Blogs in this series

Life in Culebrón is a very British view of life in a small village in Alicante province, my experience of Spain, of Spaniards and sometimes of the other Britons who live nearby. The tabs beneath the header photo link to other blogs written whilst I was living in other parts of Spain, to my articles written for the now defunct TIM magazine and to my most recent photo albums.

Thursday, December 14, 2017


Just a bunch of assorted trivia that has tickled my fancy in the last couple of days.

There are a lot of stars in Culebròn. That's probably an incorrect assertion. I suppose there are exactly the same number of stars as there are anywhere but lots of them are easy to see from Culebrón because we get lots of cloudless night skies and there's very little light pollution. That's not quite true either because, at the moment, we have a dazzling Christmas light display which, for the very first time this year, features a spiral of LED rope around the palm tree. The Geminids meteorite shower was flashing across the sky all last night though in an even more dazzling display. Lovely.

We went to the flicks yesterday evening, we often do. We'd been to visit someone and we were a little late away; we went the long way around so we arrived at the cinema a few minutes after the advertised start time. The cinema we often use shows the sort of pictures that don't always attract a lot of advertising. So, sometimes, if the start time is 6.15 the film actually starts at 6.15 but, then again, if it's a bit more Hollywood, the 6.15 film might not start till 6.30 after the trailers and ads. Whilst Maggie waited to buy the tickets I went to have a look at the monitors to see if the film had begun. If it had we had a second choice. The manager, who was on ticket collection, said hello, lots of the staff greet us by name nowadays, and asked me which film we wanted to see. I told him. It was due to start 10 minutes ago he said, but there's nobody in there so I'll start it when you're ready. A private showing and to our timetable. Lovely.

Bad keepers that we are we'd missed the annual update of the vaccinations for the house cats. I took them both in today. I was amazed - apart from the chief vet everyone that I saw in the vet's surgery/office is doing or has done at least a couple of English classes with me. Of course I shouldn't be driving but I thought the 5kms in to town wouldn't hurt. As I drove Bea home she had a bit of an accident, bowel wise. She's not a big fan of car travel. At the exact moment that the stench of her reaction assailed my nostrils the very obvious yellow van of the bloke who looks after my motor went the other way. He flashed his lights in greeting. I would have waved back but a bit of chrome trim chose that exact moment to fly off the front of the car and bounce off the windscreen. I went back to get it later, on the bike, and fastened it back on to the car with duct tape as a temporary repair. Lovely.

And finally, yesterday, we passed the bodega/almazara in Culebrón. There were a stack of cars and vans queuing to hand over their olive crops to be pressed into oil by the almazara, the oil mill. The bodega, the winery, did its stuff back around September time. So I strolled over with the camera to take some snaps. I have no idea what the process was but I liked the small scale nature of it. Little trailers full of olives, plastic bags full of olives, people standing around and chatting waiting to have their crops weighed in. The cars are obviously modern enough but the process is probably as old as the hills. Lovely.

Monday, December 11, 2017

What Freddie and Montserrat sang

Barcelona was the first place I ever saw in Spain. I thought it was brilliant. I've been back several times since. I like it less now than I did at the beginning. Two or three visits ago we got a lot of "You're inferior because you're not Catalan". We had several instances where people wouldn't speak to us in Castellano Spanish and on just one occasion we couldn't get a menu in a restaurant in Spanish or in English - Catalan or nothing. Obviously enough we left. I think it was the visit after that where the town looked so scruffy and it smelled like one giant lavatory.

So what about this time? I'd expected quite a lot of signs of the Independence debate but it wasn't particularly obvious and the publicity for the elections on the 21st were very standard. Otherwise, well it's a decent sized city so it's busy, it has a lot of traffic, it has a lot of bikes and wizzy forms of transport. There were thousands and thousands of us tourists. The prices were a shock of course, they always are whenever we leave home. There was also an element of being tricked all the time. We weren't really tricked because we knew what was happening but the set price meal without drinks meant that the drinks were going to be overpriced. A non alcohol beer in Pinoso costs 1.50€ and we were charged 4.50€ several times when the drink went with a meal. We breakfasted somewhere where there were set price offers. None of the menus showed the price of a coffee so I guessed that the croissant and coffee offer was probably a cheaper way of getting a second coffee than simply asking for another drink. Based on the loud complaints from a group of US women on another table I guess I was right. An odd thing was the table service. On no occasion did we ever get our orders at the same time. Both Maggie and I were on the receiving end of twenty minute waits after the other one had been served. It didn't seem to depend on the style either - Maggie's late salad was in a  pretty traditional place whilst I had to wait ages for a smart version of sausage egg and chips in some trendy tapas place owned by a Michelin starred chef.

I felt very 21st Century when I ordered a non standard taxi using some application on my phone but it was a complete faff and the fare didn't strike me as a particular bargain either. There were lots of interesting businesses and retailing ideas though I can't recall one at the moment. Nice range of fashions as well - lots of clothes that we country folk don't see in the flesh so often - I kept thinking of a programme I'd seen on the telly about Influencers and their Instagram accounts. We saw a place called el Nacional; not knowing what it was we just walked in anyway. It was a sort of enormous restaurant and bar complex. We think it was just one business but one area was a champagne and oyster bar, another was for ice cream, there was a ham and cheese area and so on. Full of lights too. I imagined someone pitching that idea to a jaded bank manager.

We did lots and nothing at all. The big thing was going to the Sagrada Familia - somewhere that both Maggie and I have visited once or twice before  - but not in the past twenty five years! We walked Christmas markets, went on cable cars, went to the beach, did just one exhibition and went to the cinema. It was one of those cinemas that were common in the 1970s where some huge one screen place had been carved into several smaller cinemas with screens not much bigger than modern day tellies. There were so many stairs that I was breathless by the time I got there! The entrance to theatre 5 was weird - it was underneath the screen. Actually that was something I noticed in Barcelona. So many places with stairs - it must be murderous for people with reduced mobility. Stair lifts are all well and good but they must turn going to the toilet into something that requires meticulous planning if you are a wheelchair user.

So good fun, nice to be in an exciting busy place but nice to get back on to the train and listen to the Catalan change to Valenciano as we came home.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Red Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Españoles

Maggie saw a news item on the telly that said that for the "puente", the long weekend, that stretches from Constitution day on Wednesday through Immaculate Conception on Friday, was pretty well booked up everywhere in Spain except in Cataluña. We supposed that was because of the political goings on there, because of the terrorist attack and because the good people of Barcelona have made it very clear how much they like tourists. The result was that there were lots of good deals to be had.

We decided to go. We travelled on the train. We go on trains fairly regularly in the sense that we go on them from time to time rather than never - maybe two, three or four times a year. Well actually maybe four, six or eight times a year in that we usually go there and back. ADIF is the state owned company that owns the Spanish railway infrastructure but it's RENFE (Red Nacional de los Ferrocarriles Españoles) that runs the trains. Our local stations are in Villena and Elda for conventional trains and at a different station in Villena for the high speed stuff.

We went from the railway station in Elda or maybe in Petrer. The station is called Elda-Petrer. It's just down from Elda hospital but, if I were guessing, I would have plumped for the station being in Petrer. The paired towns of Petrer and Elda are our nearest decent sized urban area. Despite living here for years I still have no idea where the frontier between the two towns runs. There are advantages to this paired town urban area though as we get access to twice as many fiestas, fairs and events using more or less the same parking spot.

Anyway the round trip cost 79.80€ or a few pence over £70 with the distance being just short of 500kms in each direction. I tried to compare prices between our trip and the one between Euston and Carlisle (480kms) but the British price seemed to depend on a great number of variables. The British website looked like one of those that would spring last minute charges (for booking a seat for instance) but, presuming it doesn't, and supposing that the suspiciously cheap £84 train (sandwiched between one at £130 and another at £115) actually exists, then the British price is just a little under two and a half times as expensive as the Spanish price for a similar distance.

On the outward journey the train was on time - well two minutes late to be honest, the coffee was overpriced at 2.20€, the train was clean, the assigned seat was comfortable with plenty of leg room, though, on the way home, our reserved seat turned out to be round a table and that was less comfortable. Bumping knees from time to time. But, all in all it was a very acceptable journey with RENFE doing a decent job as they so often have for us in the past.

Actually the only thing that lets RENFE down is their clonking website which falls over quite a lot and offers very limited route planning facility. If it were possible to decide where we could travel to on the trains we may actually use them more often than we do.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Freedom, justice, equality and political pluralism

It's Constitution Day today. We're celebrating the 39th anniversary of the document that formalised the new order and the end of the dictatorship. 

In Pinoso Town Hall yesterday there was a reading of some of the articles of the Constitution by members of the community. Obviously it couldn't be today. Today is a holiday and the Town Hall wouldn't be open on a holiday.

I thought I'd go and have a look. I got there nearly at the beginning, the Mayor was doing the opening spiel but I couldn't get into the room where the reading was taking place because the door was blocked by the throng of people waiting to read their bit of the document. I'm not sure if there were people inside the room, an audience, or not. Peering in all I could see was someone standing behind a tripod videoing the whole thing. When I said hello to Colin, there to read his bit and presumably a representative of my clan, someone shushed me so I decided to give it up as a spectator sport.

I did listen to the reading on the local radio. Colin did OK and I recognised lots of other local people from their voices. The Constitution sounded good - all those rights to fair and equal pay, to work, to holidays, to a decent home, to a justice system. Someone got to read Article 155 which is the one that was used in Cataluña, the one that says that the Government, with the approval of the Senate, can take over a region which is not fulfilling its obligations. Interesting choice I thought.

It wasn't the only time I saw the mayor yesterday. In the evening there was a "Musicalised wine tasting" to celebrate the third anniversary of the local wine and marble museum. Marble and wine are two of the pillars of the local economy. The wine tasting was accompanied by music some of which was played on wine bottles and lumps of marble. Ingenious I thought.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Not typical

I was listening to a learn Spanish podcast called Notes in Spanish today. The podcast is produced by an Anglo Spanish couple Ben and Marina. They plan what they're going to talk about but the actual conversation is unscripted so that it's more spontaneous. Until this new series, which has just reached its third week, it's been a few years since they've produced any podcasts. I hadn't cared for the content of the first couple of these latest recordings but this one was much better. They were responding to the question as to whether Spain could still claim to be different from other European countries or whether it has been "globalized".

They talked about how some of the symbols of everyday Spain are disappearing - for instance the way that family restaurants are being taken over by corporate hotel and catering groups. They chatted about the new transport solutions like Cabify (a company that uses chauffeured cars to provide an alternative to conventional taxis) or the shared car schemes where users hire vehicles for a few hours at a time. One of the points they made was that whilst these initiatives might be new to Madrid they were probably old hat in large chunks of the world. They also mentioned that things were probably unchanged in España profunda - Deep Spain. I've been told that neither Pinoso, nor even Culebrón, can claim to be Deep Spain but we're hardly at the cutting edge of the latest trends either.

Family restaurants are still the norm around here, small family shops too and the few times that I've wondered about any of those services that work via a mobile phone app - like home food delivery, car sharing or chauffeured cars - I've always drawn a blank. No Just Eat, no Uber and no Bla Bla Car - I don't even seem to be able to get online supermarket orders delivered. My mum lives in St Ives, in rural Huntingdonshire, and she can do online supermarket shopping and order take away from Just Eat even though most of the shops on the High Street are local businesses. This discussion about "The Real Spain" the idea that some particular type of city, town or village best represents the essence of Spain reminds me of some spoof I saw on British telly when I still lived in the UK. In it a group of friends were in the after pub Indian knocking back pints of Kingfisher. Their conversation centred on the argument that the real India could only be found in the villages. Ben was comparing now to a time at the end of the 1990s. What makes that Spain any more or less Spanish than the Spain of Cabify and Car2go? It's something I always think about when I see "traditional costume" - why does some clothing style, frozen at some particular time in the past, represent "traditional" any more than the flip flops that have been the standard Spanish summer wear for years and years? Personally I think that the excesses and brashness of Benidorm and the style of the Alhambra both represent the real Spain as does some remote hamlet in Teruel, a fishing village in Cantabria or the trendiest bar in Chueca or Lavapiés.

As an aside Ben speaks pretty good Spanish. He sounds very British though, his cadence, as well as his accent, are British. One of the things I like about his podcasts is that he makes errors of the sort I make. He puts most of them right himself but sometimes Marina has to correct him. Ben wasn't the only recorded or broadcast Briton I listened to today. I also heard a radio programme, done on Spanish Radio 3 Extra, by another Spanish speaking Briton called Nicolas Jackson. His programme is aimed at a Spanish audience and is about new British music. Like Ben, Nicolas speaks cracking Spanish but, again, with a very obvious British accent. I've never noticed any mistakes in his scripted commentary but Spaniards tell me, that whilst what he says may be grammatically correct, at times it sounds a bit clumsy to a native speaker - in plan Guiri as they say - like a foreigner. Simon Manley, the British Ambassador to Spain, was on the radio a couple of times today talking about Brexit. He makes plenty of mistakes and sounds very British too. Maybe that's a part of his job description and I suppose media interviews are harder than either prepared scripts or a natter with your partner. I wish I spoke Spanish as well as the worst of them.

Hearing so many Britons speaking Spanish in one day I got to comparing my own linguistic capability with theirs. To be honest I thought very little of what they said was beyond me - at least with a following wind. Then someone phoned from my credit card company trying to get me to change my card. I have a suspicious mind and guessed that the new card would not be to my advantage. I tried to tell the woman that but as I spluttered and fumbled with the most basic pronunciation or structure I realised just how far there is to go.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017


The health people send you a little packet through the post. Inside there's a sort of flat tube with some liquid in it with a cap that incorporates a stick. You collect a sample of your own faeces (I decided not to use the simpler, better word). You open the tube to reveal the stick and then you stick the stick into the faeces sample a few times before sticking the stick back into the tube and sealing it all up. That provides whoever it is who deals with these things a sample to check to see if you possibly have gut cancer.

Once you have your sample you take it to the collection point, in my case the local health centre, and leave it in the "assigned urn" between designated hours. The sample gets analysed and they send you a letter if it's an all clear or make an appointment to see you if it's not.

Now there are certain Spanish words or phrases that just won't stick (sic). For instance there's a phrase that is to do with changing the subject that uses the name of the river that flows through Valladolid, the Pisuerga. Try as I might I can never remember the name of that damned river. Certain words become fashionable for a while - I still remember farrago of lies being used over and over again in a story about Harold Wilson and Marcia Falkender. I'd never heard the word before and I haven't heard it since but, at the time, it was everywhere. At the moment a verb that is being used regularly to do with the Catalan politicians in prison is acatar which means to respect, observe, comply with or defer to. I must have looked acatar up at least ten times and so far I still haven't internalised the meaning. On a much simpler scale the word for a notice or a sign - the written or printed announcement sort of notice/sign - is not a simple translation in Spanish - there are three or four words that are used to describe specific sorts of signs and there is a similar sort of sounding Spanish word - noticia - which has nothing at all to do with notices which is dead easy to trot out mistakenly.

So I go to the health centre with my pooh stick and I see no designated urn. I wander around a while sort of waving the green tube thing in the hope that someone will point me in the right direction. Nobody does so I queue at the reception desk. There are only a couple of people in front of me but the bloke on the computer takes an age to process anything - he must have trained in a Spanish bank. I stand and wait. It's frustrating because the answer will take two to three seconds. I see two other people, Spaniards, with their green tubes and I tell them I'm waiting to ask where the urn is. Eventually it's my turn, I ask and the receptionist nods his head at a yellow plastic container that's tucked behind the reception desk. It has no notice/sign on it. The receptionist is brusque in the extreme with his nodding and I'm not happy. I can't remember exactly what I said but the gist of it was that if somebody had the gumption to put a notice on the stupid yellow box then three people would not be standing around wasting their and his time. Except of course that I couldn't remember the right word for a notice and the whole righteous indignation thing fell apart.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Minor celebrity, cycling and house visiting

Another couple of personal tales. If you're looking for stories of Spain skip this one.

Thrashing around on a supermarket floor must attract quite a reasonable sized crowd - something for any balloon sculpting street artists among you to bear in mind. At least two people have told me they were personally responsible for picking me up and several more seem to have been interested onlookers. Even the local police chief asked me today how I was getting on. Lots of people know about the incident and they seem to know it was me. In fact, at times, I've felt like a bit of a minor celebrity. It's a celebrity I would rather have avoided but, every cloud, as they say.

There is medical advice that I shouldn't drive. So now I can feel virtuous cycling from Culebrón to Pinoso. It's not very far, it's more or less level and yet the effort makes me breathe like an steam train. Nonetheless, as I take my first unsteady steps on reaching my destination I feel righteous. Ecologically sound, part of that group that goes into sports shops to buy things other than shoes.

Getting to town or back home on the loaned road bike is already a relatively quick and only mildly painful process. I expect it to get better as my muscles adapt to something more strenuous than pushing the brake or clutch pedals. The bike is useless for transporting anything other than me of course. I've already had a couple of logistical failures with my lessons when the attempt to keep the weight and angularity of my backpack down has meant that I've forgotten some key bits of paper. My lunchtime menu planning/food buying now also takes account of the weight and bulk of foodstuffs. Night time cycling is out (though much against my better judgement I rode home after nightfall yesterday). I was not and I am not at all keen on mixing with 100km/h traffic after dark but it was actually the oncoming traffic, on the narrow lanes, that caused me most problem as I lost sight of the edge of the road.

As a driver I think those flashing red rear bike lights are great but, as a cyclist, I've had a couple of eye to eye conversations with drivers in broad daylight where there has been no doubt that each of us is aware of the presence of the other. They've cut me up anyway. They are  presumably working on the assumption that, even if I persist, I will hardly mark their paintwork. I am certain that even the flashiest of flashing rear LEDs and the most fluorescent of fluorescent jackets will offer very little protection against just the slightest tap from a vehicle driven by someone much more engrossed in their WhatsApp message than spotting that unexpected night time bike.

When I rode in a couple of days ago I was heading for the bank to talk mortgages and I thought we were just about to buy a house. I was quite taken with the idea. Culebrón is great with space and trees and stuff but it's a pain getting a gas cylinder or a bread stick. And, as the years pass, more things will become a nuisance or worse. So, living in town and being able to leave the gas cylinder outside the door to be replaced or only having to walk around the corner to the bakery sounded good. Pinoso is hardly the big city after all and Friday evening's jaunt to Santa Catalina, where we talked to Spaniard after Spaniard, was also a reminder of the pleasures of living with neighbours in a community.

Maggie knew the house or, in fact, the bunch of houses we were going to see. I reckoned that if she thought they were good then they would be. The houses are owned by a bank, collected as part of a bad debt, probably from a bankrupt builder, and sold through the bank's real estate arm. The prices are low, and similar houses are usually really good value for money. Typically they are "sold as seen" and most of them need a bit of tweaking in one way or another. We're not really rich enough to take on a mortgage but figures can be remarkably elastic when you want them to be and the bank seemed to be as flexible in their sums as we were in ours.

I was ready to having to fit a kitchen from scratch, I knew about that, but, try as I might I couldn't like the house. I looked at the cupboards, described as rooms, and wondered how anybody had decided to make the only suitable length for a bed run from under the window directly into the door. I looked at the toilet absolutely flush to the wall, wondered why, and tried to calculate if there was sufficient leg space between the stool and the bidet without actually squatting down to check. I balanced everything against the price and decided that sometimes being cheap just isn't enough.