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, March 15, 2018

The language of Angels

Despite my best efforts none of my students would ever be confused with a native English speaker. It's the same for me. Try as I might, when I speak Spanish, I sound like an English person mispronouncing Spanish with the wrong cadence. Lots of Britons around here complain that, when they say something, in Spanish, to a Spaniard, they get a blank look but that, when they eventually get through and ask the Spaniard to repeat the offending word or phrase it sounds exactly the same, to them, as what they originally said.

Most of us are, apparently, deaf to some sounds and incapable of reproducing others.

We went to see a French film last night called Historias de una indecisa in Spanish or, originally, L'Embarras du choix, in French. It was a nice, enjoyable, light romantic comedy; very French with lots of style and even more eating and drinking.

One of the characters was supposed to be Scottish; in reality the actor was English. Either way the man knows how to speak English. I can't work out from the French trailers on YouTube whether he spoke French on the original French soundtrack or not. He does speak English on the French trailers.

In the version we saw, dubbed into Spanish, everyone speaks Spanish, including the Scottish character. There are some sections in English. At least they purport to be English. They are what the Spanish dubbing artists suppose to be English. I would have been hard pressed to understand them save for the Spanish subtitles. The pronunciation was risible, alarming even but the total effect was remarkably amusing. It reminded me of that scene in the Steve Martin remake of the Pink Panther where he is trying to say "I would like to buy a hamburger".

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Having fun

All the time we've been here and we've never been in Sax Castle before. It's only just down the road too, maybe 30 kilometres. We remedied that today with a theatralized visit. I saw the poster somewhere, sent an email and I was told to email back on a specific day as the visits were always oversubscribed. I did as I was told and got a couple of places. The story the players acted out was about the second Marquis of Villena taking possession of the lands around Sax Castle. When they were telling the story I realised that this particular Marqués de Villena was the one who lost the family the lands around Villena, another local town. He backed the wrong side at the time of the famous (in Spain) Catholic Monarchs, the ones who sent Columbus off to find some spices. There is still a Marqués de Villena, the twenty first. The eighth one set up an institution to protect the purity of the Spanish language which now produces the Spanish dictionary of reference. The Villenas are a bit like those Shakespeare characters - the Northumberlands, Gloucesters and Norfolks who are still very much there. It was a nice visit. The sun shone, the Spanish seemed easy enough and the price was right. It cost nothing. We were talking about that as we walked away. Lots of things, visits, theatre pieces, concerts and the like are free in Spain. Not all of them by any means but a significant number. Education for the masses and all that I suppose.

It's coming up to Easter. With my British hat on Easter was a few chocolate eggs and a long weekend with the Friday and Monday off work. Easter in Spain mobilises towns. Semana Santa, Holy Week, is a big thing. There are brotherhoods all over Spain who work all year to get themselves sorted out for Easter. Some of the parades are simply enormous. Last year I was in  a bar when the Foreign Legion, a famous Spanish regiment, were parading the Cristo de la Buena Muerte, the Christ of the Good Death, in Malaga. The volume on the telly was turned up and people stopped talking to watch.

Last night we went to something titled Incienso y Mantilla, Incense and Mantilla (those lacy shawls worn as headgear) at the theatre in Jumilla. I bought the tickets in the last week of January and even then there were no tickets left in the stalls. It was a complete sell out unlike the Karl Jenkins or the Chopin and Liszt concerts that we also bought tickets for at the same time. Now my knowledge of the Easter goings on is both limited and quite extensive. I've seen it a lot but, then again, I'm not Spanish, I'm not a Catholic and I'm not a believer. I know something of the brotherhoods, I know something about the various religious floats, some of the iconography and how things are organised. There are things though, like saetas, that I know but I don't know. The saeta is a religious song that gets sung during Semana Santa. If I hear one I know it's a saeta but I don't really know what they are. Then again I couldn't give you much of a low-down on Christmas Carols either.

Anyway, so we go to hear Joana Jiménez and her incense and mantilla thing at the theatre. The crowd were in raptures. Right from the start the cheering, the clapping the shouts of olé were in full flow. I've never seen roses actually thrown on to a stage before. Who takes roses to a theatre? Presumably that's why Tom Jones gets knickers. At one point the photo on the backdrop was a famous Easter carving, used in the processions in Seville, called the Jesús del Gran Poder literally Jesus of the Great Power. I was a bit surprised but I recognised the image. So did everyone else in the theatre because they cheered and applauded the photo! The singing and dancing wasn't really flamenco but, as most of we Britons think that long tight dresses, with flounces at the bottom, for the women and tight trousers and slicked back hair for the men, along with lots of tap dance type stamping, equals flamenco then it was flamenco. I have no idea how a knowledgeable Spaniard would name it.

Maggie said she took some people to see a house in Jumilla. She was along with a Spanish agent who had limited English. Maggie was telling the people that Jumilla has impressive Easter processions and the agent understood. He agreed. There are a lot of believers in Jumilla he said. We met some of them last night.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Pumping gas

When I had my first cars in the UK, when you could get five gallons of cut price Jet petrol for a pound, there was always someone to serve you. By the time I left I bought fuel in supermarkets and you served yourself. Not so in Spain. When we first arrived nearly all the petrol stations had attended service. I never particularly cared for it. I'm one of those trainspotter type people who keeps records; I like to know how many litres of fuel per 100 kilometres the car is using. The blokes and blokesss at the filling station tend to stop on a round figure's worth of fuel. I suppose it was a habit from the times when people paid with cash. Less change to faff with. Petrol pumps that turn off automatically, as the liquid backs up the hose, and change conscious pump attendants played havoc with my number crunching. There was another reason for my dislike of attended service. Pull up at self service, pump your own fuel, pay with a credit card and the amount of language required would be within the grasp of your average Homus Erectus. Attended service, on the other hand, requires substantial human interaction and language skills.

There wasn't a lot of choice in petrol stations back then either. You could go to Campsa, Repsol or Cepsa stations. Campsa was the name of the old state company and the name belonged to Repsol by the time we got here so the fuel was Repsol too. Those two companies also controlled most of the refinery capacity in Spain. There is and was a BP refinery at Castellon and I'm told there were BP petrol stations too though I'd be hard pressed to remember having ever seen one.

Out here in the fields, to quote the Who, we still generally get attended service though there are now fewer attended service stations than there used to be. Lots of stations have attended service hours and card machines for the rest of the time. My guess is that in the bigger, busier towns and cities it's nearly all self service though most of the stations still have someone to look after the shop or to sell coffee even if they don't have much to do with selling fuel. I've seen lots of complaints from people asking why they should have to pump their own fuel, especially in the stations with no staff at all. Moans along the lines of - is it safe?  - what about people with reduced mobility? etc. Some of the regional governments have even legislated against staffless filling stations on the grounds that they are safeguarding jobs. Ned Ludd is alive and well.

Nowadays there are more retailers though the choice is still quite limited; Galp, Petronor (which is actually Repsol) and Meroil are pretty common and there are occasional Shell and Agip stations. The big expansion though has been in the cut price suppliers. Cheaper fuel has been available in Spain for years now. At first the stations were few and far between and usually linked to supermarket chains but, now, they are everywhere. There's even one in Pinoso. Price differences are substantial. In the order of 12 to 15 cents per litre.

Spaniards tend to have shared views on things. Go swimming too soon after eating and you are going to sink. Drink hot drinks whilst you eat and expect health complications. Online shopping is risky. One of those certainties is that cheap fuel is poor fuel. The big brands, the known brands are safe but some unnamed fuel isn't. Some friends were assured by a main dealer that the reason the engine on their car packed up was because they habitually bought cut price diesel. When I've pointed out to Spaniards that all the petrol comes basically from the same refiners (Repsol, Cepsa and BP) their answer has been, as one, that the full price people put stuff into their petrol, that makes it good, whilst the cut price people don't, which is why it is bad. I've heard it so often that I half believe it and so I tend to fill up alternately with cheap and full price fuel. I never really believed it wholeheartedly though because I know that Spain is in Europe. I know that the EU puts controls on lots of things, amongst which, I'm sure, is fuel quality. If it says 95 octane then it's 95 octane, if it says Gasoleo A then it's proper diesel whether the stickers on the pumps say Bongofuel or Repsol.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago as I accelerated the car onto the A31 the engine warning light came on and the power fizzled away. It wasn't a pleasant experience trying to get to the hard shoulder but the car fired up again and we got home. The chap who looks after the motor found a fault, a seal had gone on the hose into the turbocharger. He fixed it. Obviously he'd found the fault. But later the warning lamp lit up again. The second time I was in the middle of an overtaking manoeuvre. There was a lot of headlight flashing from drivers wondering why I had overtaken only to slow right down again. The mechanic had another go. He found clogged fuel filters. We had a conversation about fuel quality. He refused to be drawn on the question of cheap versus expensive fuel. He told me a story, a story that he stressed was only hearsay, about mislabelled fuel, cheap fuel sold as expensive fuel. I thought back to the day that the car first coughed. I'd been to a cheap fuel station.

Maybe I should be more careful about eating and swimming too!

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Surf 'n' turf

We went to see some friends on the coast the other day. Alicante province is loaded with Britons. It's where most of we British immigrants live. Here, on the Costa Blanca, down in Malaga, on the islands of course - Balearics and Canaries. Notice the trend? Coast and Mediterranean. There are plenty of us in Murcia and on the Costa Brava too but less so. We're everywhere of course. You'll bump into Britons absolutely everywhere. In the museums in Extremadura, in the countryside of Huesca, in the most obscure corner of Salamanca, we'll be there. We're an adventurous bunch.

The coast is maybe 60km away from Culebrón, just an hour, but it's not the same as where we live. It's odd though, there are stacks and stacks of us in Pinoso. I've no idea why. I mean, in our case it was pure chance. We set out from Santa Pola, on the coast, looking for somewhere we could afford. By Pinoso we could just about do it. I think that lots of people like Pinoso because it's nice. It has lots of bars and restaurants, the countryside is nice too and there's always something going on. I think that people also think, we did, that we were in Spain. Not in the sort of place that people go on holiday but the sort of place that people live.

I like Benidorm. It's brash and full of chips and burgers and biker bars. It's an extreme example. I wouldn't like to live there but it's nice to visit. It's also very, very Spanish. Lots and lots of Spaniards choose to holiday or live there. It's as Spanish as some village in Guadalajara where you might still see the occasional donkey or where people drink from wine skins because they want a drink and don't expect someone to take their snap. It's not the same Spain but it's just as Spanish. In just the same way that the traffic free roads around Pinoso, the rice with rabbit and snails and the local dance group with swirling skirts would be well out of place in the middle of cosmopolitan Madrid.

So, as I said, we went to the coast. It's a lot warmer on the coast. As we drop the 600 metres from our house down to the sea the temperature slowly increases; sometimes by as much as 7ºC. The traffic increases too and the number of people and the number of houses. Basically then the coast has better weather and more people. There's more of everything. If we're lusting for an Indian at home the nearest one is about 30km away. The nearest place to get a battery for my watch is 40km away. Get the idea. Now, when we were with our friends on the coast, there was an Indian in the town. No batteries for a Tag though. It's probably true to say that the coast is a little less Spanish than our rural spot in one way. Where there are lots of tourists Spain bows to the foreign presence be that in Santillana del Mar, Barcelona or Altea. So restaurants open for dinner as well as lunch, the restaurants adjust their times too and, of course, there's even more English.

It's great to visit but it's not that easy to get gachasmigas or even faseguras.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Suspended in time between pole and tropic

I just popped into the opticians; some sort of strange feeling in one eye. The optician tells me its a bit of physical damage that should clear up. The optician says she's heard that I give English classes. Pinoso can be a very small place.

The other day I was told that someone was going to ask me for classes. In turn I enquired about the person who had asked about me. From just a first name my born and bred Pinosero informant was able to tell me who it was, who the family were etc. As I said, it's a very small place.

On Sunday we had Villazgo, the local event to celebrate the granting of a town charter to Pinoso back in 1826. Maggie and I saw the original document, signed by the King Ferdinand VII, when we did a little tour of the town archive. Fernando VII is often labelled the worst king that Spain has ever suffered. As we walked from the parked car to the main stage for the event we bumped into someone we knew. Maggie knows tens of people through her work at the estate agent. We said hello, we chatted, we said goodbye and five metres later we bumped into someone else. And so it went. Several encounters later I left Maggie, to be nice to people, whilst I headed for the stage. Even as my surly self I found myself exchanging words with three more people on the way to the, now half completed, opening ceremony. As I half listened to the speechifying I chatted to a neighbour from the village. I didn't know the person who was giving the speech but the neighbour did. A couple of people amongst the great and the good on the stage nodded at me. Apart from Maggie's celebrity we've been here a long time; both of us work in town, pointing my camera at most of the things that move in Pinoso also gives me a certain notoriety and, because we're Britons, our presence is more noted at some of the events we go to. As we wandered the Villazgo stalls and stands we spent much more time talking in English than Spanish but we probably spoke to nearly as many Spaniards as Britons. A couple of the British conversations somehow turned to questions about snippets of Spanish history. History which I knew.

On Mondays I work both the morning and the afternoon at the local language school. It doesn't really make sense to go home for lunch. For the past few weeks I've gone to the same bar but sheer happen stance meant I was short of time today so I went to a different, nearer place. Not a bar I use regularly. In fact the last time I was in there was last August! The bar didn't advertise sandwiches nor did they advertise the pop-like beer I often drink. I ordered as I shed my coat and faffed with my backpack. Then I set down to read a bit of Eliot (I just had to slip that in, I don't read a lot of poetry but for one reason or another I'd decided to revisit the Four Quartets which I last read, in its entirety, as I travelled to and from my first youth work job in Leeds in the late 1970s). When it came to coffee time I asked for an Americano, the woman repeated the word with a quizzical look, so I changed my order to the older, more Spanish name, for a watered down espresso.

One of the conversations I had today was with someone, a British couple, who are a bit fed up with Pinoso. They find the place a bit humdrum, a bit limited in its horizons, a bit short of decent food, half closed half the time and all closed the rest. It made me realise that I'm not. That I quite like the food, that I like that I know a few names in the town, that I can cobble together enough Spanish to have a conversation of sorts, that I know what's going on both locally, historically and nationally and that, despite my natural reserve and my well cultivated surliness, I'm pretty much at home here.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Carnaval, Carnaval

In the UK there's Pancake Day, Shrove Tuesday - today. I'm sure there used to be a pancake race between a couple of local mayors where I lived for a while in Huntingdon. Towards the end of the early evening news there'll be school fete type footage of some people somewhere flipping pancakes as they run. Tomorrow you may even see a couple of people with ash crosses on their forehead. Exciting times. Now in Rio on the other hand at carnival time hundreds of scantily clad people dance around the streets.

In Spain it's Carnaval time too. In Pinoso we have nice little parade with hand made costumes. It's one of the few Spanish events that gets shunted to the nearest available weekend rather than taking place on the correct date or day. As far as I knew carnaval (with an a not an i) was a last gasp effort to have a good time before giving up the pleasures of whatever it is that good folk give up for Lent. I'd never thought much more about it before I decided to write this blog.

I was vaguely aware that there are big events in the Canary Islands and in Cadiz but I sort of presumed that they were all mini versions of Rio. Lots of cleavage, lots of sequinned top hats, bright colours, feathers, make-up applied with a trowel and more and more specific gay presence. I suppose I sort of knew that the name came from the word that means meat or flesh and that it was a bit of a celebration of the flesh, a bit carnal, a bit saucy. Nonetheless I was pretty surprised, when we saw our first carnaval processions in Cartagena. Those poor girls were sure to get a chill. Carnaval was big in Cartagena. Ordinary people, the people I worked with, would hire or make complicated fancy dress costumes and set out as gangs of droogs or as all the characters from the Wizard of Oz just to go out for a drink. It's biggish all over. The schools usually have youngsters in fancy dress in the run up to Carnaval.

Nearish to home (the round trip was 325km so it's not that near) the smallish Murcian town of Aguilas has a reputation for putting on a big Carnaval do despite only having a population of 35,000. We went to have a look on Sunday and the parade was brilliant. Band after band of just what we expected. Dancing troupes, groups of people acting out political satire and lots and lots of remarkably ornate floats with very loud music. We watched for over three and a half hours before giving up. My photo taking was somewhat hampered because the only seats we were able to buy, at 12€ a go, were in the branches of a small, ornamental, tree which reduced my field of view considerably. So there are almost no panoramic shots to show the breadth of the participation.

When I did a bit of background checking for the blog I found that the Spanish version of Carnaval owes a lot to a book called El libro de buen amor, the Book of Good Love written by Juan Ruiz who went under the name of el arcipreste de Hita. It's a book of Spanish poetry written around 1330. It's one of those works that unfortunate Spanish schoolchildren are forced to read. In the book there is a battle between don Carnal and doña Cuaresma. So a battle between a sort of  "Lord Lust" and "Lady Lent". Lent wins of course but only for the next forty days after which old lust runs free again. The book provides the basis for most of the Spanish events.

Along the way I found that, in Aguilas, a beast is loosed called the Mussona - a sort of half human, half animal figure which represents the duality of people - half civilised and half wild. If the beast was there when we were I must have blinked or looked the wrong way. Mind you I'm not even sure if the yellow bloke with the exposed (cloth) penis was don Carnal or not. I saw a lot of sequins and lots of feathers though.

Aguilas is in most of the "Top 10" type lists for Carnavales in the Spanish media along with the Canary island and Cadiz. In fact there are lots of competing lists. Ciudad Rodrigo, where we lived for a while, and where the event is characterised by bull running, gets mentioned in several but there are some really odd ones with lots of obviously pagan characters still doing the rounds. In Villanueva a wooden headed cloth and straw figure called El Peropalo is the centre of attention or in Laza in Ourense it's el Peliqueiro who has a big semicircular hat and mask combination with pigtails and flouncy pantaloons. In Tarragona there's a lot of devil burning and in Badajoz all the lists say that nobody goes into the street unless they are in fancy dress.

In fact it looks to me as though we have Carnavales a plenty to keep us in something to do each year for quite a long time yet. Maggie, you have been warned.

Friday, February 09, 2018

It's my arm doctor

As I remember it the, "it's my arm doctor" quote was some sort of running joke. It had to be delivered with a broad Scots accent. Something to do do with the housekeeper, Janet, from Dr Finlay's Casebook.

If you have any idea what I'm talking about then you'll be old. In turn that probably means you see the doctor more frequently than you would like. Our Saturday morning coffee group is a right little hot bed of knee replacements, cataracts, stomach protectors, heart bypasses, pain relief and epileptic fits. Actually, until I fell over frothing at the mouth, having bitten off large chunks of my tongue, I felt a bit out of the conversation. Obviously I go to the doctor's from time to time but the visits have been thankfully few and far between.

Yesterday I helped a pal with his visit to the doctor. The idea was that, as I speak a few more words of Spanish than he does, I could act as a sort of translator. It wasn't that difficult. A couple of questions from the white coated doctor, a bit of tapping on the computer and out of the office in under three minutes with a prescription and an order for a blood test.

Today it was my turn. Three months since my "event" and I had a follow up visit with the neurology department at Elda Hospital. "Right oh", said the white coated doctor, (all doctors in Spain wear white coats as far as I can see. It's like British doctors have stethoscopes though one must be easier to wash and cheaper than the other.) "the electroencephalograph is clear, anything to tell us?" - I complained about a few aches and pains but said basically no. She was nice about my Spanish and she gave me the alta, the up, the opposite of the baja, the down, the equivalent of a sick note. No more treatment, no more check ups, free to drive. In the clear more or less, with certain provisos, given that collapsing in a supermarket is not a sign of robust good health.

Speaking to people about their experiences with the Spanish health system  brings a mixed bag of responses. The few times I've used them they seem to have been first rate but not everyone agrees. I'm a great believer in normal distributions, the idea that most systems are made up of the reasonably competent with far fewer poor or excellent performers. I have no complaints about the health care I've received at all. In fact I would rate it as cracking.

It was strange. Going to the local surgery yesterday I asked someone how the system worked. It was really simple but I didn't know until I asked. Today, at the hospital, I walked in to the outpatients area and there were hundreds of people sitting on hundreds of chairs. I hadn't the faintest idea where to go or what to do. The woman I asked on Patient Services was dead helpful. She rang to check I was booked in and then walked me to the chairs by the right department. Once I was settled in I realised that the people were clustered around various areas - gynaecology or cardiology or whatever. The system was crystal but to me it initially looked chaotic. As I waited I noticed that there were other people as lost as me, people asking others how the system worked, whilst others, who knew the routine, were like fish in water. I suppose we humans learn routines very quickly.

I had a similar sort of thought as I was leaving. In the entrance area there were all sorts of people from lottery ticket sellers and the people who run the various stalls and stands to the hospital staff and habitual attendees - the  accustomed regulars and the lost novices. It was gratifying to think that, at least for the while, I can number myself amongst the bewildered and lost.

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Saints and suchlike

There are a lot of Catholic saints. One for every day of the year with plenty to spare. Not that long ago if you were born in Spain on such and such a date then the saints for that day were a good name choice. I could have been Felix or Fulgencio for instance. If your parents decided to go with a different name then you get a second birthday, just like a Royal. So, as my parents went for Christopher, I could celebrate in July as well as on the day of my birth in January.

Not all saints have the same clout. San Anton, for instance, gets a lot of attention. He's the saint for animals and there's a lot of blessing of pets all over Spain, in his name, each January. San Isidro, the saint who looks after workers, is another popular one. There are lots and lots of widely celebrated saint's days. On the other hand, San Esteban, Saint Stephen, so popular with we Britons, is a forgotten man in Spain. And whatever words Shakespeare chose to put into Henry V's mouth Crispin Crispian's day does go by largely unremembered on 25th October. Well, except in Elche, because he's the patron saint of shoemakers and shoemaking, and they still do a lot of that there.

February 3rd is San Blas, Blaise in English, and that's celebrated in a fair number of towns around here. Today, for instance, in Sax, the Moors and Christians processions walked under an illuminated sign that said Sax for San Blas.

I read something on the Pinoso Town Hall website that was surprising in a couple of ways. It said that local bakers prepare a special bread for San Blas that is good as protection against throat ailments. In order for this to work properly the dough has to be blessed by a priest. There were pictures of our parish priest doing just that at a local bakery. The piece mentioned a specific bakery and showed pictures of the bread. It was very fancy as you can see from their picture.

Despite my years here I'd never heard of the bakery, the piece said that it is in a very small village on the outskirts of Pinoso, so, this morning, we went looking for it intending to buy some of the bread. Google maps had a location but there didn't seem to be a bakery there. We wandered around the village a bit and actually saw a delivery van from the bakery with an address on the side. The address was where Google maps had directed us in the first place but it just looked like an ordinary house. By ordinary I mean it had pot gnomes outside. I wasn't brave enough to knock on the door to ask.

Oh, and if you had made your own bread to ward off the sore throats then you could have taken that to church this evening, after Eucharist, and got it blessed. Or I suppose you could do what my mum says and eat chocolate with slices of orange.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Who ate all the pies?

It's been a funny old day. I was expecting music in the streets and a bit of exploration near Caravaca de la Cruz in Murcia but the weather has been terrible and I've hardly strayed from the kitchen and living room.

My food intake has been a bit odd too. Maggie made an apple pie which I was very happy to help her eat but that was a while ago. I just decided to have a packet of Knorr soup - Thai soup. Whilst I was waiting for it to thicken up I had some peanut butter on bread. My total committent to a healthy, fat and sugar free, diet is almost complete.

Spanish people occasionally ask me whether I eat British or Spanish. I suppose I tend to eat British unless I go out but, then again, most of the stuff I eat is probably without nationality. I don't do a lot of rice with rabbit and snails or faseguras but neither do I do a lot of roast beef with Yorkshires or steak and kidney pie. Spaghetti with mushrooms, bacon and onions in a yoghurt and balsamic vinegar sauce is Italian, British, Spanish or just a quick and tasty lunch?

I made, and burned, lentejas on Friday. Lentejas, lentils, is pretty damned Spanish but I think I used an Oxo cube in the broth which I presume was from a British source. Actually it's quite hard to give a specific passport to lots of food. I just looked at the Tomato Ketchup and the Lea and Perrins to see if the labels were in Spanish or English. They are in English but both are dead common and I'm sure I've seen them both with Spanish labels. I've even seen Worcestershire sauce labelled as Salsa Inglesa. The Lucky Jim peanut butter says it is American Quality but it was made in Germany and the label is in Spanish. The peanut butter we have on hand is called Lucky Nuts and is Spanish made with a bilingual Spanish/English label. We have lots of things, in the cupboard, that came from a very ordinary Spanish source but are obviously aimed at we Brits or, maybe not. I mean, after all, Mercadona sells Tetley tea in all of their supermarkets whether there are Britons nearby or not. We have marmalade in the fridge - the Mercadona own brand named in Spanish is in front of the Baxter's one named in Scottish. Other stuff is as Spanish as something very Spanish but it works for us - until very recently Fontaneda Digestive biscuits had the word McVitie's baked into them - same biscuit, different name on the box. And, of course, there is the Spanish stuff that most of us never even think of buying like sobrasada (raw, cured, spicy sausage) or membrillo (quince jelly).

At Christmas, for the language exchange party, my "bring British" contribution was Branston, Walker's cheese and onion, pork pies and brown sauce. The crisps and Branston were bought from the food store in the British bar Refugio but the brown sauce and pork pies came from a local Spanish chain supermarket. The majority Spanish opinion was that Branston tasted of vinegar and sugar, brown sauce was too spicy, pork pies were fatty and tasteless. All in all not a big hit. The Spaniards generally thought the crisps were a bit chemically too but that didn't stop them polishing the lot off. Most of the stuff, crisps aside, came home with me.

And I ate all the pies.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Knives and forks

It's odd what you stop noticing. Because of her job Maggie talks to lots of people who are new to the area. One of her clients, let's call her Betty, was telling Maggie about an experience in a local restaurant. Betty asked for a red wine to go with her set price meal. She was was pleasantly surprised when the waiter left the bottle on the table. Lots of wine from around here is still not premium product, it's something for drinking, so leaving the bottle with the implicit offer to drink as much of it as you want, is still very common. I wouldn't have noticed.

We went to a couple of posher than our usual style of restaurant last weekend. When I was telling a pal about the restaurants. I described them as "the sort of place where they take your cutlery after each course". I realised that the description presumed a little knowledge of everyday restaurant practice. Nowadays I would never think to leave my knife and fork at attention on the plate when I have finished the first course. I would set them to one side ready for the second course. Our guests from the UK don't and the waiter or waitress has to do it for them.

That was the idea, when I first started the blog, a sort of ooh!, aah!, look how funny that is. Nowadays, when a visiting Briton wants to pay at the bar for the drink as soon as it is served, when visitors find it strange that restaurants are not open midweek in the evening and when they really think that most Spaniards have a bit of a sleep in the afternoon I don't usually say anything.

So many of those things that were strange are now usual and some of the things that were usual are now strange. The strangest thing, for me, is when other long term immigrants still find those things strange after years and years here.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Take me home, country roads

Every now and then I get an email from Abraza la tierra, Embrace the Land. It's usually a business opportunity or a job in some rural part of Spain. They are normally good offers - businesses subsidised by town halls, free accommodation, maybe with tantalising offers for families who have young, school saving, children. It's a while since I've looked at their website but I presume that they are a platform for rural development initiatives. You know the sort of thing - access to infrastructure in the countryside, innovative solutions to the everyday challenges of rural life.

I listened to some programme on the radio about rural development in Spain. One of the interviewees said that he wished Spain were as go ahead as the Scottish Highlands and Islands. I smiled at that because I remembered being in Inchnadamph, in the 1970s, and how impressed I was with the lateral thinking that had replaced the post office van with a minibus that transported both post and people. Well that and the horizontal rainfall. I'm sure there are similar initiatives here but I've never noticed them.

Much of Spain is empty. There are lots of stories of someone, or some organisation, buying up a deserted village in Huesca or Guadalajara to turn it into a religious retreat or an English teaching village. A novel about the last inhabitant of a village in the high Pyrenees became a Spanish best seller and there is, generally, a bit of an industry built around rural nostalgia and family roots in the land. Apparently, of the 8,000 municipalities that make up Spain, over 1200 have fewer than 100 inhabitants on the municipal roll. I bumped into a blog where a chap goes around "bagging" empty, abandoned, villages. His list included one in Alicante and four in Murcia. Of course most Spaniards, something like 80%, live in the big metropolitan areas and along the coast.

We live in the countryside but it's not an isolated countryside. For one thing Alicante apparently has a strange population distribution in relation to most of Spain. The normal model is towns and villages with countryside in between. In Alicante there are the usual towns and the villages but there are also houses dotted all around the countryside. Maggie commented on the number of lights twinkling out as we drove back from Petrer the other night. I was once told that this pattern is to do with the Moors having introduced irrigation into the countryside around here which allowed homesteads to be more scattered. I don't see how that would make any real difference but I thought I'd mention it in case my informant was correct.

In our own case, in Pinoso or Culebrón, the nearest decent sized town is about 25km away. It's actually two towns that are next to each other, next to each other in the sense that there must be streets that are one town on one side and the other on the other. Elda is the 137th largest town, population wise, in Spain and Petrel (Petrer in Valenciano) the 212th most populous. If they were as administratively combined as they are geographically they would have a total population of a bit over 87,000 people and be the 74th largest town in Spain. Similarly sized places in the UK are Burnley and Stevenage which, by comparison, come in as around the 275th largest towns.

The other day one of my Facebook friends posted a video. I suspect he may have just bought a new dash-cam for his motor because the video was of an empty motorway. The near deserted inter urban roads are definitely one of the joys of life in inland Alicante and Murcia. I once managed to come the 35km from Jumilla to Pinoso without passing a single car outside of the town limits.

Just this week we finally got around to buying an Amazon Fire Stick and a Netflix subscription. I'm still not quite sure why. I have more than enough TV available with the traditional broadcasters but, I suppose, some of it is proving that we are still able to adapt to change. It also shows that despite our rural location we're definitely on the digital superhighway!

The morning after we'd installed the Fire Stick I got an email from Abraza la tierra with information about taking over a bar-restaurant and teleclub in Guadalaviar in Teruel. Population 245. Weak as my Spanish is I could translate that. Tele in Spanish is telly in English and club in Spanish is club in English (though beware of the clubs with bright lights outside towns unless you're looking for expensive sparkling wine and female company).

Teleclubs flourished in rural Spain in the 1960s when people were still not rich enough to buy their own set - the teleclubs were often social centres as well and the Francoist State liked them because it was somewhere else where the propagandist NoDo newsreels could be shown. But surely there can't still be people without telly even in darkest, deepest Spain? It turns out of course that they are just a name, a nostalgic name for some, for a communal meeting space. I found mentions of them in Palencia, Lanzarote, Salamanca and, obviously enough, Teruel, without doing more than type the search clue into Google. I remember our pal Pepa told us about the tiendas multiservicios - the multiservice shops around her in Teruel province. The key element there was that a shop offered the basics along with a range of other community things, a bar, maybe a restaurant, post office services, internet access etc., etc.

I wasn't tempted to run the teleclub in Guadalaviar but if you are you have till February 1st to get your offer in.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Gummy bears and milk

My mum doesn't use a lot of milk. The last time I stayed with her the milk she had in was off - very off, lumpy off. She shamelessly offered me almond or soy milk as a substitute. I was appropriately dismissive.

I did once venture to drink some almond milk. I remember it as a sort of grainy vaguely unpleasantly flavoured thick water. I suspect that Maggie thinks of horchata much the same way. Me, well I drink horchata from time to time but mainly as a sort of solidarity gesture with my adopted homeland.

Horchata is made from the chufa, a sort of edible tuber which we apparently call tiger nut - though I've never known anyone who is clear what a tiger nut is - I think the name just sounds sort of comfortable. The chufa is used to make that greyey milky coloured drink that all Valencianos swear is incredibly thirst quenching when it is served cold.

Apparently chufa grows well in North Africa so the Moorish invaders introduced it into Spain when they set up home here for seven centuries or so from the 8th Century. Muslims, and the Moors were Muslims, stay away from the booze and one of their options was the chufa "milk" which is the basis of modern horchata.

All over the Valencian region there are horchaterias, horchata shops. I presume, though I've never thought about it for too long, that each one produces its own version of horchata from the dried tubers. Apparently the nuts are re-hydrated, crushed and sieved to produce a thick liquid which is then mixed with sugar and water to produce the traditional horchata. There are also bottled versions which may be pasteurised, sterilised or given the UHT treatment. Purists say that none of the bottled varieties are as good as the freshly made product. There is even an august body to give the horchata "denominación de origen", the quality mark, to say that it is produced in such and such a way to such and such a standard and so, presumably, to maintain what is considered to be the authentic taste. Like all this traditional food and drink there are recognised centres of excellence and, in the case of horchata, that's the unremarkable town of Alboraya, Alboraia (in Valencian), just outside Valencia city. The area around Alboraia has field after field planted with chufas and people go to the town to drink the horchata "fresh from the fields". Nowadays of course, when anything can be marketed, the local entrepreneurs produce chufa biscuits, chufa flavoured ali oli (a sort of flavoured mayonnaise), chufa chocolate, chufa beer and so on for their foodie tourists.

Yesterday my planning was better than usual. I bought some cheap sweets at the supermarket to take to the cinema later in the day. So far as I could see the 59 cent bag of sweets had no positive nutritional value being coloured and flavoured sugars coated with sugar. I would have a lot of trouble defending my continued consumption of similar products but the bag proudly announced that the sweets contained no fat - that must be good then. Looking for information on horchata I came across a puff piece that described the chufa like this "The chufa is often spoken about as a super-food. The Oxford English Dictionary calls it a nutrient-rich food that is considered especially beneficial to health and well-being. The nutrient-rich tiger nut helps with digestion, it protects the heart, it is an anti-oxidant, it stimulates the immune system, it works as an antacid, and it contains no lactose or gluten. It also plays a leading role in cholesterol control, as its high level of oleic acid (77%) is similar to olive oil."

Whatever its qualities I still don't want horchata, or even chufa milk, in my tea the next time I'm in the UK thanks mum.

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Yecla Amusement Park?

I keep a database of the films I've seen. For complicated and boring reasons one database ran from 1986 to 2009 and a second one from 2010 to present. Thanks to my brother in law the two were, finally, combined into one long list just a few days ago. Apparently I've seen 2,706 films at the cinema between 1986 and today. The busiest year was 1995 when I saw 132 films. The quietest was 2008 when I was living in Ciudad Rodrigo. In 2017 I saw 81.

Ciudad Rodrigo is in Salamanca province in Castilla y León very close to the Portuguese border. It's a clean, safe, friendly, walled town that's lovely to look at. It's a long way from anywhere though and the nearest decent sized supermarket or car dealer or cinema is in Salamanca about 90km away. In fact I'm lying because the nearest cinema or main dealer for the Mini was actually in Guarda and that was only 75kms away. Guarda though is in Portugal where they speak Portuguese and as we don't we tended to stick to Spain. It was too far to pop over to the town to see a film but we did see a couple in the multiplex in Guarda when we were there anyway having done something else. The big advantage, for us, is that the Portuguese show their films in the original language with subtitles, unlike Spain where most films are dubbed. Because it was too far to go to Salamanca or Guarda we generally saw films in the Cine Juventud in Ciudad Rodrigo.

The Juventud was a really old fashioned cinema in some huge stone built building. The admission, the sweets and the popcorn were cheap, the seats were past their best and the sound and projection quality were a bit dodgy too. As I remember it the emergency exit lead out through the gardens of the Bishop's Palace. The huge plus of course was that it was close: we could walk into town, see the film, get a drink and walk home. There was only one show a week and, sometimes, that film wasn't for us which is, I suppose, why we only saw 21 films that year.

This evening we went to see a mentalist type magic show in Pinoso at 6pm and then we hurried off to Yecla to see the 8.15 film. A movie that we missed when it was first released; La librería - The Bookshop. We've never been to the cinema in Yecla before. We've seen posters for films but I've always presumed they were shown in the municipal theatre. In fact there's a cinema, the Cine PYA (Initials for Parque Yeclano de Atracciones - the Yecla Theme Park), which apparently opened in 1952 and "closed for good" in 2013. Google has nothing to say about how or why it reopened. The cinema doesn't have much of a frontage but it does have a big screen and, by modern standards, it is a big theatre with row after row of seats on a traditional theatre stalls type plan rather than the steeply raked seats in a modern multiplex. The ticket was torn from a roll, there were no computers in sight to deal with seat allocation and there were even some red velvet curtains over the multiple entry and exit doors. It was a good sized crowd, our regular cinema, the Cinesmax in Petrer would be glad to have such a big audience, and a surprising number of them chose to sit on the same row as us. I read somewhere, in one of those strange surveys that you see from time to time, that Spaniards are one of the nationalities with the least need for personal space in the world. Spaniards, unlike Britons, like to be up close

I didn't particularly care for the film, a bit television drama, but it was a really good outing.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Old whotsisname

In the dialogues, in Spanish language text books, the characters all have names like Francisco Garcia and Maria Hernandez. It's true there are plenty of Marias and Franciscos in Spain. They are often disguised though. Many of the Marias are, for instance, Maria Luisa or Maria Dolores or Maria Mercedes so that they become Marisa, Lola or Merche whilst Francisco is Paco or Kiko. José Marias are Chemas. Hard going for the novice but not so different from the confusion that is Rob, Bob and Bobby or Chas, Charlie and Chuck. Christopher Marlowe was Kit after all - Kit Thompson anyone?

It may be true that Garcia, Gonzalez, Cueva, Rodríguez and Lopez are the most common Spanish surnames nationwide but it seems to me that nobody, whose name you want to remember, is that easy. To give a random example the authors of the present Spanish Constitution were Gabriel Cisneros, Miguel Herrero y Rodríguez de Miñón, José Pedro Pérez Llorca, Manuel Fraga, Gregorio Peces-Barba, Miguel Roca Junyent and Jordi Solé Tura. The woman who does the gossip show that Maggie watches is called Anne Igartiburu (Basque name) and the Spanish national football coach also has a Basque name, Julen Lopetegui. Other regions have local names too, so a Carlos becomes a Carles in Catalan like the honorary Belgian Carles Puigdemont. Sometimes the names themselves are straightforward enough but they are a bit on the long side. Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría is the vice president of the current conservative government and, in the last socialist government, we had a María Teresa Fernández de la Vega Sanz. Neither of them of them are exactly Antonio Garcia or Maria Carmen González. Antonio and Maria Carmen are the most common first names, at present, amongst the Spanish population and Garcia and González the most popular surnames. By the way the most chosen names for newborns at the moment are Hugo and Lucia.

In Yorkshire, when I was a lad, there were lots of Sykes, Crossleys and Thorntons and around Pinoso we have Deltells, Alberts, Domenechs, Espinosas, Ricos, Miras, Escandells, Brotons and Carbonells as well as many more. When couples marry the children get a surname that is a combination of both surnames. If John Smith married Mary Bown they could choose either Peter Smith Brown or Peter Brown Smith for their son Peter with the Smith Brown order being the more traditional. A walk around the local cemetery reveals a veritable treasure trove of Carbonell Carbonell, Brotons Brotons and Rico Miras.

Monday, January 08, 2018

The January Sales and shop hours in general

We went out to save some money today, more me than Maggie actually. You know how it works, the shops reduce the prices and you go out and buy lots of things you didn't intend to buy. The January Sales or as we say round these here parts Las Rebajas de Enero. I always like to go to Corte Inglés, one of the originators of the first Sales in Spain, to see if they have any designer label clothes for market stall prices. Fat chance. I spent money I didn't have though.

When we first arrived in Spain shopping times, were, pretty much, regulated. Shops, except maybe bakers and paper shops, didn't open on Sundays and The Sales only took place in July and after Kings in January. There were lots of rules about how long they had to last, how the discounts had to relate to the prices on goods which had been available in the shops for weeks beforehand and all sorts of other stuff. Nowadays shops can have Sales whenever they want. But custom and habit are culturally powerful and people still think of, and wait for, the Summer and January Sales

The rules were relaxed in 2013. As well as the changes to The Sales there were lots of changes to the opening hours of shops. For example, weekly opening hours were increased from 72 to 90 hours for shops over 300 square metres, which explains why none of the big supermarkets are open 24 hours, but why there is a boom in the smaller town centre supermarkets. Shops under 150 square metres can open when and as they please - on Sundays, on holidays, 24 hours a day. It's not easy to generalise about the legislation, and I may have some of this wrong because it is all ifs and buts because the Central Government rules can be varied by local rules from the Autonomous Communities. For instance before the changes shops could open 12 times a year on Sundays and holidays but the Regions could reduce that to eight times per year. Now the National limit is sixteen times (for the bigger shops) but the Regions can reduce that to as few as ten times per year if they wish. The National legislation also allowed big shops in important tourist destinations, determined by the figure for overnight stays or the number of cruise ship passengers, to open all year round. That's why, for instance, Cartagena has a lot of Sunday shopping but Murcia city doesn't.

In the area we live, in Valencia, local legislation sets the number of Sunday and holiday openings for big stores to eleven times per year but it also gives "special status" to some areas, the ones with most tourists, like Alborache, L'Alfàs del Pi, Finestrat, Torrevieja y la costa de Benissa, Orihuela y Pilar de la Horadada where the shops can (I think) also open the additional Sundays, and any holidays, between mid June and mid September. The big shops and shopping centres outside those areas - in Alicante and Valencia cities in particular - don't get that extra summer dispensation and the eleven possible days they can open do not include the traditional Sundays on which the Summer and January Sales start, two of the busiest days of the year. So those big shops and centres feel hard done by and have taken the Valencian Government to court to make it comply with Central Government legislation. Of course it takes years for some legal actions to get to court so, in the meantime, the local legislation holds good.

Even if you found that confusing it may explain why some of the "Chinese" shops seem to be open all the time, why big supermarkets aren't and why lots of shops are open on the run up to Christmas.