Blogs in this series

Life in Culebrón is a disconnected series of pieces about the banal and ordinary of everyday life in an inland Alicante village seen from my very British perspective.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

See you in the usual place

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Saturday, July 07, 2018

Juanito Andeante and friends

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 30, 2018

And on 18 April 1930 the BBC said there was no news

Just outside our kitchen door the sun is shining. In fact Culebrón is bathed in glorious sunshine, as it has been for days, but it's just outside our kitchen door that concerns me. That's where I read whilst I drink tea when I have time.

It's nice outside our kitchen door. There are lizards and swallows and blackbirds and wagtails and a symphony of butterflies and all sorts of beasts chirping, chittering and squawking from the hedges and greenery. It's private too, private enough for me to take off my shirt, which is something I would never do in public nowadays. The flabby fat makes me feel unwell and I wouldn't want to scare the horses.

As you may know I do a bit of teaching work. The English classes have been tailing off with the summer. My students, quite rightly, realise that there are more interesting things to do than fight with the pronunciation of island (izzland). But, suddenly, I have an intensive summer course or two to do. Exam courses; exam cramming, grinding through exam papers. The first of them started this week. Three and a half hour non stop sessions on three consecutive days so far. Nice crowd of learners.

So, if I normally tend to read a bit in the morning one of the things I do in the evening is to half watch TV programmes; that I don't care about, and look through the Inoreader news feed on my phone. The news reader picks up stories, in Spanish, from four newspapers. There is also a feed for local news from the Town Hall and a couple of sources of  Spanish news in English from el País and from The Guardian. Because of this and that, probably the football and because the intensive course has sort of moved my day around, I haven't checked the news reader for two evenings. When I did finally looked there were 944 Spanish stories waiting for me plus another 40 or so from the local and English language news. I just deleted most of them. Far too much information.

I read the news because, like most people, I like to know what's going on and because it's one of those things that we all do. I do it too, a bit, to bone up on my Spanish culture. There are thousands of things that we all know because we grew up with them - they seep into our memory, into our shared history. For the first fifty or so years of my life the stuff that washed over me was from a British milieu. That's why I know what Brooklands is and why I know songs by Freddie and the Dreamers and Amen Corner.

So the whole world knows that Stephen Hawking and Philip Roth died this year. Britain knows that Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and John Julius Norwich have shuffled off this mortal coil, rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. Meanwhile here in Spain the death of María Dolores Pradera got a lot of media attention. I didn't have a clue who the actor and singer, particularly famous in the decades around the 1960s, was. It happens all the time. Actors, singers, politicians, institutions, restaurants, towns, buildings. We're still learning them. Malvern, Harrogate and Bath I just know but Mondariz, la Toja and Solán de Cabras I have to learn. The news reader on my phone helps me to do that alongside things like reading novels, watching the telly, listening to the radio, shopping in supermarkets and eating out. On the other hand 944 pieces of information in two days perhaps highlights that, sometimes, it's a bit of an uphill struggle.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

The smell of burning in the morning

A faint aroma of woodsmoke accompanied me to the shower this morning. Presumably a sensorial reminder of a short stroll along the beach in Alicante last night amongst the tens of impromptu mini bonfires, or hogueras, there. One of those essential, but detail, elements of celebrating San Juan, St John the Baptist, in any number of coastal Alicantino towns.

Strange stuff around midsummer; midsummer day on the 24th of June, the midsummer of Puck, Bottom, Oberon and Titania. How is it that summer begins, the summer solstice is on the 21st, and then a couple of days later it's midsummer? Lots of Spanish people say that Midsummer Night is the most special night of the year. I like it too. Something special about the long day, the short night and the promise of night-time warmth in the name alone. In Cartagena I remember that every street corner had some group of family and friends setting fire to something or hurling bangers around. In a slightly more restrained Lincolnshire I have this, possibly invented, memory of seeing The Dream at Tolethorpe on a balmy summer's evening - no rain, no wind, no chill in the air. Real or not it's the memory of Tolethorpe and their outside Shakespeare season that doesn't fade.

Maggie couldn't go to the San Juan shindig in Alicante yesterday. She'd agreed to work. She says that she's seen it anyway, that it's always the same. A few bigheads and giants here, a parade or two there, a bit of dancing, a lot of bangers - been there, seen that, done it. I agree, to a point. I was very uncertain about going for the physical effort of it and for the cost. I have similar thoughts about cities sometimes very similar to Maggie and her repeat fiestas. What was that cathedral in that city we went to with the yellow trams called? What was the name of that resort for rich people in Sardinia? Questions without answers. It's not quite the same when it's somewhere a tad more exotic. Not a lot of pyramids and desert tombs or monkeys running around Buddhist temples in Europe.

What I actually like about San Juan down, particularly the Alicante city version, doesn't have a lot to do with people dancing in the street. It's more the whole motion of it. Nice and warm, sunny, with all the bars and restaurants doing a lively trade and the whole city bedecked, with something going on at any moment everywhere, with people in traditional costume having a chat with someone in sports gear, with main roads reduced to litter strewn playgrounds for young and old alike. I met up with my sister and brother in law to do the things on the event list. As we left the mascletá, the fireworks that go boom boom, it took us ages to get out of Lucernos Square simply because of the weight of humanity trying to move. I left early in the evening around midnight. I'd been there for about twelve hours and my feet were aching and my contact lenses were beginning to play up. As I started to go home there was absolutely no doubt that the city was beginning to fill up. There were queues of cars all along the seafront, the huge car park underneath yet alongside the beach and port was completely full. Walking back to my car there were prams snapping at my heels and masses of people going in every direction. Amongst the trees of a seafront park, there were score and scores of family and friendship groups dotted about. When I finally arrived at the car park that I'd used (on price) a little way out of town it was a hive of activity with cars coming and going and a long queue of people at the, cash only, ticket machine (who weren't amused that my crumpled 5 euro note was repeatedly rejected). As I drove away, at around 12.30am, I passed one of the, soon to be burned, "monuments" maybe a couple of kilometres from the centre of the town and there must have been a thousand people eating grouped around it on hundreds of long tables.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018


I still have a UK bank account. Last November my bank, the HSBC, asked me to prove that I was who I said I was and that I lived where I said I lived.

I thought the whole process was ridiculous but I have learned docility over the years so I set about jumping through their hoops. By grinning at a webcam as I showed my passport they were happy to accept that I was me. Proving where I live has been a little more difficult.

Now we're not going to talk about the fact that they have been posting things to me at this address for years or that the original account with them was opened in around 1972 and has been at the same branch since 1979. We won't dwell on the fact that, whilst the need for the bank to verify the address of their customers is an external regulatory requirement, the process for collecting the data is purely up to the bank. No, we're going to accept the possibility that I may be the front man for a Serbian money launderer and that this process is not a fatuous waste of time and money.

I've mentioned before that rural Spanish addresses are a bit hit and miss. Living, as I do, in the 21st Century most of my bills are paperless anyway so precision of the address isn't important. I can obviously print the bills out from the computer but the bank wanted originals sent through the post. They also wanted bills with EXACTLY the same address as the one they had on their records. As chance would have it none of my bills have that exact address.

I have talked to several people at the bank over the months. Most of them have been perfectly pleasant. They were often quite human, quite flexible. In fact last Autumn  I was told to forget the whole process until I got a letter from the UK tax people in April. When I got a tax coding that set the whole rigmarole in train again. There have been a lot of phone calls, secure messages and emails since then. The bank hasn't been moving quickly though. Between one question and an answer I had to wait over two months for a reply. Today, after another lengthy phone call and lots of blether the solution that my customer care team representative came up with was to change my address on the HSBC website so that it matched the one on my phone bill.

The woman didn't seem to grasp the contradiction of the suggestion. In order to prove that my address was real I needed to change it. I didn't argue too much though. After all it's an easy fix.

So, now my phone bill address and the address the HSBC holds are the same. All I have to do is to get our local notary to certify the bill as real before sending it back to the UK. That done the HSBC will be able to sleep soundly knowing that their records are accurate.

There was though a teensy weensy potential stumbling block. The HSBC wanted the notary to use a particular form of words - I, [full name of certifier], confirm this is an accurate copy of the original. I pointed out to the HSBC that a document written in English wouldn't have any legal validity in Spain and that the notary may be unwilling to certify anything using a foreign langauge. The bank were suitably imperialistic about the need to use English.

And guess what the Notary said? We can validate the phone bill but not in English. I told them to go ahead anyway. When it's done I'll shove the confirmation in the envelope and send it back to Harry Weston road in Coventry and wait for the next round of negotiations.

Sunday, June 17, 2018


Just for a while I had a student who owned a marble company here in Pinoso. I have no idea whether there is money to be made in marble but I do know that he bought himself a Mercedes GLE - one of those big four wheel drive coupé things - because he said that some of his Arab customers looked askance at his Citroen. He also told me a story about how a new employee had left something off the manifest for a container full of marble which had lost him 2,000€. But, these things happen, he added, as he shrugged his shoulders.

All around this area there are companies that sell stone. Lots of them are alongside the motorway as it passes through Novelda but there are tens of them scattered around. Some are quite posh and others are just fences around an area with a few big blocks of stone, some handling and cutting equipment. I've been on a trip to the quarry here in Pinoso. It is humongous. It's what makes the town so clean and tidy with such brilliant facilities or at least the money it produces is. In a bad year the quarry brought in 6,000,000€ for the less than 8,000 population of the town. The sums aren't hard.

Pinoso does an ivory coloured marble. I think it really is a marble, in that the limestone has been recrystallised, and, as such, it takes a lovely shine. It's almost certain that you've walked on our marble in some office block or shopping centre. One day, when there was a marble and wine themed day in Pinoso I visited the only stone yard we have actually in the town and I was surprised to find that they were cutting and selling a limestone quarried in Albacete. The main company involved in the Pinoso quarry has its HQ in Novelda.

Today I went to visit another quarry as part of the Mármol-on event run by Novelda tourist information. We went to the Bateig quarries which were big, if not on the same scale, as the Pinoso quarry. They seemed to have a limestone that has a blue hue and takes a nice shine too.

The chap who did the commentary before we got there was really great. He emphasised that the three original stone companies in Novelda, had grown up around the railway. He stressed over and over again the effect that the railway had had on Alicante businesses from wine and marble to saffron, cigarette papers and toys. Just as an aside finding out that Banyeres de Mariola and Alcoi have history with fag papers was nearly as interesting as finding out yesterday that, in the last days of the Spanish Republic, the official Spanish currency was printed in Aspe. And probably more interesting than seeing some stone.

We went on to the workshops of Iván Larra the man who built the first ever church organ out of stone - marbles and granites. He gave us a tour of his workshop. He was more a musician interested in stone than a mason interested in music though he didn't give us a biography, or, if he did, it slipped me by. His workshop was a series of tumble down buildings which had once been part of a spa complex alongside what is now the A31 Alicante to Albacete motorway. Interesting (again) to think that people might have "holidayed" there until the 1950s.

I seem to have used the adjective interesting a lot in this entry but what with quarries and exhibitions and stonemason-musicians plus the street music event in Villena I can't think of a more appropriate adjective.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Being pushed and going

It was Dave's birthday last week. He invited us to his birthday barbecue and, following the hallowed tradition, whilst we were captive, Sara sold me a ticket in a World Cup sweep. Come on Morocco!

Spain play their first match tomorrow. To be honest it would be dead easy to be unaware that the World Cup, Copa Mundial or, more usually, just el Mundial is about to start. There are clues - like lots of adverts on the telly for big screen TVs and dead giveaways like the adverts for Coca Cola reminding you to get your supplies in before kick off. But, if you just were to simply wander around you would hardly be assailed by World Cup offers. None of the petrol companies, for instance, are giving away World Cup medals, youngsters aren't exchanging World Cup stickers and if the bicolour is flying higher than usual I would associate it with something anti Catalan rather than something pro Spanish squad. If there is massive support out there for la Selección Española, the national football team, la Roja, a name which comes from the traditional red kit, I seem to have missed it. Perhaps it will start tomorrow in Sochi at the Fisht Stadium.

If my Spanish nationality exam were to demand a 500 word essay on Spanish football I'd be hard pressed. I am vaguely interested in the World Cup though; as an event. It's just the same when, during the Olympics, I find myself watching, and caring about, the hockey. So, I'm chopping up the cucumber for the salad and on the radio they say that Julen Lopetegui, the national team coach, has got the boot. He's taken on the manager's job left open by Zidane at Real Madrid. My initial thought was that this was sheer madness. Presumably the squad has been training with this bloke, presumably their strategies, the ones they have been practising, were designed by the same man and, after all, it was he who had the final say in choosing the squad. I mean it's not as though it's a scandal taking another job. I presume he was willing to work out his notice. He'd not signed up with another national side and, so far as I know, he's paid his taxes. Why didn't they just let him do his job until the moment when the squad's World Cup was finished?

I was interested enough to have a look online for the printed version. The replacement is a man called Fernando Hierro who was the Sporting Director with the Spanish Football Federation. That presumably means that he's been there, alongside Lopetegui, in the plans so far. That sounded a little better. The article also gave me other pointers. It said that the news of the coach going to Real Madrid had left "players indignant and perplexed, particularly those who do not play for the capital’s team." So now we have it. It's about club football.

There was a strange symmetry to the football news. Whilst the no confidence motion was in progress, against the Partido Popular and its leader Mariano Rajoy, the one that led to a new Spanish Government,  Zinedine Zidane the Real Madrid manager, chose to resign. The number of tweets, WhatsApp and Facebook memes that mixed the events was legion. Yesterday the new Culture Minister, Máxim Huerta, who is best known as a morning TV show presenter and author with a very active presence on social media, resigned when it turned out he'd had a bit of a run in with the tax man. He'd routed some of his earnings through a company and, in court, he lost his argument with the Revenue. A bit against the grain in Spanish politics he resigned within 11 hours of the news breaking. So this time the memes were Lopetegui and Huerta rather than Zidane and Rajoy.

The photo by the way is of one of the security guards working at the play-off game between Valladolid and Numancia. He looks a lot like Rajoy. New work for the ex-president?

Tuesday, June 05, 2018


I have a pal, Carlos, who has one book published and a second well under way. Carlos is obviously driven to write. I think he's pretty good. There's a bit of a tendency to too many trade marks and too many adjectives along the lines of  "He moved forward. His Doc Savage jaw and aquiline nose crossed the threshold of the door in a dead heat and just in time to see the pneumatic blonde kick off her black Jimmy Choo Aimee pumps, flick open her ancient IMCO and gently scorch the end of the pink Sobranie Cocktail clamped between her glossy red lips." He can be a bit repetitive too (then again Dickens has scrooge eat dinner twice) but the story lines and plot development are good. If you read Spanish then give it a go and help to make him rich and famous - El Legado del Mal by Carlos Dosel.

I have no ambitions to write, other than for my own amusement. I also keep a diary. I have for years. Most of it is along the style of I got up and went to get a coffee before going to the supermarket but, hey ho, such is life. At the bottom of the pages, for years, I have written a little comment on the weather.

In winter I find inland Alicante very uncomfortable. It can be difficult to keep warm and life can be a bit miserable. If we ever move house buying one we can keep warm in winter will be a priority. But if winter can be hard then I just love summer. The never ending, inescapable, unremitting heat of it and especially the sound the heat makes. Things expanding and contracting. Cigarras singing nonstop. Brilliant. Spring and autumn are good too. Not hot but warm enough.

It's been warm for weeks now. Warm in the sense that a British summer is usually warm or maybe better said that it's not cold. You may occasionally feel a bit chilly, you may have to reach for a big woolly or roll down the sleeves of your shirt, but the gloves and overcoats disappeared weeks or maybe months ago. The outflow of cash on gas bottles has slowed to a trickle. I forget exactly when it was but there's a moment when I quit the electric blanket from the bed  - the blanket that hasn't been used for quite a while but is still in place, just in case. Probably it was the same weekend when the pullovers were folded up and put away ready for next November.

It's probably not been a warm May though and there has been a fair bit of rain. Torrential rain at times. At least that's what people have been saying. "Cool for the time of year", "Will it never stop raining?", "It's usually hot by now," and so on. I'm never sure. People have their own ideas about weather just as they have about Coke and Pepsi. I often think that June is one of the more reliable months with plenty of sun whilst July can be a bit unpredictable but I'm pretty sure that weather service could prove me wrong.

Lunchtime news today and just a short piece to say that May has been, temperature wise, pretty average if a bit wet. They popped a bit on the end to say that the reservoirs were filling up nicely. Strange that, last time I heard it was unlikely we would recover from the drought for years.

Anyway, back at my diary - June 4th 2018, this year - Sunny and pleasant. High 26ºC Low 11ºC. June 4th 2017, last year - Occasional sun, occasional showers, cooler. High 26ºC Low 15ºC.

So last year I thought 26ºC was a bit cool and this year I thought it was pleasant.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Colouring between the lines

The other day, at work, they asked me if I'd be willing to do a quick cramming course for 17 or 18year olds who had had trouble with their final marks in the English test or who were about to do an English paper as a part of their University entrance exam.

I had to do a bit of checking around to find out exactly what I might be taking on. I knew that some recent changes in education law, the law called LOMCE,  had made changes to the various exams but it's one thing having a general idea and another knowing the specifics of an exam. So now I know about PAUs and EvAUs and how people still call the whole thing selectividad. I even understand the marking scheme - for English at least. Obviously though I'm at a disadvantage over Spaniards who have gone through the system or who grew with the changes as they affected their children or younger relatives. So whilst I know there was a system with EGB, BUP, COU and now there's a system with ESO and Bachillerato and vocational training, or FP, I've never lived through those systems as I did with O levels, GCSEs, A levels or GCEs.

The EvAU exam is interesting. There's no speaking or listening component. It's mainly a comprehension, a bit of reading and some questions about what you have read plus a short essay. I find the reading comprehension quite difficult and I think the questions are full of traps. I'm glad my future doesn't depend on passing the test. I notice that University Chancellors think that the test is too easy and that marks should be lost for students who do not copy out parts of the text accurately!

There was a lot of hoo-ha in Spain about the final evaluation of the bachillerato, a lot like the  British sixth form, the voluntary 16-18 education period for youngsters . The LOMCE proposed that the evaluation should be external but, as far as I understand it, that was knocked back and only the students who want to go on to university have to do the external exam, the EvAU. I think, as it stands, it's the schools that set the exams and decide whether a student has passed the bachillerato or not. Certainly my bosses told me that the end of course exam is set by the teachers and generally looks like the EvAU except that it has an extra element where the youngsters have to translate sentences in Spanish into good English. Passives and reported speech look to be favourites. Translation can be a very subjective game. Take the very simple  "buenos diás". Días in Spanish means days but buenos días is usually translated as good morning not good days. Australians though, from my vague memories of Skippy and all those Foster's adverts, say G'day and they're English speakers. I wonder whether a Spanish born English teacher would take that into account when deciding whether "good day" was an acceptable translation for "buenos dìas" or not?

So, I'll be doing a course for a few students who had trouble passing their end of course English exam and some others who want to pass the English element of the University entrance exam.  I have a couple of weeks for the re-takers but only a few days for the ones who aspire to University. I'm not quite sure how much help I can offer in such a brief time but all we can do is to give it a go.

Just a bit of an update. I've done a couple of sessions now. They didn't much care for my delivering the class in English so I've had to try and teach in Spanish. Hilarious and hard work.

A morning in Alicante

The Catastro, the Spanish version of the Land Registry, told me that article 18 of the Legislative Royal Decree of the 5th March 2004 (1/2004) says that any dispute must be attended within six months of receipt. I remember those things from when I used to work. We will acknowledge receipt of your communication within 24 hours and respond within 72 hours. Except that, this time, it was six months.

I have a bit of a conversation cum reading sheet about drinks that I use with my English learners. The drinks sheet starts with tea. It says Britain is a tea drinking nation. It has variations on "A pint of sheepshagger, please" and it mentions how overpriced coffee has Italian, rather than Spanish or French, names. But it starts with the phrase Britain is a tea drinking nation.

Now I have a critic. Every now and then a Spanish bloke, living in the UK, feels incensed enough, on reading my blogs, to put fingers to keyboard and play merry hell. He tells me off for lots of things but he particularly doesn't like my generalisations about the Spanish and he doesn't like my comparisons between the UK and Spain. My argument back to him is that generalisations are a fact of life. My experience is that Britons drink tea, the people on Gogglebox look to have a cuppa in their hand. It's true though that neither my mum nor my pal Geoff drinks tea. The sheet though says that Britain is a tea drinking nation and I think that's fair enough.

As well as the critic my Mexican pal Laura told me off, years ago, for repeatedly harking back to the UK. I tried to stop. I suspect though that the majority of the handful of people who read my blog have a British background. Nowadays though I try to keep my British comparisons to the factual or explanatory. So if I write about the ITV I might say that it's a regular vehicle check similar to the MOT or I might say that the ITV involves a such and such a check, unlike its British counterpart. I often voice an opinion, based on my experience, and draw some sort of conclusion from that observation. For instance I might say that the Spanish Social Security payments for the self employed are almost punitive and so there is a natural tendency for people to avoid paying them if possible.

So back to generalisations and my British opinions about the Catastro. I didn't want to go to their offices. I had the feeling that it was tempting fate. My limited experience of complaining in Spain leads me to believe that it can have unexpected consequences. Sleeping dogs are better left lying. But, after 15 or 16 months of absolute silence from their offices, and despite article 18 of the Legislative Royal Decree of the 5th March 2004 (1/2004), something needed to be done about trying to get back the hundreds of euros we'd been overcharged in paying the property tax on our neighbour's house.

In order to get to speak to someone I had made an appointment. When I got to the office I had to check in. There was a little ticket printing machine to do that. It assigned numbers. I entered my NIE, the ID number issued to foreigners, and the machine said that I had no appointment. The same thing, failiure to recognise the correct number, happens relatively often on badly designed websites - the sort that presume everyone has two surnames. The NIE is different in format to the ID number issued to Spaniards, the DNI.  Sometimes, I can get the NIE to be recognised by missing off one or both of the letters that top and tail the seven digit figure. Sometimes adding a zero at the beginning works. But not this time. So I went to the man at the information desk. He ignored me for a while and then he spoke to me as though I were an idiot. He asked the security man to help. The security guard was fine. He checked me off his appointment list and told me that the machine wasn't set up properly to deal with NIEs. He gave me a number and some ten minutes later my number flashed up on the screen telling me to go to desk 4 but I didn't even get to sit down. "Hang on a mo," said the woman, "Yes, you need to go upstairs to room 15. Wait to be called". I sat and waited. I had to go and feed the parking meter before I was called. The 90 minute maximum waiting time wasn't enough.

"The problem is that your land isn't registered, just the buildings." said the man in room 15. It wasn't difficult to recognise that I was being fobbed off. But that bloke on the reception desk had really pissed me off and I wasn't for backing down quite so easily this time. In for a penny in for a pound as it were.  We talked back and forth for quite a long time. Just for once my Spanish didn't fall apart and I stood my ground. I wasn't for giving up on this. If he'd found another problem then we had another problem but what about the original problem, the overcharging? Even if I had land to register they had the buildings registered and some of the buildings we were paying tax on were not ours. And, besides, why hadn't they sent a reply in fifteen months? There didn't appear to be any extra documents added to the stuff that I'd sent them, in fact it looked as though this was the first time that anybody had looked at the file despite my three inquiring emails and despite article 18 of the Legislative Royal Decree of the 5th March 2004 (1/2004). Obviously enough, in the end, he still palmed me off. "It needs a decision from someone higher up the pay scale than me," he said. At least I felt I'd done my best. It's going to cost us more money in the end though.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

By the Ermita de Fátima

I've just come back from watching the awards ceremony for the 21st Maxi Banegas National Poetry Competition. Maxi was a local teacher and poet.

It's a nice little event. This year it was half way up our "emblematic" salt dome hill near the Fatima chapel in a sort of wooded clearing. Lovely setting. There were some songs from Andreu Valor, and an unnamed musician, as a guitar duo before the awards for a couple of photo and writing competitions and then the big prize for the poetry competition. As I said all very gentle and very pleasant.

There was wine and there were snacks afterwards provided by the local bodega, Bodegas Volver, but I didn't stay. Maggie was watching Liverpool lose the Champions League final so I was alone. There is something pathetic about eating ham and drinking wine alone in a crowd but that was only half the reason for clearing off. There were plenty of people I'd nodded to in the audience. With a glass in hand they may well have tried to speak to me and that would never do. I took a few last snaps of the guitar duo, now augmented to a trio, and headed home.

Nice as it was I have to admit to being a bit cross with the event which is billed as being a National competition. The singers sang in Valenciano, the Mayor spoke in Valenciano. There was a lot of Valenciano. Fair enough I live in Valencia. Good on them that they use their local language. On the other hand it's also very exclusive. Say something in Castellano, the world version of Spanish, and any of the forty odd nationalities that live in Pinoso might have a chance. Speak in Valenciano and it's only for the locals. It even excludes the vast majority of Spaniards.

Quite a lot of the news on the local website and radio station is presented in Valenciano. There's plenty in Castillian too but I think the percentage of Valenciano may be increasing. Anyway I was listening to the radio as I drove into town the other day and I heard the shortlist for the Carnival Queens, in Castillian, for this year's fiestas. All of them were double barrelled, local, Spanish names. Not an Ecuadorian, a Moroccan or a Ukrainian among them.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Chuntering on

I forget where we were but they offered Contessa as afters. The Vienetta of my youth, fancy, if industrial, ice cream cake. There was tiramisu as well. Not many years ago all the puddings on offer in an everyday Spanish restaurant would be crème caramel, ice cream and seasonal fruit. Now you can get chemically flavoured cheesecake and deep frozen profiteroles and suchlike almost everywhere. An example of reasonably recent change.

Last Saturday evening I wasn't sure whether to go and see some flamenco in Villena or go to Jumilla for the Night of the Museums. I like Jumilla but we've done their museums a few times. I was drawn towards the flamenco. It's ages since we've seen a couple of old fat blokes wailing or listened to anyone turn clapping into a fine instrument. The trouble was the information I could garner from the web about Villena wasn't complete. I had a time, a place and a title. No description; Art and Flamenco could have been a learned discourse as easily as a night of sweat and guitars. A few years ago not being able to find any information on the Internet would have been dead usual. I'd have risked it but, as I got to the decisive junction, I turned the car towards the certainty of Jumilla. Until very recently Spaniards were not big on sharing information. The working hypothesis, born as so many things still are in Spain, of forty years of life under a dictatorship, was that what you knew may be to your advantage - so best to keep it quiet. But, nowadays, lots of information is reasonably accessible and that's a big change.

I'm not sure how much of the Catalonia news gets outside of Spain. I would guess that there are sporadic bursts as someone goes to a Belgian, German or Swiss court or when some President is nearly sworn in. The gang of politicians who have the upper hand in Cataluña at the moment are a bunch of pig headed, short sighted, single track thinking fools. The President of Spain, who represents the opposing side for those Catalan politicians, is also a fool, a plodding, vindictive, uninspired fool. There is only one way out of this, the two sides have to talk to each other. The trouble is that both sides only understand playground type rules - "I'll take my bat home" or "I'll get my big brother on to you". It's going to take ages for their feeble minds to come up with anything workable. Mind you I think Spanish history is peppered with examples of Spaniards being unwilling or unable to talk to each other. Co-operation is, in my opinion, not a big thing in Spain.

On a much lighter note, well away from the politics of a repressive regime or two, I don't care for the run up to Christmas. This is because Maggie watches a series of TV shows that shape our weekends. There is the X Factor, the one with the audience reduced to a baying pack of hyenas, which I heartily dislike, and there's also the dancing one which I don't find offensive but which isn't my idea of fun. I'm not sure when MasterChef is on but she likes that too. It's not a programme I particularly care for but I have nothing against it either except that it cuts across the start time for prime time telly which means we miss the first thirty minutes of any film on Spanish TV. Nowadays of course the format for TV programmes is a saleable item. There are Spanish versions of Come Dine With Me, First Dates, Britain's Got Talent, The Voice, Kitchen Nightmares, Big Brother, The X factor, MasterChef and Strictly amongst others. Now if Maggie likes MasterChef and if I want to watch Spanish telly you'd think that we'd have a televisual winner with the Spanish versions. The problem is that the programmes are presented differently. Strictly or Bailando con las estrellas as it's called here, only started last week. We gave it a go. We watched for a while. Maggie complained that the format wasn't as good as the British version but she'd probably have put up with that if the programme hadn't started at 10.30pm and gone on till 12.45am - two and a quarter hours. MasterChef does something similar on Sunday evenings - hours and hours long.

I could go on but it's probably best that I don't as I'm over 700 words. Way past the attention span of most people. A bit like Spanish TV!

Friday, May 18, 2018

Spanish Nobel Laureates

In 1895 the Swedish inventor of dynamite, Alfred Nobel, left money in his will for the Nobel Prize. The prizes are judged by Swedish and Norwegian institutions to recognise academic, cultural and scientific advances. The first prizes were awarded in 1901 in Chemistry, Literature, Peace, Physics and Physiology or Medicine. The prize in Economics was first awarded in 1969, after a donation from the Swedish National Bank to the Nobel Foundation.

To date there have been just seven Nobel Prizes awarded to Spaniards. So the next time you pass a school or a street named for one of them you can amaze your visitors with your knowledge of Spain. If you can't remember who won what plump for literature and the odds are on your side – five literature and two for medicine.

The Spanish started well with an early win in 1904 for literature. José Echegaray y Eizaguirre was a civil engineer, mathematician, statesman, and one of the leading Spanish dramatists of the 19th century. José Echegaray was awarded the 1904 Nobel Prize for Literature "in recognition of the numerous and brilliant compositions which, in an individual and original manner, have revived the great traditions of the Spanish drama".

Next up was Santiago Ramón y Cajal in 1906 for medicine or physiology. Ramón y Cajal was a pathologist, histologist and neuroscientist. His pioneering investigations of the microscopic structure of the brain have led to his being called the father of modern neuroscience. His medical artistry was legendary, and hundreds of his drawings are still in use for educational and training purposes. His Nobel citation reads "in recognition of their work on the structure of the nervous system"

It was quite a while to the next one, 1922 to be precise, to Jacinto Benavente y Martínez for literature. Jacinto Benavente was born in Madrid and became one of the foremost Spanish dramatists of the 20th century. The Nobel Prize citation reads "for the happy manner in which he has continued the illustrious traditions of the Spanish drama".

Nothing in the 1930s or 40s but in 1956 Juan Ramón Jiménez Mantecón picked up the literature prize. Juan Ramón Jiménez was a prolific writer and poet who received the prize "for his lyrical poetry, which in the Spanish language constitutes an example of high spirit and artistic purity". Although he was mainly a poet his prose work, Platero y yo - Platero and I, a series of gentle stories about a boy and his donkey, is one of those books that children are made to read at school.

Severo Ochoa de Albornoz was a physician and biochemist. Severo Ochoa won the medicine or physiology prize in 1959 by which time he had moved to the USA and taken on American Citizenship. He worked alongside Arthur Kornberg  so the citation reads "for their discovery of the mechanisms in the biological synthesis of ribonucleic acid and deoxyribonucleic acid"

Vicente Pío Marcelino Cirilo Aleixandre y Merlo was born in Seville in 1898. Vicente Aleixandre received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1977 "for a creative poetic writing which illuminates man's condition in the cosmos and in present-day society, at the same time representing the great renewal of the traditions of Spanish poetry between the wars". His poetry is generally free verse, very surrealistic and often sad.

The latest winner to date was Camilo José Cela y Trulock, 1st Marquis of Iria Flavia in 1989 for literature. The Trulock part of Camilo José Cela's name comes from an English grandparent though his mum was Spanish. Because he is more recent you may find that his work is better known - titles to remember are La familia de Pascual Duarte and la Colmena (The Hive). He liked to shock with his statements and in an interview on telly he offered to demonstrate his ability to absorb litres of water via his anus. You can see why the Nobel citation is for "for a rich and intensive prose, which with restrained compassion forms a challenging vision of man's vulnerability"

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Don John

My Spanish is odd. I know a fair bit. I can talk alright but sometimes I can't. Sometimes I can get really flustered and cock it up completely. Sometimes I can laugh at my mistakes and plough on or I can get angry and sulky. Language, or problems with language are still, by far, the biggest stumbling block to my day to day dealings with Spain.

In the last post I mentioned that the Consumer Office had suggested the only way to sort out our overpaid local taxes was to go to the nearest office of the Land Registry, the Catastro, 60 kilometres away in Alicante city. Nowadays, with most government offices, you need to arrange a prior appointment. That doesn't mean you don't have to queue but it does mean you'll get served. There are lots of systems for making an appointment online and even the most basic website usually offers some sort of email possibility. Not the Catastro though. You can get access to plenty of information online but sorting an appointment has to be done by phone.

I used to live on the phone when I had a real job but, nowadays, I find phone calls to help lines really difficult irrespective of the language. First there are the technical problems; the headsets not set up properly so that the volume is too loud or too low and the VOIP connections with the corresponding clicks or echoes on the line. Then there are those more physical problems like balancing the phone under your chin whilst you search for the reference number that you didn't expect them to ask for. Now add in the Spanish. If talking to people face to face can vary from ordinary and normal to a bit embarrassing talking to people on the phone, for me, tends towards nightmare. There are non of those corporal cues to help - you can't nod or gesticulate or smile - it all depends on the words that you utter and only on the words.

So, I'd put off phoning the Catastro as long as I could. As I pressed the number buttons on the phone I remembered approaching the end of the 10 metre board at the swimming pool in Skipton when I was a boy. The connection was dodgy - a beep on the line every three seconds or so. I listened to the "Please hold we'll be with you in a moment" message for a while with the knot in my stomach getting tighter and tighter. "How can I help you today?" said a cheery voice in Spanish with a nice clear accent. No niceties on my part I just blurted out "I want to arrange an appointment with the Alicante office" with the Spanish steeped in the broadest of Yorkshire accents. Questions and answers; ID numbers, reference numbers, post codes, phone numbers - easy questions. Then there was a question about why I wanted to speak to them, I fluffed and muttered. The man said "Ya". Ya is a multi-use, often confirmatory, word that can mean lots of things. When he said it he said it in a way that I know well, with the vowel sound lengthened and a click at the end, so that it sounds resigned and world weary. I got the appointment though.

As he confirmed the place, date and time he made the mistake, common amongst Spaniards used to their double barrelled surnames, of thinking that my middle name was my surname. Thank you for your call to the Catastro today Don John. As I sniggered I failed to say "adios" properly. Ending on a low note.