't quite know where the factories are though. I had a vague idea there was one near the sports centre, Maggie thought so too, and maybe on the industrial estate. I asked a Spaniard I know who seems to know almost anyone local over a certain age. He wasn't quite sure where the companies were either - maybe on the industrial estate he said but he also wondered if it were more backstreet workshops than big factories. I asked if he thought a factory on the corner of Calderón de la Barca and Camino del Prado was shoe related - "Could be," was the response.

Sometimes it's amazing what you don't know even after ages and ages even if you're home grown.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Dancing the night away

We've just had a bit of a debate about where we were going to go this evening. The wine harvest fiesta in Jumilla is in full swing and tonight they have a Queen tribute band. Down in La Romana there's a Moors and Christians parade with music and bull running later. Chinorlet, the nearest village to Culebrón, is also partying for the weekend. Tonight they have a children's parade and then a band. In fact, within 45 minutes maximum travelling time we could go to Elche, Aspe, Cañada del Trigo or Fortuna instead. Oh, I nearly forgot and one of the outlying villages of Pinoso, Paredón, is at it too. In fact August 15th, a bank holiday for the Assumption of Mary, is the day when there are more fiestas in Spain than on any other day, the official count is more than 1,000.

Jumilla is probably our first choice but the tribute band are not due on till half past eleven which means a start nearer midnight in reality. My guess is we wouldn't be home till maybe 2.30 and we're a bit old to miss out on our nightly Horlicks. Maybe we should go to the less exciting La Romana and pop in to see the live band in Chinorlet at eleven? Given the inevitable late starts we'd still be home by around one which would leave time for a soothing hot beverage before bed.

The fiesta programmes reminded me of the importance of music in these events and of one sort of music in particular. The band on in Chinorlet (Permanent population 192) is called Kalima, last night in Caballusa (where just four families live all year round) there was a singer called Leandro. At the recent Pinoso fiestas (the official population of Pinoso is only just over 7,600) there were several bands. We did go to see the top twenty band Dvicio but we missed most of the rest including Trio Amanacer, Me and the Reptiles, Grupo Zafiro and Orquesta Athenas. We could make amends for missing Athenas by seeing them in La Romana tomorrow. La Romana has another orquesta, Orquesta Shakara the day after.

Spain, obviously enough, has every sort of musical grouping you can imagine. There are individual musicians doing the rounds, there are groups that do rock or pop or indie or grime, there are brass bands, string quartets, opera singers backed by pianists and flautists, there are folk groups, bagpipe bands, symphony orchestras, Colombian Cumbia groups, Mexican Mariachis and lots of Brazilian Samba bands to name but a fraction of the styles. There is, though, a species of band that exists predominantly to do fiestas and verbenas (verbena is a loose term but it usually means a bar, food, dance and music area which constitutes part of a larger, city wide fiesta) and that's the orquesta. Guess the English translation.

The orchestras have a simple enough mission - they have to ensure that everyone from the smallest child, to the least nimble grandma and even the sulky teenagers get up and dance. They fulfil their mission with a mixture of timeless classics and this summer's hits. It's a while since I've seen one to be honest but they have a style which is sort of trashy and glamorous at the same time. The men often have a bit of a belly whilst the women wear tight clothes with sequins and short skirts or shorts. Obviously that's a massive over-generalisation - some of the men are bald and wear sequins too! The repertoire is international though Spanish hits predominate even if they were originally sung by foreigners like Shakira or Luis Fonsi. I've just read four different lists of "indispensable" songs for orquestas and, apart from the incredibly successful and timeless Paso Doble tune Paquito El Chocolatero there wasn't a single song that was present in every list. That doesn't mean that all the lists weren't very similar with the same styles and names turning up again and again. A very danceable style called reggaeton was definitely over represented and Rosalía, the fusion flamenco/pop artist seemed big this year too.

Anyway, whilst I've been typing we've decided and it's nearly time to go. Jumilla it is and Queen  - so songs that we'll know. No Soldadito Marinero, Princesas, No rompas más, Cannabis or A quién le importa to add to my cultural education this evening then.

Valencianos have a reputation for liking fireworks


I don't quite remember when but it was long before we lived here. We were in Spain for a holiday and a couple of friends, Pepa and Jaime, invited us to stay in their flat in Bétera near Valencia.

Bétera was having its annual fiesta and we went into town one evening to take part. I think there was a parade, there were stalls and a fair, we ate some tapas, we drank some beer and all sorts of normal fiesta things.

The next evening we went back to the fiesta and to the town centre. We didn't park in the same place. We walked much further than we had the night before. I didn't know why. As we walked through the streets in the centre of the town most of the windows were boarded up, there were no cars in the streets. The whole town was odd. Either Jaime and Pepa didn't explain very well or we didn't have enough Spanish to understand what was going on.

We waited in the main street with hundreds of other people. At the appointed hour someone lit the blue touch paper and suddenly there was a wall of fire advancing down the street towards us. I don't think we'd been expecting that. How it worked was that there was a principal cord running down the centre of the street and there were other fireworks hung on other ropes that went from the buildings on one side of the street to the other so that they criss crossed that central cord. As the waterfall of fire advanced the crowd fell back, the more foolhardy close to the fireworks and the wiser further back. Wading through the fire zone, just behind the main fire-front, were some blokes dressed in overalls and crash helmets carrying fire extinguishers. They were there to pluck up the fallen or to guide the panic stricken to safety and, if needs be, to put out anyone who was on fire. The cord ran into a square but the fireworks stopped a few metres short of it so that, once you were in the square, you were safe. The fun was that all the people who had been in the street, and all the people who had been in the square before the fireworks started, had to fit into an ever dwindling area as the fire pushed us all back. A bit like that scene in Bambi. It was a tad sardine like and Harvey Weinstein would have been busy but as the fireworks fell silent and fizzled out we were still alive and unscathed.

When it was over Jaime made us run back to the car insisting that we only had minutes to reach safety. We had no idea why. As we headed back we passed several groups of people who were putting the finishing touches to their own version of the uniform of overalls, crash helmets and gloves with lots of duct tape to seal the joins. They didn't have extinguishers and fire blankets though. They were arming up with Roman Candle type fireworks and, at one or maybe two in the morning the signal would be given that they could engage in all out warfare on the streets of Bétera. We saw something very similar years later on the streets of Elche on the Nit de l'Albà - the Night of the Dawn. That's why the properties were boarded up, that was why there were no cars and that's why we were parked well out of harms way.

The Cordá, for that's what it is called was on last night, the 15th August, in Bétera. The subsequent firework fight is, I think, called la Coheta 

Every year, since we've lived here, it crosses my mind that we should go back to Bétera for the event. It was one of the maddest fiestas that I've ever been involved in and it's been one of my stock stories for over thirty years, right up with that one about being on the wrong side of the fence, with fighting bulls, in Ciudad Rodrigo. So I set to looking up the details of times and things yesterday. I found some videos on YouTube of lots of people on the streets but they were all booted and suited. Then I found a form to apply for permission to be on the street for the Cordá. I didn't bother to read any further but it was obvious enough, now you have to apply to be potentially set on fire by a curtain of fire and you can't just turn up on a whim. 

I was telling Maggie. "Well, it's like Britons always say, Health and Safety wouldn't allow this in the UK - now they don't allow it in Spain either". Actually, I suppose that improves our story. When men were men and Spain was Spain and all that. Or it could be that I've misremembered the whole thing.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Taking and keeping

I've complained before about our occasional tussles with "authority" here in Spain and how it's quite tricky to complain or fight back. It's not just the language. Some of the processes can be a bit Kafka, a bit Catch 22.

You may remember that the tax people questioned my 2014 tax returns. It cost me 118€ to defend myself, not a lot but 118€ that I could have invested much more wisely in, for instance,  throwing the money in the dust and trampling on it. Their final response after a couple of months was "we will take no further action". They didn't say "whoops" or "sorry" or "here are your expenses" and I rather suspect that we will go through the same rigmarole for my 2015 returns in a few months.

We also had some trouble with the Land Registry, the Catastro. The Land Registry sets the rateable value of houses and this figure is used by the Local Town Hall as a way of fixing the local taxes which, in the end, pay for street lights, parks and gardens and council worker's salaries. An agency called SUMA collects the tax for most of the Town Halls in Alicante province. The Town Halls sets the tax as a percentage of the rateable value. Lets pretend that rate is half a cent on the euro. If your house has a rateable value of 50,000€ then you have to pay 50,000 lots of half a cent or 250€ in local tax.

Our problem was that the Land Registry thought we owned a good percentage of our next door neighbours house. When the Catastro finally sorted this out the rateable value of our house was reduced by about three quarters. Like the tax agency the Land Registry showed no sign of regret when they acknowledged their error. With backdating and what not we have paid this inflated price six times in the last three years.

I expected that, when SUMA sent us our local rates/council tax bill for this year, it would reflect the new, revised, lower Catastro rate and that there would be a refund for those six over payments. But no. The bill was exactly the same amount as last year and they want us to pay the inflated price for a seventh time. I went to talk to the collection agency.

"Ah, well, you see on their last letter the Land Registry say that this rate applies from the day after you receive this letter". I agreed, I'd read that at the time we got the letter, Maggie had read it too, but both of us had failed to grasp the significance. We should have contested the ruling and asked for the corrected rateable value to be backdated to when the error had first been made.

I grasped at straws. "Well the bill for this year should be proportional then," I said. "No, the IBI, the local tax, is due on 1st January for the year and, on that date, the rateable value of your house was the older, higher value".

I'll see if we can fight it of course but I suspect that we are, in the vernacular, buggered. There is something immoral though in a Government Agency recognising that there has been a mistake but not refunding the couple of thousand euros that it has collected under false pretences.

Friday, August 09, 2019

August was like walking through gauze or inhaling damaged silk

If I were to ask you whether you'd expect summer in Spain to be warm or cool what would you say?

Exactly.

I like it warm. I like the unremitting heat of the Alicante summer. Sun every day, no rain for weeks or months, the sound of flip flops on the street and the telly full of people having outdoor parties and frolicking in the sea with orgiastic fiestas in every town and village.

So summer here is as mythical as Christmas in England. There it's snow, robins, family camaraderie, goodwill, never ending mince pies and the warm feeling of gift giving. It's sort of true, it can be true but most of it is some sort of aggrandisement of the truth.

People of course love to complain. In winter we complain about the cold and in summer we complain about the heat. This always amuses me slightly. Anyone who knows Spain knows that there are bits that are, generally, cool and rainy. The coolest (temperature wise) place I can find for yesterday was Covatilla near Bejar in Salamanca where it was just over 20ºC but Covatilla is a winter ski resort so it's at the top of a mountain. The warmest couple of spots for yesterday, in the whole of Spain, were Xàtiva and Yeste at a bit over 40ºC. Both are within an hour (or so) drive  of Culebrón. In general, Britons think of Spain as being a sunny place. White people come here to lie on the Mediterranean beaches and go, by turns, pink and then red. So my amusement is because people seem surprised that it's warm.

I know that the weather is bonkers. I'm not unaware of all that highest temperature ever recorded in Tuluksak, Tobermory or Tudela stuff but the truth is that the differences aren't that great - at least not for we humans. A temperature rise of 3ºC may have huge global consequences as glaciers recede, ice caps melt, krill do something odd that messes around with whales or jellyfish take to swimming in bits of the ocean that they haven't habitually swum in for a while but, for most people, a few degrees isn't that noticeable. We work on a sort of cold, cool, warm, hot scale with humidity and air movement added in the mix. A biting wind makes can turn the scarf and mittens pleasure of a chill winters day into a painful struggle. The crisp linen of a desert dry landscape is much more comfortable than the sweat sodden shirt and the ridden up underwear of some mangrove swamp.

The maximum and minimum for yesterday in Pinoso were 38ºC and 21ºC. Last year, for the same date I recorded 31ºC and 16ºC in my diary so it's currently a bit warmer this year than last. Usually I don't really notice. Sitting outside with a cold drink or cup of tea and a slight breeze or in the car with the windows down I'm happy as Larry when it's in the high 30s. Maggie on the other hand feels the heat much more. She likes the car or house windows closed and the air con pumping out refrigerated air. I have to be honest though. The other day when I was crawling under the car and the sweat was filling my eye sockets or today, as I unloaded the recyclable stuff, and little rivulets were trickling inside my shirt I did think it was a tad on the warm side. Much more though I thought about that word I nearly always use to describe the summer heat - unremitting. The relentlessness of the heat. The way that, for a couple of months, it never goes away. The manner in which it waits to pounce as you leave an air conditioned building, when the first touch of the steering wheel burns and when, as you awaken at 3a.m., you find yourself enclosed in moist, sticky sheets for the wrong reasons.

Saturday, August 03, 2019

Short change

I've given up not wearing shorts. I don't like them, I think they look stupid (especially on me) and, more than anything, they seem to require that I wear footwear which leaves my feet severely compromised. But shorts are so commonplace that I've decided to stop fighting and to wear them.

We went to a barbecue last week at a posh, modern house. It was time to go so I washed my hands and face and combed my hair. I didn't think to change my faded shorts and my rolls of flab displaying t-shirt till Maggie appeared wearing a spotty dress. "Do I have to dress up?," I groaned. I did, so I did. A shirt with a collar and leather shoes. I even shaved.

We weren't out of place but I could have got away with the shorts, well maybe. Perhaps I would have needed to iron them first. Most people, even if they were in shorts, looked neat. I cultivate crumpled and scruffy. Like those 1980s Bacardi ads but without the firm flesh.

We went to see the opening speeches of the Pinoso Fiestas on Thursday. Maggie commented that lots of the women in the audience were very smartly dressed. It was then that I realised then that I have a view on dress codes in Spain.

The only place where it seems, for everyday people, to be essential to dress up is for a wedding and probably for a communion. Women at weddings wear unusually smart clothes; red carpet stuff.  Men, on the other hand, wear badly fitting suits dragged out of a genteel semi retirement. The men look uncomfortable. Funerals are different. There seems to be no need to smarten up for a funeral and I'm often a bit taken aback by the casualness of funeral wear. In fact there seems to be no need to smarten up for work, for the theatre or for the opera. This doesn't mean that Spain is scruffy it simply means that people dress as they think appropriate. Most of the time there is no imposition of a dress code or even a particular expectation. Not always of course. I worked somewhere that had a (very light touch) dress code and I saw a restaurant website the other day that said that the dress style was "formal" though I'm sure they meant neither black nor white tie. The flip side of this is that if you go out wearing a traditional cape, a dinner jacket, a lounge suit or a scarf when it's 25ºC then nobody will give you a second glance.

I'm probably wrong. My wardrobe choice has been greatly reduced by the unfathomable shrinkage of many of my clothes over the years so I may be seeking justification for my own slovenliness. And I do still try to adapt, a little, to the situation by choosing black jeans, faded blue jeans or my Cliff Richard jeans. The last because my mum always reckoned that Cliff was so clean cut he pressed a crease into his jeans. It's true that some jeans are smarter than others.

The few times I've been to a classy restaurant in the evening I usually wear beige chinos and a short sleeved, checked, button down collar shirt. If there are other grey haired British men there they will be wearing exactly the same basic outfit. We Britons are well trained.

Thursday, August 01, 2019

Working the whole day through

People keep asking me if I'm bored now that I'm retired. I say no. They ask me what I do and I say I don't know. What I do know is that I'm not getting lots of the things done that I mean to get done because I don't have enough time.

Probably the thing is that busy means one thing and another. When I visited the UK a few weeks ago I noticed the immediateness of everything. Buying a beer is a plish plash operation. Ask, get, pay, drink or sometimes ask, pay, get, drink. Table service, the Spanish norm, obviously slows things down anyway but even if I order at the bar before sitting it's a much more leisurely process. The format is based on trust not mistrust. Paying, getting someone to take your money, can actually be a problem at times and I often pay at the bar as I leave to speed things up a bit.

I reckon it's digital stuff that makes people want to go faster. To watch Hill Street Blues in my youth I waited for the episode each week. Now people watch whole box sets in an orgy of bought in pizza and underwear (or so I'm told). And if you don't like the conclusion to Game of Thrones then raising a petition to have it changed is only a few clicks away. Ordering something by mail order used to be seconded by a guarantee to deliver within 28 days. Amazon and Ali Express deliver tomorrow morning. Half the time you don't need to wait at all. No more going out to buy the new album just download it at one minute past midnight on release day or stream it on your Spotify account. Booking holidays, buying a bike, getting a train ticket or doing the supermarket run can all be done from your phone or laptop whenever and wherever you like.

It's true we flew out of a new and underused Spanish airport but we left the spacious calm of Corvera to arrive in the frenetic maelstrom of Stansted where we were goaded and guided forward in something akin to a giant cattle market. Even in rural Cambridgeshire that change of pace was very noticeable to me - heaven knows what it must be like in Brum or London. There was a traffic jam on the approach road to Stansted. Obviously we have slow traffic from time to time as we travel around Spain but that was the first real jam I'd been in since the last time I was in the UK.

People don't really eat on the street in Spain but buying food to go and eating it at the bus stop or as you send a message on the phone seemed to be very common in the UK. There appeared to be almost an imperative to use every moment effectively. From listening to people in Madrid and Barcelona I think there's a tendency to that there but I don't live in a big city. I live in Pinoso. And here we have a bit of time.

At the moment the stalls and stands and paraphernalia of the Fiestas are blocking up the streets of Pinoso. Streets are closed off, one way streets are suddenly two way. It's all a bit tricky. I saw someone try the normal right turn onto the Plaça el Molí to find her way blocked. The car stopped, the woman considered her options. The cars behind waited patiently. They didn't wait long really but 15 seconds delay in Huntingdon or Todmorden would have horns a go go. In Pinoso nobody tooted, they just waited. We do it all the time, wait patiently that is, as people stop their cars in the middle of the street to greet a friend or to drop off the not too nimble relative close to their door.

Slowing down can take some getting used to. I think it's worse if you, if one, is still British at heart, watching British TV and reading UK news and seeing things going quickly. I don't really. But if you compare the lightning fast selection of BoJo in comparison to the continuing, outrageous, non negotiations going on here about not forming any sort of government you have a case in point. That thing of an election one day and a new government the next isn't the Spanish way. I think it's the same with traffic reports. Here the police tell the DGT and the DGT tell the media so, by the time you hear the traffic report on the radio or Google maps knows to route you a different way, the tortured metal and smashed bodies have been dragged aside. Meanwhile in the UK someone phones the radio directly.

So, when someone behind a desk tells me it may take a few months for a pal to exchange their UK driving licence for a Spanish one I just say right and I'm surprised when my friend thinks it's a long time. When they told me the waiting time for a new car was three months I didn't think of it as being overly long till a couple of Britons expressed surprise.

No, I'm keeping very busy thanks.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Blood, fuet and tears

What goes into a paella is a bit of a moot point. Valencian paella usually contains white rice, meat (usually chicken or rabbit) garrofó (a sort of bean), saffron and rosemary and, of course, olive oil. There are plenty of variations but most of them replace or add to the meat with, say, snails, seafood or fish and the beans with maybe artichokes or cauliflower. You may remember that, a couple of years ago, Jamie Oliver the British chef, suggested a paella made with onions, carrots, parsley, red pepper, tomato puree, chicken stock, frozen peas chicken thighs and chorizo. He received death threats from enraged Spaniards. They were appalled by the recipe in general but especially about the inclusion of chorizo. I suppose it is a bit like calling something made from quorn and onions in a soy  sauce gravy topped off with mashed yams a Shepherd's Pie. I doubt though that the British newspapers would be able to mine the rich seam of national outrage in defence of the Shepherd's Pie.

Unless I'm very much mistaken chorizo is now commonplace in the UK. So popular, so common, that the pronunciation is no longer the chorritso of a few years ago to something much closer to the Spanish - Choreetho. Chorizo is made by coarsely mincing pork meat, adding seasoning and paprika before pushing the mix into sausage skins which are hung to cure in a nice dry place. Apparently this type of curing without smoke and without salt and where the meat sort of gently rots down is called fermentation curing. Anyway, however it's made chorizo is plentiful in Spain. Any supermarket will have it in a variety of shapes and forms. Some is cheap and some isn't, some is spicy and some isn't, some is obviously produced in huge factories and delivered in articulated lorries and some is made carefully by someone who would be happy to do a radio interview about it.

Stick with me whilst I drift.

In choosing a book I generally work from reviews and lists published somewhere - "Our top ten picks for the beach this summer", "Fifteen new Spanish writers you should get to know" and so on. It is remarkable how many of these books seem to be set in Catalonia or to include Catalan themes. I read the latest Isabel Allende the other day. Nowadays she's a US citizen but I still think of her as Chilean. Her story, about Spanish Civil War refugees taken in by Chile, was full of Catalan words and characters. The book I've just finished was going to be about Catalonia because it was originally published in Catalan. The story is set amongst country folk in the High Pyrenees. There was lots of description in the book and I noticed that in amongst the myriad food references several places smelled of cheese and fuet.

Fuet is a thin, dry cured, solid, pork meat sausage flavoured with black pepper, garlic and, sometimes, aniseed. It has a white appearance, as though it has been sprinkled with flower, though the white is actually a fungus. I'd never particularly associated fuet with Catalonia though, when I thought about it, the name is obviously Catalan. So chorizo is a sausage and fuet is a sausage.

Spain has lots and lots of sausages. If I were to buy chorizo I know there are choices to be made. Any old pig or the little Iberian black jobs? Fed on commercial feed or raised free range on acorns? Basically the cheap stuff or the quality product? On the other hand I just buy fuet. In the same way as I would never associate hot dog sausages, Wieners, with quality meat I've always presumed that fuet was in the same sort of class, made from the the scrag ends. If I were to think about, and I never had till I read Irene Solà Saez's book, I would imagine fuet being produced in an enormous factory stacked with giant killing machines where all the workers wear hairnets and white wellies and smoke a quick ciggy at break time. The sort of place that, every now and then, is infiltrated by undercover journalists who film heartless workers laughing as they do something disgustingly barbaric to terrified blood spattered pigs standing in their own excrement. But, maybe not. If the Pyrenean houses named Matavaques and Can Prim smell of fuet and cheese there must be quality stuff to be had.

Practical research is called for.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Benicàssim

Spain is full of "pop" festivals. I think the biggest is now the Mad Cool Festival in Madrid but the one we were at over the weekend, the Festival Internacional de Benicàssim or FIB, certainly used to be the biggest. There are lots more - Primavera Sound, The Barcelona Beach Festival, Bilbao BBK Live, the Rototom Sunsplash Festival, Low Festival, Sonorama, Arenal Sound and many more.

We were last at Benicàssim in 2008. That time we were in a very small tent and we slept on stones. Although we still tell stories about seeing Enrique Morente, Calvin Harris, Leonard Cohen, Morrissey or La Casa Azul we decided that we would never do it again. At least we would never camp again. We were too old, too bone breaky. So now, with me drawing my pension, Maggie decided we would go back and we'd stay in a tent. She called it glamping. I didn't argue. I like festivals. I have to be honest that I much prefer the first bands on. I like them because everything is more comfortable - no moshing, the dope smoke comes in wisps rather than clouds, beer spilling and glass throwing is at a minimum, the bars are empty and the toilets are passable but, even better, the bands try really hard in the hope that they may become enormously rich and famous. There may be only be a few score people watching them but, maybe, one is an A&R scout. And, for the audience, there is always the possibility that as someone in that elite audience years later you will be able to say -"Ah, yes, we saw Bowie (or Beyonce, U2, Rihanna, Bob Marley, the Fugees, Elton John, Madonna etc.) in the back room of a boozer in Scunthorpe in 1965", changing the names, places and dates as appropriate.

We've looked at going to Sonorama, in Burgos, and BBK a couple of times but, by the time we look the hotels are already full. With sharp rocks to the forefront of our minds we've generally gone to just one day of a festival and chosen local events or ones where we have found somewhere more sybaritic to stay. The Low Festival has been a favourite and I used to enjoy SOS 4.8 till it disintegrated but we've also done much smaller festivals like EMDIV and The B side because they are local.

So, back in Benicàssim, near Castellón, about 250 kms from home. Maggie likened the glamping to life in a refugee camp. Living under canvas, cramped, very public with rubbish everywhere and an inadequate infrastructure. I think I'd prefer to be at the worst festival than, say, at Bidi Bidi in Northwestern Uganda but the comparison was solid. Obviously she didn't really mean it and I wouldn't want to trivialise the human suffering that refugee camps represent but I could see the parallels even if we had nothing but good weather, we were unencumbered with dependants and our washing machine was waiting for us back home. On the other hand it is true that, if you are used to an en suite bathroom and you need a toilet at 6am then having to slide onto the floor, pull on some shoes, unzip the front door of your tent, go ouch!ouch! with the sharp stones, weave between the disgusting detritus on the ground, say hello to the all night drinkers and walk hundreds of metres to get to the toilets that have had a more or less endless stream of backsides parked on them for 96 hours and which, despite the best efforts of a couple of cleaners, are less than spotless and come with a sort of toilet paper laden impromptu paddling pool on the floor, can feel like a bit of an effort. At least at 6am there is no twenty minute queue.

Showering was an even more public spectacle. Most, though not all, did it dressed in swimwear. There were plenty of showers, maybe a hundred, all fed by cold water but with a lot of abandoned shampoo bottles and toothpaste and fag packets floating in the gutters. Some of the showers dribbled onto the concrete floor constantly whilst others didn't work at all. I was impressed with the unerring accuracy of the one stream which always drenched my towel wherever I hung it.

I was talking to a Spaniard from Navarre, from Tudela. He was a hardened festival goer in his early 20s but he complained that he was finding it hard work. He grumbled about the distances between the tents and the campsite facilities, between the campsite and the festival site, about the distances on the festival site, about the poor beer and about the unremitting heat. It never got above 33ºC whilst we were there which is hardly hot for Spain. Bit of a moaning Minnie in my opinion but it certainly wasn't comfortable and the blisters on my feet are still making it difficult for me to walk after two days at home. Be that as it may we got to see a lot of bands and we met some very pleasant people. Oh, and there was beer too. Some of it, a certain quantity of it, interfered with my vision!

Most of the young people were as concerned about how to keep their phones functioning as anything else and proved infinitely resourceful.  I was equally impressed with the effort that so many put into sorting out their outfits for the evening. The effort that some of the young women, put into their hair and gluing on the facial rhinestones astonished me. My only preparation for the evening was to sniff my armpits before concluding that my t-shirt was good for another few hours.

Festivals suit my short attention span. With three or four stages on the go all with overlapping bands I can watch someone do three or four songs and then move on without feeling guilty. With some of the bigger acts it's much more likely that you will see the full set but not always. We wandered from The Kings of Leon to Jess Glynne for instance. Eclectic or what? It's difficult to say how many bands we saw, working on needing to hear three songs minimum to say that you saw a band, it was probably close on 30 which isn't bad at all. There were very few of the "usual" Spanish Indie bands, presumably because there are so many British Fibers, but the range was still pretty good. From the very neat George Ezra, to the surprisingly impressive Fatboy Slim or the very annoyed Action Bronson to Alien Tango where the guitarist flaunted his Murcian heritage by wearing the traditional baggy shorts or zaraguelles.

I'm really glad that Maggie forgot just how uncomfortable we were eleven years ago.

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Lineup: Kings Of Leon, Lana Del Rey, Fatboy Slim, Franz Ferdinand, George Ezra, Jess Glynne, The 1975, Vetusta Morla, Marina, Action Bronson, AJ Tracey, Alien Tango, Barny Fletcher, Belako, Bifannah, Black Lips, Blossoms, Cariño, Carolina Durante, Cassius, Cora Novoa, Cupido, DJ Seinfeld, Ezra Furman, Fjaak, Fontaines D.C., Gerry Cinnamon, Gorgon City, Gus Dapperton, Hot Dub Time Machine, Kodaline, Kokoshca, Krept X, Konan, La M.O.D.A., La Zowi,  Mueveloreina, Mavi Phoenix, Octavian, Or:La, Paigey Cakey, Peaness, Project Pablo, Sea Girls, Soleá Morente & Napoleón Solo Superorganism, The Big Moon, The Blinders, The Hunna,  Yellow Days, You Me At Six.


Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Putting two and two together

I was in the UK for a couple of days a little while ago. I noticed the car number plates. Actually I notice car number plates as a matter of course. No idea why but I do. I particularly noticed that Britons still have a liking for those personalised plates. I can understand that to a point. If you're called Simon and you have money to burn and you buy 51 MON then that's pretty good but, for the life of me, I couldn't work out why people had paid (presumably) good money for the strange letter number combinations. Why is LFC 24V in an auction with a buy now price of £1750 and a bid of £750?

Anyway, in Spain, you have no choice. You get the next number and letter combination in the sequence. You can't buy and sell number plates. Up to the year 2000 the plates used to indicate where the car was registered with one or two letters to identify the province. Not any more though; now it's just a sequence of three letters and four numbers.

I thought the sequence was AAA 0000 then AAA 0001 etc. till AAA 9999 when it would become ABA 0000 and so on. But I was mistaken. There are no vowels in Spanish number plates and, as soon as someone told me, I realised it was true. And the reason? Well a bit of prudishness maybe. Apparently the Dirección General de Tráfico (look at that you understand Spanish) isn't keen on words like ANO (anus) PIS and GAY (crikey you really understand lots of Spanish) on number plates but also they were against the idea of personalisation; so no EVA (Eva is the equivalent of the name Eve), or LUZ or TEO or POL (all normalish names) as well. There are a couple of other letters that don't get used for their potential confusion - Ñ and Q - and the combinations LL and CH because of their former linguistic use.

Oh, and whilst I'm on number plates I pointed out one of the blue plates with white numbers on the back of a car the other day to Maggie. They are used to identify taxis and the VTCs (Cars with a driver) like Cabify and Uber. I suppose they were introduced as an identifier for the restricted zones of cities, for bus lanes and the like but they also make it easier for taxi drivers and the police to spot the "illegal" taxis of the airport run.

And just how do you get to be extra virgin?

I find it vaguely amusing how the Italians seem to get there first. Here the tiny strong black coffee is called a solo but buy one in Teignmouth in Devon or Alberona in Foggia and it'll be an espresso. Expensive British coffees have Italian names. Another example is Spanish ham, the Jamón Serrano. Commonplace here but, when I want to describe it to visiting Britons, I find that I need to describe it as Parma ham so they know what I'm talking about. Spaniards by the way call the British floppy boiled ham York Ham - jamón York.

Spaniards are often particularly narked about oil. Oil in Spain means olive oil. The default is olive oil. If, for some strange reason, you want another type of oil then you have to be specific - corn oil, sesame oil etc. Even if the Mediterranean Diet is besieged on all sides by hamburgers, pizzas and kebabs the oil is still an essential part of the Spanish diet. Obviously enough it's easy to buy Spanish oil here but it's not difficult to buy Italian oil. What upsets Spaniards is that they believe, and it's true, that lots of the oil sold as Italian is actually produced in Spain. Spain produces about 45% of the World's olive oil and Italy about 20% but, again, Italian oil has a much better reputation than Spanish oil so the Italians can sell more than they produce. To meet demand the Italians buy olive oil from other places and bottle it up as Italian. I should say that the saffron producers of Novelda do much the same with product from Iran but I'm Spanish nowadays so we'll have none of that disloyalty.

We have an oil mill, an almazara, in our village, in Culebrón. From sometime in November through to as late as January lots of local producers, from Britons and Dutch residents with baskets of a few kilos of olive through to local farmers with trailer-loads of fruit, queue up to sell their olives to the mill. Watching the process it all looks very straightforward. Onto conveyors, through presses and into bottles. The oil from Culebrón isn't sold in nice bottles with nice labels. It's sold in big five litre plastic bottles with a very basic label. The last time I looked it wasn't even labelled as extra virgin (that's the one that's just cold pressed fruit) and I'm sure it would be if it were so there must be either second press or processed oil added. It is, though, a good product at a very reasonable price.

I haven't really noticed the price recently but, over the years, we've paid between 13€ and 20€ for five litres of Culebrón oil.  The price goes up or down each year dependant on the quality and abundance of the crop. What always amazes me when we pop over to the bodega to get a few bottles of wine is that other people are buying the oil in industrial quantities. I presume that some of it is for restaurants and the like but Spanish cooks do use a lot of oil. All you need to do is to watch any cookery programme or go to get a cheap meal (which will be dripping with the stuff) to see how.

There's a newer oil mill inside the Pinoso boundaries called Casa de la Arsenia out Caballusa way. Their marketing strategy is completely different to Culebron's. They do sell oil in mid sized two litre containers, either organic or not, at around 6€ or 7€ per litre but their marketing goes into the classy looking half litre heavy, opaque green glass bottles with gold lettering and a strange name. One variety uses the arbequina olive which has a very light flavour and the other uses picual which has a much more intense taste. The price on their website is 12.50€ for the half litre bottle. So five litres of that oil would cost 125€.

Last year we went on a wine and oil trail in Yecla. We had breakfast at an oil mill, a mid morning snack at one winery and a sweet course at a second bodega. Interesting and inventive sort of day. The oil mill, Deortegas, had several different oils most of them based on different olives but there were also some flavoured with, for instance, wild mushrooms. The usual thing when tasting oil is to dip bread into it but we talked to a couple of blokes who were tasting their oil directly from glasses. The bread changes the flavour they said. Spaniards take oil seriously.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

And finally the hoe

Maggie told me the other day that she hasn't read my blog for ages. I may be putting words into her mouth but I think the suggestion was that I'd really run out of material. Being pragmatic I wondered if I could start again - talk about the differences in bar or restaurant etiquette or why Spaniards think we're odd drinking coffee with a sandwich. So I started to look back at the early blog entries.

I see that, in February 2006, I brought a hoe from the UK to Spain. I took the handle off and just brought the blade part back. I remember I was surprised I didn't get more grief about the hoe head in my bag. On that very trip a jar of marmalade in Maggie's bag was dealt with much more harshly. Being singularly unimaginative I was hard pressed to envisage the damage that a jar of marmalade, even Olde English thick cut, could do to a Boeing 737 but the security staff at the airport seemed to be well aware of the destructive potential of the orange preserve. On the other hand they did not pre-judge the innate violence in grubbing out weeds with a well honed hoe.

Our garden has a spectacular and never ending ability to grow weeds. Lots of other things grow too but weeds seem to grow much faster and stronger than the oleander or the figs. I brought the hoe head back because Dutch hoes are not on general sale in Spain. Spaniards use something called an azada, more like a trenching tool, to grub out the unwanted greenery. Basically, with an azada, you have to bend, strike and pull whilst, with a Dutch hoe, it's a much more upright stance and more push than hack. I find the hoe easier to use.

Next time spade sized forks. No, not really. It took me a while to locate one but you can buy garden forks here even if they're not common.

Livestock

Very early on we decided that rural postal delivery was a bit hit and miss so we rented a Post Office Box in town. That makes the letterbox fastened to the outside of our gate a bit redundant.

The other day the village mayoress sent a WhatsApp message to say that she'd left copies of the programme for our village fiesta in everyone's letterbox. Now, if we don't use the letterbox, the wasps do. Both Maggie and I have made the painful mistake of putting our hand inside only to have one of the black and yellow critters sting us. Not yesterday though. In full Balkans genocidal mode I dosed the letter box with fly spray before attempting to extract the programme. To my surprise a lizard zoomed out. Google says it's unlikely I did it any damage. Not so the unfortunate wasps that had built a little nest in there. As in the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song  - Four Dead in Ohio - there were just four wasps at home. It was a very small nest. I suppose the rest were probably hanging around the swimming pools of the better heeled.

This morning, I'm coming out of the supermarket. A mother is loading up her children to the car parked next to mine. "Look, a grasshopper!," she says - actually she said it in Spanish but you get the drift. I stared in the general direction but saw no beast. We have tens of them, probably hundreds, in our garden anyway. We also have millions of, and I exaggerate not, ants in our garden. Bumper year for ants. Anyway, I'm driving home and, in the rear-view mirror, I notice there is a grasshopper sitting on the rear headrest.

Just to add that the legion of cats that are living with us, some of them temporarily, bring us lots of animal gifts. Usually in bloody bundles but, last night, Bea brought home a shrew which we managed to wrest from her grip and herd into a closed room where the cats forgot about it. Maggie eventually caught the tiny beast and released it into the corn stubble opposite.

Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Honestly I started writing about garden hoes

You'll remember we had a general election in April and regional and municipal elections at the end of May. The trend was that the socialists, the PSOE, did well, the far left, Podemos, did badly, the traditional right, PP, plummeted and the centrists, Ciudadanos or Cs, did well but not as well as they hoped. The new far right party, Vox, won a substantial number of seats but without the huge surge they were expecting.

The municipalities have now been sorted out with their councils constituted, the regional governments are nearly all done but the first attempt at forming the new national government won't start till July 22nd. Greased lightning it is not.

Spain, has generally, since the return to democracy, had a two party state. More accurately two big players plus a number of important regional movements and some smaller national parties. Recently the maths had changed. Deciding who might govern a city, a region or a country became some sort of "what if" arithmetic challenge.

Now I'm not up to keeping tabs on all of the regional and town hall discussions but the impression I get is that this sort of manoeuvring is going on all over Spain. The fragmentation of the vote has tended towards a version of political Sudoku that has allowed people to get into power simply by perming their seats in the most illogical way often with a contemptuous disregard for voter intention. You know the sort of thing. A party takes a thrashing, it loses half of its old seats but by banding together with some strange bedfellows it can cling on to power. The obvious "winners" have not been able to consolidate their moral victory with a clear majority of seats in the local council or regional parliament.

Our town borders on Murcia so we notice what happens there. Murcia is a good example of this political wheeler dealing. Since 1995 Murcia, the Region, has had a conservative government. In the recent elections the socialists got 17 seats in the regional assembly narrowly beating the conservatives with 16. The conservative PP had 22 last time. Podemos went down by four from 6 to 2, Ciudadanos went up from 4 to 6 and Vox came from nowhere with 4. Given your point of view you could decide to stress the move to the left (the PSOE won), to the centre (loss of seats for Podemos, more seats for Ciudadanos) or to the right (new seats for Vox, a still solid vote for the traditional PP right and an increased vote to the right leaning centrists of Ciudadanos). You can also choose to complain about the proportional representation system, Cs got 6 seats with 150,000 votes yet Vox only got 4 seats despite getting 143,000 votes. Then you start to look for alliances.

The majority to control the Murcian Regional Government is 23 and so the parties have been dealing. It looked as though the PP and Cs were going to form the government with Vox backing them at vote time. But there was a problem in other locations, away from Murcia, and Vox, suspecting that they were being diddled out of any power, suddenly decided not to support the PP. That meant the potential coalition in Murcia has fallen apart for today at least. Exactly the same is happening in Madrid.

Oh, and something else that I really don't understand is the part that Ciudadanos has been playing in this game. Being simplistic about this the Cs have usually been considered to be centrist. But, for some reason best known to themselves, Ciudadanos this time has decided to be right wing. They campaigned on the right and they have said that they will never do deals with the socialists. It's not a stance I understand. It seems to me, given that the vote is so fragmented, if they stuck to the centre they would be in the perfect place to deal. Without compromising their principles, without letting down their voters, they could ask both the left and the right if they'll give them the things they want, the things they promised their voters. Whichever side offers the best deal gets their support.

I'm sure I read something about that in Politics for Beginners, Chapter 1.

Oh, and honestly. I started to write about weeding by pushing rather than pulling but some strange force gripped my keyboard fingers.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Always too slow

I hate that old person thing. It's six in the morning; I'm wide awake, it's pretty obvious that I'm not going back to sleep and, eventually, I get up out of sheer boredom. Particularly with the better weather I'm nearly always up quite early though, if I were given the opportunity, and if my body didn't betray me, I'd stay in bed reasonably late. I don't know if you recall the old music hall song  which had a character called Burlington Bertie who rose at 10.30 to walk down the Strand, with his gloves in his hand? Bertie's routine just wouldn't mesh well with the traditionally ordered Spanish day.

I think everyone knows that Spain, historically, has a split day. That's changing and modern working hours in larger cities follow all sorts of models very similar to the rest of Europe. The traditional Spanish timetable though is still alive and well. Again there are variations but the split day involves four or five morning working hours through till lunch at 2pm and then an evening session through till eight or nine. So with Bertie's 10.30 start, and presuming that he has a shower and gets breakfast and what not, he probably won't be on the Strand till around one in the afternoon. Both the Courtauld Institute of Art and Somerset House are on the Strand. Easy for Bertie to pop in to but, if he, and they, were in Spain he'd probably have to make a choice. Both places would, almost certainly close at two, and they'd be throwing out from one forty five. Doing both in 45 minutes might be a tad rushed.

So, the weekend. If Maggie works on Saturday morning, as she does alternate weeks, then basically Saturday is lost. The morning is gone and lots of fairs, fiestas and things in general close down for lunch. Museums do too and they don't do the Saturday afternoon session because they work Sunday morning instead. If I want to go anywhere I could do it alone of course, as I could on every other day of the week, but that isn't my preferred model.

Same on Sunday. If we're not out of bed till 10 the day conspires against us. Any deviation from the task of getting out and moving - a cooked breakfast, a long Facebook session - and the morning is scuppered. The only way to do anything, to "enjoy yourself" is to be grimly determined to get up and get out.

Obviously there are lots of things that don't work to that timetable which we can get to and I'm quietly ignoring the way the Spanish adapt their timetable to the summer by starting lots of things quite late in the evening. Notwithstanding, it is very true that lots of events do require a planned commitment or they simply escape.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

The Mark II RX Spade - S

I was talking to someone about older cars the other day. Cars used to come without carpets, without heaters, without synchromesh on first and, sometimes, with just three gears on a column change. The range for any given model was simple. Then the choice widened  - standard, deluxe, maybe a GT or whatever but they were still set packages with set prices. When I bought the Mini, ten plus years ago, the idea had changed. You chose an engine package and then added things at extravagant cost

I've been wondering about buying a car and, faced with fawning reviews from most Spanish websites, I resorted to tried and trusted British sources. When Autocar and What Car and Which magazine recommended a car it probably got added to my list. You'd think that the only difference between a Suzuki Vitara sold in the UK and the one sold in Spain would be which side to get into to get hold of the steering wheel. That wasn't the case though. I think that the British Suzuki Vitara 1.0 Boosterjet SZ-T and the Spanish Suzuki Vitara 1.0T GLE are, for instance, the same car. It doesn't help that several of them have very long names such as the Mazda MX3 2.0 Skyactiv-g Evolution Navi 2wd 89kw.

It's not just cars. Our old microwave was only half working. I'd been looking at Which online for cars so I thought "Why not use their microwave reviews?". Which rates the Russell Hobbs RHMDL801G. The model doesn't exist in Spain. Plenty of Russell Hobbs to be had but not the RHMDL801G. Fair enough, Russell Hobbs sounds a bit British which may explain the problem but Panasonic has an international sort of ring. Not if you want the NN-CT56JBBPQ though.

Obviously sometimes names are changed for good reason. The old Vauxhall Nova means something like "It's not working" or "It doesn't go" in Spanish. Not the best name for a car. The Mitsubishi Pajero needed a name change for the Spanish market too - Mitsubishi naming their car a wanker wasn't going to improve sales! Lynx deodorant, the one that used to have a remarkable effect on women is called Axe in Spain. No idea why. Strange though.

Monday, June 24, 2019

When the weather is fine

Summer began at six minutes to six last Friday. Just a few minutes later we arrived in Santa Pola on the Mediterranean coast. It was pure chance, we'd been nearby doing some shopping and we thought why not?

We didn't do much. We parked next to the beach, walked around the corner to an area that has been developed with bars, cafés and restaurants alongside the marina and had a drink. The sun was shining with that early evening hazy shine. Some people were wading in the water, others were swimming. The sea was sparkly. The expensive and not so expensive boats in the marina bobbed up and down and made those tinkling, ringing sounds that moored boats do. The bar was comfortable, modern looking with light filtering through blinds and awnings. It was a bit pricey with slim young servers and ice cold (alcohol free) beer. Say what you will about far off exotic lands but the Med takes some beating when it's on form. It was one of those moments.

A couple of days earlier I'd already been to the coast, showing a pal around my old stomping ground of Cartagena and, this weekend, we went to see friends near Altea. In fact, one way and another we've spent the whole weekend close to the beach. On the train back from Alicante to el Campello the night-time beach glittered with the life of small campfires raised by friendship groups to celebrate the summer festival of San Juan.

I've written before about the magic of the Mediterranean summer in Spain. It really is something. It's not just the sun, it's not just the brilliant blue skies and the pure white light. It's not the heat or even the ice cold beer but summer here is something really special. It has sounds, it has smells, it has a temperature and a way that the atmosphere behaves, how the air shimmers. It even has a dress code.

Summer engenders a behaviour, it fills the telly with adverts of people eating and drinking together but the truth is that you only need to pop to the coast to find that's a reality and not just some ad agency marketing tool.

Ninety days to the 23rd September when it all ends. Ninety days I hope to enjoy to the full.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Money for old rope

I've been a hostage to opticians for years. I have bad eyesight. When I was very young my mother and father insisted on pointing out sheep and suchlike. I would stare into the middle distance, puzzled. My parents thought I was well down on the learning spectrum until the problem was diagnosed when I went to school. Nearly 8 diopters in the worst eye said the optician on Monday.

Generally I wear contact lenses, old rigid style ones that are relatively cheap and reasonably durable. I still need specs though and my four year old ones are very scratched and the hinge is a bit wobbly so they need replacing.

I bought a lens hood for one of my Canon camera lenses last week. The one with Canon written on it cost 35€ which I thought was taking the mick. To be honest I was not that cock a hoop with 15€ price tag on unnamed version that I eventually bought.

Canon obviously charge for their name. Their RF 28-70mm F2L USM is a pretty good camera lens though even if it does cost 3,249€. For your money you get 19 elements packed in a sturdy barrel with all sorts of little motors built in as well as precision threads and what not. My arithmetic says that each element in that Canon lens, complete with their name on the barrel, costs 170€. The optician wants 240€ for each "mid range" lens. And 80€ for the plastic frame. 560€ for a pair of specs.

It's quite difficult to shop around amongst opticians. Spanish opticians aren't keen to give you their fitting information or prescription and even if they do the second optician always suggests that they can't trust the first's work. Obviously that changing lenses in that funny goggles thing and saying repeatedly - better? worse?, requires years of training.

Monday, June 17, 2019

No ice cubes for me

Sometimes visitors put Spain on the other side of the North South divide. The Third World side. Guests ask us if the water is safe to drink. On one, very embarrassing, occasion a house guest wanted to know the price of some towels on a market stall so we asked on her behalf. Using her fingers as euro markers our guest offered half the amount to the stall holder. The trader snorted and turned away. Maggie and I inspected the shine on our shoes.

There is a similar sort of appreciation of Spanish traffic law. Somebody who lived near us used to always drive the wrong way up a one way street to leave his habitual parking space. "Oh, it's Spain, everybody does it," he said. That's not true. Most Spaniards obey signs and the like in exactly the same way as most Britons do. He was applying his own prejudices to the situation. The other day I turned down a drink, an alcoholic drink, "No, I've had a couple and I'll have to drive in four or five hours so I'd better not". My travelling companion said something like "Well, they don't bother much here - do they?". The answer is yes; they bother a lot.

There are two sets of Spanish alcohol limits. One, a more lenient limit, applies to people like me, your normal everyday non professional driver. The other is for lorry, coach, or delivery van drivers and the like - professional drivers. The same, lower, limits are applied to people who have passed their driving test within the last twelve months.

Then there is another division. There's a lower limit that gets you fined 500€ and puts four points on your licence and a higher limit that costs you 1,000€ and six points. Exceed that higher limit and you're looking at bans, driver re-education, community service and even prison time. The level when it becomes an offence is 0.25 miligrammes per litre of breath (0.15 mg/l for professionals and novices), it becomes a more serious offence at 0.5 mg/l (0.3 mg/l) and it gets deadly serious at 0.6 mg/l. For comparison the English, Welsh and Northern Ireland limit is higher, at 0.35 mg/l and even in abstemious Scotland it's 0.22 mg/l. The Spanish drugs limit is much easier. Zero. Anything above zero and you have a serious problem.

I've been breathalysed here four or five times here. All of them routine checks, all of them negative. Sometimes the checks were no big surprise - driving away from a pop festival at four in the morning but the Wednesday afternoon stop of everyone going through the toll gate on the underused section of the AP7 near Torrevieja was a little unexpected. The one where I had to remove the ignition key with my left hand whilst a man pointed a pump action shotgun at me was not an alcohol check! Also negative.

Last year the Traffic Division of the Guardia Civil did more than 5 million alcohol or drug tests. About 1.3% gave alcohol positives or around 95,000 drivers. The alcohol tests are random. A control is set up and every red car, or every car with just one occupant, or every third car is stopped - or whatever protocol they use. The drugs tests are usually done when someone is pulled over, either randomly or because of some traffic offence, and the police suspect drugs use. In that case the results are pretty astonishing. At least 35% in the semi random checks and around 55% for those stopped after a traffic violation test positive - cannabis, cocaine and amphetamines are the drugs of choice and in that order of precedence.
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I was very unsure whether to add this section. The best and safest amount of alcohol for driving is absolutely none. It's not just about fines and rules. The problem with alcohol is that it makes the driver less able to control the vehicle. Alcohol makes the possibility that a badly driven car will kill someone much more likely.

For most people 0.25 miligrammes of alcohol in a litre of breath doesn't translate into anything meaningful. How sober, tiddly or well drunk is 0.25 mg/l? I did find an article which suggested that a tercio (a 33 cl bottle) of a common Spanish beer (5.5% alcohol) would put most men just over the limit and that it would take that same "average" man about two hours to metabolise the booze. The same bottle of beer would put the "average" woman well over the lower limit and possibly on to the more penalised 0.5 mg/l limit. In her case she'd need nearly three hours to metabolise that bottle of beer. A glass of wine (how big is a glass?) might just leave most men under the lower limit whilst women would probably be in breathalyser trouble. And whilst it would take that woman about two hours to clear the alcohol from her system a man would do the same in eighty minutes. However accurate those figures are they do tend to suggest that the limits are very low. Definitely best to stick to the DGT slogan "At the wheel, not a drop".

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Rocking and Roving

I've always had a bit of a soft spot for Land Rovers. I have no idea why. I think it's forty three years since I first drove one and maybe twelve since I last did. I still notice them though. Terrible vehicles really. Noisy, thirsty, probably environmentally disastrous, clunky, with awful visibility, uncomfy seats and the way they tramp about at the back at the least provocation can be terrifying. That hasn't stopped me liking them.

Land Rovers stand out yet blend in. The one in the Rocketman film gets a spot in the trailer. The one in Four Weddings was just so right, so upper crust. Our local quarry has a fleet of them, David Attenborough uses them. There are several  pictures of the Queen, in a headscarf, in front of Land Rovers. I suspect there is no news story about a forest fire or an earthquake that doesn't feature a Land Rover doing its bit. Production stopped in 2016, after 67 years, so I suppose they will slowly cease to be so ubiquitous as any number of much more anodyne but sophisticated vehicles take their place.

This reminiscing was brought on by the simple fact of seeing an oldish Defender, probably from around 1998, parked in our local supermarket car park. It had an old style of Spanish number plate, retired in the year 2000, which tell you where the vehicle is from. J for Jaén, the Andalucian province full of olive trees in this case. That was a second thing. I've recently taken to playing a song over and over again called Andaluces de Jaén. The song is based on a poem written by Miguel Hernández who died in prison, he was on the losing side, after the end of the Spanish Civil War. He was from Orihuela which is just down the road from us. Obviously enough the poem/song is about the people, the Andaluces, from Jaén. Ostensibly about growing and collecting olives but I suspect it may have a somewhat deeper meaning than that!

The time I first realised that a battered Landy is nearly as axiomatic a sign of deep, deep, Spanish rurality as the small white van and bright blue overalls was in 2006, in Cazorla, also in the province of Jaén. We were sitting in a square in the town as Land Rover after Land Rover went by. They may, in fact, have been Santanas because, between 1958 and 1994, Land Rovers were built under licence in Spain. To be honest it's immaterial whether they were built in Solihull or Linares because they were instantly recognisable as Landies.

Looking at the prices, even for old and battered examples, it's unlikely I'll ever be able to buy one but if anyone has one and feels environmentally guilty you could always salve your guilt by gifting the motor to me.

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Andalusians from Jaén,
proud olive growers,
tell me in good conscience who,
who grew the olive trees?
Andalusians from Jaén,
Andalusians from Jaén.

Neither the Nothingness grow them
nor money, nor the lord,
but the silent ground,
work and sweat.

Together with pure water
and together with the planets:
all three gave beauty
to the twisted trunks,
Andalusians from Jaén.

Andalusians from Jaén,
proud olive growers,
tell me in good conscience who,
who grew the olive trees?
Andalusians from Jaén,
Andalusians from Jaén.

How many centuries of olives,
with captive feet and hands,
all day long, sun and moon,
weigh on your bones!

Jaén, stand up, brave,
on your moon stones,
don’t become a slave
with all your olive groves.
Andalusians from Jaén.

Andalusians from Jaén,
proud olive growers,
tell me in good conscience who,
who grew the olive trees?
Andalusians from Jaén,
Andalusians from Jaén.