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.

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.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

La Centenera Hill

I was thoroughly disgusted when the explanation for Flag Fen, the Bronze age site just outside Peterborough, changed from being a series of person made islands, with an economic and defensive function, to being a site of religious significance. Archaeologists say that a site has religious significance when they have no idea. "Look at the way it's constructed with everything facing the one open space - it must be a religious site." "And what does this writing say" -White Hart Lane - obviously a place of worship" (Yes Jim, I know they've pulled it down). Religion, the last refuge of a scoundrel to misquote Samuel Johnson.

I met a bloke who abandoned his work on Navajo burial sites to hitch across the United States, to work his passage on a boat across the Atlantic to dig at Flag Fen when it was first discovered. I bet he's scandalised by the change in emphasis too.

I heard, ages ago, on a TV documentary that the important thing about Stonehenge is not whether it's a calendar or a temple or a spaceship landing pad but that it's there. The point being that a couple of blokes and their half wolf dog couldn't build Stonehenge. It required someone with sufficient clout to get a load of people to work together, it required social order and structure. I could see that.

A while ago I went to see the Antonio Banderas film, Altamira, about the cave paintings in Cantabria. Afterwards, I did a bit of Googling. I was really surprised to find that the oldest paintings are now thought to be maybe 36,000 years old and the newest about 13,000 years old. Yet the paintings are the same in style. I wondered why. After all from the time that Flag Fen was built, about 3,500 years ago, or when the Great Pyramid of Giza was finished, about 4,500 years ago, we've gone from tossing bronze swords into a lake, as a gift to the Gods, or popping vital organs into canopic jars, ready for the journey in the afterlife, to the advanced state represented by Facebook and Instagram. Why didn't the Altamira boys and girls progress from finger painting to hyper realism in 20,000+ years? The answer, or at least the best guess, I understand, goes back to the same reason that there is a Stonehenge. In Altamira there weren't enough people, there wasn't enough organisation to pass on the knowledge about painting. So generation after generation had to reinvent it.

In Pinoso, maybe in Culebrón, we've got some petroglyphs, ancient rock carvings done by human hand. The only dating that I've seen on them is Bronze Age, which seems to be defined by technology rather than years, so that it covers a period from maybe 5,000 years ago to a bit over 2,500 years ago. I've gone looking for the petroglyphs on la Centenera Hill several times and I now know where one obvious one is to the extent that it's one of the places that we take visitors. To be honest petroglyphs aren't that exciting. I remember, as a seventeen year old with a new four wheeler driving licence, setting out to Ilkley Moor to find the cup and ring marks. Hmm. Not that overwhelming. Give me Avebury or Castlerigg stone circle any time. Nonetheless the real power of Avebury isn't its size or obviousness, it's the feeling that invades your soul as you stand in West Kennet Avenue - that unbroken line from them to us. The idea of some Bronze Age shepherd or flint worker sitting on a rock a few millennia ago and looking across from la Centenera Hill to where our house in Culebrón as he or she carved lumps out of the limestone rocks is pretty cool too.

By sheer chance I bumped into a blog that showed some of the Centenera petroglyphs, better ones than I've seen. The blog said they were within a couple of hundred metres of the trig point  (vértice geodésico). I was pretty sure that I knew where that was and sure enough I did. I didn't find the "good" petroglyphs though. I did find something in the rocks that I'm pretty sure was made by human hand. It's the photo at the top of the blog. What do you think?

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

They think it's all over

I spoke to my mum on the phone today. She said that she'd had a good Christmas and New Year but that she was glad to be back to normal. Later I popped in to town. I went to a cake shop that I've only ever been in once before, that time it was to order a birthday cake for Maggie, one with icing and a message and candles. This time it was to order a roscón. I can't remember whether I ordered the custard filling (crema) or the cream filling (nata) but either way I'm expecting better quality than the ones we usually buy from the supermarket. The last time we bought a baker's shop roscón was when we lived it Cartagena. I have a vague and nagging memory that I was shocked at the price then but, hey-ho, Christmas tradition and all that. The sensible eating can start when Christmas is over after the 6th.

I've written about Roscones before, the traditional Roscón de Reyes cake, a bit like a big doughnut that gets eaten on Kings, at Epiphany, on 6th January when the Three Wise Men have delivered the presents to the baby Jesus and to all the good boys and girls. The bad ones get coal so the Kings are obviously more generous than Santa who leaves nothing for bad children!

As I passed the lottery shop I did something else I don't usually do. I went in and bought a lottery ticket for el Niño draw, the Child, the second Christmas lottery. The prizes for el Niño are less than for el Gordo Christmas draw on 22nd December but, I think, there's a better chance of winning the big prize and excellent chances of, at least, getting your money back (1:3). I read that the chances of winning the 200,000€ top prize are something like 1:100,000 which is about the same as the chance of being stung to death by a bee or poisoned to death by a snake. They had a number that had obviously been spurned by Pinoseros in general, there was a caricature promoting the number, it was parodied as el Feo, the Ugly. Obviously enough that's the number I bought.

So, if the roscón does turn out to be really expensive when I pick it up on the 5th I can always hope that just getting the 20€ ticket money back from the draw on the 6th will at least pay for it. Or I can hope that the fine taste of the "home baked" version will be enough to make me forget this last gasp Christmas spending.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Starsky and Hutch and the like

Everybody knows that Italian men are cool. Everybody knows that Italian men don't wear socks. Before I came here I presumed that Spain was, probably, more or less like Italy - both have wine, olives, sun and the Mediterranean. So, just before I left the UK in 2004 I bought some Timberland loafers. All leather, no problems with sweaty feet. At least that was the hope.

I still have the Timberland shoes, I don't wear them often but they are still in excellent condition and they smell fine. I never have taken to going sockless. Spaniards wear flip flops in summer anyway. The cords that I bought from GAP, when it first opened in Cambridge, which is definitely a long, long time ago, are no longer a baggy fit but I still put them on from time to time. In fact there are lots of things I still wear that I brought from the UK in 2004 which makes them at least 13 years old. Some, like a big Marks ans Sparks Starsky and Hutch inspired cardigan, that I only now dare wear around the house, are much, much older. Some things, the inherited things, that we brought with us, tools for instance, are ancient.

When we were first setting up house in Culebrón we had to spend bucket loads of money. Obscene amounts of money.  Some things we'd brought with us but most of that was personal stuff, books and clothes, rather than household and we certainly didn't have settees, cookers, televisions or even drinks coasters. We had to buy beds too and although the sizes, in centimetres, were slightly different from their UK equivalents they were basically the same. Spanish pillows were usually long bolster type things but we managed to buy more normal, for us, individual pillows, locally. Over the years some of those things have been replaced but others soldier on. Pinned to the sofa by my laptop yesterday evening for a couple of hours I suddenly realised just how pain in the bottom uncomfortable our 12 year old couch has become. Even I am finally beginning to notice that lots of those original things are getting to be very long in the tooth.

The duvet we sleep under came from John Lewis in Peterborough. I bought it for the flat that I lived in there in the 1980s. It's a standard sized double bed duvet. Maybe six or seven years ago we were in IKEA in Murcia, when it first opened. I was quite taken with a duvet cover they had so I bought it, along with pillow cases. It didn't fit - far too big. They didn't fit - far too small. Obviously the Swedes have funny sized duvets and pillows. Primark sells ordinary size duvet covers - I've always thought the Irish were a sensible, level headed bunch -  and when they opened a shop, also in Murcia, we bought another cover. Once out of the packet it did not exude quality. It appeared to be made out of near transparent cloth and looked as though it cost exactly what we paid for it.

By now our original UK duvet covers were definitely showing their age - split seams, missing press studs, old fashioned designs and faded colours. Maggie thought so too and she went Internet shopping. When her purchase turned up neither of us cared for it much - photos are one thing but the actual product is another. There was nothing for it we were going to have to pay Inditex prices. I went to Zara Home and searched through the covers and cases in their funny drawer like shelves.  Quilts are not uncommon in Spain but they're not as common as they are in the UK. I looked at the prices - there were some covers for 40 or 50€ but there were lots more at 60, 70 and 80€. Pillow cases were sometimes 30€+. None of the bed-wear seemed to be close to the 190x190 cm size of our duvet and although I wasn't keen to engage with anyone working in the shop, for fear of being bounced into buying one of the expensive ones, I had no option. The person I spoke to was convinced that I was a stupid foreigner who couldn't speak Spanish properly or at least couldn't measure in centimetres  - 220x220 cm was, she assured me, the size for a double bed cover. It seems that whilst Spanish beds may be more or less the same size as British ones the Spaniards prefer their covers to be bigger - more wiggle room, fewer feet sticking out, which is probably better but we won't think about that just now!

Time plodded on with no new duvet cover. I was on Amazon Spain looking for camera batteries or similar but some strange algorithm showed me duvet covers, at the bottom of the page, as - relacionado con productos que has mirado - related to the products you've looked at. All I can surmise is that Amazon has me completely pegged - either that or they are spying on me in some more traditional way. The duvet covers were a reasonable price, they seemed to be the right sort of size, pillow cases were the right size and price too and everything was in plain colours so that the chance of the photo and the real thing being miles apart were slim. I was so overwhelmed that I even bought the matching colour fitted sheet. And guess what? It was all fine.

But it just goes to show. Things are similar here -no socks-  but different -flip flops not stylish loafers.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Without news

I've just been scanning through a number of other English language blogs looking for inspiration. It's time to write a blog entry and I can't think of anything to write about.

I could do New Year of course but I must have done cava (which is not, by the way, pronounced carver - but more like kavva), red underwear and the twelve grapes about as many years as I've lived here. I've already done a bit of a Christmas piece so I can't do that again even though it's still in full swing with the shopping centres clogged with cars and the telly full of perfume adverts. It's still a week to Kings and I've done Kings so many times that regular readers must be able to imagine what a Roscón tastes like. We haven't done many non British Christmas events but, even if we had, there's not a lot of mileage in living nativity scenes, carol concerts or Christmas story telling. I didn't get caught by any jokes yesterday on "Day of the Innocents" (think of it as Spanish April 1st) nor did I make the well trodden journey to see the egg, flour, fire extinguisher and firework fight in Ibi. 

I wondered if I could do something on the Valenciano language or yet another entry on speaking, or not speaking, Spanish. The thought came to me when I remembered the bit of a language triumph I had in the KFC in Elche the other day dealing with the bastardised Spanish pronunciation of isolated English words. I didn't hesitate once in the twenty question interrogation that is now the routine for ordering the simplest thing from the Good Colonel. Then I remembered that, only a few moments before, it had been exactly the opposite in asking for tickets for Wonder Wheel (the latest and shockingly boring Woody Allen) when I had to resort to mispronouncing the old man's name - Gwuddy Al-in - because my versions of gwanda weal, wander weyl and anything else, all the way back to a well modulated English pronunciation of Wonder Wheel, just left the ticket seller looking blank. I'm still a long way from writing that handy little booklet - "How to pronounce English words like a Spaniard."

The weather is always a good mainstay - Spain has had its second borrasca, or big storm, over the last few days since the new naming regime came into being. Storms of a certain intensity, it seems, now get named alphabetically - like hurricanes. This one was Bruno, we had Ana a while ago. It killed a couple of people across Spain and the snow and coastal storms looked really impressive on the telly. Here in sunny Culebrón though the worst that happened was that I had to get out of bed at 6.25am to secure a few things because the wind was blowing pots and chairs around. Hardly the stuff of a riveting blog.

Something with the students then or something from the news, the television, the radio; a second hand tale? My bosses have a Christmas play-scheme so they've laid me off for a couple of weeks leaving me with no students to talk to. No students, no stories. At home, with it being Christmas, the British TV companies have spent lots of money and Maggie has been watching their special offerings. Nothing there then either. Without the structure of work the routine has gone out of the window so I've not been keeping up with the news as well as usual. Anyway half the journalists are taking a few days off. And in Cataluña, which has more or less monopolised the news for months, it's all very quiet because all the politicians are horse trading, some of them via Skype, after the inconclusive elections. No blog fodder.

No. Another lifetime ago, I was in Saudi Arabia one Christmas. Lots of people I worked with went back to the UK to eat turkey and snooze on the sofa and, when they got back to Wadi Al-Batin, we asked for their Christmas reports. They were like José Moscardó, the bloke in charge of the fascist defence of the Alcázar in Toledo during the Spanish Civil War. The fortress was under siege, Franco sent troops to relieve it and, when they got there the siege was lifted. Moscardó was asked for his report. He said "Nothing new in the Alcázar." I know the feeling.  Nothing new in Culebrón.