Blogs in this series

Life in Culebrón is personal view of Spain and Spanish life as seen by a Briton living in a small village in Alicante province.
The other tabs link to similar blogs when I have lived in other places. The TIM magazine is an English language magazine I write articles for.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

No tenim por

As you may imagine the Spanish media has been full of the events in Barcelona, Cambrils, Alcanar and Ripoll for the past couple of days. First the headlines, then the confused facts and incorrect information before the more accurate picture started to emerge, the political response, the tales of heroism, the eyewitness reports, the pundits and their views. The coverage was so intense that I don't think there was even football news in the main bulletins yesterday!

We watched the news, we speculated and we went to the silent demonstration outside Pinoso Town Hall to show our "solidarity." We clapped at the end of the three minutes silence and we clapped again when the councillor read out the council's statement of support. Spaniards applaud at funerals and all sorts of events.

I was skimming through Twitter and, in amongst the messages of support, the pictures of mangled corpses and the pleas to help find missing people was the usual crop of offensive, racist tripe suggesting mass deportations, complaints about symbolic gesturing and unworkable solutions like banning the hire of vehicles or curtailing the payment of benefits to terrorists. There were a few messages though that struck home. The ones about why an attack in Europe, the USA or Australasia is so much more newsworthy than an attack in Asia or Africa.

When I decided to put something on the blog I couldn't remember the two countries mentioned in one tweet about other terrorist attacks this week. One was Nigeria so I googled terrorist attacks in Nigeria 2017 and came up with a site that listed terrorist attacks. I was taken aback. The storymaps site told me that there had been 866 attacks and 5,224 fatalities in 2017. I noticed that the list wasn't up to date because the Finnish attack wasn't there. Nonetheless, in August (in just the first 18 days of August) the site listed attacks in Burkina Faso (several attacks the greatest with 18 dead), Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Kenya, Nigeria (27 dead there in one attack but several more), Turkey, Mali, Somalia, Pakistan (15 dead), United States, Yemen, Cameroon (7), Venezuela, Philippines (5), Indonesia and Myanmar as well as Spain.

Al-Qaeda have killed 317 this year, Al-Shabaab 352, Boko Haram 452, Islamic State 2,186, PKK 33, Taliban 823 and other groups 1,061.

The Wikipedia site is more up to date. Since the Barcelona "vehicular attack" are listed: stabbing in Finland, executions in Kenya, ambush in Iraq, bombing in Iraq, bombing in Burkina Faso, bombing in Turkey, stabbing in Russia and car bombing in Iraq.

The definitions of what is a terrorist incident - the numbers above include deaths in the street riots in Venezuela for instance - may be arguable but even if you were to discount large percentages the figures are still astounding yet, apparently, at least in Europe, we are way behind the terrorist deaths through the 1970s and into the 1980s. And nowhere in Europe is in the top ten for terrorist deaths: Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria have the dubious honour of topping that list. The worst year for global terrorism so far? 32,765 deaths in 2014.

No tenim por is Catalan for we are not afraid - the shout that went up after the silent demonstration in Barcelona yesterday.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

They walk in the sun

I've just been to the UK, to see my mum. I was feeling a bit guilty about not having seen her for about seventeen months. She was in good form, fit and well and full of life.

In the UK I don't have any problem with talking. My words and phrasing may be a bit old fashioned but I can say what I want to whoever I want and with an appropriate emphasis. People even understand me if I throw in a bit of irony.

Nonetheless I find the UK a bit more foreign every time I'm there. I refer back to Spain all the time. I noticed hundreds of little differences - for instance I was impressed by the way that people repeatedly gave way to other people - in traffic, in queues, in doorways. People really do choose to walk on the sunny side of the street rather than to search out the shade. Food was distinctly different and I noticed that people eat all sorts of food in the street at all times of day. Forms of retailing seemed much more innovative with all manner of kiosks and small businesses offering services and products that don't exist here. It could be a long list.

I tell my students about ordering and paying for beer at the bar but I was surprised when the bar staff wanted the money before pulling the pint in Wetherspoon's so I'll have to change that a little. I tell my students that for we British a coffee is a coffee but I'm wrong - lattes, cappuccinos and americanos have taken the place of the distinction between coffee and black coffee and I wasn't there to notice. I found it strange, though I know the system, that the bus fare varies width distance. I was constantly perturbed as I rode on the buses that they seemed determined to drive into the face of oncoming traffic. It would take a while to relearn the driving on the other side of the road thing. Even the cars were slightly different; I spotted lots and lots of Jaguars and I doubled the number of Bentleys I'd seen in my life in just five days. I had to check the unfamiliar banknotes and coins before paying and not being able to see the tobacco in supermarkets was most odd. 

So I was quite at home in England but always a bit off balance at the same time. To be honest it's probably the same here though maybe the other way around. I'm in a bar as I type this. I was going to have a coffee but, as I waited to be served, I heard the waitress say the coffee machine was broken. When I ordered I checked about the machine and ordered a non alcoholic beer instead. She came back, "You may think I'm joking," she said, "but we don't have any zero alcohol either." I understood what she was saying without any trouble - though I probably didn't hear every word - and changing my order for a third time was no problem. It's not that I was lost, it's not that I was phased or confused but I wasn't exactly at ease with the situation either. So the talking can be a bit tricky but the way of doing things and the things I see around me are just commonplace.

As I got off the aeroplane in Spain I felt glad to be home but, as I will never be fluent, fluent, maybe I will never be at home.

Saturday, August 05, 2017


I love the heat of Alicante in the summer. The unremitting, unrelenting nature of it. At times, it's too hot but that's often the best bit. There seems to be no escape and, just then, there's a slight gust of breeze or you walk into the shadow of a building - even more perfect.

A few years ago we went to see the Misteri d'Elx. This is a religious play, performed in the Basilica in Elche by an all male cast in Ancient Valenciano. It's one of UNESCO's intangible World heritage things. I think it's possibly the most boring thing I've ever seen - though I would urge you to go and see it. There's still time to book up for this year! 11th, 12th and 13th August with tickets on the Sabadell instanticket website.

I was reminded of the Mystery yesterday evening as we saw a trio of live bands. The crowd was bopping up and down as crowds are supposed to do for contemporary music. Lots of the young women were waving fans, I don't mean they were fans waving I mean they had fans for fanning themselves and they were waving them. When we saw the Misteri it was hot in the church, hot like the boiler room of the Titanic, infernally hot. We were on a balcony, dripping with sweat and looking down on the action. The players clothes were dappled with rivulets of sweat. The audience was a sea of beating fans. The fans were really impressive. A still audience in constant movement. The Facebook screens on mobile phones were less impressive though they confirmed my "bored to tears" theory.

Fans are not an oddity or a rarity in Spain. They're not touristy Geisha or Louis XVI coy. They're a working tool. Spanish women, and some Spanish men, fan themselves almost incessantly. I dislike it, intensely, when the person alongside starts to fan themselves and me in the process. People complain about second hand smoke, why shouldn't I complain about second hand breeze?

I don't really care for aircon either. In buildings it's not so bad and if people weren't so determined to make it fridge cool inside I probably wouldn't complain at all. Cold is nice at first. Walking from the sunlit street into an air conditioned shop can be very pleasant experience. But why are people determined to reproduce winter like temperatures? Rooms so cold that the warmth just drains from your body. Horrid. And, in a car, that horrible claustrophobic feeling that aircon produces as the torrent of cold air fights the heat streaming in through the hectares of glass. Open the windows I say with the added bonus that you'll be able to hear the cicadas sing even as you pass at 120 km/h.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Fire, water, and government know nothing of mercy

There has been a big forest fire in Yeste in Albacete. It consumed about 3,300 hectares, equivalent to a tenth of the area of the Isle of Wight. The fire was started, almost certainly on purpose, last Thursday and it was only brought under control yesterday. Firefighters had to battle the blaze along a perimeter of over 32 kilometres. Yeste is about 150 kilometres from Pinoso and we reckoned that the white powder that dusted our cars over the weekend came from there.

Often, when it rains in Pinoso the cars, and the outside furniture, end up covered in thick red dust. The story, and I have no reason to doubt it, is that the dust comes from the Sahara. The nearest bit of the Sahara is in Morocco or Algeria about 1,200 kilometres to the South of us.

When I went in to town this morning I thought I should, perhaps, remove  a few layers of Algeria or Morocco from the car. Thirty other drivers obviously had a similar idea about their vehicles. There were long queues for the car wash.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Easily amused

I've talked about Spanish supermarkets before. Just as a quick recap. We have four decent sized supermarkets in Pinoso and I use them all. My choice is usually based on geography, wherever the car is parked. Sometimes on product - only two of the four for instance carry English Council House tea.

Whilst I'm not at work I've started to use Día more frequently than I used to. This is because it's on our side of town and the car parking is good. Now I'm going to fall into all sorts of problems with stereotyping here so please forgive me. Día is exactly the opposite of the UK's Waitrose or Spain's Corte Inglés supermarket operations in both its products and its customer profile. Día sells some quality products but it is typified by cheap and, sometimes, low quality in the sense of industrially processed food. Día does not, generally, attract well heeled clients in search of premium product. Now you can already see the stress lines in my argument because the one in Pinoso has plenty of British clients and, again generalising, we're not a hard up community. It's a touch of that Lidl/Aldi mentality - there are bargains to be had for the careful shopper and the other stuff can be bought elsewhere.

I'm beginning to really like Día. All of the supermarkets in Pinoso have their adherents and all of them will tell you how friendly the staff are. Personally I think the people in Consum and at Día are pleasant whilst the Más y Más and HiperBer people are neither pleasant nor unpleasant. But the women on the till in Día seem to go out of their way to say hello to people. The food varies in quality. With a bit of care you can save a fair amount of money and get perfectly reasonable product. It's not the easiest supermarket to shop in though. The aisles seem to block up easily, I still find the layout illogical and there seems to be a mentality amongst Día shoppers to take up the maximum space, to talk at maximum volume and to choose product at the minimum pace. Waiting for a family group to choose a flavour of yoghurt, a family group that is blocking access to the packet of butter that I can't quite get to, can be very frustrating. The shelf stacking staff can be nearly as bad - they seem quite oblivious to my attempts to slide between their palette cart loaded with pop to get to the diet Fanta as they chat about football. The till area is another weak spot. One of them seems to be used as the makeshift office. It is always piled high with paperwork and it is never open. There seems to be an unwillingness to open a second till until the queue has snaked well past the fresh fruit stand and is passing the pickled gherkins.

So far then not a glowing report. But the place is just bursting with life. There are always incidents. Often the incidents involve my compatriots. Confusions with language, confusions about the price, about the queuing structure, about the money off coupons. There are also the strange conversations I have with Spaniards - usually as they let me go before them because I only have a packet of peanuts and a bottle of brandy - conversations about my food habits.

Today, for instance, I did something very Spanish. I put my stuff on the cash desk belt and, whilst the man in front's stuff was going through the scanner, I rushed off to pick up the bread that I'd forgotten. When I came back the man in front of me still hadn't had all of his things go through the checkout but a couple of Britons were grumbling about bloody Spaniards leaving their stuff and then going off. They were standing over my things and they had already usurped the Spanish bloke behind me. After a little chat about who owned what they went to the other till. As they left I asked the Spanish bloke why he hadn't said anything - "It's what I expect," he said.

The other day a group of Britons had bought loads and loads of stuff. They'd brought lots of old carrier bags to load it into too and they hung each newly filled bag on the back of a pushchair that contained a toddler. There was a flurry of argument about who was going to pay. As everyone, including the pam pusher, proffered biggish banknotes and deluged the grinning checkout woman in a flood of English, the pram overbalanced and toddler and supermarket produce spilled everywhere. All the people, maybe six or seven of them, scrabbled for rolling oranges, cans of pop and bawling children as fifty euro notes drifted back and forth in the gentle breeze from the sliding door.

Another bottle of brandy and some onions. A Scottish pal let me queue jump. The woman in front of me was a Culebrón resident. Strange conversation in English to my left, in Spanish to my right and in Spanish again across the little perspex shield of the checkout.

I'm sure there's an advertising slogan in there somewhere for Día.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Wispy light and more

The first time I ever caught the sense of a conversation going on around me in Spanish was on a bus in Granada. I'd always thought that Spanish conversations were probably about Goethe or something equally profound but that one was, in fact, about whether peas should or should not be an ingredient of some stew. Food is a topic of conversation close to the hearts of many Spaniards.

One of the things that crops up in those food conversations is the Mediterranean diet. If you were to ask me what the Mediterranean diet I'd have to say that I'm not quite sure. I know that it includes more fish than meat, cereals, pulses, nuts, vegetables, fruit, wine and lots of olive oil but I'm a bit hazy on the details. We live pretty close to the Mediterranean. In fact yesterday we were in Santa Pola and if we'd chosen to we could have gone for a paddle, so I should know what the diet is but I don't. One of the confusing things about it is that lots of what seem to be traditional Spanish foods look remarkably unhealthy. Surely things like chorizo, the white bread sticks, the deep fried pescaitos, the peanuts dripping in oil, the cheese, the croquetas and all the rest can't really be part of a healthy diet?

Back in Santa Pola I asked if they had any sangre, blood, to go along with the beer. I'm not sure what sangre contains exactly apart from blood and onions but it looks like liver and it tastes yummy (though Maggie disagrees). It's not so available away from the coast which is why I was taking my opportunity. There wasn't any so I asked for Russian salad instead. Ensaladilla rusa is a staple in lots of Alicante and beyond - a sort of potato, egg, tuna, carrot and pea salad held together with mayonnaise. Tasty certainly but healthy?

Actually, I know exactly what I think of when the Mediterranean diet is mentioned and it has nothing to do with the food. The Mediterranean diet is a bronzed Anthony Quinn peeling and eating fruit directly from his pocket knife, it's him eating, and laughing with his friends as he drinks copious quantities of wine around a sun dappled outdoor table against the azure blue background of the sparkling sea.

I read an article in el País yesterday which seemed to reach a similar conclusion only they made no mention of Quinn nor Jean Reno in the Big Blue who would be my other point of reference.

El País told me that back in 1953 an epidemiologist called Leland G. Allbaugh published a paper about the, then, normal diet on Crete. Cretans ate a very basic diet yet they were healthier than Americans. A medical doctor, Dr. Ancel Keys, saw the research and spent years trying to work out why. He did research in seven countries and, to oversimplify, came up with the  conclusion that saturated fat in diets was a major conditioner of heart disease along with cholesterol and high blood pressure. Whilst he was involved in the early years of the survey Keys and his wife published a book called Eat Well and Stay Well. Later, in 1975, they published a second book called How to Eat Well and Stay Well: The Mediterranean Way. It was, apparently, that book which led to the term Mediterranean diet coming into everyday use. But the “Mediterranean Way” was more than particular foods and cuisines or eating patterns. It involved aspects of lifestyle and the economy, such as walking to and from work in physically active occupations like farming, crafts, fishing and herding, taking the major meal at midday, having an afternoon break from work. In short the food was only a part of the traditional Mediterranean  lifestyle.

In 2011, the European Food Safety Authority published a position document arguing that it could not establish whether the Mediterranean diet was healthy or not because it was unable to find a clear definition of what the diet was. The Authority also noted that the inclusion of quite a lot of wine in all of the versions made it technically unhealthy. The Mediterranean diet though does feature as an intangible cultural heritage on UNESCO's list - just like Flamenco or the Fallas celebrations. The definition is not about the food it's about agriculture and tradition, about sharing food and about cultural identity. The full definition is at the bottom of the page

The newspaper article writer argued that the Mediterranean diet was actually more of a process of four decades of hype than an actual dietary regime. Like I said, Anthony Quinn, the suntan, the cicadas singing, the shared bottle of wine. The laughter. Now that was all around us as we ate the ensaladilla rusa in Santa Pola yesterday.


UNESCO definition: The Mediterranean diet involves a set of skills, knowledge, rituals, symbols and traditions concerning crops, harvesting, fishing, animal husbandry, conservation, processing, cooking, and particularly the sharing and consumption of food. Eating together is the foundation of the cultural identity and continuity of communities throughout the Mediterranean basin. It is a moment of social exchange and communication, an affirmation and renewal of family, group or community identity. The Mediterranean diet emphasizes values of hospitality, neighbourliness, intercultural dialogue and creativity, and a way of life guided by respect for diversity. It plays a vital role in cultural spaces, festivals and celebrations, bringing together people of all ages, conditions and social classes. It includes the craftsmanship and production of traditional receptacles for the transport, preservation and consumption of food, including ceramic plates and glasses. Women play an important role in transmitting knowledge of the Mediterranean diet: they safeguard its techniques, respect seasonal rhythms and festive events, and transmit the values of the element to new generations. Markets also play a key role as spaces for cultivating and transmitting the Mediterranean diet during the daily practice of exchange, agreement and mutual respect.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

I only have plastic

When I lived in the UK I had a lot of credit cards. I made a hobby of moving non existent money between one account and another to try to keep the interest payments down. When I left the UK I cancelled the majority of my plastic but I hung on to a couple for one reason or another. Nowadays I hardly ever use my British plastic but, every time the banks try to take them away, I obstinately hang on to them "just in case".

Every now and again one of the British card issuers sells or buys my account and changes something or other. Barclaycard recently did just that when they terminated an agreement with AMEX. As an incentive to use the new card they offered me a bracelet so that I could make small, contactless payments by simply waving my forearm at the credit card machine. Something to speed up buying the morning latte. Why not I thought? Well, because I live in Spain! I suspect I will never use it.

I was a Barclaycard customer in Spain too. Barclaycard sold their operation to Banco Popular who renamed the card WiZink. The name sounds OK in Spanish, if a bit corny, but rubbish in English. It took ages for the websites and the cards to change after the purchase and WiZink got around to the rebranding just as Banco Popular went belly up. It was bought by Santander for 1€. Strange really; years ago Santander absorbed the bank where I had my Spanish current account.

I use my credit card a fair bit in Spain but I use it in quite an old fashioned way. I use it for decent sized purchases - at a clothes shop, for the big shops in the supermarket, for diesel, for the posh restaurant and for anything online. Even if there were sandwich shops in Spain, and Spaniards cannot understand why we like to mix so many ingredients between two slices of bread, so there aren't, I wouldn't think to buy a sandwich and a coke with plastic. In Spain I use money. I go to a bank machine and take money out of my current account. I then use those notes (and the coins that they spawn) to buy beer, duct tape and similarly useful articles.

I know that Denmark is now more or less cashless. When we were in Hungary a little while ago we were always asked if we wanted to pay with cash or card even when we'd just had a couple of beers. The last time I visited the UK one of the things that struck me was how the tiniest of purchases were made with plastic. I have seen Spaniards pay small amounts on plastic but my impression is that it's not generalised. So I wondered if it's just me that's old fashioned, if it's another of those rural/urban things, if I should catch up and start paying for coffee with virtual money or if there is a real difference between Spain and some other European countries.

The answer seems to be that it's the way that the banks operate that's different, plus a bit of inertia.

Spanish banks now charge for pulling money out of cashpoints that aren't theirs. There are also fewer cashpoints because of the closure and merger of so many offices within the troubled banking sector. As a result, for the first time last year more money was spent on credit and debit cards than in cash. So there is a real increase in the use of plastic.

On the other hand only 16% of all transactions in Spain are made on plastic as against figures of around 50% in Portugal or France. One reason for that may be that only 40% of all Spanish businesses accept plastic. And in turn it seems likely that this low percentage of acceptance is because, historically, Spanish banks charged high commissions to retailers on plastic card transactions. In fact the Government introduced legislation in 2014 that limited the commission that the banks could charge the businesses for each transaction. That included very low percentages on micro purchases. Despite this there are still lots of businesses with the signs up to say that you can't pay amounts of less than so many euros with plastic. The suggestion, in many of the articles that I read, was that Spanish traders don't pay a lot of notice to the blurb sent to them by plastic card companies. As a consequence many businesses are still under the impression that commission charges on plastic transactions are very high and it will be a while before the message gets home.

I should add that when the banks were faced with the loss of income on the commissions charged to traders they responded by charging customers more to hold the cards. I don't pay anything for the maintenance of my UK cards but I pay 36€ a year for my Spanish bank debit card. There's also an annual charge for my credit card but I never pay that as the charge is refunded so long as I spend more than so much per year. Interestingly though the Spanish cards charge a lot less for "foreign" transactions than the British cards.

So it's not something amongst we yokels nor is it simply my misperception. Spaniards really do use plastic less than a lot of other Europeans.