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, October 12, 2017

Suddenly poor

As far as I can see the only good thing about work is that sometimes you get paid for it. I'm not sure what work is to you, because it can be different things to different people, but for me work is almost everything that I wouldn't choose to do if I had the choice. Some people cook because it's their family role, some because it pays the bills and some for pleasure.

Here in Spain my first job was in a furniture shop. The work had its ups and downs but, in general, as work goes, it wasn't bad. For the past several years I have worked as an English teacher usually in a sort of private language school called an Academy. In fact I've worked in five. Most of the people I have worked for have been very pleasant. Nonetheless, working practices in Spain, in my opinion, leave something to be desired. Pay is low and there are plenty of little dodges that the employers use which are to the employee's disadvantage. Contracts are designed to avoid paying for things like dead time between classes, holidays or extra work. I'm not complaining, well not too much, because that's the way it is and I've got used to it. It's probably the same in the UK now too.

Having said that I don't like work I have to say that teaching English can be perfectly pleasant, good fun even. With children it's nearly always horrible - especially with the ones who bite or who dance on the tables. They don't like me and I don't like them. Teenagers and adults generally behave well though and even if they don't give a jot for learning English but have to get an English language qualification we can, at least, have a reasonably good time along the way.

One aspect of giving English classes in academies is that there are terms, as in time periods, and that it's a seller and buyer thing. For the first term that starts mid September or early October people are keen - the learners stump up their payments relatively happily. After Christmas, for the second term, only the determined keep going though, sometimes, there is an influx of New Year's Resolvers. After Easter only the true enthusiasts or the committed qualification hunters plough on. So the last term, the summer term, can be pretty quiet and employers have been keen to lay me off, at the end of May or at the latest mid June, until they need me again in September or October. This suits me down to the ground. The only problem is that it means I don't get paid for four months.

Now I do have a bit of income from a pension and our lifestyle here is not expensive. Even then, over the summer the money in my bank accounts plummets. I'm glad when October arrives and I finally have some income. I've never earned much but it's usually enough to mean that there's slightly more coming in than going out. Well that's been the pattern for the last few years but this year, for one reason and another, it didn't work out as usual and, when I got to June 2017, I was worse off than I had been at the same time the year before. It seems to have been an expensive summer too. Some costs, like the car repairs, the fifteen fold increase in our "council tax" and the the new electric meter and tariffs are unavoidable. Others, like going on holiday to Eastern Europe are my own daft fault. Nonetheless the result was that I was a lot closer to absolutely skint than usual. Never mind, October was on the way, I'll soon be back to work and things will return to an even keel. Well that was the thought but it has suddenly all fallen apart because October is here and they haven't.

The place I teach in Pinoso offered me some work, more work than last year, up to about ten hours per week, so things started well. A nice spread of classes too. But the bigger job in Cieza hasn't materialised. When the boss finally contacted me, she'd been waiting for information from someone else, the twenty two hours of last year had reduced to just five hours per week and even that hasn't been confirmed.

Last night I stared at my bank balance for quite a while before going to bed. This morning I got up early thinking about bills, income, outgoings, taxes and the like. Like the title says.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Days off or holidays

It's The day of the Valencian Community today, a day off work in Valencia. On Thursday it's the día del Pilar - officially the Fiesta Nacional de España - and that's a holiday in the whole of Spain. In Culebrón then, or anywhere in Valencia, just three working days for most people this week. I noticed that someone on one of the Facebook pages I read was complaining about "yet another" Spanish holiday.

In fact there are fourteen official days off. In England and Wales there are normally just eight unless some Royal does something. There's a big difference though. In England the holidays are holidays - you get your eight days off come hell or high water. So, if Christmas day were to fall on a Saturday and Boxing Day on a Sunday there would be substitute holidays on the Monday and Tuesday.

In Spain they are not holidays they are non working days. One none working day is the 25th of December. If that day happens to fall on a Saturday then you don't have to work. If the 25th happens to fall on a Sunday you don't have to work. But lots of people don't work Saturday or Sunday anyway. So Christmas Day on a Saturday or Sunday means, for most people, that it's just a weekend like any other. A Saturday Christmas Day would, of course, make a difference to people who normally work Saturdays.

There are fourteen days off work wherever you live in Spain. The National Government lists, in the Official State Bulletin, up to nine non working days - that's days on which people don't have to work. The Regional Government names three more and finally the local Town Hall names two. The last time all nine days were used by the National Government was 2009 though it was pretty close this year with eight. All the Regional Governments chose to name the 6th January as a holiday too so that, in effect, all of Spain will have been closed down on the same nine days by the time that 2017 ends. 2017 is going to be a good year for holidays. Out of the fourteen possible only one falls on a weekend so we'll actually get 13 out of the maximum 14. On bad years I think it can be as low as 10.

When the Government publishes its “unchangeable” list they also publish a suggested but changeable list. These are the holidays the Regional Governments can alter for local traditions or expectations. They include Epiphany on January 6th, Maunday Thursday at Easter and San José, Fathers Day on March 19th. Mother's Day is on the first Sunday of May so it's never a holiday. All of the Communities add in a day of the Community like the ones for Valencia on October 9th and Murcia on June 9th.

The normal National Holidays are New Year's day, Good Friday, Labour Day (May 1st ), Assumption Day (August 15th), National Day of Spain (October 12th), All Saints Day (November 1st ), Constitution Day, (December 6th), Immaculate Conception (December 8th) and Christmas Day (December 25th).

In Pinoso the two local days are usually the Monday after what we Brits would call Easter Monday, (which is usually a Valencian day off) and is named for San Vicente - in 2018 that will be on 9th April whilst in 2017 it was 24th April - and the 8th of August (for the Virgen del Remedio).

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The list for Pinoso for 2018 is 1 de enero (Año Nuevo), 6 de enero (Reyes Magos) como día retribuido y recuperable, 19 de marzo (San José), 2 de abril (Lunes de Pascua), 9 de abril (Lunes de San Vicente), 1 de mayo (Fiesta del Trabajo), 8 de agosto (día dedicado a la Virgen del Remedio), 9 de octubre (Día de la Comunitat Valenciana), 12 de octubre (Fiesta Nacional de España), 1 de noviembre (Todos los Santos), 6 de diciembre (Día de la Constitución), 8 de diciembre (Inmaculada Concepción), 25 de diciembre (Navidad)




Thursday, October 05, 2017

Saying nothing

Two or three people have expressed surprise that I haven't written anything about Catalonia. There are a couple of reasons. One is that, in general, this blog is about what happens to us, the things we experience, and, apart from a couple of conversations and listening to the radio or watching the telly, I have no direct experience of what's happening in Catalonia. I also have to admit to having had a couple of disagreeable experiences in Catalonia, because I was a foreigner, and I am probably a touch anti Catalan. That's not a good starting point for a post.

To some tiny degree there is a bit of a reflection of Catalonia in the region in which I live, in Valencia. Valenciano, the local language, and Catalan are similar enough that if I use the Catalan version of Google translate on any items written in Valenciano the translation is at least as good as it is from Spanish to English. Lots of the sources of information I use are turning more and more to Valenciano. I've tried, and I continue to try, to learn Spanish to fit in to my adopted home and I sometimes feel that someone is trying to take that possibility away from me. Going into a restaurant in Barcelona the only menu they were willing offer was in Catalan. The restaurant was saying quite clearly that non Catalans were unwelcome. We took the hint and left. My local town hall producing a magazine or an event programme in Valenciano transmits the same message.

Catalonia was a stronghold for the Republic in the Spanish Civil war and Franco made sure that the Catalans paid for that for the rest of his life. Grandparents who were involved, parents who remembered and today's younger generations of Catalans were shaped by that repression. The feeling in Barcelona that Madrid has it in for them was, and is, a constant in daily life.

Politics in Catalonia for the last several years has been a shifting ground of political parties with the same faces but changing party names. There was an earlier referendum in 2014. That process ran into legal problems, a stand off between the central and local government. As a result of that failed referendum regional elections were held with the clear intention of showing that there was popular support for independence. The politicians who had fomented the referendum lost ground. The only way they were able to form a regional government was to form a coalition. One of the demands of a political group, usually described as anti system, to enter into that coalition was that the old president, Artur Mas should go. His successor was Carles Puigedemont. The main election pledge of the coalition was to hold a referendum and that's what they just did.

There was plenty of opposition to holding the referendum within the various political parties in Catalonia. Several normal procedures were set aside or ignored completely to get to the point where the regional parliament approved the legislation to hold the referendum. Basically the coalition bludgeoned the legislation through. Democracy gave way to expediency. However it was going to be done there was going to be a referendum and that was obvious to anybody.

Spain is basically a federal country. Local regions have lots of devolved powers in things like education, health, transport and lots, lots more. The central government has a hand in everything but it's only in areas like defence and foreign policy where the regions don't have a say. Some regions have more devolved powers than others and Catalonia is one of the regions where nearly everything is under local control. That's why, for instance, there is a separate police force in Catalonia - the Mossos d'Esquadra. The boss of the Mossos has been accused of sedition by the National Court.

So, the Catalan government has said that it's going to hold a referendum. The response of the central government is to say "You can't do that." There were some very half hearted attempts at doing what politicians do, which is to talk, but the Catalan elite said they were only willing to talk about the when and how of the referendum. Instead of finding a way to talk all that President Rajoy and his pals did was to sulk in the corner and repeat over and over again that it was illegal, unconstitutional etc., etc. For years as the process dragged along the central government stuck to that line. Basically they did what we in the trade call bugger all. The other major political parties weren't much help either - one day this, the next day that. As the referendum started to take shape the Government response was to ask the courts to decide. The courts said the referendum was illegal because it was unconstitutional. The courts used their powers, to thwart the illegal referendum. Judges don't go out to sort out the problems on the street. They send the police. Anyone with half a brain could see what was going to happen as boat loads of police from all over Spain were shipped in to stop the referendum. Exactly the same as when police are deployed to protect a G8 conference or a World Trade Organisation summit. The protestors push and shove and shout and throw stones or burn cars or whatever and eventually some police officer or some police commander loses it and answers stones with rubber bullets. Policemen are given big sticks and body armour for a reason and wire meshes aren't put onto police vans to make them easier to drive.

Up to a point then we have a conflict between two groups of politicians. But, as the referendum got closer it all became much more personal. Lots of Catalan towns have local administrations that do not support the ruling coalition. The mayors said they would not open up their buildings for the vote. Supporters of the vote harassed the mayors and their families. There was a telephone campaign to persuade people to vote and people who said they were not in favour of the vote were verbally harangued on the phone. It became the usual round of graffiti, slashed tyres, children told about their traitorous parents. All you have to do is to think about the things that people who identify themselves with one tribe or another, from football fans to terrorist organisations, do to other tribes to know what happened, and is happening, in Catalonia. Well except for deaths, I'm not aware of any deaths yet.

The vote itself of course was a complete democratic fiasco. Almost none of the usual controls to ensure that a vote is fair were in place. Votes were not secret and it was unsafe to attempt to vote no. Anyway the "no" voters simply stayed away. For anyone to suggest that over 90% of Catalans support independence is sheer nonsense. Surveys and polls suggest about 45% of Catalans are in favour of independence but something over 70% want a binding referendum. Eventually, of course, the police waded in and afterwards the Catalan government said that hundreds had been injured. We all saw the violence on telly but how many people were injured is moot. If some Guardia Civil whacks you over the head with a big stick that's one thing but if you become exhausted or hurt in the pushing and shoving, the advances and retreats of an angry crowd that's something different. I have read that just four people were hospitalised after the violence. Either way facts and emotions are different things. Police hitting people with sticks is bad. It's bad press too. It suggests a repressed group kept down by bully boys.

But here's the personal bit. In one of the earlier blogs about corruption I suggested that one of the reasons for so much political corruption in Spain is because of the everyday small scale corruption of Spanish society. The bills without VAT, the wages paid cash in hand etc. There is a parallel in the way that you can appeal or complain to the authorities. For instance, we have been overcharged by several hundred euros in our rates bill. I sent in my appeal about seven months ago and nothing has happened. I can't get an answer. I made a suggestion to the local town hall about the junction near our house using the official process. The response? - none whatsoever. Some pals were charged a tax on the profit on the sale of their house despite actually losing money. The tax is illegal but they were told by a solicitor that it was a waste of time taking it to court. Other friends were mis-sold dodgy shares by a bank and had a hell of a job getting anything back. A couple of years after we first arrived here there was a scandal about a pyramid selling scheme based on stamps and that case is, only now, going through the courts. There is a freedom of information act here but when I tried to ask a public radio station for its policy they simply didn't reply and the ombudsman said it was nothing to do with her. When I tried to ask the interior ministry why Guardia Civil don't wear seat belts in their cars I was told that the will of the people was delegated to central government and that it was not my place to ask such a question.

Britons living in Spain often complain about the bureaucracy. One reason is that when you move from one country to another there is an avalanche of things to be done from identity documents to bank accounts. My personal view is that Spanish bureaucracy isn't that different from bureaucracy anywhere. The problem in Spain comes when something doesn't go to plan because there seems to be naff all you can do about it. Not answering is a remarkably effective technique for making a problem go away.

The Catalans want some changes and they didn't get any answers either. In my opinion it's not surprising that they chose a radical approach. When the King spoke on telly the other night he said that there were democratic means open to the Catalans to express their views. I think he's wrong. He seems like a nice enough bloke, for a king, but my guess is that he normally gets answers if he asks a question. Getting redress, getting answers in Spain for ordinary people is often a tortuous process.

As I said at the start of this I'm a little anti Catalan but if I'd been there on Sunday, and the streets had been flooded with booted and suited police, I may well have been angry enough to go out and vote too.

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

La sala

As Cataluña burned I popped in to Consum to get some mince. On the way out I decided to buy a lottery ticket from the chap who has set up his stand there recently.

The ticket I bought was for the daily draw run by the charity for the blind, ONCE - Organización Nacional de Ciegos Españoles. The ticket seller didn't have any of the daily tickets left but he said he could print me one. What number did I want? Anything I said, then I changed my mind, something ending in 36. We call that one La sala he said, as he took my 1.50€, and this one is Francia and this one La corona. I didn't have the faintest idea what he was talking about but I repeated what he said and tried to look vaguely interested.

I just checked the ticket, not a winner of course, but I remembered the bit about the names and, as you would expect, Google knew all about it. The various terminations, the last two numbers, of the lottery tickets have a name - ask for the Agony and you'll get a 99, the Cat and it's 75.

I must try it before the burning turns to gunfire.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Oiling the wheels

One of my standard responses to anyone who asks for a description of Culebrón is to say that we have a restaurant, a bodega and a post box. I should perhaps change the bodega to say bodega/almazara because Brotons produces both wine and olive oil. A bodega (in this sense) is a winery and an almazara is an oil mill

I went to get some oil the other day and I was a bit shocked when Paco, one of the owners, wanted 20€ for the five litre plastic bottle. It wasn't the price that was a shock, it was the difference in price between this and my last purchase. I'm sure it was 15€ last time. On the label the description of the oil says that it is de extracción en frio which means that it is cold pressed. I don't quite know what that means. My, very simple, understanding of olive oil is that the very green stuff, the extra virgin olive oil is the best, produced from the finest olives, whilst virgin oil is made with slightly riper or damaged olives which makes it slightly more acidic. Olive oil labelled simply as olive oil or pure olive oil is, usually, a mix of both pressed and refined oils. I think there is European legislation to say that any oil labelled virgin must pass a taste test and have been extracted from the olive by pressing rather than by chemical refinement. Because the label from our local almazara doesn't say virgin or extra virgin I can only presume that it doesn't reach the required criteria. Now there's another oil mill in Pinoso over towards Caballusa, near el Prat called Casa de la Arsenia. They produce virgin olive oil. They sell oil in half litre heavy bottles that look as though they are ceramic rather than glass. The name is a little more complicated- Ma' Şarah - with the apostrophe and that funny s, the typeface on the bottles is fancy, the colour scheme is chosen with care to look "organic" and "quality" and they stress the olive variety - either the more intensely flavoured oil made with picual olives or the lighter oil made from the arbequina variety. I bought some - one variety cost 9.40€ for half a litre and the other one costs 9.90€ which makes it about five times as expensive as the stuff from Brotons. They do five litre plastic bottles too, both organic and ordinary, with a mix of both olives.

So in one place we have traditional Spanish marketing and, in the other, “value added” through labelling, aesthetics and increased quality. Something similar is happening with the wine around here, well in Spain actually. Spain is usually listed behind Italy and France in global wine production though we were told in a bodega last year that Spain is now the largest producer in the world. There are several Spanish websites that say the same thing. Whatever the truth Spain produces a lot of wine and it sells most of it to other people who then put it into bottles, make it into sangria, sparkling wine or wine mixes. Most goes in big tankers to the French, Italians, Germans and Portuguese who turn the dirt cheap wine into something with value added, with nice labels, with cachet. Spaniards drink less and less wine and more beer every year but Googling around for who drinks most wine turns up very contradictory evidence. My best guess/synthesis is that, per head and in order, it's Andorra, Vatican City, Croatia, Portugal and France with an honourable mention for the Falkland Islands (Malvinas for my Spanish readers) at number 8 – the UK comes in at 29th. Quantity wise it seems to be the USA, France, Italy and Germany who top the lists but, whilst consumption in the USA is increasing, the French and Germans, like most Europeans, are drinking less wine each year. Expanding markets include Brazil, Canada and, inevitably, China.

A couple of years ago our bodega, Brotons, suddenly had new shaped bottles, new varieties, wine boxes, new labels and Roberto, the owner, became Robert. They were chasing a more sophisticated market. The same has been going on in Jumilla for a few years now and, in fact, all over Spain. When I visited the bodega in Pinoso the other day, which is the largest producer of organic wine in Alicante, it was obvious that they were on the same trail; new names, new labels and a few more barrels for producing crianzas and reservas down in the cellar rather than putting it into a HurTrans tanker  - HurTrans is a transport firm with its roots in Culebrón.

Increasingly Spanish wine, is Denominación de Origen – where all the grapes must come from the region, where there is a body to oversee the production of the wine to ensure that it is produced in such and such a way with such and such controls and that basically it's as good a product as the region can produce. Our local DOs are Alicante, Jumilla, Yecla and a bit further away Bullas. Again, Googling around, there is a slightly more prestigious classification which is Denominación de Origen Calificada or DOCa. The main difference that I can see between ordinary DO and DOCa is that for DOCa the wine must be sold in bottles. That suggests to me that it may be possible for someone to produce wine that fits the DO criteria but is then bulk shipped to, lets say, Marks and Spencer who bottle it up in the UK but label it as DO Jumilla or Alicante.

So upping the game on olive oil and on the wine. As we passed the el Cabezo salt dome the other day, in the charabanc coming back from the marble quarry and heading for a tour of the Pinoso bodega our personable mayor, Lazaro, was complaining that the salt shipped from Pinoso to Torrevieja as brine should be labelled as being from Pinoso. I've seen coloured, and expensive, salt for sale that says it's from the Himalayas. Marketing, marketing – all is marketing.

Friday, September 29, 2017

There's nowt on t' telly

I was just on the phone to my mum. She told me her news. And what have you been up to she asked. Nothing much I said, a bit of gardening, a bit of preparation for my classes. Oh, and I've seen four concerts and I've visited the largest quarry in Europe and been on a bodega tour. I could have listed the things that I've missed too.

When I went to see the Excitements at the Yecla Jazz Festival last night I could have gone to a homage to the poet Miguel Hernandez in Pinoso instead, When I went to see Viva Suecia last Friday I could have chosen to  stay in Pinoso and see the Catalan singer songwriter Cesk Freixas. Indeed just thinking about the events that we've been to in the past couple of weeks, not including going to the cinema a couple of times, we've been to a photo exhibition, missed another poetry event because of the torrential downpour, missed the dressage event at the local riding school plus some event featuring folk dancers and traditional Valencian instruments because we were away for the weekend in Altea. Mind you whilst we were away we saw the local Moors and Christians Festival, oh, and on the way back we stopped off to see the display of banners in Monóvar to celebrate the life and works of Azorín. For this weekend I've not got much in my diary - there's a Roman market all weekend in Petrer and another photo exhibition and, of course, the Yecla Jazz Festival is still on. Next week Maldita Nerea, another band that have regular hits in the top 40, are on, for free, in Petrer as part of their fiestas and down in Murcia there's the Big Up music festival. Just to show that it isn't all music in the rest of the month there's a whole series of talks about recent Spanish history, a couple of book launches, two theatre productions, a bit of lyric opera and a couple of events for Halloween including itinerant story tellers in Pinoso. Pinoso has a population of 8,000.

I wasn't writing the list to show off where we've been but more to stress the "cultural" offer that there is in our local towns. The truth is that I tend to be a bit of a collector of events. The Internet brings me news from all the local town halls and I follow up on the titbits of information I hear on the radio or see in the press but I miss more than I get to see. What suddenly struck me about all these things was how available they are.

We went with some chums to see the first of the Yecla Jazz concerts. They are staged in a lovely end of the Nineteenth Century theatre - all red brocade and gilt. The compere is a radio DJ from the national station Radio 3 and the musicians whilst not been exactly superstars are all well above the run of the mill. It can't be a cheap event to mount. Our pals were bowled over by the setting and by the fact that the concert was free. Also in Yecla, but this time as a part of the September Fair, we went to see Fangoria. The lead singer of the band is a woman called Alaska. She is Mexican by birth, I think, but she's been a star in Spain since the mid 1970s. Alaska and Fangoria will not be a cheap band. This isn't like seeing a band who are unknown to anyone who doesn't have wrinkles and grey, or no, hair.  It's more like seeing The Pet Shop Boys or Tom Jones - someone who has been around forever and who may be past their heyday but who are still big. Fangoria were free too. A few days later I went to see Viva Suecia; this lot are an indie band but they are a band tipped for greater success. The sort of band that, in the UK, would have got a lot of airplay on the late evening and nighttime Radio 1 shows when I lived in the UK but may well be on Radio 6 nowadays. Free again. In fact from all the list above the only paying events would be the cinema.

The cultural offer in Spain is wide and varied and, even when it's to be paid for, it is usually pretty inexpensive. The arts market took a bit of a pounding when the ruling PP party jacked up the VAT rate on cultural events but, as a bit of an example, I just looked how much the three day VIP ticket for the Low festival in Benidorm would be and the answer is 40€ though that is a special "you're paying ages in advance without knowing what the bands will be" ticket and last year the Low Festival didn't drag in many big name foreign bands though they did have 75 bands and lots of them were big on the Spanish scene. Down in Cartagena at el Batel if you want to go and see Sleeping Beauty by the Russian National Ballet the cheapest tickets are 18€ and the most expensive 30€. In Murcia, at the Teatro Romea the best seats for the regional orchestra doing Beethoven's 9th are a whopping 20€. It's not so cheap in Madrid; to see the Lion King for instance you'd pay 96€ for the best seats but that's still a bit cheaper than the £129.50 for the same show in London on the same day.

Not a bad offer though for anyone who's a bit bored with what's on the telly. New series of The Big Bang Theory on Sunday though.

Friday, September 22, 2017

When in Rome

I'm not a big Google+ user. The other day I came across something called Communities, which seem to be collections of items around a theme. So I posted some blog entries there. At least one person read some of the blog because he commented on it. So I read his blog back and then I pinched his idea for this post.

Antonio's piece was about how to recognise tourists by their non Spanish behaviour in restaurants. For instance by eating lunch before 2pm, drinking large beers, ordering sangria or having paella as an evening meal. It made me think about the things that I do, that my British pals who live here do or our British visitors do that aren't quite Spanish. In general I stuck to foodie variations rather than commenting on hats, shorts, sandals and walking in the sun type differences.

Obviously eating too early is something that sets us apart. You know that lunch in Spain is anytime between about 2pm and 4pm and dinner anytime after around 9.30pm but maybe we breakfast too early as well. The Spaniards are a bit out of kilter with most other nations by taking their breakfast mid morning. Most Spaniards don't really have the cereals and toast type start to the day breakfasts that we Britons do. The majority just bolt from their house soon after rising, maybe grabbing a quick coffee. Although it's nowhere near as odd to ask for toast in a bar at 9am as it is to try and get dinner at 7.30pm it isn't quite right either. The busy time for Spaniards getting their toast, often topped with oil and grated tomato, will be an hour or two later.

There's no problem with ordering a coffee or a tea to go with your breakfast but generally Spaniards only drink water, beer, coke or wine with lunch or dinner, with savoury food in general. Years ago I was in a bar with someone having a mid morning coffee. The bar had several hams hanging from the roof and we succumbed. As the barman served the ham he whisked our coffees away and asked what we wanted to drink. Beer and ham is fine but coffee and ham is a bit Pet Shop Boys - It's a Sin. Oh, and getting milk in your tea is an enormous effort and prone to failiure. And, oh again, and this is pretty new to me, gin and tonic seems to be a post-prandial rather than a pre-prandial drink in Spain.

Butter on bread is another odd thing. The last time I was in the UK, in a decentish restaurant, I was a bit surprised to be served a bread roll, on my side plate, along with a little pat of butter. I'm pretty sure it was always dry bread, to go with the soup, in restaurants in my youth. Eating bread and butter with the meal was something you did at home but not when you ate out. Bread is an essential element of any Spanish meal but "nobody" uses butter. Britons often complain about the lack of butter or ask for some. Spaniards don't put oil on bread either, at least in public. There's normally salt on a restaurant table because salt goes with the oil and vinegar to dress a salad but it's not as omnipresent as it is in the UK. There is very seldom any pepper. Asking for pepper is very British.

The bread is usually served in a basket in the centre of the table. This idea of things for everyone is something Britons don't seem to take to either. If you go for a set meal, el menú del día, then whatever you order is yours but, if you go for something that you order a la carte, the usual thing is that the group of diners order a bunch of things go in the middle of the table and you take your choice. Only the main course is yours and yours alone though, even then, it's not unusual for a couple to put their mains in the centre and share them. If Spaniards go eating tapas those are nearly always for sharing. Someone at the Spanish Tourist Board must have mounted a brilliant campaign to promote tapas in the UK because everybody who comes to see us seems to know the word and be dead keen to try what are, after all, just a bunch of bar snacks. Some are great, some are boring.

Back to bread for a moment, well to sandwiches or rolls. We have lots of very traditional British sandwiches that are something and something. Ham and mustard, cheese and tomato, chicken and lettuce, egg and cress, beef and horseradish. Spaniards sometimes put two elements in a sandwich and there are lots of trendy sandwich places with plenty of variety but, in most bars, the traditional choices are still quite fixed. Ham, cheese, ham and cheese, ham and grated tomato, tuna maybe, lomo, chorizo, salchichon, maybe anchovies. In Malaga, years ago, I was refused a cheese and onion sandwich - the man just couldn't bring himself to sell me one despite having both ingredients. Nowadays Spaniards still think it's an odd mix but if that's what I want then that's what I get. Bacon sandwiches are available too but every time I ask for just bacon there is an "are you sure?" type question and, of course, there's no butter.

The fixed price set meals are served at lunchtime. This is not invariable but it is normal. Evening meals are a much simpler affair and whilst you may go out to eat in the evening to celebrate Valentine's or somesuch, it's really at lunchtime that you eat the main meal of the day. Lots of restaurants don't even open in the evening except at weekends and nowadays we're often a bit surprised when visiting Britons automatically think of going out for a meal equates with going out in the evening.

It's not at all unusual, if you order a glass of wine to go with your meal, that the server will put a bottle of wine on the table. It probably won't be particularly good wine but it will be a full or nearly full bottle. Britons don't like to leave alcohol, particularly when they think they've paid for it. When someone asks me how to say cork in Spanish I find that I suddenly need to just pop out to get something from the car. The shame of my compatriots wanting to carry off the dregs of the bottle is too much for my wannabe Spanishness. Doggy bags aren't a Spanish concept either.

And when the meal is over it's tipping time. I tend to tip, I tip on coffee even but most Spaniards don't. They may do but there is no moral imperative to tip. If the service is good, if the price makes it easy then tipping it is. So if the meal cost 47€ then the fifty note will do nicely but if it's 50€ and the service was as service should be then lots of people won't add anything. It can be a bit embarassing as Maggie and I put in a euro each towards the tip and one of our visitors throws a ten note down worked out on the British Imperial Standard.

There are more but I think that's enough ammunition for my "you British" critics for now.